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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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Slush

by Jacqueline Berkman

 

I don’t normally meet up with strangers to rehash the last time I saw their missing ex-wives. But it was a foggy Monday morning, I was newly unemployed, and didn’t quite know how to operate within the parameters of my free time.

I was still unfamiliar with the neighborhood and picked the first café on Fulton Street that I could find. It was only a couple of blocks from my apartment and I had just sat down when Frank walked in, nodding at me as he headed toward my table.

“Casey,” he said, extending his hand. “Thanks so much for meeting me. I’m sure you have a lot going on.” He looked just like the pictures that I googled, handsome in a professorial type of way, tall and wiry with a salt and pepper beard and dark, inquisitive eyes.

“No problem,” I said, stirring my coffee. I kept my head down so I wouldn’t laugh, because the reality was I had nothing going on. I had just moved from Philadelphia for my dream job in San Francisco only to find out, four days in, that the company was shutting down.

So I kicked off the new workweek like any self-starter in Silicon Valley would and slept in past 10 am, ignoring repeated texts from my boyfriend back east, only stirring awake when a call came in from a number I didn’t recognize. In the hopes it was a job recruiter, I picked up, but it was a man’s voice I had never heard before, and he had barely introduced himself as Frank McAllister before cutting to the chase. “I know this might sound crazy,” he said, “but did you go hiking in Lake Tahoe this past weekend with a woman named Nancy Foster? Blonde, petite, around 5’4?”

My stomach lurched. I propped my pillows up against the wall and surveyed my barren apartment as I figured out what to say. I didn’t recognize the name, but the physical description matched the woman I had spent the previous Saturday with, and before I could formulate a response he said, “She’s my ex-wife. She broke into my house and stole my wife’s diamond bracelet, probably a few hours before she met you.”

“My God,” I said, a gasp escaping me, as if I were some stunned bystander in a Lifetime drama.

“Look, I know we don’t know each other, that you have no real incentive to help, but can you do so anyways, out of an act of kindness?” Frank’s voice was a bit breathless, as if he just ran up a flight of stairs. “I have no idea where she went, but she sent me a cryptic email this morning that didn’t mention anything useful except for your name.”

“Really?” I said, not proud of the fact that my voice shot up several octaves, undoubtedly inflated by a sense of importance I didn’t know I had.

“Yes. She admitted to stealing the bracelet. She wrote: ‘I can’t tell you where I am, or when I’ll give it back. All I’ll say is that I went on a hike in Lake Tahoe last weekend and met a young woman named Casey Valeri from San Francisco, and I feel she has changed me for the better. How, I’m not sure, but that’s what I’m on a mission to find out. I’ll be in touch soon.’ ” Frank cleared his throat, the notion that he had Facebook stalked all the Casey Valeri’s in San Francisco who potentially fit the bill already implicit. “You can imagine my frustration, and my wife is distraught. So please, could you find it in your heart to help a stranger in a pinch?”

Help a stranger in a pinch. It was a saying prior to those last few days that I would have dismissed as corny, as my day-to-day life was built upon a foundation of self-interest, just like everyone else. But since Saturday, this sentiment seemed to be the recurring theme in my world. I recalled my hiking partner with a bewildered fondness, and before I knew what I was doing I agreed to meet Frank at a coffee shop, out of a desire to propel the kindness to strangers movement if nothing else. “One thing,” I said. “Bring a picture when you get there, I need to confirm it’s the same person, I think she gave me a fake name.” I hung up, practically shaking with excitement.

Fast forward an hour, and the noir-like atmosphere only continued as Frank sat down at my booth and slid a Polaroid photo across the table. We were quiet as a waitress refilled our coffee, and it was only after she left that I flipped it over and studied the image, which was of Frank and Nancy on a boat, presumably during happier times. “Yes, that’s her. “

Frank sighed. “Whew,” he said. “At least we’ve got that.” He smiled with a small, closed mouth and I thought it was tasteful, the right mix of friendly and concerned. “Look,” he said. “I know this whole thing must be strange for you. It’s strange for me too. And I don’t know what your impression was of Nancy when you met her, I know that she can be quite charming, but the truth is that she’s crazy.” Frank’s hands began to tremble, and I felt a bit sorry for him. “She’s a kleptomaniac,” he continued. “She was off kilter when we were together, maxing out credit cards, lying about it, and after we divorced she got even worse. She called our mutual friend twice to bail her out of jail for shoplifting. And just when I think the dust will settle, that she’s out of my life for good, she goes and does something like this again.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said, though I wondered if part of him enjoyed telling this sordid tale, making it just so he was the center of it. “I’ll try to be as helpful as I can.”

“Whatever you remember will be helpful, I’m sure,” Frank said, vigorously stirring Splenda into his coffee. “When did you first come across her on Saturday?”

I sighed. “Let me think,” I said. “About four hours into my hike.”

And that was true. The first four hours were spent walking along a muddy trail, lost in my thoughts, barely appreciating the pine trees, the mountains and the snow. I was fuming over my job situation. How the severance package was shit, how it was so unfair to be laid off after only four days, how things like this happened in the world all the time but in the grander scheme of human suffering it wasn’t even considered a blip.

“I stopped at a clearing in the middle of the afternoon because I was running low on water, and that’s when I met her,” I said. I remembered it well, being caught off guard by the unseasonably powerful sun on my back, the snow all around me melting into slush. I had scoured my canvas bag to see if I miraculously remembered to pack another canteen with water, but of course I had not.

“My God,” Nancy said, just a few minutes later, huffing and puffing as she approached the same clearing. She was a pretty, well-manicured woman who looked to be in her mid-50’s, using a broken off branch for a walking stick, which seemed oddly primitive in contrast to her North Face Jacket, Lulu Lemon yoga pants, and Ecco hiking boots. “I’m so out of shape. To think I’ve done this for so many years and now I can barely breathe. The joys of getting old.” She sighed and shook her blonde hair from the confines of her beanie, and I noticed that it was clearly dyed, dark roots beginning to sprout from underneath. “What’s your excuse?” she said, nodding in my direction. Her eyes regarded me with sympathy, as if I represented the lost traveler she once was.

“I’m low on water,” I said, feeling like a fool as the words came out, so at odds with the prepared me, the one who was always designated driver, who brought more than enough trail mix and apple slices for everyone on road trips.

The upper corners of her lips curled up, bemused, into a smile. “Well, we’re quite the duo, aren’t we?” she said. She reached into her knapsack, also North Face, and handed over an impossibly large canteen filled with cool water. “Looks like we should stick together.”

“Nancy was really friendly, and I was clearly in a pinch myself,” I said, though Frank winced at my use of the expression. I looked down, avoiding his judgmental gaze. “I needed help, “ I said, my voice shaky. “And I wanted company, and she was there for me, so we started hiking together, and that was pretty much that.” I drummed my nails against my mug, the coffee burning in my throat. “But she did give me a fake name.”

Our introductions took place as we approached a change in terrain, where the muddiness of the trail gave way to a dramatic incline filled with rocks and slush. Nervous, I extended my hand.

“I’m Casey,” I said, and I remember she hesitated before taking it, looking at me with a veil of suspicion. “Casey Smith?” she said, a grin on her face.

“No, Casey Valeri,” I said, suddenly embarrassed by withholding information, even though I never usually introduced myself to people using my first and last name.

“We’re approaching the hardest part of the trail.” she said. “I would know, I’ve done this several times before. So I want to know who it is I’m dealing with.” She laughed, as if to add levity to the mood, but there was a focus in her eyes that made me think this information was, for some reason, important.

“What’s your name?” I said, clutching onto my backpack like a student, eagerly awaiting instructions on how to proceed next.

“Bonnie Parker,” she said, climbing up the first rock. “Nice to meet you.”

Hearing this, Frank shook his head in disbelief. “Jesus,” he said, “You realize who Bonnie Parker is, right?”

I didn’t, and my silence gave me away.

“Bonnie Parker. The woman who inspired Bonnie and Clyde, the film about the bank robbers? Nancy is unbelievable.” Frank smacked the table, clearly angry, and I bit my lip so it wouldn’t look like I was smiling. I had to admit it was clever, and fitting in a sort of way, two people leaving the boundaries of civilization and the confines of its laws.

“Sorry,” he said. “I cut you off. What were you saying?”

I shrugged. “Not much,” I said. “Bonnie—er, Nancy and I were figuring out our strategy for getting up the mountain.”

The trail was steep and downright intimidating. All around us, upwards and downwards, right and left, there was nothing but rocks and the rapid disintegration of snow under a glaring spring sun. But Nancy didn’t seem daunted. “One important thing to know about this part of the trail is that most of the rocks are unstable. It’s more like bouldering than hiking. We’ve got to rely on our endurance,” she said, panting as she climbed, before turning around to evaluate me, an experienced adventurer sizing up a timid novice. “Have you ever done anything like this before?”

The short answer was no. I liked to hike, and I would frequently try to get Tim to join me on hikes back in Philly, but he was always preoccupied, whining about one law school exam or another that he had to study for. And without him, I never mustered the courage to jump in my car and explore a new trail by myself. “Not quite,” I said.

“It’s intense,” Nancy said, propping her walking stick for me to grab onto as I hoisted myself onto one of the rocks. “But intense physical exercise is good. It gets you outside of yourself.”

“Exactly,” I said, in what I hoped was a cheerful voice. I focused on my breath as I climbed behind her, my calves screaming as one foot ascended after another, and whatever it was that held my guard up began to erode, much like the snow all around us. It was then, I told Frank, after we had barely begun climbing those damn rocks, that I—kind of—broke down.

“Broke down?” Frank said.

“Yeah,” I said, looking out the window. The trees swayed back and forth in the fog, the 5 Fulton bus made its routine stops, and life moved along, farther and farther away from this sequence of memories. ”I felt like I was going to faint. I crouched down on a rock and told Nancy I didn’t think I could go on any more.”

Frank’s eyes glazed over, his fingers rapidly tapping against the table, as if waiting for me to get to something good. I diverted my gaze, my face flushed with shame as I recalled the moment I burst into tears. I had been overwhelmed and dehydrated, and it was as if the mountain had triggered some kind of desperate rawness in me, the kind where you want to spill your guts to anyone, and the normal privacy filter you carry around inside melts away and you begin to tell stories in the way that you actually see them.

Seeing my distress, Nancy used her stick to hoist herself down to the rock beside me. “Casey, dear,” she said, putting her arm around me.

“I need to turn around,” I said, tears hardening on my face, the beginnings of a headache blooming in my temples. “I barely have any water, I’m completely out of my element.” I was practically hyperventilating at this point I was so upset, gasping for breath in between sobs, snot dripping out of my nose and only the back of my hand to wipe it off.

“There was a lot on my mind, and Nancy wanted to listen,” I said to Frank, even though I could tell he clearly was unimpressed, figured me for some kind of emotional loose cannon. And with an overwhelming urge to defend myself, I said: “I hadn’t eaten since breakfast, and the altitude was getting to me, just making everything worse.” I hoped that made my crisis clearer than it was, wrapped it in a bow tidy enough for Frank to walk past without a second thought. Which it seemed to, because he expressed no interest in the subsequent conversation that occurred right after.

“I have no idea what I’m doing with my life,” I told Nancy. “I moved from Philadelphia last weekend to accept my ideal job in San Francisco, and my boyfriend back home won’t stop calling me, and it hasn’t even been my first week out here and they are already shutting the company down and laying everyone off.” I wanted to calm down, but the more I said the more agitated I got. “So now I’ve got to start all over again.”

“Yes,” Nancy said. “You’ve got to start all over again.” There was a pause between us, an extended moment of silence, doves whistling as they sailed across the sky and nestled into trees, the crystalline blue lake perfectly still below us. “Do you have any idea how lucky you are?”
The comment caught me off guard, as if I was clubbed on the head by a blunt instrument. Dazed, I looked out at the lake.

“You think I’m lucky?” I said.

“Yes!” She said. “You are so lucky. You’re young and free and you can reinvent yourself in any way you see fit. It’s the most beautiful thing in the world.” She looked over at me. “First things first, though. Leave that dumb boyfriend behind. For good.”

“He’s not dumb,” I said, almost too quickly. Which was true. Tim was smart, book smart at least, one of the most book smart people I knew. But maybe that was the problem. All he knew was what he read on the page, and it narrowed his world, turning him into a self- righteous automaton that only studied and complained.

“He’s no good for you,” Nancy said. “You can’t be afraid to walk away from things.”

“You’re right, I guess,” I said, even though I was afraid of walking away from things, terribly so. And there was something gnawing at me, some persistent fear that couldn’t seem to abate.

“What’s the matter?” Nancy said.

“Don’t you ever feel like, even if you walk away from things, that your problems will just find you anyway, just smack you in the face wherever you go?”

“That can happen,” Nancy said, a bit more somberly than I would have liked. “But what’s the alternative?”

I shrugged. “There isn’t one, I guess.” I looked at Nancy, who was still Bonnie to me then, and found myself admiring her slim body and stylish clothes, her impractical walking stick perched in the snow. “How did you get so wise?”

“If you don’t dwell on the past, it can’t weigh you down,” Nancy said. She sighed, a long painstaking breath, and I imagined her lungs fluttering like butterfly wings. “Don’t get me wrong, though,” she said. “There are a few things I’d like to fix.”

“Like what?” I said, but she waved me off.

“Oh, it’s exhausting getting into it. Mostly, I miss my son Marcus. I haven’t seen him in a couple years. I think he lives in Phoenix now. I want to explain some things to him, but I’m not sure he wants to see me.”

“How come?” I said.

“Let’s just say I haven’t been the world’s best parent,” she said, and then her eyes glazed over for a moment, as if she were deeply considering something. “His birthday was last week. He just turned 25.”

“I’m 25 too,” I said, and it was only a moment later when I saw Bonnie’s bottom lip quiver and her eyes fill with tears. “Are you okay?”

“I’ll be fine,” she said. She shivered, even under the sun, and after wiping away tears reached into her pocket and pulled out a 50-dollar bill. “This is yours,” she said. “The bottom zipper of your knapsack has been open this whole time.” She took a gulp of water and smiled. “Be more careful.”

* * *

“Anyway,” I told Frank, “She gave me a good pep talk and we turned around and headed downhill and that was pretty much that.” I avoided eye contact because I could tell he was growing increasingly frustrated, as I were telling him the world’s most boring story. And maybe I was. But, perhaps in sensing his disinterest in the details, I had selectively omitted more and more, deciding he wouldn’t understand, didn’t deserve to understand, any of it.

“You know,” I said, slapping the table with sudden gusto. “I just thought of something that might help you out. Nancy kept saying that the hike was amateur stuff, that she wanted to climb Mt. Whitney. She was going to head there after Tallac and send me a postcard. Maybe she’s in one of the lodges around there, if she hasn’t started hiking it already.”

Frank nodded, punching buttons in his iPhone, and it didn’t take a genius to know he was investigating lodging near Mt. Whitney. Which amused me, because for all of his time married to a schemer he’d remained as gullible as ever. I doubted he’d be clever enough to out what she actually did, which was book a Virgin America flight to Phoenix.

I stretched my legs, looking around me at the mostly empty café. The fog and drizzle gave way to a sunny afternoon, and I was overcome by all of the things I had to do.

“Well, Frank,” I said. “I’ve got to get going. I hope I was helpful.”

“Yes,” Frank said. “I hope so, too. Thank you, Casey.” He extended his hand and by the time I shook it, his attention was directed towards the next item on his to do list, the person on the other end of the line. “Hello, my name is Frank McAllister, I was wondering if you recently had a guest named Nancy Foster? No? How about Bonnie Parker?”

I waved as I walked out, the cool air reviving my lungs. I had five missed calls from Tim, and when he called again as I was walking home I finally found it within me to pick up.

“Where have you been? Do you even care about this relationship?” he said, his voice blubbery with angst. Beethoven, or some equally appropriate study music, was playing in the background.

And I took a deep breath. “Listen,” I said, my body flooding with adrenaline, “I moved to San Francisco for a reason, and even if it’s not clear what the reason is anymore, I’ll just have to wing it it until I figure it out. And your endless calls and texts are not helping me figure it out. So please, for the love of God, would you give me some space.” And then, surprising even myself, I hung up.

There really was so much to do. Unpacking, emailing recruiters, assembling Ikea furniture, doing whatever people did to get on their feet. But for the first time in a while, I felt light, and as I walked up the steps to my apartment I envisioned Nancy in Phoenix, walking across the gravelly driveway to Marcus’ place. I pictured a young guy making his way downstairs, opening the front door, looking out inquisitively. His mom. I hoped he’d invite her in. That he’d offer her something to drink and listen to what she had to say and accept that whoever she was, whatever she’d done, that she was enough.

 

 

BIO

jacquelineberkman2Jacqueline Berkman is a writer based in San Francisco. Her short fiction has been published in The Writing Disorder, Waccamaw, and The East Bay Review, among other places. Her short story “Picking Locks,” which was adapted into the short film “Panofsky’s Complaint,” was screened at the Brooklyn Short Film Festival in June 2016.

 

 

Lucida and Me

by K.B. Dixon

 

 

Any photographer whose interest in the subject extends to reading more than just his camera manuals will eventually come upon the names Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes. Their books—On Photography and Camera Lucida—are canonical texts. It is difficult to read anything thoughtful on the subject that does not mention one or the other.

I read the Sontag book many years ago with pleasure, but came reluctantly and late to Camera Lucida—reluctantly because it was a translation, late because it was Roland Barthes. As a writer I was—and still am—wary of translation (a subject for another time). As a reader I was wary of Barthes. I had a residual bias against him, a keepsake from college where I and a thousand hapless others were compelled by sadistic professors to read such things as Writing Degree Zero and Elements of Semiology—a bias against him for the role he played (with Lacan, Foucault, Derrida, et al.) as a founding father of “Theory,” the torturous gobbledygooking of literary study that did for literary criticism what smallpox did for the Plains Indians.

But in the end I was lured to the book by quotations that I found everywhere and by a promise—a promise that the Barthes of Lucida was different from the Barthes of Image-Music-Text, Mythologies, and S/Z; different from the Barthes that Barthes-likers liked, the one euphemistically referred to as “rigorous” (read gratuitously obscure). Lucida was shorter, more intimate, more personal than the impenetrable tomes on which his statue stood.

What I found was a book that was technically “as-advertised”—that is, a book that was un-Barthes-like to some degree (but, alas, not to degree zero). It was by most objective standards quite likely the least Barthes-like of Barthes books, but it was not by my troglodytic standards quite un-Barthes-like enough. I found plenty of the old writer here—lapses into the calorieless paragraphs of semiological word-salad that reminded me of why I had avoided him. He talks about being torn between two languages—expressive and critical—about abandoning the latter as “reductive,” but he cannot resist the Siren call of an influential constituency clamoring for a bowlful of scholarly jargon. Clarity, it seems, is to be treated as a form of groveling.

 

*

 

Camera Lucida is divided into two parts. Each is itself subdivided into a plethora of short, related sections. Part One examines the subject of photography in general. Part Two circles around a single image. Although Part One was for me the most problematic—the most inclined to empty amplitude—it was not without its points of interest; for instance, Barthes’s thoughts about being photographed himself and the famous coinage of “punctum.”

Like most people Barthes had a troubled relationship with his photographic image. “Once I feel myself observed by the lens,” he wrote, “everything changes…I transform myself in advance into an image.” The image he transformed himself into was never satisfactory. “If only I could ‘come out’ on paper,” he writes, “as on a classical canvas, endowed with a noble expression—thoughtful, intelligent, etc! In short…be painted (by Titian) or drawn (by Clouet)!” Barthes being Barthes, he could not admit to the pedestrian vanities that plague we mere mortals. The problem was not that he looked sallow or overweight—it was that his portraitist had not captured “a delicate moral texture.” One would have to love him, he quite rightly observed, to see what he would like them to see in a photograph—the “precious essence of [his] individuality.” The fault, dear viewer, was not in ourselves that we were underlings, but in the medium that it was not sympathetic. He returns to this subject again and again. That he should address it so early in the book and at such relative length and with such obvious passion says something about its importance to him, and its importance to him is something that should be taken into account when trying to assess the various ambiguities of his wandering analysis.

If Helen’s face launched a thousand ships, Barthes’s coinage “punctum” launched a thousand tortured essays. It was catnip to the explicating classes, a favorite of fledgling poseurs everywhere. I have always had a problem with it—first as a word, but more importantly as a concept. As a word it has always struck me as unnecessarily ugly. (But then, of course, it may sound sweeter to the classically-educated Francophone’s ear than to the State University-educated Anglophone’s.) As a concept it has always seemed trite. Early in Part One Barthes takes an analytical axe to his subject (the essence of photography) and divides it into competing parts—Studium, the ostensible subject of the photograph, the source of the viewers “polite” interest; and Punctum, a tangential detail that provokes a personal reaction, that breaks through the complacent response, “an accident which pricks.” To me this seems an almost meaningless tautology—a needlessly obscure way of saying that certain photographs have a certain something about them that makes them special to certain someones—a commonplace that when draped in Latin becomes a shiny original thing, a breathtakingly sophisticated utterance.

Find the Punctum became a popular game for a while—a Where’s Waldo for academics. A futile game, I’m afraid. What is punctum? A special something that may not be found in every photograph. What is this special something? It differs from one person to the next. It is a detail that attracts, that moves, that holds. One cannot say why. It is not a general special-somethingness, but a special-somethingess that is specifically “special to me.” It is, Barthes says, “What I add to a photograph.” It is wholly subjective. A punctum is a punctum only to the punctee. Your punctum is not my punctum—it is not X’s punctum or Y’s or Z’s—but hasn’t it been a lot of fun going on interminably about it.

The introduction to my copy of Lucida was written by the current go-to guy on the subject of photography: the inventive and agile Geoff Dyer. “To formalize…Barthes’ argument,” he writes at one point, “is not simply to diminish it, but to rob it of so many subtleties as to misrepresent it entirely.” This is an artful dodge, a gracious effort by Dyer (a man hired to do a gracious job) to cover for Barthes, to warn us off our bourgeois ways. Barthes is uncomfortable with the exposure lucidity allows. The clearer one’s expression, the fewer places there are to hide. One of the important things about this sort of writing—why it is obscure—is that it offers a way out. One can always claim to have been misunderstood.

 

*

 

For all the notoriety and thesis-fodder of Part One, it is Part Two of Lucida that interests me, that means something to me, that engages me. It is here that Barthes changes rhetorical gears, becomes more personal. Having failed to discover the essential nature of Photography in the previous sixty pages, he proposes to dig deeper into himself to find what he is looking for. It is here that my internal conversation with him changes a little, becomes a little less antagonistic. Here, mixed in with the brilliant claptrap and convolution, is poetry and pathos.

A month after his mother’s death Barthes was sitting alone in his apartment (the apartment where she died) sorting through photographs of her. He was struck by the fact that they brought him so little. None of them seemed “right”—that is, none of them seemed to have captured what was essential about her. He continued looking through these photographs one by one “looking for the truth of the face [he] had loved.” Finally he found it. He was staggered. It was an old photograph—dog-eared, faded. It showed two children—his mother (age 5) and her brother (age 7) standing at the end of a wooden bridge in a glassed-in conservatory—a “winter garden.” The sensation was for him overwhelming. “I studied the little girl and at last rediscovered my mother.” In this image he found “the kindness which had formed her being immediately and forever.” It is here in this moment when he makes this discovery that I made a discovery of my own, that I suddenly and quite unexpectedly felt a connection to the man—and not just any sort of connection, but a close one. I recognized the sensation he was describing. I had experienced an almost supernaturally similar shock coming across a photograph of my very-much-living wife. That photograph was, likewise, an old one. It sits at this moment about three feet from me in a small, egg-shaped pewter frame. My wife (also age 5) is not standing in a winter garden, but sitting in a winter coat on the knee of a department-store Santa, and I can see in her face the excitement and innocent joy that formed her being immediately and forever. I found in Barthes’s lushly described response to this treasured photograph of his an eerie, almost perfect, articulation of my own unarticulated feelings about this treasured photograph of mine—a photograph that has remained for me an emblem of the medium’s mystery.

The Winter Garden photograph became a guide for Barthes, the foundation of his thinking on the subject of Photography. “Something like an essence of the Photograph floated in this particular picture,” he says of the image. This particular “something-like-an-essence” was the sort of thing one could build a metaphysics of Photography around if they were so inclined. Barthes, of course, was so inclined.

A photograph, Barthes says, is “a mutant…neither image nor reality, a new being, really: a reality one can no longer touch.” The photograph “ratifies what it represents.” It “can lie as to the meaning of a thing…never as to its existence.” In photography one “can never deny that the thing has been there.” The essence of photography is, he says, “that-has-been.” As a realist this is a view I endorse—digital-age quibbles aside. Of course, this “that-has-been” idea leads Barthes quickly to a darker place, to the logical and familiar conclusion: “but-is-no-more.” In every photograph, he writes, is the “imperious sign” of death—not just any death, but his own. (If Barthes cannot link a thing to “death” or “madness,” he does not think he is doing his job.) The theory that evolves circles around the photograph as memento mori. “In front of the photograph of my mother as a child, I tell myself: she is going to die: I shudder…over a catastrophe which has already occurred.” In photographs “there is always a defeat of Time…that is dead and that is going to die.” He observes with “horror” this “anterior future.” The experience of time defeated is dizzying. He is mesmerized (as I am) by the medium’s unique ability to mix the past, the present, and the future—what has been, what is now, what will be. I share his fascination with time in a photograph (if not his inclination to morbidity). For me a good photograph is made of time, light, and feeling. There is no question that it is a melancholic medium—to experience it as a tragic one requires a certain exertion and a certain predisposition.

Barthes returns in his exposition to the Winter Garden image. It fascinates him. He lingers over it just as I linger over my Santa picture. “The photograph,” he writes, “is literally an emanation of the referent.” These emanations are “a sort of umbilical cord,” he says, that “links the body of the photographed thing to [his] gaze.” “Hence the Winter Garden Photograph, however pale, is for me the treasury of rays which emanated from my mother as a child, from her hair, her skin, her dress, her gaze, on that day.” A photograph is not just the preservation of a split-second, but of a life, of a “unique being.” I have a strong sympathy for this view. But in lingering with it, he is frustrated—he cannot enter the photograph as he would like. “I can only sweep it with my glance,” he says. It “arrests” further interpretation—he has exhausted himself with his “this-has-been” realization.

Barthes confronts the question again: what is it that makes this special photograph a special photograph? It is something beyond resemblance, something more than physical reality. This mysterious essence-like something is what Barthes calls (with shocking simplicity) the “air” of the photograph. It is another undefinable essential—an unanalyzable thing that is evident but cannot be proven, a secret door through which he can escape troublesome parts of any previous analysis. The “air,” he says, “is the luminous shadow which accompanies the body.” He returns yet again to photographs of himself. Without this shadow, the subject does not come to life. This is what is wrong with the photographs he has seen of himself: “if these thousand photographs have each ‘missed’ my air, my effigy will perpetuate my identity, not my value.” In other words, we do not have his true image.

 

*

 

The photograph, Barthes says, is “a bizarre medium; a new form of hallucination.” This is a nice way to think of it. Likewise, Lucida is a bizarre book, a new form of critique. There is a great deal to admire about it—the only problem it seems to me is that most of the admiring being done is being done without reservation. There is a part of me that wishes there was a part of me that cared more about being charitable on the subject of theory-speak. (Who does not want to seem fair-minded?) For me it was (and still is) a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. It is not about the pursuit of truth or knowledge, but reputation—a status game, its defining high-syllable-count gibberish a sort of tribal patois. Its famous obscurity has nothing to do with subtleties or with the difficulty of the subject and everything to do with ego, fashion, and professional advancement. There is less of this sort of thing in Lucida than elsewhere—passages that have been “freed from the tyranny of meaning”—but for me, not less enough. One cannot ignore the grief that is everywhere in this book, and a more conventionally empathetic person than me would, I suspect, be inclined to make greater allowances. I might have made greater allowances myself if I had not been misled into thinking the subject here was to be photography. Lucida is, in fact, only partly about photography—it is in equal parts about how smart Mr. Barthes is and how deeply injured.

From its beginning Lucida has provided inspiration and annoyance. A pedigreed consideration of photography’s endlessly replicating complexity, it took its subject seriously at a time when it needed taking seriously, and in so doing it offered aid and comfort to those championing the medium.

The photograph is not “a ‘copy’ of reality,” Barthes wrote, “but an emanation of past reality: a magic, not an art.” This is one of the quotes that brought me to Lucida, that indicated to me a shared sense of the subject. This ends up so many times being, for me, the last word on photography. It is, I think, the best analysis yet of the essence of photography, a response to the wonder of what may be found in a single image—its ability to transcend time and space, to put one in direct contact with more than just near and distant pasts.

 

 

 

BIO

kbdixon2K. B. Dixon’s work has appeared in numerous magazines, newspapers, and journals. The recipient of an OAC Individual Artist Fellowship Award, he is the winner of both the Next Generation Indie Book Award and the Eric Hoffer Book Award. He is the author of seven novels: The Sum of His Syndromes, Andrew (A to Z), A Painter’s Life, The Ingram Interview, The Photo Album, Novel Ideas, and Notes as well as the short story collection, My Desk and I.

 

 

 

 

 

0

The Art of Blythe Smith

 

Happiness is a Foil Balloon 2016

Happiness is a Foil Balloon – 2016

 

If You're Happy and You Know It - 2016

If You’re Happy and You Know It – 2016

 

Untitled

Last Fitting of the Spring Festival Dress – 2016

 

You Would, Wouldn't You - 2016

You Would, Wouldn’t You – 2016

 

Horticultured and Hilarious - 2016

Horticultured and Hilarious – 2016

 

The National Anthem - 2016

The National Anthem – 2016

 

Untitled

Dodging paparazzi while shopping for chicken nuggets at the local supermarket – 2016

 

Untitled

Baby, you shouldn’t have broken those promises – 2016

 

Deny My Integrity and I'll Deny Yours - 2016

Deny My Integrity and I’ll Deny Yours – 2016

 

 

 

ARTIST STATEMENT

My art starts from the private but often ends up being generally applicable. It starts from small seemingly unimportant incidents and often ends up being political.

My themes are (megalo)maniac: power, gender, addiction. I see meanings related to these themes everywhere.

I am interested in studying what meaning is, how meanings change, merge, and dissolve.

I think it is useless for an artist to declare truths, since they are scarce. In the best possible case, the meanings of the author and the experiencer enter into a dialogue with each other and nurture each other. Although art can never convey the truth, I hope that, when experienced, my art becomes true and that its meanings turn meaningful. That my art can influence and, whilst influencing, generate new art.

My art is multimodal, it is meant to appeal to all senses: I make use of language, puns, humour, irony, moving images, sounds, paintings, installations that you can touch, taste, hear, and smell.

www.blythesmith.com

 

BIO

blythesmith1Blythe Smith is a Finnish visual artist with a strong background in linguistics and literature. In her work, she explores meanings: how meanings emerge and merge, how they change and dissolve in human interaction.

Blythe Smith’s work ranges from drawings and watercolor paintings to experimental video art. She is a graduate of Art School MAA and holds an MA in English and Romance philology.

 

 

 

0

Rasool Yoonan – 6 Untitled Poems

Translated by Siavash Saadlou

 

1.

The world is dark,

like the night.

Life is an arrow

pointed towards the sun.

 

The roads don’t always lead to the sea.

The rain is not always beautiful.

 

Dreams don’t always have a good interpretation.

Yesterday wasn’t good; may tomorrow be happy and joyful.

 

All these thoughts are running in the mind of a horse

going home after a day of drudgery.

 

 

 

 

2.

The sun doesn’t shine equally on everything.

 

My father went to sleep

in hopes of seeing tomorrow’s sunshine,

but didn’t wake up.

 

That means that the sun was unable

to wipe away the shadow of death from his face;

later, it shed light only on his headstone.

 

 

 

 

3.

Objects mutate,

people undergo changes,

and some questions, too, have no answers…

So, I haven’t lost,

not having fallen in love with something or someone.

Of course I should lie down—relaxed—in this hot afternoon

and take a nap.

 

 

 

 

4.

…and at long last,

nothing will remain from the tales of hunters

except for a dead goose on the counter.

 

It’s painful, but no big deal;

let them tell whatever tale they wish.

 

Good or bad, stories have to be created,

but don’t forget that you should live like a human.

 

The world is a strange place;

here, anyone who opens fire

gets killed himself.

 

 

 

 

5.

Trains pass you by in a hurry;

foxes and horses, in desperation.

And your blue memory has evaporated

in the minds of distant geese.

 

Your story came to an end way too soon,

as if it were an iceberg on a fire rock,

or the flame of a match in the direction of the wind.

 

You died quietly—there were neither any church bells tolling,

nor was a prayer’s call heard from the mosque.

And nothing is more melancholic than

dying in loneliness.

 

The bereavement of your death

will later open its mouth like a scar on our bodies,

and we will be tortured under the rains of salt.

 

 

 

 

6.

This world is like a movie

that has started in medias res…

 

Somebody kills,

Somebody gets killed.

 

Somebody sells out,

Somebody buys.

 

Somebody goes,

Somebody comes…

 

I couldn’t figure out anything!

 

 

BIO

siavashsaadlouRasool Yoonan, poet, playwright, novelist, and translator, was born in 1969 in Urmia, Iran. His debut collection of poetry, Good Day My Dear, was published in 1998. Further collections include Concert in Hell, I Was a Bad Boy, Carrying the Piano Down the Stairs of an Icy Hotel, and Be Careful; Ants Are Coming. Among Yoonan’s most recent published works are two collections of micro fiction titled You Idiot! We’re Dead and Damn It, Pick Up the Phone. Yoonan is currently the most widely read living poet in Iran. His poetry has previously been translated into Armenian and French.

 

siavashsaadlou2Born and raised in Iran, Siavash Saadlou is a writer, literary translator, editor, and interpreter. He is the authorized translator of Rasool Yoonan, the minimalist Iranian poet. His translations have been published or are forthcoming in Washington Square Review, Indian Review, Visions International, Blue Lyra Review, and Asymptote. Saadlou is currently an MFA Creative Writing candidate and an English Composition teaching fellow at Saint Mary’s College of California.

 

 

 

0

Maria Marrocchino

 

Untitled

 

Longing eyes I have.
That’s what someone painted
in a box down on the Bowery.
But what the hell am I longing for?
Sexy dreams and rosebud company, what else?
Flippant mantras I live by.
Like,
don’t sell yourself short
and,
never give up on your dreams.
But I need to borrow some more
money so I can make myself attractive
in this For Sale city where
the competition is fierce.
Women need to fill their lips and breasts
just to keep up.
My bruised love
keeps me awake and lonely
but I got my pen and
scraps of used paper with my chestnut thoughts
and it keeps me company.
Close your eyes before I drown in them.
That’s what someone said to me
back in Naples.
Italians are such hopeless romantics.
I am one too,
secretively.

 

 

Untitled

 

Young man’s eyes watching me
full of lust and glory.
What can I give you that would make you mine?
I’ve been there, done that.
Don’t think men want me other than a zipless fuck.
But I can’t just keep listening to Nina Simone records,
ain’t no use, I’m getting too old to play the blues.
Those eyes are still on me
brown like an empire,
skin like an olive grove.
But he won’t come over,
just likes to watch.
A vagabond smile,
a simple nod.
I close my eyes and image us on a secret land full
of a thousand truths, mounted on a bed of kisses.
Bodies wrapped around each other like delicious
stems hugging it’s flower.
Rich is his mouth against my heartache and fears.
I open my eyes and he’s disappeared,
phantom of my beautiful day.
How strange this all is, this getting close to each other
with so much distance.
I’m not sure I want to play this game anymore.

 

 

Blue Paint

 

Blue paint is wet.
I love you Walt Whitman
I can only dream of your
Sun-kissed skies and cipher canyons,
fields of tall romantic grass,
sagging moon on a glimmering surface.
My fears stop me from moving forward.
Your lilac heaven will have to try hard to wake me.
ATM is out of cash.
But Dylan Thomas is waiting for me
on a white horse, comfort in hand,
sipping my orange mouth into his large tomb poems.
Poems I can’t keep up with my ink getting dry.
Like a crackling wheat field I’ve imagined.
Lost, pair of sterling silver earrings.
Color like the blankness of the city buildings that envelop me and
Ginsburg once ranted about.
Thick in my ears, this howling.
I need another day to think about all my responsibilities,
not ready to give up my sofa, my closet space, my familiar day.
It keeps me company, all those lists of things I have to do.
Sample sale this Saturday.
Shoes that are too big for me but fit Annie Sexton perfectly.
The size of my umbrella mind creeping over my soul’s chances.
Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow I’ll make all the important decisions.
Like a Shakespearean tragedy do I honestly think I have
any real choices about what happens in my life?

 

 

Andy

 

Andy Warhol died today and
I started crying and running and
crying and all of sudden it started
raining only you said it was snowing
but snow blinds you like an old man
without his sunglasses so it was really
raining or it could have been my eyes
blue and a little green, like one of Andy’s
flowers. I tried to tell you but I got distracted
by all the signs and noise and cars honking
and grinding, like one of Andy’s rhymes and
I was still crying but then you said something
and it made me laugh and we were laughing,
together smiling. What was it that thing you
said you told me how your mother made you
sing that song about the dragonflies, like one
of Andy’s smiles and I was walking along
cold, my feet wet but I was laughing until
I looked up at the sky and remembered that
Andy was dead and I started crying again.

 

 

BIO

marrocchino2Maria Marrocchino is a writer and producer living in Manhattan. She has lived in Manhattan for over 15 years and has been writing since the age of 13. Her poetry has appeared in Clockwise Cat, Broad, Belleville Park Pages, SNR Review, Main Street Rag and PDXX Collection. Her stories have appeared in The Sun for “Readers Write” and her travel stories can be found in Independent Traveler. Maria is a features writer for Dazed & Confused, Platinum, Nylon and City magazines. She has also published a book of poetry, Winged Victory: Transcending Breast Cancer. Her website is krop.com/mmarrocchino.

 

 

 

0

Mother

by Jac Smith

 

 

It cost thirteen dollars to gut Mother. I use a knife, but don’t know where her insides end up. They are likely seeping into the Nevada pavement somewhere between the hotel and Reno International. The drunks coming home from the casinos will carry bits of her on their shoes. The big rigs will gather her up in their deep treads, take her north on the 580. Truckee River may even get lucky. By morning she will be in every crevice and corner of Reno until one good rain storm settles her deep inside the sewers. Deflate this city with a good hard puncture, rip it open and turn it inside out; the flakey film that coats the underbelly is one part sugar, one part Mother. Eve will say to cut it out, to stop thinking this way in regard to her. That my thoughts are too exaggerated, too large, too scary and untrue yet all of this starts because of her. It starts with Mother and I in Croatia, where we are intact and happy and whole. It starts when my sister calls.

It’s been thirteen months since I’ve last seen my sister, Eve. I’ve broken our contract and she is demanding I come home for the yearly exchange of our mother which, like always, I am putting off. Either direction. I want more time with Mother and I want more time without. To get along with Mother requires a very specific headspace, but once I slip into it, onto it, right beneath it — she’s hard to give up. It’s this condensed feeling, the one I get with Mother. If I lay on my back and pull my knees up, my spine feels especially heavy. Heavy and dense and like some good cold thing. It’s an iced tea cold, the kind you buy from people who are paid to smile hard and smile early which, according to Mother, is the kind you want and since I’m into onto beneath, I agree.

Eve gets tired of leaving voicemails. Her kids take turns giving various warnings against me keeping their grandmother over the allocated time. There’s a little one and maybe a medium one but it’s the older one, twelve I think, who fills my inbox with long formidable pauses. I can hear him flip through his spelling workbook; he drops bombs like catastrophic and detrimental and absurd.

I book us a flight home.

40,000 feet in the air and Mother tells me she doesn’t want to go back to Eve. Which is unfair since she knows about the contract. And while isn’t anything legal, doesn’t involve Mother’s consent at all and my signature is that of a nineteen year old’s with the curlicues to prove it — it still stands. The longer I have Mother, the more fervent Eve becomes in demanding us home. Mother and I laugh at that. We nod and curl up and whisper things and even if it’s catastrophic detrimental absurd, it’s also into onto beneath and there is room, I decide, for both.

We fly into Reno-Tahoe International right in the middle of the day. A taxi takes us to our hotel which is not the nicest one in Reno but it is the nicest one just outside of the city and only forty miles north of Jawbreak, my hometown.

Once we’re checked into our room, I heave my suitcase onto the bed. Underneath every piece of clothing I own are two Ziplocs, hefty-sized. Mother moves to the corner of the room, tucks herself into an overstuffed chair and soon she’s silent and in that space between sleep and not and since that’s the home of lucid dreams and feeling capable and having power, I let her enjoy it. I open the Ziploc that holds a clean, black, high-neck shirt and a nice pair of fitted pants that are made up of something that doesn’t wrinkle.

I can’t keep Mother any longer, I know this. The knowing is inside of me, in my stomach, and it’s being sucked upward and collecting at the top of my guts, high-like and not where it should be. It’s making me want to grab Mother and get back on a plane. But it’s also making me want to drop Mother off right now in some alley while I run away. A long stride, thighs tightening, arms pumping, chest hurting thing⎯ that’s what I want.

Tonight we will meet my sister for the exchange at The Stampede, the only bar in Jawbreak. My worst thoughts happen there; the decor and furniture and people a revolving backdrop in most of my nightmares. There will be a singing Elvis doll that sits on the table we consider ours. It’s a true collectable, licensed and authorized by Elvis Presley Enterprises Incorporated and has the official Elvis Presley Enterprises Incorporated logo on its box. The certificate of authenticity is framed and hangs above where the doll stands in its box, on the side of the table pushed up against the wall. Only 61,000 Produced! is what the certificate says. I know it does because I’ve read it. Top to bottom, ten times, each reading a year apart.

The doll goes off every time someone sits down at the table. Middle of conversation, middle of summer and Elvis starts crooning “Blue Christmas” while his hips grind against cardboard and plastic. There are beer stains on the box and part of me wants to steal the thing and sell it on eBay and the other part of me wants to pull it out and maybe hold it a bit.

It’s the Only 61,000 Produced! that’s especially weird. It seems like a lot. But the exclamation point that comes after the statement is what teachers call a context clue and it makes me think I don’t know shit about collectables or Elvis or something like worth.

The doll pops up in my dreams where it doesn’t belong. If I’ve had Mother with me longer than I should, catastrophic detrimental absurd, he pops up outside of my dreams as well. He’ll stand right next to me while I work, while I survey whatever new water supply in whatever new country I’ve been hired to diagnose. I’m in Croatia or South Africa or Indonesia squatting over some town’s main water source and that wicked little King starts crooning “Blue Christmas.” Every time he pauses his lips pout at me from across the watering hole.

Even if Elvis decides not to wage a war at the bar tonight, still there will be other concerns. Always, I will run into some boy I grew up along side of and because at some point I let him see me naked, he will think it permissible to bring up what happened with Mother or maybe even what happened at my high school graduation. It’s what The Stampede has always offered⎯ clearance to grind thumbs into wounds.

Before The Stampede became base camp for the yearly hand-off of Mother, it was my father’s place. He went to The Stampede every day after work even though he quit drinking before I was born. As far as I knew, he never went inside, just smoked cigarettes out front with a few patrons before heading home. He carried a whole layer of pride about being a recovering alcoholic and would make a point to serve Mother a glass of wine with dinner on Friday nights just so Eve and I had some example of responsible alcohol consumption. He always said it just like that, those three words and his gaze was pointed, first at Eve and then at me. And in the space where his stare would jump from my sister and start to come my way, I would force my eyes wide so he would see me bold and unblinking. Booze wasn’t the problem, he told us. It was his brain with booze that was the problem. Keep your eyes on the things that scare you most so that they scare you less, he always said to Eve. Said that part to her and not me but I was listening anyways.

*  *  *

The Stampede has a heavy-weighted wooden door that takes a good strong shoulder and a good bracing leg to open. Mother and I arrive and I handle the door exactly as I’m supposed to. Still, it clips my elbow on the back swing and hip-checks me before it slams back into place. The door is, no doubt, the most expensive thing in this place. Later, I’ll crush the glass that holds the fire extinguisher and hatchet and hack down the door on my way out. I’ll pocket the real brass hinges and sell all of it along with Elvis for hundreds of dollars. I settle at the thought, push my satchel more firmly onto my shoulder and take Mother and I straight to the bar top.

The Stampede is made up of honey-colored oak paneling. Every surface is coated in the stuff, the grade alignment not once considered. The ceiling, floors, walls and tables are all bathed in a lamination of cheap gloss finish that makes it feel like a wraparound bowling lane.

I haven’t sold Elvis or the hinges just yet so I order the cheapest beer they have on tap. I don’t order one for Mother because I’m not Dad and she’s allowed to make her own choices regarding responsible alcohol consumption. Besides, Clive Tisdale is four bar stools down from us so I leave Mother with my satchel and head on over.

Clive, who we called Bear in high school because he was this big broad thing but unfortunately is now just normal-sized, has got his elbow on the bar and his back to me.

“Hey Bear,” I say.

He turns to face me since I poked his back. “Lucy, hi,” he says. “You look good.”

I sit, thank him and he nods back. Always was a nodder. Would nod to just about anything I said to him, asked of him, did to him. Which meant I did most everything first with Bear. First person I stole my father’s chewing tobacco for, first person I skipped class with, went swimming in the drainage canal with, stayed out all night with. Asked him to kiss me when we were fourteen. Asked him if he wanted to see me naked and do other things pretty much right after that. He just nodded and nodded and then I’d go ahead and do it.

Even during graduation when I flashed my naked chest to the entire population of Jawbreak, snatched up my temporary diploma and lit the thing on fire with my rainbow-colored Bic — there was Bear with his big shoulders, sitting in his folding chair, holding his intact piece of paper, nodding.

It was a little impulsive, the thing at graduation. I get it; it was weird. But I was eighteen, proud of my pale breasts and also unaware of what being in Mother’s presence for thirteen months or longer did to me. Also, I didn’t know that I’d have to wait two weeks for the real diploma to arrive in the mail which meant I couldn’t catch a plane right after the ceremony, robe and tassel hat still on, which was something I had been fantasizing about for a good long while. So, I was pissed.

“You here with Eve?” Bear asks, like I can’t just be here on my own.

“I’m here with my mother,” I say as I pour a little bit of beer down my throat and watch Bear watch me.

“How’s the family?” I ask, eyeing his wedding ring.

“Oh you know, the same. We got another one on the way. Hill’s real excited, boy this time. How long you in town for?”

“Just the night. Same as always,” I say. “Congratulations on the kid.”

I thump his average shoulders with my palm, laugh a little, and try to do that thing my dad was always doing⎯ pounding on my shoulders with his giant man hand in a way that was encouraging and painful all at once. I tell him I’ve got to go before he can tell me the same and then I spin around on my barstool, take in the people I grew up with, see that some are noticing me but none as much as I’m noticing them.

My back is turned on Bear so he no longer exists which is this thing a colleague of mine once said while sprawled out underneath Botswana skies. He told me things only existed if you were looking at them. Once you turned your back on whatever was there, it stopped Being. Being, as in capital B, Being. He wasn’t joking but I laughed anyways, right before getting real creeped out and whipping around to see if the world was still there. I turn my back on the bear now though and the move makes me pure and strong and confident and I look at the front door to see if it’s intimidated.

Instead, I see Eve.

She’s already looking at me once my eyes get to her eyes and we just sort of stare at each other for a second before she slings her head in the direction of our table. I spot Elvis where he always is, sandwiched between the sugar caddy and the napkin holder.

I glance over to where I left Mother but see only my satchel.

I mean to hold up a finger to Eve like, give me a minute. I’ll finish my beer, make Eve and Elvis wait while I banish them from this world with my turned back. I’ll collect myself, become Lucy that is not into onto beneath, slide off this stool and saunter over. Instead, I just grab my satchel, smooth my wrinkle-less pants and go.

When I get to the table Eve is signaling to the bartender for a beer of her own while I inch the first half of my first thigh in while keeping my weight steady so as not to set the doll off when I sit. That’s when Eve starts talking.

“You brought her right?”

I pause, ass still hanging off the booth and look at my sister. “Nice to see you too.”

“Sorry,” she says and I slide all the way in.

Elvis keeps his trap shut.

Eve sees me looking at him and rolls her eyes before I can do something like reach out and touch the doll’s hips. “Where you coming back from this time?” she asks as her drink is delivered.

I reach for Eve’s beer and pull it towards myself. “Croatia,” I say, then hold her glass up. “Do you mind?” She shakes her head and I drink. “It’s a new International Flooding Initiative. They need hydrologists.”

“Is that still with the UN?” she asks.

I nod. It isn’t.

“And Croatia is in danger of flooding?” She takes her beer back.

“You do know where Croatia is, right?”

My sister sighs, practiced and narrowed, slides the glass back to me.

“How are things with the kids?” I ask, my hands sliding up and down her glass.

The last time I saw her kids was a few years back. By accident. Ran into them at a WinCo the night before we were to meet up. I had a bottle of wine tucked into each armpit when I heard the little one bellowing for fruit roll-ups. It was Mother’s last night with Eve but she wasn’t even with them.

“They’re fine,” Eve says, waves her hand in front of her chest, pushes the air there out of the way. “Moving on?”

I tap the glass against my teeth and then reach down to my satchel which is next to me on the booth. I open the flap and use both hands to yank the other gallon-sized Ziploc out.

I set Mother down on the table with a thud.

Elvis starts singing.

My sister slumps forward a bit, puts her elbows on the table, her face in her hands. It’s the closest either of us has gotten to a prayer-like position around Mother. “A Ziploc, Lucy? Really?” I can barely hear her over “Blue Christmas.” Eve stares at Mother, her eyes on her even as she asks her next question. “What happened to the urn?”

“Getting her through customs was a bitch,” I say. Elvis breaks into the throaty part of the song and I notice for the first time a small tear at the top of Mother’s bag, right beneath the double zipper. “Besides, Mom likes the idea of fitting into a Ziploc. Efficient.” The edges of the tear are jagged, like it got caught on something. I wonder if there’s some spilled Mother in the bottom of my bag. Ultra-strong and durable, hefty Ziploc my ass.

“Mother wasn’t efficient,” Eve says.

I don’t say anything. If there is one real rule between us it’s that we don’t discuss who Mother was and who Mother is. Mother felt like shit when Eve and I were still kids so she chased eighteen Vicodin tablets with a Starbuck’s Venti iced tea.

“What did you do with it?” Eve asks and I rotate Mother so that the tear is facing me and not Eve, dip my finger in just a bit to touch her. “Luce, stop it.”

I snap my hand back. “Hm?”

“The urn. What did you do with it?”

The King finishes his song, his hips frozen in a harsh left thrust. I reach out for Mother again. She’s right there and visible and it’s hard not to. I prop her up a bit, even her out so she doesn’t slouch over and spill onto the sticky floor. My palms fall onto the bulk of her, my fingers squeeze together as the heels of my hands sink down. Even through the plastic I can still feel the individual granules of her. I bring my fingers up like a tee-pee. A tee-pee on a sandbank. Then I answer the question, “tossed it at security.”

*  *  *

I was eleven when Mother committed suicide. The most spectacular part of the story was that she committed suicide. It turned out to be a fucked up brain chemistry thing which meant when people asked why, we were just left with, it happened. Nothing bad came before, the actual thing wasn’t messy and no one meaningful found her. We didn’t see it coming but Dad always said that was because we didn’t have her brain and it was a stupid question for people to ask us anyways. She did it in her car in the middle of summer. Eve and I were at swim camp and Dad was at work and by the time the police found her, parked in a thirty minute only zone, we hadn’t even missed her yet.

Dad had her cremated and Eve said we should spread the ashes somewhere nice like the mountains or in the empty lot at the end of the cul-de-sac. I said that I wanted to keep her and Dad just said, okay.

So I did.

The first day of sixth grade I put Mother, urn and all, into my backpack and I took her to school with me. The kids in my grade made a big deal over never mentioning their own moms but mostly I think they just felt scared to be near me and mostly I just felt like the heavy weight of Mother, bouncing against my lower back, was nice.

A year later Eve noticed the dark purple bruise at the top of my tailbone, went looking for evidence and put an end to it.

“You’re keeping her in your backpack?”

We’d been home from school for an hour and I was coming back from the kitchen with a paper plate of tortilla strips and melty cheese, when I found her in my room, crouched over my unzipped bag, pointing.

“Well, yeah,” I said because that’s what Eve was looking at.

“Lucy, you can’t do this.”

Eve had that tone infused into her voice that meant I was embarrassing her. Like everything I did was designed to fuck with her precious high school social standing which was pretty much already in the toilet due to Mom up and off-ing herself.

“You’re a shitty freshmen, Eve,” I told her, feeling the newly discovered power of curse words on my tongue. “Nobody gives a bullshit what your little sister is doing with her dead mom.”

Eve ignored my singular ownership over Mother, something I did so she’d yell at me and I could shout the word “Mom” at her and she could shout the word “Mom” back and we could be kids that didn’t have to learn how not to use that word.

Instead she went with, “Nobody gives a bullshit?” She smirked at me and it had some kind of instant charge that turned my cheeks bright red. “That’s not even how you use it, dumb ass.”

“Get out of my room!”

“No,” she shouted, then pointed a finger at Mom. “This is bullshit. Keep her under your bed or on your bookshelf like a freakin’ normal person.”

“I’ll do whatever I want! Dad said so. He gave her to me.”

“She’s our mom, Luce! You don’t own her.” Eve reached into my backpack and grabbed Mother, pulled her out and held the white heavy ceramic in both hands.

I flew towards her then. “Don’t you dare take her!” Ready to punch Eve in her stupid nose if she even tried to get out of my room with the urn. Eve, four years older and already tall like a total giant just put her hand out and pushed my shoulder down so I was forced to my knees. She was out the door and in the hallway by the time I stood up and sprinted after her.

“I’m putting her here!” Eve declared, looked at the shelves that were scattered along the hallway and were too far up the wall for me to reach. They were full of picture of us all smiley and vacationy and before.

“Eve, please.” I reached up and wrapped my hands in Eve’s shirt, pulled like I was five and she was Mom and wouldn’t pick me up. “I’ll keep her in my room. I promise. I promise,” I said, the words frantic and rushed and I pushed them out as fast as I could. I’d known Eve my entire life so I really knew her and I knew once she set Mother down, took her hands off and stood back, she wouldn’t change her mind.

Which is what she did. She removed her hands and I wailed.

Eve looked down at me then and I was crying hard but my eyes were wide and trying to see her and for a moment Eve’s face did this thing it rarely ever did. It opened and it softened and she put her hand on my face, right on it, half on my cheek and half on my nose and a bit on one eyelid. It was this containing grip on my face, like she was trying to hold all of my emotion on it and also like maybe she was trying to stop it from spreading.

“Lucy,” she said, “this is for the best.”

She let go of me then and I went all the way down. My face was heavy and hot and on the floor as I kept yelling but she walked behind me and away. “You’re bullshit Eve,” I shouted, mouth laden and open and the taste of carpet fibers on my tongue.

*  *  *

“I’ll get a new urn,” Eve says as she looks at my hands which are still poised over Mother’s sternum.

“You won’t,” I say. “We all know you won’t.”

“She’s dead, Luce!” Eve slaps her thighs with open palms, eyes wide and mouth pinched. “This isn’t her.” She points at Mother like she’s not the thing that birthed us and soothed our faces and explained how the red lights on our side of the freeway were brake lights and the white lights on the other side of the freeway were head lights and how all cars had both and we weren’t on teams or anything like that. She smacks at my hands with the backs of hers but I pull Mother closer to me and hunch forward to protect her from the onslaught.

“Fuck,” Eve says, sits further back into the booth as I slide Mother off the table but keep her on the bench next to me, close and tucked into my hip. I run a hand flat along the table, the little seeped out trail of Mother sticking to my palm. I pull the zippy part of her bag open just enough for it to pucker up.

“You’re really losing it, aren’t you?” Eve asks.

I dust my palm. The hefty Ziploc promise comes true when I hear the seal stick together as I zip Mother up. I scoot a little bit closer to the cold heaviness at my hip and look back up at Eve. “It has been thirteen months,” I say.

Eve looks stricken for a moment, but then the moment passes and her face still looks like that, all worried and scared. Scared for me but also like she’s scared for all the fucked-up family genes that are probably swirling around inside her kids too.

“Seen Dad lately?” I ask.

Eve shakes her head, tells me she doesn’t want to talk about Dad and it occurs to me for the first time how maybe this thing I’ve got with Mother, this into onto beneath is somehow like the thing Eve has with Dad. This big something that feels like so much rage and anger that it exceeds its limit, has nowhere to go and so it loops straight back around into love. When Mom swallowed those pills it did something to me, put something in me that I could never push aside, grow past, bury. That wasn’t the thing that gutted Eve. It was Dad and it was the booze that u-turned its way back into his life, gripped the sides of his face and pulled him permanently under. For years I woke up in the middle of the night to Eve screaming at him, telling his slumped form and glassy eyes that he had to do something, fix something, try something. That he had to stare at the scary. Which was me. Which he didn’t. Which meant Eve had to.

“Lucy, listen,” Eve finally says, grabs my sticky hands and slides them to the middle of the table with hers on top, pressing down until all four hands are just one thing. “I’ll get something nice, okay. A nice urn, I promise.”

            I don’t know what to say so I give the Elvis papers their due and when I’m done, Eve is still there and our hands are still one mass. I focus hard until I feel her hands separate from mine, still pressed together and on top, but not all the same thing. Hers are rigid and flexed and when I look up her face is impassive. She always did store the worst of her thoughts in her hands. I know her and I will not let her be the one to remove her hands first, step back from me and watch me wail.

“No,” I say.

She starts in but I slide my hands out from underneath hers. I gather Mother up and slip her back into my satchel. I spit carpet fibers from my tongue.

“She stays with me,” I say, standing up and not even giving Elvis a cursory glance. “You can’t take her from me. I won’t allow it.”

“Lucy,” Eve says. “Stop this. She wouldn’t want this for you.”

But that is where my sister is wrong. She doesn’t know how Mother loves the heat of the Gobi desert and the skyline of Israel. She doesn’t know how Mother is no longer the woman that was always only half happy and who was always only half listening. She doesn’t know that she has become this new other mother who never pulls her hands away and never steps back after she has done something unspeakable, but who instead steps closer and leans in more and is always, always there.

I am wanting to tell her that, but I don’t know how so I am silent.

Eve asks if I remember what Dad always said.

“About the staring at the scary?”

She shakes her head. “About the booze and his brain.”

“It isn’t the booze and it isn’t the brain, but the booze and the brain, together,” I parrot.

She nods.

I hate her.

“Goodbye, Eve,” I say, ready to be out of The Stampede and ready to be out of Jawbreak. She tries to say one more thing, but I am giving my farewell nods to both Elvis and the door hinges⎯ I won’t be back for them. I face my sister one last time and offer her a small grin. We will never agree on this and that is a truth we both know. I turn my back on her and leave.

The second I do she is gone. My colleague was right⎯ it is absolute.

*  *  *

When Mother and I get back to the hotel I call up room service and order us steak. While we wait, I change our flight to a red-eye for tonight. The man who delivers our dinner has on a double-breasted coat lined with brass buttons, twin trails that are the guardrails for his insides. He is sewn in tight from pelvis to chin and I ask him if he is married.

He tells me yes. I have approached him from the side, have run my strong palm down his leg and squeezed his ankle. He is a horse and his hoof comes up as quickly as his answer.

“I like these,” I say, my pointer finger hovering above his belly. I do not touch his brass highway lanes but I am touching the air they are touching and he is looking.

His eyes are siding on too wide and I know it is because he is not sure what this is. If I were less pretty it would be weird but I’m not so he is still standing here.

“Uniform,” he says. Chokes it out and keeps his lips parted. I stare at the inside of his mouth and wait for him to say more. My finger strokes a button. “Mandatory,” he finishes, right as my index goes in for the double tap.

He doesn’t initiate anything else; he also doesn’t take ownership of his still open mouth. Instead he watches me take my hand back and he watches me as I take a loop around the dining cart that he has rolled in.

Our dinner looks good.

There’s a receipt tucked in underneath the edge of the plate. Turns out this steak costs thirteen dollars too.

I tell the man about a steak I once ate in Oslo and how it was smothered in this pepper sauce and how the restaurant had taxidermy buffalo heads and belt buckles on the wall and the steak was supposed to taste like here and the place was supposed to remind me of here but instead it just tasted like there and felt like there and never once did I have some flash of a moment that made me think I was home. I look at the knife that came with the steak, touch the handle a bit, but only with one finger, and when I look back up the waiter his face tells me he is having all sorts of fucked up thoughts about it.

This man has said three words to me. He is standing in the middle of my room with his parted mouth and his yes uniform mandatory, and so I know he is a malleable man and he is married to a malleable woman. I am sure of it. He goes home in the evenings and pushes brass buttons out of waxy threaded loops, takes the yes uniform mandatory coat off and feels loose. His insides are held tight all day, compressed in and solid-like and I wonder if the letting out of all that flesh feels like something scary. If his insides go slippery without their restraints and if he watches himself leak out and knows the job it will be to stuff himself back in come morning. Or maybe his wife has cool hands that hold his torso in, that wrap firmly and tightly and feel good. I could be her. I could coax this man, this man with the fish mouth and the horse legs into removing his coat and showing me what happens. I could try my hands on his stomach and chest and neck and I too could be made to mold. He and I will be easy hands and easy insides and parted lips only.

We will smile Eve’s happy smile and Eve will recognize me then. My sister will say how she likes these new hands of mine. She will say the compliments to my hands and insides and lips because I won’t be face or brain or thirteen months of damaged heart. She will shout it over and over, “I recognize you now! I like you now!” But my hands won’t be able to hear that, will not be able to comprehend it so nothing will change and then I will be stuck with this man who is stuck in this hotel and is having scary thoughts about what I am planning to do with my knife. I give him a tip and ask him to leave.

The knife that has come with the steak is more plastic handle than serrated steel. But when I hold it flat and on my palm gravity pitches it forward so it flips tip first into the carpet. I know that it is a good and heavy blade. I drop down next to it, pull my satchel onto my lap and carve out a hole in the bottom corner of my leather bag. It’s not easy this task, but soon I’ve got the stabbing motion down and the shiny leather is now streaked with white scuff marks. There is a silver dollar sized gap exactly where the seams meet.

I pack everything up. I leave some money for house keeping.

The floor seems too casual so I gather Mother and move to the center of the bed.

I pull my legs up so they are close to my heart and my feet are flat and my stomach has a wall of other body parts protecting it and making me feel safe. Mother molds herself to the ridges of my kneecaps.

“This next part isn’t going to hurt,” I tell her as I grip the bottom corners of the Ziploc, push in a bit so she bunches up and is right at eye-level.

Maybe Dad was right and maybe it isn’t Mother and it isn’t me but me and Mother, together.

The ridges of my spine carry only a hint of coldness.

Eve’s movie version of this is Mother leaning over a cloud looking at me, crying big and round and really blue tears at the idea of this still being a thing. Well, yeah, no shit. Mother has always been a contributor, participant, provoker of who I am and if Mother didn’t want to forever be the contributor participant provoker then Mother shouldn’t have ended herself.

I have tried so hard to remember the last thing Mother said to me when she still had things like hands insides lips. I can’t. There are whole books that list the last things people have said before they died, but they are for kings and inventors and people about to be lethally injected. They’ve got record of the last words they said to their kids and their wives, their physicians, nemesis and some to a whirl of descending light that was probably their god. I have no way of knowing Mother’s. But she was always polite and would have said thank you when she went through the Starbuck’s drive-thru so that was probably it and that’s a shitty one.

We’re so close, Mother and I, sitting like this with my hands holding her and like always it is mostly nice. I tell her that she doesn’t have to leave, that if she decides to stay I will take her with me always. We will go back to Croatia. We will dip our hands into every water source. We will trace the rivers until we end up at ocean. We will swim in every large body of water that the world offers. Whatever she wants, we will do it. We will dive headfirst into the Adriatic Sea and we will take the steak knife with us and spend our days butchering green mermaids. We will sell their hides and never own cars and we will color Christmas with whatever shade we want. I press my forehead right into her, feel the sandbar mold and make room even as I squeeze my hand over the tear in her Ziploc. I shift my face down and bury my nose deep. It is the only version of her lap that I know and it is happening on an ugly comforter in a town where it only takes thirteen dollars to ruin something so completely.

Mother tells me this is not the end, that it is okay to be affected and affected still. I tell her how there is so much I am still wanting to do in this world. I tell her how I’d like for her to bear witness to it if she so chooses. I cry a bit because no shit, this is emotional.

We have to leave so I stand up, wrap the steak in the front page of the newspaper that was delivered to my room earlier and pull my suitcase to the door. I pick Mother up from the bed with both hands and with one final squeeze I tip her over and set her zipper side down inside my leather bag. Holding my wrapped meat in front of me, my satchel on one shoulder and suitcase in the other, I head for the elevator and wait to be delivered to the lobby.

I take my first bite as I stand outside and wait for the cab. I take smaller bites of it on the way to the airport. I fold the newspaper down a bit and out of the way while the driver pulls my suitcase out. “Thank you,” I say to him and my voice sounds just like Mother’s. I adjust my leather satchel, walk inside and take some bigger bites while I wait in line at security. I chew on the fat while I am patted down. “Thank you, thank you,” I tell them all. I finish it after I’ve boarded, am crumbling the headlines and stuffing them into the pocket of the seat in front of me while the safety video plays. I’ve got steak juice on my hands when the plane takes off.

Maybe it was⎯ have a good day at camp, sweetheart. Or maybe⎯ I’m going to ruin you, dear. Or even⎯ this is my brain and that’s the end of it.

I request a napkin. “Thank you so much.”

The overhead lights dim soon after and passengers all over the plane are reaching up to flick them off completely. It is in the almost darkness that I gather enough of my own insides together to pull my bag onto my lap.

To reach in with both hands is like wanting too much of something so I slip just one hand, my left, into the satchel until I feel plastic. I have touched these layers of Ziploc before. I’ve done it without thought and without care. It is what is inside that is something to know, but now, inside this flying beast where it is mostly quiet and mostly dark and surrounded by strangers, the plastic itself means something too. It contains her, holds her together, makes her this thing that I can look at and recognize and pull towards me and push away and zip into my luggage and stroke and punch and grip and she is one solid mass that always feels heavy and is not lacking, is not full of iced tea, is not parked in a thirty minute zone, and is everything, everything I thought Mothers should be.

My fingers stroke the entire length and width of the Ziploc and not once do I encounter her.

When I run my palm along the entire perimeter of the bag I come up empty. It cost her exactly thirteen dollars to end it and it seems impossible that something so vast and something with so much weight on my life could be done with less than a single month’s allowance. My finger pokes through the rip of the Ziploc and then straight through to the shredded leather until I can see the pink of my fingertip. I am no longer into onto beneath. It is warm down here, terrifying but warm.

Mother, I whisper, chant it over and over and it is the only voice in this whole big sea of sleeping humans. Mother, I say, my chest going loose and my insides wishing desperately for a double-breasted coat. I wonder where she landed. How much of her is in the elevator, on the sidewalk, in that cab, or even at my feet as they press into the belly of this plane. Was there a moment, plastic cup pressed to her lips and the hard edges of pills filling up her throat, where she thought this choice⎯ so complete in its absoluteness⎯ was exactly wrong? I have no way of knowing. My back is turned and Mother no longer exists.

 

 

BIO

jacsmith2Jac Smith is from Long Beach, California. She received a B.A. in Psychology from California State University, Long Beach. She was a recipient of the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program Scholarship. Recently she quit her job, left civilization and moved to the small mountain town of Green Valley Lake where she is pursuing writing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

The Spoiled Child

by Tessa Yang

 

 

When Evelyn Farnsworth noticed her daughter, Gracie, ridiculing the hunchbacked boy on the playground, her first cowardly impulse was to pretend this wicked girl was no child of hers. It was easy. So easy, Evelyn wondered why she’d never tried it before. She had only to fake deafness, bow her head, and gaze placidly at the crossword puzzle in her lap—just another mom, fending off boredom at the playground.

As a rule, Evelyn viewed crosswords as the banal pastime of precocious college students and old people desperate to prove their mental acuity (at fifty-two years of age, she had long since stopped being the former and hoped she had at least a decade before succumbing to the latter). But she’d picked up the Wednesday crossword last week in the waiting room at the dentist, just to give it a go, and was annoyed to learn she could only solve a half a dozen clues. Since then she’d been carrying the crossword around with her everywhere, hopeful that each change in environment would inspire her with another answer—a theory which had so far proven untenable. After all, if a Sunday afternoon trapped at the playground didn’t help her think of a four-letter synonym for “inane,” Evelyn didn’t know what would.

Still she persevered, alone on her bench near the merry-go-round, tuning out the chitchat of the young moms and the squeals of their children, until a flurry of motion made her look up to see her daughter and the hunchbacked boy wrestling on the ground.

By the time Evelyn got there, it was all over, the kids having been separated by a dad on scene. The hunchbacked boy sobbed into the breasts of his babysitter, but Gracie maintained a fierce, unbroken scowl until Evelyn had marched her back to the bench. Then her small face crumpled. Her shoulders began to shake.

“He—pulled—my—hair,” she whimpered, each syllable tight with the effort of restraining full sobs.

When Evelyn had gotten engaged to an Asian man, her mother had warned her that their children would look nothing like her. “No problem,” Evelyn had said. “If I’m displeased with the results, I’ll just return to sender.” Her mother had been correct as far as Evelyn’s boys were concerned. Cal and Roger were Allens in miniature, right down to the wild cowlicks in their thick dark hair. Evelyn used to get outraged when people asked “where she had gotten them,” as if she were some crazy white lady who kidnapped Asian babies at the mall.

Gracie, a surprise pregnancy, had also been a surprise to look at: Evelyn’s green eyes and pointed chin and even traces of Evelyn’s blondeness, visible as faint reddish highlights in Gracie’s brown hair. No one ever thought she was adopted. Instead they said, “Like mother, like daughter” or “She has your eyes.”

Tears sparkled on Gracie’s cheeks. Evelyn wiped them away with her thumbs. This was not the first conflict her daughter had been involved in. Gracie was bossy and defiant and proud. She seemed to dislike other children, or to think herself better than them. What few play-dates Evelyn had arranged ended with Gracie sealing herself up in her room, leaving the chattering playmate to trail Evelyn around the house. There were emails from school. Parent-teacher conferences that felt like criminal trials. Evelyn supposed this ought to be a long-delayed Teaching Moment on her part, a chance to quote the golden rule and explain that teasing special kids was wrong.

But hadn’t Gracie suffered enough?

The merry-go-round squeaked, and children screeched joyfully, and Evelyn saw on her daughter’s stunned, tear-streaked face the dismay at having had her first real encounter with violence. Some innocence had gone out of her. Some sense of safety had been snuffed out.

Suddenly, Evelyn wanted nothing more than to wrap her daughter in her arms and murmur that things would be all right, which she did, right there on the playground, kneeling in the overgrown grass.

“How about we go out for ice cream?” murmured Evelyn. “Would you like that?”

She felt Gracie’s head nodding against her.

Evelyn rose and led the way to the parking lot. She felt weary, wrung out like a dishrag. She had worked as a full-time accountant all through her sons’ upbringing and had never expected her role as stay-at-home mom to be more demanding than her career. But she was confident that her course of action had been correct. Gracie had learned a hard lesson. They would drive to the dairy, eat some ice cream, maybe pick up something on the way home for dinner. And that would be that.

 

But of course, that was not that. That could never ever be just that, because the next day, when Evelyn was idling in the parking lot of Cleary Road Elementary, poring over her crossword while the rest of the moms left their cars to gossip in the sunshine, someone approached her Subaru and rapped on the half-lowered window.

Evelyn looked up from her crossword, which she’d spread across the steering wheel. An unfamiliar woman stood beside her car, half bent, so that she and Evelyn were eye-to-eye.

“Hi there.” The woman smiled. She was younger than Evelyn—who wasn’t these days?—and she had the slim shoulders and small, perky breasts of a J.C Penney store mannequin. Her blonde hair jutted from the back of her head in a short ponytail. She wore fluorescent spandex, as if she’d been called away in the midst of a workout. “I’m so sorry to bother you, Mrs. Farnsworth,” said the stranger. “One of the other moms pointed out your car. I’m Fiona Waters. Arthur’s mom?”

“Oh,” said Evelyn. She was baffled. Who the hell was Arthur? The woman continued to smile too widely, like someone who had something to sell. And then it hit her. Oh shit, Evelyn thought. Mother Hunchback. In the flesh.

She took off her seatbelt and climbed out of the car. The day was cloudless and beautiful. The shaggy heads of willow trees tossed and nodded in the breeze, sending shadows skittering across the pavement. Fiona Waters shook Evelyn’s hand. Her stubby nails were flaked with fading pink polish and bitten down to the skin.

“I was so sorry when Kara told me what happened yesterday at the playground,” said Fiona. “I wish I could have been there to handle it. We don’t use a sitter very often, but my husband’s hospital was sponsoring a charity golf tournament downtown. I want you to know,” she said, her voice quiet now, conspiratorial, “that I had a very serious talk with Arthur about his behavior. He had no right to lay a hand on your daughter, no matter what she said.”

“Oh. Thanks,” said Evelyn, taken aback. “I mean, yeah, I had a pretty good talk with Gracie, too.”

Fiona smiled again. There was something about her, a fake quality that did not exactly make her unpleasant, though it put Evelyn on edge. Also she didn’t like Fiona’s wording, no matter what she said, as if Gracie had uttered a disgusting racial slur, when probably she’d just wanted to know what the deal was with that hump.

The bell shrieked from inside the elementary school. The doors flew open and children tumbled out like jelly beans from a split bag.

“Break’s over,” said Evelyn. “Back to the grind.”

Fiona laughed, but made no effort to walk away. “You know,” she said, “Arthur is turning eight this weekend. We’re having a little celebration at the house. We’d love it if Gracie would attend.”

“Of course,” said Evelyn. She knew a challenge when she heard one. She took out her phone to make a note of the time and address.

“It’ll be a good opportunity for them to smooth things over,” said Fiona. “I just think it’s so important for kids to move past their differences. Don’t you?”

A few seconds after she had left, Gracie appeared at the car, holding some clay monstrosity from art class. She thrust it into Evelyn’s hands as she climbed into the back seat.

“What’s this supposed to be?” asked Evelyn.

“It’s a giraffe,” said Gracie.

Evelyn looked at the thing, turning it a few different ways in her hands.

“It’s a giraffe that’s been hit by a bus,” clarified Gracie.

 

That night, when her husband got home from work, Evelyn informed him that Gracie had been invited to a birthday party.

“That’s nice,” said Allen.

Evelyn wanted to tell him that it was not nice. That it was a trap, designed to pit one mother against another in the type of smiling warfare she had not participated in since high school. But Allen was taking off his tie, washing his hands at the sink, eyes staring blankly at his reflection in the darkened kitchen window in a way that meant he was already thinking about something else. And truthfully, Evelyn was embarrassed, having nothing to show for her day but petty squabbles between moms in the elementary school parking lot.

Gracie joined them at the table for her dinner, separately cooked, because she ate only variations of mac and cheese and a few slender green beans if you were lucky, drank only chocolate milk or lemonade out of the glass with the twirly straw. Bedtime was next. Gracie didn’t usually give Evelyn any trouble in this area—the seven-year-old sucked up sleep greedily, like a teenager—but tonight she had all sorts of crazy demands. Cups of water for her stuffed animals. Wearing sneakers to bed. Evelyn finally switched off the lamp, walked into the hallway, and slammed the door.

“Turn on that light! I dare you,” she shouted through the closed door. Gracie did not respond. Evelyn stood in the hallway, fighting the urge to go back in, to apologize or scream some more, she wasn’t sure. When she entered the master bedroom, Allen was just replacing her cell phone on the nightstand.

“Roger called,” he said.

“Does he want me to call him back?” asked Evelyn, already halfway to the nightstand. Her younger son had an entry-level position at a bank in San Francisco and did not keep in touch as well as his brother. Roger had always been private like that, a bit of a mystery. One time when he was about Gracie’s age, Evelyn walked into his room with a basket of laundry to find him kneeling on the floor before his bed, little hands tented onto the mattress. He was praying. Allen was a staunch atheist, Evelyn a lapsed Catholic. Neither of their sons had ever been to church. Evelyn had wanted to ask Roger where he’d learned. Instead, overcome by sudden embarrassment, she tiptoed out of the room.

“He said he was on his way out,” said Allen. “Dinner.”

“Oh.” Evelyn squeezed her cell phone and let it drop onto the nightstand.

“I’m just gonna say goodnight to Gracie,” said Allen.

“I wouldn’t,” said Evelyn. “I barely got out of there alive.”

He disappeared down the hall. Gracie didn’t hassle him like she did Evelyn, or maybe Allen just knew how to handle it better. Eight years ago, when the unexpected pregnancy had first presented itself, Evelyn was the one who’d suggested she stay home with the baby. It seemed logical. The cost of daycare had skyrocketed since the days when Cal and Roger were little. Her full-time salary barely covered the expense, and part-time wasn’t even worth the effort. What Evelyn hadn’t anticipated was how stay-at-home motherhood would feel less like something she and Allen were doing together, and more like a secret she needed to keep from him.

It hadn’t been easy for Allen, either. He could no longer carry out the father’s obligatory athleticism as he had with the boys. Couldn’t keep up with Gracie as she raced through the backyard, or fling her squealing into piles of leaves and snow. But his failings were private, confined to weekends in the backyard. Evelyn couldn’t hide the fact that she didn’t speak the same language as this new generation of mothers, who enthusiastically micro-managed every moment of their son or daughter’s day.

Allen came back into the room, smiling.

“She’s a good kid,” he said.

“I never said she wasn’t,” said Evelyn.

He went into the bathroom. Evelyn heard the familiar elasticky rip of Band-Aids as they were removed from skin. In the past month Allen had begun to develop warts on his fingers, and the freezing solution he applied turned the warts to squishy nubs the color of bird poop. He wore Band-Aids to work to avoid repulsing clients. Evelyn would find these sticking to the sides of the garbage can each morning. She and Allen had a policy where he was not allowed to touch her during the wart-freezing process. She felt bad about this and so couldn’t bring herself to mention the Band-Aid situation, even though she was getting extremely tired of having to un-stick them from the can.

 

On Thursday night, Evelyn drove to Prospero’s Italian Eatery for her standing dinner date with Debbie Fager. The Fagers had lived next door to Evelyn and Allen for sixteen years. Their son, Louie, an affably stupid boy who was always getting Frisbees and tennis balls stuck on roofs, had been an obligatory playmate for Evelyn’s sons when they were small. Debbie and Ron Fager had downsized after Louie went away to college, moving full-time into their house on Keuka Lake. More recently, they had divorced, and Debbie had returned to the city, prompting the renewal of the Thursday night dinners she and Evelyn had suspended over six years before.

“I don’t miss it, though,” Debbie was saying, as Evelyn consulted the wine menu. “It was stuffy and damp in the summertime, and we had these ants…Really it was just old and falling apart.”

“Your marriage?”

“Oh you’re the worst,” said Debbie, swatting Evelyn with her napkin. “You’re really terrible.”

The divorcee’s life was treating Debbie well. She had joined a local book club. She had lost fifteen pounds. She was getting along much better with her sister, who had always detested Ron. Listening to her speak, Evelyn was overcome with the feeling that she no longer had any idea who Debbie was.

“How’s Allen?” Debbie asked as the waiter came by with a basket of bread.

“Good. Great,” said Evelyn. “He’s got a big open house this weekend.” She had a sudden pressing need to tell Debbie about the warts. Instead she took a chunk of ciabatta and swirled it in the dish of olive oil.

The talk turned to children. Louie had landed an internship as a glorified errand boy for some big name in D.C. Debbie, who was paying his rent, spoke of him with the same gushing affection she’d shown throughout his adolescence. Evelyn updated her on Roger and Cal, but of course, Debbie was most interested in hearing about Gracie, this third child who’d sprung into existence just as she herself was fading from Evelyn’s life.

“It’s just so fascinating,” said Debbie, tucking into a plate of eggplant parm.

“What?”

“Doing it all again. The diapers, the nightly feedings…”

“She’s nearly eight now.”

“I don’t know how you’re managing it,” said Debbie, shaking her head. “I give you credit for it. I really do. No way I could do all that again.”

Evelyn looked at her plate of manicotti, which she no longer remotely wanted, having made her usual mistake of filling up on bread.

“Then again.” Debbie paused, fork in midair. She seemed fully capable of carrying on this conversation by herself. “I guess it could be really nice, getting a chance to do it over. You’re older now, wiser. You don’t make the same mistakes. I mean, God knows I had my fuck-ups with Lou. Turned out okay in the end.” She beamed. Evelyn divided her manicotti neatly in half. She expected she would eat it for lunch tomorrow, even though she had this fantasy of saving it for dinner. Gracie and Allen would appear in the kitchen, expecting food, and Evelyn would be sitting there with her manicotti and glass of red wine and a cigarette languidly dangling between two fingers, even though she hadn’t smoked in thirty years and had no ambitions of starting again.

By the meters where Evelyn had parked, Debbie squeezed her into a hug. “It was so fun catching up! You look amazing, by the way. Did I say that already? You really do.”

Evelyn realized she had never learned what led to Debbie’s divorce. How had the subject not arisen? She wanted to know, but it seemed like an awkward time to ask, now that they were saying goodbye. She wondered about it all the drive home. She hoped it was an affair. Affairs were really the only things for divorce. They had that soap opera shine. You could tromp around flinging dishes and screaming to high hell, and no one could say anything against you. But she really did not think either Ron or Debbie was the affair-having type. Probably it had been the usual accumulation of slow, sickly details across time, a gradual distancing, so that one day you looked up from the table and were disoriented by the sight of the person sitting beside you.

Allen had put Gracie to bed by the time Evelyn got home.

“Did she give you any trouble?” Evelyn asked as she hung her keys on the hook.

Gracie? Give a person trouble?” Allen smiled and leaned in to kiss her, his warty hands concealed behind his back.

“Listen,” said Evelyn. “I don’t think Gracie should go to that party this weekend. She doesn’t get along great with the other kids, and I’ve got a lot of stuff to do around the house.”

“But that’s the point,” said Allen. “It’ll be good for her. She’s got to learn how to play nicely with kids her age.”

“But this particular kid…I mean, they were fighting. I don’t want there to be any trouble.”

They’d been moving automatically toward the staircase, Evelyn flicking off lights as they went. Now Allen turned to her. He was fifty-seven, nearly six years Evelyn’s senior, but had the uncanny ability to age himself up or down with small adjustments to his posture and the tone of his voice. At work, he was a young man. Evelyn had witnessed him at showings, limbs loosening, laughter spilling from his lips, buyers flocking to him like moths to a warm light. Just now he’d become older. It was hard to say how. Something in the lips and eyes, and in the rounding of his shoulders. He faced Evelyn unflinchingly and when he spoke, it was with the stony authority one generally associates with movie antagonists and God.

“Gracie will go to the party,” he said. “It’ll be a good chance for her to learn how to play nicely with kids her age, and for you to learn how to play nicely with the other moms.”

Then he went up the stairs, leaving Evelyn seething at the bottom.

She knew she shouldn’t take him too seriously. Allen was like this sometimes at the end of a long day. Perhaps Gracie really had given him a hard time. But as Evelyn slowly climbed the stairs, the sting of his words deepened, not least because they granted her a benefit of the doubt she knew she didn’t deserve. Allen thought Evelyn was being difficult, refusing to “play nicely” with the other moms out of a sense of superiority. He couldn’t see that she was incompetent, that the era of mothering her two little sons was like a country to which she’d relinquished her residency. No: A country to which she’d completely lost the way.

Evelyn was in bed when Allen emerged from the bathroom. He looked like his usual self now, a fifty-seven-year-old man with a little pouch of belly fat hanging over his pajama bottoms and soft creases to either side of his dark eyes. Evelyn feigned great interest in her crossword puzzle as he got into bed.

“How well do you know Fiddler on the Roof?”

“Not well.” He reached out to graze her arm with the heel of his palm. “Hey. I just worry about her sometimes, you know? She’s not great with other kids. And with her brothers so much older…I worry she’s growing up like an only child.”

I’m an only child,” Evelyn said, throwing down the crossword puzzle and glaring.

Allen smiled sympathetically. “Yes, you are.”

 

Evelyn drove straight to the mall after picking up Gracie from school. Really she ought to have done it sometime that morning, but she hated shopping and had this idea that Gracie ought to suffer along with her, it being her fault that Evelyn had to buy a present in the first place. The problem with this plan was that Gracie’s suffering compounded Evelyn’s tenfold. She whined loudly all through Toys R Us, snatched items off shelves, and, when they had finally left the store and were eating Auntie Anne’s pretzels at the fountain in the lobby, revealed a pack of Juicy Fruit gum stolen from the check-out line.

“Give me that,” Evelyn snapped, yanking it from Gracie’s hands. But the prospect of returning to the toy store was too draining to face, so she stuffed the gum into the bottom of her purse.

In spite of herself, Evelyn had purchased for Arthur one of the most expensive Lego sets in the store. A creeping guilt had germinated inside her sometime after the conversation with Allen last night. She woke with it curling and squirming in her stomach. How had things gotten to this point? Cal and Roger had never caused such trouble. The whole plain of Gracie’s childhood seemed to stretch out before her mind’s eye, studded with warning signs she ought to have noticed. Evelyn, glancing down at her daughter licking salt from her fingertips, experienced the queasy sensation of having done an irrevocable wrong.

Around them, people drifted toward the fountain and tossed pennies into the spray. A layer of them covered the tile bottom like a copper carpet. Evelyn would have expected mostly children, but in the ten minutes that they sat finishing their pretzels, she saw two middle-aged couples, an elderly woman with a walker, and several younger adults approach the fountain with pennies clutched in their fists.

Gracie, who’d been watching this procedure closely, asked Evelyn, “Will their wishes really come true?”

“No,” said Evelyn.

She balled up the remains of her pretzel in the salty wax paper. When she returned from the garbage to find Gracie rooting through her purse, she thought her daughter was after the gum. Instead Gracie’s hand emerged with a fistful of loose change. Eyes squeezed shut, lips pressed into a tiny line, she flung the coins blindly. About half entered the water with a series of gentle splashes. The rest rolled in every direction across the floor.

“Now look what you’ve done,” fumed Evelyn. “You go and get those. Go and get them right now.”

Gracie obliged, skittering across the worn linoleum on all fours like a crab, shouting tunelessly as she went, “I wish I was an apple. A hangin’ on a tree!”Passerby laughed at the sight. Everything was funny when it wasn’t happening to you, Evelyn thought grimly. But after Gracie had returned the coins to her hand and they were getting ready to leave, Evelyn tossed a shabby penny over her shoulder into the water, almost like an afterthought.

What should she wish? For Roger to get a promotion at his bank? For Cal to dump that stupid girl? For Gracie to make some friends? Or should she dare to make a wish for herself? A traitorous thought for a mother. But what the hell. Evelyn closed her eyes and sent the wish spinning out into darkness. It had no particulars. It was more like a feeling, pushing upward from the gut. The only words marking it were a vague chant Evelyn could hear reverberating between her ears as she and Gracie walked to the car. Let me. Let me. Let me.

 

Saturday, the morning of the party, Allen rose with watery dawn light seeping through the curtains. Evelyn lay in bed and listened to the sound of the shower running. Back when the boys were little and Evelyn still worked, she was always the first one awake. The early morning hour of peace seemed to renew her before the day even began. Sometimes Cal, a finicky sleeper, would creep in shyly to join her while his little brother stayed in bed. He’d curl up in her lap while she watched CNN, his hair smelling of that sweet staleness that comes only from children just stirred from bed.

At 8:30 when Evelyn went to get her daughter up for the party, Gracie hooked her legs around the bed post and covered her head with the pillow. Once she’d been pried off, she refused to try on any of the dresses Evelyn had laid out for her and insisted on wearing a hand-me-down flannel of Roger’s.

“That’s a winter shirt,” said Evelyn. “It’s 80 degrees out.”

“No,” said Gracie stoutly. Whether this was a denial of the shirt’s seasonal appropriateness or of the current temperature, Evelyn didn’t know, and she didn’t have time to find out. She shoved Gracie into the kitchen and threw a plate of toast at her. Allen, who also appeared to be running late despite his early rising, dumped the rest of his coffee into the sink, kissed Gracie—“you smell like a DAD,” she complained, squirming away—and then Evelyn.

“Look,” he said, extending his fingers. The latest post-wart nubs had peeled off, leaving the skin shiny and fresh.

“Must be a good omen for the showing,” said Evelyn, smiling. “Good luck.”

“Thanks,” said Allen. “Good luck with—” He paused, cocked his head. At the table, Gracie overturned one of the pieces of toast and made a revolted expression as butter dripped thickly onto the plate. “Good luck with everything,” said Allen. He kissed her again, and left.

They drove to the party at half past nine, Gracie slumped in the back seat of the Subaru. Evelyn had not recognized Fiona Waters’ address. Allen had mentioned it was one of the newer developments out at the edge of town. She took the thruway, which was already crammed with cars, young families speeding out to lake houses. The wrapped present sat on the front seat, sunlight gleaming on its silver ribbons.

Gracie was quiet. Cars had this effect on her. Evelyn had discovered this many years ago when Gracie’s infant wailing had yet again woken her and Allen in the middle of the night. Evelyn tried all the usual things. Rocking, singing, feeding, changing. The baby screamed and screamed. Finally Evelyn bundled her up, stuck her in the car seat, and went for a drive. It was January. She could not say what impulse had called her to those slick, shadowy streets. Snowflakes swirled in the headlights. Evelyn drove and drove. She wondered if she was about to do something crazy, about to become one of those mothers whom people described as “snapping,” as if mothers were like twigs that could only take so much pressure before they broke in two.

The baby was silent. Not sleeping, just silent, the gleam of passing street lamps reflected in her eyes. Evelyn drove for what felt like hours, threading in and out of neighborhoods, through empty parking lots, then along country roads where silos wore white hoods of snow. When she got back to the house, Allen was in the kitchen, holding the portable phone. He stared at her. She walked right past him, carried the car seat upstairs, and placed the now sleeping baby in her crib. She and Allen never spoke of the incident. But from then on, if Evelyn got up to tend to the baby in the middle of the night, Allen got up, too.

Evelyn had to circle through Fiona Waters’ neighborhood several times before she found the right address. Once she had, she wondered how she ever could have missed it. In style and size, the house was similar to the colonial homes on either side, but cars packed the spacious driveway and the red turrets of an enormous bouncy castle protruded over the roof. She and Gracie walked around back. Two dozen children of varying ages raced across the lawn. Arthur was easy to spot, frolicking about in a bright red T-shirt and a paper crown. He had the disconcerting habit of narrating his activities in a hoarse yell: “Look at me! I’m running, I’m running! I’m eating an Oreo!”

In addition to the bouncy castle, Evelyn could now see a face-painting station, a dunking booth with a damp teenager sitting glumly on the seat, and one of those portable rock-climbing walls, children bobbing on harnesses like lures on fishing lines.

“Looks like fun,” said Evelyn.

Maybe,” said Gracie, digging the toe of her sandal into the ground.

When Evelyn next looked back at the party, Fiona Waters had materialized so suddenly, it was as if she’d sprouted from the earth. The woman was wearing a carnation pink dress with matching teardrop earrings. Her blonde hair was down, hanging in the sort of loose waves that appeared effortless but had probably required an hour of styling.

“Mrs. Farnsworth, Gracie! So glad you could make it!”

“Call me Evelyn,” said Evelyn. “And thank you. We’re—really excited to be here.” There was a loud ding, followed by a splash, as someone hit the target and the teenager plunged into the tank. “What time should I swing by to pick her up?” Evelyn asked.

“Well you must stay and chat for a little while,” said Fiona emphatically. “Kara”—she reached out an arm, and again, almost miraculously, the young woman from the playground appeared in their midst—“will you take Gracie to get her face painted?”

“Sure,” said the babysitter brightly. “C’mon, Gracie. We can get ourselves painted like cats.”

Gracie shot Evelyn a betrayed look as Kara took her hand and led her into the yard. Fiona linked arms with Evelyn as if they had been friends since girlhood and marched her to the patio, where a group of adults lounged at tables beneath sprawling green umbrellas.

Fiona introduced Evelyn to the group of more or less identical-looking young mothers, and one man Evelyn had expected to be her husband, but turned out to be her brother, Walter. A nearby table, laden with cucumber sandwiches, mini quiches, and fruit tarts, suggested that Fiona had anticipated as many adult guests as there were children. Evelyn wondered at it—when Cal and Roger were small, birthday parties had meant abandoning your kids in the ball pit at Chuck E. Cheese so you could enjoy an afternoon of peace—but she did her best to adapt. She talked about the benefits and drawbacks of Boy Scouts, and suggested a pediatrician to a woman who had just moved to town. Fiona fluttered about in her pink dress, proffering food and dipping into conversations just as they were starting to lag.

Look at me, Allen, Evelyn thought, plucking a cucumber sandwich from a platter. Look at how nicely I’m playing.

She managed to detach herself from the group and join Walter at the edge of the patio. He wore a sour, jaded expression that made her feel an instant kinship with him. Under closer inspection, he was also nearer to Evelyn’s age. When she asked him if any of the children were his, he pointed to the teenage boy sitting rigidly on the dunking booth bench as another group of children lobbed balls at the target.

“Little fucker took my Camry out for a joy ride,” said Walter. “He won’t be making that mistake again.”

Walter sold medical equipment to the city hospital where Derrick, Fiona’s husband, headed up the surgical transplant team. He was recently divorced, and his sister seemed determined to get him to attend as many family events as possible.

“She pities me,” he said with a small shrug. “She means well.”

He asked Evelyn which kid belonged to her.

“The pissed off-looking one in the flannel,” said Evelyn. She’d been keeping an eye on Gracie all through their conversation, monitoring for any signals of impending conflict. Things looked all right. Gracie had just emerged from the bouncy castle and was swatting at her static-ridden hair. But because Walter had confessed his failings to her, Evelyn felt a pressing need to share something of her own anxieties. She told him matter-of-factly about Gracie and Arthur’s fight on the playground, and Fiona’s subsequent invitation. When she had finished, Evelyn expected his disapproval. She craved it. Instead, Walter laughed. Said he bet half the kids there had been involved in a scrape with Arthur at one time or another.

“He picks fights,” said Walter. “The school wants to throw him out. Derrick says he’ll slap a lawsuit on their asses so fast they won’t know what hit them. But Fiona, she just wants everyone to get along.” He smiled and shook his head, as if both he and Evelyn knew what to think of that idea.

After Walter had excused himself to load up on mini quiches, Evelyn stayed for a while and watched the children playing in the yard. Now that she was paying attention to something other than Gracie, she noticed that they had given Arthur a wide berth. The boy had just gotten his face painted to resemble a butterfly. He charged across the grass toward the dunking booth—“I’m running! I’m running!”—and the group of girls gathered there scattered. Bypassing the rubber ball, he threw his whole weight against the target and dropped his cousin into the water, hooting. Then he was off again, carving a path through the yard, hurtling into a boy who was thrown completely off his feet. The boy had been clutching a balloon. Freed from his grasp, it rose up and up until it had surpassed the turrets of the bouncy castle, and the child, realizing his loss, let out an agonized wail.

Evelyn turned and headed back to the car. She had seen enough. It was a quarter after eleven. There would hardly be a point in driving home, but she’d passed a public park on the way into the neighborhood. She figured she might sit there and work on her crossword puzzle until it was time to retrieve Gracie from the party. Then it occurred to her that what she really wanted was to talk to one of her sons. She seemed to remember Roger had some volunteer engagement Saturday mornings, but Cal might just be sitting on his deck in Philly, tossing sticks for the dog, his cell phone face down on the patio table that had been Evelyn and Allen’s first piece of furniture in that tiny apartment they shared in 1987. They were the first of their friends to get married, the first to have children. How special it had made them feel. As if a snug domestic existence were their personal secret. As if it had not all been played out millions of times before.

Evelyn was almost out of the neighborhood when she saw the wrapped present forgotten on the passenger seat. Fuck it. She’d donate the Legos to charity. But before she’d gone another half mile, she turned around and returned to Fiona Waters’ house.

The backyard had become overcrowded with children. In an instant, Evelyn realized why: Arthur had entered the bouncy castle, prompting a mass exodus of the kids who had been inside. The party had arrived at an uncomfortable standstill. The boy who’d lost his balloon sat on the ground with his hands over his ears, perhaps refusing to move until he was given a replacement. The teenager had quit the dunking booth. He and Walter were now engaged in a shouting match behind the hedge. Two or three mothers were discreetly collecting their children and hurrying them out of the yard, deaf to Fiona’s protests as she stood on the patio, balancing a cake in her arms. It was a sheet cake, white with blue frosting. A blue plastic number eight candle protruded from the center. For the first time, Evelyn wondered where Fiona’s husband was. At work? Out of town? Why would he not be here to help her manage this chaos? Fiona set the cake on the table. Its tiny flame quivered in the breeze. Something about the sight moved Evelyn into action.

Gracie was milling around near the snack table, but she slouched across the yard when Evelyn beckoned.

“No way, José,” said Gracie when Evelyn told her what she wanted her to do.

“Gracie Marie Farnsworth,” said Evelyn.

Gracie shrank inside her flannel. She peered at Evelyn for a moment, as if weighing the threat behind those words. Evelyn fully expected her daughter to remain defiant. Why should this time be any different than all the others? Yet it was different, somehow. Evelyn knew it. Gracie must have known it, too. She turned and trekked back across the yard. At the doorway to the bouncy castle, her sandals joined the heap of sneakers and flip-flops unclaimed by the kids who’d fled the place a few minutes before.

The dispute between Walter and his son had escalated. Expletives erupted from behind the hedge. The remaining children had begun an impromptu game of toilet tag, dodging the mothers who attempted to reclaim them. The cake now abandoned, Fiona recovered the tray of dwindling cucumber sandwiches and thrust it under the nose of each adult who tried to leave. It was at least a minute before anyone noticed the cries going up from the bouncy house.

Through the black netting of the castle’s windows, Evelyn could see her daughter and Arthur leaping up and down, ricocheting off the walls like ping-pong balls. The entire structure rocked and heaved with their exertions. They came together, seized hands, and toppled as one onto the floor, only to spring upward again, legs flailing. Arthur’s voice was a delighted, high-pitched scream, drowning out the noises of the yard: “Look at us! We’re bouncing! We’re bouncing!”

 

 

BIO

tessayang2Tessa Yang is a second-year MFA candidate at Indiana University where she serves as the Associate Editor of Indiana Review. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Clockhouse, Lunch Ticket, and R.kv.r.y Quarterly. Her short story “Runners” was a finalist for The Cossack Review’s October Prize and will appear in Issue 7. When not reading and writing, Tessa enjoys playing Frisbee and counting down the remaining days until next year’s Shark Week. Follow her on Twitter: @ThePtessadactyl.

 

 

 

DISCLAIMER: This essay does not intend to imply that all bulimics are female, nor that all females are bulimic, but rather attempts to account for the starkly gendered statistics of eating disorders in which those who identify as female outnumber males 10:1.

 

Making Space

by Kym Cunningham

 

It’s presented as a perpetual occurrence, like every time we eat a salad, drink a smoothie, we run for the bathroom door, first two fingers down our throats. Maybe they do exist: people who shove others out of the way, “’scuse me, I gotta go throw up,” before launching themselves into a bathroom stall, knees hugging the pee-stained porcelain base, the smell of disinfectant as sharp as the bile in their mouths.

I’ve never met anyone like this, but then again, I’ve never known a woman willing to talk about bulimia other than the vague “same here” or “me too” that accompanies self-reflective nodding. Bulimia is not something women speak about the way we speak about eating celery to burn calories or drinking products like SkinnyMint to give that extra laxative push in the morning. It is not among the weight-loss strategies approved by fitness experts like Jillian Michaels or up-and-coming fashion icons like Kylie Jenner. There is no American Society of Bulimics to commune with, handing out tips on prevention of enamel decay. Those who participate in this distinctive method of body management know that unlike weight loss, unlike fitness, bulimia is not a social event.

It is personal. It is done in secret, behind locked doors: the shower running to cover the plunk of undigested food. A roll of toilet paper stationed at-the-ready, sheets and sheets to melt against acid-entrenched hands and speckled surfaces. All articles of clothing, apart from underwear, off and to the side, out of the splash zone, same with jewelry and hair ties, except the one currently pulling the follicles up and away, cinching them tightly against the scalp. A glance at the Hawaiian Aloha Febreze to be used after-the-fact, its sweetness designed to mask the air’s telltale souring.

Ready.

Kneel out of respect, leaning like Narcissus over the toilet bowl. Examine flaws as they emerge; the water reflects more clearly than a mirror. A mirror smudges, bows in or out, brightens with artificial bulbs that distort reflection while maintaining the illusion of reality. Water does not pretend. Look too closely at a reflection and it dissolves, revealing the self’s abyss.

Test vulnerability, sticking one, then two fingers down, spasmodic gagging at first—then choking pressure—then release.

Now is the time to be completely open, to revel in the personal, a kind of meditation—imagine it as the most intense form of yogic breath.

Breathe in—and release.

We listen to our body, continuing at our own pace until the bile from the bottom of our stomach tells us that we are finished.

We rinse our hands, turning on the faucet gently with our uncorrupted elbow, massaging slime from between our fingerprints, pushing any errant food particles down the drain. We splash water on our chin, wiping our mouth, investigating the sting of skin split from being forced open. We stare at ourselves in the mirror for a few seconds, cheekbones already more prominent, lips appearing fuller and redder courtesy of laborious flush, before turning our attention back to beauty’s workspace.

We flush once for the larger lumps, watching what seems like pounds of varicolored half-solid baby food disappear into the bottom of the bowl. We wipe the edges of the seat, above and underneath, around the base, checking for splatter on the walls and cabinet sides. We throw the paper mash into the toilet. We grab a new handful and dampen it in the sink, wipe again, erasing every trace of what we have done. We flush again.

As we watch the discolored water swirl down, down, down, and new water come up clean, we survey the tableau, congratulating ourselves on spotless work. We feel satisfied, right down to the core of our beings, in the way that food never seems to satisfy, a way that is only just for us.

Then we remember the shower is running, wasting water, and we strip the rest of our clothes off in graceful feline swoops and embrace the cleansing scald.

With the water seeps guilt—the unnecessary flushing, the rampant toilet paper abuse, of course the shower—self-incrimination growing a drop at a time, until we are forced to acknowledge that the food we just flushed down the toilet could have fed another human being. We become disgusted at our wastefulness, at our privilege, ashamed that we lack self-control and common decency. To salvage some shred of humanity, we tell ourselves this is the last time.

But like so many other lasts—cigarettes, potato chips—this bargaining is part of the ritual.

“How did it start?” psychiatrists ask with tilted heads. The walls are the same—something beige and nonthreatening, or for the new-age shrink, something tranquil, calming—sea-breeze blue. Psychiatrists are master space-manipulators, adept at reconfiguring prototypical office buildings into terrariums blooming with subconscious healing. Their walls bear the correct amount of posters, degrees, etc, not to overwhelm, but to communicate authority, to provide patients the security necessary to abdicate adulthood and responsibility.

Shrinks never do manage to get the furniture right, though. Their chairs are unsightly lumps of puce suede or uncomfortable plasticized geometric angles, Pottery Barn in a funhouse mirror. Perhaps this is for added effect as well, the physical embodiment of the mom-worn cliché: nobody’s perfect.

Because that’s how it started, isn’t it, with the first time we questioned our mothers: why can’t I be perfect? Or, at the very least, how do I convince others that I am, how do I keep myself a secret, safe from everyone but me?

We don’t tell this to those searching eyes, bespectacled or not. Instead, we come up with a date, as though we had circled it on our calendars. “Second semester, sophomore year of high school. I was 16.”

The psychiatrists smile and write something illegible down on their legal pad, confident that they are really getting somewhere. All it takes is time.

They don’t know that the first time was not important, just as the food consumed was not important, or the fact that we were watching shitty tv, or that it was late at night. At some point, it came to us in a thought, sans action: I could throw this up.

And we continued to sit on the couch, each another brownie or two, maybe some Sour Cream ‘n Onion potato chips, before we thought: I should throw this up.

And maybe that first time was in tenth grade, or maybe it was even in middle school, and maybe we did it once and stopped for a few years and then started up again. Or maybe we did it consistently for the better part of a decade or maybe one day we stopped cold turkey or maybe we’re still doing it.

But how can we tell them that the idea just kind of popped into our heads without them looking at us like we were fucking crazy? Because that look is even worse than the look we get when we first tell non-bulimics, that transparent mixture of pity, derision, and curiosity.

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” they say, as though we weren’t doing it to ourselves.

“That’s terrible,” they say, hunkering down for more details.

But we will never tell them all of our secrets. They will never know that the first time we remembered feeling fat was looking at pictures in the first grade, being able to distinguish that our cheeks were chubbier, our belly pudgier, our chin rounder than the gymnasts or soccer players. We will not tell them that we used to resent our younger sisters for their slender legs and tight ribcages. That we still do.

We will never explain to them that we enjoy this selectivity as it allows us to manipulate the conversation, to disclose only what we think they should hear. Bulimia is, after all, all about perception.

It is the perception we crave, the idea that others might see us as strong, as fearless, as instinctively thin. We want to be the heroines we read about in novels, who eat whatever they want, kick ass, and never gain a pound. We want to look effortless in clothing, trick society into believing that we are self-assured, that we do not need to wear make-up. We want everyone to believe that we are the natural ones.

And because bulimia is about perception, the battle of belief over substance surreptitiously flushed down the toilet, it begins with the idea of itself.

Health class, sixth grade. The eighth grade boys whisper dirty suggestions concerning teeth and pubic hair as we try to keep the flush from our faces and our gazes level, actions that to them, resemble coy acceptance. We do not yet understand the art of perception.

The teacher, middle-aged and slightly pudgy, though she seems ancient and fat compared to our youth, lectures loudly on the perils of the unhealthy lifestyle, which include unprotected sex, drugs/alcohol, under-eating, and obesity. At the mention of obesity, the older boys snigger, looking pointedly at Meghan, the largest female student in the class. The teacher does not seem to notice, clicking the slideshow forward to a photo of an emaciated naked back with the words, ANOREXIA NERVOSA, in bold across the top.

The back, unmistakably female, consists mostly of shoulder blades that jut out tightly underneath the skin like frustrated wings. Nodules of spine poke out from between the wings as from a vacuum, then curve back into the ribs’ well-defined corporeal abyss. A light coat of hair, so pale as to almost be translucent, covers the body like a shawl, a last-ditch effort to keep out the cold.

Groans of male disgust undulate through the classroom, but we are silent, holding our breath, shivering under the persistent air-conditioning.

There is no photo for the slide on bulimia, only a terse definition regarding binging and purging, and an eating disorder hotline. The teacher moves on to obesity.

At lunch, we bring questions of biology to our peers, who always seem to know more on this subject than we do.

“I heard Lindsay and them were all drinking last night at Katie’s house.”

“I heard they get alcohol from Lauren’s older brother.”

“I heard Katie’s parents just leave her alone when they go out of town.”

“Oh yeah, and then they invite guys over, and they all make out.”

“Well I heard that Lauren and Jill throw up in the seventh grade bathroom after lunch.”

The bell rings before we can ask why.

After school, we bring a selection of our newly acquired knowledge to our mothers in the form of workbook pages, parent signatures required. Our mothers don’t want to talk about sex any more than we do, but when we get to the section on bulimia, they pause, finger hovering over the word, considering us.

“I was never skinny growing up, you know,” they say to us as though we can imagine that they were ever our age.

We look at them blankly, unsure of where this is going.

“I did a lot of things to make weight in the army, things that were really unhealthy, things that have made it harder for me to lose weight the older I get.”

They shrug, assuming we’re too young to feel the pressure of tight shirts against our stomachs and bikini strings around our love handles. It is this assumption that prevents them from naming it, that keeps it personal, half-secret.

“Anyway, I just don’t want you to make the same mistakes I did when I was young. It’s not worth it.” They sign the page and move on, while we are stuck wondering how they could ever think that we were like them.

We do not think that we are like anyone, or rather, we do not think that anyone is like us. We have been called different since we can remember, and this difference has woven itself into a coat that would totally work if only our waist was—or our thighs were—or if clothes fit correctly, like how they do on everyone else. It would work if only we could forget to be conscious of ourselves and the space that we occupy.

But we cannot forget. We are female, after all, and to be female is to be required to justify our corporeality in society.

We hear the justifications manifest so frequently we don’t recognize them anymore, these arguments over our right to social space. In grocery isles above the M&M’s and 3Musketeers, curvaceous women like Kim Kardashian explain: It’s okay that my ass is this big. Most guys would still bend me over a table to fuck me. On Amazon, reviews from XFitGirl94 clarify: 5’4’’, 135, but it’s mostly muscle.

But we aren’t as fuckable as Kim Kardashian, or as muscular as Amazonian CrossFitters, and so we are expected to deny our need for space. We sit on laps, holding seatbacks and clenching our butts to diminish the perception of weight. We Saran-Wrap ourselves into high-rise skinny jeans and lycra body shapers. We even practice geometry, contouring our faces with color pallets to hide any evidence of excess skin or enlarged pores.

But we are not satisfied, as society is never satisfied, as the male gaze can never be satisfied. We still intrude: knocking coat hangers off racks with our shoulders, plastic cups off tables with our asses. We are chastised if we speak too loudly, or glared at when we try to prevent others from cutting in front of us. We are ranked, measured, weighed—always found wonting. We are confined in boxes too small to breathe.

We suffocate in these boxes, too-large bodies pressed up against transparent plastic, the same material that once held our Barbies on Toys“R”Us shelves. Here, we understand that our bodies are public, for sale—what the dirty whispers from the eighth grade boys were trying to show us. We are reminded whenever we are catcalled or groped, propositioned or ogled. This is your space, society says. Be grateful for it.

But we are not grateful; we are spiteful. We want to be able to breathe. We want privacy. Crouching over a toilet, we carve spaces out of ourselves as tithes for existence. We become their predestined statistics.

The knowledge of statistics rarely helps anyone. It is not enough to know that more than 5% of individuals suffering from eating disorders die from health complications, just as it is not enough to know the dangers of drug or alcohol abuse. A certificate of D.A.R.E. completion does nothing to erase memories of powerlessness or injustice.

So rather than sitting on psychiatric couches attempting to remember a specific date or incident, it seems more important and more effective to come together as a community, to find the similarities in our stories, to call into question that which allowed us to consider bulimia as a solution. So that the next time we are exasperated at the size of airplane seats or the measurements of runway models, we do not seek comfort in the tile under our knees and the edges of our porcelain thrones.

Instead, we begin to understand and revile bulimia for what it is: acceptance of the patriarchal subjugation of the female body. Only then, when we seek to remedy our anger and not the food in our throats, can we be cured. Hell hath no fury like a woman full of bile. Viva la cuerpa!

 

 

BIO

kymcunningham1Kym Cunningham will receive her MFA from San José State University with emphases in creative nonfiction and poetry.  She is the lead Nonfiction Editor of Reed Magazine, the oldest literary magazine West of the Mississippi.  She received the Ida Fay Sachs Ludwig Memorial Scholarship and the Academy of American Poets Prize for outstanding achievement in her writing. Her writing has been published in Drunk Monkeys and Reed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

Pikkake Peaks

by Victoria-Elizabeth Panks     

 

 

Her anxious fingers fondle the collar of Oxy-Blox plaited around her neck, as if it were an abacus or a strand of worry beads. Searching for the incoming frequency, her childish, nimble fingertips locate the cool silvery cube of iridium, pulsing with an aqua tint.

An unknown frequency.

Who was gaining access to her network?

“State the origin of your frequency and identify your molecular sequence. I repeat, you are an unknown transmitting into my private network. Are you some kind of local hacker?”

“I am not unknown to you.”

Images flash across her internal scanner, projecting from the incoming frequency; an eternity of visual memories: a red-haired woman, naked, in a pool; a cinnamon-skinned woman, perched on a rocky shingle; a gamine—red lipstick; black beret over pixie hair—poised at an easel; a Chinese beauty smoking a bamboo pipe; a freckled ‘tween, her green eyes reflecting the flames consuming a city. More women: they rode horses as silver earrings tangled into their windblown hair; they birthed babies in the shadow of the mission; they worshipped at the altar of the redwood forest, at the edge of the ocean, at the feet of a poet. They were Natives. They were Spanish, Asian, Irish, French and Mexican. They were the sum of a millennium and they were one.

They are her. She is them.

“Do you begin to understand?”

“Affirmative. But….what is that thumping noise?”

“C.Y.D.”

“Identify.”

“The Club. Club. Your. Destiny. I am the house DJ here—atop Telegraph Hill.”

“What’s a DJ? And what has it got to do with me? And all….that.”

“I am the house DJ. I spin sides for the sleek and sensual beauties of the night.”

“Spin sides?”

“Sides. Vinyl. Wax. 12”. House, Techno, Tribal, Trance, Dance, Ambience. I am the jockey of discs, the guardian of souls, the keeper of destinies.”

“You sound like one of those fast-talking hucksters. You certainly know how to sell yourself.”

“I know when to turn the volume up and when to slow things down. I sense their moods before they even sense them, themselves.”

“Well, I’m sure I don’t know anything about Earth’s version of sensory perceptions.”

“Ah, but I know about yours…”

“If you care to elaborate.”

“I created the system installed in your quarters. It senses your moods by reading the quality of your aura and filters a complimentary tone of music into your living space. I designed all the sensory music systems for Biosphere Peaks.”

“It must have taken you years to perfect such an invention.”

“Not too many. I based the whole design on a whimsical charm that was popular here in the late twentieth century. They called it a Mood Ring. The aura from the wearer would dictate the hue that blazed within the quartz-stone. It was elementary thermochromic and liquid crystal sleight of hand, but the concept had some interesting possibilities when applied to the natural organic chemistry of the body. If you take a look at the sensory gauge on the inner wall nearest you, you will observe the hue emanating from it is a pale yellow, caused by your sudden wakeful interest in this strange communication. The music has picked up its beat, ever so slightly, from the violet haze of introspection three point five earth minutes ago.”

“Impressive. And an ambitious feat in design concepts. It would require much time to come to fruition.”

“I have had much time on my hands…You see, I have been waiting for your arrival.”

Me?

“Yes, You. I see your destiny.”

My destiny?”

“There is a girl. She is hiding. Protect her.”

“I’m a scientist, not a mother.”

Pause.

“How did you cast all those images? Is that another trick of your auric perceptions?”

“I am sending visual images from my own memory bank, through the same telepathic pathway as our messages. I would come and meet with you in person, but I cannot leave this place at this time—and time is of the essence in this matter.”

“Wait, did you say you were on Telegraph Hill? Isn’t that the Velvets’ sector? Oh––you––you’re not human.”

“You are not human, either.”

“But you are native to this planet.”

“Much like yourself,” the beat intensified, throbbing with frenetic aural waves. “I am Ambrose. Welcome Home.”

* * *

At sunrise Astra_L circled the promenade of the observation deck attached to her quarters, assessing the unsolicited invasion from the DJ on Telegraph Hill. She scanned the distance, but the city lay covered in dense condensation––only the twin peaks she called home and the pinnacles of the absorbent, moisture-gathering solar sails were graced by the sun’s rays above the white blanket. She witnessed her own shadow appear, much elongated, on the fog, creating a haloed bröcken spectre against the iridescent backdrop.

Home.

Astra_L had never known a Home. Her first memories were of her matriculation into university on Pallas-42 and years of subsequent research had taken her to distant galaxies before being summoned to a position at the Intergalactic Biochem Institute Headquarters on Thessa_Loniki. And now this assignment in the Cygna Alpha sector, on this blue orb. From the summit of the twin peaks, straddled by the twin observatories, she breathed in the fresh sea air; the fragrant flora splattered with dew. The city seemed to have a potential—perhaps once lost, but regenerating along its organic impulses. Humans had known success and suffering here. It was her job to give them the knowledge of sustainability.

Regaining her lavish quarters, Astra_L strode across the liquid crystal floor panels, which currently displayed a tropical sea, frolicking with sleek dolphins. She wondered if that was another of Ambrose’s tricks to appease her sensory desires. Still, it was a bit arrogant to assume he could know her destiny. And what relation did he have with all of those women? Some of them naked in his presence; many in obvious distress; and the one only a child! How could she be connected to those women? And how was he? Was he immortal, this Ambrose? Keeper of Destinies, as he styled himself.

As she descended to ground level, she pondered the possibilities and the connections. She weighed the probabilities. She propagated a timeline and plotted the women along it to ascertain if the functionality would hold with consistency. Was it plausible?

Crossing the silent tarmac she found white flowers, growing in profusion along the otherwise ragged hillside. Enthralled by its sweet scent, she knelt to pluck the pale corollas, depositing them into sample vials attached to her magnetic belt. Scree spilled into the depths of the ravine, drawing her attention to the shadowy depths of a chasm. Her eyes linked with a pair of intensely violet orbs inset in the smudged, tear-stained paleness of a porcelain face.

Life Type: Human.

Orientation: Female.

Age: Fifteen Earth years.

They each froze.

Inspecting the state of the girl, who shivered in the rocky niche, Astra_L scowled. By all appearances, here was the subject of whom she had been warned. This snot-nosed creature. Protect her, he had demanded; for she is your destiny.

 

Astral_L surveyed the area surrounding the deep cleft in the side of the mountain. What had caused this creature to scramble to such a hiding place? The road lie hidden far below in swirling mist, its tarmac curling in hairpin turns. The hillside was littered with manzanita, live oak and dry scrub. In the ravines, rocks slid into positions forming homes for jack rabbits, gophers, tarantulas and rattlesnakes. Not a wise place to repose unless one was in need of camouflage from a far more perilous predator.

Protect her, he had said.

 

Spitting and scratching, the girl crouched like a gargoyle in the ravine, threatening to spring if attacked. Astra_L transmitted waves of peaceful energy but found no open frequency. The girl wore no collar—perhaps her chips were embedded. A hawk soared above honing in on invisible prey in the manzanita bushes cresting the ridge. Below lay the intense cotton batting of fog, muffling all sounds from the city. The hawk dove, rustled in the brush and rose again grasping a baby hare by the scruff of its neck.

“Humans never co-operate,” she muttered before aiming the laser at her prey.

* * *

Light streamed from the skylights and clerestory windows into the central atrium of the Twin Peaks Centre for Biological Study. Smooth flowing ramps glided in a graceful spiral from floor to floor of the North Peak facility. Streamlined in white stucco and pristine glass, the airy space glistened in the sun’s rays. Greenery hugged every curve and long vines of algae dangled like a Calder mobile from the ceiling, absorbing carbon all day and glowing with phosphorescence at night. Every component of the building’s design had a specific function. It was a living, breathing organism, completely sustainable, creating energy, gathering moisture, composting waste.

In opposition to the self-cleansing, fresh-aired surroundings, Astra_L carried the dirty, smelly, scraggly dead-weight of teenager up the ultra sleek ramp to the top floor and into the Bio-Organics Wing. She stomped across a soft beige floor composed of a cellular material that developed the strength of bones the more it was tread upon. All of the buildings’ furnishings and materials were composed of bio-plastics created in the labs and tested in the surrounding spaces. She approached one of her colleagues in the lounge overlooking the rooftop’s aqueduct pool. Palvär Aalto was a Finnish architect working on a creation he called BacillaFilla™. Using a common strain of bacteria, he was able to extrude compounds that melded cracked areas together with bacterial growth, leaving behind a strong, fibrous substance as strong or stronger than concrete. It was being tested on many of the derelict 21st century buildings downtown, in an effort to recycle the nearly two hundred year old edifices.

Square settees were arranged within the lounge opposite an cafeteria area. She heaved the teenager onto one of the cushioned platforms as if she were no more than a feather pillow.

“What’s this you’ve found?”

“I had to stun her…she was hard-headed. I couldn’t break through.”

“Yes, these low humanoids haven’t been injected with neural lace yet. They are still analog communicators.” He wrinkled his nose. “Where did you find her—in a compost ditch?”

“I have to protect her.”

The question mark response was evident by the expression on Palvär’s taciturn Scandinavian face.

“They have ceased to evolve. Which is the reason they are nearly extinct. This city is a utopia fit only for those wealthy enough to dwell in its isolationist enclaves of materialist abundance and economic modernization. She may be a survivor, but for her kind, it’s only a matter of time.”

“I’ve had a summons. From one of the immortals living up on Telegraph.”

“That’s the Velvets’ territory.”

“I do not think he is a Velvet. This child appeared rabid. She is afraid of something—she was hiding from something. I want to study her. Observe her. But first I need to have her washed, fed, and vaccinated.”

She signaled to a concierge at the lounge bar, who arrived at once to take the offending, odorous girl away.

“Take her to Aung Suu-Kyi with instructions to examine thoroughly. Thank you. And be careful, she might bite.”

 

“Palvär, can you tell me about these specimens I gathered on the slopes of the peaks?”

“Ah, those are the Pikkake flowers. Feynman brought them back from the archipelago called Ha-wa’ii. He got bored with the antiseptic smell of the lab and altered the DNA of this flower so it could thrive in the conditions of the hillsides. He was a bit of an eccentric, but it was a challenging exercise. Show off, y’know.”

“Kind of like the way the Spanish imported and cultivated grape vines for wine-making in the 19th century.”

“If you say so….” he squinted, bewildered, “I wasn’t around then.”

Astra_L hid the consternation she felt behind a stoic demeanor. She didn’t know anything about the cultivation of vitus vinifera either. She knew about 759-Vinifera which was a minor planet orbiting its sun at a perihelion of 0.969 degrees. Feeling a bit dazed by the unsolicited and mysterious recollection, she approached the bar to request a fortifying elixir before repairing to her private quarters to wash off the perplexity and disruptive debris clinging to her like perspiration.

 

Astra_L tinted the wall length glass windows with their polarizing shields to dim her sleeping chamber. The brushed metallic floors were divided into tiles by the glow of aquatic neon. Leaving her silver mesh tunic and metallic belt on a white leather pouf, she entered into the partitioned bathing facilities where a warm pool bubbled softly, its thermal mineral waters swirling in anticipation. Next to the sunken round pool, a basket held a selection of bath tablets. She chose Lemon Luminosity. Its label professed that the bath tablet would produce physical sensory perceptions to one’s neuro-processors, when dissolved in a thermal soaking bath. The logo pictured a woman with luminous red hair, soaking in a marble pool; a remarkable resemblance to the figure cast into her mind by the DJ, Ambrose. The woman looked to be in a state of arousal. Astra_L felt a sudden anger blooming through her spectrum, seething with exploitation. After soaking in the boiling waters, she adorned herself in a hydration cloak; an organic cloth robe that revitalized the derma. The fibers contained microscopic parasites that induced exfoliation, leaving the skin surface smooth. She sprayed her silver mesh tunic with a laundering canned air which used an organic compound to remove impurities without the need of water or harsh chemicals, making the clothing ready for immediate wearing.

Stomping across the main room floor that resembled a mountain meadow, she entered the island kitchen to whip up a verdant frappé. Using the intercom, she contacted Aung Suu-Kyi for a report on the human specimen.

“How is she?”

“Surly and sullen. Just like all those Rococo Graffiti kids. Craving caffeinated Monsta’ drinks and chemicated McSandwiches.”

“What else?”

“Aside from kicking, spitting and hissing like a frightened kitten, she has a chronic respiratory condition––most obviously from toxic inhalation caused by the collapsed buildings and infrastructure at ground zero. These remaining humans hold a tenacious grip on life in their post-apocalyptic world. They don’t live in the upper stratum and have been struggling to adapt to their environment. Then there’s the drugs…”

“Drugs?”

“Low level heroin and cocaine derivatives. But that’s not all…”

Astra_L arched her sleek silver eyebrow into a ?”

“She is status, primigravida.”

* * *

The room was spartan and white, furnished with only a bed, chair and desktop. An interface embedded into the wall provided communication and entertainment with the touch of a finger. A hexagonal window filled the width and height of the wall opposite the door; its views looking east towards the bay. The feral child was seated calmly on the edge of the bed staring out the window. She had been removed from her soiled medley of garments and been distilled into a simple white tunic dress and white bootlets. Defrocked from the melange of tattered laces, greasy velours, and dusty leathers, she looked passive and vulnerable. The color of her eyes was only intensified by the scrubbed paleness of her skin. Her combed hair was the color and texture of cornsilk, tinted with baby blue dye.

 

“Let’s begin with your name.”

“How did I get here?” she retorted petulantly.

“I brought you here. You were huddled in the ravine. Do you remember?”

“You couldn’t have carried me––you’re no bigger than a child.”

“Well, I didn’t put you in my satchel. And I’m stronger and older than I may look to you.”

“You look like a skinny twelve year old. Like my pesky little sister.”

“Where’s your little sister now?”

“She’s dead. Like the rest of my family.”

“I’m sorry. But I’m not a substitute for your little sister. Or your mother, for that matter. But I can protect you.”

“Protect me! Protect me from what?”

“From the Velvets…”

“Who told you about that?”

“An immortal who knows more than you or I put together. But if you’d like to co-operate perhaps we could assess the situation rationally.”

Silence.

“So, let’s begin with your name.”

Their eyes locked. The stubborn violet eyes of the human regarded the volcanic orbs of the alien biochemist.

“Where did you get that silver makeup on your face and lips? And how did you dye your hair to get it to gleam like that?”

“Your name,” with impatient force this time.

“And why are you so short?”

 

Astra_L fumed and stomped across the room. She wouldn’t tolerate the peevish attitude of a teenager. She had an important assignment requiring tireless research and development. There was no place for time-wasting in her schedule. With her hand on the lever she pulled the door open with a quick flick of the wrist.

“Wait.”

She paused without turning around, attuned to the change in tone.

“My name is Aura.”

Astra_L let the lever click into place. When she looked back into the room, she saw the girl’s figure had slumped from its proud position. Her arms crossed over her legs; her head bent low; her face quivering with tears.

“I’m scared,” she admitted, her tough veneer surrendering.

Astra_L sat down on the chair and spoke candidly.

“I am Astra_L. I’m from a planet called Thessa_Loniki which is 200 lightyears and a wormhole away from Earth. I was summoned here as a consultant in the Preservation Department. I am a Synthetic Biology Designer. My hair is naturally metallic and my eyes are tattooed with iridium oxide to improve my vision. My age in earth years is approximately one hundred and fifty, give or take a decade or two. My height computes to four feet, eight inches in earth measurements, which is normal for my species. Now, tell me who you were hiding from in the ravine. What brought you up to Twin Peaks?”

“Jean-Louis deLapin. He’s one of the Velve’teens.”

Their interview was interrupted by a rumble as the observatory swayed on its axis clinging to the mountaintop. Astra_L stared out the window at the twin observatory straddled upon the opposite peak, as it undulated like a daisy on its stem in a breeze.

“One of your famous Earth quakes?”

“Nah, that’s just the hydraulic tremulator.”

“Clarify and define.”

“It’s a sort of hammering device. It’s made to move the plates gradually and relieve pressure before it builds up to catastrophic quakes. The hydraulics are wedged into each side of the fault to push and pull from beneath. On the crust, the city feels the forced tremors, but they cause no damage.”

“How do you know about such technical engineering?”

“My Da’ worked on the construction of the Andreas Fault Tremulator.”

“Is that how he died?”

“No. He died with the rest of my family––during the meteo-tsunami.”

“And you?”

“I was up on Telegraph when it happened. Jean-Louis saved me.”

“And you became his pet.”

“No! It wasn’t like that.”

“The Velvets rule Telegraph Hill and their brood, the Velve’teens, control all you wild, young, humans, fueling you with drugs and chemicated foods. They feed off humans by stealing the warmth of their body temperature. You think it’s a kiss, but it’s the kiss of death.”

“What would you know about it? You don’t know what it’s like out there.”

“I know that this Velve’teen brute is abusive, intimidating and threatening. I know that you feel a sense of traumatic bonding with this individual for saving your life, but whose only ambition is to steal your life’s breath. I know that you are exhibiting the classic symptoms of Stockholm Syndrome. And,” she finished softly, “I know that you have been impregnated by this predator.”

“How…” she stuttered for breath, “how can you possibly know that?”

“An embryo is developing––”

“How do you know it’s Velvet?”

“The zygote is only half human: one cell is a haploid gamete, the other is of alien origin. Is that the reason you ran away?”

“I was afraid of what he would do if he found out. Their kind are very uncompromising about pure blood. They are of royal ancestry; they don’t couple with our species. I didn’t even know what was happening. He was kissing me and I became so cold, like the cold if you were dead. I was spiraling and dizzy and the next thing I knew our embrace had become charged with an energy I’d never experienced. All at once, I felt pain, warmth and euphoria—the highest High. And just as quickly it was over. I felt stained and numb.”

Suddenly, Astra_L saw a flash memory––she had been equally stunned by a past encounter, long ago in a far away land.

“I know how you must have felt.”

“You?”

“No, not me…but someone…” she trailed off vaguely. “Right now, I need to test your chromosomes to see if this pregnancy is viable in your state of health.”

“And if it isn’t?”

“Then we’ll manipulate your system to make it viable.”

“You can do that.” It wasn’t a question.

“I build organic sustainable systems. I can build your system to sustain a living organism. You will give birth to a new hybrid human specifically designed to survive on a sustainable planet. While I get to work in the lab, it is your job to rest. You can sleep safely here. You will trust me.” It wasn’t a question.

 

With Aura’s medical chart and lab samples, Astra_L spent the rest of the day in deep microscopic focus. Her thoughts dwelled on the introspection of a declining species. When Palvär Aalto stopped by the lab she began to test her ideas out loud, listing the collective successes made to reinvigorate the city landscape.

“Our aim, in these post-apocalyptic conditions, has been to create a sustainable city with new and reconditioned buildings, changing the evolution of building design. We’ve replaced a compromised infrastructure with solar sails that collect sunlight for energy and pull moisture from the daily fog; bacterium formulated to eat human waste and delete carbon; water collection that cools and heats the air; and interior and exterior plants that provide food. But what of the remaining civilians who survived the apocalyptic event only to suffer due to their inability to adapt to the new environment. How can we coerce DNA to evolve in these conditions before a species becomes extinct?”

“You’re talking about human biology now. We’re bio-synthetic designers.”

“But we manipulate cells. DNA cells.”

“We don’t even manipulate rabbit cells, let alone human.”

“Perhaps it’s time we tried. In the Andromeda galaxy, technology has evolved faster than any human mind can digest. When the Singularity Equivalence occurred we were able to create entire worlds in the blink of an eye; planets for education; solar systems for research; galaxies for new colonies. Every thought, every dream had drastic impact and immediate reality. We learned to direct our minds to create authentic, sustainable worlds of light. We focused on the chemistry of plants to show us how to harvest life-giving light. Plants are the most efficient life forms in the known universe.

Here, on this Earth planet, you tried to harvest light from solar panels which were nowhere near as efficient as one simple leaf. We studied energy transfer in light-harvesting macromolecules and found there was assistance by specific vibrational motions of the chromophores. The plant actually puts the photon into a state of quantum superposition, multiplying it by every route that the photon could possibly take, so that in this manner photons are able to break through the forest of particles which separate light photons from leaves and attain a perfect connection. Once the successful route has been configured the photon is sent back in space-time and its route becomes the only possibility that ever existed. All other probabilities are erased.”

“But that defies all classical laws of physics. That kind of prediction is likened to a Tarot Card deck.”

“In your world. And moreover, this equation of so-called non-classical behavior enhances the efficiency of energy transfer in other applications. Treating human DNA cells as efficient energy transfer conductors is theoretically possible and may be the way I can help this child.”

“And why the intense need to manipulate her DNA? She’s getting by.”

“She’s been impregnated by a Velvet; one of the teens kept her, as a sort of pet.”

“So now she’s your pet?”

 

Astra_L continued to study the human girl’s DNA structure, as well as that of the hybrid zygote. When she’d closed out her lab log and visited the canteen for a vegetarian bento box meal the western skies had already been overtaken by the marine layer of evening. On her way to her quarters, she checked on Aura and found that the girl had napped straight through the afternoon, devouring sleep befitting a teenager.

Back in her quiet domain, a cobalt night had fallen. The studio apartment’s open plan had a soothing eclectic decor. The liquid crystal floors had taken the aspect of smooth and soothing slate granite. Ivory plush seating arrangements inhabited the fringes of the room, while above and equally spacial, a carbon fiber ceiling was arrayed with starlight halogens. A reading nook was partitioned by floor to ceiling neon tube lighting that cascaded like a flickering waterfall of fairy lights. A tranquil pool reflected lights glittering onto a white drop ceiling. Its waters were mirrored by an identical outdoor pool, seen through the wall of windows. In the center of the room an enclosed circular island comprised the kitchen facilities. A glittering honeycomb pillar of metal fashioned into a column supported a white disc of light over the workspace. Astra_L set the bento box on the counter and drew water to make a pot of tea—a comforting and charming custom of Earth culture. She found the vials containing the samples of the Pikkake flowers she had gathered that morning. Still fresh, they emitted a cloyingly pleasant scent, tropical and sultry. Here was an organism, removed from its natural habitat and brought to live in a relatively hostile environment and yet, it had been manipulated to not only survive in that environment, but to thrive and propagate. Could the key to human survival be found in the theory implemented to evolve this plant’s structure?

She gazed at the stars wistfully as they began to twinkle one by one in the firmament above the nestled fog.

 

“Trouble!”

She awoke with a zing. The transmission was clear and abrupt. She’d dozed off on the settee overlooking the outdoor pool. It was deepest night. The city lay enmeshed in its foggy insulation.

“You were sleeping?”

“Resting, yes.”

“You must be on the alert. The Velve’teen is searching for his pet. He’s none too happy to have lost control over his captive.”

“They can’t come up here. It is forbidden.”

“They have minions. The girl will respond to the siren’s call. She is hungry for the drug.”

“She’s carrying fetal cells.”

“You must protect the girl and her progeny. It is your destiny.”

 

Below, someone or something was trying to break the hexagonal window of Aura’s room, waking her with a start. In the moonshine of night she could see the window bend with tensile flexibility as it resisted repeated attempts. She rose from her bed to look out into the darkness below. As she stood gazing into nothingness the door slid open and the room was abruptly illuminated. Astra_L shook her head.

“We’ll have no further disruptions tonight. Come with me.”

Aura turned from Astra_L to the window and then back again, dismayed and conflicted, but the memory of being stunned by Astra_L’s taser was equally convincing.

 

In the midnight hours, the center maintained a low hum, while the Roomba™ drones roamed the building, vacuuming and purifying the air during the night cycle. The open atrium was lit by the hanging garden of algae, pulsing with phosphorescent light. Circling the mezzanine level, Astra_L halted in front of a nondescript door and placed her palm on its sensor. After a smooth opening they entered into a small round room with no windows in its curvature but one circular window in the ceiling.

“I dare them to get through that.”

The room, white all around, was furnished with grape-hued decorative pillows, glassware, ceramics and silky bed-linens. Recessed lighting glowed from wall niches in shades of lavender, calming and serene.

“This room is more suitable. You’ll be very comfortable here and above all, safe.”

Astra_L fingered the interface screen on the wall, to open the VisualTunes application.

“I’m going to set this on Random/Ambient to aid your R.E.M.”

The room’s lights dimmed as a light-show projected, covering the walls in virtual wallpaper. Cherry blossoms fluttered gracefully to morph into butterflies wobbling over grasslands. Giant redwoods eclipsed the bright vista, shading it with dark mossy ferns and deeply rusted tree bark. The view tilted upwards to gaze at the treetops far far above.

“Tomorrow I’ll teach you how to use the computer’s Leopard Shark™ operating system. You’ll receive a password to access the most advanced applications for entertainment and classwork.”

“Classwork?”

“You’re not going to spend the next nine months idling away up here. We’re going to test your intellect to assess your level of education and bring you up to the appropriate levels for a human in the upper stratum. You might actually thank me when all is said and done.”

“Thank you,” she yawned, with a smirk.

“Don’t patronize me,” she shut the door softly, feeling protective.

* * *

For the first week, Astra_L kept the girl under close observation and fed her organic tranquilizers to insure cooperation and acquiescence. Though docile, Aura was showing increasing benefits from her isolation and with the success of learning abilities she gained personal pride and confidence enabling her to assimilate with the inhabitants of the Peaks Center. She took an interest in the composition of the futuristic applications and biochemical devices that comprised her surroundings. Eventually her tranquil state existed without the aid of supplements. The improved diet of nourishing foods filled her body, as did the arrangement of fetal cells growing within. Whenever Aura showed signs of flagging, Astra_L showed up with a new topic to distract and entertain.

On a blustery afternoon that showed portents of saturating rains, Astra_L had scheduled Aura for an intense round of sonographic imaging. The fetal cells were developing at an alarming rate propelling Astra_L into a pressure situation. She was still investigating the Pikkake flower propagation and needed more time to complete the strain of equations and translate them into workable applications for humans. Aura sensed that something was wrong and became irritable and restless.

“Enough! We both need a break from this. Aung Suu-Kyi, send the images we’ve captured to my lab log—I’ll assess them later. Aura, you may dress now. Are you hungry?”

The girl shrugged with ambivalence.

“Fine. We’ll have tea in the Mood Lounge.”

“Mood Lounge?”

“Yes, I think we deserve some place a little more uplifting than the canteen. Go on, get dressed.”

 

The interior room had no windows to flaunt the grey day of shadows and fog. Instead, it was decked out like a deep sea cavern—a mermaid’s lair of aquatic greens and blushing dawn pinks. The columns stretched in concave arches from floor to ceiling and were decorated with white seahorses on a pearlescent ground. The low ceiling was composed of waves of aquamarine lighting that faded to indigo and violet at the depths of the interior. Bubble chairs swung from the ceiling and poufs littered the floor like coral reef cushions. The music was syncopated to the rhythms of the sea, ebbing and flowing with tranquil waves of ambience.

Seated in a deep egg cup chair, an elderly human made click-clacking noises by jousting two shiny metal sticks at each other in repeated skirmishes. The pointed lances were laced with dangling threads of hemp, silk and woolen fibers, intertwined to make intricate designs.

“Mama-San, would you be willing to teach Aura the arts with which you weave these magical webs? She should learn to stitch clothing for her baby.”

“Aye, it’s simple to work up some jumpers for a wee bairn. Sit next to me, child—my, you aren’t more than a wee bairn yourself.”

“My grandmother used to knit, I think. I remember that she used to send to Iceland for wool.”

“Aye, we McLeods of Skye have always raised sheep, as well. It’s not something you see much in these parts, but I’ve been working on cultivating a new strain of alpaca that can survive in an urban landscape. They require less pasture than sheep; have excellent survival skills and fewer predators. And feel this wool—it’s as soft as a Kashmiri goat. Now, then, choose a color from Auntie Maeve’s basket. One skein will be enough. Oh yes—that’s a lovely shade of violet; as smokey as a twilight sky.”

“I’ll just go fix us some tea and we’ll have a cozy afternoon,” Astra_L was relieved to have distracted faces cast in her direction.

“Yes dearie, that would be fine.”

 

When Astra_L arrived back from the canteen with a tray of traditional tea scones and a steaming brew she found the two women—crone and child—deeply embroiled in the intricacies of knitting and purling. In no time at all a tiny tunic was taking shape in a soft shade of Scottish heather. Aura was in good hands. Not only was she in the company of a wise woman, but a resourceful teacher and able protectress.

Aura became hooked on her new hobby and entranced by the human who nurtured with a grandmotherly air. She sought Maeve McLeod’s company most days, giving Astra_L a respite from worry over the girl’s isolation and need of constant attention. It allowed her to devote her energies to the maternal and fetal DNA, pushing forward for an evolutionary equation. She was nearing the end of the third week since adopting the pregnant teenager and felt confident that another week would not end without the successful advent.

 

On a cloudy and breezy afternoon, Maeve had shepherded her wee lass outside to get a proper walk and taste the mist on her tongue for good measure. McLeods believed in outdoor exercise in all weathers. Down at the edge of the North Peak Maeve maintained a pasture for her herd of alpacas. Aura was enthusiastic to see the animals whose fiber allowed her to make exquisite baby tunics. The alpacas in the small herd exhibited several different colored coats; all of which were thick and fuzzy and particularly mopsy on the crowns of their heads, giving them the appearance of wearing Russian cossack hats. They frisked and galloped in the paddock and a young colt came right up to the fence and lashed its tongue in Aura’s hand, nosing for apples. Finding the hand empty of food, the youngster wasted no time in responding with a glob of spit, aimed right at Aura’s face. Maeve chuckled with merriment but Aura wore a stormy expression. Auntie Maeve soothed with a clean hanky and a bucket of chopped apples. The alpacas doe-like eyes with batting long lashes worked like a salve of apology and soon the young girl had forgiven the baby alpaca for its insolent behavior. As the herd chomped slowly on the little apple chunks, a calmness wrapped around Aura.

All at once, the herd became spooked and fled to the outer reaches of the pasture. Aura jumped in alarm. Maeve immediately spun around, prepared to face trouble. Two Velve’teens descended upon them. Aura shrieked and froze in place. Evelyn, ever at the ready, withdrew from her jacket pocket two long shiny and lethal knitting needles. Cast from silver with a core of iridium—elements patented to pierce a Velvet’s lungs—they shimmered with deadly glamour. As the taller Velve’teen leapt to capture Aura in his cloak, Maeve plunged with all her Scottish strength. The dark creature howled and fell with a heavy exhalation onto the ground. The smaller Velve’teen shuddered as the second knitting needle was waved in his direction. He hissed; gathered the airless body of his companion and flew down the hairpin roadway, his cape flapping in the wind. Aura was traumatized by the attack and strangely mournful for the fallen Velve’teen, whom she recognized as the older brother of Jean-Louis. The other, younger companion, she identified as a royal cousin. She wondered what had happened to Jean-Louis and why he had not come for her himself. She began to feel remorse, adding to her conflicted emotions.

It was all Maeve could do to calm the girl and herd her back to the confines of the Biosphere. Aura feared she’d never be allowed outside again. She also feared for her daughter—she knew with intuitive certainly that the baby would be a girl. She began to rub her hands together in agitation and mumbled furiously all the way up the hill, up the ramp and into her room where she slammed the door violently and flung herself on the bed.

* * *

Astra_L was immediately made aware of the attack and gave instructions to allow Aura space to calm down. Her own assessment was that the situation was going to escalate into realms for which she was unprepared. They’d had several weeks of peacefulness and a false sense of security. Not long after Maeve finished her report, a transmission came through from Ambrose. He had heavy news and a plan which must be put in motion and adhered to immediately. It was up to Astra_L to explain to Aura just how precarious her situation had become. Aura would need to cooperate for the plan to succeed. There would be no time for temper tantrums or moody sulks.

With clinical resolve Astra_L summoned the girl to the lab to extract samples. When Aura entered she found the lighting dimmed, the lab instruments cleared away into cupboards—all the work surfaces cleared and pristine. Aung Suu-Kyi was not present in her lab technician’s coat. Only Astra_L, who sat quietly typing into the interface of her log, as calm as ever.

“Come in, Aura. Today’s events have had serious repercussions. Word has come back to me about the extent of the damage. I’ve been in contact with Ambrose. Do you know of him?”

“He’s that DJ at the club. He came up here? I thought he was a Velvet.”

“I’m not sure what he is, but no, he didn’t come here. We communicate telepathically,” she paused to fondle the iridium collar, “using these frequency blocks.”

“I thought that was a necklace; it’s so tribal.”

“The Velve’teen wants you back.”

“It’s where I belong,” she asserted.

“They will beat you to a pulp.”

“I suppose I deserve it for all the trouble I’ve caused.”

“Aura, you know better than this. You do not belong in the company of abusive monsters.”

Silence.

“Aura, listen—we need time. Ambrose has convinced Jean-Louis’s coven that you are being treated for malnutrition and injuries. He’s not sure they’re buying it so he’s agreed to let the Velvet patriarch have a look at you via the Earthnet. They want to talk to you and assess your status. It will be a very quick interview and you must be strong when you face him.”

Aura began to quake visibly, shrinking into the lab chair.

“Ambrose has made it very clear to me what will happen if the patriarchy realizes you are with child. Under no circumstances can we allow that evaluation to be determined. Do you understand me? Can you do this now?”

“Ok.” The girl shivered.

Astra_L sent a vibe through the Oxy-Blox to Ambrose.

“She is ready.”

The distal beat and throb of the club could be felt through her neuro-sensors as his deep voice slid like syrup over the ambient music.

“––time for some retro beats, my dark ravens….We are going on a journey to the Zero-Point Field with Steve Moore and the Long Island Electric System. In L.I.E.S you will find the Truth. Release yourself to the gravitational flow….this is timelessness….right here, right now, with me. C.––Your.––Destiny.”

“You are quite a performer.”

“Ah, well, music is the pulse of my life.”

“Is the Velvet patriarch in the club?”

“It is his club. Monsieur Vince Noir is waiting in the Velvet Lounge. Understand that this is not a social call. Velvets are smooth negotiators and all business. They do not engage in idle conversation nor will they entertain questions that do not pertain to the transaction being discussed. They adhere to strict codes of conduct, privacy and protect their bloodlines ferociously. And when they speak they are as silky as maple syrup, coating their prey like amber snaring an insect.”

 

Astra_L manipulated the transparent interface on the wall with her nimble fingers as Aura stared, mesmerized by the visuals. She startled out of her reverie when the smooth stone face of the wizened Velvet patriarch appeared, suspended right in front of her like a Cheshire cat. His smile, a toothy grimace, tried to placate her.

“My son has been missing you terribly. He is contrite and sends his salutations. Perhaps he has done something to frighten you, Mistress Aura. What could have scared you so much as to run away?”

“I…I can’t remember. I hit my head…”

Astra_L nodded encouragement.

“And look at you––so clean and so white. You look like an angel. Where are your clothes; your lovely dark velvets. Why do you remain with these mad scientists? You’re nothing but a sad human freak to them. Come back to your bonded brotherhood. Whatever my Jean-Louis did to offend you, we will make amends.”

Astra_L stepped into the frame.

“That will do. You can see that Aura is well and on the way to recovery. It is time for her to rest now.” Astra_L prompted Aura to close the conversation politely.

“Good night and god speed you, Black Emperor.”

With a flurry of keystrokes Astra_L disengaged the interface screen. “And good riddance!”

“He seemed to really care about me.” The feral girl that enjoyed the savage pleasures of bondage had been resurrected under the powerful gaze of the smooth talking Velvet.

“Aura, they only care about getting you away from here so they can continue to manipulate you. You know this.”

Aura’s look of consternation illustrated the conflict swirling in her head.

“Understand that you are going through an awakening. So many things are being thrown at your young self. Coming to terms with the Velvets; Motherhood looming; experiments on your DNA. It is too much all at once, but you are handling it splendidly. Aura, you are going to give birth to a transitional humanoid, moving human evolution forward. You will be the mother of a new species.”

 

Ambrose cut into Astra_L’s frequency.

“That was a good performance. Aura did well. Still, the patriarch is suspicious. I am quite certain that he guesses. It is only a matter of time before they act. You must prepare her for the next stage of the plan.”

“It’s too soon,” she whispered out loud, emphasizing her thought. “Ambrose, I’m not sure how much she can take all at once. She might crack.”

“She is strong. She has survived where others perished. Her job now is to be the vessel for the human race.”

“But to go alone…”

The pulsations from the club faded out. Under Astra_L’s gaze Aura appeared to sense that something even more life changing was about to occur.

* * *

Within days, and under the shade of night, Aura had undergone preparations to leave Earth. Her DNA, successfully manipulated by Astra_L, was evolving along new strains, creating a healthy environment for the developing fetus. Emotionally Aura was learning to implement a new set of coping mechanisms, through meditational therapy. Instead of relying on depleting drugs, her nutrient-filled body was able to come to terms with life in a post-apocalyptic world. It didn’t have to include daily struggle for survival. She was becoming an uplander, dwelling above ground zero, breathing fresh air, feeling sunshine on her skin; like a seed that had sprouted and burst through the crust of the soil, photosynthesis had taken hold and she thrived in its light. She was able to visualize inner peace for the first time in her life. The time was near at hand for her to leave the biosphere.

One afternoon, as the marine layer brushed the peaks, obscuring and muffling the city below, the frenetic pace of the preparations caught up with Aura and her spirits flagged under the pressures. Her sullen and listless body language was apparent to Maeve McLeod as the two sipped tea between stitches of kidsilk mohair. Maeve was helping Aura to complete a two piece outfit and having whipped up the petite cardigan had begun to fashion a miniature tam ‘o shanter. The elderly woman was rambling one of her knitting yarns—a tale from olden days in Skye—when she became aware of an unenthusiastic response from the girl. It was the paleness of her respiration when she sighed that caused Maeve to halt in the middle of a row and finger the Oxy-Blox collar at her neck.

Immediately Astra_L tuned in to the frequency, ever vigilant of another attack.

“Maeve?”

“Don’t alarm yourself, dearie. Aura is safe here with me, but my yarns of olde Scotland aren’t proving very entertaining for the wee lass today. I think she has more pressing worries regarding her future and unknown territories. Perhaps you should spin some yarns of Thessa_Loniki to soothe the gurl; put her in the picture.”

“Of course. I’d been so focused on preparing her skills that I hadn’t given a thought to things as simplistic as stories of the landscape. It would take a Skyelander like you to make that necessity so clear.”

“Nonsense, dearie, you’ve had the pressures dragging against you as well. Perhaps you both need an evening off. Have the chef send up a grand feast.”

“Yes. I’ve done enough for today. Send her up to my quarters in a half hour and I’ll start her off with a relaxing thermal bath before dinner.”

 

Astra_L had drawn the bath and the scents of Satsuma Masseuse wafted through the air, invigorating and uplifting. As she showed Aura into the apartment the floors bloomed with the saturated colors of a tidal pool. Purple anemones, orange and mauve starfish, inky spines of urchins and the peridot greens of kelp all swirled in a soft current, rippling languidly as the two woman walked through the room into the bath. The music began to bubble in tune with the thermal jets and Aura recognized the sort of trendy music that she had always preferred and began to feel more at ease in the biosphere’s austere, modern decor.

“Take as much time as you like and have a long soak. I only just ordered dinner and it’s going to take a while for the chef to concoct my requests. When the appetizers arrive I’ll bring a tray in here. If you need anything yell loudly; I’m going to be frothing up some of my famous Thessa_Loniki cocktails—perfectly safe for the babe as well.”

Astra_L had set a prodigious task for the Twin Peaks chef. She’d sent him all the traditional recipes from Thessa_Loniki to fashion a culinary journey for Aura. The first tray that was sent up from the kitchens had an arrangement of Pseudokeftedes made with roasted red peppers and goat cheese fermented in brine. The croquettes exotic flavors paired well with a dollop of strained yogurt for dipping. The fig and mango cocktails went down smoothly as the girls eased into conversation of less pressing matters. They spoke of Ambrose and his mood-altering inventions which Astra_L pointed out, including the physically pleasing bath tablets.

Amber Aphrodisiac? Rosebud Arousal? Lotus Flower Lingam? Have you tried these?”

“They each have special properties of pleasure, but the Lemon Luminosity and Fig-ments of the Imagination induce, shall we say, more cerebral reactions.”

Aura giggled, prompting the baby to kick and roll. Astra_L helped her up out of the bath and wrapped her in thick velour robes.

“I put some soft pajamas on the bed. Get dressed while I see to the incoming platters. Can you smell the aromas? Aren’t they just mouth-watering?”

The feast was composed of individual platters containing servings of delectable richness. Aura began to open up to Astra_L, seeking information regarding the planet she would soon inhabit. The first dish comprised thin slices of marinated pork, stuffed with batons of Kafalograviera cheese, wrapped onto skewers with chunks of peppers and onions rested on a bed of pilaf. Aura began to reveal her curiosity about Astra_L. Over octopus baked with eggplant in a tomato sauce flavored with laurel leaves, allspice berries and parsley, she asked about boys and if Astra_L had ever loved one. That led to stories of Astra_L’s university life on Pallas-42 while they munched on sizzling pieces of Gia Bakalarakia—a species of Thessa_Loniki cod—fried with root vegetables until crispy. Aura wanted to hear all about the galaxies Astra_L had traveled to and what most amazed her about those distant places and the inhabitants. They paused from the feast with a palate cleanser of fig and bergamot sorbet. The music began to change its beat, with a thumping village dance harmony at home in a biergarten. The next platter served sausages with mustard greens and asparagus, and homemade bread rubbed with garlic and olive oil. They washed that down with an artisan non-alcoholic beer that the chef brewed himself, taking great pride of his Artois heritage. Aura noticed that the expansive floor, which had remained its sedate granite grey throughout the meal, had burst into an aquatic scene once more. Clear waters over rocky reefs and pink sand beaches lined with palm trees were viewed under the twilight of a violet sky. A shell-shaped tray was appeared arrayed with grilled shrimp marinaded in lemon juice, mustard, garlic, Boukovo chili flakes, cumin, honey & sea salt. Aura was certain she could actually hear the wavelets brush the sandy shoreline with gentle caresses.

“Yes, that’s Ambrose again.” The music had morphed into a seductive wafting breeze of nature accompanied by the tremulous strings of a zither.

After the gut bursting meal, they took a stroll on the observation deck to breathe in the misty night. Aura shivered, but admitted the exercise was helping her respiration. Back inside Astra_L brewed a special relaxing tea which she served with the dessert. The cake, called Pallatiko, consisted of a semolina honey cake topped by a thick layer of creamy custard, sprinkled with cinnamon. Aura went into raptures.

“I’ve never eaten or even heard of such amazing dishes as you’ve served tonight. Do you eat like this all the time? The canteen usually serves salad greens, bean curd and rice—lots of rice…” she emphasized. “Even Maeve hasn’t brought me a cake like this one! It’s absolutely divine.”

“It”s Thessa_Loniki on Earth.”

“What? You mean—“

“All the recipes for our feast are the pride of Thessa_Loniki. I had the chef follow my instructions to make a variety of savory dishes to whet your appetite for your new home.”

“You mean, I can eat that sort of food every day?”

“Well, we still eat salad greens.”

“And the cakes?”

“There are so many types of cake, Aura—so many. Honeycakes composed of a hundred layers of the thinnest pastry, coated in thick jasmine honey and pistachios.”

“Tell me more!”

“Here, have another piece of this luscious Pallatiko cake—Chef Pépin has got the perfect touch with cream custard. Now, let me tell you about the Sea of the Halkdikis.

         In the harbor of Thessa_Loniki the shallow sea is the home to a sisterhood of nymphs. From the ancient tower you can see them frolicking under the moonlight. Their silvery green tales thrashing lightning through the shallows. They have long silver hair and their faces are marked with iridium tattoes. Kalisto, Caliadne, Menthe, Daphne, Lara, Praxithea and Zeuxippe—The Seven Sisters. Often they would be joined by students, walking the beach after a heavy night of drinking, after an even heavier day of course work at the Biochem Institute. Once you have swum with the Seven Sisters and are initiated into their realm you will always find a safe harbor and protection. Of course, the ladies are willful if sufficient sacrifices are not made at regular intervals! But generally speaking a silvery talisman will charm their graces…”

The fog shifted and sighed as Astra_L told Aura the myths of Thessa_Loniki and shared her experiences living in the graceful sea port. Aura had actually broken through the alien woman’s mind and their communication had reached a common frequency.

As dawn drew her blushing fingers through the mists Aura succumbed at last to fatigue and was sent to her bed. When she parted with Astra_L, it was as a sister, for they had forged a bond stronger than any Velvet could weave.

* * *

The day had arrived and without incident or delay, Aura was gently loaded into the transport pod that would whisk her and her unborn child to the institute on Thessa_Loniki. There were tears shed and gifts exchanged. Maeve promised to send packages of wool and knitting patterns for the child would grow like a sunflower. Astra_L would send teas and bath tablets to ease the pains of childbirth. The three women—the old ewe, the ageless alien, and the feral pixie—hugged in a triumphant embrace. As they waved the pod into the stratosphere, Astra_L felt the weight release from her tense shoulders. Aura was on her way; she would grow into a woman and mother on Thessa_Loniki, living in a civilization of freedom and advancement.

Back inside the biosphere Astra_L realized how much the last weeks had consumed her and also how much they had broadened her perspectives, Though she’d traveled all over the known universe, it took a wild Earthling girl to bring her down to solid ground. She remembered the women that had been flashed across her mind’s eye when she’d first shared thoughts with Ambrose. Had she played her part in their history? Had she achieved success for their future? And would she have a further role to play?

As her thoughts pandered across the apartment, the floors bloomed with night jasmine, doused in dew. She was too tired to eat, sleep or think. The music instantly melded with her mood, transmitting a sultry siren song in soulful electronica. Astra_L flung off her silvery mesh tunic and plunged into the thermal bath for a deep soak. As the music became lusciously buoyant and arousing she indulged in a bath sensory tablet to dissolve the last remaining rigidity in her spine. As the Jasmine Orgasm tablet peaked amid the jets to thermal heat, Astra_L slipped into a cool sensation of piquant pleasure. Her body shuddered with erotic stimulation fulfilling the promise hyped on the wrapper. Completely relaxed and satiated, she soaked in a state of post coital bliss in the aquatic sensory bath.

* * *

From a red sand shingle, Aura watches as a green moon rises above the pale yellow sea, hanging in a violet sky, strewn with nebulas in jewel colors. Then another moon rises to join the first; and another; and another. Six jasper-hued globes hover, suspended in the star-splattered night sky. She climbs the ancient tower to its summit overlooking the shallow Sea of Halkdikis. The celestial orbs sway in gentle movements across the horizon, jostling amongst each other, like children at play, or space ships in formation exercises. In awe she gazes, rubbing the rounded moon rising from her own body, while the Seven Sisters appear one by one and thrash about in the gentle wavelets. Thessa_Loniki was holding her in a grip of fascination. She’s had little time to feel homesick, but she wonders if she will ever see her home planet again. Would it be her daughter, swaying in the swelling placenta, or a distant daughter, who will hear the call of the San Francisco foghorn. With tears in her eyes she contemplates the display surrounding her. If she listens very closely Aura can hear the dance of the jasper spheres as they glimmer with balmy luminosity onto the waves caressing the shore. She hears too, the song of the sirens—the Seven Sisters: “there will be a time to return—for your bloodline is fierce, strong, and loyal. When the time is right a your progeny will travel to the Earth of her ancestors and she will take with her something magical and wild.”

 

Back in San Francisco, Astra_L stands on the balcony mesmerized by the sun’s rays projecting her shadow on the fog bank hovering around Twin Peaks. She brings her arms above her head and joins her palms together in a tree pose. The sun’s radiance transforms the foggy condensation into sparkling iridescent jewels and her shadow dances into a nimbus of rainbow prisms creating a bröcken spectre.

 

Ambrose sends a pinging vibration from his lair atop Telegraph Hill.

“You did well.”

“It was that flower that showed me how to manipulate her DNA. Still there are many humans left here who are suffering from the entropy of their society and the Velvets who feed off them.”

“They build them up with drugs just to tear them back down. It is a feudal system that will languish over time.”

“And what of Aura?”

“She is your destiny.”

“You said that before. But how?”

“One of her daughters’ daughters will hear the call of San Francisco and realize your destiny. She will be you.”

“How do you know that?”

“Because you always come back. There is a strong, magical binding in place, from long, long ago.”

“And you are the guardian of Soul; the keeper of Destiny.”

“I am Ambrose.”

 

On the hillside, the Pikkake blooms sparkle with dew drops from the awakening of daylight. She springs from her balcony, to collect their sweet, sultry scent.

 

 

BIO

victoriaelizabethpanks2Victoria-Elizabeth Panks is a writer who was brought up along the central coast of California and the northern shores of Lake Michigan, but finds herself living, inexplicably, within the southern suburbs of New Jersey, where she translates French symbolist poetry and writes fanciful speculative fiction. She is currently at work on her second novel.

 

 

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Sarah Blumrich

 

Autumn

 

The darkness of night
makes everything black and charred
but I can smell the rotting colors
dripping off of branches.
Deadened leaves splatter
and paint the dirt in muddy pools
that pile up before the bottom layers
have a chance to dry.

 

 

Storm

 

I inhale the storm.
The swirling fog tickles my lungs
until I cough out rain.
Clouds swim past and drown
my dampened skin in grey.
My body turns to static.
Tingling lightning spreads
like waves that crash
into my fingertips.
Madness and bliss entangle
into sailor’s knots,
watching as I sink into the wind.

 

 

Elegy

 

During the worst days–
the days when
motivation dies like
snapping twigs,
and sadness sows memories
into a heavy blanket–
I pray that it will rain.
Just like flowers,
we crave drinks when we begin to wilt.
Others turn to gin or rum
but I’d rather have the rumble
of thunder
to remind me of how small,
how truly small
I am.
The pounding rain sings me to sleep
and
I become the leaves outside,
floating into dreams, and
puddles.

 

 

BIO

sarahblumrich2Sarah Blumrich was born in 1996 in New Jersey and raised in a small Connecticut town. An undergraduate at Stony Brook University, she is an aspiring screenwriter, novelist, and poet. She is majoring in film and minoring in creative writing, Japanese, and German. This is her first time being published in a literary journal.

 

 

 

0

Cogito(e)    

by Jennifer Vanderheyden

 

                      

Everything changed the day I ran over the body. I wasn’t texting, talking on the phone or even listening to music. I was thinking. The Cartesian/Sartrean form of existential thinking. Ever since my therapist had asked me to find my authentic self I was obsessed by the task … probably ruminating about it was the exact opposite of what I should be doing, but I had just realized that the bare truth of the cogito was possibly what I somehow needed to get to … the tabula rasa of my being … the blank slate for me to begin again at 45 years old. My wife of 17 years had recently left me, prompting my visits to the therapist. So I was searching my soul when the accident happened.

I had just enough time to see the hearse spin around, the back door fly open and the body bag fall out on the highway. I instinctively knew that if I swerved too much I would lose control as well, so I was able to turn the wheels so that I only ran over the end of the bag, hoping and praying that it was the feet. Fortunately it wasn’t one of those misty cloudy days in Seattle or the car might have skidded out of control. It came to a stop off the side of the road, just short of the jack-knifed semi that evidently had begun the chain of events. The body bag had also come to a stop near the semi, fortunately out of the way of the slowing traffic in the other lane. I remember thinking that something about a body bag with no gurney seemed strange, but what did I know about mortuary protocol?

I didn’t seem to be injured, and I doubted my 1999 black Beamer sedan was otherwise damaged since the corpse was my only collision. I felt stunned and dizzy, but the sound of a stuck horn jolted me into action. I called 911 as I got out of the car to check on the other two drivers. The boyish driver of the semi was climbing out of his cab as well, shocked and slightly trembling but seemingly OK with the exception of a bloody nose. The driver was semi-conscious, an enormous knot beginning to form on his forehead. As we approached he moved away from the airbag just enough for the horn to stop blaring.

“What do we do?” I asked as I hung up with 911. “The squad and cops are on their way. Should we move him?”

“Dude, let’s just try to keep him awake and talking,” the truck driver said, as he took out a cigarette with unsteady hands and then thought better of it. He reached in and turned off the ignition. “Don’t look like there’s any danger of a fire, so we’d better not move ’im in case he’s got internal injuries. You stay here and I’ll put down some flares. And go to the other side of the car away from traffic unless you wanna end up in a body bag too!”

That was unnecessary, I thought, as I went around to the other side and leaned in.

“Hey buddy … what’s your name? Everything’s gonna be all right. Help is on the way.”

“What … the hell … happened?” As he attempted to open his swelling eyes, he moved his head toward my voice.

“Looks like a semi jack-knifed, you must have swerved to keep from hitting it and then you started spinning around. But don’t worry … everyone else is OK. It’s just me and the truck driver.”

“And the body?” he grunted as he tried to reach for the door.

“Look, I don’t mean to be crass since this is your profession and all, but I would think that’s the least of your worries since he/she is already dead. Which is it?”

“My fuckin head feels like it’s going to explode … I need water … which is what?”

“A he or a she….and I shouldn’t give you any water until the squad gets here.” My doctorate was in philosophy but I knew enough to not give him fluids in case he needed an emergency surgery. I leaned in a little closer to determine the size of his pupils through his squinting swollen eyes.

“Help me get outta here so I can check on the body.” I wondered how that was going to work since he could barely see, but I knew it was good he was remaining conscious.

“Look … just calm down … they will be here soon to get you out of here the right way. I don’t want to make you any worse. You stay with the truck driver and I’ll go check on the body if it’ll ease your mind, but just what am I supposed to check?” I didn’t have the heart to tell him I had run over a part of the body bag … still not sure yet which end. “Is there anyone I can call from the funeral home so they can come and get it?” I looked around to see if I could see the name somewhere. “My name’s Frederick … Fred for short … what’s yours?” I saw his eyes were closing again so I tried to keep him awake with my questions.

“Calvin…”

“OK, Calvin, I’ll make sure everything’s all right.”

I went back to where the body had fallen, hidden by the semi, and knelt down near the end of the bag that had the tread marks. My eyes were drawn, though, to the other end, where there were two holes. Strange, I thought, they didn’t look like they had been ripped in the accident, but why else would there be holes in a body bag? Ventilation came to mind but I didn’t really want to go there.

Fortunately for me, the bag had fallen with the front facing up: the zipper ran straight down the middle, and the two holes were at what appeared to be the top of the bag. Good news, I thought. Chances are I did indeed run over the bottom of the corpse, but I didn’t want to unzip the entire bag just to check the feet. I could just feel them. Make sure they were still attached and let the professionals do the rest. Nobody would see them anyway other than the mortician.

I checked to make sure no one was watching, took a deep breath and felt around the bottom end of the bag. I touched what seemed like toes and began to make my way up the calf. The leg jerked. What the hell? I moved my hand away like I had touched a hot piece of charcoal and sat down on the pavement. It could have been a muscular reflex. Or I had actually hit my head during the accident and I was hallucinating or something. I felt like vomiting. Without thinking, I stood back up, lifted the body and gently placed it in the back seat of my car. It was limp but not rigid, which confirmed that he/she was still alive. I guessed it was a she because although it was all I could do to lift her, I suspected it would have been impossible for me to lift a dead-weight man.

I climbed in the car, quickly unzipped the top of the bag, and saw a young woman with short, spiked blond hair that looked as if it had not been washed or combed in quite a long time. The jewelry had evidently been removed from all of the piercings on her ears. Her yellowing left eye appeared to have been bruised from an older incident. A long, thin scar just below her ear traveled down her neck. Eyes closed, she was breathing softly but steadily through her open mouth, showing no obvious evidence of trauma from the accident. I knew time was of the essence so I zipped up the bag, reassured that the holes were allowing enough air to sustain her. Careful to not block them, I placed my jacket over the body bag to conceal it as much as possible. What the hell am I doing? I should just put her back in the hearse and be on my way. No … for once I’m not going to think this through … I’m going to follow my gut instinct. I closed the back door of the hearse and went around to the front to check on Calvin and the semi driver. The police and EMT’s were just arriving to start their assessment and I explained who I was. They wanted to check me out but I refused because I knew I was OK and I was impatient to get back to my car before Calvin mentioned the body. I walked up to the patrolman.

“Excuse me, Sir … can I fill out the accident report now? I’m a professor at the UW and I need to get to my class.” That wasn’t entirely true … I had no class since I was on sabbatical to work on my latest book: K(c)ant Beat Sade: Moral Imperative and Philosophy in the Boudoir.

“That’s fine…if you’re sure you don’t need the medics to check you out. What do you teach?”

“I’m OK. Just a little shocked by the whole thing. I teach philosophy. Are the other drivers all right?

“The other two seem to be OK … probably nothing too serious. Tow trucks are on their way, so you should be all set after we finish the report. Philosophy, huh? More power to you … I took one philosophy class in college and sorry, but that was enough. Let’s get you on your way so you don’t disappoint those students!” I gave a feeble smile and shook my head slightly like I always did … most people say exactly the same thing when I tell them what I teach. Usually better not to mention it but in this case I was hoping it was my ticket to get out of there before I lost my nerve.

After I gave my statement the patrolman returned to his car to finish writing his report, the other cop was preoccupied with directing the traffic in order to allow me to pull out, and I was easily on my way. What the hell was I thinking? Where am I going? I can’t go back to my place until I get this thing figured out. No, wait … I need cash and clothes and now’s the time to get them before anyone follows my trail and before the girl wakes up. I took the next exit off of I-5 and headed toward my place in Ballard as rapidly as I could without attracting attention. I live on a quiet street facing Puget Sound, and since it was the middle of the day one neighbor would be at work and the elderly couple just beside me would be taking their daily afternoon nap. The driveway angled down toward the rear of the house, and I drove directly into the garage and closed the door. The garage was actually under the main upper floor and the windows of the garage door were very small so there was little chance anyone could see in. Besides, all of my neighbors were accustomed to my coming and going because of my hectic teaching schedule and they left me alone unless there was an emergency. Except the elderly couple, who considered me a surrogate son and wanted to chat every time I was out mowing the yard. But they were so naively unaware of anything other than their meticulously manicured lawn and their advice to me on landscaping and where to find another wife. Although they annoyed me at times, I tolerated them because they served as good studies of human nature and they were kind at heart.

I unzipped the top of the body bag to see if the girl was still sleeping, or whatever drugged state she was in. Her eyes flinched a bit at the sound of the zipper and the suddenness of the filtered light coming through the small windows but otherwise she gave no signs of waking up. What the hell did they give her? And what if she needs to go to the bathroom? How long has she been like that? Of course I had no way of knowing at the moment so I decided I’d better quickly pack what I needed and get back on the road.

I took the stairs two at a time and rushed into the bedroom to get a few changes of clothes, underwear, socks and toiletries. In the back of my closet there was a hidden door that, as far as I knew, my soon to be ex-wife did not know existed. I quickly opened it and within a few seconds I unlocked the combination of a hidden small safe. I had begun to suspect my wife’s infidelity a couple of years ago, and fortunately I had the presence of mind to start putting away some cash…$10,000 to be exact. Rachel was a plastic surgeon and had plenty of money, but still I wanted access to some immediate, private cash. I had not really thought about why, but now I mused that it had all been leading to this moment. I stashed the money in my duffel bag and looked around to see what else I might need. My computer was already in the car along with my iPAD, which had a sufficient number of books on the Kindle. Nonetheless I grabbed a few that I couldn’t live without (Neitzche, Kant, Sade, Sartre, and Michel Onfray, this fairly recent French philosopher whose works I had just started reading).

I tossed my stuff in the trunk as quietly as I could so as not to awaken Thalia (as I had decided to call her). I quietly slid in the car and was just about to turn the key when I was jerked back by something tight around my neck. Oh shit….I had left my exercise band on the backseat floor.

“Who the fuck are you, and where is Calvin?” a groggy voice whispered in my ear. “What happened to the hearse? Why are my fucking throbbing toes swollen to twice their size, and why do I hurt all over?”

As I instinctively brought my hands up to try to loosen the band, I felt the cool blade of a knife against the flesh of my arm.

“Don’t move or I swear I’ll either choke or stab you to death.” Damn. I should have looked a little more closely in the body bag. Didn’t really think she would have a weapon.

Somehow she had the strength to tighten the band and I realized she had hooked each end to the seatbelt attachments at the bottom side of each seat. She could make it constrict by pulling on either side or hooking it tighter.

“Look,” I said, “ I’m not trying to hurt you. My name’s Fred…. we were all in a car accident and I unintentionally ran over your toes when the body bag fell out of the car. Calvin was hurt, and he insisted on checking on the body and I said I would do it. When I saw you weren’t dead I decided to put you in my back seat…just a gut reaction. I just thought there must have been a reason you had been drugged or something. For all I knew I was saving your life. But they’ll surely look for us once they realize what happened and this is the first place they’ll come. Just trust me and let me get us outta here.” She was loosening the band as I talked, which I took as a good sign.

“And just where the fuck do you think we’re going?”

“My buddy has a cottage in the Cascade mountains north of Seattle toward Bellingham. He already told me I could use it if I wanted to get away.”

“Did you call him yet? Tell anyone?”

“No, I was going to give him a call on the way.”

“Ok. Mr. Genius. I’m going to trust you for the moment because right now I don’t have too many choices. But you have to do what I say. Throw your fucking phone on the garage floor right now and let’s get movin!”

“But I need my…..” the last word was cut off by the band constricting my throat and I knew she meant business.

“Throw out the phone, I’m gonna remove the band and crouch down so the neighbors don’t see anything, and you’re gonna drive this fucking car. You keep your phone and they’ll track us all the way to the cottage.”

I threw out the phone, started the car, and we were on our way. I decided to avoid I-5 as much as possible but it wasn’t easy since my GPS was an app on my phone. What have I gotten myself into? This is more than a diversion or procrastination because I was having trouble concentrating on my research. This is where impulse will get me! I glanced in my rearview mirror and it looked like Thalia was dosing off again. Surprising, but maybe it was still the effects of the drugs. I could stop at a rest area now that we were out of Seattle and just drop her off. It wasn’t too cold yet so she would survive until someone found her. Just turn around, go home, and if the police called I could say that she must have climbed in the back of the car at the scene of the accident while I was talking to the officer. Say she had choked me and brandished a knife and directed me to go to my house for money and then drive her to the Canadian border. That she passed out again in my car from her injuries and I left her at the rest area. Hell, I could even dump her and call them right away… if I had a phone…they would surely believe my story over hers. I glanced at my neck in the mirror to see if I had signs of being choked when the sound of a ringing phone shocked me.

Thalia answered and was talking as quietly as she could but I could still make out a few words. “Yeah, some fucking idiot.”   “didn’t ask him yet.” “I’ll call you when we get there.” “OK. You too.”

“So you make me throw out my phone and you had one all along. Who’s the fucking idiot now?”

“Look, Fred: my head and feet are killing me. I’m cold and hungry. I don’t know who you are and I’m not sure what’s gonna happen to me. Or you, for that matter. Don’t worry about the phone. It’s untraceable. How much longer?”

“Maybe 20 minutes. Look, I’m sorry about your condition but haven’t you even thought about thanking me? Maybe I saved your life. It’s about time you tell me who you are and why you were playing dead…or were you forced to do that? Was Calvin abducting you?”

“Oh my God…did you just hear anything I said? I don’t feel like talking about it right now. I could ask you the same thing. Why would anyone take a body from a hearse and drive off with it?”

“Because for the first time in my life I did something without analyzing the hell out of it. And it just seemed like fate, especially once I saw I had accidentally run over your toes. Don’t you see: you’re my muse. I was thinking about the cogito of Descartes, about the meaning of my life and then I ran over your toes. I thought you were dead and you weren’t…just like me, metaphorically speaking. It’s not I think; therefore I am…it’s more real than that…more visceral. I feel; therefore I exist. I move; therefore I exist….I…”

“WOULD YOU JUST SHUT THE FUCK UP, OR “I EXIST” WILL NO LONGER BE A PART OF YOUR VOCABULARY!!!!!!!”

 

Thalia must have dozed off after her outburst because during the rest of the drive the only sounds were her light snoring and the steady but accelerated rhythm of my heartbeat pounding in my ears. After a good deal of trial and error I finally located my friend’s cottage, which was at the end of a winding one-lane road. I had only spent a long weekend there a few years back, but I was hoping the extra key was still hidden in the same place. I pulled the car behind the cabin and glanced at the back seat to see if Thalia was still sleeping, which she was. She reminded me of my niece back in Philly: required by circumstances to put on a tough armor for the world, yet inwardly just a petrified girl. Someone Thalia’s age should be going to Greek parties at school and staying up all night in the dorm talking about life’s perplexities, not spewing out curse words at some total stranger. For all of her tough talk I suspected she was just as confused and anxious as I was. I touched her lightly on the shoulder and then held down her arm as she instinctively grabbed for her knife, which I immediately realized I should have confiscated before I woke her up.

“It’s OK…I just wanted to let you know we’re at the cottage. I’m going to look for the key. Wait here.” I grabbed the small snow shovel I keep in the trunk for my occasional ski trips and walked up the short incline a few yards behind the house to a clothesline. Buried next to one of the posts was indeed the container holding the extra key.

I helped Thalia out of the car and guided her to the back entrance of the cottage, whose screened porch ran its entire length. She allowed me to carry her up the few steps. The covered wicker furniture reeked of a musty unkempt smell. We entered the kitchen, which, although small, had enough room for a 1950’s chrome table with periwinkle blue vinyl chairs, on which she plopped down, steadying herself by leaning against the table. “I guess I’m weaker than I thought,” she said.

“Do you want some coffee or hot tea? My buddy Stan usually keeps the place stocked. Some soup maybe?” I saw that she was beginning to shiver and went in the living room to get an afghan. For the first time I looked closer at what she was wearing: a lightweight pale green dress with flip-flops … strange for late fall but fortunate for her, I guessed, since her feet and toes were so swollen.

“Look, let’s find you some warm clothes, heat up a can of soup, then we can both get some rest. Stan usually brings his girlfriends up here and someone must have left something you can wear.” I saw that she was still clutching her knife handle as she looked up at me and forced a menacing look.

“I’m going to call you Thalia since you haven’t told me your real name … so Thalia, I swear to you that I mean you no harm. I’m not a rapist or criminal…I’m a college professor who happens to also be going through a rough time right now. That’s what I was trying to explain to you earlier.” I saw her dark brown eyes get bigger.

“Don’t worry…I’m not going there again…we’re both too tired. I’m still not sure why I took you but I did, so now we both have to deal with it. Why don’t we come up with a plan in the morning…but you have to promise you won’t try to leave. This is a small mountain town in the middle of nowhere and you’ll stick out like a rose in the middle of a desert.”

“Oh my God, Fred, you just never know what’s going to come out of your mouth … it is Fred, isn’t it? I promise to not leave if you promise to stop talking. Soup sounds good … just show me where I can find the clothes and a bathroom.”

Just my luck to have a bitch for a muse. I helped her through the main living space, which crossed the entire front of the cabin, then around to the right where the two bedrooms were located with a Jack & Jill bathroom in between. I saw some women’s clothes in one of the closets, told her to take that bedroom, and went back to the small kitchen to heat up the soup.

Several minutes later Thalia limped into the kitchen and I got another chair for her to prop up her feet. I searched the freezer for some frozen peas, which I wrapped in a thin kitchen towel and placed on her feet. She must have showered because her hair was wet, and she was wearing a pair of sweats and a dark sweater, and for a minute I thought of my wife, Rachel, who usually dresses in the same type of clothes. A couple of weeks before she left, she came up to me one Saturday and asked how I liked her new sweater. “It’s very becoming,” I had answered, although it looked like every other sweater she owned, “really looks nice on you.”

“It’s not new,” she had practically screamed, “ You never SEE me. I could wear the same clothes for days and you would barely notice. I spend $150 on my hair and you say nothing. Just what was it that even attracted you to me?”

“Come on, Rachel … you know I didn’t fall in love with you for your clothes or your hair. Nothing as superficial as that. I fell in love with who you are.”

“That’s even more ridiculous coming from a philosopher, Frederick. You don’t have any idea who I am. You fell in love with your own fiction of who you wanted me to be.” I couldn’t give her an answer, even though at that moment I felt she was giving me some kind of test that would determine whether she stayed or not. Evidently I failed miserably.

Thalia took a couple of sips of her chicken noodle soup and said wistfully, “ My Mom always made this for me when I was sick. Thanks.” She held the bowl with both hands and brought it up to her nose, closing her eyes briefly as she savored the aroma.

I decided to push for more information. “Does your mother know you’re all right? Do we need to call your family or did you already do that?”

She slammed the bowl down on the table and looked up at me like a frightened runaway. “Look, Fred, don’t ask anymore questions. I’m going to level with you because of the circumstances but I will only tell you what you need to know and you have to promise to keep this confidential. I’m in the witness protection program, and Calvin was supposed to take me across the Canadian border so I could have a new identity. Since he’s still in the hospital, he’s sending another agent for me tomorrow … that’s who I was talking to on the phone.” She took a drink of water and picked at what polish was left on her half purple nails. I noticed she had some scars on her arms and when she saw me look she covered them with the afghan.

“Fred, you got yourself involved in some serious shit… and I have no idea if the bad guys are on our trail. They could even have caused the accident for all I know. But you’re the one who decided to get messed up in all this…you can imagine why I didn’t trust you because I thought you were kidnapping me to kill me. You might still, but my gut tells me that no one could keep up this act of the nerdy college professor. So I’m not your fucking muse…I may very well be your grim reaper, or whatever you call it!”

“Witness protection? What for? Does that mean you can never talk to your family again? So they think you’re dead? What drug did Calvin give you?” I had a thousand questions but I figured I’d better stop there.

“Fred, if you remember, the first thing I just said to you was don’t ask any questions. If you need to know anything else I will tell you.” She took another sip of the soup and wiped away what looked to be a few tears. “I just want to go back to sleep …. the only thing I need from you is something for the throbbing pain in my toes.”

Still in shock from her revelation, I went to the bathroom to look for some ibuprofen and gather my thoughts. I had finally done something impulsive, and this is where it got me! I needed a plan ASAP. I didn’t want to imagine what Thalia had done to get herself into a witness protection program, but if she was telling the truth, the next 24 hours were the most crucial. With luck, no one had followed us and the agent would be here tomorrow and I could get my life back. On the other hand, if anyone had followed us, we were screwed. I figured my best plan was to find some sort of weapon and keep an all night vigil. Surely Stan kept a hunting rifle or some other type of protection hidden somewhere in the cabin.

I heard Thalia call my name. I turned to see her shuffling toward me.

“Are you looking for poison or something? My feet are killing me!”

I gave her the ibuprofen and helped her in the room. She turned around and looked at me: “My God , your face is white! I don’t know what else to say. Maybe you saved my life, maybe not. Now all we can do is wait. Just don’t do anything stupid. If you hear something, wake me up first. My guy will call me when he’s close to the cabin. Night, Fred.” I heard the door lock behind me.

There was an old unlocked garage behind the cabin, so I moved the car in it and got my bags. I had noticed some wild mint growing in a neglected herb garden, so I picked a few leaves, took a bottle of rum I had stashed in my bag and looked around the kitchen for some carbonated water. No lime, but this would suffice. Rachel often made fun of me for drinking mojitos, but I always told her it was better than the absinthe that some of my philosopher buddies drank. I sat down on the back porch and looked up at the stars, taking a deep breath of the cool, fresh mountain air. The gravity of what I had done finally hit me. Not such a bad place to die, I thought. If this doesn’t give me some insight about the meaning of existence I don’t know what will. Like Roquentin, the protagonist in Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist novel Nausea, I had a sick feeling in my stomach, but it wasn’t from staring at the roots of a tree. It was from looking at the vastness of the universe and the knowledge that whether I lived or died didn’t really matter. Sure, my friends and family would be sad, and maybe a few colleagues and students, but they would clean out my house and my office, keep a few mementos, and life would persist. My books and articles? Just a bunch of academic requirements to help me get tenure. Maybe all of this was my therapist’s fault for asking me to find my authentic self. But now, feeling alone and genuinely scared, I had the overwhelming urge to call Rachel.

 

 

I kept sentinel all night, seated on the living room chair facing the front door with the old rifle I had found in the bedroom closet lying across my lap. Dozing sporadically, I heard only the sounds of the wind and the night owls, with the anxious beating of my heart providing a back beat. When the first rays of light appeared behind the dingy white shades, I stepped outside on the front porch to watch the sunrise over the valley. I could just barely make out the veiled Cascades in the distance, and I took a deep breath of the misty, thick air to clear my mind and settle my nerves. If I could believe Thalia, the new FBI agent would soon arrive to take her to Canada and I could return to my research and writing. Even Sade should be a comforting and welcome task given the forbidding scenarios my mind was creating should the “bad guys” show up at our door. I resolved to never again complain about conducting research. Perhaps some strong coffee would fortify my wavering anxiety, so I went back in the cabin and headed for the kitchen.

Thalia stood in front of the olive green countertop, fumbling with the coffee machine, and I cleared my throat to give her an indication I was around. She jumped a bit anyway, then a wave of relief visibly calmed her when she saw me at the threshold.

“I didn’t mean to startle you … how did you sleep?” I caught a reflection of myself in the door of the microwave: I had not yet combed my wavy, unruly hair nor shaved in days. It’s a wonder she hadn’t screamed. I felt in my pocket for a rubber band so I could at least gather my hair in a short ponytail.

“OK, except for the nightmares, which included one where I was being buried alive….and I was shivering a lot…what about you?”

“I dozed on and off but tried to keep watch from the front room. Any news from the FBI agent?” I motioned for her to sit down as I worked on the coffee. I noticed that her feet were somewhat less swollen.

“Not this morning, but I would think he should be here any minute. They had to fly in a special agent.”

Of course I had no direct knowledge of how the FBI or witness protection system functioned, but I did have difficulty believing that it was taking so long to send a replacement. I chose to not push the issue since I knew it would only anger Thalia, and so far she seemed more comfortable with me this morning …. at least she was no longer cursing! I handed her a cup of black coffee and offered her some pop tarts for lack of anything better. I loaded them in the toaster and sat down at the table opposite Thalia, glancing at her without overtly staring. The bruise on her left eye was less apparent, but the scar on her neck was puffy and reddish, indicating to me that it was fairly recent.

“If you don’t mind my asking, how did you get the black eye and the cut on your neck? Looks as if you were lucky to survive.”

“ I do mind your asking, and it’s really none of your fucking business, Fred!”

Here we go, I thought … I should have at least waited until she ate something…a little blood sugar spike to maybe calm her down. “ I’m sorry … I know you said no questions, but I can’t help but wonder.” I put the pop tarts on a plate for Thalia and was just loading another set in the toaster for me when I heard a noise on the front porch. I made a sign to Thalia to stay put, grabbed the gun and cautiously rounded the corner toward the front door, rifle drawn and ready. I came face to face with Rachel and Stan, who seemed to be just as shocked as I was. They dropped everything and threw their hands up in the air.

“Fred, don’t do it!” Rachel started shaking and crying at the same time. “Let’s all sit down and talk this through….we’re all professionals here.” Stan looked back and forth between me and Rachel and opened his mouth to speak.

“Shut up!” I yelled. “Everybody just shut up!” Thoughts were bursting through my head like fireworks: Why were they here? Did the police come to them, looking for me? Or was it the bad guys and they could be right behind them? Was this a set up? I had not told Stan I was coming to his cabin, but maybe they questioned all of my friends and put two and two together. But why would Rachel think I was going to shoot them? Oh … my … God … the truth exploded in my head like the grand finale on the Fourth of July. I had the good sense to put down the rifle because I no longer trusted myself. I sat down in the chair and stared at them in disbelief.

This is the other man? You’ve been cheating on me with one of my closest friends?” I saw Rachel’s eyes turn toward the kitchen, where Thalia was leaning against the door.

“And you’re retaliating with this underage girl? Fred, what in God’s name are you thinking?”

For a brief moment I was somewhat flattered that Rachel thought I was having sex with someone half my age. I had neglected my physical conditioning in the last few years, but I would describe myself as stocky, not pudgy. My pre-Rachel girlfriend had first been attracted by my piercing dark brown eyes….she had even written a sappy poem about them, pointing out that my right eyebrow was higher than the left, which added to the mystique of the intellectual…how had she put it? … something like sexy ambivalent piercing eyes. And I did still have all my hair, unlike Stan, who was entirely bald, yet had grown a full beard and moustache as if to compensate. I was still trying to process what Rachel could possibly see in him when Thalia interrupted my self-indulgent emotional sidebar. In what seemed like one continuous movement she swooped through the middle of the three of us, grabbed the rifle, glanced out the front door, then turned toward us and pointed it in our general direction. She was still wearing what I now realized were Rachel’s clothes.

“Would someone tell me what the fuck is going on here?” she asked.

“This is my wife, Rachel, and Stan, the owner of the cabin … evidently they decided to come up here for a lovers’ tryst … remember, Thalia, you wouldn’t let me call him to tell him I was headed up to his cabin. Stan, why did you invite me? Some kind of sadistic pleasure if I happened to see evidence of Rachel being here? What a coward … you couldn’t just tell me straight up that you were having an affair with my wife?”

“Soon to be ex-wife,” Rachel interjected, “and we were going to tell you … we were just waiting for the right time…waiting for you to stabilize emotionally.”

“Don’t use your medical jargon with me, Rachel … you were probably waiting for the divorce to be final so I wouldn’t renege on the settlement.”

“Think whatever you want, Fred…would you just please tell your lover to stop pointing the gun at us? Can’t the four of us just calmly talk about all this? Oh my God, why is she wearing my clothes? Or did you even notice?”

Thalia ignored Rachel and turned toward me: “Nice decision on the divorce, Fred, and nice work on making this mess even worse. The way I see it is we can either explain what’s going on or make them leave. But I’m not so sure I trust them.”

I noticed little beads of sweat forming on Thalia’s forehead, and she seemed even paler than yesterday. I was just about to ask if she was OK when we heard a forceful knock on the front door. Against the small window at the top of the door we saw a gold badge with the initials FBI. Thalia moved toward the door and looked out the window.

“Wait!” I whispered. “How do we know this is the real thing?”

“When I talked to him yesterday on the phone he told me exactly what he looked like and what he would be wearing. Unless someone tapped the phone, which I doubt, this is him.” Stilling holding the rifle, she opened the door.

He was much younger than I had anticipated, maybe 29 at the most, and his light brown hair was longer on the top and short on the sides, reminiscent of James Dean. His left eyebrow was pierced, and he wore a faded pair of jeans, white t-shirt, and black leather vest. He wore what appeared to be fine leather gloves, and held a revolver in his right hand. Thalia must have recognized the skepticism in my face because she quickly said:

“Look, Fred, it has to be believable that he would be with me if we are to pass the border. The dead body thing didn’t work out so well so we are trying another approach … I’m already in disguise compared to what I looked like before.”

I thought about asking Rachel to examine Thalia to verify that she had undergone plastic surgery, but then I saw Rachel’s eyes open wide in fear. She looked at Stan, then me, and said with a shaky voice:

“Dead body??? FBI?? Would someone please tell me what’s going on?” Stan started to put his arms around her but she pushed him away.

“Well, I could use a little update myself because I thought there was only one other person here in addition to this young lady,” said the FBI agent as he motioned toward Thalia.

“I can explain,” I said, “but could you just stop pointing guns at us?” Thalia pointed the rifle at the floor and sat down in a chair near the front door. The FBI guy also lowered his revolver somewhat but remained standing, facing us all. I began to recount the events of yesterday leading up to this moment, punctuated by the nervous hiccups that always overcame me when I was overly anxious.

 

When I finished telling my story there was a heavy silence in the room, punctuated by my interminable hiccups. I had left out the part about Thalia being my muse, choosing to embellish the possibility that I thought I might be saving her life. I glanced her way to see her reaction, but her eyes were closed. Rachel was staring at me, still shaking her head as she had been doing the whole time I talked. Suddenly Stan jumped up, faced us all and said angrily:

“Listen: this is MY cabin, that’s MY rifle, and I didn’t ask for any of this.” He turned toward Thalia and the FBI agent: “I want you out of here right now, and I want you to guarantee that no one has followed you. Surely you have other agents around here guarding the area who can verify that. Then I want everyone to leave, including you, Fred!” He looked at Rachel. “Of course, that doesn’t include you, Babe.” That one word made me want to run over to him and choke it out of his mouth forever.

The FBI agent saved me from it: he put the gun against the middle of Stan’s forehead and said: “And whose gun is this, Stan? And whose badge? You can’t tell me what to do, and I have the power to have this ménage à toi go down anyway I want. I can see the headlines: lover’s triangle ends with double homicide and suicide. How does that sound? You’re lucky I feel sorry for Fred ‘cause you’ve been doing his wife behind his back!”

It sounded to me like he said “toi” (“you”) instead of “trois,” (“three”) which could’ve been some sort of Freudian slip or just plain ignorance, and I wanted to comment on the possibilities and the double entendres but I thought it best to hold my tongue at the moment, especially since this was taking an unexpected turn. Stan looked as if he were going to wet his pants or worse, and though I must admit I was scared too, I nonetheless enjoyed seeing Stan suffer. Thalia stood up suddenly and rushed over to the FBI agent, but just as she reached him she fell to the floor in an apparent faint. He bent down to her and said:

“Baby girl, are you ok? Say something, Ali!”

Rachel, Stan and I stood there in disbelief and confusion, then I shouted: “I knew it! You’re no FBI agent … you’re her boyfriend, and probably the reason she’s in the witness protection program. Did you have this planned all along? Did you cause the accident with the hearse?” Wrong move on my part … now the gun was aimed toward me.

“YOU! Shut the fuck up!

Rachel moved gingerly toward Thalia/Ali… “Look … let’s all calm down! I’m a doctor … let me look at her.”

With that, Rachel’s physician persona took over. Forgetting any potential danger, she examined the unconscious Thalia and asked us to lift her onto the couch. As Thalia started to regain consciousness she began to struggle a bit, and Rachel calmed her down with her soothing and reassuring voice.

“You’re going to be OK, Ali. The wound on your neck is infected, some of your toes might be broken, you have a fever and you’re probably dehydrated. I have some antibiotics with me so we’ll start with that and plenty of fluids, but you need to rest before you go anywhere.” Rachel gave the fake FBI guy a scolding look. “So what is your name?”

“He’s not going to tell you,” I interjected, “Let’s just call him James since he looks so much like James Dean, rebel and all.” James gave me another menacing look, quickly picked up the rifle that had fallen on the floor, and sat down on the chair next to the couch.

“So she’s gonna be OK?” He said to Rachel.

“Most likely. She needs to rest and she can’t do that with us hovering over her. Why don’t we all go sit in the kitchen…we can see both Ali and the front door from there, and I haven’t had anything to eat this morning. In fact, we have groceries in the car.” She looked at James. “Can Stan go to the car and get them?”

“I don’t want Stan outta my sight. Fred, you go get the groceries.”

I couldn’t help giving Stan a smug look, and he took a seat as far away from James as he could. Rachel gave Thalia the meds, put more ice on her feet and got her settled on the couch. James took both guns and stood by the door to monitor my trip to the garage. As I reached the car and opened the trunk I hesitated for a second…well, more like a minute… as I felt the urge to jump in and drive away. I didn’t wholly entertain the thought because I knew I’d never really act on it, but somehow it felt exhilarating and liberating at the same time. I’ve never liked guns, and I needed time away from the drama inside. Time to let Rachel and Stan’s betrayal sink in. How could I have been so oblivious? I know I can become lost in my research, but how could I not have seen what was happening behind my back? Was this the reason I felt compelled to take the body? Was the universe hitting me over the head with a forced dose of revelation?

“Fred! What the fuck are you doing?” James startled me out of my reverie. I slammed the trunk shut and hurried up the front steps and into the cabin.

While we made some breakfast and more coffee James relaxed somewhat, putting his revolver in its internal holster but keeping the rifle next to his chair at the kitchen table. We all ate in silence, and when we finished I said to James:

“Look, James; I don’t know what crimes you’ve committed and I don’t need to know. You seem to really care about Ali, and I’ve no reason to judge you, other than the fact that you scare the shit out of me with the guns and all. But what’s going to happen now, and what are we supposed to do?

James sipped on his coffee and shrugged his shoulders. “Look, man, all I know is that I have to get Ali and myself outta here ASAP. You’re right about the FBI … it won’t take them long to come here.”

“Yeah… I left my phone on the floor of my garage, which they’ve surely found by now, but if they’re tracing Rachel’s whereabouts they know she’s here … probably Stan too, and they’ll be on their way to question her. I’m surprised they haven’t called already or shown up at the door. Maybe they won’t suspect I’m here with her but if they ask I don’t want her to lie and get caught up in this anymore than she already is.”

“Oh my God!” Rachel said, “I left my phone in my purse and haven’t checked it with everything going on. I put it on vibrate since I’m not on call.” She ran in the living room and returned with it in her hand. Sure enough, an “investigator” had called a half hour ago to ask her if she’d seen or talked to me recently, saying it was urgent that she return his call.

James glanced in the living room to see if Ali was still sleeping, then paced around the small kitchen. “I really don’t give a crap what you do…I’m inclined to help out Fred here because Ali seems to like him. I could just as soon kill all three of you but the FBI will still be on my trail, and I’m thinking that leaving you alive might hurt you more in the long run.”

Rachel simply declared: “I’m going to call the FBI and say that I haven’t heard from Fred, and that Stan and I are here alone,” We all listened while she made the call. “They’re heading up here to question us.” Rachel moved toward the living room with Stan behind her.

James gestured to them and said to me, “So what are you going to do about them?”

“What do you mean?” I said.

“You’re just going to take it. Your buddy messes with your wife behind your back and you let it go. That’s not how it would go down in my world.”

“Well, I’m not going to shoot him if that’s what you mean.”

“Whatever. Do what you want, but you see how far I’d go to save my woman.”

As if on cue Ali slipped into the kitchen and sat down on James’ lap, her arms around his neck. She looked more rested and less pale, and she was still wrapped in the afghan.

He took her face in his hand and looked at her intensely: “We’ve gotta get outta here, Ali. Grab what you need … your meds and water … as fast as you can.”

“Are the FBI here? How long was I asleep? What about all of them?” She gestured toward me.

James gently stood her up and said: “The FBI are on their way. You only slept for about an hour. We’re leaving everyone else here. A professor and a doctor ought to be able to come up with a plan to save their asses … I wouldn’t put much faith in Stan.”

Thalia still looked confused and startled…must have been the infection…but she began to move as James rushed into the living room. I reached out to touch her arm.

“Thalia…….Ali,” I said, “I just wanna say good bye and give you something. I know I pissed you off you with my talking and all, but that’s just me.” I went to my backpack to get some money, then handed her a thousand dollars.

“You don’t need to do this, Fred.”

“I know, but I want to. Take it before I change my mind. I really hope things work out.”

“For you too, Fred. I’m sorry I was rough with you, but you just might be the most annoying person I’ve ever met! Just try to stop analyzing the fuck out of everything. And thanks.” With that, she went to get her things.

Maybe she is my muse, I thought. I’ve been reading these complex philosophers most of my life, but maybe what they say in the end is uncomplicated. Maybe we all want some sort of Hegelian dialectic that results in a nice resolution that brings us one step closer to the meaning of existence, but what if the dialectic never resolves, and that is the simple truth? After all, I think; therefore I exist is pure and uncomplicated.

James and Thalia rushed into the kitchen, followed by Rachel and Stan.

“Can you at least leave my rifle?” Stan asked. “Take the ammunition, but give me back the rifle!”

James’ answer was to knock Stan to the floor with the butt of the rifle.

 

* * *

 

Evidently James was prepared for anything because before he and Thalia left he forced Rachel, Stan and me to sit on the kitchen chairs, then tied us up and duct taped our hands to the chairs. He left our mouths un-taped…I figure partly out of spite and partly to help us figure out our story for the FBI. So there we sat, Rachel and Stan on either side of me. The blood from Stan’s head wound was dripping slightly on my sleeve. I couldn’t help but think of Sartre’s play No Exit: we are truly capable of creating our own Hell. I just hoped this was not a weird trick of fate and that we would indeed reclaim our freedom. It actually felt good to be tied up to Rachel, but not so much with Stan, which made me think of Sade and my book project. Rachel brought me out of my meditation on sadism and Hell:

“Ok, here’s a possibility: Fred, you’ll tell them that after the accident when you were moving the body from the pavement back to the hearse, Ali pulled a gun on you and forced you to put her in the car. She made you take her somewhere in the mountains and you thought of Stan’s cabin, secretly hoping you’d be traced there. You’ll say that you heard her talking to someone on the phone but didn’t know who. That she was injured and told you she was waiting for someone to pick her up. That Stan and I just happened to show up at the cabin, and then James, impersonating the FBI.”

“That’s a bunch of BS!” Stan turned his head toward us, which caused even more blood to drip on me. “We’re talking about the FBI here….you don’t think they’ll be all over this ? And what about your phone on your garage floor, Fred? And why should we lie? Isn’t that aiding and abetting criminals?”

“Stan,” Rachel said, “ If we tell the truth, Fred might be in serious trouble. After all, he could be charged with kidnapping Ali.” She glanced toward me. “And I do feel some responsibility for his breakdown.”

“What breakdown?” I tried to jump up from my chair and almost tipped us all over. “Who said I had a breakdown? Don’t flatter yourself. I’ll admit that taking a body from a hearse appears to be a bit odd, but I’ll explain it to the FBI and take the consequences. I’ll tell the truth. I can handle it.” I knew this would hit Rachel where it hurts because A Few Good Men was one of her favorite movies, and we had watched it several times together. I thought I saw her eyes well up but she quickly looked away.

“Look,” I continued, “Stan’s right. This thing all started with me thinking I had to find my authentic self, and it would be hypocritical of me to lie. Thalia really did pull a knife on me. I’ll tell the truth. At least we can agree on one thing: none of us saw what car James was driving or where they were going, so personally I hope they have a good chance to start over.”

“The motherfucker knocked me down with my own rifle, and you turn into some sappy romantic who wants a fairy tale ending. Go fuck yourself, Fred!” I turned to stare at Stan as I thought about my retort, but when I saw his bloody head I decided to be silent.

We all just sat there for awhile, listening to the creaking of the cottage and what sounded like an occasional squirrel running across the roof. Somehow it seemed odd to me that they were scurrying around, oblivious to anything other than storing their food. I envied them. After some time Stan began snoring, and I whispered to Rachel:

“Not that I care, but is he supposed to be sleeping like that? He probably has a concussion.”

“It’s OK if he sleeps a bit given the circumstances. He has high blood pressure so this will help him to calm down.”

I saw that her cheeks were tear-stained and I wished I could wipe them away. I thought about trying to lick them as a gesture of reconciliation but thought better of it. “Rachel,” I whispered, “do you remember when I used to call you Annie, Roquentin’s former lover in Sartre’s book Nausea? How we used to talk about her “perfect moments” and how it was possible for our perfect moments to compensate for the daily drudgery and repetition of existence? Don’t you believe we can find them again?

“Fred, you started ruining the perfect moments. And it all started with the baby … you know it did.”

“Rachel, please … don’t go there.”

“Don’t you see, Fred? Maybe you took that girl because you needed to rescue someone. You couldn’t save our baby, but you never wanted to talk about it. I wanted to try again, but you wouldn’t even come near me … what was I supposed to do?

“Look, Rachel, I did start seeing a therapist. That’s huge for me.”

“Yes, Fred, but it was after I told you I was leaving. A bit too late, don’t you think?”

“But why Stan, Rachel? Do you hate me that much? Why my best friend, of all people? Surely there were some fellow doctors who would have been willing to supply whatever you thought you weren’t getting from me! Couldn’t you have had just a little empathy? For what we had in the beginning? And Stan was my best man, for God’s sake!” Speaking of whom, Stan’s body, which was slumped against me, began to jerk just a bit, which caused more blood from his head to drip on me.

“Calm down, Fred,” Rachel whispered, “You know how these things work: you started staying at the university later and later, telling me that you had student conferences, or that you couldn’t concentrate at home and needed the solace and inspiration of your campus office. Stan stopped by to see you and we started talking a lot since you were never there. He understood my devastation about the baby and my frustration with you. He said you just needed some time to deal with it on your own terms first. We didn’t mean for the affair to happen … it just evolved. We didn’t set out to hurt you.”

“Jesus, Rachel! I don’t know if I can ever get my head around this. Or if I could ever forgive you…yet with all that’s happened, even all that could still happen … who knows if the bad guys will come looking for James & Thalia before the FBI get here … I’m not sure I’m ready to give up on us, although you seem like you already did.” Just then we heard the sounds of the front door breaking in.

“Damn it!” Stan yelled. “Fred, you owe me a rifle and a front door and whatever other damage they do!”

“Right, Stan,” I said, “and you owe me a wife!”

 

Turns out the FBI was more interested in finding Thalia and James than charging me with a crime. The spectacle of us tied to the chair with Stan’s dripping wound helped convince them that we were all victims. I did indeed stretch the truth and they believed that Thalia threatened me with a weapon and forced me to drive her north to wait for James (they still didn’t tell us their real names). The two were involved in heroin trafficking, which explains the scars on Thalia’s arms. The FBI had put her through rehab and were indeed planning to take her across the border to Canada. Now they seemed to think it would not be long before they would find them because she would likely relapse soon.

I may not have found my authentic self, but at least I am on its path. I still believe the universe meant for me to take the body, which in turn resulted in the tabula rasa of my life as I thought I knew it. The cogito is just a beginning, and the fear of losing everything has made me really question what it is I want. I’m still working on the book about Kant and Sade, but I’m thinking of changing the title to The Marquis de Sade: if you K(c)ant Beat Him, Join Him! … not, however, in the sense of becoming a sadistic sexual pervert! Sade wrote most of his works imprisoned during the French Revolution, listening to the sounds of the guillotine. I suffered my own reign of terror, and I survived it a changed man who at least tries to understand other people’s emotional states, rather than analyzing them intellectually. To really understand someone, let alone oneself, merely thinking is not enough … empathy is the key.

Rachel and I are not reunited for certain, but she agreed to stop seeing Stan and not sign the divorce papers yet if I agreed to continue therapy. My therapist says that Rachel and I are not yet ready for couple’s counseling until we each confront our separate issues. We’re making progress, which for now is enough. I’m working on being compassionate toward myself for the moment. And on being mindful, especially when I’m driving.

As for Thalia and James, I really hope they can make a life together without the drugs and violence, although I can only imagine how difficult that must be. But I’m hopeful, especially after I received an unexpected package the other day in my mailbox at the university: a copy of Descartes’s Discours de la Méthode, with the following inscription:

     Cogito(e)

I think that I am

With the one who knows

And to think it all began

With some very crushed toes.

 

Keep it simple,

Thalia

 

 

BIO

vanderheyden2Jennifer Vanderheyden grew up in southern Ohio, and earned a PhD in French Literature from the University of Washington in Seattle. She lives in Wisconsin and teaches French at Marquette University. She has published a critical study on the works of eighteenth century French writer and philosopher Denis Diderot, as well as piece of flash fiction in Robert Vaughan’s Flash Fiction Fridays (Dolls, Vol. 1, 2011)

 

 

0

Seth King

 

 

I Tried to Answer

 

the door when I heard knocking
but I cannot navigate down so many steps
even with the new carpeting

because I have lost my feet
somewhere
maybe under the bed

my knees are still hanging
in the bathroom drying
so I’m sorry but I will not go downstairs

without my knees
I do try to answer my phone
but my words stick like meat

to the walls
and anyway cannot make it through
that tiny hole

I refuse to talk without my words
I’m not trying to make excuses
but what with so many issues beyond my control

you’ll have to forgive me
if I miss our appointment
this Tuesday.

 

 

A Saboteur Whispers

 

hops onto a deadman’s chest
steams his vapor to the air

pecked sockets find the frontal lobe
where fibers pull like strings of cheese
the deadman happy to provide

such wisdom as might be there

he trades convex for concave
murmurs change but dreams of motion

legs are lost
have turned to earth
small plants curl on mound’s remains

rodents worm through snaily trails
between his twisting squirms
bonefingers tip the tops of spore born caps

buttocks crumble moist as coffee ground
crackled rice caught crawling out
from burlap sacks of skin

the sun sautés his toxic face
in air as thick as plates

until autumn un-stalled by honking geese
arrives to chill the nights

shed their skins of shapely leaves
burned then bruised by aggressive winds
spins up twisted paper veins

fly away to brown and curl
crispy-chip on top the dirt

where the soldier lies.

 

 

When a Laridae Lands

 

in front of me to tear a bagel
from the street lifts
the slow weight of its white and black

I am surprised
though should not be
this is an island after all

I don’t remember seeing seagulls
in this neighborhood before
territory of passerines

three toes forward one toe back

elegant perching birds that distain
the clumsy foot-webs and horrible
unhinging fishy jaws

and I hate to admit that when the seagull waddles
in for a coffee nosey beak feathers flapping
it is I angling for flight between the tables

gathering speed through the held open door
finally able to unfold into the rest of the morning

and it is Jonathan Livingston I think of.

 

 

BIO

sethking2Seth King is a painter and poet living in Brooklyn, NY with his wife and two boys. His recent poetry has been published in The Furious Gazelles, Yellow Chair Review, and will be in an upcoming issue of 805 Lit + Art. See more at www.sethking.nyc

 

 

 

On Why I’m not a Hypochondriac

by Rachel Croskrey

 

 

According to the simple rules of growing up, burping should be mastered by age ten. Everyone should be able to pull it off: a Calvin and Hobbes worthy, mouth askew, one eye wide, fist clenched, great burp. wikiHow even has an instruction page on how to burp, written undoubtedly for truly educated individuals who wish to learn. They give helpful tips, such as: to accomplish “truly horrifying odor combinations, experiment with different foods!” and keep your mouth wide open for “cavern-like acoustics.” Only the sophisticated select transverse these useful informationals – them, and of course, those who can’t burp.

The inability to burp could be a medical condition – something wrong (unless you’re a prenatal baby, and if so there’s no gas to burp). There’s a doctor on Facebook for this type of illness. He has created a support group page: Dysfunction of the Belch Reflex – We Can’t Burp. I stopped taking their survey after questions like: have you ever had a hiatus/hiatal hernia? – Please list foods, drinks, activities, and your thoughts about what make your DBR worse. Um, I don’t know? What I do know is that since my youth I’ve I wanted to be like my brothers and dad and let loose great burps, but I haven’t been able to burp on command. In fact, I can’t burp – or eructate – unless it’s accidental. Burping is more like a hollow bubble of gas traveling up the bottom of my throat and stopping somewhere in the middle of my esophagus. Medhelp.com and other such sites help individuals who also cannot burp meet and discuss their conditions. Moth-eatenDeerhead says that he calls his rumbling gurgle a “burgle.” jillsinlalaland was so self-conscious about her gurgling throat that she added it to her dating profile. Louis11 thinks he can’t burp because as a kid he was scared of throwing up – a fairly good reason to suppress those eructations. It’s why I did it. A fear of vomiting might keep a lot of people from burping, or maybe even emetophobia, the fear of puking. Upchucking. Gut-souping. Ralphing. Barfing. It may even be a good enough reason to let go of the ability to give a good, intentional supragastric burp. At least, I seemed to think so as a kid. I was so afraid of throwing up that I used to take painkillers every night of my period for around a year because of one instance in which I woke up in pain and vomited.

One UK website claimed that 3 million people suffer from Emetophobia. It’s a fear that vomiting will lead to or cause insanity, death, endless vomiting, etc. Emetophobics fear being out of control. They have a cycle. First, there is a reminder of vomit, puke, or the porcelain throne of chunks. Which then moves them to worry about vomiting. Emetophobia. They then participate in impulsive behavior to escape vomiting. Starvation. Agoraphobia. The background of the KidsHealth page “What’s Puke” would be enough to set emetophobics off. It’s yellow with darkly outlined squares – quite chunky. My own fear of puking was never that bad. Although, there was that time in daycare where I examined that one book on puke with appalled curiosity – it had a raised illustration on the cover and everything – and solemnly brought it to the attention of an adult, safely disposing of the thing. Things were better after that.

More recently, that one night I woke up in burning pain and threw up happened three or four or five more times – not all during my period. I didn’t know what it was, or why it hurt. I know now. Celiac disease (over 200,000 new discoveries a year) combined with a dairy allergy. For those with Celiac disease, gluten causes their immune system to attack the villi in the small intestine – it destroys the microvilli that absorb nutrients and transfer them to the blood stream. Candida (a yeast that actually implants itself between the cells in the intestinal wall) allows food particles to get into the bloodstream which the white blood cells then attack, causing food allergies. Hence, the dairy allergy. 95% of your body’s serotonin is produced in your gut. You can imagine what happens when you have gut problems.

Now that I’ve also discovered that I have Lyme Disease (the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi that hinders the endothelial cells in the vessel lining, platelets, chondrocytes, and extracellular matrix from operating correctly) I fear other things. Kidney failure is my latest kick. A friend (who recently defeated Lyme) said that Lyme Disease is serious – someone went into kidney failure because of it. Well, most dogs who die of Lyme Disease die of renal failure. Point-in-case. Symptoms include: no urine, swelling – especially in the legs and the feet –, loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting, feeling confused, anxious, restless, or sleepy, and pain in the back below the rib cage, according to webmd.com.

One week it was brain fog, bloating, and an exhausted nap after being awake only three hours. The fatigue made me realize something was really wrong. But what? It turned out my white blood cells were responding to something they thought was a foreign intruder in my bloodstream – little bits of egg that had leaked through my gut lining. A new allergy.

Sometimes I experience other symptoms, and sometimes they are nothing. Like the red bumps on the backs of my legs and the backs of my arms. They itch, I scratch, I rub. But, it was probably just from dirty clothes right? It’s up to me and webmd.com to decide.

Hypochondriac. Valetudinarian. Neurotic.

Fearful. Fixated. Frantic.

I’m not a hypochondriac. I’ve never considered myself one. There are tests to measure if you’re a hypochondriac (I bet only hypochondriacs take them). I took it. But, I’m not one because I live by myself, my best friend moved, and I have serious medical conditions. I’m just lonely. I’m not a hypochondriac. It’s just my way of convincing myself I’m special. Maybe. I wrote a piece once about the depression my conditions have medically caused. It got published. You can find it in Gravel Magazine, February 2016. But, I have never been officially diagnosed with any of the things I have diagnosed myself with.

I’m not a hypochondriac. Maybe I’m an un-hypochondriac. I’ll go to their kick-off parties and talk about Denise Richards, Matt Lauer, and Charlie Brooker who all have emetophobia. I just won’t drink the Kool-Aid.

I’ve discovered that the bump on my wrist is in fact not cancer, but a cyst. And I haven’t stopped peeing yet so my kidneys haven’t failed. So I can relax, right? Relax.

 

 

BIO

rachelcroskrey2Rachel Croskrey is an English major with a concentration in Creative Writing at Cedarville University. She greatly enjoys stories of other people’s lives and one can often find her reading or watching those accounts. In addition to her interest in other people, she also appreciates order and peace and hopes to be a law enforcement officer one day. Her work can be found in the Cedarville Review and Gravel Magazine.

 

 

 

0

Judith Roitman

 

I WOULD PREDICT MOTION IF I COULD

She looked through the window past the porch and saw him move
across the yard as if he were going to swerve up the front steps. But
he didn’t. They never found him. Maybe he was tired and couldn’t
take it anymore. Maybe it was the chickens. The chickens were always
running around.

He didn’t meet expectations. He didn’t exceed expectations. He ate
too many potato chips. Nothing could stop him. He was unassailable.
He strode forth like a giant. He played the calliope. No matter where
you looked, you couldn’t find him. He buried himself under his
words. This was the fashion back then. It isn’t the fashion now.

 

 

IF I WERE STANDING IN LINE I COULD CUT IN FRONT OF YOU

She was scrubbing the heart in preparation. He was busy at the other
side of the room, unable to hear what she was saying. A long time
ago she turned over in her sleep and asked him not to kill her. He
had never thought about it before. Now he can’t stop thinking about
it.

He was in a box underwater waiting for rescue. They were taking too
long. What was he to do, in chains like this, waiting for his
accomplices, thinking of the fish surrounding him, the polyps,
the rocks, the mud?

 

 

FACING A SQUIRREL SHE IS HELPLESS

I go in. I go out. I can’t give you anything. I can’t take you in. I don’t
know you. I don’t have enough. There are so many of you. What am
I supposed to do. I am a good person. I am not unsatisfied with my
life. The curtains could be different. But generally I am okay.

They were shouting. They had signs. They went back and forth,
barricading the mayor’s office. Worthless. As if they fell into a hole
unable to get up again, police striding back and forth, their never-
ending batons.

 

 

FACING A TREE HE IS HORRIFIED

He went into battle. He went into ruin. He jumped on the table. The
car wasn’t there. His mother wasn’t there. Whatever he was looking
for wasn’t there. He gave up and went to buy some groceries. After
that, he could go anywhere.

One day they jumped into the water. They lowered themselves in
boxes. They were surrounded by ladders. Everywhere you looked
there were ladders and boxes filled with water. This is no way to live.
So they dried themselves off and turned into ducklings.

He said, “I can’t do this anymore.” She said, “You have to leave
before anyone sees you.” So they lit a fire and sat there reading the
paper. They sat there until their bones leaked. After that, nobody
bothered them.

 

 

WHEN THE BOMBS STOP COMING YOU’LL KNOW IF YOU’RE ALIVE

I have blood in my hair. He has blood on his shoe. She has blood on
her nails. We have blood in our socks. You have blood on your teeth.
They recognize each other. They slip on the floor. They come in
lightly. They wear spandex. They are not guilty.

It comes in a box. We don’t touch it. Birds move underwater, eating
garbage, going slowly. They go slowly but it doesn’t take long. It has
nowhere else to go. Where would you put it? She would lay it down
under a bench, go home, forget about it. They won’t let her do that.
Nobody would let anyone do that.

 

 

BIO

judyroitman2Judith Roitman has most recently published in Yew, Futures Trading, Otoliths, Eleven Eleven, Horse Less Review, and Talisman. Her recent chapbooks include Slackline (Hank’s Loose Gravel Press), Furnace Mountain (Omerta), Ku: a thumb book (Airfoil Press) and Two: ghazals (Horse Less Press). Her book No Face: Selected and New Poems (First Intensity) appeared in 2008. She lives in Lawrence, KS.

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Martin Keaveney

 

 

The Leaves

He uses the leaves, bunches of them, to show me. He gathers them up, piles in his hands. I can see the pleasure, the deep throaty joy in him, as he makes fists, squeezes those mucky fingers together, his eyes are bright under grey lashes, white dots in the dampness. He wants to show me, he runs around in a circle, tossing them high, he grunts, they swish by his veiny legs, under his bare feet, he looks, stares open-mouthed at me, tears come. The reaction, it must not have been, not what he expected from me, or what he wanted.

 

 

 

 

Artlessly

You’ve got to love it, it was great. Real great. You’ve got to love a man for trying. He might find, no he will fail. That’s for sure, but he did try, he fell a lot of times. A lot, a lot of times, but he did try. He got the end or start, no matter. He didn’t care that much for all he said about it, the end, that is. You’ve got to love a man for trying. If he even was a man, if he was even a her or a she, who knew, must needs this, but you’ve got to love him, nevertheless.

He got out of it. He got to the end or something did, or the start, no matter. Try and fail, fail and fail. You’ve got to love them.

 

 

 

 

Company

We’ve been here for centuries now. Time does not exist here. Nothing does. We do eat, but not in time. We toilet, but not here. We reproduce, but not as nearby. We lead and follow, but only in the future. There is no time to lose or find. It is puzzling and clear. We drill holes all day for millennia. Then holes are filled, we drill more. We talk in silence. We think to others. There are no others ever, only at times. Times of the landed nearby. This time in time. We are alone together.

 

 

 

 

The Vase

He was tidy, she was not. They extended the kitchen. He brought her a flower one day, name not important, put it in a vase on the table in the new section.

She was laughing about it, much later, why he had brought in the flower, can never ask him now. Soft idea, she said, silly man.

 

 

BIO

keaveney2Martin Keaveney has been widely published in Ireland, the UK and the US. Fiction, Poetry and Flash may be found at Crannog (IRL),  The Crazy Oik (UK) and Burning Word  (US) among many others. He has a B.A. and M.A. in English and is currently a PhD. candidate at NUIG.

 

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WARNER

by M F McAuliffe

 

 

This isn’t the Warner Gilchrist who’s a neurosurgeon, nor the Warner Gilchrist who’s a bell-ringer, nor the Warner Gilchrist who’s an executive lawyer, nor the Warner Gilchrist who’s a male model, but the Warner Gilchrist who’s bone and residue in a closed coffin in one of Adelaide’s cemeteries. His father was James Gilchrist, a local columnist for The Examiner, and one of the most fatuous writers I have ever read. At 15, my rage at his column was boundless. Church-goers’ and rose-growers’ regard for him was likewise boundless. Now even Google can’t find him.

Warner was his first-born, a fat-faced, slit-eyed bounceball of self-regard. He wasn’t tall, he wasn’t lithe, but walked as though he was. I knew a lot about the way he walked: he walked in late, down the full length of the theatre, every time we had an English lecture.

He was as full of shit as his father, and as well regarded.

#

He was very young, they said. There was a law that you had to be seventeen to go to Uni; otherwise you had to petition the Governor. I’d come within two months of having to petition; he’d come within two weeks.

I didn’t know his name. I knew the orange hair and freckles, the stretchy-dakked slouch, the eyes, his lack of folder as he slouched past the front rows of girls busy writing in theirs. I knew he bounced a tennis-ball across the plaza month in and month out; I saw him from the library windows. He never seemed to do any work. I expected him to fail.

At the end of the year I came third. Someone called Warner Gilchrist had come second; Walter Selim, a thin, pale worm, had come first.

In Second Year Orange Boy still had the ball. Mostly in is pocket.

Early in Third Year the student newspaper revived. Someone called Warner Gilchrist, with friends, ran it; Warner was the editor. Van Hulse, a friend of mine, gaunt and haunted flame of a boy, went off and politicked. When he came back we were the joint literary editor.

“Oh?” I said.

Not only that. Warner Gilchrist was the son of: James Gilchrist.

#

As we all waited at the entrance to the large theatre I could see the darkened study of his late nights with his father, typewriter, table, pool of light, whisky-to-whisky, man-to-man help with homework, help… (Did his father help him say the things I wanted to say – the feeling at the tip of the branch when the grapevines are pruned, how the small grey wind came from the gullies, how the scatter and spray and spew of houses lay between the hills and the sea?) He’d had help, had it for years and years and years.

“This means we can be a power on campus!” Van Hulse was glowing, his lips open with hope.

I had pressing problems, lose your scholarship and where are you going to get money problems, the entire Spanish Renaissance in Renaissance Spanish problems, Norse sagas in Old Norse and Beowulf in ornamented Anglo-Saxon problems. (Where did Warner get all his free time?)

“Mm,” I said. Hulse invented projects and cajoled students far and wide. I talked a couple of submissions out of a couple of staff. I had too much work to help him much.

Warner’s articles began to appear. Sex and the pill and the new gloriousness of life; the Hey, Jude review; the penis-piece, a four-pager on the True Humanity of not regarding your penis as a Free Strap-on Gift Offer. It was something his father might have written, if he hadn’t been addressing the middle-aged middle class. “Dear Warner, I have never regarded my penis as a free strap-on gift offer. Love, Veronica.” Did not get printed.

Around the same time Hulse told me that nothing we were digging up was getting printed, either.

Take it up with the Student Union executive?

Hulse white-faced with anger. The paper wasn’t controlled by the Union. The press was owned by a consortium of Warner and his friends.

So. His father had bought him a fake newspaper for a platform, and a press to print it on.

#

He beamed and bounced his way across the plaza and grew more orange hair. My thesis grew a hundred monster heads.

I began to be free again at the beginning of Fourth Year, just in time for the Annual Play. The other half of the Former Literary Editor of The Imperial Scheme sprang the fifty cents, and took me. Over the summer just about everybody had dropped out, Hulse said, and instead of cancelling the show… Towards the end the star and only cast member swung across the stage on a trapeze, jock strap naked, coloured streamers rippling from his arse. Hulse wanted his money back.

But when I saw him afterwards, wearing the green corduroy coat with leather elbows, wearing the shirt that somehow made him look substantial, I felt oddly sorry for that simultaneously pudgy and scrawny body.

And then I began to realize that Warner’s performance had gained him respect among the staff. I think they saw it as brave.

And the staff would decide the first class degrees, the tutorship, the scholarship, and the Medal.

#

Fourth Year.

As you walked down the corridor you could start to get a feeling for your chances, read the layers of latenight thought lodged in the satin finish of doors and doorframes. You could see vague shapes, receding possibilities. Once I glimpsed the ghost of Walter Selim, inching along like a vertical worm, his mind concise and brilliant.

But the most glittering bauble on the Fourth-Year Christmas-tree was a couple of terms’ tutoring before leaving for Oxford. If I could get that job I could do something respectworthy while I went on trying to say the sound of the wind. My heart had been set on it for years.

#

Frenzy. Exams. Orals. Alphabetically I wasn’t expecting to see Warner that week. Our paths crossed at the door; I went to knock; he opened it on his way out. Hearty male laughter within. My heart sank. I knew the sound of satisfied agreement when I heard it.

I’d staggered through my Spanish oral, drunk and mindblank, managed to make an unexpected joke with the only three words I could still remember and escape while their impressions were still good.

I didn’t dare get drunk for this. So we sat, them in front of the windows, me staring at the sun and thee silhouettes, in increasingly bad-tempered argument.

When it was over I went downstairs to the Ladies’ to get out of the dress. I hadn’t worn it for years, knew it was hideous the second I put it on –

Warner intercepted me.

The orals were closer to Christmas; the campus was closed and deserted. To this day I don’t know where he waited that afternoon, to speak to me who he neither saw nor spoke to, to see if his scholarship was still safe.

He looked down from his puff-cheeked, slit-eyed advantage and asked me how it had gone.

I shrugged. I wanted nothing but to be away from the grey terrazzo foyer with its thin brass strips, to be back in my jeans, getting to know by its smell and sound and the saltwater desert my future had just become.

“How long were you in there?” His eyes looked amused. The dress, I suppose.

“An hour.”

The pause lengthened, and lengthened again. He stood looking down. Finally I said, “How long were you?”

“Twenty minutes.”

There was so obviously nothing to say.

#

Selim got the Medal.

#

Van Hulse chatted quietly to the staff. Everything I’d been drunk for I’d done very well in; Warner’s First came largely from his marks in French. I grunted. For all I knew his French was better than Voltaire’s.

#

Teaching on the industrialized edge of the extinct inland sea. Dry geologies so barren that for a sense of human scale I began reading The Examiner again.

Warner’s French professor had become the restaurant critic.

Restaurant critic? The man had to be helped downstairs after the French Society.

I wondered why The Examiner had picked him. He wasn’t scrambling for work; he didn’t need the money. He sat in his office, obscure, bespectacled, unnoticeable to anyone but his students –

Warner’s First came largely from his marks in French.

Warner’s father, The Examiner‘s most popular columnist.

#

None of that made any difference now.

The wind grieved at night, scouring the plain under the treeless moon.

#

I drank the Education Department’s pale cups of Gethsemane and when I had the money I moved to Melbourne. I opened The Age one Saturday soon after and found a recent photo of Warner.

Back from Oxford, apparently. Going to Sid Siebel’s filmwriting workshop, writing for the South Australian Film Corporation. He’d won The Age‘s short story competition. The story stank.

I wondered how his father had fixed the workshop, and shrugged. I had to beat down another door for another part-time job.

The recession ground on.

#

Free entertainment one afternoon! Helen Caldicott Against The Bomb! City Square from 3 p.m.!

I got there after work, to a thinnish crowd. Caldicott had already left, but I wanted to see what I could see, so I followed the thick network TV cables and stopped about fifteen feet from the stage, about four feet behind a squat fat guy.

Large orange Afro. Green corduroy coat splitting at the seams. Leather elbows.

Warner leant down and whispered, directing the guy on is knees next to him with an old Sony Portapak to tape a flag too close to the camera for the average Sony lens to resolve. The portapak belonged to Adelaide Video Access. Someone had come up with the shoestring for a directorial experiment.

#

Christmases in Adelaide came and went. I finally got a job in the Public Service, went back to Adelaide for the following Christmas and caught up with Hulse, who was working for a new political rag. I took riesling, brie, edam, green olives, black olives, stuffed olives, cold tomatoes, bread, the best coffee I could find, and a sinful chocolate cake. We sat in his living room, which was small and dark. The food was on the two small tables that stood between us, touching our knees.

We’d been discussing an article he was working on. I’d just put my wineglass down. I had bread and cheese in my left hand, I was catching crumbs with my right. Hulse was examining the plate, looking for his next nibble.

“Bye the bye, Ron, did you ever hear that Warner Gilchrist is dead?”

Hulse had bought tiny car stereo speakers for his tiny living room. Very soft Haydn.

“Drowned.”

I couldn’t hear the music.

“… He’d got divorced and gone to Byron Bay to do some surfing. They told him it wasn’t a beginner’s beach.”

And Warner thought it didn’t matter. Warner thought he was as good as they’d always said he was.

His father had loved and helped him to death.

#

Solid unbreathable green, lungs starving, burning, mouth forced. Swallowing. Rid of water.

No arms. Green through greening water, no arms rescuing. Cold. Swirled. Buckled, bound, encased, inside and out, water.

I saw him fall and part from me, point of light falling and dimming in an endless exterior dark, falling down and away, my enemy, my identity, my loss.

The light went out.

And I was bolt upright in the dark, gasping and choking and terrified.

#

I saw Hulse a few times over the years before I left the country. Warner’s younger brother was a decent-enough journo at The Examiner. His father was a broken man. Warner was dead, and so was his family’s ascendancy.

#

I’ve outlived him now by thirty-five years, and yet he’s wandering cross my mind this morning, that drowned and fatuous boy. I can see him coming across the plaza, fishflesh white under his orange hair, slit-eyed in the sunlight, ball in his pocket. I’m watching him from the first-floor window, wondering what it must be like to be so favoured by family, money, gender.

I turn and draw breath.

I suppose I’m thinking of him this morning because the weather, a harmless-looking grey, not even dank, has me labouring for breath as though asthma had never been dispersed by albuterol, beclomethasone and prednisone; because I could well end up like him, drowning.

But that will be then. The weather will improve tomorrow, the asthma over the next few days. My third book has just gone to the printer, photographs and essays; my husband’s fourth came out last year.

We work around our illnesses, quietly, and get things done.

 

 

BIO

mcauliffe2M. F. McAuliffe is co-author of the poetry collection Fighting Monsters (Melbourne, 1998), & the limited-edition artist’s book Golems Waiting Redux (Portland, 2011). Her novella, Seattle, was published in 2015; her collection, The Crucifixes and Other Friday Poems, will be published this fall.

In 2002 she co-founded the Portland-based, multilingual magazine Gobshite Quarterly with R. V. Branham. In 2008 they co-founded Reprobate / GobQ Books, where she continues as commissioning editor.

 

 

 

0

Christina Bavone

 

Manifesto! ignorare!

 

When the leaves change,
I must write about them.
That’s what happened
I wrote about the leaves.

Natural reverence picked me up
and put me in poetry’s basket.
I stayed for a while only straying
to pick up useful adjectives and verbs.

Collecting life in tin cans,
only to pickle later
for safe keeping.

Poetry is life.
Poetry works life like a red-sequined dress,
and then goes out for dinner afterwards.

I want to have a phone conversation with myself.
And then bleed afterwards.
Eventually poetry will bandage me,
and then sometimes it doesn’t.

I want to whistle in the face of poetry.
Then I’ll know I’ve made it
when poetry has felt my
spit on its vibrato.

 

 

mangledadj.

 

I maul adjectives
and eat adverbs alive.
I step out with pejorative
statements clinging to my cheek.
The chocolate chip, Oreo images
smeared across my lower lip
and I couldn’t quite pick the crumbs of allegory
off my blouse.

The characteristics of the protagonist
dangle from my ear lobe
threatening to let go.
Slimy plot dripping from my nose
always trying to get away.

My dimples held dialogue
like ingenious puddles that would
eventually dry up over time.
I didn’t realize my
obsession for the written word
until a passerby yelled out to me,
“Hey, what have you been
doing? Making out with a
book?”

And I looked up to my reflection only to discover
a 3” thick layer of black words
coating my mouth.

 

 

Nerves shot straight to hell.

 

I wait,
straining to hear the telephone.
Red ants creep up my throat;
my stomach turns counter-clockwise this time
                  in paralysis.

                           I’m tripping
off of surreal adolescent films –
the sweet voice of Alice
wondering which land she is in.

Don’t give me that psycho-sympathetic look.
You know how it feels
to try and control
the out-of-control.

Sexual participation one night;
the clutches of murder the next.
Where will it all end?

My voice cracks under the pressure. Is it? Dead?
The twigs crumble beneath me
and I fall.
The hole was pre-dug.
It was a trap.
The judgment of dirt – what a child’s toy.

It’s all the fault of that damned rabbit hole.

My baby sister doesn’t
realize the difference
between life and death,
but I do.

The sweat pours out
in droplets, “I’m sorry, but I had to.”

The rubber band snaps in two
and the release of tension
sends me into delirium.

The Queen’s had my Ace,
but the joke’s on her.
I’m running.

But you always knew
I was crazy, so
I won’t go into disgusting, controversial details.

 

 

Death Comes Upon You

 

it hovers, then falls
like a sheet,

a white one,
translucent.

gossamer skin;
toes pointed skyward;
brick mortar over
bare legs bristly black.

now dark
thick as dinner coffee.
you wait

for an afterlife
that never comes –
stuck in this body
folded over

on the asphalt.

 

 

BIO

christina-bavone_2Christina Bavone is a teacher and writer of fiction and poetry. She currently teaches writing at National Louis University. She holds a Bachelors in writing from Columbia College and a Masters in teaching from National Louis University. She is currently pursuing a Masters in English at University of Illinois at Chicago as a part of their Program for Writers. She has published poems in online lit mag Ophelia Street and international publication Every Second Sunday. In addition to teaching and writing, Christina is mother to a boisterous 4-year-old.

 

0

The Masterful Art of Angelo Deleon

 

 

Cloudy day over Metro

Cloudy Day Over Metro

 

The City View

The City View

 

City Harbor and Sailboats

City Harbor and Sailboats

 

Gray Skyline

Gray Skyline

 

Teal and Aqua Sky

Teal and Aqua Sky

 

Jazz It Up #4

Jazz It Up #4

 

Neon City

Neon City

 

Lilies in a Pond

Lilies in a Pond

 

The City Bay

The City Bay

 

Neurul Circuitry

Neural Circuitry

 

Panoramic View of a Colorful City

Panoramic View of a Colorful City

 

 

 

ABOUT THE ARTIST:

Angelo Deleon

Angelo Deleon is an American artist and painter, Abstract Expressionist and Impressionist artist who is self-taught and lives in Middleburg, Florida.

 

Links to Angelo’s work:

Instagram

Facebook

 

 

 

 

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stephanie renae johnson

Straw

by Stephanie Renae Johnson

 

 

Now, listen. This is why I need you.

Most fathers don’t dip the moon into bottles of their own tears and booze. A father shouldn’t tell his daughter that her moonbeam body echoes her mother’s. But he did, with his mouth and with his eyes. That was why we were going to run away: just our hands clasped tight as we roved the hills. Our bare feet and the mountain laurel. Some sheep, maybe, to keep us warm. We were going to fill our mouths with lamb’s quarters and dandelions. We would find what we could and steal what we couldn’t.

We figured, the world owes us anyway, for setting her up with a dead ma and a pa stuck in a bottle. I’m not much better: a dead pa and a ma who disowned me. A mangled creature, she called me. Sick, she growled.

Her pa is a monster. Coming from me, that’s an insult.

That is why, Grandpa—I need to know how to spin straw into gold. She’s in the tower of that mansion right now, and I need you to tell me how you did it all those years ago.

No, I can’t find Ma. She’ll just spit me out again like a bad batch of moonshine. Just show me … please.

 

Grandpa, the forest at night is a cacophony. Stars swirl in a raucous chorus, coyotes yip and howl; the mosquitoes and cicadas are a damn racket. Since being ejected from home like a knocked-over nest, I’ve grown in the woods. My toes are callused blue with the dirt of these mountains. I know the rough of the bramble; my heels are pricked and pierced by blackberry bushes. But I’ll never get accustomed to the night time symphonies of these azure ranges.

I’m surprised I heard her over it all. She was in the corner of my vision, an extra tangle of roots in the kudzu, until I heard the heave of her sobs.

“Oh hell!”

Trying not to trip when you’re barefoot on a mountain is an art form I’m still learning after all these years. I fell into her lap.

“I am so sorry,” I muttered, sitting up and brushing the dirt from my arms. “Are you hurt, miss? Do I need to carry you home?”

She smiled, despite the rivers carved into her cheeks.

“No, but thank you. It’s just–” she breathed out. “–my father.”

“Ah.”

For lack of anything better to say, I plucked an ivy leaf out of her hair.

“Here,” I handed it to her. “For good luck.”

“Thank you … I’m Brenna.”

“Stilt.”

“What a funny name!” she laughed.

“It’s a family name,” I muttered.

“Oh.”

The woods resumed their noise. I hadn’t noticed it stopped until the drum thrum of “talk-to-her-talk-to-her-talk-to-her” bludgeoned through my mind.

She talked first, though. Her voice was like a newly minted coin, silver and round.

“Do you often walk in these mountains at night?”

“I live here. So…yes.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t…” She looked over my shoulder and noticed my clearing.

“It’s fine. I’d rather be here than there.” I pointed at the carpeted view of Ashburn spread beneath our feet.

“It must be beautiful to live here. Have this view every night.” Her chin tilted toward the town, the blinking fires below, the crooked dark line against the other side of the sky.

 

This has happened before, Grandpa. Runaway girls from the town find their way up to my mountain. I never ask for them, but they stumble up as if led. The least I can do is make them a cup of coffee and listen to their reasons for running away.

After the tears dry from their cheeks, they smile at me, they push my hair away from my eyes. They tell me I’m beautiful. They might even kiss me before descending back down the mountain. But then, they realize, they only like the idea of me: the mountain recluse with un-brushed hair, long legs, and longer patience. It’s the reality of me, especially when it comes to taking me off the mountain, introducing me to their kin, their everyday life, the concept of showing me around town on their clean, slender arms that end in uncallused hands. That’s when girls become aware that I don’t fit into a dream life. I’m not a fairy tale ending. You don’t find people like me in any kind of nursery rhyme picture book.

 

That night, I remembered how gold looks when lit by a fire. As I leaned the wood together in a triangle and flung the flint to the center, her hair gleamed. She stared into the flame, but I stared at her.

“So,” I asked, sitting next to her in the dust. “Can I ask what your pa did to deserve you running away up my mountain?”

She laughed. “Your mountain?”

I grinned and glanced around. My pewter coffee pot hung from the branches. My ax stuck up from the stump of what used to be an oak tree.

“Do you see anyone else living here?”

“No,” she allowed. Her smile was like the moon, whittled down to halfway nothing.

“My mountain, then.” I sipped coffee out of my mug and refilled her cup.

She stared through the distance, past me, past the valley below. I almost didn’t want to interrupt her for the fear that her next words would be goodbye. But her lips parted.

“My father is . . . insisting I do something I don’t want to do.” I noticed a dark shadow along her neck as she pushed her shining hair aside. Its twin rested on her wrist. “So I came to the hills to decide what to do next. Seems like I’m not the only one.”

“What will you do next?”

“I’m not sure.” Her eyes swept over my camp. “Why do you live up here?”

I opened my mouth to tell her the same half truths I had told other runaway girls. My parents died. I never had parents. I was raised by mountain men. I was raised by coyotes. But the truth slid out instead, slick as wet leaves.

“When I was ten, my grandpa, my father’s father, fell sick. A little bit of…” I bit my tongue. Never tell, my pa said, never tell anyone about us. “A bit of medical ability runs in my family, so my pa spent all night taking care of Grandpa. But then my father got sick, too. My grandpa got better. My pa didn’t.”

“Your poor mother. What did she do?”

“She went wild, stopped talking to my grandpa. She blamed him for everything.” I stopped, but her eyes were tangled around me like thorns, so I continued. “My ma kicked me out a month later when she found out that I…” Biting my lip, I looked down at her hand in the dirt, inches from mine. They were the same size. Our chests rose and fell with the night air.

“Oh,” she breathed. Her tongue darted forth from between her lips, licked the top, then the bottom. She stared at me and I swear she was finding my soul, just looking at my mouth.

That’s when I fell in love with her.

 

I know you think love at first sight doesn’t happen, Grandpa. I know it took you three nights and a miracle to fall in love with Grandma. It took longer for her to return the feelings. We, as a family, are not that attractive. You have scars from the seam where Grandmother sewed you back together. I remember Father’s bulbous nose that he said you gave him.

And then there’s me. All my unattractiveness collected in my insides, Mother said. All my evil stored in my blood stream underneath my freckled skin and dirty hair. Ma said it must’ve gotten mixed in with the magic blood, like somehow sin came with the ability to make one thing turn into something else. A sickness.

Before Brenna, I didn’t believe in instant connection, either. I was raised on fairy tales just like everyone else; I knew there were witches for people foolish enough to believe in love that took only an eye blink. Witches took a poor girl’s legs. One fed a princess poisoned fruit. I was above all that, high on my mountain, just me and the coyotes, watching the moon. Or so I told myself, nights I was so alone not even the lightning bugs pitied me.

 

But Brenna was different. She listened; I didn’t feel like I had to settle into a type of misunderstood castaway for her. We spun our pasts out in front of the jumping fire. Each laugh that escaped her mouth seemed to hold eternity.

“Do you ever miss town?” she asked as the stars blinked with fury above us.

“What would I miss?”

“Pretty bar maids.”

We both laughed. She had told me how she earned a living, leaning across a bar to serve beer to red faced men. Her laugh sounded like wind in the leaves: airy, musical.

“But I’ve got a pretty bar maid right here,” I boasted. Her eyes glittered at me, the firelight caught up in them. “Besides, there’s so much more to the woods than below.”

“Tell me about it,” she implored, then miraculously—like she’d been planning it all evening and just waiting for the right time—rested the top of her head on my shoulder. The skin there tingled and burned, dancing under her fire-like curls. How many nerve endings can be in my shoulder? It felt like a thousand crinkling constellations had been swept under my skin. I gingerly, carefully, slowly, stroked her hair. It was so soft underneath my hands.

“It’s like this: once you get rid of the people, once you take away the clopping of carriage wheels over brick, every noise lasts longer. I’ve heard bird chirps that have rung through my head for hours. Everything is … easier here, because it’s just me.”

“And me!” she laughed.

I was quiet. I didn’t know how to respond to that. They always leave, these girls. That’s what makes them runaways.

She spoke again. “I wish my world was peaceful like yours.” Her eyes squeezed shut as if blocking the noise out. “My father drinks. And yells. And drinks more.”

But he keeps you. I didn’t say it because I knew how awful it would sound—the man who hits you, makes you work in a stinking bar—at least he doesn’t send you away. So instead, I put my hand over hers and watched the night fall backwards into day.

When she kissed my cheek at dawn, before she clambered back down the mountain, I never expected to see her again. So I watched her as she left, until I couldn’t make out the golden dot of her head on the dark horizon.

 

No, Grandpa, ma won’t help. She’s happier without me there, just her new husband and her pink baby daughter. Ma can only offer the wrong kind of gold. I need straw and all she has are coins, courtesy of her new husband.

In this matter, especially, I don’t think she’s likely to help me. Situations like this are the whole reason she kicked me out. To her, there’s no difference between Brenna and Violet, other than the fact that Violet lies under the earth and Brenna walks above it . . . and even that difference, I’m sure Ma would prefer to fix.

 

Brenna came back the next afternoon. Sitting on the horizontal tree trunk I call my parlor, swinging her feet in the late summer breeze, wearing the sunset in her smile. I almost dropped the armload of wood I was holding. Instead, I set each log down one at a time, staring at her. “What are you doing here?”

She shrugged. “I missed you.”

“How did you know how to get back here?”

“I counted the steps I took back down the mountain and added twenty.”

I placed the last log on the damp earth, still not breaking eye contact with her. “Well, sure, with that logic.” I paused, my chest a jungle. God. I swore she could hear it outside of me; it echoed over the whole mountain range.

“I missed you.”

“When you say that, what exactly do you mean?”

She hopped off the tree trunk and dusted her hands on her dress.

“I mean that I…” She took one step toward me, covering more than half the graying afternoon between us. “Missed.” She put her hand right where my heart felt like it was going to shoot out of me like a bird taking off. “You.” She pulled my face down to her hungry lips. Every sinful kiss, every reason my mother no longer loves me, was all worth her in that moment.

 

Oh, hell. Yes, Grandpa, Violet was that girl at the farm down the way, always stomping with me through the rivers and the dust. You’re remembering right: yes, the girl with hair the color of the earth. But when the fever swept through these hills, when you got sick, when Pa got ill, so did she. She died the month after him, that July that was so sticky hot. Remember? Your fever had broken, but we couldn’t tell because we were all sweating like fevered folk?

Ma found me praying over Violet’s body. Except my prayer, my lips hovering over hers, was the kind of prayer Ma’s God never would hear. Sinner! I can still hear her shrill echo. That’s when I took to the hills. That’s the last time she saw me.

Grandpa, I just need to know how to help Brenna. Please, please, tell me.

 

“Brenn?” I whispered into her hair later that evening. The golden strands held my words for a half-second before she turned to face me. Her eyes were still closed, but fluttered like a butterfly balanced on a falling leaf.

“Mm?”

“Why are you really here?”

“I’m really here because I want to be. Now go back to sleep. It’s night. Unlike you, I’m not nocturnal.”

The skeeters outside convinced me even nature has a metronome.

“Brenn?”

“Stilt, what?”

“I mean. What about your pa?”

“What about him? I’m gone. I’ve left.”

“And what? You just came home, said ‘I don’t want to be here anymore, I’m running away to live with the ragamuffin I met in the woods less than twenty-four hours ago?’”

“Not exactly, no.” I could barely see the thin branch of her mouth.

“Well, then, how exactly?”

“I just left.”

Visions of pitchforks and flaming pyres stamped through my mind. Me, barbecued on a spit. Me, tortured alive, my legs braided shut. Me, eyes plucked out.

“You didn’t say anything?”

“No.”

“You didn’t leave a note?”

No.

“Did you bring anything with you? Anything of his?”

In the dark, her silence.

Then, “Why do you ask?”

I sigh.

“Because I took something from my Grandpa when I left, and I regretted it later. Now I still have ties with him, I still have something of his, something I don’t know what to do with. He still speaks to me, even when I’d rather not hear.”

“What’d you take?”

“What did you take, Brenn?”

“Money.”

“A lot?”

Her hair on the pillow of leaves made a nod, a tender rustle.

“You need to give it back. It’s dirty money.”

“But it’s money we need.”

“No, we don’t. We’ll make it.”

“How?”

“We will, Brenn. Just trust me. We will.”

“Okay. Tomorrow morning, I’ll give it back. But I’ll return by dusk.”

“Promise?”

“Promise.”

A finger poked my side. This girl was lightning, worried to playful in a cricket’s chirp.

“Not fair, you never said what you took.”

The constellations above swirled with my breath. I got up, dusting myself off. Brenna brought herself up to her elbows, watching me as my arm disappeared into the trunk of a hallowed tree. My fingers closed around the thin wheel, the miniature spokes. He’d shrunk it long ago, as a spectacle for their one wedding guest: their baby. My father.

“I took my Grandfather’s spindle.” The weight of it boomed in her palms.

She examined it carefully, as if her fingers held a dying crow. “Why?”

“Because it’s the only indication I’ve ever had that love is real.” I remember the fireplace in my childhood home. Father’s scratching voice, explaining how his parents came to this country, these hills, with nothing but dreams and sheep. The wooden spindle spun between my fat fingers. The center spoke twirled as I laid on the rug, half asleep.

Brenna put her head on my chest and I held her close. From the tops of the trees, we must have looked like two fox pups, curled against the dark.

 

I know I shouldn’t have pressed her, Grandpa. Don’t you think that I know that now? I stood on that mountaintop, watching the sky fill up with messages of “no” the second she didn’t come right back, the hour the sky turned black. I screamed her name into the sky that night until a thousand crows flung from their trees and whipped around my face.

Are you going to tell me that in the year you and Grandma hid your love, in the time you plotted the midnight shout of your name in the woods, her faked nervous attack, her pretended insanity, her leaving the king, you never made a mistake? No, Grandpa, I know how close the prince came to knowing your ruse, how close he came to suspecting the new baby prince wasn’t his. I’m not the only one who has been tricked by the holes in a late night plan.

 

The following morning, I left the mountain. I bathed. Washed my face and behind my ears just like Mother taught me. There’s no soap in the woods, no indoor plumbing running over to make sure I got every last kiss of dirt off my face.

But I did it. I stumbled into Ashburn—the bright metal song of the blacksmith shop, the leather breeze of the cobbler, and everywhere, the selling. Dollar signs looked like snakes twisted over sticks. This is the world she comes from. This is the world I left. My stomach riled with acid over each shop window; some part of me knew it was where she’d return after me.

I counted the steps and added twenty, just like she’d said, but I had no idea which way that twenty needed to go. I pulled on the sleeves of strangers, but they all shuddered me off.

 

When you try to find an alcoholic’s daughter, Grandpa, you go to the town bar. Because either he’ll be there, or she will, trying to drag him off the stool. I didn’t need to look long; I followed the men whose steps curled like a chipmunk’s tail. All bars are the same, and this one was the brown variation on the theme: stinking, a row of men at the counter while the sun still hung outside on a rope.

At the center of the bar, I found her father. He looked exactly like she would if all the wishes had been sucked out of her, leaving leather for skin. Much as I hated to, I knew that the one way to make a man like him talk was to buy him a beer. I uncrumpled one of the last green bills I had saved from the days I used them myself.

He sucked down the dark, frothing liquid from the wide mouth of the cool glass, after tipping it at me.

“Much obliged,” he muttered. I nodded and leaned over a seat next to him.

“Mind if I ask you some questions?” I asked, my thick anger for him housed in my stomach. I tried to keep it from welling up into the back of my throat onto my tongue.

“You some kinda reporter?”

I ignored this and wielded my own question back at him. “Where’s Brenna?” He took another swig of beer. My rage started to taste bitter between my teeth.

“You must be the wild one. Didn’t know you were the type she wanted.” His eyes traveled up and down my form, stopping at the space right below my clavicle. “Makes more sense, now, the fit she threw when Henry stopped by to collect.”

“Who’s Henry?”

“Henry Kilgilt?” He squinted harder. “Are you not from around these parts?”

“I’ve heard tales. Lives in a giant house on the top of a hill.”

“Not just that. The closest thing the Carolinas have to royalty.”

But what neither of us said out loud was that he had a mean streak: even as a mountain recluse, I heard whispers, passed along stories of what happened if you dared go to his parts of the forest to hunt. They say he wasn’t above skinning humans, too.

“What about him?”

“Well, Brenna’s been promised to him for a while now.”

“What? She barely knows him!”

“That’s not true. They grew up together.”

“She didn’t mention-”

“Of course not. Why would she tell mountain scum?”

I bit my tongue. My fingers tightened into a fist, but stayed by my side.

He continued. “Their mothers grew up together. When Jenny died, Charlotte started to take Brenna on. When Brenna started to look like Jenny’s ghost, Charlotte wanted her son to marry her dead best friend’s daughter. It was the least she could do.”

“The least she could do is not steal a young girl!”

“She didn’t steal her. She died before it came time to collect. Henry was just fulfilling his mother’s wishes.”

“Why would a rich man want to marry a bar wench?”

“A bar wench who works so she can keep her father fed and dry,” the bartender interjected.

“Shut up, Jeremy, or you’ll lose a patron!” He threw the rest of his glass right over Jeremy’s head, but it landed against the wall and came to the floor in an uninterrupted crash. Jeremy blinked and went back to dipping what used to be a white cloth into mugs, swiping it over the glass sides and bellies. His eyes were trained at the floor, but his mouth was a white line of lightning. He doesn’t approve of this any more than I do.

“I told Brenna a couple of days ago, right before her sixteenth birthday. She threw quite a fit, that girl. I s’pose that was when she stormed off to the woods and met you.”

“Guess so,” I murmured.

“Good for her, you sent her back to me to return my drinking money. Guess I should be grateful to you.”

My stomach lit on fire and my eyes blurred. He still rambled on, his arms flailing out.

“—problem with promising your daughter to a rich snob like that is that he doesn’t always see the worth in her, not even in the fresh grave of his mother and her promises. So I told him she could turn straw into gold.”

I blinked at his stupidity. Those three words back at me—straw into gold—gripped their fingers around my gut. My family history followed me here, across the generations. The room was too small now. My feet didn’t have enough room. My lungs didn’t have enough air.

“Why straw into gold?”

He shrugged. “It’ll make Henry more wealthy. It’ll make me more wealthy.”

He believed his own lie. He was that drunk or that stupid or both. My fists tightened around his collar and I lifted him off the bar stool; he was just another log of heavy wood.

“But she can’t,” I hissed into his face. “What is he going to do when she can’t?”

He shrugged and spat at me. The glob landed between my eyes, dribbled down my nose. It smelled like feces and beer. I dropped him back down.

“Doesn’t matter. She’s not my problem anymore.”

My fists left sweet kiss marks on his nose and cheeks before my hips punched the swinging door on my way out.

 

That’s why I came to you, Grandpa. More logical folk would say you can’t hear me, but I know you’re still here. The spindle turns. The blue jays shriek in your raspy voice, the whooper wills capture your whispers. Your stone says nothing other than your name, but I need you to speak now, and not just with the wind through the trees. Please, Grandpa, you’ve talked to me before. You told me to stay in the hills, be brave.

I’m trying to be brave, Grandpa, but my hands have nothing but your dirt now. My lover has never touched golden hay, just greasy, creased dollar bills. You did it once. You turned straw into gold for a simple farm girl you loved. Here’s your spindle even: I brought it back to you. Please show me how your fingers touched the wheel. I need to know, for her.

 

 

BIO

stephanie renae johnsonStephanie Renae Johnson is the Editor-in-Chief of The Passed Note, a lit mag for young adult readers by adult writers. She is also a recent graduate of Lenoir-Rhyne University’s Master of Arts in Writing program and has just finished her first book of poetry. Her work has been published by Parenthetical and Penny, among others. She was a finalist for the 2016 Claire Keyes poetry award, judged by the award winning poet Ross Gay. She lives in Asheville, North Carolina, with her fiancé and their seven bookshelves.

 

 

 

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Jon Wilkman

Jon WiIkman Interview

Author of Floodpath: The Deadliest Man-Made Disaster of 20th Century America and the Making of Modern Los Angeles

 

Floodpath

 

Jon Wilkman is a writer and documentary filmmaker. Along with a number of documentaries about Los Angeles, he is the author of an illustrated narrative history of the city, Picturing Los Angeles. His new book, Floodpath: The Deadliest Man-Made Disaster of 20th Century America and the Making of Modern Los Angeles, chronicles the events that lead up to the 1928 collapse of the St. Francis Dam, as well as the aftermat, and relevance to today. An Amazon Book of the Month, Floodpath is considered a definitive account of the disaster that took the lives of nearly 500 people 50 miles north of Los Angeles. The event was a tragic turning point in the life and career of William Mulholland—one that would ultimately ruin his reputation and legacy as the man who brought water to Los Angeles. I sat down with Jon recently to discuss his work on both the book and the upcoming documentary film of the same title.

 

Where did you grow up?

 

In the San Fernando Valley suburb of North Hollywood., Growing up in Los Angeles, like every kid, the only history you learned about were the missions and statehood of California in the fourth grade, and that was the last you heard of it. All of the other history we learned took place on the east coast. So when I graduated from high school, I was interested in history and culture. Why would I want to hang around here?

 

What did you study in college?

 

I went to Oberlin College in Ohio. And one of the great things about Oberlin is that you were free to explore. I had a major in sociology, but I had enough credits for a history major or an English degree. By the time I graduated, I knew I wanted to work in documentary films, so that sent me to New York, where some fortuitous events led me to one of the best places to work at the time, CBS.

At CBS I worked on a documentary series called The Twentieth Century, which was a great show. And then I worked on a science series, called The Twenty First Century where I met a lot of people who were designing the world we live in today. The internet was just beginning, and they talked about lasers and satellites, things that were new at the time. They talked about their vision, and they were pretty much right.

After fourteen years in New York, I came back Los Angeles and I saw the city in an entirely different way. It was more than just Hollywood and the Beach Boys. L.A.’s a very interesting city. And that’s when I got hooked on Los Angeles history. I produced a series for KCET called The Los Angeles History Project, which was the first TV series that looked at Los Angeles history in a systematic way, this was around 1988. And that’s when I first learned about the St. Francis Dam disaster.

 

I watched the video trailer for the documentary film on Floodpath, which is a companion piece to your book.

 

Working with my late wife and partner, Nancy, I actually started the film well before I wrote the book. Most of the interviews I conducted, many of which are in the book, were done as early as 1995. There were twenty interviews with survivors of the disaster. They’re all dead now. It’s one of those things. When you are an independent filmmaker, you go from one project to another. There were periods of years when I didn’t work on the St. Francis dam project, but it was always in my mind.

 

Did the documentary come first?

 

Yes, I first started researching it in the 1980s. I hope the book will be a way to attract interest in the film. I only need to complete a few more sequences, including computer-generated photo realistic animation showing the collapse of the dam, and re-enactments of the night of flood.

 

You interviewed the granddaughter of William Mulholland.

 

Yes. Catherine Mulholland, her grandfather’s biographer, has since died. I have the last taped interview with her. I knew her socially. She gave me several boxes of her own research about the collapse, which really helped with the book. I told her that I couldn’t promise anything, and that I would come to my own conclusions. I was honored she trusted me.

 

She didn’t care if your conclusion was positive or negative.

 

She said she’d been burned by others who’d interviewed her. The story is burdened by the movie, Chinatown, which was a wonderful movie,

but more fiction than fact. It contributes to appreciating the complexity of William Mulholland. He’s either the devil incarnate or untarnished icon. In fact there wouldn’t be a city of Los Angeles with William Mulholland. And yet he made some terrible miscalculations with the St. Francis dam. What I tried to do was to tell this as a complex, nuanced story. And so often what you do in books is you look at it in the present, when you know everything. But when I wrote the book, what I wanted to do was to put the reader in the time frame. So what the reader knows is what anybody knew at any particular time back then. The story reveals itself. There were things that happened that weren’t really understood until later. And what I hope I accomplished in doing that is to get people today to think in the same way. It gets them involved in the story as it unfolds in real time..

 

Mulholland also built the Mulholland Dam, overlooking Hollywood. I remember you writing about how it was lowered after the collapse of the St. Francis dam, which was a virtual duplicate.

 

Safety concerns after the St. Francis Dam required the city to lower it. There’s an image of it in Floodpath, looming over downtown Hollywood, which it still does, but obscured by a earthen berm and trees and shrubs.

 

How did you go about finding all these people to interview?

 

One of the pleasures of documentary work, and certainly writing a book, is the research. One aspect of the story that had been underplayed, and again what attracted me, was how this is a great disaster story, and a technological detective story, and courtroom drama also reflects on how history is written. Clearly, it’s the deadliest disaster in the history of twentieth century America. Why isn’t it more well-known or written about?

 

I told several people about your book, and they reacted the same way. They sort of remember hearing something about it.

 

One of the subtexts of the book is how history is written, and particularly how Los Angeles history is written—or not written. I discuss many aspects of this in Floodpath. Many of the victims were Mexican-American farm workers, not the majority, but a sizeable number. Even people who know of the tragedy, don’t know the story of these mostly farmworkers. I wanted to interview everyone involved. So early on, I brought in some Spanish-speaking friends, and they helped us find eyewitnesses and families of the victims that were Mexican-American. We also went through the Spanish press to see how they viewed the story. And a point I make in the book is why they should be included. And how more people are interested in their story today, then perhaps in the past.

When you visit these small agricultural towns along the floodpath, most of the people, and their families, have lived there for generations. So when you inquire at a local historical society, or talk to old-timers in the area, they know, and will tell you, “Oh, you should talk to this person—their mother was caught in the flood.” Or so and so was a little kid at the time.” One lead takes you to another. So my wife Nancy and I began to meet these people, and they would tell us about other people. In some cases you can look at a newspaper of the time and see the names of eyewitnesses. When you look at a phone directory today, you can see that this person still lives in town.

 

How was the story reported in the Mexican press?

 

La Voz de la Colonia was the Spanish language newspaper in Santa Paula at the time. It was basically a one-man operation. They didn’t have a lot of money. In general, they didn’t have the means to report what the bigger newspapers were reporting, but they covered local events. On the editorial page, they also had a chance to reflect on the disaster. The Anglo press would divide them into Mexicans and Americans. But the Hispanic population didn’t see it that way. The editor of the newspaper said, “We are not a race. We are Mexicans and Americans.” He had a very modern idea of American culture. It was an idea that was not popular at the time. You have to remember that in the 1920s, it was a pretty racist society. There was even a proud KKK chapter in Santa Paula.

 

What was the hardest or most interesting part of writing Floodpath?

 

The hardest part about doing this book, Floodpath, but also the most fun, was you already know the ending, you know how it’s going to turn out. So how do you write about, and make it interesting for the reader? That was the most challenging part of the book. You’re constantly trying to keep the reader involved. It happens in the first chapter, the dam is down and everyone has died. So the average reader would look and see that there’s another 250 pages. So it worked to my advantage, as you wonder what’s in these other pages. There’s got to be something interested. So you sort of lure people in. And the story is being told in real time. So you are engaging the reader with events as they unfolded back then. The reader tries to guess what caused the dam to break — was it dynamite, was it an earthquake – what was it? So slowly you uncover the truth about how and why it happened. And then you get to a point where all the official reports are in and you think that’s that final word. And you eventually learn that—no, not really. There are a lot of possible answers. From a writing point of view it was one of the biggest challenges, and the most fun.

What also what attracted me to the story, most people will look at it and say, oh, what a sad event. But it’s also reminder that we have this infrastructure today that is in serious need of repair. The dams and bridges across this country were built decades ago. This tragedy could happen again. So it’s a wake up call, to look at some of these aging structures. Even if they’re maintained, which many are not, they’re still fifty years old or more. They need to be upgraded and properly maintained. There are 4,400 dams that have been determined to be susceptible to failure.

Every time you think this story is over, there’s another aspect to it. So at the end of the book, when you say, it’s finally over, there’s still another chapter that talks about other dams that are at risk of failing—that could collapse. And nobody is doing anything about this.

That’s part of the problem in the making of the St. Francis Dam in 1928, that there were no laws requiring state supervision. That all changed after the collapse. The entire dam safety movement was a result of this St. Francis dam. So that’s great, all the newly built dams after that were deemed safe. But if nobody maintains them, they aren’t safe.

Today, they’re beginning to fill the Owens Lake again, and bring water back to the Owens Valley. And it seems that today a resolution is coming. There’s now a chance to correct these errors of the past. In Los Angeles now they’re trying to reclaim the concreted-in L.A. River.. The question today is how do you create a liveable and sustainable urban environment.

 

When you first started working on Floodpath, did you have a publisher? How did it go from concept to publishing?

 

I saw this new book as a national story. Through a friend on the east coast I found an agent at William Morris. He sold the book to Bloomsbury publishing They’re one of the top publishers in the world. It was a very smooth process. I wrote a treatment and that was how I got the book sold. The writing went relatively quickly because of all the research I had for the documentary film. We had cabinets fill of material. I had an idea of the structure. I had all these photos and interviews and newspaper clips. So I had everything I needed to complete the book in a timely manner. I could have written Floodpath ten years ago. But I was lucky I didn’t. One of the real obstacles to research was accessing the DWP archives. It wasn’t that they were inaccessible, but no one knew where they were or how to do find specific information. Fortunately for me, DWP hired an archivist who began to sort all the material. So I had access to all this information that was never available before., in cluding internal memos and notes from the field.

 

How did you turn all this research material into a narrative?

 

I really wanted to write Floodpath in a nonfiction narrative style so it has dialogue and description in it. But every bit of dialogue has a justifiable source. So when someone says something, I have a record that that’s what they said.

The difference between standard fiction and nonfiction is the narrative style. In nonfiction, unless you have a diary, you can’t get into a character’s mind, but you can tell people what they said and did. For Floodpath, a major resource to do this was the transcripts of the Los Angeles Coroner’s Inquest But when I started researching, nobody seemed to have a copy. It had disappeared — a major reason we didn’t do this book sooner. From my research, I knew the transcript was about 800 pages. But I didn’t have it – nor did the LA City Archives, or even the DWP. So one day my wife Nancy was researching at the Huntington Library and she came back and proudly announced she’d found them in the obscure collection of a retired engineer. I knew then I could do the book and the documentary film.

There’s a lot of engineering information in Floodpath, but I was fortunate to have the help of J. David Rogers, a geological engineer who’d spend decades studying the disaster. As I was writing the book, he vetted a lot of the technical information. But the book is written for a general audience. It’s not just for academics or engineers.

 

Why isn’t this disaster better known?

 

To me, that was another major mystery to be solved. One of the reasons why people don’t remember was that everything was settled fast—people got paid, houses were rebuilt, the valley was restored. That’s what most people wanted. They wanted to get on with their lives and not slow progress. People wanted to put the story behind them, and have it disappear. Also, the DWP and the City of Los Angeles had no reason to keep the embarrassing memory alive. Atr the same time, a the great era of dam building in the 1930s and 40s was about to begin and engineers didn’t want to create what they thought was unnecessary public doubt after the failure.. The Hoover dam was being planned at the time. Lastly, it wasn’t long before Americans were more concerning by the Great Depression and looming World War II. The story of the St. Francis Dam got engulfed by other bigger stories.

 

I think this story could not only make a great documentary, but a dramatic film as well.

 

Well, there’s some discussion about making it into a TV mini-series. But we’ll see how that progresses. There are a lot of intriguing elements to this story, with William Mulholland and his enemies, and the Valley and the dynamiting, the courtroom drama, and the rise and fall of a great man. It’s all contained within this tragic event.

 

Who are some of the documentary filmmakers that inspired you?

 

I think Frederick Wiseman is one of the greatest documentary filmmakers. But starting in the late 1950s, I was watching Fred Friendly and Edward R. Murrow,

and the See It Now series on CBS, which took a more journalistic approach. In the 60s the Cinéma Vérité movement started, because the equipment allowed you to run around and sych the sound. So I was at the very beginning of that. A documentary filmmaker is sort of like a teacher. You go and find something out, and then you tell people about it. When you show people what you’ve produced, they’re learning something for the first time. I find that satisfying and fun.

 

Have you ever written any fiction?

 

No, just nonfiction, and documentary filmmaking work. The pleasure of doing nonfiction is you’re up against the ultimate arbiter – the factual truth, If you’re writing fiction, you can have your characters say and do whatever you want, because you created them. But with nonfiction you’re always up against the facts. And that’s how you have to play it. It’s a challenge. To me, that’s true with any artistic medium, where the really great work is done within a form. I never thought I would be a professional writer. I liked to write. I learned I was good at it. And almost before I knew it, along with making documentaries, I was writing nonfiction books like Floodpath.  It took more than 20 years, but I hope readers will think it was worth it. It was for me.

 

Thank you very much for your time. I hope everyone reads your new book.

 

 

JON WILKMAN

Produced as a companion to the new book Floodpath: The Deadliest Man-Made Disaster of 20th Century America and the Making of Modern Los Angeles, this ninety-minute documentary will include interviews with survivors, rare stills and footage, and 3-D computer graphics that recreate the collapse and aftermath.

SHORT PREVIEW OF FLOODPATH DOCUMENTARY

 

 

 

 

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