Whisper to a Scream by Nafissa Thompson-Spires

PE - whisper to a scream


 

The comments poured in steadily, and though she never responded to them right away, sometimes taking up to a week so as not to look too eager, Raina always read them almost as quickly as her viewers posted. She ignored the inevitable N-word, monkey, and black-fetish cracks, some of the main reasons for her mother’s opposition to Raina’s “hobby,” and blocked those users. But the eighteenth comment, “Can u where ur Dorsey uniform in the next 1?” made her close her laptop for a moment before she could bring herself to reopen it. No avatar accompanied the screen name, Sir_Pix_Alot, but she knew it must be Kevin or one of the other guys in her class again. No matter how many times she blocked them, they always reappeared with new names and the same line of trolling. “We know it’s you, Raina. How come you never talk like that to us at school?”

She closed the laptop again and carried it from her bedroom to the bright kitchen where her mother had left two notes on the oversized refrigerator: “At the salon. Heat the leftovers around 6:30,” and, “Finish your algebra 2 before you get on Youtube.” Raina crumpled both notes into the trashcan and reset the magnets—one advertising her father’s car dealerships and one for the family dentist—that had held the notes to the fridge. The scrunched paper made a satisfying sound that her viewers would enjoy. Her mother had hidden or thrown out the good bread again. “Fiber will help you with some of that belly,” Carmen said the week before on her way out to some event with the other ex-wives, focusing her eyes on Raina’s midsection for longer than necessary.

Over her snack of baked corn chips with hummus and dried cranberries, Raina replayed the video. “Hi everyone,” her video self-whispered from the kitchen table, as her hands stroked alternately a feather and a children’s anthology. “Today, I thought I’d”—she ran her fingernails over the cover of the book—“start with some scratching sounds and then tell you a story.” She had carefully edited out the two-second frame in which she cleared her throat, fearing it too jarring a sound, despite the six or so requests she’d gotten for “more rasp.” She had briefly considered deleting the three-second accidental shot during which she adjusted her breasts into her top, but she kept it for her mother’s sake, and for Dom’s, deliberating only as long as it took to hit “finalize.” She liked leaving Carmen little surprises here and there, sometimes to keep her on her toes, sometimes to force her hand. Last week it was a pendant necklace that grazed her cleavage. The week before, she decided on the hint of a lacy bra under a v-neck shirt.

She guesstimated that Carmen was responsible for seven of the 300+ views the video gained in its first hour after publication, because just as her mother could check Raina’s browser history—which Raina always cleared, along with her cache—Raina could check the age and gender stats on her viewers, a detail that Carmen did not seem to understand. Her mother must have watched the video from the salon and was probably preparing her lecture. Dom hadn’t seen it yet, or he would have called; though, at 4:30, it was still a little early.

A year ago, when Raina started making ASMR videos, she assumed that keeping her head out the frame would preserve her anonymity at some level, prevent the sorts of dramas that resulted from the makeup and hair videos she started in eighth grade. With only her voice and torso as markers, she believed her classmates would not be able to identify her, but someone always did. It wasn’t as though she could start over with a new online identity every time they caught up with her; her viewers wouldn’t know how to find her, and if she gave them clues, Kevin or the other guys would find them, too. Why should she lose her growing number of subscribers or the stats on her videos because of a few jerks with too much time on their hands?

“Because it isn’t right, the whole thing,” her mother said barely a week ago. “You don’t want people to see you as one of those nasty girls, do you.” Carmen phrased it as more of a statement than a question.

“What’s nasty about helping people sleep or calming them down?” Raina had said, regretting it almost immediately.

Her mother adjusted her freshly straightened hair—it was always freshly straightened, because Carmen didn’t allow it to become un-fresh, kinky, even wilted—and continued, “We both know that’s not what most of the people are using the videos for. It would be different if you weren’t whispering and trying to make your voice like that,” Carmen said, emphasizing the last word, “or if your whole head were in the video.”

Raina had tuned out the rest of the lecture, which involved one iteration or another of the same. Why don’t you reconsider plus-size modeling if you want to be in videos and make money? You could try my agency again. Or at least go back to doing hair and makeup tutorials so people can see how pretty your face is, instead of just looking at your chest jiggle while you talk? You said yourself you don’t feel safe with those perverts and racist folks on there.

Safe was the word that Raina actually heard each time the lecture ended. It bothered her that her mother felt more concern over anonymous perverts or racists typing lewd comments from remote places than she felt for the bullies down the block, the ones at school. Raina did not feel safe, not with Kevin still tracking her online or near the school lockers. She had never felt completely safe at Dorsey since fifth grade, when Kylie S. said that first through fourth grade, sleepovers, and years of after-school ice-skating lessons didn’t matter anymore. She could no longer hang out with the only black girl because her dad said it was, “Kind of like the fox and the hound, how they had to go their own ways eventually.” Even with her handful of friends, Raina felt exposed at Dorsey. Her chest protruded past theirs; she stood out in the lineup.

*

At 4:45, she put on her headset with the 3D microphone and called Dom.

“Hey, sorry, I was finishing something up,” his torso said.

“Hey,” Raina said, too loudly before correcting herself. “Hey, she half-whispered, half-spoke.” Dom preferred her onscreen persona—no head—and she tolerated his requests for faceless chatting, though she occasionally got a glimpse of his neck or the faint dark scruff on his pale, almost translucent, chin. “What did you think?”

“Hmm, it was good,” Dom said after a hesitation. “The story part was. Rapunzel was a good choice, but if you’re gonna do something like that, I think you should show more of your hair next time.”

Raina was trying to transition her hair from relaxed to natural, though she kept it flat-ironed in her most of her videos. She had tried scrunching the burned-straight ends to blend them with the three to four inches of ingrowing coils and kinks at her hairline. But that made her hair only chin-length instead of shoulder length, and Dom speculated that that her views decreased when her hair was not in the frame or the thumbnail preview for the video.

They had met, really started chatting, first through text and then on camera—after he commented on a few of her videos. She only had 57 subscribers then, but with Dom’s suggestions, little things, like telling stories on camera or changing the video tags, she had grown her own brand to over 20,000 subscribers in a little over five months, even making some advertising revenue.

“Ok, more hair,” Raina whispered. “Anything else?”

“Meh, I like the whole fairy-tale theme. I think more videos like that, especially if you dressed up.”

“Like a corset?”

“Yeah, something like that.” She thought she heard Dom chewing something.

“I’ll think about it,” Raina said, her mind already working out the details of her mother’s reproof. Costumes were especially offensive to Carmen and more evidence of impropriety or kink, not simply roleplaying or fantasy. In her regular voice, Raina said, “Dom, have you thought about what I said, about the next level?”

Dom shifted in his chair, his white hands fluttering towards the top of the screen and out of the frame, probably running through his hair. He was definitely chewing. “I just think it might change things, like, too much,” he said, after a long pause. “I like things the way they are now.”

“I do, too,” Raina said, slowly, back in her gentle whisper voice, “but if you’re really my boyfriend, it would make more sense to actually see each other, or at least more of each other.”

“I’ll think about it,” he said. “My dad’s texting me, gotta go. I’ll call or something tonight.”

Raina didn’t hear his phone buzzing, but she said bye.

*

Knowing her mother would not be home for another two hours at least, Raina checked the comments.

 

Earthworm366: Dude, you seriously just gave me a brain orgasm. Didn’t now that was possible

168 thumbs up

AnimeAniME: Comment hidden due to low rating. Show Comment:

U gave me an actual orgasm

147 thumbs down

RhiRhi#1Fan: RIANWHISPER YOU NEED TO GET ON HERE AND AND MAKE

SOME MORE VIDEOS SO I CAN SLEEP. U HAVE THE BEST TRIGGERS!!

ALL TINGLES ALL THE TIME

37 thumbs up

NiceGirlFinishFirstorSecond: love this. one request: can you make a

roleplaying vid about rolling cigars???

12 thumbs up

Lalalalalaland: Why is it that this video is most popular with men and boys ages 18-64? SMH. Just saying.

80 thumbs up

She appreciated the positive feedback, but sometimes Raina felt, briefly, that everyone only wanted or saw a piece of her, not a whole, that she was mere flesh, a series of keywords to help identify her:

ASMR whispers breasts cleavage rain tingles black African American African-American full thick DDs long-hair-don’t-care natural curly massage soft spoken binaural bob ross water sounds storytelling hair brushing gentle role play adenoids spa day fairy tales tapping mind massage autonomous sensory meridian response

As she deleted one of the latest offensive comments, which were fewer and further between this round, her eyes found another post, clearly from Kevin or one of his sidekicks, maybe Adam or Michael.

SmexyandIKnowIt: I want it you got it lemme get come on wit it Raina.

This one was probably Michael’s work. His punctuation was always the worst of the three guys, even though he had been in Honors English in eighth grade and sat three seats to the left of Raina in AP English now. Kevin was their sort of leader. He had been nicer in elementary school, though his mean edge was present if you crossed him. Raina almost liked him then, admiring his short brown hair and the way his green eyes contrasted with his tan. But he became really mean around sixth grade, to a lot of the girls, not just Raina, though he often made comments about the size of her chest. It was only when he tried to feel her up on a class trip to Catalina that they became enemies. She had pushed him into a row of kayaks, causing him to knock them over. She used the chance to run off crying; he told his friends—and subsequently the entire class—that Raina was a slut who had flashed him her boobs.

She blocked SmexyandIKnowIt before looking at the recent uploads from some of the other ASMR channels. Raina was one of only a handful of black ASMR providers, and so far only one other black girl had more subscribers than she did, but that girl was older and had been making videos longer. Raina hoped to compete with the non-black majority of ASMR makers, some of whom had hundreds of thousands of followers and videos with millions of views. If she counted her previous two Youtube names, she had a total of 3 million views—though at least 1,000 of those were probably from Carmen. Under her current name, Rainwhispers, Raina’s most-watched video was at nearly 900,000. Her income from the videos meant she could bypass her father and buy herself the 3D headset she used with Dom and in her videos, but she didn’t make big purchases often.

Her mother never relented in her disapproval of the means, but she approved of Raina’s profits and agreed that a money market account would help Raina secure her future, without having to depend on a man, even her father. “All of this, this lifestyle, isn’t just from the settlement,” Carmen reminded Raina regularly, pointing around the house. “I was on the payroll. Always make sure you’re on the payroll.” She wondered if her mother knew that it wasn’t her father’s money that burdened her, but the way her mother showed it—Dorsey, the towncar, endless luncheons and benefits. Raina vowed to send her own kids to public school, somewhere where they’d never be the only one of anything, and to be home when they were, at least some of the time.

*

Carmen blew in through the house around seven, her hands full of large brown and white paper bags with twine handles. She filled the room, despite her thin frame. “Did you eat?” she asked Raina, who was seated at the kitchen island half watching a reality show and half thinking about what Dom said.

“Just finished one chicken breast and the Brussels sprouts you left,” Raina sighed. She was still hungry and planning on raiding the freezer for whatever stevia-sweetened sorbet or other low-carb snacks she could find once her mother was out of the room.

“Good. The family commercial is coming up in two weeks, don’t forget.”

“I know, you’ve told me three times and left a note.”

“I never know if you read them or just throw them away first,” Carmen said, smoothing one of her brown bags off the counter. “I picked a few things out for you. How was your day, by the way?”

Raina shrugged. She debated telling her mother about Kevin, again, but instead said, “Fine. We had a sub in English today, so I got my homework done during class. The video is doing pretty well so far.”

“Hmm,” Carmen said, her lips pinched together. “I wish you had left out the boob shot, but the story was cute. I’m thinking this blue one is the best dress for the commercial; your father will be in blue, though I’ll probably wear gray or green—I haven’t decided.”

“It looks too small,” Raina said, getting up to feel the fabric of a navy-blue A-line dress with a narrow rhinestone belt attached to the waist. “It’s a 10/12,” she said more loudly than she planned, though she could never control her voice with Carmen. “I’m a 14. You know that.”

“Yes, but you have two weeks,” Carmen said, smiling a little and pointing to another bag. “They’re all twelves. At least look at them. I spent, like, an hour of my day looking for pieces that would be flattering.”

“I’m supposed to be calling Dom soon,” Raina said, and left for her bedroom.

*

Raina sat on her bed, turned on her television, and considered using her trump card: “I can go stay with Dad, then,” but this battle didn’t seem worth it, yet. Maybe if Carmen pushed again about Raina getting the edges of her hair touched up, Raina might invoke the idle but still useful threat. Her dad didn’t exactly approve of the videos either, but he said they weren’t harming anything as long as she kept them clean. She wasn’t sure if he had seen many of them, but when she opened the money market account, he joked, via text message, that Raina was a budding young businesswoman after his own heart and that maybe he’d let her write and direct one of his commercials eventually. He never followed through, even after Raina presented him with a script. “That’s so cute, honey,” he had emailed. “But we have a professional guy who does that. Love you. Listen to your mother ;)”

Raina hated posing for the commercials. She hunched awkward and chubby against her mother’s tall thinness and blended into her father’s roundness, their features melding together while Carmen’s jutted, smug. Raina inherited her father’s bug eyes. “Sad she takes after him,” she overheard a tipsy aunt say once at a holiday party.

The biannual commercials for her father’s car dealerships stopped being cool after about first grade, when she transferred to Dorsey, where the kids of CEOs were not impressed. She tried to laugh it off when Kylie S., and even Megan and Liz, her two friends, joked about the silly slogan her father insisted on. In homage to a DMX song fluffed and smoothed out into R&B, her father sang, “What’s our name? Tyson Family Motors. If you want it, we got it, come and get it, our cars are with it.” The song came out the year Raina was born, when they still lived in the foothills of Rancho Cucamonga, and her father, fresh out of undergrad, had inherited and rebranded his parents’ dealership, turning one location into four and beginning her family’s ascent—really their move west—from one house in the Inland Empire to one in Westwood and a vacation condo in Aspen. They didn’t ski. Her father lived in Woodland Hills, about 30 minutes away, with his girlfriend Manda, a blonde twenty-something who basically treated Raina the same way Carmen did, only she thought Raina’s hair, “Looked so cute that way, with all those little curls.” Raina saw them about six times a year, plus the two commercial shoots, which her mother still participated in four years after the divorce, because she and Raina’s father both agreed that, “The family brand is different from the family.”

Scenes from the family brand: Manda standing with a plastered smile, off to the side, off camera; a montage of Raina, Carmen, and Carl Tyson huddled together at the intersection of each dealership and each of her father’s billboards; a family existent only in cuts; her dad making promises in a voiceover; the theme song playing over their poses.

Dom didn’t answer when she tried to call him for a video chat, but he texted five minutes later and said he would call in an hour.

“How do you know this Dom guy is even a real person?” her friends had asked, sounding exactly like Carmen, for a change. “Catfish?”

Raina knew Dom was real and close to her age, though once he had said seventeen and once he had said fifteen. They had never hung out in person—Dom lived in Connecticut—but she had seen his whole face early on in live video chats, when they used to talk like normal people. It was only after her popularity increased that he started asking her to make it, “More like an ASMR video,” quiet and without her face. She would wait another day or so before she asked him again about chatting the old way. Anyway, he was supposed to be in California for a summer program, only five months away, he said; at very worst, they’d see each other then.

Carmen knocked on her door, “I’m sorry about the twelves, Rain. How about we’ll take you to my pilates class tomorrow, so you’ll feel more confident? We can go shopping at the end of the week and you can pick something you like, fourteen, twelve, whatever.”

*

Raina started outlining a new video. She usually wrote a script and storyboard first and improvised her actual monologue once she began filming, sometimes taking three days for a single concept. She sat in front of the camera, with her 3D microphone nearby, but she quickly abandoned her notes. With her whole head in the frame, she spoke in her natural voice, softened so that Carmen would not hear her. “Today, I’m not going to tell you a fairy tale, but something I’ve been thinking about, about myself,” she began. She might have been crying, her voice, sharp and cracking, would not modulate. She persisted until she felt spent, emptied as though after a deep purge.

She deleted the footage and started over. Editing was the easiest part; she worked best in short frames, slivers, fragments. Everyone said so.


 

About the Author: Nafissa Thompson-Spires is a native Californian and a Visiting Assistant Professor of African-American Studies and Creative Writing at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.  Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in ComposeBlindersFLOWThe Feminist Wire, and other publications. She is currently polishing a young-adult novel manuscript. 

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.

 

Rabbit Outside by Carol Park

PE - rabbit outside (final)


Nicholas leans in close to the two photos he grips: himself at graduation from eighth grade and, four years later, high school. In both, his blue eyes are set between a pale forehead and high cheekbones. Something is different about his look. Something more than the length of his straw-colored hair. What he really wants to know is how Marie sees him. He needs to know. She’s the first girl he’s hung out with outside of classroom walls.

Nicholas didn’t wonder about what others saw in his face until last year. But during his last year at Redwood High School, his brother, Benjamin, started going there too, in his special ed classes. Nicholas sometimes glimpsed him with the Special Needs kids all together. Chins sticking out and eyes set deep.

Nicholas glances at Benjamin slouched next to him on the couch, absorbed in kids’ cartoons. His brother makes a throaty noise, perhaps a chuckle. They used to routinely watch the Saturday morning shows together, but with starting community college a month back, Nicholas feels beyond that. He’s only here because Benjamin took him by the hand and brought him.

Marie is coming. He’d better warn Benjamin.

“I’m going out soon.”

Benjamin moans and folds over.

“What’s wrong?” Nicholas doesn’t expect an answer. His brother can say: Hurt. Tired. Hello. Bye-bye. Yummy. Yucky. Hungry. Bunny. Need potty. And not much more. “Mom and Dad will stay. You can keep watching.”

His grunt is a happy glide and Benjamin sits up.

For years they didn’t know if he’d ever talk. Every July they’d leave the traffic of the Bay Area and drive through fields or empty land to the Downs Syndrome conference. Mother would return smiling and hopeful and try new ways to get Benjamin to talk or move, but things would eventually go back to the usual.

Nicholas lifts the photo higher, so the light cast by their floor lamp brightens his face. He’s gotten special accommodations since testing in third grade (an IEP), but he’s always looked like most other guys. Since his voice changed, he wonders if his face has been changing too. In the photo his brows seem more forward, or maybe his eyes have moved backwards.

“Are you ready?” Mother booms from her bedroom.

Nicholas jumps up, steers past Benjamin’s knees and the rabbit cage near them. At the window he spreads the drapes and looks past their porch and yard of brown stalks to check for Marie. A huge black pickup has parked across the street, but no faded Chevy, no Marie.

Suddenly he wants to touch his rabbit. Wheeling around, he jostles the spout of a watering can and the large metal thing quivers. Lucky—it stays put! The watering can tops a two-foot-tall stack of magazines and what a mess if it all came crashing down. This pile, standing there between window and door, particularly bugs him. In the past he’s toppled the National Geographics. Now he steers clear, but he wishes that Mother would take it all away. Dad complained last night, they’ve been there a year. Made Mother mad. A school could use them.

He takes Skyler out and sits her on his lap. His fingers travel down her tawny rabbit fur. His own soft thing. Her fur is softer than their cat’s and Skyler never claws, not like Calico. He wishes she could stay out and hop around, but their cat could claw her and, if his house wasn’t so embarrassing, he’d show Marie his sweet thing. Years back, when Auntie came to care for them while his parents were gone, he heard how others view their home. She said, “How can you live in this?” and hauled away magazines and papers. It was nice, for a while. Piles are back and stacks of big plastic bins make it even worse.

A car backfires. Benjamin jerks, then leans back. Nicholas slowly stands while pressing Skyler tight to his chest.

“Bunny?” Benjamin holds his hands up to plead.

“I have to put her away.”

A moan.

“I can’t help it. I’m leaving.” Nicholas presses his teeth into his lip as he focuses on not falling onto the cage. There, Skyler is safe again within her wire walls.

Going to the kitchen, Nicholas passes a brown grocery bag. Cat food and cereal boxes fill it. Mother always says, it was a bargain! And so their cupboards are jammed. When younger, Nicholas would push apart the piles, sometimes by mistake, sometimes not. Most days he manages to not see them, while still avoiding them, but today is different. Marie comes! So the breakfast plates with pancake bits on the table leap to his notice, as does Mother’s pile of catalogs and school notices all askew on the china hutch shelf. He notes the stack of church bulletins topped by God’s Book, as his old teachers called it, and the rolled-up poster he made last year, atop the china hutch. He’d tossed it, but it came back from the trash.

His sweatshirt covers a chair’s back. He grabs it.

Dad scrubs Friday night’s skillet. He’s tackling the build up from the week. “About time for your friend to arrive?”

Nicholas nods.

“Have a good time!”

Dad does physics research in the radiology lab at UCSF. During the week his chores pile up, but it’s Saturday. After breakfast today, instead of rushing out, Dad read the Bible—Nicholas likes it when Dad reads God’s words out loud. It still makes him feel shivery good, as good as he feels stroking Skyler, though he doesn’t like the church program for those his age. Before, the leaders were real adults, and nice, even if kids weren’t. But from middle school on the leaders were young themselves and made jokes and liked rock. Nicholas didn’t laugh, hated loud music and no one noticed him. He started attending only the early services because that’s when the choir sang. Dad has a Ph.D. and believes what the Bible and the sermons say, so Nicholas thinks it’s true, but he wishes God would talk to him more. It only happened once, when he was sad and mad and alone.

Through the window Nicholas sees Marie’s car pull up. A bike hangs off a rear rack. He cracks the front door just wide enough to launch himself through and down the cement walking path splitting their small yard.

“Hi!” He makes a point of smiling wide. At his counselor visits when he complains about having only online friends, Lisa reminds him to grin big and explains others social skills. Watch his face and imagine his feelings, she said last time. He couldn’t tell her that his new in-person friend was a she. Of course he didn’t admit the throb he feels when he sees her two breast peaks.

Marie grins back and her face, the color of coffee after Dad adds cream, heats him up inside. Her purple-pink plaid shirt looks like the flannel kind Dad wears on cold mornings, its fuzzy feel so soft and warm when Dad puts an arm around him.

“Where’s your bike?” Marie asks.

His Schwinn stands in their backyard. If she went with him there, the weeds, the rusty bathtub and a preschooler’s climbing thing would all be on display. His face burns.

“Uh, I’ll get it. You wait. In your car.”

“Why?”

“You can’t see our backyard.” As soon as he says can’t, he wonders if Dad would call that a lie. Because, really, he was able to show Marie. The truth: I don’t want you to see our yard.

Marie’s face pinches up, a bit like Mother’s face does. Has he annoyed her? She goes back to her car without a word. He walks past their van, parked in the driveway since it stopped working years ago, creaks open the gate, and wheels the bike out. He hears the groan of the front door and clenches the handlebars. It’s probably Mother with her tummy sticking out, what caused Grandmother to tell her once, You swallowed a ball!

He pushes his bike past Mother on the porch. “How about an introduction?”

“She’s in the car.”

“I’m in my housedress. Ask her to come on up.”

“I don’t want to,” he whispers. Saying No to Mother feels strange. He’s trying it because Lisa told him, It’s better than ignoring or yelling.

Mother’s brows come together into one solid line. “What? When will you be back?”

“Don’t know.” He has almost reached Marie.

“Find out!” It’s her troll voice, what comes out when he’s played too many games on his computer. “Call and tell me.”

Something fuzzy and urgent rises from his belly to his throat, wanting to get out. He looks back at her with a nod, so she won’t repeat herself. The front door bangs shut. Relief rings.

As he draws near Marie’s boxy-looking car, she steps out. Her eyes are bright as the North Star Dad showed him through a telescope. “Didn’t want me to meet your mom, did you?”

Nicholas nods and inspects the sidewalk cracks.

“Here, let’s hoist it on.” She grabs hold of the bicycle’s front stem. She points to the rack. “Ever used one of these before?”

“No.”

Marie heaves the Schwinn on and wraps bungee cords through its wheels and around the frame. Finished, Marie and Nicholas climb inside. This feels different from school. They first talked when they met at a bike rack minutes before a class they shared. She suggested walking to CompSci together. By the time they got there, he knew its homework was hard for her. From then on he helped her with it almost daily.

Once Marie is driving on the highway, they discuss their return time and he reports home.

He stores his phone and Marie volunteers how her dad, a contractor, brought them to Redwood City a few months back since construction is booming there. Since her work at Burger King was no longer needed, she restarted school.

“I’m older than you.” She stares in his eyes as she says this, as if those four years were important. “I’m studying Special Ed, remember?” Actually he’s not sure he’d known. “Most students take off for jobs or stick to their old friends after classes.”

He makes agreeing sounds.

“So I’ve got time to do stuff together occasionally. Besides, it helps me understand my field better.”

Bees whiz around within Nicholas’s stomach. He wonders, as Lisa puts it, what the words beneath her words are. It’s hard to figure out. Does she like him or not?

“Good.” Maybe she does need friends like him.

Marie asks why there are so many dead plants in pots on their porch. “Well, Mother likes flowers and their colors a lot. So she bought them, but there’s a drought.” Her look at him is long and he thinks it means his words don’t make sense. “I think it’s because her back hurts, so she doesn’t get around to doing anything with them.”

The sticky silence stretches thin, like the taffy he once watched being pulled in a candy shop. He hasn’t traveled down this way for months, hasn’t seen the fields, empty except for a few wide-armed oaks and the hills rising up behind. They wear September in brown, but remain round and peaceful. Behind him lie Mother’s piles and advice. Out here everything feels okay. Within this space stretching, it feels almost like when he escaped into their backyard, through a back door seldom opened. With his home’s walls, it was hard to breathe—he was furious with Mother. Outside, he examined the wild grass—some upright and green like raw asparagus. Some arched over, faded and heavy with seeds like open mouths.

Then something happened. The street’s noises paused and a voice came, a tender tone. Almost a whisper, You are my son.

The words somehow gave new meaning to himself. A feeling like he could stretch and expand floated over him. A kind of rising up.

Marie fingers the radio knob and rock music booms. Nicholas yelps. “Oh, sorry.” She turns it off.

Marie exits at Black Mountain Lake and the road slopes down, curves, and ends in a parking lot. A sign reads, Recreational trail. “It circles the reservoir,” she explains.

Nicholas watches her unhitch their bikes. The sun glares off the many cars and makes him blink. Women walk by wearing swimsuit bras and a cluster of bikers in skin-tight shorts whiz by. Can he do this ride? He’s so slow.

Marie hands him his bike, then stares at his jiggling arm. “All kinds bike here. Don’t worry.”

At the trail’s start he can see across the blue water stretching far. Dark trees border it on the other side. By their trail stand wild grasses in summer’s gold and curvy oaks. Marie swings a leg over her bike. He manages to follow her by replaying Lisa’s words. “Good. You’re venturing out!”

After some easy going, a hill rises before them. Breathing feels hard. His legs and chest ache and Marie cycles ahead. More and more walkers and bikers crowd the trail, making it hard. He has to weave around people walking. Then the path slopes downhill and he coasts. Marie passes a woman pushing a stroller and speeds almost out of sight. He tries to pass too, but his front tire veers off the asphalt and onto dirt. It slips, turning sideways. He jerks the handlebars and feels the bike turning, slanting more, and then the slow topple, his elbow crashing into the ground and his hip next. He yelps.

“Are you okay?” The stroller lady comes near him.

“I guess so.” He sees gravel clinging to his arm and red. Blood oozes. A troll voice inside speaks, You’re too clumsy—what he used to hear when he lingered near recess games and hoped to be asked in. His standing up is unsure and wobbly.

“Oh, Nicholas, I’m sorry.” It’s Marie, returned. “That sucks!” She takes wipes from the stroller lady and cleans his arm. Her touch sets off shivers.

 

It’s a few weeks after the bike trip when Nicholas sits next to Marie at a movie and munches buttery popcorn from a red carton. He wants to cover his ears from the awful ad noise, but she’d think him silly.

“Can I have a handful?”

“Sure.” He pulls some out and extends his cupped hand, white puffs poking up.

Marie stares at the kernels. “Hand me the carton, please. I’d like to take it out myself.”

So hands her the carton and he feeds his handful to himself. Hearing what’s behind the words is so tricky.

“You’re like my cousin—the way you take things.” Marie leans close. “Do you have…” He takes another long swig of his Coke. The start of the movie saves him.

It’s the story of flying dragons and people who ride them. He loves it, but after a while the press of his bladder grow strong, then stronger. Despite the darkness, Nicholas has to go. He squeezes by Marie and another person, but next someone’s knees stick out. He wobbles and there’s nothing to grasp. His teeter turns into a fall—on a woman’s lap. She cries out.

“Sorry, sorry,” He feels eyes on him. At least no one sees his face.

The return goes better. The movie ends and they go next door for cream puffs. “Can I call you Nick? It’s not so—” Marie pauses. “It’s more natural.”

He’d say yes to anything she asks.

 

Summer term ends, a few weeks of vacation pass quickly and then the new semester starts. Marie takes a CompSci class with him again and he can still help her in the cafeteria afterwards. The golden leaves of the tree shading the bike rack brown and crunch underfoot. Marie says she’s looking for a job so she can travel and she looks worried after a CompSci test. She doesn’t return to class. Three weeks pass. It can’t be sickness. He texts her.

“Sorry. I took a job,” she replies—nothing more. When he tells Lisa, his cheeks grow wet.

One Friday afternoon, after finals, he swivels his bike’s padlock, trying to turn the tiny numbers into the right position. A familiar greeting brings his eyes up to take in Marie’s gap-toothed grin and lovely walnut eyes. His arm shakes.

“I’m sorry I disappeared. I was so stressed.” Marie holds her bike.

That’s all it takes for Nick to forgive her. The bees within happily flit.

“The CompSci class was too difficult—I dropped it but kept my other two. Then with the job I got and the nasty weather, I started driving. I lost my cell and didn’t know your number.”

Nick nods acceptance. Her orange tee fits more snugly than usual. The round mounds of her top seem higher than usual. He wonders if they’d feel soft.

“Nick!”

There’s a question floating in the air, waiting for him to answer. He manages to capture the words waiting for his attention, Want to come to my house?

“Uh, yes!” Mother might say no, but Lisa’s words rescue him. Trying new things is good. That’s how you make friends.

So he sets out, coasting down the long hill after Marie, she leaning forward and he with his eyes on the bit of mocha flesh bared between her pants and top. Her hips are not too wide, but just right. They pass the turn he normally takes to his home, then turn left, and after a few more blocks, Marie stops in front of a small store. She tells him to pick his favorite from the freezer. At the register she pulls out cash for the peanut butter fudge ice cream. The grocery bag with its heavenly contents swings from her handlebar as they continue on.

“Here’s home!” Green grass grows and flower shrubs front the porch. Her door opens to living room with a couch, TV, armchair and coffee table, but not large like at the church parties they’ve gone to. Yet, with no piles or stacked boxes, it feels big enough. She pulls back drapes and sunlight floods in.

“I like your house.” He follows Marie into a tidy kitchen with no dirty dishes in sight and he tingles with the pleasure of wandering far from walls crammed with stuff.

“That’s enough.” He stares at the four scoops Marie’s dished him. He’ll eat more than even on his birthday. While sitting on the couch eating, they’re silent, at first.

“Do you like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom? I got the DVD.”

“I haven’t seen it.” He hates saying so, but lying would bother him.

“Have you seen any of the Indiana Jones movies?”

“No.” What does the drop of her chin mean? Is that tightening in his chest from all that freezing cream that slipped down his throat? Or maybe it’s her eyes focused on him? Her long look means something. “It’s because my brother can’t take much stimulation.”

“Oh, yeah. My cousin doesn’t watch action movies. Do you know how to dance?”

Nick shakes his head.

“I’ll teach you!” She springs up. She slips a CD into a player and music throbs, but he tolerates it because Marie moves her hips and gestures to him. He stands. Her flowery fragrance draws him closer. Her head is thrown back and her brown waves toss. Her skin is paler, under her chin. Her breasts quiver too, but she seems oblivious to him, lost to the aching melody.

A vibration comes from the phone in his pocket and the bees start up. He goes to the kitchen.

“Where are you?” Mother demands that he return. In the silence, Mother’s short, quick breaths unnerve him. He see-saws between attraction to Marie and fear.

“Her house, on Hudson.”

“Come back, immediately.”

He pockets his phone and goes back to watch the swirl of Marie’s hips slowing with the song, while the newness in himself also ebbs away.

Her eyes flick around as if uneasy as she grows aware of him again. “Oh, sorry. I got taken with the music. Who was that?”

“Mother. I got to go.” He hates surrendering, but slings his backpack over one shoulder.

She shrugs. “I’ll ride you part way.”

She leads as far as the intersection where she took him down a different road than normal. Nearing home, he sees the trees have become flat and the air thin.

Mother stands on the porch, elbows jutting out and hands on her hips. “It’s near dark! And you alone with a girl in a home—I’ll have your dad talk to you.”

Nicholas rescues his rabbit from her cage.

 

On Saturday Dad warns him about girls and drives of the body overcoming good intentions. On Monday Nicholas returns to college and looking for Marie in the school cafeteria—sometimes before, sometimes after class. On the rare day that he finds her, they don’t chat much before she leaves for work, or says she has to study.

Tests, winter holidays and school’s restart brings more classes and little of Marie, more rainy days and rides from Mother to and from school. Then on a Friday of all sun, a day of warmth that feels like April instead of February, as he bends to free his bike from its chain, his name is called. His look up reveals only a group of students talking and laughing. No one looks his way. Loneliness bears down on him.

“Nick! Here!” She’s in the opposite direction from where he gazed, near the restrooms. She stands alone, holding her bike.

He goes to her. He knows what he must reply to her suggestion. “I can’t go home with you for ice cream.”

Marie sighs. “Let’s go to the fro-yo shop.”

She leads the way and he follows her hips, not the turns, as they wind their way. Sweat wets his back and neck. He hates frozen yogurt, but within the shop he finds ice cream too. Marie leads him out and off to the side of the shop, where he sets down his bowl on a table draped by a willow. Sweat dries in the shady cool. He sees something painted in red on the shop’s wall of white concrete—huge lips flare out. He compares them to Marie’s.

“So what do you think?” Marie asks.

He shrugs and feels his face heat.

Marie’s mouth twitches. “I meant your ice cream. Good?” He nods. “How were things at home after our last adventure?”

“Dad told me I have to be careful with girls.”

“No one yelled or hit you?”

Nick shakes a no. His chest feels tighter than ever. The breeze has gained strength and pushes a willow strand close. Nick looks through its leaves, tiny, having just come out. “I punched my pillow.” He doesn’t tell Marie that he prayed or how he eventually went out back and hoped to hear again that whisper of comfort, calling him, “Son.” Only the whisper of the wind.

A holler sounds. Marie’s focus changes.

Nick follows her gaze across the street to where guys in baggy jeans wait at the light. Is one of them pointing at him? “Oh, no.”

“What’s wrong?”

“Those guys were in my high school. They’re mean.” Nick’s spoon trembles.

“Don’t worry. I’m here. I’m for you.”

What does she mean? He liked that for you. Lisa would ask him, what does Marie’s face say? Her lashes are long, like the willow. Her freckles like stars. He’d like to touch her. If not now, when?

Marie clicks her nails on the table and he rests his hand near hers. Don’t assume Marie shares your feelings, said Lisa. Move slowly. He inches his fingers forward. Then, he does it. He brings his hand down on top of hers.

Her shoulders jerk, but she doesn’t pull away. “What are you doing?”

A branch, pushed by the breeze, prickles his face but he ignores it. “I’m holding your hand.”

Loud laughter sounds and Nicholas turns to see that three of the bullies now lean against the shop door. “Look! The weirdo scored.”

A volcano fires up Nicks’ legs, all the way through his chest, making his face so hot. He turns back to Marie. Her lips are pressed inward and her eyes narrow—like Mother’s when something’s wrong. He loosens his grasp, but her hand stays in his.

“Forget them—they’ve gone inside.”

“But why did they say that?” he whispers.

“’Cause they’re stupid. Not nice like you. Just ignore them.” Her smile is thin.

He can’t figure out what her eyebrows—so squiggly with wrinkles between them—are saying. And he still wants to know why they picked on him. Can everyone see he has Asperger’s?

“I mean, is it my face? Can they tell I’m different?”

She looks at him and then away. “I don’t think so. You’re average-looking, pretty much, but they went to your school. People talk.” She pulls her hand back.

He tries to bat off the swarm buzzing up from his gut, but her words sting. He wishes he could hold Skyler.

“You’re like a brother to me. Hanging out with you is fun, but that’s all.” She leans over the table, bringing near her lips red and full as on the wall. “I thought you understood. You know I’m four years older and studying Special Ed, but I see it wasn’t clear.” Her lower lip puffs out. “I can’t be your girlfriend.”

Nick jerks his chair back. He has to get away.

“I’ll find you at the bike rack sometimes.”

“Yeah, sure.” The willow strands scratch his face as he stands and he whips them back.

“Know your way home?”

“Don’t bother with me. We’re done.”

“No, no, I don’t mean that.”

He stalks to the cement wall and hurls his fist at the lips. His knuckles scream and the ache blisters down his arm, shutting down the ache inside.

“Nick! Don’t do that!” She’s come near him and speaks softly, but intensely.

He wants to yell, but in facing her he sees her eyes stretched wide. That means fright. She gestures to the shop where the bullies remain. He presses his lips shut.

Nick stamps to his bike, spins the padlock, but can’t see anything, can’t unlock it. So he drags his Schwinn around the corner and further from Marie. His breaths come out fast and shallow. What now? He doesn’t know the way home and Mother would be there. He’d shout at her. Not good. Though the time—4 PM—accuses, he can’t call her. He can’t stand to hear her troll voice.

A breeze puffs, a coolness that feels like a gift. He wipes his eyes with his sweatshirt so he can spin the right numbers. He prays a one-liner and Lisa’s advice comes back to mind. Slow your breathing when you’re upset. Bring air up from your stomach. All the way up and all the way back down, slow and steady.

The idea comes. Dad once gave his number is for emergencies. This is, kind of.

 

With Dad’s directions, he only has to backtrack once. Mother comes out while he’s walking his bike through weeds to the backyard gate. “Why are you so late?”

“Didn’t Dad call?”

“Yes, but he didn’t explain.”

She stands near, blocking his way and he wants to push her aside, anything to get away from her wanting to know more. His heart rattles in his chest and the bees swarm.

Stand up inside, Lisa’s words.

Head down, he keeps on and squeezes past the heat of her breath and her wanting gaze.

“I can’t tell you.” His voice is not a yell, but it’s not timid and soft. She leaves.

Once his bike leans on the backyard fence, he pushes open the front door, greets his brother and pulls Skyler out. Mother calls from the kitchen, “What are you doing?”

He walks down the hall to a rarely used exit out back. “Taking Skyler out!”

He doesn’t understand her reply, but figures she’d say, Be careful or That’s not safe. The back door is difficult to budge. His right hand secures bunny and his left tries to force it open. The door finally gives way. As it swings towards him it pushes him backwards. He almost falls and Skyler twists from his grasp, springs to the floor, and jumps out onto the landing. Her white poof of a tail quivers on her behind. He crouches and puts two hands around her soft body. He wonders how she’ll like this new place.

Together they step down and out. In summer Dad mowed and raked away the weeds. Dirt and flattened brown stalks remained and winter rain has started more growing. A yard with lawn and chairs is what he wants. What he gets is a lean back on the huge faded plastic orange and green thing he used to climb as a toddler. He relaxes his squeeze on Skyler. The sun warms him and a breeze mellows his sulking anger. No voice whispers, but he recalls it.

Skyler’s feet push into his thighs and belly, enabling her to leap down. He slowly steps down and in front of his darling. Her pink nose twitches. He gazes at her eyes. The clear curve of each lens arches over the pink rims with hazelnuts in their centers. Long white strands of her whiskers tremble—alert for danger. Nick watches with her for crows or cats, his hands ready. Learning new things, Lisa would say. He likes being out together.


About the Author: Exploring various geographies occupies and delights Carol. To celebrate a recent milestone birthday, she journeyed to an off-the-grid chalet and enjoyed long hikes at Sequoia National Park. The many cultures of the SF Bay Area bring Carol more venues to explore: tasty cuisines, fascinating friends and tutoring fun with non-native speakers. Her graduate studies in Creative Writing were through Seattle Pacific University. Her work has appeared on a Hollywood stage where actors performed dramatic readings. The upcoming anthology Irrational Fears includes her flash fiction.

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.

On Having No Tits by Suzannah Weiss

Seann McCollum for Weiss


 

On having no tits: a feminist interlocution of Douglas Harding’s “On having no head”

 

Proposal of the Theory of Tit-Eyes
Eyes, Tit E.
University of Boobsborough
Quarterly Journal of Tits and Ass, Volume 36D

“There existed only the Now, that present moment and what was clearly given in it. To look was enough. And what I found was khaki trouserlegs terminating downwards in a pair of brown shoes, khaki sleeves terminating sideways in a pair of pink hands, and a khaki shirtfront terminating upwards in—absolutely nothing whatever! Certainly not in a head. It took me no time at all to notice that this nothing, this hole where a head should have been was no ordinary vacancy, no mere nothing. On the contrary, it was very much occupied. It was a vast emptiness vastly filled, a nothing that found room for everything—room for grass, trees, shadowy distant hills, and far above them snowpeaks like a row of angular clouds riding the blue sky. I had lost a head and gained a world.”

-Douglas Harding, “On Having No Head”

Douglas Harding has no head. He looks through his eyes, not at them. This is the experience of a man.

The experience of a woman is painfully capitated. She tries to look through her eyes, but with layers of mascara blocking the view, only looks at them. Her eyes see themselves seeing, and hence don’t see.

His eyes, on the converse, see but don’t see themselves seeing. Since he does not see his own head and he believes in the world as he sees it, he feels headless. The photograph and mirror image, which capture a woman’s full identity, are unable to do justice to the great void on a man’s shoulders that holds every beach, museum, and woman he has ever looked at.

Background

Scientists have investigated the role of sex chromosomes in rostral cephalization and found no significant correlation between the Y chromosome and headlessness. Several alternative theories remain. Here is a brief review of the literature, followed by an original theory that this paper proposes.

1.  Men gain the status of headlessness by looking at the heads of women (i.e., they look at women to avoid looking at themselves). Men appear to have heads, but if you took a magnifying glass to their “heads” you would find images of women. They have heaps of women where their heads should be, and pile more and more women onto their beds to avoid considering that they have heads. When they start to believe that other men have heads, they yell “no homo” and look away, relocating their gazes onto chicks, bitches, sluts, etc. (Snoop D. O. Double G et al.).

2. Decapitation may be a symptom of castration, given that all men have been castrated at some point in their lives, whether by emasculating, machismo fathers or Nicolas Sparks film adaptations or a taste for appletinis, but women have nothing to castrate. I reject this ad ignorantiam theory, arguing instead that a woman’s “nothing” is in fact something that is always already castrated. Castration means loss of the phallic power so exalted in our society. It means losing a whole world above a man’s shoulders that captures and defines all the mountains, valleys, seas and women he has seen, and replacing this nothingness that holds everything with a head. It means looking at rather than through oneself. It means flattening. It means having four eyes, and I’m not talking about childhood teasing, though that plays into it. I’m talking about a split consciousness, a self above a woman’s shoulders and a self always a few steps ahead of her, gazing backwards at her head, reminding her that she has a head, and of the duty to provide a head for decapitated men—the duty to perform her envy and castration according to his projection, and maintain the illusion that he is not the castrated one.

3. In the master-slave dialectic, the slave/woman loses power and is left only with the beliefs of her oppressor and a head. The master/man is left with a slave/woman, which affords him the title of master/man. He needs no head—nobody can look at him. His gaze is the final answer. The world is as it is through his non-eyes: the floating globes that contain the earth. For her, these non-eyes are mirrors in a funhouse world. She sees her head reflected in these multidirectional gazes—needy gazes, shaming gazes, belittling gazes, lascivious gazes—and orients herself in relation to them—as Madonna, as whore, as child, as sexual receptacle.

4. A woman’s second set of eyes is located on her tits.

Let us pause on this last, original theory, which requires further investigation.

It is important not to be phallocentric and assume that women’s second set of eyes must be on a head just because men’s eyes are on heads.

For there are other parts of a woman. Yes, there are the cheekbones and hair and other features located on her head, but these are usually accompanied by a second important feature: tits. Said tits are so detailed in her occipital visual cortex that, this theory proposes, they must have their own set of eyes just to look at themselves.  Others have noted that many men seem to mistake tits for eyes, requiring women to remind them that “my eyes are up here” (Urban Dictionary et al.), and their intuition may not be so far off. In fact, the neologism “titties,” as well as its variation “tit-ays,” may subconsciously refer to a woman’s tit-eyes. See Appendix A for examples.

Here is the model I put forth: The protrusion angle of the tits allows the tit-eyes to watch the head—keep an eye on it, so to speak—which leads to the question, which eyes will watch the tit-eyes? (Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?). This paper proposes a positive feedback loop between the tit-eyes and head-eyes, which watch each other and mutually relay information from the outside world.

To illustrate: as a woman walks down the street, her tit-eyes detect the gaze of a lecher. The tits transmit this information to her head-eyes, which follow the stranger’s gaze down to the tits to make sure they are not being stared at for an embarrassing reason (funky colorful bra under white shirt; temperature-related nipple rigidity, etc.). The tit-eyes inform the head-eyes that they look silly staring downward, and her day goes on.

Both sets of eyes project their gaze onto another (real or imagined) passerby in order to look at themselves. Women need this gaze of another person in order to see, the way a female pigeon must see another of its species in order to grow genitalia. It is a human instinct, present from infancy in familiar interactions, to follow the gaze of others. At earlier points in our evolution, this alerted us to salient information in the environment. Little did evolution know that humans would abuse an adaptation made to connect them, designating part of humanity as holders of the gaze and the second part as objects of it (see theories 1 and 3). Evolution also did not anticipate that humans would get out eye trackers and fMRI machines to re-stage the scenes of male voyeurism and female masquerade they have written, then call it “natural” selection since electrodes poking into brains don’t lie, and eyes that linger longer on white women don’t lie, and it all starts so young, and what besides nature could possibly explain Toddlers in Tiaras? Soon doctors will be dressing female infants in tiaras, straight out of the womb, and papers will explode all over PubMed speculating on the genetic basis for tiaras on toddlers.

Not only has the patriarchal imaginary made women victims of “nature,” it has also made women nothing more than pertinent information in the environment that nature initially intended them to look at. The male gaze has become so influential as to make women part of nature. Nature has never been thought to have a mind—that is reserved for men—but it has heads of sorts: molecules under microscopes, taxonomies in textbooks. Women are examined similarly under spotlights and in men’s fierce debates over “what women want” (Freud et al). They are seen not as subjects with their own ability to articulate desires but as objects worthy of only receiving desire and scrutiny. Like fickle weather, women are discernable only through the eyes of men who must chart their courses through Mother Nature’s wicked winds and raging seas and raging hormones. This chaos has no rhyme or reason, they say, but let’s get some barometers and see what we can do. Let’s get some wood and build shelters from the storm. Let’s get some tight clothes and see if we can contain her. Let’s flatten Mother Earth onto a map we can sell and purchase so that we can claim expertise on her and carry her with us at all times.

Perhaps because they fear the hills have eyes, men have made an extra effort to ensure that women’s twin peaks belong to them alone, an effort some anthropologists cite as the invention of tits. Biologists, however, are unconcerned with tits’ “invention,” viewing them as natural, and instead have focused their efforts on cataloguing tits’ defining features:

–         They exist on this earth for the eyes of men.

–         They possess a biological allure so strong that it claims to be outside cultural constructs of beauty.

–         They are incomplete without being topped with male sexual fluids (it’s like the icing on the cake).

–         They are best when they are bouncing all over the place and causing discomfort.

–         They require bras only the way a pot roast requires a platter.

–         The best ones are gigantic ones that add to this discomfort and stand out perkily, pleading for male attention, even though there is no size requirement for breastfeeding (look at other mammals, they just have little nipples).

–         They are public property and can be stared at by anyone.

–         They like to be bitten and kneaded like dough and dug into like meat. They demand consumption, not just oral but also monetary and visual. They should be collapsed into a man’s non-head.

–         When touched, they evoke obnoxious whiney noises of pleasure.

Experiment 

If my theory is right, and tits give women heads by making them observe themselves, what might the world look like if women had no tits? My hypothesis is that they would also cease to have heads: according to the model of mutual tit-eye and head-eye feedback, one either has four eyes or has none.

To test this hypothesis, I went about my day-to-day activities with full eye removal (see appendix B for enucleation procedure) and documented the experience in ethnographic fashion. Below is the manuscript.

Results

Day 1

I have no tits. But nobody seems to know this, and the world continues to go on as if I do. When the man on the subway groped my chest, I asked him what he was looking for because — sorry to disappoint — I have no tits. When the hobo following me on the street mumbled something about “titties,” I also had to tell him that I’m terribly apologetic but I don’t have any. But their illusion is too persistent to eradicate simply by informing people of its falsehood. These men actually see tits on my chest! And since they are the headless masters, and we are the capitated unspoken slaves, their eyes hold the Truth that philosophers are so keen on, and their illusions are the ones I have to deal with in my daily life.

Day 4

Or maybe it’s my illusion that I don’t have them. But why get rid of this illusion? It’s no worse than men going around pretending they have no heads. There, I said it! The heretical fact: I see heads on the shoulders of men! Call me crazy, call me schizophrenic, call me delusional, I still see them! The way they see my tits!

From these irreconcilable positions, I’ve concluded that there two types of vision, looking through your head and looking at it, which will never be simultaneously experienced. It is healthy to consider oneself headless and consider others to have heads. It means you are in tune with your own subjective experience. In your experience, it feels like your mind is the only mind that exists! Think of how hard it is to teach the contrary to children.

Think of how hard it is to teach the contrary to girl children, who must go from believing that the world is inside their minds to believing that they are a mere piece of the world inside boys’ minds. Think of how hard it is to think the world as you see it matters, only to realize all that matters is how the world sees you. Think of having your own ability to see contended. Think of feeling crazy because you still believe in your own subjectivity, of being told you are crazy because you don’t believe the theories about your innate vanity and narcissistic sexuality. Think of your body being a political controversy, of men treating it like land on which to fight their battles.  

You can treat me like an object, but you can’t take away my subjectivity. You can tell me I have tits, and I understand that through your eyes I do, but I have the right to my own eyes as much as you. 

Day 13

Now that I have no tits or eyes or head, I was curious as to whether or not I would grow a penis. I did not. My external genitalia, at least from my vantage point, has not changed. But I do have new sensations. Rather than two lips folded shamefully inward, I have desires between my legs that erect themselves, asserting themselves into the world without concerns about their reception. The energy shoots out so that if I dance, I can feel a thing swinging around down there as I shake my hips. But if I look, there is no thing, just an experience — precisely like my non-head. 

Day 17

My vision has gotten much sharper without the view of my tits and head clouding it. Sometimes I don’t know what to stare at when there are people in front of me. I see your face, I see your nose, I can assess your features and their relative sizes and shapes, now what? This has made me quite socially awkward at parties, where people can’t pinpoint me as the man gazing or the woman posing for him.

Day 19

I’ve thought of something to do when I am stuck looking at other people: listen to their words and the intonation of their voices. I was so used to looking at, rather than listening to, myself that this was how I assumed one should respond to other people. Now I see how men have accomplished all their wars and treatises and financial transactions in so few years, and I see why they have not included women. It seems men are capable of listening to men because they are not so preoccupied with the gaze, but when they encounter women, their ears become stuffed with heads and all they can do is stare like the drooling fucktards that heads give rise to.

Day 23

My stomach is less distended; without my tit-eyes I have no way to look down and see it swelling. It used to impede my motor functioning with its unsightly protrusion and insistence on bumping tables in a café or desks in a classroom. Now, similar to my non-head and non-genitals, my non-stomach has gone from an object to a swirling sea of desires. For the first time I feel hungry, full, and nauseated. It has become less and less compelling to starve or stuff myself. Even exercising becomes a hassle when one has sensations, and all my skin products have begun to sting. When my face felt like a mask, my body like a suit, sitting through these ordeals was easier. Plucking my eyebrows — not to mention waxing — is excruciatingly painful. And deceptive, now that it belies the fact that I have no head.        

 

Day 25

Without tits I can wear more comfortable, less fitted clothing. I cannot believe I had convinced myself I actually enjoyed wearing tube tops and mini skirts. My eyes enjoyed them, not me, because my eyes were not mine. They were the eyes of men, showing me what men see, which just happened to be attached to my head and tits. I had corneas and lenses and optic nerves and all, but I didn’t see; I was seen, and I replicated what others saw. No wonder blindness feels so familiar. I never had eyes.

Day 27

This experience has taught me that our heads and our tits are products of our delusions. Even after ocular restoration, I feel that my tits are as poor a description of my experience as Douglas Harding’s head is of his. If Douglas Harding can claim to have no head, surely I can claim to have no tits. (Given what biologists say tits are, it is especially hard to believe that I have them). Everyone is entitled to affirm their own delusions and consider others’ ridiculous. And yet, I can feel someone watching me now…

Appendix A

“Eighty on the freeway, kissin’ on some titties.” – 8 Ball

“When I bust, titties come out.” – Red Man

“Don’t say my car is topless. Say the titties is out.” –Nas

Appendix B

Enucleation procedure includes anesthesia, isolation of the levator muscle, peritonomy, muscle identification, neurectomy, preparation of tenon’s capsule, and implant insertion (not to be confused with tit augmentation implants).


About the Author: Suzannah Weiss is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Bustle and xoJane and a feminist blogger at dwfdatingwhilefeminist.tumblr.com and noorigin.wordpress.com. She holds degrees in Gender & Sexuality Studies, Modern Culture & Media, and Cognitive Neuroscience from Brown University, which she uses mainly to over-analyze trashy television and argue over semantics.

Artwork: Sean McCollum 

 

Kîlauea and the Curtain of Fire by Ryan McKinley

hawaiian


The week started with a volcanic eruption and it continued with a death. Kîlauea volcano burst and Kelsey Araki, a sixteen-year-old sophomore at Kohala High School, was murdered. Both events hit Detective Achilles Naluaka. He was assigned the case of the murdered girl the same day lava started flowing toward his home. The house and the land had been in his family for three generations. At the same time the newspapers were following the murder case as if it was a football game, waiting for Naluaka to slip because he had solved all his previous cases, a curse of the undefeated. Distracted by the lava, and at his wits end with the case, Detective Naluaka, or Nalu, as he preferred to be called, pulled a Hail Mary play. He picked up a local criminal named Sumo Glen, a butterball of a man with a topknot haircut. Despite his teddy bear appearance, he was a low-level enforcer and sometime killer.

They drove on the coastal highway that encircled the Big Island of Hawai`i. In the passenger seat Sumo Glen yanked on the chains that were locked on his wrists and ankles.

“Glen,” Nalu said. “If you keep rattling those chains, the day is not going to end well.”

“What law was I breakin’, Dick-tective?” Sumo Glen asked.

“Your waist is breaking the laws of physics.”

Sumo Glen waited a moment to deliver the best comeback he could find. “Fuck you.”

“Sorry, that costs money.”

Nalu glanced to the distance where Kîlauea volcano loomed large, its lava flowing toward the Pacific. Sumo Glen looked out the window at the rising smoke. “Police station’s the odda way,” he said.

Nalu nodded.

Not far away steam was rising off the land. The lava was burning through trees, lakes, homes, erasing everything in its path. Nalu switched on the windshield wipers to brush away the falling ash. The smell of sulfur entered the sealed car.

“Shit, we going to your ranch,” Sumo Glen said. “That whole area going be covered in a few hours.”

“It’ll turn.”

“What?”

“The lava, it’s going to turn pass the area by.” Nalu had to keep repeating that. A child’s dream; if he said it enough it would come true.

“You lolo or what? —screw dis, stop dis car. Brah, dis against the law; stop dis car right now—”

“Shut up, Glen. If I stop the car, all that’s going to happen is I’m gonna throw you in the trunk. So just sit there and shut up.”

Sumo Glen sunk into his seat and stared out the window. He mumbled something that Nalu couldn’t hear, and didn’t care to listen to. Nalu slowed down as he drove around a roadblock. A sign on the blockade read, “Danger: Road Closed.” Nalu repeated in his head, “the lava will turn,” and he hoped the volcano goddess was listening.

 

When they reached his ranch Nalu dragged Sumo Glen into the plantation-style house. Nalu dropped his prisoner into a chair in the den. In the center of the room Kelsey Araki’s case file was laid out on a folding table. As the sun set, Nalu cracked the seal on some Black Label Scotch and finished a few glasses before it was dark.

The night was black except for the orange glow in the distance. The lava was coming and it left Nalu in a crimson mood.

“Let’s try again,” Nalu said. He emptied the last of the scotch into his glass and opened a second bottle.

“Brah, the whole island knows the same thing,” Sumo Glen said. “The girl is dead, could have been her teacher, her pops, boyfriend, some random wahine; I don’t know nothing. So let’s go. Let’s get outta here.”

Nalu sipped the scotch and knelt a few feet from Sumo Glen’s chair. “Well,” Nalu said. “We’re going to stay here until we figure it out.”

“Damn it, we gotta get out of here. We going be burned alive…” Sumo Glen continued his monologue, but Nalu tuned him out. He sipped his scotch as he paced in circles looking at the den. He thought of all the work it took to create it. Before big machinery the house was built by hand. Filipino and Chinese immigrants worked for Nalu’s great-grandfather, hammering every nail, molding every piece of material until it fit the structure. He wondered who carved the maile pattern in the stone edges of the walls.

Everything those people had worked for was going to be erased. Nalu wondered what the men in his family would do if they were still alive. They probably would have picked up the land, let the lava pass by, and then put the house right back where it was.

“Eh, detective, you hearing me?”

“I stopped listening a while ago.” Nalu filled up his glass again and drank it just as fast. He leaned over the folding table. Sweat fell from his forehead, splattering the case files. It was getting hotter; the lava was closing in.

Sumo Glen pulled at the chains. “I said, I feeling claustrophobic in here.”

“That’s just because you’re fat.”

“Shit, seriously, it stay a hundred degrees in here; the walls is closing in.”

Nalu ignored Sumo Glen, but the heat was affecting him too. The scotch was probably not helping. Nalu moved the case files around the table, rereading every statement. “I’m missing something,” he said.

“Ch-yeah, one brain.”

“Shut up, Glen.”

Outside the lava hissed in the night, overconfident of its power to wipe the land clean. Louder and louder the hissing grew. Sumo Glen started laughing. The heat was getting to him. “The murder magician: any case, Detective Naluaka will solve it.” Nalu leaned on the folding table. The second bottle of scotch was empty. He swore it must have evaporated in the heat. The lava’s hiss was growing. Sumo Glen’s eyes glazed over and he laughed hysterically. “Kelsey Araki still dead. We going be burned. We going be dead.”

Sweat rolled off Nalu’s face. It hit the table in rhythm, drip—drip—drip. “We going be dead,” Sumo Glen laughed. Nalu stared at the evidence, and he could hear Kelsey Araki laughing at him too. The hissing started to crackle in the air. Nalu’s head pounded, his blood burning. The night was pounding. Louder and louder, closer and closer. The lava was coming. Nalu could hear his grandfather laughing at him, his father laughing at him. The bones of the house were creaking. His heart pounded. His head pounded. His ancestors were laughing at him. The island was laughing at him. The room started spinning. The hissing roared. The lava was coming. The lava was there.

Nalu screamed and flipped the table. The room stopped spinning, and for a moment the papers looked like falling leaves. He pulled his revolver from his belt holster and clicked the chamber open. Six bullets. He spun the cylinder and snapped the chamber shut. Sumo Glen stared at the gun as Nalu moved toward him. Nalu grabbed the chains, pulled Sumo Glen out of the chair, and shoved him out the door onto the ranch’s plains.

The orange glow was a midnight sun lighting up the hills. Lava cut a curtain of fire through the darkness. Nalu walked toward the lava, pulling Sumo Glen behind him. The air, thick with sulfur and heat, battered their bodies. The short walk felt like a mountain trek, and they almost crawled up the embankment. When they reached the property line Sumo Glen fell to his knees, gasping for breath. Nalu stood watching the lava. It didn’t flow or roll; it stalked like a wild animal.

Nalu cocked the revolver, raised the gun, and pulled the trigger. The gunshot did little more than make noise as the bullet disappeared into the flames.

“What the hell you doing?” Sumo Glen shouted. Nalu fired again. Sumo Glen grabbed Nalu’s leg. “I know who killed the girl. I’ll tell you, just get us out of here. I know who killed Kelsey Araki.”

“No,” Nalu said. “You don’t.” Again he fired. “Turn,” Nalu whispered. “Come on turn.” The lava beast was a hundred feet away, seventy feet away. He cocked the gun and fired three shots.

“Wait,” Sumo Glen said. “Just unlock me. I’ll show you who killed Kelsey Araki. I’ll show you where she died. Shit, I’ll show you other bodies.”

Nalu grabbed Sumo Glen’s chains and pulled him up so they were face to face.

“I don’t care anymore about who killed the girl. I don’t care if there are bodies buried right here. I only care about the land. My grandfather worked this land until he could afford to buy it back from the sailor who took it from him. And my then father turned it into the biggest ranch in the islands. Now they’re both dead, and I’m the only one left to protect it. And I’m letting it get taken away in another fucking story of the native lands.” He let the chain go, and Sumo Glen fell to the ground.

The lava was forty feet away. Sumo Glen screamed and put his hands in front of his face as if that would protect him.

Nalu held the revolver with both hands and pulled the trigger. The gun clicked empty. The click was louder than any gunshot. He dropped the revolver and stared at the beast barreling toward him. Twenty feet. Nalu shut his eyes. Ten feet. Then there was silence, a deafening silence. The heat vanished and he stopped sweating. He suddenly felt a kolonahe breeze drifting around him, sending a shiver through his spine. He wondered if he was dead.

Slowly, he opened his eyes, and a few feet in front of him the wave of lava had cleaved, split into two small rivers that flowed around Nalu, flowed around his family land, his family home. His land, his home. When the two rivulets passed Nalu’s property they rejoined into a singular giant flow. It created a kîpuka, a breath between the lava rocks and the hard places. It was no longer a stalking beast, it looked like orange water, but it still glowed like a midnight sun.

Sumo Glen peeked out from behind his hands. Nalu clapped him on the back, “I told you the lava would turn.” Nalu said it with all the confidence he could muster, but he was just as surprised and relieved that they were still alive.

Sumo Glen looked up from the ground. “Great, I don’t give a shit, you crazy son of a bitch.”

“Don’t piss me off, Glen. The night is young, and I got more bullets in the house.” Sumo Glen returned his face to his hands.

Nalu looked at the Kîlauea volcano in the distance. Sparks jumped and lava splattered from the caldera. Against the night sky it looked like a volcanic Jackson Pollack. Nalu looked to the land, the lava, and finally back to Kîlauea. And silently he said, “Mahalo nui loa, me kea aloha pumehana.” It was the best way he could say thank you.

Nalu tapped his foot against Sumo Glen side. “Glen, I think I just figured out who killed Kelsey Araki.”


About the Author: Ryan McKinley is from Honolulu, Hawai`i and a graduate of Saint Mary’s College of California. His work has appeared in Ka Leo O Hawaii, Mary: A Journal of New Writing, Booma, and The Lamornida Weekly. He loves the Pacific Ocean, a good mystery, listening to the world around him, and writing detective fiction.

Artwork: Ryan McKinley

Dual Income by Nadeem Zaman

Monirul Alam_07092014 [ Daily Life ] Garment workers Protest in Dhaka


Maruf was against Salma returning to work, but not because he thought she was incapable. He was, simply put, old-fashioned. Salma had been fine with being a housewife. Fifteen years had passed since she was teaching, a decade and a half during which they had two children, a military government came to an end, religious fanatics returned to the frontlines of Bangladeshi politics, democracy got tossed around like a piece of hot coal no one could handle, and Maruf’s prospects of a major promotion after ten years in the same non-management position turned into a pay cut.

“Mergers,” said Maruf, “it’s code word for murder, because that’s what it does to the real working people. In broad daylight, bleeds them out. And Americans love mergers more than they love their families.”

Maruf’s bank had been taken over by an American investment firm, and over the last six weeks, representatives had been arriving every other day—spiffy, young, smiling faces torched and ruddy from the Dhaka heat but maintaining grace—spending interminable hours behind the locked door of the conference room with the chairman and CEO Mr. Moazzem, who also faced strong prospects of becoming a menial employee. Mr. Moazzem had asked Maruf if there was anything he could do to help. He actually meant it. After a few days’ thought, and a conversational tangent with Salma that became serious, then caused them to bicker, Maruf begrudgingly asked Mr. Moazzem for a lead.

“It’s against my choice, sir, but times are…”

“I understand, Maruf.”

Mr. Moazzem delivered. One of the top industrialists in the city had opened a new office, and administrative positions were open but filling fast.

As soon as Salma excitedly mentioned her CV, Maruf said that it needed to be updated, no matter that she hadn’t had a job since the school. For a firm of this caliber it would have to be close to perfect and make up with appearance what was lacking in substance. A proper cover letter needed to be drafted. She would need a quick course on basic computer use, emailing, searching the web, none of which, Maruf grumbled, could be added to her skill set.

“That part will have to remain un-updated,” Maruf puffed his cheeks and exhaled. “We could possibly fatten the administrative background from your teaching days with stress on organization, timeliness, accountability…” the words swam into each other in Salma’s ears. “…even if most of these positions are little more than office boy-type work, with all due respect to Mr. Moazzem. At least the firm has a name and reputation.”

He went through a checklist as if evaluating his own prospects for the job. He stopped and asked her if she was really prepared to go through the headache. The headache, she told him, seemed only to be his. She was fine. They needed this to work. Maruf’s pride thus knocked, he resumed advising.

The city was different from when Salma was last part of it on a daily basis. There were more cars, more buses, more trucks, damned more rickshaws and scooters, more people, more accidents. Once a week at least Maruf saw a deadly crash or a bus hitting a scooter or a rickshaw and killing a family. Then there were the student thugs and the religious fundamentalists that needed absolutely no reason to unleash violence on whoever they decided was the day’s target; there were young cretins that had no respect for women and touched and groped and tried to rip their clothes off out in the open. Dhaka was not what it used to be.

There was a time, Maruf elaborated, with an almost eulogizing sadness in his tone, when children and women could walk freely, unmolested through any street at any time, and men were protectors, husbands, fathers, and respectful heads of households, not recreants leaguing with other recreants in the name of religion and solidarity and politics and righteousness to turn the city into a jungle.

When he reached the end of his ruminations, he said, without making eye contact with her, “There’s time still to think about it. These things happen in every job. I know people who have gone through worse. Some are doing even better than before.”

“I’m happy for those people.” Salma was on her feet, knowing well enough that the next installment would tie in his tirade about the shameless leasing out of the country to the West.

“But not for me, that won’t happen so easily,” Maruf added, his bitterness simmering. “And that is not a reason to think the problem doesn’t exist in the fundamental attitude of the West when it comes to the Third World…”

 

Salma resurrected the old CV from the depths of a trunk that had been stowed away in the storeroom since they’d first moved into the flat five years ago. She had drawn out the file like a fragile relic. Besides the dust and the mothball smell it looked fine, no different than the day she’d wrapped it in the plastic bag and set it under a stack of books from her teaching days. She locked up the trunk, brought the file to the dining table, and untied the string that held it shut.

She could hear Maruf talking in the bedroom while he changed his clothes. Adil’s running footsteps banged along the veranda in the back. Shama’s Bollywood music leaked out of her room and around the flat like a chorus of mosquitoes. The cook came out and asked Salma if he should set the table for dinner, and Salma gave him an absent-minded nod.

“No one has faith in the country anymore,” Maruf was saying as he walked in. “Why wonder when outsiders and foreigners think it’s theirs for the taking as they wish?” He came to the table and took the CV from Salma’s hand. Holding it at arm’s length he started laughing. Salma snatched it back, and tucked it into the file.

“Item One,” he snorted, “bringing that thing from the Stone Age to the twenty-first century.”

“Dipu downstairs is good with computers,” said Salma. “He is a smart boy. He can do it.”

“Are you mad? Letting a child do the work of a professional? Seriously, Salma, where does your mind go to pick up these foolish ideas?”

The cook began setting the table and bringing out dishes of food.

“For a job with a firm like this, you cannot be careless,” Maruf said. “Everything has to be spotless and perfect. Believe me. Things are not what they used to be. All that flimsy, cobble-together-what-you-can attitude history. Now the firms have trained people they hire just to look for mistakes and discrepancies in everything. Including cover letters and CVs.”

Salma put the file down on the chair next to her. Maruf walked over and picked it up.

“Perfection,” said Maruf, eyeing the frayed file. “My god,” he chuckled, “I don’t think they even make files like these anymore.”

He smacked the file against his palm. “There is no point messing around,” he said. “If we’re going to do something, it should be done right. I will take this with me and have Pranab prepare the new ones. It will be a few days; things are very busy at the bank, but at least it will be done properly and responsibly.”

Maruf spoke on, circling the dining table, hands clasped behind him, deep inflections in his speech on specific points he thought needed more stress than others or else his wife just could not fathom their seriousness. He stopped at the head chair on the opposite end of the table from her, leaned on it with both hands, and said, “No ‘I beg to apply for the position’ nonsense from the times of our fathers. Only direct, professional courtesy, and confidence in the applicant’s potential as the best candidate for the job.”

Salma saw the deep circles under his eyes, the doubts buried under the confident stare, and heard the rasp in his breathing that had gotten worse instead of better because she knew he was still smoking.

“I will leave it to you,” she said. “Whatever you think needs to be done.” She called for the children to come in for dinner.

Later that night, when Maruf would long have been asleep, he nudged Salma in bed. She had been trying to sleep for the last hour, but could do nothing more than count the things she would need to arrange for and rearrange if she got hired.

“Are you awake?” Maruf asked.

“What are you doing awake?” said Salma.

“I was thinking.”

“Okay?”

“You can really make something of this position if you do it right.” He turned around. Salma still kept her back to him. “It’s a new branch of a major firm with international presence, and you’re coming in at a good time, at the beginning.”

“That’s good.” Sleep suddenly hit Salma. Her eyes grew heavy.

Maruf was silent for several minutes, and Salma drifted off.

“But don’t overwork yourself,” he said. Salma jolted awake. “You know? If they make you stay late, tell them you have a family. If they insist on overtime, then they will have to pay for it. You know? But it’s best not to get ahead of ourselves. Nothing has happened yet. You know? Are you hearing me?”

“Hmm.”

He shifted his position again, onto his back.

“Bastards,” he murmured. “Bastards.”

Three days later Maruf brought home the newly made cover letter and CV. He made a ceremony of sitting down in the living room, calling the children out, having Salma sit formally across from him, then presenting to her the documents, which were paper-clipped and encased in a smooth, clear plastic folder. He gave them a light tap with his palm for good measure.

“Well?” said Maruf. “Are you going to look or what? Even the paper is the good stock, used specifically for official documents,” he pointed out. “See for yourself,” he said, as if she had challenged him.

“Where are the originals?” was the first thing Salma could think to ask.

“What originals?” Maruf frowned. “Those old things were useless. Open it, take a look.”

The folder was heated from the sun. It leaked its warmth onto Salma’s lap. Salma popped the clasp, reached in, and slid out the new documents. They made her sad, reminding her of the time her late father had had the old ones made.

“What do you think? Sky and earth difference, no?” Maruf sat back, smiling, triumph back in his bearing.

Salma gave a cursory nod, and replaced the documents back inside the cover, with care as if they belonged to someone else.

“What is it for?” Shama asked.

“Yes, what is it for?” Adil repeated after his sister.

“Nothing for you two to worry about,” Salma replied, placing the documents in their plastic folder on the coffee table.

“Go inside,” said Maruf, standing. “Don’t make me repeat myself.”

Adil tore away from the chair before his father spoke again, tugging Shama by the sleeve of her kameez.

“What’s the matter now?” Maruf asked.

“What did you do with the old papers?”
“Seriously, Salma? All the trouble I go to and you’re worried about some old documents that were lying god-knows-where until few days ago? I don’t understand you.”

“Trouble? You took them to the bank and someone else made them, and you brought them home.”

“Unbelievable!”

“My father had them made.”

Maruf exhaled noisily.

“Some days I don’t know what gets into you people in this house.” He sat back down, stretched, and began untying his shoelaces. He pulled off one shoe and tossed it to the side, paused as if considering a new strategy with the other, then sent that one the same way. The socks he peeled like they were damaged skin that had to be carefully removed.

“Did you throw them out?” Salma asked.

“Throw what out?”

“Maruf, you know what.”

“I don’t know. I gave them to Pranab, he needed them to work from to make those,” he pointed at the new documents. “I don’t know what he did with them. Are you having second thoughts now?”

“No.”

“Because if you are not one hundred percent sure you want to apply for this position, tell me. There is no turning back once you do. Not with a firm like this. Anyway, you should get those sent off immediately. This is not any Tom, Dick, and Harry firm, and they’ll have a line of people begging for a job any given day. Unless you want me to take care of it?”

“No,” Salma picked up the plastic folder again. “No.”

Two weeks after she sent the cover letter and CV, Salma had as good as forgotten about it. Maruf grumbled about it offhandedly, and mentioned he wasn’t really surprised, given Salma’s lack of experience, and for a time the matter was at rest. When the phone call came, Salma wasn’t there to answer it because she was downstairs on the first floor haggling with the chicken seller. Shama had taken the call, and shouted for her mother down the stairwell.

A crisp, young female voice verified Salma’s identity in English.

“Yes, I am Salma Karim.”

“Are you able to come for an interview next Tuesday? Ten o’ clock, sharp?” She added the “sharp” as if she knew Salma to be compulsively tardy.

“Depending, of course, on things being peaceful in the city,” she added.

“Yes.”

“Good. My name is Anika. Just ask for me at the reception. And if anything should change between now and then, we have each other’s information.”

Salma set down the receiver. Her heart was pounding, and she felt stricken with worry.

“That woman was rude,” said Shama. “Are you going to work for her?”

Salma cupped Shama’s chin. “I don’t know. Maybe. Adil? Come out here.”

With the two children, Shama went downstairs and knocked on Mrs. Mahbub’s door.

“Who is it?” Mrs. Mahbub’s voice floated from the back of the flat.

“Mrs. Mahbub, it’s Salma, from upstairs.”

There was silence, followed by approaching footfalls. Adil recoiled behind his mother, and Shama stood at Salma’s side. The door opened. Mrs. Mahbub popped her head out. Her hair was gleaming with oil, and pulled tightly back, giving her an expression of perpetual shock. Pockmarks covered her cheeks. Over the thin line of her mouth was a fuzz of hair. She smelled of sandalwood and laundry soap.

“Yes, yes, how are you?” said Mrs. Mahbub. “It’s been ages since I saw your face last. Come in, come in.”

“Yes, I know. Busy times, Mrs. Mahbub. And how are you?”

“You know how it is,” Mrs. Mahbub said, opening the door wider, releasing a drift of cooking smells.

Mr. Mahbub had left two years earlier for the daughter of an associate from work to whom he was now married. His conciliatory gestures were to buy his son an iMac with a 27-inch monitor, and a printer and scanner unit, and transfer ownership of the flat to his ex-wife—whom he never legally divorced—while he kept making the payments on it. Mrs. Mahbub did not file for divorce, and believed that Dipu’s father would eventually return.

“Mrs. Mahbub, I wanted to ask you something, is this a good time?” said Salma.

“Oh, yes, yes. Come inside first. Hello children. Shama, you are going to be taller than your mother next time I see you. Dipu? Turn off that computer and come say hello to Salma auntie and the children. All day he is glued to that thing.”

The dreary living room, the entire flat, was depressing. The shut windows, drawn curtains, and the complete lack of natural light gave the place a crypt-like chill. It was cold, too, almost frigid, as though the air conditioning had been running round the clock full blast. Most of the furniture was in need of maintenance, if not replacement. The sofa that Mrs. Mahbub gestured for them to take had holes, small ones, but large enough for puffs of bright white cotton to peek out. On a table next to the sofa was a framed picture of Dipu in his school uniform, holding up a certificate, the corners of his mouth drooped, his eyes half closed. Mrs. Mahbub flipped a switch, and the sudden glare of the uncovered light bulb overhead laid bare brilliantly the room’s drab gloom.

Dipu, still in his school uniform, ambled into the room. He was pink-cheeked and fat. The hair on his head was like fine porcupine quills. His knees knocked, and he dragged his feet when he walked. Like his mother he wore thick glasses, behind which his eyes were two tiny dots. Without regarding the guests, he went by his mother’s side, and stood looking at the ground.

“What do you say, Dipu?” said Mrs. Mahbub.

“Sla-malikum, Auntie” Dipu croaked.

“How are you, Dipu? How is school?” Salma asked.

Dipu didn’t answer. Mrs. Mahbub offered to make tea, but Salma asked her not to go to the trouble.

“Do you children want Coke?” Mrs. Mahbub asked.

“Coke, yes!” Adil shouted.

“No. And be quiet.” Salma clasped and tightened her arm around him. Shama said she didn’t want anything.

“I might be getting a job, Mrs. Mahbub,” said Salma.

“Things are bad at the bank with your husband?” Mrs. Mahbub asked.

“A little extra income would be good, yes,” said Salma.

“When times get bad, they get bad.”

“I know you know, Mrs. Mahbub.” Salma felt awkward after making the comment.

“Do I know,” Mrs. Mahbub sighed. She swept a hand through Dipu’s hair, which he dodged. “Every day I know.” Dipu gave his mother a sideward frown, which she did not see.

“I only have the interview,” said Salma. “God willing, if I get the position, will it be all right if the children stopped by here after school?”

“Yes, yes, of course, you don’t need to ask even.”

“Thank you. Dipu? Is it okay with you?” Salma asked.

“Dipu? What do you say?” Mrs. Mahbub touched her son’s plump cheek. Dipu flinched and pulled away. “It will be nice for him. All the time he’s home he’s on that thing,” she waved in the direction of Dipu’s room, indicating the computer.

“Also, if I get this job, I will need to know about computers. Dipu, would you like to be my teacher?” said Salma.

Dipu smiled. Two dimples poked into his cheeks. “Okay.”

After a short silence, Salma thanked Mrs. Mahbub, and promised to keep her updated. Mrs. Mahbub offered tea and refreshments again, but Salma had pushed to her feet without realizing, which made her feel a little embarrassed and opportunistic. She promised to stay for some next time.

Mrs. Mahbub saw them out and locked the door, and then they heard her call Dipu’s name and her voice fading toward the back of the flat.

“That place makes me feel strange. It’s such a sad home. No home should be sad like that,” said Shama, bounding up the steps two at a time. Adil sprinted up behind her, slipped, knocked his knee on a step, and howled. Salma picked him up by an arm, and he dug his face into her shoulder. She couldn’t help agreeing with her daughter.

 

After Salma told him about the interview, Maruf became thoughtful, and sat at the edge of the bed staring at a point in front of him for several minutes before saying, “Well, it’s just an interview, probably one of several. Times are different. These days, firms like this especially, go through many rounds before making selections.”

“I thought you would be pleased,” said Salma.

Maruf craned his neck around like he was doing an after-workout stretch. “Pleased? About what? They probably have a hundred interviews lined up for just that one position.”

“Even for jobs that are no better than office boys?” said Salma.

Maruf made to reply but stopped.

“Tuesday, huh?” he said. “And that crazy woman downstairs, you want the children to stay with her?”

“She is not crazy, Maruf. Don’t say that.”

“Why else would her husband run off? And that poor boy, with nowhere to go but stuck with her day and night.”

“Shama and Adil will not stay with her. They will only let her know when they come home. Just so someone knows. Cook will be busier with me gone.”

“Hmm, well,” Maruf, done taking off his shoes and tucking his socks into them, took them to the clothes rack and dropped them next to the others. His shirt was damp with sweat. He peeled it off and hung it on the rack. In his undershirt he looked small and defeated, like he had just been badly beaten and humiliated by an opponent, lost everything, and was hanging up his armor for good. “I’m glad they found the documents acceptable,” he grumbled.

He didn’t want dinner. Salma and the children ate in silence. Afterward Salma spoke to the cook for a few minutes, telling him that there was a chance she was going to be gone during the day starting soon.

In the bedroom she found Maruf staring at himself in the mirror attached to the adjoining bathroom door. Seeing her, he quickly grabbed his shirt, and threw it over his head.

“Are you worried about your figure?” Salma chided. “Is that why you didn’t want to eat?”

“No,” Maruf said, curtly, and picked up the folded newspaper on the ground next to the bed. “It’s good to be a little conscious,” he said, after shuffling through the paper for a few minutes. “These young Americans that have been coming to the bank, you should see them. Their bodies and their health, and the women look stronger than the men. No wonder they, that whole country, is devouring the world in every way. Who can go against them when they’re that well-fed and well-built?”

Salma got into bed, and Maruf kept reading, or rather snapping from page to page, until she couldn’t help being irritated by it.

“There is every chance that they won’t like me,” she said, without turning to face him. “Is that what you want?”

She heard him fold the paper meticulously and toss it on the floor.

“What nonsense are you talking?” he said. He slid down under the covers, gave them a pull to release them out of the mattress at the foot of the bed and drew them up to his ears. Salma raised her head just as he was turning over.

“They sound like a place that I will not be qualified for,” she said. “Even for a job no more than an office boy’s. There are other places I can look.”

“It’s too late now. You have an appointment, and they’re expecting you. My name is on the line. Last thing I need on top of everything else is my wife making me look like a fool.”        “Then you should have thought of that before.” Salma looked at the bald patch at the top of his head, the hair around it sprouting like grass on the edges of a poorly maintained lawn. He moaned as he slipped away, gave a short grunt, and began snoring.

 

The morning of the interviewwas warm, with a brisk wind rising and falling every few seconds, carrying hints of the rain to come in less than a month. The sky was a dull slate gray. Maruf flagged two scooters, one for him and the children and one for Salma, and Adil wanted to go with his mother. Maruf ordered Shama to hold on to her brother, and wait in the other one. He then peeked his head into Salma’s scooter.

“Keep this,” he brought out a hundred-taka note. “Do you want me to go with you?”
“No. Just get the children to school.”

“Listen. It is what it is. Don’t try to show yourself off as something you’re not.” He waited, and then said, “Okay?”

“Okay.”

“Here, keep my mobile, too. Just in case.” Before she could respond Maruf placed the phone on her lap. He gave her another fifty-taka note, and scolded the scooter driver with the directions to where she was going as a measure against the driver charging a higher fare by taking a longer route.

Mrs. Mahbub and Dipu came out of the building. Mrs. Mahbub was talking at her son, and seeing her upstairs neighbors pulling away in the scooters, waved enthusiastically. Dipu was hustling toward a rickshaw he was flagging down at the same time.

On Shama’s lap, Adil was sniffling against his will. Maruf squeezed in next to them and addressed their driver in the same harsh tone as the other. Shama caught a glimpse of Dipu as the scooter engine revved under her seat, miserable and numb to his mother, scrambling onto the rickshaw as soon as it pulled up, while Mrs. Mahbub talked on.

The office was on Motijheel Road. Despite the driver’s age and innocuous appearance, Salma was skeptical that he would follow Maruf’s instructions, but it became evident soon that per Maruf’s orders he had taken Maulana Bhashani Road to get to the Motijheel area via Shahbag. The driver’s trepidation, however, became evident as soon as they entered the Shahbag area. He slowed the scooter, pulled to the side of the road, and turned to Salma.

“Madam, I cannot go anymore, the way your husband told,” the driver said. He was in his seventies. His eyes were watery and looked blinded with cataracts. The cloth cap on his head was tilted to one side like someone had smacked it out of place. The grimace on his face gave Salma the fear that the he had suddenly become ill.

“Why not?” she asked.

The driver pointed ahead. Salma leaned to one side to look past him through the windshield. She could see nothing more than the usual, clots of people, buses, rickshaws, scooters, more people. Thinking she was missing something Salma kept looking, and the scooter driver, like a tutor that was waiting for the pupil to catch on to the obvious, sat fidgeting. After another couple of minutes, Salma heard the chanting, but couldn’t understand it. It was concerted, unified, loud, and within moments the natural assembly of people and vehicles on the busy intersection grew into a dark wall of bodies. The scooter driver finally turned to Salma. When he opened his mouth to speak Salma saw his teeth were destroyed by pan and betel nut.

“Madam, please, there is no way to keep going,” he said. “Forgive me. I won’t take your money, but I cannot risk it. Even if I wanted to I couldn’t. I will take you back to your home.”

“Is there another way to go?” Salma asked.

The driver’s anguish deepened. He lowered his head, and brought it up again.

“I cannot, Madam. Forgive me.”

Salma wondered why Maruf had failed to mention a possible demonstration. If anything, it would be the first thing he would highlight, above all else, above even the interview, before going on to lambaste the government and work himself into a sweat before huffing off petulantly as if it were all Salma’s fault.

The sound of his complaints droned in her head. A stone grew in her stomach, heavy, oppressive, like it did not want her to stand on her feet again, would not allow it. Salma sat quietly with her eyes closed. The chanting from the demonstration grew louder. When she opened her eyes she noticed flags, their green as rich as rain fed grass, and the ball in the heart of the green the red of arterial blood. They were flying on bamboo poles, large and small, waving and fluttering.

“Madam, I beg you, let us turn around.”

“No, I will get out here.” Salma handed the driver the fifty-taka note, and climbed out. The scooter made an immediate turnaround, its engine whirring painfully to the angst of its driver, and buzzed away like a fading swarm of bees.

Salma draped the strap of her handbag diagonally across her body from opposing shoulder to waist, and headed toward the demonstration. Soon she was trotting, as if rushing to catch a departing bus, her heart hammering in her chest. Her lungs started to burn, but within minutes her head felt light and detached from the rest of her body. She couldn’t tell if the mass of bodies was moving toward her or away, and she didn’t care. She suddenly found herself propelled toward the crowd, for what reason she didn’t know, but for the fact that even if she tried to stop and turn she would be unable. Whether the demonstration had advanced or Salma had gotten closer, she was near enough to see individual faces now. Faces painted in the colors of the flag. Faces pulled and stretched with fervor that Salma envied. Young faces, down to boys and girls no older than Shama and Adil, with banners raised, flags aloft, and chanting. The banners called for the punishment of war criminals.

The war crimes tribunals had been going on for a few years at the Bangladesh High Court right here in Dhaka. Controversy over them had recently reached a critical mass with supporters of the trials calling for the hanging of collaborators that had sided with the Pakistan Army during the Liberation War, and with opposing Jamaat-i-Islami hardliners calling the trials a blasphemous, anti-Islamic witch hunt.

When she was within ten or twenty feet of the demonstration Salma eased her pace and moved along the side of the road. The crush of bodies looked like it wouldn’t afford a single inch for her to pass through. She also saw that the demonstration was not moving forward, or moving at all, and that it was rigid and solid as a wall. They were shouting for justice, calling for death. Happily, jovially, they were demanding heads in nooses. Salma saw the name of the man currently on trial scrawled in Bangla across a banner that was bobbing up and down in the center of the crowd, his face next to his name circled within a noose. She saw a small opening between a few bodies, and plunged forward. Her shoulder bumped with a young woman’s on one side, and grazed the bare arm of a middle-aged man on the other. She caught a glimpse of an old couple holding the black and white portrait of a young man. Must be their son, murdered by the Pakistan Army. A girl, three or four, sat on the shoulder of a man clutching a flag on a stick.

A terrific din arose from the very heart of the procession. The young woman Salma had bumped into turned and gave her a big smile, and shouted a word of solidarity, getting Salma into the spirit of the demonstration. Salma’s heart thumped wildly, but she felt calm, unthreatened in the midst of the crowd.

Riot police trickled out from places Salma couldn’t see. Helmets, batons, shields, vests, guns. Their boots crunched, and, like the demonstrators, they moved by their own unified rhythm. The demonstrators didn’t oppose the presence of the police, and neither was the police making threatening gestures at the crowd. Salma had her handbag clutched against her with one hand. She reached inside with her other hand and felt Maruf’s mobile phone.

A great surge swept through the crowd, pushing it forward. Salma felt it against her back, and she went forward with it. Within seconds the demonstration moved ten feet, almost in a rush. The police seemed unperturbed, even calm. Salma felt the hand of the young woman beside her take hers and thrust it upward, like Salma had just won a boxing match. The woman shrieked so loudly that her words became incoherent, her voice a shredded and piercing clot of phlegm and grit in her throat. A huge response rang out of the crowd. Salma gripped the young woman’s hand and filled her lungs with air to shout.


About the Author: Nadeem Zaman was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh and grew up in Chicago. He is currently a PhD. student at the University of Louisville. His fiction has appeared in The Copperfield Review, Eastlit, China Grove, 94 Creations, and is forthcoming in The Milo Review and the Roanoke Review.

Artwork: Monirul Alam

Oakland, California 94607 by Rebecca Chekouras

liberty

 


A clerk wielding a Remington Rand had pounded his full legal name, Earl Anthony Jones, Jr., onto the original 1969 business license fading on the wall by his chair, the window chair. In the double frame next to it, an old snapshot of his daughter, all arms and legs, was balanced by a recent, professional portrait showing the aspiring actress in New York. His grandfather, Anthony Jones, bought the Clay Street shop in 1923, the beginning of Jones & Sons, Barbers. Anthony was the confident sort—three chairs, one barber, no sons. Five years into the business, he’d acquired a second barber, a steady stream of juke jiving men who hit Oakland’s 7th Street clubs on Friday and Saturday nights, and a son he named Earl.

Earl took the business into the next generation, holding on to his father’s customers and adding, as they arrived by the score, their sons. He kept a pot of coffee going for men who arrived in the morning and left late in the afternoon, perhaps having refreshed their cup in the back room a time or two with a shot of bourbon. The big-voiced men dissected the world from Earl’s chairs, told stories and bragged on their war service, glad to be home.

On the day Mrs. Jones brought two-year-old Earl Jr. into the shop for his first haircut, Big Earl, as his customers now called him, was attending to a rotund man, combing pomade into hair cut close on the sides and back but piled high in front like the prow of a ship.

“Who that little shaver?” the man had asked.

“Oh, he local,” claimed a customer returning from his third trip to the back room. To his mother’s dismay, the odd retort wrapped its loving arms around her child and held on. By the time he was twenty, Local Jones worked the third chair in his father’s shop.

 

Local Jones put coffee on. It was for old farts like him. Young men today preferred energy drinks, chemo-green or blue as radiator fluid. Nothing you’d want to slip a shot into. The aroma of coffee, dark roasted and oily, threaded the shop, floating on the back of pomade and the astringent lotions that put the sting in a close shave. Jones took up his broom and swept through a big yellow butter pat morning sunlight had thrown on the floor. He tried a shop assistant once but the floor never looked right when someone else did it. When he reached the door, he flipped the sign from Closed to Open and waited while Officer James Boscana parked his black and white cruiser at the curb. Jones raised his hand to the beat cop and opened the door.

Boscana climbed out and called to Jones over the car’s roof. “You see any suspicious-looking types hanging around here yesterday?”

“Everybody come into my place a suspicious-looking type,” Jones replied. Bada-boom. Their favorite joke. Then he reached back inside for a bright pink box. “You want a donut?” He popped the lid on a dozen sugar-dusted, crispy-edged jelly donuts fat and snug as sleeping babies under a blanket of waxed paper. “Here,” he said pushing the box toward Boscana. “I’ll get you a coffee, too.”

“No, thank you,” Boscana said and held up his hands to ward off the persistent generosity of Local Jones. Five years ago, a rookie cop new to the beat, Boscana took routine shit from Old Oakland merchants. But not from Jones. Boscana was welcome in the little wormhole back to 1923. The chairs, white as hospital cabinets and upholstered in black leather, swiveled on shiny nickel stems bolted to red and white floor tiles. The original mirror ran the length of the shop and threw a broad bar of reflected sunlight against the opposite wall.

“You never take nuthin’?” Local asked. “Because I mean don’t let me hear you take a Coke and chips from some place up the street and don’t take nuthin’ from me.”

“Don’t make me haul you in, old man.” That was their oldest joke. That Jones, a man who’d worked every day of his adult life in the same 500 square feet, was unpredictable, the kind who’d fly off the rail in a minute.

“You want a haircut? I got time.”

Boscana removed his forage cap and checked the mirror. He ran his hand through the short bristles of his black hair. Crescent moons shone white above his ears. “Don’t think I need one just yet.” While Jones put his broom away, Boscana pulled a phone from the pocket of his black shirt. Jones had cut his hair ten days ago. Maybe he forgot.

“For real,” he said when Jones returned. “That Mexican place around the corner? It was hit yesterday in the afternoon. Lunch over, dinner still two hours out. Staff in the kitchen eating with the family. No gun. No confrontation. Guy jimmied the old wooden door and got the cash drawer out.”

“Neighborhood fella do it?”

“The cook came out when the drawer popped open; heard the bell. But the guy was halfway out the door and took off on a bike weaving through traffic. They couldn’t catch him on foot.”

“What he look like?”

“They only saw him from the back. Five ten maybe, thin, long legs. Short puff of coppery hair. All I know.”

“You sure it’s a man?” Jones asked.

“Well, you make a good point there.”

 

Dispatch was quiet. Boscana swung through the West Oakland BART station, taking the temperature of the neighborhood. Just people going to work on a summer morning. Doubles made for long days and he hoped this one would stay easy as he headed east on 5th into Jack London Square, a mixed bag of properties along the estuary and demarcated by crisscrossing freeways, rail lines, and the towering white cranes of the Port of Oakland. All of it shoulder-to-shoulder with low-end motels, the kind of bars that feature a small stage with a pole, cheap counters that served breakfast all day, and, sprinkled among the produce wholesalers, meat and fish distributors that supplied Chinatown restaurants.

There were signs the neighborhood was turning—a condo high rise, some pricier farm-to-table restaurants, a liquor store that catered to the tastes of hipsters who couldn’t afford San Francisco rents but knew Napa wines. Up and down the estuary, warehouses that had served the port a century ago were being converted one by oneintocavernous lofts. Just out of the academy, Boscana bought one in a red brick factory that had manufactured paper bags in the early 1900s. The area still had pockets of trouble. A recent murder at a club on 3rd. Sideshows in the small hours of the night that laid hot rubber on little used streets and sometimes put bullets in the air, one randomly catching a two year-old and ending his brief life. Boscana turned onto his street to do a drive by.

He found a body slumped near the curb. Female. Folded onto her knees. The hump of her rear end pointed at the sky, her head wedged under a parked car. As he approached, his worst fears were confirmed. It was his fiancé Noël trying to coax another stray dog into her arms. Things had been chill in the bedroom since he volunteered for double shifts a year ago. He needed another surgery and wanted it over and done before the wedding. Noël, alone much of the time, began rescuing soon after, starting with a pregnant bitch ready to deliver. They’d lived with at least one and as many as five miserable, flea-infested dogs since. Goodie Jackson, who drove the white ASPCA van, now made their loft a regular stop. Boscana parked and walked over.

“C’mon, baby.” Noël’s voice bounced around the hard surfaces under the Honda. “Who is mama’s baby love?” she cooed, so sugary that Boscana’s chest squeezed into a knot. He dropped to one knee and cleared his throat afraid that if he startled Noël she might crack her skull on the frame of the car she was now halfway beneath. “I’m your baby love,” he said.

“Jazz?” Noël wiggled back into daylight. A brown ball of matted fur burst free behind the Honda and raced away. “Now I’ve lost him.” Her tone proved nothing had changed since they’d gone to bed late the night before, depleted from their efforts to understand each other.

“I’m sorry,” he said. Apologies still hovered about his lips and tongue.

“No you’re not. If anything you’re glad.”

“We did just get the carpets cleaned and the space flea bombed.”

“Jazz. . .”

Boscana rose and pointed to his nameplate. “James,” he said. “When I’m in uniform it’s James. We agreed.”

“Jazz, look around this wasteland,” she opened her arms to encompass the warehouses and truck lots. “You see any people?” A symphonic funk of grating gears and loose bolts interrupted them. They both turned. Noël brushed dirt from her knees. The building’s garage door rolled up inch by grinding inch to reveal their neighbor Emilio, who gripped the laser-bright handlebars of a green, factory-perfect bike radiating outrageous brilliance from every spoke and bar. Had his grin been any bigger, it could’ve jumped off his face and lived on its own.

“Even the saddle bags have that new car smell,” he boasted, and kicked off into the street.

“You better get going, too,” Noël said, smiling at Boscana, Emilio, or the thought of getting back to her dog, it was hard to say; but when Boscana kissed her, she leaned into him before turning away.

 

Emilio flew through an industrial stretch, passing coffee roasters that put the sharp brown bite of their burn in the air. His tires buzzed like winged insects against the knobby asphalt. He came to California three years ago, just after college, to make his living teaching conversational Spanish to Anglos; halting, rudimentary conversations in beginning Spanish with people planning vacations. Students asked him, “¿Dónde vives?” in American accents hard enough to break his bones. When he answered Oeste Oakland, they always remarked in English about violence, startled that he lived there of all places and asking did he feel safe. “En español, por favor,” he reminded them. And they would retreat, asking, “¿Dónde vivió en México?”

He was from a small village in the mountains between Puerto Vallarta and Mexico City. He kept his voice lively despite the likelihood his conversational partner would then say he should never have left such a paradise and they had first gone when the kids were in school and what a difference it had made in their outlook on life, slowing down like that. He was wrong for leaving, had landed in the wrong neighborhood and no choice he could ever make would escape the laughing judgment they offered as evidence of their goodwill.

Emilio sailed along, hugging the curb, gliding in and out of tree shadows splattered todo morocho on the road like huge fried eggs, the new bike handling as smooth as the estuary at dawn. At Washington, he slipped left toward the freeway, leaning into the turn and taking it wide. He had good speed but the light turned red just as he hit 5th. Under the freeway, on the opposite corner, Goodie Jackson, who he’d gotten to know from her frequent stops to gather up Noël’s orphaned animals, waited out the same light in her white ASPCA van. He raised his arm and waved. She leaned out the driver’s side and yelled something that made her enormous, old-school sunnies bounce on her big-cheeked grin.

“Way to go, baby!” she shouted in passing when the light changed. She slapped out a series of beeps and kept the horn party going until she made the turn onto 2nd.

Emilio kicked forward. He had to keep his eyes on the road or risk losing his wheel gleam to the bird shit and gnarled vomit that paved the 880 underpass. When he first opened the studio, he formed the habit of naming out loud, in English, everything he saw on his daily commute. It was something he encouraged his students to do, too, to make a game of vocabulary building. If he saw something for which he had no words, he would look up a translation as soon as he got to his office and make a note on index cards that he reviewed between classes.

He had this stretch of Old Oakland down. The underpass never changed and he was able to say, without having to glance up and risk his wheels: huddled man wearing an enormous blue parka, its fur-trimmed hood pulled tight rain or shine, winter or summer; OPD headquarters and Superior Court, plain clothes detectives hurrying to Crown Vics, their Glocks clipped to their belts; TV news vans positioning their anchors and running up their antennas, knots of young men working the corners, handing out bail bond cards and key chains; and a queue of people called to jury duty.

He cleared the shadow of the freeway and slowed at 7th. He stood, gliding a minute before swinging his right leg over the seat so that he now balanced his full weight on the left pedal, his right foot tucked behind his left. Riding side saddle, he coasted up to the sawhorse barriers at 8th. Every Friday a little mercado sprang up at the intersection of Washington and 9th. From that axis the market radiated out one block in all four directions—to the Marriott on 10th at the edge of downtown, Broadway and Chinatown to the east, south to 8th, and west to Clay Street and Swan’s. He walked his bike through stalls of handmade soaps, long-stemmed flowers nodding in white buckets, smoky sweet incense, and jewelers bending wire and stringing beads. Housewives from Chinatown shopped for garlic, eggs, honey, olives, and almonds. He threaded through chocolatiers and pie bakers, and passed a tent selling kettle corn which was dreadful. Food trucks, just starting to heat their oil and chop vegetables, had taught him to love the sighing-vowel and soft consonant sounds of bahn mi, samosas, pad Thai, po’boys.

He made a breakfast from samples. Frutas y verduras were easy to remember: plums, oranges, apples, grapes, and strawberries from the Central Valley, picked by people who looked like him. Other produce had been harder to learn; especially the herbs—those pungent green, purple, and black leaves tied with string and labeled in kanji. The silver lining was he overcame his initial shyness about speaking English in the U.S. Emilio, blessed with persistence as well as intelligence, asked what things were and, in striking up conversations, he’d grown accustomed to street vernacular and idiom. He learned to joke. Among the amas de casa pushing fold-up wire shopping trolleys or strollers heaped with bags and bundles of fresh food, a baby in there somewhere, he’d met Xi and his new home opened to him through his first U.S. friend.

 

“Now there’s a stray ought to be picked up,” Goodie said as she brought the van to a stop behind the flashing red lights of a railroad crossing barrier. Her remark was directed at a young man standing on the opposite corner of Embarcadero & Clay among the thin string of reverse commutes just off the ferry from San Francisco. He was noticeable for his five-inch platform stilettos, a bit scuffed but otherwise looking fine. He wore what Goodie knew from shopping resale stores with a religious fervor to be a 1970s Diane von Fürstenberg jumpsuit of black and gold geometric patterns on a white ground, cinched at the waist with a gold lamé belt. His right hand held a burning cigarette and, swinging on the curled forefinger of his left, an auburn bubble wig, cut to fall just below the ear. Despite the shadow of a patchy beard, he’d taken the trouble to reapply a summery pink lipstick. The 7:45 AM Capitol Corridor, destination Sacramento and the business of state government, blasted its approach in one continuous wall of chest-convulsing horn. When the final car cleared the intersection, the stylish young man took a drag from his smoke, then ground it out and stepped into the crumbling intersection as sure-footed as a Billy goat in his toe peeps.

Goodie took a left onto Embarcadero. At Washington, an Oakland squad car hugged the curb opposite the Regal Cinema. Seeing it, Noël ducked low in her seat.

“Let’s skip Chicken-N-Waffle,” Goodie said with a frown. “Eat outside the Square.”

 

His beige Choos, already chipped at the heel, were taking a beating from the crumbling sidewalks. Though his wedged feet were rubbed raw, the thought of walking barefoot through the underpass at 5th gave his stomach, already queasy from the excesses of the previous evening, a threatening lurch. He should’ve come home when the Castro Street bars closed but he’d taken a Viagra and why waste a four-hour erection? He checked the front of the von Fürstenberg to make sure he wasn’t offending and hurried along, anxious to get to his office near Swan’s and switch to his mild mannered day job self. His grandparents and great aunts would still be at tai chi on Alice Street near the Post Office. No danger there. His brother, two years younger, would be BARTing north to Berkeley where he was in the Haas School of Business at Cal. The real danger was his mother or father running to the Friday market to pick up something for the restaurant.

To avoid that possibility, Xi jogged left to pick up Clay despite extra yardage on dogs already howling. He pulled himself up to his full five feet six as he approached the big window of Jones & Sons, winking at his barber where Mr. Jones stood guard over the neighborhood. Xi hoped at least his hair looked good as he hobbled past. Another half block to the housewives’ market. He ran the last few yards to Xi’s Travel and slid his key into the lock. He was one twist short of home free when he heard his name called by a familiar voice and froze.

“Herbert?”

His heart shrank to the size of a BB. Xi whipped around, caught his heel on the brick pavers of the little plaza and fell back against the door. “Emilio,” he cried with relief, forgetting he was wearing women’s cocktail pajamas, five inch heels, and Revlon Moisturizing Frost Lipstick in a shade called Peekaboo Pink.

“You are doing . . .?” Emilio’s English failed.

“The walk of shame,” Xi said hurrying inside. He stopped, facing the interior, placed his left hand on its corresponding hip, cocked it high in the air and shot a smoldering pout back over his shoulder, his lips a pink rosebud. With lowered his eyes, he threw his chin in the air and demanded, “Repite.

Walk. Of. Shame.” Emilio dutifully pronounced and then gave his friend the thumbs up.

Xi peeled a sticky note from the back of his door and slapped it on the front: Back in 5 minutes. He shut the door and, leaning against it, kicked off his Choos. Bullet dodged but—Oh. His. Head. The thing about Moscow Mules is they will kick your pretty ass all the way home.

 

“Depends on what you want.” Goodie pushed away what remained of the Chicken-Fried Steak and Eggs Special, mostly skid marks where her bulldozing biscuit had sought the last drop of everything. They’d gone only as far as Jingletown. “The dick or the vajayjay.”

“You know it’s more than that,” Noël said. She’d barely touched her Stubby, a comparatively modest platter of two wings, a waffle, biscuit, and the yellow eye of a fried egg.

“I got the vajayjay, s’all I’m saying.” Goodie helped herself to a wing from Noël’s plate.

 

Buenos Días Español didn’t face the street, one of its many charms—fewer distractions, less noise, and, important in summer, cooler. The L-shaped interior courtyard of the old housewives’ market was shaded by surrounding buildings. On opposite sides of the fountain at its center, the courtyard’s anchor tenants, Buenos Días Español and, across the brickwork, Xi’s Travel, represented in the fly-weight division of the service economy.

Emilio slipped his key into the lock on the aluminum frame and opened the door to colors that were, as one of his students had said, “Native bright!” With his bike tucked against the blood red wall behind his desk at the back of the room, he set about tidying a ring of white folding chairs that took up much of the interior. The coffee table held picture books and magazines from Mexico, Central America, and Spain. Low bookshelves kept dictionaries and phrase books within easy reach for Conversation Time. Wall maps allowed beginners to find and say a few words about where they were traveling. Week-old flowers drooped in vases scattered around the room. Emilio gathered these and wrapped them in newspaper. Once he had the vases washed and refilled, he set them about the room and left for the mercado to buy replacement bouquets in lively colors that would really pop against the primary blues, reds, and yellows of Native bright Buenos Días Español.

 

Officer Avilla, a two-year veteran to Boscana’s five, started the minute he buckled his seat belt and kept the riff at full throttle without much conversational help from his partner. The guy could ruin a small space faster than a mosquito. It made for a long second shift. Noël just had no idea.

“The Mayor has fucked us to pieces. You know that, Jimmy? Started with that Occupy shit. We had ’em.” Avilla watched the street as he spoke. “I mean we had those bastards flat out and what does she do?”

“Yeah, well,” Boscana replied, keeping it neutral.

“Hey, Blue Bottle. Cuppa joe?”

Boscana pulled up at the bean roaster and put the cruiser in neutral. “I’ll stay by the computer,” he said.

Avilla popped out of the cruiser and entered the big-windowed brick and steel shop famous for high octane shots and jived his way to the front of the line, a borderline abuse of uniform that irritated the hell out of Boscana, though it did bring Avilla back promptly.

“Look,” Avilla said, throwing a leg and hip into the front seat, the rest of him thudding in after. “Our line in the General coulda been saved if she hadn’t forced us to put helicopters in the air every night for months is what I’m saying.”

Boscana passed on the invitation to look at his partner’s argument and, instead, glanced left prior to turning. The Egyptian who sold shawarma and kabobs out of his blue-paneled truck on Webster waved. Boscana nodded and returned the vendor’s easy smile.

 

Local Jones cracked the snap on the cape tenting his customer and swung it away from the man’s neck and shoulders in a toreador move he’d perfected over forty plus years in the shop. A newer move, one for which he had as yet little practice, was concealing the persistent tremor in his hands. It was around the holidays, when he’d had so many clients back to back, that he first noticed a jangly little nerve cork-screwing from deep in his shoulder up through his neck. First, his right hand trembled. Then, a few weeks later, his left shared the same little shiver as though the two had discovered something exciting; a secret they kept from him. He tried cutting down on caffeine but to no effect.

Working the chair next to him, Bill Mason, his Tuesday/Thursday tattoo cut man, carved the Dubs logo into the back of a young man’s head. It was a precise business wielding a shaver to carve out a basketball bouncing over the Golden Gate Bridge. Jones turned his back to the second chair to clean and put away his combs and scissors. When he glanced to the mirror, Mason was looking right at him.

When he wasn’t with a customer, Jones stood at the window and made sure some version of shit did not trouble this section of Clay. Even standing still, he buzzed like Mason’s shaver. All the time now he could feel it, whatever “it” was, sizzling in his brain like white grease on a black skillet. On his fortieth birthday, he’d laughed along with everyone else, making old man jokes he didn’t really believe but the occasion called for them. He was still in his prime and his wife loved him. At fifty the jokes weren’t as funny and his back hurt at the end of the day. Crossing sixty, he could feel the needle flirting with Empty. His feet ached by noon; his back could go with one wrong move. He became cautious. He was afraid to go to the doctor and putting it off made it worse. Then she died; just okay one day and dead six months later from a fast-moving cancer nobody saw coming. Now he was terrified. He’d spent his entire working life in this one room. Not that it hadn’t been good to him, but . . . his entire life.

 

Hasta luego.” Emilio held the door for students who filed past shouting or murmuring adios. He shut the door and pumped his fist in the Friday air. A line of food trucks waited just around the corner. Throughout class whiffs of empanadas, grilled sausages, roasted chicken, some red-hot spicy thing—any of which would be excellent washed down with an icy horchata—teased his appetite. He slid a rubber band up over his pants cuff and walked his bike to the front where he leaned it against his leg and pulled the door open. He could easily walk the half block to market. He chose to ride for the sheer pleasure of owning a new bike. Across the courtyard, staring straight at him, Xi’s yellow note lied, Back in 5 minutes. Using a process he’d learned to call deductive logic, Emilio guessed Herbert was sleeping one off on the long, deep couch of Xi’s Travel. He settled his bike against the interior window wall, walked over, and tapped the glass.

From inside came a deep moan and the soft tumble of something falling to the floor. A single, blood shot eye appeared between slats of window blind. Emilio gave a little finger waggle. The door of Xi’s Travel opened just enough to permit one red eye sufficient orbit to swing to the left and then roll to the right before settling on Emilio.

“¡Ay!”he yelped, seeing the killer hangover in his friend’s face. “Man, you need anything?”

Xi’s voice was no more than a whisper, “I need a soda, baby.” After a few wet coughs to rearrange throat phlegm, he added, “A plate of chicken and rice wouldn’t hurt.”

“Will you be able to open today?” Emilio fingered the sticky note on the door.

“Emmie, nobody actually comes here.” Xi gripped the door with one hand and covered his eyes with the other. “That’s for my parents. My customers are on the phone or online. I’d probably faint if someone came through the door.” The speech deflated him like a balloon long after the party was over.

Emilio launched from Xi’s door with the determined wince of a man whose self-proclaimed mission was to set right the mistake of another. In the mercado, he bought chicken and rice and loaded the white Styrofoam square into his saddle bag along with a dozen artisanal tortillas. He ate a Vietnamese salad of fresh herbs and grilled shrimp sprinkled with chopped peanuts, the whole thing topped with green cilantro and orange carrot strips and dressed with a vinegary sauce. At Two Bois Bakery he let loose on a half-dozen chocolate-chip peanut butter cookies and then pedaled over to Mama Desta’s liquor store on Clay where he locked his bike to street sign and went in.

Emilio tugged a six pack of Coke from the cold case along the back wall. One can just was not going to do it for Señor Xi. At checkout, a young man, maybe sixteen and sporting a copper colored pouf of hair, stepped aside to let Emilio go first. From the relative safety of a Plexiglas box, the counter man rang up the Coke. Emilio added a phone card, meaning to call his mother in Mexico before heading home tonight. Outside, he arranged the last of his purchases in his saddle bags and kicked off from the curb.

 

From the window, where he watched the street but listened to the A’s game, Local Jones saw Herbert’s friend, the Spanish teacher, glide by. He was followed by a loping puff of copper hair atop a lanky frame and a pair of long legs. Jones pulled an ancient flip phone from his trouser pocket and, pausing only to scratch his ear, punched up his contact list, arriving almost immediately at Boscana, Officer J.

“Hey,” Jones said when Boscana picked up. “Duracell just go by.”

“Coppertop?”

“Could be. Five ten, skinny, long of leg.”

“What’s his 20?”

“He headed toward Swan’s. I think.”

Boscana pocketed his phone and said, “We have reliable eyeballs on a person wanted for questioning in the Mexican break in.”

“Your man Local Jones?” Avilla said. “The one barber Neighborhood Watch Team?”

“My man Jones,” Boscana replied, careful to keep his voice neutral.

 

Emilio dug through his saddle bags to resurrect the carton of chicken and rice and six-pack of carbonated brown sugar water known to have an ameliorating effect on the recently hammered. There was no answer to his knock at Xi Travel so he put his ear to the mail slot above the handle. The radio was on, good sign, and water ran. Emilio set the chicken and Coke close to the door and crossed the narrow plaza, pushing his bike along by the back of its seat. He opened his door and was greeted by a thin layer of sweet smelling rot, not at all unpleasant whiffs of green going to slime wrapped in newspaper. He’d forgotten to take the old flowers to the trash. He leaned the bike against the wall near the door and glanced over to Xi’s.

He was reluctant to leave the food there, especially at this hour when men from the rescue mission on Washington hovered around the edge of the mercado hoping to score a bite. It was another half hour before his afternoon group. He could run the soppy old flowers to the bins at the end of the alley, come back, knock again at Xi’s, eat a cookie, review some flash cards, and be ready to roll at 1:30. He scooped the flowers up out of the bathroom sink in back and sprinted into the plaza and down the alley, keeping one ear cocked toward Xi’s door.

Emilio sidestepped a trio of accordion, guitar, and violin tuning up prior to taking the tidy, hay bale stage at the mercado, leapt over a pair of generators supplying electricity to the trucks on 9th, and hoisted the lid on a 3-yard dumpster, tossing in the flowers and letting the lid slam. Perhaps this broad band of noise and confusion prevented him from identifying the substrata of screaming that was, in fact, Herbert Xi repitiendo, “He’sgotyourbikehe’sgotyourbike.” It was when Emilio turned and saw his friend Herbert, wet from the shower and clutching a towel to his waist, that random data inputs rearranged into the distinct impression that something was wrong. It took him another second to see a copper-haired youth run his new bike down the alleyway and hop on just as he made Clay Street.

“¡Ay, ay, ay!” Emilio took off running. In ten long strides he was at Xi’s Travel. “Herbert!” he begged in passing and Xi, still holding his towel and the chicken, joined the chase.

 

Jones stayed at the window, watching, his fingers wrapped around his phone, clutching it for no good reason except it connected him to Boscana and possibly because it kept his trembles from the prying attention of Bill Mason. The Spanish teacher raced into the frame, catching Jones by surprise. He was followed by Herbert Xi, the fingers of one hand digging into a clamshell of Styrofoam, the other hand holding a towel flapping at his waist.

Jones ran outside. “Whoa!” he called, his arms spread wide. “What’s going on?”

“He’s gone east on 7th,” the teacher yelled. He whipped left and right searching for something, anything that would help, a bolt of lightning, a rodeo lasso.

Jones turned to Herbert, the man he knew, to ask what was happening, but Xi was bent over the gutter heaving what looked to be a stream of maraschino cherries and lime rinds into the more drab refuse already sheltered there. Xi waved the attention away and handed the box of chicken to Mason, who’d come running out of the shop with a string of men.

“Uh, no thank you,” Mason said while Xi wiped his chin.

“He’s getting away.” It was the Spanish teacher, pained and fighting to hold onto hope.

The knot of men on the sidewalk looked to Jones, waiting for him to make a move, say something, tell them what to do. “My car,” he said and ran into the street toward the opposite curb and the Impala parked there. The teacher ran after him. “Emilio,” he said pointing at his heart. In the short space of two slams they were tearing up Clay, making the left onto 7th through a yellow light. At the red light on Washington, Jones pressed his lips tight and put his foot against the gas pedal hoping not to be noticed by any of the dozen officers coming in or out of the main OPD station.

“Left on B’way,” Emilio directed from the shotgun seat.

Jones blasted the horn as a general declaration of righteousness and took a tire-smoking left onto Broadway.

“There,” Emilio pointed to a flash of green making a right onto 9th. “Chinatown.”

The light changed and the crosswalk filled with old women pushing wire shopping baskets, their short dark hair peeking from under broad-brimmed hats, the cuffs of their cloth jackets rolled above the wrist, loose cotton pants flapping above black slippers. Young women with babies on their hips or strapped to their chests pulled empty red wagons they would load at market. Scattered among them all, men in gray slacks and tan cardigans, white shirts buttoned at the neck, brown spotted hands clasped behind bent backs tottered along. Emilio grabbed the dash just above the glove box and leaned forward in his seat as Jones inched the Impala through the intersection and into Chinatown on a Friday.

Cars at the curb were hemmed in by big, double-parked delivery trucks. Men in white aprons, an inch of cigarette in the corners of their mouths, rode rear lifts heaped with bins of fish packed in ice, melons still crusted with the dirt of the field, dark green okra, long and ridged, spiky durian, mangos, peanuts, and a hundred other things. On the ground, men in paper garrison caps wheeled red dollies back and forth, barking into their phones, taking orders, giving orders, shouting to the men on the lifts, everything rushed and slow at the same time. All of it choked the four-lane, one-way street down to one hotly contested center lane.

“I don’t have anywhere to go,” Local cried. He grabbed his cell phone and flicked it open. “The fuck’s redial?” he complained, punching around the little buttons with his big shaky thumb. Emilio jumped from the passenger side and ran into the crowd. The irate honking of horns and shouts in Cantonese, Mandarin, Vietnamese, and Korean needed no translation: Move your damned car. Local ripped the key from the ignition and burst from the driver’s side into the street. From somewhere around his waist he heard the smallest voice in the world shouting his name and realized he still held the mobile. “Running east on 9th between B’way and Webster, maybe Harrison,” he managed to gasp into the phone before a wave of nausea overtook him and he wheezed to a stop. He could no longer see Emilio.

 

They crept down 9th against traffic each watching the sidewalks. Boscana hit a few staccato bursts from the siren; Avilla used the PA to shout in Mandarin, “Clear the street, move it!” His accent so thick people stopped and stared. About hundred yards in, Boscana threw the car into park and both doors swung wide to the street. Avilla put his hand on his taser.

“Put it away,” Boscana shouted.

A crowd had formed and Boscana had to force his way through, shouting and shoving people aside. Emilio had a young man, coppery hair in a short Afro, by a wad of shirt in each fist. The kid, maybe sixteen, thrashed in broad hard movements to get free. The green bike lay at their feet as they scuffled. Emilio was hit in the upper lip and nose with a hard right. Stunned, he fell back, getting his feet caught up in the scarred and scraped bike frame. About to go down, he helicoptered his arms for balance. Avilla reached out and caught him. Freed, the youth tried to run but another pair of arms emerged from the crowd to encircle him.

Local Jones had him from behind. He’d gotten his arms around the boy’s chest and held on, pulling tight and squeezing the air from his lungs, stifling him. A grimace like the trace of a smile vanished from Jones’s mouth when Boscana cuffed the suspect. Avilla let go of Emilio.

“You okay?” Boscana said to Jones, who was breathing hard and shaking. “You want me to call for an EMT?”

“I’m good,” Jones said, bending low, hands on his knees to get his breath back. Then he shot up straight. “Shit! My car’s back in the street just hangin’ open.”

 

“Thank you,” Emilio said as Jones helped him lift his bike out of the Impala.

“New?” Local hardly needed to ask.

“One day!” Emilio said.

“I’m sorry about that,” Local said and meant it.

They stood on the sidewalk in front of Jones & Sons. There was nothing more to be done. “I should check on Herbert,” Emilio said. “He isn’t feeling well.”

“Yeah. Our Herbie need to find a good man.” Local offered his hand to Emilio. “Okay then,” he said.

“Are you alright?” Emilio asked folding both his hands around Local’s one. “You’re trembling.”

Local felt his wife so keenly he could’ve sworn the dead woman stood next to him. “I haven’t wanted to go to the doctor,” he said. He held onto Emilio. “Afraid what he might could say.”

“Do you need someone to go with you?”

“No,” Jones shot back. Then, looking at the sidewalk added, “Maybe.”

“Okay then,” Emilio said and pressed Local’s hands before releasing them.

 

Boscana tossed his duffel bag across the console of a vintage Mustang and dropped behind the wheel. He thought of Noël, dissatisfied and alone. But there was no going back. He’d been clear. “My body, my journey.” This wasn’t happening to her, so at home in her skin. She couldn’t know how he felt; she could only want to understand, never getting there, growing frustrated.

Their loft was sandwiched between 880 and Oakland’s industrial waterfront in an isolated spot where boom cranes offloaded cargo and the Southern Pacific Railroad ended its westward run. He loved the estuary; something always in motion as confirmed by a line of sails in silhouette like a row of black teeth against the orange horizon. Perhaps Noël would like something else, though. He resolved to ask her, then toggled the alarm and left the Mustang under a streetlight.

Noël’s dog habit had him trained to be cautious coming home. He pushed the door open just a crack and called, “I’m home.” Nothing. Police instincts are hard to shut off. He slipped into the loft. Its 15-foot ceiling and wall of towering windows allowed enough light to see in shades of gray but not color. Starting near the door, he scanned the kitchen, and then moved into the living area, looking for anything out of place or unusual. And there, at the back, in an area defined by a ring of pull curtains suspended from the ceiling, on the dresser by their neatly made bed, was an envelope bearing his birth name. Inside a note:

“Dearest Jasmine, my love. I know we started this together . . .” He dropped the letter to his side still holding it between his thumb and curled forefinger. It didn’t require police training to guess how this was going to end.

Goodie Jackson. The dog catcher. He almost laughed. He dropped the letter in the junk drawer, that one in every kitchen that holds the things that don’t belong anywhere in particular, and, not knowing what else to do, poured a drink. He stood at the floor-to-ceiling windows and watched the water. The Coast Starlight, lights blazing in the blue-black evening, blared past on the tracks below, close enough to jump on. “I love women,” her note said. If she walked through the door now, she’d see him as nothing more than a shape, a figure in shadow unidentifiable as male or female, young or old. The drink was gone. He felt nothing.

In the bathroom, he slipped off his uniform. He ran his fingers along the pale, half-moon scars where Jasmine’s breasts had been removed. The shower was empty. Noël had taken all her creams and rinses; all the many things a woman needs.

 

White polygons undulated across the dark ceiling, thrown there by the sodium vapor lights of the port. A slow-moving freight train labored through the night; the percussion of its wheels on uneven track as dull and rhythmic as a pulse. The sound receded to nothing. Boscana rolled onto his side and watched a ghostly crane unload cargo from China. Every three weeks the same freighter offloaded containers from Guangzhou then restocked with U.S. goods. In three weeks, it would do the mirror opposite on the far side of the Pacific. Back and forth; first one way, then the other.


About the Author: Rebecca Chekouras has appeared on the Tin House blog, in Narrative Magazine, The San Francisco Chronicle Sunday Magazine, Curve Magazine, and the online zine Pure Slush. Her work has been anthologized by The University of Wisconsin Press and Pure Slush books. She is a 2013 Lambda Literary Foundation Fellow and was short listed for the Astraea Foundation Lesbian Writers Fund fiction prize. In 2014, Chekouras helped launch The Basement Series in San Francisco with writers from McSweeney’s and the San Francisco Writers Grotto. She was invited to the Tin House Writer’s Winter Workshop in 2015. She lives in the Port of Oakland.

Artwork: Michael J. 

 

Blue Dun by Jason Kapcala

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When the ice begins to thaw from the lakes and streams, my brother Drew and I put in for our vacations, leave our homes, and migrate north to Lakeville. It’s part of a promise we made back when we were still in high school: to return to the spawning grounds of our ancestors and work our grandfather’s bait and tackle shop on the opening weekend of trout season.

I know everything there is to know about fishing. I can tell you which lure colors work best in low light, which test monofilament line to use when casting into heavy cover, what the fish are biting on down at the river this week, and whether the weed beds on the lake are right for running a deep-diving crankbait. But I don’t fish. I’m a musician—classically trained at the Manhattan School of Music, one of the youngest ever to receive a doctorate in musical arts. I’ve served as a substitute clarinet for the Rochester Philharmonic and the Utica Symphony, and I’ve worked as a pit performer for the Syracuse Opera and various theater companies. By my colleagues’ standards, I’m actually quite accomplished for a guy in his twenties.

But I haven’t held a rod in nearly twenty years, not since the day Drew almost died.

*   *   *

Across the loosely-packed gravel lot, Alan Muchowski dangles his leg from the door of his beat-to-hell Chevy Blazer. He lights a cigarette in the cold and doesn’t say a word, doesn’t nod or wave, just watches me fumble with the lock, leaning expectantly forward and then back again into the darkness of the cab. When I finally open the doors and flip on the fluorescent lights, he steps from his truck and follows me inside.

“We’re here and Pennsylvania’s a better state for it,” he says, leaning against the doorframe, watching me unlock the cash register, his cigarette ash falling on the rubberized welcome mat.

“Mooch,” I say and point at the no-smoking sign by his head.

He looks over, inspects the sign as he smokes, pretends as though it’s the first time he’s seen it there, and then nods and shoots me a hangdog grin.

“Guess you didn’t see the sign,” I say. “There’s an ashtray outside.”

“I saw it,” he says, sniffing and flipping the butt behind him out the door.

Through the window, I can see his stepson sitting in the truck, rubbing his hands together and blowing into his palms. In all the years Mooch has been buying nightcrawlers from me, the kid has never set foot inside the shop. Not once. He’s about ten years old as far as I can tell, and I’ve never heard him called anything but “the kid.” His given name may be “the kid” for all I know. A few years ago, I overheard Mooch tell my grandfather that the kid’s old man was a General in the Army or something—not one of those loveable, softhearted White Christmas Generals either, but one who used to beat his wife and son something fierce whenever he came home hammered.

“Now, what can I get you?” I say, as Mooch ambles over to the polarized sunglasses display and checks his face in the mirror. The sunglasses we sell are specially designed to cut the glare on the water, and when you put them on a fish appears in the corner of the mirror to illustrate just how much you miss by not wearing them. But Mooch doesn’t try on the sunglasses. He opens his mouth instead and looks at his tongue, scraping it with his pinky.

“Three dozen crawlers,” he says, wiping his finger on his flannel shirt and wandering over to the rod rack. He pulls an expensive seven-foot graphite and swings it like a swashbuckler back and forth in front of his body.

“You sure you don’t want to try spoons this year?” I say as he slides the rod back into the holder. I am trying to help him. I happen to know that last year the locals slaughtered the stocked lake trout fishing spoons. But Mooch eyes me suspiciously, as though I’m trying to sell him anideology he’s got no use for.

“Just worms,” he says, and I go to the cooler and pull out three Styrofoam containers marked with the number twelve.

The fat, beige nightcrawlers scrunch down when I flip open the top of each container. I check to see that the artificial soil is moist and wipe a few clumps of it from the air holes my grandfather punched in the plastic lids. While I check the count, Mooch fingers a package of chartreuse soft bait. He reads the back of the plastic bag, smells its contents, and then tosses it in a bin of split shot as I return to the register.

“Much obliged,” he says when I ring up the sale.

From the porch, I watch his rusty trailer kick up rooster tails of stone and dust as it thunders out of the parking lot—the faded, yellow bumper sticker that reads: I’d Rather Be Fishing, disappearing around a bend in the service road that leads to Grady’s Lake. Back inside, I remove the soft bait packet from the split shot bin, and hang it back in aisle one where it belongs. Then I lean against the concrete bait tanks and wait for the influx of anglers.

When I was a kid, the Lakeville area was the honeymoon capital of the world. Presidents vacationed here. But now the only outsiders that regularly visit Lakeville are the fishermen. On this one weekend of the year, they roll into town, rumbling down the gravel side roads in dented Chevy Blazers and well-worn Jeep Cherokees, fishing rods propped across backseats, aluminum boats in tow. Men in brown canvas vests, waders, and baseball caps, trudge below bridges and along soybean fields to fish the native trout runs. Fathers take their children to the boat launch to pick up temporary permits. These men (they are mostly men) are reticent and pensive. If a bit rough around the edges, they appreciate the landscape for what it is. They are a non-invasive species. Nature poets. Even Mooch.

 

My grandfather keeps a six-foot spinning rod and a tackle box in the back of his truck at all times so that if the opportunity arises, he can toss a few casts. He took waders to my cousin’s wedding in New York, storing them in an army green duffle bag in the trunk, pulling them on over his tuxedo pants after the ceremony and sneaking away to fish Willowemoc Creek during the reception. He reads all the fishing magazines, analyzes the pictures and the charts, mumbling to himself and throwing fake casts at the trophies mounted on the walls of his den—a largemouth bass, all three of the native trout species, a Walleye set against driftwood, and one enormous Pike baring a mouthful of bone-white teeth. He reels in imaginary whoppers while he watches Bill Dance and Roland Martin on the twenty-four-hour Outdoor Life Network and can work a fishing platitude into any conversation.

“Well, if it isn’t the one that got away,” he says when I shamble down the steps and into the kitchen. I can smell bacon frying in the cast-iron skillet on the stove, and I pour myself a mug of coffee while my grandmother scrambles eggs.

At breakfast we listen to Drew tell stories about mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and ventricle defibrillation. Drew saves lives full time as an EMT with a small ambulance company in Latrobe. A respectable job for a man. His training has come in handy more than once on opening weekend. Just last year he removed a fishhook from Mooch’s eyebrow when the kid caught him on a back cast. I can still remember the look on Mooch’s face as Drew approached slowly with a pair of bolt-cutters in one hand and a bottle of rubbing alcohol in the other.

I sit down at the table and Drew gets up to fill his glass of orange juice. Standing at the counter, he places one hand on top of the other and performs CPR on the frozen chicken my grandmother plans to bake for dinner. He counts each compression aloud, and before my grandmother can snatch the bird away from him, yells “clear” to demonstrate exactly how vocal paramedics are. My grandfather laughs while my grandmother scolds Drew for beating up seven pounds of frozen fowl, mumbling “paskudny” under her breath and shuffling back to the oven.

“And how are they biting in the wide world of music, David?” my grandfather says.

I’ve never heard the word “music” used in a fishing metaphor before, but I play along. I talk about performing Beethoven’s symphony no. 3, the Eroica, and Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite in front of a packed house on opening night and my grandfather gets up to refill his coffee mug. He knows I don’t make much money, knows I spend most of my time hopping from one orchestra to the next as positions open. He doesn’t ask when I’m going to settle into a stable job, when I am going to start thinking about my future—a home, a family, a 401k—not anymore, but the question hangs in the air regardless. He’s nearing eighty years old, and he still hopes that one of us, the grandchildren he and my grandmother raised, will take over the store when he dies. That’s not entirely true. He still hopes that I will take over. Drew already has a good job.

I don’t tell him that I turned down an opportunity to play with the New Haven Symphony Orchestra this weekend to sell Stren fishing line and Powerbait, because I don’t even understand the decision myself, and I know that I’d be speaking in a pitch he can’t hear. That’s not to say that he’s heartless; he just doesn’t understand the nature of my profession. In his mind, my frequent pay-as-you-play, substitute performer gigs rank somewhere just above walking dogs and babysitting—I’m another starving artist, pursuing a pipe dream. He doesn’t know that the orchestras I play in are funded by a council for the arts, has no sense of the thousands of patrons I perform to every year. He only knows he hasn’t seen me on television or in his iTunes library.

But for all his misgivings, I have sensed moments when he seemed eager to learn about what I do for a living. And in those moments, I haven’t made much of an attempt to explain my life to him.

 

The west bank of Grady’s Lake is dotted with homemade vinyl-sided shacks built atop cinder blocks. Shabby places you can rent cheap. My grandfather’s cabin is no exception, and every spring he rents it out to Mooch.

The interior sports an eclectic mix of nautical furnishings picked up at various yard sales and auctions: an amateur oil painting of a 19th-century clipper ship, two framed photographs of boats cut from a National Geographic magazine and glued to cardboard, and a two-year-old calendar featuring pencil drawings of different North American sport fish every month. A ratty bed sheet serves as a window blind, a rusty mushroom anchor doubles as a doorstop, and a thirty-year-old television set, jerry-rigged to a car antenna, sits atop the kitchen table.

“Spa package it ain’t, but it’s cheap,” my grandfather says, tossing the key to Mooch as he steps down off the porch. “David will help you get launched.”

“Much obliged,” Mooch says, lighting a cigarette in cupped hands, dropping his spent matchstick in the yard. “The kid’s real excited, aren’t you, kid?”

At the mention of his name, the kid jumps a little. Then he nods and shifts his weight from one foot to the other and back again. It’s easy to see how much his old man—his George Patton of a father—messed him up, and I wonder if that isn’t why he’s always so quiet. I’ve seen him fish. He tackles it with the restless determination of a child. But when he’s off the water without a pole in his hands, it’s like he’s hiding inside himself—like he’s hoping misfortune will miss him somehow if he keeps swimming with his mouth shut. He’s the kind of kid that needs sticking up for. I can appreciate that.

“They’ve been swimming with their mouths shut the past few weeks,” I say, resisting the urge to glance over at the kid. “Postfrontal conditions.”

Mooch looks at me and raises his eyebrows and smokes his cigarette. “You don’t say, hot shot,” he says, finally, resting his hand on the thirty-year-old Evinrude outboard that dangles from the stern of his boat. “Well, at least we’ll get to try out the new motor. I got her for a song.” He lowers his voice and, with his cigarette, gestures toward the kid, who is now sitting on the edge of the porch, picking splinters of wood from the steps. “I’ve been saving up some of his old man’s child support. If it turns out he’s not college material, I can maybe buy myself a new boat.”

“All we can do is pray,” I say.

Mooch drops his cigarette on the deck and crushes it out with his foot, and says, “Right, let’s hit it.”

From the outside, Mooch’s truck looks entirely inconspicuous amongst the other vehicles in the lot. Sure, it has a lot of miles on it, and plenty of wear to show for it—the antenna has been kinked by a low tree branch and it no longer retracts into the hood, the side view mirror is held on with gray duct tape, and the fenders are slowly being eaten by sandpapery patches of rust that flake off in amber-metallic clouds when you run your finger over them—but my grandfather isn’t exactly running a country club.

“Do me a favor and kick some of that mud off your feet before you get in,” Mooch says, climbing behind the wheel.

I swing my legs out the door and kick my heels together. Then I squirm to position myself around a seat coil that’s sprung through the ripped leather upholstery. My feet slide on the floor. If the exterior of the car has character, the inside is a nightmare. It’s sensory overload. Little balls of iridescent blue fishing spool, and split-shot lead sinkers, and red and white striped bobbers roll along the floorboards. Discarded 100 Grand bar wrappers and waxy blue McDonald’s wrappers fill the space beneath the seats, and silvery fish scales twinkle in greasy rainbows. The carpet is a mulch of cigarette butts and dried apple cores and stale sandwich crusts and mud and pinecones and wet leaves. Burnt coffee stains the dash, and a black Hefty bag plugs the space where a rear window belongs. The seat cushions reek with the permeated stench of spilled salmon roe.

“Don’t lean back too hard there; I’ll have a hell of a time getting the seat upright again,” Mooch says, fumbling for his lighter.

In the back, the kid sits quietly, staring out the window at the trailers and cabins as we drive the steep slope towards the boat launch. Low-hanging shade trees stretch out over the lake. Homemade plank-wood docks bob in the water, their white-wall-tire boat bumpers and galvanized pipe moorings dipping in and out of the green.

“Do me a favor and put your boot over that hole in the floorboard,” Mooch says, his cigarette hopping in his mouth.

I nod and reposition my foot. When we hit a rut, the glove compartment door pops open.

“Don’t mind that,” Mooch says, backing us down the ramp, the truck sliding a bit on the loose stone.

This year, the water is low—the DCNR drew down the lake twice this winter for spring runoff—and large slabs of concrete have broken from the bottom edge of the launch. It’s a two-foot drop off. What my grandfather would call an “axle breaker.”

“Holy shit,” Mooch says, as we pull closer.

“There’s no way you’re gonna get that trailer deep enough without swamping your truck. It’s too damn steep,” I say. “I’ll have to push you off, but I’d better call Drew to back us in.”

“The kid can do it,” Mooch says, glancing up in the rearview mirror. “You’re up to the task, right?”

I twist around in my seat to see the kid’s reaction, to see if any fear or hesitation registers on his face, but the kid is as impassive as ever. There’s no hint of excitement in his eyes as he crawls up from the back, positioning himself on the center console. I doubt his legs are even long enough to reach the pedals.

I start to say something, start to suggest that maybe we should think this through a bit, but Mooch steps from the truck, balancing himself on the trailer tongue, and scrambles over the bow. He primes the outboard and then signals for the kid to start backing the trailer into the water. The kid crawls over the seat, releases the brake, directing the rear of the trailer down into the lake. He does a good job of it, too. And when the truck is submerged to the wheel wells, Mooch calls over the drone of the motor, “Give me a shove.”

I curse softly and slosh my way to the back of the truck, straddle the trailer arm and inspect the front of the boat.

“You forgot to release the winch,” I say, reaching down and unclipping the tow hook from boat’s bow. I step up onto the trailer hitch, balancing myself by grabbing the nose of the boat with one hand and the fender of the Blazer with the other. Then I give the boat a good push and watch as Mooch backs it away, circling around towards the docks with a jaunty yachtsman’s salute.

“All right, now pull it out slowly, kiddo,” I say, leaning in through the rear window.

The kid nods and presses down on the gas. The engine wheezes a little and the tires spin in the soft ground at the bottom of the ramp, skidding and spraying gravel.

“Hold up,” I say, cupping my hand around my mouth. “Put it into 4-wheel.”

I lean down and watch through the back as the kid grips the knob on the floor and pulls it towards him, and for some reason, it doesn’t register with me that he’s grabbed the shift and not the four-wheel drive lever. The kid really guns it this time, too, and the truck jerks backwards, accelerating in reverse, kicking stone and mud into the water with a deep, throaty splash.

            “No, forward,” I say, but it’s too late. The trailer wheels have already broken free of the ramp and there’s no way we aren’t going in the lake.

            “Whoa!” I yell. “Whoa! Stop!” I lose my grip on the back of the tailgate, my right arm flailing as I grab for something to steady myself, but my hand hits only air. My feet slip on the trailer tongue, and I’m falling backward into space and landing with a perfect, reverse-belly-flop splash in the reeds along the side of the ramp.

            When I stand, putrid water drips from my hair and my clothing, and I’m covered in slimy green algae and silt. It’s clear that the truck has gone over the edge. The water is halfway up the door, and I’ll be surprised if the rear axle isn’t broken in half. I slog over to the driver’s side window and lean in and turn off the ignition. The kid chokes the steering wheel in both fists, gripping so hard that his knuckles turn white. Water pours into the truck through the door seals, and the junk food wrappers float like wax paper boats in the back.

“Okay, kid. You’re done,” I say.

The kid doesn’t cry, but it’s clear he’s nervous. He keeps drumming his fingers on the wheel, and when he looks at me, his eyes are so distant, so forlorn, that I think I just might be the one to cry.

 

 

 

I dry off in the back room of my grandfather’s store, throwing my jeans over the old clothesline strung for hanging waders and sitting my boots on top of the radiator to dry out. If someone were to come in now to buy bait, I’d look quite a sight ringing up the sale in my underwear, but at this point, I don’t care. I had to wait a half hour for the tow truck to come fish Mooch’s Blazer out of the drink. I’m wet. I’m cold. And I smell like the lake. I wrap an old towel around my shoulders and pad out into the store to grab some gear off the shelves.

In my grandfather’s store, everything has its place—soft baits in aisle one; Shad Raps, Hot ’N Tots, and all other crank bait in aisles two through four, arranged by brand and size; rods sprouting up from the holder by the door like tall, grassy cattails; and reels out on display in the glass case by the register. As kids, Drew and I used to unravel the long strands of cast-off monofilament from the dispensary bin labeled: Fishing Line is Not Biodegradable, Please Recycle. We’d sneak around, opening jars of salmon roe, wrinkling our noses at the different pungent scents.

Along the far wall hangs a poster of trout dry fly patterns—Quill Gordons, Tom Thumbs, Blue Duns—and an array of T-shirts stenciled with our logo: a trout jumping out of the water after a fly and the words Lakeville Pro Fishing. I grab a shirt and pull it on over my head. Then I grab a pair of neoprene waders and yank them up over my hips, letting the shoulder straps dangle behind my back. I look ridiculous—like I somehow stumbled out of the stream and into the shop—but it’s better than nothing, and it will have to do until Drew comes to relieve me after lunch.

That’s always been the arrangement. I manage the shop in the mornings while my grandfather and Drew fish down the Delaware River. Because I don’t fish, it works out well for everyone. I’m free all afternoon, and I can use that time to practice the clarinet. In fact, if it’s a slow day, I can also practice right there in the shop if I feel like competing with the constant hum of the aerators in the live bait tanks, which are a cool, sweaty acoustic nightmare.

Even though I only work this shop one weekend out of the year, I have the routine down. All through high school, Drew and I managed the store, so I know how to ring up sales, know most of the prices by heart, know when to expect the afternoon rush and what to do if I catch someone shoplifting. I’m the consummate professional. In that sense, it’s not that much different from playing in a pit orchestra. Sometimes, in the pit, you won’t play a note for over half an hour, but when it’s your cue, you’re on—front and center, exceptional—and you’d better know where you are, you’d better be ready to perform. There’s no worse feeling than silence, than watching your part pass unplayed. That’s why we all look out for each other down there in the dark. And once you have the feel for it, you could take a nap if you wanted to and not miss a single beat.

That professionalism is the kind of detail my grandfather might appreciate.

Early in my career, before I moved away, people would sometimes come up to me in the supermarket or on Main Street to compliment me for my performance in one of the community orchestras. Usually, they saw my name in the playbill. Or else, they recognized my face when the local jazz band I ran with here in the Water Gap serenaded them during dinner. When these people praised my playing, if my grandfather was with me, he would grow red in the face, nodding as they talked about my natural talent and skill, and he would agree that I was a fine soloist, even though he had no real way of knowing.

“He’s a keeper,” my grandfather would say proudly, offering some excuse like, “It’s a shame I couldn’t get away from the store.”

I knew my grandfather wouldn’t show up at my musical performances uninvited, but I never asked him to attend. It was as if we had an agreement—You stick to your interests, and I’ll stick to mine. And yet, I make it sound like he never took any interest in me. That isn’t fair at all. Or even true. He was a father when Drew and I needed one. He taught me how to throw a football so that it spirals and how to choke up on a baseball bat before swinging. He taught me that pool is a game of angles and that you can line up your shot by drawing an invisible line from the desired pocket through the ball you want to hit. He showed me the proper way to filet a fish to avoid getting bones in the meat—slitting it diagonally below the dorsal fin so that the cut runs along the backbone perpendicular to the gills. And, in one especially harrowing month, he taught me to drive stick on our old Dodge pick-up. But after Drew’s accident, my grandfather never invited me to go fishing again, and I never asked.

 

 

 

It was a morning expedition, early spring, the last time my grandfather took me fishing. Drew and I couldn’t have been much older than ten, and my grandmother had packed us a picnic lunch—bologna sandwiches, potato chips, and three cold cans of Coca-Cola. Before we left the house, she made us promise to wear our life jackets, but when we got out onto the lake, my grandfather took his off, and when Drew and I pulled ours over our heads and tossed them in the corner of the boat, he didn’t say anything.

We were out mid-lake, fishing a weed bed along Marcy shoal, and my grandfather was showing me how to tie a line. He didn’t make up any silly mnemonic devices about bunnies hopping around the bushes and down the rabbit hole, as he had when he taught me to tie my shoes. Instead, he sat behind me and put his hands on mine and showed me how to thread the line through the eye of the lure, then twist it on itself a half-dozen times before threading it back through the loop it made. I understood him, but I couldn’t get my small fingers to make the line do what I wanted, and when I tried to pull it taut with my teeth, the way he showed me, it fell apart.

“Not bad for a first try,” he said, fishing line clamped in his teeth, as he tied on an Eagle Claw for me.

Drew had already had a couple of hits by the time I got my line wet, but on my first cast, the fish that struck my lure hit so hard that it nearly pulled me into the water. It grabbed the bait only yards from the boat and started down lake, buzzing line out from my reel.

“Holy crow,” my grandfather said, jumping up and nearly spilling us, our gear, our lunch, and the life vests, into the lake. “Play her nice and easy, Davie,” he said, shuffling over to me and grabbing the braided net below the seat.

I could feel the fish jerking back and forth, the flutter of its tail as it nosed down toward the weeds, diving and zigzagging and doubling the rod over on itself so that the tip practically touched the water.

“Don’t horse it,” my grandfather said. “Get your rod tip down over the boat. Keep her out of the weeds.”

I strained against the rod, just trying to keep from losing that fish and trying not to drop the rod over the side, but my arms were starting to tire and my muscles were getting that jelly sensation. I managed to draw the fish close enough to see its greenish-yellow back, and then it saw the boat and went berserk and dove again. I wasn’t sure how much longer I could hold it. Still, I wanted to land it myself. It was my catch. Mine. And just when I thought I couldn’t pull any longer, the fish tired out. It went dead like a log, its weight solid and heavy as a snag, and nosed up onto its side along the edge of the boat where my grandfather scooped it in the net.

“Lordy, will you look . . . at . . . that,” he said, tugging the treble from the top of the fish’s head. He reached into the nylon netting and hooked his finger along the pink gills behind the fish’s jaw. “You false hooked it. Snagged her right in the dome. I’ll be damned. What a lucky catch. What a lucky, lucky catch.”

The walleye had to be close to eight pounds, speckled olive and gold across its back. It opened and closed its mouth a few times, exposing a small row of teeth, and swished its tail in the air. Its cloudy gray eyes focused on nothing as my grandfather pressed it down across the ruler on the live well and measured its length.

“Over twenty inches from snout to spot,” he said. “What do you want to do with her?”

I looked to Drew, but he already had his line in the water again, casting and retrieving at record pace, trying for a whopper of his own. “I don’t know,” I said. “Throw it back, I guess?”

My grandfather nodded and got down on a knee. “I wish we’d brought a camera,” he said, leaning over the edge of the boat and sliding the fish, that monster of the deep, back into the lake. He slipped a hand under its belly and held it upright, letting the water filter in and out through the fish’s gills. Then with a violent flick of its tail, the fish sprang to life, thrashed the water once, and disappeared into the murk.

“Hell of a catch,” my grandfather said, grinning, and for the moment, I was speechless. Just standing there in the bow smiling and proud, letting the adrenaline ebb from my body.

On the way back to shore, my grandfather let me drive the boat.

“Go on, Davie,” he said, sliding out from behind the helm and patting the faux-leather seat. “Biggest fish brings us home.”

He’d never asked me to do anything like that before, and I wasn’t really sure what to do. I felt a churning in my stomach, but I didn’t want to disappoint my grandfather, and I didn’t want Drew to know I was nervous. So I grabbed the wheel with both hands, and my grandfather showed me how to prime the motor.

“Okay, now give it some juice,” he said.

I pressed the throttle forward with some hesitation and the bow of the boat rose in the water, bouncing a bit on the chop.

“Give it a little more,” my grandfather said over the grumble of the motor. “Then she’ll level out.”

I did as he told me, and soon we were cruising at a flat plane, running across the surface of the water, the air blowing up through our T-shirts and across our faces. My grandfather grabbed the brim of my baseball cap and pulled it backwards on my head and gave me a thumbs-up. I nodded once and leaned back in the seat, taking a hand off the wheel. I was a real boatman, guiding us in across unchartered waters, those perfect green waves. My grandfather smiled, as though he knew what this meant, and then he turned back to Drew and said something I couldn’t hear.

He was still turned, telling Drew some pointer about fishing or boating, when a jet ski shot out of a cove ahead to our starboard side. Had I known something about boating, had this not been my very first time driving, I might have handled the situation better—I might have realized that in a crossing situation you should give way, let the stand on vessel clear your danger zone, and then pass astern. But there behind the wheel, with my grandfather’s back turned, I froze. My elation, my confidence and the joy I’d felt only seconds earlier disappeared. I knew we were seconds from collision, knew that the jet skier wasn’t paying attention, had no plans to alter his course, just as one knows when two cars are about to crash at an intersection.

When my grandfather turned back, he didn’t say anything. He didn’t yell or scream or order me starboard. He just sat for a second, staring. I like to think he realized his mistake in that moment. When he grabbed the wheel from my hands, he knocked me to the floor of the boat, jerking us sideways and pulling back on the throttle. We spun in a half circle, and I rolled toward the edge, smacking my head against the live well. Drew, sitting in back with his feet propped atop the gunwale, let out a small cry and then he was over the side, his heels disappearing beneath the transom, dipping smoothly into that dark water.

Then my grandfather was overboard—only he was diving. When he sloshed back to the surface in a singular clear burst of water and foam, his glasses and hat were gone, and his eyes were wide, panicked, helpless—the kind of stare that might drown all three of us. He called Drew’s name in a way I’d never heard it before, gasped and then dunked himself under again, his boots breaking the surface of the water once, and with trembling hands I pulled the floating life preserver out from the back and tied it off to one of the metal cleats on the side of the boat.

“Please,” I whispered, leaning over the side, staring down into the shadows. “Oh, God, please.” But the only thing I could see was my own reflection on the surface of the water. My grandfather was under for too long that second time, long enough for the water to go flat above him, and after a while I thought he might not come back up. But when he did, he had Drew with an arm around his neck, and he was holding him up in the water.

The jet skiers had stopped further down the lake and were watching us now.

“Get to the other side,” he said, pushing Drew’s limp body over the side, and once I’d pulled him across the seats, my grandfather slung a leg up and rolled himself back into our little boat.

Drew’s skin was cold and his lips were turning blue when my grandfather stretched him out on floor and pressed his mouth to Drew’s and started blowing.

“Come on, boy, please, come . . . on,” he said, pressing down on Drew with both hands, and then pressing his ear to his skinny chest. He looked up at me, pinching his eyebrows above the bridge of his nose, and then he pressed down again. Hard. And Drew started retching, cloudy water dribbling out of his mouth. My grandfather turned Drew’s head and hugged him, and said, “Oh, thank God,” over and over again.

When we reached the shoreline, my grandfather called our grandmother. She got to the lake just before the ambulance did, and she trembled as she asked questions and patted our bodies all over, as though to make sure we were all there—ten fingers, ten toes. And on that afternoon, Drew rode to the hospital in the back of the ambulance, though the EMTs assured my grandparents that it was only a precaution.

 

When Drew arrives for his shift at the shop, I’m just finishing up with a customer. He leans against the doorframe and watches me ring up the sale on the register, looks me up and down, taking in my getup—the waders and T-shirt—then he says, “That’s a good look for you, Dave. Really.”

“I hate this town,” I say. “I hate coming back here, and I hate working at this damn store.”

“You don’t mean that,” Drew says, buffing out a scuff mark on the floor with the toe of his sneaker.

“Yes, I do.”

“Then why do you come back?” Drew says.

It’s the million dollar question. Why do I come back? “Obligation,” I say. “Masochism.”

“It’s not obligation,” Drew says, moving around behind the register. “It’s not even really a two-man operation. I mean, we aren’t arming nuclear warheads or landing jumbo jet-liners here. I think you do it because you know it makes Pops happy.”

And to that, I have no response.

*   *   *

Bebe’s is a small diner less than ten miles outside of Lakeville. Actually it’s more or less a dive bar with some wooden tables in the back, but at Bebe’s the drinks are cheap and the food is even cheaper, and so the locals frequent the bar at night to trade fishing tales in the dim, smoky light over a pint of Yuengling. Inside, various photographs decorate the wall—pictures of men holding up Walleye, Pike, Bass, and in one case, a prehistoric-looking Musky. My grandfather, Drew, and I sit at one of the tables eating chili and sopping it up with sourdough bread, when Mooch approaches from the bar with a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other.

“How’s the truck, Mooch?” my grandfather says, setting his spoon down in his bowl.

Mooch smokes his cigarette, and he rubs the two-day growth of beard on his chin, and then he says, “The whole damn thing is waterlogged.”

“Hook, line, and sinker,” my grandfather says.

“Could’ve been worse,” I say. “It’s easy for a kid his age to get confused with everyone yelling at him.”

“Way I heard it, you were the only one yelling,” Mooch says, taking a rubbery step backwards.

“I don’t think I was,” I say, offering up an easy smile. “I was just speaking loud so he could hear me. I thought he might swamp us.”

Drew looks down and pushes the beans around in his chili bowl. My grandfather leans back and presses his fist to his chest, puffing his cheeks and burping. If Mooch accepts my explanation, he shows no signs of it. He just continues his furious smoking and glances awkwardly around the room.

“Take a load off,” my grandfather says, pulling out the empty chair.

“Don’t mind if I do,” Mooch says, flopping down and sighing. He points at my grandfather’s chili with the butt of his cigarette. “You finished with that?”

My grandfather pushes the bowl toward Mooch, and Mooch drops his cigarette in the chili and crosses his arms in front of his chest. “I come to tell you, I think you should apologize to the kid,” he says.

“Apologize?” I say, laughing a little. But no one else is smiling. “For what?”

“For muckering him,” Mooch says. “He’s only eight years old, for Christ’s sake.”

“I wasn’t trying to mucker anyone,” I say, pressing my hands to the sticky tabletop. “I don’t even know what that means. I was just trying to keep him from sinking your damn truck, Mooch.”

“And I say he wouldn’t have sunk my truck, if you weren’t harping on him,” Mooch says, slapping the table.

“There’s logic for you,” I say, and I can feel my cheeks growing hot with anger. If anyone is to blame, it’s Mooch for having the kid launch the boat in the first place, for giving an eight year old that kind of responsibility. But Mooch’s doggedness defies reason. He’s drunk, and he’s angry, and above all else, he’s determined not to take the fall for this disaster.

“Where is the kid?” Drew asks.

“Back in the cabin,” Mooch says, lighting another cigarette.

“Well, we’re headed back soon,” my grandfather says, nodding to the waitress as she tops off our coffee mugs. “Why don’t we give you a ride?”

“Hell, I just got here. Let me finish my beer,” Mooch says, grabbing the waitress’s arm and ordering another round.

I’m just about to tell him how selfish he sounds, maybe lecture him on taking some responsibility for his actions, when Mooch points over at Drew with his cigarette and says, “You know, I designed those packets.”

Drew looks down at the pack of Sweet’N Low he’s dumping in his coffee mug.

“Yeah, that long, skinny one there you’re using. That’s my design. Saved the company a shit-ton of money, if you’d believe it.”

Drew and I exchange unsure looks, but Mooch doesn’t care. He’s on a roll, staring down into his pilsner glass as though we aren’t even there.

“A few weeks ago, my boss calls me in. Says, ‘Alan, you’ve done good work for us over the years. Here’s a little something extra for you.’ And he slowly slides this envelope across his desk and winks at me,” Mooch says, sliding his hand along the table in pantomime. “He’s being real damn debonair about the whole thing, so I figure it must be a thousand dollars or something. When I get home, I tear open the envelope, and you know what’s inside? A fifty-dollar gift certificate to the Lobster Bucket. I save them a quarter-million bucks and they give me a lousy, stinking gift card for assembly line seafood.”

I lean back in my chair and look over at my grandfather, who is shaking his head and staring at the ceiling. “We should head on back,” he says, placing a handful of quarters on the table for a tip. He hands Mooch his jacket from off the back of the chair, and says, “You know what they say: early to bed, early to rise. . . .” When Mooch doesn’t answer him, he adds, “Fish all day; make up lies.”

“I like spending time with the kid. He’s a real fishing machine. I hope he grows up to be a professional fisherman or something,” Mooch says without budging. “He’s a smart boy, but he gets kind of confused when people yell at him. Then he gets spooky quiet, and it’s like he’s staring right through you, like one of these beer glasses. And I start wondering if he’s ever going to speak again.”

Mooch clears his throat, stares hard at each of us as he reaches back for his coat and wrestles with one of the sleeves. “So are you going to apologize or what?”

“Listen, Mooch, if you feel that strongly about it, I’ll apologize to your son. But maybe you ought to be the one to talk to him,” I say. “You’re his father, after all, and you’re the one who put him in the driver’s seat.”

Mooch doesn’t say anything at first. He just draws little circles in the spilled beer with his finger. “You don’t seem to get me,” he says. “I already did apologize. Didn’t mean anything. In case you ain’t noticed, I fuck up—a lot. I’m not exactly father of the year.”

And there’s something beautiful about that—something humble and unconditional that makes my throat close up. And all of a sudden, Mooch doesn’t seem selfish anymore at all. He just seems like a father who’s in over his head.

Mooch looks at me a long time from the corner of his eye. He frowns. Then he takes a swig of his beer and says, “Okay, then. Glad we got that settled.”

 

Later that evening, after apologizing to the kid, I head down to the makeshift cleaning station—a carport with a sink beneath it that draws its water directly from the lake—and watch my grandfather fillet the day’s catch.

“That Mooch is something else,” he says, his back to me as he plugs in the electric knife.

“Sure,” I say, but somehow, standing there at the side of the lake, I envy the kid. He’d gotten the apology I always wanted. From my lips to his ears.

My grandfather turns the knife on and then turns it off again and says, “You know, I still have nightmares about killing Drew.” He shudders a little, and I can see that terrible, doomed look creeping back over his eyes, the way it did when he surfaced from the lake so many years ago. He looks down over the rims of glasses. “He had to practically beg me to take him fishing after that, and it still makes me nervous even today. And you,” my grandfather says, his shoulders slumping. “I could barely look you in the eye, I was so afraid you’d never forgive me.”

I open my mouth to say something—though I’m not sure what; I’ve already apologized once today. I must look stunned, like one of those glassy-eyed fish hanging in his den, because he says, “Hey, it worked out okay in the end, right?”

I nod and watch as he digs a fish out from the sink and lays it flopping on the cutting board. As he begins to slice, I slip out from the cleaning station and climb the hillside above the boat launch. I sit next to Drew and watch the sun set over the water, the red clouds and the deep purple shadows cast across the small crests of waves and the wind-whipped scumlines.

“It looks like blood,” Drew says.

“I think it looks like a crescendo,” I say.

The breeze coming off the lake puts a night chill in the air, and the sound of water lapping at the shoreline is far more peaceful than any of those nature tapes you can buy at the supermarket checkout. The yellow fluorescent telephone booth light clicks on with a faint buzz and, in minutes, the booth is filled with mosquitoes—mostly the large males that live only a short while.

Halfway up the road, Mooch and the kid sit at a picnic table, examining a tackle box. A pair of brook trout dangle from a metal stringer on the porch. They’re on the small side, but at least they are something to show for a day’s worth of fishing.

Drew and I catch snippets of their conversation on the wind.

“My dad gave me this box when I was your age. Told me the names of all of these flies. That’s the only thing he ever taught me. Like that one there—that’s a red zinger.”

“You know there’s no such thing as a red zinger, right?” Drew says, his eyes still focused on the last brilliant sliver of light as it disappears below the waterline.

“I know,” I say.

Down below, my grandfather’s electric knife registers a high E as it cuts through fish scale and pink flesh.

“What’s that hairy one?” the kid asks.

“That’s an azure-tailed buggy nymph,” Mooch replies.

“He’s just making it up as he goes,” Drew says, shaking his head and snorting a little.

I look over to where they sit together, studying the blue dun, the sides of their faces illuminated in the dying light. Mooch takes another fly out of his tackle box and holds it up by the hook so that the kid can take a closer look.

Down below, the light goes out in the fish cleaning station, and my grandfather emerges with a porcelain bowl of fillets in hand. He stops for a moment, staring out over the lake, and as the sun sets beyond the trees, he bobs his head a little as though admiring a tune only he can hear.


 

About the Author: Jason Kapcala’s writing has appeared in Cleaver Magazine, Prime Number, Saw Palm, the Good Men Project, and elsewhere.

Artwork:

 

Bobby Fischer Goes to Hollywood by Ian R. Jacoby

For Jacoby


 

Opening

Los Angeles, 1971:

Craig curses at a white car that pulls in front of us outside the Knickerbocker Hotel. Craig looks good in a bitter, failed actor kind of way. That means it’s extra gross when he sneers at them. He’s also cursed with chronic perspiration. He told me they had to paint him with makeup over and over again on the set of Hula Hoop Massacre 3. Now he grows sweat stains around his armpits, around his thick neck whenever he yells at old men in LA traffic, which is often.

This old man doesn’t understand how much of a war crime it is to cut off the second lead from Alien Beach Party 2, Fun Daze, and My Girl, The Werewolf. The old man raises his tan, withered arm out the window and gently waves at Craig. Craig slams on his horn, and the old man obliviously leans his car into traffic—nearly causing a three-car-accident.

“Can you believe that a-hole?” Craig says through his perfect white horse teeth. He pulls both hands off the wheel to emphasize how big of an injustice it all is. “He pulled out right in front of me.”

“Classic king’s gambit open,” I say.

“What?” he says. It takes a second to snap out of his ape rage. “Oh, is that chess? Is that a chess move? You being smart?”

“I don’t know.” I blow my hair out of my eyes, but it falls right back into the same old spot. Craig hates that.

I get out and grab my suitcase from the back seat. It’s too big, but it’s the only luggage I have. They bought it for me, for when I have to go to my dad’s. Diane is my mom. She married this doofus six months ago. Craig is my step dad. He of the nice hair and growing teal Hawaiian sweat stains.

“I’ll be back tomorrow at seven,” he says.

“But the tournament’s done at four. What am I supposed to do ’til then?” I say. It’s not technically a tournament, but I’m not even going to attempt to get into that with him right now.

Craig spits out the window and puts his sunglasses on. My mom bought them for him when they “went away” to “wine country” last month. Craig reaches back and hands me a crumpled twenty.

“You’re seventeen. Jesus kid, figure it out.” He lights a cigarette. “Try not to call unless it’s an emergency,” he says.

“Yeah,” I say. “I’ll do my best.”

“Great,” he says, “Go get ’em, killer.”

Craig’s sedan peels into the green summer morning. My suitcase bumps against the curb when I try to pull it onto the sidewalk. The bushes outside The Knickerbocker push ragged branches through the iron grates that barely hold them in place. I bet they used to look nice when someone cared about them. Mr. Lazlo told us The Knickerbocker used to be a place where movie stars hung out. Jen said a bunch of them took weird drugs and killed themselves here, or whatever. I can kind of see why.

Jen and Kilby are already out front and mixing in with the other members of the Herman Steiner Chess Club. You can tell us apart from normal guests because we all have blue Herman Steiner blazers with little red Herman Steiner crests on them. Two maladjusted twelve-year-olds have a portable chess set out and are running through openings as fast as they can.

I was never like that, not even when Mr. Lazlo thought I was a prodigy. I remember when Mr. Lazlo first started tutoring me, trying to tell me about psychology and all that garbage. You know, you have to break your opponent’s ego, play with his emotions, play with your own emotions. All that crap. That’s all stupid, man.

It’s like Fischer said, “I don’t believe in psychology. I believe in good moves.”

Outside the hotel, the younger kids see how far up the side of the building they can spit. The older ones check the clipboard to see who’s rooming with who. This one junior high kid launches a loogie like twelve feet in the air. It’s so big that it casts a shadow on the way back down. Kilby jingles his keys to let me know we’re rooming together. Miracles abound.

“Was that your dad?” he says. He points to the skid marks in the road. He’s fat, red, and his dad is some big-time studio executive who lets Kilby wear clip-on ties even though he’s seventeen years old.

“Step dad,” I say.

“Lazlo says Bobby Fischer probably isn’t going to be here ’til tomorrow,” Kilby says, sweating.

“That sucks,” I say.

Kilby drones about something stupid while I stare over his shoulder at Jen. She’s laughing a lot with Whitney Carlson. She’s looking at me too, and I just wish I was over there. Not even doing anything, just over there existing.

Jen shrugs her travel bag over her shoulder. She’s got a perfect part down the middle of her perfect hair. We made out last week at Skate America under the speakers while “Jet” by Paul McCartney played. It was the best moment of my life.

She’s tall and smokes—and both of those things, along with her tight jeans, and the fact that she kissed me, probably make her the sexiest person in the world. I still can’t look her in the eyes. She’s got perfect teeth. She’s terrifying.

“You think you two will do it this weekend?” Kilby says, following my stare. I avert my gaze.

“Jesus man. Don’t be crass,” I say. “Maybe.”

“Yeah right,” he says. “Good luck, James Bond.”

He rubs my curly hair back and forth. It frizzes out even worse than usual. I hit Kilby in the arm. Mr. Lazlo gets us in a group, and we hustle into the shadow of the lobby. I have this one zit on the inside of my nose that hurts like hell, but I still can’t leave it alone. I think I’m going to name it Kilby.

*

I don’t want to give off the impression that I don’t like Mr. Lazlo. That’s not true. In fact, he’s about the only person who ever believed in me.

Three years ago, Mr. Lazlo’s yellow Volkswagen K70 crawled up our driveway. We had small glasses of lemonade, my parents sitting across the kitchen table treating chess not-at-all seriously. I hid in the hall, taking it all too seriously. I used to be real serious about everything.

“I don’t want him to be some kinda screwball,” dad said. He took a sip from his lemonade and made a face. “This doesn’t taste right.”

“Paul has so much natural ability. Let me assure you—” said Mr. Lazlo. He twisted his beard hairs whenever he spoke to my dad. A nervous twitch. My dad does that to people.

“I wish someone would assure me on this lemonade,” said my dad. His laugh flew across the table, and Mr. Lazlo flinched like it hit him in the face.

“He’ll be in great hands,” Mr. Lazlo said.

“We just want what’s best for Paul,” my mom said.

“What he needs is consistency!” said my dad. He dumped his drink in the sink. He grabbed for Mr. Lazlo’s cup. “You want me to take care of that for you?”

“No, thank you,” said Mr. Lazlo, and gulped it down. He made a face too. “Do you understand what it means for him to be ranked 1900 at thirteen years old?”

“That he has too much free time on his hands?” said dad, and smiled at mom.

She looked at the back of her hand.

“No, but seriously,” said dad.

“Many serious players never even reach that level,” said Mr. Lazlo. “Ever.”

“Dale,” said my mom.

“What?” said my dad.

“Please,” I said from the hallway.

“Fine,” said my dad.

Mr. Lazlo started coming Tuesday afternoons. He taught me some good opens, how to treat the middle game, where to take an endgame. Six months later, my parents divorced.

I have a rank of 1700 these days, comfortably not a genius. I try not to let Mr. Lazlo get too down about it though.

“It’s not like it’s anyone’s fault but my own,” I said one rainy Sunday at Fitzger’s. He was playing white again.

He pulled down his rook and cleaned house, two pawns and my bishop. I probably should have seen it coming, but whatever. I was lucky when I pulled out a draw ten moves later.

“It’s not anyone’s fault,” he said. “I think you’re improving, anyway.”

“Line ’em up again,” I say.

I’m black. I don’t mind being on the defensive one bit. Mr. Lazlo says it’s a habit I need to break.

*

Mr. Lazlo wears a wine colored suit with a bright yellow shirt underneath it. He’s fussing with a microphone and scratching his beard again. I try to get close to Jen, but some college kid with cool hair says something into her ear, and she starts giggling. He puts his hand on her back, and they sit at one of the card tables that have been arranged into a giant rectangle in the converted ballroom. It’s a coliseum for chess geeks.

Mr. Lazlo stands in the middle of the rectangle. It’s where Fischer will play. He clears his throat into the microphone. It’s attached to a portable speaker on his belt.

“I thank you all for attending the Tenth Annual Arthur Lazlo Memorial Chess Friendly,” Mr. Lazlo says. “My father would have been so happy to see chess in such high demand. From the very young, to our … more experienced players.”

He looks at a bunch of sour-faced old men that play in this lobby every week. There’s a couple of former masters, some ranked amateurs, whatever. Small fries.

“As you all know, no ranking will be altered at the end of this friendly. It’s all just for the joy of chess.”

The college guy is really talking Jen’s ear off about something, and they’re both smiling like it’s the best thing in the world. He’s good looking, like Craig is. I mean, he looks like the kind of guy who excuses himself to brush his teeth during a date.

“Don’t worry, you’ll all get a chance to play the great Bobby Fischer,” Mr. Lazlo says, “Half of you in the morning session, half in the afternoon. Two games, one hundred men. Each time, one versus fifty; Fischer versus the mob!”

The dramatic tension is ruined when the microphone begins to feedback, and Mr. Lazlo doesn’t know how to stop it. Some wet coughs from the old men join in. Eventually Mr. Lazlo flips the off switch and cups his thin hands together.

“Not that I think of you all as a mob, of course,” he shouts. “But yes, fifty matches at once, all timed. And to the winner—”

“When does Fischer get here?” a reporter in back says.

“Well, he’s not told us exactly, but he say that no one should ask him for pictures, autographs, or interviews,” Mr. Lazlo says. The audience begins to turn away. “He just wants it to be about chess! The reception will be in the—”

Fischer walks through the hotel doors, and the place erupts. He’s wearing a tan suit and wayfarers. He cuts through the lobby like there’s no one there; flashbulbs and cameras click like you imagine they do for Steve McQueen. God, he’s about the coolest guy in the world.

“James Bond,” Kilby says.

“Your breath smells horrible,” I say.

“Is it true your mom works for the Russians?” A reporter shouts at Fischer’s back.

Fischer jogs to the elevator while his driver blocks the reporter’s path. It’s a classic Steinitz Defense. There’s a lasting silence when the door shuts. The elevator ding unleashes a sudden torrent of conversation, and the room rings with fresh gossip.

“Wow,” says Kilby.

“Did you see him? Like a movie star or something,” Jen says. She walks up with the college guy still in tow. “This is Julian. He goes to Occidental.”

“You think anyone will give Fischer a run for his money?” Julian says. He shakes my hand. He smells really good. He holds my hand so I can’t return his strong grip. Jen must really like us all getting along so well. “I heard he hasn’t drawn in over a month.”

“Draws are for cowards,” I say.

“Still, it’d be quite the feat,” he says.

“Still, it’d be quite the feat for a coward,” I say.

“Julian says we can go up to his room,” Jen says. We get in the elevator behind a crowd still swirling in Fischer wake. “He brought cognac.”

“Great!” Kilby says.

“It’s from my family’s vineyard,” Julian says, “in France.”

Big whoop, I think.

*

Middlegame

Me and Kilby and Jen and a bunch of Julian’s college friends stay in his room and drink through dinner. We sit in a circle and shout about our favorite Gilligan’s Island episodes. Jen and I sit next to each other. We hold the bottle between us, laugh when the other person coughs a lung up after a big pull.

Julian puts on “Beggar’s Banquet,” and a couple people start dancing. They have marijuana cigarettes, but Julian says we should save ours for later. I’ve never smoked before, and that makes me nervous, but Jen seems into it. I feel the cognac buzz in my empty stomach. It makes Kilby’s jokes a lot funnier. Eventually, he starts dancing with a blonde girl, and it ends with them rolling around on the green shag carpet together.

Me and Kilby head down to the ballroom in a tiny brass service elevator that creaks when he gets in. I hold my breath most of the way down.

“I think Jen’s really into that guy, Julian,” he says.

“Yeah, thanks, Kilby,” I say.

“I just mean, their body language is off the charts.” He giggles and sways back and forth. “Off the charts,” he repeats to himself.

When we get to the lobby, he hits every button and jumps out before the door can shut. I do too, though my pants get stuck in the gate for one terrifying second. They rip at the bottom when I pull too hard. I told you; action was never my strong suit.

The tables have been pulled away from the ballroom, and the chandeliers cast specks of beautiful light all over the old people getting drunk. Mr. Lazlo used a big chunk of his money to hire the Paul Desmond quartet, and they’re all in the corner, smoking, drinking, and hacking away at the “Stray Cat Blues.”

My dad used to listen to Paul Desmond a lot when he played with Dave Brubeck, but that stopped when my dad moved in with Charlie, his personal trainer, because she said it made him seem old fashioned. That’s probably the one thing that me and Charlie agree on.

Mr. Lazlo pulls himself away from a troupe of fat men just as the piano player chops some really dissonant chords that don’t seem at all appropriate for the occasion.

“Are you boys having a good time?” he says.

“Ask us tomorrow morning, and we’ll let you know,” Kilby says.

He winks at Mr. Lazlo, who frowns and rubs his chin with the palm of his hand. The piano player settles down into a groove that actually sounds kind of nice. Jen and Julian float down the spiral staircase into the ballroom. She’s beaming, and he’s so nonchalant, like new Kennedys. Their energy spurs Paul Desmond into fits of hysteria all over again.

“Yeah, it’s OK,” I say.

“Paul Desmond,” Mr. Lazlo says. “I can’t believe we got him!”

He motions to Paul Desmond, who’s taking a break from the saxophone to drink a tall glass of whiskey and ice. He drinks it all in one gulp, sucking air from the sides of the glass before dropping it on the table. He sees Mr. Lazlo looking, gives him a drunk salute. When he plays again, it’s pretty squeaky.

“What a player. I just wish he wouldn’t drink so much,” Mr. Lazlo says.

“Yeah, my dad used to love Paul Desmond,” I say.

“He looks like he’s going to be sick all over his saxophone,” Kilby says, who is also pretty drunk.

Jen sees us and comes over. She’s wearing a green dress that ends just above her knees. It fits in all the right places and is not good for my imagination.

“Hey Mr. Lazlo,” she says.

“Good evening, Jennifer,” Mr. Lazlo says. “That’s a beautiful dress. I remember—”

Jen pulls me aside. We stand next to a punch bowl that’s the size of an upside-down Volkswagen. My heart is in my chest when she touches my arm. Imagine the best smell in the world, then double it. That’s what I’m experiencing.

“I need you,” she whispers.

I gulp.

“We’re going to the roof,” she says.

“Right now?” I say.

“Yeah,” she says.

“Just you and me?” I say.

Paul Desmond hits a sour note and tries to slide out of it, but just makes it worse in the end. Mr. Lazlo makes a throat slashing gesture to the bartender and points to the stage. Jen looks at me like I’m brain dead, which is probably true.

“Uh, no. You, me, Julian and Kilby, and the gang, the Occidental kids. We’re having a seance.” She unlocks arms and walks to the elevator. “C’mon, they’re up there already. Kilby, come!”

Kilby stands at the end of a long buffet table. He shovels a mound of tapenade onto a plate and litters its base with stuffed mushrooms. He jogs toward us while balancing his plate with one hand.

“Yeah, coming,” he says, licking his fingers.

*

The top of the building is dominated by huge wooden scaffolding that supports a giant neon HOTEL KNICKERBOCKER. The Occidental kids lean against the wood frames smoking cigarettes, lounging easy, watching us like pumas in the dark.

Jen takes us between two electrical boxes that create a big green Stonehenge in the middle of the roof. She’s got candles set up all around in a circle, and a brand new Parker Brothers Ouija Board. The plastic planchette is still inside its packaging. Jen tears the plastic open with her teeth while me and Kilby, Julian, and some of the gang sit down.

“It’s good because it protects us from the wind,” Jen says. She spits the plastic bag out, and it rolls away in a draft. She reads from a dark blue book with a silver moon on its cover.

In 1936, ten years after magician Harry Houdini died, his wife, Bess, bereft and helpless without him, took over the Knickerbocker’s rooftop and sought for a tenth and final time to summon his spirit on Halloween—the anniversary of his death—with the help of numerous mediums.

“So who’s going first?” Kilby says. He’s found the blonde girl from the carpet earlier and brought her along for the ride.

I can call spirits from the vasty deep. Shakespeare,” Julian says, sounding like a total dick.

“I’ll go,” Jen says.

She’s looking at Julian when she says it. Julian is looking off into the middle distance, probably trying to think of another great quote to wow us all with.

“Yeah, me too,” I say.

Jen arches her eyebrows in the witchy candlelight; she’s a terrible beauty—Yeats. Eat your heart out, Julian. We sit on our legs, side by side. She puts the planchette in the center of the board, and our hands touch. We breathe together. I wrack my brain for dead people to talk about.

“Can we talk to my dad?” I say.

Jen touches my hand and looks in my eyes. Technically, he’s not dead. He’s living in a condo in Arizona with Charlie. That seems close enough. I look to see if Kilby will say anything, but he’s too busy trying to teach his girl how to blow better spit bubbles.

“Of course,” Jen says. “What do you want to ask him?”

I can think of about a million things, and not one of them that I want to share in front of this group. Hey dad, are you happy now that you ruined everyone’s life? Hey dad, how’s the real estate business for dickheads?

“I just want to know if he’s happy now,” I say.

I bite the inside of my cheek so hard that I feel marks. Jen puts her other hand on top of mine and gives me a sad smile. Through a haze of marijuana smoke, I can feel Julian’s eyes burn in the back of my head. That feels just great.

“Dear Paul’s dad,” Jen says. “Have you found the peace in death that you sought in life?”

I start to nudge the plastic towards “yes,” but Jen stops me. She’s got my hand sandwiched between hers. It’s great, but not really conducive to fudging communication between me and my fake dead dad.

“I know it’s hard, but don’t nudge it,” she says. “Let him speak for himself.”

“OK,” I say.

We sit there for a long time. I imprint the feeling her hands make on mine into my brain forever. A breeze blows some of the candles out, and someone has a marijuana cough that won’t quit.

“Um,” Jen says. She touches my cheek. “Maybe he’s just not ready yet.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” I say.

“Let’s try my Aunt Norma,” Julian says. “She was hilarious—wrote articles for the American Nazi Party in the thirties.”

An employee of the hotel walks up the stairwell and onto the roof. He sighs and lights a cigarette. He switches on his flashlight. Everyone bolts, exploding in every direction.

“Hey!” the guy says, chasing in every direction with the cigarette dangling. “You can’t be up here! Stop!”

In the confusion, the Ouija board gets kicked over, and the candles upended. Jen and I run down the stairwell, all the way down to the third floor. We stop and collapse into each other’s arms. The light is warm and yellow from the light fixtures that go down the long green hallway. From the heating grates, you can barely hear Paul Desmond sweetly echo the chorus of “Strange Meadow Lark.” We slump and sigh together.

“You know, my dad named me after this guy,” I say.

She looks down at my chest. When she looks up, she has tears in her eyes. She kisses me slow and a lot. I walk her to her room, and we kiss goodnight all over again.

I collapse into my bed, and Kilby shows up ten minutes later. We don’t talk. He falls right to sleep, snoring the snores of someone unburdened by conscience. When I say my head is swimming, I mean it. A crummy old air conditioner pushes the drapes into phantom shapes around the window. Somewhere in the hotel, Bobby Fischer lies awake working on openings. I live drunk in that kiss for hours ’til I fall asleep.

*

Endgame

As part of our weekend, we’re supposed to get breakfast with Bobby Fischer, but no one is especially surprised when he doesn’t show. Jen and I get a seat in the corner of the dining room and share secret smiles over our food.

The hotel staff arranged it so all the chocolate and poppyseed muffins are playing each other on a chessboard. All the chocolate muffins get eaten first, so it looks like a route. A bad omen, as Fischer plays white today. We all play defense. I look at the spot where the king should be, but there’s only black crumbs and a torn piece of wax paper. Kilby spots us and makes his way diagonally through the round tables covered in white tablecloths, a classic Hodgson Attack.

We eat together. A natural trio, a fine team when Jen rolls her eyes at all the right parts of Kilby’s stories. Julian sits with some of his gang and watches our table. I can guess how he plays chess, waiting, probing for any weakness.

“We still on for next weekend?” Kilby says. He looks at Jen. “My dad got us tickets to the premiere of Dirty Harry.”

“I can’t,” I say. “I’m busy.”

My dad is coming to town, first time without Charlie in tow. Kilby knows because I told about it last week. He never remembers stuff like this, because he never remembers anything.

“What? C’mon man, Clint Eastwood. In the flesh. When else is that gonna happen?” Kilby says. “Tell your dad he can pick you up Saturday morning. He can come any old time.”

“What?” Jen says.

“Clint Eastwood,” Kilby says.

“Your dad’s coming?” Jen says. “Next week?”

“Um,” I say. “I was going to tell you.”

“Sure,” she says. “Right.”

“Jen,” I say. I don’t know what to say. I blurt out, “I still believe in magic.”

God, what does that mean? Jen stands up and grabs her orange juice. She looks like she’ll dump it on my head, but she puts the glass back down and looks over at Julian’s table. Now I’m the one staring at breakfast. The eggs I’ve been eating have an uncooked sheen that I didn’t notice before. I feel like I might barf.

“You know, you were a lot more interesting when your dad was dead,” Jen says. She gets up and walks away. Kilby takes some bacon off her plate.

“You finished?” he says.

She doesn’t turn around, doesn’t go to Julian’s table, she walks straight out. Julian and I follow her with our eyes, then he looks at me and smiles. Next to the crepe station, Mr. Lazlo turns on his microphone and clears his throat. He’s holding two pieces of paper in the other hand.

“The friendly starts in half an hour. Please check with me to see where and when you play. Good luck to everyone! I’ve never been so pr—”

“Can it, Janet!” somebody yells and everyone laughs.

We all rush around Mr. Lazlo. By the time I get to the piece of paper, it’s torn and there’s sausage grease all over it. I find my and Kilby’s names’ smudged in the afternoon session. Jen and Julian play in the morning with the rest of the stronger players. Mr. Lazlo comes up behind me and puts his hand on my shoulder.

“I couldn’t help it,” he says. “It’s just the luck of the draw. When you play doesn’t really mean anything.”

“Yeah,” I say. “I know.”

*

The shades are pulled back on the windows that reach to the ceiling of the ballroom. The sun beats down hot on the boards. Mr. Lazlo spent money on a velvet rope, so there’s a spectator area consisting of a few rows of folding chairs off in a corner.

There’s some press, but mostly it’s just wives, and moms, and little brothers, and put out girlfriends. Each seat around the circle has a number taped on back; Jen’s is 27. I imagine optimal sightlines and try to position myself accordingly. When she walks in, she doesn’t even look at me.

“Wow,” Kilby says. “She looks great.”

“Yeah,” I say. “I know.”

Everyone sits around for twenty minutes before Fischer finally shows up. When he does, the air gets sucked out of the room. He’s wearing a different suit and sunglasses. Per request, the clocks start when he enters the circle. They all tick a little off.

When he plays, Fischer doesn’t walk in a circle, but zigs and zags between games—creating new lines of evil geometry. He walks fast. The chandelier lights dim at random. It’s satanic—like chalking a pentagram to access the power of grandmasters past. It looks cool as hell.

It puts most of the players on edge. Ten moves in, and Fischer already has twelve of fifty in checkmate. One by one, they empty their pieces into a box, and Fischer touches their hand before turning sharply to the next game.

Jen stands strong. She’s controlling the middle section of her board by hemming in Fischer’s bishop with her pawns. They form an impenetrable wall around Fischer’s favorite piece. He bites his thumbnails at her board, he tugs on his tie.

Unfortunately, Julian plays well too—and after 25 rounds both he and Jen are two of only ten players left. He catches her eye and they share a long, shitty smile together. Fischer stares at both of their boards, his brow furrowed as the games devolve into petty skirmishes.

Fischer has to bleed them for every pawn, yielding board space only when pried from his fingers. Julian goes to a vending machine and comes back with two Cokes. He puts one on Jen’s board and one on his own. Some people clap at the chivalry. Jen opens it and drinks half the can down in one gulp. She burps loud and moves a pawn. The crowd goes nuts.

Everyone loves them. The mothers of the twelve-year-olds lean forward and talk about what a dashing figure Julian cuts at the board. The guys think Jen’s a real firecracker. Fischer sweats through his blazer. Kilby hits my arm whenever Fischer’s pieces get pinned farther back.

With a pained face, Fischer extends his hand for a draw, first to Julian, then to Jen. Everyone else is eliminated. A round of applause showers the room. Fischer storms into an adjoining unit. He slams the door; it’s punctuated by a howl. Violent animal pain from the other side of the wall. It’s exactly how I feel.

One of the masters brings out a giant green wreath like we’ve all seen at some tournament victories, and not just a couple of dumb “friendly” draws. He puts the wreath around Jen and Julian. They smile as photographers flash picture after picture.

“What’re the two young lovers’ names?” a reporter asks. Everyone laughs.

“Two draws!” Kilby says. “Can you believe it?”

I need some air. I pass Mr. Lazlo on my way outside. He’s pulling on his beard, walks by like he doesn’t see me at all. A bunch of his kids trail behind him like demented seven dwarves.

“Wow,” Mr. Lazlo says. “Wow.”

I walk outside, and the hotel employee who busted up our party is smoking a cigarette. He’s fat and less scary in daylight.

“Can I get one of those?” I say, pointing to his cigarette.

“Sure, kid,” he says.

He lights it for me, and I cough like crazy. It burns the back of my throat. My eyes won’t stop watering. I bend over on the sidewalk, almost wretch. He looks at me nervous.

“A natural,” he says.

“Know where I can get a sandwich around here?” I gag.

“Chester’s, two blocks that way. Might want to put that out though,” he points to my cigarette. “No smoking allowed.”

I gladly step on it; he seems relieved.

*

Chester’s is a sandwich shop and arcade. They have one just like it a block from where I go to school. What they don’t have is a Bobby Fischer sitting alone in the corner booth looking miserable. That’s unique to this one. I walk up to the counter, try to order a beer for him, but the guy behind the counter just laughs at my age.

I order a cheese sandwich and two root beers. I give the guy my twenty dollar bill and get back fourteen bucks, two of it in quarters. I point to Fischer’s table and tell him to send the sandwich over there.

“I know who you are,” I say.

I sit down in Fischer’s booth and hand him a root beer. He looks at me wild-eyed, like he might bolt for the door with my root beer in hand.

“Don’t worry, I won’t mention it if you don’t,” I say.

“OK,” he says.

I take a long drink of mine. I take some change out and drop it on the table. Fischer drums his fingers.

“You like pinball?” I say.

He looks up at me, then at the machine. He nods, and we go over and play. It’s space themed, so on the backbox there’s a cartoon of a hot lady astronaut about to get eaten by a giant green alien.

“You ever had a girlfriend?” I say.

He hits a triple score bumper, and the whole machine flashes, goes into fits. A plastic comet knocks against glass inside the machine.

“Um,” he says.

“Jeez, how old are you?” I say. “You never had a girlfriend?”

“How old are you?” he says.

“Seventeen,” I say.

“Well when I was your age, I’d been a grandmaster for two years,” he says. He turns back to the pinball machine and tries to keep playing, but his ball stalls. He slaps the machine like it did something really wrong to him.

“OK. The girl I’m talking about, she wasn’t my girlfriend per se,” I say. “I bet she could have been, though. If it had worked out.”

Fischer takes a swig.

“So?” he says.

“I don’t know. I guess, I don’t even really know her that well,” I say. “Plus, I think she just fell in love with some asshole freshman from Occidental college.”

“Oh those two,” he says. He looks even more miserable. Those draws take a toll on him. They add up over the years. I can relate.

I say, “It’s funny. Three years ago I wouldn’t have cared at all about any of this. The chess was the important thing. Now I don’t even think I want to play you. No offense.”

“None taken,” he says.

We walk out of the arcade and onto the street. I still have ten dollars, so I grab some hot dogs for the walk back. Fischer never offers to pay for anything. He gets two hot dogs for himself. Between that and the sandwich, I feel a little green.

“You know the Benoni Defence?” he says. He stuffs the end of the first dog in his mouth.

The modern Benoni Defense lines up a bunch of pawns on the queen’s side. It pushes black to make moves they don’t want to, makes everything real cramped and sweaty, closes up the game, forces it into live or die from the start. It forces a game into a win or lose for both players, no draws. In a way, it’s a suicide attack.

“Yeah,” I say.

“You know what it means? Benoni?” Fischer says. “It’s Hebrew. Son of sorrow. It’s from Reinganum’s book. 1825.”

Fischer pulls out a little manual from his pocket, barely a pamphlet. It’s been folded every which way. He takes off his sunglasses and reads.

Whenever I felt in a sorrowful mood and wanted to take refuge from melancholy, I sat over a chessboard, for one or two hours according to circumstances. Thus this book came into being, and its name, Ben-Oni, “Son of Sadness,” should indicate its origin.

“That’s a hell of a name,” I say.

“It’s the truth,” he says.

“So you’re saying I should play?” I say.

“I’m saying no matter what you do, that sadness is going to find you. Might as well use it for something,” he says.

He finishes his second hot dog, and we enter the hotel in silence.

*

The drapes are back in place per Fischer’s request, and the afternoon session starts more subdued than the morning’s. Most of the observers eat cake with Jen and Julian in the dining room, but eventually they trickle in—or don’t. The older players stay in the bar, licking their wounds and drinking free Lowenbrau. Nothing changes for Fischer, who storms into the room with purpose, exactly the same as before.

When he gets to my board, he impassively moves his queen’s pawn two spaces forward. He doesn’t place the piece, just flicks it across the table so it stands straight up on the board by itself, like telekinesis. I see his moves, recognize what he’s initiating. I can oblige. Jen and Julian come in with a couple of their moony-faced friends. Mr. Lazlo walks behind them with a colossal piece of cake, and they all sit down together to smile at me.

I skip my knight out to F6, just in front of my pawns, and Fischer sees it out of his peripheral vision. He walks over and flicks a second pawn next to his first.

Here it is, the suicide play. The Benoni Defense. I look at Fischer, and he smiles at me; I smile back. We both know someone has to win. He walks to the other side of the room and knocks a guy’s bishop clear off the table.

Kilby is checkmated by Fischer in his tenth move. He doesn’t seem too upset, but gets food on Fischer’s hand when they shake. It isn’t until the fifteenth that people realize what’s happening on my board. Fischer and I have been slugging it out for an hour, and somehow, I’m getting the better of him.

I take one of his rooks when he makes a boneheaded mistake in the corner, and from there I wrestle control of the center squares. Fischer takes off his sunglasses and rubs the bridge of his nose, he complains about the lights again; he doesn’t smile at me anymore.

There are more gasps when I take his queen in the twenty-third move. Whispered words travel through the hotel, and even sour old drunks stand in the hallway, craning their pale necks and spilling gin on their pants. Kilby leans back as Mr. Lazlo leans in to see the game. He slides the rest of Mr. Lazlo’s cake over with his foot, and stands up eating it. He points Mr. Lazlo’s fork at me.

“Hell yeah, Paul,” he says, spitting cake everywhere.

I checkmate Fischer in the thirty-third move. He finishes by beating everyone else at the table in a huff. When the last match finishes, he’s gone 97-1-2. Fischer stalks back into his room. I’m alone at the board, his king still tipped to me.

The place explodes. I’m put in a thicket of sweaty congratulations. I lift my hands over my head, and men with thick framed glasses hold their chins and study the list of our moves like it’s foreign policy. Jen heads off to Julian’s room with the rest of the Occidental crew, but everyone else surges toward the boards. They come for me, and I am carried away. I even get my own wreath. I wonder where all the wreaths are coming from.

*

Kilby’s dad shows up first, with his driver and Kilby’s new stepmom. Kilby offers me a ride, but I tell him that I’ll just see him next weekend. Kilby’s dad tells Kilby he looks like hell, and what’d he do all weekend, anyway? They vanish in a cloud of cologne.

Jen comes out with Julian. She’s wearing her wreath. Julian tries to get her to ride in the gang’s van back to Occidental, but she says she has to wait for her dad. A buzz starts on the roof. You can feel the hotel lights turn on before you see it happen. Julian sniffs sharply when he walks past us, gets in the van, and drives away.

The same hotel employee comes out for another smoke break, eyes me and Jen alone on the sidewalk, and walks across the street to buy a paper. Jen stands closer and touches my green wreath. She’s got a wreath, and I’ve got a wreath.

“Congratulations,” she says.

“Congratulations to you,” I say.

She pets hers; the buzz of the hotel lights are pretty loud now. They’re palpable.

“Thanks,” she says and looks at mine, “but I guess it doesn’t mean as much now, huh?”

“I don’t know,” I say.

“I really liked you,” she says.

“Me too,” I say. “Why do you think I said all that stuff? Some of it was true, anyway.”

“It doesn’t matter,” she says.

Her dad’s car arrives. It’s real beat up, and it coughs out a cloud of black smoke on a couple of lost tourists. He waves to us from the street.

“Ok, well,” I say. “See you around.”

She hugs me and our wreaths get tangled together for a second. Jen’s dad puts his hands up when two cars start honking behind him. She gets the strands undone and walks toward the car. She puts the wreath in the back and turns around.

“Yeah, anything is possible,” she says. “I mean, you’re the one who still believes in magic.”

The radio gets turned all the way up before they get past the end of the block. I’m the only one left. I spend two more dollars at Chester’s on cheese sandwiches and Coke.

I put the wreath on the stool next to me. When the place starts to fill up, the waiter tells me to put it behind the counter. I play pinball for one lonely hour, then two.

Craig comes in and tells me he’s been honking for the last five minutes, and do I realize what a little inconvenience I am becoming? When I grab the wreath, it’s been hit by an exploding bottle of whipped cream. I don’t let Craig see, and get it all over his interior when I sit with it in the backseat.

“You know you can sit up here,” he says.

The traffic isn’t too bad out to Crenshaw; most of it goes in the opposite direction toward the city. I look in the cars as they stand gridlocked in the other lane and imagine a million different Saturday nights.

“So did you win?” Craig asks when we pull in the driveway. He nods at my wreath. We park under the carport. I get out, leave the ailing laurel in the car. Craig stands in the shadows next to the garage by himself and looks in the back.

“Does the wreath mean you won something?” he says.


About the Author: Ian R. Jacoby is an MFA candidate at the University of San Francisco and an overnight librarian. His written work can be seen in Volume One Magazine, The Golden Record Poetry Broadcast, and NOTA. He is a current Zivic fellow and working on his first novel, The Sunset People, which is mostly about civil war reenactors in West Virginia. He played in an indie rock band called Laarks that was signed to Absolutely Kosher Records (Pinback, The Mountain Goats) and toured the US a few times. Laarks received a mediocre Pitchfork review.

 

Bullet Run by Mark Rapacz

mouserat


 

2/2/2014, 12:00 PM, Overcast 50°, 7.5 miles, 6:50 min/mile

Notes:

During the weekdays I run at lunch, and I run up the highest hill I can reach within my hour time allotted. I go up and then come back down. On weekends I run into the countryside and into the foothills, and I do it early in the morning when nobody is out, and the California fog still blots out its too-bright sun.

But there’s this thing I think about and it is, more or less, related to putting a bullet in my brain. I imagine there’d be some pressure, and I’d feel it tear through my head, so long as it’s not boring through that part of the brain that tells you what a bullet through the brain feels like. I imagine it’d be a moment that happens both too slow and too fast, like most life-changing events. I can’t decide what color you’d see. Probably a flash of the brightest white or darkest black. It has got to be one of those extremes.

I don’t want to kill myself. What runner does? What runner who so carefully cares for his health really wants to die? A runner who not only runs an hour over lunch on the weekdays, scampering up and down the largest hill within striking distance of the office, but one who eats spinach by the handful and carries a bag of carrots to meetings. One who started drinking tea.

Spinach and carrot eaters who run are not at risk of committing suicide. Tea-drinkers less so.

So I’m allowed to do this kind of thinking. In fact, being so health-conscious is exactly why I can do this kind of thinking. It helps me sleep. The running and the healthy eating and thoughts of bullets in the brain, it all helps me sleep.

Because when I lie down and those thoughts are going through my head, nothing quiets them quite like imagining what it’d be like to cease them forever. You could do it quickly too.

And to me, at least, when I’m on the run or drifting to sleep, this is the most interesting part of the day. It’s risky somehow. Somehow there’s this feeling that the thought will make it so, perhaps by way of lucid dreaming or astral planing, one of those moments of intense prayer—or meditation—that brings you, the thinker, the imaginer, the thought-experimenter and spinach-eater to the threshold of that other place where those who have done and thought this before have already left behind all those others who were not so brave.

There’s courage to it. There is bravery. Like those flatliners from that movie. Stop the heart, go to that place, but instead of coming back, you just keep heading on. Heading on the way I wish I could when I’m on my lunchtime run at the top of the largest hill within striking distance of the office and I’m looking over the landscape and seeing all the places I could go, but can’t, because I have the job and responsibilities and a wife who wants children.

No landscape looks more beautiful than the one you will never step one foot into.

2/26/2014, 12:00 PM, Clear 55°, 7.5 miles, 7:10 min/mile
Notes:

“Maybe you should go to a therapist,” she says. She tells me this almost daily and she’s not the only one. It’s not mean-spirited, it’s not in the middle of a fight, it’s just stated plainly as if it’s a board game we might play.

We are on the couch, but we are always on the couch. We are always on the couch and we are always eating dinner. This is how we live out here, forever the couch-dwellers and eaters of the quickly-made dinner. From what we can tell, this is how everybody lives in California. This is how every person who has yet to have kids lives. It’s the necessary step before the kids because there needs to be a certain amount of pathetic before you both make the leap.

“My supervisor said the same thing today,” I say because she did. She also told me that the pressures I’m experiencing on the job do not go away for long since inevitably some other project will come down the line that’s just as directionless and meaningless, and the best thing to do is not dwell on it.

But I am a dweller. I dwell on all things.

I was also told not to take it too personally.

In fact, she said, “Don’t take anything personally.”

But I take all things personally.

And I think it’s because I haven’t had a haircut or a shave for a while, and my supervisor might think the pressures of the job are mounting, and I’m letting certain things slip—like haircuts and shaving and a few other things. And I think it also has something to do with her mistaking that I’m at the beginning of my career. When does a career begin? Does it start at 32? Careers don’t begin for those who aren’t pursuing one. At no point does someone come to you and say, “Now, young apprentice, your career has thus begun.”

You get a job and then another job and then another job, and they are all, more or less, related, and you can’t really remember why you took any of them except that they and you were available at the same time so you said yes. Eventually one goes away and another comes up, and they all involve a desk and a computer and too many birthday cakes to really give a damn.

Most things work this way. They begin and end in some nebulous fashion that becomes a blur. There’s no definition. It’s the morning fog and the cries of morning birds.

 

3/14/2014, 12:00 PM, Windy 62°, 7.5 miles, 7:05 min/mile
Notes:

I tried to be a standup comic for a week. I would come to work, and I would write my jokes and only one joke was sexual, but most were about Catholicism.

I haven’t thought about Catholicism for ages. But I had all these jokes. One long joke was about the Nazi pope, but I never cared enough to figure out his real name. I just called him Nazi Pope, and that was pretty much the punch line. I had another series of narrative jokes that were about a priest and an altar boy, but they had nothing to do with pedophilia or rape, which was the point of the jokes. The priest and altar boy would get into all sorts of unsavory situations in which they were doing the most immoral things to corpses, prostitutes, and the corpses of prostitutes, with knives and rope and chains, and they did it all with glee, like it was some kind of Frank Miller world where all the priests and altar boys terrorized the seedy underbelly. In this was the humor.

I had a bunch of Hitler bits as well and I realized that I really hate Nazis. More than I expected. I knew I hated Nazis with some passion, but I really, really hate Nazis.

Might be from the movies. I don’t know.

After a week of writing my routine, I convinced my coworker and only friend in California, Big Jon, to listen to the set. Big Jon is a man who loves to laugh, and he is a man who laughs easily and readily to any anecdote I might share. On top of this, my enthusiasm for this craft was such that I convinced Jon to also write his own five minutes. He cleared it with his therapist during his Monday morning session and after telling me how great his therapist is, he said, “Let’s do this.”

We spent the week going back and forth, never fully divulging our jokes, but telling each other our premises and convincing one another how promising they were. When Friday rolled around, we left work, drank a few beers, smoked some weed, ate burgers and then it was time for our sets.

“Cum dumpster,” I said. It was the punch line to my first joke. This made Big Jon laugh.

Confident, I rolled into my Nazi Pope bit. It went on a little too long, and Jon got confused. I got confused. I got polite laughs near the end and Big Jon was kind enough to provide a few working notes.

When I launched into the priest and altar boy material, I had to abandon it halfway through because I had to explain why it was funny that the priest and altar boy were doing such horrendous things to dead prostitutes. I further explained that it should be funny because they were not doing the one horrendous thing we all think of when we think of Catholic priests and altar boys.

It did not get a laugh. It actually got whatever is worse than a laugh because all joy was sucked out of the evening, so much so that Big Jon didn’t want to do his set and neither he nor I have mentioned stand-up comedy again.

 

3/23/2014, 7:00 AM, Marine Layer 43°, 19 miles, 7:20 min/mile
Notes:

Years ago I made a project called a BeerBox Narrative. It’s twenty-four micro stories on beer labels affixed to beer bottles. It can be read in any order and people get the general idea of what the story is about. This story was about a rock and roll band coming up in the 70s that rose fast and died early. It was based on any number of rock bands that have done just that in the 70s, prior to the 70s, and since. I spent time designing the labels. I spent a lot of time writing the words. I made invitations for people to come and see the performance of this “Jamboreading.” There was music, live music that I also played in the style of the band in the story, though I only knew three chords and thought passion and determination would fill in the rest.

Three buddies came and they all left early, before the twenty-four bottles were drank. They all had places to be. My wife was gone for the evening. At her mother’s. I finished the case and then whatever the guys left in the fridge.

When I woke the next morning, my wife had already come and gone, apparently to the farmer’s market. It was spring and beautiful outside, so I went out, down our apartment steps, and saw the parking lot glittering with little brown jewels of light, and I realized then, at that moment, my head pounding and feeling close to retching, that my only audience was myself, hungover, replaying a scene I barely recollected where I was smashing bottle after bottle.

I couldn’t tell if this made it a better art project. The ambiguity and the fact it was seen by no one. The fact that those who might’ve seen it—my neighbors—might have mistook it for a moment of drunken rage in the poorer part of the city.

 

3/29/2014, 7:00 AM, Light Rain 51°, 11 miles, 6:55 min/mile
Notes:

I listen to a famous comedian’s podcast at work. He’s the one who got me thinking about nightly thought routines. His involves being a sniper in a tree, and he finds being weaponized in relative safety makes him feel safe, so he falls right asleep. Other times he says he likes to think of himself being lowered into one of those science fiction deep sleep chambers and set adrift through space.

I’ve tried both of these.

The only thing that works is the bullet through the brain. My thoughts stop instantly.

 

4/08/2014, 12:00 PM, Light Rain 58°, 7.5 miles, 7:20 min/mile
Notes:

My memory is beginning to get worse, and I’m trying less hard to pull details from the fog.

On the bus on my way to work, one of my coworkers was on the bus, and she asked what I did for my vacation. I told her we went to New Orleans, but I couldn’t remember the dates, and I knew we were only in New Orleans two days out of the seven or eight we were along the Gulf Coast. The rest of it, we stayed in a vacation town an hour away.

“It was … The town was called …” I stammered.

And she was friendly and helpful enough. Citing the few names she knew in the region.

“I’m sorry, but I’ve never been there before,” she said.

“Not many have anymore,” I told her.

Then I told her a few things I remembered. The white sand on brackish waters. The long stretches of beachfront property with just spare, old footings standing tall. The quiet streets.

“Like a retirement community or something,” I said.

“Because it was ground zero,” I said.

“Katrina,” I said.

And it wasn’t until that moment that I felt that gentle pull of forgiveness for forgetting the names of the places I had been two weeks prior because a place that has relented to disaster can also relent to memory.

And I saw this understanding in her face, and she changed the subject to ask me about the death of my wife’s father.

 

4/19/2014, 8:00 AM, Rain 47°, 14 miles, 6:40 min/mile
Notes:

A friend came out for a medical conference the other week. He went to residency out here, and we’re good friends from way back. College. He told me months ago he was coming, and I made plans. My wife could sense my excitement.

“You excited for Mike coming?” she’d say, as if to a child or a dog, but not in a belittling way. After so many years, communication doesn’t need much more than these rudimentaries, and in a way, how else do you speak to a man who rarely speaks back?

“It’s gonna be sweet,” I’d say.

And not that I did anything to prepare except keep up on Mike’s text messages and Facebook messages and emails. He had a lot of folks to touch base with out here. He went to residency. He had a completely new set of friends in San Francisco. People he knew as well as he knew me.

It was one of those friends meeting friends things that never goes well.

On Friday evening I packed my bag to crash on his hotel floor like old times and headed to Union Square where his hotel was. Once there I gave him a call.

“Oh, yeah, dude, we’re not there anymore. We’re out in Sunset.”

“Where’s Sunset?”

“You could catch the Muni.”

“I’m not near the Muni. I’m at your hotel. Weren’t we getting dinner?”

“Didn’t I send you a text?”

“Yes, it said meet at Union Square.”

“Jeez, man, I’m sorry. You can either catch the Muni or take a cab. Don’t worry about it. We’re eating dinner now.”

“I got all my crap.”

“What did you bring?”

I took a cab. I am employed. I am more gainfully employed than I’ve ever been, but these things are relative. I am employed enough to afford public transport through the city. I am not employed enough to afford taxi cabs across the city.

They were at a brew/pub. One of those places that is caught between trying to be the neighborhood watering hole and being some upscale fusion restaurant. The building itself was confused. I had trouble getting through the door. My backpack was too big. My work satchel too full, but I had a book in there that I enjoyed reading. It was about World War II and speaks forthrightly about cowardice and homosexuality. These things make war seem more real to me, a guy who will never see it.

Mike and I hugged. I shook hands with Stephanie, a doctor, and Brad, another doctor. They all were sitting near plates with scraps of half-eaten entree on them, all of it looking unappetizing and plastic and smelling of ketchup. Napkins were over the French fries. I sloughed my packs and went straight to the restroom because I had just spent two hours on public transport and then another twenty in a cab. I was counting costs at that moment because I’m always counting costs, and I had now already doubled the weekend parking rate I would have been charged had I drove, and to which Mike said was completely unnecessary.

When I returned, I was introduced.

“This is Mark. He’s a secretary at Stanford,” Mike said.

“Well, I work administration,” I said.

This introduction sparked no further interest, and I sat in a seat that was still warm and took a sip of water.

“Somebody sitting here?” I asked.

“Oh, that’s Rog.”

I do not know Rog.

“Don’t worry about it, he took off, but he drank out of that water.”

“Oh.” I said.

“You want food?”

“Nah, just beer.”

They talked doctor things while I thought non-doctor thoughts.

Eventually I mentioned something about puppies.

 

5/03/2014, 7:00 PM, Overcast 59°, 10 miles, 6:55 min/mile
Notes:

I’ve been seeing a therapist. His name is Steve, he will only drive BMWs, he’s never once gotten my name right, he wants me to meditate with this guru he knows, and during every session he has told me the same story of Chicken Little. Explaining, as if for an eight-year-old, how the sky isn’t actually falling, how Chicken Little is blowing things out of proportion, how if Chicken Little were just able to realize that it was an acorn that fell, and not the sky, most of his troubles would just go way.

Steve is not a Ph.D. He’s not even a doctor. I think he has a master’s degree in something. I have a master’s degree in something as well. This makes me falsely believe we’re on equal footing.

But we’re not. He’s drives a BMW. I ride the bus. He’s a professional meditator. I run in the hills. He relieves his anxiety by driving down the freeway in his BMW at unsafe speeds. He told me this. With a straight face. “I have to keep my speed up on the freeway, otherwise I get tense. This is a thing I learned about myself. You need to have similar self-discoveries. It helps me see the world as an acorn, not as a falling sky.”

He loves the callback. Reiterating. The acorn sky. Raining acorns. Acorns everywhere. Acorns are safe. The sky is not.

And it had me seeing a world filled with acorns and how disastrous this might be. The infrastructure that would be needed to clear the acorns from the streets. The plows, the bulldozers. Where would you put them? They would rot and ferment. There would be an insane problem with pests, and you’d hope they’d be friendly chipmunks or squirrels, but logic tells me it’d be rats and cockroaches. Real pests. Diseases infected everything in Steve’s acorn world where he could race down the Autobahn at insane speeds on his way to Nirvana.

Because I wanted my hills. I wanted my run. I wanted to think about bullets and brains and thoughts ceasing forever. I wanted the sky to fall because how exactly could that be worse than acorn hurricanes? And, technically, the sky is always falling. We’re falling through space on starship Earth. It’s called fucking gravity. The universe is bound together because it is all falling apart. This is, like, physics. It’s the same goddamn force that pulled the acorn from the oak and plunked it onto the rat’s head. Laws of nature.

Steve, I decided, was an idiot, but I asked him if I could join his Men’s Group group-therapy sessions anyway because I knew I needed help. I knew my conversations with Steve weren’t helping. I thought perhaps I would meet a mentor/fatherly figure in his group who would actually give me advice. He said I was too young.

“Is it because I don’t have prostate issues yet?” I asked because I thought maybe that’s what they talked about. That, or golf.

He chuckled, said, “No,” and told me about Chicken Little.

“It’s the not the sky, Joe. It’s an acorn. You know. A little, itty-bitty acorn. Fell from a tree. Chicken Little went running.”

My name isn’t Joe.

 

5/11/2014, 12:00 PM, Clear 63°, 7.5 miles, 7:10 min/mile
Notes:

I went to a church in a small town. The building was red brick and had a white steeple. The church was beautiful. As I recall it, the congregants and the priest, Father Kapala, were too. Everything was beautiful. It was always spring, which is impossible in Minnesota. Spring in Minnesota lasts two weeks. But in my head, it was always spring, and Father Kapala was always smiling, and the small church was always packed, and the darkness and coolness was always perfect. It was cramped, and the perfumes were strong and the body odor tolerable. The organ was loud and it defined what I came to know as being Catholic, and even as a young kid I admired the altar boys and how they had serious responsibilities. My father told me he was an altar boy, and at that time I wanted to be my father.

I wanted to be an altar boy just like him. I didn’t want to be a low-level administrator just like him who died too young at his desk.

But this isn’t the joke. This wasn’t part of my routine. Still it has a punch line because they demolished that church, and they sent Father Kapala to some small farm community in western Minnesota, and none of us knew why. It was so surprising. He was so nice. He was kind. He was old. He smelled like a priest, and he told funny jokes, and we all respected him. But then they built this beige monstrosity and put that steeple on top of a used car dealership and everything about Catholicism after that became one long cartoon until I was an adult, in my thirties, doing the things my dad would do in the office, on the runs, with the spreadsheets and the rage, when my brother sent me an exceedingly rare text message.

Remember Father Kapala?, it said.

Of course, I replied. He was awesome.

Paper said he was a pederast. They just put it out today.

Neither of us even texted a seeya l8tr, or how are things. We just don’t text that much.

5/12/2014, 7:00 AM, Overcast 51°, 11 miles, 7:30 min/mile
Notes:

A priest and an altar boy are driving around looking for a place to bury the dead prostitute in their trunk. The altar boy pulls up to a warehouse and the priest says, “Nah, no good. They got security cameras. Besides, the pavement would hurt my knees.”

The altar boy shrugs, says, “I know another place. Not a problem.”

They pull up to the wharf and drive under the docks. The black waters of the sea are lapping up against the shore.

The priest, again, says, “Nah, no good. One of these hobos might be an undercover cop, and I just don’t like the idea of sand in my robes.” The altar boy shrugs again and drives on.

They end up in the wilderness, and it’s getting toward dawn, and they’re in the middle of a forest. No people, no anything is around for miles and miles. The altar boy drags the prostitute over to a tree and props her up and says, “Will this do?”

“Well, this is embarrassing,” the priest says. “I forgot my Viagra.”

 

5/13/2014, 8:00 AM, Mist/Rain 54°, 22 miles, 7:40 min/mile
Notes:

On the rare occasion I’m up and motivated, I drive to the Golden Gate Bridge to run through the Golden Gate Recreation Area on the north side. I hate running across the bridge, but I do it anyway. I don’t know why.

At no moment do I think it’s a good idea to huck my body off like so many others. That’s just not a way to go.

I run across the bridge for some sort of penance and because to not run across it would seem strange when so near it. But it’s a miserable journey. It’s windy, cold, crowded. You can’t so much run as jaunt a few paces and then breathe loudly and aggressively behind whatever lollygaggers are trying to enjoy the frigid mist.

Frigid mist is perfect to run in.

Once in the park I am free. There valleys and hills and a labyrinth network of trails cut through these things. There are copses of forests and open fields. When the skies are clear you see the ocean. When the skies are not clear you get lost.

It is grey and misty, and figures emerge from this mist, and sometimes they are like you—a haggard runner, long hair, bad skin, eyes that somehow look like they have light. They are not dark. They are not like black holes. And they don’t look through or past and beyond or whatever it is people say about eyes not quite dead. They see everything. They are like the candles that have burned so long that you can only see the palest flame guttering through the wax, yet, oddly, when you go to blow it out, you find there’s no flame there at all.

Mists and lonely figures in the mists always make you think of ghosts. Networks of trails that lead in circles and nowhere at all also make you think of ghosts. Being lost makes you think of ghosts.

And I’m a scientific-minded man. I lost my religion because I believe so strongly in the tenets of physics and calculus and those things Einstein discovered that I do not understand. My math skills aren’t up to par.

But I know the cosmos are expanding.

The universe will collapse.

And it will happen again and again.

And we primal men will die and go away, losing our way on trails near an ocean we cannot see.


About the Author: Mark Rapacz is an editor and partner with the neo-pulp press Burnt Bridge and the founder of its imprint Blastgun Books. His short stories have appeared in a number of publications, including Water~Stone ReviewSouthern Humanities ReviewThe BookedAnthology, and The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2012. His novella Buffalo Bill in the Gallery of the Machines was recently re-issued as a historically accurate dime novel and is available through IndyPlanet.  He and his wife currently live in the Bay Area, where he works at Stanford University and continues to write stories.

Bats in the Attic by Clare Fitzpatrick

ken and barbie


We were on our way to Annie’s funeral on a cold morning in the pit of December. Sky heavy with rain and aching. I had just turned on the defroster. Jay was in the passenger seat, sipping his coffee. We were waiting for the rain.

From the corner of my eye I watched Jay’s fingers sliding against the paper cup. Side to side. The giant fingers tentative and light.

“Thanks for driving,” he said.

I shrugged my shoulders. “It’ll be easier than jamming up the parking lot with both of our cars.”

“Yeah,” he said. “It’s going to be packed.”

My iPod was on some random playlist with the volume low. He picked it up and switched it over to City and Colour. The quiet melodic hum drifting in and out of our bones.

“You look nice, by the way,” he said.

I looked down at my black dress. I used my other hand to bunch my coat closer.

We were silent. The song hummed onward, painful awareness, filling me up to burst. I took occasional glances at Jay. He stared straight ahead. His normally unkempt red hair and beard were combed and trimmed. His coat was still dusty.

“I don’t even know what an aneurysm is,” he said.

“It’s like a blood clot, I think. You don’t feel it, and there’s no symptoms. A built up bubble of blood bursts, and you die instantly.”

“I didn’t know you could get one in your 20s,” he said.

“Anyone can get one anytime.”

“Oh.”

We were quiet again. The freeway was clear. Jay had the back of his hand against the window, tapping at each tree as it whipped past us.

“I hope it didn’t hurt.”

“It’s painless,” I said. “She didn’t feel anything.”

He put his coffee back in the cup holder and said nothing. I pressed my thumbs into the steering wheel.

“I didn’t think you would respond,” I said.

He exhaled a quiet laugh. “I didn’t either.”

“Why did you?”

“I don’t know.”

He was unreadable in the overcast light. His head swayed with the current as we drove. When he looked back at me, his eyes were narrow and focused. “I don’t think you’re ever going to be satisfied with how things went.”

“How could I be?”

“Can we just drop it?”

“Okay.”

“It’s Annie’s funeral.”

“I said okay.”

“Okay.”

In the silence I remembered the phone call at 7pm on a Friday night that changed a lot of things. Nicole on the other line, her voice careful and soft, a distinct mumble and the word “dead” hanging between us. How I sat in front of my computer in the bank of the quiet. Stared at Annie’s number in my phone. Watched her Facebook swell and burst with photos and words. By the time I’d mustered the courage to call her and hope she would pick up, knowing she wouldn’t, I was mostly drunk and slurring a voicemail from the floor at the foot of my bed with 10% battery life and a half empty bottle of Bushmills. The deep sleep when all I wanted was to be awake.

Jay ran a hand through his beard. “When did you last talk to her?”

“Couple months ago.”

“Did she know about us?” he asked.

“She always knew.”

He nodded. Slow but assured. Straight ahead staring and bleeding the dashboard.

I felt like I was chasing the road somewhere. All that big gray sky. But all either of us was chasing was a church and a casket and a spray of flowers no one would notice was there. One big show.

“Sometimes it feels like we just got caught up in one giant clusterfuck mistake, and we just need to start over,” I said.

“Why would we start over?” he asked.

“Because you loved Annie. Before you loved me.”

“But she didn’t love me.”

“What difference does that make? Doesn’t change how you feel. How it went for us.”

“Maybe if we had been more open. Weren’t ashamed of it. Maybe if I hadn’t been ashamed of it.”

“Maybe,” I said.

I had told Annie all of these things over many days and months and glasses of wine and maybe whiskey. The truth of it was that she knew it all and wanted it for us as much as I did, and more than Jay did. More than Jay ever did. I remembered her face in the dim light of my apartment one night over Christmas break when she was home visiting from her college up north. Assured and knowing.

“Hey,” she’d said. She swirled her glass of cabernet without taking her eyes off me. “You deserve to be happy. And so does Jay.”

“I don’t think either of us will ever believe it,” I’d said. I downed the glass.

She smiled a sad smile. “I hope someday you do.”

She had been echoing in my head in the days since she died. Loud and wavering in my line of sight, vague. I slept with the uncertain hope that she was next to me with a hand on my head saying it over and over and over, that I deserved to be happy.

I wanted to tell Jay this. Instead I asked him if he remembered that night that a bunch of us got drunk in his garage junior year and took his dad’s Cadillac and did donuts in the court. Jay throwing his head back and howling as I grabbed the bottle of Stoli from his lap and took a swig. Annie and Molly singing a Something Corporate song. The night in its patterns and a glimmering starlight we traced with our fingertips. When Jay’s beard only grew in clumps on his chin and left cheek.

He smiled. I laughed a little. There was so much we didn’t know.

“I hadn’t heard from you in almost a year,” I said.

He looked down at his coffee. “I had a lot of thinking to do.”

“Not even a text?”

“What good would it have done?”

But I didn’t answer him. We were just 21 again, laying out on the golf course a block from my house, trading a bottle of whiskey back and forth, and I was tucked under his arm. Even in that moment I remembered being warm and knowing it wasn’t the whiskey and thinking, “Yeah, we can do this; we always could.”

The rain came down harder. In the shadows cast off by the passing trees I swore I saw Annie standing there, and for a second, she wasn’t dead, just missing. Just missing and we were on a mission to find her. And when we found her we would hug, and I would tell her that I was so sorry for everything and for not calling and that it wasn’t because I was busy; it was because I hated Jay, and it was always easier when things were his fault. And then we would all laugh about it, and I’d give her the keys to my car, and she’d drive the three of us north, and God knows where we’d go but wherever it was, it’d be home.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Jay said.

“Do you?”

“Sometimes people just die, and sometimes the only thing we can do is acknowledge that it happened.”

“It’s not going to make things better.”

“No. But maybe it’ll make you braver.”

Annie always thought that we were going to fly off into the sunset when we died, after we crash landed with whatever fucked up ideal we were pushing when the time finally came. No quiet sleep. Never.

“We aren’t quiet people,” she’d said. “We’re loud. And loud people go out as loud as you can possibly get.”

And I cried then because Annie went out quiet and alone.

I held the ache in my throat to a choke. I was the one who had called Jay at three in the morning a few days before, voice a timid whisper, to tell him what no one ever wants to tell anyone. And I lay on that floor expecting voicemail, and instead got a hello. The hello that gave me permission to be brave.

I didn’t realize how tight my hand was gripping the armrest until I felt his hand come over mine. At first it was light, cautious. His skin was rough and callused. But it held mine, tight enough to remind me he once loved me, loose enough to assure that we were different people in a bigger world and things were new here. And whether we got out of it was its own to him as it was to me.

If there was something that needed to be said, it was said there in the hollow of his hand, warm and tensed. I felt his fingers in the crooks of my knuckles and eased them into his hold. We were careful, marking our steps and waiting.

In the end, Annie with her end cast a glow in our darkened corners, and we followed that glow up the stairs where it lit us up and we could see the bats in the attic we had spent too long ignoring. Hanging upside down and gnawing at us internally. Jay is holding up his candle, and I’m standing still because their meaty eyes are crooked, and if they rush us, they may blow the light out. So we stand there silent and maybe a little aware. Maybe in the end we will laugh.

He moved his hand away from mine, back to his lap. I watched his eyes from the corner of mine as they followed the trail of the windshield wipers.

We had agreed that we should get to the church early, and we were right. The parking lot was nearly full. We found a spot near the back, and through the rearview mirror I could see the hearse, a black stain at the foot of the church. There was a trickling of people on their way in, long coats and black umbrellas swimming along the blacktop against the current of rain.

“Do you think maybe,” I asked, “if we get through today, we’ll feel better about how it ended? Even a little?”

He took a deep breath. “I don’t know. I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

“Will you be ok?”

He smiled. Another soft laugh. “Will you?”

In my mind, I waited for Annie to tell us both yes. But there was nothing from her. Any more than from us.

I opened my door and stepped out. The heels of my shoes fell into a splash of rain water as I shut the door and bunched up my coat. Jay came around and leaned over with his umbrella, covering us both, and I caught the ends of his mouth tipping upward in the slightest smile. I smiled back.

We stood in the parking lot staring up at the church for a moment before either of us was brave enough to take that first step. And even then I was a step behind Jay, who had one hand in his pocket and the other gripping the umbrella. But he was still smiling, slight, just enough for me to notice, and I stayed close to him.

The rain came down harder, then. It fell around us as we ascended the steps; it fell in splashes over the black hearse; it fell in speckled bursts over the steeple and spilled over the holy crucifix; it fell like a fist. And in those moments, in the spaces between us and the rain and God and our most precious dead, there was silence.


About the Author: Clare FitzPatrick started writing Lion King spinoffs when she was six, and hasn’t stopped. She’s still waiting for Disney to call her back regarding any one of her 47 sequel or prequel pitches. She graduated from Saint Mary’s College of California with her MFA in Fiction in 2013. After spending a couple of years working at a funeral home and getting reprimanded for making terrible death jokes at parties, she found her way into the tech industry, where she still makes terrible death jokes. Her written work has appeared in The White Stag Journal, St. Mary’s Magazine, and riverrun. When she’s not writing masterpieces, you can often find Clare playing video games, sleeping, or speaking at length about the problems with the Oakland A’s ownership. She currently works at Google and lives in a tiny apartment with an awful dog

The Odyssey of Turkey Jane by Mandy Campbell Moore

For Moore


California’s Highway 395 is a road you’d use if you were on the lam. Or if you wanted to see Los Angeles raped and left for dead. I know desert, but this looks like a bomb’s aftermath got swept away by windstorms.

Hours ago I threw the few things I haven’t sold into my Hyundai with a plan of driving anywhere rather than facing my landlord. Instead of the stray cash I was hoping for in the glove compartment, I found a three-year-old wedding invitation from my best friend in high school. Dena and I both met our soul mates (or so I thought) when we came west for college, but she married hers and moved out in the country. She isn’t expecting me, but memories of their wedding—barefoot on the beach, passionate kisses as he carried her into the surf—make love seem so real and true. Witnessing that is just what I need.

What looked like sand from the highway is actually jagged white rock now stuck in my sandals as I make my way toward a ditch near the railroad tracks. Not so much as a twig of chaparral to hide behind when you gotta take a piss. I was gonna go in my Big Gulp cup, but it’s the only drinking ware I have.

I can’t use a restroom in a gas station without buying something. I just can’t.

Rising from the ditch, I see a rainbow glint from the other side of the tracks. Colored glass in the sun. Shards of it amidst rusted cans and wheels and unidentifiables, as if freight train engineers have dumped their trash right here for years. I should see if there’s anything worth selling or making art with, but the image of myself old and rusted and discarded by the tracks punches me in the stomach. I run back to the car.

It wasn’t like this ‘til recently. A couple of years ago, my boyfriend Ted and I had this idea for a children’s cartoon. We were so baked we were having shared visuals about a turkey we named Turkey Jane. The cartoon has become quite successful now, and I still say you couldn’t tease apart who had the original idea.

But Ted’s lawyer did.

My own lawyer was so busy bragging about how Ted was going to owe me for the rest of his life that he forgot I had no means to pay his bills unless I won the case. Which I didn’t.

More than wishing I’d won, though, I wish I didn’t still love Ted. I won’t discuss here the ways I tried to express this, but I will say that the restraining order was overkill.

No sign of civilization other than billboards advertising the World’s Best Beef Jerky for about fifty miles, so when I finally reach the little shack, I know how the ‘49ers felt. My protein has come entirely from peanut butter for the last several months.

Los Angeles is so devoid of rednecks, it actually feels like cultural diversity to see one behind the counter. The store has three walls devoted to jerky. Honey, garlic, sweet pickle, lime, curry, cotton candy. If it will stick to rawhide, this guy’s got it. Country music plays really loud, but the guy talks over it at me, asking if I’m going to Vegas.

I cover my shock at the price of jerky by tossing a bag on the counter in front of him. “Visiting a friend in Lone Pine. You know it?”

“’Course I do, but you’re going the wrong way.”

Impossible, there’s only one road and I know enough to know I’m going north, but I break my last twenty and open the bag in front of him like I’m totally cool with going the wrong way.

“You musta turned at the stoplight. Happens all the time. But you gotta go all the way back there to pick up 395.” His arm glides like I have to fly a plane all the way back there. I catch a glimpse of pit hair.

So I’m not even on 395.

Even if it happens all the time, he clearly gets a kick out of my mistake. I wish my hair was still long. Now it’s white and spiky—homemade chic—and useless at hiding my hot face as I make for the door.

Back to the scorched day. Back those fifty miles to the stoplight that made me wonder why the hell it was there.

I turn on the air in my little hatchback, hoping I can buy gas again before they cut off my Visa.

The thing my lawyer tried to prove was that the cartoon character Turkey Jane was based on me. Every episode, she started with a misunderstanding and led the other eye-rolling barnyard animals on a wild goose (or turkey) chase, but then miraculously and totally by accident, she’d make the right thing happen. The thing Turkey Jane needed to happen all along.

Only, unlike me, she didn’t feel sorry for herself. She’d just exchange the red comb on her head for the one that stood upright on her butt and walk off into the sunset, grooving to a bluesy tune.

. . . . .

Miles ahead and far away from the flat hot road, snow-covered Sierras rise like animated backgrounds. In sunset, they fade to huge purple shoulders I can feel even when it’s too dark to see them. The sign for Lone Pine flies by as I’m nodding off. Figuring it might be the only one, I careen into the first motel driveway I see.

There’s a long enough wait that I begin to think the neon vacancy sign is just artwork. Finally, a lady with stark red hair buzzes me in through the glass office door. Her fitted tan blouse is misbuttoned, revealing a lacy turquoise bra. Clearly, I’ve interrupted something, though her lizard-skin cleavage makes me wonder who’s interested.

“How long will you be staying?” Even her voice sounds leathery.

“Um. A day or two.” My mascara like epoxy as I squint under the light.

“Which one?”

I heave my backpack higher. “Three.”

The clerk leans over the desk to pass the key, but won’t let go of it ’til I meet her eye. “Keep it clean. Don’t take anything. We’ve had trouble with your type.”

My type—the tatted type? Broke folk? I head back to the car trying to keep in mind her directions around the motel where my room is waiting.

As I’m driving the path from asphalt to gravel to dirt, it’s clear I’ve gone too far. The headlights catch an orange diamond-shaped sign that reads—I kid you not—Dead Animal Pit, but what appears next is a very live animal. A large dog or a small horse. I hope it’s not a wolf, or a giant coyote. He blinks in my direction and I think he can’t be wild. Finally, he ambles along as if he knew I’d hit the brakes. Large testicles swing beneath his upturned tail.

. . . . .

Late sun filters through the dirt-splattered window. There’s mooing outside. My teeth could have fallen out, I slept so soundly. This may be the first time since court.

The invitation’s return address is 203 Manzanar Street. Manzanar was a Japanese internment camp a few miles north of Lone Pine in a town called Independence. That much I remember from eighth grade.

The room has no phone. I terminated my cell contract to pay a legal bill and sold the GPS on Craigslist, so finding the street presents a challenge. Beyond the motel, the highway narrows to a strip of gift shops, forced-quaint galleries, and restaurants offering local steer. For breakfast, I order a waffle cone at an ice cream shop where the sign says they can’t “except” any bill larger than $20. A cute moonfaced Indian girl hands me the cone and directs me to Dena’s street.

“Why do you want to go out there? That’s in the sticks. Go away! Sorry—not you,” she says as I step backwards. “Him.”

I follow her finger to what I swear is the same dog I saw last night. He must be a Great Dane. Huge, slobbery, Scooby-Dooish in daylight.

“Some tourist dumped him on us. Don’t stand too still. He’ll hump you.”

. . . . .

Willow branches drape the clapboard house. It has a tin roof and a wraparound porch. A small gray pickup truck out front. Dena’s in the yard, hanging laundry. I honk the horn and hop out to meet the lithe woman with the wavy brown hair. Same as when we graduated ten years ago.

There’s that knockout smile as she drops her laundry basket. Gathering her skirt (a breezy cotton pastel versus my all-black skintight attire), she crosses the wildflower-strewn lot.

“Syl! How on earth?—I like your hair.”

We hug. We giggle. She whirls me inside to see her homemade calico curtains, her rare and native plants. A few years ago, I poked fun at people like this. Now I see this is how it’s done—love and life. A black and white portrait of Darby hangs on the den wall. His hair dark and curly, his eyes deep and sincere.

Dena pours us tea.

“Aren’t you working on the Roadrunner or something?”

I can’t tell her all that’s happened over the lemongrass tea in her handmade pottery mugs. Instead, I tell her what a success Turkey Jane has become. She’s been picked up by a big network, although, legally, I have nothing to do with that.

“Turkeys, hmm?” Dena grunts into her mug. “Turkeys are threatening my marriage.”        She flings open the kitchen door. Acrid feed and dusty feathers thicken the breeze. Four rust-colored birds with lolling red necks strut around the dirt yard. One comes clucking up to the door, as if for food. Dena slams it in the bird’s face.

“Bourbon reds.” She flips on the overhead fan and dumps out her tea. “Observing them carry out their ‘natural life cycle’ was supposed to help assuage my desire for a baby.”

The irony is that the turkeys seem disinterested.

“They never even screw,” Dena twirls her hair behind her ear and squeezes a laugh. She offers a glass of wine, saying the nature center’s closed on Wednesdays and Darby is at a water rights hearing.

So. Dena wanted a baby and Darby didn’t (“Why bring in more polluters?”). Instead he brought home turkeys, showing his, as she sees it, disregard for her feelings. Their rift grew and in a moment of weakness she let herself get pregnant. She was convinced she could change his mind. Shortly after she told him, she miscarried. He hasn’t forgiven her dishonesty.

Dena pours another glass. We have a history of clandestine drinking. “I wonder if we had had kids, would he dump all the responsibilities on me? That’s what he’s trying with the turkeys.”

The eyes in his portrait look forgiving. The lips edible. Why can’t these people just be in love for my benefit?

“Why don’t you set the turkeys free, or give them away?”

“I think he keeps them out of spite for my little trick.” She blinks her thick lashes. “I used to love everything about him, Syl, and forgive everything I couldn’t.”

I get up to look at her problems (and avoid trivializing them).

The hens roll their eyes toward me, but their bodies stay glued to where they’re picking at the ground. As soon as I step out the door, the tom rushes the back of my knee. I squeal, but he only nuzzles my pants leg. I pet his ugly head and he doesn’t shy away. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a real turkey before. He’s copper and white, with a tail that folds down like a regular bird’s. Turkey Jane is brown with big eyes and those interchangeable red combs.

Two of the hens approach. Only half the size of their man.

“They like you,” Dena giggles from the doorway.

. . . . .

For dinner I grab a Coke and Fritos from the motel’s vending machine to accompany my jerky. Hot dust blows as if from a broken vacuum cleaner bag. Once dusk comes it’s cooler outside than in, so I take a stroll toward the cows. It’s still light enough—and the moon bright enough—that I can see there are two ways to turn at the Dead Animal Pit sign. I go the other way. Past aspen trees that line the fence, there’s a shitload of junked cars. There are mattresses, a toilet, a rusted fridge. A person who’s about to be homeless could probably use some of this, or sell it. I lift a twisted brass lamp from its box-spring trap, and as I’m doing that, I notice one of the cars is moving.

Not like running moving. Swaying moving. When I take a step closer a naked girl pops up from the backseat. Her face is familiar. The Indian girl who sold me ice cream. She flashes a shy smile and dives back down.

Leaning against the fence, I realize most of the junked out cars are moving. Making an ocean of reflecting metal under the moon. When I hold my own breath, I hear others breathing, grunting.

There’s a wet warmth on the exposed skin on my back. I jump. The dog. His moist whiskers tickling. On all fours he’s more than half my height. He might outweigh me by thirty pounds.

He licks my hand with a hot tongue. The jerky, I realize. Then he’s off and headed toward the pit.

Later, lying back on the bed—a stone tablet covered with a saddle blanket—I twist the fake diamond in my navel and drift off to sleep.

. . . . .

In the morning—well, afternoon—I discover the TV doesn’t work. So I’m looking through the room’s reading material when I see a flier for the Owens Valley Nature Center. That’s Dena’s and her hubby’s place.

It nestles in a dormant pasture down a deeply-rutted drive. My Hyundai skids on its weedy median. I guess not many tourists or hikers come out of their way to visit.

Dena’s little pickup and a mountain bike are under the shade of an immense oak. A square of gravel suggests a parking lot and I stand in it for a moment in complete silence. Even the hot wind is on siesta. Then, as I crack open the metal door of the building, cool grayness transports me back to school field trips. Buzzing fluorescent lights and the smell of pinecones and dusty books and maps.

The place seems empty, but I hear mumbling in the office across from the main room. A pleading baritone followed by Dena’s high whine. I slip off my sandals and, carrying them, pad across the floor.

I would’ve thought they’d have heard my car. Slinking until I can put one eyeball to the crack of the door, I hold my breath. Sunlight filters in a window of the cramped office, the couple’s shadow visible on the far wall. Darby kneels, hugging Dena’s waist.

He’s feeding her platitudes: we can’t go on like this; I need you in my life.

I strain to hear over my heartbeat.

Dena crosses her arms as if she doesn’t care. Is that what makes men like you? I’ve forgotten.

“Get rid of the turkeys,” she growls.

His sigh deflates him lower still. “Do you really think that’s our only problem?”

Please say yes, I’m thinking.

“I’ve apologized,” she says. “You say you forgive, but it feels like you’re still punishing me.”

He mumbles something into the folds of her skirt and his hands crawl up and down her back. Her own hands drop to his shoulders.

Just as they melt together, there’s a clattering noise. Suddenly they’re at the door and in my face.

I realize I dropped my sandals.

Dena’s eyes are red and puffy. Darby’s far from understanding. I bend to pick up my shoes and wipe my brow like I’ve just walked in from the heat.

“Honey, you remember my friend Sylvie.”

“Where are you staying?” From zero to one hundred percent gruff, this guy.
“There’s a motel—”

“You two have a nice visit.” He edges past me. “I have to feed the turkeys.”

“Darby, will you forget the turkeys for five minutes?”

“Can’t just let them starve ’til we figure out what to do with them.”

“You two.” I raise my voice. “You need more time together. I’ll feed the turkeys.”

. . . . .

It is physically impossible for them to peck me to death. I’m fairly certain. As I open the gate all four of them come grooving up to me with the same rhythm as Turkey Jane, their grisly necks like engorged genitalia.

They are not like dogs, looking up to see if you agree. They’re more like people, busy with their own agendas, but aware that you are there in case you might help them in any way.

We walk toward the shed where I open the latch and am blind until my eyes adjust. As Dena described, there’s a bag with a few pungent pellets. I wonder how they keep rodents out of it.

I toss the last of the stinky things around the yard. Four lolling necks follow the motion, but they are too hot to be hungry. You’d need air conditioning to eat this time of day.

Speaking of which, my black vest, although cotton, feels burdensome. The birds are watching me like they hope I’ve got something better. I flap the lapels like wings and stomp around in the dirt.

The tom cocks his head, then thrusts his beak to peck at my toe rings. The hens follow suit, crowding to get to my toes and the shiny décor on my sandals. All this is freaking me out so I step back. But the turkeys flap forward and catch me.

I’m not scared of you, I tell them. We can play this game. For a second, I consider opening the fence and leading them down the road. People here would cook them and D & D could get on with their lives. But the turkeys seem friendlier than D & D at the moment and I hate the image of some cowboy gnawing on a giant drumstick. So I run in tight circles. The hens clamber over one another to chase me. Like Turkey Jane, I flap and groove round and round the yard. The sun swells with midday heat.

I work our way under a live oak and lie on my back. The birds investigate my eyebrows. I have never been this close to any animal. They seem more like my brother’s pet iguana than songbirds. Their pecks are gentle and, though they seem interested in my hay-like hair, they don’t eat it. I close my eyes and there’s a dizziness like falling asleep. It’s so peaceful. D & D should try this.

I open my eyes to catch the tom diddling my jacket buttons in his beak. Cautiously lifting my top I let him investigate my nipples. I don’t want cartoons. I want real turkeys. Real love. It’s scary to watch. He starts in like he’s plucking a worm, but when he hits pink flesh, he’s gentle. It stings just enough to make me wet so I nudge him away and rub myself. I don’t get anywhere with it, just remembering I’m alive despite everyone’s best efforts.

Moments later the birds have lost interest in me. I roll onto my stomach, pulling impaled dry leaves off my hair spikes. Under the shade of a pine tree close to the house, two hens are clucking around their one lucky sister whom the big tom has mounted.

I want to jump, but I’m afraid I’ll destroy the magic.

. . . . .

I’ve lost track of time when I finally leave the turkeys. They are sleeping in the shade by the feed shed.

A woman across the street is shooing the stray Great Dane. They both look up at my passing car. Though she seems no older than me, the lady has no teeth. Meth, I’m guessing.

I drive back to town and wander among the touristy shops.

One of them, called The Spinning Wheel, ropes me in with its charm. The store is narrow and I’m vaguely aware of the gray proprietor couple bustling behind a counter to my right. I turn left to find myself in maze of quaint objects—a wooden coffee grinder, a butter churn, bellows. Not that I know anything about antiques, but these things don’t seem particularly rustic. They are all similar blocky shapes with matching metal works.

The items are inexpensive—not that I want to steal from this place since I won’t be paying my Visa bill—but I’ve got that sense that I’ve been in here too long not to buy something.

I’m about to ask for help when I notice that all motion at the opposite end of the shop has ceased. I glance at them through the spokes of a spinning wheel.

The woman is stout with feathered short hair and square glasses. Her biscuity arm rests in her husband’s lap. Her smile is one of frozen shock. I have to see what’s going on. Grabbing a wooden handled mirror, I look at half of my face and angle the mirror to the old man’s smile. His is more drunken than shocked. Moving the mirror slightly south, I can see that his jeans are unzipped.

Blushing, I stomp out like a prude.

Late sunlight shines between me and my sunglasses no matter where I look.

. . . . .

At the edge of the tourist block, the sidewalk graduates from planks to concrete to dust. Businesses dot the other side of the street, but to my right is all residential. Every house has laundry hanging from lines. Rusted trucks parked on dry weeds. A poppy or two.

Dena’s pickup is outside a feed store. A middle-aged couple is passing, and as I cross, the woman grabs my arm, her hand a leathery claw. “When did you say you’re leaving?” she asks.

It’s the motel clerk in a powder blue cowboy hat and denim skirt-suit. On her other arm is a handsome, craggy man. By their outfits, they are headed out to dinner.

“I thought I’d stay an extra day.”

She shakes her head as if even the sight of me causes her problems. The gentleman offers a tight smile. As they pass, he fits his big hand comfortably in the small of her prim denim back.

Even the motel clerk has a suitor. With loneliness like a sharp object in my ribs, I open the door of the feed store to find Dena dragging a big flat plastic bag of Turkey Starter A Crumbles onto a dolly. There’s hay dust on the floor that makes me sneeze, but I help my old buddy haul her burden to the register. Then I help her drag it to the bed of the pickup.

When I hop inside next to her, Dena’s head is on the steering wheel.

“Why are you crying now?” I ask her.

“Because I wanted things to be different. He’s still the man I love, but I’m tired of feeling guilty.” Her long hair hangs like a curtain around the driver’s seat.

Every other couple in Lone Pine, except Dena and Darby, is getting it on. Even the turkeys. Another cosmic joke on old Sylvie here. “Do they have any bars in Lone Pine? You need to tie one on.”

“It’s called the Lonely B and I’ve never been in there, but yeah.”

I spend the next two hours listening to Dena cry in this cowboy bar while we drink the most killer martinis I have ever had. The bartender is a fellow you might call Doc by his beard and glasses and the detached way he hands you yet another drink. The clientele is purposeful on a late afternoon. The only movement is a young couple playing shuffleboard along the back wall. The jukebox plays Johnny Cash and there are no TVs. Dena drones on about all the mistakes in her life, but it seems to me the only consequence has been turkeys.

I guzzle. I’m the one who needs to tie one on.

When my head is completely swimming, Darby enters and I swear it is just like some old Western. Everybody, even the shuffleboard couple now necking in the corner, looks up as he hits the door open. Light blasts into the barroom and I watch Dena’s face sag. Darby cuts his eyes at us and walks up to Doc for a beer. As his handsome little butt hits the stool next to us, the music seems to start again.

“You two need a date,” I tell them. I grab Darby’s arm. “What needs to happen at home? I’ll do it. You two go have dinner and talk it through. Please.”

Me, giving relationship advice.

But they’re not making any noises to the contrary so I tell them I saw a sign in the window of the steakhouse saying they serve local steer. Darby will go for that.

His eyebrows soften ever so subtly. He thanks me. Then he gets Dena a glass of water and kisses her hair. I follow him outside and he drives us in Dena’s pickup to my car. On the way, he explains how to put the turkeys up to roost. Even with the martini buffer, I’m glad to avoid an awkward silence between us. We load the turkey feed into my hatchback.

He gives me the stiffest hug I have ever had and drives back toward the Lonely B and Dena.

It hits me they’ll be picking up the tab.

. . . . .

The tom sees me coming and waddles up. He gives my pants a tug when I bend to pat his head. The roost, which looks like an elaborately constructed ladder with a roof on top, is tucked in a fenced nook at the back of the house. I’m guessing Darby made this himself. Would a cradle have been that much harder? They can probably hear the turkeys from their bedroom. That was a mistake.

The birds don’t seem quite ready to go to bed. I sit in the dust and watch them. One hen chases another, vying for the tom’s attention. The sky has a single purple edge, not unlike my buzz from the Lazy B.

How can you possibly know all the big things about another person when you fall in love? There’s a point, I guess, where principles, or ambition, or whatever, prove more important than that other person.

I don’t want Dena and Darby to be there yet. They should look around themselves. All the other people here are happy as clams.

How happy are clams, I ask the tom, giving his head a scratch. What have I had to eat today? The Lazy B experience would be greatly improved with some complementary nuts. The tom’s hungry too. I wonder if that stuff Dena bought is any more appetizing than the lunch pellets, so I tell him to hold on while I go get the new food.

My fingers are on the car’s handle when I realize all four turkeys are right behind me. The damn gate!

Darby said when it’s getting dark, they don’t want to be anywhere but the safety of their roost. Ha!

I close the trunk and try to scoot them back into the yard, but the tom runs ahead, leading his ladies up the road. Darby said wild turkeys roost in trees. What if they are running for a taller tree somewhere? Part of me says, maybe this is the best thing. But another part of me pictures Darby’s pissed eyes when he thinks that Dena manipulated her friend into doing this.

The dog comes from the side. The tom is in his jaws before the hens and I can react.

Two shakes and my pal is a pile of feathers blowing in the road.

By that point, I’m running, yelling, flapping, but the hens just stand there watching as the dog swoops them up and shakes them one by one. The last gives him a small circle of a chase, but it’s over before I can get to her.

The devastation.

I collapse on my butt in the middle of the curb-less street while the dog begins feasting on the tom. I want to make him stop, but I realize how hungry he must be. As my hands come to my face, I see the toothless lady, the only neighbor who’s close enough to see us, slam her door.

Now it’s just me and the frenzied killer. He looks up from his meal with a bloody muzzle, his lips swaying to a stop as he catches my eyes. Some Scooby-Doo.

Then he does a very strange thing. He lifts the floppy feathered body, flicks it up to grip it in a gruesome, gut-slinging, feather-tossing move, and carries it to plop down beside me in the road. Then he turns and does the same thing with the three hens. I choke up at the pile of bodies next to me.

The dog is behind me and I’m wondering if he plans to make me part of the pile when he turns a circle and rests his back against mine.

Like we’re in this together? Like, honey, I’m home and I brought dinner?

I don’t know, but his back is warm and soft, his breathing heavy. I can sense when he opens his mouth to pant.

A full-size pickup turns onto the street, going slow. As it approaches, the man driving—a painter by his clothes—slows down even further, eyeing me silently. The dog stands and I turn to watch him. A mix of threat and question in his posture. The painter keeps driving.

We have to clean up.

Pulling the Hyundai close to the carcasses, I figure I can fit at least some of the bodies—maybe their gooier parts—on top of the feed bag to keep my car from being ruined. The hens are not that messy, but I kick the poor tom toward the dog.

“Go on, you bastard, the least you can do is make him a little smaller.”

I look away. By the time the monster seems satiated, I’ve got the poor girls tucked in on top of what would have been their dinner. Wrapping what I can of the tom in a stray grocery bag, I lift crumbling chunks of him onto his harem.

There’s no closing the hatch, but the Dead Animal Pit isn’t far. Then inside my room to wash these hands, take my last shower before who knows how long. But I gotta grab my stuff and scram before the cowgirl comes back from her date.

All this is rushing through my head as I turn the car toward town. The dog stands in front of me like he’s gonna take on the Hyundai. I flip on the lights. His eyes go sad and moist.

A sigh heaves out every bit of air inside me as I lean over to open the passenger door.


About the Author: Mandy Campbell Moore holds an MFA from Antioch, and has recently published in ink&coda, Word Riot, and Calyx. Her first novel is ready to dive in with the sharks.

Coventry Road by Mira Martin-Parker

For Martin-Parker

 


Mother said it was haunted. Mother said it was moldy. Mother said it was small and dark. But I remember it differently. I remember a Spanish-style cottage with a large, scarlet bougainvillea bush growing around the front door. I remember yellow sour grass flowers bordering the stone footpath, and a swing hanging from a cypress tree. Mother threw nasturtium seeds outside the dining room window and afterwards orange, yellow, and red flowers took over in the front garden. I was happy in that house, that’s what I remember.

In the evening mother would cook brown rice and sautéed carrots for dinner, and sometimes she’d let me stand on a chair in the kitchen and help her. Afterwards we would all eat together at the large wooden dining room table. Even my dad would join us. We were happy then, that’s what I remember.

Once a bird flew through the small window next to the fireplace and our babysitter had to chase it outside with a broom. I ran behind her shouting with excitement. “What a nightmare,” she complained afterwards. But I thought it was great fun.

My brother and I shared a room at the back of the house, where a honeysuckle bush grew beneath our window. Once my mother came in and my brother was holding me by the ankles while I picked flowers and tossed them up over my shoulders. Mother said it was dangerous, and I could fall. But I loved the nectar in honeysuckle flowers, and I wasn’t scared of falling.

Once my dad hung a painted African weaving above my bed. In it there were dancing figures wearing masks and holding spears and shields. “It will give her nightmares,” my mother said. But it didn’t give me nightmares. I loved the black stick figure dancers with their masks and weapons.

Once my parents took a trip to Europe and came home with beautiful toys from Austria: a babushka two feet tall for me, a toy castle with knights and horses for my brother, stuffed animals and a laughing box for us to share. The laughing box was my favorite. Ha ha ha, it went. Ha ha ha, ha ha ha

There was another family that lived down the street, and we used to play with their kids. Once their mother got angry and sent us home. She stood at their door holding a broom, saying, “Isn’t it time you two ran along?” I was looking at her thinking that her face was not nice and that the broom in her hand made her scary. My mother was waiting on the sidewalk. She was smiling and held out her hands to my brother and me. She had come to rescue us from the witch.

One morning I walked into the bathroom and my dad was emptying a mousetrap into the toilet. “What’s that?” I asked.

“Get out of here!” he shouted and slammed the door.

Once my dad came into our bedroom and spanked my brother and me for no reason. We were confused. He had never spanked us before.

Once I snuck into the living room at night and my dad was spinning my mother around in circles while she screamed. I thought they were dancing, and I laughed. They stopped, and I saw that my mother was crying. “Go back to sleep!” my father shouted.

The next morning my mother was on her knees spackling a hole in the wall.

Soon after that my parents sat my brother and me down at our dining room table. “We’re getting a divorce,” my dad said. “That means we won’t be living together anymore.”

My dad held us and cried. “I’m going to miss you so much,” he said. The next day he left.

My mother says she was never happy in that house. She said it was haunted and dark inside, and that she was glad when she sold it. But I remember it differently. That’s where I remember being happy.


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

Verdaderos Peruanos by Nicolas Poynter

Cybelle Dabner_for_Verdaderos Peruanos


The traffic here is like some type of perpetual-motion machine, spinning and flowing with a complete disregard for the laws of physics, incessant honking, rabid lane changing and no hesitations to drive the wrong way down a one-way street. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds of near accidents every moment but, as far as I have seen anyway, no actual accidents, which implies that Peruvians are really good at chaos. Instead of taking turns, Peruvian cars use their horns to claim the right of way as they approach each other at intersections, an intricate honking code that, on the surface anyway, does not seem sufficient. But then just when you are certain there is going to be a horrible collision, they modulate their velocities slightly so that they miss one other, however usually only by a few feet, never coming to a complete stop. I don’t think I have ever seen a car actually stop moving in Peru until, of course, it has reached its destination.

I have quickly learned not to be the first one to step into the street, to wait for someone else and then to keep their body between me and the on-coming traffic. That one, the first one, will die if someone needs to die, if someone needs to be sacrificed to the taxistas, and the rest of us will live. On the other side those of us that have survived will exchange grateful looks, exhale, and then gather ourselves and approach the next intersection, still alive in Lima.

She crosses such traffic effortlessly, as easily as she breathes, always the first one off the curb, and then makes fun of me for my horrific facial expressions as I try to keep up with her and not die at the same time. Watching her makes me imagine a female super hero or maybe a ninja, as she moves, even when confronted by speeding cars barreling down upon her like bullets, with statuesque posture, her body skinny and strong and exceedingly feminine all at the same time. “Verdaderos Peruanos cross whenever they want and wherever they want,” she tells me, and then I want nothing more than to be a verdadero Peruano, a true Peruvian, in her eyes. This is probably how I will die, running into a Peruvian truck to prove myself to her. The truck will probably slow down after killing me, but not stop.

This is my mother’s city. She is the last of twelve children, the last one born as well as the last one living, meaning I have no uncles here anymore but I have more cousins than I can count, all of whom are older than me, more like uncles. I have to keep reminding myself that they are cousins and that all my uncles are dead, most of them long dead. Because they are older than me they remember me from when I was a little boy in Peru, but I can’t remember them. I remember Inca Kola and tall walls with glass shards embedded along their tops and poor people washing clothes in the Rimac River and not much else. I don’t remember Sendero Luminoso, but my cousins, because they are older, remember them. We walk down the streets of Miraflores together, and they point to this building or that building and tell me, that is where I was when the bomb went off. They must sense that I am fascinated by them, the terrorists, but I am sure that if it were not for me they would rather not talk about it. Sendero Luminoso was the reason we stopped coming to Peru when I was a little boy, or so my mom says, and now I have to start all over again with this place, as a stranger. Those were bad times for Peru one cousin after another tells me, meaning the eighties. Dangerous, dangerous times.

But I am starting to think my family may be more dangerous than Sendero Luminoso ever was. They keep telling me I have to eat different things if I want to be a true Peruvian, some of these things I doubt are even food. I have eaten raw octopus, purple tentacles and all, twice now, and the heart of something, a cow I think, more times than I can count. Yesterday my cousin told me, when his wife left the table, that I had to eat a whole tomato quickly, if you want to be a verdadero Peruano, except the tomato was not a tomato at all but a obscenely hot pepper called rocoto, which, for a reason known only to God, looks exactly like a fucking tomato. I took a giant bite and then asked my cousin if he could call an ambulance for me, but he assured me that I would not need a doctor. “You will be okay. Maybe ten minutes,” he said, pushing his beer across the table to me. “Twenty at the most.” I have since learned that this is a common trick Peruvians play on tourists.

“Who is the girl?” My boss asks me. I imagine him sitting at his desk and scrolling through the images I sent him and then freezing, of course, on her image.

“My guide.”

There is silence as he digests this information—that with the money he gave me, rather than hire some thuggish body guard, I have hired a beautiful woman. “Her face is interesting,” he finally says.

“I guess. Sure.” I am thinking that as a writer he has failed miserably. Interesting? Intoxicating maybe.At least that much. He has not even seen the ones I took recently, after she had a little too much pisco and started telling secrets. We were at a ceviche place on the cliff, and she turned from the ocean, looked right at me and, out of the nowhere, told me that there are places in Lima where she is not welcome. The breeze from the ocean was tossing her hair across her eyes intermittently so that I couldn’t get a good look at her. She told me they will tell her they are full, but then if a blonde, or at least a less indigenous-looking woman, arrives, there is always room. It was kind of a joke—that a country with so few blondes would have this thing for blondes. It was a funny, absurd joke, and we laughed about it, but then it also was not a joke because there was nothing she could ever do about it. While she was explaining this to me something was suddenly right there at the table with us, as if it had arrived late and then sat down without anyone noticing. I couldn’t see it, but I am sure it was really there because I felt it. She told me it didn’t matter how educated she was, how nice she dressed or even if she was beautiful. That was the secret—that there was a wrong type of beautiful. Then she smiled at me and shifted her jaw a little to the side to make me laugh, and that is when I took her picture.

“What is her name?”

Another cousin has an apartment which compromises an entire floor of his building, the elevator opening up to his living room. He is so proud of his views, straight down onto the cliffs. He holds me there with his gigantic hand on my shoulder, demanding I look even though I explained to him that I am terrified of heights. “Look down,” he insists. “When the earthquake hits, this is where I will stand. I will stand here and wait for everything to fall into the sea.”

I look, I guess I have to look, and am immediately left breathless by the coastline of the city. Lima is both next to the ocean and also somehow very far away from it at the same time, an impossible wall of rock separating them, as if maybe the Earth is flat after all and Lima is the last stop before going over. I feel a sense of pride well up inside me. This is my mother’s city but surely some partial ownership passes to me. Some small piece of this must be mine too. For a moment, all my fears subside, until I look closer and realize there is nothing there between me and the outside. My hand carefully probes the area, passing through the line of the building as if I am trying to push some imaginary button suspended in the Lima sky. There is a fucking hole in the side of this man’s apartment! And it is big enough for two people to jump through at the same time, no screen, no guard rail, no nothing, only cold, black rocks a few hundred feet below. What the fuck! Is this supposed to be a window? Is this some sort of patio door? Who the hell constructs a patio door without a fucking patio?Is there no Peruvian OSHA? Are there no safety codes? Is there no government agency to help me stay alive in Peru? He pounds my back with his palm, perhaps trying to knock me out of his apartment, and I collapse to the floor and hug his kitchen linoleum for safety.

She took me to a bar for lunch on the very first day, ordering some special Peruvian beer from Cusco, matching me swig for swig, each drink affecting me like a roller coaster. When she had suggested beer I had told her I usually prefer something stronger, like whiskey, but she had only laughed and ordered the beer anyway, leaving me with the thought that maybe she had meant it was too early for such serious drinking. But that was not what she had meant. At first I was terrified she was going to be able to drink more than me, and then I was terrified she was smarter than me, and then I was just terrified. After the second beer, my mind spinning like a top, she leaned in close to say something to me and, as her face neared mine, her eyes suddenly catching the reflection of the brightly-colored pisco bottles behind the bar, I felt like someone was putting a knife into my side and twisting it there. It sometimes hurts to admire art that much.

They have collected the photographs from the time when Sendero Luminoso was setting off bombs and they have them on permanent display in the national museum. I was there yesterday looking at them, being punched in the stomach by them. It bothers me that the poor suffer the most in war. You would think that if you had nothing to begin with, if you were living in a shack built out of thrown away materials and on the side of a mountain so steep that one good rain, although it never rains in Lima, would wash you into the Rimac River that that would be enough and they could fight their wars without bothering you too much. But Sendero Luminoso wrapped themselves in that poverty, planted their communist flag on top of those steep mountains, and then the army went in there to sort them all out and everybody looked like Sendero Luminoso to them so there you go. The poor of Peru, living on dirt floors and in between cardboard walls, were getting the horrid worst of some obscene three-way. And there are photographs.

There was a photo of a group of dead reporters that Sendero Luminoso had murdered. They were stripped down to their underwear, their arms still bound behind their backs, their flabby bodies pale and muddy like slaughtered pigs, cameras lying broken everywhere. This photograph almost made me vomit right there in the museum, but I think it was brilliant to leave them like this, in their underwear, I really do, somehow much more horrific than either fully naked or fully clothed. Those guys really knew what the hell they were doing. Maybe my mom saw that photo so many years ago. Maybe she talked to my uncles, all of whom are dead now, and made a decision never to return to Peru and to this day she has not been back.

My cousin, more like an aunt really, takes me out to Chorillos, to a seafood restaurant that sits in a horseshoe-shaped curve of the Pacific Ocean. Our waiter appears to be one hundred years old and half blind. He keeps walking off while she is in the middle of ordering. “Hey!” She calls him back and calmly explains that she was not done speaking. “I would like—” But he walks off again, and she looks at me incredulously, her mouth dropping open. I take her picture. This is Peru. I know that much. We will simply wait and hope he returns.

My cousin scoops the whipped cream off of her coffee with a spoon and stretches it across the table, offering it to me, and then some long, lost memory of mine jumps back into my head as clear as water. I tell her about it, that I can remember her doing just that very same thing when I was a little boy.

“But that’s all I remember,” I admit. “It’s strange I remember so little from then.”

She smiles but doesn’t look up, stirring, the soft dinging of the metal spoon on the cup like a bell from a far away church. “You were a little boy turned inside yourself… You never paid any attention to what was going on around you. If you don’t pay attention, you don’t make memories.”

This gives me an idea. I close my eyes tight and grunt, trying to turn back inside myself. If I can manage to turn back inside myself then twenty years from now I won’t still be haunted by the shape of her face. Maybe I can burn all the photos too, pry them from my bosses hands, incinerate his hard drive while he looks on in horror. Of course I will have to kill him as well, and everyone else that has seen the photographs. I can’t have some fucker bringing up her smile as conversation over beers in the future.

“Do you think you will remember Peru this time?”

“… I think so.”

After lunch I have my cousin drop me off at the park and I go marching through Lima, making wider and wider circles, to the point where I don’t even know where I’m at anymore except that it is somewhere I have certainly never been before. I am certainly walking through some district that I have been advised to never walk through. I walk until there are no more taxis blinking their lights at me or giving me that quick honk that asks if I need them, or maybe warns me that I am in the wrong place. The streets seem strange without them, the taxis. Everything is now coated in some dusty, yellow haze that makes me think I’m looking through a camera filter. I keep going, marching like them, mimicking them, adoring them. I am getting really thirsty and hungry again but the restaurants seem to have all vanished with the taxis, and the cold beer, and the ceviche, and the secrets. All of it gone, replaced with poverty.

But this street is my mother’s city too. If I own a tiny piece of this city then I own a tiny piece of all of it, not just the sushi bars. It is this idea that keeps me walking, or maybe it is all the drinks I had at lunch. Regardless, I don’t put my head down, spin around and walk fast for the sunset to have a nice meal at the edge of the Earth. I keep marching, the landscape becoming increasingly more hellish, my expensive cameras bouncing off my shoulder. It’s afternoon, but still, this is what the Peruvians call begging to be murdered. But I’m not afraid. And who knows? Maybe if they beat and rob me and leave me for dead on this street, I will really be a true Peruvian, much, much closer to her somehow.

I buy a pork sandwich from a street vendor and he hands it to me with a strange expression on his face, as if I am a thief and he is passing me his wallet. My cousins have warned me not to eat from the street carts, no matter how good the food smells. It was the last thing my mother said to me before I left for the airport, be careful what you eat! She told me I would die if I ate from a street cart but I think she might have been exaggerating. Of course, tourists don’t have the defenses in their body that Peruvians, people that belong here, have and they will almost certainly get sick if they try to eat like Peruvians. Stick to the tourist places, the whole world has told me. I understand what they are saying, but I just don’t think I am a tourist anymore.

I start taking pictures. The Peruvian foot traffic stops and smiles at me for a moment as if maybe this is some sort of joke and that they are being secretly filmed. A few of them look around, maybe searching for film crews that don’t exist. The light is almost perfect, another fifteen minutes and it will be perfect. I’m moving back and forth from one side of the street to the other, navigating the traffic like an expert, like a Peruvian, crossing wherever I want to cross, changing lenses quickly so I can get in real close. I’m only interested in faces now, faces of women. I want to find a face that is long and dark and filled to the brim with secrets, and with bloodshot eyes that stare into empty beer glasses for long periods of time. And what about that ferocious shadow that appears when she is sad? Do other women have such ghosts following them around too? I keep looking, but I know it’s hopeless.

When I get back to my apartment, there is a message from my editor. He says they are replacing me and that I have three days to get back before they cancel my expense account. He doesn’t say why. He just says everything is going to be okay, that he has been through it all before and all I need to do is get back, and I will be right as rain. He reminds me he was in Vietnam. He says he understands everything and that it was his fault because I wasn’t ready to go solo. He had just thought that because I had family here he would give me a shot. He promises that he will give me another shot, when I’m ready, but repeats that I have to be in New York within three days. “Settle up,” he says. “Come home,” he says without understanding anything that has happened to me here. Anyway, I think he’s lying. I think he just doesn’t want to look at the photos of her anymore. They hurt too much.

“What is her name? We want to run a few of your shots, the ones with her in them. Make sure you get a release from her before you leave… What is her name?”

I ask her to meet me in Barranco, at a bar across from the famous foot bridge which hangs there over a giant crack in the earth. The crack, surely a scar from some long ago earthquake, cuts through the cliffs all the way to the beach, slightly left and then slightly right all the way down. Although I don’t like heights, I like to stand on this bridge and look at this path spilling into the sea, a secret passage to avoid going off the end of the Earth, if that is what you really want. You are supposed to make a wish and then cross the bridge without breathing and then your wish will come true. I cross it fifteen times while waiting for her, just in case. I even manage to cross it both directions once with the same breath hold… La Puente de Los Aspiros. La Puente de Los Aspiros… La Puente de Los Aspiros. I sound just like fucking Dorothy, except I don’t want to go back home.

She looks genuinely sad when I tell her I’m leaving and then takes a swig of pisco and then holds the glass to my mouth so that I can drink from her glass. The knife twists.

“You will come back one day?”

This question punches me in the face so hard that the bartender turns to look at me. I have not even thought about this reality—that this may be the very last time I ever see this woman.

“I hope you come back. I will miss you.”

I am still not one-hundred percent certain she is sincere or if maybe this is all some game she has been able to play because she is so much smarter than me. I hope it’s a game. If it’s a game it means that she is not the person I think she is, and I don’t have to miss her when I am back in New York… But it’s not a game.

“Do you want to know one last secret?”

I hold my breath again, out of reflex, thinking she might tell me she loves me, thinking maybe all that crap about the bridge is true. That would change everything. If she tells me she loves me I will take out my passport, tear it into pieces and then eat the pieces with a smile on my face in between swigs of that special, crazy-strong beer she likes so much. But I know that is not what she is going to say.

“My family was in the revolution,” she tells me, taking another drink and then putting the glass to my lips again so I can have one more tiny taste of her again, all I am allowed. “Sendero Luminoso. Both my mother and father were with Sendero Luminoso. My father died in jail… murdered… A million years ago.”

The traffic is horrific on the way to the airport. I get nauseas and yell at the driver to stop, but he only slows down, and I spill out of the taxi while it is still moving and start vomiting onto the street, on my knees, my stomach convulsing. The cab driver arrives and starts screaming at me, gently kicking my shoes with his shoes. I can’t understand him. Certainly he is irate that he is no longer in motion. Sorry. I think he is explaining to me, in a very nasty way, that I should have just stuck my head out of the window, like any normal person, and that now we are trapped here not advancing towards the airport. He’s really upset.

I will tell everyone about this later. I will lie and tell them my cousin took me to a questionable seafood place in Chorillos, which of course she actually did, and that I got food poisoning the night of my flight… But I don’t have food poisoning.

I have been told that after the Titanic hit that ice berg it continued to move for quite some time, as if everything was fine. But everything was not fine. That little twist of fate, that little bump, that little knife in the side had sealed its fate and there was no way that ship was going to survive, even though it would continue to move forward as if everything was fine, which it most certainly was not. I am that ship. My editor insists I will be right as rain… but he is a big, fat fucking liar. My body, the shell, may leave this place, but everything else will sink here on this filthy street and remain here in some murky grave forever. My only hope is that one day the sun might explode or go cold, whichever, or that an asteroid might hit the Earth, purge everything the universe and the CIA has on me into nothingness, erase all record that I was ever here at all and ever met her, a woman with long dark hair that falls to her waist, a woman who’s name I will keep secret and carry with me to the ocean floor.


About the Author: Nicolas Poynter has a MFA in creative writing from Oklahoma City University. His work has appeared in numerous publications including North American Review and Fiction Fix. In 2013 he won the Vuong Short-Story Prize sponsored by the South-Central MLA. He is a high-school drop-out (not quite finishing the tenth grade) who now teaches physics and engineering.

Artwork: Cybelle Dabner 

The Art of Disappearing by Marion de Booy Wentzien

(USE PSEUDONYM)_for_The Art of Disappearing


Mom is dead. The cop who tells me this early Monday morning is so blond his face has a peeled look. I hear the words but I can’t understand them. He repeats what he’s just said. From far away I hear those awful words again: Car. High speed. Cliff.

To keep from screaming, I stare at him, memorize his face. I thought cops were tough guys. He doesn’t look so tough

“Is there someone you can call, Laura? A relative?” The gold metal frames of his sunglasses click between his fingers.

There’s no one.

“Lie, kiddo.” Mom would say. She builds stories around stories until things get so complicated we have to move to a new town. She calls it the art of disappearing.

The cop moves closer, speaks louder as if I’ve gone deaf. “Is there a family member I can speak to?”

“My father,” I blurt out. I don’t have a father. There’s only Mom’s boyfriend Bill.

He pulls out a notepad. What’s his number?”

“I’ll have to find it.”

He stares at me with clear round blue eyes that I can’t look into for very long. I glance down at my bare feet—at the glittery pink I put on my toenails last night.

I make myself look up at him, not into his eyes, but at the narrow space between his blond eyebrows. “I’ll call him. He’ll come. Get me. You can go.” I try to shut the door, but he grabs hold.

“You look. I’ll wait.” He follows me into the house.

I open the first drawer of the beat-up brown desk, scarred from cigarette burns. It’s stuffed with unopened bills. The first month’s rent and a cleaning deposit on this new place swallowed Mom’s savings. I know the number isn’t here. The last time Mom was mad at Bill, she ripped it up and said good riddance.

“Where does your dad work?”

“Greyhound,” I say, latching onto Bill’s last job. I’m flipping through envelopes fast, trying to hide all the red FINAL notices.

“Then Greyhound ought to know how to reach him.”

I slam the drawer shut. “I forgot. He quit that job.”

“So there’s no way you can reach him?”

I shake my head.

He says he’s going to have to take me to the Children’s Shelter.

“Mom will be back. She pulls stuff like this all the time. As soon as you leave, she’ll walk in the door.”

“Your mother—

“Don’t say it again!” I wait a second, unable to speak. Then I say, in a tight voice that doesn’t sound like mine, “If Mom sees you—sees the cop car out front—we’ll have to move again. I don’t want to move. I love it here. Just go. Please! Go away.”

How can I make him understand that this is the best place we’ve been? We’re only a block from the ocean. Mom has good job prospects. She hasn’t been drinking–not since Bill disappeared. Well, last night she drank. I knew that as soon as I got up this morning. The curtains were closed—a bad sign. Then there was that dark, sad leftover booze smell. I’d crept around the house making my cereal so I wouldn’t wake her up.

What I shouldn’t have done was open the door to a cop.

“Your mother was in an accident last night and she died,” he says again, in a quiet, firm voice.

Just give him a good kick in the balls and run, Mom’s voice whispers inside my head. Then run like hell.

“You are fourteen years old. I can’t just leave you here, Laura. I have to do my job. I need to take you with me.”

“What are you going to do if I won’t go? Shoot me?” I start to back away. For every step I take, he takes one, too. “Maybe I don’t care. Go ahead. Shoot. Try to kill me with one shot.”

“I’m not going to shoot you, but I have to stop you. Then I’ll call for a female officer. My partner’s out sick today; otherwise she’d be here with me. We’re understaffed, but I can call. I will call if we’re in a stalemate. Are we?”

“Are we what?”

“In a stalemate?”

I can feel tears welling up behind my eyes. “I can’t go in pajamas. I have to get dressed.” I turn and head for my bedroom.

“No door slamming.” He’s right on my heels.

We’ve reached my bedroom. “You’re going to watch me get dressed?”

“No. Get whatever you want to wear. You can dress in the bathroom. Someone will bring the rest of your stuff later.”

I go through the chipped green dresser and pull out clothes, stuffing them into a paper bag. When I’m finished, I hold my faded jeans and a yellow sweatshirt with clean underwear tucked beneath them against my chest. My white sandals dangle from my other hand.

He checks the bathroom, sees I’d have to be part chimp to get through the window. Even so he cranks it shut. “I knew a guy once who had no collarbone,” he says. “He could squeeze through the tiniest places. You can’t imagine how small he could make himself.”

“I’ve got a collarbone.”

“Leave the door ajar.”

“I won’t lock the damn door.”

We stare at each other. He blinks first. “Promise? Girl Scout honor?”

Like I was ever a Girl Scout. I glare at him. Promise. It’s a hard promise to keep. I close the door. I look at the lock until it starts to blur. In my mind I can feel my fingers turning it, feel the stubborn twist before it clicks tight.

Slowly I get dressed, wash my face and reach for my toothbrush. The faded pink tile by the glass that holds my toothbrush and Mom’s is cracked. When my glance lands on the tile an unexpected sob pops up from my mouth. I press my hand hard against my throat until I’m sure there won’t be another one.

We are halfway to the front door when I remember the photo album. I can’t leave it. “Wait. I have to get something,” I say. Outside Mom’s room I hesitate, my fingers curled around the cold brass knob. When I open the door she’ll be in bed asleep. She’ll be asleep and I’ll wake up.

Her bed is a wreck of tossed sheets and blankets. An empty booze bottle is on the bedside table next to a butt-filled ashtray. Her sleeping pills have spilled from the bottle onto the table and the floor. The photo album on the top closet shelf is too high for me to reach. Clothes are piled on the only chair. I don’t want to touch the emptiness of them. I jump up, hand outstretched. My fingertips graze the scruffy red cover and slip off.

The cop reaches over my head and gets the album. A loose picture floats gently down and lands face up on the hardwood floor. I stare at the picture of Mom and me taken a month ago. Mom is behind me, her forearms drape over my shoulders. The point of her chin rests on my head. We’re both smiling at the invisible picture-taker—Bill. We’re at the zoo in front of the flamingos, celebrating my fourteenth birthday. I’m smiling although I remember being mad. It was only ten in the morning and already they had a buzz on and were joking in ways that could only lead to a fight.

The fight happened on the drive home—over her driving, him losing his job. Mom swerved near the center divider, screeched to a stop and ordered him out. My last glimpse of Bill was of him standing in the median of the freeway, a zoo pendant slung over his shoulder, cussing her out.

“You don’t think he got run over, do you?” she asked a few days later when he didn’t appear.

“Bill knows how to cross a freeway.”

“Right. And like a bad penny he always shows up.”

Only this time he hadn’t.

There’s a funny prickling at the top of my head, as if I can still feel her chin pressing there. A rolling wave of longing hits. I want to be that girl again, who was only worried about how drunk they’d be at the end of the day.

The cop stoops, carefully retrieves the picture. I stick it inside the album just under the cover.

Outside it’s a sealed-in gray day. By eleven, the sun will have shot through the overcast. By noon, people will be oiled and glistening and spread out on the sand like pancakes on a griddle. I can hear the roar of large waves. The air smells of seaweed and fish. I know that whenever I smell the air on a day like this, I’ll remember this very moment forever. The cop has put on his sunglasses and looks like a giant bug.

“Fasten your seat belt,” he says. The back of the car is separated from us by wire. I am in a cop car being taken away, I think in this new disjointed way I seem to be thinking. It’s like seeing bubbles with the words already in them, the way cartoon characters speak. I just don’t feel anything.

The woman next door is watering red and purple flowers from a bright green plastic pitcher. She doesn’t even look up. The cop car kicks up gravel. For the first time I see what Mom meant when she called the place a dump. From this angle, the house definitely looks shack-like. It tilts to the right. One shutter is missing. It needs paint.

“We’re coming down in the world, kiddo,” Mom said when she rented it. “After this we may be living under a bridge.”

“Freeway or river?” My job as I saw it was to keep her happy. When she was happy she didn’t drink. When she didn’t drink, we didn’t move. “It doesn’t matter as long as we’re together, right?” I remember saying.

She agreed. But I sensed trouble. Since Bill disappeared she’s been unsteady, scared. Sometimes when I looked at her I could see her heart ticking against the hollow in her neck. Her fingernails were chewed raw.

Mom wasn’t always like this. There are photos from other times. I know them all by heart. In one there’s a surprised baby sitting alone in the middle of a huge blanket. In another she’s seven and standing alone on a beach with a pail and shovel in her hands. Her eyes are tightly closed.

“Why are your eyes closed?” I asked.

Once she told me it was too bright, another time that she was scared. I never knew what to think. Maybe it was like the zoo picture—where the opposite of what she was feeling got recorded. There’s nobody I can ask. Mom’s mother is dead and after her father left she lost track of him.

In my baby pictures I’m smiling a clueless baby’s smile. As I got older, Mom would go up to strangers and ask them to take our picture. Town after town, place after place, year after year is safely recorded, with me coaxed into a smile whether I felt like it or not. “Pictures are like dreams,” Mom said. “If you’re going to bore people with them, you can at least look friendly.”

The cop is babbling. His name is Stuart. He’s been on the force for two years or maybe it’s five. He’s got a wife, a little boy. I don’t even pretend to be listening. Why would he think for even one second that I care?

In between the houses we’re flying past, there are glimpses of the ocean. High speed. Cliff. Dead, spins through my mind until I can’t stand it anymore. “I want to see. I want to see where she crashed.”

He turns sideways to look at me, pale eyebrows drawn together over the gold rims of his sunglasses. “You don’t want to see that.”

“I need to see it.”

“She isn’t there, you know. Her body has been recovered.”

Body. Recovered. A shudder ripples through me. I wind myself into a knot of concentration to stop from hearing those awful words. If he says them again, I’ll sock him.

“Please, Stuart. Please take me. I have to see. Otherwise it’ll be unreal—like a bad dream—I’ll always think…” I have to swallow and swallow. “I’ll always think she ran off because she didn’t want to be bothered with me anymore.” A tear trickles to the edge of my lip.

He pulls sharply to the left, makes a U-turn, and we’re headed in the opposite direction. The road uncurls ahead of us. Huge cliffs on one side, sheer drops to the ocean on the other. Suddenly we’re on the edge of the highway, stopped. Beside us is a short, thick, wooden, white fence, missing a chunk.

I unsnap my seat belt and fumble the door open. Stuart is quickly beside me, rigid, ready to grab in case I decide to jump. I hang onto the fence, my legs trembling. I can see where the car slid. There are boulders and reddish blond dirt and way down, huge jutting rocks. At last I see our blue Ford upside-down like a dead bloated animal. That’s when it hits me with the force of a blow. Mom is dead.

I cling to the rough wooden fence. Silent tears spill out of my clenched eyelids. Stuart puts his hands on both my shoulders. Behind us cars whiz by, tires squealing on the curve. Below me the ocean thumps rocks. Inside me, my heart hits against my chest like it wants to fly out and over the cliff.

“I’m sorry,” Stuart says after a few minutes. “I’m sorry about your mother.” There’s a hollowed-out echo to his voice I recognize—as if he knows first hand what my life with her has been like.

Grady, a kid in one of my third grade classes (we moved twice that year), had the same echo. Grady wore thick glasses with one cracked lens and had hair clumped together like it needed scrubbing. He always smelled of cigarette smoke and stale whiskey. I used to secretly sniff my sweater sleeve to see if anybody could smell that smell on me.

Once after school when I saw Grady pressed against the wall of the gym, I had this huge urge to go up and hug him. Instead when I drew near, I crossed my eyes and stuck out my tongue. Then I ran toward the Ford where my mother, her lips too red and her eyes too bright, sat with the radio volume set too loud on a country western station. I flopped down on the back seat and cried, until in an effort to shut me up, she took me to McDonald’s and stuffed me silent with a chocolate milkshake and French fries. She didn’t eat. She wanted to get home and have a drink.

“I’m never going to drink,” I say in a low voice. “Ever.” Mom’s secret that I’ve held so carefully through each new town and each new school spills out into the cool gray morning.

Stuart pats my shoulder. “With any luck you won’t be in the Shelter long. I’ll try real hard to locate your father.”

“I don’t have a father. I’m going to be at the Shelter a long, long time.” I look straight out where the ocean and the sky look like they’re joined. The ocean is as flat as a gray floor. It looks like you could walk across it, right up into the sky. Mom finally perfected the art of disappearing, I think. Only she forgot me.

“I’ll come by sometimes on my day off,” Stuart says once we are in the car. “I’ll bring you a milkshake.”

I glance over at him. “That’s okay. You don’t need to.”

“I won’t wear my uniform, if that’s what you’re worried about. I’ll just be a friend making sure you’re all right.”

He doesn’t ask if I’d like that. Just states it like it’s a fact I can count on. “What’s your favorite flavor?”

“Chocolate,” I say after a few seconds.

“That’s mine, too.”

He turns on the overhead lights to ensure a prompt entry onto the highway. I slip my fingers underneath the album cover and touch the cool smooth dreams. All those times I was happy and didn’t know it.


About the Author: Marion de Booy Wentzien is a recipient of the PEN Syndicated Fiction Award (twice) and The New Letters Literary Award. The Chicago Humanities for the Arts presented one of her stories in their Stories on Stage. Her work has appeared in Seventeen Magazine, Blue Penny Quarterly, The San Francisco Chronicle, Scholastic Books, Story Magazine, On the Page, Big Ugly Review, The Quotable, Prime Number, The Sonora Review, The Stone Hobo, Tattoo Highway, Red Fez, Cossack Review, Citron Review, Extract(s), Solstice, Drafthorse, and other literary journals.  She is a 2013 Pushcart Prize nominee, and her novel, Desert Shadows, is available from Avalon Books. She lives in Saratoga, CA with her husband and some formerly stray animals.

Artwork: Michael Lemire 

Cockstrong by Celestin d’Olanie

strong


When money is funny everything is a joke. Showing up late with bleary first person shooter eyes isn’t a big deal these days. The muttonchops were a surprise. We’ve got a few shitasses here like you. Most are recent hires driving new cars home to McMansions with garages bigger than my house. All on zero down. I’m talking palaces in gated communities, flat screens wider than the SUV and bi-curious housewives who take it in all three holes.

We didn’t have that shit in the Eighties. Houses looked like houses, only the fat chicks had big tits and assholes were exit only—unless you were a fag. And if not, you’d have to be goddamn curious about anal to find out that way. All you little fuckers do is hold up your phone sideways and say let’s be famous.

Pre-hire aptitude and personality assessments suggest you held on to the game controller longer than most. Sure, there is always some room for interpretation. Yours, however, painted a clear picture of habitual kicking back, fucking off and jizzing on yourself. Nothing in your profile suggests any ambition beyond that. Yet here you sit, claiming to have sworn off farting around and suddenly become serious about life in the form of seeking what is commonly called a real job—that shit you call a moustache notwithstanding. Why? Gotta be pussy.

And so you cast your bread out upon the water. A series of interviews floats back, like a turd that refuses to be flushed. At one corporate nightmare after another, each interview is more meaningless than the last. The business parks all have the macabre quietude of a mass shooting event just before the first shot rings out. You push through the rejection and keep filling out applications. Now here you sit.

The job market has been unforgiving of your lack of relative experience. I, however, am willing to look beyond traditional indicators to fill positions. My motives are my own. Not all skills translate well into standard résumé format but are nevertheless valuable. For instance, one forthcoming candidate once confessed he’d read the job description and thought, “fuck it, those baggies of Adderall didn’t sell themselves. I can do that job.” I concurred. The convertible Mustang out front is his.

Let’s assume you possess similar suitable alternative skills and we bring you onboard—What then? After so much toil and avoidance, you show up on your first day late wearing stain-resistant khakis only to log on, kick back and fuck right off. Unlike real work, most corporate jobs can be done in an hour or two a day. When we consider the position that way, your personality and skillset are perfectly suited for it. This country was not made great by a dogged determination to reach the top, but rather how easily one can land squarely in the middle. You can popcorn fart your way into any neighborhood you please.

You should see the look on your face … somewhere between fright and how fucked up is this place? It’s pretty goddamn fucked up, if ya wanna know. But ask yourself this: with the current high rates of unemployment, does it really matter? Spend some time in front of a mirror learning to control your facial cues. Develop a poker face. You walk around an office job looking like that and people will start sneaking in weapons again just in case you snap.

A good recruiter offers refreshments before outlining the interview, describes the position, desirable qualifications and asks situational questions. Allow the candidate a chance to ask shit, mention others are being considered then usher them to the door.

Those best practices were developed to find highly motivated self-starters willing to exceed expectations while accepting shit pay and abusive supervision. Ideal candidates wait for us to call with an offer, accept and are never heard from again. The squeaky wheel types … I’m like a hot chick after a blind date with an average guy. I don’t wanna hurt your feelings, but if you keep calling it’s gonna happen.

A great interviewer incorporates best practices into a unique style. Please open your WelcomeBox. Notice the bottled water, printed job description, benefits booklet and a branded squeeze ball to relieve stress. Refreshed and informed? Fuck yeah you are. Maybe we didn’t take turns reading the shit aloud but you’d be constrained to deny you took possession of the box. Was that professional? Fuck if I know. But my decision analysis form will show it was. That’s called documentation, and it’s the corposlob’s best friend. Even if you shot the place up while on probation, my ass is covered.

Reviewing benefits invariably generates questions about what the medical covers. Think about it. How could I possibly know if Group Plan B covers microbes from a river in a different hemisphere? Go down that road and all you see are ailments: The hemorrhoid in payroll, the hermaphroditical VP, the superfluous third nipple in sales. You start forgetting names. My point is, read it yourself. I’ve already read it. Think of it as me teaching you how to fish.

You got one thing going for you, kid: Three people used to do this job. Now it’s just me. The workload didn’t change. I’m behind the eight ball on closing out requisitions. Common sense says that was caused by the increased workload.

The company, however, doesn’t see it that way. In other words, they don’t give a fuck about my problems. It’s only fair, then, that I don’t give a fuck about theirs. This no fucks given standoff is where a guy like you gets his start. So far, it’s the only thing you’ve got going for you.

You really gotta invest time in developing that poker face. Your expression changed from excited puppy to crestfallen. Fuck that shit. There is no tissue in the WelcomeBox. I can’t be that guy. Think of it this way: consoling you in this forum is a form of work. If you work for free, that’s what your work is worth. Building self esteem is not part of my performance-based bonus plan. I wouldn’t ask you to work for free …and your rape me starting salary will not change even if we were BFFs.

Never question why somebody hires you. What do you care? You wanna be paid in hugs? Let the rubes jockey for approval. You and the boss aren’t gonna live off love. Concern yourself with showing up on time and hope nobody takes the look on your face the wrong way.

The WelcomeBox also contains a specimen cup and two packets of liquid hand sanitizer. I’m going to outline how you might fit in to our corporate culture and possible career trajectory. Afterwards, look in the box and make a decision. If you want the job, take the cup down to the clinic for mandatory pre-employment drug testing. Directions are also in the box. Remember what I said about ideal candidates. We don’t need any reunions. Don’t call me if your paycheck isn’t right.

And if, after listening, you realize corpo life is not for you, use both packets of sanitizer thoroughly before shaking my hand on your way out. I’m out of sick days and can’t risk catching anything.

So … Where do you see yourself in ten years? Standard question. Bet you’ve been asked it a lot. What’s the real answer? In ten years you’ll be forty, fat and financing a nasty black market Viagra habit with home equity lines. I’m talking coming home dog tired to find your daughter banging some dude on the sofa, your son wearing a furry rabbit costume while gaming and who knows what the fuck your wife is up to. At least you’re making the minimum payments on the bills, right?

Then things get hairy at work. The new VP is from an unrelated industry—which means he doesn’t know shit but got hired anyway. He addresses the steep learning curve with denial, paranoia and anger. The department heads, all old timers, resent what they interpret as a lack of respect. Some leave, others are fired. Nobody reaches out to the clients. The competition sops up the disgruntled old guard who, in turn, bring several unhappy clients with them. They come at the new VP with vengeance because that’s exactly what it is.

He brings in new blood, which happens to be old blood from the last place he ruined. His new old crew are loyal—and why shouldn’t they be? He’s dragged them around the country to every job he’s taken. They know all the platitudes … metrics, cultural change, corrective action plans … none of it works. The P&L is fucked. The death spiral begins. I’m talking closed doors, conference calls and managers disappearing for days without explanation.

The situation reaches critical mass. The VP could fall on his sword, beg former staff to return and eat whatever shit they shove in his mouth, or double down on his fuck up. He doubles down. Only one card left to play: massive layoffs. Your first bloodletting is nigh. Despite positive performance reviews, you cop the chop in early rounds. Long hours, weekends and unused vacay didn’t mean a goddamn thing. In the end, they were suspicious of your longevity and tired of looking at your shitty face. You weren’t new blood.

“Why me?” you protest. “I been here hella long.”

“Yeah,” new blood bleeds back, “and we know the only way you could have lasted was being involved in some pretty nasty shit. You’re done.”

So there you are, forty, fat and belly-up. Your neighbor, not content with stealing your WIFI and reading your mail, now gestures loser with one hand on his forehead while pointing at you with the other. He wags his tongue through split fingers at your wife. Fucker smells your diminished purchasing power and is taking liberties.

That is not the only indignity. The school sent home information about reduced cost subsidized lunches. A local food bank inquired if you would be receiving instead of giving this year. You can’t live like this. You gotta get psyched. Forty is the new thirty, right? Start clawing your way back. With any luck, around the time you turn fifty, your net worth will be back to where it was last week.

With a professionally-polished CV packed with keywords and lies and a fresh burner phone to provide cover for gaps in employment, you apply to everything. Jobs with descriptions you don’t understand for companies you’ve never heard of. Fuck it. Let the hiring manager figure it out. It works. You land an interview.

“Break out the new-and-improved bulletproof watertight khakis,” you shout to the wife, forgetting her phone sex shift was underway. “Daddy’s going back to work!”

“Thank fucking God,” she yells back from the spare bedroom as you hear the unmistakable sound of a four battery dong crashing into a computer monitor. The work-at-home gig does not suit her. She presents herself in the flesh shortly thereafter, clothed only in a Vajazzle and residual Astroglide crust.

“You said hired, right? Please say you said hired. I can’t keep doing this shit.”

When interview day arrives, you park the old beater Honda out of site. Nothing screams loser like a decade old piebald rice burner. You find a gas station for a preemptive piss, then bound towards your destination with all the confidence of someone who has been there and done that. No sudden urges will break your steely concentration today. You’re psyched. And then your reflection in the mirrored glass entrance door comes clearly into view. The ol’ prostate, it appears, has let you down yet again in the form of a large wet spot where balls once dangled.

The new bosses were going to figure out who was dribbling piddle on the bathroom floor sooner or later, but if it happened after date-of-hire, onboarding and orientation, you might be protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Showing up with a fresh piss stain, however, changes everything. The pants were supposed to be watertight. That’s why you bought them. In the commercial, a waitress spills an entire pitcher of iced tea in dude’s lap and he got up bone dry. That’s a form of guarantee. Blatant false advertising, right? Hell, start a class action suit. But that won’t mean much to the wife:

“Great,” she’ll say in that tone reserved for dick-related failures. “I’ll end up homeless because you can’t remember to shake your cock. Haven’t I told you to sit down when you go?”

Now you gotta introduce yourself with a wet spot the size and shape of the Gulf of Fucking Mexico. Gorbachev had a less conspicuous spot on his forehead. You refuse to go down without a fight. Duck into the lobby restroom and create a diversion by splashing water on the super pants. Sometimes you gotta get wet to be dry. Look the hiring manager dead in the eye and express indignance. Insinuate suspecting the faulty fixtures indicates a deeper problem within the corporate culture itself. What kind of bullshit company is this? Swing for the fences.

The cameltoe at reception doesn’t notice. You stand back from the tall front desk and point at your junk patch:

“I’m here for an interview and your bathroom sink splashed me!”

“It happens sometimes. I am so sorry.”

It happens sometimes? This changes everything. You’ve been handed an alibi. The chick up front said every other bum is walking out drenched. Somebody’s gonna get hurt. You’re just looking out for the next guy. Fucking genius. You’re golden. There’ll be food around the corner for you.

The wall behind the front desk is adorned with low resolution prints of scans of felt pen sketches. All share a common theme betraying something like a fetish and a truly impressive collection of Sharpies. The recurring motif is selfiesque poses of a heroin chic savior with flowing sandy blond hair and a well-kempt Just For Men beard—a veritable manscaping messiah with a bar of Fight Club soap in one hand and the tween entertainment dollar in the other. On second thought, you ain’t got no alibi.

“It’s Jesus,” she says, reacting to your dumbstruck expression. Evidently you accepted suffering in silence rather than taking my advice and developing a poker face.

“That’s what he looks like in my dreams!” The Son of Man flashes the same bad boy member of the boy band smirk in every drawing; replete with frosted tips and arched eyebrows. A duck-faced Jesus. This chick is nuts.

“The company can’t make me take them down, but they don’t want me talking about it during work hours. There is a war on Christianity. But Our Lord is the ultimate warrior. We can’t even say Merry Christmas anymore.” A MMA rockstar Jesus. What the fuck, man.

“Sometimes,” she says, “you gotta wonder whose country this is.” Her felt pen renditions look far more like someone who shows up at Midnight with a slab of ribs, box of condoms and carton of Newports than savior of soul and, or, country.

“The Muzzies get extra time to pray and don’t have to work on their holidays. Can’t make them mad. Instead they pick on the ones who will turn the other cheek.” You inquire if the company happens to employ many Muslims.

“No, but you know what I mean.” Fuck yeah you do. That was the set up you were counting on. Assertively exhale and blow that smoke exactly where she wants it.

“Good,” you break in before she can continue. “Because I will not work for a company that lets terrorists pray all day while Americans do all the work.”

“Amen.”

Her emphasis on the long A vowel makes it sound like two words. A-men. It is her way of co-signing onto what was just said. A-men. This guy gets it. He’s one of us.

“Wish more people around her were like you. Hope you get the job. I’ll pray on it. We need more Godly men here.” She may be nuts, but you need all the help you can get.

“Have a blessed day.” And with that, you are past reception and bounding towards the conference room with a soggy dick and brown nose.

The more substantial broads in the org chart will not be fooled. Gen-X corpo-cougars have little tolerance for anything less than a highly functioning cock and balls. A middle-aged unemployed loser with potty problems? They’ll smell it all over you. And so a decade into working life, all you have gained is a wet crotch and the sobering realization that you gotta piss sitting down if you’re ever gonna work again.

And what does an aging washed up corposlob do once finally back on the inside? Stay off the fucking radar. Pounce on every email the moment it arrives. I’m talking reply to the fucking world. This is a an email-based economy and not responding is interpreted as out fucking around. Even if you only reply with “thanks,” the perception is you are on the job and working hard.

Digger was great at that. He was a thirty year man. Single digit employee number. Went way back. Regional Something of Somewhere. Who knows what. For the last twenty of those thirty years, a framed poster of a smiling man has stood as the centerpiece of our lobby. You probably saw it on your way in. Above the face reads Your Company Has Core Values and below it, Shouldn’t You?

Digger was the smiling face on the poster and the words were his own. HR held an ethics slogan contest when the office blowjobs and sink ejaculation fad out of hand. Pipes were clogging. Something had to be done. Needless to say, his slogan won. Over the years, it has been used on posters, T-shirts, balloons, screensavers, mouse pads and trophies. Every branch in the world displays that poster in its lobby. Whenever we merge or acquire, first order of business is to send out those posters. Nobody ever asked what the core values were and neither Digger nor HR bothered to explain.

Other than that, staying off the radar is what he did best. The guy lived in stealth mode. He’d talk all the major sports—except golf. Motherfucker was semi-pro in college and smart enough to keep it to himself. A corposlob scratch golfer is a dangerous contradiction. VPs wonder what you stand for. Nobody gives a fuck if you played football in school and never went pro. But a pro-level golfer working a shit job in some office? Either you’re wasting natural talent—a talent they would give their left ball to possess—or you’re a fuck up. But you can’t not play, either. What kind of corposlob doesn’t golf? You a faggot or something? Why are you even here? Digs knew this and generally avoided the subject.

He was so far off the radar most only knew him as the Core Values Guy. Total gray man—but the gray man outlasts most. Nobody knew what Digger did and that was fine by him. He’d seen the wars and bloodlettings and was determined not to get caught short.

And then, out of nowhere, at this shit business park deli over lunch, he breaks character and blurts out how he’d bought a new TV.

“After thirty years with the company,” he says, “I finally had enough points saved up on my credit card to buy a plasma TV.”

This was back when plasmas were expensive as shit. The president of the company didn’t have one. Hell, the President of the United States probably didn’t have one. We were duly impressed. For the first time in his long tenure, Digger was the most interesting man in the room. He knew he’d fucked up.

The points were accumulated using his personal card for legitimate purchases during business travel. A detailed expense report was submitted, approved and a check cut for reimbursement. Standard shit. No code of conduct violation. It didn’t matter. Dude had a plasma, the best TV in the world. Within the month, Digger the Core Values Guy, Regional Something of Somewhere, was let go in a no-fault reduction in force—a RIF. It wasn’t until they took his company car keys that he realized the guy who effected the termination was driving him home. He sat in absolute silence, scared shitless somebody would ask for the TV. The next morning, he sent an email from a personal account to the entire corporate global address book:

I worked eighteen hour days for these miserable cunts. Thirty years! My wife’s strung out on diet pills, my son’s a faggot and all I got to show for it is a shitty TV. Get out while you can!

 

In the end, the miserable cunts had the last laugh. The email was turned over to Homeland Security. Local officers met agents at Digger’s home around dinner time. He answered the door holding a spoon and a can of cat food. His food stamps had not yet been approved. The routine investigation of terroristic threats was upgraded to a hostile domestic standoff.

“Drop the spoon asshole!”

Four words, three seconds and two headshots later, the standoff was over. Never know when a guy might throw a spoon in anger. The TV was confiscated as evidence and remanded to the protective custody of the winning shooter—a controversial decision requiring much deliberation. Two officers fired multiple shots, each scoring a solid Zapruder. It was impossible to know who fired the actual killshot.

The Department pressed the coroner for an official determination. Several thousand man hours, tax dollars and one secret coin toss later, a winner was declared. The plasma shall remain as evidence until such time as the rightful owner returns from the dead to lay claim.

Digger’s final termination had been effected. He was six feet under and belly-up. The company paid for his headstone, and his slogan chiseled onto it exactly as it appeared on the poster: The Company Has Core Values. Shouldn’t you? Unbeknown to Digs, his off-hand remark created a form of currency out of thin air. It had scalable value and no expiration. Assholes hold on to these little gems like coins and spend them when they need to buy their way out of shit. One fuck up is all it takes. If you can’t fly lower under the radar than Digger, consider packing it in. Maybe being a corposlob isn’t for you after all. Give serious thought to filing for Social Security—Mental or physical, your call. Play to your strength. That would be the time to start making those fucked up faces.

Wait on that fat retro check and when it arrives, haul your officially disabled ass down to the liquor store, cash that motherfucker and spend it all within a week. How do you think electronics stores stay in business? Nobody buys home theaters with real money. Only slobs with retro checks, tax refunds or personal injury settlements drop cash anymore.

Should somebody go all John Galt on you, tell them a dirty Mexican stole your job and no honest work is beneath you. Cite by name every family member who died in service to this great nation—even if they were actually meth cooks, weed dealers and welfare cheats. Testify how you have been turned down for the most menial jobs imaginable. You will shovel shit, dig ditches or flip burgers. Anything short of sucking cock in a highway rest stop toilet for cash. Such a passionately credulous and decidedly heterosexual work ethic will keep you off the neighborhood terrorist list more weeks than you will receive unemployment. You’re golden. No need to hide in the house all day.

I’m talking sunbathing on the front lawn in boxer briefs during working hours without anybody calling the cops and still tossing your keys into the fishbowl at neighborhood cocktail parties with head held high, wife willing and cock strong. Fuck it, apply for food stamps too. Once the first of the month rolls around, explore all the exciting places now accepting EBT cards. Start a food blog. Upload pix of gourmet burgers. Live the dream.

That first food stamp card swipe is gonna cut your pride wide open. Learn how to conceal it with your palm. Once you get good, you can enjoy the fabled free lunch realized. Let the corposlob inmates still serving time work for food. When I was a kid, food stamps came in the mail and were the size and shape of a license plate. They even used a special envelope. Even the mailman knew you were a bum.

Most of the old postal carriers were in it for the stay-at-home moms, lax open container laws of the day and funky Jeeps. They knew oversized houses weren’t part of the deal. The few who couldn’t match numbers on the envelope to the ones on the box ended up at the annex. When they fucked that up, they’d shoot up the annex. We treated them with kid gloves. If he didn’t deliver, we weren’t eating. And you never knew if dude was gonna snap.

Food stamps used to look like Monopoly money. Bums shouldn’t feel too good about being a burden on society. The Department of Agriculture issued the stipend instead of the Treasury, on the off-chance you misunderstood your place in the world. That place was somewhere between cattle and corn.

The bills made a distinctive, telling and deliberately loud noise when pulled out of the booklet. A loud rip followed by handing the checker an oversized piece of hot pink play money that looked as if you’d just passed Go. It was a call of the wild—a call invariably returned by a stiff-jawed housewife watching from somewhere down the checkout line, talking shit under her dick-scented breath. Must be nice. Wish I got free food.

My mother called them rich bitches. Thinking back on it, they were nothing more than two-bit single hole twats. They shopped in the same store as us, for fuck’s sake. But I didn’t see it that way at the time. Poor people don’t understand money. A hundred bucks might as well be a million. If you didn’t look torn up or live in our neighborhood, you were rich. That’s how it used to be. Now that the sub-slob class assume they will end up in prison sooner or later, there is no reason not to turn that supermarket on its fucking ear and upload the video later. Rich bitches only talk shit on the Internet now.

A few years ago—and by that I mean a few jobs, relocations and suburbs ago—one of my neighbors reached a breaking point. Several professional restarts all ran headlong into downsizing. Same shit we’ve all faced. That one year on, one year off cycle is rough. The guy can’t take it and fully commits. He mails the house keys to the lender and leaves the SUV in the dealer’s lot with the engine running. A year later, he turns up online, pushing a new venture in what the UN calls an economic development zone. I’m talking one of those dying shitholes where old craftsmen houses can be had for a buck and back taxes.

He sets up shop out of an old Datsun pickup selling vinyl adhesive skins for food stamp EBT debit cards. After careful consideration, he paints a simple message on a big piece of cardboard: Got Dignity? For a sawbuck, shame became pride. Food stamps? Hell no. Look again, asshole. That’s a goddamn platinum card. In time, he expanded to sports team logos, Pokemon, religious iconography, Goth shit, even school photos. But most people wanted the platinum.

The new location presented new challenges. Robbery and assault were part of his new normal. Big deal. It was the cost of doing business, but it didn’t matter. Nobody expected him to drink the Kool-Aid anymore. Loyalty was once again a private matter, rather than something proven in endless email chains. The locals didn’t give a fuck what he believed in. Plus, it was off book. The revenue lost to crime was substantially less than his tax burden, had he operated above board.

He sold the same product online, target marketing rednecks, survivalists and militia groups. He knew they all worried about RFID chips embedded in driver’s licenses. That got him on the no-fly list, but he didn’t care about that either. The old Datsun could reach any point in North America on two tanks of gas or less and his own EBT card was charged up with fresh food stamps every month. Fuck the airlines. The walls had been razed. He was free. There was no going back.

You have that duh look on your face again. Where were we? Forty, broke and sunbathing on the front lawn in Capri pants, right? That first ride is a bitch. That’s your downtime between jobs—a ride. Newbs always shit their pants first time out. We hear it during the terminations … I’m gonna lose my house, my car, my boner pills. When you see the look in a man’s eyes as he realizes the low cost four hour hard-ons are over, you understand what the Romans were like at the end.

That first ride is make or break. I’m talking weight gain, hair loss and, obviously, sexual dysfunction. By the second or third layoff, the Dollar Store knockoff Rogaine is working, the bitchtits have waned and gas station horny goat weed packets get your dick up for a buck. Those are financial adjustments—the easy part. Swallowing your pride … now that’s where the war is won or lost.

People take themselves far too seriously. As if buying a jet ski on payments means anything. Living paycheck to paycheck isn’t quite the same as a loaded trust fund. I’m talking set-aside funding for pre-matched genetically-compatible replacement organs from ethnic Albanians. They call it fuck you money. If you can’t say fuck you to a cop and drive away with the certitude of not only surviving but sleeping in your own bed that very night, you ain’t got it. You look no different, at a distance, from day laborers outside Home Depot. I’m talking big picture here.

Without multi-generational wealth and power, you’re just another pretend rich dad who thinks punching down gets you to the top—and that, I promise you, is what people in this day and age mean when calling somebody a faggot. Guys like us exist in the space between that new car smell and being two paychecks from the street. Glorified global labor arbitrage far more likely to drop to our knees than rise up. But so what. Still beats wiping your ass with your hand.

Where were we? Oh yeah … you’re fifty, third or fourth ride deep, wearing adult diapers and painfully aware of your spurious pedigree. Your monthly burn rate is insane. You got TVs in every room, crown moldings, flagstone patio with a stainless steel grill tied in to the main gas line for the house. Each layoff drops your savings and 401k lower and lower. When it is gone, there will be little choice but to leave the gated subdivision for zip codes previously only visited when GPS goes wrong. You’re thinking Filipinos living eight to an old stucco ranch just like what your grandparents had in some played out burb. Or maybe the pastoral feed lots where hillbillies change oil over storm drains while their wild-eyed Ritalin tweaking savage offspring do burnouts on dirt bikes on your front lawn. Won’t be so bad, right? The reality, however, is you can’t afford any of that shit on an unemployment check.

That means holing up in extended stay lodgings. Most are conveniently located in what FBI crime stats, social anthropologists and community organizers call a changing neighborhood. At least they have free HBO. Described on the website as a “classy corporate relocation solution,” from the ground it looks more like a refugee camp. Shitty diapers in the pool, soiled condoms stuck to the elevator doors and Mexican soda in the vending machine.

When unemployment runs dry, you camp out in the oversized SUV—which suddenly seems like your Best. Purchase. Ever. Until you miss a few payments. Then it’s shopping carts, sleeping open air and shitting behind bushes. Like most animals, after a few weeks in the wild humans revert to a feral state. Nobody comes back.

And when your wife gets fingerbanged by a cop at a DUI checkpoint, it becomes clear: You’re free range now. The car is searched without warrant or permission while you lay face down in the road. It’s purely for kicks and milking overtime. Eventually you are cut loose with a warning after a disabled old man rolls his wheelchair down his driveway to find out why his dog is barking.

“Get that piece of shit car off the street or it will be impounded. And get a job, loser!”

Cops love fucking with geezers, dogs and gimps. All three have a high likelihood of hesitating when being shouted at. Not promptly responding to an officer’s commands puts his safety at risk and—more importantly—creates an opportunity to fire at moving targets without anybody shooting back. Practice is vital in today’s law enforcement.

“Hands on your heads! You and the dog both! Hands on your fucking heads!”

When neither man nor beast respond quickly enough, officer safety is protected by firing a Taser. The electric current sparks when striking the metal wheelchair. The sparks ignite dry grass, which spreads quickly and burns the house to the ground. The dog is shot on GP—general principle. All costs of municipal services rendered are deducted from the estate. The requisite passerby cell phone video, titled Fat Police Fry Cripple Blast Dog N Burn House is an overnight Internet sensation.

Back at the extended stay, you notice a message scrawled on the dusty SUV hood: I used this finger on your wife. Welcome to America, asshole. The real America.

So what’s it gonna be, kid? The sample cup or the sanitizer? Make your choice.


About the Author: Celestin d’Olanie was born in Highland Hospital just after the MLK and RFK assassinations on the day Governor Reagan sent choppers to gas students at Cal, and the Panthers shot up the Oakland Police station. East Bay born and bred, Celestin’s great-grandfather was an iron worker who pounded out the lamp posts that surround Lake Merritt.

Artwork: J.R. Goodwin

 

Funeral Fount by William Conable

Kim Thoman_for_Funeral Fount


Doc Franklin had been dead three days, and according to the funeral opinions that mattered most, he looked the part. Jordan didn’t agree. Staring out the window into the great inhalation of Saturday, late July, Jordan thought Doc more than dead; he thought him dissipated. Someone had tried to bleach the yellowed tobacco from his beard. Someone–no doubt the same one–had dressed him in a starched shirt, pressed pants. They had cleaned his glasses, combed his hair. They had done these things for the living, believing dignity was a well-groomed corpse. Jordan thought the dead don’t need bifocals and creased pants, the living do. He thought of comb, the iron, the super-glue to seal the eyelids shut and the starch. He thought of vinegar. Then piss.

When he was a child, Jordan’s mother had told him she named him after a river in the Bible. Since then his name had made him uncomfortable, as if a current of force and faith stretching back farther than he could imagine compelled him forward, drove him into the twists and turns in his life. It was only later, years later, when he too came to know the threat of his own impending funeral that Jordan would think of the ramifications of his name. Near dying, he found redemption in the fact that though the Jordan was a name of a river in the Bible, he, Jordan the man, had never seen it nor read of it, so there was no reason for that unknown river to continually haunt his steps beyond the beyond, whatever the hell that meant.

“Sons of bitches.”

“Did you say something, sweetheart?”

Like a cat on a cloud. Doc once told him that was how his mother entered a room, like a cat on a cloud.

“Just talking to myself.”

“Try not to talk too loudly. This is a funeral. Decorum. Carry yourself with dignity.”

She smelled like a Dollar Tree bottle of floral soup. Pursed lips purpled by the pinot in her glass judged him, kissed him over, found him wanting. A retired housewife living off the pensions of three dead husbands, the first of which was Jordan’s father (mechanic; laborer; failed estate). She was never, could never, would never be satisfied with Jordan, the only heir of her loins; her labial burden carried from crib to stoop to altar and back again with each successive procession of rings on pillows only to be further led into another man’s castle as she (mother; arbiter; Hecate) plied her wiles (those wiles which in youth surpassed the rancid floral bouquet of fresh death breath she exhaled now) in pursuit of yet another kitchen pantry to arrange, another Sunday brunch philosophy to espouse, another dinner party to successfully orchestrate. Without cause, Jordan thought of meringue.

“Doc Franklin would not have wanted dignity.”

“What do you know of the man? He was a doctor for heaven’s sake!”

The hiss of her decorum pregnant fury soured his dreams of pie. Lemons. Lemon drops. First box of candy bought at Doc Franklin’s store. Sticky sugar suck on his back molars commingled with the not biblically Eve forbidden fruit of candy when the order had been for “pickled olives and bring me back all the change.” Words sticking now in his mouth, peanut butter mouth, nutter butters, granular sugar and again Doc charging him for time but not asking for money after that first lemon drop and tearful return. His only truly good father figure. Dead.

“He studied Classics. I know that.”

“That’s why Brett put Latin in the eulogy. He was always such a good boy, that Brett.”

“The implication being I’m not?”

That stopped her mid sip. Wine sloshing to the edge of her glass, the threshold of her lips and back down again. Cheap wine. Skinny legs running fast; torn fishnets and combat boots and tears and Ashlyn confessing to Brett’s goodness through the open window that was forced on her, and months later Doc and he (Jordan) becoming her (Ashlyn’s) only solace as eyes judged measured and pursed lips judged and Brett was forgiven and Hecate (mother dearest) moved onto number three–Thompson?–and Jordan took the drive with Ashlyn, learning courage, reading the well worn, oft thumbed Marcus Aurelius of Doc’s bookshelf given in confidence and out of love, waiting through her icy pain as no one else would for goodness sake. The hidden implication being Brett is too good, even for white-trash.

“You never tried your hand at it.”

“At goodness?”

“Yes. Goodness.”

“I’ve tried.”

“I told you to wear the jacket and a tie. Why must you defy me?”

Defy: to openly resist or refuse to obey. Whose aural qualities morph into defile and that means corruption and that was what he did to her body, and Jordan knew it was not defiance but defilement which she raged against. His defilement of her. He, the constant living reminder of a single night of indiscretion leaving her to forever battle from street to street seeking the good name lost through passion and youth and that unforgivable Ferris wheel carnival romance that was his father’s triumph–eight cylinders of go fast Chevelle with rally stripe and all. In fighting the quicksand of unwanted motherhood she lost more inches of herself with every violent outburst becoming, quietly, unexpectedly, unwelcome and sullied. He was her doom. The drink act now complete. The wine passed the lips and travelled on to complete its course.

“I don’t like ties.”

He turned, watching her quiver. Dry lightning quiver as when the rough western Zephyrus goes riding across harvest fields, ruffling the land, rattling the dry corn stalks of summer, reminding those living few still believing in the Wind that the respiration continues, the great drawing in of breath continues. Reminding those who still believe we are no more or less significant than that breeze, that breath of air. Deep breath. Deeper breath. Breathe.

“Seems to me you don’t like much of anything these days.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Three years, no college degree, some road trip in between, then the plant to pour concrete. All for what? Nothing. Don’t look so surprised. Oh yes, your Doc told me all about the trips. You cannot keep your secrets from me, Jordan. I am still your mother.”

Her belief in secrets betrayed her unmitigated trust in history. The slow gathering of indictments between what she saw as insider information and her wanting to be apart of that same inside. And he, in youth, knowing too the power traded secrets had over her; learning to trade in secrets for himself, the economy of lies and false falsehoods which somehow untangled the double negative, slipped the mooring cleat of truth pier, drifted into the tide of false ebb and flow down away from her and then miraculously the ocean. He trusted the ocean; the immensity, the cornerless horizon at the beachhead that hid no pretenses. He yearned to stand up to his ankles, knees, waist, chest, as sand sucked from beneath his feet back into deep watery oblivion. He wanted to feel a riptide–a backwards sort of birth, Paul Klee and the Angelus Novus. But there was nothing her secrets, her history, knew of these things. Lies.

“I know that, momma. Lord don’t I know it.”

“When are you going to mature? When are you going to stop this foolishness and do something? It’s not decent being unmarried and living at home. No education, no prospects. People are watching us. They are always watching us.”

Never mind it was her letters and her phone calls that brought his return. Stopping first, as all prodigal sons must stop, at the corner store, Doc’s store, where he sat like a philosopher’s statue, chin on fist, reading another book from the uncounted stacks of books kept in back, through the jingle jangle of bells announcing Jordan’s entrance. Then him (Doc) looking up with watery eyes behind dirty glasses wiped clean only when lenses became too blurry to read, wiped by the same rag kept in his same pocket of the last sixty years for the same purpose. The rag, which has never been, to Jordan’s knowledge, washed or snapped clean. Never mind he returned for her, to save her, to care for her as there was the driven distance between home and hospital and endless waiting rooms of stifled coughs as her breasts were taken from her, as she recovered under his hand. No. Never mind those days. Those quiet, violent days when his mother became all vomit and diarrhea and he was all patience and conversations with Doc, the only voice of reason, the only voice that understood because he (Doc) once made the same choice, choosing to run a candy convenience store in a shit-hole town as his own father died from the finally caught up to him collected entropy of age. Yes. Never mind that year, that choice. Never mind.

“Look at Brett. The two of you were so close. Always so close, and now he has a wife and sells insurance. Jeanine has a college education too. Graduated from Sweet Briar College. That’s where she got her degree in teaching. Alice says we are lucky to have her in the school. Heart of gold. That’s what Alice says, a heart of gold and a sterling mind. Can you imagine that? They say Brett will run for City Council. He’ll win. Oh, he has my vote if he does run. I told him so today, this very day. Such a beautiful eulogy he gave. He always had a way with words, that boy. So eloquent.”

“How many glasses have you drank?”

“Don’t you worry how many glasses I have drank. It’s not decent to ask. And, don’t avoid my questions.”

Outside a darkness had begun to gather in the West. The auto procession was set to begin. Even now, listening to his mother rattle her funeral litany of envy, Jordan imagined the near final movements of Doc’s corpus. A dead thing. An empty thing whose soul–if there ever was such a thing–was off and gone leaving behind the wretched living. Corpus, corpse. The summer Ashlyn took to wearing black clothes and boots and black eyeliner and black lipstick because the Shore is small and nothing happens except the passage of time which feels like no time and small town teenagers, if they are not hunters, and if they are not athletes, and if they are not church goers, and if they are poor, and if their mother was cursed with beauty, and if their father was absent, and if that same curse of mother beauty falls to daughter and abscesses into malnutritioned sex appeal, turn to things dark as Ashlyn had done, dreaming Brett would save her, and so gave of her body as down payment to him only to be not saved. White, trash, unredeemed and pregnant; this was identity for Ashlyn. She lost on the investment. She lost her womb. Jordan lost as well, the silent partner. He lost money and friendship and love. Because he could not find it in himself to wash his hands clean of “trailer park indiscretions” as Brett called Ashlyn while riding shotgun in Jordan’s truck to deliver three hundred fifty dollars in crumpled fives and ones and tens with an occasional twenty to make things go away. Jordan could not play the role of Pilate. So Brett went on to the University of Virginia and Jordan tried to do the same, only failed. One conscience stronger than the other. One conscience more malleable than the other. One finding insurance, the other unsure if man can be redeemed. The western clouds began to billow and tower. There would be no crossing, Jordan River be damned.

“Looks like rain.”

“It won’t rain. The forecast didn’t call for rain, Jordan.”

And that was the difference between mother and son. She trusting to forecasts and he relying on experience. Each leading the other further from the center. Jordan turned from the window scanning the room over the top of his mother’s head. She pushing by to see the clouds through the window knowing full well, even in plain sight, she would not believe. Across the distances of carpet and polite conversations held in hushed puddles, he saw Brett raise a stock white coffee cup steaming in toast of recognition. He wore a suit and tie. Sweet Briar next to him, her stomach stretching the seams of her dress showing evidence of the sex act. Her heart of gold equals a successful womb. Jordan dreamt of the sterile coupling of their union: her flat back passionless duty; Rosam quae meruit ferat; pillows from a catalogue; central air and no sweat stains on the mattress. Sweet Briar writhing not in passion but in shame, wanting everything to be over, wanting it to all end while thinking, miraculously, of the lies her mother told. Afterwards there would be sweet tea in a pitcher on the porch. Alice said all the children love her for her sweetness. A rose indeed.

“You should go talk to him. Maybe he can get you a job.”

“I have a job.”

“You pour concrete.”

“It pays.”

“Talk to him. I saw him look at you.”

“I have nothing to say to him.”

But it was too late. Brett had excused himself from the crowd, the herd, the politician’s admiring public. He began to close the distance between he and Jordan. Did he somehow believe himself crossing the gap of time? Was each new step a healing step, a healing salve into the still fresh wound in Jordan’s lost innocence? The distance growing less, the time distance expanding: Jordan thought of the window, of leaping out like a madman from the second story only to bound across the parking lot and into the trees like some hunted thing. But he held his ground. Quaking, he held his ground.

“Jordan. How are you holding up? I know you and Doc were close. Besides me, I think you were the closest person to him. He will be missed.”

“Brett.”

A single word. A single name. The only sound, the only utterance Jordan could muster, could draw forth, draw up from somewhere deep. After so long a silence, only a single word would do.

“Still with the stoicism? Even today?”

Jordan stared. He felt the electricity of his mother’s hope next to him. For the first time he was aware of their great difference. Suited Brett and he, Jordan, in best pair of jeans and shirt with brushed boots and no tie. A chasm of difference, of station, and place.

“Your mother was talking to me about you earlier.”

“She was?”

“Said you are looking for work.”

“I’m not.”

“Jordan, that’s not true at all!”

Her whole body suddenly a power plant. Currents of fear and indignation capable of powering the whole town, the whole county, free of charge minus one conversation and a damn dead man.

“It’s true.”

“Well if you are ever looking for…”

The first peal of thunder and all heads turned towards them. Not them, the window. Every eye seeking the source of sound. The black sky in full effect. All eyes turned, even Brett’s. Not Jordan’s though. He had seen the rain already. All eyes turned and in their turning he discovered her. Ashlyn. A single drop, alone, away from the puddles of bodies. Alone, looking at him.

“Rain. The forecast didn’t call for rain.”

“That’s what I said. Didn’t I just say that very thing, Jordan?”

In her eyes Jordan saw everything, he remembered. He remembered the party in Watson’s fallow field, the whiskey drinking and the smell of cigarettes while Marcy Playground droned it’s lyrics on and on into the night. He remembered Brett, his wild look of determination, and Ashlyn, her innocent look of hope. He remembered her stumbling, clinging to Brett as he held another shot up to her lips, leading her to the back of his (Jordan’s) truck. He remembered the two months later, the fear in her voice as she confessed another growing life to him (Jordan) over cheap high-school cafeteria pizza. It was later, the conversation between two boyhood friends deciding the fate of a third then fourth, the pain began. It was the drive to her trailer; it was his drive with her to the clinic. She didn’t wear black then. Only later. She cried on the drive there, she cried on the drive back and yes, yes, goddamnit yes he had held her and cried as well. Then it was UVA and two years Brett’s roommate as he (Brett) drank himself into fraternity graces while he (Jordan) carried the load of two, not wanting his friend to fail again, not understanding he was failing himself. Then it was the great falling out, the great moment of “No more you son of a bitch” and fists and blood like a penny held too long underneath your tongue. It was all this and more. It was leaving because College should have been more, should have been harder, should have should have should have been the Lyceum but was far too bread soaked and light beer for that. Then it was the leaving school, the road trip and the harvest fields of Nebraska because he needed to feel his body work in the sun as Doc, his confessor, his should have been if only there was a God father suggested he do. It was the cancer of his mother, her pain, his pain, the pain of lost breasts, breasts whose nipples he had tugged at when nursing, gone now and the absurdity of the silence. The absurdity of Ashlyn’s silence, his silence all silence. It was everything contained, all at once, in an iris across the room.

“Goodbye, momma.”

Now he moved. He crossed the room, swam up current, and perhaps Brett’s eyes followed, perhaps more eyes than he knew. He crossed to her, against them all, hearing somewhere faint the sound of his mother’s voice, quavering, calling to him, calling perhaps across the Jordan. He heard her, but chose to listen to the sound of rain. A thunderous rain pelting down on the roof as only summer storms not forecast know how to rain. Had her hand been waiting? Waiting these fifteen years? It was smaller than expected, than remembered. He became aware of his callous, the roughness of his palms made rough by man-made stone. He took hers or perhaps she took his or perhaps they found each others.

“Your mother’s calling you.”

“What does she want?”

“She’s asking you where you are going.”

Then there was the rain. Rain in blue sheets coming down, coming down heavy. It was a soaking rain; a blue rain; the blue rain of baptism.

“Sons of bitches.”

And Jordan and Ashlyn moved.


About the Author: William Conable is an award-winning playwright and poet who lives in Concord, California. His most recent one-act, The Ties That Bind, was performed with the Quixotic Players of Berkeley. Other writing has appeared in WORK Literary Magazine, The Dead Mule and other publications. Originally from Virginia, Conable came west to shed the South’s moldy pretensions for something fresh. He is currently at work on several new pieces, including a novel; when not writing, he bikes in the East Bay hills and considers whether redemption is possible for anyone, and if so, why we care so much about it.

Artwork: Kim Thoman 

Hard to Believe by Elise Glassman

Alex Herrington_for_Hard To Believe


Freddy said, “Hal, dude, you just missed the nurse. She wouldn’t tell us bupkus but oh my god, what a smoking hot body. We’re calling her Hot Donna.”

I traded hugs with him and felt anxious: Freddy joking about the situation made me worry that things were really bad. Turning to John, I said, “What’s happening with Dana? The nurse really wouldn’t tell you anything?”

John shook his head. His eyes were wet and raw. “She just said he’s still unconscious, but stable. The doctors are running a bunch of tests.”

I’d flown into Denver at noon, expecting to be in Aspen with John and Dana and Freddy by sundown. Instead, here we were, crammed into a tiny hospital waiting room. The air smelled like stale heating ducts and cleaning fluid. “So we can’t see him,” I said.

“We’re not family, so no. The nurse said we have to wait in here.”

“Have a seat,” Freddy said. He and John had taken up positions at either end of a mud brown loveseat. Every textile in the room—carpet, seat cushions, drapes—was an earth-tone, washable fabric. We’d been relegated to the Motel 6 of waiting rooms.

I claimed the chair by the window and propped my feet on my suitcase, which was packed with ski gear and two handles of top-shelf tequila, one wrapped in birthday wrapping paper for Dana. “So how did he end up in here? Is it related to the lymphoma?” Dana had been diagnosed last year and was supposedly in remission, but he was notoriously bad about details—for the first month of his treatment, I hadn’t even realized he was fighting stage 3 cancer.

“They’re not sure yet.” Freddy seemed like he wanted to say more but was having trouble, like a man holding too many playing cards.

“His neighbor found him collapsed in his driveway and called the medics.” A woman had come in, blond hair in a low ponytail, wearing dark blue pants with an equally somber pullover vest.

From her outfit and her neutral tone, my first thought was that she was a nurse. Then she sat on the couch arm next to John and put her arm around his shoulder. The new girlfriend, I realized, reaching out to shake her hand. “You must be Lorna,” I said.

“And you must be Hal,” she said. “How are you doing, John, honey?”

“I’m pretty freaked out,” John admitted. He leaned his head on her shoulder.

“Well, have faith—the Lord is willing to bear our griefs and carry our sorrows.”

I recognized the Holy Bible when I heard it. “Uh—Lorna, not sure if you know this, but Dana’s an atheist.”

She looked at me, her eyes narrowing, as though trying to decide if I was serious.

“Just trying to save you from wasting your time,” I added.

“Prayer is never a waste of time,” she shot back.

John closed his eyes. “Guys, please—not now.”

I looked at my friend, head nestled into Lorna’s embrace. In three years rooming together at UCLA, John and I had debated everything: sports, capitalism, workout routines, dog breeds, threesomes, religion. He was as much a non-believer as I was, of this I was sure. Although, until about two hours ago, I’d also been sure I was about to spend the weekend partying with old friends. I got up from the chair, stretching. My ass was starting to ache from all the sitting. “Hey Freddy—coffee run?”

We joined the cafeteria line behind a gaggle of elderly volunteers wearing bright smocks, their haircuts no-hassle short and gray. “So, how’s work going?” I asked Freddy.

“Oh, kind of shitty. The real estate market in Tucson tanked, just like everywhere else.” Freddy still had the curling eyelashes and football player’s build that had made him such a chick magnet in college. “How’re you? How’s the telecom world?”

“I just got promoted to executive director of operations,” I boasted.

“Still dating those young guys from the line crew?”

I pretended to think. “Um—is twenty-four young?” My current boyfriend worked days climbing utility poles and studied marketing at night. His precious free time he spent with me, although we both knew my fascination with his abs wouldn’t outlast finals week.

Freddy laughed. “Twenty-four? Fuck you.”

“Fuck you. Your lady is awesome.”

“Yeah, and we’ve also been together eight years. I can’t remember a whiff of what single snatch is like.”

One of the volunteers turned and gave Freddy a stern look. I smiled at her. “It’s all about choices, dude. Life is like chess and I’m playing tomorrow’s game.” We’d reached the cashier. I ordered drip coffees and pastries and Freddy tossed down a credit card to pay the tab. “Thanks, man.”

He said, noncommittal, “Yeah.”

We were both tiptoeing around something and it felt strange. “You okay?”

Shrugging, he said, “I just thought Dana had this lymphoma shit under control.”

“Passing out in his driveway doesn’t sound under control to me. Wasn’t he supposed to be getting blood counts every three months?”

“He told me he skipped sometimes. It was freaking him out. He felt like he was reliving it every time.”

“Seriously? Goddamn him.” I sipped the hot coffee. The liquid scorched my tongue. “You know what, goddamn you too, for not telling me.” Grabbing the drink carrier, I stalked back to the elevator. At the other end of the hall, John was holding open a door for Lorna. I read the sign aloud. “Interfaith chapel.”

“John got religion,” Freddy said, behind me. He held the bag of pastries curled under his arm like a football.

“Or religion got John,” I said. Our buddy had been with his share of wackadoos over the years: the bald stripper, the ex-wife who’d dropped thirty K at native casinos. But a religious chick? It was hard to believe.

Late afternoon sun beamed into the waiting room. Freddy sat in a corner texting. John was buried in the Denver Post sports page. The evening stretched ahead like Interstate 70—flat, horizon-less, shimmery. I flicked John’s newspaper. “Hey. Did you know Dana wasn’t getting his blood work done?”

“Huh?” He looked at me over the top of the paper.

“Freddy said Dana told him he was skipping his blood work.”

“No, I didn’t know. But knowing Dana, I can’t say it surprises me.”

Freddy set down his phone. “Hal, did Nurse Hot Donna say anything else? I feel like they aren’t telling us jack shit.”

A few minutes earlier, the nurse had stopped in briefly to say only that they were still running tests. I’d followed her back to the ICU. Stopping outside the locked double doors, Nurse Hot Donna had pushed her dark-framed glasses up her nose and asked who I was, exactly. A friend, I said, the word stunningly inadequate for Dana, the smartest guy I knew, hopeless optimist, reliable wingman, goofy little almost-brother. “Nope. Nothing.”

“Son of a bitch,” Freddy said.

“Maybe Lorna can pray down some updates,” I said nastily.

John snapped his newspaper. “Hal, don’t be such a prick. What’s your problem with her being a believer? Did a priest play hide the sausage with you back in the day?”

I didn’t answer. I counted to ten, then twenty, then one hundred. I stared at the divots in the carpet where the couch legs had made dents from a previous position. Reminding myself to breathe, I looked out into the hallway, where an elderly man in a hospital gown and slippers shuffled by, clutching an IV stand, heel-to-toe, heel-to-toe. He felt like a metaphor for our long, halting day.

On Sunday I woke up with an ache in my gut. Freddy and I had grabbed a late dinner the night before at a steakhouse near the hospital, then he’d gone to his wife’s cousins’ place to crash and I’d checked into the Marriott. I’d stayed up late watching ESPN and making a dent in one of the tequila bottles and thinking about John’s comment.

No minister had ever tugged my wiener, but my manhood had been the topic of a multitude of sermons. Men lying with men is an abomination, Pastor would thunder, and I’d sit next to Mama wanting to cry or punch something, wondering how she and he and our Baptist congregation could all be so smug and so certain and so wrong. John telling me to shut up had taken me back to those tortuous hours in the pew, being told to pray away the urges I felt toward other boys, to stuff them away the way I bundled up my cock before track practice.

Anyway, I couldn’t dwell on it now: shit/shower/shave, and a cab to the hospital.

I took the elevator to Dana’s floor and lo and behold the ICU doors were propped open. It felt like an invitation—a gift—for arriving early and alone. I walked in as though I had a right to.

“Sir?” A broad-shouldered nurse in purple scrubs intercepted me, stethoscope bouncing on a broad, impeccable chest. “Excuse me? You can’t go in there.”

I looked over his shoulder into a room, saw a bed and a flat screen spewing out vitals like a stock ticker. Saw figures around the bed, heard voices, a high-pitched voice, then Dana’s voice—wait—Dana’s voice? “Is he awake?”

“Only medical staff and family members are allowed in,” the nurse was saying.

“I am family,” I lied.

The nurse looked me over. “Is that so? I just spoke to his mom and sister. They’re still trying to fly out of Fort Lauderdale. Apparently a hurricane’s blowing in.”

Suddenly, two figures burst out of Dana’s room: Lorna, ponytail flopping behind her like a leaky balloon, and a white-haired man decked out in a three-piece powder blue suit. As they exited, a half dozen figures in scrubs fanned out across the hall behind them.

“Be healed. Be healed! Praise Jesus,” the man was crowing.

“Family only, huh? Then how did those two get in there?” I said, angry, but my nurse’s attention was focused on Lorna and the wailing old man.

Facing the defensive line of nurses, Lorna said, “You let us alone. He’s clergy.”

“You need to leave. Now,” the big nurse said. A muscle in his jawline flexed.

“Let’s go, Preacher,” Lorna said, taking his arm. They proceeded down the hall together, like carolers singing a grim, unwelcome hymn.

“Looks like the hurricane already blew in,” I said to the nurse, knowing I was being melodramatic. He watched me all the way to the end of the hall, and pressed a button to close the double ICU doors behind me.

Lorna and Preacher awaited me outside the doors. “Hal, meet a friend of mine,” she said, smiling, eyes bright, seeming exhilarated from the earlier encounter.

The man stepped close. His coffee breath plumed into my nostrils. “God bless you, my son. Did you come to commune with the young Lazarus?”

“Preacher’s a faith healer. We prayed Dana from his slumber.” Even though she was still smiling, Lorna’s eyes were as hard as rock, as though she knew things I did not.

Preacher grabbed my arm with cold fingers and pressed his eyelids together. “Oh, Lord Jesus, heal this young man. Heal his friends. Take away their fear and longing. Be healed. Be healed.”

I pulled my arm free. “Stop it. I’m not sick.”

“We all sick,” Preacher moaned. “We all sick, son. We just don’t know it.”

“Hey Dana, you want some more pop?” Freddy sat at the foot of Dana’s bed. The room reeked of cold cuts and onions. With his Mom and sister still stranded in the Southeast, newly-awakened Dana had waged a hunger strike until the nurses allowed Freddy and me in around lunchtime. We’d grabbed supplies from the Subway around the corner and waltzed triumphantly into his room.

Dana sipped his drink, then began to cough. He coughed and coughed. Freddy rose from the bed, concerned, but Dana hiccupped finally and caught his breath.

A dark-haired nurse in flowered scrubs poked her head in. “Everything okay?”

“Yes, Guadeloupe, sorry,” Freddy said.

“You should no eating pepperoni subs,” she said, shaking a finger. We laughed. I was relieved that Nurse Hot Donna seemed to be off duty.

“Jesus, you guys,” Dana breathed. “All this and I choke to death on 7-Up?”

“So, dude, what the hell happened?” I said. “You came down with the flu plus a random infection and here you are?”

He yawned, kitten-like, his mouth wide-open, teeth gleaming. “That’s what they think. I took a shitload of antibiotics for the MALT last year, so when I got this flu bug, regular drugs didn’t cut it.”

I felt a tug of worry. “What about the next flu bug? And the one after that?”

“I’m just trying to get through today, Hal.”

“Okay,” I said.

“Once I get my resistance built back up, I’ll be fine.”

“And keep getting your blood work done,” I said pointedly.

Dana didn’t answer. He stared at the Broncos pre-game show on his TV.

“Lorna says her and that Preacher guy woke you up with their prayers,” Freddy said. He fired a sub wrapper at the trashcan but the wad of paper bounced off the rim.

“Who is that guy?” I said. “Did she bring him here from L.A.?”

“She told me he’s local,” Freddy said. “Her church out there hooked them up.”

“He tried to faith heal me,” I said, wiping my fingertips with a napkin. “Fucking old fraud.”

Dana said, “Who’s to say? Maybe the prayers did some good.”

“Or maybe your doctors had something to do with it,” I said.

“Who cares, as long as it worked,” Freddy said diplomatically.

“No offense, idiots, but I believe in medical science,” I said.

“I believe,” Dana said, pausing to catch his breath. “That I’m going to kick you two assholes out of here if you don’t shut up so we can watch the game.”

It was our last night together. Just as his Mom and sister arrived tomorrow, we’d all go home, vacations over but not taken. Freddy got permission from Nurse Hot Donna to throw a birthday party in the cafeteria. She signed off on everything but my hip flask, filled with tequila from the nearly empty fifth. Lorna had offered to pick up taco truck dinner and a cherry pie from King Soopers, and even I mumbled my thanks as I chipped in twenty bucks.

We seated Dana at an out of the way cafeteria table. He surveyed us like a king, an unshaven sovereign bundled up in hospital gowns and a bathrobe. “Okay, listen up. I’m sorry about your vacations, dudes. I’ll make it up to you, I swear.”

“How about making sure you get your blood work done,” I said ungenerously.

“Jesus, Hal.” Freddy said. “Give it a rest. It’s not like he wanted to end up in a coma.”

“I wasn’t in a coma,” Dana said.

“You were in a coma,” John said.

“Well fuck me, you’re all M.D.’s,” Dana said. He sipped from the margarita we had mixed up in a Minute Maid carton.

“Chow time!” Lorna arrived, dumping grease-spotted bags onto the table. The smell of tortillas and cheese and salsa wafted over us like perfume.

“Where’s the pie?” Freddy said.

“Praise the Lord and pass the pie.” Preacher sailed into view, his Colonel Sanders hair flapping, balancing a pie on each fleshy palm.

“What’s he doing here?” On principle, I didn’t want to dig in now, but damn my traitorous taste buds, I seemed to be starving. Would dinner obligate me to listen to whatever sermon Preacher might feel like regurgitating?

“I said he could come,” Dana said.

“Let’s say grace,” Lorna interjected, as everybody reached for food.

“Might I lift us up to the Lord in prayer?” Preacher said unctuously.

“I’ll pray,” I said.

Everyone looked at me. “Hal, “John said, weary.

“’I thank you god for most this amazing day.’ Amen.” e.e. cummings’ poem quoted over dinner had never failed to send my mother into a fury, and, looking at Lorna’s pinched expression, I had to admit it still felt good to piss off a sanctimonious female. I bit into a warm tortilla. “Delicious. Thanks so much, Lorna.”

“What a blessing that you young folks can be here with your friend during this time of trial,” Preacher said.

“Funny thing is, he’s not a blessing at all,” Freddy said, winking. “He’s actually kind of a pain in the ass.”

Lorna cracked her gum. “You all should be thinking about the future.”

The future. Eternity. Here it came. “Can’t we just enjoy the now?” I said, irritated.

“You did say you were playing tomorrow’s chess match, Hal,” Freddy said.

“Shut the fuck up,” I said. Nearby, an Asian family was busily shoving tables together, metal chair legs squealing on the tile.

Lorna said, “I think you all know. You know it’s serious with Dana, and you’re afraid to face the truth about what’s coming. For him and for you.”

“What do you know about anything?” I said.

John was looking at Dana with leaking eyes. “What’s coming?”

“Just a goddamn minute. My health is my business.” Dana jabbed a thumb at his chest. “Everybody else can just fuck the fuck off.”

Freddy looked pale. “Dana—”

“Fred-dee,” Dana drawled, trying to be funny. He looked around the table and then drooped a little, as though finally recognizing the uncertainty in our eyes and faces. John sat with his head bowed—praying, I thought. Or maybe bracing himself.

I felt light-headed. We’d all been so busy clowning around, pretending like nothing was wrong, nothing had changed, that this was one more minor blip on the road back to hale health and heartiness. Did Dana not trust us enough to be honest? Maybe we had let him down with all our brainless horsing around.

“The Lord Jesus is here for you,” Lorna was saying earnestly. “For all of you. If only you’ll let Him in, you can spend eternity with Him.”

I stood up. She wasn’t going to let it go. Then neither was I. “Hey Lorna, you know what, you and Preacher—you two are vampires. Preying on people when they’re weak.”

Lorna said, “We’re here to speak the truth, Hal.”

“The truth? The truth is—”

John stood up too. He still had a couple inches on me. “Knock it off. Both of you.”

Lorna went on, “The truth is, the Lord woke your friend up, and you can’t stand being wrong.”

“You can believe whatever you want,” I said.

“I believe what I witnessed,” she said, again with the smug certainty.

Nobody else spoke. Preacher chewed on, moustache deep in carne asada. Was Lorna onto something? Did she really know something we didn’t? She’d been in the room when Dana woke up. John knew her best of all of us, and even he was getting hauled around by the nuts.

After everyone had cleared out of the cafeteria—a nurse wheeling Dana up to shower, Freddy to call his lady, the unholy trinity of John, Lorna and Preacher who knew where—I stood outside on an empty terrace, under a burned-out patio light, tears splashing my clasped hands. Tequila always made me emotional. I dried my face with a napkin, dug in my pockets for my emergency cigarette.

“Man, I’d kill for one of those.” There was a shuffling sound, Dana’s slippers sliding across the cement.

“Aren’t you supposed to be getting cleaned up for your family?” I said.

“God dammit. Stop being so fucking helpful. All I wanted was just to have our weekend. You know? Be assholes together, like always.” Dana breathed, closing his eyes.

“You can’t blame us for being worried. You don’t tell us shit,” I said.

“It’s true, you don’t.” Freddy came up, handed a lit cigarette to Dana, supported his elbow as he took a draw.

“Are you guys nuts?” Here was John, wild-eyed. “If the nurses see this, they are going to fucking bust you.”

“Oh come on. Give a dying man a cigarette,” Dana said.

We looked at him, miserable. “Dude, you’re not dying,” Freddy said.

“We’re all dying.” Dana looked around for a place to sit. I eased him into a chair, marveled at how light he was.

“Don’t let Lorna and Preacher get to you, Dana. They’re just a couple of whack jobs.”

“Hal, why don’t you shut up–” John elbowed me hard, knocking the wind out of me. I shoved back, watched him waver like a man on a tightrope.

“Everything okay out here?” A man approached, stethoscope slung around his neck. It was the broad-shouldered nurse who’d kicked me out of the ICU.

“Everything’s fine.” Dana’s trembling hand masked his lips, his cigarette breath.

The nurse held up my flask. “One of you leave this down in the cafeteria?”

“That one,” John muttered, nodding at me.

“Just celebrating a birthday.” I squinted to read his nametag. “How are you—Nurse Thomson? I’m Hal.”

“Kevin,” the guy said, shaking my hand. He wore pale blue scrubs and white Comverse kicks.

“Let me ask you something,” I said. “Did Jesus wake our friend up from his coma?”

He frowned. “Wrong profession, my friend.”

“Dude, are we all dying?” Freddy said, drunkly earnest.

“Every living thing is dying,” Kevin the nurse said, looking around the patio, and up at the sky. “Living and breathing and suffering and farting and fucking and loving and dying. It’s a beautiful thing, man.”

Preacher and Lorna were right, in a way. The fuckers. There was movement in the universe, I felt. A change, a disturbance, the way things stirred and then did not, just before a storm.


About the Author: Elise Glassman lives and works in Seattle, and she studied fiction with Laura Kalpakian and others at the University of Washington Extension, and with Marilynne Robinson at the Iowa Summer Writer’s Workshop. Her work has appeared in journals such as The Colorado Review, Neon Beam, The Summerset Review, Main Street Rag, the Portland Review, Tawdry Bawdry, Referential Magazine, and Switchback. Her essay “Touch” appeared in the anthology Beyond Belief: The Secret Lives of Women in Extreme Religion, and in 2015, her story, “Free Ride” will appear in Per Contra.

Artwork: Alex Herrington

Three Sundays At The Grove by Dallas Woodburn

Ira Joel Haber_for_Three Sundays at The Grove


 

When Deepti was born in San Francisco in the summer of 1991, her parents were living in a tiny apartment above an Indian restaurant called “The Golden Sari,” and they were in their Hindi phase. Deepti often wondered whether the Indian restaurant and the samosas her mother craved during pregnancy influenced their sudden conversion to Hinduism. It would make sense, knowing her mother. Over the years she had acquired a wide mishmash of cultural affectations to match her ever-growing palate, trying on religions and customs, discarding some aspects while keeping others, as if the world were an immense shopping mall waiting to expand her cultural wardrobe. Deepti wondered, if her parents had lived above an Italian restaurant instead of “The Golden Sari,” would they have had a Catholic phase? Would Deepti instead be named Mary or Teresa or Anne?

That was twenty-one years ago, and the Hindi phase was long gone—as was her father. Still, Deepti was left with two constant reminders: her vegetarianism and her name, Charusheela Deepti, roughly translated to “beautiful jewel full of light.” These two things, combined with her honey-freckled skin, almond eyes, and unruly wiry curls, made Deepti feel a part of many groups—part Asian, part black, part Hindi—and yet not really a part of any group. She was a one-woman species. Unclassifiable.

*

For their first date, Greg took Deepti to The Grove, an outdoor shopping mall in West Hollywood. “They have a great farmer’s market here,” Greg said, taking her hand. They wove their way through the tented stalls, past the bulging pumpkins and squashes, sizzling meat with peppers and onions, tubs of live lobsters. They ate lunch at a stall selling cheap Chinese food—the American version, of course, with greasy noodles and deep-fried orange chicken that Deepti could not eat. She ordered the mixed vegetables instead, which were mundanely delicious. Deepti only ate “authentic” Chinese food when she visited her grandparents in Oregon, so this was Chinese food she was used to, the watered-down Americanized version she recognized for its illegitimacy and loved for the same reason. And, while her own mother had preferred ordering from Panda Express to cooking recipes passed down through generations, at least she had taught Deepti the correct way to use chopsticks. Greg was impressed.

“I’m terrible at using those,” he said, gesturing with his plastic fork at the chow mein dangling off Deepti’s chopsticks.

“It’s not that hard,” Deepti said. “I’ve been using them all my life. My mom’s Chinese. Her parents came to America when she was a baby.”

“Really? That’s cool.”

Greg didn’t ask for further details about her ancestry, but she told him anyway: “And my dad’s black. They met at Berkeley in the ’60s. You know—civil rights, free love and all that.”

Greg nodded, his eyebrows slightly furrowed as if he wasn’t sure what to say. The silence stretched. Deepti felt a pit open up in her stomach as the greasy noodles slid down her throat.

“So do you speak any Chinese?” Greg asked.

“Not really. Just bits and phrases.”

“Say something for me.”

“Umm … let me think.” In truth, Deepti could not remember a single phrase she had learned eight summers ago, when her mom went back to Berkeley in search of her “roots,” or maybe Deepti’s father, and Deepti spent a month living with her grandparents in Oregon. Either way, Deepti was looking out the window for flashes of lightning when her mom’s car pulled into the driveway on a rainy afternoon. She could tell from the way her mother heaved herself out of the driver’s seat and shut the car door with the full weight of her body, as if between its hinges were cockroaches that needed crushing, that nothing—and yet everything—had changed.

To Deepti, that summer was a fierce line drawn in the gravelly sand of her life, separating the way things were from the way things used to be. Her mother left as a loud voice and a flapping coat, jangling bracelets and jasmine incense—a hippie woman-child who gazed skyward with hopeful eyes, giving crinkled dollar bills to every homeless person she passed on the street. When she returned, she seemed audibly softer, smaller—a question mark slouched inside herself. Whatever she had gone to Berkeley looking for, she had not found it. When she came back, she stopped looking altogether.

Two months later, she began showing. Deepti’s brother, Alson Jones, Jr., was born during the first whispered notes of spring. He was dark, too—darker than Deepti. Their mother said they had the same father, though she was no magician and another child didn’t make Alson Jones, Sr. reappear.

Now, gazing into Greg’s expectant eyes, the only Chinese word Deepti could summon was kuei. Ghost. Before that summer, her mother flipped through the pages of Maxine Hong Kingston’s memoir every day, as if she could glean magic from the touch of her fingertips to the dusty ink on its pages. She memorized passages, quoted them aloud while they were eating breakfast or driving to school or shuffling through the aisles in the downtown supermarket, their basket filled with hard green apples and skim milk. Sometimes Deepti would walk into a room and catch her mother muttering to an imaginary Maxine. Sensing Deepti there, her mother would abruptly turn and smile, and pretend she was singing to herself.

Kuei,” Deepti told Greg.

Kuei. What does it mean?” he asked.

“Ghost,” Deepti said. It was also the word they used for white people, but she did not tell him that.

*

Deepti only had a handful of memories of her father. Being carried piggyback along a crowded city street, lulled by the sway of her father’s gait and the strength of his sinewed shoulders. The teddy bear her father won at some amusement park and gave to her, though Deepti wasn’t sure she actually remembered the broad smile on her father’s face as he presented the bear from behind his back. It was possible she was just imagining the memory.

Most of all, Deepti remembered lying in her bed at night, plugging her ears with her fingers and screwing her eyes shut as her parents’ arguments resounded through their tiny apartment above The Golden Sari.

“Who is she?” her mother would scream.

“Who is who?” her father would shout. “There’s nobody else! You’re crazy, Min!”

“Then explain where you disappear to all night. Huh?”

“I was at Bernie’s. Okay?”

“You are such a liar, don’t even expect me to swallow that load of shit—”

“You know what? I don’t have to take this.”

“Fine!” her mother screamed, the last time. “Then go! Just go, Alson! Go!”

“Okay. I’ll go!”

“GO!”

“I’m going!” her father shouted, the last time. “Don’t worry, Minjun—I’m gone!”

Deepti heard every word, despite her fingers plugging her ears. That was the last time she heard her father’s voice. To Deepti, the sharp slam of the front door was the world shattering.

*

“My parents are coming to visit this weekend,” Greg said. “They want to meet you.”

“Already?”

“What do you mean, already? We’ve been together what, three months?”

Deepti swallowed. “It’s just—that’s a serious step, isn’t it? Meeting the parents?”

Greg smoothed his palms over his blue-jeaned thighs. “Deep, you’re an important part of my life and my parents want to meet you. I don’t get what’s so weird about that.”

“It’s just…” Deepti sighed, fiddling with the zipper on her sweatshirt. “Are you sure they want to meet me? Do they know I’m not some—some rich white sorority girl?”

“Is that what you think of me?” Greg asked quietly. Deepti could hear the hurt in his voice. “Nothing but a rich white boy?”

Deepti fumbled for words. “No, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that.” She reached for his hand. “I would be honored to meet your parents. Really.”

“You don’t have to.”

“I want to. Maybe we could take them to The Grove?”

*

This time they did not eat at the farmer’s market, but instead at a restaurant with tablecloths and linen napkins and menus written in French. La Tomate Brulante. They sat at a table on the patio. The sun shone brightly in Deepti’s eyes, making her squint, but she thought it would be rude to put on her sunglasses. Beads of sweat coalesced on the back of her neck.

“So, Deepti, what are you studying?” Greg’s mother asked. She wore her hair in a loosely coiled knot and her blue eyes were heavily mascara-ed. Only twice could Deepti remember seeing her own mother wearing make-up: when she left that day for Berkeley, and in the wedding photo that Deepti had uncovered, framed and dusty, in a box in her grandparents’ garage.

“Philosophy,” she said.

“What do you plan to do with that?” said Greg’s father, his tone an elbow to the ribs.

“Students become doctors, lawyers. I’m thinking of applying for the Peace Corps.”

Greg’s father raised an eyebrow. “Didn’t know kids still did that.” He was a tall man, even when seated, with impeccable posture and a closely cropped salt-and-pepper beard.

“It’s a very competitive program, Pop,” Greg said, his hand finding Deepti’s beneath the table.

Later, after a round of appetizers, salad and soup, rack of lamb marinated in lemon and garlic that Deepti had to politely refuse; after the coffee cups and sugar spoons had been cleared away; after Greg’s father made a big show of calculating the tip, and Deepti said, “Thank you for lunch,” feeling strangely unsettled at the whole ordeal—later, they strolled past the stores with the big windows and the strings of lights gleaming nearly translucent in the bright sunshine. There was a bridge over a man-made pond, a gaudy fountain, a park swathed with trees and a small stage where a band played Beatles tunes. The four of them settled down on the grass. Deepti closed her eyes, letting the music seep into her chest. Maybe she worried too much. Maybe it would all be okay.

*

“They found her,” Alson said. His voice sounded too calm for a fifth-grader.

Deepti was still half-asleep. “It’s two in the morning, buddy. What’s going on?”

“It’s mom. They found her.”

“Mom?” Deepti sat up. Blood rushed to her temples.

“A policeman came to our house. I’m not supposed to know. Grandma was crying.”

“It’s okay. I’m glad you called me.”

“Deepti? When are you coming home?”

*

Deepti stuffed a couple T-shirts into a duffel bag. Greg wrapped his hands around her waist. “I’ll miss you,” he said.

“It’s only three days.”

“You’re really don’t want me to come?”

“Midterms are almost here. I don’t want to burden you with this.”

“I told you, it’s not a burden.”

“Thanks, but this is something I need to do myself.” Deepti heard the brusqueness in her voice and felt a surge of guilt—Greg was trying, wasn’t he?—but he didn’t understand. He had the perfect All-American family. His mother with her blush and pearls, his father with his beard and law firm. Their pre-Revolutionary-War lineage. Greg wouldn’t understand a mother who one day didn’t pick up Alson from school, who wasn’t there when he got home, who, they later found out, didn’t go into work that day, either. She just disappeared. No note, no goodbye—nothing. On the kitchen table, she left her faded, dog-eared copy of The Woman Warrior. That was how Deepti knew she wasn’t coming back.

Deepti took The Woman Warrior from her bookshelf and placed it in her bag. “I’ll see you soon,” she said to Greg. She kissed him, hard, closing her eyes to avoid her mother lurking in the corner of the room, gazing at her with a ghostly vacant stare.

*

When Deepti left her apartment the next morning, her kuei mother followed, sliding across the backseat of the taxi that took them to the airport. She followed Deepti onto the plane, plopping down on the aisle floor beside her daughter’s seat. She was oblivious to the other passengers stepping on her, grunting as they heaved bulging travel bags into the overhead compartments, and the stewardesses pushing carts right through her as she lay sprawled on her side, sleeping, her thin arms folded beneath her head. Deepti had forgotten how sharply angular her mother’s elbows were, how hollow her cheekbones. Even when she was alive, she had been thin and ghostly. The last time Deepti hugged her, saying goodbye after winter break, she had been too scared to squeeze at all, as if the slightest pressure would cause her mother’s frail bones to break.

“Miss? Chicken or pork?” The stewardess’s high-heel was planted squarely through Deepti’s mother’s chest.

“Actually, can I have your vegetarian option?” Deepti asked. In truth, the ghostly form beside her was not new. Her mother had always been pervasively half-there, affecting Deepti’s life from a distance. Her whimsical choices, trying on religions and cultures as if she were a little girl playing dress-up, determined who she, Charusheela Deepti, was and who she would always be. Deepti shifted in her narrow seat, waiting for her mixed vegetables and rice. She would always have to ask for the vegetarian option, because of her mother.

*

Deepti held Alson’s hand as they leaned against the boat railing, watching their mother’s ashes swirl into the dark ocean waves. Their grandparents stood a few feet away, gazing down at the water with unreadable wrinkled faces. Nobody spoke.

Deepti’s ghost-mother was there, too. She had followed Deepti from the airport to her grandparents’ home, standing silently in the corner as Deepti ate her grandmother’s dumplings and played endless games of checkers with Alson. Her ghost-mother sat on the edge of Deepti’s bed all night, and Deepti couldn’t sleep. She just wanted it to be over—she wanted to say goodbye and be done. Deepti hoped her mother’s kuei would float away with her ashes.

She didn’t. But slowly, ocean water began to seep into her ghost clothes and weigh down her hair, spilling out of her eyes and squishing wetly in her shoes. Her mother, the drowned ghost. Deepti had stuffed The Woman Warrior into the pocket of her coat before they left her grandparents’ house, in case she needed it at the funeral. She wanted to throw it into the ocean’s choppy waves. Feeling the cover’s flimsiness between her fingers, she almost pulled it out. But she couldn’t. She couldn’t just throw it away, not with her ghostly mother standing beside her and reproaching her with vacant eyes. Eyes that knew nothing and yet also seemed to know everything—everything, at least, that mattered. Everything Deepti feared. She looked into her mother’s ransacked stare and saw a future chosen and waiting for her that she never wanted to claim.Deepti did not want to be her mother’s substitute. She gripped the railing tighter.

“Ow!” Alson said. “You’re hurting my hand!”

“Sorry,” Deepti said. They turned away from the railing as the boat headed back to shore. Deepti’s other hand hung limp and empty at her side. She wished Greg were there.

*

On her way back to school from the airport, Deepti stopped at The Grove. It was a Sunday, and families milled about. She leaned against a tree and listened to the band play a few songs. Her ghost-mother sat beside her, dripping wet, muttering to herself or maybe to Maxine. Her voice was the unintelligible whisper of dead leaves.

When Deepti walked to the farmer’s market, her mother followed. They strolled past rows and rows of striped tents selling gyros and rogan josh, pot stickers and palenta. Finally, Deepti found what she wanted. Big Billy’s Burgers! a sign proclaimed. America’s Best! Deepti could smell meat sizzling on the grill.

“One cheeseburger, please,” she told the cashier. And, six minutes later, she had an All-American burger in her hand. Nobody stopped her. Nobody could tell she had never done this before. Deepti sat down at a grease-streaked table with hard plastic chairs. Her ghost-mother sat across from her. Deepti met her mother’s eyes as she brought the burger to her lips and took a bite. It tasted strange, a taste Deepti would later associate with forgiveness. She took bite after bite, knowing that within an hour she would be kneeling in front of a toilet in a public bathroom stall, her body repelling the foreign substance. Yet she kept eating, not really tasting anymore, just chewing and swallowing, swallowing and chewing. Thinking.About how her mother was found curled up underneath the fire escape beside The Golden Sari restaurant, not breathing. About the way her mother used to sing her to sleep when she was little, a lullaby, Just let the west wind carry your cares away, Wei shenme? Mei guanxi. About her mother’s smile, which she caught glimpses of in Alson’s gap-toothed grin. Deepti chewed and swallowed, swallowed and chewed, thinking finally about Greg, his hand on her knee, the way he looked at her and she felt her own wholeness expanding inside her ribcage like a hopeful balloon.

When she had licked every morsel of meat and fat from her fingers, Deepti scrunched up the wrapper in her fist and tossed it at the nearest trashcan. She unzipped her duffel bag and took out The Woman Warrior. Always she was surprised at how small it was, how little it weighed. You could carry it around with you all day, in your purse, your pocket. So light a ghost could carry it. Deepti set the bookcarefully down on the table, smoothing the cover flat. When she got up to leave, her mother did not follow.


About the Author: Dallas Woodburn is a 2013-14 Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing at San Jose State University. A three-time Pushcart Prize nominee, she recently won second place in the American Fiction Prize, and her work is forthcoming in American Fiction Volume 13: The Best Unpublished Short Stories by American Writers (New Rivers Press). Her short story collection was a finalist for the 2012 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction; individual stories have appeared in Superstition Review, The Nashville Review, Louisiana Literature, Ayris, and Monkeybicycle, among others. She has been honored with the international Glass Woman Prize, the Brian Mexicott Playwriting Award, and a merit scholarship to attend the Key West Literary Seminar. A former fiction editor of Sycamore Review, she also served as editor of the anthology Dancing With The Pen: a collection of today’s best youth writing. She is the founder of Write On! For Literacy, an organization that empowers young people through reading and writing endeavors: www.writeonbooks.org.

Artwork: Ira Joel Haber

Snow Globe by Monica Wesolowska

B. Ellis Williams_ For Snow Globe


From his hospital bed, he could not feel the heat of the day, but he could see the wind tearing the last, wrinkled leaves from the silver branches of a tree and bending the top of an evergreen beyond. He thought he should ask her the day.

“Tuesday,” Helen said.

But what he had meant was the date.

Beyond the evergreen, three palm trees bent in unison beneath a blast, then sprang up, brushing and slashing at the sky with their fronds, and then he remembered. Almost time for her holiday bash. Was that it? In fact, there was Santa, a man dressed as Santa, napping on the hospital lawn across the street. She would be amused by that. “Santa,” he said, lifting what felt like his arm but turned out to be no more than a finger to point in that direction. But perhaps Santa wasn’t the right topic after all. He wished she had told him the date.

“Jesus,” Helen said, not looking at the Santa. “This is no time for jokes.”

“Name’s Harold,” Harold mumbled. It was an old joke, a reflex; if he had the strength, he might tease her that Jesus might be the guy in the next bed, but Helen suddenly stood and went to the window. She’d been sitting for hours, for days, next to his bed it seemed, but now she was standing with her back to him. What day was it anyway? he wondered. From the nibbling pain at his side, he knew he needed to straighten this out fast.

“Goddamn it,” Helen said, “I’m only doing this for you.”

Too late, Helen realized she should have smiled at him when he made that old joke about Jesus; turning back from the sealed window, she tried to smile at him now and was embarrassed to be caught by the wife at the next bed. Always there were visitors there, hovering, a wife, a sister, children, grandchildren, always ready to give Helen a sympathetic smile as if they were all in this together. The man there had been given a month to live, she’d overheard the wife telling a visitor that, as if one could ever know how long someone had left. “It’s warm out there,” Helen said at last. “Bone dry. No snow at Tahoe. It’ll be a smooth ride up.” She returned to her chair by his bed. “All I’m asking is a day or two, Harold. We can drive back whenever you want. We can leave your family up there and come back to the hospital. Just put yourself in my shoes, Harold. I’m just trying to do what’s best.”

She tried to smile again, but now a nurse was in the way, rushing in and bending over him, saying, “Hello, Harry.” Yesterday Helen had reminded this nurse that Harold was still a doctor in the hospital and should be addressed as such but here she was again, saying, “Of course, Harry,” almost giggling with helpful pleasure as she adjusted something on his drip. Yesterday, this nurse had also tried to talk to Helen about hospice, and Helen had roundly told her off for losing faith in Harold’s recovery.

“She looks fourteen,” Helen said bitterly as soon as the nurse had left off fiddling and drifted to the other bed. “You’d be better off with me. We’ll set you up…” When Harold looked as if he were about to speak, Helen stopped, but then he didn’t so she went on, “We’ll set you up in your La-Z-Boy. We’ll bring it to the head of the table.”

Again Harold tried to speak. “The catheter,” he began.

“I’ve asked Dr. Carey about that,” Helen said triumphantly. At least Dr. Carey had agreed with Helen on this. “Traveling to the cabin is fine. She’ll set you up with a portable catheter, make you comfortable. She said champagne is fine, brandy butter, it’s all fine. She said this party is just what you, just what we need to lift our spirits.” She laughed hollowly and then waited.

For some reason she did not remind him about the unveiling of his mother’s gravestone. It was the party afterwards that she wanted him to come for, she wanted the relief after the unveiling of a party in his mother’s winter cabin. The relief of his mother being gone. A year she had been dead, a year it would be, the day after tomorrow. For a year Harold had planned the unveiling, and for a year Helen had imagined the party afterwards, the party when finally she would have Harold all to herself. The first holiday party in years where his mother would not be there, poisoning the fun, making them nervous about what she would do next to grab their attention, smashing a champagne glass, swallowing a silver charm from the pudding, her charisma, her wit suddenly going too far, leaving her naked in the snow singing something from Carmen while Harold tried to pull her back inside.

Harold looked past Helen, out the window at the wind in the trees. “You go…” he said. He was thinking of a time when he was young and had a kite. A summer on Fire Island. He and Bill and his mother together. The kite was gray with pink ears.

Helen laughed again. “I’m not going without you. I’m doing it for you. You’re just being stubborn. Think about it. Bill and Ruth are bringing all eight kids, even Shoshana. Shoshana is interrupting her junior year abroad to come. Maybe she’s in the air already. How long does it take to come from Israel? You can’t let your brother collect his family from all the corners of the globe and then refuse to budge because of a catheter. I don’t buy it.”

When Harold still said nothing, she looked back out the window at the tossing trees. It was unnatural, she thought. After thirty-two years in California, she still found the seasons wrong. Today the wind was actually warm, a warm wind that refused to let the cold of winter start. She wanted to take that blue sky and shake it, shake it like the snow globe Harold had given her just a few weeks ago for her collection. To get you into the holiday spirit, he’d said, in his generous way. He hated Santa, he hated Christmas, he hated blind Christian hegemony – together they’d moved away from any semblance of the religious practices of their youth – but every year he’d given her a snow globe for Christmas because he understood her nostalgia for the joy of childhood holidays. They’d gone to a play that night, getting out their season tickets without looking at what was on, but when the play turned out to be Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? he’d insisted they leave at intermission. She’d never seen the play before and all he would tell her was that the madness of it continued, that it had something to do with having children or with not having children. He’d given her the snow globe afterwards, in the car, straight from the bag from the store where he’d bought it earlier that day. Go ahead, he’d said, play God, shake it. And when she’d shaken it, it wasn’t snow that lifted up but a flurry of little kites with tiny tails. It was something entirely knew to her collection. As good as the one with umbrellas falling around the Eiffel Tower. He’d kissed her warmly in the car. Then he’d told her about his diagnosis, that the cancer had already spread, though he wouldn’t tell her more.

“I’ve already ordered the beef from Magnani’s,” she said unsteadily.

His eyes rolled from the window to his morphine drip sailing at the top of its pole. The kite had belonged to him but Bill had flown it, and it got caught in a pine tree, and his mother had made them leave it there, stuck in a tree on Fire Island, because she was in one of her moods; and when he asked months later if Santa could bring him a new kite, she’d yelled at him because they were Jewish and Santa didn’t come to their house. He should tell Helen about the kite. He’d never told her that story about his mother and the kite. He used to call Helen, “my sweet kite,” he used to tell her that he’d hold her to the earth while she sailed free above him. He opened his mouth to speak, but a little mouse stopped him.

“But you can weigh in on the side dishes,” Helen went on, regaining her footing. “I was thinking mashed potatoes but then I saw a recipe for potatoes mashed with parsnips. They have nice parsnips at the Berkeley Bowl. We haven’t had parsnips since…”

The mouse had little pink ears like his kite, but it had real teeth and claws, and it had finally eaten through his skin and was inside now, trembling and gnawing.

“I’ve asked Dr. Carey,” Helen tried again. “I’ve got the equipment…”

Now that one had gotten in, he could feel a stream of them slipping in. He could feel them in his veins, his organs, nibbling, gnawing. His liver, his kidney. He had to tell Helen something fast. Why couldn’t he remember? The words. Were they leaking out the mouse hole? At the mouse house, Helen’s face loomed and he knew he had to say something, to convince her that she would be fine, that she had never needed him as much as she thought, and he felt his mouth moving and thought he said, “Helen.”

But Helen had turned from him to the commotion around the next bed.

The man there wanted to get up. “Where’s my Gucci bag?” the man asked.

“It’s right here. Everything’s okay,” his wife said soothingly, and then they surrounded him, two teen-aged boys, a girl of six, a skinny young man with a tie on, lifting his tubes, swinging his legs to the edge of the bed, closing his gown in back, heaving him up and into his wheelchair. Helen though it was ghastly. But at last they were setting off, all of them attached in some way, wheeling his oxygen, holding up a tube, jingling like a sleigh – his wheelchair had been hung with bells and holly – and as they passed, the wife said to Helen, “Harry started that, calling their catheter bags Gucci bags which is a hoot, your husband’s a hoot. Thank God Robert’s had Harry, that they’ve had each other to laugh with at the end, you know?”

“God better have a sense of humor,” the man called Robert said to the young man with the tie who was pushing his wheelchair.

“Robert said he’s not going to heaven unless Harry gets in,” the wife said to Helen.

“Damn straight. If humor doesn’t count for something, I’m not sure how I’ll get in,” Robert said and lifted his hand to swat at the bells attached to his IV pole.

The wife looked back at Helen. “Don’t listen to him,” she said. “I have full faith that we’ll all be reunited some day, all people, no matter what we believe,” and she smiled her sympathetic smile at Helen again, before turning with her family out of the room, the sound of their sleigh bells and laughter slowly fading as they moved together down the hall.

In their absence, Helen heard the silence of the room, a sickening silence, a whirring, a ticking, as if mice ran in the walls. In the cabin, sometimes, there were mice. They ate a tunnel through the bread one year. If Harold refused to budge, she’d have to deal with the mice herself, and sit at the head of the table, carving roast beef with the candles all lit, and say what? They would ply her with questions, and what would she say? Harold had always been the healthy one, the tough one, the stoic, ever since her parents’ funeral, all those years ago, Harold, not even married to her yet but flying all the way to Milwaukee to sit there at the wake like a tough Midwesterner, trying to cheer everyone. She saw again the foil-wrapped lasagnas and cakes left overnight on the porch by parishioners. Snow all over everything. No, too early for snow. That was her grandmother’s funeral, most funerals it seemed; at her parents’ there’d been rain, of course, that week of torrential rain, blamed for the car accident. So much rain that snails left their trails on the foil-wrapped food left on the porch, which Harold pointed out, making her laugh, everyone laughing, the house full of stunned, wet, laughing Midwesterners who were nice. Just so nice, Harold had said, even though he’d feared being in a room with that many Catholics. “Take comfort in your parents’ faith, Helen,” Father Marek had said, Father Marek who’d been a young priest when he’d first passed through the parish, when she was a teenager and susceptible to crushes on young, Polish priests. “Our Father,” Father Marek had nudged her, “who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name…” and she had tried with him for a minute to find comfort in thinking of our Father, all hallowed, up in heaven until Harold reminded her that there were other ways of finding comfort.

Making love on her parents’ bed, for instance. That had been comforting.

“Ignore them,” Harold had said, when her cousins caught them coming out of the bedroom and called her crazy. That’s what he always said. “Ignore them.” He didn’t care what other people thought. He didn’t care about having children. People always blamed the woman, but he was the one. That was the deal. No children. Children only brought out the craziness in parents, he said, and she had believed him; she had believed that it was better to love only each other. But now? How could she bear her own holiday party, all the children tearing her beautiful wrapping paper to shreds, ravishing her roast beef, Bill sidling up to her to say as he always did, as if this were a revelation, that his mother had been wrong, that Helen wasn’t a crazy shiksa after all? Would she have to stand there, trying to feel complete, while Bill stood there smirking about his generous, fecund, respectable life? No, this time she would say…

“Is it time?” he asked.

“For what, dear?”

“It’s time.”

“You’ve got to come. You can’t do this to me,” she said.

It was time. He wanted more morphine, but it wasn’t time yet. Was it time yet? There was a family of mice named Bill and Ruth, and Shoshana, and Bill had eaten almost all his insides out but where was his mother? His mother needed to be here. He needed to make sure that his mother was all right. Had he not promised? To live a long life since there would be nothing after death. Or was that Helen whom he’d promised to stay with until the very end?

“You promised,” Helen said, not knowing what he’d promised anymore. As his eyelids fluttered, she realized the damned nurse had given him more morphine in his drip when he didn’t need it yet. They should give it to him only when he was in pain. He would tell her when. With morphine, he couldn’t tell her anything. With the morphine, he was drifting away, further each time, leaving a rope, a string, a thread between them. She had told him when he came around, last time, that she wasn’t ready for a thread. They had not planned for a thread. If he would just say yes, just nod, she could whisk him away from all this, get him alone. So he could remember why he needed to stay here for her.

“Please,” she said, “just tell me what you need.”

He struggled, his face a mass of struggling wrinkles. “My kite…”

“Your kite?” she asked.

After a while he said, “I want…”

“Yes, just tell me what you want.”

“Bill.”

“Do you want to see Bill?”

He said something that sounded like “fly.”

“Do you want to fly to Tahoe? Would you like that better than driving?” she asked, unable to stop herself. When he said nothing more, she followed his eyes to the window. Outside, beyond the whirring of the room, the wind had stilled and the trees stood to attention, as stiff as plastic trees beneath the blue-domed sky.

 


Author Bio: Monica Wesolowska is the author of the memoir Holding Silvan: A Brief Life. Named a “Best Book” of 2013 by The Boston Globe and Library JournalHolding Silvan is forthcoming in German and Polish. A long-time teacher of writing at UC Berkeley Extension, Wesolowska has published both essays and fiction in many other venues including The New York Times. Read more at www.monicawesolowska.com

Artwork: B. Ellis Williams is a poet, visual artist, spiritual counselor, occasional philosopher, aspiring psychopomp, and priest-in-training. He holds an MFA in poetry from St. Mary’s College of California, and presently studies and resides at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.