Of Age by Kwan Booth

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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

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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

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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

SuperChad by Alan Good

 

FOR ALAN GOOD - from emergency stockpile


I was irrumating a blow-up doll when the phone rang. I let it ring, or ding, or radiate, which was the name of the ringtone. If I didn’t finish I was going to smash a building or hurl a car into space. I get that way. We all do.

A blow-up doll. How pathetic, right? But it’s an outlet. Her name is Betsy. Where’s the good in saving the world, or at least Kansas City, every other week if I’m running around blowing the brains out of attractive females every time I blow my load? If only someone could invent a stronger condom. The people at Kraig Biocraft (with a name like Kraig Biocraft, you know there are some supervillains working there) are working on an insanely strong material made from synthetic spider silk. It’s designed to protect cops and soldiers, but Trojan could make so much money off that technology. There’s a whole market in place consisting of dangerously horny superheroes. We’ll buy. We’ll spread the word. Shit, put my face on the box.

There are things I could do, get rimmed or bummed, but these acts hold no appeal for me. I don’t disapprove of them, just don’t long for them. I’ve had a few successful handjobs, but I end up doing most of the work. I could pull out. But how many guys have said they would pull out only to find it impossible in the moment? No, I don’t trust myself. Loneliness and sexual frustration are preferable to ejaculatory homicide.

This sexual openness creeps people out. They expect my kind to be eunuchs or ascetics, but we are not. We have genitals, too, and those genitals have great power, the power to create, yes, but also the power to destroy, and not just the figurative destruction wreaked by so much human genitalia.

 

Normal. I don’t know what it means. I don’t know if I am human or alien. I have no origin story. I have been this way for as long as I remember. If I am adopted, my parents neglected to tell me. If I fell into a pool of nuclear sewage, my parents neglected to tell me. They are not super, in any sense. Am I evolution? There was a campaign against me in Kansas. They said I was the antichrist. Children there are not allowed to learn about me in school.

The source of my powers is unknown, even after intense study by doctors and grad students at UMKC. The powers manifested during and right after puberty. I went from being a friendless nerd in eighth grade to the star of the varsity basketball team in ninth. I actually had to sue to join the athletic teams in high school, and after I graduated all of our titles were retroactively stripped. There were technically no state champs in football, basketball, track, or baseball for those four years.

My skills and powers are fairly standard. I can fly. Shoot heat beams out of my eyes. Exhale icy wind. I can run faster than Superman, who can only outpace a speeding bullet, while I can run and fly just a bit faster than a Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird. Of course I have superstrength, which shocks people because I do not have bulging biceps or prominent pectorals. I have almost scrawny arms and a little bit of a beer gut.

I have no use for secret identity, and hence no need for a costume or cape, and no use for a job, which would be a waste of time. Time spent at a desk would reduce the time I have free to fight crime. I draw a modest salary from the city, which comes from a penny sales tax. People think I’m a millionaire, but I have to share the revenue from the Hero Tax. I get the smallest share. Most of the money goes for twenty-first century security essentials: armored vehicles, sniper drones, and, in case anyone invades the Missouri River, an amphibious tank. I don’t need much money. I can eat for free almost anywhere I go, except Chaz on the Plaza. Of course, when you are a public servant the taxpayers think they can tell you how to do your job. “I pay your salary, hero,” said this lady one time, in one of the more extreme examples of taxpayer entitlement. I had saved a group of people from a “super” villain named Dr. Juice. Doesn’t he sound like a type of soda you’d buy at Sam’s Club? Nothing super about him, just an idiot with a collection of samurai swords. I had taken them from him and fashioned one into a sort of handcuff that I used to lock him to a bike rack. “You should have saved me,” said the lady, an auburn-haired, fortyish woman in business clothes, with a little cross around her neck, “before you helped those ” black people, whom I had rescued from imminent decapitation.

 

One time I saved a couple from a burning car. It was nothing, but the husband wanted to repay me.

“Maybe you could come over for dinner.”

“I really couldn’t.”

“And after you could take my wife. However you want. And I think it’s only fair to let me film it all. I promise not to make it public. Just for personal use. And when friends come over.”

“It’s a lovely offer, but I have a policy against fraternizing with clients. You understand.”

Of course he did. But she was lovely. I had to run into the nearest men’s room, where I blew a hole through three stalls. I guess you could say tumescence is my kryptonite. I have no other weakness, no magic rock that turns me into a pile of goo.

We all have pretty much the same problem, except for Batman, fucking rich boy. The Hulk, to my knowledge, doesn’t have supersperm, or supersquirts, but imagine the damage that would be done if, perhaps during hate sex, he were to get angry and change, and his already engorged member were to blow up mid-fuck. It’s a lonely life.

 

So anyway, the phone call. It didn’t take me long to finish. My superseed, upon ejaculation, tore a hole through the back of the doll’s vinyl cranium and died on the concrete wall of my basement pad. The wall is peppered with splatter marks. “This house is falling apart,” my puzzled mother says. “I just don’t understand how this concrete could be crumbling like this. For no reason. What if it’s radon? Do you think it could be radon?” The doll fizzled and deflated. It was actually limp before I was. I hid it in the back of my underwear drawer, to be repaired later, and did my best to clean the wall. My nosy mother is wont to snoop around when I’m at work.

“What took so long?” The Chief.

“Even superheroes go to the bathroom.”

 

It is true that I can fly faster than the fastest airplane, but even I cannot escape the rules of idiots. We live in a suburb of KC called Lee’s Summit. Our HOA passed an ordinance forbidding flying within the borders of the common interest community, and then the HOAs of the neighboring neighborhoods passed similar ordinances. I can fly once I get into the city, but by then it’s hard to find a parking spot. I really need to find my own place.

Traffic was heavy, unusually heavy for the time of day. We were crawling. Think about how crazy it makes you to be stuck in traffic. Now try to imagine how crazy it makes me. I should get a medal and a commendation every time I make it into town without committing a congestion-easing massacre.

An asshole on a motorcycle split the middle. I could see him coming in my sideview, eased to the left to discourage him, but he did it anyway, rode right up between my car and the Cadillac next to me, but there was nowhere to go from there so he pulled in front of me. I laid on the horn, did not let go. He slowed down, as if I cared, gave me an upside-down middle finger. I gave him more horn. Oh I hated him, fantasized about killing him. It would be so easy. One laser glare and he’s a puddle of melted flesh and entrails. I got too wrapped up in the fantasy and nudged his rear tire. He flipped up backward and I had to hurl myself through the front window to save him. It would cost a pretty penny to replace the windshield.

“SuperChad?”

“Yeah.”

“You’re like my hero. I mean aside from like Batman.”

It would be so fucking easy, as I cradled him in my mutant arms, to squeeze him into oblivion.

“OK.”

“You drive a Prius? A fucking Prius!”

“You know what else I do?” Cradling him now on my knee. “I follow basic fucking traffic safety laws.”

I drive a Prius because it’s economical. I’d prefer to drive a pure electric but the only models I could afford don’t yet offer the range I need. I don’t just serve KC, also the suburbs around it, even into Kansas. One place I don’t go, and that’s Johnson County. Fuck Johnson County.

There is no good reason the Batmobile couldn’t be electric. All you need is money and will. He’s got the money, but he’s an entitled brat who thinks he can do whatever he wants because he’s a superhero and a rich boy. Driving around in a tank that gets half a mile to the gallon. Batman, making the city safe from crime but not from its own foul air. Batman, the caped plutocrat.

“This is incredible.” The motorcycle asshole. “Mind if I get a pic?”

“Whatever.” You can’t say no. It’s always a shitstorm if you say no, like you’re the asshole for trying to maintain just a tiny little modicum of privacy and autonomy. But whatever.

“Hey,” he said casually, snapping a picture with me, “you’re going to pay for this bike.”

“Fuck you.”

I picked up his bike and tied it into a pretty knot. Then I picked up the Prius and flew off.

“Hey,” he yelled after me, “I pay your fucking salary you scumsucking leech.”

“Leeches don’t suck scum, dumbass. They suck blood.”

I wanted to flatten him with my Prius, but I flew on. Thanks to the power of mindfulness.

 

I guess I do have a weakness, a vulnerability: my commitment to the law. I was unable to assist in Ferguson because of a law passed limiting superheroes to a specific range. I can only serve the KC metro area. The law is an insult to superheroes but also to ordinary citizens and justice. Do you know how fucking hard it is to pass a law in Missouri? Missouri lawmakers, despite their job title, hate making laws. Imagine if firefighters hated fighting fires. Why do we elect people to government who don’t believe government has a legitimate function in or can do any good for society or civilization? They tend to be right, but only because they’re in positions to prove themselves right. Yet the state legislature was able to come together, less than three months before Ferguson, and pass a law forbidding superheroes from helping people just because those people don’t live in the right place. I don’t want to start a conspiracy theory, but it’s almost like they saw Ferguson coming, knew St. Louis was suffering a superhero vacuum and wanted to make sure I wouldn’t be able to come to the assistance of the people who were being tormented by the people who are supposed to exist to protect them. What was I doing while Michael Brown was being shot? While his body lay in the street? Saving Kansas City from Skunko, a villain whose only power is to spray stinkjuice out of his ass. We really do get some D-list villains in this town.

 

If my hearing is not technically super, or even enhanced, it is still, by human standards, phenomenal. It came in handy down on the street, where some jackass made a very rude comment to a young couple who were ordering hot dogs from a cart in front of the cop shop. I will not repeat the comment, but it was racist as hell. The man was black, the woman white, the jackass also white, but a different kind of white. He didn’t know I was around, as I had floated down behind him, having left the Chadmobile on the top level of a cheap parking garage. I burned a hole through his jeans and tightie-whities. A small act, but it was one of my more fulfilling adventures.

 

I wanted to go to New York or LA. That is the trajectory, or so goes the myth. You serve your time in the boonies, pay your dues, and then when you come of age you take your spot in the metropolis. But the cities are overcrowded. No one told me there would be such a fucking glut of superheroes. New York is a closed shop. I matriculated in the middle of the recession, thought it more prudent to just stay home.

George Brett. Derrick Thomas. Chad.

Such is the hierarchy or heroes in my hometown. If Bo Jackson’s career had not been sabotaged by injury he would also be ahead of me. I’m happy with my spot, especially considering I’m ahead of Tech N9ne and Ewing Kauffman. I’m as hypocritical as any normal human. I complain about spillover, crime that gets directed to the lesser cities because criminals don’t want to face the first-team superheroes. I criticize the big-city superheroes for pursuing glory ahead of justice, but I’m just as guilty. I would be in New York if I could afford it. There’s just not enough work for me there, not with Batman, Spiderman, Ironman and the rest of the legion of grandstanders. It’s not pride that keeps me in KC but inertia. I’m comfortable here.

Or was. I don’t know why I have been writing as if my situation is stable when I’m about to abandon my town and country.

 

Superheroing is more of a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately? game than professional football. I wrestled an F-5 tornado that was on a direct path to KC and bounced it over town. No damage at all. The people, the ungrateful, super-entitled people, seemed to forget about it almost immediately, but they remember the time I almost saved Miss Kansas City from the foul clutches of Brimstone, a snakehandling preacher who turned super after a mishap with a radioactive viper. Never let me forget it. So it was no surprise that they turned on me, maybe a bit of a surprise that they turned so quickly.

The call was for something seemingly boring, they needed me to work crowd control at a rally. They didn’t tell me what type of rally until I got down there. They weren’t calling it a rally; it was a white empowerment gathering.

I rode to the event with the Chief in his police bruiser, a massive black SUV, completely unsuited to an urban environment. It could be outmaneuvered by any working car, as well as a kid on a skateboard. And so much wasted gas, paid for by the precious taxpayers. “You take this off-roading a lot?”

“Hmmpf?”

“Nothing.”

He parked nose first in a parallel spot only big enough for a VW Beetle. Even in a big city, cops don’t care about the size of their rides because they don’t have to worry about parallel parking. They just dump their car wherever the fuck they please.

“It’s not about blacks. It’s not about racism or white power or whatever the lamestream media wants people to think about us. It’s about white rights. Plain and simple.” This was Lamar LaRue, spokesman of the Ivory Coalition, an organization of “white racialists” dedicated to “taking our country back.”

“Such an honor,” he said to me. “It was so amazing the way you saved that busload of retarded children from that Brimstone fellow. Shame about Miss KC though.”

“This,” I said, “is amazing. Afuckingmazing. I can’t tell if you’re deluding yourself along with all those idiots over there,” pointing to the cavalcade of pale men and women, waving signs and flags. “White Rights Now!” “All Lives Matter.” “White people are people too!” A few American flags, but they were outnumbered by Gadsden and Confederate flags. “Or if you’re just playing nice for the cameras.”

“What’s that now?”

“I said you’re a racist piece of shit and a grandstanding goon, and it is my privilege, sir, to tell you to go fuck yourself. I look forward to the day when I can save this city from your evil grasp.”

The Chief took me aside. The white supremacists were gathered in front of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. On the other side of Eighteenth Street, corralled behind a fence of steel barriers, was a smattering of counterprotesters holding “Black Lives Matter” signs. The Chief said, “You don’t have to agree with these folks. You just have to keep them safe. That’s the code.”

It does happen, quite frequently in fact, that I save people who really don’t deserve saving. But my job is to help, to save, not to decide who is worthy and who is not, although it’s diverting to think about it later, when I can’t sleep, who deserved my rescue, who would have been better off bifurcated. I’m thinking of this guy named Ron, who was nearly cut in half by Earwig, one of the nastier supervillains to build his chops in the KC metro area. Earwig had been a small farmer in Kansas, his meager spread abutting a nuclear plant. Ron ran the plant and had been dumping cans of waste on Earwig’s property. He wasn’t called Earwig then, just Earl. Some of the waste got into the well water. It killed Earl’s family, but somehow it made him a superpowered mutant whose DNA was crossed with an earwig. He tried to go for Ron, this smarmy little bullshitmonger, was set to squeeze him in half, but I stepped in, saving the life of a man I hated, suspending the liberty of a man for whom I felt great sympathy. Earwig is locked away in Leavenworth. Ron is out there running amok, a bigwig in an energy company.

I would save a racist piece of shit from a speeding bullet, for pieces of shit are people too. There’s a slogan for you. But there was no speeding bullet, no supervillain threatening the lives of these pieces of shit.

“They have a right to gather here, but not to ask me to stand with them.”

“You won’t be standing with them, just near them. That crowd over there’s going to get bigger,” meaning the counterprotesters. “We’ve got a lot of protection here,” in the form of snipers and SWAT and beat cops decked out in gas masks and armor, all rocking assault rifles. I know gun enthusiasts don’t like that term “assault rifles,” and I’ll stop using it when they stop using the n-word. “Just need you to make your presence known. Make it known to the Black Lives crowd that no untowardliness will be tolerated.”

“Why wait until the last minute to call me? You knew this rally was taking place.”

“Didn’t know about BLM until last night. Figured we could use your support if things get out of control. We are dealing with a population with a propensity to riot. Last thing we need in downtown KC is a riot.”

“The racists have a right to rally. Those people across the street have a right to protest them. You don’t need me.”

“Yours is not to question why, Mr. Hero. I pay your salary. Just do your fucking job.”

Well, I did it. I walked across the street, floated up over one of the barriers, and stood with the counterprotesters. Arms crossed. The racialists marched around and chanted. They hurled some epithets at our side, but no bombs or Molotov cocktails. The man with the hole in his pants was there. Either no one was telling him his ass was hanging out, or he was too comfortable to care. Speaking of asses hanging out, there was a mean-looking dude, tall, muscled-up, depilated, wearing a white tee shirt with the words “I had my cat castrated. He’s a liberal now.” (I forgot to mention I have telescopic vision, can zoom in and out. It makes me a great birder.) This skinhead was holding a Confederate flag. He was glaring at me, as if he wanted to see if he could take me. Placed side by side, it might look like he could destroy me, but I could pull his spine out through the back of his neck and do it so fast it would look like he just melted in place. I had only meant to give them a little twinkle, just to let them know where they stood, which was on shaky, treacherous ground, but in my anger I lost control of my laser glare and set that traitor’s flag on fire.

 

My parents were asleep when I got home. I took some cold pizza downstairs and turned on the TV. I patched up Betsy but didn’t have the energy. I got a call from an old friend, Skyman. Not the greatest superhero name, I’ll grant you, but he is a great guy. He’s banned both from flying and superheroing, but in his day he was one of the best. He lived in Minneapolis, but we had met at one of the conventions. One night on a routine canvas of the Twin Cities he was struck by lightning. It scrambled his brain. He retained his powers but not control of them. He lives now secluded in the woods. The phone call was brief. He can only speak in grunts, but his grunts are more articulate than the blathering of any TV talking head. I felt better after talking to him.

 

I was spitroasted in the media. My confrontation with the racists had caused a nationwide ruckus. Racists? Or racialists? It’s so hard to keep up with what we’re supposed to call them these days. Since when is it un-American to burn a fucking rebel flag? Trump called me a bigoted demagogue and an enemy of free speech. He said I should find another country. I got a letter from the superhero council; my status was under review. We can vote, but we are not supposed to get political. It’s part of the superhero code. Polls showed voters might not renew the sales tax that funded my salary and was conveniently up for renewal in November.

But I was also getting it on a local level from the aggrieved motorcyclist, who was trashing me to every news outlet in the region while also preparing a lawsuit.

This double debacle was not enough, on its own, to destroy my faith in or hope for humanity, but it was the latest and last in a litany of bullshit. I’m not one to trot out clichés, especially ones that are outdated. The straw that breaks the camel’s back will soon be obsolete. Given that the only thing rising faster than global temperatures is the obesity rate, it will likely be replaced with “the fat guy who flooded Florida.”

I don’t know if I’m a god, or a minion of the gods, placed here, banished here, to protect humans. Or destroy them? I do know that humans don’t deserve our help. Americans least of all. Yet the U.S. overflows with superheroes. There’s about to be one less.

It is mainly with relief that I announce my resignation from superheroing. My heart was no longer in it anyway.

I’m leaving this decadent land of nitwits, with their whining about tyranny in the form of taxes and political correctness, and on my way out I’m going to tear down the walls of a private prison. Then south. I will be the first do-gooder superhero. It’s about time one of us did something real, something genuinely beneficial to humanity. I’m going to Mexico, going to stomp some cartels and corrupt politicians. Then I’m going to Syria, to Nigeria, to Nauru. Wherever people are not free, where they live in fear, where they are truly persecuted, I will be there to squash the heads of the persecutors. In my travels I’m also going to destroy the poaching industry. I’m going to clean up the Great Pacific garbage patch. I’m going to use my icy breath to slow the melting of the glaciers. But first I need to say goodbye to Betsy.


About the Author: Alan Good‘s writing has appeared in Timothy McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Bookslut, Atticus Review, Red Fez, Perversion Magazine, and Word Riot. His first novel is Barn Again: A Memoir. www.malarkeyweb.com
@TheAlanGood

 

The Cat by Jeff Fleischer

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Sitting in a bar on Christmas Eve didn’t feel out of the ordinary for David Silver. He was still unmarried, and his last relationship had ended months earlier, before there was even an awkward discussion about whose parents they would visit and how much time he’d need to take off work and what was an appropriate amount to spend on gifts. He was an only child, and had come to an agreement with his parents to take a trip to Vegas together in the spring rather than have him spend an exorbitant amount and battle transit stress to fly to Minneapolis for a few days just because the calendar suggested it.

 

That it was Christmas Eve was largely immaterial to him, since he hung out at the same bar nearly every night anyway. David couldn’t cook worth anything, and it was too cold this time of year to walk to a decent carryout place when the Ceilidh Moon Bar and Grill was located literally forty paces from the front door of his old apartment building, the kitchen was usually open until four, and the tater tots reminded him of the ones his mother fried up when he was little. He would have been sitting there, eating tots and drinking a pint of lager in his usual seat at one end of the curved bar, if it was almost any other Tuesday.

 

On top of all that, he wasn’t even Christian.

 

The one thing out of the ordinary on Christmas Eve was the crowd. The Ceilidh Moon was the kind of place that didn’t stand out in a neighborhood with more than two dozen bars. The crowd most nights consisted mostly of patrons who, while not necessarily regulars, were definitely locals. Couples who’d stop in for a quick bite, guys who would sit at the bar and banter with the bartenders about their day, second shifters taking advantage of their one chance to socialize. Most nights, the jukebox output fit the decor, with the voices of Ronnie Drew or Shane MacGowan mixing with the same kinds of strings, drums, accordions and whistles placed on shelves throughout the establishment. The mood was usually upbeat, but in an everyday, hail-fellow-well-met manner.

 

This night was different. For one thing, there were a lot more people. David wasn’t eavesdropping, but he overheard enough to know at least a few of the bigger groups were made up of high school classmates in town for the holiday, meeting as a way of collectively avoiding family obligations until the next day while ostensibly catching up on the last year. There were more drunks than usual, mostly sad-sack types consuming hard liquor by themselves at the bar, either trying to overcompensate for feeling all alone or trying to forget the people who made them wish they were all alone. The Irish couple who owned the bar and usually served the drinks themselves had taken the night off, leaving the job in the hands of an eager young man and an unsmiling woman back home between semesters of law school, and letting them close at midnight. Even the music was different, as the more transient customers had spent their quarters on seasonal staples by Bobby Helms and Eartha Kitt and Burl Ives.

 

There was also a cat.

 

The cat was directly opposite David, seated on the top of the bar. The very idea of a cat in the Ceilidh Moon was striking and rather weird, but this was also a rather strikingly weird cat. It had the look of a house cat, but was significantly bigger than any he’d ever seen, closer in magnitude to a small dog. David assumed from the cat’s size that it was a he, and he was a mostly black cat with a large, white patch on his chest. The cat sat upright with his front paws touching, and his back paws perfectly aligned alongside them, sitting so still that he could have been a statue if not for the green eyes scanning the room on high alert.

 

“Any idea where the cat came from?” David turned to ask the people sitting next to him, only to find that the two fratty guys who had been there a few minutes earlier were now occupied in a darts game, and that both bartenders were in back. David took another sip from his lager and went back to writing some work ideas on a small notepad. Still, he kept looking across the bar at the cat, who now seemed to be staring specifically at him.

 

By the time the bartender returned with his sandwich and another drink, David had grown bored and started a sketch of the cat on his notepad, figuring the animal’s stillness and focus made it a perfect model. The younger man, whose name tag identified him as Colin, hadn’t seemed to notice the animal’s presence until David asked him, “Do you know what the deal is with the cat?”

 

“No idea. It can’t be the boss’s cat; he’s allergic. Where’d he come from?”

 

“Couldn’t tell you. I just turned around and he was sitting there.”

 

“Heh. It looks like he’s waiting to order. Like he thinks he’s people.”

 

“He definitely looks like he’s waiting for something,” David said. “You could at least give him some milk.”

 

David had been joking, but the bartender took out the cream kept on hand for White Russians and poured some of it into a coffee cup. As he placed it in front of the cat, the animal didn’t appear at all skittish, though he watched Colin intently until the transaction was complete. David could have sworn the cat looked across the bar at him and nodded before starting to lap up the cream with his pink tongue.

 

After watching the animal drink for a bit, David returned to his sketch as the music switched over to Greg Lake professing his belief in Christmas stories. He was nearly finished drawing, and was starting to feel a slight buzz from his beverage, when the jukebox began playing an old chestnut about said nuts roasting on an open fire. He started to hum along, and noticed someone else was humming in the seat next to him.

 

“That’s a good drawing,” said the stout older man, who had sat down without David noticing. “I take it you like cats?”

 

“Yes. I only have one now, but I’ve always had cats.”

 

“Good for you. A lot of people say they’re afraid of them.”

 

“My great-grandmother was like that. She had a lot of superstitions from the old country.”

 

“What old country? What superstitions?” the stranger said. “I’m sorry if I seem nosy. I’m just curious about these kinds of things.”

 

“No, it’s fine. She grew up in a rural part of Ireland where almost everyone believed in stuff like that. She showed me where it was on a map once, but I don’t remember the name. It wasn’t really near Cork, but it was closer to Cork than to any other city, if that makes sense.”

 

“Sure.”

 

“She used to complain because my mother would let our cat in the room when I was a baby. She used to think cats would steal children’s souls while they slept.”

 

“Do you think she really believed that?”

 

“Definitely,” David said, thinking about his long-dead great-grandmother for the first time in years. “When she got sick, she stayed with us for a few months, and she used to lock our cat Tommy in the basement. I could play with him in there, but she wouldn’t let him follow us upstairs. He was the sweetest cat you’d ever meet, and she was absolutely terrified of him.”

 

“I’ve never understood how people could be that afraid of cats.” The stranger scratched his beard, but otherwise gave David his full attention. “They’ve always been perfectly friendly to me.”

 

“It wasn’t just cats; she was superstitious about a lot of things,” David said, surprising himself with how much he remembered. “My mother told me a story once about going to a farm with her. My mother was young, I think twelve or thirteen, and was dying to learn how to ride a horse. So she talked her grandmother into taking her to a farm that had a stable. They drove two hours to get there, and then turned right around. She wouldn’t let my mother learn to ride because the stable only had black horses, and she thought one of them might be a pooka who would carry her off.”

 

“Strange, that. I will say, you seem like you don’t believe any of this stuff.” The stranger signaled to the female bartender, pointing to David’s glass to get him a refill, but without ordering anything for himself.

 

“I’m not much for believing in mythology. I am sitting in a bar on Christmas Eve.”

 

“Surely you know that this day had nothing to do with Christianity,” the man said. “I don’t mean to offend you, but the Christians only used this day to co-opt the winter solstice. A day that belonged to those who came long before them…”

 

“I know all that, and no offense taken. I’m not Christian. I mean, my great-grandmother was, but she was the only one on that side of the family.”

 

David did worry that the stranger might be offending some of the other customers as the man continued to explain the pagan origins of the holiday, how there were and had always been metaphysical forces in the world that animals understand better than people, and how people like his great-grandmother were more in tune than others but didn’t really understand the world. One couple talking nearby left in an unmistakable huff when the man pointed to the bar’s Christmas tree next to the fireplace and called it a “particularly clever way of associating their god with the ancient symbol of everlasting life.”

 

By the time this history lesson was complete, David had finished the last of his food and the fresh drink that arrived. When he was done talking, the stranger stood up to leave. “Thanks for listening to me,” the man said, patting David on the shoulder. He started to walk away, but turned just long enough to say, “Before I forget, when you see O’Toole, tell him that O’Flaherty is dead.”

 

“I don’t know who you mean…” David replied, but the stranger was beyond hearing range, and David didn’t see any reason to chase him down. Instead, he went back to his drawing of the cat. When he looked across the bar to use his model, however, he found the animal had left that spot and the bowl of cream had been licked clean. David continued his sketch from memory, as best he could, listening to one Christmas song after another as the crowd gradually faded. The buzz he’d acquired from his drinks faded a bit less quickly. He paid his check as soon as the younger bartender announced last call at midnight, leaving a generous holiday tip.

 

As the jukebox played Shane and Kirsty singing about the boys of the NYPD choir, David Silver donned his coat and scarf and headed out of the Ceilidh Moon in the early minutes of what had become Christmas Day.

 

*                      *                      *

 

Snow was falling when David left the bar, but the night was actually pleasant. There wasn’t enough to please anyone dreaming of an alabaster holiday, and the lack of wind mixed with his alcohol consumption made the midnight air feel warmer than a thermometer would admit. Warm enough that he decided to walk off what remained of his modest intoxication and pick up a few supplies from the all-night convenience store at the other end of the block. The weather report had predicted a substantial storm coming the following night, and he thought it couldn’t hurt to be prepared.

 

David Silver walked to the end of the street, listening to the sounds made by the bar’s emptying of the night’s last patrons and by a few cars vacating the area as their owners shifted to holiday preparation. In just the time it took him to cover a block, the night had gone silent. Except for one thing. As he passed the alley between the furniture shop and the bookstore, he heard a loud rustling. Turning to look, he could see something was moving in the middle of a pile of trash bags stacked next to an overfilled dumpster. Almost as soon as he turned, a shape emerged from under the pile and sprang out of the alley in David’s direction.

 

Another cat.

 

This one looked a lot like the one he’d seen in the bar, but also different enough that nobody paying attention would ever confuse them for the same individual. This cat was also black, with the same kind of white spot on its chest, though the spot was a little larger and more oblong. The animal was shaped differently than the one he’d seen in the Ceilidh Moon, long and lean where the other was bulky. Still closer to the size of a dog than of a typical cat, but more like a small greyhound in build.

 

Though it darted toward David, the animal stopped abruptly just a few inches from his feet. After his conversation at the bar, David couldn’t help but laugh, thinking about how pleased his great-grandmother would have been that he avoided the cat crossing his path. He had yet to encounter a cat-related superstition she hadn’t fervently believed and warned him about in the few years their lives intersected.

 

This cat was also in considerably worse condition than the other one. Its fur was patchy, with some sections appearing sticky or mussed, and others missing as if lost in a fight with other animals. The left ear was missing the tip, and the mostly black fur had a few streaks of grey. The cat’s battle scars weren’t fresh, just signs that the feline had probably used up a few of its allegedly recurring lives.

 

“Hi there, little one,” David said, in the tone of voice he unconsciously reserved for babies and fuzzy animals. “Where’d you come from?” The cat treated the question rhetorically, simply tilting its head and not even giving him a meow. It didn’t try to rub up against him the way cats usually did, but it didn’t flee either; it just sat still and silently regarded him. When David reached down to pat it on the head, the cat reared its head just out of his reach, but the rest of its body stayed in place.

 

David left the animal where it sat, passed the furniture store and went inside the little bodega, which was empty except for a teenage clerk reading a sports magazine and watching stop-motion Christmas cartoons on a small television set. David said good evening and received a mumbled response, then began his impulse-driven shopping for the next few days. A loaf of bread, a half gallon of milk, a block of Colby cheese, a bag of chips. He went back and forth on whether he had paper towels and bar soap in his place, and was equally indecisive about whether he really needed a pint of ice cream, before throwing all those items in his handheld basket. Passing the pet food, he was sure he had more than enough on hand for his own cat, but grabbed one can for the hungry one outside, guessing the tuna flavor was the most universally beloved. The teenager said little as he scanned David’s groceries and arranged them in a large paper bag. David swiped his credit card and wished the clerk a mere goodnight, then corrected himself and added a happy but unspecific holiday.

 

The snowfall was lighter when he returned to the outdoors, and David couldn’t help but catch a few flakes with his tongue. The ground around him featured a light and mostly unspoiled dusting, in which he saw the absent cat’s oversized paw prints leading away from where David last saw it and back toward the alley. When David got to the alley, he took the can of food from the bag and pulled back the ring on top, knowing from experience that the slow scratch of an opening tin was usually an automatic draw for cats.

 

“Here, little one,” he said as he entered into the alley. “I’ve got something for you.”

 

“For me?” a voice replied. David realized there was a gaunt, homeless woman sitting near the dumpster. He couldn’t have guessed her age, with her skin and hair showing heavy damage that could just as easily be from stress or the elements as time. “I appreciate the thought, sir, but we don’t all actually have to eat cat food. Tell you the truth, the restaurants around here throw out a lot of perfectly good food.”

 

“Oh I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean it like that,” David said, putting the half-open can back in his bag. “I just didn’t see you there.”

 

“Sir, if I’ve learned anything from life on the streets, it’s that most people are experts at not seeing things that are sitting right in front of them. Especially if they’re inconvenient to see.”

 

“Please, I didn’t mean it that way. I just bought this for a cat I saw around here. Really thin, but with a big frame. Black with a white spot.”

 

“I know the cat you’re talking about. You could say she lives here with me.”

 

“Is she your cat?”

 

The woman laughed at that, but it was a wheezy kind that only lasted half a second. “As much as such a thing is possible. We can no more own a cat than we can the wind or the rain. A man can own a dog; that’s as easy as owning a table. Or a horse. A man can even own a donkey, though the beast outlives him more often than not. A cat is different. Don’t you agree?”

 

“I don’t know. I’ve had my cat Beauregard for almost nine years, and I raised him from an orphan.”

 

“See, the cat sounds like your ward. You care for him, you feed him, I assume you love him and he probably loves you as well. But he’s no more your possession than you are his.”

 

“It sounds like you’ve thought about this a lot.” This was the longest conversation David had ever had with a homeless person before money was requested, though he’d already decided to give her the four bucks he had left in his wallet whenever their conversation wrapped.

 

“Look around, sir. I have plenty of time and space to think about things these days. Now, you could call the cat you saw earlier my traveling companion. Do you know the old story of Dick Whittington?”

 

“I think so. The guy who went to London because the streets were paved with gold, and he traveled with a cat…”

 

“The streets in the real world are rarely paved with gold, sir, and it can be a long way down from where we started life. Trust me. But a loyal cat always makes for good company on the journey. Don’t you agree?”

 

“Sure. Does this cat have others like her that hang out in the alley? I saw one earlier tonight that could be her brother, only he was a lot bigger.” David left out anything about that cat’s superior condition, but he was curious if there was an explanation for his random sightings of similar felines. The woman didn’t say anything, but shook her head. “What’s the cat’s name? I hate to just keep calling it ‘the cat.’”

 

“Cats have their own names that aren’t for humans to know. We name them for our own benefit, but they will always know the names they’re born with.” She continued to pontificate on how those who came before understood this better, how the ancient Egyptians and the ancient Celts had held cats in the proper esteem, and how the modern world and its conveniences were replacing this deep connection.

 

She went on like this for a few minutes, obviously glad to have someone listening. David couldn’t quite tell if he was listening to a smart woman who had trouble organizing her thoughts out loud after whatever misfortunes had befallen her, or a harmless but ultimately crazy woman who would be a cat hoarder if she had a permanent residence in which to hoard them.

 

David didn’t want to be rude, but the hour was catching up to him and he was starting to tire of this chat. He gave what he hoped was a realistic yawn, which did interrupt the woman’s train of thought. “It’s getting late, I think I need to get going,” he said, careful to avoid using the word “home” or anything else that might cause offense.

 

“A new king is born today,” the old woman said. It was the first succinct sentence she’d said in a while.

 

“It is Christmas Day, isn’t it? Well, merry Christmas to you…”

 

“No, the real king, of those who came long before. Do you know what this day really means?”

 

Rather than sit through another long lecture like the one he’d received at the bar, David just nodded. “Yes, the celebration of the winter solstice.”

 

“More than that, today. More than that…” The woman suddenly stood up and stumbled closer to him, her voice growing more urgent. “O’Flaherty is dead. You must tell O’Toole.”

 

“I will if I see him,” David replied, knowing nothing about what that meant but at least knowing it meant his two random encounters weren’t entirely random. “Here, before I forget.” He placed his grocery bag on the ground, and found the partially opened tin of cat food. He gave it to the woman, along with his bag of chips. He started to reach for his wallet, but she shook her head and told him the food was all she required.

 

As he left the alley and started walking home, David Silver paused a few times to look for fresh cat tracks in the fallen snow, but discovered that even the ones he’d seen earlier were now covered by a soft layer of virgin powder. Only his own footprints remained.

 

*                      *                      *

 

A few minutes later, David Silver was walking up the fire escape to his second-floor apartment. His arm had gotten tired from carrying the bag of groceries, so he placed it down on the wood railing while he searched his pocket for his keys. Once found, the keys dropped from his hands, and David bent down to pick them up from where they’d landed near his tattered welcome mat.

 

In case his evening hadn’t been sufficiently strange, David found a trio of other objects on the mat, placed at exact intervals. With the limited glow from his porch light, it took him a few seconds to realize what he was seeing. The thing on the left was a dead mouse, or possibly a vole, positioned with all its legs tight against the body so that it looked streamlined. The thing on the right was a similarly arranged dead bird; he assumed it was probably a young finch. In between, there was something shiny and metallic that looked like a small coin or a piece of foil, but he didn’t feel like wiping rodent blood off its surface to find out more.

 

He’d received leavings like this growing up, when he lived in the Minneapolis suburbs and had outdoor cats who would return home with similar trophies. The practice hadn’t gotten less unsettling.

 

David cleaned the mat using the broom and dustpan he kept near the back door, planning to bury the animals the next morning and assuming it was cold enough that there wasn’t a rush to do so. He wasn’t sure what cat left these tokens for him, though he had a pair of suspects. He finally collected his groceries and went inside, wiping his feet a few times on the mat’s bristles. His own pet, an orange cat with a pattern of cream-colored ribbons, greeted him at the door as always, headbutting David’s legs as he removed his shoes and socks. “Hi buddy, I’m happy to see you too,” he said as he put his bag on the kitchen counter and picked up Beauregard. “I know, it’s been sooooo long. I haven’t seen you in six whole hours.” He usually made jokes like this about his cat’s affectionate greetings, but he never tired of the animal’s reliable excitement at his arrival.

 

Once the food was put away, the mail was sorted and a restroom trip was completed, David flopped down on the worn armchair in his living room. He put his feet up on the ottoman and turned on the television, changing the channel a few times before he found Jimmy Stewart dressed in a football outfit and talking to a bush. Beauregard jumped up and wedged himself in the open space formed by David’s outstretched and crossed legs, staring at his owner and letting out a quiet meow. Knowing what the cat wanted, and knowing the neighbors both upstairs and downstairs were out of town and out of earshot, David took his tin whistle off the end table and played a few notes of “An Maidrin Rua.” His pet joined in by meowing, one of the quirky behaviors David had discovered in his kitten nine years ago and used treats to reinforce until it became a repeatable trick.

 

A few seconds later, Beauregard was voicing a different meow and looking at something in the window behind the television. David couldn’t quite see it, but his cat was staring intensely, with his body pointing in that direction like a hunting dog. David got up and walked over, the orange cat running under his feet, and saw exactly what he had come to expect.

 

Another cat. This one sitting on the railing of the fire escape, staring directly into his home. Also black, also with a white spot, also bigger than an average cat.

 

“That does it,” David said, to nobody in particular. He rushed into the kitchen, pulled on his shoes without bothering to tie them, and grabbed his coat from where he’d left it on the counter. He checked the door to make sure it wouldn’t lock behind him, then sprang out onto the wooden fire escape just in time to see the cat leap off the railing.

 

Before he could get a closer look, David noticed a strange texture under his foot and found someone had left a piece of paper on his welcome mat. When he bent down to get it, he could feel it was something thicker, some kind of strange parchment, and the stock showed a great deal of wear. The message on it, written in an elaborate script and with a fragrant ink, was something more familiar. “Tell O’Toole that O’Flaherty is dead.” He also noticed that the dead animals and metal piece he’d earlier removed from his doormat had been moved, and found them on the window sill near where the cat had been sitting, arranged exactly as they’d been when he first found them.

 

David walked over to where the cat had jumped down, and scanned the area below to see where it might have gone. The cat was nowhere to be seen. Instead, David saw a thin man pacing slowly in the alley. He wore a sweatshirt too light even for such a mild winter night, with the hood pulled up over his head.

 

“Hey you!” David yelled. “You, in the hood.” The figure turned, but with the sweatshirt hood over his head and with so little light in the alley, David couldn’t see the man’s face. The hooded man’s head moved as if he was saying something, but he pointed at his own mouth, shaking his head to indicate he either couldn’t or wouldn’t talk. “Did you leave me this?” David called down, holding up the piece of parchment and growing angry when the stranger nodded in response. “I don’t know either of these people, and I don’t know why everyone seems to think I do.” He’d thought about it, too, searching his memory throughout the evening for any O’Toole he might have known in the past and recalling only a famous actor he’d never personally met and the name of a local bar that had closed years earlier. “Why do people keep telling me about this? What do they think I can do about it?”

 

Predictably, the man below him didn’t answer, only nodding to indicate that he’d heard the complaints. David continued to list details about his night, about the repeated requests to convey the death of another person he’d never met, about the cats he kept seeing, about how he was just tired and wanted to go to sleep and be left alone to enjoy a needed day off from work. The hooded figure’s body language made it seem like he was listening, but he said nothing in reply. “You know what?” David said at last. “You want to tell O’Toole your news, why don’t you find him and tell him yourself?” He was conscious that he was speaking a little loudly for two in the morning on Christmas Day, but there was no sign that anybody else in the area cared. The snow had truly started to fall by now, and David wanted to say his piece and then go back inside.

 

When David was done, the man in the hoodie raised his right arm and pointed at something on the other side of the alley, through the metal back gate of the vintage apartment building behind David’s. He strained to see what the man was pointing at, trying to make it out through both the wind-blown flakes and the tightly designed links of the gate.

 

What David saw was the rounded shape of a small headstone, too far away for him to read the inscription. He could tell it wasn’t made of familiar letters, but instead marked with some kind of symbols or runes. At first he thought this was intended as a threat, or a grim warning of the future, maybe a sign that O’Flaherty hadn’t done what he was told. A second later, however, he could see something moving toward the stone. The black shape was difficult to see against the poorly lit sky, but it soon revealed itself as a cat. Then David saw another.

 

He soon realized he was looking at nine cats, all black, all the same breed as the three he’d seen earlier that night. For all he could tell, those three were among the ones he was seeing. The cats were moving in two rows, on both sides of a black, rectangular object that could only be a coffin. Eight of the animals were pushing it, with one cat leading the procession. The sight was strangely hypnotic, but soon the snowfall completely blocked David’s view of the cats. When he looked around, he noticed that the man in the hoodie was also gone, his footsteps already masked by fresh snow.

 

Several times, David checked the spot where he’d seen the nine cats, but couldn’t see them anymore. He couldn’t even see the headstone, and began to wonder if he’d imagined the whole thing. After all, he was running on very little sleep, had been out drinking, and had experienced enough strange encounters in the past few hours that his imagination could be forgiven for getting away from him. He waited a few more minutes to see if he might be able to glimpse the funeral again, before the cold and his exhaustion urged him to give up and go back inside.

 

*                      *                      *

 

David’s cat greeted him at the door, rubbing against his owner’s legs, then sprinted away and planted himself next to his food dish, meowing. Figuring Beauregard was confused by his coming and going, David relented and gave his pet a rare extra meal, filling the bowl only halfway full of kibble. While the orange cat ate, David took off his coat, his jeans, and his long-sleeve shirt. Now dressed in the white tee and boxers that doubled as his standard pajamas, he took the piece of parchment he’d found on the welcome mat, balled it up, and shot it like a basketball into his kitchen trashcan. He turned on his electric coffeepot and used it boil water for a cup of herbal tea, which he spiked with a few drops of whiskey to help him wind down before bed.

 

With Beauregard at his heels, David took his hot toddy into the living room and turned on the television, where George Bailey was now being tossed out of a once-familiar watering hole. He took his fiddle down from its usual spot on his decorative but dormant fireplace and flopped down in his chair, while the cat took his usual spot on the ottoman. Figuring a song would help him forget the strangeness of his evening, David began to play “Carrickfergus” and sing along as best he could with a throat still constricted from the cold.

 

He was only on the second verse when his phone started to ring. At first, David worried some neighbor had canceled their overnight plans and his music was too loud for them. When he answered the call, he was relieved to find it was his grandmother in Killarney calling to wish him a happy holiday, repeating her pattern of miscalculating time zones ever since he’d left his home state. She apologized when he pointed out that it was past two in the morning, but he told her he was still awake and could talk. They went through their normal phone exchange, with David explaining that work was fine, that he wasn’t seeing anyone but was working on it, that his parents were doing fine, that he was not in need of money but grateful for her offer.

 

When she asked what he was doing awake in the middle of the night, David was actually grateful to have someone to tell about his past few hours. He began his story with how he got home from work and went to the pub for dinner, explaining the cat and the stranger in the bar. He noticed that Beauregard seemed to take an interest in this part of the story, sitting upright and looking at him with the same concentration the cat usually reserved for requesting food or hearing his name called. David figured it must owe to his repeated use of the word “cat,” one of the human terms he knew his pet recognized.

 

The cat continued to focus on David as he recounted the rest of the story. He told his grandmother about the homeless woman and how he gave her cat a can of food, and about the hooded man in the alley who left him a note, though he avoided mentioning the procession of cats, which he found too strange to share. “I almost forgot the most curious part,” David said. “They all told me the same thing. They said that O’Flaherty was dead, and that I was supposed to tell O’Toole. I don’t even know anybody named O’Toole.”

 

While David’s words prompted his grandmother to suggest possible sources of O’Tooles he could contact, they got a different response from Beauregard, one David wouldn’t have believed if it had happened even eight hours earlier.

 

His cat spoke.

 

At first, it was in a language David didn’t understand, something that sounded vaguely Celtic. It was definitely speech, not a meow or a growl, in a voice much deeper than the cat’s normal pitch. The cat cocked his head at David, who had dropped his conversation and was staring in silence at his pet.

 

Beauregard regarded him for a moment, then spoke again, this time in perfect English. “O’Flaherty is truly dead?” the animal asked. David just nodded slowly, too shocked to speak. “Then I am the king of the cats.” With that, the cat leaned forward in a slight bow and then bolted.

 

David dropped the phone, though he could hear his grandmother’s voice through the speaker, asking if he was still there. Before he could even get up from his chair, his cat had run into the old fireplace and up the shaft. David followed and looked up, but the animal had been too fast, and must have gotten out of the building. He ran into the kitchen, pulled on his shoes and coat, and searched the fire escape for the cat. He didn’t see him anywhere.

 

Unsure what else to do, David spent the rest of the small hours wandering the few blocks around his house, calling for his cat and keeping an eye out for any more black cats with white spots who might provide clues. The snow was falling faster and the wind was getting strong, but he continued his search, checking every alley and driveway in the neighborhood.

 

David was still searching when the sunrise came, and the expanses of white around him reflected its early morning light. Not long after, the church bells nearby began to ring out for Christmas Day, and the quiet streets started to fill with people en route to their holiday plans. David took one more stroll around the area, wondering if he could explain what had happened to anyone else without seeming crazy.

 

Finding no clues and struggling to stay awake, David Silver felt he had no choice but to return to his apartment and wait for his unusual cat to return.


About the Author: Jeff Fleischer is a Chicago-based author, journalist and editor. His fiction has appeared in more than a dozen publications including the Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row Journal, Shenandoah, Steam Ticket, Pioneertown and Crossborder Journal. He is also the author of non-fiction books including “Votes of Confidence: A Young Person’s Guide to American Elections” (Zest Books, 2016), “Rockin’ the Boat: 50 Iconic Revolutionaries” (Zest Books, 2015), and “The Latest Craze: A Short History of Mass Hysterias” (Fall River Press, 2011). He is a veteran journalist published in Mother Jones, the New Republic, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Magazine, Mental_Floss, National Geographic Traveler and dozens of other local, national and international publications.

Artwork: Sean McCollum

The Christmas Party (1968) by Warren Read

sc2


 

It was almost five-thirty by the time they pulled out of their driveway and onto the boulevard. The roads were already glassy and slick, and a white crystalline fog draped from the line of streetlamps. Gil held tightly to the wheel, his back inches from the seat as he hunched forward. The car floated down Firdale as if it were flying through space.

“I’m only going to say this once,” Beverly said. “Don’t you dare embarrass me tonight.” She thumbed the cigarette lighter into the dash and reached into her purse for her cigarettes. It was hot in the car. The heater was forcing air over the dashboard and drying out her face. She leaned forward and worked herself free of her wrap. “I swear to God I couldn’t take it.”

“I won’t.”

“I mean it, Gil.” She tamped the pack of Pall Malls against her palm then drew one out like it was a knife. “If she’s there, I better not see you anywhere near her.”

They were coming up to the highway interchange and the traffic light was turning. A Buick punched hard to make the yellow and shot through, fishtailing as it rounded the corner, shark fins leaving a streak of read light as it disappeared. Another car, waiting at the cross street, laid on its horn. Gil tapped the brakes and came to a slow and steady stop.

“It’s a goddamned party,” he said. He turned to her, a half-cocked grin smeared over his face. It was the same look he’d given when faced with the discovered note, the note she’d carefully taped together and laid out on the kitchen table next to his morning coffee.

“I might have to exchange small talk with her,” he said, “but that’s it. I won’t embarrass you.”

The lighter emerged and she took it, pressing it to the cigarette that was already waiting in her pursed lips. Her cheeks collapsed, hungry, the cherry tip blazing the dashboard in an orange glow.

“You better hadn’t,” she said, filling the space with blue smoke. “You better hadn’t slip up or so help me.”

 

Gil pulled the Pontiac Bonneville next to the front steps, the headlights washing over the brick and illuminating the slim, copper lettering of his name.  G. E. Weaver, Office Supply. The frosted window adjacent the door blinked red and green and as Gil climbed out of the car he could hear the waves of laughter already happening inside. He looked at his watch. He was not twenty minutes late and yet they had begun without him.

He swung open the front door like a king entering his castle. With the constellation of lights draped from the ceiling and the fat tree taking up the corner near the filing cabinets, and the spread of hors d’oeuvres and liquor lining the wall outside the conference room, it was almost easy to pretend that this place was different from the one he had to force himself to embrace each day. These people—these revelers who stood oblivious to his entrance as they clutched glass tumblers rattling with ice and whiskey, heads thrown back in throaty laughter—lived their daytime hours hovered over silent telephones or pecking at typewriters that had been purchased with borrowed money, or lurking at the leased water cooler, only to scatter like pigeons whenever he came into the room. Tonight, though, it was as if he didn’t exist.

“And the general has arrived!” At last Frank McNeil broke from a cluster of accountants and crossed the room to Gil. He carried his drink with him like Lady Liberty’s torch, high over his head as he weaved through the small crowd. “I thought I’d be the only one coming stag.”

Gil looked to the closed door behind him. Beverly was nowhere in sight. The wreath hung from the hook, a ring of cedar springs that his secretary Doris had so carefully braided the week before. It had already begun to curl at the tips.

“Beverly must be taking one last look in the mirror,” he quipped. Frank had chosen to wear a polo shirt to a Christmas party, the kind of attire that might have been appropriate for a summer picnic. It was the kind of thing that got under Gil’s skin, the lack of spirit around these kinds of things.

“So she came with you.” Frank said through that horsey smile of his, the glint of gold in his molars caught by the ceiling lights.

“Of course.”

Frank looked back over his shoulder then, to the group that was crowded near the tree. They were the younger salespeople, Tom Connelly, Clarence White and Charlie somebody, the guy with the last name Gil could never remember.

Standing with them as well, facing away from Gil, was Ellie.

The tree had been dressed with a long string of red lights, and it cast a tawdry glow over the two-dozen silver balls that Doris had procured from the bargain shelf at the local drugstore and Ellie was there, her back to Gil, dressed in a mid-length skirt that almost reached the tops of her naked calves. She stood with her knee bent slightly as if her stopping to talk with the salesmen had been an afterthought, or a mere pause on her way to someplace else. In one had she gripped a slender glass, tilted almost imperceptive, her other hand cupped beneath her elbow. Her hair fell to her collar like spun gold.

“Well then.” Frank’s eyes carved into Gil, the same, stupid grin still plastered over his face. He raised his glass. “Merry Christmas.”

 

Beverly held her cigarette between her teeth as she entered, the platter of deviled eggs weighing down her arms. Johnny Mathis trilled from a Hi Fi that somebody had set up against the wall. It was too loud; people were shouting just to be heard over the music. Reams of crepe paper sagged from the walls and ceiling, layered in and over lights that dropped a glow of red and green onto the Aqua Net and Brylcreem-molded heads of everyone in the room. The cardboard cutouts of snowmen and reindeer and gold bells were the same ones that Beverly had bought from Woolworth’s almost two decades earlier, when she and Gil had put together the business with nothing but a hundred thirty dollars and a penciled plan. There were no kids to get in the way, though it was certainly not for lack of trying, and as such there was no reason to do up the house in baubles and festive gaudiness. She played the part when she needed to, though. The first dozen years she’d come in the day after Thanksgiving to drag the decorations out from the back storage room by herself. She thumbtacked each one to the walls, and then she strung the miles of garland and lights from the ceiling and when it was time for the Christmas party, she prepared every bit of food that was eaten. Now, she couldn’t care less who put the whole damned thing together.

Doris suddenly appeared and reached out for the platter. “Merry Christmas, Mrs. Weaver,” she said. “I can take that from you.”

Doris Sanford was a small woman who always struck Beverly as something of a squirrel, her tiny hands always snatching up things needing to be filed away or tossed or sent out with the morning mail, constantly brushing surfaces clean, straightening out clutter with the kind of nervous energy that Beverly found exhausting but admirable. She liked Doris. She had always liked her, and believed with all her heart that if it had not been for Gil’s secretary the business would have been swallowed up years ago. In fact, it was not too odd of a supposition that Gil himself might have expired years ago if it had not been for Doris and her keen ability to keep both her boss and the office in tidy order.

Beverly handed over the eggs and thanked her, then slid her wrap from her shoulders and looked around for a place she could leave it without having to worry about a spilled drink or the sticky fingers of one of the younger wives. At various turns the faces in the room looked to her, some full on, others only slightly, as if she were a bird that had flown in by mistake and had perched itself upon a desk. They glanced at her and then some of them, almost as if on cue, looked over at the clique of young people clustered around the red Christmas tree as if warming themselves by a fire.

That girl was there with them, all twenty-two years or so of her. In a schoolgirl dress cropped just above the knees, sipping a drink that she was surely barely old enough to have. She did not look back at Beverly though, even when one of the boys leaned in and whispered something in her ear. She just shook her head ever so gently and tipped the glass to her lips.

 

Gil was halfway through his second scotch when he felt a hand on his arm.

“Mr. Weaver, the checks.” He turned to see the grimace and worry lines of Bud Clifton, his payroll manager. In his hand Bud clutched a large manila envelope, and he leaned in uncomfortably close to Gil as he spoke. “Are you certain?”

Gil looked at the envelope, at the sharp edge of the sealed lip and the smooth paper so clean and promising in Bud’s chapped red fingers. Around him, people continued to talk over one another, and take their Zippos from their pockets to light a colleague’s smoke, and rattle ice-filled glasses as they rebalanced their weight from one foot to the other. He nodded his chin toward his office and the two of them slipped from the crowd, past the food table where Beverly stood with a couple of the wives, each of them with a streaming cigarette in her fingers. She glanced in his direction as he went by, but did not linger on him for more than a few seconds.

Behind the door of his office the suspension of noise was immediate. He snapped on the lamp and took a seat behind his desk, and leaned back in the chair with his hands clasped behind his neck. He tightened his brow, that mask of irritation that he worked so well. It was funny to him how easily he slid into that role, the exasperated boss, so inconvenienced at having to hear news that was unpleasant, especially from a man who had no business judging him for his shortcomings. His failings. Bud stood opposite him, hands clasped in front of him, envelope draped at his lap like it was a loincloth.

“Bud,” Gil said. “Let’s not do this all over again.”

“Of course, Mr. Weaver,” he said. “It’s just that—“ He ran his fingers along the edge of the envelope. “You know I have the utmost respect for you and for this company. It’s taken good care of me, and my family, for over ten years now.”

“Yes it has. I have.”

“Yes.” He tapped the envelope against his leg. “You are a generous man, sometimes to a fault, if I might say so. I only hope that you know what you’re doing with these.”

Gil listened to the words as they swirled in the room, and to the swaying music that still managed to find its way under the door. They were having a fine time out there getting oiled on gin and vodka and scotch that he had bought, that he had carried in on his own the day before. And they would be even more grateful when they opened their checks. It was Christmas and though only about half of them really deserved it, bonuses were part of the deal.

“I know the numbers have slid a bit lately,” he said, though he knew full well it was more than just lately. The entire year things had been spiraling, one more piece of fallout from the Vietnamese and their goddamn war. Offices everywhere were tightening their belts to the point of suffocation. Nobody was purchasing a single sheet of paper if it wasn’t absolutely necessary. “We can deal with it after the New Year.”

“With all due respect Mr. Weaver,” he said. “It’s not a matter of sliding—“

Gil stood up from his seat and held his hands in front of him. He said nothing, but closed his eyes. They stood there, neither of them talking or even looking at one another. Finally Gil opened his eyes and took the envelope.

 

 

She had overheard them talking about the bonuses, debating whether or not they might get them after all. The longtime employees, the older ones, carried a roll of thunderous doubt in their words. “It’s been a lean year,” they said. “Tough times call for tough decisions.” The younger ones had neither the experience nor the common sense to be so pragmatic. “Weaver’s a good guy,” they said. “He’ll come through.”

So when Gil came out from his office with that big envelope in his hand, Beverly expected he would very soon get hold of a glass, and he did. He poured himself a tall scotch—at least a double—and downed it like he was about to charge into battle. Immediately he took on another one, this time tossing in a few ice cubes before heading off across the room, to the small crowd against the Christmas tree.

Beverly found herself looking for the door, an escape before he could do anything that would make it impossible for her to leave with the smallest shred of dignity. Just as she turned to retreat to the kitchen, a woman Beverly had never seen before in her life stepped in front of her. She had one of those cheap, nylon scarves that she’d knotted at her throat and she reeked of whiskey, and her lipstick bled past the edges, creeping like tree branches into her skin. Holding an ice-filled glass in each hand, she shoved one toward Beverly.

“I don’t think I’ve seen you have one drink since you’ve been here,” she said.

Beverly pulled back. “I’m not partaking tonight,” she said.

“Come on, now,” the woman insisted. “A woman deserves to let her hair down once in awhile.” She pushed the glass on her again. “Have a little fun.”

Beverly stepped back again. She didn’t want a drink and she certainly didn’t want one from this woman, who was probably only positioning herself between Gil and that girl to create a distraction, a barrier that would allow the boss to sneak a comment or a ridiculous peck on cheek underneath whatever sprig of mistletoe had been taped to the doorjamb. Beverly put her hands out as a defensive gesture, certainly not something meant to be rude or aggressive. But in doing so she must have been too eager. Her hand caught the woman’s wrist, sending one of the glasses skyward. Liquid splashed over the both of them, most of it falling down onto the front of Beverly’s dress, ice cold and jolting, the glass hardly making a sound as it came to rest on the carpet.

“And there we are,” Beverly said. “Perfect.” She looked around for something to daub at herself with, but there was nothing.

“You didn’t have to take a swing at me, lady,” the woman said.

“If I’d taken a swing at you honey, you’d know it.” Beverly looked down at her dress to try and see the damage through the stuttering lights. The woman kept talking but the words seemed to be slipping under the music’s surface.

“Is everything all right here, Mrs. Weaver?” It was Doris. She huddled closely to the woman, worry creased over her brow as she glanced from Beverly’s chest to the carpet.

“Mrs. Weaver?” the woman said. Her crude lips parted, as if she might suddenly start wailing right there. “Oh my God, I’m so sorry.” She reached up and pulled the scarf from her neck, then began frantically pawing at Beverly’s chest. “I had no idea who you were, no idea whatsoever.”

“It’s fine,” Beverly said, taking the cheap scarf. “It was a misunderstanding, that’s all.”

“Are you all right, Mrs. Weaver?” Doris asked again. Now she dropped her arm between the women.

“I said I was fine, Doris.” Her tone was hard, not what she had intended. She reached out in a kind reassurance to both women, taking each of their wrists gently in her hands. “Everything is just fine. Please. Enjoy the party. It’s Christmas.”

The woman ducked away and Beverly scanned the room. Gil was near the Christmas tree now, talking with the group of youngsters. The girl wasn’t there, at least not that Beverly could see.

Gil stood on swaying bowlegs, a hand clasped to the shoulder of one of the men, surely half his age. Beverly decided they were over there cracking off-color jokes and spewing out the latest lingo, Gil trying desperately to keep up, showing all the grace of a cripple. If it had been any other night or place she would have been over there in five strides, her fingernails sunk to the quick into his arm as she dragged him from the place.

Doris put a hand gently on Beverly’s shoulder and guided her through the crowd to the small kitchen, through the side door. The lights inside the room were harsh, and Beverly could finally see that the spot down the front of her blue dress was ample but thankfully clear.

“Thank goodness for gin and tonic water.”

 

Gil emptied his glass, the ice cubes stinging as he held it to his lips. He’d lost track of Bob Callahan’s story some minutes earlier. He felt as though there must be a point coming soon and he fought to stay focused on his voice, struggling to keep from breaking eye contact and looking around the room. Where was Ellie? It was funny, he thought, how the mere glow of red and green lights and good scotch, and the placement of time in the after hours could make the room so sexy. Ellie had almost driven him mad when he’d laid eyes on her in that skirt and in the hour since he walked in it had taken every ounce of reserve to keep from seeking her out, Beverly or no Beverly. He could see the mood in the other men’s eyes as well in the way they looked at their wives and the women who were not their wives. It was in the tight manner in which they touched each other’s elbows and gripped shoulders when they leaned in to talk. They felt it, too. Surprisingly even Beverly, bound so tightly in her own skin, gave him a kind of stir in his legs that he hadn’t felt around her in ages.

Ellie done something real for him on those first days, something in the way she hooked her finger through her hair as she talked to him, as she read off the new account numbers then somehow managed to insert a remark about the thickness of his arms against his shirtsleeves. She expressed genuine shock that he might be old enough to be her father. “That’s not possible,” she said, and even an obvious eye roll from Doris couldn’t deflate his turgid ego.

His head was swimming. It had been a good ten minutes since he’d seen either Beverly or Ellie and a swell of nausea overtook him as he imagined they must be alone somewhere, maybe outside in the parking lot or in one of the storerooms. Would they be engaged in a vicious fight over him? Would Ellie come stumbling through a door any minute, hand to her mouth, her swollen cheeks soaked with tears? Or worse. Maybe they were off in the kitchen, leaned back against opposite shelving and laughing hysterically over shared stories of him, two women finding that shared connection to a louse that was worthy of neither.

“She’s gone out the back door.” A man’s breath, thick with the smell of whiskey, brushed against Gil’s ear like a passing suitor’s. And yet as jolted as he was, Gil—liquor-soaked to the skull—could not turn himself in time to see who had offered up this sweetest bit of news.

 

“I’m really very sorry, Mrs. Weaver,” Doris said. She ran a handful of paper towels under the faucet. “She’s not been here very long, but she should know better.”

“I suppose so,” Beverly said. “I was about to call a taxi to take me home, anyway.”

“I could call for one if you like,” Doris said. “It would be a shame, though. You and Mr. Weaver just arrived.”

“I know.”

“I hope nothing unseemly happened.” She handed the towels to Beverly, leaned back against the counter and clasped her hands together at her waist. “Did someone say something to upset you?”

And the way Doris looked at her, with her stretched, penciled brow, cherry-red lips drawn down at the edges, Beverly knew she was talking about the girl. That apple-cheeked bobbysoxer who liked to drink her cocktails with cola, and write notes with loopy penmanship, with words like “handsome” and “smart” underlined, who tossed her hair over her shoulders while the men around her circled like wolves.

“I don’t know how you do it, Doris,” Beverly said, daubing the towel over her dress. “All these years.”

“Do what?”

“Put up with him. This place. You get no credit, as far as I can see. He takes it all. But that’s all fine and good, because it won’t be much longer before he’ll be taking all the blame as well.”

Doris bowed her head, and Beverly could see the curl of a smile forming. She drew in a breath as if she was might say something, but she stopped.

“What is it, Doris?” Beverly put a hand on her shoulder.

“Nothing, Mrs. Weaver.”

“Tell me,” she said. “You know, don’t you?”

Doris looked up at Beverly. “Know what?” she said. “About the girl?”

Beverly waved her off. “Oh please,” she said. “Everyone out there knows about that. They’re all just pretending it’s the biggest secret in the room, when they haven’t the slightest idea what you and I know.”

“This party?”

“It’s the last one.”

Doris nodded, her smile one that struck Beverly strangely as one of relief. “I thought as much,” she said. “To be honest, I wasn’t sure this one was even going to happen.”

“It shouldn’t have,” Beverly said. “But here we are.” And when Doris bowed her head again Beverly said, “I don’t want you to worry, though. We’ll make sure you’re taken care of, somehow.”

“Oh, I’m not worried, Mrs. Weaver,” Doris smiled. “I’ve been working since I was old enough to vote. I’ll land on my feet.”

“Of course you will. I envy that about you. Your independence. You could walk out that door and keep right on going if you wanted. You have the whole world.”

“I don’t know about that.”

“It’s true. Anyone would be a fool not to hire you right off.”

Doris shook her head. “In that case there’s nothing standing in your way, either.”

Beverly laughed. “I’m a forty five year-old woman who hasn’t held a job since the counter at a soda fountain. What have I got to offer?”

“Everything. This isn’t 1920, you know. The world is a big place.”

She laughed again. “That would be something, wouldn’t it?” And it was then that Beverly noticed on the far countertop, beside the shared refrigerator, a sizable manila envelope, precariously hanging over the edge as if it had been hastily set down and carelessly left behind.

 

He didn’t think of the temperature when he slipped out the door to the back alley steps. It had been cold when he and Beverly arrived, of course, but he’d been wearing his overcoat. Now he’d somehow reduced himself to shirtsleeves, and the still December air took hold of him like it had been waiting for him all along. He took the ice-encased stairs slowly, gripping the iron railing as his mind swam, his body swaying like he was a marionette.

The parking lot for his employees lay on the other side of 4th Street, kitty corner from the building. It was a lot shared with a neighboring attorney’s office and it was fairly well hidden behind a row of junipers. Still, he could see that the space was half as full as it was during the day, and the windshields were chalky and sparkling under the high moon. He slid across the street and slipped through a pair of trees, moving down the open center as the ice crunched under his heels, each step carefully and meticulously put down.

The previous July, Ellie had bought a used Volkswagen from Atlas Autos down on Highway 99. It was one of those little bugs that the California surfers and college kids were always driving around. At first Gil had tried to talk her out of it, encouraging her to get into something sturdier, safer. But she’d been so eager about it so he instead decided he’d go with her to look it over and to manage the deal for her. He knew how salesmen were with girls like her. Things had been more or less over between them by then, at least the heaviest of it had subsided. “Let me do this for you,” he’d told her. “No strings.”

“There’s always strings,” she said in return. But by three o’clock she was standing at his office door with her handbag and that look that always made him want to give her his entire world and then some.

 

He moved to the far end of the lot, keeping his body close to the cars and touching the cold, hard edges of fenders as he went. Each pass between them was a treacherous divide, his shoes unable to find a single ounce of traction and it was only when he sat hard on the bumper of an Impala, his pants leg catching against the rusted exhaust, that he had to admit to himself that that little blue Beetle with the Mexican blanket draped over the backseat was nowhere in sight.

He reached down to his leg and slid the fabric over his calf. A stripe of blood glared back at him, the shock of cold air giving a healthy sting. “Gil Weaver you are the punchline to one big, fat joke,” he said aloud. Across the street the flicker of red and green blurred over the side window as, inside, people laughed and raised drinks, probably to him and the hopes of another year. God willing, he’d make it happen but in the meantime he needed to get his head together because he had a part to play. For his employees, for his wife. And he had to find where he’d put that damned envelope.

He stood and shook the snow from his hands and made his way across the street to the rear entrance. He seemed surer of himself now than he had earlier, as if he’d finally figured out the correct placement of rubber soles on ice, the distribution of his body’s weight. He imagined reappearing from the back hallway, most everyone not even noticing he’d been gone. Perhaps there would be a few—Beverly included—who would mention how they’d lost track of him. But he’d have been in his office, or splashing some water on his face in the lavatory.

So when he took to the stairs this time he failed to recall how important the iron railing had been on his way out. He forgot the way the frozen steps had seemed to roll beneath his feet and how his arms had operated more or less as stands to prop his unstable body up. His foot landed fully on the third step, the weight of his body and the complete absence of any reasonable level of traction causing his legs to yank back as if pulled by a rope. His body lunged forward, his forehead squarely striking the step’s edge with a crack that began and ended with a glorious white flash of light.

 

He awoke to the sound of a horn blasting somewhere in the distance. The cold ache of gravel pressed his back as he lay flat at the base of the stairs, one leg curled beneath the other. He pressed his hands to the ground and attempted to push himself upward but there was not enough strength to make it happen. It was like all the wires inside had been cut. His head throbbed and he had the keen sensation of warmth streaming from his hairline down to his ear. At the same time a cold burn rolled over his groin and he glanced down to see that he had in fact pissed himself. He reached to his forehead. Just over his eyebrow was the wet, deep chasm of a clean slice, viscous and flowing.

“Help!” He lay on his back and shouted up into the sky. He sucked in a deep breath that laid fire to his throat, coughed until his chest pinched back and tried again. He continued that way, clouds of steam billowing from his face and quickly dissipating, vanishing into the bitter night air.

 

 

“I honestly don’t know where he’s gone Mrs. Weaver.” They stood just outside Gil’s office, Doris holding Beverly’s eyes, face like stone, refusing to give up anything more than the obvious. Of course the girl hadn’t been seen either, not for well over an hour.

“Please don’t, Doris.” Beverly held the envelope against her breasts. “We might not know where he is, but we know what he’s doing while he’s there.”

Doris’ shoulders dropped. She looked down at the manila envelope then back to Beverly. “What do you want done with those?”

“Hand them out,” she said, passing the packet to Doris.

“Are you certain?”

“Absolutely,” she said. “I want you to hand over every single one with a smile and a ‘Merry Christmas from Mr. and Mrs. Weaver’ personally. And then I want you to turn up that music and make sure that they have the best, damned Christmas party this place has ever seen.”

Doris straightened up and smiled and nodded, just as she always did when given an impossible task. Then she cocked her head. “Are you sure you don’t want to do it yourself?” she asked. “It would sure mean a lot to them.”

Beverly took her wrap from the coat rack and circled it over her shoulders. “I’ve a taxi waiting,” she said. “When and if he comes back just tell Mr. Weaver that I suddenly developed a splitting headache. Tell him I said, ‘Have a wonderful time,’ and that I made my way home on my own.”

With that, Mrs. Weaver disappeared out the front door, and Doris did as she was told, making the rounds from partygoer to partygoer, thumbing envelopes and rewarding each person with his or her personal gift and greetings, as well as a stern warning against using the back door to the alley. It was dangerous on a night like this, she insisted. And besides, there was an abundance of food and drink, and many hours left in the night.

 


About the Author: Warren Read is the author of a memoir, The Lyncher in Me (2008, Borealis Books) and his fiction has appeared in Hot Metal Bridge, Mud Season Review, Sliver of Stone, Inklette, and Switchback. He received his MFA in 2015 from the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University.

Artwork: Sean McCollum

How Much Do You Tip by Sean McCollum

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I stared out the window at the bare trees, the stubbly cornfields, the barns with their hex signs. It was the Monday after Thanksgiving and my folks and I were headed out to pick out a Christmas tree. Feliz Navidad blared into my ear from the stereo speaker directly behind my head.

“Anything you want to do tomorrow?” my mother asked from the front seat.

“I can barely hear you,” I yelled. She turned the music down slightly and twisted around to face me.

“You haven’t changed your mind about seeing your grandmother before you fly back, have you?”

“I told you, there’s no point. She’ll just prattle on complaining about her health and the Puerto Ricans like I’m not even there.”

“She’d be happy to see you.”

Don, my stepfather, stared straight ahead, tailgating every car into pulling over to let him pass.

The gravel parking lot of Unangst Tree Farm was nearly full. Screaming children ran around everywhere. My stepfather muttered to himself as he circled the lot, finally screeching into a spot and leaping out of the car as if it was about to burst into flame. My mother and I hurried to catch up with him as he marched directly toward the section of Douglas Firs. He pointed to the third one in the row and looked at my mother.

“Okay?” he asked.

“Spin it around,” my mother said. I took it and turned it slowly around, my hands instantly covered in sap. She looked at it critically, then nodded. “Looks good. Stay here and guard it while we go pay.”

Back at home, she put on the radio while we strung the lights. I counted six versions of Baby It’s Cold Outside within an hour.

“This song creeps me out,” I said.

“It’s not my favorite,” she admitted.

“Where’s Don?” I asked. “I thought he was going to help.”

“Oh look, my mother made these for me last year,” she said, holding up a pair of leering wooden Santas with feathers for beards.

“Good God.”

“I know. They’re supposed to be earrings I think. I should just throw them out.”

She handed me one and we hung them both around the back of the tree, facing the wall.

*

After dinner I got a call from Sarah, whom I’d known for years but never been close to, though I’d always had kind of a crush on her. She’d told me to look her up when I was back in town. I’d left a few messages for her when I’d arrived, but she hadn’t gotten back to me until now.

“You busy?” she asked.

“Just finished trimming the tree with the family.”

“Great, we’ll come pick you up.”

An hour later the car pulled up and I climbed in to the back seat. A stocky man with glasses and a crew cut was driving.

“Hey buddy, long time no see,” Sarah said. She jerked her thumb at the driver. “This is my buddy Gabe.”

“Hi, Gabe,” I said. Gabe said nothing. A sign on the back of the passenger seat read “Hi, I’m Gabe, thanks for choosing me as your Uber driver. Help yourself to bottled water from the cooler, and let me know if there’s anything else I can do to make your ride a pleasant one!”

“So where we going?” I asked.

“Strip club,” she said.

“Wait, what?”

“Don’t worry. It’ll be fun,” she said, patting my knee from the front seat.

I opened the lid of the cooler. It was empty.

*

“Eight dollar cover for a Monday night?” I muttered. “This better be good.”

“It will be,” Sarah said. “That is if I don’t get kicked out again.”

“Wait, what?”

“Don’t worry, it was a long time ago. They won’t remember me. Probably.”

I watched her from behind as we stood in line. Even in a baggy shirt and jeans she looked good. I forked over my eight bucks and looked up at the purple neon sign. “I think my dad used to come here when we were kids.”

“I think everyone’s dad used to come here when they were kids.”

Gabe bought beers for Sarah and himself and they both walked off, leaving me to fend for myself. The only whiskey they had was Jim Beam, so I ordered one and followed them to the rail. There were a few scattered people in the place, mostly guys with dates. A young woman was onstage in a black leotard, strutting to the techno music. A man’s voice started yelling something over the PA system and the woman snatched up the few bills lying around and vanished into the darkness. Another woman appeared in her place and started twirling lazily around one of the poles. She didn’t come anywhere near us or look in our direction.

“Aren’t they supposed to take their clothes off?” I asked. Sarah shrugged and took a slug of her beer. Two dancers had approached Gabe and were laughing at everything he said. I looked at Sarah. She was staring straight ahead with those huge, beautiful eyes that always looked a little sad, though right now they seemed more bored and unfocused.

“So what have you been up to since last year?” I asked.

“Well, my back’s fucked up so I’ve been out of work since June,” she said. “I go in for surgery after Christmas.”

“Shit, that sucks. You scared?”

She shrugged again. “I’m planning on developing a good painkiller habit.”

A new dancer got on stage. This one actually approached us, smiling. Sarah leaped up and shoved a few dollars down her top. The woman thanked her and looked at me expectantly. On her thigh was a tattoo of an old fashioned sewing machine.

“Nice sewing machine,” I said.

“You’re the first person to ever notice that,” she said, sounding genuinely surprised. I tucked a dollar into her panties and she blew me a kiss and shimmied off, once again without removing a single item of clothing.

“Where’s the men’s room?” I asked Sarah. She pointed to a glowing doorway way in the back of the room. I wove between the tables and ducked inside. By the door was a man wearing a red waistcoat and Santa hat. A small table was covered with mints and lotions and cologne samples. A glass fishbowl was stuffed with bills. Shit, I thought. Do I really have to tip this guy? Will he be pissed if I don’t? How much are you supposed to tip? I felt awkward just having him in the same room as me, and it took me a while to go. Finally I shook off and zipped up and before I could make it to the sink the man rushed over and squeezed a blob of soap into my hands from a dispenser. When I was done washing he handed me a paper towel.

“Thanks Santa,” I said, and dropped a dollar into the bowl.

“Thank you and a very merry Christmas to you, Sir,” he said.

I grabbed another drink on the way back. The woman with the sewing machine tattoo was chatting up Gabe. “He’s going save her,” Sarah said. “Just watch.” She took a long swig and leaned closer. “He wants to fuck me but he never will.”

“Well, there they go,” I said, as the dancer led him off into a back room somewhere.

“Told you,” she said. “God I’m tired.”

“Me too.” I wondered how much a cab ride back to my mother’s house would cost. We sat there in silence for a while. I couldn’t help but notice that Sarah was prettier than any of the women working at this place.

“You still talk to any of the old gang?” I asked to fill the void.

“Eh, they’re all pieces of shit. Except Troy. God I loved that guy. He’s married but he still calls me when he’s all coked up.”

“I know, everyone’s married at this point. Me, I can’t even get a coffee date. Just wait, you hit your forties and you turn completely invisible to the opposite sex.”

“Maybe you’re secretly afraid of commitment? Women can pick up on that stuff you know.”

“No… I mean, sure, I used to be when I was young. But I think at this point in my life, I’m ready to be with someone. It’s just there’s nobody out there.”

“Huh. Here, look at me.”

I looked at her. Her face was lit blue red blue red by the flashing strobes; it was as if she was standing beside a crime scene. She gently took my face in her hands and kissed me, one long, open-mouthed kiss on the lips. She pulled away and looked into my eyes and nodded, then sank back into her seat and stared straight ahead.

I felt like I had just failed some sort of test.

Just then Gabe and his dancer friend reappeared and he said, “Okay, let’s go.”

We all walked out to his car, where the dancer gave him a long, lingering kiss before heading back inside. Sarah insisted that I ride in the front seat. She sat behind me and put her hands on my shoulders. I took her hand for a moment before she pulled away. When I looked back she was passed out, her mouth open. I tried making small talk with Gabe but he merely grunted and eventually I gave up and stared out the window at the strip malls and fast food places.

*

“Someone had a good time last night,” my mother said with a smile as I shuffled over to the coffee maker. “Want some eggs?”

“Thanks,” I said, sitting heavily down at the kitchen table.

“Any thoughts on what you want to do today?” she asked.

“You know, I was thinking it would be good to go see Grandma. I mean, if you don’t mind driving.”

“Oh honey, of course I don’t mind. I’ll call to tell her we’re coming.”

“You know what, why don’t we let it be a surprise?”

*

I’d only been to the nursing home once before. The place was crammed with wreaths and wooden angels and all kinds of holiday crafts. The couches and loveseats were littered with tiny, frail bodies wrapped in blankets, staring at the televisions. When we got to my grandmother’s door, I hesitated.

“Go on, knock,” my mother said. I knocked.

My grandmother opened the door. Her look of bewilderment changed to recognition and she smiled. “Oh my goodness, would you look at who’s here!”

I bent down to hug her tiny, hunched frame and said, “We came to surprise you!”

Eh? You’ll have to speak up, kiddo, I’m just about deaf. Come in, come in. I’ve been working on the tree for my door.” She held up a jagged triangle of green construction paper. “All you grandkids’ names will go on the lights.” She spoke in a strange squeak, like a cartoon character.

My mother sat down with her on the bed and I sat in a little rocker splotched with magnolias.

“You probably noticed that my voice sounds funny,” she said. “The doctor said my spine is pressing against my voice box and from now on I’m going to sound like this. Ain’t that something?”

“I need to use your ladies’ room, Mom,” my mother said, patting her on her hunched back, and disappeared into the bathroom. My grandmother and I sat there in silence. She had a huge grin on her face. Piles of paper and knickknacks covered every surface of the room. Above the bed hung a tapestry of a lighthouse, its beam shooting out over the choppy waves that exploded against the rocks.

“How much do I tip a men’s room attendant at a strip club?” I suddenly asked her. I’m not really sure why I asked. It just kind of came out.

“What’s that?” she asked, the grin still frozen on her face. Just then the toilet flushed and my mother came back into the room.

“What did I miss?” my mother asked. My grandmother looked up at her, still smiling. My mother sat down and squeezed her shoulders.

“You’re such a good son,” my mother told me later in the car, patting my hand.

“I know,” I said, and stared out the window at the bare trees, the stubbly fields, the barns with their hex signs, stared out at the specks of snow that floated aimlessly through the air, too light to ever touch the ground.


About the Author: Sean McCollum

Artwork: Sean McCollum

Strawberry Ice Cream Glacé by Alvin Orloff

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

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

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

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

“Spare a dollar?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I – WANT – SEX! it commanded.

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

MUST – GET – SEX!! countered my libido.

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

SEX – SEX – SEX!!! roared my libido.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where do you live?”

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

“You don’t have a car?”

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

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

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

“Oh, I recycle and everything.”

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

I nodded vigorously. “Right.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So are you from around here?

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

“But you grew up where?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sure.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Try the Smiths. Perfect rainy day music.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Absolutely,” said Truthstar. “Thanks.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m not forcing him.”

Maybe you’re not. But circumstances are.

“We’ll just see about that!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

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

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PART ONE: REUNION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He returned twelve hours later.

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

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

“How’re the dingos?”

“Humorous!”

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

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

“You have a conscience now?”

“Tell me the real reason for this lunacy.”

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

“And you can’t say why?”

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

“Christ. Overegging much?”

“Nope.”

“I will endeavour to find out.”

“Don’t tell mother, ever.”

“You making me swear to that?”

“Yes. Even if I die.”

“Please don’t die.”

“I can’t swear to that.”

 

PART TWO: A PSYCHOGEOGRAPHICAL RAMBLE IN EXPLORATION OF LOST PARENTAGE

 

The Bridgeloch Inn

 

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

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

 

 

Bridgeloch Close—The Stone

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

The Stone—Darling’s Chippie

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

PART THREE: BACKSTORY

 

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

“Goes to Azerbaijan. Or Kabul.”

“To do what?”

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

“Safe?”

“Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

 


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