Brunch by William Auten

 

img_7303


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GI Joe wants me out like yesterday

ROFL hang in there

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Pickwick Bowl (Burbank, CA) by Justin McFarr

pickwick-bowl-art


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

#

 

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

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

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

 

#

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How you holding up?”

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

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

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

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

“Can I… Can I ask you a question?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And do you believe her?”

“I don’t know. Was it my fault?”

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

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

“I don’t blame myself.”

“Trust me, you will.”

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

#

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

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

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

“I’ll go with you, Dad.”

“Do you have to go? You have to pee?”

Vernon paused. “No.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nate froze. Stopped breathing.

“Dad?” Crying. Fear. Pain. “Dad?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m sorry, Vernon. I really am.”

 


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

The Escaped Air by Natasha Patel

img_6970


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Beta, can you hear me?”

“Yes.”

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

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

“Mother, I’m fine.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why didn’t you ask for a picture?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is the Doctor nearly finished with his examination?”

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

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

“Oh. Here it is. Mrs. Shah, is it?”

“Yes. Well, actually it’s Dr. Shah.”

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

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

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

“What is?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It was just an allergic reaction, right?”

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

“I know.”

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

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

“Mrs. Dar-shan? I mean, Dr. Shah.”

“Yes?”

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

“Of course I would.”

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Model Home by Marléne Zadig

fullsizerender


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

Vacancy by Melanie J. Cordova

Untitled by Emma Rae


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not this week. Not ever again.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It just feels changed, you know?”

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

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

“Or maybe you’re the different one.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ugh god,” she said, rolling over.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No he won’t. Don’t be so dramatic.”

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gina had shrugged. “Okay.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Artwork: Emma Rae

Burn Up On the Mountain by Becky Mandelbaum

(Untitled)_Adam Loewen


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

“I told you, he came up to me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wow,” I say. “I almost can’t.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is that your boyfriend?” she asks me.

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

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

“He is a professor.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m fine.”

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

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

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

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

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


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

Artwork: Adam Loewen

 

 

On The Field Of Play by Anthony Ausiello

Chris Solano_Untitled


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Gehrig,” I declared.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I walk the next batter on four pitches.

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

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

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

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

“Ball Two,” he says.

“I know.”

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

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

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

I pitch. Strike, right by him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh and two,” I say with a smile.

“I know,” he replies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Artwork: Chris Solano

Inevitable by Michael Overa

Cole Carter_Untitled (2015)


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

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

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

“Maybe he’s digging a pool?”

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

“Who for?”
“Himself? Who knows?”

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

“Maybe the guy is snapping,” he says.

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

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

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

“Maybe he needs somebody to talk to.”

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

“Maybe,” he says.

“Go talk to him.”

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

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

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

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

*

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

*

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

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

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

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

“Hey? What you got there?”

“Steaks, potatoes, corn.”

“Bring any beer?”
“Of course.”

“Give me a minute to get cleaned up.”

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re kidding.”

“Never know when the fit hits the shan.”

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

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

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

“Had some things to do.”

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

“You think old Charlie’s cracked.”

“Cracked?”

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

“Nah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

“I don’t think I’d do that.”

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

“You expecting some sort of apocalypse?”

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

*

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

“Shoot.”

“You have car insurance.”

“Sure.”

“Fire. Earthquake. Life? Same thing.”

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

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

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

*

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

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

“There you go. Good man. Honesty.”

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

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

“What did you expect your neighbors to think?”

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

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

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

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

“Designed it myself.”

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

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

“I meant alone.”

“He’s coming around, folks.”

*

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

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


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

Artwork: Cole Carter

World Peace Part I by Emily Kiernan

chocolate-1185815_1920 copy


August 6th, 1945. Berkeley, CA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s that, Dad?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

 

Jungles of America by Jessica Barksdale

20151112_090511-1-1


After Evelyn Scrimshaw had her hip replaced, her husband Dave carted her off to the rehab facility instead of bringing her right home to recuperate in her own bed.

“I’ve got to work! Someone has to. How can I take care of you on top of everything else?” he asked. Before she could think of the answer, all she saw was his back, his bear-hunched walk as he skedaddled down the hospital hall.

Her unasked question, of course, was how had he been taking care of her in general. Had he? But since there was no one else—her daughter Caryn in Hong Kong and her mother long dead—Evelyn went, languishing amongst the other broken and aged until she could move without a walker, a full two weeks after the surgery. By the time she returned, he’d pulled down the wallpaper in the kitchen and gotten a dog.

“A dog? How can I take care of a dog like this?” She rattled her walker.

Dave had given her a look, and Evelyn had looked away into the strangeness of her own home. Everything had changed and gone on just fine without her. When Evelyn made it down the hall and looked into her room, she noticed her side of the bed was perfectly made, the pillows fully fluffed. He’d not once even snaked a foot toward her memory. Later, she realized he’d moved into the guest room, and due to the fact that his clothes were hanging in the spare closet, she had a feeling he wasn’t coming back.

Every day, Evelyn walked a little farther. First to the end of the block, the new dog—Spiffy, a rescue, part rat terrier part something else, pointy nose, big ears, spots—on a leash at her side. Spiffy was as terrified as Evelyn, both of them only recently released from incarceration. But at least Evelyn hadn’t faced the threat of death, except from anesthesia.

Spiffy walked perfectly at Evelyn’s slow heel, stopping when Evelyn wobbled to stillness. Her walker at home by the front door, her new cane ground into the sidewalk. Spiffy sniffed the air, turned his head, gazed up at Evelyn with his dark black eyes.

It was love.

Pretty soon, Evelyn and Spiffy were up to two miles. All flat, save the driveway dips. Big sidewalk blocks around the suburban neighborhood. Dave would leave for work, and after a cup of coffee, out they went, Spiffy’s tail wagging.

“You go, Evelyn,” Delia Saddle called from her Toyota.

“That’s the spirt!” said the replacement postwoman. Sam or Sue. Evelyn could remember.

She waved her cane hand, raising the stick in her clenched palm, shaking it a bit, wobbling sometimes as she did. Spiffy slowed, sniffed Evelyn’s ankle. They both panted and then moved on.

 

“Don’t you want to kill him?” Evelyn’s college friend May asked.

“Every day,” Evelyn said. She held the phone out in front of her, having pressed the round speaker button. May’s whine filled the living room air.

May lived in Minneapolis, only just thawed out from a long and freezing spring. Evelyn imagined her friend’s round moon face peering out from a round moon window. An Inuit in her igloo. Jack Spratt’s wife with no Jack Spratt.

“So why do you stay?”

“May, where do you think I should shuffle to?” Evelyn sipped her ice tea, the bottle slick in her hand. Diet, this one. The end of the sip tasted like poison.

There was silence at the end of the line, a big pause where “You could come up here and live with me should be.” But Evelyn didn’t blame May for not saying it. No one had ever really said something like that and meant it. At least, not for long. She and Dave had only been married five years when he stopped touching her. Now she remembered each and every seemingly last time he put a hand on her skin. The latest: Wednesday, her wrist as he helped her out of the car. Their only child had moved across the world. Even her mother had escaped through death. There was something cataclysmic and disastrous about her. Of this Evelyn was sure. But what? She’d eliminated the easy things. Breath, for one. A strong peppermint in every pocket. Her person was reasonable if not glamorous. Or even pretty. Her now graying hair was cut and shaped in what should be a pleasing fashion, short but not too, long but not wild. Her fat limited to her backside and triceps (such as they were) and she kept both under literal wraps: pants and those long-sleeved t-shirts from Target. Otherwise, she looked slim. She was cleaned and pressed. She wore a tiny bit of mascara and blush. Sometimes a pale glow of lipstick. Her shoelaces were tied and unfrayed. She smiled and said hello when appropriate. She returned her library books on time and paid her debts. She mowed (well, used to before the damn hip) her lawn and trimmed the hedges. She picked up the free newspapers that would otherwise gather at the end of the driveway in molten clumps. She brought reusable grocery bags every time she went to the store. She didn’t stutter, say “Um” very often. Mostly. More importantly, she didn’t start her sentences with “You know what I mean?”

No spitting, swearing, gossiping, tale-telling, or burping, at least out in public. She sat quietly when necessary (doctors’ offices, plays, school board meetings, graduations). Whatever else she could do, she didn’t know, though she’d never really asked anyone.

Only people who didn’t know her well were nice to her. The checkout clerks. The postal workers. The meter man in his blue shorts and work boots and the big tan. In her real life, just Dave, Caryn, and May remained. And not by much. With May and Caryn, Evelyn knew it was only possible because of the thousands of miles between them. With Dave, it was a vague feeling of responsibility. Otherwise, it would be just her and Spiffy. And who knows? Maybe Spiffy would run away and join the circus the moment Dave’s car pulled out of the driveway for the last time.

But as May talked, Evelyn looked down at her feet. In between her feet, nestled against her sensible walking shoes, Spiffy lay in a tiny dog circle, his tail wagging.

 

After talking with May, Evelyn took her time arranging her feet, readying her thighs and then slowly stood up, put Spiffy on his leash, and headed out for their afternoon walks, which had been getting longer now that Dave was coming home later and later. Just the night before, he showed up about 10.30.

“Had a meeting,” he’d said.

For a long while, Evelyn was silent, trying to determine how to answer. Dave worked for Pacific Gas and Electric in cost analysis, and most of the meetings were during the day. This she knew from having been married to him for twenty-seven years. As he hung up his jacket and took off his shoes, she suddenly wondered if he was going to AA. He was close to retirement, his marriage was a mess, and his wife was hobbled. All that was left to him was drink. No wonder he’d been forced to put her in the rehab facility.

Before he left this morning (Early, again. Strange tie and that odd brown sweater he bought last year), he’d said, “Don’t wait up.”

At her side, Spiffy waited and wagged. Evelyn put on her jacket, loaded her pockets with doggie treats and poop bags. She packed essentials in the fanny pack she’d asked Dave to scrounge up from the basement, something she’d bought when Caryn was little and they’d gone on walks in the Regional parks. Evelyn had loaded up the car with hiking boots and the first aid kit and butterfly nets. Back then, it hadn’t been doggie treats but animal crackers, Pepperidge farm fish, and juice boxes. Lots of extra Band-Aids. Caryn had been adventurous (thus Hong Kong) climbing up trees and sliding down rough back. Oh, that time with the splinters! Polysporin. Snake bite kit. Where was that old thing?

But now, she bagged up some raisins and nuts. Two bottles of water. Emergency cash. Just in case, she put in the pepper spray May had sent her, a promotional canister for “Take Back the Night” in Minneapolis.

“Can’t be too safe,” May told her later on the phone.

“Are you supposed to send that in the mail?” Evelyn had asked. She still didn’t know the answer. Maybe it was just about airplanes. Safety items couldn’t travel.

Despite himself, Spiffy whined and then sat, ashamed, looking up at her with pleading eyes.

“Wouldn’t it be nice if it was just the two of us?” Evelyn asked as she opened the front door.

Spiffy, the world in front of him, rushed out. But didn’t pull the leash. Spiffy waited, butt barely on the porch, tail a thumping wag.

 

The day was perfect, not to hot, not too cold, a Baby Bear kind of day. At least, that’s what Evelyn used to tell Caryn, back when Caryn listened. But now, Caryn talked on the phone. Told. Described. Explained. Held forth. And hung up. Never asked a question.

“Have you ever heard of Cassandra?” a therapist once asked, the one she went to at May’s prodding.

Evelyn wanted to nod as she did to most things, but she’d never be able to fake her way through.

The therapist waited and then went on. “She was a prophet. She was always right. Knew what would happen in the Trojan War. But her family only believed her once.”

Evelyn listened. Had anyone believed her? Even once? Maybe she hadn’t said anything anyone could believe in.

“What did they believe?”

“They believed her about how the war started. But after that. Nothing. My point is—“

“What happened to her?” Evelyn had asked, wondering what happened to those who were ignored and forgotten.

The therapist looked up, fiddled with her glasses, bit the corner of her lower lip. “The point is that sometimes people can’t make themselves known. Sometimes, no one will listen. No one will bat an eye, no matter what happens.”

Later, Evelyn had looked up poor Cassandra, raped and defiled during the sack of Troy by those terrible Greek warriors. But Evelyn didn’t worry. Nothing like that would ever happen to her, no matter who didn’t listen to her. Eventually, she stopped going to the therapist because no matter all the Cassandra stories and the “Yes, go ons,” Evelyn didn’t think the doctor was paying much attention.

The morning light dappled the sidewalk, the sway of leaves’ light shadows flickering as Evelyn stepped one foot and then the other. Spiffy trotted his small dog trot, stopped for periods of time to pull in scent from yellowed half-moons on the grass or invisible messages on fences and decorative rocks. The breeze was cool, and for the first time in weeks, Evelyn didn’t feel the hitch in her gait, her strides short but smooth. In fact, she’d actually gotten into shape, even though she’d been walking at a snail’s pace. But every day, sometimes up to three times, she strolled, her body moving more than it had in twenty, twenty-five years, all the back to those days when Caryn was a little girl hunting for wild ladybugs.

“What a cute doggie!” a woman at a corner said, her head turned over her shoulder as she stepped into the crosswalk. Evelyn stopped moving, her breath in her last stride. But no car. All was safe. The woman smiled, waved, and hopped ran across the street into the next block. She had three empty shopping bags clenched in her hand, and Evelyn realized she and Spiffy had walked eight blocks.

Juggling the leash, she pulled out a bottle of water, carefully cracked it open, and poured some into the cap for Spiffy. Bending down slowly, she held it out for Spiffy who lapped it up. They repeated this a couple of times, and then Evelyn put away the water and gave Spiffy a doggie treat, a little round pellet of ground up animal goodness. Turkey. Or Salmon. She couldn’t remember.

After looking both ways, they set out across the crosswalk, the woman who’d spoken to them almost out of sight.

How long had it been since she’d gone into town by herself? Somehow, she’d let Dave just pick up milk, bananas, and pork chops on his way home from work. And then there was that Safeway van, the man bringing her groceries to the step. How humiliating. She’d taken to putting out a cooler and hiding behind the half-pulled curtains. Then she’d lug in the cooler, unpack everything and put it away, letting Dave think she’d done the shopping all herself.

Then he’d found out, ranting about service charges and her laziness. Just last week, he’d told her, “It’s a miracle you busted your hip. You never used it for anything.”

Tears pressed behind her cheeks as she thought of his face when he’d said that, the way he looked at her like she was a person who just walked in the house. A stranger. A person he’d never known at all.

At the next block, the street opened up wide, pushing into a larger, vast space, making way for rows of parking spaces. The grocery store—not Safeway. That was near the mall—was the one she used to come to with Caryn on hot summer evenings to buy Eskimo Pies (were they still called that?) and creamsicles. Back then, the employees knew Caryn’s name, Evelyn’s too. Caryn, with her necklace made of Evelyn’s many old necklaces all twirled together, jangled around the store, skipping up and down the aisles in her knee-high socks and black patent leather shoes. Clickity, clack, Evelyn used to sing. Clickity clack.

At the front of the store, displays disgorged tumbrels of orange, yellow, and green summer fruits and vegetables. Zucchini, Meyer lemons, avocados, peaches. The electric double doors opened and shuffled closed. A faint whine of pleasant music spilled out with each customer.

“Who’s this?” a man in a green apron asked, his hands on cantaloupes as if they were wayward children’s heads.

Evelyn almost said, “Evelyn,” but then she realized he was asking about the dog. “Spiffy.”

The man bent away from his fruit and squatted, holding out his hand for Spiffy to smell. Spiffy trotted close, tail wagging, scared but eager.

“Spiffy indeed.” The man—his gold name tag read Earl—scratched behind Spiffy’s left ear.

He stood and smiled, and Evelyn walked on, her stomach growling. Suddenly her packed up raisins didn’t seem like enough. In fact, she was starving, wanting the real breakfast she didn’t eat—the real breakfast she hadn’t eaten for years. Eggs, over-easy, cooked to crispness in butter. Whole wheat toast dotted with pats of yellow spring butter. Sausage and bacon and red-faced grapefruit halves. Orange juice and a café latte. Or hot chocolate. The kind Caryn used to like, tiny marshmallows floating on the top life like preservers.

She walked past the mounds of produce and picked up a shopping basket, freezing for a second. Had she brought her wallet? Did she have any money? Shame flowed through her like water. She’d have to put down the basket and back away from the warm ripe fruit like a caught thief. She closed her eyes as she imagined in the contents of her fanny pack. Keys, water. And yes. Of course! Her emergency money. Two twenties folded into a rectangle in the secret pocket nearest her body.

“Got it, Spiffy,” she said, opening her eyes and walking toward the whooshing doors. “We can get a snack.”

Evelyn looked down at Spiffy. Her dog. That was true. Her dog. Who looked up at her with his black beady eyes. As if she knew what she was doing. And had she ever? That long-ago therapist had once asked her, “So if you were going to a desert island, what five foods would you bring?”

Evelyn had blinked, questions struggling at the back of her mouth. How long was she going to be on the island? Did the food have to last? Was there water? Was the food a singular food like milk or a food like pizza, loaded with pineapple, ham, mushrooms, tomato sauce, and cheese?

Her therapist tapped her fingernail on her notepad. Evelyn couldn’t imagine what she liked enough to take with her. She had no idea, really, what kept her alive.

“Bread?” she said finally.

“Good. What else?”

The bread would go stale, but maybe a pumpkin would last. She could roast it over the fire she’d never be able to start. Or maybe camping supplies. Dried fruit. Nuts. Powdered milk. Canned chili. Canned corn. She told the therapist all those things, and she knew she’d failed the test by the way the light went out of her therapist’s eyes. Clearly, Evelyn was supposed to say Champagne, olives, marcona almonds, Brie, and caviar. Or basmati rice, pesto, blood orange juice, broccoli, and Spanish peanuts. But no. Once again, Evelyn managed to disappoint.

But now, Spiffy was swinging his cute little rump around the store, employees and customers smiling as Evelyn and he made their way up the deli aisle. Even the canned music seemed jaunty, a fast piano, a waft of violin. Yes, the deli aisle. That’s what she wanted for today’s desert island. A sandwich with turkey, Swiss, tomato, and lettuce. On sourdough with a pickle. And in the pet aisle, a little chew bone for Spiffy. That was it. That’s what she’d tell that damn therapist if she could. So damn what if that was six foods. So damn what.

 

In the shade of a broadleaf maple, Evelyn sat on a metal bench, her cane propped against the seat back. Near a paper bowl of water, Spiffy chewed his bone. His leash was wound around her good leg, though Spiffy put not once ounce of pressure on it. Now and then, when a child ran up to find a ball or a person walked by on the path, Spiffy wagged his tail but never took his mouth from the chew. Her sandwich gone, she sat back, a can of something fruity in her hand (“A total energy drink” the girl at the deli counter had said). It felt like drinking chemicals, the fruit forward and then gone in a wash of molecules with names Evelyn knew she couldn’t pronounce. But now and again, she took small metallish sips, breathing in the fragrance of imaginary pink fruit.

The early afternoon cupped the park in warming hands. School must be out already, the world running on a schedule that no longer required Evelyn’s permission.  Now summer was like every other season, only warmer. But under the maple, the air was cool and smelled like wet dirt. Like the dirt in the garden boxes she and Caryn used to tend. Pole beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, corn, pumpkins, all staggered and staked, dinner full of things they’d grown themselves. A couple of years ago, Evelyn noticed the wire tomatoes cages crammed at the back of the garage, thick with cobweb meshing.

“Nice day,” a voice said.

Evelyn turned, blinked, a person standing against the light, underneath the tree, her eyes adjusting slowly.

“It is.” She turned back toward the field, hoping that once acknowledged, the man would go away. But he only moved closer, sat on the far edge of the bench. Spiffy stirred, something like a tiny growl in his throat.

The man seemed undeterred, settling himself, patting his knees and leaning forward as if he were watching a soccer match.

Seeing him clearly now, Evelyn took in the long coat, the hat, the bottle-shaped bag in his hands. Fingernails oily crescent moons. Face pallid, streaked with ash or dirt. Shoes old and untied. No laces actually. Or socks for that matter.

“Nice to be out,” he said.

“It is,” she said, but in a lighter more vague way, hoping he’d get her message.

“Lots to do on a sunny day. At least in the shady spots. Lots.”

Evelyn swallowed, unsure what to say. Unsure about what she was hearing. It had been decades since she’d talked to a man not Dave. At least alone. Maybe in college, young men had sidled up to her at the library or cafeteria, smiling, holding books or a food tray. She’d been okay with that. Okay with Dave coming to her desk at the insurance company they’d both worked at, sitting on the edge of her desk, asking her to go to the movies. Okay with the way he’d put his hand at the small of her back as they left for the day. Okay enough to say yes when he asked to marry her. And a man had actually asked. Her of all people. For a while, she’d been a part of a family, a unit. She had things to do and people to take care of. Where had it all gone?

It was a life ago. Maybe two.

Her life had been like her hip. It hadn’t broken but just wore down to the nub.

“Hmmm.” Evelyn let the sound play out on her lips.

“Yes, and I know you have some fun fun fun in that fanny pack of yours. Need that fun to do anything. No matter the day.”

Evelyn’s heart and lungs heard the words before her ears did. At first, his face and smile were pleasant, as if he were offering her a cookie or a ride on a Ferris wheel or a seat on a riverboat. But then her ears caught up, hearing his want. His need. His ready-to-take.

“Just some doggie treats,” she said, forgetting and then remembering her change from the store. One whole twenty and a few ones. A quarter or two. A nickel. She looked out to the field. The children had left their games, the mothers packed up their babies and bags. No one around to call out to. And she’d never figured out a cell phone. Dave had thrown up his hands. “Hopeless,” he’d said. More than once.

“You don’t say.” The man scooted toward her, his smell preceding him. Dark oily clothes. Rot and sweat and wet.

“Maybe,” she began, swatting away crumbs and pulling Spiffy toward her. The dog stopped chewing, stilled, growled.

“Vicious beast,” the man said. He was smiling under his beard. At least, it seemed like a smile. Maybe it was a slash of grimace. “Needs to go.”

“We’re just about to do that.” Evelyn patted her fanny pack, pulled on Spiffy’s leash a bit. Gripping his bone in his teeth, he stood up, his tail down between his legs, ears pricked.

“Not until I know your name.” He gave her the grimace-y smile again, his brown eyes like glittering dark marbles under the shade of the tree.

“Evelyn,” she said, moving herself to the edge of the bench, just barely resting on the wood, ready to move. She thought of her cane, felt in against her palm, heard it slap his shoulder, crack his head.

He leaned closer. “Do you want to know my name?”

Evelyn clasp her hands, the leash between her palms. How to say no and not offend him. If she could run, she’d be out of here, now, dashing to the middle of the field with Spiffy, yelling her head off.

“Sure,” she said, the word like an anchor in her throat.

“That’s good! Just fine. So call me Nick. Just like Santa Claus. But you’re the one with the pack, huh?” he laughed, a thick, deep sound that came from his chest. Why wasn’t anyone else hearing this? She looked to her left, hoping to see a child on a bike. But the world outside the maple’s shade was a hot flat empty disc.

“Nice to meet you, Nick,” she said. “We need to go now.”

“Not so fast, Evelyn, and not without a goodbye kiss.”

She started, stood, her eyes on Spiffy, hand reaching for her cane. “Why are you doing this to me?”

“Doing it to you?” He stepped closer, the sound of his clothes flapping like waves.

“Yes,” she whispered. “Who else?”

“Why you doing this to me?” His voice hard, angry. She glanced up and in a second, he was on her, one strong hand on each shoulder. Alcohol and badness surrounded her. She wanted to close her eyes and pull into herself, but Spiffy needed her. Dropping the leash and using a move from a YouTube video May had sent her, she brought her hands up between Nick’s arms, pushing with all her strength with her forearms, breaking his grasp.

“God damn!” He bent down and grabbed the leash, swinging Spiffy around like a toy. The dog yelped, and then screamed when Nick kicked him.

“Don’t do that!” she yelled.

“Ugly useless old bat.”

“Stop!” she cried running at Nick with her fists, and that’s when he grabbed the fanny pack belt, yanking her hard, yanking her whole body to the edge of the field. Pulling her toward the creek that ran below. Her hip ached. Her breath shot out of her lungs. He hit her on the head with the flat of his hand. He hit her face. She tried to duck, but he was yanking again, pushing her toward the edge, pushing, and then the belt popped open, and she was falling, rolling down the embankment, the world whirling, whirling, dark.

 

Evelyn sputtered awake, a deep pain in her head and on her side. Her eyes still closed, she reached down to find something hard and wet jammed against her waist. What was it? A rock? She opened her eyes, blinking back the dusk and water. Where was she?

Her side throbbed. Her hip. The man. Nick.

“Spiffy,” she cried, pushing to all fours and then falling down on her hands and knees. She tried again, crawling through the grass. Weeds hard as wires slapped her face. Rocks under her palms, on her shins. With each sobbing move, hand, knee, hand, knee, she called out her dog’s name. Evening hummed with mosquitos and frogs. Mud pushed up between her fingers. Vines caught her around the arms, wrapped slick green fingers across her forehead. Twice, she lurched, falling on her cheek, her forehead, struggling up each time to call out again.

She didn’t dare stop. She had to get back. All around her, life was moving on. Minutes and hours since Spiffy was at her feet drinking his water and chewing his bone. Soon it would be another day, more of the life where she could take care of nothing. Not even herself. But she’d have to. What had Nick said as he staggered toward her?

“Ugly useless old bat.”

Useless. Unable to take care of even one small creature.

Oh, Spiffy.

Evelyn pushed herself up again, staggering, lunging as she found her footing in the muck, and called until she was hoarse. Crying, wiping her eyes of tears, her face gritty and slick, she pulled herself up to the field with her hands. Digging into the hill with her feet. Grass in her mouth, her hair, under her nails. Her pockets full of mud. Soaked socks. No one who’d even know or care that she was late. Gone, even. If she died here like a terrible trout, Evelyn didn’t even have her fanny pack with her careful address written in Sharpie on the inside tag to identify her. Nick had taken it. But did it matter now? She rubbed her face with her sleeve, her breath ragged, her legs aching. Nothing was left of anything. Or maybe. Spiffy. In place of nothing, something else, if she could only keep slogging forward.

Bugs zirred past her ears, pinged her cheeks. Somewhere, the whoosh of an irrigation system. The bloom of wet pulsing up from soggy ground. And then out from under the canopy of maple and oak branches—shiny and bright under the glowing park light—Spiffy, wagging his tail. Jumping on her legs. Licking her nose, eyes, chin. His tongue, soft and red even in the twilight. And Evelyn, holding him tight, feeling his soft live warm body against hers, both of them shaking.

“It’s okay,” she whispered. “We’ll be okay.”

Dave would leave her, moving from the guest room to wherever he was most of the time. They would agree on terms. They would sell the house. She would pack up what remained of a life. Day by day, she’d keep practicing how to walk.

Spiffy’s panting breath warmed her face. In the distance, a call out. A man in a dark uniform, waving. “Ma’am! Hey, Ma’am!”

Dog in her nose, on her skin, his small pounding heart against her chest. Evelyn wailed for all that she’d lost. For everything she’d found.


About the Author: Jessica Barksdale is the author of thirteen novels, including Her Daughter’s Eyes and When You Believe. Her latest, The Burning Hour, is forthcoming from Urban Farmhouse Press. A Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee, her short stories, poems, and essays have appeared in or are forthcoming in Compose, Salt Hill Journal, The Coachella Review, Carve Magazine, Mason’s Road, and So to Speak. She is a Professor of English at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, California and teaches online novel writing for UCLA Extension. She has an MFA from the Rainer Writers Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University.

 

 

 

What God Said by Shruti Swamy

Husk by Mia Margaret


I slept all day and when I awoke, it seemed as though my bed tilted itself, dipping up and down in my room like a little boat, and I was awash in the river of evening. I could hardly sit up. There was a burning in my body, and a fuzziness of vision, a blur at the corners of things, and bright shapes of light and color I had never seen before and which I spent some time studying. All through it was the feeling of a heaviness of air, in my chest, as though some invisible thing had crouched on me, like a jackal with the weight of an elephant, or an incredibly heavy cat.

Yet, I had no idea of death, and no fear of it either. My mother’s brother, my uncle had died last summer, but he was in India, the idea that he was gone doubly abstracted; he was already gone, most of the time. He was my favorite uncle. He had taken me and my cousin to the beach on his motorcycle, we gripped onto him like monkeys, I was balanced on the lip of terror and excitement the entire ride. I had to pull my legs up, so my feet would not brush the tube of burning metal fastened to the side of the beast—once, my toe dipped down, sheathed in sock and sandal, and it had burned a hole clear through the fabric. We rode elephants—real elephants—on the beach. Their foreheads were painted, their tails batted away flies, and to sit up on their backs you felt enormous in a way that was unparalleled, taller than grownups, riding a creature as big a ship, who walked in a rolling motion from side to side.

My dad sat in the room with me and his face was gloomy. He read me a story. I wondered if he ever cried. I had never seen him cry. I could hear my mom talking on the phone downstairs in Gujarati, which held the comforting sound of nonsense, the nonsense of my nursery rhymes. Poor dad was bobbing in the ocean, it pooled around him and I felt lonely for him.

“Will you come on the boat with me?”

“What boat?”

“This one,” I said. He climbed up. He put a hand on my head. Then downstairs the nonsense stopped, and I could hear my mother singing. She didn’t sing very much, and her voice rose and fell with the strange words she was singing as though she was casting a spell.

“You’re boiling,” my dad said, and wiped the sweat away on his pant.

“You’re a monkey’s uncle,” I said.

“You’re the monkey, little lobster,” said my dad.

“What is that sound? Is mom singing?”

“She’s praying,” he said.

“Talking to God,” I said. “Is that what you mean?”

“Yes.”

We sat on the boat. I could hear the sound of the water all around us, running water, and my dad began to row, using his arms to cut through the water. It was a black night when all the stars were drowned twice, in the sky that looked like the water, and the water that looked like the sky.

“What is she saying to God?”

“I don’t know,” said my dad. We were cold, and hot, the winds blew on us, the boat tilted, we were filled with the white heat. The heat moved up inside us and stood right between our eyes. I wanted to claw back inside my father, where I curled for months in a star shape before I was born, and which I remembered, his heartbeat, his hunger, his fear.

“I know what God looks like,” I whispered. I had seen It at night. It was larger than an elephant and it kissed me with its cool mouth. A funny creature, both familiar and strange, and it felt sort of warm to be close to it, to smell it and you always wanted to touch it when it was near. But I heard my grandma talk about God once and in her mind God was a terrible meanie, who saw everything, who knew everything, and didn’t like Muslims. I asked her why God made Muslims if It didn’t like them but she told me to stop bothering her with questions because she was feeling tired because of jet-lag and went to go lie down. I wonder who my grandmother met, but I was sure it wasn’t God.

“What does God look like?” my dad said.

“Big, big, big,” I said. I was panting. We had come to a storm and the boat wheeled around in the water. I held on to the sides of the boat and closed my eyes in case there would be lightening. I was dizzy and the turbulence of the water began to make me feel like barfing.

Then I died. It was falling down a tube. My uncle was sitting on the beach and smoking a cigarette. The elephant came thundering, and there was Yama. “You’re tiny,” he said, and his voice smelled of honey, “no bigger than a napkin,” he said. “Are you also God?” I said.

“Sort of,” said Yama.

“Where are we going?” I asked my uncle. He smiled at me and shrugged his shoulders. I thought I would miss my mother and father very much and said so. “Of course you will,” said my uncle. It was nice to hear the waves moving against the shore and against each other. Yama lifted me onto the elephant, but it was a bull this time. We had to be careful not to touch the burning metal fastened on the sides. I held on to Yama, my uncle held on to me. We four thundered into the ocean. It was a good time, like a party. When I couldn’t keep my eyes open any more, I closed them.


About the Author: Shruti Swamy lives and writes in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. Her work has been published in AGNI, Black Warrior Review, PANK, and is forthcoming from Prairie Schooner. In 2012, she was named Vassar College’s 50th W.K. Rose Fellow in the Creative Arts, and has been awarded residencies at the Millay Colony for the Arts and Hedgebrook. She holds an MFA in fiction from San Francisco State and is a Kundiman fiction fellow.

 

Mr. Wonderful Knows All (But Won’t Tell You Shit) by Rochelle Spencer

Photo by Shira Bezalel (HQ IMAGE TO COME)


When the sun sets on San Pablo avenue and the sky melts into a series of fluorescent and baby-blanket pinks, Mr. Wonderful, the most famous street hustler in all of Oakland, comes out to play. Mr. Wonderful is one of those men who’d been handsome once, and is, truth told, handsome now–even in his dirty clothes, smudged with oil or food or maybe something worse. With those narrow eyes that slant up and the smile tucking his dimples deep into his cheeks, you know at once that he’s teasing you, that he finds both life and his circumstances in it to be something of a miracle.

Mr. Wonderful crumples up the newspaper he’d been reading, glances over his shoulder, and sees a woman, an awkward redhead, walk towards him. She has crisscrossed from the Bank of America to the local bakery and back again. She looks as though she’s tumbled down the rabbit hole and has absolutely no idea where she’s going. This is a quality Mr. Wonderful finds attractive in a woman.

“Hey Princess! Can I bother you for a dollar?” Mr. Wonderful doesn’t speak until the woman is half a foot away.

The woman turns—clumsily, just as Mr. Wonderful knew she would—and scatters the contents of her half-open purse. Along with a chewed-up tube of lipstick, a fiver and some loose change bounce against the sidewalk; now the woman can’t say she doesn’t have any money. She dumps the contents back in her purse and hands Mr. Wonderful the five.

“Was that so bad?” Mr. Wonderful’s dimples make it seem as though he’s just laughed, but he hasn’t. The unreleased chuckle slurs the edges of his words. “What’s your name? I know you got a name, Princess.”

“I’m in a hurry,” the woman says, yet slows her movements. One of Mr. Wonderful’s three talents is his ability to hypnotize any woman he meets for exactly two and a half minutes. He’s begun to hypnotize this woman.

“You go to school around here?”

“I’m in a hurry,” the woman repeats.

“What you’d say your name was?”

“Puddin’ Tame.”

Mr. Wonderful laughs and glances at his watch, the only nice thing he owns, given to him years ago by one of his women, the one he both most dislikes–and most respects–because she’d told him once and for all she wasn’t dealing with any more of his foolishness. According to the watch, he has only forty-five seconds left before his first talent runs out. “Okay, Puddin’. I know you in a rush and you’ve been generous and all with your money and time,” and here Mr. Wonderful pauses, long enough to let a Barry White-esq purr seep into his voice (this is his second talent), “but this may be the only meal I have all day. I’d like to share it with someone real.”

The woman sighs because she knows everything Mr. Wonderful says is bullshit but she’s a nice girl in a semi-good mood who, up until this moment, has walked along flat soft earth–the pliable soil where things are meant to grow–and she sometimes wonders what kind of person she might have been had her years been punctured with some of the hills and rocks she’s certain have roughened Mr. Wonderful’s skin and given texture to his voice.

They walk into the bakery together.

*

But they take their food to go. The bakery is famous for its rolls and pillow-soft pizza crust, and also for its coffee, its aggressive taste. You take a sip and when that smoky liquid chokes your tongue, you either fall in love or collapse into hate–but no matter your reaction, you know you’ve had an experience, you realize you are alive.

They buy the life-affirming coffee and a half-dozen bagels, cheap because the place is closing, and walk to the park. There, some kids play baseball in the dim evening light, their bodies fluid and happy, like fistfuls of soap bubbles flung into the air.

Mr. Wonderful looks at the kids and knows instantly who has friends and who doesn’t, who still wets the bed, and whose father has left, and whose mother has just had an affair. He sees their pain and identifies the strong ones and those who are victims. This skill is not one of Mr. Wonderful’s unique talents. Anyone could have figured this out just by observing: the strong ones, the ones who have learned to gloss over their pain with multiple friendships and their peers’ respect, have command of their bodies, have learned–even as children–how to control their movements, how to walk and run with grace.  The well-liked kids drive into bases, knock balls into outfield, swing their arms and legs as though they are part of some well-controlled yo-yo. Some of the popular kids are in more pain than others and you can see it in their faces, a painful thing to observe in a twelve-year-old. But they share that one attribute, that bodily control, and that one trait separates them from the kids who are or who have been victims, because control over your body means you have some kind of power, even if it is only over yourself.  And that bodily control gives them an advantage; no longer concerned with manipulating their bodies, their brains are free to analyze social situations and other power dynamics. The victimized, the bullied kids, they learn these lessons much later in life. All of their energy, the totality of their brain power, is directed at forcing their bodies to behave, to create motions that are at least somewhat coordinated.  They move with hesitation, these kids, and all of their dreams, all of their attention and ambition, is directed at eliminating–or at least reducing–their own clumsiness.

Mr. Wonderful shrugs and spreads butter on his bagel. “You kept saying you were in a hurry. So what brought you out here?”

“I had a lesson. I’m learning to tell people off in five different languages.”

“You didn’t answer my question.”

“I didn’t want to. Ahora vaya a la mierda a tu madre. Or you can xiànzài qù tā mā de nǐ de mǔqīn. Or maybe you should maintenant, allez baiser ta mère.  And if that doesn’t work, ora vai cazzo tua madre.”

“That’s only four languages–Spanish, Chinese, French, and could be Italian, I think.”

“I’m still learning.” The woman swallows some of that slap-you-in-the-tongue coffee. “Still working on the German.”

The woman looks back at the children, and Mr. Wonderful thinks she’ll say more but she doesn’t. Her eyes dart towards the ball, which seems to be flying towards them, though it’s hard to see as the sky darkens. And the dark sky, the fast-soaring ball, and even Mr. Wonderful’s warm and easy self-absorption–all this is to the woman’s misfortune. Being one of those people who’s never had much control over her body,  who was always unable to make it leap and glide just the way she wanted it to, when the woman jumps up to catch the ball, it lands smack against her face. Mr. Wonderful, though of unnaturally quick and catlike reflexes (this was his third talent), is himself astonished by the last-minute jerkiness of the woman’s body. She thuds to the ground.

*

Cleanliness invades the inside of the hospital room: the scent of antiseptic cleaners clogs the air and weighs down the sheets.  The woman lays on the bed, her hand pressed against her new stitches. The stitches aren’t entirely a bad look; the Frankenstein-like scar gives her forehead, if not the rest of her, the direction she’d always seemed to lack.

Mr. Wonderful, who has used his first talent to hypnotize the hospital administrators into letting him inside the room, pulls up a chair next to her bed.

“You’d get more done,” he says, “if you didn’t try to overachieve.”

She wants to ask what he means but she knows. It’s that need to learn five languages to tell somebody off when you are still struggling to speak fluently in one.  And it’s the reason her purse overflows with change but she never has bus fare. It’s the feeling of always having to be “extra” because you never feel you are enough. But the thought embarrasses her, and she turns her face towards the antiseptic pillow, to avoid looking at him.

“Who are you, Mr. Wonderful? What’s your real name? The real you?”

At first he doesn’t answer. But when she turns back to face him, she realizes how he’s looking at her, how he sees her, and she knows, somehow, that he’s thinking she resembles Alice from Alice in Wonderland. But if she looks like Alice, then what do you say about a man who makes his living from women, those strong yet somehow not fully formed women?  Was he not fully formed as well, and if so, was he okay with that? With being a strange, scattered man with a large and mysterious smile?

“We’re all a little odd, a little messed up inside,” Mr. Wonderful finally explains, “but we become who we are, get to where we want to be, if we just walk around long enough.”

“So you’re who you want to become? We all are?” And just as she says this, just as the words float from her mouth and into the ether, she discovers Mr. Wonderful’s fourth talent, one even he doesn’t know he has. As she looks at him, still dizzy from her concussion, she sees him vanish slowly, beginning with his feet, his hardened legs and chest, and ending with his grin–his magnificent teeth, and his dimples, those famous dimples, disappearing last.


Artwork: Shira Bezalel

 

 

Something to Talk About, Something to Say by Hugh Behm-Steinberg

 

black-and-white-businessman-man-suit-medium


I’m sitting by myself, trying to get some work done on a project while I’m on my break, when a gentleman in a nice suit sits down across from me.

“How much is your time worth?” he pitches me.

I’m bored, so I catch, but before I can say anything he puts his finger up. “Wait,” he says. “You don’t know it yet, but what you need is a spokesperson. Someone who will convey your needs and interests with both eloquence and effectiveness. It has been shown in numerous studies that individuals with professional spokespeople are 37% more successful in their professional endeavors.”

“One second,” I say, and I nudge awake the spokesperson I already have.

“On behalf of my client,” she says, “we are no longer seeking spokespeople. Have a nice day.”

“But I’m a really good spokesperson!” he says, “And I’ll never sleep on the job.”

The other spokespeople pick their heads up. They look at us with glimmer in their eyes; an opening, a chance to jump ship? To speak for someone else, anyone else?

“No,” I say, when my watch buzzes. Breaktime over, I go behind the counter and stand next to the cashier, resuming my shift as her spokesperson. With all the people she has to interact with, the job keeps me super busy.

But the other guy doesn’t quit; he starts hitting up my spokesperson.

So she nudges her spokesperson, “On behalf of my client,” he says, “we are no longer seeking spokespeople. Have a nice day.”

“Is there anyone here who isn’t a spokesperson of someone who is also here?” he cries.

No one says anything. It’s a cozy café.

The door jingles and the embodiment of my heart’s desire walks in. “There you are,” she says to the guy. “You really need to stop talking so much and let your spokesperson do her job.”

She walks up to my cashier and says, “pardon me, you don’t know it yet, but what you need is a spokesperson. Someone who will convey your needs and interests with both eloquence and effectiveness. It has been shown in numerous studies that individuals with professional spokespeople are 43% more successful in their professional endeavors.”

“My client is intrigued,” I say, wondering if there’s enough room for two of us behind the counter.


About the Author: Hugh Behm-Steinberg’s prose can be found in The Fabulist, *82 Review, Gone Lawn and Gigantic. His short story “Taylor Swift” won the 2015 Barthelme Prize from Gulf Coast. He is a member of the non-ranked faculty collective bargaining team at California College of the Arts in San Francisco.

 

One Day in Pleasant Park by Jake Fuchs

Marie Dunne_Jack


Leaning on his cane, his broad back turned toward us, Mr. Russell considers me over his left shoulder. I don’t know how to interpret that steady look.  Oh, certainly he was upset by what I said. I know that much. He’d stopped in mid-stride, stopped dead. And now he turns. And what he says completely baffles me.

“Valdosta, Georgia. 1934.”

It did then. It still does. Well, I know what it must mean. His southern city of origin, his birth year. What else? But what did he mean by it? Trying to replay what happened, to see it in my imagination, hasn’t gotten me anywhere. I could go back physically and ask Mr. Russell what he meant, the city and the date; but that would be disappointing for both of us, me more than him. I just don’t get it. I can’t. Of course, anything that happens in Pleasant Park would be hard for me to get, since it isn’t part of the real world, the one I’m living in, acting in. Thus I excuse myself.

Consider what this place is called, this last stop for seniors. Though it derives from Pleasant Street, the unpleasantly urban thoroughfare it fronts on in Oakland, California, the name turns out to be remarkably appropriate. For it’s quite remarkable when anything of Oakland’s noise and stress and life filters through the wire fence surrounding Pleasant Park. In comparison to what’s cooking out there in the great, gray city—hollering drunks and druggies, smelly taco joints, siren-screeching cop cars– it’s a regular little Eden. No gas-driven vehicles allowed, which surely helps. And no one can live there who isn’t at least sixty; that must make a major difference. Finally, there’s a fair amount of open space in Pleasant Park and some trees and bushes, along with a twenty-hours a week female gardener, the only other white person in the place besides us, when we come there.

These lucky seniors live in a scattering of “garden units”: little boxes one up, one down, constructed neatly of redwood. All units have porches, and in good weather the inhabitants sit out on them for hours. They call out to one another, porch to porch, like birds in a big tree. The mobile ones toddle around the place in little groups, assemble in the recreation hall for merry games of bingo. Everything’s, you know, pleasant. I’m glad they enjoy the place, but I would never want to live here, even though well past sixty myself. Bingo? No thank you. Unlike them, I do things. I volunteer.

For instance, with Jen, my wife, I volunteer for Meals on Wheels, which brings us to Pleasant Park two mornings a week.  Each senior client gets a cold lunch and a dinner we’ve kept warm in a padded bag. The latter meal is to be thrust into oven or micro and kept warm until evening. Or maybe some like the lunch hot and the dinner cold, just for a change. What do I know? What do I know about them?

Not much. They talk to us when we appear at their doors, but it’s always about the present state of their health, not their lives pre-Pleasant Park, which might be more interesting. As things are, while Jen may actually care about their physical malfunctions, I pretend interest. But I’ve never had to with Mr. Russell, who never talks about his health. For that I respect him. He must feel as I do. When you get old, you start falling apart, like a cranky old car. That’s not exactly news, so why drone on about your own particular disabilities?  Because you have nothing else to talk about? Anyway, the rest of them at Pleasant Park give us health updates nearly every time we see them. Not him. In fact, Mr. Russell gives the impression of having no disabilities. He’s a big old man, and rather than toddle, he takes long strides. Now I know what an effort they must cost him.

So, no health updates from Mr. Russell. What does he talk about? Well, until last week he never said anything except good morning and thank you. But he interested me.

One big difference between Mr. Russell and the rest (I’m thinking this now) is that he isn’t cute, the last defense of old age. It obliges people to do things for you and act like they enjoy it. The others here, little old men and little old ladies—wow, are they cute. Not Mr. Russell, and I wouldn’t want to be the one who treated him as if he were; he would not care for that at all.  It annoys the shit out of me that our kids have trained their kids, our grandkids, to think of grandma Jen and grandpa Joe as cute. I can’t do or say anything about it, for fear of angering Jen.

Okay. Now I understand more about why Mr. Russell interested me. Impressed me. But I still don’t understand why he said what he said. So try it again, good old present tense.

He’s eying me in oddly speculative fashion, and my eyes are fixed on him. Leaning heavily on that cane, he’s managed to twist his body around it and seems none too stable. Involuntarily, I take a step in his direction and might have taken another and another, to catch him if he starts to fall, but Jennifer grabs me and whispers “Joe, no.” Since I’d already upset him I’d be the last person he’d ever want help from. That’s what she thinks, but, reading his face, I’m not sure I agree. Or is that what I’m feeling now, in recollection?  At the time, anyway, I chose to do nothing but stand and be silent, firmly gripping a bag half full of rejected tuna salad sandwiches. Nobody likes them.

Now Mr. Russell straightens himself without visible effort. Is he smiling or is that just a grimace?  Could he joking around with me, pretending to be weak and old? Doubt it. He was always polite, but I never suspected him of playfulness.

And then the message, place and year. His place, his year.

“Valdosta, Georgia, 1934.”

Somehow this called for a reply—I think I sensed it then–but being flummoxed, buffaloed, flustered, I could think of nothing.  He shook his head, turned his body, and resumed movement, going slow. Jen seized my arm. I realized that I was squeezing the tuna sandwiches, smushing them. The seniors, gazing at us from their porches, began a slow withdrawal. I heard them twittering and felt I’d let them down and, worse, much worse, failed Mr. Russell. Yesterday Jen went back to Pleasant Park by herself. He didn’t ask where I was, she said. She was about to say something else, but then she turned away from me.

Jennifer says next week when we’re due at Pleasant Park she’s not going alone. So if we see him, maybe he’ll say it again and I’d better have something to say back. It’s taken on the form of a challenge, like a chess move, requiring a countermove so that the game can go on.

Valdosta, Georgia, 1934. Place and year of birth. How was I supposed to interpret that? That he was an old man who grew up in hard times in a bad place for black people, so that it was cruel of me to say that about his legs, the disability that he’d always concealed from me? I doubt it. He isn’t a man who courts pity.

Valdosta, Georgia, 1934? Does that sound like a request for any sort of apology? It doesn’t strike me that way, not at all. And what I said—being startled, perhaps I said it too loud—wasn’t so terrible, anyway.  Now, having just written it down, I don’t think it looks terrible. It just looks stupid.

“His legs, they’re like sticks.” That’s what I said. That’s all.

Or maybe my exclamation, which is all it was, should be written, “His legs, they’re . . . they’re . . . like sticks!!” In the drama of the moment. But, in fact, I’m not convinced that I actually shouted or even raised my voice at all, even though I was startled. How did he hear it, then? The wind. Did it bring what he said back to me? Yes, blame it on the wind, the rude Oakland wind that violated the boundary between Pleasant Park and outside.

That’s the core of my explanation, not an apology, if he wants one. I would begin by pointing out that on several previous missions to Pleasant Park I’d seen Mr. Russell ambling around the grounds but had never noticed the slightest hitch in his gait. He strode, that man, and he carried his cane and flourished it more than he leaned on it. I wondered why he even bothered with that piece of wood. How could I not be surprised when the wind blew in?

See Mr. Russell striding, no doubt in a rush to outrun the Pleasant Park squirrels to the food Jen and I left by his door. Standing with Jen, packing up before returning to Meals HQ with the rejected sandwiches, I idly watch him, his broad back swaying as he goes. And then, without a whisper of warning, a freakish gust roars into Pleasant Park from unpleasant Pleasant Avenue. Hurtling into Jen and me, it nearly whisks the tuna bag from my grasp. And then the rude, revealing wind slams into Mr. Russell, causing his pants to billow out in front of him. As a result, the thin blue fabric outlines the size and shape of the old man’s legs. They’re sticks, thin sticks. His cane is thicker. With this disability, it’s a wonder that he can even take more than a few cautious steps, let alone stride,

Startled, I said what I said. That’s my explanation if one is required. But it won’t be. What happened. Just say what happened, one last time.

First he quickens his pace, then abruptly stops and almost collapses on his cane, if that isn’t an act. And he says it.

Valdosta, Georgia. 1934.

And he waited there until it was clear that I had nothing to say in return. Now . . . now, you know what I’m thinking about? My legs, my own legs and the stairs I struggle to climb, even in my own house. The legs go first, don’t they? Everyone knows that. Had Mr. Russell noticed my slow progress mounting the stairs to one of the upper garden units? All he had to do was look. It’s obvious. It’s obvious what I am.

Yes, you could just as well say it of me. “His legs, like sticks.” Two old men, thirties born, in Pleasant Park. What can they make of their lives?

His was an opening move. And to what, what game? I’ll find out, we both will. Listen to me, Mr. Russell.

Mt. Kisko, New York. 1936. Your move, now.


About the Author: Jake Fuchs was born in New York City but grew up in Beverly Hills in a family headed by his father, the novelist and screenwriter, Daniel Fuchs. He now lives in Berkeley with Freya, his wife of fifty years. They have three children and a delightful little grandson. From 1971 to 2005 Jake taught English at CSU East Bay, specializing in 18th-century British literature. He began writing fiction in the late ’90s and has been fascinated and tortured by the craft ever since. His short fiction has appeared in journals, and he has three published novels. Death of a Dad and Death of a Prof are both satyric mysteries. The third book is the more or less autobiographical fiction, Conrad in Beverly Hills. A fourth novel, the academic satire Posterior Trumpets is presently in the final throes of revision.

Artwork: Marie Dunne

David, the cephalopod by Ploi Pirapokin

Ubbu Ubbu Artifact 1_by David Hevel
“Ubbu Ubbu Artifact 1” by David Hevel

1. At the California Academy of Arts and Sciences, a sign above the octopus exhibition said: No flash photography allowed at the octopus tank. I wouldn’t want to be on display for the world to see either – it would be too much like high school, where word spread like rain clouds in the sky and judgment came down like flashes of light. Octopuses can change colors to blend into the background, I read in the little information box on the side. I thought of how cool it must be to blend into the background at whim; the cells in my body expanding to camouflage me, my cells responding quicker than my heart would. At twenty-seven, I had slept with a hundred men and I could sleep with a hundred more. I guess my body did respond quicker than my heart.

 

2. The octopus is an amazing creature with three hearts, two branchial ones that pump blood through each of its two gills, while the third is a systemic one that pushes blood through the body. When I was thirteen, my French teacher David asked me if I would have coffee with him after school. We met on a humid September afternoon at Mido Café where the shutters were always down, and sunlight shone through in stripes. He was tall, gangly, and smelled like coffee. I liked the way his pale hand looked against mine, the way his yellow beard looked coarse but was soft to the touch, and the way our eyes were open when we kissed. Octopuses don’t have eyelids, so they have no choice but to kiss staring at one another’s pupils.

 

3. Two-third of an octopus’ neurons reside in its arms, not its head. As a result, the arms can problem-solve how to open a shellfish while their owners are busy doing something else. The arms can even react after they’ve been completely severed. When David asked me to buy Trojans from 7-11, I tried to tell him my body wanted something my neurons could not get together fast enough to object. He asked me if I had been with any other man before and I said, “Sure.” I wasn’t sure if being finger-banged by another thirteen year old, Jack Whitson, who had announced to his entire rugby team that I was his girlfriend, counted. But I was sure that if I had been with any other man, he wouldn’t have mattered then.

 

4. The octopus is a social cephalopod; when isolated from their own kind, they will sometimes shoal with fish. At school, David spent lunchtimes in the staffroom. I spent lunchtimes watching Jack play rugby on the field. David would ask me in the evenings if I wanted to go to the movies for once, instead of hiding in his cave-of-a-studio. “What would Jack say if he saw us?” I asked. “What could your boy say?” David said. “No one would suspect an older gwai-lo with his young Chinese wife,” I said. Octopuses love roaming around the seabed, collecting discarded shell halves and carrying them back to their corner. Whenever they got scared or threatened, they would enclose themselves inside these shells. The truth made us retreat.

 

5. After a long day of foraging for food, octopuses can follow their own mucus trail back home, but they generally use visual landmarks to navigate around their environments. By November, I had learned how to make David smile. Learning how to make David smile meant I knew how to make men smile. I had complete control when I put the tip of my tongue gently in his opening, and when I slapped his chest while sitting on top of him, and when he laid across my bare chest to fall asleep. Then I would slip my panties back on, my bra, my white collared shirt, my beige skirt, and my leather shoes and walk home undistinguished in my uniform. At dinner with my parents, I stopped serving my father first. I claimed the first helping of sea bass, the meat white and juice running down the sides, breaking the skin with my spoon.

 

6. Humans, like octopuses, have almost entirely soft bodies. The only difference between an octopus and a human being is that an octopus has a beak. But I would like to argue that even a human’s mouth could turn into a beak when angry. He can snap, draw blood, and break things with his teeth. Jack asked me why I didn’t hurt when he entered. I told him he wasn’t the first. “You slut,” he snapped. “Such a slut.” He drew blood. He broke things in his room that night, like staplers, his computer screen, his shelves, his heart.

 

7. At school, five girls in the bathroom cornered me to ask how sex felt. I told them that sex with someone you love felt soothing, like swimming in the Pacific Ocean, but then they laughed. Their shrill laughter severed my nerves. Octopuses don’t have any internal temperature regulation, so if you freeze them, you can get them to the point where they fall unconscious. When the principal asked me what had happened; since September, in the café, in the movie theaters, at his house, my veins turned into ice. He asked me many things like, “Did he make you do it?” “Did he make you – ” I heard them all laughing at the girl who couldn’t keep her legs closed, their laughter hacking my limbs.

 

8. After mating, it’s game over for octopuses. Males wander off to die. The female’s body undertakes a cascade of cellular suicide, rippling from her optic glands through her tissues and organs. It was 4 p.m. on a cold December Tuesday, and everyone knew why David had been fired. “Come with me,” he said at the school gate. “We can go somewhere – anywhere, but here.” He put both hands on my shoulders, his tentacles wrapped around me, blowing soft, wet kisses on my arms. I wanted the circular suckers to take me and leave a comatose body behind. Maybe the suckers, too gelatinous, wouldn’t hold, and I would have to shove the entire arm down my throat. I felt sorry saying no. I was sorry that he got fired. I watched him walk away, my two branchial hearts pumped blood through heaving breaths while the third one pushed sorries through my body.


About the Author: Ploi Pirapokin‘s work is featured in the Griffith Review, HYPHEN Magazine, the Asia Literary Review, the Queen of Statue Square: New Short Fiction from Hong Kong, and Transfer magazine. Winner of the 2014 Leo Litwak award in fiction, her writing has been supported by the Ragdale Fundation, the Brush Creek Foundation, the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center, Kundiman, Writers on Writing Workshop at Tomales Bay, and the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley. She holds an MFA from San Francisco State University where she is currently a lecturer in the creative writing department.

Artwork: David Hevel

House Cleaning by Bill Schillaci

Stock Photo for Schillaci


He turned into our driveway in a dinged Mazda pickup with power washing equipment in the bed.  There was a pump attached to an upright heat exchanger tank, a black hose rolled up onto a yellow reel, and a cluster of spray wands bundled together like Roman fasces with a length of clothesline.  “Victory in Space” was stenciled in white block letters on both blue doors.  When I asked him about that, he said he had let his son name the business as a birthday present.

“How old is your son?” I asked

“Twenty-five.”

That threw me.  I assumed that his son must be suffering from a severe developmental condition.  He noticed my confusion.

“We’re talking about his eighth birthday,” he said.  “He just got his ME from Cooper Union and an entry position with the Port Authority.  He got Victory from Victor.  That’s me.”

I laughed.  Laughter is what I resorted to then, when my mind made stupendous leaps over the obvious possibilities before me.  That, I was told by Brother Salerno, was critical.  As long as you can join in on the amusement when life plays tricks on you, he said, you’re okay, or at least still on the right side of dotage.  Seemed sensible.  So I laughed a lot, with a force and bluster that bounced off the ceilings and walls of the hundred year-old white craftsman house with forest green shutters the four of us lived in.  Four seemed to be the minimum number of inhabitants needed to keep the diocese from selling the house and farming us out to assisted living.

Salerno managed the few domestic business matters the diocese couldn’t be bothered with.  Not quite seventy, he was also the youngest of our coven of four, and the sharpest.  He was away when Victor of Victory in Space arrived, in Conshohocken visiting his sister Allison, who had broken her wrist in bathtub fall.  I was next in command, so to speak.  Salerno had told me nothing about a power washing.  But of course it was also possible that he had and also possible that he had handed that information to me on a slip of paper that was posted under a magnet on the refrigerator door.

I quickly lost my way in these crisscrossing matters.

“It’s a freebee,” Victor said.

“Pardon?”

“Somebody called in and paid up front to power wash your house.  He said he was an old student.”

“Who’s student.”

“That he didn’t tell me.”

“I don’t think we’ve ever had a power washing,” I said.  “I’m afraid it might knock the siding right off.”

He was dismissive.  “I’ve done older houses.  Never happened.”

As retired men of the cloth, it was not uncommon for gifts to arrive unexpectedly.  Mostly they were casseroles and holiday pies from the local Women of Grace chapter and sometimes a grass cutting by one of their sons.  But power washing?  It was the chore that confused me, not the man offering it.

I went back inside, feeling I’d accomplished something by not embarrassing myself further.  Father Cepheus was clattering through the kitchen.  He already had breakfast, a couple of bananas and yogurt, the remains of which, peels and empty America’s Choice yogurt cup, were left centrally on the kitchen table.  And now he was itching for breakfast again because he didn’t remember the first one.  Cepheus was holding a carton of eggs he had extracted from the refrigerator.   I was curious to see what he was going to do with these.  There were several precedents.  Once, he just cracked one open over a slice of rye bread, splashed it with mustard and made a sandwich.  Most of the egg spilled onto the counter before it reached his mouth.  On another occasion, he placed two unbroken in a pot and fired up the burner; no water, no nothing, just two eggs in a pot.

Cepheus had taught biology, actually the last of us to teach, still going strong years after I ceased trying to excite hormone-inflamed youths about the Teapot Dome Scandal.  He was a squat barrel chested man with a Marine buzz cut who wrestled in college.  He was also an all-star intellect with a PhD in cellular biology from Johns Hopkins, who had coached multiple young men to the finals of the International BioGENEius Challenge.  Salerno had taught math, mostly geometry, and Father Solomon French.  Solomon still tutored although he needed help to get down from his bedroom to the parlor where he met his students.  They were mainly the kids and a few grandkids of young men Solomon taught in the classroom.  Solomon was from Jamaica and spoke French with an island inflection.  The music of it seemed to have a hypnotic and indelible effect on listeners and kept Solomon in the game.  It was likely that the few sessions a week empowered him past the osteoarthritis that turned every trip from floor to floor into an Olympic field event.  Each day one of us would help him settle into the comfortable chair near his third floor window that looks out on the harbor and Storm King Mountain.  There he read Mark Twain and Dostoyevsky and the Times, pecked out French quatrains ala Apollinaire on his laptop and snapped photos of the mountain’s changing façade.

I walked up cautiously beside Cepheus.

“You know, Father, I was just thinking about eggs,” I said.

Cepheus looked at me as if I had just tossed ice water onto his face.  I was ready for this and had my hands positioned to grab the egg carton before it slipped to the floor.  His shoulders jerked and I was also prepared to duck.  But this time he did not swing.

I suggested we collaborate on an egg salad for lunch.  His eyes cast about, skimming over me, the four peeling chairs pushed against the round kitchen table, other parts of the room where the bright red devil that plagued him might be hiding.  I always feared that this image that came to me was an injustice to the sybaritic imp in Joni Mitchell’s sublime idyll.  But Cepheus was born in Matala, and once I had made the connection, it couldn’t be unstuck.

I put six eggs in a pot, covered them with water, and took them to the stove.

“Steve,” I said, “please go into the basement and get the new jar of pickles.”

He looked at me sharply.  We were all pre-Vatican II and mainly stuck to the traditional appellations.  But with Cepheus traditions held no meaning, most of the time anyway.  Hearing his given name sometimes had a restorative effect, on his posture in any event.  Did it remind him of his mother’s voice, telling tell him to sit up straight or take out the garbage in Pittsburg as the Third Reich crumbled?  Was that more immediate to him than a lifetime of Father this and Father that?  I pointed to the door that opened to the basement stairs.  Cepheus nodded sternly and crossed the kitchen floor.  There was no telling what would occur in the basement, but he was less dangerous when he had a purpose.

I was waiting for the water to boil when Mr. Victory in Space came to the door.  He said he was ready and asked that all the windows be shut.

“I was thinking I should check with the house manager,” I said, “before you begin.”

He shrugged.  “How long will that take?  I have other appointments.”

I invited him inside, offered a mug of coffee and trudged up to my bedroom for my cell, hoping it would be clearly in sight and that I would not have to pick up the land line and call myself, which I had to do at least once a day despite my verbal aid of pronouncing out loud where I placed it.  Cell on desk.  Cell on floor near bathroom sink.  Cell in back pocket of pants you are wearing.

Don Giovanni, the latest stop in Solomon’s cultural odyssey, was filling his half-open doorway.  It was the Zefferelli film, Terfel and Fleming.  Several nights ago, I checked the DVD out of the local library and we watched it on Solomon’s computer.  Beyond the liturgical requirements, I am a musical lost cause.  I dozed off continually, each time waking to see Solomon leaning forward, his face ablaze with the music.

My room is neat, less a consequence of ecclesiastical discipline than two tours as a chaplain in Vietnam.  It was that experience that convinced the diocese that I could be a caretaker to Father Cepheus.  It’s not that the curia are opposed to institutionalization, but given Cepheus’ destructive tendencies, it was determined that he is best kept under home rule.  That was the nominal explanation.  Salerno latter confided that the real concern had to do with how the disintegration of a great mind would reflect on our institution.  It was also somehow determined that a person who more than forty years ago spent his days in a Da Nang hospital jotting down the tortured utterances mortally wounded twenty-year-olds wished to have sent home to their families was well suited to the job of watching over someone with violent dementia.

I located my phone in a jacket pocket just as a commotion rattled through the hall.  Giovanni pummeling Masetto?  Sitting on my bed, I reviewed the directory with Salerno’s numbers.  There were three for him, all adjacent to the same placid countenance, all infuriatingly similar.  As I puzzled over which to dial, Solomon appeared in the doorway, gripping the jamb.  Mozart was silent, but the house was not.

“Downstairs,” Solomon shouted at me.  He insisted that I help him to the first floor despite my assurances that there was a reasonable explanation for mixture of crashes and language not typically heard in a quasi-monastic domicile.  Solomon shook his head, taking a handful of my shirt as we descended.

“And you were in Indo-China.”

When we arrived at the scene, Victor was prone, trying to prop himself on an elbow in a kitchen corner.   The kitchen itself was a pickle disaster, the pungent aroma thick in the air, pickle juice soaking Victor’s Nirvana tee shirt.  A single miniature gherkin was embedded in his curly hair while others slid down the side of the counter to our lime green linoleum.   I turned off the flame under the pot, where the water had half-evaporated around the eggs.  This, my forgetfulness, frightened me more than the semi-conscious man on the floor.

Solomon and I helped Victor into a chair and pressed a bag of frozen lima beans to the pink crescent moon mounding on his temple.  Neither of us needed an explanation.

“Where’s Cephus?” I asked.  Victor seemed ill-prepared to reply so I turned to Solomon, whose eyes were darting between Victor and me.  His hands were flat on the table, but his legs gave up and he dropped hard into a chair.  It was all more than I could process.  I walked out to the front porch.

Beside the pickup, Victor had set up his equipment, the hose of the power washer already connected to the spout projecting from the house foundation. There was a substantial leak geysering midway in the hose.  Wasted water trips something primal in me and I hurried over and closed the valve.

“Father Cepheus,” I called somewhat in the voice I employed for sermons on the occasional Sundays I was asked to say mass at Our Lady of Loretto.  I was typically a last resort when no one else was available during the summer, but it was summer and no requests had arrived.  Boxwood bushes were bunched together along one side of the house, and I looked behind them for Cepheus as I might look a lost gardening tool.  In the rear I lifted the garage door.  The garage housed a twenty-year old Crown Vic waiting for new shocks.  The Crown Vic was unoccupied.  I opened the door anyway and stared inside for a while before taking the path along the other side of the house to the sidewalk.  Our neighbor Jim was heading toward the bus stop with a shoulder bag and a travel mug.  I tried to catch up, so I could ask if he had seen Cepheus.   Despite my exertions, his form diminished as he neared the county road.  My cell hummed.

“Where are you?” said Salerno.

“I’m outside, looking for Cepheus.”

“He’s was in the basement.  Get back there.  The police are on the way.”

“The police?”

“He attacked a man.  It ends here.”

In the time it had taken me to walk a single long block and back, two police cruisers and an ambulance had parked in front of our house.  All these vehicles were unoccupied, which meant all the personnel they were carrying were inside.  I wanted to call back Salerno immediately and ask him if he had any mental images about how Cepheus would react to such an invasion.  But this is where the priestly training kicks in and compels me to consider how Salerno was trying to deal with a serious emergency while in North Philadelphia trying to talk his ally cat of a sister into letting a health care worker come to her home in the mornings and make sure she can take a shower with low potential for catastrophe.  That, I was taught so long ago, is how one is supposed to manage anger, by forcing oneself into the mind of the other to choke back one’s own choler.  This is precisely what I was doing, but it was occurring in Cepheus’ mind, which typically sent me down the gloriously expressionist, wholly imbalanced strassen of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

In fact the scene I encountered inside was cinematic in the fashion of police procedurals, with the perp, Cepheus, flat on his face on the kitchen floor, his wrists bound with nylon handcuffs in the small of his back, and one officer’s hand clamped on his neck to constrain movement.  An EMT had squatted down in front of Victor and was waving a penlight in front of his pupils.  Two other officers were taking notes from Solomon, and still another was talking copspeak into a radio, and appeared to be in charge.

“That man is a priest and seventy five years old,” I said approaching Cepheus.  A hand placed squarely in the center of center of my chest aborted my progress.  In fact, I had no doubt that it was best to restrain Cepheus.  But the sight of him trussed on the floor was visual confirmation of what Salerno had said.  It was over, something was over, maybe everything was over.  Cepheus’ face was fixed in a silent scream.

“And he has dementia,” I added.

I identified myself and asked if I could just sit beside him.  The officer on the radio, who had a distinctly asymmetrical mustache, nodded.

“It’s alright, Steve,” I said, lowering myself to one knee.  “It’s over now.”  I said it again and again until he finally seemed to hear me and the rictus softened and he closed his eyes.

Salerno got back on the line and persuaded the police that Cepheus needed to be taken to a hospital.  After tending to Victor, the EMTs secured Cepheus to a gurney and rolled him outside.  A small crowd of onlookers had gathered, including Jim’s wife, Avon, whose very long and striking red hair seemed to glow even brighter near the flashing lights of the cruisers.  The news would spread, perhaps even to the media – Lunatic Priest Overpowers Power Washer.  My cell hummed again.

“Is he still there?” said Salerno.

“Who?”

“The power wash guy.”

“His name is Victor.”

“Is Victor still there?”

Victor was, standing by his truck, looking uncertain as an officer spoke.  I could hear the officer urging him to go to the hospital, and Victor was slowly explaining that he couldn’t leave his equipment.

“Should I apologize?”

“Probably best to say nothing.  I’ll be on the next train.”

The ambulance left followed by one cruiser and then the second.  Inside, Solomon sat at the table looking at his European loafers.  I began to clean the pickle remnants.

“What now?” he said, slowly rising.  I moved to assist.  He lifted his hand to keep me at a distance and shuffled out of the kitchen.   I swept up the remnants of glass, put water and ammonia into a bucket and started mopping.  A boom rocked the kitchen wall and a sheet of water covered the window above the sink and then progressed laterally in a drum roll along the outside wall of the house.  I hurried out the door, turned off the water again, and followed the hose to the side of the house where Victor held the wand from which water fell in droplets.

“What are you doing?” I said.

“I was paid to power wash your house,” he slurred.

“Given the circumstance, I would say you get a pass.  At least today.”

“What circumstances?”

“Oh, that you just got knocked unconscious.”

Victor scrunched up his eyebrows.

“Is it very windy today?” he asked.

“Yes, it’s gusty,” I said, even though it wasn’t.

“Not good for house washing.”

He reeled his hose into the bed of the pickup and then braced himself with both hands on the tailgate.  It took some persuading, but I got him to come back inside, where I sat him at the table again and brewed a cup of black tea.  Victor gazed into the dark liquid then lowered his head into his arms.

“I just need a minute.”

“Sit up,” I said.  “You shouldn’t fall asleep.”

He cast himself backward in the chair, his arms wide.

“Jesus Christ,” he said softly, then managed a weak grin.

“I should get the ambulance back here.”

His waved this away.

“What’s wrong with him?  Alzheimer’s?”

“That’s part of it probably.  But there’s more.  It’s called mixed dementia.  His symptoms are inconsistent.  Physically he hasn’t declined.”

“I can see that.”  With his fingertips he scanned the bruise on his temple, now purple and closer to a half moon.

“I am deeply sorry,” I said, remembering Salerno’s advice too late.  But since it was out, I decided to dig myself deeper.  “I probably shouldn’t say this, but you would be in your rights to pursue this.”

“What do you mean?”

“To press charges,” I said.  “If you wanted to.”

Victor considered me.  “You’re a priest?”

I nodded.

“I won’t be pursuing this,” he said.

“No?”

“No.  Would you like to know why?”

 

After multiple additional phone exchanges with Salerno, who was sitting in the waiting area of the 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, obsessing unpleasantly, he later confessed, on the restroom murder scene from Witness, it was agreed that I would take a cab to the hospital and wait until he arrived.  I informed Solomon, who insisted on accompanying me.  This involved unfolding Solomon’s walker and taking along his tachycardia medication.  It would have been a good time for the Crown Vic to be operational.   Salerno sent a letter to the diocese which included a table showing how our transportation expenses, mainly buses and cabs, had quadrupled the estimated cost of new shocks.  There was no response.  Over wine one evening we concocted an appeal to Pope Francis, who, we conceded, would come out on the side of public transportation.

We found Cepheus in bed under a restraining net in a private room in the psychiatric ward on the hospital’s top floor.  He was awake but so immobilized by sedatives he could have been taken for dead, except for the faint, phlegmy breaths struggling to be free of his throat.  Solomon sat close, placed his stole across Cepheus’s chest and closed his eyes in silent prayer.  I reached for Cepheus’s hand under the net, but could not bring myself to join in.  It was a familiar tableau, although in Nam I had forced out the words, and sometimes believed in them, in their power.  I wondered if Cepheus’s still prayed.  When the four of us gathered in the mornings and evenings for a group recitation of the liturgy before the modest altar we constructed in our finished basement, he would join us.  Even though words eluded him, he was uncommonly still, and this, we all enthusiastically agreed, was Cepheus’s way of remaining a priest.  Under the indifferent walls and window of modern medical care that made no attempt to deceive or distract us about where we were and where we were heading, I hoped that in the deepest parts of his mind, Cepheus was reliving his expertise in the lab at John Hopkins or walking the shore of Lake Pontchartrain where he attended St. Joseph’s Seminary.  In fact, I wondered constantly what was going on in Cepheus’ mind.
In time a nurse strode in and took Cepheus’s blood pressure.  He hadn’t stirred in the least.

“What did you give him?” said Solomon.

“He was quite agitated when he arrived,” the nurse said, looking at the chart.  She wrote down the reading and left.

“So much for your Gallic charm,” I said.

“Seulement en français.”

Hours later we heard Salerno’s voice in the hall.  With him was Regina, the secretary from the diocese office.  Regina drove a purple Prius, and Salerno said she would take Solomon and me home and he would stay.

“I’ll stay too,” I said.

Salerno was a wiry man, his head full of short hair almost entirely ungrayed.  Another former athlete, he was told to coach varsity basketball and then, based perhaps on the team’s winning records, to be principal of the high school.  Whether he wanted these assignments or even if he was qualified was irrelevant.  Salerno distributed himself in the chair at unnatural angles, a human zigzag.  Either the day had caught up with him or I was hallucinating.  As principal, he had supported Cepheus for a time, but then advocated for full retirement as the outbursts reoccurred.  The diocese opted for a one-week “evaluation” at St. Luke’s in Silver Springs.   Cepheus returned coherent and serene, lulling Salerno with false hope.

“Did he say anything about what happened?”

“Who, Victor?”

“No, our brethren here.”

Cepheus still talked, but infrequently and then typically about foot-long caterpillars he was certain were consuming the insides of the walls in his bedroom.  He would grab my forearm and take me inside.

“Hear them?” he said.

I moved my head closer.

“I think so.”

He looked at me with approval and said it was time for an exterminator, although it came out as “experimenter.”

 

The next day, Regina ferried us back to the hospital absent Solomon, who clung to his window view, anticipating it being ripped from his life.  Cepheus was sitting up in the bed, though still restrained, his wrists bandaged under heavy straps.  There was a yellow glaze of sweat on his forehead though the room was arctic.  I took a towel from the toilet and wiped away the glaze, which reformed almost instantaneously.  Salerno stationed his face inches from Cepheus’s and asked a couple of pro forma questions.  Cepheus’s eyes shifted a bit and his lips trembled but no sound emerged.  A doctor arrived and talked with Salerno about changing the meds.  Salerno listened carefully, not bothering to say that he had already arranged that morning to ship Cepheus to Maryland.  The diocese agreed to an air ambulance out of Stewart.  The cost was frightening.  But having decided that Cepheus should go, they wanted him gone quickly.  The next day, when the three of us sat down to our evening meal, Cepheus was two-hundred fifty miles south, securely at the front end of permanent incarceration.

That evening Solomon dialed up Bergman’s Trollflöjten on YouTube.  This time I was kept awake, less by the performance than by a nagging question.

After the finale, I asked Solomon, “Have you ever been unsure if you were hearing a confession?”

“Of course.”

“But it doesn’t matter, right?”

“That is correct, Father,” he said suspiciously.

To reassure him, I added, “It doesn’t matter because if there is any possibility that it is a confession, it must be sanctified.”

Solomon nodded slowly.

“Alright, just take this abstract example.”

But Solomon stopped me.  “I know what you are doing, Father, and I won’t be part of it.”

I went downstairs to see if Salerno would listen or also keep me from abandoning my vow of silence.  But Salerno was on the phone, as he had been most of the day, futilely proposing alternatives to the dissolution of our communal home.

Outside I sat on the top step of the porch remembering Victor speaking to the officer, the image of it seared into my mind along with all the other images of the previous day.  What did it matter, anyway?  The truth?  Cepheus was where he should be, where he should have been for a long time.

It didn’t matter that Victor of Victory in Space was Victor Suarez, the father of Mark Suarez, the last student victim of Cepheus’ unaccountable rage.  The attacks occurred over several years.  The initial assaults for minor slights were mainly blows to the back and shoulders.   The next incident was almost a year after the first psych evaluation.  It involved a cafeteria worker who Cepheus believed was spitting into the soup pots.  Cepheus marched into the kitchen, flung the man to the floor and was poised to pounce before the head cook intervened.  A settlement ensued and then a second evaluation.  Once again, the diocese refused to recognize that they could be wrong, and Cepheus was back at work commenting brilliantly on videos of mesencephalon development.

And then, finally, there was poor Mark Suarez, and the trail turned red.  Cepheus claimed Mark was shouting profanities about the Virgin Mary although not a single student in the honors bio class could confirm this.  Cepheus demanded that Mark stop – also unverified – and, when this did not occur, drove his knuckles straight into Mark’s nose, causing multiple fractures and the attendant blood gush.  Cepheus was actually arrested, but the diocese machinery went to work on Victor, who declined to either press charges or sue provided Cepheus never taught again and certain monetary arrangements were made.

Victor used the settlement to place a downpayment for a house in Beacon, and Cepheus, assigned now to three elderly caretakers, tumbled headfirst into madness.  And there it seemed to rest.

The diocese suppressed information about the assault on Mark, and since I was already long offsite, the story reached me only in the vaguest outline.  It was also possible that I just excised the memory of what occurred years before.  Tales about Cepheus abounded, too many to be true.  But Victor I believed.

Gazing into the teacup, Victor filled in the left-over details about his son.  Even with Cepheus ejected, Mark began to dread going to school.  Illnesses, maybe phantom, kept him home with regularity.  Eventually, Victor and his wife transferred Mark to another school where he fared a little better, but he was still declining physically.  Therapy became a constant in their lives.

“But he has a job now?” I said.

Victor finally took a long swallow of my tea.  His face compressed so hard that the tendons in his neck bulged.

“Yes, he does,” he rasped, “and he still lives at home.”

“What about the free power wash?” I asked.

“Legitimate.  One of your neighbors called and said your house was filthy and depressing his home value.  But he didn’t want to insult you.  So we agreed on the story about a gift from an old student.”

Victor said he had entered the kitchen to wait on the okay from Salerno and there was Cepheus.

“This is something I had dreamed about,” he said.

“What did you dream?”

“To show him what it feels like.”

“And?”

“I said a few things and then I went after him. But I don’t think I actually made any contact.
The next thing I saw was you and the African looking down at me. ”

“He’s from Jamaica.”

Victor rose from the chair with extreme deliberation as if one bad move would result in total structural collapse. Once upright, he said, “So now it’s crazy priest two and team Suarez zero.” He paused at the kitchen door, framed by the morning light passing through the glass upper half.

“There’s one thing I remember him saying before I started swinging,” he said.

“Yes?”

“He said, ‘Here’s the pickles.’”


About the Author: In his day job, Bill Schillaci is a freelance environmental journalist. At night, he writes short fiction, which has been published this year in Printers Row and 34th Parallel Magazine. On the weekends, he is an amateur cabinetmaker and claims to have built most of the furniture in his home in Ridgewood, New Jersey. He is also a former resident of Oakland and is delighted to reconnect with the Bay Area through The East Bay Review.

The Secret Life of David McLiddy by Jacqueline Doyle

PE - secret life of david mcquiddy


“David.” His wife’s voice rang out from the kitchen. “Did you call the plumber?”

Shit. His fantasy evaporated abruptly. E. had been bent over his desk, sundress pushed up around her back, panties on the floor, legs splayed, and he’d been fucking her from behind, plunging into her warm, wet pussy, hands cupping her ass cheeks to spread them wider.

“Can you hear me?” Sarah’s voice was getting closer. She must be walking through the dining room to his study.

“Yeah. I left a message on his voicemail.” He’d call the plumber now.

E was a checker at Trader Joe’s. Pear-shaped, with a generous ass, long brown hair she wore in a braid, and a friendly smile. She wore faded jeans and Sierra Club t-shirts and he imagined her life was simpler than his. She probably rented, for one thing, and didn’t own so much crap that had to be fixed all the time. She rode a bike to work. He’d seen her once on the boulevard, legs pumping as she pedaled up an incline, her braid hanging down her back under her helmet. Her quadriceps must be something.

“Maybe we should call someone else. Tell them it’s an emergency.” Sarah was standing in his doorway and he tried to focus. “I’ll get on it,” he said, closing the composition book he’d been writing in. He slid it onto the desk and put a pile of student essays on top of it.

“Damn, I’m really swamped,” he said. He made a wry grimace, inviting Sarah to commiserate with his workload. She didn’t look sympathetic.

“Have you got any ideas for dinner? I’ve got to pick up Tommy at tee ball practice in ten minutes. I’ll stop by Safeway. Can you put the wash in the dryer while I’m out?”

David didn’t have any ideas for dinner. His shrinking hard-on stirred. What if he said, “Fuck dinner. Let’s ball.” She wouldn’t be amused. There was Tommy. And the stopped-up toilet.

“I don’t know. Mac and cheese? Frozen lasagna?” There were only a few entrees that Tommy would eat without complaint.

Life with E. would be different. He’d write. She’d give him full body massages and cook healthy meals without bothering him about what he wanted for dinner. Quinoa, kale, lentils. Once in a while they’d barbecue a steak and laugh about it. She’d walk around the apartment naked reading Whitman aloud. He pictured her small but firm white breasts, marbled with faint blue veins. Pale pink nipples.

Sarah wrinkled her nose. “I’ll take a look at the deli counter.”

He pulled out his notebook after she left and jotted down some notes for his prospective novel. “E. Pearly pink nipples. I Sing the Body Electric. Bike rider. Likes sex on top?”

*

David sat in his cluttered office at Crown Country Day nursing a hangover. He’d taken two aspirin and gulped down three cups of coffee but it didn’t seem to be helping. Keith Aldrich lounged in the chair by his desk, eyes wide and guileless. Keith was his best writer, and lazy as fuck. He hadn’t looked at the short story manuscript marked up in red that David held out to him.

“Hey man, plagiarism is like kind of a strong word for it. You know I’m a good writer. Why would I do that?”

At the moment David didn’t really give a shit. He’d plagiarize from Bukowski too if he thought he could get away with it. Right now his writing was stalled. All he did was jot down scraps of ideas in notebooks.

“It sure seems that way, Keith. How about this paragraph where you forgot to change Henry Chinaski’s name?

“Ever hear of a mashup? I mean probably you’re too old to know about mashups.”

David was miffed. “Of course I know about mashups. I taught Reality Hunger when it came out. This is not a mashup, Keith.”

David prized himself on being avant-garde, something of a maverick. A popular teacher, he invited his students to call him by his first name and said “fuck” and “balls” in the classroom. The administration tolerated him because none of the boys’ parents had complained. They’d asked him not to teach Naked Lunch again, which secretly pleased him, as it added to his outlaw rep. They hadn’t objected to Reality Hunger, a manifesto that had completely confused his writing class, though his students had gleefully cut pages 210 to 218 out of the book, as the author instructed. He’d been wondering ever since if that was the way to go. Quotations stitched together. Attributions that you could simply cut out of the book. He could do that. He’d started saving quotations. But the fashion seemed to have passed already.

“Whatever. I mean that’s just your opinion.” Keith crossed his arms in front of his skinny chest, his expression sullen. “I’m going for early admission at Stanford and I need an A in this class.”

“I want you to go home and think about this,” David said. “Bring me a new story next week and we’ll talk some more. If it’s A work, I’ll think about giving you an A.” Let the kid squirm a little.

Keith didn’t look too worried. None of the sons of privilege in this overpriced prep school ever worried about anything their English teacher could do to them.

Later that afternoon David saw Dori Rinner in the hall.

“I’ve got an academic dishonesty thing I need to run by you,” he said. His mouth felt like cotton. His head was throbbing.

Dori had sent out a lengthy memo on academic dishonesty in September. “Consult me immediately before proceeding to the penalty phase. We need to be on the same page here!”

While she’d reiterated Crown Academy’s no-tolerance policy for plagiarism and cheating, Dori’s memo had not been about penalties, but about how to head off academic dishonesty so they didn’t have to deal with it at all. “Distribute more than one version of your test so students can’t look at their neighbors’ answers. Vet successive rough drafts of essays. Be sure to run your students’ last rough drafts through our Turnitin plagiarism service before they hand them in!” Students weren’t penalized for plagiarism in the rough draft, just warned they would be penalized if they handed the paper in that way. Consequently there were few or no plagiarism cases because plagiarists were warned in advance of their infractions. Crown students worked on elaborate paraphrases of papers that had flunked the Turnitin plagiarism detector test. “We’re proud of our boys’ integrity at Crown,” Dori wrote. “Let’s keep it up!”

Dori’s features sharpened. She looked up and down the hall, leaned toward David, and lowered her voice. “Who was it?”

“Keith Aldrich.” He watched her face relax. Clearly Keith wasn’t going to be in trouble no matter what he’d done. He wasn’t one of the “troublemakers” or one of the scholarship boys. His father had made a generous donation to the fund for the new theater. The Aldriches were on the sports booster list in the “Angel” category.

“Was it in your AP class?”

“No, creative writing.”

“Well, an elective. A creative class. I hope you warned him not to do it again.”

Dori smiled. No parents to placate. David smiled. No paperwork to fill out. The little asshole was off the hook and so were they.

*

“A Bukowski mashup?” David wrote in his notebook. “Bukowski meets Henry Miller in Paris and has threesome. Do mashup with three authors, one female. Anais too obvious a choice? Buk lifted her skirt and jammed two fingers up her cunt. I swooned, breathless, shivers passed through my body. I hate broads who talk too much, Buk said to Henry.”

He leafed backward through the notebook, looking for the Henry Miller quotation from Tropic of Cancer he’d copied. Maybe he should use note cards instead of composition books. Then he could lay them out in different patterns on the desk, really study them. He finally found it. “You can forgive a young cunt anything. A young cunt doesn’t have to have brains. They’re better without brains. But an old cunt, even if she’s brilliant, even if she’s the most charming woman in the world, nothing makes any difference. A young cunt is an investment; an old cunt is a dead loss. All they can do for you is buy you things. But that doesn’t put meat on their arms or juice between their legs.” Under the quotation he’d written, “Misogynist yes, but HONEST in a way p.c. contemporary authors are not. What man doesn’t dream of the young cunt with juice between her legs?”

He imagined slipping his hand down the front of E.’s jeans.

Maybe he should do footnoted commentary in the novel. Or footnoted mini-scenes.

The door to his study was closed but unlocked. He wasn’t sure whether Sarah was going to call him for dinner or not. She was still pissed off about the wet laundry on Sunday. Well screw that. He couldn’t remember everything. He’d gotten the oil changed, hadn’t he? He’d picked up Tommy at school twice this week. And made three shopping trips to Trader Joe’s.

*

It was February 14, and unseasonably warm for Northern California. David hadn’t forgotten Valentine’s Day. He’d bought a joke card for Sarah, and some chocolates that he’d probably eat himself. He’d gotten Sarah a pair of transparent red lace bikini panties that she wasn’t going to like, but if he was lucky she’d wear them once. Now he was at Trader Joe’s for roses.

The store was fragrant with flowers. Everyone bustled about pushing their carts, lots of old people, and middle-aged boomers in Birkenstocks. Sarah said Trader Joe’s was too expensive, but hey, it’s cheaper than Whole Foods and it’s healthy, he told her; we can’t spend too much on Tommy’s health.

He angled to get into E.’s line, even though two others were shorter.

“Roses for your wife?” she said, her smile cheery.

Her nametag read E. Gardner. He still hadn’t mustered the courage to ask her name. He kind of liked the anonymity of E. Like a naughty eighteenth-century novel or The Story of O.

“I’m old school,” he said. “A romantic.” He paused. “So what have you got planned for Valentine’s? Big night out?” His tone was too hearty, forced. She didn’t seem to notice.

“I don’t know. My boyfriend and I are going hiking on Mount Diablo in the afternoon.”

“Hiking.” Of course she’d like hiking. Of course she’d have a boyfriend, a young girl as gorgeous as E. He pictured a strapping mountain climber and grimaced.

“Maybe he’ll buy you roses too.” David winked, and immediately felt like an old fart.

“I’m not much for cut flowers,” she said, handing him his change.

Of course not. She was in the Sierra Club. She wouldn’t want cut flowers. David cursed himself for not thinking of that. Sarah liked flowers, but, come to think of it, she didn’t like red roses. Too late. He had them now.

“Maybe I’ll run into you on the trails some time,” he said casually. “I like to hike, read a book in the sun, get away from it all.”

He’d need to practice, do some walking in the neighborhood. Maybe he’d take off some pounds that way. What if he invited her some afternoon, just off the cuff. “I’m going to Lake Chabot later. Maybe we could go together when you get off work.”

“Let me guess your name,” he’d tease her, when they set off on their hike. “Emily? Eileen? Ermengarde? Eve?” His innocent temptress, bagging apples.

The car was hot. By the time he got home the roses were already wilting.

*

“Daddy, can we get pizza?” Tommy jumped up and down in excitement. “Pepperoni, pepperoni, pepperoni.”

“Daddy’s on a diet,” he said. “Let’s think of something healthy. Remember the food groups game you played in kindergarten?”

“A diet?” Sarah looked at him curiously. “Since when are you on a diet?”

She was wearing sweat pants and a baggy t-shirt. Her blonde hair was pulled back in a scrunchie. As far as David could see, she’d given up on losing weight and switched to wearing oversized clothes instead. She was stockier than she’d been before Tommy was born, but not really overweight in David’s opinion. She thought she was.

“You’re the one who said I’m getting a paunch,” David said. “That’s the word you used. Paunch.”

“Since when do you care what I think?”

“Jeez, Sar. Can I do anything right?”

“Well if you want to go on a diet you could start by cutting out the booze.”

*

Notebook entry. “A man misunderstood by his wife finds solace in mountain hikes. ‘He who climbs upon the highest mountains laughs at all tragedies, real or imaginary.’ Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra.”

*

David had taken to wearing hiking boots all the time, which were surprisingly uncomfortable. Hiking boots, newish jeans, black t-shirt, casual sport coat. A Bay Area look, like a young Berkeley prof. He admired himself in the rest room mirror, sucked in his gut.

Keith had turned in his second story and they were slated for another conference. As if there wasn’t enough bullshit involved in teaching without this.

Keith was waiting in his office, slouched by the desk, when David got back from the bathroom. He looked bored. David handed the story to him and said, “Read the first paragraph out loud please.”

“The girl jumped up on the coffee table. Her jeans fit tighter than ever. I could see the slit in her crotch. She flung her long brown hair from side to side. She was insane; she was awesome.” Keith was clearly into it. He raised his voice a notch. “For the first time I considered the possibility of actually fucking her. She began reciting poetry. Her own. It was very bad. My buddy tried to stop her, ‘No! No! No rhyming poetry in this house!’ ‘Let her go,’ I said. I wanted to watch her wiggle her ass. She strode up and down my parents’ coffee table. Then she danced. She waved her arms. The poetry was terrible; the body and the madness weren’t.”

David had circled “the girl, I could see the slit in her crotch, awesome, fucking, my buddy, wiggle her ass, my parents” in red marker.

“The circled words are yours, Keith. The rest is from Bukowski’s Women. Good book. Not yours.”

“I don’t get it,” Keith said. “I could see the slit in her crotch is fucking perfect. What do you want, man?”

David sighed. What did he want? What did he want?

“What do I want? I want you to write a goddamn story.”

He pushed back his chair and stood up. “Now get out of here. Write something.”

*

The meeting with Keith had interrupted David’s newest notebook entry, and he hadn’t had time to finish before class.

“Imagine living in a bungalow in Berkeley with E., overgrown yard, roses by the door. We sleep every day until noon, drink black coffee in bed, read poems to each other. Fuck like rabbits. Study a tantric sex manual and try everything. If Sarah and Tommy were suddenly to die, would E. leave her boyfriend for me? I think she might. If I quit my job, could I write my novel? With E. behind me, yes.

“Dreamed we did it on the checkout counter at Trader Joe’s on Valentine’s Day. Night-time. No one there but us. Smell of roses. No condom. She gasped as I …”

*

David chose his own readings for the creative writing class, but AP American Lit had a set list of texts. Red Badge of Courage. The Scarlet Letter. A handful of classic twentieth-century short stories. Today’s was “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” Not what he would have chosen.

“The pounding of the cylinders increased,” he read out loud: “ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa.” David prided himself on reading with dramatic flair.

“What literary device is Thurber using here?”

Kippy, the smarmy ass-kiss in the front row, raised his hand. “Alliteration?”

“No, not alliteration exactly. Good guess, Kippy.” Crown faculty members were encouraged to give positive feedback as often as possible. Dori Rinner had a handout on “Building Your Students’ Self-Esteem” that she distributed every September at Faculty Orientation.

“Repetition?”

“Well, there’s repetition, that’s true. Anybody remember the term we use for words that sound like what they’re describing?”

Their faces were blank.

“Onomatopoeia.” He wrote it on the board and dusted chalk off the sleeve of his sport coat. “Come back on Wednesday with four examples of onomatopoeia.” He knew they’d just Google onomatopoeia to find their examples, but it would keep them busy.

He remembered liking Thurber when he was a kid, but now Walter Mitty’s daydreams seemed hopelessly jejune. Surely kids of this generation were too cynical and sophisticated for Mitty’s heroics, though the henpecking wife got some laughs. Who dreamed of performing miraculous surgeries or piloting a Navy hydroplane? Maybe piloting a plane with a naked girl in your lap, legs straddling your waist, tits brushing your face, moaning in your ear. “Walter. Walter.”

*

He did the dishes without Sarah asking. Score one point. Took out the garbage. Two. Read a bunny story to Tommy at bedtime. Three. Only drank one beer. Four. David was feeling pretty good when he locked himself in his study. He arranged the essays he had to grade in two piles, opened the short story anthology to tomorrow’s reading, and rummaged through his backpack for his notebook. No notebook. He felt around again, and then dumped the contents of the pack onto the floor. The notebook wasn’t there. He unlocked his desk drawer, just in case it was there, though he was sure it couldn’t be. It wasn’t. Had he left it at work? He’d written in it that morning, his Berkeley cottage reverie. He remembered that. He tried to picture it on his desk at school. Had he shoved the notebook in the file drawer? His backpack? Did he pull it out at home? Had Sarah been in his study before dinner? She hadn’t been. She never came in his study, not even to clean. His heartbeat had accelerated and he breathed deeply to slow it down. He knew he was worrying too much. He’d check at school tomorrow.

He jotted down some ideas on a scrap of paper. “Add to notebook. Man hiking alone happens on girl who’s been bitten by rattler. He smashes snake with large rock. Slashes snake bite on her bare leg with his knife, sucks venom from wound. Licks her skin. Slowly moves his tongue up her inner thigh to crotch of her tight shorts. Picture E. here, strong biking legs, soft white skin, braid down to her ass.”

*

Keith’s newest story was on the floor when David unlocked his office door early the next morning.

There was a note at the top. “Hey David. I’m going for one of those 100-word flash stories you were talking about in class. Using all the senses. Also, could you write me a letter for Stanford? Form is attached.”

He plagiarized, then wanted a letter of recommendation? The gall of these kids. David skimmed the page.

“It was past closing time at Trader Joe’s on Valentine’s Day. The smell of roses overpowered the faint odor of rotting vegetables in the produce section. Pyramids of toasty oats loomed, ghostly in the semi-dark. E. had turned off all the lights and stripped off her clothes. She pushed D. down onto the checkout counter and lowered herself onto his bare cock. ‘I sing the body electric,’ she gasped. He didn’t care that he could lose his wife and kid. That he could lose his job. All that mattered was this moment. Hot, wet, all consuming. It was worth it.”

David’s gut clenched. Jesus Christ. He took a deep breath. Jesus.

He should have just flunked the little shit for plagiarism.

Was Keith threatening to take the notebook to his wife? Did he know where David lived? What if Keith told Dori Rinner? Could he really lose his job? He probably wouldn’t lose his job. He hadn’t actually done anything wrong in the classroom. But there was a morals clause in the contract. They could fire him for pretty much anything if they wanted to. Years of his disparaging remarks about the principal and board weren’t going to help.

His vision of the shared bungalow in Berkeley was fading. E. wasn’t going to take him in after this. They weren’t going to lounge in bed reading poems to each other. She probably didn’t even like poetry. Nobody was going to take him in. Nobody was going to hire a forty-something English major who’d been let go from Crown Country Day with no references. He’d end up working at McDonald’s to make his child support payments. He’d see Tommy two days a week if he was lucky. He’d live in a grim efficiency apartment somewhere in industrial Hayward, in a converted motel with sagging balconies and peeling paint.

Even in the midst of his panic, he couldn’t help but admire “the faint odor of rotting vegetables.” The kid had potential. He’d managed a finished piece from jottings, which was more than David had accomplished lately.

His stomach churned, and he put his hand on it, trying to still its gurgling.

Maybe all the kid wanted was the grade.

“‘A’ work,” he scrawled on the bottom of the story. “I knew you could do it, Keith. I’ll get to that letter today.”

He sat at his desk, looking at the story, and thought about how trite his sexual fantasies were, laid out on the page. This was going to be about more than the grade. The notebook was a gold mine for a wily bastard like Keith. How many more stories could Keith manage out of the notebook entries? Would he pass it on to his friends? Would they pass it on to the next generation of Crown students? Would he be reading this crap for years? They probably wouldn’t tell the principal. Why ruin a good thing?

“Fuck,” he said. “Fuck a duck.” He ran his hand through his hair. “Dog turd. Puppy biscuit.” He was losing his mind. Damn Walter Mitty and his puppy biscuit. He sniggered. “I am really up shit creek now, Walter.” Wherever that expression came from. Was there an onomatopoetic word for how he felt? Finito. Done for. Fucked.

When he’d taught the end of Walter Mitty he’d mentioned Hemingway’s “grace under pressure.” Okay, it was just Walter Mitty’s fantasy, but there he was, a hero in front of the firing squad, “erect and motionless, proud and disdainful, Walter Mitty the Undefeated, inscrutable to the last.” He refused the blindfold. He had some dignity. David imagined a crowd of spectators, E. sobbing among them, and straightened his shoulders. That’s how he would play this. He raised his chin and narrowed his eyes.

But there was no firing squad. There were no spectators but himself and a snotty teenager. Walter Mitty was still in fantasyland at the end of his story. Maybe he and E. would laugh about it all later, but David was pretty sure that wasn’t going to happen. He needed to buy another notebook. He pulled a memo pad out of the drawer and started to write. “The night was dark, but a streetlight shone through the window and he could see them in the faint illumination. She was sprawled on the desk, her long braid brushing one of her milky white breasts, her muscular legs wrapped around the boy’s ass. The boy’s red and white Stanford t-shirt was drenched with sweat as he pumped vigorously, butt cheeks clenching and unclenching. Ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa. ‘K.,’ she gasped. ‘E.,’ he moaned. ‘You’re awesome.’ Yes, it was E. And it was too late to do anything but write about it.”


 

About the Author: Jacqueline Doyle lives in the East Bay with her husband and son. Her fiction has appeared in The East Bay Review, Confrontation, Bluestem Quarterly, Toad Suck Review, Monkeybicycle, Tampa Review Online, Vestal Review, and is forthcoming in PANK. Find her online here: www.facebook.com/authorjacquelinedoyle.

Artwork: Paul Ebenkamp is author of The Louder the Room the Darker the Screen (Timeless, Infinite Light, 2015), “Four Colors for the Based God” (The Equalizer: Second Series, 2014), “Seizured in the Ease” (Mondo Bummer, 2013), and everything at afterundisclosedrecipients.blogspot.com, and is editor of a few books including Modernist Women Poets: An Anthology (Counterpoint, 2014) and Particulars of Place by Richard O. Moore (Omnidawn, 2015). With Andrew Kenower he curates the Woolsey Heights reading series, and with strings and devices makes music as Position.

 

 

 

Personal Injury by Kenneth Radu

PE - personal injury


Late for work like that frigging rabbit, except he was late for the Queen’s garden party—off with his head—and wouldn’t that solve some of her problems except decapitation was neither viable nor amusing. People would object, and her heart grieved for the poor men who had been beheaded in Iraq insofar as she could grieve at all for total strangers. She hadn’t cried when Princess Diana perished in a car crash and certainly hadn’t offered so much as a tear when Michael Jackson or Robin Williams died. We all died, and it was enough to deal with her own family and friends without phony lamentations over public figures, as if she had any attachment to them. Why did television commentators assume a mournful air and cobble together a hagiography of lies when a celebrity died? She had watched the spectacle of public grieving often enough on television, thousands delighting in sorrow of questionable purpose. Don’t get her on the subject of Facebook friends who wanted to inform everyone about each and every operation and pain and demise of their pets and parents. She had often been tempted to post notice of her own death just to see what the hundreds of total stranger-friends would say and who would delete her profile from their list of stranger-friends. It was about time she cancelled Facebook altogether as she had ceased caring one whit for postings or statuses. She hadn’t even bothered to log on this past month. Really! Could this train go any slower? And it was beginning to smell of passengers packed—no, she wouldn’t resort to the proverbial sardine analogy—she quite liked sardine and onion sandwiches with a bit of pickle; although, she’d never take them to work for lunch. One’s breath, after all, and no one she knew ate sardines and onions, at least not in public, not in a world of salads, sushi, and Mediterranean fusion.

Late, late, late: her supervisor had advised, advised was the word he used, that her lateness aroused concern in the office. Whose concern? Was it anyone else’s business except her employer’s that she was late? Last week it was indeed three days: ten minutes on the first day, and a half hour on the two other days, and neither bit of tardiness could be attributed to the subway train, not like today. And it wouldn’t have been much faster driving all the way downtown to work, getting choked in highway traffic and paying exorbitant parking fees. The kids had been especially difficult getting ready for school on the first day. She had misplaced her car keys on the second day, and had rushed up and down the stairs three times searching for them. In the Toronto Transit parking lot she had driven between dozens of rows of cars on the third day until she eventually found a spot, the farthest distance from the subway entrance, and then broke a heel as she scurried through the doors. Damn! She bought a cheap pair of shoes—if $100 could be considered cheap—during her lunch hour from which she was late returning to work, inducing a scowl from her boss, a man who had once wanted to date her years ago, and even now; although, it couldn’t really be called harassment, by look and occasional shoulder touch intimated possibilities if she was keen—a forty year old mother of two raucous pubescent boys—a husband often conveniently away on business trips—convenient for him because where was he when she needed help—if she was keen, indeed. She did her work well, but chronic lateness affected attitudes and led to consequences. If she were to die suddenly on the spot, wouldn’t that interfere with her boss’s plans of seduction? She had half a mind…well, keep to the sunny side of the street except she was underground and still breathing.

She had lost five minutes this morning waiting for the train at her station because it was running late, and then there had been a delay of several minutes a few stations down the line, and now this! Exiting from the tunnel and entering the station, the train had braked fiercely like some kind of rampaging dragon who at the last moment had changed its mind and wanted to reverse direction. Adam, her younger boy of twelve, spent hours on some sort of computer dragon game, which she should really stop because there were other things in life besides stupid games, but it kept him occupied, and somehow, although she didn’t check, the homework got done. The doors didn’t immediately slide open and she could see the crowd on the platform turning its collective head and surging en masse towards one end of the platform rather than push forward to the yet unopened doors of the train. Then the announcement blared forth: the train could not proceed. Passengers would have to disembark and take a shuttle bus to another station because a personal injury had occurred.

Everyone knew what that meant. She heard a groan rumble through the densely packed car like some kind of subterranean creature stirring in the bowels of the earth. Where on earth did she get these analogies? Rabbits and dragons and bowels: her sons watched Lord of the Rings repeatedly. She had tried to, but wizards and elves, however cute, failed to maintain her interest for long. The orcs always reminded her that she needed to take out the garbage or scour the toilet bowls. God forbid Jason, who at thirteen knew how to make a mess, should volunteer to do the laundry. She issued commands to the heedless, then entered into a verbal fray, winning in the end, but her brain had twisted itself into knots. Why would he fight her so? They didn’t act that way with their father, when he was home, less and less it seemed, and if she didn’t know better, she’d suspect him of having a bit on the side, delaying his return by, say, someone like Jasmine in her office, a pretty thing who never wore the same shade of nail polish two days in a row. Nonsense, of course, she trusted her husband, and anyway, what she didn’t know didn’t hurt. But she could use help with the boys and the garbage, and a cleaning woman cost too much, and all the frigging fairies and elves in the world were not about to offer assistance. She knew some women who paid for domestic help, but she couldn’t abide the thought of a stranger in her house when she wasn’t there. Better to live in chaos than risk privacy. Well, what did she have to hide aside from unused sexual gizmos in her night table and a couple of porn discs her husband had brought home from Germany during which she had fallen asleep while watching?

Poor soul, sad, tsk, tsk, there goes another one, she heard various comments as passengers crushed their way off the train and up the stairs to the shuttle bus. She didn’t know who the soul was—that information wouldn’t be immediately available, and she wasn’t a vulture gawking over the edge at whatever bloody remains remained—or whether the person suffering the personal injury was poor or wealthy or even had a soul. She never gave the question of soul much consideration and didn’t know what people meant when they talked soul or spirit, but their smarmy self-congratulations set her teeth on edge. Look, I have a soul, I am spiritual, don’t you know? And why should people really care about a total stranger? It made no sense. Everyone and her sister clucked their tongues over catastrophes and decapitations and offered, as the saying went, “thoughts and prayers.” She gave a passing thought, but no prayer: prayer to what, for what, to what purpose? As far as she knew prayer never changed the weather or made the world run on time. What on earth could it do to save a man’s head? She had seen nothing of the incident, felt nothing, knew nothing. Except someone’s personal injury had exacerbated her mood and lengthened her delays and she could have screamed.

Why did people make such public nuisances of themselves if they were miserable enough to jump in front of a subway or any other train? Was she heartless? Had she no care? No compassion? She had as much compassion as the next person, donating money to a shelter for the homeless every Christmas, and joining the anti-Cancer walkathons in her hundred and fifty dollar jogging shoes. She had allowed a friend to stay at her place for an entire week while finalizing her divorce papers, too upset to live in the cramped condo on the lakeshore alone. Who wouldn’t be upset, living alone in 500 square foot space with granite counter tops and stainless steel appliances, eighteen floors above a polluted lake and a congested thoroughfare? She, for one, would have leaped off the balcony, and fortunately she didn’t have a balcony because temptation always, well, tempted. Who would care? Her sons no doubt would put on glum faces like Hallowe’en masks and walk behind her coffin the way Princess Diana’s sons had impressively walked in their mother’s cortege. Her husband, yes, yes, they still loved each other, and she admitted that she missed his presence in bed even though he could learn to undertake household chores with something approximating—she almost said soul but chose the word willingness instead. Some friends would also grieve, friends whose lives were as choked up with busyness and children and computer games and work as hers. Where was the time to sit back and read a book, the one she tried to read every night in bed when Boris wasn’t home, a prize winner, won a lot of money, so it had to be worth one’s time, everyone said so, although boredom soon crept in as she tried to get involved in a convoluted plot and endless analysis about nothing in particular and she began dozing off after fifteen pages, and she had three hundred more of them to wade through.

Already late, extracting herself from the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd, she decided to walk as her office was just minutes away from the museum, a ten walk stroll from the St. George station out of which she emerged in a blast of cool September sunlight like Persephone getting up from the underground bed she had shared with Hades, that dark, alluring lover, and climbing to the surface for a bit of fresh air. If she remembered correctly from her university days—and the university campus spread across the street—it was hardly a love affair, since the girl had been carried off against her will. How closely related the words rape, rapture, and enraptured, the rape of Proserpina or Persephone, whatever her name. Did they all come from the same source? She’d have to investigate, and who would do a better job than she because research and fact verification was her job at the professional editing business where she clicked at three computers searching the world wide web simultaneously while she also flipped through pages of encyclopedia and answered phone calls and verified the work of her colleagues who were not quite her equal—her office depended upon her expertise. She decided to find the origin of all three words that moment as she waited on the corner of Bloor and Avenue road for the light to change, directly across from the monumentally angular glass addition to the museum, and remembered a painting she had seen in art class. The word rape meant “seized” and “carried off” as much as it did sexual violation, an obvious consequence of Sabine women being carried off by Roman soldiers on horseback who had more than mere canters and companionship in mind. When she had mentioned such a likelihood in class, her art professor had sniffed that her speculation lay outside the realm of the canvas, and proceeded to expound on the remarkable, diagonal muscularity of horses and arms and other compositional glories. She could have violated the professor then and there, smacking the side of his condescension with her hefty Jansen’s History of Art.

With children’s activities, shopping for groceries, a fridge crammed with condiments like mango-peach chutneys and tamari sauce or truffle flavoured Dijon mustard, half of which she threw out anyway, charity walks, commuting to and from work, housekeeping because someone had to sort out the mess which challenged even her own laissez faire attitude, visiting poor mom with galloping dementia in the nursing home, precious little time remained for art. She couldn’t remember her last visit to the Ontario gallery, even when she wanted to see a special exhibit, because her life from day to day didn’t allow it. Boris had promised to take her to New York for a weekend when they could find someone to stay with the kids for that period, one of the casualties of moving away from parents. Boris’s parents and her dad all engaged in being active seniors on the go, which seemed to entail snow birding in RV’s to Texas or wearing baseball caps and pastels on a golf course like her father, ignoring their grandchildren except for the fussy and formal Christmas visits. And don’t let her get started about Christmas when she had Thanksgiving to survive yet. They all expected dinner at her place. Except for poor mom, of course, who might as well be dead as her brain had effectively turned to stone, or some such thing. Last night, after the boys reluctantly kissed their grandmother’s cheek then resorted to the lounge where they blocked themselves off from the boring world with their digital devices waiting for their mom to finish her visit, she had spent a half hour holding the old woman’s hand, trying to feed her soup, wiping up the mess on her chin, and talking as if her mother understood—everyone said of course she understood—yes, well, really?

Stepping off the curb, her eyes riveted on the piercing glint of the glass building jutting out from the corner, she was startled by the car horn. Did it matter that pedestrians enjoyed the right of way. What cab driver gave that a moment’s thought in his frenzy to make a right hand turn, almost running over her toes? She should have worn steel-toed boots, had chosen open toe heels instead, a bit cool, given the weather, but the morning sun had suggested a light touch in her general wardrobe, and she had selected a print cotton dress, belted, with a matching sweater. Sunlight streaked across the glass museum addition and she remembered the controversy about how inappropriate the design was for the exhibits inside exposed to the ravages of light, so they mounted specially designed blinds to block it out as if the dinosaur bones would melt under the glass. The last time she had visited the museum, her boys had scurried about the corridors and exhibits like demented gremlins, and she even lost them for fifteen minutes as the small-headed brontosaurus caught her fancy: such a big body and minuscule brain, great lumbering, grass-eating sweetheart. Traffic, traffic, and people pushing into her, even though several apologized, because in all their furious rushing they hadn’t forgotten common courtesy, not all, but some had, and she begged one’s pardon if she happened to jostle a stranger. Was there such a thing as sidewalk rage? In her neighbourhood, she could walk three blocks without greeting a single person, just lawns and trees, as if the population had been sucked up and vaporized in space. She didn’t mind that at all. What was not to like about sauntering down the street without bumping into bodies? Without having to dodge cars? Without risk of personal injury?

She was late and her boss sat on her desk, the three monitors each bright with their individual screen savers, the orange and blue phosphorescent fish glinting and swerving being her favourite, his arms crossed over his pink Italian silk tie. The man bought his clothes in Bloor Street and Yorkville boutiques, the kind that did not display the price tags in the window, and she was certain that he dyed his hair because what man over the age of fifty wouldn’t be either balding or greying? Had he ever really forgiven her for rejecting his advances: not that they amounted to harassment or snatching in any Roman sense of the word, but his flirtations had been laced with expectations and assumptions, and heavily perfumed with a belief in his own irresistibility. And she couldn’t imagine any rapture as a consequence of submitting, but men didn’t take refusals lightly, did they? She’d have to consult a magazine or website to verify that generalization. The other workers all ceased doing whatever they were doing as soon as she entered, and they stared. Sweet Jasmine with lime green nail polish had stopped preening herself in the computer monitor, turned her swivel chair, and fixed her eyes like a statue in a temple alcove.

She knew what was coming. Well, in her defense she could have recited any number of reasons why, not least the incident of personal injury in the subway, some miserable soul had flung or leaped or fallen into the way of the oncoming train. Surely her boss must have experienced such an event himself; he’d understand the ensuing delays. Even he used public transit for all his designer labels. But what was the point? Someone please tell her, what was the frigging point? Why had her life evolved in such a way that regardless of her abilities and desires to do something utterly remarkable—no, not bring joy to people’s lives or discover the formula for world peace, she never desired to be a beauty queen spouting inanities from a glitzy stage—but to be more than a fact checker, a glorified reference librarian in an editorial house that corrected other people’s work and even signed ghost writing contracts for athletes and quasi-moronic celebrities who actually took themselves seriously as artists—everyone was an artist these days—and they sounded off, being all of twenty-three and ready to publish a first biography. What on earth did they know about anything except hotel suites, drugs, and camera angles?

She left without clearing out her desk: photos of the boys, a package of spearmint gum, a gold compact, a little teak box in which she kept stamps and paperclips, a paperback copy of Jane Eyre, which she had read a dozen times since high school. She admired Jane who at least had the courage to find her own way, poor child, and suffer the consequences, and who also recoiled from sacrificing her passion on the altar of the sanctimonious missionary, St. John Rivers, smart girl, and she had always thrilled to the story of the madwoman in the attic and the house catching fire and all that money dropping like a deus ex machina to improve everyone’s life.

Even though she had lived a good life, no money manna had fallen on her head. She refused to buy lottery tickets. They lived beyond their means, oversized house, vacations, activities for the boys, and restaurants when Boris bothered to take her, and her own wages barely covered weekly groceries and subway tokens. Boris’s income, larger of course, still did not meet all their expenses. Sure, they’d managed well enough on credit cards and juggling of payments. They could cut back on their monthly cell phone and cable television bill, they weren’t about to be thrown out on the streets, and she still dropped loonies in the hats of beggars in the subway, being no where near their state of poverty. With her expertise and experience, she’d find another job, but she could feel blood rise in her cheeks as she quietly shut the office door behind her, regretting that she hadn’t at least taken the picture and the teak box, a memento from a trip somewhere—where on earth had she bought it?—What were the chances of being rehired? Even if she promised never to be late again—well, promised to try not to be late very often—because after all life did not run on a boss’s office schedule, did it? No, it damn well didn’t. Sometimes the train had to stop in its tracks unexpectedly

The metaphor rumbling through her head as she crossed the intersection reminded her of the subway this morning, the cause of her dismissal. Perhaps not the sole cause, but if she hadn’t been late this morning, she would not have been fired. The personal injury of a total stranger had an impact on her life, or was that impacted her life? She always believed that “impacted” had something to do with dental work and remembered the cost of braces for her boys because perfectly straight teeth as white as polished pearls seemed to be some sort of universal law she had to obey. It cost a fortune to meet the beauty standards of advertising and she wished she had not been so susceptible because, really, what did it all amount to? Everyone would rot in their grave sooner or later: to this favour, you will come, if she remembered Hamlet’s words correctly, even if you paint an inch thick. She applied her own cosmetics with a light hand because she wanted to appear as attractive as the next woman, and how on earth would she get a decent job if her looks failed her?

Digging out her last token from a purse that had cost more than she gave to charity, she inserted it in the slot and pushed through the turnstile of the Museum station relieved that the cause of this morning’s delay had been removed, and everything had returned to schedule. At the bottom of the stairs, she flipped a few loonies into the yellow margarine tub of a beggar who seemed to be dressed in two or three of everything, as if he spent the day wearing his entire wardrobe, no single piece of which, given her eye for detail and fashion, blended or matched with another. She hated the oily lankness of his hair, but presumably beggars did not have immediate access to daily showers, and his smile revealed the need for dental work. She didn’t care if he was a con artist or not; he could well be suffering from chronic alcoholism or drug addiction or mental problems, for all she knew. He could have been kicked out of an institution that had closed because of government cut backs, or perhaps he had lost everything of value in his life for one compelling reason or another, including a supportive family if ever he had one, and he was doing what she herself was doing, trying to get by. Begging was work as much as tapping computer keys or pushing products no one needed, and in all probability he was no more manipulative or dishonest than bankers and brokers and advertisers, all with their hands in her purse in one way or another. She didn’t envy him, whether mendicant or mendacious, standing or sitting for hours in a subway station, depending on hurried and harried throngs of people for a few coins. Hardly a wise career choice, not a very profitable use of one’s time if he was scamming, which she didn’t believe he was, so his options were limited.

On the subway platform, standing between pillars designed to look like Egyptian pharaohs, she could have cried from utter exhaustion over being who she was and what the rest of the week, month, and year could possibly be like. It loomed large—she loved the phrase—it loomed large, the future, like a putrid Orc hovering over a bridge she needed to cross. Her boss didn’t even have the courtesy of firing her in private but made a public example of her tardiness.

Remembering that she had to drive her sons in the family van to their soccer game after supper of frozen lasagne heated in the microwave filled her with such instant and ravishing horror that she stepped to the edge of the platform, and stared down at the brassy and black tracks, trying to think of alternatives. Images of Anna Karenina at a wintry train station in Russia gathered together like a computer game of building blocks, not the novel which she hadn’t read, but the movie versions: first Greta Garbo, whining for Count Vronsky’s love for whom she had renounced respectability and her child, and who had clearly grown bored with her, the prick; then Vivien Leigh playing the same role a decade later, and just last year Keira Knightley’s rendition of the lady’s struggle to live a life of passion rather than mere convention and numbness. In the end, confronted with betrayal and desertion, the utter dissolution of what she had sacrificed so much for, Anna heard the train approach as if in a dream, just as the wind blew out of the subway tunnel as it always did and the subway train rumbled into the light and the tracks glowed like bars of fire glinting in Anna’s eyes as she fell.

Electrocution would not have been an issue on the 19th century Russian tracks. Times had changed. Wasn’t the entire world electrified these days? If she flung her body to hit the tracks, would it jolt and jerk as electrical charges sparked through her muscles and exploded her veins? She knew so little about how things worked. The shock would be momentary, an evanescence consumed by the ravaging train and ensuing darkness. Maybe it was mere fancy of the moment or the force of the wind blasting out of the tunnel, but she saw herself, the sole audience of her private drama, she saw herself just drop down, not even expending the energy to fling or leap or jump, just drop down and end all the shocks which flesh was heir to. Taking a deep breath the way she had learned in her Yoga classes, she checked her wristwatch out of habit, its clock face surrounded by miniature zircons. Jostled, she begged someone’s pardon, and stepped aside to let passengers out before she entered the almost empty car and the door slid shut.

II

Although he had occupied his begging post, as he privately called it, since early morning, he hadn’t witnessed the plunge over the edge or noticed anything amiss. He rarely raised his eyes above knee level and he liked to huddle as if wrapped up in a kind of invisible cloak with his own thoughts to keep him company. The thickening and thinning of crowds, the brush of bags and briefcases against his shoulders, the heady combination of scents and sweat, the infinite variety of boots and shoes: all these concentrated his view. Besides, that little girl had stood and stared in front of him, her running shoes glittering with pink and green lights when she moved, until her mother yanked her aside with the words, “stay away from that man.” The train’s shuddering to a stop and the doors not immediately opening didn’t break into his comfort zone until he heard the official announcement about a personal injury. The double doors parted to release a collective gasp and he looked up. Another one, he thought. Who could tell which of the passers-by, which of the hundreds and thousands of commuters had chosen this moment, this place, or if it had been someone who had first dropped a coin in his tub before tipping over the edge?

He lowered his eyes again because what did it have to do with him? He had enough troubles and he had learned through experience and a fist in the jaw that eye contact could provoke an attack. Suffering a bloody nose and broken incisor the last time, and robbed three or four times in the past couple of years, he had not been recently assautled. A few people emerging from the train paused long enough to flip coins in the tub, so that was okay. When the police and transit authorities arrived at the scene of the personal injury, he decided it was best to decamp. Two officers first stood over him and asked him questions, but he convinced them that he knew nothing, had seen nothing, and they let him go.

Climbing the stairs, his back slightly hunched, he could smell his own body odour like old cabbage with a hint of curry, probably the residual aroma from last night’s curried cabbage at the kitchen where he had also eaten mashed potatoes, lumpy gravy and leathery liver, not his favourite food, but, hey, beggars couldn’t be choosers. He should have stayed long enough to shower, but there had been a line up, and he had showered four days ago. Well, maybe his clothes reeked a bit of the St. Vincent de Paul bins, that, and body sweat because he found it more convenient to wear his three shirts and two pairs of shapeless wrinkled khakis and two suit jackets, the outer one brown with the shiny elbows two sizes larger than the snug inner tweedy one with frayed cuffs. The September mornings could be cool, and this way, he didn’t have to cart a shopping bag full of old clothes, although he admitted a bag of some sort would be convenient like any of those black cases or satchels so many train passengers carried. He could stuff all sorts of useful items in it, but it would be an item to watch over and maybe arouse unfriendly curiosity.

Anyway, his stomach grumbled. Emerging from the underground, he pushed through the door to the street, then counted his take, nine dollars and fifty-five cents collected in two hours, not bad, and the day was far from over. He began his daily quest for a meal, at least something edible to stave off hunger until the evening. He coughed, spat out a wad of phlegm and wondered if he was coming down with bronchitis again, a recurring problem. He had actually quit smoking a few years ago because of the expense and also because of the chronic coughing. The sun, warm despite the chill in the air, refreshed his lungs, and his legs gained strength as he trudged along Bloor towards Spadina where he enjoyed a good chance of finding food. Behind the back of sympathetic restaurants, he waited for a friendly waiter to dump the kitchen trash in the big cans, often consisting of food left on customer’s dishes. A few restaurants had a hostile policy of chasing him away, a few others sent boxes of the day’s unused food to a couple of shelters for the homeless, but that was at the end of the day and he needed something to eat before then, having missed breakfast. He could have slept at the shelter. There had been an available bed, but he preferred to spend as little time around the Sally Ann soldiers of Christ as possible. Not that he cared one way or the other about Jesus, don’t get him wrong, he just liked to keep to himself in the morning and not be hustled or advised in any way, even if it meant finding a deserted shed or bench or church porch and missing the shelter’s breakfast of hot porridge. Couldn’t remember the last time he had bacon. In winter he’d have to compromise his personal taste because no beggar wanted his balls frozen.

He didn’t hold his tub out on the street and took a dim view of fellow mendicants who approached pedestrians for a hand-out. They always aroused his suspicions in any case, something about their attire, their general look, he couldn’t put a finger on it. Not all of them, because a couple of gals in the shelter said they preferred to work the street rather than station themselves in one spot where the likelihood of being hassled was all the greater. People moved along on the street, whether they stopped to give a coin or brushed past you, and no one had ever given them a hard time on the sidewalk: oh, sure, harsh words now and then and if they paused too long in front of a store, owners harangued them away. That went with the occupation and they all joked about it in the shelter before going out again. A few had been saved by the Sally Ann, cleaned up, instructed, and changed their lives for the better, including former friends who disappeared from his life as if he had never existed, as if they had not flushed the same toilet in the shelter or scraped the bottom of the porridge bowl at the same table. Not one to judge, what right had he in any case? Locating his favourite restaurant where the waiters had been kind in the past and the owner didn’t mind his presence and waited just steps away from the assemblage of trash cans. He used to thread his way among the fruit and vegetable stalls of Kensington market, picking up an apple or orange or even a Jamaican paddy, but he preferred the quiet of the back doors and a fully cooked meal of left overs.

After getting food he’d return to the subway, hoping things had returned to normal although he could choose another station except he didn’t want to tread on a fellow beggar’s toes or invade someone else’s territory. In the tunnel at that station, whoever had sustained a personal injury must have been pretty desperate, he figured, and sympathized because he had imagined how easier life would be if he simply blanked out. Vanished. Feel nothing at all, especially not the ache in his sides after prolonged coughing. He dredged up another gob of yellowish phlegm just as the back door opened and out strode a whistling young waiter in tight black pants and blousy white shirt carrying an orange garbage bag held away from his body as if he didn’t want to come into contact with the contents. The beggar had never seen him before and the waiter ignored him as he dropped the bag in a large dented can, and then went back in. Not so much as a how do you do. He spewed out the phlegm and decided that he had to buy a coffee and bottle of water before returning to this station. Maybe cough drops.

He had been young himself once, and even had a job at the railway yards, and other places, for it had always been difficult to keep a job for more than a few months. A gaggle of sharp-beaked thoughts screeched and beat against his eardrums, or he slipped into a semi-coma from tedium and lost track of his place and purpose, until they fired him. He also had friends who found jobs, their wages not much better than his own weekly earnings, so here he was opening the lid of a garbage can, sorting through the garbage in the orange bag and extracting not only partially eaten, barbecued chicken breasts and legs, but also a soft roll that had been nibbled, a large handful of greasy fries, clumps of vinegary coleslaw, other still edible tidbits on which, as no one was looking, he gorged himself, maybe eating too fast, but one didn’t linger over one’s meal by the garbage can. There had been so many roads and byways, detours taken, dead ends met, hopes deferred, decisions soured, that he wouldn’t have been able to chart the how and why of his journey from the moment he had run away from home at fifteen to this moment here, gnawing on a still useful chicken leg standing above a trash can.

Not prone to nostalgia, he nonetheless regretted the loss of a room on Gerrard Street, which had a sink stuck in the wall, a toilet in a closet, a bed, a table and chair and two burner hot plate, within walking distance of a library that had allowed him to sit in the reference room as long as he read a book. That had been no pain at all, because even if he had difficulty focusing on the page and following the sentences from beginning to end, he could pretend for a few hours, and it was a relief from harsh winds and icy temperatures. He couldn’t remember why, but the landlord had evicted him, even though he was sure he had earned enough money to pay the rent, even though it was getting harder and harder to make ends meet until one day it seemed they were so far apart he might as well stop trying. Which reminded him that he had better hurry and get back to work. The more time he spent eating, the less money he collected. Other beggars could steal his place if he stayed away too long. The Sally Ann was well and good, but money improved one’s options. He had enough wit to understand that, and people shouldn’t assume that because he was sometimes confused he was also stupid. He knew how the world worked, fuck, you didn’t live on the street without learning how the world really worked, something he probably knew better than all those thousands of passengers spewing out of the trains every morning. Except Sundays it was quiet and he preferred, weather permitting, to spend time in the parks if the cops didn’t hassle him, buy a bun and coffee from a vendor, and walk and sit for as long as possible before thinking about where to go for a meal and a bed.

It didn’t take much to buy a clean bed at another shelter about a mile from here with no Christ in it, on the other side of the Don River, a kind of half-way house for the homeless. He never understood what half-way meant. He was either in it, or out of it, he didn’t straddle the threshold. He needed a bed all the way, maybe he was missing something here. One old geezer, now dead, said you weren’t supposed to be spending all your time time here, like it was a place only to stop a bit until you found something definite. Definite? He didn’t know about definite. What was definite? He had thought his room on Gerrad Street was definite, even one of his jobs, which one he couldn’t remember, but they had all disappeared anyway. That place on the other side of the river, the one with pots of flowers on the porch, charged a very modest fee to help ends meet, and cooked one mean stew most days. Good people, too. He remembered that he’d have to take a streetcar, although not too certain of which street, but hell he’d find his way if he walked.

Crossing the intersection, he refrained from spitting on the road, ignoring a mail van beeping its horn and another car braking suddenly and also beeping, such fuckin’ ear-crunching noise. Inattentive to the lights, he had crossed on a red, something he didn’t realize until he looked up, then hurried to the other side. Would it have mattered if either vehicle had hit and knocked him flat, maybe crushed his skull? As long as it didn’t hurt. No, of course, it wouldn’t have mattered. People perished by the second and who’d give a fuck for a shabby stranger? Anyway, he reminded himself to pay attention because he didn’t want to die. If he did, why would he bother begging in the first place and trying to gather a few coins to make his day easier? Now that person this morning in the subway would have suffered a similar personal injury and he wondered how much pain a shattering head caused. But such thoughts entered and fled his whirligig of a brain, along with the sounds of brilliantly feathered birds and whispering caterpillars on mulberry leaves and whiskey bottles bursting open because someone had thrown themself against a wall and radio DJ’s nattering like lunatics. At least he wasn’t one of those, for he couldn’t stand too many words at one time, and what the fuck were they talking about anyway? People looked at him like he was crazy. He knew he wasn’t, but life on the streets over the years had compromised his appearance and attention span, and he simply didn’t think anymore like the rest of the world. He wasn’t crazy though, shit no, for he knew what he had to do in this town to get a buck and how quickly it could be taken away. Basic economic facts: he he could survive as long as no one beat the shit out of him and stole the day’s earnings.

He strode into a pharmacy to buy Buckley’s cough drops, the only thing that soothed his throat, and as soon as he entered he became aware of being watched. Not by the store mirrors hanging like saucers from the ceiling, or the cameras catching every move in every aisle, but by the cashier, two customers waiting to pay, and a blue-smocked clerk who stopped stocking the shelf when he slipped by in the cold remedy section. The glaring whiteness of the store’s fluorescent lighting system eliminated shadows and shadings, emphasizing facial flaws so customers, regardless of complexion, looked bleached or shell-shocked. He had read in the library reference room that fluroescent lights had been first used in morgues, allowing pathologists a clear view of deathly pallor. The condition of his skin, marked by spidery red filaments and brown splotches, no longer troubled him. What fifty-year old man living on the streets worried about his looks? If he wandered among the shelves too long, he knew he’d arouse suspicions, but he was able to find what he wanted, including a cheap box of tissue, without having to ask for help. They wouldn’t have looked twice at him if he wore a suit of clothes like the ones displayed in Bloor street shop windows, even though he knew as well as anyone the real thieves of the world dressed to kill. He read about them daily in newspapers retrieved from subway trash bins or left on park benches. The clerk scanned the bar codes and announced the total. Consisting of purple and green streaks, her hair reminded him a a bird he saw once at the Riverdale Zoo. Her lips covered in a black glaze parted as if surprised by his five dollar bill, but she dropped the change on the counter and not in his outstretched palm.

Finding his familiar spot in the station, he sat cross-legged, leaning against the wall, wishing he had bought a magazine from the pharmacy and a bag of humbugs, his favourite candy because they lasted. He couldn’t remember the last time he had visited a dentist and, despite brushing at the shelter or rinsing his mouth out several times a day with water from a public fountain, he winced over the: pain cutting through his gums when he least expected it. He was already sucking on a medicinal lozenge, which seemed to suppress his coughing for a time. His reading, though, of a new magazine, put people off. He sensed their disapproval even before they made it: if he read, he was probably educated, a man who could get a job, he was a con artist, or some shit like that. Well, he had a job. As much as anyone on the train: he got up in the morning no matter where he had slept, and found his way to work, and stayed there to acquire sufficient funds for his needs, then went to his home or half-way house, or spent the night in a park, and he returned the next day. No one suffered because of his work. He didn’t lie, cheat, steal or grasp after gold, and was not controlled and shaped by bosses and maybe, if he had been inclined to pursue the thought, he’d even say he enjoyed a kind of freedom on the bottom rung. Sometimes he felt a kind of sympathy for all those other workers who didn’t do what he did, because it must be difficult to get up every morning, knowing you had to do a thousand and one things before stepping out the door, then facing the crush on the trains, scurrying about all day, or, worse, confined to a chair, and now and then have everything come to a halt and your entire day just collapsed in front of your eyes. His day never collapsed because it already lay there at his feet like a crumpled sheet, so with no expectations he experienced no disappointments.

That woman dropped a few loonies in the tub. He had raised his face and smiled a thank you although she probably didn’t see because no one really looked at him, not even if they gave him coins. Hoping for another five dollar bill, as the loonies added up, and so did all the quarters and dimes, he sensed that people weren’t in the giving vein today. That one woman with the open toe shoes seemed to be in a hurry, not bad looking he noticed through carefully raised eyes, and he’d do her if she had given him half a chance, but that wasn’t likely. Couldn’t remember the last time he got laid, but there had been a time, fuck, what time, when, where, who; he hadn’t always been sitting on his haunches or leaning against the tiled subway wall with an empty margarine tub begging for coins. He didn’t always smell of musty clothes and cabbage. Some days the police hustled him out of the station, depending upon their mood, sometimes they left him alone. He didn’t perform like buskers with their nerve-crunching violins or accordions who got official approval to perform. They usually made more money than he, but they weren’t homeless: a couple were music students, so they told him when he struck up a conversation. Seemed friendly enough but they kept their distance as if proximity to a real beggar exposed them to contagion. He didn’t want anyone getting mad at him or causing any kind of hassle and arousing the attention of cops who popped out of commuting crowds when least expected.

He stood up to ease the tension in his legs and then he resumed squatting, for interior positions elicited more generosity than equal stature, which he had learned some people thought presumptuous, and it must be getting late because his stomach growled as it had earlier and he wondered where he should eat. Sardines:his mother used to unwind the lid of four Brunswick sardine cans with a key, remove the fish, roll them on a plate of flour, then quickly fry them. A treat. The last time he had looked for sardines he couldn’t find the tins with a key attached, so he’d need a can opener. For the sake of balanced nutrition, he should buy an apple and banana and a carton of milk, and a whole wheat bun or two. He no longer substituted drugs or booze for food, that was a saving grace. A struggle, and his body had hell to pay, but aside from a toke, if available, if offered by any one he knew, he didn’t do drugs, and he had stopped drinking, not even a beer anymore. Some fruit would be a good idea. Prevent scurvy, he chuckled, worried about his teeth and gums. People died from bad gums and rotting teeth, he had read.

Merchants in Kensington market sometimes threw him an orange or apple, but he didn’t care to walk there today. Of course, there were a few soup kitchens and the Sally Ann, but he had a mind to wander this evening, perhaps in the ravine cutting through Rosedale where he could stare up at the lights of the splendid homes of the wealthy as if they were spaceships glinting through the branches of trees inhabited by alien beings. Unless hustled out by authorities, he could stroll inside the palatial Union Station, and later cross a bridge over the Don River where a half way house stood to give him a hot meal. Maybe play cribbage with a friendly resident, maybe get a bed. Not all doors were closed to him.


About the Author: Kenneth Radu has published fiction, poetry and non-fiction, including his first collection of stories, The Cost of Living, shortlisted for Canada’s Governor General’s Award. His second collection A Private Performance and his first novel Distant Relations both received the Quebec Writers’ Federation Award for best English-language fiction. He is now working on a new manuscript of stories, which will include Personal Injury, and continues to live out of the lime and other dimmer lights on the outskirts of an obscure village.

Artwork: Paul Ebenkamp is author of The Louder the Room the Darker the Screen (Timeless, Infinite Light, 2015), “Four Colors for the Based God” (The Equalizer: Second Series, 2014), “Seizured in the Ease” (Mondo Bummer, 2013), and everything at afterundisclosedrecipients.blogspot.com, and is editor of a few books including Modernist Women Poets: An Anthology (Counterpoint, 2014) and Particulars of Place by Richard O. Moore (Omnidawn, 2015). With Andrew Kenower he curates the Woolsey Heights reading series in Berkeley, and with strings and devices makes music as Position.

The Water or the Wife by Jordan E. Rosenfeld

PE - the water or the wife (final)


Justine’s feet burn in the wrong shoes—the lucky red boots with turquoise tips, boots that usually tempt the fates, call on rain gods to drench the soft leather. She couldn’t bring herself to wear sandals in winter.

“Never seen a February look like July,” says the farmer, reaching up to touch the curling edges of a peach tree, clucking, shaking his head. The heat baked hills shimmer, yellow as though with fever, the land gaunt and thin under the abnormal sun.

Buds like new breasts peek between leaves. “Peaches fooled into coming on early.” He inhales hard. Then rubs the still-green nubs, a sweep with the thumb, not too rough. “No damn rain to keep them alive.”

Heat lines glaze the horizon of trees, as though this orchard is a mirage. Stone fruit were always her favorite in summer, oozing their juice, staining summer dresses pink.

“Miss? You have questions for me?”

Justine shakes herself like a dog after a bath. “Sorry. First day back on the job after a year.” Her voice sounds hoarse, still scraped with lack of use. Communication at home with Nate happens in whispers and grunts, their own sign language of least contact.

He chuckles softly. “Doesn’t bother me. I talk to trees and goats more’n people. You took a sabbatical? An illness?”

A stab of surprise at his bold asking. “An accident. Lost someone.” Her throat feels sliced from the saying so, first time aloud to a stranger in a year. For a moment she can’t swallow around that hurt.

“That’s a damn shame.” He cocks his head skyward. “Too much damn loss.” He looks up at the tree overhead which reaches down new leaves like a lover tickling his scalp.

She realizes he’s giving her a moment to herself.

A man of good humor, Justine thinks. She’s forgotten what it’s like to be around one. Focus, she prods herself. Feels the slender recorder in her pocket; pulls it out. Digital now, none of the heft of the old machines. She holds it up toward him slightly, as though offering a cigarette.

He leans in, his lips close to the silver box. “I may be out of a job end of this summer.” Dark green eyes fold into furrows of brow. “Family’s had Stone Fruit Orchard seventy years. Survived blight, competition, some minor droughts and even a fire. But now the county’s going to end a legacy by taking our water away.”

“Water district told me you have wells,” she says. No taking sides. Just the facts, Justine reminds herself, though she’s already stepped over the dry line toward her subject. He’s wearing blue and white plaid shorts in February, flip-flops. His calves are ropey and browned; she suddenly yearns to see them flex, climb a ladder up into the waiting trees. She sleeps as far as possible from her own husband at night, two castaways on separate continents, but now, here, she wants to slide her arm around this stranger’s shoulder, knows how the soft jersey knit t-shirt will feel beneath her fingers. She imagines he’ll smell like hay and plums.

His laugh is an amused bark. “We have wells. We live on one—water for the house, the animals, and so on. The other hasn’t been used in thirty years. What it’ll cost just to see if it even works, hell.” A vigorous shake of the head dislodges a leaf from his thick brown hair. He laughs again.

“So what does that mean for your orchard?” A reporter’s job is to ask stupid questions, so the subject will provide good quotes, yet every word exhausts her. All this talking to talk.

Now the easy smile slides away. He squints up, eyes like the green flash at sunset. “It means I gotta choose between keeping my orchard or my wife alive. Can’t afford a well and her chemo, both.”

A gust blows pollen straight up her nose. Her sneeze explodes, so fierce, so fast she can feel the pause of her heart. At last, a subject she’s conversant in: death.

“I’m sorry,” Justine says. It’s the thing you’re supposed to say in the face of deathly things, though she knows too well it’s less than a band-aid, but you say it because it’s better than the things you really want to say, like fuck cancer or no, I don’t feel better.

His eyes stay tight but that grin returns. But then his jaw locks up, subterranean veins pulse beneath the stubble of his beard. Justine recognizes the stoic pose you take to prevent tears, to still emotion back into its lair.

“Sorry, yeah, aren’t you.” Voice hunkers down to a whisper and he turns only his eyes to look at Justine. “You know what my wife said to me? ‘Hal you just let me go my own way. I know a way, I won’t feel no pain. A sip of this, a swallow of that. Just need someone to help.’”

Justine can barely breathe. Any sound might scare him back into talking at the surface. Here’s a topic she understands. Willing death in. Seeking its escort to a place beyond pain.

“Can I meet your wife?” Her hand sweats around the recorder. Moisture beads up at the back of her neck and trickles between shoulder blades, too. It’s got to be eighty degrees out here.

He raises an eyebrow, bites his lower lip, exhales. “Ohhh.” His limbs shifting, shuffling. “She’s not really up to seeing folks. Don’t think she’ll be much good to your story.”

Justine turns the recorder off, jams it back into her pocket, holds out her hand, as though in prayer, beseeching. “I don’t want to talk to her about the story.”

She holds his gaze so long it almost hurts, waiting to be understood without having to make more words.

At last the coils of his face release, his eyes glaze with little clear pearls. “First, let me show you one more thing.”

They walk in silence up a fat hill. She enjoys the pleasant, rhythmic exertion of her thighs, thin excuses for former muscles that hang and flap when she stands naked before the mirror. Breath burns in her lungs but feels good, too—she remembers this from the Time Before, when she and Nate did laps to nowhere on side by side treadmills at the gym, chasing that high in that perfect life that needed nothing else.

At the top, Hal stops and pivots out. Awed breath gathers at the edge of her throat. The whole town spreads out below them, a sweeping silent valley of matchboxes, beveled in yellowed hills with dark green berets—all those ancient oaks. She can almost feel their thirst from here, see them curling brown at the edges.

“I used to see a pretty vista, stars twinkling at night, a sunlit paradise in a lush valley by day. Now? I see my livelihood dribbling away.” He plants his hands on hips, an almost womanly gesture. “You know what really nuts me up?” He doesn’t wait for any confirmation that she’s listening. “Thinking of all the water wasted all over the damn place that nobody knows a thing about, can’t stop or fix. Dripping faucets, and little kids flushing toilets over and over for laughs, and some drunk asshole forgetting to turn off his bathtub, and sprinkler heads broken and shooting water into cement parking lots, not to mention all those athletes wasting waters in showers at the health clubs. It keeps me up at night, all that water that could be mine, that could keep this orchard alive, but there’s nobody watching, nobody to catch it…”

Nobody to catch, to keep an ambitious child from tall ladders. A wind whips through Justine; she flings arms around herself, chilled.

Hal tilts his head back and up, closes his eyes. “Best damn thing I’ve felt in months, a breeze.”

Justine’s teeth are chattering.

***

What does Justine expect of Hal’s dying wife? Perhaps the same sorts of false impressions people expected of her in the Time After—a glowing, vogue version of decay with natural make up: How natural death looks on you! What a great fitness regime is grief.

But instead, a ragged woman, thin to bone except for the bloated face, a patchwork of bruises and greenish hues. The skin around her eyes and lips flaking, a body in drought to match the landscape. Skin thinned to nothing at the edges but swollen like a pregnant woman.

The wife sits propped in a ratty green recliner, watching the news. Medical paraphernalia clutters the edges of the space, things made of grey plastic bowls for catching vomit and spit; cups of liquids, half-consumed.

The wife frowns, shakes her head, makes a quick scoop of magazines into a half-tidy stack. “Ah Hal, couldn’t you have let me know we had company, tidy up?”

Hal jams thumbs into belt loops, looks at the ground like a chastised child. “Reporter lady, uh, is doing a story for the Merc on our water situation.”

The wife’s lips compress, “I can see she’s a lady. What’s her name?”

“Justine.” She moves closer, puts out a hand.

The wife looks at her own hands, puffy and mottled, inexplicably bruised. She clutches them close but smiles, nods. “Diane. Sounds a lot like dying, don’t you think?”

Justine laughs, easy to do when it’s someone else’s sorrow.

Diane focuses on her with Malamute blue eyes, the pale orbs of a person who has little use for sight for much longer. “Why you writing this story? Think it’s gonna bring awareness? One little orchard goes out of business because it doesn’t rain enough—who’s gonna care? It’s not gonna stop teenagers jerking off in forty-five minute showers. Or Los Gatos ladies from watering their ornamental gardens.”

Justine’s legs feel weak; but sees no other chair. She squats, then drops to the ground, legs betraying her.

“You okay?” Hal suddenly speaks.

She can tell he’s a good husband, the kind who tends his wife’s every need—needs he likely never signed up for on “I do;” beyond the dignity any woman hopes to be revealed in.

“Fine,” Justine says.

“Oh go on, Hal, you never let me have any fun.” Diane winks at Justine. “Let the ladies talk a while.”

Justine likes the ornery fire of this dying woman. “I’ll get your quotes on my way out, Hal,” she says.

Hal shrugs as if waiting for Justine to come around, remember who she’s really here to interview, then shuffles off like a banished teen, all hangdog eyes and hunched shoulders.

Justine leans in close enough to Diane to smell the sweet funk of a body that can’t be washed as often as would make for polite company. “I can help you.”

Diane shakes her head, slight, more an action of eyes and lips. “Newspaper stories don’t offer much help. Lots of words lost on a bored public. We can’t afford to get the second well running.”

“No, I mean…Hal told me what you want to do, well, because of your illness.” Justine grapples for how to say this. “To help you. I have, supplies, more than enough, I lost…”

How to explain the excess of drugs, vials, and bottles of pain-numbing medications never put to use, never needed before they flipped that ever so final switch?

But Diane’s hairless eyebrow rises, a punctuation mark of mutual understanding. “Oh.”

A pause of synchronized breathing; Justine feels herself rough at the edges. Conspiratorial stillness settles between them, so intimate Justine feels as though they have just kissed.

Then Hal returns with glasses clinking full of icy tea where there should be steam, hot cocoa for a wintry afternoon that is, instead, hot as summer.

The entire time Hal sets down glasses, offer sweetener, props his wife’s pillows more firmly behind her neck, Justine and Diane don’t break eye contact. Justine hasn’t felt so alive since, well, since the three month mark when the doctors assured her the fetus had passed that anxious point, beyond the fear of sudden loss (such silly doctors, with their false certainties. No talk about what will happen to a fetus in the years beyond the womb, as if life is any certainty of safety).

“Well now,” Diane starts when Hal is gone, then sips her tea, circles a square of ice around inside her mouth until it clinks hard against teeth. “It’s not so polite to offer death to a stranger.”

Justine lifts her glass, which sweats like a woman in labor. Her eyebrows rise, involuntarily. She takes in Diane again—looks through the illness to the woman beneath. Sees the kind who once cracked the whip on that kind-hearted husband, who ran operations, birthed an orchard into bloom, picked and packed and cradled fruit, fuzzy and fresh into crates. “I’m sorry, Diane. I haven’t got anything else to give.”

“You a nurse or something in your off time?” Diane sips, then spits out ice again. “Ice makes my mouth ache, he knows that. He’s wearing down under my illness, the drought, the crisping orchard; not that I blame him. The water or the wife—that’s horns of dilemma right there.”

Justine shakes her head. “Medicines were for my daughter.”

Diane holds her gaze. “She didn’t make it?”

There’s no whisper, no careful treading over the fact of this loss. Not exactly a scab removed, but maybe a bandage loosened ever so slightly to let in air.

The words trip out of Justine’s mouth like bumbling kids at a first dance. “She didn’t.”

“I never had any,” Diane says. “Wanted them, but we thought we had time, and then we had ovarian cancer.”

Justine pushes out a half-hearted smile, a “well this has been nice” kind of forced grin, ready to rise and run from this whole day. This day of being back to work in the world was supposed to show everyone how fine Justine has become, how healed.

Diane plants her palms to thighs, lightly, though she winces all the same. “Justine. Well then. You come on back. Bring your medicines, you hear?”

Justine blinks, throws back her tea before her mouth makes some kind of mischief she can’t justify. “Okay.”

Diane puts out a hand. The fingernails are already too white, bluish half-moons rising beneath purple skin, clammy against Justine’s arm. “You can’t tell Hal. Come next Friday, he will be gone.”

Here’s what gives Justine pause; a man deserves the right to say goodbye, to prepare. He’s still fighting for this half-gone woman. She likes Hal and his soft-spoken, good humor. The way he touched the too soon buds of plums when he showed her the orchard like they were all there was to love in the world. The way he looks at his woman like she’s everything she no longer is.

Diane tilts her head, sparks a smile. “Come on now. Men don’t give us permission to go so easily. I’m betting you know that already.”

Justine’s husband Nate rises up in mind, a hunched and patient sentinel at a cold white bedside, the voice of reason, begging her to reconsider the miracles that only ever happened in movies, not in forlorn hospitals over ravaged families. How she pressed both palms down upon his shoulders to make him hear her. “She’s gone.”

“Friday. I’ll be here.”

***

A cold beer slides down the bar before her. She hates beer, or did, Before. There were lots of Befores like never eating poppyseed bagels, or running, because it knifed aches into her knees.

The third beer goes down just as smooth as the first two, but hits her stomach like a dense slice of bread. Her head, a gyroscope flicked too hard. She leans her forehead to the tacky surface of the bar just a moment. How long since she’s had a drink?

“Hey, hey don’t get sick here,” the bartender, a boy really, all bulging muscles sprouted beneath a thin black tee, echo of goatee, gently pushes her head up.

She’s up and stumbling when she sees Nate—still life of Husband Come Upon Wife Making a Scene—the wavering frown, the disappointed eyes; the unbeered parts of her brain know there’s a full face beneath it, a man in a suit just off work, meeting his wife at the bar for a drink. All she sees are those orbs of accusation.

He grips her arm. “You’re drunk? What’s going on?”

She shoves out of his arms and pushes past him, past ladies in sparkling thigh-high dresses—a bachelorette party, a celebration of singleness?—with Nate chasing after calling, “Heeeey.”

She pukes on the curb.

“What’s gotten into you?” Nate yanks her away from the puddling green evidence of her self-disgust.

“I’m helping a woman to die.” Her words come on delay, like a bad dubbing in a foreign language.

“Jesus, Justine, not this again.”

“I’m not talking about myself!” She flings off his attempted grasp, and thinks on Hal’s fingers stroking a tiny green peach. Nate’s palm closing over the fist of their newborn’s head. The warring images make her gorge rise again.

“You can’t do that. It’s illegal. What are you even talking about?”

She walks, too fast for the wobbly way her head attaches to her shoulders, and trips over a lip of cement.

“Jus.Tine.” He kneels beside her. Suit jacket unbuttoned, tie an open space she wants to close up tight.

“The farmer’s got no water. His wife has got no life.” Jack Spratt could eat no fat, his wife could eat no lean. “They can’t afford her medical bills and a new well both. She wants to die. She’s close, too; her body’s all rot and decay…” Her words, she hears, are more sobs than speech.

Nate squints at her with familiar fear. “God damn it, Justine. Let’s go home.”

***

She leans into him on the way into the house, with its strange slate sliding recalling a sarcophagus in the low light. Alcohol slides through her seams and wakes up old desire. Nate smells of bay rum, a musky sweetness that used to linger on her skin long after making love.

He slips an arm around her waist, and for once in a long time, it’s supple, not steel bands between them. She’s caught, remembering the farmer Hal’s strong calves, his soft shirt she wanted to touch, patience and pain in his eyes as he looked at his wife. Is that how other women look at Nate? See the long-suffering champion of the grief-torn woman? What a miracle, really, that their limbs are entwined without one or the other pushing away.

She teeters into him, still swimmy. And before this sudden yearning is gone, she yanks open his tie, rips the buttons right off his shirt, the gasp of fabric splitting open reflected in his startled eyes. He leans in and strips her of her blouse in a gust of air. They don’t kiss—vomit still lingers in her mouth—but knock into each other, their bodies gawky. His mouth remembers her nipples need a little scrape of teeth, but her hands guide him out of necessity—she’s a long since visited city—crashing together, barely enough lust to succeed. Until they’re both gasping on their backs, fish gnashing at air that won’t come.

In the dark of the unused living room, the only light is the blinking red voicemail button. Later, she will wish she had left it unpressed, its words unknown, nurtured this tiny bud of trust between them; mended one seam.

But now, why not press it? What is left but small calamity?

Still nude, her finger lingers over the sleek black box. She hears the voice of the speaker as she imagines Nate must hear it, for the moment the words “This is Jason, from Three Palms Morturary” slide out, she glides free of her body, rises above the scene.

Nate sits up, spine rigid, but Justine collapses, a folding crane, dizzy again under extreme gravity.

A courtesy call, the voice says. As if it could ever be considered such a thing. “After a year, we move all cremains to the county facility.”

She doesn’t need to look to feel Nate’s hard eyes. “You said…” Rage chokes off his words. “You said you’d pick them up.”

Them. Particles and pieces disassembled, rent from the space of their daughter’s body and scattered into impossible plurals. How could he expect it of her?

***

Bottles rattle a familiar music she hasn’t heard in a while. In the Time After, she preferred life inside that parabola of smooth edges, everything round and blurred by drugs with their sweet, soft padding—Ativan and Xanax, aliens from the planet Forget-Your-Woes. But only a few months in, Nate moved them from their regular spot, no more little soldiers in the bathroom cabinet reporting for duty. Her doctor didn’t feel it was in Justine’s “best interest” to keep so numb. Young doctor with too-smooth cheeks, what did he know about what and how much pain a person should bear? And Nate, she is quite sure, it was his only revenge; though the patting, petting friends and mothers all said the same stock line—it could have happened to anyone—they both knew this wasn’t true. Not Nate. He’d never have fallen so deeply into distraction; he’d never have looked away.

What he never gathered up are all these other, tinier bottles of pain pills that had to be crushed into puddings for the week her child’s mouth and throat still worked, and then the vials full of opaque fluid, medicine meant for a person departing the planet, tucked in the back of the bathroom cabinet behind tampon boxes and old make-up. She is surprised to feel relieved to put it all to use; these bottles have taunted her with an easy release too many times.

***

Dust coats the edges of Justine’s car. Their lawn is a crisped square, no longer green. Still too warm, no need for a jacket. Clouds come and go, mostly tease with their fat white edges, skirts full but never dropping. Only evergreens are green, while the city trees, meant to make her suburban streets seem lush and full, stand bare and hard, refugees clustered in a too-hot camp with no relief. It reminds her of her own childhood—prone to chest infections that left her stuck in bed, gasping, coughing, kicking off covers—everything around her seen through a yellow sheen of heat. Maybe it will never rain again.

The bottom of Hal’s Stone Fruit Orchard sign is layered brown, from all those wheels kicking up dirt. She wonders if there will be any fruit to share come summer. Strange to find herself salivating at the ghost of a firm, ripe nectarine between her teeth. She only eats when the rumbling of hunger pounces hard enough to make her notice, which isn’t often.

The front door of the little green house is open. But Diane isn’t in her living room recliner. Hal’s there, instead, eyebrows drawn together tight, fingers locked together.

“How could you?” He seems a taller man as he stands up and faces her. “Do you have any fucking idea what you’ve done?”

The head of one rib seems to poke her heart, sharp things bloom in her chest. It’s Nate’s voice all over again. How could you look away? How could you?

She shakes her head, hands out. He moves toward her like fire, with intention to consume.

“You said she wanted help.”

His smile is a leer, teeth breaking through. “I was just talking, telling you my pain. She’s my wife.”

“I know, it’s just…” How glad she is now she brought no frills—made no party of this moment.

“—I don’t understand how you could even think of such a thing. You don’t know us. You come in here meaning to write a story and then you just…insert yourself!”

“Hal!” Diane’s voice, so small from the back bedroom.

His shoulders cave in, but he shakes one last fist. “You had no right. I was trying to keep her looking up. I’d raze this place to the ground for her.”

Justine turns—she can’t quite leave, that’s like escaping from a criminal scene. Breath fills her with the power of sobs wanting to unleash, but she chokes them back. “I need to use your restroom.”

Once inside, she pops in the lock, presses her back against its cool frame like a horror movie teen in temporary reprieve from the zombie horde. Outside, Hal and Diane are murmuring words, not quite shouting. The shower holds a bench and railings, the toilet framed by a caged portable potty, its basin half full with a deep orange urine.

She would like to put her fist through the glass, but then she’d have to look at the gaunt woman there, her eyes gilded with bruised half-moons, the ill-fitting black dress that once hugged curves…what overcame her to wear black? She sets down her basket of death. She turns on the faucet to muffle the clatter of the bottle and its little white pills.

She swallows one without water. Droplets swirl down a white basin. Hal doesn’t understand. Thinks he’s saving his wife something, thinks there’s something left for her, but Justine knows different. She’s been at the end and seen what’s there. Let the medicines work. Let the body stop its hurt. She could keep this tap running, just walk out of the house and let it pour and pour, be just another asshole wasting his water.

She shuts it off. Steps out. The living room is empty. Voices momentarily stilled. She leaves, slow and quiet, Goldilocks slinking away after trashing the place.

***

The garage door is open at home and Nate’s trunk, ajar. Inside it, big white bags piled in, plump and bursting like spider sacs. Out of the pursed mouth of one hangs a small pink sleeve with tiny pink pigs.

A gut punch. The hangover of Hal’s anger has her brittle at the edges already. Nate bustles out of the house, eyes sudden lamps of surprise. “You’re not supposed to be home.”

“What…are you….doing?” Her voice lacks weight, comes out all whispers.

He tosses a last bag in the trunk, closes it hard, has to really push to make it click, but doesn’t look at her when he speaks. “It has been a year, Justine.”

The weight of her name in his mouth feels mean, like poking a finger into her heart just because he can.

What’s a year, she wants to say. Days, really, moments collected and ticking, only substantial in the quality of their having been lived; she wants to argue that such time without fullness, lacking in love, is nothing. Some people grieve for decades before returning to their functions in the world. But Nate, apparently, has filed his grief in expandable folders—tucked it away and carried on.

What she says instead is, “You always pushed. Pushed and pushed and made lists and bought books. You married me knowing I didn’t want children.” Spit gathers at the edges of chapped lips. No breeze whips in around their legs, the dry air raising hairs and static, her dress adhering to her thighs.

Nate’s dark eyes are full of storms, his mouth purses in tight. “You didn’t want children? You had a child. You loved a child. But you looked away, and she died and now you can’t even say her name. Is that how you treat life? Casually? You look away from your own child but you will walk face first into a stranger’s death, hand it out?”

She’s not entirely numb—his words wedge in between ribs and settle there, sharp if she breathes too deep. She lifts her chin, refuses to be like one of the beaten down members of a jury. She wants to beg him to open that trunk just one last time, lift out the tiny pink sleeve. But what’s the point? This is the end of pretending.

She drives, all those numbing medicines clattering in their glad little basket on her passenger seat. She drives and drives, the stab in her ribs growing stronger, like a thorn working its way out. Past the pre-school their girl never got to attend; past the urban park where Justine made herself into monsters to chase her curly-haired pixie; past the library where she held her girl, a circle of limbs in the clutch of her lap for storytime.

And at last, she reaches her child’s final home. Outside it is an advertisement for false paradise—those three fake palms and a too-green lawn. A water fountain of cascading angels, tumbling down a bluish spray of piped in water. The pill bottles clustered together remind her of nothing less than the ones that once held her own mother’s milk, expressed in painstaking hand-cranked pumps to a backdrop of Scrubs reruns. At first, the pumping had been painful, squeezing out harsh surprised breaths, the same way the baby’s clamped lips would elicit a gasp. And then, over time, brought relief. A stone breast became flesh again, released.

She takes one pill. Then another. With fastidious fingers, she readies a shot of Demerol, needle in so neat, sucking up fluid like a straw. She tests its tip on her finger; still sharp. Watches it squeeze out two tiny milky drops, like breast milk in reverse.

***

By the time she walks inside, the world has been drugged into rounded corners—there are no edges, just suggestions of a giving horizon that bends on forever. The mortuary scent is sort of peaches and cream.

A woman sits behind a desk, sleek blonde hair in perfect strands around a long neck. A magazine sits on her lap, spread wide, salacious with gossip about Demi-gods of Hollywood and their slattern ways, until she spots Justine and then it slides to the floor with a rude-sounding slap.

“Can I help you?”

Justine’s mouth feels sure and firm but the words slink out like drunk girls slipping home in stocking feet. Something about remains.

The woman’s brows crease in tight. “Are you okay, ma’am?”

“Really? You think anyone who comes here is okay?”

The woman’s fish-gape stammer makes static prickle in Justine’s hands. She can feel Medusa’s snakes coil on her head with the urge to strike.

“I only meant, ma’am that you seem a little…woozy, like maybe you want to sit down and rest.”

“Give me my daughter,” she says, her words beginning to slither. “My damn daughter, what’s left.”

“Uh, uh of course.” This blonde lady smoothes her skirt. “Your name please.”

Dates and details, the power of a name she hasn’t spoken in a year, afraid to conjure spirits. Standing there, awaiting this final slap, she sways, hips tilting from one wall to the other. Just like those early days, even two years in, when in line, waiting to pay for food, she cradled gallons of milk, slung ice cream cartons to sleep. Her knees refuse this ungainly gravity when the tall man in his black suit emerges from down the corridor. He carries this important package with straight-armed respect, rests it flat upon his palms, as though it bears a golden samovar.

Not a few steps left till he’s at her side, her knees collide with tile, palms slap down to keep herself from a face plant.

“Oh!” One single word jerked from his lips, he rushes toward her, this stranger, bearing all her love, distilled to ash. Torn for a split second, the blonde woman, who has resumed her reading, flings the magazine to the ground.

***

It is a foolish move in a string of such folly to drive to the Orchard, from which she was so recently rejected. But it is closer than home and she has taken too many pills. The sun is setting early, the only hint of winter in the time the light goes down.

A moment of memory, her daughter, aged two, cradled in the hammock with a summer fever, just like the land is now—only happy under the open air, a cool cloth pressed against her head. The heat of her ailing child between her legs like the heat of the love that made her, like the volcano of her birth.

The ashes look like dirty snow, slippery between her fingers. Dense with bone shards, not delicate. She lets them rain onto her legs, rubs them in, these stardust fragments of her little girl, these particles of everything. These ashes to ashes. Another pinch, like salt to spice a stew. Like the glitter her sweet girl sprinkled on clumps of glue, those projects pinned in unexpected nooks.

A year doesn’t seem so long. A year of never mores and sudden starts, certain her child’s voice has beckoned from the end of the hall. How many times she’s traced a swath of skin, edges and elbows, expecting to grasp her small hands. That sense of a face peering around a corner, only not there.

She reaches in, takes a real scoop, silty and soft between her fingers. It seems inevitable to bring the fist to her mouth. The pills have worked too much softening, the world now crimping, film curling in against flame. So simple to pinch an inch of fat, plunge that Demerol needle in, too. Instead she eats a fistful of ashes, swallows with effort, like sand. Eats some more, the promise of relief in that tiny white syringe still resting in its basket in her car. The ashes choke; spit pools up and mixes it to a sludge she can’t swallow. Again, like labor, she pushes, though this time in, swallowing and gagging until her body says no more.

On her knees again, just like the first few weeks when the baby’s presence asserted itself, everything rises—the bile and little bits of food, and nested in it, all those partially digested white pills. She curls into her knees, lying down on hard earth.

***

A sound startles her awake. Hal above her, monolith of man framed by fresh stars. She shivers against the settling cold, expects a tirade, to be escorted off by sirens and uniformed police.

Instead, he kneels beside her, brows pulled tight, the glazed eyes of disbelief, green eyes taking in the gray dust. “What’s going on here?”

Justine shakes her head, absent of words.

He squints. “I didn’t mean to yell. Didn’t matter anyway. Should have let you stay. Diane’s gone. Said she needed me to go away, but I wouldn’t go. So I went to check the taps were all tight, and when I came back, she was gone.”

Justine clutches the black plastic box that holds the rest of her girl and lifts it slightly toward him. “I’m sorry, Hal. Maybe it won’t take you so long. Took me a year.”

Hal tips his head to his fingers, reaches up and brushes away the dust at the edges of her mouth, exhales a tear-filled sigh. “What was her name?”

“Mira. It means sea, sort of.”

Hal puts his face into his hands. “The body is seventy percent water,” he says without looking up. “Never really got that, but I see it’s true.” A quick tilt of the head toward her lap.

“What will you do now she’s gone?” Justine asks.

“Leave it behind. Lease it out. Let someone else make that new well start pumping. Go see a few things.”

Her fingers still laced with ash she’s sure will leave a trace, Justine puts a free arm around his upper back. In the gloaming before the lights blink on in the valley below, the land below, dark and dense, offers the illusion that it is lush, for just this moment quenched.


About the Author: Jordan E. Rosenfeld is the author of seven books, most recently the novel, Women in Red, and A Writer’s Guide to Persistence. Her work has been published in Alternet, Dame, Marin Magazine, The New York Times, Ozy, The Pacific Sun, The Rumpus, Salon, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post and many more.

Artwork: Paul Ebenkamp is author of The Louder the Room the Darker the Screen (Timeless, Infinite Light, 2015), “Four Colors for the Based God” (The Equalizer: Second Series, 2014), “Seizured in the Ease” (Mondo Bummer, 2013), and everything at afterundisclosedrecipients.blogspot.com, and is editor of a few books including Modernist Women Poets: An Anthology (Counterpoint, 2014) and Particulars of Place by Richard O. Moore (Omnidawn, 2015). With Andrew Kenower he curates the Woolsey Heights reading series in Berkeley, and with strings and devices makes music as Position.