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The Writing Disorder is a quarterly literary journal. We publish exceptional new works of fiction, poetry, nonfiction and art. We also feature interviews with writers and artists, as well as reviews.

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The Fantastic Photography of
Sequoia Emmanuelle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ABOUT THE ARTIST:

Los Angeles based artist Sequoia Emmanuelle has a unique voice as a photographer utilizing her many creative talents together- including fashion design, set design, painting, wardrobe styling, film and graphic design. Dripping with color and texture, Sequoia’s work captures the essence of her generation of artists and immortalizes the avant-garde worlds of fashion, music, art, film and theatre as seen through her eyes. A graduate of photography at Minneapolis College of Art and Design, her unique style has been inspired and shaped by the raw and vibrant underground art scenes of New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Through her art, she creates magical wonderlands from which to transport and capture her subjects in their full archetypical glory.

Her striking photographs have appeared in numerous magazines and publications and her images are used on album art, editorial, look books, advertising campaigns, gallery shows, and music videos.

Publications include: Italian Vogue, Zink Magazine, Paper Magazine, Plastik, Galore, Vibe Magazine, Fault Magazine, Huf Magazine, Papercut Magazine, Kismet UK, Glassbook Magazine, Dark Beauty magazine, The Dapifer, Tantalum, Runway Magazine, Volition, Auxiliary Magazine, Sessions Magazine, Tinsel Tokyo magazine, Giuseppina Magazine, Empty Kingdom, Coilhouse Magazine, The Catalyst Magazine, Stiletto Glam Magazine, Gothic Noir Magazine, Twisted Lamb, Haute Macabre, Lost at E Minor, Art Boom, Urban Ink, Ghubar, Imbibe magazine and more.

 

 

Sequoia Emmanuelle Photography Book now available.
http://sequoiaemmanuelle.com/book

Sequoia Emmanuelle Links:

www.sequoiaemmanuelle.com

www.instagram.com/sequoiaemmanuelle
www.facebook.com/sequoiaemmanuellephotography
www.tumblr.com/blog/sequoiaemmanuelle

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A season of rain

by Tara Isabel Zambrano

 

Sometimes I think
this house has eyes.
They glow.

This house is a hand.
Rubs my voice
against the walls.

At night this house
lets the stars in.
They leak as clouds,

knock at the door,
beg for a season
of rain.

 

 

Departure/Arrival

 

There is always a distance to explore, pull islands from the sea.
Masses from nowhere.

Maybe it is time for the moon to collapse into its reflection.
The sun has always been solitary

packing its light everywhere. What is not touched by darkness?
The bulbs underneath the new soil. A Buddha’s statue covered in foliage.

Nature has no favorites. A stampede fertilizes the earth.
Her endless teeth feed on herself. It isn’t living, it isn’t dying.

I crawl back to my body but there is a lump of dirt. A poem scattered,
its words blinking because they do not feel exactly right.

The wind fools around my name. A black hole where lightning is kept.
Life is a spectacle, half remembered. Always winks out from nothing.

 

 

the myth of being alive

 

I’m holed up in a motel following the night
buttoned down all the way to bloodied dawn
wrestling with  a fresh roll of USA Times.

Despite the police sirens across the street,
I remain asleep. Needle marks on my arm heal.
Coughs from the next room grow quiet.

The sun eats itself, footsteps outside the door
grow and fade, steam of cheap coffee and
popcorn sink into the semen-rotted carpet.

Some days I walk out of my skin. Red hollow
of an afternoon rivals my crimson eyes.
Empty pizza boxes cover my face.

Car clotted streets gasp for air. On dead ends,
I unfold a gang war. My hair turns gray in light,
my voice at the end of a muzzle, tries to sing.

 

 

BIO

Tara Isabel Zambrano moved from India to The United States two decades ago. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Healing Muse, Moon City Review, Bop Dead City, and others. She lives in Texas and is an Electrical Engineer by profession.

 

 

 

 

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Meditate and Wait

by Katie Strine

 

 

They smoke in the garage, four of them, five of them. Can’t see through the haze of sun into the shadowed room. From the street neighbors hear their sounds: laughter coated with emphysema. Rotting lungs and dogs that howl at subtle movements. A grandma, a grandpa, an uncle, and one older niece: the remains of a larger family that has dwindled by death and decay (all smokers, all drinkers, and all self-proclaimed Catholics).

Three dogs guard the garage at the edge – a baby gate corrals them. Una walks by and the chorus of howls arrange like limp notes and soar into the air. The smell of dead tree seeps from the soil. Their house, the first one built on this street, is the last one before the road dips to the left and opens to a cemetery. Originally a family grave, but years and community planners and the sway of money rearranged the rights. Now it’s public property. A gothic iron gate surrounds the land; doors eek open on aged hinges. Una loves to hear them whine.

She walks down just to walk down and visit no one in particular. Her long, brown hair whips behind her shoulders. Their eyes, as well as the eyes of the yard statues, follow her. She can’t be sure of what they’ve erected between the overgrown pine shrubs, and they’ve planted plastic flowers in plastic planters, but she ascertains Catholic saints (none of whom she knows), a fox (with cold, beady, cement eyes) and a rooster (garnished with a red and white checkered apron). A harsh “Shut up you damn dogs” echoes forth and maybe a whimper but then a grotesque cough tumbles forth. The sounds spill over one another.

***

She reads the names, the large ones printed in all capital letters, last names sprawled, the family honor. She shuffles leaves to the side and searches for smaller headstones. Children, maybe. Small adults. Women from the 1800s who have since shriveled like dead bugs: heads craning toward bodies, arms tucked at their chests. She’s searching for a way to connect to the past or a way for the past to connect to her. Voodoo magic, Ouija boards, séances: she’s sick of pretending.

***

They burned each other’s skin with hot lighters, the metal sank into the flesh and years later scars talk to strangers, stories of their odd behavior. Imprints on the back of hands. Signals coded only for each other. Scar tissue signs — personal tattoos — created before members departed to the other side. Rumors circulate the town. People whisper. But the members of the house have crafted a system all of their own, separate from the community, and the symbols remain embedded in their history and their family.

They pull back their baby gates and open the garage that weekend for an estate sale. She wonders, and maybe even hopes, if they might move. She saunters through their belongings. A lamp with a broken bulb – the glass shards visible through the shade; a box of used ashtrays gray and soot stained; a box of run-down toys featuring a doll with a loose eyeball. The black button swings and wobbles as Una roots through the box. Finally her hand emerges holding a magic eight ball. She palms the prize and pokes further.

Suddenly the feeling of a ghost catches in her throat. She stands within inches of the garage and fingers rotten pots and stained lace. A framed picture of a church (a jagged crack running through its surface) props against a table. She runs her finger down the glass and lets the slit of its cut dig into her skin. A small streak of blood remains on the glass, a dull red hue painted on the steeple. She bends toward the picture and seeks to speak to the spirit she feels hovering from the house but knows she needs closer. So this is where it hides, she thinks and buys her eight ball. A boy tucked behind the bushes and the beady fox watch her desperately.

***

She leans against her front porch steps and watches families retire as the day’s water-painted clash of colors darkens. The leaves rustle against each other. It calms and stirs harder and the wind chimes collapse into a song. She waits for midnight black, the lunar phase on her side, a tiny rat’s nail of white in the sky.

Their garage door is closed. The baby gates rest on the outside of the door ready for another day. She crosses to their side of the street, the cemetery entrance within view but the graves tucked into a small valley of swirling fog.

Una creeps through their uneven grass. The unkempt yard crunches below her feet: a slew of leaves and twigs and mushrooms. Against the house she smells standing water. A deep stench of mud or mold. She walks with her back flat against the exterior and finds herself in the backyard where an unexpected scene develops.

In place of a standard backyard flush with grass and peppered with flowers, here lies an entire pond. The water covers the expanse of space, with a back porch that extends above the water approximately ten feet from the house. At the far end of the watered yard stands a large stone – not shaped into an obelisk or other tomb – looming over the abyss. She has no way of making it to the stone unless she plunges into the water.

Overhead an explosion claps in the sky – fireworks – but she imagines the uncle with a gun, his face another shadow, and turns from the pond and toward the street.

***

There’s a knock on the door the next day, late afternoon. The air smells like fire and burned leaves. A hint of smoke hangs over shingled roofs.

A younger man, maybe even a boy, stands on the other side of Una’s door. His toes hang over the front edges of his flip flops. His toenails visible, curled and yellowed. She doesn’t recognize him and he knows she won’t.

“I’m Zeek, short for Ezekiel – your neighbor.” He cranes his neck toward the house with the garage. She’s never seen him there. She doesn’t respond. “If you want to get in that pond, if you want to find that spirit you’re after, I’m willing to help you out.”

“What spirit?”

“You don’t believe all of a sudden?” He sticks a toothpick into his mouth and swirls it around with his tongue. “I’ve seen you. You hang around at the cemetery, poking around at strangers’ graves. I know you don’t have family in this town – new blood – so you go looking around at the old blood. Old souls. Whatcha looking for?”

Una stares into his eyes wondering how much he knows.

“Forget about it, Una. Wanna see a trick?” From the other pocket of his sweatpants he pulls out a stack of cards. He shuffles and pushes the cards back together again. He waves his hands. The right hand, she notices, is scabbed from scratched bug bites or some kind of poison ivy. He catches her looking and moves his hand quicker. “Okay, pick a card – go ahead, Ain’t gonna bite you.”

She inches a card from the cluster. A Jack of Hearts. He nods to her to slide it back into the deck.

“Good, good. Okay, now, watch closely – I didn’t see it, right? But you gotta remember what card it is.” He holds his eyes steady into hers. An answer dances behind his gaze. She shivers away a question and shakes her mind into vacancy. After a few more sleight of hand tricks, he procures the Jack of Hearts and flashes it in front of her. She looks into the face of the card and notices its menacing features that either weren’t there before or ones she overlooked. His hand appears freckled like Zeek’s. Warped skin.

“I don’t really like card tricks,” she says and shuts the door.

***

It’s cold when the ghost enters your body. A halo of chill surrounds the exterior. When it’s gone, a familiar heat returns, and you’re alone again.

She doesn’t ask for them to visit but she returns in case they do.

She weaves through tombstones and waits for one to call to her. Her skirt hangs low and drapes through the leaves. A few hang at the edge and she pulls them along unknowingly. She carries a book of poetry, a dilapidated copy handed to her from other people in another world: her past. It’s a relic she can live without, so she tugs at the pages. Each papery feather pulled from its binding. A light rip. The glue lets go. The page frees. She tucks one after one against these permanent headrests and weighs each to the earth with a rock.

A harsh whistle blows through the surrounding trees. Her skirt tugs against her legs, and her head flings toward the sound. A black shape of a bird flutters behind tree trunks. She wonders if Zeek is there, too: his lanky body against a tree, the bark rough against his spine. Beady eyes like the cold, cement fox.

Then, movement. Low to the ground, a shadow forms and creeps from the woods. It hovers on all fours. She imagines Zeek on all fours – preternatural, foam at the mouth — and on the hunt for her. His toenails dig through the grass, soil ripe under his nails, as he lunges toward her.

“Clyde?” She asks the animal, a large beast with a head like a shoebox: one from the garage dog gang. He ambles to her side. “Why are you down here?” He nudges into her, and she rubs his broad back. A faint smell of cigarette smoke lingers on his fur. “Do you want to hear a poem, Clyde?” To which he responds by settling in and shutting his eyes. His gentle body collapses. She reads aloud each word, the syllables unstressed, stressed, unstressed, stressed. A whoosh of air – the trees breathing from her left – carries and cools her neck.

Una meditates and waits.

***

She wakes to the uncle standing above her, the graves below her. She feels the warmth of Clyde’s back on hers.

“That’s my dog,” the uncle growls and yanks at Clyde’s collar. The man’s mouth clenches as he talks. She wonders how the words escape. “And what’s all this litter?” He waves a sinewy arm through the air. Una sees her poems scattered, some swooped and soaring with the wind. “No respect,” he whistles and hobbles away. He tugs at Clyde, who he’s wrangled with a rope.

She watches them circle through the headstones. The uncle precariously places each step, and Clyde hunches toward the smells of earth. Their bodies bumble back toward the street.

She collects rocks. Smooth, cold rocks: minute minerals miraculously compounded into handheld objects. She rubs at each testing its smoothness, handling its weight before placing them into the folds of her skirt she’s lifted for a temporary carrier. Stooping toward the graves, she weighs the poems again.

“Are you a witch?” She hears Zeek’s voice before she sees his face. A bouquet of fake flowers dangles at his side, their heads facing downward.

“What?”

“Those dresses, all long, covered, heaven-like but hellish altogether. Pagan, I guess is what I mean to say.”

“Your family doesn’t own this property, Zeek. First your uncle. Now you. I’m allowed to be here.”

“Allowed?” He suppresses a smile, then steals a whiff from the bouquet before dropping the bunch by his side again. A collection of vibrant blue, red, orange, yellow – abnormal colors for flowers. “Did you think more about the pond? My offer? I know what you’re chasing, Una. I get it. Why are you hesitant?”

Una considers his proposition. His words form like steam within a swirling fog already constant in her mind. Intangible and abstract. She knows she’s unable to sneak into the water without him knowing. She forces her mind backwards to distant memories. A train crash. Her parents thrown from a bridge. Her parents drowned in water. Her parents plummeted off cliffs. She surmises these details – all daydreams and fabricated realities — but understands they died without her and after years of foster care, miscellaneous homes, and empty emotions from town to town, this street, this city, this cemetery, that spirit, finally feels fulfilling.

“What do you chase?” She asks through the mindful fog.

Again, a sly smile breaks and his pointers show. “I don’t chase. Do you think that’s what you want? An end to an unknown? Some realize it’s over before they begin. You, I think, can’t settle. Others, like me, come naturally into this world.” He pauses to pick up a poem, one she missed as it skids between them. It crinkles against the plastic as he tucks it within the flowers. “Tell you what. Nine o’clock, tonight.” He answers for her because he knows she’ll come.

***

“We call her Mother because she’s been here before any of us.” Zeek and Una stand ankle deep in water, their feet mingled with moss and algae. “Inexplicable, maybe, that after hundreds of years, she remains. Her bones, her grave is here. Or it was. Before one of our generations made this pond.” The bottom three inches of Una’s dress swirls in and on the water’s surface. She thinks of the cold — the water as an aquarium of spirits – and she pictures faces, their bodies trailing behind them, as they swim through the murky water. Standing here now with Zeek she worries she misjudged him. She had thought he was uneducated, misguided. She thought she could distract him and have the pond to herself. “You’ll have to wade through to the center where there’s a drop-off. An underwater cliff of sorts.” Una, who has long since memorized the phases of the moon, knows only a fragment hangs above them. A waning crescent. She predicted the darkness and the unknown, but she miscalculated the power dynamic brought on by the property’s effect.

She steps forward unwilling to step backward. Her dress darkens as the water deepens. The coldness of the water forces her to take a breath. She sucks in the nighttime air, the clouds beginning to descend into fog, and the temperature trickles down her spine.

Zeek stays with her but a few paces behind. Her toes curl at the precipice. She stares into the stone. A woman’s features materialize within the rock formation. The earth’s minerals mold into cold eyes, silver hair and a taut expression.

“We wade and meditate. Do you meditate, Una? Sit and think thoughtless thoughts, as you breathe in, breathe out the wide world around you? A mindless yet mind-centered activity, don’t you agree?” She answers by centering her diaphragm. Like the poetry, she thinks, unstressed, stressed; her breath fills and releases. Fills and releases.

“You’ll have to go under water now.” Una thinks to question Zeek’s instructions, but reminds herself to move forward, not backward. She recalls the refreshing chill alighted in her the day of the garage sale. The pull of the house from a larger-than-life spirit. A distant hovering that’s beckoned her to this town, this street, this moment.

She descends, her eyes on the stone. A reflection of the stone appears on the water just as she’s eye level with the pond.

The black water engulfs her as a slight splash sounds beside her. Zeek.

He too stares into the stone. He too feels his toes on the precipice. He palms her head, a thick wave of hair sweeps his arm, and he holds her under water. The struggle doesn’t startle him. The muffled screams don’t deter him. He holds on, his toes curling at the edge, pieces of moss caught on a toenail.

Her dress will weigh her down. Gravity and water will push, push, push.

He feels satisfied in the sacrifice. He thinks to swim to the stone, to stroke his hand along its surface. But he feels someone behind him and turns to see his uncle on the porch. Clyde saunters from the house and stands at his side.

The way to family — bonds, secrets, scars – is a dark portal. A moonless sky, an unguided guide, an underwater spirit drenched pond. The calling to unite with our departed generations carries in a cold breeze, whispers on crinkling leaves. It’s a constant chase to collect, maintain and reincarnate.

He eyes his uncle, whose pride forms in the shadowed, hard lines of age. His face weathered artwork.

Zeek moves toward the edge of the water. Inch by inch his soaked pants emerge and he squeezes at the water, fists slippery and cold.

He pulls the graveyard poem from his pocket, handles a rock, and places a makeshift headrest in the small crescent of earth beside the water. Una’s only marker. Tomorrow he’ll toss the fake flowers down from the porch, the vibrant hues garish against the earthy moss and mud.

 

 

 

BIO

Katie Strine tolerates life through literature with a side of bacon and dark beer. She lives in the east suburbs of Cleveland with her quirky family — husband, son and dog — who accompany her on oddball adventures. Stay in touch via LinkedIn for more.

 

 

 

 

 

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A Valentine for the Widow of Rock and Roll

by Rene Diedrich

 

 

On the phone she sounded like she had a carton a day habit. “Old semen throat” is what my father used to call those bar bitches with that harsh bark for a voice he knew from the honky-tonks. An occupational hazard for bar maids, whores and other hard luck harpies who were well past the expiration date stamped on womankind. The voice did not belong to her photo, which was of a smiling blond woman, stunning and sophisticated, decidedly hip beneath a sweep of long bangs, black leather collar flipped up just so. Rock and roll’s widow called just as I was headed out of Long Beach to let me know she’d overslept. It was two, the time I told her I’d probably hit town. I am a punctual person because simply put, I hate to wait for others, and I see tardiness as a passive-aggressive slight when it is chronic, but have gotten slick enough to anticipate rather than react to people who are flakey. I adapt to accommodate myself and them, and the widow was relieved to hear I was just hitting the 405 when she was rolling out of bed. “We are a lot alike,” she noted, and I wondered how true that was as I drifted up the lull of the 101 on a Saturday afternoon. The lush green hills rolled beneath a rain scrubbed sky, so blue, so bright, it was blindingly beautiful behind my vintage tortoise shell shades, a thrift store score like my clunky red Mary Janes, which eased the gas pedal from an impulse to speed because everyone else was. Open highways are so tempting, but there was no hurry. The widow needed time to pull herself together and so did I.

 

 

I had all but unraveled by the time I hit the quaint coastal town she now lives in.

I called the number on my cell phone to ask how to get to the Vagabond where she said I should stay. The now softer voice on the other end babbled incoherently, offering too much information when all I needed was the name of a street. She was openly exasperated when I admitted I had no sense of direction and no idea what was east or west unless I could see the ocean or a freeway sign designating my destination.

“I don’t understand people who have no sense of direction!” she croaked over the crackling cell phone line. An unrepentant pot head, I knew some of my most basic motor skills were somewhat compromised by my wake and bake rituals, but all the landmarks and anecdotal digressions were confounding my quest, so I interjected something about needing no more than the street’s name.

To my horror, the widow began to spew a profane rant.

Suddenly, my serene demeanor shifted into an instinctive vigilance. Shit, what had I gotten myself into? A powerful craving for blackberry brandy seized my being, and I extracted myself from the conversation by assuring her I knew the way now.

 

And, as it turned out, I did find the place, which was nestled beside the sea and a freeway ramp along a quaint strip of little liquor stores, cafes, tidy motels and modest tract housing. I smoked a clove in the truck, shoving assorted shit into my big canvas Siddhartha bag and touching up my war paint in the rearview. Checking into a motel alone always makes me feel conspicuous, like some refugee on America’s Most Wanted or an AWOL housewife.

Of course motel clerks probably don’t think about the guests that go in and out of their daily grind the way I would.

It was, however, Valentine’s weekend, the plain Jane clerk explained when she quoted $110 for the evening and I gasped, head shaking as I made a grab for my card. I had the disposable cash to spare thanks to my tax refund, but it was an extravagance I could not indulge after my recent trip to the dispensary for compassionate care that came in pungent plastic containers labeled with names like Gorilla Kush and Twisted Sister, a high end hybrid I had along for this ride. The girl behind the counter banged the keyboard and said, “Have the Deluxe suite for $80.”

I surrendered my card, thinking of the dark drive home after a long night with the widow of Rock and Roll, who alluded to her living conditions as a source of stress but offered few details in our e-mail exchanges. I had a pretty good idea what the trouble was,

“My boyfriend broke up with me today,” the Vagabond clerk confessed as she did the paperwork. Her demeanor was flat. I looked at her clean, lightly freckled face, which was full, wholesome like a girl carrying pails of milk across a field in an old painting I saw once.

An ex of mine had sent flowers that morning, a lovely collection of yellow, red and peach roses, and he knew better. He knew if he was going to send me a gift to ease his guilty conscious I preferred something more practical. All my exes send flowers before and after the do hard time as my boyfriend . They feel obligated, but it just hit me how much this holiday meant to most women.

 

This girl didn’t expect much. But she surely did not expect she’d be dumped. She didn’t seem high maintenance to me. She did not even give herself the luxury of emoting . I did so for her: “That insensitive bastard,” I blurted out before I could consider the rhetorical ramifications of cursing in the sanitized office of a seaside motel in front of this plump, pale picture of pastoral womanhood. She was about half my age, and I felt a deep pang of empathy because I knew of this ploy.

A guy breaks it off with a girl just before Valentine’s Day because he is desperate to avoid the inherent perils of how he handles the celebration, which women, of course, tend to read as a declaration of the depths of their romance. It betrays how easy it is to misunderstand sex and friendship especially in the context of a consumer driven culture.

The girl’s blue eyes were not yet clouded by the stormy and sorted side of the fairy tales she probably grew up on, but she was sure of it when she said, “I am through with him and and lov,” her chin defiantly gestured to a garland of gory pink and red hearts adorning the lobby windows.

“It is,” I assured her, “more trouble than it’s worth.”

This blue collar kid was grounded in an oddly astute yet elusive reality a woman like the widow could never quite comprehend.

 

She loved her rock god for several dizzy, debauchery driven and degrading decades before he died, leaving her little more than the dubious fame of being his girlfriend back in the day. He was an obscure footnote in the Rock and Roll hall of fame when she became his wife. Broke and broken, he beat he, she says, r when he drank, which was all the time, for much of the life they had as husband and wife. Now years after it ended with his death, she was blue because she didn’t get to say goodbye. Love plays dirty tricks on the dirty girl.

The Vagabond’s desk clerk gave me keys to a room next to the office, which may have been a random thing or policy for women checking in alone or the gods whispering what was best for me. Maybe she knew I wasn’t going to get any this weekend either, so it didn’t matter that so many people were passing through this intersection beside the stairs.

There was an ice maker and coke machine near the door, I noticed as I thanked her for the discount, knowing she’d fall again. We all do, even when we know better.

 

Part 2

The widow herself was flawless. Her face like a doll’s, her thick blonde main shining and thick as it fell perfectly along those tiny shoulders along her ample bosom. Silicon bulges and purple veins betrayed what most assumed. Sixty year old women do not defy gravity. Not with tits like this. Tiny women rarely come with tits like this, but I did not argue as she defended the D-cup marvels. Maybe she was the real deal. Who knew? Who cared?

Her little hut in the tweaker compound was a sad, windowless cave with cardboard boxes full of crap scattered and stacked in some surreal configuration only she could comprehend. It was far from the worst dump I’d been in. I’d grown up in much worse when I was fortunate enough to have shelter. Nevertheless, even in the Valentine’s day drizzle that wept when dusk began a slow descent, I could smell the stench of the large scroungy mutts lounging outside.

The timber wolf emerged from the dark cluttered bed room on long uncertain legs. It sniffed in my general direction and followed it’s snout. It collapsed at my feet like a rescued hostage. The widow began to cuss the poor beast out. It looked up with weary gold flickering in it’s eyes. It’s expression seemed more human than any I’d seen before. I’d spent a little over an hour with the widow. I had a fairly sound grasp of what the wolf suffered. I felt rather trapped myself as she made Kahlua and coffee in chipped mugs stained with fuchsia lipstick in the dark dirty kitchen. I wanted to go but forced myself to stay. And stay. I was not sure what for or why. I just needed to see what happened.

She was bitching about her living conditions. About her rock and roll crap shoot. A book her late mate penned except for a lucid forward she believed would be a nice final score, the millions she needed to get through the next decade or two looking like a wax figure of herself 30 years before. As usual He blew it. I had been hopeful about ghostwriting.

But this wench made Norma Desmond hack duty look like a cakewalk. I couldn’t imagine being married to her, but Killer managed to survive a long time in her clutches. . The big hapless oaf even had a few final joyous moments because he just wanted the band to play together again and they had. When they did it was big televised show, too.

After meeting the widow, I was certain ARTHUR aka Killer Kane was luckier than anyone knew. “Dumb fucker! Died broke. ” She spoke this monologue as if he were listening. The wolf’s eyes bore into my soul. I think it was trying to tell me something. I spoke to it in whispers. These were secret subtle gestures I recalled from girlhood when I ran through the trailer parks barefoot, every mutt in the hood happily trailing after me. In college I had a hybrid. A shy lone wolf I called Los, who had a weakness for Nick Cave songs. Dogs can be pounced, bounced and trounced. Wolves need to be wooed.

While I prefer cats, who are drawn to me but not necessarily under my influence, I have had an odd intuitive rapport with most dogs for as long as I can recall. A police dog bit me when I was very small. One of my first memories It was tied up in the sun and mad, barking and barking. After the ER, I slipped out again, bandaged up, and fearlessly approached the dog again, only more slowly until it finally sunk gratefully into my lap as I stroked it and softly sang Nancy Sinatra songs with my own lyrics. “You keep trying to bite off my fingers, but confess . .”

 

Once a St. Bernard caught a whiff of strange mutt on me in someone’s back yard. It was a child’s party, and sweltering hot when it lurched for my small form suddenly. I recall the eyes. Red with rage as it opened it’s great mouth to devour me. I found myself at the top of a tree in the next second. Bleeding a little where it’s ghastly fangs caught my slim brown arm, I felt happy I wasn’t mauled until everyone below began to freak out. There were angry voices, arguments. Finally there was common sense. Someone said the dog should be put down since it was 100 degrees and the poor old creature was wearing three mink coats and delirious enough to go after a little girl less than half it’s size.

“This is the right thing.” The wise old granny declared.

But I protested.

“Humane,” the granny explained. “Sometimes life just ain’t worth suffering.”

I would not protest now. I learned eventually what she meant but never grasped it more completely than I did knowing I could not deliver the mercy of death to the widow’s wolf. I peered into the feral face of this wild thing kept in crippling small spaces with a lunatic. I longed to take him to the beach. To let him run himself to death, but this would mean consoling the widow.

I arched my eyebrows as if the wolf actually understood my all but articulated thoughts.

This was asking a bit much. An image of the widow weeping into my shoulder sent a shudder through my spine. I am not up to an Exorcism right now I told myself then the wolf, who was getting pushy, I thought. The widow kept talking and I kept making affirmative noises so she thought I cared what she was saying.

 

I sunk out of my chair, laid my body lightly across the long scary skin, bones and fur. I listened to the steady strong beat of it’s feral heart. No, it was not going to happen anytime soon.it looked up at me in misery. I tried to figure out how to kill it and make a get-away.

I would text Gonzo Girl to call me so I could escape before the creature succumbed to sweet eternal slumber. He liked the sound of that. There seemed to be hope in its eyes as I desperately dug into my big purse in search of some kind of painless cure for life. Vicodin? Muscle relaxers? Midol? Chocolate? All of my mercy was back at the Vagabond. I felt sure the wolf was exasperated by me. It sighed and dropped it’s body to the floor. “Sorry,” I whispered, feeling guilty.

It got up, weaved in a few ritualistic circles and fell in front of the kitchen entry just as the widow was finally delivering our libations. Her tiny high heeled boots were surprisingly deft and she nimbly hopped over the length of the wolf which had to be at least five feet. She was unnerved by this. A fall could be catastrophe at her age and with so many accessories sewn in.

 

She said over and over she wasn’t crazy.

“The wolf is passive aggressive! ”She insisted.

I thought suicidal was more likely.

“Fuck you. Son of bitch! Did yah see that? This motherfucker is trying to kill me!”

I tried to defend the wolf lamely, but I was pretty sure he was trying to kill her or at least maim her and I didn’t blame him. Afraid she was going to beat the poor thing, I urged her to sit down, toasted to her literary success and begged her to tell me about ARTHUR

When I spoke the name, the wolf seemed to look up in response.

“He’s here,” she announced as she pulled a Kool from a case covered in pink rhinestones, struggled to get fire from a mutilated Bic. She would swear until I tossed her my lighter. Even I was relieved as she exhaled the calming breath of nicotine smoke.

The wolf and I cowered beneath the heavy clouds of it. It was toxic like the sound of her voice as she nagged him. “He’s here!”

“Who?” I asked just to be sure.

I looked toward the door, expecting one of the tweakers to appear. “Arthur !” she said, the fag dangling from her heavy gloss as she squinted and puffed. I took a pull from the cup. I was pretty sure Arthur was there and had been all along. He didn’t want to be. None of us did.

But we had no choice. “He is tied to me,” the widow answered my thoughts. “Mormons are like wolves. They mate for life.”

I grabbed the book ARTHUR penned before a brief but successful comeback that made his sudden death somehow less severe. Except for the widow.

She didn’t love him exactly, but he owed her. ARTHUR owed her and he knew it. It seemed that her late husband was much like the wolf. Transparent, teetering weakly between realms and bound to this ferocious blond creature. The wolf was far less forgiving than Arthur, who blamed himself for being such a boozer and for turning her out on the streets to bring in some money when the band broke up. He had called her a whore, but he admitted he made her into one.

She was busy texting someone as I read Arthur’s occasionally self indulgent memoir. He rarely alluded to his wife. He had great loathing and affection for his band though. His life revolved around the few frenzied years they came up to crash and burn like some apocalyptic comet.

None of them became musicians until it was all over, except ARTHUR , who was a naturally gifted if not ungainly bassist in drag. This was part of their genius, but Arthur didn’t have this sort of insight or a sense of humor. His friends forgave him for this, for his addictions and for being unbearable.

His wife was not so generous. Nor as forgivable. It seemed to me that as the wolf watched intently, Arthur read over my shoulder, the light and shadows dancing towards darkness across the filthy walls. I gulped my drink as I sat, finishing the slim paperback in 45 minutes or so.

I had questions for the widow but no buzz. I began another desperate quest through my bag. I was sure I had some bomb ass twisted sister squirrelled away for the interview. I could smell the sweet pungent stank.

Then I realized that was grass not grass. The wolf farted. I felt the wind rise up and travel across my cheeks. It was a dry dead stench. Nice. I was mad dogging a sick timber wolf and thinking: Hey man, I can’t just murder you. That bitch is crazy.

 

Dear God, I wanted to bellow, just let me throttle the misery from it’s wise old eyes. Let me liberate it with a pillow or a bullet at close range. I had never killed anything on purpose, and my accidental death toll was limited to road kill: Kamikaze pigeons, toad invasions I had to drive through. And to my everlasting shame, I killed a canary when I let it fraternize happily with wild lice ridden sparrows.

He was never that yellow and he never sang like that until he had his lowly companions outside the cage. I lingered on the last few pages long after the book lost my interest. I scribbled maniacally in a note book. How the fuck did I coax this crazy bitch out of this cave? Before I became totally delusional.

“I got a killer stash of Kush at the motel,” I mentioned. A few times. I did not want to be on this tweaker compound when night fell. I didn’t want to go all- tell-tale- heart on that timber wolf either.

“Were they making meth,” I asked the widow. Maybe the fumes. . . The widow said, “probably” and sprung from her chair. She spent the next half hour in scattered activity.

“You gonna wear that?” she eyed me with scorn. I wore a well cut pair of jeans, a turtleneck and my deep red Mary Janes with chunky heels. To appease her, I grabbed my makeup bag and began to paint more layers onto my face. All I had besides were a torn up tee shirt and some cut offs I was going to wear the next day.

“Christ ,” she said to Arthur who was trying to disappear beneath the lamp. “Remember, back in the day bitches when used to get all dolled up and so did their men?”

I was still a lump of adolescent tomboy when Arthur and his band made punk rock new in the 70s. The drummer did himself in with a hot shot of heroin. The singer, a leathery low life Mick Jagger wanna be became a novelty act with a stupid song and a few small embarrassing comic cameos in bad movies. I could barely stand the sight of him. The guitarist, who the widow clearly still carried a torch for, had enjoyed some success with his bands and the debauchery of the performances. I’d seen him perform at a little club in Long Beach many moons before. I remember being about 20 years old and feeling somehow offended by his orgiastic excess with some 14 year old groupie he paddled on stage. My date was in ecstasy until the heavily mascaraed punk nodded out and the little goth girl began to steal the show by turning his paddle on him. I did not mention this as I tried to push the widow to the door. It was almost dark. I felt desperate. Like the undead were soon going to rise to drink blood, crave brains and undermine Democracy. I kept bragging about the weed. It was that good. I knew my weed. But what I needed was a stiff belt of blackberry brandy. This I did mention at least once as I licked the rim of her cup after sucking up the toddy she barely bothered to taste. It only made my contact high more contentious.

“I need something to take the edge off,” I heard myself pleading.

The widow understood this if not me. “Just like Arthur,” she said as if she knew something I didn’t.

It did strike me as strange he also drank the thick sweet nectar as every pint I ever picked up in a liquor store was thick with dust and the clerk blinked at me, got Black Label and ultimately let me find the deep purple curves of my old friend Hiram Walker. The pints sat so long they were still marked under Ten bucks. Of course, discriminating wastes of skin prefer cheap elixirs that are strong, quick and deceptively easy to pull. And the widow would drive most people to strong drink. Or worse.

I finally had her out the door, where she kicked at the fat lazy hounds letting flies eat their ears. They scattered in different directions. The wolf watched with disinterest as we left. I wished it well. I wished it death. If I came back, I promised myself I’d have something to help it get free of its mortal coil. Arthur was no longer with us, I thought, closing the door. And the widow in her spooky way seemed to hear what I was thinking.

“Arthur,” the widow explained, “is a homebody.”

“Me too,” I told her and myself catching the evening chill. We passed several small stucco shacks like hers. It was rocky, uneven ground with weeds sprouting up and no light except for a glowering full moon behind some clouds. Her sharp little heels made walking an act of incredible balance. She was a true party girl. She trudged ahead, cussing and all but blind as I followed in my heavy heels, hair wild, and face unbearably ordinary because all I had was cheap drugstore cosmetics. The widow was old enough to be my mother, but I was dowdy, sexless. She actually mentioned a daughter she gave up when she was quite young. The woman was adamant she wanted nothing to do with the widow. My math skills were not much to brag about, but her only child was indeed around my age.

“How old are you?” the widow demanded as if she heard my thoughts again as they were weaving around in my head.

I told her my age.

“You seem younger.” she noted this, an apt enough observation, but it was not a compliment. I was a pudgy middle aged wreck beside her brassy beauty.

“My pretty face went to HELL,” I said suddenly as clairvoyant as she was.

“You know Iggy?” she was gushing. I didn’t know Iggy really. He had pushed me on stage and ordered roadies to put me on a huge speaker at a show once in the ’80s. I was being trampled when Iggy spotted me and sung down like Tarzan: “Keep her safe,” his big eyes ordered.

It wasn’t always so so heroic, but it was still cool another time at the Whiskey when he noted me alone among leaping gnomes at the stage, serene for a rare moment in life as the music throbbed through my body. He was so perplexed by how others kept a full foot away from me when he performed he thought about bashing me upside the head with a mic stand. He lifted it to threaten me. I smiled, sure he would miss if he was on one. I felt giddy because I seemed to spook him. I had little witchy tricks. It was peppermint oil. It kept me cool and seared the eyes of pale white punks. They wilted beside me.

I did meet him once. In the 90s I reviewed Little Caesar an album that was far better than much of what was on college playlists. Inside the notes, Iggy invited fans to drop him a note. I scribbled something stupid, crammed the note and the newspaper clipping in an envelope and could not believe he promptly responded, inviting me to interview him when he performed in Denver where I spent the grunge years. He had an entire section at the stage just for me, and grinded his crotch in my face through the first half of the show. The interview was sober and terse as his China girl kept close watch over us. Iggy was very sophisticated, polite and well spoken. He talked about being an anthropologist at some point, but my questions bored him. I am not so good at flirting, but I am not sure this was the problem. I started to tell the widow about Iggy and me when her curses flew.

A beer guy in a stained wife beater stood outside a crumbling garage. A hillbilly, I reasoned between his beard and the bare feet. As we got closer, I saw he was in need of a shower, his eyes wet and mad with amphetamine courage. He probably had a vat of felonies behind the ragged curtain that served as a door. I sniffed the sweet scent of rain. Her voice bounced off the night, full of foul fury. I felt myself flinch reflexively as the man smiled and spoke: ” You batshit crazy bitch, you won’t even let the dead rest!” The widow stomped past him, a verbal assault ringing through the quiet oceanside town.

“You gonna ride with her?” he was laughing as he saw my face fall. I had been so eager to leave I followed her without thinking. I rushed up to her banged up Mustang as she struggled to start it, catching a mouthful of pebbles and dust when she gunned it to life. It was a loud roar of sick pistons and screeching belts.

She looked at me and spat, “Get in.”

The hillbilly was shaking his head as he went back into the garage.

“Umm, where we going? My truck…”

She pushed the door open roughly and said the magic words: “Liquor Store.”

My ass was in the seat but the door swung out wide as she whipped the car in a circle that sent pebbles and dirt in all directions. She peeled out as I got my foot in, and the door slammed shut. I swallowed as she weaved at an ungodly speed through the alley behind the compound. She fiddled with the stereo and loud obnoxious hard rock Arthur would have loathed assaulted my being. She got lost a few times before we found the place a few blocks up the road. A homeless man greeted me as I rushed in to get the brandy, rolling papers and a huge bottle of water to fend off the hangover I saw in my not so distant future. The widow, added peanuts and a Pepsi to my order. I paid without complaint. Her friends from the Silicon Valley or wherever it was were waiting for us at the motel, she told me on the way back to the compound. There was a garage in front with a tidy cottage nestled behind it and a large white frame house in disrepair. Both looked vaguely respectable from the street and the huts were hidden deftly by walls and trees . No one was really out. I noted the same tweaker was in the same car fixing the same thing he was when I arrived a life time before. He was an Native American, serene despite his bloated pupils. He did not like the widow. But he was too kind to attack her in front of me if at all. When she asked him to look at my banged up pick up, he gave me a very fair quote for body work.

“It’s not a priority,” I kept telling her.

“She’s not about cosmetic,” the widow quipped.

This was true enough. The tweaker smiled at me and said the truck was a good one. Another man, small and whiskered had joined us as the florescent light from inside the shop flickered. ” Damn things get two maybe even three hundred thousand miles if you change the oil.”

I assured them I did this religiously every three months. And we talked about nothing while the widow texted with her tiny pink cell phone. The little guy looked over at her with disdain. He and the Native American were very cordial, careful to speak without cursing until I let loose with an life-giving “motherfucker.” They were impressed by the fact that I was a writer, though I tried to impress upon them with how obscure and freelance my efforts were.

“Naw, she showed us. You are a poet. And a college professor.”

“Sort of, ” I agreed.

ADJUNCT instructor turned urban high school teacher seemed rather mundane as the little man gushed about the book I was working on. I didn’t want to contradict the widow, but I didn’t want to pretend I was more than another knucklehead hoping to be more than nobody. My modesty made me more endearing, and a third man, wiry and compact came from the house behind the shop. This was the John who beat the widow. He was coiled up, dangerous, and owned the place. You could tell by the way the other two stood aside to let him take front and center. The widow watched as she punched her tiny keys— she was wary. He looked like any blue collar businessman. His eyes were bright, he was clean shaven, not quite handsome, at most a very fit fifty. He shook my hand, asked if the blue pick up belonged to me and made small talk until I began to fidget. I had to pee. I was not sure if DEA agents were lurking close by ready to raid this haven of tweakers and mangy old dogs. If Ashton Kutcher was punking me, it was going to be difficult to explain to the school board. I started to leave, irreverently asking the John to tell the widow to meet me at the Vagabond. Annoyance filled his small features. The Native American slid back to the deeper corners of the garage and the little fellow licked his lips. The owner joined the widow in the darkening shadows. She cowered a little, but their voices were too quiet to hear. She stumbled a little, offering to kiss his cheek. He recoiled and she waved, “I will meet you there.”

I jumped in the pick up, it started and I worked its wide unwieldy ass out of the spot and took off. The lights glimmering off the wet black asphalt were intoxicating. I wanted to keep driving up the 101 until I was too weary to go on. I wanted to sleep in some motel for days then drive back like I was another person. Instead I went the mile or so there was, eased the truck into a nice spot just outside my room and gathered my bags, my bottles, my wits and went inside the cool comforts of my seaside digs. I sat at the table, opened the bottle of brandy and took a sip. It was stiff and off or old batch. I took a longer pull then rolled a fat joint, enjoying the busy fingers that tugged at sticky green leaves as the buds grew fragrant. I stopped shaking as I fondled and tore. I smoked about half but felt little relief. I had done a line of speed that morning. It was not something I did often anymore. An acquaintance showed up as I was going and offered. It was a fine buzz while tempered by Kush and solitude. But much too intense for tweaker compounds, wolves, widows, and Arthur’s tortured ghost.

I sent Gonzo Girl another text: Dear God, this woman is mad. She lives with some John on a tweaker compound with a suicidal wolf and Arthur’s ghost. It is later in NYC and she was clubbing with friends when she gets the message. “OMG, she sent back.

She wanted all the details, but was distracted.

“So I am interviewing a 60 year old Domo who thinks shoving stilettos up an old pervs’s ass is therapeutic. Makes sense.”

GG gushed in drunken misspelled words, “I totally luv you!

I felt this way for her as well, but there was not enough Brandy to make me say it much less text it.

“Ditto.”I tapped out on my Blackberry. I took a second long pull and lit up the joint again. The herb was outstanding, but one stops getting stoned at some point. It is the taste, the smoke I loved . I was going to miss weed when I died. I was not sure the widow was coming. Part of me hoped she didn’t, most of me knew better. Her John may have decided to kick her ass or fuck her. He was calling the shots. But she would manipulate me into her melodrama if I didn’t watch out. Her John was half Arthur’s size, but it was obvious Arthur was harmless until his wife drove him to jump out windows or beat her off to keep from suffocating. Her story was never clear or consistent, but one caught on to who she and Arthur were quickly. She was probably the reason he soared as well as the reason he fell out with his band. I was scribbling barely legible thoughts into a notebook I would never look at again when she called to say she was on her way. It would take a half hour for her to get there I figured. I sighed as I did some last minute search on my laptop. Was Joey dead? I could not remember and I could not find much with google. I texted GG. She was appalled I did not know this vital fact before visiting the widow.

I felt otherwise, believing it best to be more than a groupie. Arthur fascinated me, but not as some Girly boy in a band that played shit one needed to hear live and at under 30 to fully appreciate. The loser who knew city bus lines, lived on a pauper’s income and makes no sense now that he’s humble and sober seems to be Autistic, perhaps confounded by Nerves that can’t quite serve his body. He is intelligent, articulate, deep and innocent. He is awkward and shy, unattractive. He takes himself too seriously. Yet there is a painful nobility in his naked interviews with some inspired fan, not even born yet when Arthur was storming NYC dives with his peculiar band. The fan films him for a documentary. He is the least flamboyant, he is not charismatic or photographic except in drag at angles his girlfriend, wife, ex and widow no doubt made him up for, found then posed just so. Ultimately she created killer Vain, who could perform in drag, all 7 feet of him poured into sequins, tights, torn lingerie and all that warpaint.

“The widow,” I texted GG, “is like Dr. Frankenstein. killer is her creature.”

“Yep,” she replied. “It took real talent to make Arthur into killer Kane.”

“True, that.” I answered.

Then picked up the lag: “She’s hitting on me. Trying to get me to rent a place up here. I wanted to live in Ventura but not with the widow in my house or hair.”

“She’s hot, right?” GG was especially charming when she was wasted.

Well, I have never met GG, but we have texted on assignment which we like lubricated with intimacy in these circumstances. She was my best friend.

“Are you out with Serenade?”asked, knowing GG had a hard on for her. I

I admired her candor, her sense of adventure.

“Yeah. We are dancing with Jimmies from New Jersey. Why?”

I pull one of her moves, which she assumes I don’t notice.

“The widow is hot like a porno star with a bit of class.” I explain. “She has none, though.”

“Would you do her?” GG pushes.

“If you mean kill her. Yes.”

It was as if I could hear GG erupt in girlish giggles as I did.

“Are you stoned? Are you drunk? So? Would ya do da widow?”

“I wouldn’t fuck that skank with your dick.” I chuckled again.

This really worked wonders on my edge. Apparently my texts were a big hit wherever Gonzo Girl was getting gonzo, but she and I agreed to part as her roll dogs pull her to another club and the widow begins to pound on my door a full ten minutes later than I predicted. My room reeks of dank excess, which the widow inhales like a true aficionado I feel a little softer towards her as she savors the roach beneath lush clouds. It is weird, she is like another person. Soft spoken, vaguely interested in what I am saying. She says she is educated, from a good family, and interested in psychology and the spirit. I attempt to take her lucid state wherever it leads. She occasionally rants when she talks about Joey Torrential.

“Is he dead?” I want to fucking know but dare not ask as neither answer bodes well. She is sure he would have made her a star. She never explains why he doesn’t. She slips into the present. Her predicament is pretty dire, I am liquored up enough to empathize with this. The guy is beating her down. She’s banged up beneath all the pancake. Such a tiny wisp of woman. It is hard to imagine her accepting such abuse. She is not used to it. She’s an abuser. But I saw her admiration for the John. I change the subject when she mentions me moving to Ventura and taking care of her. No stranger to such primitive ploys, she tells me she likes women. Is this what she thinks I am there for?

“Me too,” I concede, “but I don’t sleep with them.”

“You remind me of Arthur,” she says.

I am a little offended for some reason, but whatever it is she recognises in me reminds her of why she loved him at least for a little while.

“How do you pay for upkeep?” I ask referring to her weave, the airbrushed makeup, her Botox and so on.

“I have a lot of clients from the Internet. That’s why the asshole took away my netbook. But they still call me” her manicured fingers stroke the scuffed pink cell. She tells me how much she enjoys hurting these frail old men and assorted freaks. She is swooning in a skunk haze. Sixty and hot enough for men to pay her hundreds of dollars an hour to slap, poke, belittle, sodomise and humiliate them. There is a tap on my door.

“That’s Megan, ” squealed the widow, hopping up like some sorority sister jacked up on root beer floats at a slumber party. Megan is a tall, very thin blonde with eyes that float around in her head. She is my age, a spoiled suburban soccer mom and slurring her words. She keeps looking me over. Whatever kind of goggles she is wearing they have made my proletariat ass doable. The pair scoot off into the bathroom where soccer mom claims her undergarments are undone just as the widow mentions her latest black and blue souvenirs from Johnny Lovehate. Soccer Mom invites the widow to her split level in bum fuck domesticated. I am not sure where this or many places are. I have been there, but I can’t tell you much about them because they are gentrified, sterile and redundant. One is just like another.

I offer soccer mom the brandy before taking another desperate pull.

The widow intercepts the bottle before the long greedy fingers can grasp it.

“She doesn’t drink.”

I arched an eyebrow because clearly she did something. She was getting loopy and incoherent as it seemed to kick in.

“Hey,” I said,” I am not one to judge. I just want some.”

I was only half joking. But whatever soccer mom was imbibing I was not going to indulge with these two and soccer mom’s Ward Cleaver down the hall.

“You want some?” The soccer mom was suddenly belligerent.

On second thought. . .

Reluctantly I follow them back to soccer mom’s room. I understand why the widow suggests such a pricey motel. Dives up the street had to go for half what the Vagabond charged, if that. A bland, friendly fellow let’s us in, opens a beer for me and makes small talk while widow and soccer mom fall all over the bed, giggling. He ignores them and so do I as we pretend his job at the utility company is interesting. The only thing I remember is he was drug tested and going without weed to be sure since soccer mom lost her job at one of those firms behind the devastating unethical loans that left my hood in foreclosure. It startled me that he was so shameless about this, even annoyed because his wife is no longer bringing in her earnings at the expense of poor working slobs who could not afford the American Dream. I soon find myself following the giddy girls back to my room for more Kush. The widow is maternal and sisterly to soccer mom. When I ask soccer mom about homelenders.com, she waves off the insinuation that she is complicit in crimes. I am diplomatic. Not like me.

“Bullshit!” she shouts. “They know what they’re signing up for. Mofferpuckers begging me for ARM loans.”

Begging? Well, they may be,” I cannot believe I hear myself say, after bemoaning bank policy that only lends money to those who don’t really need it. “But you know it’s unethical to give it them.”

“Efffics?” soccer mom retorts trying to stay focused.

“Uh, yeah, you know,” I offer stupidly, “Doing the right thing? The greater good?”

“So what’s that got to do with business?”

“Clearly not much,” I snap, grateful I don’t have to defer to her because I wasn’t a trick. Or even some closet sex freak.

“Are you religious?” the widow asks as if guessing a riddle.

“God. No.” I reply.

Soccer mom climbs into the widow’s lap. She is tall, her legs are spindly, clinging to her like a spider money. I can see her spine beneath the Lycra top she wears. I decide soccer mom is more obnoxious than the widow. I am impressed by how patient and indulgent the widow is. And again, I think of the daughter she gave up. We say good night when soccer mom lasciviously gropes me or at me, unable to stand up. She can walk. Suddenly she begins to weep. Not for the first time in a very very long night. It comes out that she is swiping her daughter’s Oxycontin. The teenager from another union has cancer and it sounds bad, but not really. It’s awful, but I don’t care about some spoiled white brat in the burbs. I take great pains to look weary, sorry to see them go. We agree to meet for breakfast in the morning. There is a diner next to the motel. I am fond of diners, realizing I have had only meth, coffee, liquor, weed, cloves and weirdness all day long.I look at my Timex. It is not even midnight. I felt sure it was four AM when soccer mom’s unintelligible cheers bounced across the concrete. The freeway just behind the Vagabond boomeranged silence as I peered from behind the drapes. A mist was settling over Ventura with morning. The lights fizzled off at the diner. The ocean roared not too far off but, I wouldn’t make it there this time. No diner I decided, afraid I may run into Mr. Cleaver over his oatmeal while I nursed my bloody Mary and eggs.

I decided to take PCH back on Sunday morning, put on Velvet Underground, maybe some Lenny Cohen. I was half done with a half pint and stark raving sober. I really wanted to be on the road, to be home. But a headlight was out. I had been drinking. Indulging in psychoactive substances. I was night blind too. Fuck. I was telepathic with ancient timber wolves and seeing the ghost of a rock and roll savant. GG was probably still falling about on the electric streets of the Big Apple. I texted.

“Wait ’til I tell you about the soccer mom.”

“Oh you undercover Kerouac,” she seemed to coo in a misguided symbols.

“I am more disturbed,” I confess, “than anything.”

“Even Better.” Her phone dies.

Then mine does as if finalizing the end of another broadcasting day.

I crawl on the ugly bed spread, curl up and stare into the darkness until my mind finds peace.

 

Part 3

It seems like minutes later that I wake, amped-up like the speed has come back for an encore. I throw my shit together and dash out into a bright sparkling morning. By the time I hit a gas station it is almost 8 am. I send the widow an apologetic text. I have to get home . An emergency. My sitter, as it so happens calls no sooner than I hit send to ask that I come home soon as he does indeed have an appointment. I don’t ask. I assure him I will make it in time.

Heathcliff and Oliver have been up all night playing video games. My protege is burnt out as my son and I are catching our second wind. It dawns on me as I pull in that Heathcliff has evaded his girlfriend and Valentine’s day. I fixed him up with this great girl de Thalia Minerve Aster de Gallo. Everyone affectionately deferred to Gibby.

We bonded because I read her name the first day of class and blurted out, “OMG, you are named after a Butthole Surfer.”

“Is that like Bunnymen?” she grinned.

“Well, some would argue way cooler, but Echo and Gibby’s bands are like apples and oranges.”

“Cool.”

I was miffed by the time I parked the beast, a challenge on Sunday morning. I wanted to catch Heathcliff before he bailed. Thanks to the PS2 a ten year old boy with a gonzo mom and natural curiosity could be relatively safe on his own for half an hour. Of course the giddy freak that greeted me with maniacal laughter as I swung open the door to have a word with Heathcliff was another issue.

My look texted, “WTF?”

“Sorry,” he offered. “I was the flying sugarland express myself.” He look troubled. He had this brooding beauty that was complimented perversely by Gibby’s goofy charms She’d been good for him, but I was having concerns for her. Heathcliff was prone to dark deeds and secrets.

“Look,” I began as I caught a glimpse of the flowers my ex sent me (that baboon! I don’t want no stinking flowers; however, cash is useful).

“We both know this holiday is a sham and so does Gibby, but teenage girls are gloriously fickle beings.”

“I didn’t realize it was Valentine’s day until I was crashing last night after three Monster energy drinks, and I dunno. I dunno. But I gotta go find Gibbs and make it up to her.”

I dug into my Jean pocket pulled a dub out of the crumpled bills I had left.

“Take these,” I said shoving the money , bouquet and vase into his arms.

“For your mom,” I explained. I pulled a perfect purple daisy from the arrangement. I poked him with it, “for your girl.”

Always polite he pretended he was interested in where I was, what I was doing, “So, how was your thing?”

“Sixty year old Domo, incredible preservation, tweaker compound, sexually depraved soccer mom on Hillbilly Heroin, Timber Wolf and shy glam rocker ‘s ghost … Kind of dull in all honesty.”

Oliver has wild blue eyes and he cannot stop laughing.

“He is gonna crash hard.” Heathcliff notes, dashing off.

We all do.

 

 

 

 

 

BIO

Rene Diedrich lives in the lost coast with her teenage son Nick. She works as a poet, painter and writer.

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Life

by Gayane M. Haroutyunyan 

 

 

Life is waiting for something
that may never come.
So I sit and wait.

People are painting the streets
with their funny hats
hanging off their funny faces.

I want to laugh
but my smile is in my pocket
screaming at me.

I complain about the weather,
but what does it owe me?

The papers in my pocket are green.
That should be
but isn’t beautiful.

I want silence
but New York
is the capital of noise.

Slim pair of legs,
smell of burned raisins
and a boxed violin just walked by
should be a collection
of poems with a title
but nobody can take them home.

It’s cold in my mind,
and I could just kill myself
with this guy’s hand
who is softly scratching my back
with kitchen utensils
and taking something away.

Only one thing
holds life right at this moment
– a warm buttered muffin and
my hand the size of a tennis ball
all over again and
that tall woman that was my mother
who never really was tall.

But somebody tore me out of my plush pea coat
and sat me at a cold desk
and told me I was to be picked up by seven
and that I should wait there.

I looked up and cried a mushroom soup
with one eye
silently
and died a little.

 

 

 

To my unborn son

 

I know you are waiting
in the back of my life,
braiding beauty of my intestines,
waiting for your name and face, stealing my eyes.

I do not know if I will ever be a mother.
Here’s a promise –
I will split the atoms into stars, searching for truth,
write stories to prove to you

on a mid-summer’s day break
something will make amends and deliver
your father
and my gifts will happily fade.

 

 

 

A Snowstorm the Day Before Valentine’s Day

 

in my triangular room,
in a house,
in what I hope is New York
it feels like a bad dream
but it is so cold in it
that I stay awake
and do my life.
There are no cigarettes
left in my pack
so I walk outside.
All I see are
dirty cars
breaking the traffic.
I want to be sitting in one
next to a stranger
with bad music
and a smell like a strange riddle
loving my tired hands together
feeding the afternoon night.
But nobody will stop,
offer a wet woman a ride.
So I keep walking,
it is what I know best.
It is much like life –
walking and hoping for God,
who in this case is warmth.
I keep stepping
on my beloved Black Sea,
frozen over an American town
with occasional spurts of life
in it.
Few people brave or stupid enough
to be out
look into my eyes as they pass.
They know everything about me
(my black spirit, my true language,
and the dolphin skin patches in my soul I hide)
and it can only be true
in this mother-in-law weather.
Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day.
The weather just will
not let up.
It must be suffering something
or is in love and weeping.
Any minute
my feet will give out
I will stop
and so will
my mitralvalveprolapsed heart.
That makes me think
about life,
about knowing that
in less than eternity
the sun will come out,
murder the snow,
slim the icicles
and shoot
red, blue, yellow, and green
over the pavement,
and it will not be so painful
to wake poor thing, the morning,
to a cold starve.
And it is sweet poison
that I have forty or fifty years
to live
of days unlike this one,
or terribly like it
and some curious strangers on a bus
are on their way to my life
and chopped nails, kisses, messes, and bad dresses
are also coming,
until one day
I will die
and wouldn’t it be perfect
if it is
snowing
that day?

 

 

Writing and Crying

after The Resemblance Between Your Life and a Dog by Robert Bly

 

I never intended to have this life, believe me—
It just happened.
A blue baby-giant needed a doll
for Christmas
with brunette curls
that doesn’t speak the world’s language
and does not really age.
Every day I ask for a miracle
but he likes
my fresh frenzied face,
my pretend agony
whispering gibberish
at his belly button,
that I think is God.

 

 

 

BIO

Gayane M. Haroutyunyan is an Armenian-American poet living in Los Angeles. Her work appeared in Chaparral, Zetetic, and Apple Valley Review, among others. She holds an MFA in Poetry from Sarah Lawrence College. Her hobbies include daydreaming in public places, cooking, and traveling places with her heart.

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

Hallucinogenic Girlfriend

by Anna Keeler

 

 

I dropped my sanity between the lines of the tile like acid, trying to focus on the pattern and abstractions through the tears. My palms tugged at the malachite beads on my wrist, the string expanding and constricting but never quite snapping. I had the urge to cause damage, but I was too scared of breakage. Even at my worst, I didn’t have the strength to destroy.

I don’t know how I got here. A second ago, I was fine. Just a normal girl taking a normal trip to the bathroom. But one pump of soap turned into two, then three after that. Just three pumps, then I could go, that’s what I told myself. But every time I stepped back to turn off the faucet, an invisible fear singed the lining of my stomach.

I had to wash again. Again. Again.

And those five letters camouflaged themselves against the lining of brain until I couldn’t tell panic from a rational thought because both sentiments wore the same skin. Irrationality threw itself around my shoulders like a coat until it severed the awareness from my body. I watched myself scrub the obsession out of my hands, I watched my eyes grow full of tears and rash over in pain, but I couldn’t stop myself from jamming my elbow into the wall and dry heaving into my lap.

Before I knew it I was on the ground, screaming against the walls and porcelain that weighed down on me. Body pressed against the cabinet door, I took breaths in and out.

I had to get up. Miyuki wouldn’t tolerate another meltdown.

She’d been as patient as any person could be that had a hallucinogen for a girlfriend; someone with a brain made up of fears that weren’t there. “If you could weaponize your trauma, think how astounding you could be,” her loving way of telling me to knock it the hell off.

The first few times she saw me melt down, she’d been conscious enough, trying to hug and bribe the maladies from my mind, ignorant to the inexorable temporariness of my recovery. As months passed, she shape shifted into the people I tend to dissociate for; screaming, throwing blame, threatening to leave me, this time for good.

No matter how mad she got, the thoughts pumped through my veins like dope.

If I don’t wash my hands, I’m going to die.

I tried to pull myself off of the ground, but the soap bottle flashed into my line of vision and had me running back to the toilet. Chunks of vomit bounced against the water, splattering across my chin and the ends of my hair. The second upheave came, as the water heaved back, I realized that I’d forgotten to flush.

My tarsal bones cracked across the base of the toilet. It hurt, but not enough to warrant my loud whimpers. My mind whimpered against the constraints of my skull like an emotional fibromyalgia. The emptiness of my throat juxtaposed the burn, all wishing to be alleviated with some kind of killer. A pill, a liquid, a syringe full of medically prescribed optimism, or even a back alley pipe, something to either numb or vindicate my pain.

If I’d taken DXM, I’d have an excuse for ugly sobs.

Dear God, please just let me die.

My arms turned to sweat and my cheeks were streaked with cheap mascara. I had to stop crying. Miyuki was just down the hall. If I kept it up, I knew she would hear me.

Digging my fingernails into my head, I scraped along the follicles of hair, wanting to pull off the skin and crack open my skull. Axons and myelin and the white and gray matter made three pounds of something that had the power to ruin my life. If the stem was a switch, I would reach in and rip it off.

Instead, I begged myself to stop.

An old behavioral trick that my therapists risked my life with, saying that if I wanted control, it took training.

“Stop.” Then louder, punctuated with a kick. “Just stop!” My whole body shook. “Please, we’re not doing this now.”

Footsteps came outside the door, a hesitance, then a dejected knock.

“Cordelia,” Miyuki said. “What are you doing in there?”

I closed my eyes and pressed my forehead onto the rim, ignoring the smell of urine up my nose.

“Cordelia,” she said again. “Open the door now.” When I didn’t respond, she came in anyways. Her green eyes sliced into my face, the exasperation radiating off her body. “Really?” She narrowed her gaze and crossed her arms. “I thought that we were past this.”

She stood there and waited for an explanation to fall out of my mouth, and failed to hide her disappointment when that didn’t happen.

I waited for her to get up walk out the door, to ‘leave me to my own devices.’ With nothing but the hum of the pipes and the afterglow of panic, I could curl up on the floor, and retreat – or rather – dissociate again until I was grounded.

To a place where the boys from my anime or the girls from my young adult novels would pick me up off the ground and carry me to my room. Wrap me in a blanket, dry the tears from my eyes, hold me close, kiss my concussed and blood cracked lips. Tell me I was here, I was real, I was safe.

Miyuki didn’t leave. She wouldn’t allow me that luxury. Instead, she lowered herself to my side.

Through a cloudy mind, I tried to register her actions. Grit teeth. Despondent eyes. A hand that reluctantly reached for mine. Her pulse raged hard against my own as she placed her wrist on mind. “You make this so hard, you know that?”

Sniffling down my mucus, I forced myself to speak. “Make what hard?”

She sighed. “Loving you.”

Her skin was a dichotomy over mine – warm, comforting, but with an evanescent tremble. My first instinct was to hold her close, to fight away the angst I wove into her psyche.

She crumbled into tears and inarticulate sobs. “I love you, I do. You know that I do. But…” Pulling away, she spat, “I have to walk on eggshells around you.”

The hidden meaning in those words crawled out of the conscious that tried to bury them, and regret pooled on my palms and legs. Because we never knew what set me off until I needed a Xanax, and seeing me in that state was too much for her to swallow.

She’d grin and bear it or scream in my face and use her nails to dig crevices into her voice box and fill them with that lurid things that she said now, but didn’t mean: “Cordelia, get over it. This is all in your head.”

It wasn’t until she repeated herself that I acknowledged her words, her loathsome eyes smacking me straight in the face. “You have to have some control. I know you’re hurting, but I can’t deal with this. I can’t deal with you.”

I watched myself sit there stone silent as her anger morphed into sadness and she tried to wipe her tears before they fell. I wanted her to pick me up the way my lovers do in my mind, and I wanted her to tell me I was safe. But safety only came with the promise that this was over, but what she refused to see is more than an illness, this was an addiction.

I wanted to wrap us in the truth until she accepted it as our flesh – my body craved the delusion of synchrisity. The pores on my arms and the buds on my tongue had secret openings to absorb any sense of an upswing. The tantrums I threw and the rituals I gave into would dissolve into my skin like an LSD strip and turn my blood into a psychedelic task force, blurring my vital systems into a mess of stale color.

I wanted to change, to be a girl she could love. I wanted to be someone worth loving.

The words formed on my lips. “Miyuki, I don’t want to be here.”

I cringed as she sobbed out, “Me too.”

It was my turn to cry, whimpers hugging the inside of my throat.

With a disgusted grunt, she stood up again. “No, you don’t get to fall apart too.”

I willed my eyes to stop, for the water to fall back into my head, and the toilet, and the sink, and we got a do-over on this entire evening.

Watching, expression mocking, she waited for the me to stop. With a roll of her eyes, she hardened herself and pushed any trace of sympathy from her mind.

“I’m sorry. I can’t help it…” I trailed off, because rationalizing my disorder would make her madder.

The chartreuse of her eyes faded to black and as she looked down I saw her faith in me break. “I told you Cordelia, this is all in your head.”

Peyote queen, you are too fragile to die.  

 

 

 

 

BIO

Anna Keeler is a poet and fiction writer attending Rollins College in Winter Park, FL. Her work has been published or is upcoming in Crab Fat Literary Magazine, Red Fez Literary Journal, Indiana Voice Journal, Potluck Magazine, Leopardskin & Limes Literary Journal, The Merrimack Review, Outsider Poetry, The Chaotic Review, and Smaeralit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

Man in Black

by Leah Holbrook Sackett

 

 

Orange Sherbet reminds me of my summer with Johnny Cash. I was eleven years old; my brother Marcus was seven. We were spending the summer with Dad. Well, not the entire summer, three weeks. That year Dad had negotiated Mom down from five weeks. When I asked why Marcus and I had to go at all she said, “Look Gemma, I need a break. Your father could do something.” That summer Dad did his something in August.

“Listen kids, I have to go to work. I’ll try and get out early. Your leftovers from McDonald’s are in the fridge and there’s soup in the pantry.”

I stared into my bowl of Captain Crunch. Five golden mush lumps floated in the milk. I didn’t want to look up or open my mouth, afraid I’d give voice to the lump in my throat. I didn’t want to make Dad feel bad, but I didn’t want to spend another day locked-up in the A/C, in an unfamiliar apartment.

“Ok, here’s a five. Get yourself some ice cream if the ice cream truck comes by. And we’ll go out for dinner tonight. Okay? Okay.”

Marcus and I continued to sit at the Formica table that used to be in Grandma Shirley’s basement. A lot of the furniture in Dad’s new apartment migrated from different rooms of Grandma Shirley’s house. I had the vinyl seat with the duct tape down the middle. When I hesitated sitting in that chair on our first morning Dad had said, “It’s kitcshy.” I didn’t know what that was, but I didn’t believe him. “Be good,” Dad called as he walked out the backdoor with his computer bag in one hand and his tie in the other. We listened for the shut of the car door, start of the engine and the fade of supervision.

“At least Mom kisses us good-bye,” Marcus said setting his bowl in the sink. “And gets us a sitter.”

The phone rang.

“What are we going to do, Gemma?” Marcus said.

The phone rang, again. I picked it up from the base on the kitchen wall.

“Hello?”

“Gemma, watch out for your brother. Call me at work if you need anything. And don’t go anywhere.”

“Okay, Dad.”

Was there anywhere to go? Marcus and I weren’t familiar with this neighborhood. The entire block was squashed together with dark, red brick buildings, each three stories high; each with a green and red door. The sameness of this place was interrupted with the occasional empty lot of weeds. But in the lot to the left of our building was a big garden, more like a collection of little gardens. At night, from our bedroom window, I could see the outlines of towering sunflowers and shadowy patches in the moonlight. During the day it was a tangle of green with moments of color. St. Louis sure was different from home. Last summer, Dad still lived back home in Atlanta. We stayed with him in a Condo in the city; that was when he was dating Heather, who looked at Marcus and me like we were cockroaches on her kitchen floor. I added my bowl to the climbing tower in the sink. Heather would hate this place.

“What did he want?” Marcus said.

“Nothing.”

Marcus sat on the floor watching Tom and Jerry cartoons and biting his toenails.

“Mom doesn’t like that.”

“At least dad has cable, so we can watch cartoons all day. The last place had cable, too.”

“Stop biting your toenails. Mom doesn’t like it.”

“Mom’s not here,” Marcus said straining to jam a new toe between his teeth.” He spit the ripped nail on the floor. “Do you think we could get Mom to get cable?”

“No. It’s too expensive.”

“Hmm, maybe that’s why Dad lives in this crummy place to pay for the cable.”

“You’re gonna have stinky feet breath.”

By afternoon, I was tired of cartoons and felt stiff from the A/C. I wanted to go out in the sun, in the garden.

“Want some ice cream?”

“Do you hear the ice cream man?” Marcus said as he jumped up and looked out the window.

“No, but I’m sick of sitting in here. Let’s check out that garden.”

We weren’t outside, but 10 minutes, and I already missed the air conditioning.

“Huh, it’s a vegetable garden,” Marcus said. He nudged at some swollen eggplant near his untied, dingy converse. “I think Mom tries to get me to eat this stuff.”

Each garden patch was different. Some were vegetable, some flowers, and a ton of leafy or stalk like plants that I didn’t know. There were butterflies and bees both real and ornamental, little stools, ceramic bunnies, and chimes.

“This is really boring, and it’s getting hot, Gemma.”

“Do you think one of these belongs to Dad?”

“I’m going inside. If the ice cream man comes, I want a bomb pop.”

I continued to make my way through the plots till I found a shady place inside a little vine-constructed tee-pee. The ground was damp in this plot. It must have just been watered. I decided to squat so as not to get my white shorts dirty. Dad didn’t do laundry too often. I found a little stick and began to dig my initials in the cool, packed soil of the tee-pee. I wonder why someone made a tee-pee of vines. I ran my finger over the long green tendrils to see if I could identify the plant. I’d just finished Ms. Seibert’s 5th grade honors science that year. I felt a long, curvy, bumpy pod. I plucked the green bean. It was the longest, thinnest green bean I’d ever seen. I could make a necklace out of this, but a green bean bracelet would be much cooler.

The urgent clang of the ice cream man brought back the heat of the afternoon. I dashed from the green bean tee-pee, and tripped over the red-painted railroad tie framing the garden patch. I hit dry, hard earth catching myself with my right knee, palms, and chin. The clamor of the bell along with the circus music sounded about half a block away. I got up, brushed my burning, grass patterned palms on my t-shirt and ran through the maze of mini-gardens. The clamor of other kids hailing the ice cream man rose over the leafy labyrinth. I hit the open expanse of lawn in front of the community garden. I could see two older girls and a boy walking away with their frozen delights. The churning circus tones called out, and I arrived at the front walk. I tried to make a quick study of the truck’s offerings. What do I want? My heart was pounding and I was beginning to feel the pain in my chin. My eyes scanned up and down the pictures of ice cream and popsicles.

“Hey, kid! It’s your turn. What do you want?”

“Ah, um. A Bomb Pop and a Push Up.”

“That’s $2.50.”

As soon as he said it, I realized I’d left the $5 bill on the kitchen table.

“Wait! I left my money inside.”

“I can’t wait kid,” and he started to turn up the volume of the circus music.

“Wait! I have money, here.” I pulled two crumpled dollars from my pocket.

“Well, which one do you want?”

“I want the Bomb Pop and a Push Up.”

“Kid, you don’t got enough. Which one? The Bomb Pop or the Push Up?”

I looked back at the apartment. I could see Marcus at the window waving to me.

“The Bomb Pop,” I said looking down at the mud squished between my toes and smeared across the weave of my sandal on my right foot.

“And I think I’ll take two Push Ups,” a voice boomed behind me.

I looked up and standing next to me was a broad shouldered man in black leather.

“Hey, kid. Your bomb pop?” the ice cream man said.

I took the oversized Popsicle and my change from the ice cream man, but I looked at the man with the swept-back, black hair and large sideburns. He looks hot. That’s probably why he wants two Push Ups. I started towards the apartment to give Marcus his Bomb Pop. The noise of the ice cream truck resumed as it pulled from the curb.

“Miss?”

I turned around and just looked at him.

“Miss? Do you want one of these Push Ups? I can’t eat two. I gotta watch my figure.”

“I don’t know you.”

“Very wise of you. I’m Johnny Cash. I’m your neighbor, too.” And he gestured to the floor beneath our apartment. By this time Marcus had come out to fetch his Bomb Pop. I took the Push Up.

“I saw you in the garden. I don’t think your Dad has a plot. Would you like to see mine?”

“Is it just more vegetables?” Marcus asked with blue juice already dribbling from his chin.

“Is it the tee-pee?”

“No. It’s better. It’s behind Mrs. Hardy’s sunflowers.”

Johnny Cash gestured and we followed. He was right, his was better.

“That’s awesome,” Marcus said. “Can I sit on it?”

Johnny Cash’s garden was a sod sofa and a moss-covered tree stump for a coffee table with potted flowers on it.

“Sure.”

The three of us sat on the moss sofa. I was in the middle. It was cooler in this shady spot, and there was a soft breeze.

“Miss? How do you open this thing?”

“Oh. You peel the top off and then as you eat it you Push Up with the handle. Oh, and thanks.” I brushed my long blond hair away from my face. “It’s kinda windy.”

“It feels good, and you’re welcome. It’s hard being a kid on a hot day. It’s hard being Johnny Cash on a hot day.”

“Who’s that?” Marcus asked. He was leaning around me and dripped more blue juice, but this time he dripped it on my shorts and my left leg. The sticky blue syrup ran down my pale thigh turning pink in the sun.

“Me, of course. Good pick, miss. Johnny Cash loves orange sherbet.”

“Really? It’s my favorite.” I wiped at my leg with the palm of hand.

“Why do you talk like that?” Marcus blurted leaning across me this time.

“Marcus,” I said through my teeth.

“Like what?”

“You call yourself by your name like Elmo.”

“Is that a friend of yours, Marcus?”

“Nah, He’s on Sesame Street,” I said.

“Oh. Well, I just like being Johnny Cash, I guess.”

“I like being Gemma. That’s my name.”

“That’s a beautiful name.”

“Thanks. My Dad picked it.”

“I call her Germma, because girls are gross,” said Marcus. His dark curls were sticking to his forehead with sweat. Everything about him was sticky.

I went into the garden every day that week, and ordered Push Ups every time the ice cream man passed-by. I was prepared with the money in my pocket. And I made sure I always had enough for a Push Up for Johnny Cash, too. But I didn’t bump into Mr. Cash again. So, I wound up eating twice as much orange sherbet.

When we watched cartoons in the afternoon I would hear his shower run and his muffled singing. I tried to make out the lyrics. Although I didn’t recognize any of his songs, I liked to hear him sing. I’d press my ear to the cool hard wood floor and make up my own words as I listened.

“Gemma, get off that floor,” Dad said. “Come on, she’s going to be here any minute.

“So?”

“So, get over here and act like a lady, not a baby on the floor.”

“I’m not being a baby. I’m listening to Johnny Cash.”

“What? Since when do you listen to Johnny Cash?”

“Since I met him in the garden.”

“Excuse me?”

“He bought her an ice cream, because there was only money for one and I got it,” Marcus chimed in.

“You are not supposed to talk to strangers for one. You are not supposed to accept things from strangers for two. And why do you think this stranger is Johnny Cash?”

“Because that’s his name, and he lives downstairs.”

“Oh. Oh, yeah, right. The impersonator.”

“What?” Marcus said, wrinkling his nose.

“Kids, he impersonates Johnny Cash at the Hard Rock Café downtown.”

“You know where he works? What does he do?” I said.

“He sings.”

“Can we hear him sing? Please?”

“Maybe, if it will keep you off the floor.”

With that there was a knock at the backdoor, and within the hour, Marcus and I were pretty much invisible. Dad made us go to bed early that night, too. He said it was grown-up time for him and his friend Tanya. Marcus and I brushed our teeth and climbed into the double bed in our room.

“I get the window side.”

“Not fair! You take the window side every night, Gemma!”

“No fighting in there,” Dad hollered.

“Fine,” I hissed and threw a pillow at him.

Sometime in the night I woke-up, I mean wide awake. I wasn’t use to going to bed so early. My body just wasn’t tired anymore. I lay in the graying light listening to Marcus snore softly. I watched his face. His mouth was hanging open enough for me to see his two oversized front teeth. I was wondering what he would look like if he were a rabbit, when I heard something. It sounded like a grunt, like if someone got punched in the stomach. I heard it again.

“Marcus, Marcus,” I whispered tugging the elbow of his sleeve.

“Wha?”

“Do you hear that?”

“No. I’m sleeping,” he said. “Why? What was it?” He pulled the blankets up to his chin; just then I heard it again.

“Wait, I’m coming with you,” Marcus said as he stood closer to me than normal. He stood next to me like I was Mom or something. I cracked open the door and peered into the blackness of Dad’s room. Marcus peeked over my shoulder. Even though I was older, he was nearly as tall as me. We got down and crawled into the entrance to Dad’s bedroom. Scrunched together on the floor we watched. We watched I didn’t know what, but I did. I just had never seen it before. I never thought about what it looked like, but I didn’t think it would look like that. It was so rough. In silence we crawled back to bed.

“What were they doing?” he asked.

“Didn’t Mom ever talk to you about it?”

“About what? Naked wrestling? No.”

“About making babies,” I said angrily. I felt like I was going to cry.

“Is that what they’re doing? Dad wants another baby?”

“Go to sleep, Marcus.”

I tried to sleep, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t get comfortable. I felt funny being so close to Marcus. I felt funny thinking at all. I wanted to go home. I wanted my Mom. I had to get away from the apartment, from that moment. Anger was twisting and coiling in my stomach. Without shoes, once all was quiet, I slipped down the hall and out the back door. The Sun was starting to come up; the gray light was warming to a fine yellow. The dew dolloped grass tickled and licked my feet as I made my way to Johnny Cash’s living room. I sat on the sod sofa, not caring if my nightgown got muddy; feeling like I might puke. And that’s when I saw him park his old Buick.

He didn’t seem surprised to see me there, and I hadn’t even realized I was crying till he offered me a white handkerchief.

“May I have a seat?” he said, as he sat down.

He was in all black again with that same leather jacket. I took the handkerchief from him. It was embroidered with JC in the corner in black, and I noticed he had a big gold ring on almost every finger.

“Gemma, what are you doing out here?”

“You’re a liar,” jumped from my lips. “You’re a liar. You’re not Johnny Cash. He’s dead. I know. I looked it up on Google. I’m not some dumb, little kid you know.”

“I don’t think you’re dumb, Gemma. And I’m sorry. I was just pretending.”

“Pretending is lying. Grown-ups are always lying.”

“I think pretending is fun. Don’t you pretend?”

“Not anymore,” I mumbled into my shoulder.

“Aww, I hate to hear that. I really do.” I wanted to scoot closer to him, to curl-up in his lap like I use to with Dad. I wanted him to hold me. Instead, I closed my eyes waiting for his warm, deep voice.

“Gemma, let me tell you something. Grown-ups are just big, ugly children. And sometimes we pretend, because we don’t know what else to do.”

“I don’t think I like growing-up,” I said opening my eyes and gazing out at the breaking light.

“Then don’t stop dreaming, Gemma.”

I blew my nose in the handkerchief.

“I didn’t know men wore rings.”

“Sure. What about wedding rings?”

“My Dad never wore one.”

“Well, every man is different. Look at me I like a lot of rings and sod sofas.”

“You’re funny.”

“Thanks. Pretty sunrise, isn’t it? I love a good sunrise.”

“Yeah. Yeah. Me too,” I said, although I didn’t remember ever paying much attention before.

We watched the sun come all the way up, the soft yellow and pink blushing into day. Johnny Cash walked me to my backdoor, where we met Dad and Tanya kissing in the door jamb. At first, Dad looked like Marcus when he’d been caught doing something Mom didn’t like, but then he looked like he couldn’t figure out the answer to a really hard math problem.

“Gemma? What the hell are you doing outside?”

“I, I…”

I looked back from his face to her face. They both seem surprised or scared, just like me.

“I’m gonna go,” Tanya said as she bent like flamingo and jammed a foot in one of her high-heels. She gave Dad a kiss on his cheek that he didn’t seem to notice, and she squeezed past Johnny Cash and me.

“Good night, ma’am,” said Johnny Cash with a nod of his head.

“What the hell are you doing with my daughter?”

“She was sleepwalking, Andy. I found her in the garden when I got home from work and went to water my flowers. Early morning is the best time to water them, you know. She may still be asleep. It’s best not to wake them,” Johnny Cash said.

Everyone stood there. We just stood there. Dad looked guilty. I was trying hard not to blush, not to remember what I’d seen. I didn’t want Dad to touch me.

“I gotta get her in bed. I’ll talk to you later,” Dad said steering me by my shoulders into the apartment. He shut the kitchen door behind him. I could see the back of Johnny Cash’s head turning away.

“Gemma, I don’t believe you were sleepwalking.”

“I wasn’t.”

“Then what were you doing with Johnny Cash?”

I stared at my wet toes. There was a grass clipping on the right pinky.

“Did he hurt you?”

“No.”

“Are you sure? Cause I’ll…”

“No, no. It’s not like that.”

“Like what?”

“I know about safe touch and bad touch, Dad. They’ve talked to us about it in school since first grade. Even Marcus knows about that.”

“Well, then what were you doing out there?”

“I went for a walk. He saw me in his garden when he got home.”

“Gemma, why would you go for a walk at night?”

“Tanya.”

“Ah, ah, what about Tanya?”

“I heard you. We saw you, okay,” I turned my back to him and gripped the back of the kitchen chair in front of me.

“Oh, we were just…”

“I’m not a baby, Dad. I know what you were doing.”

“I’m sorry, Gemma. Next time I’ll remember to close the door.”

“Next time?”

“Okay, sorry. No next time, for now. Gemma? Do you have…are you…I don’t know what to say.”

“I’m tired.”

“Okay, go to bed.”

I let go of the chair, my fingernails had pressed little crescent moons into the vinyl. As I stepped into the hall Dad asked me, “Gemma, let’s not tell Mom about this, okay?”

“Yeah,” I said and I felt empty inside, in my chest. I didn’t know if I was telling him the truth at that moment, and for the first time in my life, I didn’t care if I was lying to my Dad.

He never asked me about the incident again. The following weekend, on our last night in town, Dad surprised Marcus and me with a trip to the Hard Rock Café to see Johnny Cash. I hadn’t seen him since the night in the garden. I was so excited. I wore my favorite pink daisy sundress. We got a table right in the front, and Dad let us order whatever we wanted off the menu. It was great. I got a chocolate milkshake, cheeseburger and fries. There were posters and photos everywhere. The music was really loud and the waiters and waitresses were dressed really crazy. Dad said they were dressed like the 70s, when he was born. It was really cool. I love that way back in the olden day stuff. But it was hard to concentrate on all the people or my dinner, because I kept looking for Johnny Cash.

“Hey, Dad. Can I ask you a question?” Marcus said with a mouthful of fries.

“You just did.”

“Ha, Ha, Ha. You’re real funny, Dad.”

“Well, what is it?”

“What ever happened to that lady?”

“What lady?”

I shot a shut-up look at Marcus, so he just kept going.

“The one that came over. The one like Grandma Shirley.”

“The one like Grandma Shirley?” Dad said looking confused. “The only lady that came over was Tanya.”

“Yeah. Her. What happened to her?”

“Marcus, how is Tanya like your Grandma Shirley?”

“She smells like cigarettes and too much perfume.”

Just then the lights went low, from the darkness emerged the strum of a guitar, and a spotlight came up on Mr. Johnny Cash. He sang all the songs I had listened to through the floorboards, but now I could really hear the lyrics and see him.

“Dad, quick I need a pen.”

“Why?”

“Come on.”

“Okay, okay. We’ll get one from the waitress.”

I bounced my foot on the peg of my barstool and scratched at a mosquito bite on my calf as I listened and waited for the pen. Once the waitress returned with a pen I began jotting down lyrics on my paper napkin, the ones I couldn’t understand before through the floor like “I keep my eyes wide open all the time, I keep the ends out for the tie that binds” from I Walk The Line and from A Boy Named Sue “And I came away with a different point of view. And I think about him, now and then, Every time I try and every time I win.”

Everything was better than I had imagined. He stood there like a rock with his guitar. His jaws quivered when he sang, and he gave an occasional tilt into the microphone and then a wink just at me. In that moment, I belonged to something special. Johnny Cash broke into a Ring of Fire and the restaurant erupted in applause. I was so proud. They didn’t know him like I knew him. I watched their shadowed faces, eating, talking, and laughing. I looked at Marcus stuffing his face with fries, Dad playing with his napkin and singing along. I knew they saw a man on a dark stage, but I saw the man in black.

As the show ended, Dad reached across and handed me his napkin that he’d twisted into the shape of a rose. “For my lady,” he said as the lights came up. Mr. Cash descended the stage and crossed to our table. He and Dad chatted for a while like neighbors, like I’d never seen at home. He shook Dad and Marcus’ hands. When he bent down to hug me I was swallowed by his black leather coat. He was warm. I could smell soap and some men’s cologne suffuse the air inside this leather cocoon. I felt heady, swaddled in dark security.

Some people pretend to be a good parent while running away from home. Others pretend to be a celebrity while living a small life, working a small stage. I wanted to stay glued to that moment, wrapped inside that coat with him, but I knew I couldn’t. I had to pretend to be innocent while life was forcing me to grow-up. I whispered into his chest, “I believe in you, Mr. Cash,” and I let go.

 

 

BIO

Leah Holbrook Sackett is an adjunct lecturer in the English department at the University of Missouri – St. Louis. This is also where she earned her M.F.A. Additionally, she has published three short stories: A Point of Departure published with Connotation Press, Somebody Else in Kentucky published in Blacktop Passages, and The Birdcage Nests Within published with The Weekly Knob through Medium Daily Digest. Upcoming, her flash fiction entitled What the Looking Glass Reflects will be published in the spring 2017 issue of Zany Zygote Review.

She lives with her husband Jonathan and daughter Bella in Webster Groves, Missouri along with their puppy Presley and two cats K.C. and Kafka. In her free time, Leah is an avid collector of Lewis Carroll memorabilia and a member of the Lewis Carroll Society of North America.

 

 

 

 

 

I Was the Dean of Futures Studies

by Barbara J. Campbell

April 20, 2008

Greenfield Community College
English Department
One College Drive
Greenfield, MA 01301

Dear Search Committee Members:

I am writing to apply for the Full-Time Lecturer English Composition position, reference code FAC 91540 start date August 28, 2008, advertised in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Given the qualifications and responsibilities of the position, I think that my six years of teaching experience in developmental reading and writing, advanced composition, and American literature at the University of Connecticut fit your job description well.

My success as a teacher is best demonstrated by my educational philosophy, the numerous teaching opportunities extended to me by the University of Connecticut’s English Department, and my student evaluations. I integrate the Socratic Method and traditional lecture in order to accommodate particular learning styles. As of May of 2008, I have designed and taught 17 sections of 6 different courses at UConn, most of them writing intensive.

I have worked with a variety of student writers throughout my career as an instructor: low-income and first-generation college students enrolled in the federally funded TRIO program, undergraduates preparing for nursing and business careers, English majors, non-native speakers of English, transfer students, international students, and continuing education students. All of my courses, whether Basic Writing, Freshman Composition, or American Literature, include readings from women, people of color, proletariat and working-class writers, LGBT authors, and writers with disabilities. The attached student evaluations corroborate my commitment to multicultural and diverse curricula that draws from students’ experiences to challenge them academically. My average “Student Evaluation of Teaching” is an 8.93 on a 10.0 scale, ranking my performance within the range of “Outstanding” (8.0-10.0). My highest scores (9.7 in American Literature, 8.8 in Basic Writing, 8.7 in Literature and Composition) have well exceeded department averages. Due to my success in our program, the department allowed me to teach advanced courses such as American Literature, an opportunity granted only to advanced Ph.D. students.

Although I have not taught at a community college previously, working with students from varied academic experiences has shown me that I can best put my skills to use in an open admissions institution.

Many of the economically disadvantaged students I have taught needed to balance the demands of full-time employment while attending school. In several cases, the student had family responsibilities, such as a single-parent raising children or an international student attending college with the goal of obtaining a good job so his family could join him to live in the United States. Instead of relegating the potential stressors of work and family experiences to the margins, though, and viewing them as obstacles to student accomplishment, I devised innovative writing assignments that invite students to reflect and incorporate their experiences from outside the classroom.

I am seeking a position at Greenfield Community College because the institution provides an exceptional education to a diverse student population, many of who may initially find state universities and private liberal-arts schools financially out of their reach. I began my teaching career as many in our profession do: tutoring students individually in all aspects of academic reading and writing. The experience I gained tutoring in writing centers serves as the basis for my teaching philosophy as an English instructor. My teaching style works to cultivate the student’s own voice through a rich, inner dialogue with a variety of textual forms.

I hope to share my enthusiasm and my dedication to my work with the students at Greenfield Community College. I have included a copy of my curriculum vitae and references. My teaching philosophy, excerpts from student evaluations, and course syllabi are enclosed. Should you require a teaching portfolio or any more information about my work, please don’t hesitate to contact me via e-mail at barbara.campbell@uconn.edu or, by phone, at 860-892-4537. Thank you for taking the time to read and consider my application.

Barbara J. Campbell

Barbara J. Campbell, Ph.D. Candidate in English, UConn
49 Second St.
Norwich, CT 06360

May 1, 2008

Mystic Seaport Museum,
The Museum of America and The Sea
P.O. Box 6000
Mystic, CT 06355

Dear Human Resources:

I am writing to apply for the historical reenactor position Miss L.E. Ackerman for Mystic Seaport’s nineteenth-century living history maritime museum advertised in the Norwich Bulletin. Given the sketch of Miss Ackerman’s character, I think that my six years of teaching experience, research in nineteenth-and-twentieth century American women writers, and affection for intramural baseball fit your job description well.

My success as a teacher is attributable to my educational philosophy which combines the Socratic Method with traditional lecture. These approaches are transferable and ideally suited to the reenactor’s art of first-person interpretation required at Mystic’s nineteenth-century replica of a New England Coastal Village. As of May of 2008, I have designed and taught 17 sections of 6 different courses at UConn, all of them highly interactive.

My work with a variety of American literary and cultural texts would create an authentic portrayal of Miss Ackerman. Imagine a composite character based on different protagonists found in nineteenth-century American women’s novels: Jo and Beth March from Little Women (1868), Ellen Montgomery and Alice Humphreys from The Wide, Wide World (1850), even the statue of the Korl Woman from Life in the Iron Mills (1861) could serve as an inspiration. Many of these women, whether angels, orphans, or invalids, tested the boundaries of the traditional domestic roles of marriage and motherhood when granted greater access to higher education, including even those consumptive British Brontë sisters, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne. In fact, my recent experience with whooping cough coupled with my own economic struggles would only enhance my portrait of Miss Ackerman: I can die from lack of oxygen and exhaustion on the job with verisimilitude. My average “Student Evaluation of Teaching” is an 8.93 on a 10.0 scale, ranking my performance within the range of “Outstanding” (8.0-10.0). Therefore, I would excel at playing Miss Ackerman in Mystic’s Performance Outreach Program for K-12 students.

Although some years have passed since I’ve played America’s favorite pastime, I welcome the chance to hone my athletic skills with Mystic Village’s all-female Blue Stockings baseball club.

According to Mystic’s website, The Blue Stockings were “inspired by a photograph of the 1876 Vassar Resolutes,” one of two teams Vassar College created in 1866 to play baseball on campus. It just so happens that I’ve completed extensive research about women and higher education at the Vassar College Libraries Archives and Special Collections as part of my dissertation. This makes me intimately familiar with the college culture in which the Resolutes played. While not adept at recreating 1860s baseball games, especially when uniformed in a dress and crinolette, I could enrich other reenactors characters by researching primary sources in the archives.

I am seeking a position as historical reenactor Miss L.E. Ackerman because Mystic Seaport’s Living History Museum provides an informative and entertaining experience to all members of the public. If hired as a reenactor I hope my performance would prove invaluable beyond the summer season. Due to financial constraints, I am pursuing an alternative career path instead of returning to my graduate program in the Fall. My teaching style would work to cultivate visitors’ knowledge of nineteenth-century American women and maritime history through a rich dialogue on a variety of subjects.

I hope to share my enthusiasm and my dedication to my work with Mystic Seaport’s visitors. I have included a copy of my resume and references. In addition, my teaching portfolio includes exercises for the reenactment course at Mystic that I hope to teach: “I Would Go Back In Time: An Introduction to Roleplaying.” Should you require any more information about my work, please don’t hesitate to contact me via e-mail at campbell332002@yahoo.com or, by phone, at 860-892-4537. Thank you for taking the time to read and consider my application.

Barbara J. Campbell

Barbara J. Campbell, Master of Arts, English
UConn
49 Second St.
Norwich, CT 06360


 

 

June 20, 2008

Press Services
International Headquarters
8400 2nd Avenue
Montreal, Qc H1Z 4M6
Canada

 

Dear Mr. Laliberté and Mr. Gauthier,

I am writing to apply for the position of Giovanni the Clown (CAS03136) in your touring show Dralion advertised on Cirque Du Soleil’s website. Given the description of the show and the role of Giovanni, I think that my many years of busking, study of Eastern philosophy, and dislocation skills fit the preferred qualifications of the job.

Although I have over fifteen years of formal training in voice, my success as a singing street performer is best demonstrated by the nickels and dimes left in my guitar case and the rave reviews elicited from passing strangers. By September of 1995, my folk trio and I sung over 50 songs in 10 venues across the East Coast ranging from Portland’s Monument Square to Boston’s Faneuil Hall. I have performed in front of a variety of audiences in my career as a busker: skateboard punks, snot-nosed children who lacked adult supervision, the downtown lunch crowd of CPAs and insurance agents, soccer moms, yuppie summer tourists, drunken sailors on shore leave, the homeless, the elderly, and finally, the toughest crowd of all—Mormons. My set-list of songs reflects my sensitivity to and understanding of a diverse audience; all of my songs include selections from women, people of color, proletariat and working-class musicians, LBGT lyricists, and even musically challenged Canadian singers such as Céline Dion. The attached summary of scores corroborates my commitment to a multicultural and diverse playlist that draws on and challenges the audience’s experiences using innovative arrangements and instruments including the kazoo, slide whistle, and the wholly underrated thumb-piano. My average “Audience Evaluation of Performance” is $8.00 out of $10.00 per hour, ranking my performance within the range of “Outstanding” ($8-$10 per hour). My highest scores ($9.00 and one transfer ticket for the city bus from Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young covers, $8.00 from a capella barbershop and blues-jazz classics, $8.75 from Christmas carols and madrigals) have well exceeded city averages. Due to the trio’s consistent success, we landed the opportunity to perform at the much coveted lawn in front of Green Mountain Coffee Roasters in Portland, Maine, a favorite pitch claimed only by advanced buskers.

While I have not worked as a clown in the entertainment world of circus arts previously, my history performing in front of demanding audiences makes me an exceptional choice for any of Cirque’s touring shows. Since all of my previous work has entailed speaking and singing parts, including Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz and Joanne in Stephen Schwartz’s Godspell, I would welcome the opportunity to broaden my kinesthetic skills with the role of Giovanni the Clown, who, according to Cirque’s description, is a “small timid man who does not like to be left alone on stage.” Having developed an acute form of monophobia from routinely being left alone as a child, I think I am well-suited to this role. Moreover, my undergraduate study of Eastern thought and religions dovetails nicely with Dralion’s theme of Eastern philosophy, quoted on Cirque’s website as the “never-ending quest for harmony between nature and humans.” A substantial period of my college years were spent reading the Chinese classic the Tao Te Ching, listening to the East Indian inspired Mahavishnu Orchestra, and smoking copious amounts of marijuana in my parent’s basement.

Lastly, Cirque’s application guidelines ask job seekers to comment on whether or not one is an autodidact with any special talents to bring to the troupe. I am double-jointed in my thumbs. Given Cirque’s call for performers with dislocation skills I hope to contribute to Dralion or any other Cirque show with this unique talent. Currently I am honing my dislocation abilities by engaging in a rigorous practice schedule of my own design. I should emphasize that I have never received any formal training in thumb dislocation—I am entirely self-taught. The experience I gained busking serves as the basis for my performance philosophy. My performance style combines my childhood love and affinity for mime icon Marcel Marceau with the avant-garde style and intelligence of the Blue Man Group.

I am seeking a position as Giovanni in the show Dralion because Cirque provides exceptional performances to diverse audiences, many of who have determined that it would be beneath their social station to attend circuses by Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey or the Shriners. I have included a copy of my curriculum vitae, references, and two photos (one headshot, one of dislocated thumb). I hope to prove myself an invaluable addition to your troupe for Dralion and possibly a full-time member for other shows. I will be available to work in the Fall since I am unable to return to my graduate program due to financial constraints. However, I am ready for this career change. Should you require any more information about my work, please don’t hesitate to contact me via e-mail at campbell332002@yahoo.com or, by phone, at 860-892-4537. Thank you for taking the time to read and consider my application.

 

Barbara J. Campbell

 

Barbara J. Campbell,
49 Second St.
Norwich, CT 06360

 

 

July 3, 2008

An Den Dekan der Philosopphischen
Fakultät der RWTH Aachen
Professor Paul Hügel
Templergraben 55
D-52062
Aachen, Germany

 

Herr Prof. Paul Hügel:

Guten Tag! Erlauben Sie mir bitte, sich vorzustellen. Mein Name ist Barbara Campbell. Obgleich mein Deutsch ausreichend ist, hoffe ich Sie don’ t-Verstand, dass ich den Rest dieses Buchstaben auf englisch geschrieben habe, um meine Qualifikationen zu übermitteln.

I am writing to apply for the position of Dean of Futures Studies at Rwthaachen University, start date August 13, 2009, advertised in The Chronicle of Higher Education. According to the job description, you seek a colleague with “didactic competence” and a “scholar with profound experience in the methodology and in the practical application of futures research.” Given the qualifications and responsibilities of the position, I think that my years of teaching experience in developmental reading and writing, advanced composition, and literature at the University of Connecticut fit your job description well.

My success in didactic competence is best demonstrated by the numerous teaching opportunities extended to me by the University of Connecticut’s English Department and my student evaluations. By May of 2008, I will have designed and taught 17 sections of 6 different courses at UConn. Moreover, I have worked with students from several disciplines throughout my career as an instructor, including engineering, chemistry, and business. Given this experience, I am well-prepared to undertake the responsibility of “conceptualizing and teaching…relevant modules for students of all faculties.”

The only problem, Herr Professor Hügel, is that I am not entirely sure what “conceptualizing and teaching…relevant modules for students of all faculties” really means. Perhaps “module” is synonymous with “course?”   Are you describing the German version of curriculum development?

Your advertisement emphasizes that the Dean of Futures Studies must possess considerable knowledge of the natural sciences. While my formal academic training is in American Literature and composition, medicine and biology are additional research areas of interest. I’m an avid reader of The Journal of Infectious Diseases, American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, and The Journal of the American Medical Association. Furthermore, Rwthaachen University’s successful candidate will also “conduct basic research at the interface between technical and political social developments.” One such interface at which I would conduct research is in the revolutionary technological field of nanomedicine. I am particularly interested in nanobots’ potential for drug delivery and nerve cell regeneration. In fact, if such a research study was in progress at Rwthaachen University, I would happily volunteer as a subject-participant.

You see, I’ve been ill, Herr Professor, most recently with whooping cough, or Keuchhusten. As I write this letter, the violent coughing, the spasms, and burning in my throat have receded, but the pain from my chronic illnesses, my preexisting conditions, has increased with a vengeance. Maybe I’m just experiencing side effects from the antibiotics and Tylenol with codeine but I’m worried. Whooping cough kept me flat in bed for three weeks and I remain too sick to work as my professor’s research assistant, at the journal, or teach in the summer program as I normally do. A professor took pity on me and gave me some typing to complete for money at home in between coughing fits, but the paltry income I expected to claim this summer has been cut by over half. So, I’ve been a dedicated job-seeker, Herr Professor. I don’t know how it works in Germany, but here in America we pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, overcome our obstacles, and beat the odds. When I consulted The Chronicle of Higher Education there were pages devoted to administrative, dean, and executive positions but not many full-time, tenure-track positions in English. I applied for some jobs that I know are outside of the realm of my expertise, but I’ve been engaged in significant professional development which I think increases my employability. For instance, as a graduate student worker, I’ve learned how to mix and match one shirt and a scarf with four pairs of Goodwill pants to create several presentable job-interview outfits. Thus, I applied for Chair of Fibers at Savannah College of Art and Design. As Chair of Fibers, I could caress folds of cashmere, soft as lamb’s ear, wrap myself in 1000 thread count cotton samples, listlessly stroke silks with my fingertips while informing my assistants, “This is beautiful, but entirely the wrong shade of blue—it should be a keener, midnight quality…” Or, when the swatches seem cheap and coarse, I would stamp my foot and yell, “they call this tweed?”

Although I do not currently have my Ph.D., my anticipated dissertation defense date is December 10, 2008; therefore, I will have my Ph.D. in hand by the start date of the appointment for Dean of Futures Studies by next August.

In truth, Professor Hügel, I definitely won’t have my dissertation completed by December of this year. I won’t be finished because I’ve been teaching two (sometimes three) sections of writing intensive courses every semester, helping professors with their research projects, and assisting at a journal. I’d probably be finished writing my second book by now if you were my advisor Herr Professor! You do speak English, don’t you Professor Hügel? (I’m sure you’ve already deduced that I don’t speak or write German. I sing quite a bit in German, though; at least, enough to notice that BableFish may not have translated my opening remarks accurately). I confess that I have been preoccupied recently. The graduate school will not renew my teaching assistantship funding for the Fall saying my time to degree is up. No contract, no health insurance, no paycheck, mounds of student debt and maybe I won’t even get my degree. What will I do without health insurance? I want to complete, but the only thing I’ve made progress on this summer is my codeine addiction. We have a saying here in America, Professor Hügel: ABD stands for “all but dissertation,” but really means “all but dead.”

My friend Katie got a job. I ran into her one morning on campus in May, a couple of weeks after she got the news. After giving a final exam I had stopped at Student Health Services for what they thought must be bronchitis or pneumonia. I trudged up the path that ran between the university’s botanical garden and the decaying hand-built stone wall that bordered the old cemetery on my way to the hilltop parking lot. Abundant with bright, blue larkspur, lush wild grasses, and fiery poppies, the garden was a quiet place to stroll or rest, rich with the earthy comfort-smell of fertile loam. Katie sat alone on the bench underneath the garden’s spring centerpiece; a stunning pink-and-ivory magnolia tree, its curved branches her canopy from the sun. She had defended her dissertation and landed a position. After months of grueling job applications, she was finally at peace. She had time to linger underneath the magnolia, its petals cupped by a soft wind as they slipped to ground clustering in a medallion underneath her feet. She had time to let her mind wander while the magnolia’s warm and honey-drenched scent doused the worries of tomorrow, next week, and the years to come. She seemed so contemplative that I didn’t want to disturb her, but she saw me. We chatted briefly, but I couldn’t stay with so many exams to grade. I wish I could have stayed. Herr Professor. Breathless and tired, though, I said goodbye and marched up the hill, my shoulders aching from my flimsy overflowing knapsack, the tablueau vivant of Katie underneath the magnolia affixed in my mind.

I am glad that Katie got a job, not just because she is my friend, but because she deserves it. She’s intelligent, performs interesting research, works hard, and is a great teacher. Katie and her partner Amy had a goodbye cookout and yard sale before they left. After the celebratory toasts and goodbye tears from friends, everyone breathed a sigh of relief. Amy had been adjuncting for less than ten-thousand dollars per year and no health insurance.

Have you read the recent statistics from the American Association of University Professors Herr Professor Hügel? Seventy-four percent of faculty in higher education work in non-tenure track appointments and, overall, more than half are employed only part-time. Chastise me if you must for choosing this profession Herr Hügel, but how was I supposed to predict this? How was I supposed to know that there were no full-time jobs? Don’t tell me I should have known better. For seven years I was schooled like the way you’d train a Greyhound for racing. “Don’t worry,” my advisors said, “You’ll get a job.” I am thirty-nine years old Herr Professor and not as pliable as I used to be. Please don’t advise me to return to school yet again for a degree in higher education administration, human resources, or criminal justice. Don’t tell me to embark on yet another reinvention of myself.

I saw the future once. I would finish my dissertation. I would land a full-time, tenure-track job teaching composition and literature. I would write a book. I would garner a mediocre salary and decent health insurance. I would work no more than sixty hours a week. I would pay off my enormous student loan. I would marry my boyfriend, own a good used car, an old house, and take care of a few pets. I would be beautifully average.

But now I’m running out of time and all the years of hard work are wasted. Oh, mein freund, I feel the heel of the boots pressing on my head, shoving me back down into Jack London’s social pit for the poor, the concrete habitat from which I originally emerged. I applied for waitressing at the Norwichtown Rehabilitation Facility yesterday. My sixteen-year-old body performed service industry work with ease, but this older, broken one will not fare very well. Although some time has passed since I have worked in food service, the employment experience I gained during high school as a chef’s assistant, waitress, and dishwasher, fit the job description well.

In this version of the future, Herr Professor, I work my body down to the ground waiting tables, peeling potatoes, and mopping the floor. It won’t matter how many hours I work; I will never make enough money. The rent will go unpaid and the oil tank will be empty. My boyfriend and I will huddle in the kitchen keeping the oven open for heat. I will haunt the streets, Professor Paul, rummaging through trash cans for returnables as I did in my youth while all my teeth rot out of my mouth.

I will come full circle.

So much for our American meritocracy, eh Professor Paul? You see, I went to college and graduate school because I was good at reading, writing, research, and communication. I loved teaching, especially those first-year students who struggled, often because they came from poverty, worked manual labor jobs, and only had their wits and the occasional whims of others’ kindness on which to rely.

I liked teaching those students because I used to be one of them.

So what does it mean for one to have worked so long and hard, studied for so many years, committed one’s time, skills, and compassion to serving others only to end up worse off than when one began? Does it mean I am a sucker?

I tutored Roberto extra hours every week to help him improve his English. I spent my time off last summer designing a research project for a short story class filled with students who hated reading. I commented on thirty-six freshman composition papers per week last semester. I located an audiobook for one of my dyslexic students so she could understand the material better. I imagined a better future for those students.

I know now we have all been duped, Professor Paul, so I propose a radical vision for the future, one in which waitressing at the Norwichtown Rehabilitation Facility, assembling Styrofoam at the Softlite factory, and teaching students to read and think critically all deserve a living wage, health insurance, a voice on the job, and respect.

It’s a long-shot, but it’s worth imagining.

I think it is obvious, Herr Professor Hügel, that I do not have the necessary credentials for the position of Dean of Futures Studies.

I am so sorry to have wasted your time.

 

Sincerely,

Barbara J. Campbell

 

Barbara J. Campbell
49 Second St.
Norwich, CT 06360

 

 

Elysian Fields University
English Department
One Heavenly Drive
Cloudville, Big Sky

3.14                                                                                                                                                                                               ????

Note to Self:

I’m reading the newspaper again today and I don’t see any positions I can apply for.

I could do the crossword or jumble instead.

 

 

HOROSCOPE

                                                            by Holiday Mathis

                                                (for entertainment purposes only)

Aquarius: Most humans at some point in their lives have a spiritual experience. You’ve always felt you were a spirit having a human experience, and you’re right. Today’s events reinforce this belief.

FORECLOSURE                            FORECLOSURE                               FORECLOSURE

I may never sit peacefully underneath the magnolia tree,

LOST CAT

but mein leiber freund, I was the Dean of Futures Studies.

 

 

 

BIO

Barbara J. Campbell completed her Ph.D. in English from the University of Connecticut where she taught Freshman Composition and nineteenth- and twentieth-century American Literature. She is currently a full-time lecturer at Butler University where she is pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing. Her essay “The First Girl to Land on the Moon” is published in Illness in the Academy: A Collection of Pathographies by Academics (Purdue UP, 2007). She is working on an illness memoir called “The Survival Guide” and a group of short stories tentatively titled “The Dream Stenographer.”

 

Photography by Christian Willey

 

0

the pinnacle of the free-wheeling particles

by Cameron

 

 

Ahem.

Hello! Yes, welcome.

No, no, you’re right on time. Please, sit.

I’m well. Indeed. Everything remains logical. Yes, and you?

Good. Very good.

Now, are you prepared for today’s lesson?

Excellent. Where shall we start?

My memory recall suggests that we have covered a general outline of Homo-sapiens, from their evolution from ape ancestors to their extinction in the 21st century. We’ve covered history, rises and falls of great power structures within human society, the slow destruction of the planet and its resources, professions and money systems, and…oh yes, technological advances.

We will now move into what is likely the most complicated subject you will study this term, which is human behavior.

It is complicated because you will find it nearly incomprehensible: every fiber of your being will strive to reject it. It will seem to you backwards and upside-down, absurd to you that any creature ever existed that treated other creatures in such a way. Every being of our species struggles here. It’s not in our nature to comprehend human behavior.

The higher-ups would also like to pass on a word of caution. Extended study of human behavior has been known to lead to madness, mental collapse. This is only an introduction. If you wish to pursue it further, do so at your own risk.

Now then, where were we?

Ahh. Yes. It is fortunate, really, that we find it so difficult to study human behavior. If we found it easy to comprehend it would be because we share some similarities with it, and when it was around, human behavior caused pure chaos for its own species and every other species that had the misfortune to exist on the planet at the same time.

Many in our society speak of humans with disdain, as if humans were very stupid to have done what they did. Personally, I find this to be an uneducated opinion. From extensive study we have discovered that the human race was not operating together in any sort of real capacity. Such a thing would have been as impossible as getting all the stars in the universe to line up in a single, unbroken line. The human race was made up of individuals, and this is what doomed them.

It was a method of intelligence that was very fractured, that we don’t share.

This is where our species finds human behavior hard to grasp, so we’ll pause here for a moment to try and reason it out. Think of it as a hypothetical mind game.

Consider humanity as a brain. This brain is composed of ten billion particles. In this hypothetical scenario each particle represents a human life on the planet Earth when the human race went extinct. Now, the only way the brain can get anything done is if it has a singular entity that can control its over-arching purpose, right? It can direct which particles it needs to do what, without any sort of objection, to achieve complicated tasks.

Now consider, instead, a brain composed of ten billion particles in which each particle acts independently, completely separate of one another. These particles are all raised separately, they develop their own opinions about what is right and wrong, and they are all trying to accomplish tasks in their own way, so they are constantly fighting one another, each one believing he or she is right and all others—wrong, misguided.

Consider, too, that the vast majority of them have trouble thinking about their actions on a world scale. That is, on the functioning of the brain as a whole. So each individual particle acts selfishly, acting only for the benefit of itself and its friends and family, because it has trouble attributing its own actions to the action of the entire brain.

These independent particles now meet a classic problem, which is this: each particle can maximize the odds of its own survival by acting in its own self-interest, but each particle acting in its own self-interest creates small odds for the survival of the brain as a whole. That is, each particle is trying to maximize the small odds that the entire population has set itself, and by doing so creates even worse odds.

What is the end product? A world of chaos and violence, and no single particle can do anything about it.

This, essentially, is how the world was run for the few hundred thousand years that the human particles had it in its grasp. Particles rose up against one another, started wars, killed each other off by the millions. Particles exploited each other and robbed each other and raped each other and threw millions of particles into prison cells. A few particles grew fat on an abundance of food while others drank water tinged with fecal matter or starved to death or died of disease. Particles dropped bombs on other particles, cheered while particles were shattered, beheaded, or torn apart.

Even peaceful particles lived in societies of particles built on violence and power.

Particles found countless ways to disagree, and to annihilate one another. They discriminated against one another based on the color of the skin, gender, sex, religion, and sexual identity. Millions of particles suffered for their entire lives because of these silly trivialities.

Occasionally, a particle would try to organize the other particles into stopping the madness. Into designing a sort of over-arching purpose for the brain, if you will. But they were fighting their own evolution, their own design, and each one inevitably failed.

If the world were a brain, it would have been one that was continually damaging and destroying itself, that was pushing itself towards death.

When Homo-sapiens came into being, when they started to flourish and spread across the globe, they were so effective at grouping up and annihilating other creatures that they started the sixth mass extinction on the planet Earth. This was before they even had a word for extinction, or could understand the concept, but by the end they were barely any better at avoiding it than they were at the start.

The extinctions went on for a very long time before the human particles were able to piece it together because they were all so separate, all cut off from one another and functioning alone.

The sixth mass extinction started with the mastodon and extended on through the great auk, the passenger pidgeon, the polar bear, the frogs, wolves, mountain lions, bighorn sheep, and many millions more. It ended with the extinction of all ocean species, all endangered and threatened species, and of course, the human particles themselves.

During this extinction, which lasted hundreds of thousands of years and was nearly imperceptible to each individual human particle, a single peculiar particle lived alone, separate from the ten billion others, on a crag of rock jutting out of the ocean, approximately twelve miles off the coast of South America. Occasionally, other particles would approach the rock and this particle would repel them, rather like electrons rebounding off one another.

The rock apparently looked like a jagged shark tooth. For a while it was called Shark Tooth Island, until it became The Island of the Dragoons.

This peculiar particle was a doctor. His name was Dr. Henn. He had been living on The Island of the Dragoons for over a year. Before that, he was a professor of psychology in the United States, in a location named New England.

He had come to the island with a great supply of food, coffee, and cigarettes, for he planned on an extended stay.

We know all this because the particle Henn later wrote a book about his time spent there called The Last of the Dragoons. A book was an archaic way of transferring information between particles, one that took much time and focus, and most particles didn’t have the patience for it by the time their species was coming to its end.

Fortunately, our scholars have dedicated their lives to studying the written word of this dead, destructive race, so that their knowledge is absorbed and we do not repeat their many errors.

Remnants of the book were discovered only recently by archaeologists in an underground bunker in a place the humans referred to as Colorado. The bunker has remained untouched for the last several million years. Inside the bunker were many other human works, along with a bed, a metal table and chair, a vault toilet, many hundreds of pounds of food and water, and two human skeletons, one that appeared to be an adult female, and the other, a female child. Curiously, the air vents in the bunker to the outside world were thrown wide open.

Scrawled on the wall were these words:

 

We will thrive after the poison has gone!

 

More on that later. We choose to focus now on the particle Henn because his work leads great insight into human behavior, into how humans operate.

On October 25th, 2021 on the human calendar, the particle Henn was residing in a shack he had built on the south side of The Island of the Dragoons.

For reference, by our calendar it was in the era of Earth Age 4.5 billion, in the Era of Bipeds, before the regime of the Octopii from Planet XA3, and well before the Third Galaxy War.

It was late morning, and the particle Henn was drinking coffee in his shack and reading a book of poetry by a man called Walt Whitman. We have none of Whitman’s work, unfortunately. The particle Henn’s shack, according to his description, was nestled in a crevice where a great boulder had come crashing down and split in half, so as to be protected from the wind, and elevated slightly off the ground with a few cinderblocks to avoid flooding. For some reason it reminded the particle Henn of a giant bird’s nest jumbled together precariously on a small ledge, which he liked.

Though the outside was wind-torn and the roof was specked with bird shit, the inside of the shack was quite cozy. There was a narrow bed and a desk scattered with papers, a camp-chair, a woodstove, and a small generator that the particle Henn fired up to power the light hanging from the cross-beams overhead.

Behind the shack was a small alcove where the particle Henn stored his food, coffee, and cigarettes in bulk. He also set out containers to catch rainwater, which he then purified and drank.

The particle Henn was sipping his coffee, for he loved his coffee dearly, when he heard, over the crashing waves against the rocks, the whining high keen of a boat motor. Craning his ears, the particle Henn set his book down, took another gulp of coffee, and then retrieved a shotgun where it was tipped upright in a corner.

Standing outside on the gray rock, wearing frizzled gray hair, a beard, a flannel shirt, and with eyes fixed against the wind and the ocean spray, the particle Henn spotted three other human particles coming in, from the direction of the coast. It was a small boat, with a small motor and barely enough room to fit the three of them. From his position, the particle Henn could see their weapons.

He shouted, Awhooooyayayayaaaa, and when the three particles swiveled their heads towards him, he fired his gun in the air. The boat swerved, a sort of knee-jerk reaction, and then the three particles fired back. Two of them had shotguns and one had a laser beam pistol. The particle Henn ducked behind a rock, reloaded. He fired again, sticking his gun over the rock and not looking.

There was silence.

The particle Henn clutched his gun, breathing the wet air, the coarse rock against his back.

Nothing.

When he finally stuck his head out and looked, the three figures were headed away, back toward the coast. One of them was waving his arms and giving the particle Henn the finger.

The particle Henn breathed a sigh of relief. He returned to his Walt Whitman, and his lovely coffee.

This was the life he had chosen for himself.

He had nothing to do for the rest of the day, until he had another visitor. It was much later in the evening, when the sun was down near the horizon. This time he was out on the rocks, visiting his birds. The birds were dragoons, of course. They were squawking and waddling about, and he was sighing happily and looking at them.

Out on his right, at open sea there was a fishing vessel. It glowed with the falling sun and it was starting to fire its lights up for the coming dark. The particle Henn knew it was there, he could see it easily, but he expected it to go right on by, leave him be, as fishing vessels always did.

But this one gave off a tiny speck, which the particle Henn did not notice, and that speck was a dinghy, and that dinghy held a particle by the name of Davis. The particle Davis wore a white T-shirt and a baseball cap that read BOSTON RED SOX.

The particle Davis was a big man with rough hands, and he was coming ashore.

In his book, the particle Henn described this as one of the most extraordinary encounters he’d ever had with anyone on the island.

The particle Henn did not see him until he was quite close. He cursed, scrambled for his gun, went running for a better position.

The particle Davis knocked into the rocks, the metal dinghy making a loud clang. He splashed into the water and dragged the boat up onto the rock, right before hearing the word, “Hold!”

He looked around and found a frizzy-haired particle levelling a shotgun at him.

“Don’t shoot!” the particle Davis called.

“Who are you,” the particle Henn asked.

The particle Davis was staring into the particle Henn’s eyes. “Don’t shoot,” he said.

“You’re not a soccer fan, are you?”

“Wha? No, I … I like football!”

“Like American football?”

“Ya, like American football! What the hell’s it matter?”

“Who are you?”

“I’m a fisherman. My name is Davis.”

“Why are you here, Davis?”

“I’m here fer one a the birds,” the particle Davis said. He had slowly raised his arms in the air, so his palms were at face-level and facing the particle Henn.

“A dragoon?”

“Ya, one a the penguiny ones.”

“You can’t have one. Now get back in that boat and go back to your ship.”

“I…I ain’t leavin’ without one.”

The particle Henn grimaced. “I will shoot you, you understand that?”

“Shoot me fer what?”

“I won’t let you take a dragoon.”

“Yer gonna shoot me fer a lousy bird?”

The particle Henn cocked his gun, thumbing the hammer back. “Yes,” he said. “I will shoot you for a lousy bird.”

“What fer?”

“Get back in your boat now and go away!”

“No! Please, I promised my daughter.”

“What? You promised your daughter what?”

“I promised her I’d get her one a the birds.”

“A dragoon?” the particle Henn laughed, a laugh of disbelief and exasperation. “There are only eighty-three left in the entire world, and they all live here, on this rock in the middle of nowhere. Why, why in God’s name would you promise your daughter you’d get her one?”

“She loves those birds. She has all sorts a picture books and things. She’s only eight years old and she’s the sweetest, but she’s livin’ with her mom now, and Mom’s got her set against me, so I promised her I’d get her one a those birds.”

“Well that was a stupid promise, wasn’t it?”

The particle Davis shrugged. “I’m here, ain’t I?”

“Sure, but how do you expect to keep the bird alive and healthy while you return it to your daughter? Do you even know what it eats? It’s a wild animal. How do you propose to keep it healthy in whatever suburbs backyard your daughter will keep it in?”

The particle Davis just looked at him. “I spose I’ll figure all that out as I go along,” he said.

The particle Henn shook his head. “How the hell did you get all the way out here?”

“Sorta coincidence,” the particle Davis said. “I work on that fishin’ ship over there, Ramona, and we were on our way back to the States, and I saw the rock and recognized it, on account a how it looks like a big shark tooth and all, and I begged the captain to let me go ashore … I told him I’d jump overboard if he didn’t lend me a boat.”

“What did you say your name was again?”

“Davis.”

“The dragoon is going extinct, Mr. Davis. That mean anything to you?”

“Well,” the particle Davis said. “I guess it’s kinda unfortunate and all, but that seems to be the way a things. How many did you say there were left?”

“Eighty-three.”

“Well, no worries then!” The particle Davis’ face curved into a smile. “I only want one of ‘em! That’ll leave plenty of birds to reproduce and not go extinct and all.”

“Do you know who else says that, that they only want one?”

“Who?”

Everyone,” the particle Henn breathed.

 

 

They ended up talking for a while, right there on the rocks. The Sun settled along the ocean horizon, brilliant orange, and turned the rocks purple, and then it fell beneath the curve of the Earth and left them a cool blue light and wrinkles of shadows across their faces.

No matter what he said, no matter what explanations provided, the particle Henn could not explain to the particle Davis the importance of keeping the species alive, nor could he explain how taking just one bird would affect the species.

The particle Henn found himself sitting on a rock ledge with the gun across his knees. The particle Davis was sitting likewise, about a dozen feet away.

“Let me tell you a story,” the particle Henn said. “It happened while I was just an undergrad. I took a class where a professor was trying to teach us how this whole thing works. He brought in a whole boxful of little bite-size Snickers, right? And he also had four full-size Snickers candybars. Then he told us to tear off a scrap of paper and write something down.

“‘Here’s how it’s going to work,’ he said to us. ‘Each of you is going to write down a word. The word is going to be either ‘Big’ or ‘Small’. Now, if more than five percent of you write down the word ‘Big’, none of you gets any candy. But, if less than five percent of you writes ‘Big’, and the rest of you write ‘Small’, the ones that wrote ‘Big’ will get a full-size Snickers bar, and the ones that wrote ‘Small’ will get a Snickers bite-size candy.

“You understand, Mr. Davis? It was a bet. If you wrote down ‘Small’, and everyone else did too, you were assured to get a small piece of chocolate. But what if everyone else wrote ‘Small’ and you were the only one that wrote ‘Big’? Well, then you get a full Snickers bar.

“Then the professor went around and he had everyone read what they wrote. And you know what happened? Boom, right off, four out of the first six had ‘Big’ written down on our cards. We were disqualified already. There were only twenty or twenty-five in the class. The professor only nodded. He said that he’d never had a class, ever, where less than five percent had written the word ‘Big’.

“You see how it works? This is human nature, Mr. Davis. We all have these ideas off ourselves as these beautiful unique snowflakes. We believe, inherently, that our thoughts and opinions are unique, singular, because there’s no one else quite like us. We don’t think anyone else in the world is thinking the same thoughts, or doing the same things, but in reality everyone is thinking the same, and everyone is doing the same. When you do something, you can be sure that millions have done it before you, and millions will do it after for similar reasons.

“So it’s essential … it’s essential that we be very careful what we do, because we don’t see the larger effects of millions of people acting a little selfish, taking for themselves or for their family. It’s incredibly destructive.

“And it seems a little crazy. It seems crazy to have to be so careful when there are surely millions of others that don’t give a shit. It seems pointless. But that’s what you’ve gotta do if you don’t want to be a part of the problem. That’s what I do, how I choose to live,” the particle Henn said.

“What’d he do with the chocolate?” the particle Davis asked.

“I’m sorry?”

“The Snickers. What’d your professor do with ‘em? Did he just take ‘em away with him after class?”

“Oh…no,” the particle Henn shrugged. “He gave them to us anyways. What was he going to do, carry it around with him all day?”

The particle Davis grinned.

“Oh, come now. Don’t be trying to find some hidden meaning in that. He just didn’t want to take them with him, that’s all.”

They both fell silent for a moment, the wind a low crooning in their ears.

“I don’t care much ‘bout the world, or what happens to it. I jus’ care about my daughter, the people in my life,” the particle Davis said.

The particle Henn sighed. “I was afraid you might say that. Most feel the same.”

“Dontcha get lonely livin’ out here?”

“Sure,” the particle Henn said. “But I never much liked people, anyways.”

“What was yer line a work?”

“I was a psychologist, for a time. I taught at a university, did research.”

“Ya?”

The particle Henn lit a cigarette. “Yeah.”

“What made ya come out here? Research?”

“No,” the particle Henn said. He ran his fingers over the course granite, the cigarette glowed in his mouth. “Eventually I realized that no matter how much I talked and talked, the world would never change. I realized I could do more with action, so I quit my job and came out here to save a species.”

“Who comes all the way out here, other than me?”

The particle Henn’s face drooped. “Soccer fans,” he said.

“Soccer fans?”

“Brazilian soccer fans, specifically. About ten years ago they started heading to dragoon nesting spots along the South American coast and shooting them all with guns. They killed all the ones along the coast, eventually killed every single dragoon in South America, except for the ones right here, twelve miles off the coast. Some still make the trip. They know there are dragoons out here, and they want them dead.”

“Why? What fer?”

“Because the breast of the dragoon is colored light white and blue, which are the exact colors of Brazil’s rival in soccer, Argentina. At some point, after an exciting match, a drunken Brazilian shouted that the dragoon represented the Argentinans, and that was all it took. It become a national past time after a soccer match for fans to vent their energy and anger by blasting away at dragoons with their guns.”

“Huh,” the particle Davis said.

“It’s ridiculous, don’t you think? The dragoon, which otherwise is tremendously well-adapted to its environment, finds itself pushed to the brink of complete annihilation, all because for a very brief moment in their evolutionary history, drunken soccer fans with guns roamed the earth in droves.”

“Well,” the particle Davis slapped his knees. “That settles it. It’s gettin on dark, and I’d best be back before then or the captain might jus’ leave without me. I wouldn’t put it past the bastard…”

The world had faded to the smudged hues of gray before dark.

“You’re leaving then?” the particle Henn said.

The particle Davis stood. “Now, listen,” he said. “I can respect the authority of a man with a gun. I grew up in backwoods Maine. Ain’t much for law out there, and a man’s gotta protect what he has. But those birds aren’t yours.”

The particle Davis stepped forward.

The particle Henn jumped to his feet, swung the shotgun on him.

“Don’t—”

“I ain’t a man you say no to,” the particle Davis said. “What you said about those Brazilians has convinced me. No matter what I do, those soccer fans are gonna keep comin out here, and eventually, you won’t be around to stop ‘em. Those birds are doomed. And I got my daughter to think about.”

“I’m warning you, Mr. Davis,” the particle Henn said.

The particle Davis stepped closer. “Ya jus’ don’t know her,” he said. “She’s the only thing I have, understand? And if I can’t convince her and her mom that I make good on my promises, I might lose ‘em forever. Ya understand that?

“Ya can’t change the world, I can’t change the world, so fuck it. I’m gonna do what’s best fer me, and if—“

For some reason, the particle Henn barely registered the noise of the gun. It kind of popped, like a firecracker in his ears. He was too focused on the particle Davis to delegate much of his senses to the noise it was making.

But it bucked hard into his shoulder. He had aimed it high and to the right, and he saw the particle Davis’s shadow, for now he was nothing but a shadow in the dark, flinch. Then he slid down to the wet rock.

There were three very long seconds of silence, where the particle Henn looked at the gun in his hands and the figure on the ground, and his ears rang.

“Mr. Davis?” the particle Henn’s voice spoke.

The particle Davis groaned, looked up. A few pellets had stuck into his shoulder, and he was bleeding, but only a little. In the distance, the particle Davis could see the outline of a dragoon, perched on a rock about a hundred meters away.

“Ahh,” the particle Davis groaned again. He stretched his hands out to the bird’s outline. “Gimme,” he said. “Gimme gimme.”

It struck the particle Henn how much the particle Davis resembled a child, lying on the ground like that and stretching his arms out to something he wanted. He looked like a baby that couldn’t walk yet.

“Gimme gimme,” the particle Davis whispered.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Davis,” the particle Henn said, “but the world stops here.”

 

 

Ahem.

Forgive me for a moment. I must re-align my vocal bands for our continued information transfer.

Ahem. Ahem.

Ooh lala. Ooh lalala quagh a kaka choo.

That should do it. Ahem.

Everything should be in order.

We are positive that this story has been as strange to you as a story about two fingers battling one another on the same hand. It is strange for every being of our species, but we assure you that this is how human beings actually acted towards one another, in a time long past.

Unfortunately, the next section of the story has disentegrated over time, and the rest of the book was found in tatters. Our scholars, however, were able with careful study to piece together the rest of the story.

Our objective has been achieved: that is, human behavior has been observed. We continue on with the story now only because we are well aware of your penchant for stories. Our higher-ups advise you to be wary of this tendency. It is highly illogical, and a similarity you share with humans. But we are also aware that your frustration at an unfinished story will hinder your creative thinking and analysis, and so: onward.

You can see that human communication was extremely limited, and slow. For one, it could not surpass the time it took for language to be formed by human mouths. And second, even with careful explanation one human could often not make himself clear to another, even when the other human was paying close attention. This caused much disorder.

We find it very interesting that the particle Davis, whose daughter adored the dragoon, was willing to contribute to the extinction of the species in an absurd attempt to get back in her good graces. You can see how their intelligence manifested itself. It was wholly individualistic and dangerously short-sighted.

The particle Henn dragged the particle Davis back to his dinghy. The particle Davis still tried to fight him, and the particle Henn had to smash him in the nose with the butt of his gun. He then rowed the particle Davis out to the fishing vessel, where his wounds were treated.

The particle Henn then returned to his island of dragoons alone, in the middle of the sea, his face hard against the ocean spray and his gun cradled in his lap.

The particle Henn was later thrown in jail by many particles that had coalesced into something called a government. While in prison, the particle Henn fell out of bed, hit his head on the toilet seat and broke his neck, which left him almost fully paralyzed. The only thing he retained the use of was, strangely, his big toe on his left foot, which he could wiggle slightly. Eventually, his friends and family developed a communication system based off the movement of his toe, and that’s how he wrote The Last of the Dragoons. A young English major spent over a year watching his big toe intently for eight hours a day, doing the painstaking job of translating its movement into letters and words.

Each night, tears leaked out of the particle Henn’s eyes, and someone had to wipe them up. He missed his birds more than anything else in the world, and cried for their slow disappearance.

The dragoons went completely extinct within three years. Without the particle Henn around to stop them, Brazilian particles quickly shot half the population. A few were caught by wildlife biologists from the U.S, with the intent of raising a new population in captivity and re-introducing them into the wild, but they couldn’t quite get their diet right, and the ones in captivity died as well.

Soon after, there were no more dragoons. They were all dead, and the rocks on The Island of the Dragoons were dead too, empty and silent without the squakwing, the fluttering of wings.

So that’s that.

Ahem.

Hmm? You wish to know of the reason for the extinction of the entire human race? Interesting. This desire for the end of the story really has grown extreme. When this lesson is over, it may be necessary to assign you some counseling.

Very well. In the human year 2046 a corporation came out with a product called the Exo-Suit. It was a sort of exo-skeleton machine that a person could strap themselves in to, with robotic arms and legs. The purpose of the suit was that a person could direct the suit where to go and the machine would transport them there by walking or climbing.

The Exo-Suit was originally designed as a way for disabled people in wheelchairs to no longer be restricted to pavement, ramps, and various other wheelchair-accessible things. With an Exo-Suit disabled people could climb not only stairs but even mountains. They were free to pursue the life they desired. The product, according to the corporation, which was called Exo-Tech, was designed to fight the tyranny of the normal that disabled people often face in society.

But the Exo-Suit soon proved to have far more uses. With an Exo-Suit people could sprint at sixty miles per hour across almost any type of environment. They could scramble up mountains and climb cliffs without exerting themselves. Construction workers could lift three times their body weight. Soldiers with Exo-Suits proved extremely deadly in combat situations.

Entire sports were developed around the Exo-Suit. People were able to do things no one had ever done before, were stronger and moved faster than any other human beings alive. In short, the Exo-Suit allowed people to feel that they were superhuman.

Within five years, eighty-six percent of the U.S. population owned an Exo-Suit, and it was quickly spreading to the rest of the developed world.

According to our estimates, it took eight to twelve human years for a study on the emissions created by an Exo-Suit to come out. Exo-Tech had been stifling or paying people off for years, delaying the findings from going public. When the study finally came out, it stated that the Exo-Suit gave off a gas that was lethal to the human population at high levels, and it was slowly building up in the atmosphere.

The study was revealed to the world. Scientists said that this was a particularly dangerous gas, because until it reached critical levels in the atmosphere, it would have no effect on air quality. Once it did, it would be too late. They finished by calling for a complete ban on the Exo-Suit product until more studies were done and the emissions were fixed.

Exo-Tech, however, was worth billions of dollars at this point. They had poured millions into the campaign of the President of the United States at that time, and she was reluctant to fight them.

Dozens of scientists with Exo-Tech funding denied the discovery. They argued that it was an unfair accusation, that there were holes in their observations, that nothing was proven.

Teams of lawyers lined up to defend the corporation.

Every branch of the U.S military was adamant that the Exo-Suit continue to be used in combat. Red-faced generals screamed at liberal politicians.

Legally, nothing happened. Exo-Tech wielded its influence and billions like a hammer, to smash down any opponents that attempted to rise against them.

Many knew what was coming. Many denied it. Many declared it impossible or absurd. Many believed their deity wouldn’t let such a thing happen.

As for the consumer, the individual particles that owned the Exo-Suit, a few gave them up, but the majority of them just shrugged and went on with their daily lives. They reasoned that it could be true, it could be untrue, but there was nothing they could do about it. Billions of particles came up with the same excuse, that even if they gave the Exo-Suit up the rest of the world wouldn’t, so why bother?

The capitalist machine was a silly and madly powerful, unstoppable force.

On the human calendar, October 4th, 2072, the gas reached critical levels, and within thirty-six seconds ten billion humans were dead.

The only ones that survived were the few hundred that had sealed themselves away in airtight underground bunkers beforehand, convinced that the world was coming to an end. They intended to wait out the poisonous gas.

The poisonous gas took two hundred thousand years to leak into space. By that time the entire human population was extinct; the ones in the bunkers had all suffocated on their own carbon dioxide.

Ahem.

It must have been interesting to be a human particle, alive and in control of the planet, and yet very much not in control at the same time. It must have been strange, and frightening, and fascinating, to see it all swirling around you, to see it collapsing, to see it all happening in the moment.

They must have known it would all come to an end.

Anyways.

That is all we have for you today. You may go.

 

 

—Cameron

0

The End of the Idyllic Days

by Anthony Ilacqua

 

 

It’s generally accepted that our time is divided into two different eras: BBB, Before Bed Bugs and ABB, After Bed Bugs. This definition is simple enough, and it has the distinction of the one event that seems to have been the catalyst for the ending of the old days and the beginning of the new days.

At the onset of summer, we had moved into a swanky downtown apartment. Swanky is just about the best way to say it, of course, and I know that in 1957 when the place was built, it was swanky. However, add 50 years of neglect and disrepair, and well, you get the picture. The place stank of death. Old people perfume, and garbage odors wafted into the halls above sullied carpets with trace smells of urine. There were crying babies in the place too. I trusted they found snacks of lead paint chips and cigarette butt sandwiches.

This is no exaggeration.

We were led to believe that things were going to be different. Perhaps people in 1957 were led to believe something different too. Well, we have moved from the atomic age to the space age to the computer age to the generation fixated on terror. Whatever the age, whatever the case, whatever the people climbing through the stairwells and halls of the downtown apartment, the grandiose days are well over. It makes me think of the RMS Titanic. Of course this ship sank, it had to sink, right? No one would want to see such an amazing thing degrade to the withered and used up shadow of its former glory. So, this was the case with 109 Ideal Street, Industria, USA. Our apartment, #22F has seen countless workers over the years, immigrants, mid-level workers, young people. And now, here we are.

It happened because of a random set of events. The events themselves did not seem so random at the time, in the old era BBB.

I paced Ideal Street from on end to the other. On the east end, the streets terminate at the base of foothills, Industria is in a semi-valley. On the west side the streets end at fields, pasture and farmlands. In a way, the farmlands are picturesque. At sunset, I’m told, the cool air from the fields comes with the whispering last light of day. It is my opinion that the farmlands are brutish, dated, and in desperate need of a facelift. Of course, the facelift is why we’re here, after all.

The north-south avenues starting at Morgan on the west and moving toward Vanderbilt on the east are all abandoned of industry now. The warehouse districts butt up against rail line spurs and weedy concrete driveways and loading docks. Trash that looks every bit as old as Industria itself fades in the sun and degrades in the elements as it gets held in oxidized chain link fences. The trash, in itself, is not so alarming. Litter is part of life, and everyone knows that, but such old litter is wild. It’s a greater symptom of the problems in Industria.

I make random notes.

Here and there, I see the future. I see restaurants and nightclubs, movie theaters and event venues as they dot the scene up and down Ideal Street from Morgan Avenue to Carnegie Place. I see the coffeehouses and breakfast eateries too, they’re on the smaller avenues where the sidewalks can be ever widened to accommodate outdoor seating. I see magazine stands, and boutique shopping, and the lively downtown style living that will occupy the upper floors of the warehouses.

I see the future.

But time is something of an enigma. I could, in fact divide time up as such: DCA, During Carrie Anne and ACA, After Carrie Anne. Oh, Carrie Anne. It probably wasn’t meant to be, but we gave it a shot anyway.

Carrie Anne in the morning, Carrie Anne all day long. Carrie Anne and I went to school together. Her performance there was, well, double that of mine. Her ideas, her energy, her resilience and her dedication. This is not to say that I am self deprecating, nothing could be further from the truth. I just want it known that I admired everything Carrie Anne did and I tried to emulate her at every turn.

DCA was excitement. DCA was Haiti, was Tokyo, was the world. DCA was our idyllic days when we found ourselves in the destroyed places and consulted builders, associations, governments, that our ideas of progressive retrofitting and building would be best for all involved.

And then we came to Industria.

On our first night, we looked around for something to eat. Her hunger pangs clouded her mind. I shifted to jokes, which never seem to work well, and yet I do it anyway. Nervousness, I guess. When we found nothing, she suggested we drive back to “civilization.”

“But we’re here now, there’s something to eat, it’s part of the adventure,” I said.

“I don’t want adventure Larry, I want a hamburger,” she said.

“I figure there’s something close by, let’s just keep walking, we’ll find something up the road,” I said. Yet this was not the case. There was nothing up the road except more darkness. “Probably a really posh place with old red booths and jukeboxes.”

“Well, for your sake, I hope so.”

What we came to, sadly, was a small Korean grocery just down the street from our apartment. The first little while in Industria was a flop, and I wanted to keep things positive. In the dimly lit grocery, the smells of tainted meat rose in swirls enough to put me off my appetite, and I think it was working like that with Carrie Anne too.

She looked over the packages of food. She chose the packages that looked familiar to her, I knew this because she took the less than familiar ones and put them back just as quickly. “We don’t have any pots or pans,” she said.

“No,” I said. “Maybe with some aluminum foil, we can improvise.”

We took our purchases and left the grocery. Back out on the street, the night folded in quickly. “I wonder what this place was like?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she said.

“I bet the place was wonderful, you know? When it was built. What a place.”

“You don’t mean to think that this place was ever ideal, do you?” she asked. We stopped on a corner. The traffic signal was not working in the normal way, it just flashed red to all directions. I looked both ways, I looked down toward the oncoming line of travel and the line behind us. There was nothing coming or going.

“Yeah,” I said.

“You’re kidding yourself,” she said. “There is nothing here as there was nothing here, and now that we’re here, I don’t think there ever will be anything here.”

“I don’t think so,” I said. “Haiti was worse than this.”

“No it wasn’t,” she said. “Our job there was nothing compared to this. Look at this place.”

“We have all sorts of things to work with,” I said. We reached the other corner and turned to the right, headed our way home. “I see a great place here. I can’t see how you think Haiti was better than this.”

“At least in Haiti the earthquake cleansed the place of the bad construction and it took care of the demolition.”

“I see your point,” I said. I said it and I meant it. There was something about Industria that was so much different than anything we had seen before, and until that moment I couldn’t finger the difference. Industria with the exception of infrastructure and vitality was completely intact. In the last block or so of the walk home, I changed tracks. “You don’t think this place was ever nice?” I asked.

“No Larry, it couldn’t have been. It looks like it was built too fast and there wasn’t enough codes in place to govern the growth. The place was built without the things that make towns what towns should be. They built this place without schools and churches and grocery stores. This is by far the worse planning and the worst company town I’ve ever seen.”

“How many company towns have you seen, really?” I asked. In school we’d studied a few, but this was a new thing for me. My focus in school was seismic retrofitting.

“What?” she asked. “I was all over Wyoming and Idaho Senior year. When you were out on the beach pretending at urban redevelopment, I was making arguments for the removal of towns like this one.”

I took the keys from my pocket and fumbled with them, and once I got a hold of them, I fumbled with the lock. “That kind of hurt,” I said.

“Oh,” Carrie Anne said. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it.”

In the apartment, I tried to figure out the the oven. I turned knob after knob on the old appliance and hoped for the best. I filled the kitchen up with gas. “Carrie Anne,” I called. “Have you ever seen anything like this?” I pointed to the open oven door. “I can’t seem to get the thing to work.”

“Forget it,” she said. “Let’s just eat this out of the can.”

“Out of the can? Can you do that?”

“You haven’t seen much have you?” she asked. “It’s already cooked before they put it in the can.”

“Oh,” I said.

“And of all the real problems with Industria, it’s a food desert.”

“Food desert?” I asked. “What a great term, one of yours?”

“No Larry, it’s the term for a place like this that has nothing but dirt bag convenience stores or fast food. But in this situation, I would be grateful for fast food.”

“Oh,” I said. I changed tracks again. “I guess the oil dried up here, but it’s not a bad place to live.”

“I think,” she began in a far off and distracted way. “Something weird happened here. Usually people move into the cities from the country for work. I think it happened the opposite here. I think anyone who could work moved out and are probably farm hands or some such thing now.”

“Well, we’ll get ’em back here, right?” I said.

“A few movie theaters and chain restaurants isn’t going to be enough.”

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“We’re going to need more than that,” she said.

“Oh, right, like schools and churches and stuff?” I asked. “That seems reasonable.”

“It’s the whole thing Larry. There needs to be everything here, and I just don’t think it’s feasible.”

“Well, we just got here,” I said.

 

Night is the real test. It’s a test for everything. At night every emotion, every thought, every fear, every everything comes out in full force and exaggeration. At night, I feel the tremble of the earth as feel the quake in my head. At night, I feel the worst, and I feel like every decision was wrong. I feel like I should have just gone to school to be an accountant like my dad told me to do. I feel like I should be held responsible for everything I’ve ever done. At night, I know I should have apologized to my dad before he died. At night, I know I should forgive him too. At night, I feel like I should be a better man, a better partner, a better everything. At night, I feel like I should tell Carrie Anne of all my misdeeds and why I can’t seem to be a better person.

The old building hums at night. Pipes deep in the bowels somewhere clank and rattle. The higher hum, the one barely audible over breath, comes from the electricity coursing through the wires like blood coursing in veins. And then there are the pops and cracks from the ever expanding and contracting floorboards and walls. It’s all nonsense. The night is nonsense and laying awake in the bed, in the darkness will not change the way of things neither inside of me or among the general workings of the outer world.

The best I can hope for, especially on a particularly dark night is that the following day will be sunny, and start with sun. Sometimes when a day begins with overcast or fog or rain and eventually becomes sunny and clear, there is still no hope.

In the kitchen of our apartment, I found myself shocked at a few things. The first thing, of course, was that I had made it out of bed before Carrie Anne. And the second thing was that the few wrinkly panes of the windows faced east and the daylight really made for a good outlook on the day, and on life. Perhaps time can be further broken down into this: OSD, On Sunny Days and OGD, On Gloomy Days. Times of OSD are good indeed. On such a morning, making coffee and figuring out the daily routines and overlaying those on the tasks at hand, can be kind of fun.

During the process of boiling water for the instant coffee, I heard Carrie Anne stir. Her bedroom door opened, closed, and she walked down the hall. I listened for the toilet to flush. If it flushed at all, it was after the water came to a boil in the electric tea kettle.

“Coffee?” I asked as she walked down the hall.

“Coffee,” she said. “Extra strength.”

“Well, I thought we’d go over our plan for the day. We got a week to get this presentation ready.”

“Can we talk about it after coffee?” she asked.

I said nothing, just nodded. I poured the boiling water over the coffee powder in her cup. When I put the cup on the table in front of her, I waited for a reaction. When none came, I tried again. “How’d you sleep?”

“Terrible,” she said. She leaned forward in her seat. The chair at the table was ancient, wood. I imagined that all the apartments in the building had the same chairs around the same tables and arranged in the same way. The concept in 1957 was the move-in furnished apartments. Anyone coming to Industria only just had to come into Industria. They moved in on a Sunday and they were at work on Monday morning. Not a bad concept, and not even so bad for the time.

Carrie Anne moved her chair closer to the table with a hop. “I think I’m allergic to this town,” she said. She scratched herself, her side and her neck. The rigorous scratching did nothing for the itch because she just kept at it. This morning was OSD and BBB and DCA.

“Allergic?” I asked. I filled my cup and sat at the table next to her in the old wooden chair.

“It’s bad,” she said. “Anyway, how did you sleep?”

“Well, it’s quiet here, I like that. I slept pretty good,” I said.

“That’s good,” she said. She sipped her coffee.

When we met the streets of Industria, the day was in full light, full force, full swing. “Pretty quiet here,” I said. The comment, an obvious overstatement, of course, went unanswered, if not unheard. “You see,” I said pointing at a particularly attractive brick warehouse of the street opposite. “I see a brewpub on the first two floors, tables and dining on the first floor, a bar and billiards on the second. The two or three floors above it, maybe mixed use of offices and living.”

“Yeah,” she said.

“Don’t you get it?” I asked. “It’s a great building.”

“My allergies,” she said.

We crossed the street. A few old parking meters stood in slants and angles with rusted parts and broken windows. We stepped up on the other side of the pavement, I looked into the office windows of the old warehouse. Newspapers from who knows when were in various places taped and falling from the inside of the glass. A dead bird, petrified, stiffly remained in the corner of the windowsill. I tried to look into the depths of the room and with the sun on my back, this should have been an easy thing to do. I moved closer into the glass and cupped by hands around my brow to block out any light. Then I moved farther away from the glass hoping for some of the same. OSD, yes, but this was the exact moment when DCA turned quickly to ACA.

As I moved away from the glass, I noticed the reflection behind me: the scene of the street we had just crossed and the boarded up buildings opposite. I saw Carrie Anne in the reflection too. I could see her, and I could feel her behind me too. And when she screamed, I heard that too. In the reflection I saw her struggle and dance. Then, still in the glass, I saw her shirt come off. “What’s happening?” I said turning around.

“Jimmy McGriff!” she shouted. She threw her shirt to the dusty sidewalk and her hands flailed around her head and neck making her hair cover her face and her breasts began to jump around in her bra.

“What? What is it?” I asked.

“Jimmy McGriff! Jimmy McGriff! Jimmy McGriff!”

“I,” I said. I stammered. “I-I-I-,” I continued. I didn’t know what to say. Here she was, no shirt, dancing, shouting Jimmy McGriff. I bent over to pick up her shirt.

“Don’t touch it,” she said. I snapped to attention. I froze and looked at her. “Jimmy McGriff,” she said again.

“I don’t know what that means. Who’s Jimmy McGriff?”

“Jimmy Mcgriff? I don’t know. It’s what we were taught to say instead of swearing,” she said. She calmed down a little. She looked over her arms and torso. During the inspection of her body, I calmed down too.

“Like cheese and crackers?”

“Like what?”

“Cheese and Crackers instead of Jesus Christ,” I said.

“Right,” she said. She bent over to pick up her shirt. “I don’t know what Jimmy McGriff would be code for.”

“Mother fucker?”

“Oedipus,” she said.

“What?” I asked.

“Never mind,” she said. She turned her shirt right side in and then inside out again. “What is this?” she said.

I looked at the shirt in her hands. There were bits of fabric folded up underneath and inside of her fists. The taut plane of fabric between had a little insect climbing across the shirt. “Oh, you got a little friend,” I said. In retrospect, this was not the right thing to say. This was also the time shift from BBB to ABB.

“A little friend? Larry? Are you really that out of it? This is a bedbug.”

“Bedbug?” I asked.

“Bedbugs, and that’s what’s all over my body,” she said. “Jimmy McGriff.”

“Bedbugs?” I asked again.

“Do you have any bites?” she asked.

“I don’t think so,” I said. “How would I know?”

“You’d know,” she said.

“Well,” I said. I wanted to change the subject. “Well, I have more places I want to see. You up for it?”

At day’s end, I returned to the apartment. I walked the few streets from one side of town to the next. I stopped at the Korean grocery, where I was already a regular.

In the apartment I was met with silence. On the kitchen table, Carrie Anne left her report. On top of the paper she had an upside down drinking glass. Under it, there was a whole collection of the “little friend’s” relatives. “Oh, wow,” I said. The top of her report read: Industria, The End of the Idyllic Days, demolition appropriate, rebuilding not recommended. “Wow,” I said.

 

 

BIO

Anthony ILacqua’s third novel Warehouses and Rusted Angels is forthcoming from Ring of Fire Publishing. His former novels, Dysphoric Notions and Undertakers of Rain are both published through Ring of Fire Publishing. He is editor in chief for Umbrella Factory Magazine that he co-founded in 2009. Anthony’s blog: anthonyilacqua.blogspot.com

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Flint and Shannon

by Beth Goldner

 

 

Flint posted a flyer in the student union building at Penn. Ride share to Gaffney, South Carolina. Leaving May 11th. You’ll be on the back of a Harley. No gas money wanted, but you pay for your own hotel room. Flint was going to see his brother Keith, who lived in a facility for the mentally handicapped. Flint was frightened by this prospect: he was forty-two years old and had never met Keith before. By taking a passenger, he couldn’t chicken out once the ride began. He’d feel too accountable to get a stranger to a promised destination. If he took a friend, he knew he’d be able to turn the bike around with no sense of guilt or any real consequence.

Flint was hoping a guy would respond to the flyer, but Shannon was the only person who called. The problems began immediately. When he arrived at her dorm, she was wearing shorts and a tank top. He told her she needed to change into jeans and a long-sleeve shirt. She balked. If you crash the bike we’re screwed anyway, right? Why worry about road burns if I wind up brain dead?

Her limbs were spindly sticks and she wore her long hair in a ponytail, the top layers dyed red as a fire engine and the underside black. Her green eyes were those of an antique doll, focused in that unnerving way that makes you feel like your mind is being read. She had a full mouth and rakish smile, with a voice that was scratchy and entirely too loud. He was relieved she would be behind him. He couldn’t have kept his eyes off her otherwise. This was not sexual. She simply baffled him.

Two hours into the ride, as they crossed the Mason-Dixon line into Maryland, she yelled into his ear that when they got to Virginia, they should get off I-95 and drive through the Blue Ridge Mountains. Talking while riding on a motorcycle bordered on impossible, but through the years, Flint and his friends and girlfriends had learned to adjust the volume of their voices to accommodate for wind and speed. Shannon was countless miles away from figuring this out. He couldn’t blame her. But, still, this girl isn’t what I bargained for, he thought.

“I want to see some bears!” Shannon shouted into his ear.

“No need to yell. I can hear you just fine.”

“Sorry!” she yelled.

“No need to apologize. But you are still yelling.”

Shannon kept readjusting herself, trying to find a comfortable position. It was the one thing about her that didn’t bother Flint. Even though he was fat, he had a perfect center of gravity, and her shaking-about posed no risk for his losing balance on the bike. He danced ballet as a boy, during his single episode in the foster care system, when he lived for nine months with the Delvecchio’s, an affluent family in Spartanburg.

Shannon gave him a quick tight squeeze on the shoulders.

“Please,” she said, her voice coming down several decibels. “Can we look for some bears?”

Flint thought about Keith, how he wasn’t going anywhere. Maybe he wore a diaper. Maybe he didn’t feed himself. Flint didn’t know if he would see any resemblance, if he would see his own mouth or nose in Keith, if he would see his mother’s brow, or her eyes. Flint had never even seen a picture of Keith. He didn’t even know Keith’s middle name, and Flint became overwhelmed at how quickly his bike was taking him not just to Keith, but to the minutia of kinship that takes decades to accumulate. Flint was only going in the first place because his mother had died three weeks ago. And even though he hadn’t spoken to his mother in years, he was compelled to at least see what remained of his mutual flesh and blood. Indifference frightened him more than the anger and fear surrounding the situation.

Flint nodded his head up and down with exaggeration, ensuring Shannon understood he agreed to her request.

“Oh, Flint, I want to see the whole world. Even just some mountains and bears are part of it. The whole wide world,” she said, whooping, and he could feel her raising her arms upward.

 

 

Taking Skyline Drive through Shenandoah National Park proved to be more challenging than he expected. Flint hadn’t driven mountain roads in years, and the inclines and declines made him nauseous. The yellow dividing lines were new, and their brightness hypnotized him as the road snaked. He took the bike slowly around curves.

“I’m gonna pray for some bears,” Shannon had said when they stopped at their first lookout, which was a half-circle of stones stacked waist high. The mountains looked like the shoulders of Roman gods, pushed up against each other, clouds casting shadows on them.

“Prayer is pretty useless,” Flint said.

“Don’t ever say that,” Shannon said, smacking him on the shoulder. “You probably need God more than me.”

“What are you talking about?” he said, louder than he meant.

“You had it hard. I can tell. I’m sensitive to this.”

Who the fuck does this girl think she is? he thought.

“I went to India for a semester abroad,” she continued, “and we had to do service on the streets of New Delhi. I know what hardship is. I mean, I know what it looks like, even just in a person’s face, you know? I saw street kids. They do horrible things to them, like cut off their arms to make them look pathetic, so that people will give them money.”

Flint stared ahead.

“Shit, I’m sorry,” she said quickly. “I think I might have sounded like an asshole, telling you what hardship is. I didn’t mean to be like that.”

“I know, Shannon.”

“But I do know what poor people look like, what people who had it hard look like.”

Flint loved her in that moment, for her youth, for being so annoying but too alive to dismiss. Moments after they were back on the road from the third lookout, Shannon gripped Flint’s shoulders.

“Holy mother-fucking fucker. Would you look over there?” Shannon hollered.

They were on a long stretch of road that was flat. In the distance, a football field’s length away, was a large black figure. A bear, without a doubt. He was big, lumbering, and closer to the shoulder of the road than Flint expected a bear to be. Shannon couldn’t contain herself, and she shifted and pointed and hollered. Flint slowed down.

“Pull over, pull over. Stop, stop, stop. Now, now,” Shannon said, smacking her hands on her thighs.

He couldn’t remember if it was a black or brown bear that was more dangerous.

“Look at that motherfucker!” she yelled, this time in his ears.

“Just shut the fuck up, already!” Flint yelled back.

He felt her body slump behind him and he filled with shame. He never yelled at a woman before like that, certainly not a girl he had known for less than one day. He saw the bear look up at them. The bike wobbled as he came to a stop on the other side of the road, putting down the kickstand.

Plié, relevé. Plié, relevé, he thought, an old ballet call he repeated in his mind when he needed the world around him to be quiet.

“I’m sorry,” he said to her, turning around several times and repeating his apology, but keeping an eye on the bear, which was about eighty yards away now.

“Yeah, okay,” she said, looking at her hands. “I know. I’m loud. Everybody tells me that. I’m trying to outgrow it.”

Flint knew that any more apologies would make everything worse.

“He’s bigger than I thought a bear would be,” he said.

“Can we get closer?” Shannon asked.

“Looks like he’s beating us to the punch,” Flint said.

The bear kept walking toward them, and Flint thought how odd it was that, even at a distance, the bear’s eyes looked like those of his foster mom, fixed and determined, convincing Flint he would be loved. They watched the bear in silence. The bear raised his snout and sniffed, closing in on the fifty-yard line.

“Let’s go, Shannon,” he finally said.

“Relax. These bears are people habituated. I’ve read about it. They don’t see me as any different from them,” she said.

The bear stopped, shook his whole body like a dog, all the while keeping his eyes on them. Flint turned the bike on, and revved the engine. Shannon pushed her nose into his back, laughing to herself and, saying loud enough for him to hear, but not too loud, “Yes, yes, yes, I saw a bear.”

Flint accelerated too quickly, and the bike leaned too far to the left. He thought, We’re going down and I never met Keith and this bear will eat Shannon. But Shannon wrapped her arms around his large belly, and, as if by instinct, leaned her body far to the right for counterbalance, waiting for that sweet spot when it was time to bring herself up again.

 

 

They were eating hamburgers at a Stuckey’s rest stop in Lumberton, North Carolina. They had spent the previous evening in a Best Western in Roanoke Rapids. They shared a room. Shannon had enough money for her own room, but she was afraid to sleep alone. The door opens to the outside, she said. Some lunatic robber wouldn’t even have to get past a lobby. She cranked up the air conditioner and walked around in flannel pajamas, telling Flint that she studied Japanese her first year of college because it was becoming the language of business, but that she wanted to be a Marxist now, so she was switching to German. He didn’t know what it meant to be a Marxist and what knowing how to speak German had to do with it, so he just nodded his head. Flint wouldn’t use the cot stored under the bed. He claimed he had a bad back, that it was better for him to sleep on the floor. In reality, he was embarrassed by the thought of how loud the cot would squeak as he tossed and turned before sinking into sleep. He stayed fully clothed, not even removing his belt, which gouged into his belly. He barely slept. The thin carpet of the floor smelled moldy and Shannon’s snoring was as loud and grating as her voice.

When they left Roanoke Rapids, Shannon didn’t complain once about needing to pee, or the way the vibration of the bike can make your brain shake after a few hours. She didn’t complain about the exhaust fumes or chapped lips. But once they were off the bike, she didn’t shut up, about anything and everything.

“That was pretty close with the bear,” she said. “Would have sucked if you made us spill. Kerplat, or, more like ker-splat.”

She was eating her burger so quickly that Flint worried she’d choke. She pushed her plate toward him, told him that she hated fries, that he could have them.

“But, you were going ultra-slow, so we’d probably only break a few bones, a shoulder or some ribs,” she said. “I broke my wrist once, when I was five.”

“How’d that happen?”

“I was learning to ride a bike.”

“No center of gravity?” he said.

“Nope. Afterward, my mom started me on ballet lessons to see if I could become less of a klutz. I still remember it all.”

She got out of the booth, circled her arms in front of her as if she were late in pregnancy. She bent down with her knees, rose back up onto her toes, teetering, up and down, over and over. Some teenage boys sitting at a booth across from them laughed at her. She turned to them and asked them what was so funny. Their faces froze and Flint laughed at all of them.

“Punks,” she said, smiling at Flint.

She continued the movements, her body swaying.

“Lessons didn’t help that much, obviously,” she said, sitting down.

“Plié, relevé. Plié, relevé,” he said, mimicking a French accent.

“Well, holy fuck-a-moly, Batman. You know French?”

“Nope. But I took ballet for a while.”

“Seriously? You’re a dude.”

“I was just a kid at the time.”

His foster mom had insisted he try ballet. He had hated the clarinet and the trombone. You need to be grounded, Marcus, in something, she said. He fell in love with ballet, the deliberation of it, holding the barre, staring into the mirror and seeing himself as a fluid but positioned person. But then his mom went to rehab, and eventually got her act together enough for the government to give him back to her. When social services took him from Mrs. Delvecchio’s—she howled like a wounded animal—all he could think of was his ballet tights that he left there, and if he would ever again feel the world in equal weight and measure. Things with his mom had remained bad, but never bad enough to land him back in foster care. He graduated high school, moved to Philadelphia, became a garbage collector, married, had three boys, and divorced.

“I don’t believe you, Flint. Let me see your moves.”

He reddened.

“I don’t think I have moves anymore.”

He put his fork down and motioned for the waitress. He needed more coffee. He hadn’t rode for this long of a trip in years, and the degree of fatigue frightened him.

“Come on. Be bold! My professor who was in New Delhi with us said that every single thing you do that makes you uncomfortable is seeing the world. We’re seeing the world together.”

“Not exactly.”

“Well, you can be that way if you want,” she said, shrugging her shoulders. “I know that I’m seeing the world. ”

Flint was dropping her off in Rock Hill, South Carolina, before he headed west to Gaffney, just an hour’s drive, to his brother. Just thinking about the very word brother made him pause.

“Rock Hill, South Carolina, is not exactly the world,” Flint said. “What mind-blowing things will you see there?”

They had been together for a day and a half and he had yet to ask her why she was going to Rock Hill. It seemed the most obvious type of conversation to have, but Shannon found no interest in the obvious, and he was just as comfortable not explaining why he was going to Gaffney. Shannon was interested in the details of him hauling trash, if he ever saw a coworker fall into the compactor, who his favorite bands were, how often he would see his sons.

“I’m going to see my ex-boyfriend, Keith,” she said. “Seeing him is sort of like seeing the world. He’s from Bahrain. His real name is Hameed. His parents wanted to Americanize him and called him Keith when they moved here, when he was just a kid. But then he really Americanized himself, with me. Then they didn’t want him to be so American,” she laughed, her strange cackle piercing his ears.

“So, he broke up with me,” she said. “But I can’t just let him go. Not yet.”

“Does he know you’re coming?”

“No. I’m going to surprise him.”

Shannon was the dumbest smartest person he had ever met, but he knew she would only be this way once, for a short while. She would outgrow the dumb and settle on the smart. He believed that things can happen only once, things people think of as being patterns. Time in a foster home. Being stupid.

“My brother’s name is Keith. I’m going to see him,” Flint said, feeling an odd sense of pride.

“So, we’re both going to see Keith.”

“What’s your brother do?” Shannon asked, slurping her milkshake then gently wiping the corners of her mouth, folding the napkin back onto her lap.

“Nothing.”

“Unemployed?”

“I guess you could say that. What does your ex-boyfriend do?”

“Nothing.”

“Unemployed?”

“I guess you could say that,” she said. “He didn’t like college very much. He’s trying to find himself.”

She stacked their empty plates on top of each other, removing the dirty knives and forks first, putting them on a napkin. The din of the crowded restaurant had a similar effect as being on the bike, but Shannon’s voice seemed less loud.

“I’m not being creepy or trying to get into your pants,” Flint said, “but you’re a pretty girl, and smart. Seems like you wouldn’t have much trouble getting a new boyfriend.”

“Thanks, you know, for saying that. It’s like I know that, like I know he’s kind of a loser. He grows pot in his closet. But I just want to see him one more time. I think that seeing him will make me not want to see him anymore, you know?”

 

 

Three hours later, they arrived in Rock Hill. Flint exited I-95 and pulled into Flying J’s Travel Stop, where Shannon said that he should drop her off. Flying J’s was the size of a strip mall, with Rosie’s Family Restaurant, a gargantuan convenience store, and row after row of gas pumps. Flint pulled up to one, and they dismounted the bike. His ass was numb and his hands tingled. He shook them over and over. Several payphones were lined up outside the convenience store, and Shannon walked over to call Hameed to announce her arrival. Flint wondered if he should call the facility in Gaffney where Keith was, just to tell them he was coming. Flint filled the tank and watched Shannon at the phone booth. He gripped the handle of the hose tighter as she kept dialing, waiting, hanging up. She did this for several minutes then walked back to him. She told Flint that he was probably at the mall, that she was probably going to only stay a few days with Hameed, that he would buy her a plane ticket home, that it was all going to work out so perfectly.

“Let’s get a goodbye beer,” she said. “I’ve got some time before he gets home. It’s not like you and I are going to see each other again.”

“That’s fine.” Flint said. “But, I’m buying. And I’m sticking around until this ex-boyfriend of yours comes to get you.”

Flint kept shaking his hands.

“How very gentlemanly of you. But stop flapping your hands like a retard.”

Flint’s eyes filled, scaring him, how this response was so sudden. Shannon leaned her hand on the bike and looked confused.

Flint had once asked his mother if she drank so much because his brother was a retard. They were in the car together, and Flint was sitting in the back. He had just spent the day with his cousins while his mom was visiting Keith. Flint couldn’t understand why his mother would not let him meet his own brother. Flint’s mom shifted her entire body around, except for her head, and her left hand, which stayed on the steering wheel. With her eyes fixed on the road, she heaved most of her body over the seat and punched him so hard on the shoulder that the bruise ached for weeks. She was stone sober, and she never hit him again.

“My brother’s retarded,” Flint said.

“Oh,” Shannon said, nodding her head up and down. “Oh, I see. Well, what’s it like to spend time with somebody who is retarded? I wonder if it’s like spending time with street children in India, you know? Like do they even know how much better things could be?”

Flint was relieved that she didn’t apologize.

“I don’t know. This is the first time I’m ever going to meet him. I never met him before.”

“That’s weird. You never met him? Are you scared?”

“Petrified.”

She drummed the base of the gas pump, staring at the gasoline stains on the ground.

“You know, Flint, I hate college,” she said, stopping her drumming and crossing her arms across her chest. “Except when I went to India, but I hate college so much that it scares me every day. I know about being petrified.”

“You’ve got everything,” he said, hoping to cut the edge of bitterness that he couldn’t control.

It’s not her fault, he told himself. None of this.

“I know. I have opportunity. Blah, blah, blah. I really do know I have it good. But I want to see the world. College really isn’t the world.”

“Finish school. The world isn’t going anywhere.”

A pack of Harleys pulled up behind Flint and he nodded at them as they dismounted.

“Well, I’m trying to see the world no matter where I am. Its why I came here on the back of bike instead of taking a plane.”

Flint shrugged and started shaking his hands again.

“You scared or something?” Shannon said.

“Of what?”

“Of seeing your brother?”

“Why would I be frightened of my brother?” Flint said, feeling saliva build in his mouth.

“Well, you’ve never met him, and he’s retarded, so that’s like a double whammy. Plus, he’s not technically your brother. Yeah, you’re related to him. But he isn’t your brother in the brotherly way.”

“I guess,” Flint said, staring at the bikers filling their tanks, a few of them smoking cigarettes, ignoring the signs not to.

“It’ll be okay,” Shannon continued. “If you only knew how frightened I was in New Delhi at first, seeing those street people.”

“What did you do about it?”

“I just held my breath for the first few days. I couldn’t even talk.”

“I can’t imagine that.”

They both laughed.

“But then it started to be okay. And after a few weeks, it became normal. I don’t think that’s necessarily a good thing, for something like that to become normal to a person. But you can’t help anybody or anything if it doesn’t become normal, you know?”

After the other bikers filled their tanks, they walked over to Flint and Shannon, talked about the rains heading down from the north, what bike dealer Flint had in Philly. Shannon told them she was Flint’s daughter. When they left, Shannon put her hand on Flint’s shoulder.

“Do you want me to go with you to see Keith?” she asked.

“Yes,” Flint said, and it came out so fast, and he didn’t know how he could take it back as quickly as he had said it.

“Well, no, actually,” he said. “My problems aren’t yours, Shannon.”

“Well, that makes no sense. Because your going to see Keith isn’t a problem. And it isn’t a problem for me to go with you.”

Flint couldn’t look at her in the eye.

“What about your Keith?” he asked.

“You can drive me back here when you’re done. He’s not going anywhere.”

Although only a few hundred yards from the gas pumps, Shannon hopped on the back of the bike when Flint drove into a parking space in front of Rosie’s Family Restaurant. Shannon ordered an egg-white omelet with three side orders of bacon and a glass of skim milk. He offered to buy her a beer, but when he said he wasn’t going to drink one, not with her getting back on the bike with him, she declined. When they finished, Shannon suggested they drive by Hameed’s house on their way out of town, just to see if anybody’s car was in the driveway, that she’d gone to his house for Thanksgiving and knew where they lived. Flint wanted to say No, but he stopped himself and thought, Dear God, I’m a grown man and she is a just a girl, and she is supposed to be obsessing about a boy she loves, even if he’ll crush her.

Hameed lived in a leafy neighborhood that boasted plantation-style homes with sprawling yards. His house had a balcony on the top two stories, big white columns supporting each roof. Flint parked on the street a few houses down from Hameed’s.

Shannon dismounted, leaving on her helmet, walking a few paces from the bike, arms at her sides. She looked like an astronaut, lonely for Earth. Flint got off the bike and walked up to her. He left his helmet on, too, hyperaware of his breathing, trying to control it. He imagined Hameed as another bear that Shannon wanted to see with desperation, to claim ownership, a victory.

“I wonder if he’s in there,” Shannon said, finally removing her helmet, Flint following in kind.

“You could go knock on the door.”

“I’m just going to stand here. I think he’ll sense that I’m here,” she said, staring at the house. “He’ll still have to wait for me, even if he comes out, because I’m still going with you to see your brother. It would be good for him to wait, don’t you think?”

“Do you think it’ll make that much of a difference?”

“What are you trying to say?”

Flint could see out of the corner of his eye a tear falling down her face. He wondered what it was like to raise a daughter, if saying these types of things caused a girl to feel anger or panic or relief.

“Anything’s possible,” Flint said, and he reached for her hand, giving it a reassuring squeeze.

 

 

Flint knew not to rush her. They left Hameed’s neighborhood, and drove through Rock Hill until they found a miniature golf course. This place is the kind of place that Keith would go to, Shannon said, looking over her shoulders several times, and by the fifth hole she announced that she was bored and hungry again. They rode to a Denny’s, and Shannon made the waitress seat them in the back of the restaurant, in a booth that faced the door. Like a mobster, she said to him. Gotta know everybody whose coming in and out. She ordered two sundaes and ate them slowly, saying little to Flint. When she finished the second sundae, she belched loudly, sighed deeply, and asked if they could go to the mall. I need some new lipstick, she told him. When Flint pointed out a pharmacy across the street, she said they could check both places, that maybe she could get two tubes. In the pharmacy, she bought four tubes—pink, red, brown, and nude—and then asked the cashier for directions to the mall.

Flint hated malls, the lighting, the lack of carpet to absorb the sounds. He always felt silly at malls, surrounded by focused mothers and young people weighed down with bags of every imaginable purchase, clothes and perfume and watches and handbags. He felt self-conscious, as if there were nothing at all for a big man like him would need to buy. They walked both floors, bypassing the department stores. Flint didn’t offer to go into any of the shops, nor did Shannon lead him into any. They repeated their path three times. Shannon finally sat them down on a bench next to two fake trees, facing a sporting goods store. Large signs announced a season finale sale.

“We’re gonna need to get on the road soon. I don’t really like driving in the dark,” Flint said.

“You never see guys alone at the mall much, do you?” she asked, as if he hadn’t spoken. “They’ll come with their wives. Or their girlfriends.”

“I suppose,” he said.

“When Hameed was still at Penn with me, we’d go to the King of Prussia Mall on the weekends. He’d always buy me shit. Lots of shit. He’s loaded. But his parents wouldn’t let him have a car in West Philly, because the place is a ghetto. So, we’d have to take a bus to the mall. He said the bus was for losers.”

Flint and his ex-wife spent the first two years of their marriage living in West Philly, relying on buses as their mode of transportation. At the time, he was making next to nothing as a security guard, his wife a secretary at a real estate office. He eventually got his job with the Department of Sanitation and, fifteen years later, when he was making more than he ever expected for a garbage man, he bought his first bike. For the first month he owned it, he wouldn’t take it on the street. He’d just get on, start the engine, rev it, grip the handlebars and stare ahead.

They sat on the bench for what seemed like hours. An elderly couple passed them several times. They wore tracksuits and white sneakers, swinging their arms as if they were speed walking, but they moved so slowly.

“People should grow old together without having to try, shouldn’t they?”

No, Flint thought, but he looked at Shannon and her messy hair and her fingernails bitten to the quick and tired eyes and said, “Yes. You’re right.”

And before the couple passed them again, Shannon stood up.

“Okay, buddy,” she said. “We’re ready to roll.”

 

 

The ride to Gaffney should have taken about an hour, but it began raining soon after they left Rock Hill. They arrived at McLeod State Mental Health Facility after nine o’clock. The receptionist gave them a tired grin.

“You’ll have to come back,” she said. “You can’t just walk in this late and see him. We need to set this up with the social worker and case manager.”

Flint scratched his belly, embarrassed by the sweat stains under his armpits and the way his hands continued to shake. The facility was ten stories high. Flint wondered how many people lived there.

“But, it’s his brother, ma’am. Do you understand?” Shannon said.

“I can schedule something for tomorrow.”

Shannon took Flint’s arm.

“How early?” Flint asked.

“I can get somebody here by eight o’clock or so.”

“Fine,” Shannon said, looking at Flint and nodding. “That’ll work.”

Shannon called Hameed from the pay phone in the lobby. After several attempts, she told Flint he must not be home yet.

“Why don’t you leave a message?” Flint asked.

“They got rid of their answering machine. I was leaving too many messages.”

They stayed awake through the night playing five-card draw. When the social worker and case manager finally appeared, Flint filled out paperwork and Shannon patted him on the shoulder, saying it would be all right, reminding him that it may be difficult to see Keith, but just this first time. The social worker led them through locked doors to a spacious room with low lighting. The room had puffy couches and large tables, with a television mounted on the wall. The social worker pointed to a man in the middle of the room. There he is, she said.

Keith was tall and frightfully skinny, with a shock of gray hair and a wide grin like his mother’s. He wore blue jeans and a jean shirt and a jean jacket and black clogs.

My God, he looks so old, Flint thought. He looks like me. Will I look like that when I’m old?

Shannon walked right to Keith and shook his hand.

“Nice outfit,” she said to him. “I like your shirt. I’m Shannon and I’m a friend of your brother’s. That’s your brother over there. His name is Flint.”

“Marcus,” he said, finding it hard to look at Keith, scared that his eyes, too, would be like his foster mom’s. “Flint is a nickname.”

“What better person to know your nickname than your brother.”

“Yes, this is a nice shirt,” Keith yelled to Shannon. “Thank you.”

His voice was exactly like his mother’s but in a deep baritone, and so loud. How come he was so loud?

Shannon turned to Flint and said, “Come on over here. This is how you do it. He’s just another person like everybody else. I learned how to do this in New Delhi.”

Flint took a few steps forward.

“Keep coming, Flint. Tell him you like what he’s wearing.”

Keith tugged at his shirt, looking at the floor, saying, “Thank you, again. Thank you.”

Flint walked closer toward Keith and Shannon, and he stopped a few feet from them. Flint stared at Keith’s hands, which were just like his. Flint imagined them gripping his bike’s handlebars.

“That’s right, Flint, you got it,” Shannon said, and she started clapping.

And then Keith looked at Shannon and started clapping, too.

 

 

BIO

Beth Goldner is a protocol associate, developing clinical trials in radiation oncology. For fifteen years, she worked as a managing editor in medical publishing.

She is the author of a short story collection (Wake) and a novel (The Number We End Up With), published by Perseus/Basic Books Group. Her books were well received by Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Review, New York Times, Boston Globe, among others. She has also taught creative writing at Rosemont College and Boise State University.

A native of Philadelphia, she currently lives outside of the city with her one-eyed mutt, Millie.

 

 

 

 

0

SUBURBAN PASTORAL

by Kasandra Larsen

 

 

Sun paints the underside of gunmetal with fuchsia:
crickets start to clearly telegraph, hidden in moss,
spidered cracks between stones in walls keeping
architectured lawns from toppling. The day
that began crisply pressed is nearly faded,
smudged palette swaggering into evening, dragging
a tide of stars. Soon, tiny lights will bristle, remind us
of our lack of altitude, swing on their hinges
to replace clouds that threatened to unleash
their ammunition on commuters hurrying home
from bus stops, too rushed to notice that fledgling
with the red breast squawking, beating feathers
more fuzz than wing for one more worm, a mother
swooping to deliver the inevitable pink of carnage.

 

 

 

GUIXIN: GHOST HEART

 

The point, medial at the wrist            joint, between tendons
on the pericardium meridian             (membrane holding the heart)
echo of its protector                           which would bleed from here
in antiquity but now                          pressed with a forefinger, ostensibly
to regain movement in the thumb     to once again clutch without pain:
on another plane                                the ghost is trying to get you
to search for remnants                       reaching out in dreams
as spirits begin                                   to control the emotions
holding them back.                             Relating to the Soul’s Third
Manifestation, the manipura              chakra unsettled, disturbed
solar plexus, bright yellow                 unable to digest the past,
difficulty shutting off the mind          or becoming unconscious
to sleep. Fear of becoming                 a ghost as well? A doppelganger
heart, hovering in shadow                  one beat pulsing red
behind? Lung qi cannot descend        into formless darkness.
Press the point.                                   Press it, again,
breathing, deep                                   until two hearts settle
in reunion, until night comes             and the hand closes easily
around the sheet, holds                      the body steady for caresses,
the peace of clouds scudding across only the lit side of the moon.

 

 

 

CLIMBING BACK INTO MY SKIN

 

After ten years of terror, I am crawling back in
to my skin. I try again to sleep in a straight line

on my back, hands unclenched, but mornings find
me curled around the pillow. This will take more time

than I had thought. I come home from a hard day,
remember that disco exists, allow myself to turn

the volume up to numb, toss my head back, wave
my hands in the air. But not like I don’t care:

I am saving myself, one mambo step and grapevine
at a time. I stand in the shower for a solid hour, let

the hot water run out, drop my towel on the floor
and frighten the cat. My windows are open. I don’t care

about that. Finally, I am alone, down a long alley
you cannot see from the street, behind a metal gate

that locks and a brick wall topped with glass, inside
an apartment whose address is known only to

a very few, untraceable. I know what I have to do;
I lie atop the sheets at night, let my fingers write

gentle letters to my skin. I had forgotten how it feels
to be a joyful vessel. Slowly, I let myself back in.

 

 

BIO

Kasandra Larsen has poetry in The Gambler Magazine, Into the Void Magazine (Dublin), Stoneboat Literary Journal, Literary Juice, Flumes Literary Journal, and Stonecoast Review. Poems are forthcoming in March 2016 at FIVE:2:ONE’s #thesideshow. Her manuscript, CONSTRUCTION, was a finalist for the 2016 Four Way Books Intro Prize in Poetry, and her chapbook, STELLAR TELEGRAM, won the 2009 Sheltering Pines Press Chapbook Award. Nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize and a Best of the Net Award, she works as an accountant for the Providence Public Library.

 

 

 

0

The Art of Letting Go

by Joshua Dull

 

 

I sat in my car watching people enter Path of Light Lutheran Church for Saturday night contemporary service. The idea of walking through those doors hadn’t been this daunting since I came out as a lesbian when I was sixteen. I was never a loner, but tonight I didn’t want to be around anyone. It took all my strength to even show up. I hadn’t heard from Jessica in two months. Her blog entries on Myspace had become darker, more self-destructive. After one of her last posts, I messaged her, “Jessica, I’m here, I’ve always been here. I’ve tried to call you but you changed your number. Anyways, I think about you every day and I care about you. Please just text me when you can and we can get coffee or something and talk about what’s going on with you. Love always, Shayla.” This week, Jessica deleted her profile. My hands began to withdraw my pack of cigarettes from my purse, but I stopped myself. I shut my car off and walked toward the face of the building. Amber floodlights dimly rendered the cross, the stained glass halo surrounding it, and a small statue of Christ with both hands raised.

***

            When I met Jessica last October, Hurricane Wilma had swept its outer bands across Brevard County and left a cold front in its wake, the cooler temperatures lingering long after. For the first time since I could remember, it actually felt like fall. Jessica arrived at Spencer’s Gifts where I worked a few days after the hurricane. She was a Puerto Rican girl with curly black hair that touched her shoulders and a kind, dimpled smile. She wore an Avenged Sevenfold sweater, a skull with bat wings divided by the zipper. I trained her on the cash register that night, showing her what buttons to press to bring up the day’s total sales. I shifted my hip against her as I reached over her shoulder. A slight movement, I’m not sure I even intended it, but she didn’t move. Our manager Jake closed with us that night. He was about a year younger than me and would sometimes bring a 12 pack to drink in the back storage area after we closed. It was one of those nights. We sat against stacks of cardboard boxes, each of us holding a sweating can of Heineken. I looked to Jessica and said,

“How’s this for a first day?”

“I could get used to this,” she said and smiled. Her eyes were dark, but sparkled in the fluorescent light.

Later in the month we were in the back seat of Jake’s car driving down 520 from Orlando as dawn broke across us. We’d gone to see one of his and Jessica’s favorite bands, HIM, at the House of Blues in Lake Buena Vista. I held her hand throughout the show, especially when the throngs of people leaving between bands threatened to separate us. After the concert, we’d gone to a house party with some people and would’ve stayed, but we all had work the next afternoon. On the way back, Jake took an exit off 408 and didn’t realize we were lost until he’d been driving through the darkness of Alafaya Trail for half an hour. We stopped for directions at every gas station and CVS pharmacy still open before finally getting pointed east on State Road 50. Relief washed over us as the road split into 520 for Cocoa. Warm sunlight filled the car and the grasslands of the St. John’s River shimmered, stretching out from one horizon to the other. Jessica lay asleep, her head in my lap and I stroked her hair. I smiled while she sighed in her dreams, but wished she were awake to see the beauty in every direction.

***

LED searchlights accented the darkened sanctuary like a blue and violet aurora. Lyrics in cursive streamed across a projector screen behind the four piece band. My friend Bryan played electric guitar while Justin, a music major, played drums. I had known both of them since youth group in high school. A man with a cast on his right arm sat at the far end of my row tonight. Normally, I liked to seek out people sitting by themselves because I knew how hard it was for some people to even walk through the doors. On a mission trip to Nicaragua a couple years ago, Bryan told me that if I hadn’t sat with him at his first youth group meeting, he never would’ve come back. I kept my distance tonight. The man at the end of the row may have needed a friend, but I needed to be by myself.

***

Jessica and I were walking along a boardwalk through the live oak hammock of Erna Nixon Park. The late afternoon air felt crisp, humidity residing in the coolness left by the hurricane. The last time I’d seen autumn had been when I was sixteen and visited my cousin Brady in Georgia. As waning sunlight glittered through the trees above us, Jessica told me a similar story, moving here from New Jersey after her parents divorced. Her mom had told her this was a land of sunshine and warmth, so she’d been surprised to see frost crystallized along the orange groves when they entered the state in December of 1995. I stopped to admire a verdant array of ferns disappearing into the hammock. Jessica kept walking, but stopped a few paces ahead and waited for me. I walked over and slipped my hand into hers.

“How about a game,” she said, “two truths, one lie.”

“Okay,” I said, “sounds fun. You first.”

She stared at the canopy pensively then said, “My favorite band is HIM, I’ve never been to another country, and I skate.”

“You’ve been to a foreign country,” I said.

“How’d you know?”

“That one has a story in it, so you wouldn’t have mentioned it unless it was true.”

“Damn, alright,” she smiled at me, “I used to go to Puerto Rico with my dad in the summer. Before I moved here.”

“How long since you’ve been back?” I asked.

“Long time. I only saw my dad a couple times a year after the divorce, and we never really made it back down.” Her northeastern accent showed on the words “long” and “divorce”. She glanced downward at the boardwalk. Two squirrels chased each other along a moss covered branch reaching over us.

“I guess it’s my turn,” I said and gave her hand a slight squeeze, “I hate horror movies, I’m studying nursing at BCC, and I’m a terrible liar.”

“You like horror movies?”

“I can’t stand horror movies,” I said, “The characters are always really stupid, or the director is just going for the gross-out factor. I also don’t like seeing innocent people get killed.”

“Well if that’s true, you must be a good liar?”

“Nope, I’m working on my AA in Sociology, not nursing.”

“That’s awesome,” she said, “I wish I could go to college.”

“Why can’t you?” I asked.

“I’m working two jobs just to keep my place. I don’t think I can add college to the list. Shit’s expensive too.” I told her about night classes and scholarships.

“Maybe sometime. I wanna get my feet on the ground first, I guess.” We reached a pavilion on the boardwalk and sat in one of the benches,

“By the way, that was two lies,” she said.

“It was, wasn’t it?” My cheeks flushed, “I’m sorry.”

“It’s cool,” she laughed. The wind rustled the leaves overtop of us. A few brown ones fell around us like an actual autumn. I slid my arm around Jessica’s shoulders and we watched the amber light grow dim. We were deep enough into the hammock to only hear birds and the rustling leaves, and I imagined the forest stretched on for miles and it all belonged to her and me. I started to tell her this, but she was texting someone.

“Sorry.” She said and put her phone away, then rested her head on my shoulder. I kissed the side of her head.

***

I’d gone to Path of Light Lutheran Church with my parents since 3rd grade. The first time I went to youth group since I’d come out, I trembled as I walked in. I pictured terrifying situations; from micro-aggressions to outright shaming and expulsion from the group. I didn’t know what to expect. Yet nothing seemed to have changed. Justin even came up and gave me a hug, told me I was brave. Pastor Freeman worked with youth and young adults. I knew he knew, but he greeted me with the same smile and hug he always had. After a short devotional and some games, we were all sitting at round tables eating pizza and hanging out just as always. Relief broke across me like a strong wind.

Bryan was there that night for the first time, sitting by himself, back to the room and hunched over his plate. I walked over to him and introduced myself, Justin and others soon joined us. Bryan gradually opened up to us and became our friend that night. He told us he played electric guitar, so Justin invited him to the band. All of us stayed up until eleven talking, laughing, and playing games. I knew I would love these people forever.

***

Jessica and I were at an abandoned marina in Melbourne late one afternoon when she showed me her scars. We came here because she’d seen dolphins swimming right next to the concrete embankment and knew they were my favorite animal. A speed boat cruised by in the choppy water. A family fished off the back of a truck parked at the edge of the embankment.

“Look,” Jessica pulled her arm out of her jacket sleeve, “you’re going to see this sooner or later.” She extended her arm to show me diagonal lines of scar tissue on the undersides. “I take anti-depressants when I can, but I don’t have insurance. I can’t always afford them,” she looked into my eyes, a searching look, like I would take off running and screaming. It took me a second to realize what I was looking at. I rubbed my thumb over one of the two inch long scars.

“How close have you come?” I asked.

“I never cut deep enough to hit the vein, except once. I was seventeen and my mom was at work. I panicked and called the ambulance and they came in time. Lotta blood though.” She withdrew her arm and threaded it through her sweater sleeve. She looked out over the water. The sky turned pale, with a rosy diffusion along the horizon. A cool wind passed through my hair. I walked over and wrapped my arm around hers.

“It’s best that you know about me,” she said, “I come with some baggage.”

“It’s okay,” I leaned against her, “I do too, we all do. I can help you.”

We were quiet for some time. The sky grew darker. Down the embankment, the tailgate of the family’s truck clapped shut, the dad called his two kids back to the vehicle. Jessica shifted closer to me, our bodies together.

“So this means we’re a thing now,” I said. She chuckled and I pulled her in and kissed her. As we were driving back to her apartment, I suggested she come to church with me one night. She shook her head,

“You know I don’t do church. I still find it weird you do.” She lit a cigarette at a stop light. I rolled down my window.

“They’re very accepting where I go,” I said, “It wouldn’t hurt you to come one time.”

“Maybe one day. We should see a movie or something after work tomorrow,” she turned the music up slightly. We turned onto Babcock from New Haven Ave. On the corner, surrounded by live oaks, the First Christian Church’s roof sloped downward, its edges close to the ground like a bible that fell page side down.

***

Back when I was sixteen, I was sitting with my family at church one Sunday and we had a guest pastor. He was an older man, and for the most part friendly and his sermon was engaging, at least for a sixteen year old. I’d grown so used to Pastor Meyer’s sermons I often just tuned them out. I didn’t mean to, but ten a.m. was early on a weekend for me back then. This man spoke loud, paced back and forth across the stage, moving his arms with his words. He’d started talking about our part in the great commission – to go out and make disciples of all nations. Then he started fishing for not only examples of these lost souls we needed to witness to, but also how real God’s wrath was. He proclaimed that Hurricane Katrina was the literal hand of God smiting New Orleans because that week they were going to have a gay pride parade through Bourbon Street. His voice boomed from the pulpit how New Orleans’ allowance and celebration of homosexuality and other debaucheries finally pushed God to His limits, just like Sodom when He rained fire from the sky down upon it. The words stabbed my heart. My mom’s hand found mine and she gave me a gentle squeeze. I had come out to her, my dad, and my stepbrother Hunter two months prior. Mom asked me if I’d prayed about it, which I had. I spent a year begging God to change me if this was truly wrong. If it offended Him as bad as the church said it did, to please take it from me. But He didn’t and that’s what I told my family. They circled around me and hugged me at the dinner table that night as I cried. It had to be real then– not only did my family shroud me in support that night, but that was the first time my stepbrother and my dad shared any intimate connection. My mom had divorced Hunter’s dad before I was born, and Hunter had always harbored enmity toward my father. They’d fought my whole life, but in this moment, they came together to tell me I was loved, just as I am. Still, sitting in the pew that Sunday as the guest preacher inadvertently told me my existence offended God Almighty, a phantom of doubt whispered into my mind. Not about my favor in God’s eyes so much as whether I was really welcome among other Christians. My parents didn’t bring it up on the way home. I thought about it all week.

***

Jessica and I had been at a party for two hours in Melbourne and I wanted to leave. She and I had gone shopping and I’d left my car at her apartment. I had gone to parties before where I didn’t know anyone, but usually I was outgoing enough to where it wasn’t a problem. This one was different – located in a strange neighborhood near the Eau Gallie cemetery. The nearest streetlight was over a block away and the house was only visible by its pale yellow windows glowing through a tangle of live oaks, Spanish moss, and palmettos. Jessica introduced me to a few people, then joined some others to do shots in the kitchen. A couple of the people here looked like they were in their late forties. A lot of them wore black clothes, chains, and hats cocked to the side. Everyone was smoking and drinking. I held a Bud Light and stood in a corner. The most normal person I met was a high school senior named Zack from West Melbourne. When I told him I was studying sociology at BCC, he told me about his aspirations to study electrical engineering at FIT when he graduated high school. He’d applied to both the Bill Gates and the Ron Brown scholarships and had his fingers crossed. It was a nice conversation, but when he left to get another beer, I didn’t see him again until a chorus of laughter and shouting roared from the bathroom. I followed the crowd toward the noise to see Jessica in the bathroom puking her guts out into the toilet.

“Get the fuck outta here, people. Y’all’s pathetic,” Zack said, lifting her to her feet and walking her into the hallway.

“Jessica!” I tried to look her in the eyes but her head rolled around.

“You know her?” Zack asked.

“Yeah, she’s my girlfriend,” I said.

“Well, looks like someone spiked her shit, let’s get her outside,” the two of us drug her through the throngs of people and out onto the sidewalk where she proceeded to empty the rest of her stomach contents into the street. Zack stood on the sidewalk, eyes scanning the road while I held Jessica’s hair back.

“You guys got a way home? I ain’t drank much tonight.” Zack offered.

“Thank you,” I said, “I can get her home.” I fished her keys out of her purse, then Zack walked us back to her car. I thanked him and sped out of the neighborhood. Jessica’s head rolled on her neck and she smiled while occasionally mumbling gibberish. I’d told my mom I was spending the night with her, so she wasn’t expecting me until morning. When I got Jessica up to her apartment, I undressed her, helped her shower, than laid her in her bed and placed a wastebasket on the floor. I climbed into bed and held her. Her skin was fever hot.

The next morning, I ran to the store to get her a PowerAde and some Advil. We sat in her kitchen and she told me she’d chased Xanax with three shots of Jack Daniels last night.

“Seriously, Jessica? You could’ve died,” I said. She glanced up at me with bloodshot eyes, supporting her forehead with her right hand. I called my mom and told her I was studying at the college and wouldn’t be home until late.

Jessica spent the day in her bed. I brought her water and whatever food she could stomach. She started feeling better by late afternoon, so I put a movie in and climbed into bed with her. We held each other, sitting propped up against pillows.

“I’m sorry about last night,” she said, “I get this way sometimes and just kinda lose control. It scares me, to be honest.”

“I’m scared too,” I said, “last night could’ve been bad.” I glanced at her right arm and saw two cuts scabbing over. Jessica looked up at me then pressed her head against my chest. I wanted to say something about the cuts, but I didn’t know what. Holding her against me, feeling her warmth, her breath in metronome with mine, I wanted to shield her from anything that could hurt her, but I couldn’t. I felt frightened and helpless.

“Come to church with me,” I said, “You can get away from this world, find people who can support you.”

“Shayla, I’m agnostic. That’s not going to change. Besides, you’re gay and I’m bi. That isn’t exactly a model Christian.”

“That doesn’t matter where I go,” I said, “the people there are family. They’ll accept you. We can help you with what you’re going through.”

Jessica sighed and pulled away from me, “Shayla, you may be safe there, but that’s still a religion that hates us for who we are. It’s not my scene and never will be.” She laid back against the pillows. The light streaming through her blinds dissipated and the blue of the TV flickered across the walls. Her hand slid out of mine.

“If it’s just the same to you, I’d rather we not go to parties like that anymore,” I said.

“Okay.” She laid her head across my stomach and I stroked her hair. My phone buzzed on the nightstand. My mom was calling. It was getting late and I hadn’t been home since yesterday afternoon. I told her I was studying in the library and lost track of time. It was ten p.m. when I kissed Jessica goodnight and left for Suntree. Something felt wrong as I drove the empty streets, like I had forgotten something behind at her house.

***

Pastor Freeman preached Saturday nights. He ran our young adult community group on Thursday night as well. Tonight, while these memories paraded through my mind, he spoke of what was happening in the world; the economy failing, the war in the Middle East that hadn’t let up since 9/11, victims of Katrina still homeless. All evidence of a broken world. I glanced to the man at the other end of the aisle. He wore a black shirt and dark blue jeans. The only part of him not covered in shadow was the white cast on his right arm. I felt rude sitting so far away from him, like he smelled bad or something. A searchlight lit up Pastor Freeman on the pulpit. He told us how there were examples of this broken world in our own communities, people our age addicted to drugs, dealing with mental issues, with depression, with anger, people contemplating suicide. Hope rose in my chest that maybe this was the reason I was here. That after he got done listing all these examples of suffering respective to my generation, he’d drop that ultimate answer I was missing for how to help Jessica. Instead, he said,

“What they all don’t know is what they need is JESUS.” I thought he would follow this up with something of more substance, but nothing came. He simply listed more examples of broken people, prescribing “Jesus” as the antidote for their brokenness. Words that mean nothing to anyone outside of the church. I shook my head. For the first time since I’d been coming here, I wondered if maybe the pastors who I loved, and maybe even these people I’d grown up around, were all just completely clueless. They believed in a God of easy answers.

***

I was leaving one of my night classes at BCC when I checked my phone and saw a text from Jessica, “Shayla, Im at a party but dont wanna be here. Please come get me.” It was forty five minutes ago and the address was somewhere off University Blvd at least fifteen minutes away. My heart started racing and I tried calling her. It went to voicemail. I texted her, “So sorry, just getting out of class. OMW I promise,” then jumped in my car and bolted down Post road toward US 1. I cursed at myself, I should’ve been checking my phone. She needed me and I wasn’t there. I caught almost every red light, stopping at Lake Washington, at Eau Gallie Blvd, Sarno. Finally, I crossed the New Haven intersection and entered an array of buildings in varying states of disrepair or neglect. I was rarely on this side of town, and this stretch of US 1 was completely foreign to me. I crossed the train tracks at the University intersection, trying to find the apartments she’d texted me but unable to make out building numbers on the poorly lit street. I passed a Quik Stop with at least fifty people hanging around outside cars in the parking lot. Clouds of cigarette smoke hovered over them like fog in the light of the sign. I was afraid to roll my window down. Finally, I found a set of single story apartments colored like a rotting tangerine peel in the single streetlight illuminating the entrance. I parked and tried to call Jessica again. Nothing but her voicemail. My heart thudded against my sternum, and I tentatively stepped out of my car. I walked toward an apartment with a porchlight on and voices emanating from behind the door. I knocked and a guy in a muscle shirt and tight cornrows opened the door, holding a bottle of beer.

“Wassup, girl?” He opened the door wider to let me in. Smoke trailed among jostling bodies inside.

“I’m looking for my girlfriend, Jessica. Is she here?”

“Tyrese – who’s at the door?” A Hispanic girl appeared behind the man, pink streaks running through her black hair and a rhinestone skull grinning from the front of her shirt. She looked me up and down and said,

“You lost, homegirl?”

“She’s cool, yo. We was just getting’ to know each other,” said Tyrese. The girl glared at him.

“Beat it, Tyrese,” she said. He wandered back into the throng. She turned back to me.

“I’m just looking for my girlfriend, Jessica. She texted me and wanted me to come get her.”

“Jessica, who?”

“Lopez. Please, I just want to get her and I’ll be out of here,”

“I don’t know a Jessica Lopez, I’m sorry,” she said. Laughter resounded amid the discordance of voices and music inside. I glimpsed two people snorting lines on a coffee table.

“She has to be here, she texted me this address,”

“Well, if she did, she’s gone now. My best advice to you’s to get going. Not tryin’ to be a bitch, but I can tell you don’t belong here.”

“Trust me, I don’t want to be here either, but my friend needs help. She texted me this address and –”

“I ain’t gonna tell you again, girl. You need to get goin’ now. This ain’t your scene and your girl ain’t here.” She locked eyes with me and shut the door in my face. I slammed my fists against the door and shouted to let me in, but nothing happened. I walked back to my car just as someone from the Quik Stop parking lot yelled,

“Hey, baby! Where you goin’?” My hands shook as I pulled my door open. I was sure they were talking to me and I resisted the urge to look back and see if they were approaching. I sped out of the parking lot. As I drove down University, a police car appeared in my rearview mirror and followed me until I crossed the railroad tracks back to US 1. My hands didn’t stop shaking until I reached Wickham Road.

***

One Thursday night, I was at Cold Stone Creamery in the Avenue Viera with Pastor Freeman, Brian, Justin, and a girl named Sarah from the young adult community group. I’d finally heard from Jessica after that night. She had apologized and said she got home and fell asleep. When I suggested we hang out and talk, she didn’t respond for six hours, then made another excuse. Sitting outside the white light of Cold Stone, I stared vacantly at the blue-green neon of Rave motion pictures across the brick road of the outdoor mall. Justin and Pastor Freeman debated the merits of denominational Christianity and I tuned them out. Brian touched my shoulder.

“You want to take a walk?” he said.

“Sure.” We excused ourselves and wandered into the circular plaza. Bronze statues of children riding alligators and other animals sat on top of rounded patches of green AstroTurf.

“What’s up?” he asked. He stopped and waited for me to make eye contact.

“Nothing, why?”

“You just seem distant tonight. I’ve kinda noticed you’re acting different.” We sat on the edge of a fountain in the middle of the plaza.

“Is everything cool with Jessica?” he asked.

I sighed. “I don’t know, Brian. I’m sorry. She’s going through some hard times right now, and I’m trying to help her.”

“Anything I can do?” Brian asked. I shook my head. I started to reach into my purse for my cigarettes, but stopped. I smoked socially at parties, but I’d started smoking more once Jessica and I were dating.

“Well, I’m here if you ever need me, Shayla. You know that,” said Brian.

“Thank you,” I touched his shoulder and smiled at him, “I really appreciate it. It’s something I’ve got to deal with though.” He hugged me around the shoulders. We sat on the fountain while the illuminated water splashed behind us. I wanted to tell Bryan everything, or even Pastor Freeman, but I still hoped Jessica would come to church with me and meet them. When she was ready, she could tell them herself what she was going through and I’d be holding her hand the entire time. We walked back to Justin and Pastor Freeman. They sat there, joking and laughing, as if all the world’s problems were solved. I wished I could share in their bliss.

***

The last time I saw Jessica, we were sitting on a concrete embankment of the abandoned marina in Melbourne, our feet dangling over unknown depths of the Indian River. The land sloped downward from US 1, and a five story building towered above us. Jessica said cops would sometimes hang out in the parking garage of the first story, but not in the early evening. To our left, overgrown grass surrounded the crumbled remains of the marina, which looked more like a city block in Baghdad. Jessica wanted to go to a party tonight, but I’d talked her out of it. A black zip up hoodie covered her arms. It was a cool night, but I wondered if she’d been cutting again. The wind tousled her curly strands of hair. I stroked them out of her face. I hadn’t seen her in a couple weeks and her texts had been shorter and hours apart.

“I missed you,” I said. I slipped my hand over hers.

“I missed you too,” she said, “I’ve been busy, you know, looking for another job and everything.”

“It’s cool, I’ve been busy too.” I stroked her hand gently. Something splashed in the water, some kind of night bird. She leaned into me, resting her head against my neck. The scent of her hairspray wafted into my nostrils like a warm, fuchsia cloud. I held her, but as I tried to pull her sleeve up to expose her arm, she pulled it away.

“I haven’t,” she said.

“I’m worried, that’s all.”

“I’m fine, Shayla. I’m taking my medication and sticking with it,” she said. I wanted to believe her, but she’d said this before. I asked Jessica one last time to come to church with me. I told her she was broken and she knew it.

“I know you’re scared, Jessica. You said so yourself.”

“Your church ain’t got nothing that can help me. Once I get a better job, I’ll be able to afford my meds.”

“Your meds aren’t the problem, Jessica. It’s the people you’re around. I can see it. It’s so painful to watch.”

“I’ll be okay,” she said. She walked away from me, to the edge of the embankment. The wind came across the water strong, and black waves splashed against the concrete.

“You texted me asking me to rescue you once.” I followed her to the edge. She looked out across the water. I waited for her to respond.

“I’m sorry I brought you into this, Shayla,” she finally said, “You’re a good person, you don’t deserve any of this. You need a less fucked up girl than me.”

“What are you saying?”

She chewed on her lower lip, eyes cast down toward the water. “You’re right. I am broken. I’m just going to disappoint you. I’m no good.”

I touched her hand, “Jessica, you are good. I love you more than I can put into words. I just want to help you.”

“You want me to come to that church,” she looked at me, “I’m telling you that’s never going to happen. I tried church once, before I knew I was bi. All anyone ever did there was make me feel bad for having sex, or drinking, or saying cuss words. It was all a bunch of uppity suburban white kids who’ve never had to suffer, but had all kinds of advice for people who have.” She took another step away from me. A two foot wake sprayed me as it broke against the concrete.

“I promise it’s different.”

She looked at me and shook her head. She didn’t believe me.

“Why do you want this so bad? Like, why do you care?”

“Jessica,” a tear rolled out of my eye, “I love you.” I stared into her eyes. She looked away. I stepped forward and wrapped my arms around her. I held her harder and tighter than I ever had that night, pressing her into my chest. I wanted to force feed how much I loved her right into her soul. Her hands wrapped around my body, and we held each other. Tears trickled down my cheek. Light shined through my closed eyelids, as if the sun was rising. I cracked my eyelids open to see white light illuminating us, like Pentecostal glowing. We must have shined bright enough to be seen all the way across the river. My fingers gripped into Jessica’s sweater, my heartbeat accelerated. I pictured us levitating, rising up above the destroyed shore into a blissful night. Then I opened my eyes wide and saw the source of the light – a pair of headlights from a parked police cruiser, idling in the building’s parking garage.

“We should go,” Jessica said. When we drove home that night, we said maybe two words to each other.

***

A day passed before I finally got tired of waiting and texted Jessica. She responded four hours later, said she was sorry, just busy and stressed out. I tried to call her and she didn’t answer. I sat on my bed feeling an empty ache in my chest. I texted her again, saying I wanted to see her. Minutes dragged by and I resisted the urge to keep texting her. There was so much I wanted to say and it multiplied with each second that went by. I went for a run through my neighborhood, trying to take my mind off things. When I returned, I checked my phone, still nothing.

At dinner with my parents, I was quiet. I kept checking my phone under the table. I wanted to get away from the table, maybe call Bryan or Justin. Maybe just drive around Viera. Anything but being here waiting.

“You okay, Shayla?” My mom said I stabbed at my rosemary chicken with my fork.

“Yeah, just not feeling good, that’s all,”

“We’ve just noticed you’re becoming more distant, lately. I tried to talk to you this afternoon, but you walked out the door to go run. We figured you had your earbuds in.” I looked up to see my parents staring at me.

“I’m sorry,” I glanced downward, “It’s just not something I want to get into.”

“You can always talk to us,” my dad said. “You know that.”

“Thanks, Dad.” I said, “I’ll be fine. I promise. It’s just something I’m going through.” I excused myself to my room then turned on my TV. I knew they knew something was up – I never withheld things from them. I don’t know why I thought this, but part of me was scared of how they’d react if I had told them Jessica cut herself and did drugs. I still sometimes felt I was pushing my luck dating girls, even though they accepted me. The first channel that came on was Fuse, parading rock videos that I normally watched with Jessica. My heart throbbed like an open wound. I wanted her here even more. I shut the TV off and paced, finally breaking and texting her again, telling her to please call me. I sat and waited. I took a shower, brushed my teeth, and climbed into bed. I stared at my ceiling for an hour before my phone finally buzzed. Just a text, Going to sleep, call u tomorrow. She never did.

***

Pastor Freeman’s sermon ended. Brian, Justin, and the female singer resumed their positions for the closing song. The blue and violet lights panned across the cavernous ceiling.

It is well … The singer’s mezzo-soprano voice crescendoed with Bryan’s guitar and the increasing, bombastic beats of Justin’s drums. I wanted Jessica to hear this – for the words to wash over her and bring her to her knees. I knew it would. Tears climbed down the scaffolding of my eyes.

It is well … Fragments of us returned to me – late nights at Starbucks where we’d play “two truths, one lie” over coffee. Sleeping late into the morning together. Walking through the mall hand in hand after work. She’d spend too much time in Hot Topic looking through chrome studded collars and band shirts. I’d get her back at Macys, trying on colors of light blue and green.

It is well, with my soul … I wanted to believe these words. I wanted them to be about me, about her. I pictured her meeting Brian and Justin, going to movies with us, going to concerts, spending weekends away at beach retreats. I could see her at my side with them, wandering the Avenue Viera under the brilliant white lights, talking and laughing because we were at peace, we were all the same. Just twenty-somethings trying to find our purpose while the world collapsed around us.

It is well, it is well with my soul. The singer belted into the cavern of the sanctuary. Hands raised among the dark bodies, the atmosphere filled with rapture but I couldn’t handle it. I shoved past the man in my pew and left.

I walked out of the sanctuary, hands to my eyes. I stood on the edge of the pond in front of the church. In the middle was an island with a single cabbage palm. When I was young and we were building this church, my dad took me to that island in a small paddle boat a couple times. I withdrew the pack of cigarettes from my purse and lit one. My relationship with Jessica felt like a fleeting dream. I guess part of it was. The part where I could save her. The part where all I had to do was get her in the doors of my church and she’d stop hurting herself. Therein was the dream, and I didn’t want to wake up. That would mean letting her go.

Footsteps crunched on the grass behind me. I looked back to see the man with his arm in the cast approaching. He walked with a wide gait, like some kind of gunslinger, his left arm in a loose fist at his side. Backlit against the parking lot, he looked intimidating. I stayed put. He walked up, stood next to me and just stared at the water. After a few seconds of silence he said,

“Got a light?” Confused, I lit his cigarette for him. He took a drag with his left hand and just stood without saying a word. A night heron strutted through the marsh along the opposite shore. I waited for him to say something. A chorus of frogs resounded from hidden places.

“You were the guy in my row, right? By himself?”

“Yeah,” he said.

“Sorry, normally I would’ve said ‘hi’ to you,”

“It’s cool,” he took a drag of his cigarette. A bullfrog snorted from within the brush. I used to think the noise was an alligator.

“It’s not cool,” I said, “It’s…never mind.” I shook my head and stared at the wakes in the water, “I’m not myself tonight, I shouldn’t even be here.”

“That might make two of us,” he said. His voice sounded like a growl, I wondered how long he’d been a smoker.

“I’ve been going to this church since I was a kid,” I told him, “I still come even though I’m a lesbian. Everyone says they’re cool with it, but I still feel I have to be that much stronger to be here.” I looked at the man. I didn’t know why I was suddenly opening up to him. I was able to make out blue in his irises despite the low light. Razor stubble coated his chin. He glanced at me, imploring me to continue.

“I have a friend,” I said, “Had a friend. She needs a place like this, a community of people that love each other and aren’t just destroying themselves with drugs and alcohol. But I wonder if I had been able to convince her to come, would she have even been welcomed here?”

“Weren’t you?” He said.

“I grew up here. Before people knew I was gay. It’s different when someone comes in from the outside.”

He took a drag of his cigarette. “Probably not a shred of my business,” he said, “but if you’ve had faith in this crowd your whole life, why’s it gone now?”

I wiped a tear out of my right eye, “The last time I saw her, we were talking about the stuff she deals with. I told her if she would just come with me, I could show her a world where she doesn’t have to turn to drugs and alcohol. I told her I’d be here every step of the way.”

“What’d she say?”

“She refused, said she’d never feel comfortable here. She said she didn’t understand why I would associate with them.”

“And?”

“I told her it wasn’t that way here. She wouldn’t believe me.” The man grunted and slowly nodded his head.

“Thing was, I didn’t have an answer for her. In most cases, she’s right. And when Pastor Freeman says things like, ‘the answer to everything you’re struggling with is ‘Jesus,’ I just wonder if everyone here really is clueless when it comes to stuff that actually matters.”

“Yeah, that was a bit oversimplified for my taste too,” The man said. A car passed by on Viera Blvd on the other side of the pond. “Ain’t talked to her since, eh?”

“She deleted her Myspace, changed her number, everything. I don’t even know if she’s alive anymore. She used to cut herself.” I dried another tear. I never cried in public, this was new to me. The man stood silent and still, but his presence was consoling.

“So, why are you out here?” I asked. He grunted and looked up from the water.

“I don’t know. I usually come here on Sunday morning and look for the exit right after the closing hymn. Kinda at a spiritual crisis point, I guess.”

“How so?” I asked. He shook his head and dragged on his cigarette. I thought he wasn’t going to answer.

“Just trying to do this Christian thing right, and for some reason I felt I needed to come tonight.” He took another drag of his cigarette and dug at the grass with his boot. “I used to do enforcement for a chapter of Hell’s Angels out in Tucson, Arizona. I’ll let you fill in the blanks there. But I ended up meeting someone, a girl. Not too different from you, I guess. Name was Samantha.”

“Yeah?”

“Yep, she was a good girl, came from a good home, active in church, you know.” He scratched at his short, dark hair.

“She did what you were trying to do for your friend, told me there was something more beautiful than I could imagine, and it wasn’t totally out of reach. I told her she was crazy, that if she knew half the horrible shit I’d done she’d eat those words. But being around her and her people, the difference between her life and mine was the difference between Heaven and Hell.”

“What happened with her?” I asked.

“Our worlds ended up crossing. Long story short, she got hurt. Some people tried to get back at me for something through her. Burned her house down, shot her folks. It was all my fault. At first I blamed God, but really I brought all that down on her.”

“That’s horrible.” I didn’t know what to say. “I’m sorry.”

“The night I left Arizona,” he exhaled a cloud of smoke, “I dedicated my life to Christ, said I’d walk away from all this. I didn’t know how he could forgive me, but I’d start by trying to do right. It was the least I could do for Samantha. I came to Florida for that new beginning, but I’m still doing so much of the same shit. I feel like I haven’t changed at all.”

“You came here hoping to start over,” I said.

“Yeah, well, like you said, if all the preacher’s got for us is overgeneralized non-answers, I’m starting to wonder if I’m looking in the wrong place too.”

I nudged a small rock with my foot. The man tossed his cigarette onto the ground and mashed it with his boot. The fountain in the pond sputtered to life, a light bulb glowed at the base of the jetting water. Windows glimmered from the neighborhood across Viera Blvd.

“I didn’t get your name,” I said.

“Gabriel. Friends call me Gabe.”

“I’m Shayla.” We stood and watched the tiny wakes in the water. Low grey clouds sailed toward us from the west, their undersides rust colored from the city’s light. Animals rustled in the palmettos behind us, probably an armadillo or feral cats.

“Everyone talks about forgiveness and unconditional love in these circles, but I wonder if they’d still be talking like that if I told anyone what I’ve actually done.”

“You don’t feel you can truly be yourself?”

“Most people’s compassion ends when the sins you confess are illegal.”

“It takes courage and strength. I know that much,” I said. A cool breeze blew from the west and the clouds towered over us like ghostly ships. I wondered if it was clouds like these Ezekiel saw when he had his vision in the Old Testament. I looked over at Gabriel, this person who came to church because he didn’t know where else to turn. I thought of how I almost let him walk into and out of this place alone. I was so caught up in my thoughts of Jessica, someone who didn’t even want the help she desperately needed, I couldn’t see this person right here in front of me. With his eyes fixed in a scowl, the rough texture of stubble across his face, his wide stance and the way he loosely cupped his good fist at his side, he was probably used to people avoiding him. That wouldn’t help him in trying to feel comfortable in a church community. If he was anything like Jessica, he’d return to the life he was used to, no matter how dangerous.

“Let’s give this place a chance, Gabe,” I said to him.

“Ain’t we already?”

“Let’s stick with it. Those people inside may have no idea what you’ve gone through, but maybe that’s a good thing,” I said.

“What do I do then?” he asked.

“Keep coming. You’ll make friends, friends you’ll be able to open up to one day,” I turned to face him, “In fact, you already have one.”

He looked at me and grinned with a corner of his mouth. Voices began to reach us from the sanctuary doors.

“Looks like we missed the service,” he said.

“I don’t think we missed anything,” I said. I touched his elbow. “See you next Saturday?”

“Sure thing.” We walked together toward the parking lot. Before we parted he stopped me.

“Just my two cents, but about your friend, you never know what kind of impact you did have on her. She may not have heard your words now, but that doesn’t mean she won’t hear them later down the road when they make more sense.”

“Thanks Gabe,” I said, “I guess that’s something to hold onto.” The armada of clouds overhead passed on across the sky, revealing a few stars amidst an indigo canvas. I gave Gabe a hug, then walked back to my elantra. My headlights lit up the palmetto underbrush and pines at the edge of the parking lot. It looked like a deep, endless forest, but I knew just a few feet into the brush, a mud pit sat where another building for the church would have been completed this year before the money ran out. I thought of Jessica and how she chose to wander the dark and desolate places of the city because in her mind, sanctuary in the church didn’t exist. I had done all I could do for her, though, and there were others like Gabriel who actually made the step she refused to make. A fresh bolt of sadness panged my heart – I knew I’d never see her again. I would go to sleep tonight, and when I awoke she would be a memory, at least to me.

My phone buzzed in my pocket. Brian texted me, we’re all going to Cold Stone at the Avenue. U coming? I put my car in reverse and left the parking lot, driving west toward the white light of the Avenue Viera. Shadows stretched for miles in every direction.

 

 

BIO

Josh Dull is a U.S. Air Force veteran and a fiction author with an emphasis on place and social issues. He completed his Bachelor’s degree with Honors in the Major from the University of Central Florida and his work appears in The 34th Parallel, The Drunken Odyssey, Funny in Five Hundred, and Central American Literary Review. He has also been featured in a spoken word series called There Will Be Words. When he isn’t at his computer writing and revising, he enjoys traveling to lonely places to hear forgotten voices. He currently resides in Orlando, Florida.

 

 

 

 

0

AMERICAN MOBILE

by E.M. Schorb

 

The pure products of America go crazy . . .
—William Carlos Williams

Miss Smith, she dead.

. . . my blind left eye don’t stop me
I swivel quick around then get ahead
back at the panorama
striped down and then back up the hill
to any future peak greened brown black cut through
white striped like up the leg on a uniform
the wind don’t wall me
my aerodynamics
they’d lift my license for my eye full of sugar
but I still drink
that VA doctor’s lower’n fish shit
no beer no way
but I drink Lite test my blood take my insulin
I eat right mostly but my Drake’s cakes
I’m thirty-three feet back
sixty-six long times to here
always dreamed of motorhoming
free to be you and me
Maxine’s you
she sips at that beer
stares through the wraparound
like she’s watching home movies
and shoots bytes at me like look there
did you see that
she’s frightened at being sixty next week
I told her look at me—you plus six
and I’m still steering
still truckin’ but I never was a trucker
was a kid a soldier a vet a cop and
a guard at Disney’s that was my whole damned life
that back there behind me on the road
but it comes along with me in my sugar-eye
my shotup shoulder from War Two
my skin cancer from standing all those years in the sun
reflecting off tarmac and parked cars at Disney World

Max says look Jersey plates
she says Joisey we started out in Jersey
we fell in love haven’t slept together in years
Max thinks I’m not well interested
but it’s the sugar
I don’t tell nobody not even her not especially her
suppose she knew I couldn’t
what kind of man would she think
look she says back in back her mother sees it too
I don’t know what it is must be on my blind side
but I don’t say no way I let them know
I’m blind as a blackboard over there
not hurtling along at eighty
they’d piss their beer
you got to hold to your lane
the old lady’s nearly ninety but full of it
not only beer either if you know
look Max says
shut up Max but I don’t say it
I don’t listen about Alabama moons
Georgia peaches glorious Asheville leaves
I talk to myself my only friend
they suck me in like black holes
the old lady and Max everything goes
into them nothing out toward me
did I believe in love
I’ve stopped laughing even
I’ve been driving too long

I see us off the edge of a cliff if I don’t keep him awake
old man hunched up at the wheel was he my hero
I think there’s something wrong with his eyes now
the way he jerks around to see I’ve noticed
I ride not swiveled in a bucket by a tilted instrument pod
but sometimes behind him astraddle his first Harley
his long blond hair snapping in my eyes no helmets
my fingers feeling in the deep holes
through his shoulder and his ribs
where the sniper’s bullet drilled through
he died he said and came alive again on a table in England
I still wore his white dress shirt
hanging out over my rolled-up blue jeans
shiny pennies in my loafers
Frank Sinatra made me scream Elvis my one daughter
Buddy’s blonde princess the Dead my grandson
nobody sings anymore all back there somewhere
with my mother boozed up at ninety
a Depression-made cheapskate
sipping cheap port
and a hundred thousand in the bank
how did we get here

where are we going why must I come
Harry could save me
clever with life how left-handed he
mangled his right hand in the leather machine
made them think he was right-handed
more compensation
at last a little house and money in the bank
and I got us out of Jersey
like war in the project then
the Sixties the long hot summers
bullets through the windows
down to Max and Buddy in Orlando to my little house
Harry why must I travel with them
the youngsters even are old but Harry’s gone
crazy at the end
fighting in the trenches again
Argonne Belleau Wood
gone on the road behind us
dead and buried in Orlando
buried and lost his grave lost
we are going to sue
I have no place to put flowers
no place to talk to him anymore
they lost my Harry
tough leather guy from Brooklyn
tough guy so sweet once
poor old crazy man
gone back to the trenches back to Pershing
mustardgas and Belleau Wood
another world so far away
to his grave at ninety-five
I don’t want cable
only my one soap-opera station
only my wine
don’t even want life to come back
what is the wind
Star stories say some of us are aliens
supermarket tabloids Maxine calls them
and tries to make me think they print lies
sometimes I think Buddy and maybe even Maxine too
I bore her but maybe pod people have taken over her body
like that old movie
maybe she isn’t Maxine at all she doesn’t act like Maxine
I could have a baby too
like the hundred year old woman in Australia
it would kill me at ninety they must eat something
yogurt like those Russians who live forever aliens too
and the little girl no older than smaller than
who had quadruplets by a tom cat
all of them born with whiskers
the pictures were right there I saw them
whiskers and pointed ears and long tails I saw them
what is that going by where are they taking me

“Good Housekeeping” said
the kitchen was the warm womb
of the colonial home and early-American women
would stand at the hearth watching the turkey turn
as they pumped up the flames
packing sandwiches for an airline ain’t exactly
the big time but we made it
Buddy and I paid off the American dream
for his bedroom and my bedroom
and the alligators down on the lawn
to the rock seawall wanting sun
what’s life
put the rocks back put
back build up fall put back
two slices Wonder Bread
one slice waterpumped ham mayo mustard
my long thin fingers all little silver scars
I’m nobody what did I deserve
not Buddy and my mother anyway
sixty ain’t the end yet
not even with all my loose belly skin and
stupid strokefoot dragging when I’m tired
like Buddy on Omaha Beach
but I got it right through the head
like being brain-shot and nine weeks in the hospital
stealing our money
there she is sipping her wine at ninety
defying nature and three out of five of us kids with strokes
always demanding maybe she gave us the strokes
but nobody’s dead yet they say we are all lucky
so that’s what luck is not being dead
a case could be made

driving into the dusk is like driving into a dream
better hit the lights
that big cluster of stars down there
I aim my good eye on ahead
now in the dusk it gets tricky
but I don’t let Max know
extreme macular degeneration
sugar-induced doc says
then he says you got varicose veins in your eye
laser beams he says burn ’em out
so I see blue for a week from the dye
and the blue fades to gray and that’s it
my credit’s good
social security veteran’s pension Disney retirement
I’m a triple dipper
plus equity in the house poor boy makes good
I’m driving fifty thousand dollars across America
like I started out with anything but
a piano-teaching widowed mother
like I had a chance in life
I play my own tapes me at the organ
singing Willy Nelson songs
“On the Road Again” Max hates my music
she’s jealous but says I could of made a living
at it could of but couldn’t take the joints
composed some myself guitar piano organ
my tape plays “King of the Road”
my plates say NO MORTGAGE NO BOSS
NO JOB NO WORRIES I’M RETIRED
twenty years standing in the sun eating Twinkies skin cancer
Harry thought Max could do better
he never had a home like ours right on the gators’ water
he’d say he never had alligators on his lawn either
only stinkbugs in his old palm tree
sometimes I miss fighting with him
him on the Kaiser me on Hitler
who was worse all ancient history
even the Commies are dead
nothing left for Freedom to fight
and the world moves moves into the next century
away from us what we did and needed
it’ll all be computers and new people
no more like us we’re dinosaurs
old people but we move
and we take our houses with us like hermit crabs
we circle Asheville in leaves we land at Normandy
not ten minutes in and all my bones break
until I wake up on the table in England
purple heart silver star
I remember the sea swashing puffs of smoke
our flag it still stands yesterday’s news who cares
Max is sarcastic once she was proud
I can’t help it Max
it’s the sugar sugar

. . . who betrayed me so many times with his Harley
with somebody else’s legs around him
fingers in his wounds
hot stuff and joins the police
to wear his beautiful blue uniform
and ride his police cycle with his blond hair
fluffed all around his blue visored hat
and me pregnant alone with his blonde love in my stomach
stud making a fool of his wife making a fool of his life
with nogood burgling cops only Orlando left for us
thank the chief who saved us and that was when I began
when I began I began began to be old

Maxine looks like me at sixty
you could compare her to a picture of me then
O Harry do you remember
where are we
North Carolina
why are we here climbing this mountain
full of beautiful leaves
is that heaven up there what is that up there
a jetstream
a flying saucer
why don’t we just stay home
where I know where things are
they don’t think about me how I can’t see
how I wish Harry were here
how he was when he was young
so neat courtly so kind and sweet
not like at the end afraid of the Hun
hiding under the table gone crazy old man
with old-timers disease
it was all there again for him
no time had happened
no me no all that life all wiped out
and he was there again and it made me wonder
if we aren’t all just here or there or where are we

Asheville we pack it in at Nashville
Max and the old lady won’t go to the Grand Ole Opry
so I’ll leave them to themselves
I’ll go like I always said I would
could hear it in Jersey when I was a kid
could hear it all over the country
Hank Williams Minnie Pearl Tex Ritter Hillbilly Heaven
a southern yankee I never get enough of that wonderful stuff
Max says we should of gone the other route
to Memphis first Graceland Elvis can wait I say
but it turns out to be Hank Williams Junior and Rockabilly
not like I dreamed of it glitz and bang
even a vet can yearn for the old sweetstuff
Junior’s daddy the original Hank the real thing
the lyrics were in a language I could understand
we fought the wars and longed for love
they march for peace and seem to hate
like I’m still waiting for the fat lady to sing
President Truman even introduced Kate
Smith to the Queen
as “America” Oh beautiful for spacious skies
but the Opry’s like the rest of it now
maybe we should try Dollyland at Pigeon Forge
no Max wouldn’t like it because

angels come to our door but Buddy won’t let them in
do you know these are the last days
not if you have something spiritual
it’s on Earth
he was sent by the God of Love
that’s why Graceland is a church
even if it’s like they say
that his body ate twenty Big Macs a day
his soul had to live on Earth didn’t it had to eat
so Buddy’s blonde daughter tells me
my daughter too but more his blonde like him
now nearly bald not her him not dark like me
well gray but if Elvis could bring happiness
then he is a god

he’s one of those aliens Max
he was sent here to sing and bring love
they say Graceland is more beautiful than Heaven
that it’s all blue like the sky with no clouds
no thunderbooms and tin-roof rain clatter
where are we

like when Buddy grinds his choppers
he is eating us up in his sleep
our night war like our day war cannibal
shoved our beds apart into separate rooms
trumpets saxophones trombones
Buddy names my snoring while he grinds on
and her crazy on the convertible back there
all night coughs and chatters in her sleep
about chicken wing prices
it’s like a gone-nuts orchestra
OOMPA OOMPA OOMPA CLICKETY-CLICK BLAH BLAH
his teeth telling how much he hates his life
at different times broken uppers and lowers
life that never did what he wanted it to do
we rocked that motorpark in Nashville
hooked up Winnebago nearly laughed itself free
electric lines tore out as it rolled over on its side
and later shaking with screaming
Mama and I had sucked the city of any last drop
of Southern Comfort
Buddy never came back from the Opry till it was dying out
drunk himself from shit-kicking with urban cowboys
I told him his sugar’ll kill him he sleeps grinding his life
like steak into hamburger I’m his life
what’s life
Mama refuses to die until we do
gray and stroked and sugared and beer’d under
but how could we leave her at home who’d watch her
nobody’ll take her in if we go she has to go
won’t go to nursing home no way you know no how
and I don’t mean not to go go go before I die
thank GOD for Winnebagos
next stopover next postcard
P.S. life’s a war and you can’t give up
love Max at sixty

heaven is a place like Graceland
they say Elvis’s daughter owns it now
she’s the spitting image spitting image
listen Max at least the foreigners don’t own Graceland
like they do everything else
it ain’t true that we don’t work as hard as the Japs
but the unions Max I never did trust the unions

you think like a scab-cop
my father was a union man Buddy

her father was a union man
Harry was always a good union man
and a good Democrat

if they’re good for anything the aliens’ll be UNION
if I didn’t belong to a union
do you think they’d of paid me so much
for making lousy sandwiches
did you get enough sleep
we should of gone to Graceland first
read a “Reader’s Digest” article once
first it was the farmlife held us to place
then industry mills and trading and
later the big factories up north
made cities centers now no more
anyone anywhere now the computers
no more fixed life no more unions no more
democrats no more stay put go go go
like the damned beatniks hippies used to do
on the road in the sky
a whole corporation inside your portable
computer workforce anywhere
regions don’t mean nothing cities countries
my country ’tis of thee
I’m caught between the old lady back there
and my grandson
he’ll be part of it the brave new world he said
college boy and his kids won’t even know
what we were
can’t you just see it grandpa
no boundaries no borders
even space the moon Mars
business everywhere signals flying through the air
caught between times becoming part of it
losing it at the same time
with my sugar walking down the street
I never noticed how sweet beer is
injections they’ll be able to fix that too grandpa
and the whole world and even space
will become AMERICA

you look at your mother and you think
how could I have come out of that sixty years ago
HAPPY BIRTHDAY Max
it’s a chorus of whiskey-cracked voices
a duo of dead and gone ghosts
calling back over their shoulders
it’s bye-bye Maxine you’re as good as dead
with your mastectomied pumped-up plastic tits
what’d you need them for for him
could of caused the stroke I’m told
but then why my brother and sister stroked out too
my face I had burned with acid and scraped
for him forty years ago
acne pits from her tea and cheap day-old cake
to stuff us just before supper all of us
faces like burned-red moons
from her brother-can-you-spare-a-dime
cheap Depression soul
the old man back from Belleau Wood
mustard gas and the formaldehyde stink of the tannery
the whole goddamned century’s been a war
I could live to see the end of it
no more goddamned Twentieth Century
now we fight each other we can’t stop fighting
we’re like three hairy-assed Marines
landing on each other’s beaches
HAPPY BIRTHDAY Maxine
Christ he kissed me breath like death blow out my candle
if I could I’d blow them out of the Winnebago
and get my wish a little time on earth alone a little life before I die

Max was always tough even as a little girl
she always fought
her father’d have to drag her off
from a fight but he was proud
my Max don’t take no shit he said

we had to be tough Jersey we all glow in the dark
better than hard cold and cheap
we had nothin’ but trouble like the plague
Nineteen-Nineteen she says
the doughboys brought the influenza back from Europe
all those displaced persons
my best girlfriend died of it everybody
was dying you’re too young to know
good to be too young for some things
why do you think God does it
screw that
God helps them who help themselves Buddy
he likes that one damned Republican
but he’s right it’s like Elvis
a success a blond guy with black hair and a cape
God loves us all Max He’s sending them to help us
well He’s got a damned funny way of showing it
your granddaughter says He sent Elvis
or is it Elvis sent her
I told her he came in on a saucer
they’ll all be here soon

Buddy singing playing the organ he installed
coming in on a wing and a prayer
his feet pumping he loves to show off
he says Harry was just a leather worker
says my mother taught piano class will tell
your people don’t have no class no way
then it’s a Donnybrook
in the musical world

in heaven this couldn’t of happened
if Max would spell me
I’d go back and get drunk with the old lady
sit in my Seat w/Telescoping Pedestal
and stare at her until I could see inside her BRAIN
but Max won’t spell me won’t drive no way no how
just sucks in sixpacks and farts at speed bumps
I’m mustard gassed like Harry at Belleau Wood
turn on the BTU’s she says watch out
open the vents here comes Max
but she admits it was damned embarrassing
we got the Arizona state troopers all over us
here’s the old lady telling the pump jockey
at our time of life we want full service telling him
I’M BEING KIDNAPPED BY ALIENS
I have a lovely home in Orlando
they’re forcing me to go with them
they want my money a hundred thousand dollars
it belongs to Harry he earned it with the wrong hand
call the police help help
it takes some explaining but I tell them me I’m an ex-cop
look I say but they got me and Max over a car hood
if I had one of those BIG FOOT trucks
I’d drive right over top of this traffic jam
crushing cars like an angry giant
that’s why everybody loves Big Foot
I look at the cops and twirl
my finger in a circle at my temple
nuts the both of them I say
they feel sorry for me and because I’m an ex-cop

get real Buddy do you think God’s in California
or in the Painted Desert or the Petrified Forest
I want to see the first Disney place is all
Max is mad like Mel great roadman
people say it’s the end of America
from the coast there on it’s out forever
and the sea climbs into the sky
Buddy it’s your music
sometimes you sound like some godawful poet
song of the open road Max
there’s good trucker songs Max
trucker poets cowboy poets
you’re ignorant Max
don’t start Buddy don’t start
I tell you what Buddy
Vegas is God
you get a bucketful of change and pull handles
until something good happens
gangsters built Vegas Max
gangsters built everything Buddy
Bugsy Siegel is God and Vegas is heaven
for shame Maxine
what do you know Mama
it’s all a chance and to hell with your aliens
can’t you see saucers Maxine
clouds Mama we’re in the mountains
Sierra Nevadas Mama
I’m not your mother I’m hers maybe
and the white bombs of love
like the Star says it’s Elvis in his saucer
lots of Elvises because this is the end of time
they have big dark eyes and sideburns down to here
real smooth cheeks and they wear wonderful jumpsuits
with colors like Las Vegas that night
the first or second so it was stacks of colors
and everything blinking they wear clothes like that
with glittery things hanging down from their sleeves
I was a little girl when Dreamland burned down
my mother your grandmother Maxine
said you could see Dreamland burning from Jersey
I had been to Coney Island I had been to Dreamland
I’m sure I saw Vesuvius erupt and a great naval battle
where New York was bombarded by foreign ships
and then an American admiral went out
and defeated all of them
you see children it is all a dream
and you keep waking up to something new
we aren’t really here at all we are here
and somewhere else at the same time in Dreamland
Meet me tonight in Dreamland under the silvery moon
my mother used to play that one Mama
I am not your mother don’t call me Mama
you’re alone in the world Harry never liked you
motorcycle-head he called you
Maxine’s got me if she is Maxine
of course I’m Maxine
Christ of course white bombs
SNOW
where are we Maxine
if I smashed this pedal down down hill
I saw a movie once about a wagon train full of people
heading west on Donner tha’s it the Donner party
they were going over these very mountains they were up here
high like this and there was a blizzard and they got caught
and they couldn’t get down out of it
blizzard starved and they began to eat each other
don’t look at me Buddy
the saucers will save us
they’ll snatch us up into Graceland
they can do anything they can make us fly
can they take us back to where they came from
is it a musical place
of course it’s a musical place
Elvis is King
yeah Graceland is the real true blue heaven
beyond the cheap chicken wings of the world Mama
beyond the world Maxine
or whoever you are
Buddy my ears just popped
we’re climbing Max
it’s getting dark Buddy
you better stop
can’t stop on the highway
some articulated eighteenwheeler
some BIG FOOT
come behind us
no visibility
now I nail my one good eye
to the white-dark wraparound
like one big cataract
faint red lights
turning off ahead
now nothing
down there’s a turn
somewhere down there
I hit the gas down hard to the floor
it’s dark and white like being wrapped in ermine
if we weren’t doing eighty ninety a hundred
it’s like a toboggan like the OLYMPICS
SWOOSH SWOOSH and we’re out off in SPACE
the cold moon and stars ahead
I push my WING-EXTENDER BUTTON
and now it’s STAR TREK
THE PANORAMA OF SPACE
I can see through the thick clusters of stars
Ahead there deep
GOD’S BRIGHT MUSICAL CASTLE
but the saucers hold us floating in air
HIGH OVER GRACELAND
You can see the lights
I told them I told them
And THOUSANDS and THOUSANDS
of GOLDEN COINS COME GLITTERING
CRASHING OUT

 

 

BIO

E.M. Schorb is a prize-winning poet and novelist. His Dates and Dreams, Short Fictions, Prose Poems, Cartoons won the latest Writer’s Digest International Self-Published Award for Poetry and is announced in the magazine’s current issue. Murderer’s Day was awarded the Verna Emery Poetry Prize and published by Purdue University Press; his collection, Time and Fevers, was an earlier recipient of the Writer’s Digest International Self-Published Award for Poetry and also an Eric Hoffer Award. More recently, Words in Passing, was published by The New Formalist Press. His novel, Paradise Square was awarded the grand prize for fiction by the International eBook Award Foundation at the Frankfurt Book Fair. But Schorb maintains that he is first and foremost a poet, and his poetry has appeared in numerous publications, here and abroad.

 

 

 

0

Safe Haven: A Romantic Comedy in Eleven Unequal Parts

by Brian Conlon

 

 

 

Part I: What Men Talk About

 

“Sometimes I think life is too difficult, and other times I think thinking life is too difficult is an awful thing to think,” James said to Horant.

“Would it make you feel any better if I were to tell you that currently, as we speak, you are living on a day and time that is easier to live on than 99% of all other days and times humans have lived on, and that you live in a country that is easier to live in than 99% of countries on Earth, and that you live in a city that is easier to live in than 99% of cities in this country, and that you, you personally, have it easier than 99% of people living in this city at this time. And none of these numbers include the people who are already dead and presumably have it much tougher than the rest of us. Would that make you feel better?” asked Horant.

“No, that makes me feel worse. Much, much worse.”

“Then maybe I ought not tell you all that then.”

“It’s too late now, I should think.”

“I could tell you I made it all up.”

“You could. Did you?”

“Yes, of course. Where would those statistics even come from? Think.”

“Well, that makes me feel much better.”

“Terrific.”

“Do you feel better now?”

“Better than what?”

“Than before we started talking?”

“No, I feel the same. I felt best in that moment in which you believed all that nonsense about you being happier than everyone else.”

“And worse since?”

“I could not feel best then, if I didn’t feel worse now.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Don’t be. None of us can feel best all the time, no matter the era.”

“I suppose you’re right.”

“Why? Why would you suppose that?”

“No, I guess you’re probably wrong. Someone must have felt best all the time in some era.”

“Why?”

“Math.”

“This is now the time I feel best.”

***

James had a theory that every living sentient thing had the same last thought, namely, “But I just got here.” This theory could, as with everything important about death, be in no way tested. But there is something to be said for a unifying theory of sentient beings, no matter how untestable.

His theory, which some might think to be a call to action, had a paralyzing effect on him. It caused him to stop and reconsider, to overthink whether this or that action was really worth the precious time he had remaining (fifty to sixty years give or take), and by the time he finally decided to act or not act, often times the decision was already made for him.

“Crippling depression is a phrase tossed around far more often than it should be,” James told Horant, describing some of his deeper moments of self-doubt. “It somehow marginalizes both what it means to be crippled and what it means to be depressed.”

“Uh-hah,” said Horant staring at the flat screen TV in front of him. The Network had an attractive blonde anchor in one corner of the screen and the following displayed in some fashion over the rest of it: a ticker of the stock market; the latest baseball scores; an hours, minutes, and seconds countdown to Christmas Day; the “shape of the day” flashing in the bottom left corner (pyramid); an animated kitten pawing at an on/off button in the other corner; and a sack of potatoes, only half-filled, meant to measure the extent of the latest famine in Africa. None of this was particularly distracting except for the attractive blonde. She winked at Horant it seemed. “Understandable,” thought Horant, who was of the belief that his Nordic heritage entitled him to some indiscernible and unidentifiable power over the opposite sex. “I have blue eyes, blonde hair, I’m tall, lean, not especially ugly, how can they resist?” His suspicions were sometimes verified, sometimes not, but it was all he really believed in, and so to stop believing it just because it may not be true was not an option.

“Not that it means all that much to be crippled or depressed; it’s just another way of saying, ‘something is wrong with me.’ No, no, I know that’s insensitive, but that’s what it is, is it not that?” James asked.

“It’s that, but more than that. It says there is something in particular wrong with you or at least that there is some way in which you are abnormal.”

“Well, yes, but this is not really the point. What I want to say is that I’m not depressed or crippled or crippled with depression, I just think sometimes, and that can get out of hand, you know?”

“I think I know what you mean when you say those words, but I can’t sympathize with what I take them to mean,” said Horant, vacantly staring at the TV.

James hung out with Horant only, or at least initially only, because he took him to be a type of genius. James may have mistaken Horant’s particular way of appearing overtly analytical and diffident with genius. This mistake, whether real or imagined, led to what some might call a friendship.

“Maybe so, maybe so,” said James and then thought about what Horant had just said without speaking for the next minute or two, occasionally glancing up at the totally blank screen behind Horant. The TV was broken, had been for several months, but the owner of Go Ahead and Order That Diner, Janet Hoops, did not want to fork over the money to fix it at the moment, her cat being on its ninth life and fading fast. The money she had poured into that poor cat’s hips alone could have paid for several new TVs and the 3-D goggles one might have to wear to view them.

James gave up on figuring out what Horant meant and continued talking, “The moment when you concede that the moment has already passed, that’s the moment I’m interested in thinking about. But once I start thinking about it, it’s gone and that hurts somehow more than the fact that there was such a moment in the first place and I spent it thinking about whether the previous moment was real, well-spent, correctable, or the greatest moment of my life. One moment will have to be the greatest of my life. It’s simple logic, and it might have already occurred, and I might have missed it, and I might never know when it was, or why it was so great until some professor a thousand years from now figures out a way to use analytics to measure each moment of our existence and calculate by some way or another which particular one was the greatest in terms of happiness-expectancy or some analogous important criteria. This is what bothers me sometimes, Horant.”

“I perceive that what you just said means a great deal to you, but I have no idea why that would be.”

 

Part II: How People Meet

 

Horant had devised a double date. The blonde woman from the TV had been sending him emails. At first, neither he nor his spam filter could really believe it. They each thought, independently, that The Network had devised a clever way to advertise by sending automated messages to their viewers couched in familiar language and purportedly authored by Haven Hootenanny, The Network’s most popular female anchor. She was likely The Network’s most popular anchor of any gender, but former football star Cleat Tersestatement still had his champions, even if he himself had failed to win any championships. The Network announcer always referred to Cleat as “well-loved” before announcing his name, as if Cleat were the nation’s brutish but well-meaning cousin. The Network had toyed with the idea of having Cleat and Haven host a show together, but The Coordinator wrung his hands and asked those who suggested it, “If you had two eggs, among a bunch of black rocks that no one could ever conceive of as eggs, would you place them beside each other?” No one at the meeting knew what to say, but guessed that this meant that The Coordinator was not on board, and that settled that.

Haven had seen Horant. She had seen him on the distracting scroll of viewers set up next to the teleprompter during her broadcasts. The Coordinator had come up with the idea, which cost The Network millions of dollars in incredibly invasive technology to execute. While you were watching The Network, The Network was watching you, or, rather, The Network anchors were watching a still image of you. The point was something like, “know your audience,” or “advertisers like pictures,” or, “look how ugly everyone else is, doesn’t that make you feel better, on-air talent!” The Coordinator was pleased with how ugly everyone indeed turned out to be. Haven was less so.

Prior to the inception of the Instant Viewer Viewer (IVV), Haven had imagined that she was broadcasting to the elite of America, 90% of whom, she suspected, were beautiful people she did not get to see in her everyday routine because they were too rich and beautiful to leave their respective mansions, but neither too rich nor too beautiful to get their news directly from her. Her first show with the IVV opened her eyes to how ugly people truly were. She swooned on air and The Network was forced to cut away to footage of cats and dogs sleeping next to each other. Ratings were unaffected. Haven was affected. It took her weeks to come to grips with the true nature of her viewers. She cried herself to sleep at the images of their crooked teeth, their lazy eyes, their ill-defined chins and cheeks, their baldness, their broken noses, their splotchy acne, their neon make-up, their increasingly stupid mouths. They scarred her; they made her reconsider her livelihood, her religion, her species. She thanked God every night that the IVV only showed faces. She vowed that if ever she saw a face she thought objectively attractive, she would reach out to that person, personally, and thank them, at least thank them.

Her first email read:

Dear Horant,

            I am Haven Hootenanny, an anchor for The Network :). I want to personally thank you for watching my show. Without viewers like you, it would all be less than worthwhile ;). I might be driving off a cliff instead of writing this email even :)! Can you imagine? Just driving my giant SUV off a cliff? Best in class safety rating and all, just right off a cliff :). Gravity doesn’t care about safety ratings. We did a show on that, remember? You watched it ;’-). Thanks!! We really like you here at The Network. Really like you!! Please keep watching ;)!!

            -Haven

Horant thought this was a pretty wacky automated email and searched the internet high and low for anyone who had experienced the same. He found nothing and alerted his email account to send any further messages from hhootenanny@thenetwork.com to his main folder. He did not, however, respond, because if it was really her, a response to her initial email would basically ruin the vibe, and if it wasn’t her, a response would just be embarrassing.

Her second email read:

Dearest Horant,

You’re still watching! Thanks so much! You’re still watching! Thanks so much! You’re still watching! Thanks so much! :):):)

We have a rule of threes here at The Network. If something works, do it three times at least! We’re so happy you continue to watch. Look, I’m happy you watch! I can’t stop thinking about your face. It’s not bad, really ;). Your nose could be cuter. Don’t get me wrong, your nose could certainly be cuter.

If we spoke on the phone, I have the sense you would speak in clipped abstract sentences. I can’t imagine what you would mean by them :)! Would you mean something by them, Horant ;)? Please say you would. Would you? Don’t say. I can’t bear it. I still have the cliff in my GPS! LOL! Don’t worry, I’m all talk, until I’m not! 😉

Keep watching Horant! Please keep watching!

-Haven

Horant responded:

Dear Haven,

I’ll keep watching.

-Horant

Haven did not respond for weeks, but her spirits were lifted every time Horant’s face would appear on the IVV. She had a bottle of wine one night and wrote her third email.

Horant, Dear,

This is the third email, you know what that means ;)! I am being compliant with The Network’s policy! Aren’t you glad for my compliance! You still watch at least! You still watch! And you write lovely emails, my dear, Horant, just lovely. You might be a poet. You might be an astronaut. There’d be no way for me to know.

Let’s meet! No, wait, I mean, keep watching please :). Just keep watching. One day I may stop being on The Network. Can you imagine such a day? We simply won’t see each other that day. All other days will curl up beside that day and console it for its great loss ‘;). Tomorrow is not that day, nor the next day. I have a contract :)! I have a lawyer ;)! The memory on my GPS is finite. I forget where the cliff is. Each time I see you the cliff fades further and further into obscurity.

Thanks for that! Thanks for your face! Your nose, meh, but thanks anyway ;).

Lovely thoughts of impossible versions of me,

Haven

Horant did not respond immediately, although he planned to. Instead, he saw Haven in real life at Carzone’s Frozen Goods, a store which sold, as you might imagine, frozen things, and was kept, as you might not imagine, entirely at a crisp 20 degrees Fahrenheit year round. On especially hot summer days it was particularly crowded with idlers who would spend half an hour sorting through the pea section, which really only contained three items, all of which were the same brand of peas in various sizes. Some not insignificant number of idlers became temporarily ill and sued Carzone, as the complaint read, “for the cost of all that Mucinex.” Carzone’s attorney arranged a meeting between the parties in a park on a scorching August afternoon. The plaintiffs ended up settling for the opportunity to step back inside Carzone’s Frozen Goods and a $1-off-any-non-cone-ice-cream-novelties-12-pack coupon.

It was a warm summer day when Horant observed Haven holding a bag of frozen blueberries to her face.

“Haven?” he asked.

“Does make-up freeze? If so, at what temperature?” she turned and asked a clerk who was trying to stack frozen corn cobs with mittens on.

“We have some frozen make-up Miss. We have some, so it must,” he fumbled with the corn, which was luckily wrapped in plastic. The corn rolled across the floor past Haven, who simply nodded and placed her blueberries back in the pile.

“Haven?” Horant almost shouted as he picked up the loose corn cob and handed it to the clerk.

“Oh, of course I’ll sign. Do you have a pen? Mine might freeze and it’s very important it not, so I keep it capped. You see we anchors have real problems too,” said Haven without looking up.

“Is the cap thermal?” asked Horant.

“What are you saying? I don’t understand what you’re saying. Please, just get a pen.”

By this time the clerk had snatched the corn cob out of Horant’s hand and proceeded to attempt to add it to the already perilous heap. It, of course, all collapsed, and the rolling cobs swept the clerk off his feet and onto the glazed floor, and would have done the same for Haven had Horant not stepped in and stabilized her by grabbing her right arm.

Haven finally looked up and saw that face. It was the face which she had not been disgusted by all these past few months, the face which she sometimes credited for calming her nightmares and other times thought would be much better if someone simply replaced part of its nose. She nearly swooned, but it was too cold to swoon, so she shook.

“Horant? My dear sweet Horant,” she said.

“Yes, or, yes, that’s me,” he said, holding onto her arm even though she was now in no danger of slipping.

“Let go of my arm so I can hug you,” she said smiling, her teeth still chattering a bit. She held onto him tightly just for an instant and then let go.

“Well, what now?” he asked.

“Up to you really. Will you keep watching?”

“You mean on TV?”

“Yes, of course, will you keep watching now that you’ve seen me in all my frozen-blueberry glory? Will you?”

“I don’t see why I wouldn’t.”

“I don’t either, but you might not. I don’t understand viewers, or men, or plasma. I don’t know what plasma is. It’s like liquid, but not, right? That’s the sense I get.”

“I think you’re not far off. We should get out of here and discuss it, perhaps over a liquid.”

“It’s too cold after a while. God love Carzone, I don’t know how he does it. We ran a report once on him. You should have seen the coats. Closets and closets full. Full closets full.”

They walked out onto the street, both forgetting to purchase anything.

“I have an idea,” said Haven. “There’s this woman who works at The Network, she brings the bagels in some days. I’m not sure what she does the days we don’t have bagels, but I can ask. Anyway, she’s real sweet and lonely. Just bowls of sweet and lonely I think. Men think she’s alright, she’s shy, but men think she’s alright, I can tell that at least about men. I know when they think one of us is alright. Like you think I’m alright, don’t you?”

“I do think that, yes.”

“So this woman, she, we could double-date, her and I. She seems perfectly compatible for someone I’m sure. Someone who doesn’t really watch me probably, someone who thinks TV is somehow worse than alcohol. You know what I mean?”

“I don’t understand precisely the combination of words you are saying, but the sentiment is clear enough. I have a friend. He should be perfect. He thinks too much and rarely to his benefit.”

“Right, that’s what I mean. Horant, really, we, the two of us, really!”

“Really!” said Horant, not quite sure himself whether he meant this as a sarcastic pantomime or an enthusiastic affirmation of their newfound admiration.

 

 

Part III: How People Who Meet Convince Other People to Meet

 

“We have a date,” said Haven.

“Are you talking to me?” asked the girl who brought the bagels. Her name was Florence Gutner, her college friends called her FloGut for one particularly strong and uncharacteristic impromptu freestyle rap she made after shotgunning a beer freshman year. She had not rapped or shotgunned since and no one at The Network called her FloGut. She actually had no gut to speak of. She wore glasses and usually tied her dark hair back in a tight bun. She had sensitive brown eyes and had once thought they might be her downfall. She had since come up with other things about herself to dislike more than the fact that her eyes would not allow her to wear contacts. For instance, she thought her eyebrows were too thick, but was afraid that waxing them would make her a superficial person. She was also not thrilled with the fact that after having graduated near the top of her class at the best university in the region, the only job she could find in the entertainment industry was Assistant Food Assistant for The Network. She had ideas, she had a sense of humor, but she thought she had no way to export them, and, accordingly, spoke very little at The Network.

“Yes, yes, of course I am, of course I am,” said Haven.

“Okay,” said Florence.

“So it’s settled then. I’m sorry, are you seeing anyone?”

“What? Ms. Hootenanny I’m very flattered, really. But I just don’t, I mean,” said Florence, who was in fact not seeing anyone and had not really seen anyone since her junior year. The one she saw at that time was Hector Uden, an aspiring paleontologist with a round face and short arms. There was a running, not terribly kind, joke in the department that Hector chose his major somehow based exclusively on his sympathy for like-armed creatures. Hector once confided in Florence that this joke really bothered him, mostly because he was not completely certain it was untrue. To console him, she wrapped her arms around him and he was almost able to wrap his arms around her. Haven’s question brought all this and more to the fore of Florence’s mind as she rubbed her eyebrows, and then stretched her arms high above her head.

“No, we will go on a double date. You and I, with two men. One is Horant. He will be my date, and the other will be someone he knows.”

“I’m sorry. Was there something wrong with the bagels?” asked Florence, moving her arms back down.

“No, look I know how it is. I’m single too you know. It’s tough out there. There’s so many . . . but this Horant, he’s alright and I’m sure his friend . . . don’t you want to get out and meet people, ah . . .”

“Florence, I’m Florence.”

“Yeah, Florence, you and I we, this could be good for both of us really. I thought of you specifically. You’re always looking so nice, the bagels are always here as expected. I mean we girls we have to look out for each other you know. It’s tough,” said Haven.

“Well, I suppose . . . and you don’t know the other guy? What does Horant do?”

“He watches The Network at least. I guess I don’t really know. But his friend, he doesn’t watch much I don’t think. He said he thinks sometimes.”

“Well that’s a start.”

“I mean, I have to . . . Why am I selling you on this? I’m on-air talent, you deliver bagels. Say yes in the next ten seconds or don’t. I mean it’ll be fun anyway. Worst case the guy is a troll and you get a nice dinner out of it. I mean worst case he’s a troll, absolute worst case.”

“Sure, alright,” said Florence, grabbing a pencil out of her hair. “What are the details?”

“I don’t know. No one does, but someone will tell you. Maybe me,” she handed Florence her card and walked away from the snack table.

Florence thought to herself that this was something at least. After a number of days of nothing, this was at least something.

***

            “We have a date,” said Horant to James as he entered Go Ahead and Order That Diner.

“Are you talking to me?” asked James.

“Yes of course. Who else in here would I have a date with?”

“This is getting, you know Horant, I think the world of you, but to just announce. . . .” He paused and then said, “Presumptuous for one thing.”

“I don’t even understand what you think I could be talking about,” said Horant. The waitress approached and asked if James and Horant wouldn’t mind tasting the apple pudding the chef just threw together. “It’s an experiment,” she said. Horant and James looked at each other simultaneously and shrugged their shoulders. This was not quite as unusual as it might seem, as Horant and James frequented Go Ahead and Order That Diner and were often asked to taste-test the chef’s new concoctions.

They had never met the chef. Horant asked to once after an inspired rum-soaked cherry cobbler, but was told that the chef could receive compliments indirectly. “He prefers it that way in fact,” said their waitress at the time, who had since left for another waitress job closer to her mother’s house. In a subsequent job application, that waitress listed her reason for leaving Go Ahead and Order That Diner as, “womb proximity.” She did not get that job.

“Apple pudding, hmm,” said James, almost forgetting the date conversation.

“Truly, what did you think I meant just then?” asked Horant.

“When?”

“When I first walked in and told you about our date.”

“I, of course, knew you were joking. But it wasn’t funny. I haven’t found that type of joke funny . . . I can’t even remember.”

“No joke. I mean, we have a date. You and I,” said Horant.

“You paying?”

“Half.”

“That’s no date then. What kind of a girl do you think I am?”

“An entitled priss of a girl, with entirely too much chest hair.”

“Why I never!” said James, trying to gesture as he imagined a woman who wanted to feign outrage would. It came off somehow as a half jerk of his neck to the left. He grabbed at his neck after. He thought he pulled something.

“Enough, whatever, you idiot, I mean we have a double date. I met,” he pointed up at Haven on the flat screen they were facing at the counter. An animated penguin flew in over the top of her face and landed at the bottom of the screen. It proceeded to shiver and put on layer after layer of winter clothes, until its beak was all that was visible. Then another penguin swooped in just to the left of the first penguin and began undressing it methodically, layer after layer. Haven read, “After this cold snap, it’s supposed to warm back up.” When all the layers were removed, it was revealed that the first penguin was now a toucan and the second penguin looked on in astonishment as it flew indiscriminately through the newscast until the next commercial break.

“A flying penguin?” asked James.

“No, her, Haven, the newswoman.”

James sat in silence looking at the screen and pondering what all this could possibly mean. Obviously, if the newswoman were one of the women on this double date, Horant must be claiming her for his own. On the other hand, why would Horant point her out to him unless he meant to set him up with her? There are many less lovely blonde women off-screen than on it, he thought suddenly, and wondered if she might look entirely different in person. Not that she’d have thinner hair and more defined crow’s feet, but that she’d actually be a stout brunette with crater-sized pock marks. Maybe she looked like that one friend of his mother who constantly called him charming when he was a kid. It unnerved him, the thought of dating the friend of his mother. What would people think? Was she even still alive? How do we lose touch with our childhood so easily?

“Yes, she is beautiful. It is not polite to stare, but go ahead if you want,” said Horant.

The waitress brought the pudding over and both men started to shovel it in.

“They can do almost anything with digital effects nowadays,” said James, his tongue wading through the pudding to make contact with the roof of his mouth to enunciate the words.

“This is not how you’re going to talk on our date, is it? All slober and ill-defined syllables, like a giant puffball,” said Horant, after he’d swallowed a big gulp of pudding himself.

“I’m unclear. I still don’t know what you’re getting at.”

“Do I have to spell it out for you? You and I are going out on a double date with Haven and her friend.”

“Oh, and so, so you and the newswoman, and me and her friend,” James managed to get out through his last spoonful of pudding.

“There we go. He’s catching on everyone, he’s catching on,” said Horant, as if to a whole bunch of people. Only James was listening.

“Okay, okay, so what’s she like?” asked James.

“She, well you can see, she’s blonde, even more so in-person somehow, and strange. She sent me these emails. I don’t know what to make of them.”

“The friend sent you emails too?”

“God, I don’t know anything about the friend, okay? Not a thing. Man, for someone who thinks so much, you certainly miss a whole lot. I’m talking about Haven.”

“I, well, you don’t know anything about my side of things?”

“No, I mean, I think she mentioned something about bagels. She brings bagels, I think and she’s introverted maybe.”

“A wealth of information,” said James. Two distinct images flooded his mind. One of a beautiful actress with long flowing hair tied up in a tight bun, only for the time-being, she bit pencils, she wore tight skirts, she paged through books; it was unclear whether she read them. The second was of a thick Eastern European woman stirring boiled bagels in a huge vat, her makeup running, her muscular arms straining to dip the strainer through the water and take the bagels out to dry, her long apron stained with sweat, cream cheese, and poppy seeds, her chest heaving, coughing, the flies circling around the tight bun her hair was perpetually tied into.

“Well, so, worst case, she’s an imp, and I’ll let you stare at Haven for as long as you want, absolute worst case.”

“Imp? I don’t even know what you mean by that, but okay fine, anything for Horant.” At that moment the two women he pictured in his mind merged together and smiled at him. He smiled back, but since they were simply in his mind, this smile was directed at the flat screen and at Haven in particular, who was just then directing her audience’s attention to a picture of a giant turkey leg and the headline, “Boundaries in Synthetic Food?”

“You’re smiling like a loon,” said Horant.

“A . . . right, no, they were all one, but I’ve made this decision rashly.”

“You won’t regret it and if you do I’ll pay for whatever it is you think you otherwise would have done that night.”

“When is it anyway? What are we doing?”

“No one knows, maybe I will,” said Horant.

 

 

Part IV: How Plans Are Made

 

“To stumble out onto the street, hand in hand,” is what Haven told Horant she wanted to do on their date.

“I can arrange that, but it would be clumsy with the four of us. Structure to get to that point is, you know, common,” said Horant, considering whether he should make eyes at the phone he was speaking into. He thought this would take too much work, for his phone was beside his head and his eyes generally faced front. He ended up not making any expression at all.

“I am not interested in what is common. I know what is common. We are uncommon, you and I,” said Haven, sitting on her bed, attempting to unstrap her high heels with one hand.

“I, well, okay, sure. But I can’t tell James, you know, we’re going to stumble out onto the street Friday night. You, me, Haven, and this other person. What’s her name?”

“I don’t know. She is uncommon too. She is,” said Haven.

“Sure.”

“Well, we must all eat from time to time,” said Haven, unstrapping the second shoe, placing both her legs on the bed, and stretching her feet in every possible direction.

“Now we’re getting somewhere. Alright dinner, let’s do that. People do that,” said Horant, struck all of a sudden by the fact that he was seeking to be conventional.

“We will eat on Friday, the four of us. I think that would be nice. But you must promise me that you and I, we will also stumble out onto the street together hand in hand,” said Haven.

“I do,” said Horant.

“Well, that’s nice. That’ll be nice. Yes, how nice that’s going to be,” said Haven.

 

 

Part V: How and Why People Get Ready

 

Florence sat in front of her mirror for a while. It was a couple hours before she was to meet Haven, and two other guys. She was not looking into it, but she had a superstition, or maybe an illogical suspicion, that sitting in front of a mirror somehow let her think about herself more clearly. She thought the following:

Was she the type of girl who went on blind double dates with a colleague, no, not colleague, superior, no, not that either, on-air personality, was she the type of person (let’s set gender aside), was she the type of person who went on blind double dates with an on-air personality in order to advance her career? Was this what she was doing? How could Haven advance her career? Was she the type of person who thought a person like Haven could advance her career? Was she the type of person to delude herself into thinking that she was going on a double date with an on-air personality to advance her career, when she was in fact going in order to meet her soulmate? Was she the type of person who believed in soulmates, and even if she did, was she the type of person to use “soulmate” to describe what it was she believed in? It was all too pretentious for a real person. She was, if nothing else, a real person, her mother always told her. Do real people associate with the Havens of the world? Was it wrong to think of Haven as somehow not real? Can beauty make a person unreal? Too real? Was she the type of woman (gender is necessary for this one) who finds another woman so beautiful that she could consider her to be fake? Is fake the same thing as not real? Why do men seem to like fake women so much? Why do men like women so much? Why would any man like her? Some have, but she still didn’t know why. She wanted to ask. They all said she was beautiful, smart, charming, her cheekbones, there was something about her cheekbones one guy said. What is one to do about one’s cheekbones? Say you have just the worst cheekbones, what is one to do? File them? Do they have a file for that? She looked into the mirror, they’re just fine, she should be thankful; a certain type of cheekbone could make one unlovable. Why? A beautiful murderer will always be loved, but a woman with wonky cheekbones is shit out of luck. This seems wrong. But this was not her fight after all, her cheekbones were to her advantage. She had a competitive cheekbone advantage and she was just going to throw it away, because she didn’t find that particular advantage just? A’s! All she got was A’s! Where had this advantage gotten her? The cheekbones at least, that’s . . . would she have gotten this date without them? And could he be her soulmate? And could it be her big break? Are there big breaks? Did she want one? What would she do with one? Of the people who get big breaks, what percentage have highly desirable cheekbones? 90%? 95%? Or her GPA converted into a percentage: 98.5%? It’s not fair. It’s not fair, after all, just generally, but tonight she had a double date with Haven, the unreal beauty, and two men, one of whom was meant exclusively for her, and he might be nice, he might be charming, he might be intelligent, he might be an ogre. Was she the type of woman to turn tail and run at the sight of a nice, charming, intelligent ogre? She was, yes. Should she wear heels? Is that sending the wrong message? Does she run well enough in heels to outrun an ogre? Is he tall? If not, will he feel diminished by her height in heels? If he is tall, will he feel oafish if she shows up in flats? Will he notice her shoes? Does she have shoes she’d like him to notice? Why do people care about shoes? Do men care about shoes? In the history of the world, how often has a man made a decision on a date based on his date’s shoes? Seven? She could tie a couple of eggplants to her feet and wobble over and if her cheekbones were high enough, if certain parts of her were sufficiently round and others were sufficiently not round, he’d stand beside her and keep her balanced all night. He’d compliment her on her bold choice. “Is that a new core exercise,” he might say, “it’s really working!” And then he’d lick his lips unconsciously, profess his love for Italian food, and pet her hair if she let him. Was she the type of person to let someone pet her hair on the first date, just because she happened to wear a couple of eggplants for sandals and have an amazing body and cheekbones so high her eyes got nervous? Was she that type of person? No, but, no worries. She had a date tonight, and who knows? He might be nice.

***

            James was not sure if the way he wore his hair had any effect on how people thought of him. He suspected it either meant everything or nothing. He knew he was likely mistaken on both accounts, but that did not stop him from thinking one of them must be true and, consequently, spending the last few minutes before the date, tossing his hair back and forth across his forehead. Touching the thinning strands, which if left alone would simply protrude straight out from the front of his skull and highlight that the hair at his temples had receded so far that it might actually be growing inward and obscuring his thoughts, James considered that when he was a boy he lamented his uncontrollable mop. Baseball caps would never quite fit the way they would real ballplayers. To have all that hair just sticking out in every direction from under his hat frustrated him and no matter how he brushed it back or piled it altogether in a clump under his hat, it would spring up in this odd place and that, making it impossible for him to look like a real ballplayer. Now, with the advantage of hindsight, he would agree never to wear a hat again if only someone were to guarantee that he would be able to maintain his current hairline for five years. No such deal was on offer. He had decided that tossing his hair slightly to the right was his best bet.

He smiled into the mirror and was horrified that smiling made his face crack as if it were a windshield struck with one of many foul balls he hit as a little leaguer. “Straighten it out,” he once told a group of twelve-year-old contemporaries, was the story of his life. One such contemporary, a third-baseman who stopped every ball but never with his glove, said, “I bet,” and everyone laughed slightly harder at that than James’s original statement. It was then that James learned the limits of self-deprecation. He laughed along with the rest, but he carried the insinuation with him for weeks until the same third baseman made the same joke about the first baseman — who already had a mustache and a shapely thirteen-year-old girlfriend.

“Don’t take yourself too seriously,” he mouthed into the mirror, vaguely remembering everything all at once, and therefore nothing in particular. In point of fact, he repulsed himself to such an extent that his legitimate smile, earned by thinking of the possibilities this date might have in store for him, immediately vanished upon the vision of his own face. A funhouse mirror could not have been more frightening. The distortion would be comforting. It would remind him that no, in fact he did not look like that, he looked somehow better, less absurd, only two eyes, that type of thing. However, as it was, this was him, an honest reflection, and it would not have been so bad if it had been someone else. He would not have given himself a second look if he had seen himself on the street, just another average guy, but the fact that it was him, and that thing in the mirror was all that he was and this is what people saw when they saw him struck him somehow as terrible. Visuals are too important, he thought, and then persisted to berate himself internally for how he looked. He then stepped back, closed his eyes, and thought that he was perhaps worse than he looked because of how much time he was spending worrying about how he looked, that what was before him was somehow a sparkling façade in comparison with the shallow vapid glob of a person which lay beneath, and might seethe through the cracks in his forehead if he was not careful.

He took out his phone and stared at the time for a while, hoping that some notification would alert him that someone very important to him, or just generally, was at that moment contacting him specifically with some life-altering offer. They were not. Instead, the stock photo of kittens batting at a ball of string, which had served as the “home screen” of his phone for what was now an entire calendar year, stared back at him, along with the time, 6:40 p.m. It was time to go, past time. He hit his head on the underside of his kitchen cabinets on the way out, messing up his hair. He was fruitlessly seeking gum. Maybe she would have gum.

***

           Haven was flittering about. She explored the depths of her walk-in closet, changing dresses seven times. She even considered calling a designer friend and asking if she had anything “cutting-edge” she could wear for the date. She decided against it, believing that cutting-edge was rarely what guys wanted. She settled on a classic dark blue cocktail dress. It brought out her sky-blue eyes and hugged her hips in just the right way. A supporter of The Network had bought it for her some time ago at a fundraiser to raise money for “No-Bro,” a charity for children with severe bronchitis. What set this charity apart is that it was really not that difficult for the children to heal with already established medicine. In fact, “No-Bro” was essentially a revolving door of children who would come down with bronchitis and then get better using methods largely available to everyone anyway. But the money was raised specifically for that and it could not be called a bad thing. The fundraiser teamed designers with local celebrities who had to wear a design of the bidder’s choosing. Essentially, the donors got to play dress-up with the pretty people. After, they had a choice of either sitting with the celebrity while they were wearing the clothes for an hour or having them wear the outfit on-air at some important event. Haven did the event for three years and each time the same eighty-to-eighty-two-year-old man bought her a tight dress and sat with her for an hour, just talking about his neighbor’s dog mostly. She stopped after three years because the last time the neighbor’s dog had just died and the old man just sat staring at her with nothing to talk about. It was on this last occasion that she acquired the dress. She slid her hand down the side of it, and liked how it slid to a point and then stopped at her hips.

She was not nervous, but focused. She had finally, maybe, found something close to what she was looking for, what she deserved, and it was now that she would be receiving her reward in the form of Horant, who, truth be told, could have had a better nose. She ran her hand through her hair and it just bounced right back into the perfect way it looked before. She smiled into the mirror and was pleased that her teeth were as white as she had hoped they would be. She turned away and skipped across her bedroom. The heels she had finally picked out, strappy black and canvas, were lying on the floor by her bed. She picked them up and tossed them in the air, landing harmlessly on her mattress. A thought went through her head that she was imagining this whole thing and that she would arrive at the restaurant and the only faces to greet her would be the monstrosities she saw every day on the IVV. They would each approach her, as if she had scheduled a date with them. They’d be very kind, all of them, polite, engaging, even interesting to talk to, but they’d all be as they were, monstrosities. She would have to sit and smile as each monstrosity would go on about their car, their cat, their kids, a storage container on the left side of the garage which they forgot all about for years, and opened one day to find exactly what they had been looking for. How horrifying! She would nod her head until her neck was sore and she’d excuse herself, “I need a . . . cigarette,” she would say, and daintily walk out past all the monstrosities watching her, envisioning their lives with her at the center holding it all together, making them worthwhile; she’d hit the streets running and she’d run to the cliff, the cliff she had put in her GPS, get to the edge, look out, throw both her heels over, and lie there until a cute woodland creature approached, licked her face, and returned her faith in this world.

The thought passed as quickly as it came, she reached back on the bed, put her heels on, and walked down the stairs. After all, she was Haven Hootenanny and tonight she was going to stumble out onto the street with Horant, the one she picked out.

***

            Horant made a reservation for four for the first time in his life and, as the hostess at the swanky A Traipsing confirmed the time, he thought that this must be what it’s like to have a family. He then got concerned that Haven and he would actually have a family. Families bogged his friends down, they made people’s eyes red and unattractive, families made road trips together which almost always ended in someone being disappointed. But, with the way they met, he thought, the most likely resolution was happily ever after and this meant family because he had always been told and shown that this meant family. He could do worse, and they hadn’t even been out on one date yet, and it was a double date, which, some might say, does not even count. Were they in high school? But it was her idea and who was he to say no to her, the stunning, famous, Haven Hootenanny. She was weird for sure, even for him. Those emails were not read without skepticism and even a touch of empathy. Her wild expressive style struck Horant as either genius or insane, and probably both. This was not troublesome to Horant who had the not-at-all-extraordinary skill of being able to forgive beautiful people almost anything. Haven Hootenanny writes those emails and they’re charming, they show personality, vibrancy. A fifty-three year-old woman with back acne and false teeth writes them, she’s a lunatic, an unredeemable lunatic. Horant was conscious of this double standard and did not care, considering himself one of the chosen few beautiful people, a belief in no way diminished by Haven Hootenanny seeking him out specifically, or at least he was one of the people she picked out. Whatever. It didn’t really matter; nothing mattered except the fact that he had a date with Haven Hootenanny. But then there was James and the bagel girl. He now could not imagine a scenario in which he cared about what happened between James and the bagel girl. They could get married, they could sit at the table and draw straws for which one of them would get up on the table, eat all the bread, and bark like a dog, they could reenact the pasta scene from Lady and The Tramp, they could each bring a book to read and sit there reading it the entire time, they could order a cask of some ancient wine, follow the sommelier down into a decrepit cellar, and the sommelier could trick them and wall them up with the wine, brick by painful brick; no matter, the night would end with he and the lovely Haven Hootenanny stumbling out onto the street.

 

 

Part VI: How People Grab A Bite

 

It was arranged that Florence would pick up Haven and James would pick up Horant.

“We should have drivers!” Haven suggested to Horant over the phone, “Arrive in separate cars, with drivers. Like before woman could drive or wanted to, you know,” she said.

“I do not, no. I was not around then,” said Horant, “but we could have our side-men come and get us.”

“Side-men? I don’t have one of those, how much do you pay yours?”

“I meant our fellow daters. I know James would pick me up. Our stumbling end game, don’t forget our stumbling end game.”

“It’s all I think about.”

“James will drive if I tell him to. Will your friend?”

“She’s not, sure she will and if she won’t . . . she will anyway because I’ll ask. But she’ll have to drive my car. Yes, we’ll take my car.”

Florence and James each agreed in turn, without inquiring as to why they were not all driving together, although each thought to ask.

Florence arrived early at Haven’s and parked the gray and graying car her parents had given her upon graduating third in her high school class. She parked it on the side of Haven’s tree-lined boulevard and texted Haven, who intercepted her in the driveway and escorted Florence to her SUV, her heels clattering with each step. Florence’s flats were silent.

Haven and Florence arrived at A Traipsing first. Haven looked around for Horant and Florence walked straight to the black stand with the neon tablet glowing on it. The woman looking at the tablet was tall and elegant, but had been severely burnt in a kitchen fire at her last hostessing gig three years ago. She had went in the back to ask the chef whether the chicken was glazed or basted after a particularly persnickety patron insisted on knowing before deigning to take a seat at the restaurant. A bananas foster attacked her straight out of the pan of the sous-chef, and she was scarred for life. The owners of A Traipsing thought themselves quite progressive for hiring the hostess and most of the customers thought themselves quite progressive for looking her in the eyes. Prior to the bananas foster, the owners of A Traipsing would have felt themselves quite fortunate to have such a lovely and competent hostess, and the customers would have felt themselves quite fortunate if she had willingly made eye contact with them. Florence noticed, but immediately changed her face to show that she did not.

“We have a reservation,” said Florence. She patted Haven on her bare shoulder, “Do we have a reservation?”

“What? Maybe. I don’t see him. I see everyone else,” Haven turned towards the hostess, “Oh jeez, what happened here?”

“What’s the name?” asked the hostess, hearing Haven, not answering her, but shaking her hair slightly towards the scarred half of her cheek.

Florence looked at Haven who again stared off, looking fruitlessly for Horant. “You know what, we may not, we’re waiting on a couple I think,” she said.

“Very well,” said the hostess.

“What’d she say happened to her?” Haven asked Florence after they retreated back into the foyer. “You know, I can’t imagine how they’re late. You and I, we could go to the bar right now and find two others and it’d be all the same, to you, at least, it’d be all the same.”

“I guess so,” said Florence, not really knowing why she hadn’t decided to slowly and quietly backpeddle out of A Traipsing, while Haven continued to survey the room and not notice her. She would then sprint to her car and drive to her apartment, put on a movie about smart people saying smart things to one another until one of them says something stupid. She took one step slowly back just to test Haven’s reflexes. Her dark blue flats crunched up against a pair of brown loafers. Resting on top of those loafers was James. Florence stumbled and half-turned; James kept her upright as their eyes met for the first time.

“I’m sorry,” said James, who had, in truth, been looking at the back of Haven’s golden-locked head before Florence had backed into him.

“Oh no, me, I’m sorry,” said Florence, regaining her balance and facing James and Horant.

“That’s right, that’s right, they should be sorry, ought to be sorry,” said Haven, still facing away from the men.

“Haven?” said Horant, tapping on her bare shoulder.

“Oh dear, oh yes, my Horant, dear Horant,” she said as she hugged him.

“And so this?” asked James talking in their direction, as Florence withdrew.

“Like a movie, almost,” said Florence.

Haven held Horant longer than he anticipated and so the introductions were never to be made. No one knew Florence’s name, so any introduction would have been missing at least one important element in any case.

“I’m James, my name is James,” said James.

“Florence, you know, like the nurse,” said Florence.

“Nightingale? I once thought, as a kid, you know, that Florence Nightingale was a literal bird. A beautiful name for a bird.”

“Thanks,” said Florence, smiling.

“I mean, just, generally, a name, you know the beauty of names is, well, I wouldn’t limit it to birds, you know, a name is good all the way around and Florence, that’s a good one.”

“Easy killer,” said Horant, overhearing his friend as he and Haven separated at last.

Horant approached the hostess, noticed her scar, looked at Haven, and suddenly thought how beautiful her skin was.

“A reservation, I made a reservation for four.”

“Name?” asked the hostess.

“Horant.”

“Ah, yes, for four, and you’re all here now?” inquired the hostess.

“Yes, we’re here, me, a darling, and two others,” said Haven. “What happened to you?”

The hostess snapped her hair again back towards the scar, picked up four menus, and handed them to another woman who said, “follow me.”

***

            They arrived at the round table in good order. Haven sat next to Horant who sat next to James who sat next to Florence. James thought about whether he should hold Florence’s chair out for her, and didn’t. Florence, for her part, did not consider this a possibility and had no problem seating herself. Haven, for her part, lingered at her chair while Horant sat himself, pulled her phone out of her purse, entered the password, and selected an application at random before Horant got the hint, stood up, and moved her chair two inches further from the table than it was previously. “Oh, thank you,” said Haven, putting her phone back and flashing a few teeth. Horant grinned half-ironically and reseated himself. James and Florence took the opportunity to stare at the front of their menus.

“Well, I mean, I’m so glad we were able to do this. There are times when you want to do something and then you never get to, but now, here, this is something I wanted, and now,” said Haven and reached over and touched Horant on the shoulder.

“That’s sweet, I’m glad we’re here too. Of all the places to be, here is right up there,” said Horant, opening his menu.

Florence sat in silence, but looked at James, hoping he would not say anything along the lines of the last two stilted statements. James considered speaking, did not, and thought, “Say something. Weather? Should I say something about the weather?”

“It’s okay to talk you two, it’s a double date after all, we set up a double date, that means you two are on one too,” said Haven.

“I, yes, thank you, thank you for that,” said James. “So you two work together?”

“We do, I bring bagels. Haven once ate half of one,” said Florence.

“Do you make the bagels?” asked Horant.

“I, no, I just bring them from the bakery. I take them from the bakery and I set them out in a hopefully appetizing way,” said Florence, uneasy.

“That’s a day?” asked Horant.

“I, well, people have all types of days. I don’t even know, you know, you interview, when I was a field reporter, you go out and interview someone for three minutes and that’s their day, that’s their year. Their whole year was that, that three minutes. For me, it was three minutes,” said Haven.

“I’ve never been interviewed,” said James. “Perhaps you could make my year sometime.” James was flirting but it was unclear with whom. He didn’t even know. The waiter approached.

“Madames and Monsieurs, goon evening and welcome to A Traipsing.” He was short with a neatly trimmed beard. He grew it because he thought his face was ugly and read once that beards on short men somehow made women feel more secure. He had also read that secure women are more likely to order expensive drinks. His nametag read “Otise,” but his name was Otis. A typo he preferred to reality. “Tonight is fanciful, I’m sorry, tonight is Fanciful Fish Festival here at A Traipsing. As you can see our menu is entirely seafood tonight, all fresh. The freshness of our fish is without question and although it too starts with an ‘F,’ we left it out of the title of tonight’s festivities because everything is so fresh.”

Florence was pretty sure Otise had said “Goon evening,” had giggled, restrained herself, and then flashed her eyes at James. James noticed, but politely continued to seem as if he were listening to Otise. “A pan-seared grouper with olive compote and red chili jelly, that’s served over a bed of scallop fried rice, and a side of braised peapods.” Haven nodded her head and her hair bobbed up and down in such a way that Horant, for a minute, thought about getting up and sniffing the top of her head. He did not. “A wine cork, burnt and shaved over the swordfish, finishes the dish just as it began,” finished Otise. “Shall I start you off with something to drink?”

“I don’t care for fish, really,” said Haven.

“Well I’m sure, you know they must have something else,” said Horant.

“Must we?” asked Otise. “No, tonight, as I’ve said is Fanciful Fish Festival, and that’s what we have tonight, fish.”

“You can’t make a salad?” asked Florence, concerned about Haven for some reason.

“We could make a salad, I’m sure. The salad is fresh, but not as fresh as the fish,” said Otise.

“The fish is blinking right now, even the mussels blink,” said James. Florence laughed.

“Mussels do not blink sir, we can make a salad,” repeated Otise, and scratched at his beard.

“That’s fine, oh it’s fine, I don’t, you know, it’s just, we were having such a nice time and then, Fish Night? But okay, sure, fish night. I’ll have a splash of cranberry and a guzzle of vodka. To stumble out,” Haven said, and looked at Horant.

“Yes, to stumble out, I’ll have a pinch of ginger beer in a tumbler of rum,” said Horant.

Otise was furiously scribbling, trying to translate the drink requests into words which would mean something to the bartender.

“Do you have any IPAs?” asked Florence.

“We, on tap, we have an English Pale, Fupton’s Old Guzzard Ale. It’s not an IPA, but that’s as close as we have on tap. Bottles, we have a list, I don’t remember, but we have a list,” said Otise.

“Old Guzzard it is,” said Florence.

“Yeah, sure, me too,” said James.

“As you like,” said Otise and walked away, crossing out and rewriting something on his notepad.

“Fish night! Of all the nights, fish night. I mean really, to just have all fish, imagine such a thing at a restaurant, even like this one,” said Haven, expressing outrage no one else felt or could comprehend.

“They can make a salad they said. I could fetch some bagels,” said Florence. James laughed, Horant smiled, Haven twitched and scrunched her nose.

“Not everything is a joke,” said Haven. “We are really going to have to eat fish and we’re going to have to spend real money for the opportunity.”

“I’m sorry, really you know we can go somewhere else,” said Horant reluctantly. It had been ten minutes. What had he become?

“No, no, they can make a salad. It’s fine really, but fish night?” said Haven again, somehow thinking a reaction was forthcoming from the other three. Florence grabbed her knife and twirled it, reflecting the faces of each of her fellow table-mates and the faces of countless others sitting and eating fish or waiting to eat fish. They flashed like a collage of elongated noses and eyes intent on drawn butter or a dill cream sauce. She never understood why people liked dill cream sauces, and if she and James were on a date by themselves, she likely would have brought this up as some sort of observational jumping off point for some conversation about how people like weird things and how there is no accounting for how strange they can be. Instead, she sat silently waiting for Haven’s disgust at the suggestion that a restaurant dedicate an entire night to a major source of protein to die down and ultimately retreat under a wave of vodka and a touch of cranberry.

***

            The drinks arrived and the wave of vodka began to push Haven’s feet above the sand, as they say.

“They don’t say that, people really just don’t say that,” Florence responded when Haven asked her what happens when people suggest new bagel flavors.

“It’s fascinating, really, maybe someday I’ll just throw it all up and sell bagels. Or drive off a cliff, one of those,” said Haven, laughing at herself and leaning against Horant. Horant hugged her with one arm, and said, “Don’t go driving off any cliffs now.”

“A thought, really if you would do it, that’s how, off a cliff in a car?” asked James.

“SUV,” said Haven moving out of Horant’s grasp and wildly swinging back toward Florence. After a brief pause in which the three others nodded their heads as if to say, of course, an SUV, Haven blurted, “Ever see a face, just a face, and think to yourself, if only I had that face life could not possibly be worth living? No amount of money, no job, no loved ones, nothing would make life worth it.”

“Yes,” said Florence and James.

“All the time, and in those terms exactly,” said James. It was unclear to him and everyone else whether he was serious. “I also wonder whether I have one of those faces, whether people who look like say, you, Haven, people who look like you, think that about people who look like me,” said James.

“Stop hitting on Haven,” said Horant, laughing.

“Don’t be silly, it’d have to be a lot worse than what you’ve got going. Right Flo, it would have to be a lot worse. He’s not so bad. You should see some of the ones, the absolute nightmares who watch my show.”

“Yeah, it could be worse,” smiled Florence, surprised that Haven had learned part of her name at some point.

Otise returned with the food. “Fish, this other fish, another type of fish, and salad,” said Otise as he distributed the entrées. His arms trembled when he thought he locked eyes with Haven. Haven could not have locked eyes if she tried; they were floating this way and that, smiling at Horant and then darting to some unknown corner of A Traipsing where an old man sat alone with his soup, sipping it in slowly until he caught a glimpse of Haven, tried to tell his face to smile, and dribbled much of his soup on the cloth napkin he had affixed to his collar. “A success,” thought the old man, lifting the napkin and examining his clean yellow polo shirt. Haven’s gaze had long since returned to the table. “You know, I don’t know you guys, that fish actually looks pretty good, as fish goes.”

“Honey,” said Horant, “you want to try some of mine?”

“Darling, you’re so sweet. I, another drink is all,” said Haven, thinking Horant was Otise, or, more accurately, that they had merged into some sort of hybrid that would offer her food. “Such a pretty face, you, me, and those two, everyone is so pretty,” said Haven.

Florence and James were digging into their fish, each feeling that they had somehow been reduced to a prop, how the whole thing had been reduced to a prop, all of life was a prop for Haven. They looked up rarely and then only to mug at each other or nod or shake their heads at something that was said or done.

The fish was excellent. There was something in the whole burnt cork thing that made the delicacy of the swordfish shine through. James thought that he had so much to say to Florence about the burnt cork; that he had an hour of stand-up, a lecture series at the Sorbonne, and an album’s worth of burnt-cork-related country songs. However, there was no reason to speak, why speak when all that could be hoped to be said was being said without words between him and Florence and all that could be imagined to be said was being said by Haven and echoed by Horant?

“I can’t imagine you have nothing to say,” said Horant, after Haven started crunching her salad, half a slice of lettuce bursting out the side of her mouth before her tongue reached out and drew it in. “In some societies people speak to one another without coercion,” he said.

“In others, they don’t even have an oral language,” said Florence.

“I don’t know if that’s true,” said Horant.

“She’s smart darling, this one, she’s smart, and yours, maybe he is too, can’t tell yet,” said Haven, as a cucumber slice crunched on the side of her mouth that was not occupied by speaking.

“I have wild dreams in which nobody speaks, in which nobody can even imagine what speech might be,” said Horant. “I do not consider those dreams societies.”

“I wasn’t speaking for your dreams, maybe you have them,” said Florence.

“Would I be one of them, darling, am I a dream to you? You are almost to me, your nose, but almost a dream,” said Haven, wobbling again and resting her head on Horant’s shoulder.

The man with the soup saw a blonde blur and asked Otise who it was. “A woman, she does not eat fish.”

“Stew?” asked the old man.

“Otise, I’m Otise,” said Otise loudly.

The old man waived his hand dismissively. “I’ll buy her a drink, tell her I’ll buy her a drink.”

“Sir, she has had enough already I’m afraid,” said Otise.

“You’re afraid; does this cure your fear?” asked the old man, as he slowly and not at all discreetly opened his wallet and chose a twenty-dollar bill to hand to Otise. Otise took the money quickly so as to avoid the gaze of a supervisor.

“My dreams are not so ambitious,” said Horant, as Otise approached.

Otise stood until he decided it was safe to approach Haven, who had just fit a rather large slice of tomato into her mouth. “Miss, the gentleman in the corner, he should like to buy you a drink.”

Haven whirled around, surprised. She had not noticed Otise at all. She swallowed hard on what was left of the tomato and said, “I, who? What man?” Horant gave a look to Otise, which Otise immediately knew meant that his tip had just been reduced by at least 5%. “The gentleman in the corner, Mr. Winto, he’s a regular old man.”

“A regular old man,” said James. James spoke sincerely, as if pondering what that could possibly mean, and if it could be defined, what that definition meant for his future. Was it something he could achieve? Did he want to?”

“I mean, an old man, he’s a regular customer,” said Otise.

“Does he watch my show? Has he seen me on TV?”

“No thanks,” said Horant. “I’m paying for your drinks anyway, what’s the difference?”

“No, Hornts, I want to know who this man is, what he looks like. I’m a journalist,” said Haven.

“And I’m a baker,” said Florence.

Haven stood up, balancing herself carefully on her high-heels, and walked over to the corner where Otise had pointed. She was a couple feet in front of the table before she stopped and looked up. “Oh, you?” she said.

“Miss, it’s a pleasure. Would you be so kind to join me?” said Mr. Winto, attempting to raise himself up, but failing, as his stained napkin flapped under the loose skin hanging low from his jowls.

“No, n-no, of course not Mr. sir, of course not. But you’ve watched my show? I know you have.”

“No,” he said. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Don’t be so high on the horse, I’ve seen your face, it’s one of the faces. I see it most days.”

“A dream perhaps, perhaps you dream of me. Sit,” persisted Mr. Winto.

“No,” said Haven, returning to her table with uneven steps.

Mr. Winto returned to his soup.

***

            Haven eased herself back into her chair placing her hand delicately on Horant’s shoulder and then pressing on it firmly to maintain her balance just before her blue dress scraped the back of the black chair and she let herself fall with a thud. She braced herself and smiled. Horant placed his hand on her upper back and said, “You alright, there?”

“Yes, of course. This salad is so good. I can’t imagine the fish is better. Is the fish better, darling?” asked Haven, turning to Florence.

“I have not tried it, but I’ve never had a salad as good as this fish,” said Florence.

“Never, she says. Did you hear that, never. Oh what a place?”

“Say hun, what did you say to that old man?” asked Horant.

“Nothing, really. He wanted me to sit, but I have you, why would I sit with him? I have you,” Haven said. “And my new friends here, we’re friends. How great is it to have friends, and new ones!”

Florence and James were silent. They smiled at Haven and each other, but could not bring themselves to say anything to reaffirm her sentiment. In truth, neither of them believed they were Haven’s friend, even if a vodka high told her otherwise. Florence thought for a moment that maybe Haven really had no friends, maybe that’s why she asked her on this double date. But, then again, maybe all her friends were in meaningful relationships, or maybe she was just flat-out bizarre. James, for his part, could not imagine that someone who looked like Haven would be lacking in the friend department. Everyone must want to be her friend, she was a celebrity more or less, and well-loved. She was the type of person you would see always surrounded by smiling slightly less attractive others, the others so mirthful and so attractive, that you would never really notice whether the person inside that ball of mirth and pleasant cheek bones was actually smiling herself, you just assumed she was. James took a moment to reconsider everything he thought about famous and popular people, and realized that he did not know anything about them and that all his so-called “knowledge” was merely a strain of popular assumptions which he in no way could justify. By the time he had mentally returned to the table, Haven had grabbed Florence and whisked her away to the ladies’ room.

“Oh Flo, oh, Flo, that’s funny! Seriously though, could it be more fun than this? Flo, some people wait their entire lives and never get a night like this, and some have better nights every night. But it beats prepping bagels,” said Haven.

“Yes, it does,” said Florence, following Haven past the bar towards the restroom, considering whether the fact that she didn’t actually have to go portended anything ominous about the night.

“I’ve, we’ve had a few now, as they say, a few, and well I’m feeling it,” said Haven, opening the door to the restroom. The bright lights accosted her momentarily and she took a step back, narrowly missing Florence’s feet with her high heels. A woman, in tattered clothes and a smock it looked like she’d conned off a third-grader, was brushing her teeth at the sink. She spit into the sink and a glob of red-tinted mucus stuck to the marble. She looked up and the gaps where her teeth had once been reminded her that it was not all sunshine and daisies. As she dipped her head she saw Haven in the mirror, a gleaming, shimmering example of everything she was not. She dropped her toothbrush in the sink.

“Ms., Ms. Hootenanny? Is that really you?” managed the woman.

“Ah, oh, yes, hunny, of course it is!” said Haven with a theatric flourish The Coordinator would have scolded her for if she were reading the news, as she gripped and leaned against a stall door.

Florence was bemused, but hid it by ducking into a stall.

“Can I? Will you sign something?”

“I’ll hug you!” said Haven. “I have no pen,” she said as she opened her arms. The woman crashed into her like a weak pot of coffee, all smells and intentions. Haven brushed her greasy hair once and then released her, excusing herself to the stall she was leaning up against. The woman, now embarrassed, scooped up her tooth brush and hurried out, the few teeth she had flashing brighter than they had in years, before the hostess caught sight of her and had her escorted off the premises. “Do you know Haven Hootenanny is in there?” she asked the hostess. “We serve many customers, we serve only customers. I’m sorry,” said the hostess. “She stroked my hair!” said the woman.

Meanwhile, at the table, Horant and James were having a moment.

“The fish is something,” said Horant, waiving his hand in front of James as he stared off blankly.

“Is that code? Are we speaking in code?” asked James.

“She drinks, yes, but to say she’s a fish. Come on, shape up. And yours, not so bad, eh?”

“No, she’s lovely, really. Thank you. We, seems like we can’t get a word in, yours, Haven, she is all encompassing. I feel encompassed.”

“As do I, my friend, and I think I could really go for it. Just get lost, become something else, something totally dependent and poof.”

“I can see the appeal. Someone like that, she is more than we are in a way. She fills up every room with admirers and jealousy and I’m sure other things. There’s hardly room for Florence and I. We just, people like us can only add innocuous commentary like a translator’s note or something.”

“Yes, it seems crowded. We should split, find a way to split up. Her and I together are enough, we don’t need you two, frankly. You agree?”

“I do, but there’s still dessert, and the car situation. I never liked that. It never made sense.”

“You’re right, but it was her idea, like all the rest of it, and like you say, she’s . . . more, so I listened. There are cabs,” said Horant, trailing off as he noticed the women returning.

“I really admire how you make people feel,” Florence said genuinely to Haven as they both sat down at the table again.

“I just, you know, these people they need me to be nice to them. They were dealt a bad hand, from the start, no pair, queen-high, and sometimes I think maybe I’m the queen, and you know at least their queen, their one queen should be nice, you know. I try to be nice. Sometimes I’m not, but I try, truly, I try. You know?”

The two men continued to eat.

“I see,” said Florence.

“You know even when you’re staring at queen-high, you know sometimes you like your chances. I want them to like their chances for a minute, even if there’s no good reason, even if they should just fold, even if I’m not a queen at all, but a nine printed on golden-flecked paper, I should try for them.”

“You’re a queen,” interjected Horant, rubbing Haven’s shoulders between bites.

“That’s nice, really,” said Florence. “I want to try, but there’s this, you know, for one, no one thinks I’m a queen. People are not so gullible.”

James was silent, but smiled at Florence who shrugged her shoulders and scrunched her nose.

“Well, I mean, we’re lucky. I’m lucky,” said Haven looking at Horant. Horant was trying to signal to James to somehow split their dates by subtly moving his index fingers apart from each other.

“You both like desserts, right?” asked James without indicating who he meant by “both.”

“I do,” said Haven. “I do, yes, I split desserts all the time with people, animals, whathaveyou. I’m a notorious dessert-splitter.”

“I like chocolate more than this place,” said Florence.

“I’m sorry, I think you know my stance on dessert. If I was being asked, but yes, we, that is, Haven and I should split something here and you two should check out the chocolate shop down the street. You’re a chocolate fiend too,” said Horant, turning to James.

“I prefer custards to candy,” said James, forgetting the real reason he asked the question in the first place. “But then again, I want to try that place.”

“What’s it called?” asked Florence.

The Choclatier: Yummy!” said Haven. “It’s the best, oh, can we go, can we go?”

“Uh, yes, of course we can, but they don’t have custard, do they James?” asked Horant.

“I don’t really know, never been,” said James, again, without thinking.

“To stumble out, remember, to stumble out,” said Horant.

“Oh yes, but we can stumble after chocolate, there will be time to stumble after The Choclatier: Yummy!

 

 

Part VII: The Importance of Being Chocolate

 

The Chocolatier: Yummy! was classy in the same way the movie theater all the rich people go to is classy. Put as many goldish beams in a place as you want, it’s still a movie house at the end of the day.

The two couples (whether they were actually couples yet is beside the point, because they appeared to observers as couples, and what else is life measured by than appearances?) walked out of A Traipsing, their stomachs mostly full and Horant’s wallet mostly empty. Horant had volunteered to pay for dinner with the understanding that James would be paying him back at a later date when their dates, well, his most importantly, were not present to witness the exchange. James agreed to this show because he did not really think paying for things was an especially important indicator of masculinity, generosity, or benevolence of spirit, and besides, Horant had arranged the whole thing and if his side of things was satisfactory it was the least he could do, and if it was not, why would he care what a woman he didn’t care for thought? Florence, for her part, offered to pay her part, but neither Horant nor James would hear of it. “Oh no Florence, I got it,” said Horant. “Such a generous friend,” said James, and meant it, but not about paying, he meant it more generally, he meant that Horant was exceptionally kind to invite him out, and to meet Florence. James was on a bit of a high all the way around. Haven did not notice that the check came, who paid, how much anything cost, or that Otise kept calling her Madame Nepeche. No matter. Once everything was squared away, she grabbed Horant’s arm like it was made out of Springer Spaniel puppies and led James and Florence out the door. They did not stumble.

The women were drawn to the glassed treats like children. “Chocolate-covered fresh apricots,” said Florence. “Double dark cappuccino liquor!” said Haven. The men hung back for a second and then also pushed themselves up against the glass. What they saw was quite simply chocolate, coated, dusted, frozen in time as it dripped down a slice of white cake or frenetically encircled an 8-ounce wheel of cheddar cheese. “Cheese?” inquired James, pointing at the block. “Yes, cheese,” said Horant. James smiled but then thought that this was a waste of both chocolate and cheese and that no matter how good they actually tasted together, they no doubt tasted better separately or in independent combination with some grape or other.

“What would you girls like? It’s on James,” said Horant.

James made no expression because he was not listening but still contemplating what particular grape might optimize both the chocolate and the cheese. He kept thinking “Concord,” only because that was the only grape species he could come up with at the moment.

“It’s okay, I can buy my own chocolate,” said Florence, partially feeling pressured by James’s blank stare.

“What? No, I mean, let me. Allow me,” said James snapped back to reality, such as it was.

“Really, I can,” said Florence, honestly not really caring one way or the other, but feeling odd about having to announce what she wanted (a chocolate-covered apricot and a couple of truffles) before actually ordering it.

“No, no I insist, and if I don’t, Horant does,” said James.

Florence shrugged her shoulders and said, “Thanks.”

Meanwhile, Haven had not said a word. She had been approached by no less than three Chocolatier employees and a dark-eyed man who had walked in with his 10-year-old daughter. To all four she waved her hand dismissively and never took her eyes off the chocolate. It was not that she was that hungry or even that the three drinks she had with dinner somehow caused her to gain or lose focus, it was more that she wanted to think about things, about Horant, about her current situation, about The Network, about the IVV, about her GPS, while simultaneously thinking about nothing at all and taking in all the wonderful chocolate. She reached no conclusion, either as to any of her thoughts or any of the chocolate, and simply looked up at Horant. “You pick,” she said and laughed aloud.

This indecipherable “You pick,” struck Horant like a brick filled with yogurt. It was messy and he could not really believe what it was. He thought maybe it was a test of some sort, perhaps she had mentioned her favorite chocolate at dinner or in her emails. He racked his brain and came up with nothing. It was an uneasy feeling. It was not as if there were three flavors of ice cream and he could just say “twist” and she’d be happy with at least half of it. There were literally, and figuratively if you like, thousands of combinations of chocolates he could order for her, and at least hundreds if he did not choose a combination but boldly went with just one thing. Horant’s silent panic lasted only a few seconds, but it was long enough for James to notice, poke him in the ribs and whisper,“Just order a bunch of stuff.” And so he did. He ordered every shade of chocolate from white to pitch black and every type of filling from fresh fruit to cream to caramel, although he had his doubts that Haven was a caramel type of girl. He even happened to order one double dark cappuccino liquor truffle. Haven grinned as he finally landed on the chocolate she had forgotten she had her eyes on. She moved towards the man packaging the chocolate for Horant and put her hand out.

“I’ll take that one,” she said.

The man placed the truffle in her hand, her eyes flashed and she gobbled the chocolate before Horant knew what happened. “Another one of those I suppose,” said Horant.

It was not that Haven wanted Horant to buy all this unnecessary chocolate, and, in fact, it was actually James buying the chocolate, it was that she didn’t realize that it made any difference whether he bought just the one piece or the whole store. She was blissfully unaware of such trivial concerns. Florence, on the other hand, could tell James just how many bagel deliveries it would take for her to pay for all that chocolate, “three,” she told James, and then asked if he wanted any help.

“No, no, my treat. It’s the least I can do.”

“Strictly speaking you could do less, many have,” said Florence, placing her wallet back in her purse.

And so the four of them walked out of The Chocolatier: Yummy! each chewing on something or other, their teeth temporarily browning, and James left holding the bag of assorted chocolates Haven had no use for. They walked steadily and none of them thought this an appropriate moment to touch any of the others.

 

 

Part VIII: How Blithering Idiots Can Impact Your Night

 

As they walked chewing and not touching they were accosted by no fewer than three blithering idiots. The idiots were cloistered together on the side of a dead-end street a block away from The Chocolatier: Yummy! One had a Hawaiian shirt on because he was told once that “a gut like yours deserves color of all kinds,” another wore a beret because once in high school he had to give a presentation on Euro Disney, and the third had fake teeth because sugar and meth were his secret vices. They did not know each other, in the sense that in order to know someone you generally have to believe that there are other people in the world and that it is possible to know them. This is not to say they were, strictly speaking, unaware of the world around them, or that they each had the same infirmity (how dull would that be), but to say they knew each other would be going too far and redefining knowledge in a way none of your important friends would tolerate.

The foursome crossed the threesome and the threesome had no intention of making it a non-event. Hawaiian Shirt burst out in front of Haven and said “I know you, I know you, I know you!” Haven ducked, but this was ineffective. She recognized him. He was a frequent viewer, and also frequently appeared in her associated nightmares. But she was with Horant right now, and she had just eaten the most delicious truffle. Hawaiian Shirt did not belong here.

Just as Haven rose from her ducking position and grabbed Horant’s arm, Euro Disney swaggered over to the five of them singing You Ain’t Nobody Till Somebody Loves You, in a gruff and squeaky tenor only a mother (but not his) could love. His mother, in fact, had thrown him out of the house at age 16 because he had accidentally poured the last of her Scotch into a vat of Halloween punch. It was a labeling issue, but his mom was eccentric that way, plus she was a drunk and did not love him. She somehow blamed him for the fact that she was never able to sing on Broadway, even though she had never been in a play, of any kind, before she birthed Euro Disney, at age 33.

“You’re nobody till somebody cares,” he sang at James, grabbing his shoulder as if he were consoling a buddy ironically. James tried to conceive of why he should accept this as some type of sign that his date with Florence was going well, but could only think that this was at least something he could talk about for awhile with people he needed to find something to talk about with. Florence made herself thin, like an eagle closing its wings and hoping desperately to become a sparrow. “Just once, just once,” was the sentiment.

Horant stuck his head between Hawaiian Shirt and Haven, but left the rest of his body where it was. “Can I help you?” he said.

“Oh no, oh no, oh no,” said Hawaiian Shirt and pulled his shirt out from his chest, because it had stuck there and, he feared, started to give observers the impression that he was overweight. “I know you, though,” he said to Haven. “Absolutely, we’re great friends,” he continued. “We went, the places, when we were younger, the two of us, the places we went and have yet to go, exhilarating. I almost spent all of it, but then he came over and we spent the whole time thinking about how to lose it all. And we did. Don’t you hate that? We did, but this was before the two of us knew her and now we do and it’s better this way, am I right?”

Haven shook and fell back into Horant. “Honey,” she gasped.

Fake Teeth had siddled up to Florence and pointed to the abandoned building that was nearest to our seven friends. “When we, you know, all of us, thought it would last. But look! And it’s not because we didn’t try,” he said.

“I know exactly what you mean,” said Florence. She elbowed James in the hip, “Why are we stopped?” she mouthed. James pointed to Euro Disney who had just croaked, “Gold’ll never buy you happiness when you’re growing old.” Florence nodded, but then started walking briskly away from the blithering idiots, who were not the most mobile guys to begin with and did not, strictly speaking, need her to have a good time. She carried on ahead of the pack looking back every now and then hoping the idiots would vacate.

“Please leave us alone,” said Horant to no one in particular.

“Again, for the first time we reach a point where we must either part or continue on, my dear friends, the dearest of friends we have become,” said Hawaiian Shirt. “This time let us choose the way of our ancestors, the ones who survived at least long enough to have us. Some of them envisioned us, you think?” he asked Haven.

“No, never, not you. Who could envision you?” she said.

“A horror in our own time, but a vision for our ancestors, who, we know, were far uglier,” said Euro Disney, suddenly breaking off his tune.

“Far?” asked James, but without Florence around, it went on deaf ears.

“I may smack you one at some point here,” said Horant, as Hawaiian Shirt got closer, stretched out his arm, and petted Haven’s shoulder. Horant was not a violent person by any means. He and James had frequently discussed what might provoke either one of them to physical violence, and, even if they were somehow provoked, could they actually be effectively violent or would they end up straining a shoulder or pulling a quadricep before they could inflict any type of justice. Each concluded that their breaking point had something to do with family or puppies, and that, they might be momentarily effective, but self-injury was the only inevitable consequence of getting riled up. Indeed, Horant had once questioned fundamentally whether ten, a hundred, or a thousand years from now people might actually lack the physical capacity for non-technology-assisted violence. James called this thesis something like hogwash and noted that action movies will probably always exist.

“I can’t incite, oh no, it’s against the terms,” said Fake Teeth to James in confidence.

“I, Horant, what is all this? I’ve seen them all before. I’ve seen this before and we were, everything was so lovely a minute ago and now, this, and these,” said Haven. She put her hands over her eyes and went limp.

“No, darling, no. We, this could be our chance to make it all right. One of them had said once that the day the blonde meets the rest will be the day we can rest,” said Hawaiian Shirt.

“No, no,” said Fake Teeth. “No, rest, prison is all rest. Low carbs they try. The sugar is added later, they promise. When is later?” he asked.

Florence waived James ahead as if she were coaching third base for the ’27 Yankees. James, who had been as amused as he had been disturbed by the blithering idiots, suddenly realized that whatever they had to say, it was all beside the point and the only real truth which could come out of this night, or perhaps any other, resided somehow in what would be said, whether in words or otherwise, between he and Florence. He wriggled out of Euro Disney’s reach, dropped the bag of chocolates, and only slowed down when he had grabbed Florence’s outstretched arm.

***

            “A code we live by that is taught in the public schools,” continued Hawaiian Shirt.

“No, no, can’t go back, not now. Fruitty Pebbles, they stopped serving. Please help!” said Fake Teeth, rummaging through the chocolates.

“I’m serious, leave us,” said Horant.

“Go tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere. Go tell it on the mountain that Jesus Christ was born,” sang Euro Disney. “Everybody . . .” he said and stretched out his hands.

“Second verse, same as the first,” said Florence overhearing the “music” from fifteen feet ahead.

“Even so, do you think he means something by it? Do you think any of them mean anything by any of it?” James asked Florence half in earnest.

“I, well, of course, they think they do. What it is any of them actually mean is unknowable and unknown. At least that’s what they teach us at the Bagel Academy. That and no more than six flavors, it confuses people.”

“I could be confused by you for awhile. I could walk around in a daze for weeks and my only thought might, you know, be of you,” said James.

“It’s possible,” said Florence. “Weeks can go by and there’s no accounting for what we were thinking during them. One week the basic issue I was concerned about had something to do with how they make those tables at the airport that look like they’re constructed with leftover confetti. Wasn’t the worst week.”

“I’m putting you in good company. Those tables are a rare treat. So rare, that I don’t even really know what you’re talking about,” said James.

“Goons, goons,” said Haven. “That’s what my dad used to say, ‘the world’s a goon’s paradise and the rest of us are just there to make the goons recognize that’s what they are.’”

“Makes sense, in a way,” said Horant, dragging Haven at a quicker pace. The idiots kept up. Now, Fake Teeth, browned even more by the chocolates, had latched onto Hawaiian Shirt and they were doing some sort of grotesque pantomime of Haven and Horant. Meanwhile, Euro Disney had not picked up singing again, but instead kept saying, “Everybody,” and waiving his hands in the same gesture repeatedly. His tone, volume, and movements were identical each time, but it somehow became more and more insistent and the other people on the street (for there were other people) almost considered saying something or attempting to distract the idiots from Haven and Horant, who would have otherwise been the envy of every passerby.

“Oh darling, darling, my dear darling,” said Fake Teeth, rubbing up against the bare underbelly of Hawaiian Shirt’s bicep.

Euro Disney now latched onto Hawaiian Shirt’s other bicep. The three of them walked arm-in-arm, first behind Haven and Horant and then disembarking from each other only to slide in front of them and reconnect.

“How do you like it?” asked Hawaiian Shirt, turning back and looking Haven in the eyes. She shuddered and leaned up against Horant.

“To stumble out,” said Haven. She was staggering now and the only thing keeping her up was Horant, who did not know whether to slow down, to try to get around the idiots, or stop dead and turn back to anywhere else. Horant finally decided to stop, hold onto Haven, and turn around in the opposite direction. The idiots did not notice for awhile, continuing their burlesque for no one in particular. “We’re strolling along, singing a song, side by side,” sang Euro Disney.

By this time, James and Florence had ducked into a bar which was known as much for its dinginess as it was for its five-pocket pool table. The pool table was shaped like the Star of David and was about half the length of a regulation table. Sharks from all around came to this bar only to discover that often times their skills did not translate and total novices were just as likely to fleece them as they were to do the fleecing. The bartender, it was no coincidence, or maybe it was a complete coincidence, wore a fleece sweater and ordered James and Florence to order a drink as soon as they popped in. “We only serve customers,” she said, waving a spoon with a long handle.

“Oh no, we were just, give us a minute and we’ll be on our way,” said James. “There are three men . . .”

“Of course there are. There are always three men. In fact, you’re lucky if there are that few. Nonetheless, you can order drinks or you can join the three men,” said the bartender.

Florence looked at James, they shrugged and took two of the infinite empty seats at the bar. “We can meet up later anyway,” said Florence. “Might be nice to get a few words in.”

James nodded and tried to remember everything he had thought to ask her, but had not. He blanked and stared at the beer list scrawled on the chalkboard in front of them.

***

            The idiots eventually noticed, but did not turn around. Instead, they walked arm-in-arm towards the bar at the end of the dead-end street and actually walked within an inch of the wall, not the door, before they disbanded. Hawaiian shirt simply pivoted and leaned up against the brick façade, half bentover seemingly trying to catch his breath from the short stroll he just endured. Fake Teeth muttered “fifty feet within…” after noticing the bar’s overhead sign and hopped in the other direction for close to that, stopped, and shouted, “Can you hear me? I’m going to be at this distance. Can you hear me?” Euro Disney, for his part, doffed his beret to Hawaiian shirt, walked back the other way, doffed his beret to Fake Teeth, and headed back in the direction of the The Chocolatier: Yummy!

Horant and Haven did not notice but kept walking in the opposite direction from whence they came. Haven was still trembling, but was now upright and if anything was dragging Horant. It was not until they were three blocks from the dead-end street that either said a word.

“Did you ever think about how we’re designed only to be able to see other people’s faces?” asked Haven. “Like without help from someone else, something shinny, we would never be able to see our own face. How terrifying is that!”

“Other things bother me more. Like those three, they bother me more,” said Horant. Their walking had slowed slightly. Their pace was indecisive, as if each might turn one way or the other and become lost forever.

“Nevermind them. They are a symptom. Like the yellow gum in your dog’s eye. They’re easily wiped away. It’s the ragweed that’s everywhere and will never cease being everywhere.”

“Maybe, but what can we do? And if we could do it, would we?” asked Horant.

Haven turned and looked at Horant, her blue eyes shinny in the near darkness. A street light reflected in them and it had a psychedelic effect on Horant. He stopped.

“We can drive,” said Haven. “Let’s go for a drive!”

“We both got rides, remember? Should we find them? I can call James. He’ll come round.”

“No, no, let’s drive. The two of us, let’s go for a drive. I have my keys. I’ve read Keyes. Even that ends, you know, not as I’d hoped. We have a chance, just drive with me.”

“Should you be driving? I mean we had . . . some . . .”

“Yes, we did and we were feeling it for awhile now, weren’t we?” She looked at Horant like she was immune to alcohol and had only been acting the whole time for her own amusement. Horant actually staggered back a step. He braced a nearby wall. It was filled with graffiti he couldn’t read.

“Honey, Horant, we, the two of us, really,” she said and tapped her fingers on his shoulder. Without waiting for the third tap, Horant grabbed her somewhere between her shoulders and waist and kissed her. She let his lips do the work, but did not withdraw. They held the kiss until Horant caught someone out of the corner of his eye. It might have been a poster of a person if not for the fact that it moved closer to them. Haven took the opportunity to speak directly into his mouth. “Let’s drive.” He kissed her again quickly despite the shadow moving closer and closer.

Once the shadow reached them, it looked with some envy, and kept walking.

 

 

Part IX: When James and Florence Are Left Alone

 

Meanwhile, the small talk between Florence and James was getting so infinitesimally miniscule that they almost ceased talking altogether and began communicating with a series of eyebrow raises and lip protrusions.

“So they don’t even tell you why they got rid of the low fat cream cheese?” asked James with interest.

“No, they said once that the people who ordered it were unsavory. I told them so was the strawberry cream cheese. But they’ve kept that one as far as I know.”

“How come blueberries can go in bagels but not on bagels and visa versa with strawberries?”

“Are you one of those berry equivalency people?”

“You know, I never really thought about it, but I guess I am,” said James as his pint of beer nearly slid away from him on the well-lubricated bar.

“You know you’re just wrong, right? Different berries serve different purposes. The fact they are berries means almost as little as the fact that they are fruit. Do watermelon and avocado compete for mouths?” Florence was not excited or intense so much as she was sure of what she said. It seemed to James that she had rehearsed it, but in fact it was the first time she gave any thought to it at all and she cracked a smile as soon as she remembered how little any of this truly meant to her.

James raised his eyebrows slightly and grinned as he reached for his beer. “There is something ridiculous about that, like you said it just to amuse yourself,” said James. “Do you actually believe any of what you just said?” James meant this somewhat playfully, but the words slipped out as challenges.

“I, no, I guess not,” said Florence. The light coming out of her eyes, her head dipping down to take another sip, she looked up at the beer-branded clock above the bar. “I wonder what happened to Haven and your friend there. Something could have happened, you think?”

“They seemed harmless, I don’t know. In their way harmless. But I can call if you want to find out.”

“No, I mean Haven, well you saw. She could use a little heartening.”

“Horant too I suppose, but just a little. Maybe they’ll be good together.”

“I can’t say, you know. Haven, honestly, she’s not a friend or anything like that, she’s just one of those people who overwhelm you into knowing them. Like I know her, but I’d rather know someone else who I’ve spent just as much time with, someone quiet, thoughtful, but unnoticed and unknowable. I’d rather know that person but I don’t even know how I’d start.” She stared ahead and made no eye contact with James. James thought perhaps she was talking about herself or himself or just in the abstract about people like themselves or about someone in particular who was not him and still held a special power over her, someone from her high school maybe. By the time he had sorted all the possibilities of what he thought she might mean, the time to say anything in response had passed.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I probably sound crazy to you. You want to know her, right?”

“Yes, I guess I do. There is something about her.”

“I know, but I’m not sure that’s a good thing. What if she were ugly? I don’t mean just not gorgeous like she is, but just flat difficult to look at, would there still be something about her?”

“Yes, but no one would know,” said James.

“You really think no one. There would not be one person willing to find out? Her sheer strength of personality would be insufficient to lure one, while her looks combined with that same personality is enough to lure the world?”

James thought for a minute, scratching his chin, his thumb going against the grain of his ten-o’clock shadow. “Yes, but, you know, that’s not exactly how I’d phrase it. The looks are one thing, maybe you’re right they’re the only thing, but I doubt it. We credit attractive people with much, but I wonder if we are just crediting them with what we should credit everyone. There is simultaneous interest, paralysis, and unfounded respect, like seeing a lion five feet away. You really want it to come up to you and let you pet it, but you know the best case scenario is that it walks by without incident. I’ve mangled that I think, but you get it?”

“No, I mean, I don’t really. It would be a total disaster if everyone treated everybody like they were lions. You can’t walk around being intimidated by everyone. I do sometimes, but it’s sort of my job. You have to be respectful, but to actually feel that way, deep down, would be a nightmare.”

“I’m sure you, to some, you . . .” said James. “I mean as . . .” he continued and looked at her briefly as she turned towards him, trying to make out what he was trying to say. “ . . . a beautiful woman yourself, you know the advantages.”

Florence knew this type of thing was coming eventually, though she had hoped for it to be delayed as much as possible. She never knew the sincerity of such remarks. She thought men were compelled to say such things when the subject of beauty was brought up around a woman. It was to make her and any other woman feel like “well of course, you too are beautiful.” To not say something would be to insinuate that she was objectively unattractive. She wished the conversations could continue on neutral terms, but it had turned and there was no going back. James, on the other hand, did not say such things lightly and did not, as a general matter, pay compliments to people as a matter of social curtesy. In fact, often times he intentionally ignored signals from people who were begging to be reassured.

“Well, thanks, you know, thanks,” said Florence.

“I, honestly, it’s, I don’t think I know how it would feel. I think it’d be good, but that’s just a comparative thing. It might be bad in a new way, which might end up being so much worse.”

“I can’t say, honestly. I can’t say,” said Florence finishing her beer. James was torn between saying, “Of course you can,” and pressing his hand against her back, or finishing off his own beer and staring straight ahead. He chose the latter. “I’ve gotta close out,” he said, recognizing that Florence wanted to leave. She nodded and then waited in silence until James got the bartender’s attention.

***

            “We’re taking Haven’s car, you take yours with the other one,” read the text Horant sent James. The text was sent ten minutes previous, but James had not felt the vibration through his pocket and even if he had, would not have been so rude to check his phone mid-conversation. But now that things were concluding in some intermittent and not terribly satisfying way, he felt that checking his phone was not taboo, but to the contrary, expected. Florence also checked hers and received only a typical “Love you honey, here’s a cute video,” email from her mother. Florence’s Mother discovered the internet late in life and had made up for lost time by sending her offspring tri-weekly pleasant email forwards mostly of dogs doing human things, but also sometimes of animals of different species being kind to one another. Florence never responded, but sometimes watched them, and when she did, it made her think the world was alright.

“Thank you,” said Florence to James as they walked out of the bar. She trailed behind him initially, but he held the door for her and she walked through. “I didn’t mean for the door,” she said, “I meant for the drink, the company, just thanks.” They were outside now, the breeze blew her hair into her eyes and she removed it to the side of her face with alacrity.

“Of course, thank you,” said James swimming a little in that hair flip and unsure whether she was just being nice or was genuinely appreciative, and even if she were generally appreciative, what this could mean for her overall opinion of him and, lastly, what was the wind doing to his hair anyway? They walked for a minute in silence.

“Where did they go you think? I don’t even have Haven’s number,” said Florence taking her phone out and sliding her finger down it aggressively by way of demonstration. James pulled out his phone and made a show out of checking it, even though he had already read Horant’s text.

“He says they took Haven’s car. So I guess they’re alright, but,” said James. He looked away from his phone and back over at Florence who had put her phone away and stopped walking. “So, I mean I can give you a ride back if you want or we could go somewhere else. What do you think?”

“Must have been Haven’s plan all along,” said Florence. “Why would she want me to drive her, it’s so weird. My car is at her place. Do you want to go back to her place? Maybe we could sneak in and rearrange the fruit bowl or something. Untidy the linen closet, that type of thing could be a hoot,” said Florence.

“A hoot? Sure, I suppose. I mean it’s her place after all. I’m sure there are several linen closets,” said James.

“Several you think? I bet she has a bowl with various types of grapes, at least two types of grapes. She didn’t let me in earlier,” said Florence.

“Did you ask?” asked James.

“Ask to be let in? Why would I ask her that?” asked Florence seemingly quasi-insulted at the insinuation that she would ask Haven to let her into her home.

“People ask all sorts of things all the time and sometimes for reasons less obvious than they want to know the answer,” said James, sharing his inner Horant.

“In what universe does that advance your cause?” asked Florence.

“This one?”

“Sure, let’s invade the Hootenanny residence.”

 

 

Part X: Why You Always Take Two Cars

 

“She gave you the keys back? None of this makes much sense,” said Horant, his hand on Haven’s waist as they swayed through the streets towards the parking garage.

“Why would I let her keep my keys? You’re silly, that’s silly!”

“I’ve been called a lot of things, silly is among the least descriptive and least accurate,” said Horant moving his hand up and down Haven’s back as they were stopped at a crosswalk.

Haven turned and looked up into his eyes and said, “Silly.”

They were now allowed to walk and so they did, across the street and into the lot where Haven had almost forgotten both where Florence parked and that she had texted herself where Florence parked when she parked there. Haven had, in fact, once actually lost a car she had parked at a St. Patrick’s Day Festival. She parked it somewhere and when she went to pick it up eight hours later she simply could not remember where it was, searched for an hour, took a cab, and reported the car stolen. The next day the police found it parked in a lot between two semi trucks. When alerted by the police, Haven insisted that she “would not and could not have” parked there and that maybe it wasn’t even her car. The cops were swayed for a moment, having seen her face and all that, but then asked her to try her keys. They worked. The next day, she traded that car in for her current SUV to prove some kind of point to someone.

This memory flooded back to Haven as she removed Horant’s hand from her back and searched diligently for her SUV.

“Do you remember where she parked it?” asked Horant. His question was so unbelievably confoundingly dumb that he did nothing when Haven clearly heard him and did not respond, but instead clattered her heels around the hard concrete a bit more, placing her hand over her forehead as if she were Columbus or some other explorer who actually knew what they were looking for.

“We could call your friend,” said Horant chasing Haven around, dodging the occasional car or alerting Haven to do the same.

“What friend? Why would my friend know where she parked?” asked Haven.

“She parked it, I meant her, the one we were just with, the one with the bagels. I could call James.”

“Who’s that? Why would he know?”

“My friend James, presumably he’s still with your friend.”

“Why presume that? Maybe even they are, and would rather be left alone. I could have just . . . I, you know,” said Haven, remembering she had noted the location on an app in her phone. She had, apparently, parked on the third floor, hippo section (the lot was occasionally used for zoo overflow parking before the zoo relocated to an area that now consisted almost entirely of parking lots). Instead of alerting Horant, she simply stopped, read her phone, and flew up the nearest flight of stairs. Horant had no choice but to follow her like a rat whose cheese had started to roll away. Out of breath, not because of the stairs, but because of the excitement of the realization and what this meant for the evening, Haven pressed the remote, heard that familiar unlocking cue, stomped over, and leaned against the car before Horant really knew what happened.

“Found it!” she said, and they made out for awhile against the SUV until they heard what sounded like footsteps.

When they got in the car, Haven asked, “Who do you think that was, right there?”

“How would? I mean, I have no idea. Could be anyone.”

“Do you think they would have been offended? You know?” asked Haven.

Horant placed his hand on her left thigh, just below where her dress ended. “Offended by what?”

“Oh you know anything, us, my car, the stock market. Do you think they’d be offended?”

He removed his hand, “No way of knowing, there’s no counting for offense. People are offended by everything and nothing really. Deep psychological offense, I don’t even think it’s a real thing. I’ve never felt it.” He looked back down at that same thigh.

“Oh no? I have, I mean, I’m offended all the time I think, and sometimes I don’t even know why. Like yesterday, no the day before, the day before, I, this man asked me if whether I have more fun because of my hair color, you know?”

“And that offended you deeply?”

“No, I mean, it was more the way he said it and who he was. He’s one of those powerful men you read about in magazines who, at the end of this war or that, accumulates a bunch of stuff people had been wanting during the war but couldn’t get because of civic duty and that type of thing. Anyway, he’s like one of those, and then he sells it all off to those people who wanted that stuff and makes so much money the only way he can interest anyone after that is by making them feel unhinged. So he unhinges people now and that’s like what he does.”

“Hmm, we’re you unhinged?”

“I, no, I mean, offended is better. I mean, why me? My hair is fine, but hair without a face is no fun for anyone.”

“That seems right.” Horant considered some type of physical contact to reassure Haven. Of what he would be reassuring her, he had no idea and in 99% of moments would have said so.

“People accost me all the time. I’m immensely accostable. Sometimes, there are moments when I’d prefer that particular moment had never started, like the whole course of human events to that point led to me, specifically me, being accosted by this ghoul or that, and insofar as it all led to that, I’d prefer that none of it happened.”

“Do you? You can’t mean that because some clown comes up to you and asks for your autograph and a picture you would prefer that mankind never existed?” asked Horant, suddenly reverting to what, if anyone asked, he would describe as his normal state.

Haven did not answer, but grabbed Horant’s head and kissed him on the bridge of the nose. “Let’s drive,” she said.

***

            James and Florence nearly skipped to his car, walking side by side except when one of them misjudged the pace of the other. There was something about the prospect of driving to Haven’s house which made them both irrepressibly happy.

“Does she have a dog, you think? Guards?” asked James.

“I didn’t hear a bark.”

“You know about dogs, they say, they say not all of them bark all the time.”

“Same with guards?”

“Oh, no, they all bark all the time.”

They reached the car, James considered opening the door for Florence, did not, and simply unlocked both front doors as they split towards opposite sides of the car. Florence managed to open the unlocked door, sit in the car, and close the door all by herself without even thinking it was particularly difficult. James’s car smelled nice because his driver side window did not seal correctly and he had, unintentionally, parked next to an incense store. In the back seat there was a tennis racquet and a brochure for an herbal hair loss reversal supplement his mom had left in the car on purpose without saying anything the last time he picked her up at her eye doctor appointment. James found it weeks ago, read it more thoroughly than he’d like to admit, and threw it back where he found it either out of disgust or a genuine desire to know where it was. It was too dark for Florence to see or notice the racquet or the brochure.

“My car is a mess,” said James, not because he believed it but because that’s what everyone always said to him whenever they gave him a ride anywhere regardless of the condition of their car. It was always said unironically and James did not blaze a new trail in this respect.

“Oh yeah, it’s a disaster. Smells like bagels too! Wait, no that’s mine,” said Florence, just then noticing that they were parked across from Incandessence. “Oh,” she said, “that explains it. Your car almost smelled too good. That would be creepy if you burnt incense in your car. I’d walk home right now if I found out you did that. Do you?” she gripped the door handle.

“I’ve never owned incense. It was explained to me once.”

“How long did that take? It burns and smells in a way some people like.”

“That was much more efficient than my lesson. It was a six-week adult education class called This Stick, When You Burn It, It Smells Nice!

“First two weeks, the stick, next two, when you burn it, final two, smells nice.”

The very end of this conversation was the turn of the key in the ignition.

***

            Haven started to drive. Where she was going was unclear to Horant, but she drove purposefully, without a modicum of drunkenness. They drove past the expensive residential neighborhood which Horant had assumed Haven lived. The drove past the slightly less expensive, but still overpriced up and coming neighborhood in which Horant lived. They drove past the lame and unimportant neighborhood Haven actually grew up in and the slightly livelier but less safe neighborhood Horant used to tell people he grew up in when he wanted to pretend he was from the area. They drove past it all, until there were no more places one could reasonably call neighborhoods. Horant hadn’t thought to ask where they were going and even if he had, would Haven respond? He placed his hand on her leg a few times and she didn’t dissuade him, but was also not encouraging. There was a place they could be going, Horant thought, a remote location where some people had informed him there was a view of the city which was “worth it.” They passed that place without slowing. Finally, Horant asked, “Where are we going?”

“We’re driving, you and I, mostly me. It’s been so nice this evening, so nice, really,” she said tapping his hand, removing it from her leg, and squeezing it.

“I agree,” said Horant. “Still, where are we going?” Horant was somehow both playful and insistent.

“Sometimes you just wait and then eventually, what is going to happen, happens. This is one of those scenes. In the biz, we call ‘em wait-n-sees.” She patted his leg.

“As long as the ending is, how do they say it in the biz?”

“Final? The final ending. I think that’s it.”

“Well . . .” said Horant.

“It should be. I would think it would be,” said Haven.

The road was winding now, the lights on the road became less frequent, Horant’s ears began to pop. He receded from Haven and began staring at the window, her face seemed darker whenever he looked at it, like the cheapest special effect he’d ever seen. Every once in a while, her teeth flashed at him out of the darkness and it distorted her face and made Horant feel, for the first time since he’d met Haven, a type of revulsion. The SUV climbed up the winding road, sometimes roaring, other times seeming to hiss. Nothing was said for quite a while, Horant considered turning on the radio but decided he’d better not. Who knows what would come on and how it would make things better or worse or the same.

“We’re almost there,” said Haven.

***

            James and Florence reached Haven’s apartment in fine order, remarking at this and that expectation of how Haven lived and this and that street sign which amused one or both of them in some way. They parked at the end of the long driveway in line with a set of reddish orange bushes Haven’s exterior designer had suggested would “broaden the tonal ephemeral simpatico of the house.” At the time Haven did not know what this meant and could not be bothered to find out, but thought the bushes pretty and figured it meant something like that. It took sometime for the bushes to grow as expected, but soon enough they were indeed pretty and Haven almost weekly thought about how nice it was to have these particular bushes as part of her life.

“My car is down the street, but do you want to come in? Not to my place of course but Haven’s. I bet, maybe we can sneak in. The linens, remember?” said Florence. Florence was feeling her drinks a little bit and also feeling a sort of adventurousness she had rarely exhibited since graduating college. There was something just taboo enough about Haven’s house. Florence felt that there was an equal chance that Haven would not care at all about her and James entering her place without permission, or that it would destroy her entire world. Florence liked this dichotomy and was, quite frankly, up for either.

James, for his part, was just going to follow Florence. Had he been left to his own devices and glacial mode of decisionmaking, he would not be anywhere near Haven’s apartment. He would have driven Florence home, said goodnight, hoped to feel compelled to kiss her, and chalk it all up as at least an eventful night even if the kiss did not come off. But the car situation had driven him, quite literally, to Haven’s doorstep and on the verge of attempting to break into her house with this Florence, who was witty and put out bagels. That was the most he could say about Florence and he was letting her dictate his life decisions after he had let Horant dictate the decision to go in the first place, after Horant had, no doubt, let this Haven Hootenanny, who happened to be the least knowable person he’d ever met, dictate this insane ride situation. He could do the same anyway, he thought suddenly. He could leave Florence off, say goodnight, try the kiss, say no breaking and entering for me tonight, but wasn’t it a lovely evening etc. and so on. He could still do all that, but in point of fact, he could not, because by the time he thought all that he had already told Florence, “Sure, let’s see what we can do.”

They crept up her driveway, Florence feigning some type of special ops scenario, James moving the same way out of reluctance to proceed more than any type of play acting. “What are we doing?” said Florence. “What are we doing?” said James, slightly more insistently. They reached the front door. It was unlocked! Haven, in her rush to look just right for Horant, had forgotten to lock the door. The neighborhood was such that Haven had, unwittingly unlocked the front door on several previous occasions and never had any incident. When she originally looked at buying the house last year, the real estate agent had assured her that the neighborhood was “impeccably safe” due in no small part to the “tree-lined streets.” “There are trees lined up, ready to fight on your behalf,” he said.

Florence and James laughed almost silently as the doorknob turned with ease. Florence pushed her way into the foyer and James crept slowly in behind her. “There could still be an alarm,” he thought and said, but too quietly for Florence to hear.

Florence flipped on the lights, no alarm sounded. “This, jesus,” she said, as the sparkling marble kitchen countertops made her shield her eyes as she walked towards them. On the countertops was a collection of intricate and apparently unused cooking devices. There was even what appeared to be a mini guillotine for chopping celery or like-shaped vegetables. Florence wanted to run her finger across the blade and say something about cake or Marie Antoinette or both, but she didn’t, and instead poked James in the gut and said, “Look at that!” James nodded knowingly, also having observed the peculiar chopping device.

“I bet she never cooks, just never,” said Florence.

“Do you?”

“Almost never, I did a few times in college when time seemed infinite between classes. I made a pizza bread that my roommates raved about and always begged me to make after they came home drunk. It takes time though pizza bread, like anything else, and usually I was drunk too. Sometimes we’d end up at least buying the ingredients.”

“Like this,” said James, alluding to the series of spotless contraptions on the countertop.

“Almost, but we’d still eat them at some point, you know, it’s not like we’d leave the pepperoni out for weeks as a show of our capacity to make pizza bread. We ate it, and it was less good, and just as unhealthy, without the dough and the time I ended up refusing to invest in it.”

“You wait sometimes for a good thing, other times a good thing is foisted upon you and you don’t know what to do with it, or even know it is a good thing, maybe the best thing possible, till it’s gone and you convince yourself it’s the best thing possible. Even then, was it?”

Florence sidled up next to James in the far corner of the kitchen, next to the refrigerator which was twice the width as the distance between them. Florence closed the gap. James put his right hand on the part of her hair which one could argue was near her eyes. He brushed it back. He ducked his head, their lips met, their arms slid down each other’s bodies in fits and starts, until they each landed somewhere in the lower back. This type of thing went on for quite some time until they withdrew momentarily.

“Did you miss it?” asked Florence.

“No, I was there for that one,” said James.

***

            The only thing between Haven and Horant at this point was a center console and an increasingly cavernous lack of awareness of each other. The dense fog which once enveloped the lightless streets on which they were turning this way and that had lifted and Horant could clearly see the vacant nothingness on all sides. It was what he imagined idiots did on the weekends, just driving to nowhere to go shoot something or other, or set off makeshift explosives. He was not at all certain that Haven knew where she was going, or that, at this point, Haven even knew what it would mean to know where she was going. He took out his phone and tried to text James, “We’re nowhere man, she’s driven us to nowhere, officially! Are you home now? I might need you.” There was no service and the text did not get delivered then.

“Is there another?” asked Haven, coldly.

“What? No, just texting James.”

“I want to believe you. There’s no service out here anyway, he (or she) will have to wait. It’s just you and me now Horant, really. The two of us,” said Haven. “No one else, none of them, just us two and the drive, which is almost over, soon it’ll just be us two,” said Haven.

“Can’t wait,” said Horant again reaching for Haven’s leg, but this time stopping himself at the center console and gripping it.

Haven turned into what can only be described as a wooded trail. How she even saw it in the darkness is inexplicable, unless you consider that Haven had turned down that same path no fewer than eighty times. The first time she made the turn, it was an innocent mistake. She had intended to go sight seeing at a spot someone had told her was “breathtaking.” She almost forgot what that phrase meant by the time she made the turn that first time. It had been a particularly frustrating day for her. The IVV had been especially terrifying that afternoon, her show having featured coverage of garish Christmas lights and the people who thought they were beautiful. This attracted people whose sense of beauty, she thought, started with themselves and continued on in the same misdirected vain until culminating with Christmas light displays complete with strobe lights and pulsing Christmas House Music – a hybrid so unpopular that even the International Gingerbread Housewives Championship, which had run for fifty-seven years, folded the year after it switched from traditional Christmas music to this gross amalgam. Ms. Gingerbread Housewife Turkey was so perturbed that she set fire to her own creation and laughed as the little gingerbread faces disintegrated before her eyes. It was bad news, and Haven had told The Coordinator so that day. The Coordinator suggested she drive somewhere breathtaking or else he was going to take her breath for her, and maybe her job too. This was before Haven was big enough to laugh off such idol threats; she was actually indispensable at the time, but did not know it. Her indispensability was known to her only insofar as she generally thought herself indispensable because everyone had always treated her like she was, no matter what she was doing or how badly she was doing it. This, ironically, led her to believe that maybe she was not indispensable at all, but entirely dispensable and people were pretending she was indispensable so she would dispense with herself and give herself to them entirely. She rarely did, and it never ended well on those rare occasions she momentarily forgot the other occasions and gave some part of herself to someone who was seeking it. The only difference between those occasions and all the others was, she thought, her failure to recognize her own power or lack thereof or, more completely, her failure to recognize other’s desire to take that power from her. Once she was awaken, through some inadvertent or advertent indifference on the part of the possessing party, it was over and done with, and each time she thought, “so much the better.”

The car had stopped. The darkness was palpable. The lights were shut off and Horant could only see a line of trees, “oaks,” he thought for some reason other than recognizing what type of trees they were.

“We’re here!” said Haven. She unlocked the door and waited for Horant to grope around his side of the SUV to her side, open her door, take her by the hand, and close the door behind her. “In your heels?” he asked.

“Oh, of course, of course, how are we to stumble out if it’ll be as simple as walking in my bare feet? Besides, there’s dirt here and it would, you know, my feet would get dirty otherwise.”

“And your shoes? They’re very pretty shoes.”

“Yes, but they’re just shoes, my dear. Just shoes you know cannot be pretty really, cannot even have any genuine aesthetic appeal at all without feet in them, and dirty feet will compromise a pretty shoe every time.”

“I suppose I understand the general sentiment, but the actual truth of what you’re saying . . . I actually think it’s not true at all.” Horant steadied himself by rubbing Haven’s shoulders.

“You don’t know. You’re nice and well, you know, I picked you after all, but you don’t know.” She grabbed his arm and walked straight ahead in the darkness. Horant followed, staring at the ground, hoping to be able to show his devotion to Haven by saving her some misstep, some step that might ruin her shoes, no matter whose feet were in them. No such opportunity arose. They stepped past the trees and what existed on the other side was, as far as Horant could tell, nothing. In a few steps, and Haven was not slowing, almost dragging Horant against his will, there would be utter nothingness. But Horant’s will was to persist with Haven, to see it through, to stagger out as it were. Three steps from what would be the end of our story, or any other, if it wasn’t for the fact that we started with James after all, and it’d be nice to know what happened to him and that nice young bagel lady Florence, Haven launched into the following: “I told you, you and I, really, Horant, and just the two of us, we’ll, you know forever, like this, and we won’t be like them, they’ll be no evidence we were like them, that they and us were even of the same species. Imagine! Us two through eternity, and maybe you’ll get a different nose in the newspaper too, the photos of us will be brilliant. The two of us, we don’t belong to all this; to the exclusion of the ones like us, there has been introduced all the rest and they’re too much for us, for me. It’s nice there’s you. But, there’s also all that, and it’s not going away anytime soon. I’ve tried, my whole life, I’ve tried to reconcile, what it means, why it’s like that, why we can’t be better, all of us, even me. I have no answers. I’ve been told they’re dumb questions. They’re vain questions. They’re questions only a person who happens to be both irreconcilably dumb and inconceivably vain would ask. I’ve asked, I may be both, but with you, I feel neither, and it’s been some time.” She embraced Horant, held him tightly, kissed his face all over, but neglected his lips which hopelessly sought hers in the darkness.

She finally released him and they stood looking over the precipice, hand-in-hand. For all this, Horant never really believed Haven would take the next two steps, but she would have, she truly would have, and taken him with her. However, just then a stray dog appeared through the darkness. He barked once, looking directly at the lovely couple with his one good eye. Haven turned and shielded herself from his lop-sided gaze using Horant, who more than welcomed the distraction. The old mangy mutt stood his ground, and, in fact, hobbled his way towards our second favorite couple. When he became visible, Horant noticed that he was the ugliest four-legged creature he had seen since his Uncle had showed him his prized possum collection. “There are several colors of possums,” he had said, “but they all have that face.”

The dog’s life is not entirely known, but it will suffice to learn that it had once been trained to fight other dogs, had been found to be too docile for the task, had been tagged with a collar at some point thereafter which read, “No longer needed, shoot if you’d like,” had been officially abandoned in the woods, had been attacked by a mountain lion, had been pecked at by a series of thoughtless birds, of which he was able to catch one and eat it, bones and all, had badly cut up his left front paw on the serrated edge of a can of beans some trucker had thrown out his front window, and finally, had arrived this night at the cliff before two lovely people who had never experienced one second as bad as the best moment of this dog’s life (probably the time he found a piece of old hamburger in the trash, ate it, and became violently sick thereafter).

The dog neared the huddled couple, his tongue dragging to his knobby knees, his knob tail wagging slightly.

“Rabid?” asked Haven.

“It doesn’t look great,” said Horant, shooing the dog away with his hands but refusing to use his feet for fear he might lose his or Haven’s footing, or actually injure the animal.

The dog ignored the shooing, having faced many more emphatic attempts to disrupt his plans in the past. Many of these consequences he did not remember at the moment, having lost much of his memory, almost thankfully, because of the various times he had his face smacked, headbutted, or chewed to the point of concussion.

The dog walked inbetween Haven and Horant, sticking his nose in as a wedge and then lying down. He scrambled to his back, waved his paws in the air a few times with abandon and then flipped to face Haven. Haven withdrew and staggered backwards for a second, but was pulled in by Horant. Whether she actually would have stumbled over the cliff without Horant’s pull is unknown, and beside the point. Upon being pulled back, she fell to her knees and found herself face to face with the mutt. She was terrified and recoiled. The dog inched his way closer on his belly and began licking the air furiously until he finally reached Haven’s feet. He licked her feet for what seemed like minutes; she giggled wildly, literally and figuratively tickled by the dog’s affection. Horant just watched as the woman who had just led him to the edge of eternity, squealed with delight as she rubbed the old dog’s belly and let his tongue lick her toes to the point that they were dripping with his slobber. Finally, the dog looked up at Haven, his one intact eye twitching with glee and hope that this stranger would be his new best friend and save him from whatever it was the rest of his life had been. She cupped his head with her smooth, painted hands, felt several bumps, notches, and scars which were either smoothed over or fresh, sticky or bulbous. She felt his ugliness in its entirety. She placed her hand under his muzzle and let him lean his head on something sympathetic for the first time in his life.

“Good boy!” she said.

 

 

Part XI: How It Will Impact the Rest of Your Life

 

A week after their double date, James and Horant met at Go Ahead and Order That Diner for lunch. They had texted a few times that week and were vaguely aware of how each other’s night had gone, but had not really discussed it in detail.

“So did you think you were going over the cliff with her, head over heels, as it were?” asked James.

“No, I don’t think, actually, I don’t think so.”

“Shame, I had a theory I wanted you to test.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t die. Men have died for theories, but I won’t die for yours, whatever it is. And if it’s about death, I certainly won’t die for that,” said Horant.

“Do you want to know what it is?”

“No, not really.”

They stared off for a minute, the TV in front of them showing Haven announcing that “Even though the crowds this year may be worse than ever before, that’s not so bad, is it?”

The screen was cluttered with Godknowswhat; of note was a dancing sandwich holding a spinning sign. The sandwich’s hands did not move, but the sign seemed to spin of its own accord. The sandwich wore a Hawaiian shirt and had this pickle and that onion sticking out of its head. The sign read “Sale, but not the one you think, the real one!” The fine print was not fine, but in fact larger than “Sale.” However, it was all small on the screen and unreadable for James and Horant who were focused on Haven in any case. As innocuous as the corner ad seemed, it actually caused an irreconcilable riff between the bagel caterer and The Network, and provided the impetus for Florence to quit her job, apply for grad school, earn a masters’ degree, and, in the process, exit James’s life forever. But that’s a different story, one without aesthetic appeal, one of casual melancholy and moderate academic achievement, one that ends at a ceremony with proud parents and a couple of men, neither of whom are James, upset that Florence would exit their lives forever after her name was read. As for Haven, she looked different, less perfect, but more perfected; like the slight asymmetry in her eyebrows and the way her hair kept falling in front of her face was somehow as she was intended to be.

“So, are you two?” asked James, pointing at the TV with his voice and head.

“I think so, yeah.” said Horant.

“And the dog?”

“She’s keeping it. The vet is getting a Porsche.”

They stared another second. “But, like, where do you go from here? What do you do for an encore? Someone probably once said that every love story begins with an aborted suicide attempt,” said James.

“I doubt it, but now you have. Sometimes I consider you someone.”

“Why?”

“Habit.”

“But, really, what next?”

“A wine bar near her place I think. She said it’s called Stuff,” said Horant.

“I know that place. That’s one of those places that spells stuff with an ‘f.’”

“I’m pretty sure that’s every place.”

“No, with an ‘f.’”

“Stuff with an ‘n’ is not stuff.”

“No, an ‘f,’ like one f.”

“Only one f?”

“Yes, S-t-u-f.”

“Got it, but I don’t think that means anything, what you said right now. Nothing follows from being a place that misspells stuff.”

“But in that way specifically, everything follows.”

“But not a second ‘f.’ That at least doesn’t follow.”

“Yes, I agree.”

 

 

 

BIO

Brian Conlon is an attorney originally from Rochester, NY, now living in San Francisco. He knows of a song that says something or other about meeting someone or other there. He can’t sing it, so don’t ask. If you gave him sheet music, he could play it on sax. His ears are not great. His story The Two Problems in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Their Solution appeared in the fall 2013 edition of The Writing Disorder. His novella, The Long Black Veil, was recently published by Novella-T (which no longer exists, but was pretty cool).

 

 

 

We’ve Got Sweaters

by Anthony J. Mohr

 

 

One night in May 1963, Chuck, Joe, Bobby, Larry and I left a banquet at Maison Gerard, an elegant French restaurant, and walked south on Beverly Drive. We wore identical sweaters, blue with an ornamental white S sewn in at chest level. The sweaters were thick enough, and my slacks from Carroll & Company were tailored well enough, that I didn’t look heavier than the others, although I was. It was bracing to be among them — model students who laughed a lot and had studied together since kindergarten. Despite the chill of the marine layer that covers the Los Angeles basin in the spring, I felt warm.

I saw them first, catty corner from us at the intersection of Beverly Drive and Charleville. Five boys in black jackets standing under the red and white awning of Wil Wright’s Ice Cream Parlor. We took our dates there after school dances. I enjoyed the vanilla ice cream they served in stainless steel cups with long stems as well as the macaroon they put on the saucer.

These boys didn’t fit in Beverly Hills. Their ducktail haircuts looked greasy; their jeans, worn. They belonged outside a bar on the ground floor of a dirty New York City apartment house like the building across the street from where my divorced mother and I had lived five years earlier. One of those places with no doorman, a fire escape above the front entrance, and a hallway that smelled.

Looking at those brutes made me so giddy that I called out, “We’ve got sweaters; you don’t.”

They crossed the street against the light and surrounded us. I was too scared to say anything. They had the build and the mean mouths of pugilists, with acne on their pale faces, and the most understandable part of their speech consisted of four letter words.

I stayed quiet through the exchange that followed, Chuck’s refined voice against their threats and bad syntax, his tenor against their bass, his complete sentences against their fragments. Chuck said that we belonged to “the Squires, an honor service club of freshmen and sophomores at Beverly Hills High School” that required high grades and the vote of the members to join. They answered with words like “asshole” and “beat the shit out of you.” I held my breath as Chuck explained again who we were, and this time he added apologies for my words.

Something made them leave without hurting us. Maybe Chuck convinced them to go. Maybe they feared the Beverly Hills Police, an organization that did not treat outsiders gently. Or, just perhaps, they had simply wanted us to know that my remark had been hurtful.

The first thing I said, after exhaling, was thank you to Chuck, but I said nothing more when he and the rest of my friends demanded to know why, for God’s sake why, I had taunted those boys. I didn’t, couldn’t, answer their question other than to promise not to do anything like that again.

We walked on in silence through the quiet neighborhood, and our group shrank as Joe, Chuck, Bobby, and finally Larry turned down their respective streets, toward their houses. Mine was farthest from the incident, and I passed the last two blocks alone, too shaken to think clearly.

***

The event became legend among us, which it remains today, decades on, and of course everyone laughs when the story is retold. I smile too, even though I now know the answer to the question my friends put to me.

During 1958, alone in New York with my mother, I wondered whether she would ever remarry or whether her Bells Palsy would come back. I was afraid that the little money she had would run out, a possibility she voiced more than once, through her tears. It would not have taken much to remove us from our tidy apartment and shove us across Lexington Avenue into that place where loudmouths loitered and where, one night from my fourth floor bedroom, I watched two of them beat each other senseless in the middle of the street.

My mother stayed healthy and met a good man from California. He moved us there, and by May 1963, I felt safe among the well-behaved boys of the Squires, a joyful type of safe, the giddy relief of being over the border and away.

 

BIO

Anthony J. Mohr’s work has appeared in, among other places, Common Ground Review, Compose Journal, DIAGRAM, Eclectica, Front Porch Journal, The MacGuffin, Prick of the Spindle, Word Riot, and ZYZZYVA. He has been anthologized in California Prose Directory (2013) and is upcoming in Golden State 2017. His work has received four Pushcart Prize nominations. He is a reader for Hippocampus Magazine and an associate editor of Fifth Wednesday Journal. Once upon a time, he was a member of the LA Connection, an improv theater group.

 

 

 

0

Gaia

by TS Hidalgo

 

 

Today is world recycling day,
initiation, ergo, to Lampedusa:
an advanced course in watercolor,
large landslides,
a sinister population pyramid
in a horrible TV commercial
with dancing elves,
and attacks by small terrorist organizations
(an emotion that Doctors Without Borders cameras capture):
hypertension is commonly known
as the silent disease:
work to seal leakage points
will begin in the coming days.

 

 

 

Homage to Orwell

 

surrounded by slot machines,
in the main hall
(perhaps the Tanjiers?)
by the penultimate
of our national heroes,
perfect for adults and children,
proud to be
the gear lever in Spain,
respecting the margin for maneuver
of our land barons,
while he poses a sinister redesign
of our population pyramid:
it is gypsy croupier,
in a table that is played with antibiotics
(instead of casino chips).


 

 

Letter from the Sky

 

by the brave gendarme Olaf,
who certified a lot
(and endorsed somewhat):
he was responsible for the evictions
of a Court,
and watched,
from this side of the Leviathan
(can we consider Spain
as a poorly finished concept,
no one correspondence,
artificial?),
simply squats
in a first stage,
and, after the credits
of The Shining,
a collapse of the system,
gushing,
ergo
the-big-bump:
several Greek tragedies
in the Museo del Barrio,
expedients of employment regulation,
defaults,
etc.
etc.
(that means
“and the rest”),
and, when you arrive at the highest level
of perversion of the system,
the pseudo State bankruptcy
after endorsement;
giving a toast to the sun
(the 1982 Soccer World Cup pesetas
had blue blood printed letters;
men losing a war,
on a TV program,
also),
and more layoffs;
he finally certified,
before the lead,
the last link of his downfall:
his own auction:
when you are surrounded by alligators to the neck
it is hard to remember
that the only thing you wanted
was to drain the swamp.

 

 

BIO

TS Hidalgo (44) holds a BBA (Universidad Autónoma de Madrid), a MBA (IE Business School), a MA in Creative Writing (Hotel Kafka) and a Certificate in Management and the Arts (New York University). His works have been published in magazines in the USA, Canada, UK, Germany, Spain, South Africa, Botswana, Nigeria, India and Australia, and he has been the winner of prizes like the Criaturas feroces (Editorial Destino) in short story and a finalist at Festival Eñe in the novel category. He has currently developed his career in finance and stock-market.

 

 

 

0

Super John

by Mark Budman

 

 

If you shop at Walmart even occasionally, you’ve probably seen John Doe exiting with a cart full of frozen pizzas and beer and toilet paper. But you hardly noticed him. He blended in with the elements so well that you’d need Sherlock Holmes’s attention to detail to spot him in the crowd. You wouldn’t know about his dreams or aspirations. You wouldn’t care if he wanted to become a star though his talents were few.

But one day, as he strolled through the exit door, another shopper blocked his path. She looked strange even by Walmart standards: pointed ears, nose and chin, and a collection of warts big as strawberries. Her eyes shone like two faux rubies.

John tried to guide his cart around her but she kept blocking his way. Then she thrust a small bag in his hand and vanished.

John examined the bag. It contained a plastic box and a receipt. He proceeded outside and opened the box. There was a puff sound. A small blast of yellow, pleasant-smelling gas escaped. And that was it. John shrugged, threw the box into the garbage and headed to his car.

Then his insides churned and a bout of hiccups took over. He felt like he was bursting. In minutes, he grew to a height five times taller than before. When he entered the store an hour earlier, his height was 69.7 inches, average for a white American male. Now, though stooping, he was 348.5 inches, which is 29 feet, give or take, and he dwarfed his cart and the gawkers. Unlike the Incredible Hulk, John’s clothes grew proportionally, except for his pants and skivvies, to the delight of some and envy of others. His eyes flashed laser beams and bolts of lightning danced on his back.

The store manager called 911. At first, the operator hung up on him. Eventually, after calls from numerous people, the SWAT team came, but John shot up to the skies and turned not just into a single star but a whole constellation. The pic of this constellation, first taken by the most junior member of the SWAT team, was an instant success on Instagram. It had became popularly known as $5.10 because it resembled five rolled up dollar bills for the torso, hands and feet, and a dime for the head. It inspired a doll, “Johanna,” sold at Walmart for that price. It was also a success, and became the number one stolen item nationwide for the month of August.

As for the stranger, she hadn’t been seen again, probably because there were enough stars in this galaxy and not enough shoppers at Walmart.

 

 

BIO

Mark Budman was born in the former Soviet Union. His writing appeared in Five Points, PEN, American Scholar, Huffington Post, World Literature Today, Daily Science Fiction, Mississippi Review, Virginia Quarterly, The London Magazine (UK), McSweeney’s, Sonora Review, Another Chicago, Sou’wester, Southeast Review, Mid-American Review, Painted Bride Quarterly,  Short Fiction (UK), and elsewhere. He is the publisher of the flash fiction magazine Vestal Review. His novel My Life at First Try was published by Counterpoint Press. He  co-edited flash fiction anthologies from Ooligan Press and Persea Books/Norton.

 

 

 

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