Home Fiction

Sleight of Hand

by Sarah Terez Rosenblum



            I’m making tacos when the tour bus shows up. “Didn’t you buy avocados?” I call.

            I can see them through the narrow kitchen windows. Little kids, noses glass-flattened, some dad type taking pictures, and bored teens scrolling their phones.

            “Did you say something?” Meg wears a grey cardigan over cotton pajamas. Reading glasses on a silver cord around her neck. In the doorway, she’s shrouded in nighttime distance. She looks nothing like my mother. Nothing like the women I know.

            “Avocados?”

            “None were ripe. It’s November.” Meg’s from Anaheim; she knows when things are in season. I grew up in Idaho, so if it isn’t potatoes, I’m out.

            On the bus, a gaggle of old folks knit and listen. The tour guide’s name is embroidered on his button-down. He still uses one of those mics with the curly cord.

            “Last week, I ran into Gus at the drug store. I was picking up Mitchell’s prescription and he blew right past.”

            “Like when I saw Katie Couric at Panera.” Meg settles at the kitchen table with her wine glass. “I kept waiting for her to know who I was.”

            Door County’s growing; we’re not all on a first name basis. But I live in the house Gus shows up each week to describe.

            “We’ve got carrots.” Behind me, Meg rustles through what’s left of Sunday’s paper.

            “You want me to make guacamole with carrots?”

            I line up three soft tomatoes for chopping. I bought them for the Meg’s cheese sandwiches, but they sat for two weeks in the drawer. After business trips, sometimes, I check the refrigerator to see what’s shifted. When I’m gone, Meg eats only olives and crackers. Sometimes, she forgets to eat at all.

            In my family, wasting food is sinful. “Who needs a son?” My mom said when she toasted Meg at our wedding, but if she finds expired milk when she visits, she practically sits shiva. (“Look at this. Your grandmother is spinning in her grave.”)

            “Are they still out there?” Beside me now, Meg nods to where the bus sits, idling.

            “It’s five fifteen, they’re right on time.”

            “Maybe this year the snow will come early.” She rests her head on my shoulder.

            “I don’t know. I sort of like them.”

            “It’s like when you got your tooth filed.” She means how for weeks after, I complained I didn’t know what to do with my tongue.

            “Shit. Can you?” I nod at my phone, buzzing on the window ledge.

            “Hmm?” Meg tips the last of the wine from the bottle. Her lip prints like frost on the rim of her glass.

            “Mitchell’s calling.” I wipe my hands on a dishtowel, and Meg and the bus people watch me answer the phone.

*

            When our son was eleven his teacher sent an email.

            “Mitchell seems disturbed by our unit on Global Warming. Shall I set him up in the library till we’re done?”

            We talked it through, the three of us. Our home, we said, is a democracy. Easy to say when you’re the parents. Mitchell pointed that out early; that he had only the illusion of control. Right, I told him. A democracy. No one thought that was funny but me.

            In this case, Mitchell’s vote went for the library. “I’m not a kid anymore. I can’t keep crying in front of them.”

            I spun his desk chair and straddled it. “Crying just means you’re smarter.”

            “Tyler never cries, and when we did testing, he was 90th percentile.”

            “How do you know?” Meg asked.

            “He told everyone.”

            “That’s inappropriate.” In Mitchell’s doorway, Meg leaned her head against the wall.

            “Why?”

            “Grades and money are private.”

            Mitchell glanced between us. “But Mom tells everyone how much we paid for the car.”

            “Okay, let’s not get distracted,” I said. “Mitchell, your kind of smart means you understand the real world ramifications.”

            “You mean food security and the polar ice caps?”

            “Exactly. This isn’t just science, it’s real.”

            “Mom doesn’t mean science isn’t real.” Meg tugged her blue cardigan around her. I’m always offering to turn up the thermostat. But Meg says putting on a sweater is free.

            “Right.” I said. “I mean it’s okay to have emotions about what he’s learning.”

            “But he can’t let himself be run by them.”

            “You can acknowledge your feelings without them running you. Self-awareness is different than being out of control.”

            “Guys.” Mitchell waved his hands like a plane was landing. “I can learn in the library. I’ll take my textbook.”

            Meg folded her arms. “Now it sounds like you’re just trying to get out of class.”

            “If I cry there, no one will see me.”

            “People will forget about that,” Meg said.

            “No one in my school ever forgets anything.”

            “It just seems that way, honey.”

            “When I was your age,” I said, “I got hysterical when Mrs. Snow showed a documentary about Haiti.”

            “Because of the poverty?” On his bed, Mitchell fiddled with his shoelaces.

            “Because of the zombie witch doctors. My teacher had to shut it off in the middle and explain that part wasn’t real.”

            “Did they laugh at you?”

            “Totally. But the next week Beth Meeks threw up in the coatroom.”

            “We’ll bring in a ringer, then.” Meg dusted her hands. “Problem solved.”

            Mitchell hunched forward, poking the tip of his shoelace through the metal eyelet. “But when I cry, Anya keeps Snapchatting me, and also global warming isn’t not real.”

*

            By the time I’m through security, Meg’s wish for snow is granted. The rinkydink plane still lifts and lands, somehow, but after that I’m stranded at O’Hare.

            “Your turn.” The man in slim tweed pants looks like Stanley Tucci, and I spend our first drink assuming he’s gay.

            “I didn’t know there would be something as formal as turns. I thought we were just chatting.”

            Meg’s word. Jews don’t chat, we debate or we process; depends on which tribe we’re from.

            “At work, we use a talking stick,” Tucci says. “God bless the millennials. They all think they have the right to be heard.”

            We’re in this cliche of an airport lounge, drinking martinis. By our second, I know he’s meeting his wife in Berkeley. Their elder daughter has something academic requiring their presence; a debate, or a meeting, or a prize. As he talks, the details slip by. To me, martinis taste like medicine. When I fly, my drug of choice is Cinnabon, but what with the phone call, and the thunder snow, and all the texts Delta keeps sending about de-icing, I figure I might need a more traditional source of calm.

            “C’mon. What’s your story?” Tucci sheds his orange sweater-vest.

            “You won’t like it.”

            “That’s why fiction’s better than life. You don’t have to like it for it to be good.”

            “Didn’t you say you’re in software?”

            “Fiction was my first love, before my wife even. But writing code’s not all that different. You fall in love with your lines, even when they’re not working. We’ve got just as many darlings to kill.”

            He says he doesn’t code much anymore, not since he sold and runs his company. Big macher, is what my mother would say. Tucci’s the kind of guy she probably wishes I’d married. But I’m not his type either; when he shows me his wife’s picture, she’s blond.

            “Once the girls are grown, I’ll get around to fiction.” Tucci’s still talking. “I wanted to write novels when I was a kid.”

            “Meg and I used to talk about that. Everything we’d do once our son was in college-”

            “At the graduation parties there was this rumbling. All the parents asking each other, what will you do now that you can?” Tucci crosses one long leg over the other. “Like when you’re a kid and some grownup’s always drilling you. We all had same answers, just delayed.”

            “Right. But now that he’s a freshman, it just seems like he’s in a high school that’s farther away.”

            “That’s how Cristina feels,” Tucci says. “But we can’t helicopter them. It’s enough our oldest’s still on our insurance and our phone plan-”

            “We get Mitchell’s anxiety meds and ship them.” I watch the snow. “There’s just so much to be worried about.”

             “What did we have, the Cuban Missile Crisis?”

            “Barely, I was, what, two?”

            “Now they’ve got Parkland.” Tucci sets down his empty glass. “My youngest was ten, and she was convinced her school was next. Even Hayden was upset by it, and she’s goddamn hard to ruffle. She’s my Berkeley girl. Cristina wanted us to tell her sister it wouldn’t happen at her school.”

            “Meg’s the same.” I sip and feel my face twisting. What about this sensation is fun?

            “I’m a numbers guy so I agreed it was unlikely, but I’m not going to lie to my kid.”

             “Exactly. But with global warming Meg wanted him to white-knuckle it, just ignore the feelings it brought up for him. With North Korea, she wanted to tell him there was no chance.”                       

“Both are ways of lying.” Tucci signals for another drink.

            “Personally, I blame Santa Claus. That’s what Meg grew up with, meanwhile, each year I get a lecture about how starting with Pharaoh, the whole world’s out for my blood.”

            “L’chiam.” Tucci touches his glass to mine. “Let’s get you another.”

            “I’ve hardly…”

            “You’ll catch up.” Tucci points to the window. Outside, the snow gusts, horizontal. The bartender’s already begun to mix.

            “So how did you end up handling Parkland?” I ask.

            “I sat down with my girls and I said you’re right, it’s a possibility, but the odds are low. Hayden’s pre-law now, so of course she argued. ‘We’re right to be anxious.’ Me, I majored in philosophy. I said, ‘Do you want to be right or do you want to be free?’” 

            “You sure you’re Jewish?”

            “Maybe Cristina’s rubbed off on me.”

            I accept my fresh martini from the bartender.

            “Give me a wave if you need anything.” She smiles between the two of us. “It’s mostly vermouth,” she says low.

            “What did you tell Michael, about the shootings?” Tucci’s four drinks in, so I don’t correct him. I’ve learned the conversations you have with a drunk person don’t matter, because really you’re having them alone.

            “We’ve tried to teach him anxiety is like a phone ringing.” I eat my olive, which Meg says is just a garnish. “You can keep the conversation short and even-handed, but first you have to answer the call.”

*

            I phone Meg from the Marriott the next morning. “My room has a coffee pot,” I say.

             The joke’s from the first night we spent together. We were in our late thirties when we got married, and we both needed some convincing. As my mom said, “If I met your father now, I don’t know how I’d commit to him. Everything would seem like a red flag.”

            All through my twenties, I’d done the typical lesbian overlap, each relationship averaging 3.5 years. One day,  I was hauling my shit from the apartment I’d shared with my girlfriend to the one where my next one lived. On the way there, I remembered it was Sweetest Day. So I stopped at the first place I saw. Inside Jewel-Osco, it hit me. I had no idea how to grocery shop. With one girlfriend, I did what she called a ‘big shopping’ every Saturday, with another I haunted farmers markets, and with my last one, I’d grabbed TV dinners on the fly. All that flashed before my eyes like some kind of grocery near death experience. I had to squat down near the canned beans so I could breath. Once I got out of there, I put all my shit in storage. I crashed with a friend till I found a place of my own.

            I met Meg a year or two later at one of my seminars. I’d founded Women Up to help women in the workforce. The idea was to provide tools to shift the culture; we shouldn’t have to act like men to succeed. Sounds obvious now, but I’d started it just out of college; back when secretaries padded their shoulders like football players, and Reagan’s paternalistic capitalism ruled the day. We’d spent years getting by on grants and donations. I fell asleep most nights wondering how I’d pay rent. Anyway, Meg says the meeting was in Middleton, but I distinctly remember the UW-Madison campus. They’d given us a sunny conference room with a broken coffee maker and a view of the lake. Either way, we wound up fucking. Meg had complained about the lack of coffee. “My room has a coffee pot,” I’d said.

            After that we really had no blueprint. By then Meg’s first marriage was mostly tradition: summer barbecues at their Door County House, her husband’s five p.m. scotch and soda, and on Christmas, wrapping paper fed into the fire. Still, she was comfortable, sunk into her habits, and I finally knew how I liked to buy groceries, and neither one of us was ready to change.

            “Have you seen him yet?” Meg says now, when she answers.

            “It’s five in the morning. I didn’t even expect to get you.”

            “You think I could sleep?”

            In eighteen years with Meg, I’ve seen her sleep through: a 6.5 earthquake, The Chicago Air and Water Show, and the last four hours of my labor.Once at a hotel in Schaumburg, I woke her when the fire alarm didn’t, and made her race down ten flights of stairs.

            “I’m meeting him for breakfast.”

            “At his dorm?”

            “I told him to take an Uber to meet me. He’s not feeling super comfortable on campus. Everyone’s asking why he withdrew from the brass trio and the lit magazine, and of course he’s not allowed to explain.”

            “Do we know anything more about this girl?

            “I told, you I haven’t seen him yet.” I picture Meg propped on pillows. More likely she’s spent the night curled on the window seat in the den.

            “I thought maybe you’d talked with the university.”

            “That’s not something they disclose.”

            Through the line, I hear Meg breathing. I could pick her exhales out of a crowd.

            “How’s it there?”

            “Snowing. Right now the afternoon flights are still running.”

            “You really can’t get Peter to cover?”

            “This is the Parsons,” Meg says. “They’ve been with me since Mags was a pup.”

            “Your work ethic is laudable, but-”

            “They’re terrified. We won’t know how bad the cancer is until she’s on the table. And if we need to put her down, I should be there. You know all this.”

            “And you know why we can’t meet on campus.”

            “Excuse me, I’m exhausted. I forgot.”

            When we hang up, I slid back the hotel curtain. Outside, the lush greens and milky fog shock me. No matter I’ve flown across the country: after two relentless days I expect to see snow.

*

            When Mitchell was nine we hid his candy. It was Meg’s idea; he’d been complaining kids at school called him fat. I wanted to start by explaining refined sugar, and how to read nutrition labels. Give him the tools to consider, not restrict. But Meg felt a parent was only as good as her boundaries. (“Yours could use some work, as we both know.”) If we can’t agree on everything, we try to trade off victories. I’d just won our last debate, so we weren’t giving Mitchell Tylenol PM for his insomnia. Then we got the call he’d pushed Hope Clark.

            “This is pretty out of character,” the principle said when I arrived, literally panting. “I’m hoping now you’re both here he’ll explain.”

            “I cabbed right from the airport.” I’d been leading Women Up’s first seminar in Redmond. We were retooling as our market expanded. One of my exes had provided an in.

            “I was at the baggage claim when—what do I do with-”

            “You can leave that with the office gals if you want.” Dr Cobb held open the door to his office.

            “Mom.”

            “Mitchell, what happened?” I dragged my suitcase into the inner office.

            “He says it’s his business.” Meg gestured for me to take her chair.

            “Do I have to say it?” Mitchell pointed at the principle.

            “Dr. Cobb needs information so we can all decide what to do.”

            “Can’t he just punish me?”

            “Hope’s okay, isn’t she?” I asked Dr Cobb.

            “Mrs. Haverford says he hardly touched Hope. Which doesn’t make it acceptable, of course.”

            “Mrs Haverford?” I said.

            “One of our lunch ladies.”

            “This happened in the cafeteria?” I asked.

            “Mitch, come on.” Meg had backed up to lean in the doorway. “Mom’s exhausted, and I have a procedure at three.”

            “Don’t rush him,” I said.

            “I’ve been here half an hour already. I don’t even know where I parked the car.”

            “There’s visitor parking behind the kindergarten.” Dr. Cobb perched on the edge of his desk.

            “Okay,” I said. “but truth takes time, we’ve talked about this.”

            “In the real world, no one’s going to sit around waiting.”

            “Mitchell might not even be fully clear on what he did.”

            “Hope stole from the coat drive.” Mitchell held out his hands like a traffic cop.

            “That’s why you hit her?”

            “I saw her. She took the pink leather jacket from the bag.”

            “A better option would be to tell your teacher.” I watched him.

            “I was going to.” Mitchell scrapped his shoe against his chair leg. “but she said if I did, she’d tell you.”

            “Tell us what?”

            “Can I please just be punished?”

            “Here, do you want to whisper?” When I set my hand on Mitchell’s back it was damp.

            “Okay.” I said after he finished.

            “Obviously you need to let us in on this.” Meg stuffed her hands in her pockets.

            “Can I please not be here when you do?”

            We watched him shuffle into the outer office. One of the secretaries handed him a Dum-dum from a bowl.

            “Apparently Mitchell’s been buying chocolate milk instead of regular.” I watched Dr Cobb glance between us. “He’s supposed to limit his sugar intake. I guess Hope threatened to tell us if he told on her about the coat.”

            “How did Hope know about his diet?”

            “Oh, the kids know everything about each other,” Dr Cobb said.

            Back home, I opened the refrigerator. “Jesus Christ, it smells like death.”

            “I think it’s the tuna casserole.” Mitchell looked up from his stack of library books.

            I slide aside the lid. “You guys didn’t have this for dinner Monday?”

            “I think we had cereal.”

            I tipped the mess of noodles and fish into the trash. “Can you take this out, Mitchell? And for once, don’t drag it. We’ve got that new sod.”

            Upstairs in our bedroom, I moved aside the clutter of Meg’s glasses. They collect on the bureau when I’m gone. Once Mitchell walked in on us arguing about them, and Meg said we were just disagreeing on how to describe them. (“Mom thinks they’re half-empty and I say half-full.”) I set my suitcase on the bureau and unzipped it. Dark jeans and a blowdryer. Beneath that, a par of red-soled heels.

            “What are those?” Mitchell said from my doorway.

            “I must have grabbed the wrong suitcase from the carousel.”

            “Carousel?”

            “Not like with horses. You’ve seen them, the bags go around.”

            “Hey, what do you call it when you take the wrong suitcase?”

            “Mitchell.”

            “A case of mistaken identity!”

            “Hilarious. Go share your comedic stylings with the garbage, please.”

            I wasn’t lying. The shoes didn’t belong to some chick I was fucking. Loyalty is under-appreciated  Maybe Meg would have wanted me more if I was.

            Outside, the bus’s engine turned over. Somehow, Mitchell was outside already, dragging the bulging Hefty bag across the lawn. I turned back to my suitcase, still trying to square my expectations with what I saw.

*

            The best thing about my job is hotel showers. Today, I wash my hair twice and leave all the towels on the floor. In the lobby, Mitchell’s already waiting. I thought he’d look different than he did at Thanksgiving; mustachioed and pock-marked. But he’s got the same thin blond hair that makes people think Meg gave birth to him. The same pale skin that goes pink when he eats wheat.

            “Hey, honey.” I hug him. “You hungry? They have a buffet.”

            In the restaurant, Mitchell loads his plate with ham and bacon and waffles and bagels. We order orange juice and coffee.

            “He’s already decided he hates us.” I point at the sullen waiter as he leaves. Usually Mitchell and I dream up whole inner worlds for the servers—Meg thinks it’s ridiculous—but this time Mitchell won’t play.

            “Where’s mama?” Eyes on his plate, shoulders slumped.

            “The weather’s bad there, but she still might make it.”

            “Did some important dog get sick?”

            “You know how she is.”

            “The thing is at four.” Mitchell rips open a stack of sugar packets.

            “What do you want to do in the meantime?” I spread cream cheese on a sorry excuse for a bagel. ‘If it’s not boiled it’s just bread,’ my mom would say.

            “Are you just going to act like it’s a normal visit?”

            “I figured we’d get to it. But we still have to eat, am I right? Thank you.” I add cream to the coffee the server drops. “I don’t know why he’s so brusque. It’s not like it’s busy.”

            “You sound like grandma.”

            “Hey, there’s a knife right there on the table.” I mime stabbing myself. “You could have used that instead.”

            “Mom.” Mitchell shovels in bacon. Around us, a few scattered business types are glued to their phones.

            “I’m not trying to make light of this. I called a lawyer I know in the city.”

            “How do you know a lawyer here?”

            “She’s someone from my twenties.”

            “The school said I don’t need one.” Mitchell adds two more sugar packets to his cup.

            “I don’t know if we should believe that.”

            “Why not?”

            Mitchell’s a young seventeen, certainly, but the innocence of his question curdles the cream in my guts.

            “They said it has to be handled on campus,” he says.

            “Right. Something to do with Title Nine. But Mitchell, what’s happened so far—the what did you call them? Interim restrictions? You can’t visit any other dorms, you can only go to the one dining hall. It’s affecting your whole college experience, and no one’s even proved what she said is true.”

            “What did the lawyer say?” Mitchell gulps most of his orange juice.

            Tabby didn’t say much I should tell Mitchell. Not how The Department of Education can cut all federal funding if they don’t think a school’s response is sufficiently aggressive, and not how she still misses the way I held her wrists above her head.

            “She stressed the importance of getting help early.” I refold my napkin. “Why didn’t you say anything over Thanksgiving?”

            “I thought I could handle it.”

            “The thing is, it’s not like the court system. You’re not presumed innocent. It’s your word against the other student’s, and they only have to believe her a little more.”

*

            Mitchell’s sleep issues started early. Everyone says night terrors are harder on the parents; your child flailing and growling, eyes rolled back into his head. By two years old, he’d grown out of them. In his next phase he refused to sleep alone. One night, Meg and I were both curled around him like parenthesis, all of us jammed in his bed.

            “Honey, can you explain exactly what scares you?” I asked.

            “It’s past midnight.” Meg touched his back.

            “He doesn’t know how to tell time.”

            “Yes, I do.” Mitchell pressed his face into his pillow.

            “Mom and Mama have work in the morning, Mitch.”

            The first time I heard Meg call Mitchell that, I felt like one of us three was a stranger, but I couldn’t tell you who. Meg’s the nickname type—her whole family is. It’s because they name their kids after living relatives, and then they’re stuck trying to differentiate. It’s how grown men end up with names like Junior and Tad. But Mitchell’s M is for my father, Moishe. Maybe it’s assimilation; we get to honor the deceased’s memory without having to saddle our kid with some old Jew’s name.

            “What?” Now, Meg leaned toward Mitchell. “Babe, talk louder.”

            “He said he doesn’t want to be by himself when he dies.”

            “How does he know about death?” Meg propped herself on one elbow.

            “Mitchell,” I said, “sleep is different. Sleep is just a break from thinking.”

            He was crying and clutching his stuffed llama. “It’s not a break for me.”

            In my memory, he was barely four when he said that; always advanced for his age. Babies don’t develop depth perception until the sixth month, but by five months he was pointing at the bus through the kitchen window. When he could toddle, he’d make a beeline. When he could talk, he’d ask “What dat?”

            “Go bu!” He repeated after I told him. I thought my answers were age appropriate. When he was six: “Ghosts are made up stories about people who aren’t alive anymore,” when he was eight, “Ghosts are ideas about our souls.” Meanwhile, Meg stuck to her story: “Mitch, the bus comes here to visit us.” She thinks a parent’s job is to filter, not explain.

            When he was ten, Mitchell started checking books out of the library. Most kids would have gone on the internet. Maybe it’s because our donor was an archeologist—Mitchell preferred words he could hold in his hands.

            “Ghosts come from something called animism.” Mitchell sat at the kitchen table. “It’s ancient and—what does ‘attribute’ mean?”

            “What’s the rest of the sentence?” I layered a flat pan with lasagna noodles.

            “Animism attributes souls to everything in nature.”

            Meg leaned in the doorway. “In that context, ‘grants’ or ‘assumes.’”

            “What’s ‘context’ again?” Mitchell asked.

            “The words around it.”

            “How can a word’s meaning change because of that?”

            “Words are flexible,” Meg said. “It’s like how Mom gets called sir a lot when we’re with strangers. Context affects how you’re understood.”

            After Mitchell got through our tiny library’s ghost section, he moved on to astral projection. Then came cults and UFO’s. I don’t think his research affected his sleep habits. By his teens it was mainly insomnia. He refused warm milk and melatonin. One summer, he set up  a tent on our lawn.

            “You think it’s safe for him?” I asked Meg.

            “Babe, it’s Door County.” On the couch, she sipped wine like liquid sunlight. We’d been to Stone’s Throw Winery earlier that day.

            “What happens when it’s winter?” I lifted my arm so Meg could nestle against me.

            “He’ll have some other new sleep problem by then.”

            “I just seems counterintuitive. Why would he sleep better outside?”

            “I slept great when my parents took me camping,” Meg said. “And at summer camp, my favorite was the overnight.”

            “You went to sleep-away camp, the whole thing was an overnight.”

            “Once per summer, the counselors would take us camping in the woods.”

            “I don’t even like sleeping with the windows open. What’s that Woody Allen line? ‘I’m two with nature?’”

            At least that’s one way Mitchell and I aren’t the same.

            “I called her my little shut-in,” my mom told Meg at our wedding. “Every weekend, in her bedroom with the shades drawn.”

            “Even in the summer?”

            I knew Meg had spent her Saturdays horseback-riding, on Sundays she had church and flute lessons. In her white pantsuit beside me, she looked appalled.

            “She’s exaggerating.” What I liked best about summer were the sealed up windows, the air conditioner’s low, constant drone.

            “Your sister was much more social,” my mother said.

            “Fuck lot of good that did me.” My sister scraped raspberry filling from a fat cube of cake.

            “What about the Goldstein’s son?” My mother suggested.

            “Mom, he’s been with his wife since grad school.”

            “Well, I’m not sure how this became my fault.”

            “No one’s saying that.”

            My sister thinks all the good Jewish men are taken. Married to shiksas with kettle corn hair. Today of all days, I couldn’t contradict her. I held Meg’s hand and kept my mouth shut.

            “You wore a night gown?” Meg asked, when mom had gone off to hug Aunt Rachel.

            “My mom just called me agoraphobic and that’s the part that upsets you?”

            Meg sipped champagne and leaned against me.“It’s a little like finding out your husband’s a transvestite.”

            “Are you eating that?” My sister reached for Meg’s cake.

            “You haven’t finished yours.”

            “She only likes the filling,” I said. “If it helps, I don’t feel like I’m someone who wore nightgowns.”

            My sister licked the tines of her fork.“But who you feel like isn’t always who you are.”

*

            Meg doesn’t make it by four, but neither does the Dean of students. At three-thirty, we’re on benches outside the conference room, waiting. The building is graceful, a sort of rotunda. More benches curve away out of sight. At three-forty five Mitchell’s phone rings. I watch him. Hair slicked back, he’s changed into Dockers we bought him. The Marriott’s built above a mall.

            “Okay. Okay. Right.” His listening expression is the same as always. No matter whether he’s attending to Blues Clues or Call of Duty or CNN.

            “It’s postponed.” Mitchell slides his phone in his pocket.

            “Till when?”

            “Same time tomorrow.”

            “Did they give a reason?”

            Mitchell stands. “The dean ate some bad shrimp is what the guy said.”

            “I guess the good news is Mama will make it. The airport should have its shit together by tonight.”

            “What do we do now?”

            “Are you hungry?” I shoulder my messenger bag. “What do you feel like?”

            “Mexican?”

            “Let’s research what’s around.”

            “Well, hello.”

            I look up from my Google search to see Tucci. Today his tight sweater’s bright blue.

            “What a coincidence.” I turn to Mitchell to introduce him, but Mitchell’s skittered backwards, colliding with a plant.

            “You okay?” I follow his gaze to the girl a few feet behind Tucci. Brown hair, green windbreaker. My mom would call her zaftig if she felt kind.

            “What’s wrong?” When I turn back to Tucci his face has gone pale.

            “I’m not supposed to talk to her.” Mitchell grabs the plant to stop it from falling.

            “Are you kidding me?” Tucci glances between me and Mitchell.

            “Come on.” A blond woman tugs at Tucci’s sweater. “Seriously. This isn’t the time or place.”

            “You little piece of shit.” Tucci advances. Clenched fists and bald, gleaming head.

            “Back off.” I step between him and Mitchell. Impotent, Mitchell still clutches the plant.

            “Dad.” The brown haired girl whispers.

            Tucci exhales. “Okay, baby.”

            The blond woman takes Tucci’s arm.

            I watch the group retreating. “She’s Stanley Tucci’s daughter?”

            Mitchell releases the plant, finally. “Her last name is Kerplowski,” he says.

*

            Meg swore her Door County house wasn’t haunted.

            “Unless you mean by shitty memories.”

            I set the box of kitchen stuff among the city of cardboard. I’d just done a seminar in Los Angeles— Women UP was finally gaining national traction— and now the boxes reminded me of Skid-row. “But you really want to live here?”

            “I’ll make new ones with you.”

            In my memory, she took my hand and led me upstairs to the bare mattress. Meg says we did it there on the floor. Later, we unpacked dish ware.

            “How long does the guide’s spiel last?” I glanced through the window. While we were upstairs, the bus had pulled away.

            Meg blinked at me. Her legs were bare beneath a worn Yale sweatshirt, her hair snarled up near the crown.

            “Spiel means patter or little lecture. What happened here that got the house added?” I pictured blood dripping from the high beamed ceilings, chopped up bodies in the crawlspace beneath the stairs.

            “It’s just a fun thing for the tourists.” Meg wandered to the table.

            “There must be some specific reason.”

            “It might be a burial ground, or else someone’s uncle hung himself?” Meg used the corkscrew on my pocket knife. “I always get this one and that barn down the road confused.”

            I thought poltergeists might show up when Mitchell turned thirteen, or something. Like a paranormal bar mitzvah, which my mom’s still mad we didn’t have. But all that ever happened was explicable. A hornet’s nest in the attic. Creaky floorboards when no one was walking. A thunderstorm that brought down an old oak.

            His senior year of high school, Mitchell’s English teacher emailed us. “It’s my belief that your son plagiarized his final paper.”

            “I haven’t told the principle,” Mr Boyles said when I arrived.

            “Why not?” I squeezed into the desk he gestured at.

            “I’d like to think the three of us can handle this.”

            “You me and Mitchell?” Sometimes teachers forget he has two parents. It’s not homophobia exactly, more like some brand of denial.

            “You me and your wife.” Mr Bowles strode to the front of the room.

            “I’d like to see what my son has to say.”

            “Kids will say anything when they think they’re in trouble.” Puffed up and pigeon like, he took a perch on his desk.

            “We teach Mitchell to stand up for himself.” From my angle, the teacher’s crotch was eye-level.

            “When I confronted him, he implied I didn’t know my own subject matter. Respect for authority is paramount.”

            “Self-respect’s right up there, too.”

            “I’m here.” Meg shut the door behind her. She settled her sunglasses on top of her head. “What’s the punishment?”

            “Hang on a second.” I turned to Mr. Boyles. “What makes you think he didn’t write it?”

            “It’s simply too good for someone his age.”

            “You’re punishing him for being a good writer?”

            “I’ve taught kids for two decades.” His lip twitched, an accidental sneer.

            “Did he copy from the internet or something?”

            “I’ve developed a sixth sense for these things.”

            “What exactly activated your Spidey sense?” I shifted, trying to get comfortable. Attached desks are made for people without ribs.

            “For one thing, this word, ‘preternatural.’” He tapped a sheaf of papers. “When I asked him, he couldn’t define it.”

            “That’s it?” I glanced at Meg.

            “That’s the least of it.” He adjusted his cuffs. “Have you read Heart of Darkness?

            “I have.” Meg said.

           “In class, I taught that Kurtz’s unchecked greed was the source of his descent into madness.” Mr Boyle watched us. “But your son attributed it to more complex psychological factors.”

            “So you’re punishing him for coming up with something on his own.”

            “When I asked him to take me through how he’s reached his conclusions, he said he couldn’t remember. Here’s all I could get out of him.” Mr Boyle read from one of his papers. “He said, and I quote ‘Something about madness and ownership? And, Kurtz is really alienated? So like, how you try to control things so you feel less alone?’” Mr Boyle’s voice lilted at each sentence’s end.

            “This is all just one side of the story.” I extracted myself from the desk.

            “I’m his teacher?” This time, the lilt seemed accidental.

            “I’m his mother. We’re going home.”

            “Why’d you read the book early?” I asked Mitchell later. I was washing dishes and he was drying.

            “I get anxiety.” Mitchell ran a dishtowel around the mouth of a mug. “I worry I won’t finish. So it helps to work ahead.”

            “Mr Boyle said they like students to stick to the syllabus.” Meg still wore her sunglasses. She looked poised to leave.

            “If he turns his work in on time,” I said, “then who cares?”

            “He’s not a special case. People can’t go through life expecting everyone to make exceptions.”

            “Can they expect to have a chance to explain?”

            “Guys.” Mitchell raised his hands like a suspect. “Mr Boyles did his dissertation on it. Probably I should just have been more respectful.”

            “I’m exhausted.” Meg turned. “I’m going upstairs.”

            “Where’d you get all that stuff about alienation?” I asked Mitchell.

            “I related to Kurtz, kinda. Not really the part where he thought he could do what he wanted. That’s like, colonialism or whatever. But I don’t think the problem was greed, really. I think he was too isolated. He got swept up in his version of reality. He just spent too much time in his head.” Mitchell folded his dishtowel. “If you write a dissertation, doesn’t that mean you become a professor?”

            “I guess so.” I turned off the faucet and squeezed out the sponge.

            “Then how’d he end up teaching high school?”

            “I’m sure he’s asking himself the same thing.”

*

            The next day, when Meg arrives at the Marriott, Mitchell runs to her. Like when he was four and we left him with my family. Just for a weekend, so we could have some time to reconnect.

            “You made it.” I take Meg’s bag.

            “Finally. If this is December, I can’t imagine the rest of the winter.”

            “Is that dog okay?” Mitchell asks.

            “The cancer hadn’t metastasized.” Meg kisses his temple and releases him. “We got the bad spot on her lung.”

            “So you saved her?” Mitchell presses the button for the elevator.

            “I performed the surgery.” Meg’s the worst with compliments. When I first told her I loved her she said, “Okay.”

            “You have enough time for a shower.” I say. “Have you eaten?”

            “Does the room have an ironing board?” Inside the elevator, Meg sags against the wall.

            “The meeting’s at two. I think so.”

            “Mom, we’re on eight.”

            “Shit. I was saying two, so I pressed it.” When the doors open on our floor, I squeeze Meg’s hand.

            “I forgot my toothbrush.”

            “Mitchell, can you run downstairs and see if they sell them? Here.” I pat my pants for my wallet.

            Mitchell turns for the elevator. “I’ve got cash.”

            “We used to have to lift him up to press the elevator buttons,” Meg says.

             In the room, I set Meg’s bag on the bed. “Remember my trip to Redmond, and how I wound up with someone else’s suitcase?”

            “That wasn’t Redmond, that was Los Angeles.” In front of the window, Meg stretches. Her arched back and the slope of her neck.

            “Come here for a second.”

            “Are you nuts?” Meg twists away.

            “Apparently.” I’m left holding her cardigan.

            “Your text was confusing. Why was the postponement good?”

            “For one thing, he gets to have both his parents here.” I toss Meg’s cardigan on the bed.

            “You said something about a lawyer?”

            “Tabby. She’ll meet us there. Yesterday she was tied up in court.”

            “How did you find out her name, exactly?” Meg unzips her bag.

            “I’ve known Tabby since-”

            “The girl.”

            “She’s allowed to come to the meeting and represent herself.”

            “I thought her identity was protected.”

            “Not from the board. And not from Mitchell, obviously.”

            “What did she look like?”

            “Why does that matter?”

            Meg fishes through her suitcase.

            “Like my sister, a little. Younger, of course.”

            “Did she seem…off in any way?” Meg sets a pair of khakis and a grey sweater on the desk.

            “It all happened so fast, I don’t know. Mitchell acted really scared of her. We went for dinner after that, and I got it out of him that they’d hung out, which I think means they dated.” I unfold the ironing board.

            “Did he break up with her? Was she upset?”

            “It’s nothing so formal with kids now. They ‘hook up,’ apparently. There was something about it on NPR. It seems like she’s the one who ended things. The allegations happened after. And I guess he tried messaging her on Facebook, but he wasn’t supposed to, he says he didn’t know that was part of the no contact order.”

            “Shouldn’t that have been made clear to him?” Meg presses her finger to the iron.

            “It seems kind of obvious. No contact is no contact, right?”

            “But he couldn’t do anything to her in writing, so he may not have understood, and now there’s this whole other set of—what did they call them?”

            “Interim restrictions. You’re tired, I can do that.”
            “This thing just seems stacked against him.” Meg’s bicep flexes as she irons.
            “I know. She’s really protected.”

            “Well. That’s what we get, I guess.”

            “What does that mean?” I scoop up a pair of Meg’s underwear that’s slipped from her bag.

            “That’s your whole raison d’être, right? Offering women protection, so they have a voice?”

            She means Women UP. Over time, it’s evolved into something more slick and corporate-friendly. We’ve got fewer seminars directed at women’s groups. Mostly we teach HR departments how to create an environment safe for everyone. I figure more people benefit, even if the message is leavened. Ideally, that’s how movements function; the counter culture fighting so hard for mainstream acceptance, then the mainstream changing as a result.

            “The work we do is important.”

            “I’m not saying it isn’t.” Meg folds the ironing board.

            “What are you saying then?”

            “Can you put my underwear back in my bag?”

            After the meeting, I take Tabby aside to thank her.

            “My pleasure. I’m just sorry you’re going through this.” On the steps of the administrative building, Tabby touches my arm. “He seems like a nice kid.”

            “He is. He’s really sensitive. His whole life, I worried we’d fuck up and traumatize him. With kids, it’s never the thing you expect.”

            “I think it’s like that for everyone.” The wind tugs blond hair from her bun.

            “We’ll get him back into talk therapy. His psychiatrist is really just there for his anti-anxiety meds. Do you think that will count against him? Make him look troubled?”

            “Honestly, most of what he does now is meaningless. As long as he doesn’t try to contact her…”

            Tabby looks so official with her slim briefcase. Last time I saw her she was shitfaced at Stargaze. We’d gone out drinking to celebrate my move the next day.

            “…the board is still judging what allegedly happened before.”

            “How the fuck did we get here?”

            Right away, Tabby gets it. “You ghosted me, and I got into UCLA.”

            “What’s ghosting?”

            “Oh, wow. Bless your old, married soul.” Tabby touches my arm again. “They’re your type, both of them.” She means Meg and Mitchell. From the back they’re both whispy-blond and fine-boned, waiting for an Uber at the curb.

            “People think she carried him.”

            “She didn’t?”

            “She tried.” I glance at Meg. “Should we be doing something more active than waiting?”

            “It’s good he offered them access to his Facebook messenger-”

            “They didn’t even want it.”

            “-but in the meantime, your best focus is to start thinking about next steps.”

            “You mean prepare him for the formal hearing?” I fold my arms against the wind.

            “We may not want to let it get that far.”

            “I don’t understand. How would we stop it?”

            “If they decide to expel him-”

            “Can they just do that?”

            “If they think it’s in their best interests.” Tabby shrugs. “Anyway, he’ll have a mark on his transcript.”

            “What does that mean, exactly?”

            “As I understand it, every school he applies to will see he’s guilty of sexual assault.”

            “No one’s proven that.”

            “Do you want to risk his future?”

            “What are you advising?”

            “I’m a tax attorney,” Tabby says, “but just be strategic. This girl can derail his future without ever calling the police.”

            At the curb, I join Meg and Mitchell.

            “That was nice of her, after everything.” Meg shivers.

            “I guess I’m just that charming.”

            “That’s the Uber.” Mitchell looks up from his phone.

            When the it pulls up, I slid into the front seat. “The Marriott. Wait, you know that. I always forget.”

            “S’all good.” The guy behind the wheel has ropy forearms. He’s somewhere between my age and Mitchell’s. At this point, people in their twenties all look like they’re twelve.

            In the backseat, Mitchell says to Meg, “aren’t you going to ask if I did it?”

            “I hadn’t planned on it.” Meg looks away when I try to catch her eye.        

*

            Mitchell was always big on experiments. He had one where he stood an egg on its end to see if it was rotten, and one about speed and acceleration, where he dropped a different egg from the roof of the house.

            No eggs were harmed in his bus experiment.

            “What’s the verdict?” I asked when I picked him up at the library. The Ghost Tour ends with a trip through its basement. That’s where they keep the microfiche, or at least they used to. On moonless nights they say the founder still walks the cold floors.

            Mitchell leaned his forehead against the passenger-side window.

            “Did you see me hopping up and down and waving?”

            Mitchell dug in his backpack.

            “Did you see Mama doing cartwheels?”

            “She always said the bus came to see us.” He pulled a pack of gum from his bag.

            “She didn’t want you scared until you were old enough.”

            “But I still thought we were part of it.”

            “What do you mean?” I turned down the volume on All Things Considered.

            “I couldn’t see anything.” Mitchell mashed two sticks of gum into his mouth.

            “Are our windows that dirty?” I held out my hand.

            “It was the angle. The bus people don’t even know we’re inside.” He handed me the package. The gum was damp—whoever knew what was going on in that kid’s backpack—still, I popped a piece in my mouth.

            “Did you see any ghosts at least?”

            Mitchell shook his head.

            “Well, now we can run relays in our underpants.”

            Mitchell stared through the windshield.

            “No? How about we all pretend to be monkeys? What would you do if no one could see?”

            Mitchell shrugged and chewed harder. I checked out his profile. I guessed that was how my nose looked from the side.

*

            “Will you shut up if I let you fuck me? Just shut the fuck up,” Meg said. She was drunk, and she didn’t want anything to do with me.

            “But it’s our honeymoon.”

            “It’s a hotel in fucking Schaumburg.” Meg tugged at the bedspread.

            “So let’s make it feel special. Wait, they don’t wash those.” I slipped the spread from beneath her dead weight.

            When we first got married, we agreed not to splurge on a vacation. We both had cars and bedroom sets and dish ware. Meg’s divorce had granted us the Door County house, plus we needed all our savings for IVF. After I had Mitchell, I got super busy pivoting Women Up’s focus, and Meg was building new her practice. Now that Mitchell was four, we’d finally taken some time away.

            “Fucking Schaumburg,” Meg repeats things when she’s extra drunk.

            “So let’s fuck.”

            “Ha-ha-ha-ha hilarious.”

            I touched her bare shoulder. “I want to feel close to you.”

            After nine years of marriage, we were mired in our habits. Bedtime by nine-fifty-seven, Mitchell clutching his llama between us. Meg’s reading glasses and her Ipad. My stack of presentation notes. So much of marriage is parallel play.

            “Fucking Schaumburg. This hotel doesn’t even have a pool.”

            “I’m sorry, I’m not Tad Jeffrey Junior. I can’t afford five nights in the Bahamas. I’m sorry I didn’t graduate from Yale.”

            Meg rolled to her stomach, her linen shift rising. I helped it along a little, exposing the tops of her thighs.

            “What? You’re talking into the pillow.”

            “I said you might as well be Tad if you’re not taking no for an answer. If you don’t care at all how I feel.”

            “You’re my wife.” I never got tired of saying it. Despite Meg’s cold shoulder, I warmed.

            “Stop.”

            “I care how you feel, absolutely. That’s the whole point, I want to make you feel good.”

            Meg shook her head into the pillow, but she lifted her hips at my touch.

            “Meg, come on. Turn over.”

            Meg’s skin beneath her linen shift felt humid. Her exhales were pungent with wine.

            “I want to sleep.” She crossed her arms over her chest.

            “Meg.” I ran a finger under the elastic of her panties. Blue lace. Thin from years of wear.

            “Leave me alone.”

            It’s inevitable; you can’t both want each other equally forever. But sex is a need like any other. That’s what’s hard about relationships. If you’re hungry, you just open the refrigerator. But I’d been down this road with all my girlfriends. The one who stops wanting sex is the one who wins.

            I eased her dress up around her hips. “I’m not like Tad is.” Her underwear was easy to tear.

            I was still awake hours later when someone pulled the fire alarm. I got Meg to her feet and down eight flights of stairs.

*

            The carolers aren’t like the Ghost Tour. They don’t keep a strict schedule. It’s almost seven when they arrive. In the kitchen, I’m stirring batter for cookies. My secret is fresh ginger. Last week I made latkes, only because my mother was visiting. Meg can’t stand how afterward the scent of oil haunts the house.

            First thing mom asked was why Mitchell was home so early. Berkley runs on a trimester, was what we’d agreed to say.

            “I told you,” I whispered to Meg in the kitchen, later.

            “Relax. Your mom doesn’t know how to google.”

            “How will we explain when he starts Whitewater next semester?”

            Meg rubbed her temples. “I always forget how many questions your family asks.”

            “What’s so wrong with asking questions?”

            “Case in point.” Meg handed me a paper towel to pat the latkes dry.

            “Would it kill you to answer?” I gripped the spatula.

            “People need privacy.”

            “What about intimacy?”

            “The pan’s smoking.” Meg hugged herself.

            “What they need is to know each other.” I turned down the heat.

            “You know me. I’m right here.”

            “I know more about all those girls I shacked up with in the nineties.”

            Saying it made me feel like some kind of asshole. Who uses the phrase ‘shacked up?’ ‘Maybe you should go find one of them,’ was how Meg would have replied once, and I’d’ve said, ‘you’re who I want though,’ and we’d have fought until we built enough steam to fuck.

            In the pan, the oil snapped and splattered.

            “And you’re not with any of them.” Meg gestured for me to step out of range.

            “So?”

            My mom pushed open the door to the kitchen. “Whew, it’s smoky.”

            Meg passed me my ‘King of the Grill’ apron. “So, you got what you wanted with me.”

            “Your sister texted.” My mom settled at the table.

            “Meg, can you hit the fan above the stove?”

            “She says she’s sorry she couldn’t make it.”

            “Yeah, what happened?” I turned down the heat under the pan.

            “She’s got some work commitment. She forgot Chanukah was early.”

            “Why do Jewish holidays keep moving?” Mitchell asked from the doorway.

            My mom shrugged. “They’re like us, they migrate. Maybe someone’s always kicking them out of their homes.”

            Now, I check the timer on the oven. Still a while for the cookies. Most kids like bland foods, but when Mitchell was little, he’d come running to lick the bowl.

            Last night, I found him in the kitchen, Sunday’s New York Times wrinkled in front of him, water boiling on the stove.

            “It’s for cocoa,” he said. “You want some?”

            “I think we have marshmallows somewhere, but they might be as old as you.” I turned to search the cupboards. “This is like that scene in A Wrinkle in Time. Remember that day we stayed in reading it? You weren’t sick or anything, but I had a sore throat when we were done.”

            “How do you do that?”

            I heard Mitchell turn a page in the paper.

            “Read for hours? Wait till you’re a parent. Comes with the territory. They hand out the power at the hospital. They inject it along with the fertility drugs. How to read till your vocal cords fray.”

            “I mean, how do you even get there? How did you guys both agree on each other at the same time?”

            “Me and Mama?”

            “You and Meg.”

            “I guess some of it was timing. And you have to want to be with someone enough to get over all the downsides.”

            “What downsides?”

            I opened another cupboard. “Like, Meg’s allergic to flowers and I’d love to fill the house with them. Or I used to be obnoxiously jealous.”

            “Why?”

            “Probably because I was a cheater. Or maybe because she’d been straight.” I stood on my toes to feel for the marshmallows.

            “I was going to go with Hayden to San Fransisco for Christmas.”

            This was the first Mitchell had said about it.

             “Then her texts back got shorter.”

            Meg and I had agreed not to push.

            “I wanted to be sure, so I graphed them. The length and the quantity were different since we started. When I said that, she asked if I had Aspergers.”

            I teetered on my tiptoes. On the stove, the kettle began to hiss.

            “I wish I had fucking Aspergers. I’d be too obsessed with like, exotic bug types to care. After that she stopped mentioning Christmas. She blocked my texts and her roommate kept telling me she was out.”

            By then, I’d patted my way to the marshmallows, but I didn’t take them down, or turn.

            “How could just texting and calling and meeting her out places make her feel like I was a rapist? We barely even had sex, just the one time I asked about her text patterns. She said she was just busy with school stuff. She said she was sorry she told me I had Aspergers. Then she got quiet in the middle, but she never told me to stop.”

            When I finally turned, the kitchen was empty. I don’t know how long I’d stood there, just facing the cupboard, while the kettle screeched like a banshee on the stove.

            Unlike the bus people, the carolers coordinate their outfits. They wear vibrant red cloaks and green hats. All the kids are apple-cheeked and invested. The old folks lean into each other. Like most weeks, today Gus is there with his flute. In the kitchen, the scent of ginger seems nearly physical. Vaporous, like an orange fog. When I crack the window, I catch the last of the figgy pudding song. ‘Piggy pudding,’ Mitchell used to say. For a while there, we worried he might have a speech impediment, but then instead he got that wheat allergy. It’s all misdirection. Raising kids is like slight of hand.

            The oven buzzes.

            “Mitchell,” I call toward the stairs, “come ruin your appetite.”

            It’s only luck, the cookies are ready. Sometimes our neighbors bring the carolers eggnog, but we’re not always home when they arrive.

            Outside now, the snow falls more thickly, but there’s Mitchell, in just a white T-shirt. Spindly arms, poky spine. He crosses the yard, dragging the garbage bag. Behind him, its weight indents the snow.

             “I just don’t understand what happened,” he’d said last night while my back was turned. “The harder I tried the farther she went.”

            Now he lingers, watching the carolers. “Fall on your knees,” Gus takes the flute from his lips to sing.

            When Meg opens the garage door, it seems to release Mitchell. He dumps the bag in the trash bin. Meg says something, and together they step into the indent. They follow the accidental trail back to the house. Thanks to Mitchell’s experiment, I know they can’t see me. Still I half lift my hand, and I wave.



BIO

Sarah Terez Rosenblum’s work has appeared in literary magazines such as Diagram, Brevity, Third Coast, Underground VoicesCarve and The Boiler. She has written for sites including Salon, The Chicago Sun Times, The Satirist, and Pop Matters. She was shortlisted for Zoetrope All Story’s 2016 Short Fiction Contest, receiving an honorable mention. Most recently, Sarah was a runner-up for Prairie Schooner’s annual summer Creative Nonfiction Contest and her work was published in their Summer 2020 issue. Pushcart Prize nominated, Sarah holds an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, is a Creative Coach, and teaches creative writing at The University of Chicago Writer’s Studio. Her novel, Herself When She’s Missing, was called “poetic and heartrending” by Booklist.

Whatever Happened to Mr. Saguaro?

by Carolyn Weisbecker



            Kneeling before the crumbling wall like a repentant sinner rested a row of dusty mason jars filled with flowers. The pink carnations had long dried out, their brown skeletons clutched together in its glass burial tombs. Seeing the wall, Darren dismounted his bike and hoisted it over the curb because of the bears. Yes, bears. Not the kind of bear where one would escape but the kind one would, instead, embrace. Perched beside the mason jars, the bears’ sodden tummies bulged while laden heads lowered in defeat. One bear wore a plaid vest of yellow, red, and black with a matching bowtie. The second bear clutched a pink satin heart. An aura of misery and melancholy grasped Darren’s chest as he stared at the bizarre scene laid out before him.

            The feeling hung over him like a stormy sky that whispered of abandonment, of death, a hole that only grew deeper and wider as the minutes passed. He wondered about it all. Had his dad mentioned something about this from his daily peruse of the Tucson Times? A child riding his skateboard or bike before the screech of brakes and inevitable whack that led to this roadside memorial? He winced. The thought of a life snatched away bothered him. But then, everything bothered him.

            As the unpleasant feeling persisted, he turned away to hug the Santa Catalinas, a towering mountain range north of Tucson, Arizona. Darren decided that if he had to spend the summer with his dad, he would find comfort in the mountain views, desert landscape of cactus and bush, and the quiet of the star-scattered nights at Mount Lemmon Sky Center; Tucson—so unlike his home in Chicago—surprised him daily by its authenticity. The city’s lack of pretentiousness beckoned Darren to wander music, book, and thrift stores; clerks of all ages greeted him with smiles and gave him the freedom to shop without idle chatter or worse, a barrage of suggestions regarding an imminent purchase. Darren’s thoughts scattered, and as the minutes gained speed, a series of beeps rose from his smartwatch. He ran one rough hand through his damp hair. “Shit.” He was late. Again. Grabbing his bike, he pedaled, careful to avoid giving anyone a reason to add another memorial to the existing one.

            Fighting the wind, Darren forced his legs to pump harder through the hilly streets. But the bike was old with splotches of rust and a chain thirsty for a few squeezes of oil, so it needed extra prodding. Despite the work required to pedal, he liked the bike’s faded red paint and the shiny new tires, although he wasn’t exactly sure Mrs. Norris, the thrift store lady who seemed one step away from a nursing home, was entirely truthful about the bike’s true condition. He could tell by her small eyes that darted from the bike to the ceiling and back; not once could he recall her gaze reaching for his in a gesture of humanity. No enthusiasm. No encouragement. And least of all—that which he really craved—engagement. But the fact remained that thanks to Tucson being a college town, with the University of Arizona just a few blocks away, decent used bikes were a tough find. So, after a bit of stilted haggling, pregnant sighs from Mrs. Norris, and a trip to the ATM, Darren handed over his last twenty bucks to the old woman who neither thanked him or offered a receipt. Not even a goodbye.He hated that he cared.   

            The bike resisted him, so he pedaled with a ferocious heart until the Old Tucson Book Store loomed into sight. There was a reason for the word, old, hethought as his tires went bump-bump-bump over the gravel surface that led around to the back. The one-story building, like many along the weathered street, whimpered for a drink of fresh paint, indicated by its cracks, peeling stucco, and remnants of graffiti the store owner ignored. Still, the building wasn’t all bad. Probably its best feature was the bright orange door that beckoned customers to enter; but once inside, the gray walls and uneven floor—oh, and the remnants of marijuana smoke and microwave popcorn—made even the most curious customer leave.   

            After leaning his bike against the garage wall, Darren entered the building’s rear door on soft feet. The shop sighed when he stumbled, mimicking its long-time owner, Mr. Saguaro—Darren never knew his real name—who usually only muttered whenever Darren arrived while his eyes made love to the artwork hung on three of the four walls. All Saguaros. The east wall highlighted Saguaros stoically keeping watch over its underlings—small cacti, unkempt shrubs, and a smattering of Joshua trees. The west wall proudly boasted Saguaros that held the mountains upright—the thick cacti arms opened wide to catch a tumbling rock like a mother who catches a tumbling toddler. But the ones that deserved special attention made their home to the north.

            The north, known as the celebrity wall, where Mr. Saguaro—called Mr. Sag, for short—hung select Saguaro artwork—the ones that got headlines or held the title of biggest, largest, oldest, like the Saguaro deemed the Grand One from Tonto National Forest that towered at 46 feet; next rested a print of Old Granddaddy from Tucson’s Saguaro National Park with fifty-two arms and the title of “oldest known cactus in the world.”

            And then there was the one that mocked the rest because, well, according to Mr. Sag, it deserved the honor. The one and only oil painting with a gold wooden frame. The one and only oil painting he had actually purchased from an art studio and not a discount store. The one and only oil painting where Mr. Sag had mounted a picture light he found in a dumpster to show the world—or at least his customers—that number one, he was an art connoisseur, and number two, he was—but without the financial support—a patron of the arts.  

            The one and only oil painting was the crested Saguaro. Its fan-like tips resembled giant waving hands, and Mr. Sag referred to it, with bated breath, as his one and only favorite.

            “It’s a crested Saguaro. Very rare,” Mr. Sag would say to whoever glanced in the painting’s direction.

            With the Saguaro shrine behind him, Darren’s shoulders relaxed as he approached the main store area. I’m in luck, he thought. Mr. Sag must’ve gone out for a coffee.Humming at the pleasant thought and the realization he truly alone, Darren strolled over to a pile of books that needed sorting. Then, his humming faltered. Then stopped. Darren gulped as Mr. Sag’s weathered body stood up from the chipped wooden chair he kept in the corner. Today, the old man wore a tie-dyed purple and yellow tee shirt along with his standard worn jeans. A silver Cuban link bracelet slid down his bony wrist as he lifted a palmful of popcorn to his lips. Darren waited while Mr. Sag finished chewing, but before he could utter, “I’m sorry I’m late,” Mr. Sag lifted a tattooed arm.

            “You’re late again, so you’re fired, boy. Now get out of here, and don’t come back!”

            Darren sniffled, not from emotion, but from a cloud dust. Being Tucson, and being an old building, and being the windows were old and not fitted properly, dust did a slow dance around anyone who stood long enough to notice. He coughed to buy time; he knew he needed this job. Wanted this job. Because as shitty as the pay and his treatment by old Mr. Sag, Darren had nowhere else to go. Nothing to do until his mom picked him up in August to return home and then maybe he’d be back to spend a holiday. That’s what happened when his parents got divorced; his dad moved across the country for a fresh start, and summers and occasional holidays were the only times Darren got to see his dad. He accepted it.

            Not a sound was heard except for the heavy tick-tock of the huge black clock that hung above the cash register. Mr. Sag’s dark eyes never left Darren’s as he continued shoving popcorn into his greedy mouth. Finally, Mr. Sag cocked his silver head. “Are you deaf, boy? I told you to get out. I’m sick of you being late. I’m running a business here. This is my livelihood. My life. This ain’t no hobby for me like it is to you.”

            Darren watched his heart plummet to the floor and collide with a colony of dust balls. He blinked. “But Mr. Sag, I still need to dust the floor and all the shelves. Then I was going to set up that computer and printer you bought to get you into this century.” Darren’s eyes rested on the small table by the counter where an ancient drip coffee maker rested. “And then there’s that!

            Mr. Sag’s eyes flickered with curiosity as he followed Darren’s gaze. “You mean the coffeemaker? What about it, boy?”

            Darren nodded. “There’s something you need to know, Mr. Sag. You might want to sit down for this.”

            The room waited while Mr. Sag remained rooted to his spot, arms folded, his lips curved downward. Darren coughed again and scrambled for an idea to prolong his imminent departure.

            “Well, it’s like this,” he said. “You claim you’re running a business, that this is your life, but it’s not true.”

            Licking his lips, Mr. Sag gazed down at his now empty popcorn bag, and Darren knew the old man wondered if he should pop another bag. “What you talking about? Besides, why you still here? I told you to git.”

            Darren’s legs melted into the floor. “You’re not running a successful because you’re not giving people what they want.” He marched over to the coffeemaker stand. “People want coffee—good coffee—when they browse for books, and this old machine can’t make it. I’m guessing the inner parts are worn out.” He opened the coffee machine lid and let it drop with a thud. “Wasn’t it used when you bought it?”

            Mr. Sag scratched his head. “You know I buy all my appliances and what-nots second hand. Otherwise, I’d be out of money in no time, and the misses wouldn’t like that!”

            Darren nodded. “I understand, but it doesn’t make decent coffee.” A line appeared between his brows. “You know, if the coffee was good, people would drink it. And while they’re drinking it, they’d be looking at the books and maybe even buying some.” His eyes flew around the room, and although his glance was fast, Darren noted everything. The creaky ceiling fan that shuddered every five minutes. The mismatched bookcases—some without shelves—painted in various shades of blue, yellow, and green. But most disturbing of all, Darren felt the shop’s fear; its sadness oozed from up from the tired floors, and tears dripped from the walls by the humidifying unit. Even the coffeemaker let out a big sigh whenever Darren turned it on.

            Mr. Sag glowered at him. “What do you know about coffee? You’re just a punk. What are you, fifteen?”

            Darren jutted his chin. “No sir. I’m seventeen. I start my senior year in the fall, and I know plenty about that deep complex nectar we fondly refer to as coffee.” His words sounded hollow, even to him, mostly because he’d never drank coffee. He preferred pop.

            Mr. Sag scratched the sliver of belly that peeked out from under his shirt. “No one else gives free coffee away but me. You would think that incentive would flood the place with customers. You’re trying to make me keep you here, but that’s not going to happen. Now, for the last time, get out of here before I toss you out myself.”

            Whatever courage Darren had slithered away, and he headed to the door. But the hand of courage wouldn’t hear of it, and instead, whipped him around. “You’re wrong, Mr. Sag!”

            Mr. Sag’s forehead puckered. “What ya mean, boy?”

            A slow smile eased onto Darren’s pudgy face. “What I mean is that you’ve got competition, which might explain why it’s a ghost town here.”

            Mr. Sag yawned. “Competition? You talking that internet thing?”

            “Forget online shopping. I’m talking about the new book store just a few blocks over. I stopped by the other day and saw all kinds of customers drinking coffee and buying things. It was a real community thing, people laughing and talking. Said they loved the book selection and how nice and clean everything looked. Overheard some of them saying they loved the coffee and would be back.”

            Mr. Sag lifted an eyebrow.

            Darren continued. “It smelled real good, too, not like that nasty stuff that comes out of your machine. It’s too bad you fired me because I had a big surprise for you.” He shook his brown head. “Your loss.”

            Mr. Sag couldn’t help himself. After all, he loved surprises, especially since he never got any. He rubbed the stubble on his chin. “Maybe I’ll let you stay. Depends on what the surprise is. I’ve got high expectations, you know.”

            Darren’s mouth lifted into a smile. “You see, my dad manages a business supply store in Oro Valley. I told him about the sad state of your coffee machine. He said he’d get you a top-of-the-line coffee maker for a fraction of the cost. You know, as a courtesy because I work here.”

            “Top of the line?” Mr. Sag repeated.

            Darren nodded. “That heavenly coffee aroma from your new machine will pluck people right from the street, and before you know it, this place will explode with business. Think how happy that will make Mrs. Sag.” Darren grinned. “What do you say, Mr. Sag? Can I stay?”

            He narrowed his eyes. “Fraction of the cost?”

            “Yes, sir. My dad will give a cheap price. And, I’ve got some other ideas, too, that will bring in more customers than you can handle.”

            As Darren talked, Mr. Sag thought while his eyes took in the dank smelly couch, chipped side tables, and stained area rug. He wasn’t stupid. He knew his shop needed a boost, something exciting that would draw customers through its faded orange door. He needed to offer more than books. Like Darren said, he needed to offer a sense of community. Coffee could do that. His mind filled with the image of a shiny new coffeemaker dripping like a song while his customers lined up for a cup, books tucked under their arms and thoughts of what to buy next.

            I’ll move the machine up toward the front so everyone can see it before they check out. The idea pleased him, and before he could catch himself, his lips eased into a smile. “Sure, boy. You can stay.” For now, he thought.

            It only took mere seconds for Mr. Sag’s smile to dissolve into a dark pool that dripped to the ground and formed a puddle around his feet. No one possessed the power for his transformation except one person—his misses. For at that very moment, the much-younger, much bigger, and much smarter Mrs. Sag stormed through the door, not caring that the slam led Mr. Sag to groan.

            “My god, woman. What did I tell you about that?” His eyes rotated from one wall to the next, making sure his treasured Saguaro paintings remained intact.

            She followed his eyes then turned her attention to inspecting her nails. “Screw your paintings. I’ve been stuck all week with that girl, and now it’s your turn.”

            Darren caught his breath at the sight of her hot pink mini-skirt and plunging black silk blouse. Turquois earrings stretched from each ear. Her matching pink lips gleamed like fresh paint. As he stared, she read his thoughts by pulling a tube of lipstick from her Louis Vuitton bag. “What girl?” Darren asked, but what he really wanted to know was this: what in the world did a hot-looking woman like her see in old Mr. Sag? Was he a millionaire or something?

            The Sags grunted the name, “Rainbow!” in unison then glared at one another.

            Mr. Sag coughed. “Rainbow is my step-granddaughter from my second marriage.”

            Mrs. Sag rolled her painted eyes. “Second marriage baggage should remain in the second marriage, not rolled into the third.”

            Mr. Sag opened his mouth, but the sound of a shriek sliced through the air. Darren led the way as the three rushed out the back door. “What the heck you screaming about, Rainbow?” Mr. Sag asked.

            “I just wanted to see how far my voice would go.” The girl before him fluttered her eyelashes at Darren. “Who are you? You’re cute.”

            He thought the girl must be about ten or so.

            She twirled a single dark braid that hung past her shoulders. “I’m hungry, glorious Grandma. When’s that pizza kid going to come?”

            Mrs. Sag sighed. “I told you to call me Grandma Gloria, not glorious Grandma. Why don’t you play out here with Darren, and I’ll let you know when it’s here.”

            Darren straightened to his full five-foot, four-inch height. “I’m sorry, ma’am, but I’m no babysitter. Besides,” he glanced at Mr. Sag, who remained planted by the door. “The boss here has work for me.”

            Rainbow stuck out her lip, folded her arms, and pouted. “But I want him to play with me! Now!”

            “Darren.” Mr. Sag’s voice held a warning. “As my newly appointed assistant manager, I want you to play with my sweet little Rainbow, so starting now, she’s your responsibility.”

            Darren gulped. “Assistant Manager? But who’s the manager?”

            “Me, dummy.” Mr. Sag smiled at Rainbow. “I’m the owner, manager, head honcho … I’m everything. Congratulations, you just moved up from chore boy to my assistant. So, get to work boy, and play with this child.”

            Darren’s eyes flew to Rainbow, who tapped her foot while she waited. Once the Sag’s backsides disappeared through the door, he turned to his new responsibility. “Okay, kid. What do you want to do?” His brown eyes swallowed the dismal scene around him. “How about I find you a broom, and you can sweep while I pick up this trash that’s blown about? Your grandpa would like that.”

            She shook her head. “Nope. I want you to find me a kitten to play with. A sweet, cute, tiny kitten who will sleep on my bed and dance around the house with me.”

            Darren rolled his eyes. “I don’t have one.”

            Rainbow sighed and tapped her lip with one pink-painted fingernail. “Well, then. I want to play pet rescue. I’ll be a poor, abandoned puppy dog you found by the garage here, and you have to get me to trust you by being nice to me.”

            He bit down on the word ‘that’s stupid’ before they oozed from his mouth. “That’s no fun.”

            She blinked—long and slow—a wisp of a girl who suggested fragility but in truth, possessed determination, grit, and unfortunately, resourcefulness. “You either play like I said or else…” She met Darren’s eyes before throwing herself to the ground. “Ow! That hurt!” As quickly as she fell, she jumped up and brushed off the pebbles from her knee. “I’ll tell my grandpa and my glorious grandma you pushed me down!”

            Anything Darren might have said at that moment disappeared as a small, rusted car roared up the drive and stopped at their feet. A tall, gangly kid of about Darren’s age emerged holding a white slim box.

            “Pizza!” Rainbow shrieked and ran in circles.

            The pizza kid yawned. “You’re brilliant.”   

            Rainbow stopped and held out her hands. “Give me!”  

            Wiping his forehead with the palm of one hand, the boy muttered, “That’ll be $18, plus my tip. I’m sure you’ll be generous.”

            Rainbow’s hand flew to her pocket. She pulled a wad of bills from her shorts and counted out loud. “Five, ten, fifteen, twenty, twenty-five, thirty, thirty-five, forty.” A sly smile eased onto her small face. “How much did you say?”

            Tired and hungry, Darren snapped. “Just give him a twenty.”

            She wrinkled her nose and shoved the bills back in her pocket. “I’ll give you a good tip if you play with me first because Darren is boring. And stupid.”

            The boy moaned and looked at Darren. “What’s this oddball talking about?”

            Darren shrugged.

            “Look,” Rainbow said. “I’m a poor, abandoned puppy dog someone dumped by the garage here, and you need to rescue me. Then I’ll give you a twenty-dollar tip.”

            The pizza kid straightened. “Twenty-dollar tip, huh?”

            She nodded and looked around the littered yard. “Darren, fill up that hubcap with water, and bring it into the garage. That’s where poor abandoned puppies like to hide. And, you, pizza kid, I want one slice now and a ride around the garage.”

            A flash of doubt crossed the boy’s face. He tossed the pizza box onto the hood of his car and lit a cigarette. After taking a long drag, he nodded at Rainbow but spoke to Darren. “Is she for real?”

             Darren strode over to the hubcap and picked it up. “I’m afraid so.”

            The garage stood silently a few feet away, just a shell with missing slates and no door. The pizza kid peered inside, and seeing nothing but boxes and a pile of old clothing, he threw down his cigarette butt and stomped on it with one black boot. “Okay, fine.”

            Rainbow raised an eyebrow. “Pizza?”

            The boy yanked a slice from the box. “I’ll give you three minutes.”

             Rainbow clapped her hands and grabbed the pizza. Shoving half the slice into her mouth, she mumbled. “Let’s go!”  

            While Darren rinsed and filled the hubcap, he wondered if he should alert Mr. Sag to all of this but decided it wasn’t worth bothering him.

            The pizza kid turned around and kneeled to one knee. “Okay, oddball. Climb onto my back. Your ride awaits.”

            As soon as they entered the garage, the kid—with Rainbow squealing on his back—jogged around the building’s perimeter three times then dumped her onto the ground. She whined in response until he shoved the hubcap toward her and ordered her to drink.

            “You’re a puppy, right?”

            She nodded.

            “Then lap the water like a puppy.”

            She did.

            As the pizza kid sped away—his twenty folded into his shirt pocket—he cranked up his music, and the sound of rap floated away with graveling flying from his tires. Darren nudged Rainbow’s shoulder. “Come on, the game’s over. I’m going inside. I’ve got work to do.”

            She sprang up. “Where’s my pizza?”

            He turned and glanced at the trashcan by the rear door. “Sorry. I didn’t know you wanted more.”

            Rainbow stiffened. “You ate the whole pizza?”

            “I was hungry. Besides, the pizza kid gave you a slice. Remember?”

            “You think one slice is enough? You’re a moron!” She pulled a long chain out from under her shirt, and seeing Darren’s eyes widen, she held up the chain’s gold skull and kissed it. “That ride didn’t last three minutes. I don’t like people who cross me.” She shoved the skull back under her shirt. “I’m telling my grandpa you ate my pizza.” With one last sniff, she marched into the store and slammed the door in Darren’s face. “Grandpa! Glorious Grandma! Darren ate all my pizza!”

            Seeing nothing else he could do, Darren turned on his heels and fled. 

            Darren arrived at the shop early the next morning. In his left hand he held a cup of coffee from Mr. Sag’s favorite shop, and in the right, a small white bag that held a fresh blueberry muffin—Mr. Sag’s favorite. When he reached the back door, he shoved the bag under his left arm and turned the knob, but nothing happened. A heavy feeling filled his stomach. He wondered if he should go home because obviously Mr. Sag was still upset about him devouring all of Rainbow’s pizza. Deciding to try the handle once more, he tilted the coffee and yelped as the lid popped off and scalding liquid exploded, splattering his white shoes and socks.

            “Shit!” He shoved the lid back on. Anger simmered in his brain and traveled down to his legs. If Mr. Sag hadn’t locked him out, this would never have happened. He jogged to the front entrance. The door knob turned easily in his hand. He blinked. Except for the lamp behind the counter, darkness invaded the shop. He flipped on the overhead lights. “Mr. Sag?” No answer but the buzz of the black clock. His shoes made a swooshing noise he never before noticed, but he welcomed it for it gave the quiet room a bit of life. Stepping behind the counter, he set the half-empty coffee cup and muffin down then froze.  “Whoa!”

            Quarter size droplets of blood dotted the desk behind the counter. One, two, three, four deep red circles. A knife rested nearby, and when he squinted, he saw a streak of red smeared down its shiny blade. His eyes lowered to the floor where more drops congregated. What the hell happened? he thought. His eyes flew to the clock. Eight thirty. The shop opened at nine. Where was Mr. Sag? And why was the front door unlocked? Whispers rose from the shelves that bulged with books; the characters ached to tell him what happened but couldn’t. Panic danced around him, and he backed away until a hand grabbed his shoulder.

            Darren cried out and yanked free. Whoever killed Mr. Sag had returned.

            “Darren, calm down! What’s wrong with you?” Mrs. Sag stood before him wearing tight blue jeans and a lacy red blouse. Diamonds sparkled at her throat. Her long fingers rested on her ample hips as she waited for Darren’s reply.

            Blinking several times, he fought back the urge to run from the shop. And from her. But he couldn’t. She blocked the narrow space between him and the door.

            Gulping, he found the words he needed to say. “Someone killed Mr. Sag!”

            She smiled. “Don’t be silly.”

            He pointed to the desk. He pointed to the blood. He pointed to the knife that looked even bigger than it had before. “Look!”

            Her eyes—with too much mascara and eyeliner—loomed like black holes. She turned to the desk and studied it with great interest. “Whatever happened to Mr. Sag?”  

            Darren squeezed past her. “I don’t know. I came in early today, and the front door was open. I went to turn off that lamp, and that’s when I saw the blood.” Darren’s mind raced with ideas. He wondered if she killed him and then came back to clean up the mess. Did her bronze face mock Mr. Sag as she plunged the knife into his heart? After he collapsed, she would’ve dragged his body out the front to shove into her new Cadillac Escalade—ironically, a gift from Mr. Sag because he said she needed a larger vehicle to haul things. Like dead bodies, Darren thought.

            Mrs. Sag brushed past him. “I stopped by to look for his cell phone. Rainbow was playing with it yesterday.” She straightened her fingers and gazed down at her nails—long and painted red, like blood. “That girl is crazy. Did you know she ran into a car last month on her skateboard?” She nodded at his blank look. “You know the intersection of Speedway and Country Club? Dumb girl skated off the sidewalk right into the street. Thankfully, all she got was a few bruises, but by the look of all the teddy bears and flowers people left, you’d think she got killed.” She drew in a breath. “I hate those roadside memorials. So depressing.”

            Darren swallowed. “I’m glad she’s okay, but what about Mr. Sag? The blood? Where is he?”

            She glanced at her watch. “The old man probably cut himself doing something foolish and went home to clean up.” Her eyes flickered. “You like working here?”

            His eyebrows drew together. “Well, now that you bring it up, yeah. I like it here.” The question moved him; maybe because no one ever asked—not his mom or dad or even Mr. Sag—and spurred by her interest, he found himself explaining how his parents divorced and his dad moved to Tucson, leaving Darren and his mom behind in Chicago. “My parents decided I’d spend summers here with my dad. And, it’s been okay, I guess. I’m just glad Mr. Sag lets me work here. Otherwise …” He left it at that.

            She listened while fingering her gold hoop earring, and when Darren finished, she tilted her head. “I like you, Darren, and I’m glad my husband made you manager. You deserve it.”

            “Assistant manager.”

            “What? No! You are the manager. And, I’ll tell Mr. Sag that when I see him.” She fanned her face with one hand. “I’m making the decisions now.”  

            He straightened. “Wow. Okay. Thank you.”

            “Tell you what. It’s about opening time, so why don’t I clean up this mess, and you take care of business. After all, you’re the manager.”

            “But what about Mr. Sag?” He gulped and glanced at the knife.

            She gave a huff. “Don’t worry about him. I’m sure he’s fine. Now, get to work while I clean up.”

            Darren watched as she strutted to the back for a cannister of sanitizing wipes before flipping over the door sign to read ‘open.’ While Mrs. Sag scrubbed away the blood, Darren dragged out the vacuum from the closet and pushed the heavy relic across the room in search of an outlet. Matted gray fur—courtesy of the stray cat Mr. Sag allowed inside under the pretense of catching mice—clung to the carpet along with the dirt clods that caught a ride on someone’s shoes.

            Tufts of dust spewed from the vacuum’s cannister. Grunting, Darren pushed the cleaner across the floor and hoped the effort would pay off by giving him bigger guns. Crackling and groaning, the cleaner wasn’t used to so much work, so it began to ignore the dirt and dust until Darren kicked it as a reminder of who was boss. That accomplished, he returned to the now-cleaned desk where a pile of new books waited to be catalogued and priced. No blood. Not even a trace, and in fact, the desk, with its orange laminate surface, never looked so good. Or clean. Still, Darren wondered about the blood. And, Mr. Sag.

            “Maybe you should call him. Mr. Sag, that is, to see if he’s okay,” Darren said. “Something’s not right. He left the door unlocked. And then there’s the knife. I’m kind of worried.”

            At the mention of the knife, she held it up and admired it under the overhead light but then shoved it into her bag. “Oh, I would, but …” She patted her pocket and grinned, showing bright white teeth. “I got his phone right here, so that won’t help. Besides, I’m sure he’s fine. I mean, why wouldn’t he be?”

            Darren shuffled from one foot to the next. “I’ll be here until three today, but I can stay longer if you need me. But I’m sure Mr. Sag will be back by then.” His eyes locked with hers. “Right?” Silence prodded him to repeat himself. “Right, Mrs. Sag?”

            Laughing, she slung her bag over her shoulder. “You’re a sweet kid, Darren. Why don’t you plan to work the full day? And since you’re not in school this summer, how about you work full-time? I mean, I’m not exactly sure when Mr. Sag will be back.”

            “What do you mean?”

            “I think it’s about time he took a vacation.” She nodded. “Yes, that’s it. A long, relaxing vacation somewhere with palm trees and a pool. When I see him, I’ll talk him into taking a vacation.” She straightened the large silver and turquoise cross that had tangled with her diamond necklace. “While he’s gone, I’d like you to think up some ways to make this place better. We haven’t had a profit for too long, and you are the manager now. I believe you’ve got what it takes to make this old place a success. After all, you’re young and strong and smart.” Her mouth resisted a smile. “Unlike that jackass I married.”

            She killed him, he thought. Or, did she? She seems pretty nice.

            After Mrs. Sag left, Darren wandered the shop with purposeful steps. He winced at the dust coated windows that filtered the light and made him think of allergies and altered senses. Reverting his vision to the four stucco walls, his eyes clutched the monuments of painted and printed Saguaros, the rows of shelves stuffed with books hopelessly abandoned and dismissed due to either too-high prices or unpopular content, the beaten-down sofas and wing-back chairs with electrical taped arms and wobbly legs, and last, the old mean coffeemaker that on any given day, vomited streams of tar and black steam. Would Mrs. Sag agree to replace it?

            A flood of doubt washed over him as he thought about his abilities and how she expected him to turn things around. She’s wrong, he thought as he emptied the coffee’s filter basket into the trash. I don’t have what it takes. His thoughts bullied and mocked him until he saw no other option but to leave. She’ll get someone else to help her, he thought. But then he heard the slam of the door. Whirling around, he saw him. And smiled.  

            “Hey, man. I know you!” When Darren caught the high pitch of his voice, he forced it lower. “You delivered pizza here yesterday.” Seeing another kid lifted Darren’s mood. Desire for company and curiosity overwhelmed him, so he took a few deep breaths—hoping the kid didn’t notice—and said, “You here to buy a book?”

            Consternation dug into the pizza kid’s face; his eyes protruded like he just spotted a tarantula on Darren’s shoulder. “Book?” He erupted into laughter. “You’re funny.” Sweeping his hand from side to side, he said, “Who buys these relics you call books?”

            Darren stiffened. “Why are you here?”

            The pizza kid pulled a pack of cigarettes from his back pocket. “I can’t find my skull. Have you seen it?” He lit a cigarette, took a drag, and eyed Darren as he waited.

            “Is this a joke? By the way, we don’t allow smoking.”

            Before the pizza kid could reply, he saw a tiny gray mouse scamper across the floor behind Darren. He grinned. “You need to get a cat, bro. But, no joke, Einstein. I was wearing a chain with a gold skull yesterday when I brought the pizza. Now I can’t find it.” He glanced around the room. “Is there someone with some authority I could talk to? Because you don’t seem too swift.”

            An image of Rainbow holding up the skull to kiss it flashed across Darren’s mind. He clamped his lips shut and wondered what to do.

            “Well?” The pizza kid tapped his foot. “Are you deaf or just stupid?”

            Darren felt his lips twitch, and he struggled to push back a smile. “Hardly. I’m the manager. Why don’t you and your stinking cigarette go outside and look around there, Einstein? Maybe it fell off out back by the garage while you were playing with my boss’s granddaughter.”

            The pizza kid stubbed out his cigarette on Mr. Sag’s laminate desk. “I already did that. Maybe that little girl found it. Is she around here? Maybe sniffing glue behind the desk or licking stamps for fun?”

            “Nah, she’s not around today. Even if she was …” The two boys locked eyes.

            The pizza kid dropped his gaze. “Look, I’m sorry I’m being an ass. My grandpa gave me that skull years ago, and it’s special to me.” He took a step and held out his hand. “You seem pretty cool. I’m Liam.”

            Darren gripped Liam’s hand as hard as he could. “I’m Darren. I’ll ask Rainbow—that’s the little girl—about your skull.” He shrugged. “She might be able to help. You could stop back later next week if you want.”

            Liam’s shoulders relaxed. “I will. By the way, where’s that crazy old man who’s usually in here?”

            “That would be my boss, Mr. Sag, but that’s not his real name.” He couldn’t stop talking. “He loves Saguaros, so that’s why he’s called Mr. Saguaro, or Mr. Sag, for short.” His stomach churned at the thought of the blood knife and blood drops across the floor. “Mrs. Sag, his wife, said I could take care of things until he returns.” Remembering Mrs. Sag’s words, he added, “I think he’s on vacation.”

            Liam sauntered over to one of the shelves and peered at the row of books. He gave Darren a pointed look. “You know, I’ve stopped in here a few times after school to look around, but …” Yanking a book from the shelf, he handed it to Darren. “When was this printed? The 1920s? By the way, that old guy wasn’t too nice, especially when I asked him who buys these books? They’re old and outdated, man. Way overpriced. You say you’re the manager? If that’s true, you’d better start managing things, or this place will crash and burn—if it hasn’t already.”

            Darren nodded. He felt an unfamiliar pang in his chest that became stronger as his excitement grew.

            Mrs. Sag said she needs me, he thought. If I try, I can make this place successful.

            “Did you hear me?” Liam frowned. “I said this place will crash and burn if you don’t do something soon. And that would suck because it’s pretty cool. Like, retro cool. All it needs is some love and labor.”

            Finally, working here felt right. “I’ve got some ideas that will make this place awesome. In fact, Mrs. Sag said I could do whatever I want to improve things.”

            Liam looked down at his scuffed black boots. “You know, no one would guess by looking at me that I love books. I was a 4.0 student until … well, I did a little juvie time, but that’s over.” He paused. “I’m not delivering pizzas anymore either, so maybe I could help.”

            Darren rubbed his chin. “You’re not going to rob me, are you?”

            Liam laughed. “Of what?” He fished his cigarette out of his pocket. “I’ll be back in the morning, but until then, take my advice—get a cat. And not one of the fluffy little kitties from the pound or a tom. Get a female cat. They’re badass.”

            The next morning, a reluctant sun struggled to stream through the windows of the Old Tucson Book Store. Darren arrived shortly after with a mop and bucket clutched in each hand. He attacked the front window first, the one that stretched across two sofas and a chair, and scrubbed inside and out until his sponge matched the black liquid he knew as water. Three bucket refills later, he looked up from his work to see Liam standing over him, an orange tabby cat nesting in his arms.

            “Hey, kid. I brought you a cat. She hangs around the pizza parlor parking lot, and I’ve seen her carry off a rat or two, so I know she’s a hunter. Anyway, I knew if I didn’t take her, my ex-asshole-manager would probably poison her.”

            Darren tossed his sponge down and stood. “So? What am I supposed to do with it? I’m not running a shelter, and frankly, she doesn’t look like much.”

            Liam gently set the cat down, and immediately, her nose and tail twitched. “Look, don’t let her cuteness factor fool you. She’s a killer. She’ll get rid of the mice you’ve got roaming around. No one wants to see mice when they shop. Do they?”

            As the weeks unfolded, Liam helped Darren revamp the shop. Each of the long, rectangular windows of the small bookstore sparkled. Whatever carpet and wood once covered the floors was ripped out and gone, replaced by red terracotta tile installed by two guys from Tio’s Tile down the street. The boys had emptied all the shelves of books. They repainted the bookshelves yellow then sorted, catalogued, repriced, and tossed the current inventory, and with Mrs. Sag’s permission, purchased a slew of new books from the wholesaler Mr. Sag once used. Liam even invited a local historical author to give a presentation and to sign his latest book. 

            “It’s definitely an improvement. Still …” Liam paced the room; his sharp eyes took in the stained and tired couches and chairs from every angle. “Let’s talk to Mrs. Sag about new furniture. Like I said weeks ago, we don’t want customers to leave. We want customers to sit, look at books, buy some, and stay.

            Darren agreed. The darkness that hung over him at the beginning of summer had—little by little—disappeared. He knew why. He found his place—in Tucson, Arizona, on a block of crumbling buildings with blue, yellow, green, and red graffiti that bounced off the stucco walls into the eyes of everyone who passed; he loved the delectable aromas of spicy chorizo sausages, chili peppers, simmering salsas, marinating pork carnitas, and tangy barbeque that drifted from nearby cafes, and the friendly, cheerful neighbors who brought the boys food and cleaning supplies ever since Darren replaced the open sign with one that read: closed until September 1st for fix up.

            Things got done. The store reopened with lots of new things but missing one old—Mr. Saguaro.

            Three couches—one in red, blue, and green—sat in the middle of the store between the open aisle bookshelves and check-out counter. Between each couch sat a white tiled rectangular table, and a matching table hosted the new, state-of-the-art Bunn coffeemaker that Darren’s dad sold Mrs. Sag at cost. Mrs. Sag arrived late one afternoon while Liam and Darren worked on setting up a new computer and accounting system. Her wide-set eyes popped as she gazed around the room. She folded her arms and smiled.

             “I see you’ve spent Mr. Sag’s money—I mean, my money well.” She pranced around the shop and nodded; her red-framed sunglasses slid down her forehead and bumped her nose, so she yanked them off and shoved them into her bosom. “All I can say, boys, is without the life insurance I got recently from …” She shuddered and paused. “From mi tia—she made the sign of the cross and whispered, “God rest her soul”—none of this would be possible. I’m sure Mr. Sag would be pleased. But more important, I’m pleased. And that’s all that really matters.”

            Four days before the grand reopening, Darren tried again to find out what happened to Mr. Sag.

            Frowning at the question, Mrs. Sag said, “Forget Mr. Sag. I’m your boss now. Poor Mr. Sag decided to pursue other things. But I’m sure his curiosity will entice him to stop by one day. Now wipe that frown from your face, and get back to work.”

            Darren cleared his throat. “What about the blood and knife? Was he injured, or … ?” He raised his eyebrows and waited.

            She scowled. “Didn’t I already tell you what happened?”

            He shook his head.

            “Well, the old fool used that butcher knife to cut himself an apple. The knife slid, and he cut his finger to the bone.”

            Liam and Darren gave one another a furtive look.

            “Well, of course he rushed home for a bandage. I found him whimpering and bleeding all over my kitchen when I got home later, but don’t worry.” Her eyes sparkled. “I took care of him. Now can we move on already? Before we open, I want you boys to get rid of all those damn Saguaro paintings. Throw them in the dumpster or whatever. Then second, repaint everything a golden yellow—the shade of a Harvest moon.”

            Instead of throwing the paintings out, the boys quickly packed the Saguaro artwork into boxes and stacked them in the renovated garage. Sweat rolled off Liam’s face while Darren’s face glistened from fear.

            “You know, Liam.” Darren’s voice lowered as he glanced around. “I think she did it. I think she killed old Mr. Sag. And, I think we should tell someone.”  

            Mrs. Sag demoted Darren to assistant manager while giving Liam the manager job. Darren understood. Liam had graduated from high school last May, and for the time being, had no plans for to go college.

            “I never liked school. I lied when I said I was a 4.0 student,” Liam confessed. “It’s a miracle I made it as far as I did.” He swept his long, bony arms in a dramatic gesture. “Besides, this is the only education I’ve ever wanted.” The boys rested on the new picnic table out back, a gift from Mrs. Sag so Liam could have a place to smoke while Darren chugged his can of coke.

            Liam took a final drag of his cigarette then crushed the lit end against the side of the table. “Have you talked to your parents anymore about letting you stay?”

            Darren drained his coke; his eyes never left Liam’s face. Wiping his hand across his mouth, he sighed. “It wasn’t easy. Mom had all kinds of reasons why I should go back to Chicago—you know, finish school, be with my friends, continue my violin lessons. Blah, blah, blah.” He looked off in the distance. “That shows how little she knows me. I hate my old high school, I have no friends, and I suck at playing the violin.” A warm breeze stumbled past and wrapped its arms around Darren in a hug. “Anyway, yeah. I’m staying. I’ll be going to the same high school you just left. Besides, Mrs. Sag needs me here.” He nudged his friend. “And, you do, too, since I’m your assistant manager.” Feeling a bit awkward, he scrambled off the table, tossed his can in the trash, and reached into his pocket. “Here, dude.” And with that, he tossed the chain with the gold skull in Liam’s direction.

            Darren didn’t want to lie, but he also didn’t want to be honest about the skull, specifically, Rainbow’s part in it. When he confronted her several days earlier, she pursed her lips and clammed up; that is, until Darren opened his backpack to show her the sleeping cat Liam had brought him. Rainbow threw her hands up and squealed; before Darren could stop her, she lifted the cat from the bag and nuzzled it under her chin.

            “I love her! What’s her name?”

            Darren rolled his eyes. “Mouser?”

            “No. I’ll call her Angel because she’s my little angel cat.”

            Darren watched for a moment, then he held out his hand. She didn’t hesitate. Rainbow pulled the chain and skull up over her head and dropped it into his palm.  

            Once a month on a Saturday, the shop hosted a group of young guys who played mariachi music. The shop bustled with book and music lovers alike who tapped their feet, swayed their hips, and hummed. Liam rushed around the room to answer questions, find books, and offer suggestions, while Darren worked the counter. As the afternoon slowed down to a crawl, Darren took a deep breath and sat at the stool behind the register. He pulled out his cell phone to check for messages when Liam rushed over to him.

            “Hey, man, I need your help with this guy.” Liam pointed to the back. “He’s hogging the coffee machine, and people are getting pissed. I’d help, but I’m working with a customer.”

            Darren’s shoulders slumped. “I just saw Mrs. Sag come in. Can’t she handle it?”

            Liam shook his head. “She said to get you.”

            Darren marched over to the coffee machine and glared at the man’s back. He tapped his shoulder. “Excuse me, sir? Is there something I can help you with?”

            The man laughed, a deep and throaty sound that vibrated his body. He turned. “Well, well, boy. It’s about time you came over to say hello.” He grinned at Darren’s blank look. “What’s the matter? I wasn’t dead, dummy. I was getting detoxed. Damn booze.” Glancing around the busy room, his eyes darted until they rested on his wife, absorbed in replying her lipstick. “Now don’t go around telling anybody. The missus wants to keep it quiet.”  

            Darren grinned. “Glad you’re back, Mr. Sag.”

            Mr. Sag smirked. “Nice job, kid. Except for one thing—what the hell did you do with my Saguaros?”


BIO

Carolyn Weisbecker earned her Master of Arts in English & Creative Writing from Southern New Hampshire University. Her fiction has appeared in the Penmen Review, the Binnacle, Mark Literary Review, and Adelaide Books included her short story, “Bo and Arrow,” in their 2019 Children’s Literature and Illustration Anthology.

Devoir

by Marcia Bradley

 

They parked the rental car near the yard where dogs no longer barked. Beyond was an expanse of prairie that backed up to nothing. It was the nothingness Loretta remembered. Bunkhouse to the right. The rabbit hutches, empty, the chicken wire door on one askew. Loretta’s stare darted to the rusty nail that jutted from a barren raised vegetable bed. Her father’s presence never absent, his eyes upon her every move, even now.

“Well, a last look,” Loretta said to her husband. She took strong steps in her Western boots—part of the uniform she still adhered to back east in the city. Her dark red hair breezed over the shoulders of her corduroy blazer; she played with a loose button in one pocket. A bitter day had welcomed them. Earth-encrusted snow lingered. Not spring yet on the prairie. Probably for the best. Warmth wouldn’t help. Loretta headed to the backdoor of the house. Pushed it open.

“So, this is it?” Clarke asked. He scanned the perimeter, checking for what he wasn’t sure, at watch none the less.

Loretta’s shoulders twitched. It was hard to be here. The ranch’s silence as uncomfortable as a playlist of wolf howls and fox moans. Empty, yet there was a stench she recognized.

“Yes,” she said. “This is it. William and Mama’s house.”

 
 

Loretta walked a few feet into the kitchen. Mama’s domain. She glanced at the double-gauge standing guard by the door. It belonged to her father, William. She wouldn’t touch it. Never again. His oilskin slicker hung idle on a nearby hook. His black western hat sneered at her from the shelf above.  

“You don’t spread democracy with the barrel of a gun,” Loretta grumbled and hurried past the sink towards the pot belly stove. The elderly scent of onions and bacon was burnt into the walls of the musty room. She wished she’d brought Lysol except it didn’t matter. They weren’t staying.

“That a quote?” Clarke asked from a few feet behind.

“Yes. A great woman. Blunt. White House press corps. It sure sucks.”

“What sucks?”

“Being smart. People want their women nice.”

“Yep, got it.” Clarke shook his head, said no more. She’d let him come with, after discussions about how her being alone was fraught. With what? They weren’t certain.

Loretta ran a finger along the edge of the oak kitchen table, her burgundy nails foreign in these parts. She might well have been in a furniture store where it was preordained that nothing would be chosen. Clarke sat on the edge of a bench at the table, took off his blue Mets cap, and scratched at his forehead. Loretta knew her lawyer husband was trying his best to appear calm, but he was uncomfortable; she was sure he felt same as when a client called him to a home where something unpardonable had happened.

“Sorry,” she offered. “This place. So very—” She didn’t want him to see the past locked within her eyes. She couldn’t help it. She felt William in the room, the man who scoffed venom at her, his huge self ready to take the kitchen’s center stage and make another irrational demand. She crossed her arms same as when young, nervous and scared. 

“Don’t be sorry,” Clarke said. The anxiety in this house resided ceiling to the warped linoleum floor. She owed no apologies.

“Right.” At the foot of the stairs that led to her childhood bedroom, Loretta stopped, slapped her hands on her Levi’s, and swung around on her boot heels. The sight of the kitchen mottled her skin with itches and childhood memories. The framed certificate from the state hung on the wall next to the picture of Jesus preaching the beatitudes. William in his I’m-in-charge chair at the far end of the table. William’s hand on the green ledger the day he told her he’d kept a log. How he’d flipped from page to page. His finger trailing down the columns doing his calculating, a mental math of his own peculiar divination.

“Yep, got a record of what you owe us. Every single dime we spent,” he’d announced when she was seventeen begging for eighteen’s arrival.

She heard him plain as yesterday.

“You’ve got a debt to settle. Lots of days’ work owed. Interest due, too.”

“What?” her voice had taken on a teen’s incredulous tone, her throat gagged, no words ready for that sort of attack. It wasn’t a surprise that William would chain her to the ranch, mentor her to meanness as he’d done with his dogs. To have kept a log—an insidious sin.

Loretta remembered Mama in her chair by the pot belly stove. The stained pink-green-red apron tight around her middle—how her chest heaved—her brow dotted with perspiration after kitchen work. Mama’s tired feet, the flesh of her legs thick and layered upon layer until she had no ankles at all. 

“You didn’t think you’d be goin’ anywhere did you, daughter?” The slick undertow of Mama’s voice drifted to her. “You be needed here. By my side.”

Loretta again felt the cringe in her heart, how her breath had gasped away, oxygen stolen from her that morning when William told her she’d be in charge of the residents, that he’d mapped out her future.

“Need help?” Clarke asked from the table. Loretta knew he was afraid for her, fearful that perhaps it had been a bad idea to make this journey back to the house of her childhood.

“Don’t worry. I’ve got this,” she said.

Loretta stared to her right, to the front room with the red horsehair couch and chair where William had wooed the parents of bad girls who were in fact good, wonderful, freedom loving young women, girls who’d done nothing except be teens who yearned for fun, kissed boys, maybe drank a beer or uttered some weak blasphemy. Young women whose parents William enticed with lectures about sinnery and learning right behavior.

“No contact with the outside world for 60 days,” he’d tell them.

“What?” It was usually mothers who were shocked by this.

“That’s fine. We understand.” The fathers too quick to agree.

William taunted the residents. They grew as pale as the translucent sadness in their souls. He made them tie their hair back claiming unbanded hair led to a loose and reckless life. Ordered them to wear long denim skirts and blue Stop Foolish Sinnery t-shirts. Sent them to the roadside stand to sell fluffy pure bunnies to passersby for Easter dinners. In later years, Loretta learned he’d ordered select young residents to kneel before him and ‘do what sinners do.’

Every girl was a sinner to William.

“Stay here. I’ve got to get something.” Loretta said with her hand on the banister. She couldn’t reveal more, her childhood room not to be shared.

“You sure I shouldn’t go with? In case?”

“I’m sure.”

Loretta headed upstairs to the room with the door that Mama had often locked with a key. The bedroom where Mama plodded inside wearing worn old man slippers bought discount at the Walmart in town. She’d wiped Loretta’s wounds with a ragged cloth wet only with water. Not clean, questionable tenderness.

Loretta twisted the knob. She opened the door.

 

 
The room was unchanged. Her lonesome twin bed. A few white blouses on hangers in the closet. Loretta touched the dresser and pulled out the top drawer. Inside, her forbidden-to-wear brown Rolling Stones t-shirt folded on top a Stop Foolish Sinnery version from William’s private label.

“Well, that should go up in flames,” she said and reached beneath both. Found the relic she’d left behind—a very dried out bag of Twizzlers she’d snuck into the house that final summer. The licorice her proof she’d once been a teenager with a teen’s yearnings, not every moment a dread.

She took a couple steps to the ladderback chair painted with bluebells, some yellow, that had been the grandmother’s she’d never known. She stopped before the makeshift desk she’d built with nails and plywood and two-by-fours. There was joy to recall in this room where she used to read and write and stare at far-off mountains and the skies above. She leaned close to the window in hopes of sighting a pronghorn antelope galloping across the land. Wished for a flight of Peregrine falcons overhead. Almost knocked on the glass to let the prairie, her prairie, know she’d returned.

“I’m here,” she said.

A cloud surfed by—far aloft in the big blue sky.

“I’m going to save you.” She waved to the quiet world outside. “Or at least give you a chance.” She meant the chance she’d not had.

Loretta reached beneath the desk. Her fingers felt left. Further to the right she found the manila envelope taped to the underside. Her treasures hidden still. Her fingers tingled—a chill of relief pulsed when she held it to her chest.

She sat on her bed. Dust flew. The scratchy army blanket smelled of tired mothballs. The butterscotch-colored envelope which had meant everything to her awaited. She flipped it over. Her hand caressed the flap—her fingers touched the golden clasp. Such a secret pleasure it had once been to open it, to know the contents belonged to her, that the bits of paper, the notes within, were hers alone.

“Mine,” she said and dropped onto her side, knees bent to her chest. Loretta rested her head on the near-flat childhood pillow. Let her hair fall in front of her eyes. With the envelope tight in her grasp, her breaths came quick, could be asthma, or rapid cycling, anxieties she knew too well, her arms hugged tighter, her eyes checked corners of the room. When she was a young girl, she’d listened for the slow pound of William’s feet on the stairs, scared he’d lock her in the hall closet. Would he take the light bulb again? Leave her with the bucket, the mop that smelled of Pine Sol, in the dark overnight?

“One, two, three,” she counted the way she’d learned in therapy or was it meditation. “Are you safe?” she asked herself. “Yes.” “Is there danger?” She knew there wasn’t. Clarke was downstairs. She’d found what she came for.

The light outside genuflected. Daytime preparing for evening. She felt okay. A sort of almost happiness. Not delight. Not revenge. The finality of her plan was soon to come. List-counting repeated itself. Things not to forget. A couple items she needed from the kitchen. She was almost finished. Loretta perched on the edge of the bed and unclasped the flap on the back of the manila envelope with care. Poured the contents onto the army blanket. Ripped pieces of paper settled around her. Names of books she would read again. Quotes she’d collected from authors and from Ms. Lott, the teacher who saved her. She found sketches, too, by her best friend, Elsie—of falcons, of mountains in the distance, and of teen Loretta sitting on a tree stump with a book in her hand.

 
 

She carried the ladderback chair downstairs. Quiet fortitude despite how William and Mama’s sad house exhausted her.

“That comin’ with us?” Clarke asked eager to assist in any small way.

“I’d like to take it home.”

“It’s nice.” Clarke set it by the door. His Mets cap alone on the table. Such an odd sight in this house on the prairie.

“Thank you.” Her gratitude covered much more.

“No need.” He touched her hand on way to grab his hat. “I’ll put the chair in the car. Get everything ready.”

Each bit of paper had been returned to the manila envelope. She slipped it into her old satchel with accordion folds that expanded when opened—the leather case she bought from the thrift store on 72nd Street years ago.

“Here, try these,” the white-haired storekeeper had offered her two small gold keys tied together with string and said, “It’s been waiting for you.”

The leather satchel that locked traveled everywhere with her. In it was the file the local lawyer had sent. No will, no money to speak of. She’d received the original bill of sale and the deed to this house. The letter after the government closed The Home for Wayward Girls. Mama’s death certificate. William’s. Loretta slid her manila envelope in beside the others.

She walked towards the counter. Pulled at the handle of a drawer. It was stuck, the old wood having swollen and dried and grown comfortably closed. She opened the cabinet above and saw stacked plain bowls, cups, small milk glasses. The percolator with its weathered cord stuck in a corner. William had hit her with it, slammed it into her wrist, the burn marks another remnant from her youth. Loretta shut the cabinet door.

The drawer gave way the second time she tugged at it. Inside was a black Bic pen beside a blue one. Near three rubber bands. Behind, she found what she wanted. The ledger. The accounting log in which William had itemized what she’d cost them: baby food, toddler clothes, meals, so many meals, soap, a puffy jacket, a used backpack.

Loretta took quiet steps to the pot belly stove. Mama’s place. To the old chair where Mama rested her feet and instructed residents to “get that pot clean or else.” Mama’s tired pink-green-red checked apron slumped from a nail in the wall.

She hesitated. Her hand lifted to the scarf that covered the scar on her neck. She reached towards the apron. It felt wrong; intrusive. Like she was a child opening a mother’s purse. A space she wasn’t allowed to explore. Her hand slipped deep into the apron’s pockets. The rest of the buttons were there. Her mother had rescued them. She’d gathered them, stored them in her pocket. Had Mama saved those for her? Mama had parroted William always except here were the buttons. Loretta’s buttons. Maybe that was the best Mama could do.

She took a final glance towards the stairs, to the bedroom in which her neck hadn’t been given the chance to truly heal, through the kitchen where her father had ripped her white cotton blouse, where those buttons flew, where he’d flung her into a chair to sit near naked in her Sears catalogue bra. She was as unsure then as now of what grave sin she had committed.

But Mama had rescued those buttons.

 

Loretta stored her satchel on the backseat of the silver car. Left the ledger on the hood. Clarke pulled on work gloves, relieved to have something to do. He opened the trunk. Inside were six gas cans he’d filled at the Flying J near town.

“Don’t worry. I’ve got this,” he told her.

“I’ll do it, too. I need to,” she said. Loretta picked up a container.

“You sure?” Clarke asked in line behind the red canisters.

“Yep. Got to.”

“Okay. And then we are outta here.” He followed her lead. They trudged left then right pouring gas along the foundation of wood buildings so decrepit they might appreciate the cremation. They headed towards the office at the rear of the bunkhouse where residents used to cower and cry until forced to bend to William’s demands.

Loretta reached into her left pocket for the box of Diamond wood matches from the Family Market where they had stopped for supplies, bottles of water, and to-go coffees on the way to the ranch. Inside her right pocket, her fingers played with the small white buttons she’d rescued from her mother’s pink-green-red apron. Uncertainties reminisced sadly in her head. Mama might as well be standing in the kitchen doorway. A well-worn dish towel thrown over her shoulder, the incongruities of her mothering a garden of prickly thistles.

“Hey, you,” Clarke called from the path. Loretta remembered residents in wraparound denim skirts that fell below their knees, sweaters tied tight, cold hands shoved under their armpits for warmth. She saw herself sneaking to the bunkhouse in the dark, the girls huddled cross-legged on the floor around her, the trust when they listened to her warnings about wolves beyond the prairie, the joy when she stood with them at night and each chose their own star in the somber sky.   

She heard a series of clunks.

Clarke tossed the last gas cans into a vegetable bed.

“The task at hand,” Loretta said but didn’t move.

The darkness had not quite fully descended. Clarke wouldn’t hurry her.

“I can—”  

“I’m doin’ this part,” Loretta told him. She turned her eyes to his, gave him her tender smile tinged with her ingrained understanding that a person can only be happy if they’ve known pain.

“You okay?” he asked because it was important to him.

“I think so.” Being okay came in stages for her. At any given moment Loretta felt assured. The next as if the whites of William’s eyes leered near hers, a tree limb in his hand ready to slam into her body.

“You don’t have to be.”

“I know. Thanks for reminding me. Except,” she stared into the distance, towards the highest mountaintop barely visible, such a beckoning spirit in the almost night sky, “this is important.”

“Yes, it is.”

“My devoir. You know?”

Their eyes roamed west to east, surveyed the dilapidated remains of the ranch that had never thrived.

“Something that must be acted upon. I know.”

“No choice,” she said. “Gotta be done.”

Loretta grabbed the ledger and walked closer to the house. Her hair a precious mess from the earlier breeze. Dirt stuck to her heels. The prairie quiet.

“Best time for a fire,” she announced.

She inhaled deep. Felt both weak and as strong as the mythological warrior she’d envied as a teen who’d said that women have a single choice—to conquer or die. The voice of William returned. The mean large man who ripped open her white blouse and accused “you some kind of whore?” his wet breath spewing onto her face. At this moment, on the land where she’d been born, tears creeked down her face and trickled into the pretty bronze and gold scarf that covered the rarely exposed, never properly healed scar that zigzagged across her neck.

“It’s over,” she told the big sky above. “I’m done here. You don’t own me.”

Loretta pulled out a match. Yet didn’t move. Saw Mama at the kitchen door.

If only William hadn’t signaled mean Bull. William’s lead dog, the Rottweiler whose growl was a crescendo of fierceness. Bull had leapt at Loretta, his teeth ready to dig into her skin. She had not meant to shoot. Did not want to hear the far too simple-frightening-horrible pop a rifle makes, the sound so quick it is impossible to gauge the maiming nor anticipate the shrewd killingness contained within one bullet.

“Pop!” Followed by a small “whoosh.”

“Pop!” Which did no justice to the ammunition’s ability to do harm.

“Pop,” and “whoosh!”

Over before begun.

She saw Mama’s face. Her sagging eyes wider than ever. Blood streamed onto the porch stairs. Mama grabbed the railing. More blood. A stagger.

“Run, Loretta,” littlest resident Crystal yelled.

“Go Loretta girl, go,” her best friend Elsie screamed.

But Loretta didn’t run. She lowered the rifle. Set it on the ground. Watched her mother. Blood gushed from her thigh. Mama teetered before she fell. The towel slumped off her shoulder. Mama waved her arm same as batting away a gnat. Her eyes caught Loretta’s and her mouth muttered, “Go.”

Many years past since that word had stumbled from her mother’s mouth. Not quite audible however easy enough for a daughter to understand. Her mother muttered or did she yell, “Go.”

“Don’t try it,” William shouted. Him always the presence that overpowered. The man who thought he owned her. “I’ll get you girl, you know I will.”

Loretta caught his words, a hard bash to her chest, his cold eyes as powerful as the rifle.

“Go Loretta girl, go,” Elsie screamed from within his grasp. He’d tightened his grip on her friend. Elsie leaned far forward as a bound girl was able.

Loretta’s gaze remained on Mama who had muttered, “Go.”

She ran.

 

Loretta lit the Diamond match. Held it in the air. A small golden flame in the almost night of day. She threw it at William and Mama’s house. Fire leapt and soared. She lit another and tossed it into a vegetable bed, the one with the nail, where she’d stomped her boot on the wood, so sure-footed she’d not heard William’s approach that awful night so long ago. Into the fire went the ledger he’d kept. Next, she ripped off the scarf that hid the scar he’d caused. Flung it into the wood bed and watched the fire coil its edges until the scarf shriveled and was gone.

“Loretta—” Clarke called to her.

She needed another minute. She had to see the house, the bunny hutches, and the vegetable beds burn. And finally, the bunkhouse. The prison where girls were sent to live. Where their families left them to learn how very sinnerly they were.

“They were not,” she called out. “They were not sinners. Not them. Not me. Not any of us.”

Flames jostled begging her eyes’ attention.

“I know.” Loretta paused to watch the fire shudder and drift. The hint of her mother’s love her inheritance. “I know this is the real beginning.”

The horizon line was no longer beyond her reach. Soon, the instant would come when the setting sun bid goodnight to earth.

“Look!” She pointed to the darkening sky.

Clarke stood next to her.

“It’s Venus. The evening star.” Loretta began to whistle, something he had never before heard her do.

“I see it,” he said.

“That one’s mine,” she announced. The treaty of her past, present, and future at last ratified.

“Of course.”

“They’re coming.” Loretta heard the sirens of the fire brigade approaching. She scanned the nearby road.

“It was set. They’ll handle it,” Clarke told her.

“And—” Loretta said, sweating, knowing she’d found some semblance of relief.

“And what?”

Loretta lodged her eyes on the beyond, the nothingness.

“A new prairie will grow.”

 

BIO

Marcia Bradley, MFA, Sarah Lawrence College, 2017, writes fiction and creative nonfiction. In 2019, she received a Bronx Council on the Arts/BRIO award for fiction for her story Englewood set on the South Side of Chicago near where she grew up. The story explores how mothers survive violence in their lives. Marcia began writing about Englewood thanks to the mentorship of Professor E. Frankel while studying literature at Antioch University in Los Angles. This became her thesis in graduate studies at Sarah Lawrence where the celebrated and generous author Joan Silber was her adviser. A piece from her current novel-in-progress, Wayward, was chosen to be performed by the FAU Theatre Lab.

She has been published in Drunk Monkeys Literature + Film, Electica, Two Hawks Quarterly Magazine, in Hippocampus Magazine, received an honorable mention from Glimmer Train, and her memoir essay about her brother was published in The Capital Gazette. Marcia has attended writing conferences and retreats including Community of Writers, Writers in Paradise at Eckerd College, and a residency at Ragdale in Lake Forest, Illinois.

Marcia teaches the art of writing novels and memoirs as a member of the faculty of The Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College. She also teaches in a creative writing program for New York area high school students sponsored by Sarah Lawrence College, the Yonkers School District, and the Greater New York Chapter of the Fulbright Association. Marcia has two incredible daughters and lives in the Bronx. She is completing her novel about women, social justice, and the right to seek freedom no matter the cost.

Marcia is available for book and manuscript developmental editing, private teaching, seminars, and talks about the craft of good writing.



TOM TURKEY

by Justin Meckes



Nov. 21

          Martin Reinhold was stoking the flames inside his brick fireplace when he heard a knock at the front door. The dark-haired, middle-aged man listened briefly, waiting to see if anyone else was going to answer it. When he heard nothing but the crackle and pop of the flames before him, he sighed and put the iron poker back on the stand.

            Martin was greeted by his mother, who was holding her arms out, exclaiming, “Oh, Martin!”

            “Hi, Mom.”

            Grandma Reinhold was an older woman with hair dyed so black that it ceased to reflect light. She was wearing a velveteen tracksuit—this one was fuchsia with white piping—and a jacket with a faux fur lining. Her husband was a spry gentleman with a full head of salt and pepper hair that his son was destined to inherit.

            The older man removed his beige Member’s Only jacket, saying, “Did you know the house next door is for sale, son?”

            “I did,” answered Martin as he took the coat. “Scott got a new job.”

            “Where?”

            “Florida.”

            Martin began wheeling his parent’s luggage into the foyer.

            “We should move to Florida, Henry,” said Grandma Reinhold. She had already entered the living room but turned to gauge her husband’s response.

            Grandpa Reinhold had learned to tune out his spouse’s nonsensical whims long ago, but this time there was a legitimate reason. He was sniffing the air like a canine, pausing, then sniffing at it again, saying, “Is something burning?”

            Martin narrowed his eyes. “Burning?”

            “Are you cooking something?” asked Grandma Reinhold as she fluffed the hair on the back of her head, which the headrest of a Buick Regal had flattened during a nine-hour drive.

            “No,” answered Martin just before smoke began rising from the living room’s oriental rug. Eking out a small yelp, Martin darted toward the fireplace only to find a small blaze. Taking what was readily available—specifically, his father’s Member’s Only jacket—the middle-aged man attempted to beat the fire back by flogging it with the coat.

            Grandpa Reinhold yelled, “Hey, that’s my jacket!”

            Martin didn’t respond because he’d succeeded in only fanning the flames into a full-on conflagration. When Martin’s wife Cheryl came down the stairs to learn what the commotion was about, she exclaimed, “Oh my God!”

            Grandma Reinhold waved and said, “Hi, dear.”

            Cheryl ignored her mother-in-law and hurried to the kitchen as the smoke detector started blaring.

            As Martin was working doggedly to smother the flames, the rug and part of his arm were splashed with water. He turned to see Cheryl standing behind him with an empty mop bucket. The short, dark-haired woman was wearing workout gear and a sweatshirt. She used one hand to tuck her hair behind an ear before saying, “What the hell is going on down here?”

            While Martin got to his feet, Grandpa Reinhold bent down and took ahold of his coat. “Would you just look at this? Ruined. Absolutely ruined.”

            “What happened?” Cheryl continued.

            “I don’t know,” said Martin.

            Cheryl rolled her eyes as she moved away, saying, “I liked that rug.”

            Calling after her, Martin’s mother said, “It was nice, wasn’t it?” Then she glanced into the fireplace and commented to Martin, saying, “The fire’s nice too. Did you build it for us?”

            Martin ignored her and looked down at his wet sleeve. “I’m gonna go change my shirt.”

            “She splashed you pretty good, didn’t she?” said Grandpa Reinhold, chortling as his son made his way to the stairs.

            Grandma Reinhold muttered, “Well, he was in the way.”

            After Martin walked past his daughter’s room, he stopped, took a step back, and knocked. “Your grandparents are here, Sarah.” The teenager was still upset at her father because he hadn’t let her go out; instead, he’d forced her to be present when his parent’s arrived.

            So, there was no response.

            Martin crossed the hall and knocked on another door. “Will? Your grandparents are here.”

            “All right!”

            The eight-year-old threw open his door and blew past his father.

            Martin watched his son hurry downstairs, shouting, “Grandma! Grandpa!”

            Smiling to himself, Martin continued making his way to the master bedroom. He unbuttoned his damp flannel shirt while looking for another one to put on. He chose a short-sleeve Oxford and a sweater that paired just as well with his khakis. Martin’s casual attire was about as stylish as the gray suits that had become so much a part of his routine at the accounting firm where he spent fifty hours per week, crunching numbers and poring over tax documents.

            He was already dreading Monday morning, but, at least, this was a holiday week.

            After changing, Martin made his way back downstairs, where he stood alongside his frowning father, who was surveying the damage to the rug.

            Turning to his dad, he said, “So, how was the trip?”

            “Traffic was hell,” answered Grandpa Reinhold as he began moving toward the kitchen. “And my tuchus is killing me.”

            Sitting at the bar, Will started to giggle, having heard his grandfather say tuchus.

            Martin noted that Cheryl had already poured his mother a glass of wine as he said, “Sarah should be downstairs any minute.” Stepping back toward the living room, he cried out, “Sarah! Your grandparents would like to see you!”

            A few minutes later, he and everyone else heard a door open and then slammed shut. A young woman with a brown ponytail and jeans that were too tight—at least, in her father’s estimation—hurried down the steps before rounding the corner to find everyone waiting. She put on a smile when she entered the room, then said, “Hi, Grandma! Grandpa!”

            She hugged them both.

            After that, she turned to her father and said, “Can I go out, now?”

Nov. 22

            Cheryl was usually in a bad mood when his parents were in town, so Martin left for the office early. And whereas he wasn’t sure why his wife and his parents didn’t get along, he felt it was their problem. The grumpy middle-aged man was searching through the local radio stations as he drove. When he came upon one playing a Christmas tune, he stopped. Isn’t it a little early for Christmas songs? Martin shook his head as he slowed in front of a stoplight. Christmas seemed to be starting earlier and earlier each year, and it was beyond him as to why.

            Furrowing his brow, Martin considered the fact that Christmas had even begun to encroach on Halloween. The middle-aged man sighed, thinking that the older his children became, the more and more Dec. 25th had started to feel like any other day. At least with Thanksgiving, he could gorge on food and not catch flack for it. At the dinner table, recently, Cheryl had begun asking if he hadn’t had enough or even tried reminding him that he was trying to lose weight. God, he hated that. Martin had what he thought was an appropriate amount of love handles and tummy for a man his age—no matter what she or anyone else had to say about it. And maybe, just maybe, he would exercise more if he was rewarded with a bit of coitus from time to time. Did you ever think of that, honey? And yes, he meant it that formally. It wasn’t sex anymore—not with Cheryl. It had become something… well, mechanical—when it happened at all.

             Sitting at a red light, Martin mouthed the words, “Aren’t you trying to lose a little weight?”

            After rolling his eyes, he looked over at the car beside him: A big woman and an older man with a bristly gray mustache were staring back at him, so he pretended he was on the phone and kept talking to himself until the light turned green, and he put his foot to the floor.

#

            Once inside his building, Martin nodded at a ponderous security guard before making his way to the elevator, and then up to his floor. If he were the first to arrive at the offices of Gruber & McClane, he’d have a chance to make the coffee in the break room, which was his preference since it often tasted like little more than dishwater when one of his coworkers prepared it. Unfortunately, this morning, when Martin turned the corner into the kitchenette, he found Jim spooning grounds into a filter. Jim was a stout, older man with a bald spot, a fondness for bowties—today’s, was a very dapper red and navy stripe—and not the slightest clue how to make a decent cup of coffee.

            Martin sunk briefly before noticing that someone had hung a cartoon turkey on the refrigerator. Entering the break room with his briefcase in hand, he said, “At least we’re on the right holiday around here.”

            Startled, Jim turned swiftly. “Oh, hey, Martin.”       

            Martin pointed at the fridge. “I heard Christmas music on the radio on the way in. Can you believe that?”

            Jim glanced over at the clipart turkey as Martin reached for a mug, saying, “Let me ask you something: When was the last time you got anything you actually wanted for Christmas?”

            Chuckling, Chuck said, “That might be too big of a question for this early in the morning. What I actually wanted? Geez… Do any of us know what we actually want? I mean, I haven’t even had my first cup of coffee yet.” Reaching for the pot, Jim poured some dishwater into a mug he’d already filled halfway with creamer.

            Seeing just how weak the so-called coffee was, Martin decided to put his cup back in the cabinet before taking a seat at a nearby table. “I didn’t mean it philosophically, Jim. I meant what have you gotten that you really wanted—as in another dive trip instead of a 6-pack of crew length socks.”

           “Well,” said Jim as he sipped dishwater from a mug. “Patty and I buy all of our own Christmas gifts.”

           Martin appeared incredulous. “How’d you finagle that?”

            Jim pulled out a chair and took a seat, saying, “We’ve been doing it for years. I buy what I want. She buys what she wants. Then we wrap ‘em up for one another.”

            “That’s genius.”

            “I know.”

            “You didn’t come up with it, did you?”

            “Technically, Patty did. And I think she was like you—tired of getting socks.”

            “You gave your wife socks for Christmas?”

            Jim shrugged. “They were made of alpaca wool.”

            Martin crossed his legs as another coworker walked into the kitchenette. She was a petite, blonde-haired woman with a bob haircut, wearing a dark pantsuit.

            “Good morning, gentleman.”

            Martin nodded as Jim continued, saying, “What are you doing for Thanksgiving, Maggie?”

            Maggie sighed. “Oh, well, apparently, I’m one of those idiots who travels the day before Thanksgiving.”

            “Wow,” said Martin.

            “I know. I know, but it’s for my parents, and I’m saving my days off.”

            “For what?” asked Jim as he sipped his coffee.

            “I don’t know. I’m thinking of going somewhere this summer.”

            Martin furrowed his brow. “Where?”

            “Iceland? Greenland? Some land,” said Maggie as she poured coffee into her mug.

            “Well, aren’t you the adventurous one,” said Jim.

            “I didn’t say I’d booked the ticket yet,” said Maggie. Then she turned and said, “Oh, look! Somebody hung a turkey on the fridge. Isn’t that nice?”

            “It’ll look a whole lot better on my plate come Thursday,” quipped Jim.

            After taking a sip of her coffee, Maggie made a face. “Ugh. Who the hell made this swill?”

            Martin pointed at Jim.

#

            As Martin approached the front door, he noticed a realtor walking out of his neighbor’s house alongside a young couple. A little girl of three or four was holding her mother’s hand. The scene made Martin feel a little nostalgic. Sarah had been about that age when he and Cheryl had bought their home, and it—well, it seemed like yesterday. Now, she was all grown up and applying to college, early admission, with a good chance of getting into some top-notch schools, which was going to cost him an absolute fortune. Watching the child being loaded into a silver minivan, Martin recalled that at one time, he’d been Sarah’s favorite person in the world and that Cheryl had been jealous. He’d, ultimately, been able to assure his wife that Sarah loved them equally, which was true even if he was the definitive favorite.

            Martin walked inside the house only to be welcomed by his wife’s shouting. She and their son were having it out upstairs. Meanwhile, his parents were sitting quietly in the living room. His mother was reading a magazine as his father watched ESPN.

            Still in the foyer, Martin cried out, “Hey! What’s going on up there?”

            Cheryl came downstairs a moment later, saying, “I’m sick and tired of telling him to clean that room.”

            Martin shook his head and put his hands on his wife’s shoulders, saying, “I keep telling you to let it go. When he moves out, we can demolish the entire second floor and then renovate it like on one of those shows you like.”

            “Haha,” said Cheryl. “But this is not a joke.” Then over her shoulder, as she walked away, she added, “And you’re late.”

            “I got caught up on the Duncan account,” Martin explained as he followed her, waving at his parents along the way.

            Grandpa Reinhold nodded as he stared at the screen while his wife continued flipping through the pages of her magazine before taking another sip of wine.

            In the kitchen, Cheryl started to work on dinner. “I don’t know why you can’t take the week off.”

            “You didn’t,” said Martin as he began removing his suit jacket.

            “I’m taking Wednesday.”

            “That’s not the whole week.”

            As she pulled a pot out of a cabinet, Cheryl shook her head. “Let’s not do this right now, okay?”

            Martin leaned on the counter. “Okay, but I think it’s a good sign that I have to work late. I’m getting more responsibility. I told you about that account, didn’t I?”

            Rifling through a cabinet, Cheryl said, “You did.”   

            “So, I’m thinking they might make me partner.”

            “Which is what you said last year, and look at what happened.”

            Loosening his tie, Martin sighed and said, “I know, but this is different. I can feel it.”

            Cheryl stopped filling the pot. “You don’t feel a promotion. You ask for one, Martin. Or a raise, for that matter. You could use one of those too.”

            Martin nodded. “I’ll get my bonus this year. And it should be pretty hefty.”

            “We’ll see.”

            “Hey, what’s the matter?”

            “Nothing.”

            “Nothing?”

            She glanced toward the living room, lowered her voice, and said, “I’ve been home half an hour, and your mother is already driving me out of my mind.”

            “What’d she do?”

            Cheryl mouthed her next statement. “Keep your voice down.”

            Whispering, Martin said, “Okay. What’d she do?”

            “She suggested we make Thanksgiving dinner, but I’ve already reserved a meal from Whole Foods.”

            Martin looked over his shoulder. “Mom wants to cook?”

            Continuing to fill her pot with water, Cheryl said, “She wants all of us to pitch in, but, honestly, do you really want your Mom cooking anything?”

            Martin shrugged. “Maybe if we’re having something with wine as an ingredient.”

            Cheryl gave her husband a look.

            Martin moved toward the doorway to the living room. From there, he could see that his mother was reading a cooking magazine.

            “Oh no.”

            “What?” asked Cheryl with her voice still lowered.

            “She’s going through a phase.”

            “A phase?”

            “Yes,” said Martin, stepping closer. “You know, she gets hooked on things. She must be on cooking right now.”

            “She said she has a pumpkin pie recipe.”

            Martin shook his head. “No. Under no circumstances can she make the pumpkin pie. That’s my favorite part of Thanksgiving dinner.”

            “Then you talk to her.”

            Martin closed his eyes briefly before starting toward the next room. Standing over his mother, he said, “So, Mom, I see you’re reading a cooking magazine. Have you been getting into cooking lately?”

            “Has she ever,” said Grandpa Reinhold as he straightened in his chair and looked away from the television. “She made a chicken last week that was the juiciest thing I’ve ever tasted.”

            “Really?” said Martin.

            “Oh, it was beginner’s luck,” said Grandma Reinhold as she gazed up at her son.

            Martin noticed that his wife was leaning against the door jam behind him. Then, turning back toward his mother, he also saw that his father was shaking his head and giving the thumbs down while his wife wasn’t looking.

            “Well,” he said, “that sounds great, but why don’t we leave the Thanksgiving dinner to professionals this year.”

            “Oh, come on, Martin,” said Grandma Reinhold. “How hard can it be?”

            “Yeah,” said Grandpa Reinhold. “I’d just love a homemade Thanksgiving dinner. And if the turkey turns out dry, so what? Turkeys are always dry as hell, anyway.”

            “Well, it’s a lot of work,” said Martin. “And we reserved a pre-made meal from Whole Foods.”  

            “Hosh-posh,” said Grandpa Reinhold. “Let’s make it a family thing. I’ll whip up some of my famous mashed potatoes.”

            “You’ll make your mashed potatoes?” asked Martin. “With the parsnips?”

            “Of course,” said Grandpa Reinhold.

            Martin looked back at Cheryl. Shrugging, he said, “Well, it sounds like it could be fun.”

            Cheryl returned to the kitchen, sighing out of exasperation as she went. Martin followed her.

            “Honey,” he said, “it’s what they want to do. I mean, let’s face it. They don’t have that many Thanksgivings left.”

            Cheryl stirred the rice on the stove. “Martin, your father just doesn’t want to be the bad guy. And, apparently, neither do you, which means I’ll be doing all of the cooking.”

            “I’ll help,” offered Martin.

            “Your cooking’s worse than your mother’s.”

            Martin leaned against the kitchen counter. “Well, what do you want me to do? They were probably expecting a homemade meal because that’s what Helen did last year—at her place.”

            “I don’t care what your sister did. We have a meal reserved.”

            “How about this?” he said. “I’ll cook. I’ll run the show, and you won’t have to worry about a thing.”

            Cheryl turned toward him. “You can’t cook.”

            Martin stepped toward his wife and took hold of both shoulders again before saying, “That’s what the Internet’s for. I’ll learn how to cook a turkey. As for everything else, I think I can handle a can of cranberries, some green beans, and toasting a few rolls, don’t you?”

            Cheryl sighed, then said, “Just don’t burn the house down… like you almost did last night.”

            As Martin stepped away, he said, “Don’t worry, that was a one-time thing.”

Nov. 23

            “So, let me get this straight,” said Jim, chuckling to himself. “You’re cooking Thanksgiving dinner?”

            “Yeah,” said Martin as he sipped his coffee.

            Maggie stood in the break room, pouring hers. “You’re in for a real treat, my friend.”

            “Come on,” said Martin. “How hard can it be?”

            “How many people?” asked Jim.

            “Nine.”

            “Nine!” exclaimed Jim before shaking his head.

            “It’s not that big of a deal. I’m sure my sister will help. She cooked last year.” Facing two unconvinced coworkers, he continued, “Okay. I might be in a little over my head. But what do you know about cooking, anyway, Jim?”

            “I happen to know my way around the kitchen, Martin.”

            “Ooh, big talk,” said Maggie as she sipped her coffee.

            Jim shot her a look. “I’ll have you know I have a set of chef-quality knives at home.”

            “I’m surprised you haven’t cut a finger off,” continued Maggie, taunting him.

            “I almost did when I first got ‘em.” Jim pointed at the scar on his forefinger before adding, “All the best chefs have scars.”

            Maggie rolled her eyes, then looked at Martin and said, “We’re just giving you a hard time. I’m sure it’ll be fine.”

            “Speak for yourself,” said Jim. “I think it’s going to be a shitshow.”

            “The important thing is that the family is together,” said Martin.

            Jim and Maggie both laughed before Maggie left the room. Jim followed, saying, “Gobble, gobble!”

#

            Life was carrying on as usual in the Reinhold house that evening. Martin’s daughter was out with her boyfriend, who had now been invited to Thanksgiving dinner, which made 10. (But Martin didn’t think this would cause too much of a problem. Cooking for ten couldn’t be much different than nine.) Will was upstairs playing video games, and Cheryl was starting dinner. The only thing remotely out of the ordinary was his parents. They’d become fixtures in the living room—his mother boozing it up and his father watching SportsCenter.

            It certainly seemed like the holidays.

            After taking a seat on the couch, Martin turned to his mother and said, “So, how was your day, Mom?”  

            “Same as any other day.”

            “We went for a walk around the neighborhood,” added Grandpa Reinhold. Then, without taking his eye off the television, he said, “How was work?”

            Martin said, “Same as any other day, I guess.”

            Grandma Reinhold humphed.

            Then Martin asked, “What time are Helen and Bill getting here tomorrow?”

            “They’re flight comes in at 3,” answered Grandpa Reinhold, “but they probably won’t be here ’til about 4.”

            “And you’ll still be at work?” Grandma Reinhold asked.

            Nodding, Martin said, “I’ll be at work, but I’ll get home as fast as I can.”

            Grandpa Reinhold shook his head as he watched a replay on SportsCenter. “Can you believe that catch?”

            Ignoring his father, Martin turned to his mother and continued, saying, “I have Thursday and Friday off.”

            “I’m surprised you’re not working Friday,” said Grandpa Reinhold, whose eyes remained glued to the screen. “I would if I could. This place is gonna be a looney bin.”        

            Martin was smiling as he entered the kitchen. “Can I help with anything, dear?”

            Cheryl looked up at him. “It’s almost finished.”

            Martin nodded. “We should order out tomorrow night when Helen and Bill get in. What do you think?”

            “Sure.”

            Martin tried to embrace his wife, but she sidestepped him and went to the fridge, where she took out a can of Parmesan cheese.

            “Spaghetti again, huh?” said Martin as he shoved his hands in his pockets.

            Cheryl, who was still wearing the navy dress pants and cream-colored blouse she’d worn to show a house earlier that afternoon, closed the refrigerator door, saying, “It’s Will’s favorite.”

#

            Later that evening, Martin cuddled up next to his wife. After nuzzling her ear, he kissed her on the cheek.

            “What are you doing?”

            “What do you think I’m doing?”

            Cheryl groaned. “I’m tired, Martin. And your parents are here.”

            “They’re downstairs. And it’s not like we’re gonna get that loud.”

            “No,” she said flatly, “we’re not.”

            “Hey, what’s the matter?” asked Martin as he sat up on his elbow.

            “Do we have to talk about this right now?” asked Cheryl as she rolled over to face him.

            “Why not? We hardly ever talk.”

            Cheryl sighed in the dark. “I’m just not in the mood.”

            “I could put on some music.”

            “That’s not—I have a headache,” said Cheryl before rolling back over.

            Martin bit his lip, then decided to climb out of bed and maunder downstairs. After rummaging around in the freezer, he found a box of ice cream sandwiches. Sitting in a dark living room, wearing his boxers and an undershirt, Martin took a bite of his ice cream.

            A few moments later, he heard someone coming down the steps. Peering through the darkness, he said, “Will?”

            The boy screamed as Martin reached for a lamp and turned it on.

            Will looked at his father  and said, “You scared me.”

           Grandpa Reinhold entered the living room a moment later, tying his robe. His wife was behind him with an eyeshade on top of her head. Martin’s father said, “What the hell’s going on out here?”

            “I scared Will,” Martin explained.

            “What are you doing down here, Dad?”

            Martin took another bite before saying, “Eating ice cream.”

            As Grandma Reinhold turned around and started back toward the bedroom, Grandpa Reinhold said, “Ooh. I could go for a midnight snack.”

            “Me too,” said Will.

            By the time Grandpa Reinhold returned to the living room, Sarah was coming down the steps in an oversized t-shirt and shorts. “What are you guys doing down here?”

            “We’re having ice cream,” said Grandpa Reinhold cheerfully.

            From the foot of the steps, she said, “Is there any left?”

            “I got ya’,” said Grandpa Reinhold as he spun back around, heading toward the kitchen.

            When his father returned, Martin said, “Let’s just try to keep it down. Your mother has a headache.”

Nov. 24

            There weren’t many people in the office on Wednesday, so Martin could work without distractions. He was so efficient that by the time 3:30 p.m. rolled around, he’d started to think he could make it home in time to welcome his sister and her family. After shutting his computer down and packing his things, Martin began making his way out of the sparsely populated office building. He was near the front desk when he ran into Mr. Gruber—a firm namesake and a shifty miser with a penchant for country clubs and luxury sedans.

            “Mr. Gruber,” said Martin, who attempted to hide the fact that he was leaving by not so subtly shifting his briefcase behind his back.

            “Finegold. How are you?” said Mr. Gruber in his raspy, croaking voice.

            As the older man appraised Martin, he said, “It’s actually Reinhold, sir.”   

            Mr. Gruber narrowed his beady little eyes, saying, “Yes, of course. Isn’t that what I said?”

            “I think you said, ‘Finegold,’ sir.”

            “Oh yes,” said Mr. Gruber, who began picking at a piece of lint on his pinstriped suit. “I must’ve gotten you confused with our associate Martin Finegold.”

            “You must have,” said Martin, grimacing as he looked toward the parking lot. He was just so close to freedom.

            “So, are you planning a big Thanksgiving this year? What did you say your name was again?”

            “Martin.”

            Mr. Gruber made a face, “Well then, Martin, are you planning a big Thanksgiving?”

            “Oh, yes, sir.”

            “Humph,” said Mr. Gruber, nodding. “Then let me ask you something else: Do you like turkey?”

            “Not particularly, sir.”

            The older man nodded again. “I don’t know many who do, but we eat it every year, don’t we? What does that say about us?”

            Martin shrugged. “That we enjoy traditions?”

            “No, it says we’re as foolish as the stupid, timid birds we devour. Tell me, can a tom turkey learn or plan for the future? Can he?”

            “If he could, he might plan an escape sometime before Thanksgiving,” said Martin.

            Mr. Gruber looked at Martin and laughed. “Very good. Yes, he would make a break for it, wouldn’t he?”

            Martin nodded.

            “But he can’t!” exclaimed Mr. Gruber suddenly, which caused Martin to stiffen. “He can only be led to slaughter.”

            Martin swallowed.

            “And so it will be,” said Mr. Gruber, menacingly.

            “Are you having turkey for Thanksgiving this year, Mr. Gruber?”

            “Yes, I am. I believe my wife is having our meal catered from Whole Foods.”

            “Is that right?”

            “Well, you have a nice Thanksgiving, Finegold.”

            “Thank you, sir,” said Martin before he exited the building through the double doors.

#

            Martin pulled into the driveway just after 4 p.m., but his sister and her family had yet to arrive. Grandpa Reinhold informed him that their flight had been delayed. So, Helen, a plump woman with red hair, her rail-thin husband Bill, and their young daughter didn’t arrive until a little after 8 p.m. that evening.

            After taking just a few steps into the house, Martin’s sister dropped her suitcase and cried out, “Oh my God! We finally made it!” Looking to Martin, she added, “Why does everyone travel the day before Thanksgiving?”

            Bill was a balding man with gold-rimmed glasses in a navy mock turtleneck. He said, “Do you have anything to drink, Martin? Preferably something stiff.”

            “Sure, Bill. I’ll make us both a drink.”

            Martin escorted his family into the living room and then went to get his sister a glass of wine. He planned to join Bill with a tumbler of bourbon for himself. Grandpa Reinhold was cuddled up on the couch next to his granddaughter, Jessica. With the young girl beaming as she looked up to him, he said, “So, how was the flight for you, dear?”

            “Long,” answered the red-headed six-year-old.

            “So I hear.”

            Helen leaned over and hugged her father next. “Hey, Dad. Where’s Mom?”

            “She’s freshening up.”

            Grandpa Reinhold stood and shook Bill’s hand as Cheryl emerged from the kitchen. She hugged Helen, saying, “You three must be starving. We took the liberty of ordering some Indian food. We’ve eaten, but there’s plenty left.”

            “That sounds perfect,” said Helen, “except that Indian food upsets Bill’s stomach.”

            “Guilty,” cried Bill as he held up a hand.

            “Oh no,” said Cheryl.

            “I’d make a terrible Indian,” joked Bill as he entered the kitchen, sipping his bourbon.

            “What do you mean?” asked Cheryl as she went into the pantry.

            “Because I can’t eat Indian food.”

            “Oh,” said Cheryl. “Well, I’m sure we can find something else in here.”

            Martin knocked his bourbon before saying, “I guess it’s a good thing the Indians at Thanksgiving weren’t India Indians.”

            “Columbus thought they were,” said Bill haughtily. “But speaking of sensitivities, I’ve also developed a slight allergy to wheat.”

            “It might be gluten,” added Helen as she busied herself with the food.

            As he began pouring himself a second drink, Martin said, “We’re going to be having cornbread for Thanksgiving dinner. Will you be able to eat that?”

            “I should,” said Bill. “But if we could have the stuffing on the side, that would be great.”

            “Sure,” said Martin, who began calculating how much more complicated a food allergy would make his meal prep. “No problem.”

Nov. 25

            Thanksgiving morning, Martin was up before six o’clock, making a game plan for the day. The first thing on his list was cubing bread for the stuffing. After that, he started chopping vegetables for salads and sides. He was moving right along to the cranberry sauce when Cheryl entered the kitchen, took a look around, and said, “Wow. It looks like you’re really on top of things in here.” Then she narrowed her eyes and said, “Is that my apron?”

            Martin glanced down at the flower-patterned apron around his waist. “Is that okay?”

            “You know, it doesn’t look that bad on you. A little small, but other than that…”

            Martin ignored the comment and continued working, saying, “The turkey’s thawed, right?”

            “I think it’s had enough time,” answered Cheryl. “We bought it on Monday.”

            “That’s three days,” said Martin. “It should be fine.”

            Cheryl leaned on the counter next. “Do you want any help?”

            “Honestly,” said Martin, looking up from the cutting board. “Mom’s going to be in here soon making pie. And Dad’s going to be making his mashed potatoes. So, I think we’ll already have one or two too many cooks in the kitchen—especially for one this size.” Martin glanced over his shoulder at a space that was no more than 10’x10’ in size.

            “Okay,” said Cheryl. “Well, you know where to find me.”

            “Thanks, but I won’t need help,” said Martin confidently. “It’s cooking, not rocket science.”

            Before Cheryl left the room, she said, “Considering the fact that you’re neither a chef nor a rocket scientist, I’m not exactly sure how to take that.”

            Martin smirked as his mother appeared, wearing a purple muumuu. She went straight for the refrigerator, saying, “Everyone stand back!
Grandmama’s making pies.” The older woman stopped with the door open, adding, almost to herself, “But first things first, I need a little wine with my cooking.”

            “It’s eight o’clock in the morning,” said Martin as he began opening a second can of cranberry sauce.

            “I’m sure that doesn’t stop Martha Stewart,” said Grandma Reinhold. “Especially on a holiday.”

            Martin shook his head as his mother poured herself a glass of Chardonnay and stole his can opener so she could get to work on the cans of pumpkin filling.

            Next on Martin’s list was the stuffing.

            He worked alongside his mother in the kitchen, reading the recipe off of a tablet. There were several tabs open at once with various recipes as he’d also set to work on his green bean and sweet potato casseroles. Martin placed the sweet potatoes in the microwave, then put the turkey in the oven. After that, he looked around briefly and wiped his hands on his wife’s apron, thinking to himself that things were going remarkably well.

            Grandpa Reinhold entered the room a little while later, saying, “Is there room for a little potato peeling?”

            Martin pointed to the sink. “That area is all yours. And I’ve already started peeling.”

            “Oh wow. Thanks, son.”

            Meanwhile, Martin was at work on a butternut squash soup. The corn shucking was to come after that.

While he was working, Helen snuck into the kitchen, saying, “How’s it going?”

            “Good,” said Martin, nodding.

            “Well, do you think there’s any room for me in here? I wanted to surprise Bill with some gluten-free stuffing.”

            “Oh,” said Martin. “I don’t think we—“

            “Great,” said Helen, interrupting him. “I brought everything I need.”

            Just after Helen entered the kitchen holding a few grocery bags, Sarah rushed in, jumping up and down and saying, “Dad! Dad, I need to talk to you like, right now.”

            Cheryl stepped into the room behind her daughter, leaning against the door jam with her arms crossed.

            Martin looked up from the corn he was shucking and said, “I’m a little busy right now, Sarah.” As he moved to trash a husk, he bumped into his father.

            “Watch it!” said Grandpa Reinhold. “I’m wielding a large knife here.”

            He held up the eight-inch blade.

            “Sorry about that.”

            “Dad,” whined Sarah.

            The young woman tucked her hair behind her ears and stepped closer.

            Martin leaned on the counter. “Okay, what is it?”

            “Jake invited me to spend Christmas in Vail with his family. Can I go? Please!”

            Martin took a moment to absorb the content of the question, then shook his head. “No, absolutely not.”

            “Why not?”

            “For one,” he said as he glanced at Cheryl, “we don’t know Jake’s parents.”

            “Dad, I’m 18 years old. This isn’t a spend the night party.”

            “She has a point there,” said Helen.

            Martin snapped at his sister. “You stay out of this.” Then he returned to Sarah, saying, “I wasn’t finished. Secondly, I want you here with us. It’s Christmas.”

            “Then can I go for New Year’s?”

            “How long are they staying there?”

            “Two weeks.”

            “No,” said Martin, “you should be here for New Year’s too. Right, Cheryl?”

            Cheryl said, “I said I thought it was okay if she wanted to join them after Christmas.”

            Martin narrowed his eyes and began shaking his head as he looked down at a carrot he was cutting. “Well, I don’t think—”      

            Grandpa Reinhold was sniffing the air again. “Do I smell smoke?”

            Martin spun on his heels.

            “The pies!” cried Grandpa Reinhold as he opened an oven door, and a plume of thick gray smoke billowed out.

            Grandma Reinhold was the last one to appear in the kitchen. When everyone looked at her, she took a sip of wine and said, “I guess they’re done.”

#

            Dinner was served at three o’clock in the afternoon. A cornucopia of turkey, bread stuffing, mashed potatoes, rich, creamy gravy, green bean casserole, corn, toasted dinner rolls, and cranberry sauce adorned a table covered in a linen tablecloth. Martin had planned to have dinner at two, but he counted it a success that everything had come together at approximately the same time. When he and Helen finished bringing the last of the food to the table, he took off his apron and yelled, “All right, everybody! Let’s eat!”

            Once the Reinholds, Helen’s family, and Jake were seated, Martin said, “Why don’t we start dinner by going around the table and saying what we’re thankful for? But let’s keep it short and sweet. I wouldn’t want any of this delicious food to get cold. Okay?” Everyone nodded or murmured in agreement as they gazed upon the glorious feast before them.

            “I’ll start,” said Martin. “I’m thankful for this wonderful meal that I have prepared for us on this wonderful Thanksgiving Day. Who knows? Maybe we’ve started a new tradition of me doing the cooking.”

            He raised his wine glass.

            “I helped, you know?” said Grandpa Reinhold.

            “Well,” said Martin as he winked at his son, who was sitting beside him. “You made some potatoes. It takes serious skill to roast a turkey.”

            Will was next. “I’m thankful for pumpkin pie!”

            When Grandma Reinhold heard this, she downed almost an entire glass of Chardonnay.

            Martin’s daughter went next. She looked at her boyfriend and said, “I’ll be thankful when my father changes his mind and lets me go skiing this Christmas.”

            Jake—a young man with dirty blonde hair parted on the side—followed this statement by saying, simply, “Um, thanks for inviting me. Everything looks great.”

            The Reinholds continued to go around the table this way until they came to Helen, who was the last to give her sentiment. She said, “I’m just thankful to be here with all of you, my wonderful family. You’ve been such a blessing in my life, and I can’t express how much I love you all. And on this Thanksgiving, I just hope that we all realize how much we have and how fortunate we are to have it. I mean, that’s what Thanksgiving is really about, isn’t it?”

            Everyone nodded as Martin stood to carve the turkey. Looking down at his sister, he muttered, “Did you rehearse that or something?”

            “I was speaking from the heart, Martin.”

            “Either that or those depression pills are finally kicking in,” said Grandma Reinhold before rolling her eyes.

            “Mother!” said Helen.

            “What? You don’t want everyone to know you’re taking happy pills?”

            “Mother, please!”

            Bill spoke up next. “That’s private medical information, Mom.”

            Grandma Reinhold smirked. “I just thought everyone should know she has a reason for being so thankful.”

            Still standing by the turkey, Martin said, “Well, we should all be so thankful. Anti-depressants or not.”

            Helen bristled, saying, “I have a seasonal mood disorder.”

            Grandpa Reinhold leaned forward. “A gray day can get anyone down.”

            “It’s a little more serious than that, Dad,” barked Helen.

            “Well, you can’t have it both ways, dear,” said Grandpa Reinhold before he started passing the green bean casserole.

            Will uncovered the rolls and cried out, “Hey, these are burned!”

            Martin put some dark meat on a plate, saying, “Scrape it off. A little char isn’t going to hurt you.”

            Will made a face but still took one of the rolls.

            Meanwhile, Cheryl took a bite of the green bean casserole and said, “Is this… cinnamon?”

            “Cinnamon?” asked Grandma Reinhold. “In the green bean casserole?”

            Stopping mid-cut on the turkey breast, Martin said, “What’s the problem?”

            Cheryl scanned the table. “Where’s the sweet potato casserole?”

            “It’s… Well, I think it’s—“

            Grandpa Reinhold passed the cranberry sauce, saying, “I saw some sweet potatoes in the microwave when I was reheating the mashed potatoes.”

            Bill offered his daughter a gluten-free dinner roll, saying, “Mom made plenty of mine if you’d prefer to have one of these.”

            Cheryl spoke across the table, saying, “You put the ingredients for the sweet potato casserole in the green bean casserole?” Moving a bean to the side, she said, “Is this a marshmallow?”

            Martin said, “I could have sworn—“

            Bill took a bite of stuffing as Helen said, “Bill! That’s not the gluten-free stuffing!”

            “Oh. Oh no,” said Bill before spitting a mouthful into his napkin.

            Meanwhile, Grandpa Reinhold was sipping a can of beer and clearing his throat, saying, “The turkey’s a little dry, isn’t it?”

            Looking toward Martin, Cheryl said, “Did you baste the turkey?”

            “Yes!” said Martin. “Of course I basted it.”

            “Not enough,” said Helen as she forced down another bite.

            “Really dry,” said Grandpa Reinhold as he coughed. “And this is the dark meat?”

            “I told him he needed to baste it,” Helen continued, leaning forward to make her comment clear to Cheryl, who was sitting at the other end of the table.

            “Henry!” cried Grandma Reinhold as she slapped her husband on the back.

            “Oh my God,” screamed Sarah. “Grandpa’s choking!”

            She stood to move around the table, but Martin was already on the way. After pulling his father out of his seat, he began performing the Heimlich. One thrust into the stomach, then another, and another until Grandpa Reinhold finally rocketed a wad of half-chewed turkey across the room.

            Sitting his father back down, Martin said, “Dad, are you okay?”

            “I’m fine. I’m fine, but I definitely thought I was a goner there for a second.” He made the statement reaching for his ribs.

            “Are you all right, Grandpa?” asked Jessica.

            “Yeah, I think so, dear.”

            As everyone returned to their seats, Martin turned and looked at his family. His daughter was texting; her plate pushed away. Her boyfriend was eating his meal but grimacing with each bite. Despite nearing a drunken stupor, Grandma Reinhold was pouring herself another glass of wine, opting for a liquid Thanksgiving. Helen had barely touched her plate, and like her father, it was starting to look like she had no intention of eating anything else.  

            It was no different for Martin’s wife.

            The accountant-turned-failed-chef had no choice but to suspect it was because they all felt like his son, who was making his cousin laugh by gagging and pointing at his green bean casserole. The only one who appeared to be enjoying his food at all was Bill. But most of what he was eating had been prepared by his wife. After biting into a turkey leg, Bill turned to Martin and said, “I don’t think the turkey’s that bad, Martin. Especially if you wash it down with a little water.”

            Thinking of all the hours he’d spent on this meal, how ungrateful his family was being, and the fact that he hadn’t slept with his wife in more than six months, the middle-aged man exploded.

            He stood once more, saying, “You know what!”

            Martin picked up the 15 lb. bird at the head of the table before continuing, “I spent all day preparing Thanksgiving dinner for you people, and not one of you is eating it. Not a single one of you has even thought to thank me!” Moving toward the front door, he added, “So, why don’t I just make sure you don’t have to suffer through another bite.” When Martin reached the front door and realized he couldn’t open it with a platter in his hands, so he said, “Will, could you come open the door?”

            Cheryl turned toward her husband. “Martin.”

            Will was hesistant until his father repeated himself.

            “Don’t do it!” cried Cheryl.

            As Cheryl stormed out of the dining room, Martin launched the dry turkey out into the yard from the front stoop. When he turned back around, he was seething.

            “Be thankful for that!”          

            “I know I am,” said Grandpa Reinhold. “Another bite of that bird might have killed me.”

#

            A few hours later, most of the adults were sitting in the living room while the young children watched TV in the basement. Everyone was full of Chinese takeout and discussing the predictions inside their fortune cookies. While Martin’s travails in the kitchen had gone widely unappreciated, he realized he might have overreacted and was counting himself lucky no one else had choked on the overcooked turkey.

            Meanwhile, his wife was sitting on the opposite side of the living room, shunning him. Bill had developed a slight rash and a little bit of cramping from the ingestion of the gluten-filled stuffing, but, fortunately, it had not been enough to spark an emergency. Sarah had gone to visit with her boyfriend’s family, and Grandpa Reinhold was suffering no ill effects from his incident other than a few sore ribs. It was starting to seem like the day was not a complete loss until Will and Jessica came upstairs, asking if they could go outside.

            The children were in the front yard for no more than a few minutes before they hurried back in. Will rushed through the door, saying, “Dad! Dad!”

            Martin put his wine glass down. “What? What is it?”

            “There’s a dead squirrel beside the turkey.”

            “It looks like it was eating it!” Jessica exclaimed.

            Martin glanced at his father, who put his beer down and shook his head before saying, “Somebody call a doctor. It looks like Bill’s cramping isn’t from gluten, after all.”


BIO

Justin Meckes lives and writes in Durham, NC. He has published stories in journals and magazines such as Map Literary, The Broadkill Review, and Idle Ink. You can learn more at justinmeckes.com.

A Miraculous Takeover

by Austin McLellan

A Miraculous Takeover

pink slip laid off reorganized downsized fired booted axed
dismissed canned thrown out let go terminated given notice walking papers

All these words occupied the minds of the little group gathered in the Conference Room that day at Miraculous Technology. They were the Executive Team, and the words felt like ping pong balls in their heads. Still, amid this noise, the only voice the Team actually heard was the simple command of their CEO, Henry Kimball, who sat at the head of the gleaming walnut conference table that morning:

“Maryanne Nelson has got to go.”  

Kimball said it without emotion, without feeling, without even looking at any one of the four people seated before him. Then he got up and walked back into his private office and slammed the door.

The Executive Team looked at one another. They blinked. They looked down at the floor. Jim Spencer, the VP-Operations, coughed dryly. Kathy Welch, the CFO, sipped at an empty cup of coffee. Robbie Mack, who was in charge of business development, ran his fingers through his hair, then checked to see if any of the gel he applied that morning had stuck to his fingers. And Cynthia ‘Cindy’ Morris, the VP-Human Resources grabbed one of the chocolate donuts Kimball had brought in for the meeting. They looked at each other again. Then they looked away.

They all knew Maryanne Nelson, a senior staffer in Marketing. They all knew what the CEO wanted. The only question was who was going to do it. No one wanted to do it. No one wanted to say it.

“Sounds like an HR thing to me,” Jim Spencer observed, eyeing Cindy Morris. Spencer had come to Miraculous Tech from the steel industry. He liked to think, as he often said, that he was ‘all business’.

“HR, huh?” Cindy retorted. “It’s not my decision.” She popped a donut in her mouth. The VP-HR was younger than the rest of them, and pretty too, which they resented as they suspected she was Kimball’s favorite. Also, unlike the others, she had an advanced degree, an MBA from an institution that existed only in cyberspace. Yes, Cindy Morris had discharged employees before, but it had always been for obvious infractions like stealing or gross absenteeism; in other words, for cause, so it was fairly painless. But this was different. Maryanne Nelson had done nothing wrong.

“We need a reason, or something, to make it look right,” complained Robbie Mack, picking at his nails. Mack’s career to this point had involved selling cars, furniture, pharmaceuticals, and swimming pools. He had never done anything except sales, nor had he ever been in management. But he closed a few strong deals for Miraculous last year, and Kimball named him VP-Business Development. Now in a leadership role, Mack simply yelled at the people who reported to him. He looked over at Kathy Welch, the CFO. “How about the financials, Kathy? Maybe we—”

“What about them?” she interjected. Kathy Welch didn’t care for Mack. She didn’t think sales warranted a spot on the Executive Team; in fact she thought the entire team superfluous. She believed everything Mr. Kimball required was nicely maintained in the spreadsheets she managed. What else did a CEO need? He certainly didn’t need these people, she thought.   

Mack asked her, “Maybe you can get the financials to show some kind of . . . justification?”

“It’s not there,” Welch insisted. “There’s nothing in the financials. You want me to make something up?”

Jim Spencer cleared his throat. “Well, we’ve certainly done that before.” The VP-Operations liked to think he was The Leader when Kimball was away, though the entire team were equals on the Miraculous org chart. Spencer was in fact older than the others, but no one paid him much attention.

“That’s the way Hank wanted it done!” Kathy Welch exclaimed. This silenced them. She was the only one who called Mr. Kimball by his nickname. They went back a long ways.

But the entire Team certainly understood why Maryanne Nelsonhad to go: because Henry Kimball said so. Since the last management retreat, he had been preaching something about ‘Good to Great’ or ‘Great to Good’ or ‘Average to Better to Fabulous,’ or ‘Worse to Better,’ or whatever. No one quite understood it.

But they knew Maryanne in Marketing had to go. The only good part was, she was at home sick today with a stuffy head. The Executive Team could hatch their little plot in secret. They sat together glumly. Their coffees grew cold.

“We must do something,” Cindy Morris said, frustrated.

“Robbie? How about you?” Spencer asked. “Marketing is part of biz development, right?”

“Could be, but it ain’t,” Mack countered. “Besides, Maryanne has been here a lot longer than me. It would be weird.” Mack considered how to give such bad news, running his fingers through his hair again as if he might find the right words there. (He didn’t.) Maryanne Nelson had, in fact, been at Miraculous Technology longer than most anyone except the boss himself.

“Well, we need to get this done soon,” Spencer said, eyeing Kimball’s door. Through the conference room windows, they all stared outside at the green, manicured lawn of their corporate campus. No, they didn’t know who would fire Maryanne. They hated that Kimball wouldn’t do it himself. Spencer said, “You know, Mr. Kimball wants us to . . .”

“We heard him Jim,” Kathy Welch snapped. They all rose awkwardly and left the room. Nobody worked late that day. The weather was nice. They went home to their families, their golf, their drinks, their dinners, their TV – but they didn’t sleep well.

The next day each member of the Executive Team tried to stay busy or look busy. They avoided Maryanne Nelson, who returned to the office that day, feeling better. Spencer occupied himself with paperwork, and thought about running his own company where he would really be in charge. He had always liked the sound of ‘management coaching,’ and felt he would be good at it. Cindy Morris reviewed the new Miraculous Tech drug policy, then spent the rest of the morning shopping at Nordstrom.com. Kathy Welch totted up the quarterly revenue, and then made appointments to get her hair and nails done, even her toenails. Robbie Mack scheduled a sales call for later that day, and spent the rest of the morning flirting with the young women who staffed the Call Center.

Mr. Kimball finally showed up about eleven. He strolled from office to office, glaring at his department heads. Spencer announced, “The new production line is firing on all cylinders!” Kathy Welch exclaimed, “We’re gonna make target!” Mack cried “I’m meeting today with that big account!” And Cindy Morris reported dutifully that the new drug policy looked “bullet proof.”

The CEO returned them all a stony silence. He eyed them hard, with a smirk thrown in. They all either looked at their feet or stared at him like zombies. When Kimball saw Maryanne Nelson in the hall later that morning, he chirped “Good morning Maryanne. ‘Glad to have you back.” Then he retreated into his suite adjoining the Conference Room.

A few hours later, Jim Spencer crept out into the hallway. He saw Maryanne Nelson and bid her a good morning. “Head feeling better?” he asked brightly, then walked past her toward Kathy Welch’s office. Her door was open, he stepped inside. The CFO knew Spencer thought himself #2 in the company, after Kimball, but no one including Kimball had ever said that. Spencer’s imagination on this point did however lead him to conclude that responsibility for terminating Maryanne was mostly his. Welch asked him,

“Jimmy? You got a plan together?”

Spencer opened his mouth but no words came out. She frowned and said, “Hank was here a minute ago, asking about Maryanne.” Spencer never called Mr. Kimball Hank. He stumbled back into the hallway, a bit dazed. He took a moment to gather himself, catching a drink at the water fountain. At that moment, Robbie Mack popped out of the Call Center, the sound of giggles following him into the hallway.

“Well, well . . . what’s up with sales?” Spencer asked, with false enthusiasm. He thought Mack beneath him, since he didn’t consider sales a professional activity. Operations, his people, performed the real work. They manufactured things. Mack only took commissions.

“It’s business development,” Mack corrected.

“Development, sales, marketing, whatever. It’s all one thing, right?” Spencer straightened the large knot in his tie. He was the only man who wore a tie at Miraculous. He leaned toward Mack’s ear.

“Look Robbie. You’ve worked with Maryanne, spent time with her. Maybe you can think of something, anything she did wrong. Whatever it is, I’ll back you on it. Maybe that e-commerce thing?”

Mack remembered the e-comm project. It was a big flop. But both he and Maryanne were involved on that. If they blamed it on her, Mack would look bad too.

“That was Kimball’s decision,” Mack said.

Spencer leered at him. “Uh-huh.” The men eyed each other. “Well Christ, we’ve got to do something,” he growled. “Maryanne is in your department Mack, more or less. Dream something up!” Then he turned and stomped down the carpeted hallway.

Mack shrugged his shoulders, then re-entered the Call Center to the sound of giggling. Spencer got back to his office, feeling worse than when he left a few minutes before. He checked his email Inbox. There sat a message from Kimball. When the CEO was upset, he just filled in the email Subject line; this was all the Recipient needed to know. Spencer saw it. Subject: “Well Jim?”

He winced.

The day dragged on. The air conditioning roared but the office grew warm that July afternoon. Maryanne Nelson went about her duties, unaware of the plot unfolding around her, but she wondered why no one had stopped by to chat. She worked on the website revisions. She was presenting to the Executive Team at two o’clock.

About one thirty, Kimball emerged from his suite, looking mad, waving a paper in his hand. He marched into Cindy Morris’s office.

“Have you seen this?!” he demanded. He threw the paper on her desk.

“Uh…yes…certainly…no…maybe …what?” the young woman stammered, as she clicked away from Nordstrom.com, missing a 10% off sale which expired that moment.

“Well, you signed it,” Kimball declared. Cindy picked up the paper, a Vacation Approval Form, submitted by Maryanne Nelson.

“Uh, well, Sir, yes I did. That was a week ago and I didn’t know then about Maryanne . . . that we planned to let her  . . . uh . . .”

“Oh just fix it,” Kimball bellowed.

“OK, sir. Definitely. Right away.” Kimball frowned and glided away on the plush carpet. Distraught, Cindy picked up the phone and dialed Kathy Welch who was already in a bad mood.

“You’re approving vacation for people who are leaving??!!” the CFO hissed into the phone.

Cindy Morris whimpered, “I didn’t know about Maryanne when I signed it.” She gave a little sob. “And now Kimball wants me to fix it.” Welch was silent. She knew Morris was stuck. They were all stuck. Morris said, “Maybe you can come up with something? How about…there’s no room in the budget, right? Right? Something like that, huh . . ?”

“Let me think!” Welch answered, and hung up. She had spent many years rising to the CFO position at Miraculous, many long nights sitting with Kimball straightening up the books. She wanted to help her colleague in HR, but she had little sympathy. She was jealous of Cindy Morris, who’d made the Executive Team in two years. And Cindy was young and attractive and stayed in great shape because she was single and had time to work out at the gym, or the Club as she liked to say. Kathy Welch wanted help too, but she didn’t trust anyone. She thought about her older sister Amy, who was employed at a big corporation that offered a mentoring program. That’s what I need, Welch thought, a mentor. But who, she wondered. Kimball? She stared out the window again where a solitary man with a blower cleared dead leaves from the sidewalk.

At two p.m. the members of the Executive Team dragged themselves into the Conference Room. Maryanne Nelson sat there with a projector. Jim Spencer had taken the head of the table. Cindy Morris folded herself against the wall with a laptop, trying to hide. Kathy Welch brought an armful of spreadsheets to keep busy. Robbie Mack came in late with a strong coffee and slumped into a chair and yawned.

“Where’s Mr. Kimball?” someone asked. They all fidgeted. They knew Kimball might show up, he might not. His office door was closed and no one dared knock, so Maryanne started her presentation. Spencer pretended to be listening, and asked a few questions about ‘hits’. Kathy Welch scribbled notes on a spreadsheet. Robbie Mack couldn’t understand why Miraculous was relying so much on social media. Cindy Morris nabbed a pair of shoes at zappos.com.

At the end of the presentation, Maryanne beamed. The site updates looked fresh and professional. Traffic was up, hits were up. Everyone thanked her, and she thanked them. Then she apologized — she had to run to another meeting. The Team smiled. In a second she was gone.

The little projector fan continued to whirr for a very long minute after Maryanne’s exit. Then it stopped. Then it was quiet. Spencer drummed his fingers on the table. Kathy Welch looked up from her numbers. Mack rubbed his eyes. Cindy Morris closed her laptop. It was all in slow motion, as if an hour passed in the warm room.

“OK, I’ll do it.” Spencer whispered hoarsely. No one answered. They didn’t want Spencer doing it, but they didn’t want to volunteer either. He said it again, louder “I’ll do it.”

Mack asked, “What are you going to say to her, Jim?” He had no answer. Cindy Morris spoke up. “Does HR have to be there?”

Spencer explained, “I’ll just tell Maryanne we’ve decided to move in a new direction.”

“What direction?” Kathy Welch said.

“Well, we gotta do something!” Spencer shouted, folding his arms across his chest. He was frustrated, but even more he wished he hadn’t raised his voice. It was unprofessional, not leader-like. He wondered what a good management coach would do.

“What about her vacation?” Cindy Morris complained. “I said she could take a vacation!” Kathy Welch shot her a glance cold as ice, tired of her whining. She looked at Spencer.

“Look Jim. Just mention something about the budget,” the CFO explained. “Tell her it’s not a discharge. Miraculous is simply eliminating a position in her department. Costs, you know?”

“That’s a lie,” Mack blurted. He looked over at Cindy Morris for support. She smiled weakly.   

Spencer mused. “Position eliminated, huh? Hhmm . . . I like the sound of that, position eliminated. Right. Yes! A re-org. So it’s about the position. It’s not about her. Not really.”

“I think it is about her,” Mack countered. “She’s the one losing . . .”

“Well maybe you should tell her, Mack,” Spencer barked. They looked over at Kimball’s door. It was still closed. He was in there, they knew. “I’ll send her an Email.”

“No. You’ve got to talk to her,” Cindy Morris said, stiffening. “That’s the only way.”

“OK, so I’ll call her tonight.”

“No no no!” Kathy Welch insisted. “If you can’t speak to her in person, face to face, then don’t do it.” Spencer drummed his fingers on the polished walnut table. He straightened the large knot in his tie and said,

“Alright. Whatever. So I’ll meet with Maryanne tomorrow. Who’s going to help me?”

There was no answer. Then . . Henry Kimball’s door opened. Not quickly, not slowly, but measured, grim almost, like the ponderous jaws of a terrible crustacean at the bottom of the dark sea. The CEO stuck his head out. He didn’t acknowledge any of them. He just stared into the room. Only the faintest smile appeared on his face, then vanished. Then he withdrew. His door shut.

The next day was Friday. This was lucky for Spencer since he had heard Friday was the best day to terminate an employee; because if any drama broke out, the weekend gave everyone a chance to cool off. But still he didn’t know when, or how, or why he was going to fire Maryanne, or even what to say. ‘Position eliminated’ felt right yesterday, but now it seemed dry and officious. Spencer considered alternatives: budget problems, a new direction, good to great, great to better, downsizing, rightsizing, a pivot. Nothing made sense. The VP-Operations drank six cups of coffee that morning.

Kathy Welch buried herself in work. It was month-end, and she had to complete the financials. This gave her an excuse. She slammed her office door and locked it. Kimball himself knocked but she wouldn’t answer. She turned off her phone and logged off email, trying to disappear.  

Robbie Mack talked it over with Cindy Morris, who was an eager listener. She thought Mack’s work in sales was exciting. She knew he often visited customers in Chicago and it made her envious. He came into her office and flung himself into a nearby chair.

“This Maryanne thing. It sucks,” he told her.

“I hate it,” she said.

Mack added, “Why can’t Kimball do it? It’s freaking bullshit.” Cindy Morris laughed lightly at his vulgarity. Mack noticed, and offered more. They went back and forth in this manner and arrived at nothing.

By lunchtime the Executive Team was exhausted. Spencer was sick to his stomach from too much coffee. Kathy Welch had become lightheaded staring at numbers. Robbie Mack was so disgusted he left the office, went to the golf driving range and hit a bucket of balls. Cindy Morris felt good. She had found another bargain online. But she grew nauseous when she sent Maryanne Nelson an email, inviting her to a meeting at 3 in the Conference Room. Jim Spencer had told her to do it. He said he would handle things. In her email, Morris left the Subject: line empty even though she knew what the meeting was about. Her heart tripped when Maryanne quickly accepted the invite.

At ten to three, the Executive Team assembled in the Conference Room. They were wound up tight as a steel spring. They blamed Kimball and mistrusted each other at the same time. Panic gripped them. They could barely speak. For Spencer, it had become clear to him now . . . with the crisis at hand . . . that he couldn’t go through with it. Kathy Welch also knew he couldn’t do it. Mack thought Spencer might really fire Maryanne, but hated him for it. Cindy Morris was just glad she didn’t have to do it. Spencer gazed absently out the window at the lawn care guys and wondered if he could get a crew together and do that for a living.

The Team looked at one another in sweaty silence and stared at Kimball’s door, which seemed to mock them. He’s in there, they knew. Maybe he’ll reconsider, they hoped. Maybe this can wait till next year, they fantasized. Perhaps Maryanne could be re-assigned to another role? That’s it . . . they would talk Kimball out of it.

Jim Spencer finally rose (it took a while) and approached Kimball’s lair. He walked in a measured pace, like a man on his way to the gallows. At the CEO’s door he raised his hand to knock . . . and . . . and there it froze, in mid-air, suspended, paralyzed, like a statue. A forever passed. Then another one. Finally, at long last, Spencer’s hand fell . . . but not on Kimball’s door. It fell to his side, a flabby lifeless thing.

Next, Robbie Mack rose, almost. He was mad, but he couldn’t quite get his feet under him. Cindy Morris tugged on his sleeve, her face a confused mixture of anxiety and affection. The man fell back into his chair, the woman gripping his arm. He couldn’t do it either.

At last Kathy Welch stood. They all looked at her. The CFO had known Kimball the longest. She approached his door and prepared to knock, but thought better of it, calling out his name … “Mr. Kimball. Mr. Kimball. Henry. Hank!”

But Kimball’s door remained quiet as a tomb. In two minutes, it would be 3 pm.

“Maryanne will be here soon!” someone gasped.

“We can’t do it!” somebody moaned.

Suddenly, a sound … a distinct something… emanated from behind Kimball’s door. It may have been laughter. No one could be sure. Then silence, again.  

“Alright,” Spencer spoke up, with all the confidence of a man who had given up. He tore a sheet of paper from his legal pad: “If we can’t say it to her, goddamn it, maybe we can just write it down. But we’ve all got to do it. Together. So this will look like a joint decision of the Executive Team, and irrevocable.”

“That sucks.” Mack burst out.

“Just do it!” Kathy Welch snarled. She tore a sheet from her pad. The others found scraps of paper.

“Maryanne’s coming!” Cindy cried. They all scribbled something, and tossed their messages onto the table. Then, the Executive Team departed quickly.

Maryanne Nelson arrived a minute later. The Conference Room was quiet and very still save for the afternoon sunlight pouring in through the big windows, illuminating the dust motes floating in the air. Maryanne checked her watch. ‘Give them a few minutes, she thought, and of course Mr. Kimball was always late.

Then she noticed the four sheets of paper on the big table. They were face down, but she could make out writing on the other side. She looked at Kimball’s door. All quiet. She checked the hallway — no sign of anyone else. She was curious. She reached for one sheet of paper, turned it over, and slowly read it.

“Dear Mr. Kimball, it is with sincere regret that I must resign my position at Miraculous Technology, effective immediately. I have been very stressed and I cannot fulfill my responsibilities. Also, I am starting my own coaching company. Sincerely, James Spencer, VP-Operations.”

Maryanne gasped. She had known Jim Spencer for a while and respected him. That’s too bad, she thought, but I’m sure he had his reasons. She put the message back on the table. Kimball’s door remained closed, the hallway silent. She reached for another.

“Dear Mr. Kimball, it is with deep regret that I must quit Miraculous Technology, effective immediately. I have been unable to concentrate on my work due to internal conflicts that I cannot resolve. I am also hoping to spend more time with my family. Robbie Mack, VP-Business Development.”

Another one! Maryanne Nelson’s knees grew weak. What was going on? She had enjoyed working with Mack on the e-commerce project. And now he was going. It made her sad. She looked around again . . . all quiet still. She reached for another note.

“Dear Mr. Kimball, I’m so sorry but I must give up the HR leadership position, effective immediately. I apologize for signing the Vacation Approval Form for Ms. Nelson. It was a mistake that has upset me to no end, to the point where I can’t work anymore! Besides, I am thinking of going into retail. Respectfully, Cynthia Morris, VP-Human Resources.”

Maryanne felt a hollow place in her gut. She felt terrible her time-off request had upset Cindy Morris, caused such trouble. Maybe this was her fault?

Still no sound came from Kimball’s office, nothing from the hallway. Only silence. There was one last paper. Maryanne picked it up.

“Dear Mr. Kimball, it is with sincere regret that I must resign the CFO position at Miraculous Technology, effective immediately. I have spent too many years submerged in numbers, and I need a break. A long break. I am thinking of buying a condo in Miami Beach. Yours truly, Kathy Welch, Chief Financial Officer.”

Maryanne Nelson fell into a chair. She felt faint. Everyone was going; in fact they were already gone. What was going on? There was almost no one left. She choked up a few tears and felt very alone.

Henry Kimball, CEO, opened the door of his office and stepped briskly into the Conference Room. Maryanne rose to greet him, but he waved her off. The CEO took his big chair at the head of the table and made a somber face. “I guess maybe you’ve heard by now,” he said. Maryanne thought of Jim and Kathy and Robbie and tried to speak, but couldn’t.

“I’m afraid it’s done. ‘All over,” Kimball said. “We’ve sold Miraculous Technology.”

Maryanne’s eyes, already moist, now grew large as dinner plates. “Yes,” Kimball said, “the Fabulous Computer Corporation finally made us an offer we couldn’t refuse.” He chuckled at his choice of words. “It’s a total buyout, a takeover. Shareholder values, you know! We’ll be merging with Fabulous Corp right away.” He then took a confidential tone and said, “Actually Maryanne, this could be a pretty good deal for staff-level folks. The new company will be a bigger operation, with more products and more opportunities for employees.” Maryanne looked at the resignation letters on the table.

“But for top management?” Kimball shook his head. “I’m afraid there’s quite a bit of overlap with Fabulous. Duplicated roles, you know? The Fabulous Corp managers will be running things around here. And our Executive Team—?” Kimball regarded the notes on the table. Maryanne sank deeper into her chair, if that was possible. “They won’t be needed,” the CEO said somberly.

They sat together in silence for a few long minutes. They had both been at Miraculous for years. Eventually acceptance crept in. Kimball gathered up the notes his Team had left on the table. He slid them into a folder, but he didn’t read them. ‘Almost like he didn’t need to.

“I suspected this day was coming,” he said.

Maryanne knew it was the end. “Is there anything I can do, Mr. Kimball?”

“No thanks, Maryanne. You’ve been a great help already.” He patted his folder containing the resignations. “Now I’m sure we’ll have a smooth transition with the Fabulous leadership.”

Maryanne Nelson nodded in agreement.

“I tell you what . . . ,” Kimball added. “Why don’t you take a few days off, enjoy a nice vacation? On the house, as it were. ‘For all you’ve done for Miraculous.”

Maryanne brightened at this. Then Kimball smiled as he rose and disappeared into his suite.  



BIO

Austin McLellan lives and writes in Memphis, TN. His first novel was published in 2016: Twenty Grand, A Love Story (Harvard Square). His stories, essays, and journalism have appeared in a variety of creative and commercial media. See Akashicbooks.com, Bangalore Review, Stepaway Magazine, In Recovery Magazine, Monarch Review, BroadwayWorld Review, Patient Health Journal, the Memphis and Nashville Business Journals, and StoryBoard Memphis.  

In a previous life, Austin taught English and writing at universities in Asia, Europe, and the United States. He has also operated an art gallery, sold books, developed software, and acted in local Memphis theater. When not writing, Austin works as a healthcare technology consultant. He has BA, Philosophy from Rhodes College; MA, Literature from the University of Memphis. 

www.austinmclellan.com

New Mexico or Arizona

by Ethan Klein



How it had come up at dinner that day, I can’t remember now, but I do remember that it was around my seventeenth birthday when my mother laughed about my father being too busy at the firm to even find the time to cheat on her. My father grinned at her claim like he was embarrassed by the conversation or that infidelity was so totally beyond him, a fiction, something he was completely incapable of. Though, I had seen his smile another way, that maybe he found my mother’s words unfortunately true and was embarrassed that he lacked a quality he knew some of his friends and colleagues possessed, a quality that suggested a certain courage he could never muster.

But then, a few months later, I went to the door to meet my father returning from work with the dinner guest and found him standing with a woman I didn’t recognize. She wasn’t someone my mother knew or worked with either. My mother didn’t socialize with many people because she worked from home and didn’t like going out, and so the only people she saw with any frequency were my father and myself.

“This is Darcie,” my father said, introducing the woman, and I remembered the dinner with my mother’s laugh and my father’s deflated look. Now, my father spoke eagerly like he’d been waiting a long time to introduce this woman, like she was his answer to his wife’s derision.

She was in her late forties, like my parents, and wore these beaded earrings and a turquoise bracelet, jewelry like my mother sometimes wore. When Darcie shook my hand, she had a certain easiness in her face that echoed my parents’ post-retreat glow when they returned from the deserts of New Mexico or Arizona. However, where this energy subsided in my parents, it seemed more permanent in Darcie, more part of who she was, like problems didn’t exist for her or that she was just good at hiding them.

My father closed the door on the autumn air. It was early evening but already dark and cold enough to smell and taste the approach of a long winter. They put their coats on the couch and removed their shoes at the door even though the only other place where I saw this ritual performed was in homes newer and larger than our small two-bedroom, the home my parents bought at the beginning of their marriage. We lived in a neighborhood close enough to the airport where we could see planes taking off and landing, but far enough away where the noise was never too loud. Still, my mother wanted to move to the suburbs north of the city where it was generally quieter. She would remind me, however, that my father was cheap, and that he refused to move us to a better home even when they could afford it on his salary alone.

“Are you a friend of the family’s?” I asked Darcie, feeling it was more appropriate than ‘who are you?’

She and my father looked at one another and smiled as if they’d come to a silent agreement on the best answer.

“Yes,” she said.

“A new friend,” my father added. He removed his glasses and wiped them with the sleeve of his sweater. When he returned the glasses to his face he looked to the kitchen where my mother had her back to us as she chopped vegetables for a salad.

“Has there been any work for her today?” my father asked of my mother.

“I don’t know,” I said, because I usually didn’t know exactly how much time she spent at her little desk in the living room before I arrived home from school. But also, because he liked to—according to my mother—keep a running tally on her usefulness to the family. I didn’t want to play favorites. Work had been infrequent for my mother since I was born. She had her own business editing print materials for different clients, most of them from around the region. This was how my parents met, the business my father had worked for being one of her clients. And while my father moved on to a better job shortly after I was born, my mother had to reduce her clientele to have time to raise me until I was old enough to go to school. Unfortunately, she was never able to get her business back to the way it was. Now, she spent most of her time at home watching public television or reading books on New Age religion. I think if she wasn’t married, she would have gone to live in a commune or ashram or something similar to one of these things. The self-actualization retreats in New Mexico or Arizona (depending on venue availability) were her way, I think, of getting as close as possible to that life without making it seem all about her—that the message of the retreats would benefit them and their marriage. Maybe her need to convince him of their usefulness was one reason why the retreats never actually worked for them even after five years and thousands of dollars spent.

“Mmm,” was all my father managed, sounding disappointed by my response. He laughed to himself and shook his head and then went with Darcie into the kitchen. I followed.

My mother removed her apron from over her dress and met my father and Darcie by the kitchen table. She hugged Darcie with emphasis like she was a member of the family we were just getting to meet for the first time. “It’s so good you’re finally here.”

“Art, can you get the wine from the garage?” my father asked me, and I knew then this was a special occasion and that this person named Darcie was somehow fundamental to it. But I didn’t know why she mattered, and more, why my parents had neglected to tell me.

I went into the garage for the wine because my parents didn’t keep any alcohol in the house. Out of sight out of mind was probably their logic, although who this was directed towards wasn’t clear. I never knew my parents to be big drinkers and I’d never really acted out or been disciplined. Maybe this was a result of the alcohol being slightly less on-hand for all of us, and ironically why I lacked a fear of retribution from stealing their only bottle in the first place.

A few months ago, they had left to catch an evening flight to one of their marriage-saving getaways—Arizona that time. I had a couple glasses of the wine and when the drunk heaviness came on, I went outside and brought the bottle with me. I walked the dark streets of our quiet subdivision, passing windows that radiated warm lamplight or the sharp glow of a television screen. Inside each home I could make out families huddling comfortably together on couches, people standing solitary in their kitchens for reasons unknown to me, or couples sauntering off to bed. Above me, when I’d catch a plane blinking red and rising through the sky, I wondered if my parents were on it and if they could somehow make me out below them as I intentionally tried to drink myself to amnesia because I’d seen people do it in movies when they struggled with their feelings. I knew my parents would return from their trip rejuvenated until my father began to obsess about work and my mother felt stuck in her unfulfilled life with him, leaving me to wonder, as I often did, if I had ever factored into either of their lives.

When I opened the fridge, I found the replacement bottle of unopened white wine. I’d purchased it at a liquor store known for selling to underagers if they carried themselves in the right way. Standing just shy of six feet and dressing in well-fitting hand-me-downs (including some from my father), I was able to act with natural purpose in the unfamiliar store. It also didn’t hurt that the clerk was expedient about the transaction and wanted me gone so he could get back to whatever was on the small television behind the counter. I brought this unopened bottle now into the kitchen. My father stood by the sink while my mother spoke with Darcie by the table. He opened the bottle with a corkscrew and poured three glasses.

“Do you want one?” he said, gesturing with the bottle. “There’s no harm in having a little bit.”

“Sure.”

“Good.” He smiled like it brought him relief to know I was joining him although I didn’t know why. He poured me a glass. “Things will be different now,” he said, but I think he said this more to himself than to me.

I followed him over to Darcie and my mother. He handed them their glasses of wine and then he began to drink. Seeing this, I did the same.

“Gabe,” my mother said, like she’d caught him doing something he wasn’t supposed to be doing.

My father quickly brought the glass away from his mouth. I did too.

“What is it?”

“Well, aren’t we going to make a toast?” she said, as if it should have been obvious.

His words were straight and low. “You don’t toast for this.”

And my mother looked at him with a tight face, embarrassed and sad all at once, and I turned away from my mother because it hurt to see her upset. I thought if I looked away, she would go back to being alright. My father would apologize for talking without thinking because that’s what he usually apologized for whenever he made my mother upset with him over something he had said. But this time he didn’t apologize. Instead, he took another drink from his glass, pretending he hadn’t said anything wrong.

Darcie addressed my parents. “Gabe, Marta, you both have been waiting a long time for this.” Her words were measured and matter of fact. A reasonable voice. “Am I right about this?”

“Yes, a long time,” my mother said.

“Too long maybe,” my father said. “Maybe this just isn’t for us.”

“No,” Darcie said, answering like it absolutely couldn’t be any other way. “Let’s just sit and eat and enjoy,” she said, this last word echoing and hanging in the air as an incantation. “We’ll start there, don’t you think that’d be best for everyone?” She looked to me then for only a moment, like she wanted me to know I wasn’t forgotten about, that I was as much a part of what was going to happen as my parents were. It unsettled me and I didn’t want whatever it was that was going on between the three of them to occur.

At the table, my mother peeled back the tin foil from the lasagna, which was next to a large bowl of pre-dressed salad. The lasagna was plated and the four of us began to eat underneath the solo light of the kitchen.

Darcie leaned over to where my mother sat, off to her right. “It’s very good, Marta,” she said, quietly, but loud enough for my father and me to hear so we knew to speak up too.

“It’s always good,” my father said, and he looked across the table at me, fishing a compliment for my mother.

I couldn’t think of anything original or meaningful. “Yeah, it’s really good,” I managed, and continued eating while trying not to draw attention to myself. Through most of the meal my parents and Darcie spoke between bites. It became apparent she was going to be helping them with their marriage, fix whatever it was the retreats had been unable to do for them. I suspected it involved her having a certain permanency in our family, and I didn’t like the thought of this. I would have preferred my parents going back to not knowing how to deal with one another if it meant a third party didn’t have to be involved.

“Can you pass the salad, Art?” Darcie said. I did this without looking at her. When she filled her plate she asked, “how’s school going?” as if she knew me and genuinely cared about my wellbeing. I pretended like I hadn’t heard her.

“Art, don’t be rude,” my mother said.

“If he doesn’t want to talk to me…” Darcie started.

“No. He’s going to have to accept this,” my mother said, looking to my father for rare support.

“Please, Art,” my father sighed. “It’s difficult for us too.”

But I felt this change in our lives wouldn’t be difficult for him based on my mother’s complaints. He spent most of his time at work and when he wasn’t at work, he’d pretend to find work around the house because he wasn’t good with tools like other fathers were. This would lead him to wander, going in and out of rooms trying to find purpose—something to do, only to forget why he had entered the room in the first place. And here is where my mother would make it clear to me that he did this to purposely avoid us, that he had exhibited this kind of behavior towards her before I was born. It never crossed my mind until years later that maybe all my parents needed was to be more open about their own needs and less subversive towards each other. But honesty, I would come to understand, often feels harmful in the moment, cutting, and therefore, unfortunately, often avoided. And although I couldn’t identify this at the time while they were together, I could still identify they were failing each other in a more final way than they were letting on.

“You can tell me it’s a divorce,” I said.

My father paused and I could see in his face that he was worried about a truth spilling over. “That’s not what this is.” He looked to my mother for reassurance.

My mother took a moment, an almost unrecognizable moment like there was a part of her that doubted now what it was. “Right, no, that’s not what this is. Divorce is final and we don’t want anything final because you can’t go back on something like that.”

“Right,” my father said and then went on, which exposed his discomfort more. “It’s messy and final and nobody wins in the end. Just one big mess.”

He was convincing himself of this and I hoped by the time I was his age I wouldn’t need to do this in front of my own children. If I had children. I was not sure if I wanted them or if they would end up as afterthoughts. Would I only be there for them when it was absolutely necessary? Would I consider that as good parenting, as caring like they did?

I remembered then the time when, at eight years old, I had left the house while my mother had fallen asleep to the television. She must have woken up soon after I wandered off on that cold spring day because I remember I wasn’t gone too long, that I had made it only three or four blocks before I heard her call my name from down the street.

I think about what would’ve happened if she hadn’t woken up as soon as she did. I would likely have been returned to my home by a well-meaning couple, but sometimes I wonder if the same couple might have taken me home with them. Maybe they couldn’t conceive, and I would somehow be the ticket to their happiness? Other times, I imagined reaching a nearby park and a family of wolves taking my small shivering body to their secret den to bring me up as one of their own, wolves like those I’d heard who raised orphans in cold faraway countries. But no wolves lived in this city. Just skittish coyotes, animals that would have left me to my fate on that gray day. Would my parents have been happier people if I had disappeared from their lives? Not happier right away, but maybe one or two years later they would accept how the loss did not feel so bad, that it was liberating in fact.

“Then what is it that’s happening?” I said. “What’s so difficult?”

“A smooth transition,” Darcie said, addressing me now with that all-knowing easiness to her words as my parents nodded in agreement.

“We need help,” my mother said. “Like the retreats, except…” she searched for a word.

“More personalized,” my father offered.

“Yes, that,” my mother said.

They were pretending to explain everything while explaining nothing.

“Personalized how?” I pressed.

“It’s complicated,” my father said. “Like…”

“Like you couldn’t go to a library and find a book about it,” my mother said, saving him now.

“Then explain it to me,” I said.

My parents collectively sighed and looked to Darcie as if I was being overly difficult, and that they needed to turn me over to her. And this felt wrong to me, how they were the ones who were supposed to be more-or-less in charge of the family. I had always felt I could at least rely on my parents’ ownership of the family, even if it was by no means strong or even healthy. Now, they appeared to be completely giving this up.

Without many choices to exit, I noticed most of my wine was still in my glass, and I hoped this would help dissociate me from the current reality, buy me a little relief. Darcie began to speak, but she cut herself off when I poured the whole glass down my throat. Except it went down the wrong way. An itchy heat radiated from my neck and face, and I coughed trying to clear my windpipe.

“Do you need some water?” Darcie said, beginning to stand. “I can get him some—.”

“He’ll be fine,” my father said.

“Just the wrong tube,” my mother added.

Darcie sat, and they waited until I stopped coughing.

“All better?” my father said.

“Yeah, just the wrong tube,” I coughed between words, pointing to my throat.

“Where did you pick that up?” my mother said.

I cleared the last cough. “Pick what up?”

“The drinking.”

“What do you mean?”

“What are you getting at, Marta?” my father also asked her.

My mother gestured to my glass. “He was drinking so fast, like an alcoholic or something.”

“Mom, please.”

“No, don’t start that,” she said. “This isn’t the time for ‘Mom pleases or ‘I don’t knows.’” And she said this like they were excuses regularly coming from my mouth. My mother laughed and refilled her empty wine glass with what was left in the bottle. “No, you don’t do something like that unless you’ve done it before.”

I didn’t like where this was going, how my mother was turning the attention from their poor marriage, and Darcie’s control of our lives, to this stupid thing with the wine. At the same time, my mother and father seemed more engaged with me now. They were disappointed, like parents who actually cared about the well-being of their child. Even though it came in the form of frustration, it was their genuine attention I subconsciously craved.

“What’s with the wine then, Art?” my mother said.

“I wanted it,” I said.

“Wanted what?” my mother said, drawing it out of me.

“The wine.”

Then my father’s turn, “So, you and some buddies then—.”

“No, just me.”

“Just you?” my mother said, sounding both concerned and mystified.

“It was a stupid thing, I know, I know.”

“It wasn’t stupid.” It was Darcie now and not my mother who said this. And my parents suddenly had these stony looks on their faces, like they had stepped back from the conversation and it was now just Darcie and me. The light seemed dimmer in the house, or was it that everything had turned stagnant—the light and the air and time itself? My skin felt tighter as if I’d outgrown it, and I couldn’t breathe right. “You knew what you were doing and so it wasn’t stupid. It was thought-out.”

“Right, you’re right,” I said, barely able to get the words out and nodding my head with my eyes in my lap, thinking that would settle things and stop her talking.

“Your parents and I are just looking out for your best interests. You can understand that, can’t you?”

I couldn’t understand it, because I was confident they had no interest in my future, no concern about what it held for me. I’d be graduating high school next year and was convinced I’d be off to do my own thing after that. But I didn’t know what I’d be moving on to. I only worked part-time at a grocery store on the weekends, and I would need to find other work to afford living on my own. I thought I might also attend a technical school, but I couldn’t expect much help from my parents, nor did I want it.

I kept my mouth shut about all this though—leaving I mean—because while I didn’t believe my parents would stop me, I felt Darcie had the ability to compromise my plans in some way. Like she could convince my parents to keep me here in this home out by the airport until, before I knew it, I was inheriting the house and looking after my father and mother as their bodies slowly stopped functioning. It would be a gradual deterioration I could even project myself into at seventeen, when my entire life was supposed to be ahead of me. But I couldn’t envision Darcie aging; she was independent of it somehow, as though the forces of the everyday didn’t apply to her.

“No, I can’t understand it because I don’t think it’s true,” I said. My parents still appeared detached and cordoned off from the present, stuck somewhere outside of it. “What are you going to do? I mean what’s your plan for them?” Darcie closed her mouth with this pensive straight look, which didn’t give me much confidence she even knew. “I need to know they’ll be alright,” I continued. And maybe I shouldn’t have cared how they ended up, but it didn’t feel right to offer them up to her as they had done with me.

“Well, I can’t promise that. This is self-actualization therapy. Anything can happen.”

“So, you’re from Arizona or New Mexico, then?”

She smiled and nodded. “Yes, Arizona.”

Her attitude was more identifiable now, its connection to the comfortable dry heat of the Southwest, that ideal of a person my parents aspired to be.

“They always came back better, but it never lasted long,” I said.

“Well, that’s why I’m here now, and we’re going to make it work.”

“But I don’t think it will work for them.”

“They’re determined.” Her answer sounded canned, like she had given this simple solution to a complex issue before.

“If they were determined they would have figured themselves out already.”

“These things take time. You’re still young and you can’t fully understand it.”

There it was, that pejorative. I laughed to myself and a warmth stirred at the base of my neck. “Do you even understand relationships?” I asked.

“Most of the time I do. But I’m human like everyone else. I miss certain things.”

I was doubtful of that part, her being human and flawed. I pointed to the two of us. “Then what about this exchange? How come they can’t hear us?” I said, looking to them.

“We’ve been drinking. That can change things.”

“I don’t think it can. I don’t think that’s how it works.”

She closed her eyes, nodded to herself, then opened them. “And I don’t think you can know how any of it works until you’re in their position,” she said, gesturing to them.

“I won’t be.” My words were pointed and raised now.

She grinned. “You can tell yourself that.”

“It’s getting late, Gabe.” It was my mother’s voice. She and my father had returned to the foreground, and unstilled the dust and light around the table. My mother stood up and addressed my father. “I have to take care of a few things, but how about you grab the rest of that ice cream out of the freezer?” She then went to the back of the house and into their bedroom.

“Help me clear the table, Art,” my father said.

Reluctantly, I joined him in stacking dishes and collecting utensils and bringing them to the sink. Darcie tried to help as well.

“No,” my father said, stopping her. “You’re still a guest for tonight.” His attention then wandered for a moment to the back of the house.

“What’s she doing?” I said.

“Let’s see what flavors we have,” my father said, ignoring me. He opened the freezer and removed a white container from a local ice cream shop. He examined the lid and the small smudged script. “Butter pecan.” He pronounced pecan with flat vowels like he was rhyming it with toucan. “You know that’s my favorite, Darcie.”

“I didn’t,” she said.

“Well, now you know.” He grinned then like it would be a joke between them. He set the ice cream in the center of the table along with three bowls, three accompanying spoons and an ice cream scoop.

“Isn’t Mom going to have some?” I said.

“I don’t think she’ll be in the mood, Art,” my father said. He sat down and began scooping the ice cream into the bowls.

“Why not, Dad?”

He screwed up his mouth and shook his head, either because he thought it wouldn’t make sense or any sort of difference if he told me. He returned to serving and spoke as if I wasn’t there or couldn’t hear him. It seemed he was trying to move past the changes that were coming for us all, and I was mad at him for this. I wanted to hurt him, but I didn’t know how. My vision narrowed and blurred.

“Dad!”

My father jerked in his chair. The scoop clanged on the wood tabletop. I became dizzy and breathed hot through my nose. When my vision straightened, I could see the ice cream already melting its way towards the edge of the table.

“What are you talking about?” I asked again, but he wouldn’t look at me or Darcie. Instead, his attention was in his lap, hiding as I had done only minutes before. It was as if the reality of what was occurring was too painful to witness, that if he turned his eyes away it would disappear for him. I asked myself if people really grew up or if they more or less stayed the same while their responsibilities increased, while they came to occupy people’s hearts and time and more parts of the world around them.

Darcie reached out her hand to my father, but he pulled away. “Don’t….” She left him to hang there and my mother came into the room.

She had a rolling suitcase in one hand and a small duffle over her shoulder. She must have packed them in privacy over the course of the week, adding to them as she remembered a certain shirt or pair of pants she couldn’t be without for longer than a few days. My stomach tightened, becoming uneasy at the thought of staying here with just my father and Darcie.

“What happened?” she asked.

“Butterfingers,” my father said, forcefully grinning and wiggling the digits of his right hand. He looked like he was about to cry.

She gave him a small smile, trying to tell him, I assumed, that it would be alright. “Don’t worry, Gabe. This’ll all work out and I’ll be back before you know it.”

My father appeared defeated by their circumstances, but he still lifted his head to answer her, like it was an obligation he reluctantly accepted. “Right, of course.”

“There are some other things I’ll need brought over for these first few weeks.”

 “Just call, Marta.”

It was clear now that Darcie was here as a sort-of replacement, but to what extent and for how long I had no idea.

“And Art needs to be the one to bring them remember,” my mother said.

“Yes, of course.” My father nodded. “He can take a taxi to you.”

There was an order to what was occurring, guidelines they needed to follow to improve their own lives, but clearly not mine. I had wanted to disprove this for a long time, however, to ask them after they returned home from one of their retreats if I mattered to them. I had hoped their newly elevated moods would produce a desirable answer. But now, seeing my mother and her bags and my father and his hopelessness, it was apparent the answer was no longer of any use to me. It was the first night of their separation, although they didn’t know this yet, still believing their relationship worth saving.



BIO

Ethan Klein was born and raised in the suburbs of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he earned his B.A. from the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee. He’s trying to do this writing thing while still giving meaningful time to family and a complicated 15-year relationship with long-distance running. Currently, he lives with his wife in Eugene, Oregon, where they share a home with their dog and two cats who are always vying for their attention.



On the Ground, Looking Up

by Tori Bissonette



The air was thick and sticky against Yoon’s skin as he walked along the edge of the road. There was a drizzle, but the drops were only visible in the halos of street lamps in the velvety darkness. From his right, the sleigh-bell crescendo of peepers accompanied his journey. How did they make so much noise? Spring peepers were ugly little things but their chirps were high and demanding. It was melodic or maddening depending on one’s mood, but Yoon knew it meant spring was around the corner, even if the frost was only a few weeks past, so he couldn’t bring himself to begrudge the tinkling noise.

He let out a shout just because he could. No heads turned and no lips frowned. The nighttime took whatever he gave without second thought, pulling at the threads of his presence until there were no remnants left to say he was here at all. He sighed and liked the way it was absorbed by the woods on either side of him.

His squelching shoes took him to the middle of the road and he balanced on the yellow line. The rain wasn’t falling heavily enough to accumulate on the ground, but the road did glint under the street lights. Yoon could probably stick his tongue out and lap the humidity up if he wanted to.

Instead he balanced along the middle line with his arms out wide, pausing only to let out an occasional curse at the top of his lungs. Just because he could. He wasn’t worried about lurkers or stranger danger or any of that nonsense his sister always warned him about. The trick was to always be up to no good yourself, then the good people left you alone and the shady ones just nodded and went on their way.

He let a few more creative curses color the humid air around him before trying a handstand, which he instantly regretted as bits of water-logged asphalt stuck to his palms.

“Gross,” he mumbled, wiping them on his jeans. His sister, Tara, would complain when she did the wash, but her complaints had yet to stop him so far.

The echoes of Tara’s voice from earlier in the evening still flitted through his ears, but he shoved back her wounded indignation and broken wishes. He could see through her gentle placations. Scholarships and applications—those things took time. She’d been running around behind their backs, smiling in their faces all the way.

He wondered briefly if his mother had noticed his absence or if she was too deep in the bottle to remember him walking out. Would Tara still be there when he got back home? She’d be asleep if she was, it had to be at least two or three in the morning and he was a good two miles past the edge of town. Good students were in bed at this time of night. The houses here were sparse and there were great dips of darkness between each street light, but the moon was bright and the peepers loud, so it seemed as good a place as any to be wandering in the early hours of an April Tuesday.

Something plopped onto his canvas shoe and Yoon glanced down to find a peeper seated on the top of his foot. The frog was only about an inch or two long with tiger markings in light and dark brown. It was an unassuming thing and it looked out of place on the black material of his shoe. It looked not unlike a small dog turd, Yoon observed with a frown. Not cool.

“Okay, asshole, ride’s over.” He jerked his foot slightly, trying to dislodge the thing without launching it half a mile down the road. No luck. “Seriously. Come on.” He bent down, ready to flick the frog off if need be.

It let out a small chirp, halting Yoon’s fingers. It was distinct from the distant cries from the marshy woods behind him. Without the chorus of lonely bachelor brethren, it sounded less like a whistling melody and more like a lost chick. The frog’s throat expanded as it let out another chirp, seemingly content with its new perch and eager for a mate to join it on the other shoe.

“Sucks to be alone, don’t it?” he asked. He settled his arms on his crouched knees and watched the frog let out a few more peeps, fascinated by the way the thin throat skin inflated to nearly the size of the frog’s body.

A noise cut through the still night. Something small, but approaching quickly. Yoon twisted, making sure to keep his foot still. Atop the gentle slope of the road he could make out a bike frame glinting in the streetlight.

The rider, dressed in all black, kept his head down and his pace fast. Was he even watching at all? Yoon sat up a little straighter, but realized he couldn’t bolt, not without sending his buddy flying. This guy was headed right for him, gathering speed down the hill.

“Hey,” he tried to call out, but only a weak noise stirred in his throat. All that screaming had come back to haunt him. The muscles along his calves and thighs went tense as his heart started to beat out a warning in his chest. Holy crap, that bike was moving fast. He wondered if he could scoop the frog up and move out of the way all in one go. Probably not without getting a face full of asphalt. The bike was hardly a stone’s throw away, but the rider’s head was still ducked. Fear tightened across his ribs, nearly tipping Yoon over. Clearing his throat, he called out again, “H-Hey!”

The stranger’s head jerked up, exposing dyed blonde bangs and a pair of oversized headphones clamped over his ears. The whites of his eyes flashed in the streetlight as they went wide.

“What the hell?”

Yoon threw a hand up to protect his face, but the biker swerved. In his surprise, he overcompensated, tipping the bike and sending himself rolling across the asphalt.

“Holy crap, kid, what the hell?” Yoon lowered his arm and took in the byproduct of his near miss. The bike lay on its side a few feet away, front wheel spinning dejectedly. The stranger was seated on his ass, headphones clenched in one hand, mouth hanging open. “Seriously, what the actual hell?”

“Why weren’t you looking where you were going?” Yoon snapped.

“Why’re you in the middle of the street?” The newcomer shoved himself to his feet and stomped towards Yoon. He was short and slim, but his gruff voice and heavy steps told Yoon he was no stranger to throwing his weight around anyway.

“Hey, stop!” Yoon demanded, watching the way the frog shifted uneasily on his shoe, probably sensing the vibrations of the man walking closer. “You’ll scare him,” he scolded, looking up into the hooded face. What an asshole this guy was. Couldn’t he mind his own business?

“A frog?” the man asked, voice thick with disbelief even as he heeded Yoon’s request. “You’re crouched in the middle of Route 17 risking death and dismemberment for a frog? You really are as dumb as you look.” The stranger let out a low whistle as he shook his head. Yoon scowled up at him. With a yawn, the man stretched his hands above his head before dropping to sit on the damp pavement.

“What are you doing?” Yoon repeated, almost forgetting to keep still in his confusion. A quick glance confirmed the peeper was still settled on his shoe. It was sort of flattering in a weird way. His baggy clothes and tired eyes may drive away the rest of his classmates, but he was the number one choice of a Route 17 peeper.

“Sitting. Someone’s got to be here to tell the police why you died when they find your mangled body.”

“Are you for real?” This close he could see the stranger wasn’t that much older than him, probably only eighteen or nineteen. Same age as his sister. Sleepy eyes gazed out from under the edge of his bleached fringe.

“Ain’t got much else to do. My ma’s got a date over and, trust me, that’s something no one wants to be around to see. Besides, there’s peepers that need protecting, apparently.” Stifling another yawn, he continued. “So what’s your name, kid?”

Yoon scowled. “I’m fifteen. I’m not a kid. And the name’s Yoon.” He directed his gaze down to his frog buddy. Would he leap away if Yoon poked him? Was his skin dry or wet? All his life he’d lived around here and he’d never touched one before.

“Yoon? The hell kind of name is that?”

Yoon bristled. He didn’t have many things left to remember his dad by. He certainly wouldn’t stand for some stranger mocking the name his dad had chosen specially for him. “It’s Australian. My dad—”

“Never mind, I already don’t care. Nice to meet you, kid. I’m Sandie.” He scratched at some dried mud on his shoe as he introduced himself.

“Your name is Sandie and you made fun of my name?”

“It’s short for Sanderson,” Sandie said and Yoon envied the way he brushed it off with a shrug. No defensive fire in his throat and no concern in his mind for others’ opinions.  “So, kid. What’re you doing out so late anyway? Isn’t it past your bedtime?”

Yoon let his gaze dip to the pavement again. It had felt like the best thing to do at the time. Something bold and brash. Something to make his mother and sister stop yelling for one moment. His sister had looked to him for support, for someone to fight in her corner, but Yoon had wanted to make it clear that their mom wasn’t the only person Tara was leaving in the dust in her search for greener pastures.

But it was hard not to feel dumb now, sitting in the middle of the soggy road, trying to keep a frog on his shoe. Did he think he was going to shock them into getting along? His sister had made it clear: her plans were set. Her duty to her family only extended so far. She was leaving in the fall with or without their blessing.

“Crap, car’s coming.”

As they both rose, Yoon sent one last frown at the frog before nudging him off with the toe of his other shoe. He hopped away easily, unbothered by their parting.

The car went by quickly, spraying them with a fine mist of road water. It cut off Yoon’s view of the frog and he couldn’t locate the small thing in the dark grass afterwards.

“Hey, kid.” Sandie poked Yoon’s bicep with a wet stick. “You run away from home or something?”

His frog friend was gone and so was his reason for staying. It was a dumb plan anyway. His mother and sister wouldn’t be holding each other and weeping as they waited for his return. His mother was probably asleep on the couch, exhausted by the demands of yelling at her only daughter. And Tara was probably up in her room, highlighting her textbooks and filling out her college applications, jumping at any chance that passed her way to get away from her family.

“Or something, I guess,” Yoon replied. “Just had to get out for a bit.” In the wake of the passing car, the road seemed empty and quiet, like that one moment of disruption had altered the evening irreparably. Yoon was overtaken with longing for his bed, even if the sheets were the same blue planet ones he’d had since he was ten. If only there wasn’t a household of frigid silence between him and his room.

Sandie grabbed his bike, flicking a wet leaf off the seat as he went. “You got someone you can call for a ride?”

Yoon cringed. Tonight was turning out to be full of even more bad decisions than he’d realized. “I forgot my phone. I sort of left in a hurry.” It’d hardly felt important fifteen minutes ago when he was whooping and hollering and jumping all over the place. But now, he just felt stupid. Instead of asserting himself, he’d only asserted his own childishness. No wonder Tara never took him seriously.

“It’s a miracle you’ve lived to fifteen.” Sandie gestured Yoon over as he mounted the bike. “Get on, I’ll give you a ride back to town.”

Yoon hesitated. He didn’t know this kid at all. Sandie could be a murderer. Or worse, one of those black market kidney thieves. Yoon’s hand floated to his abdomen as if to keep his organs in place.

Sandie exhaled through his nose noisily. He cooked his head and shot Yoon a crooked smile. “Look, kid, I get it. Shit gets bad at home sometimes. My old man used to yell all the time before he fucked off to who knows where. And good riddance, really. But my ma would skin me if I left some poor defenseless kid out here to die. I’m trying to be a proper gentleman, alright? Just like my ma raised me. So get on before you get flattened.”

Yoon’s mom had raised him to be suspicious of any charitable gestures. There’s always a catch. But Tara had taught him to be courteous with strangers and between her and his mother, Tara was miles ahead in life. With a hum of appreciation and a small nod, he accepted.

With his feet on either side of the rear wheel hub, Yoon climbed on behind Sandie, holding tight to the other’s shoulders for balance. The thought of arriving home and creeping through the darkness made something tight build in his throat. Walking out was so easy. Walking back was so hard. No wonder his sister was trying to turn her back on them as fast as she could.

“My sister,” he began, surprised to find the words passing his lips. “She’s trying to get into college.”

Even with only a few inches between them, Yoon wasn’t sure if Sandie could hear him over the sound of the tires on wet pavement and the air rushing past their ears. Sandie took the wet corners faster than Yoon would have and the air, comfortable only ten minutes ago, nipped at Yoon’s exposed arms. He wondered if frogs could feel cold like humans could. He hoped his frog buddy made it back to his frog friends. Sandie’s hood slipped all the way off, exposing his head of faux blond hair, complete with dark roots. It looked alive and wild as it twitched and waved in the breeze. Yoon was tempted to touch it and see if it was soft.

“Good for her,” Sandie called back, nearly startling Yoon into releasing his grip. Sandie didn’t complain as Yoon clenched onto his shoulders a little tighter.

He thought of the ugly pinch of his mom’s narrowed eyes as Tara laid out her college ambitions. It may be good for her, but it wasn’t good for them.

“She’s abandoning us,” he said, putting his mouth closer to Sandie’s ear to make sure there was no mishearing. When Tara had first graduated from high school two years ago, she’d seemed content to be the breadwinner for the household. Lord knew their mother wouldn’t do it. She couldn’t hold down a job for the life of her. Tara was everything their mother wasn’t.

Apparently she was also keen on getting the hell out of dodge.

Sandie tipped his head as they cut through the dark night and spoke over his shoulder, “You mean she’s abandoning you.”

It wasn’t that Yoon would have to get a job. It wasn’t even that the burden of cooking and cleaning would fall on his shoulders. It was about being alone when their mother was out at the bar spending the spare cash they didn’t have. It was about having no one to whisper to late at night. All that would be left was Yoon and his mother’s nicotine smiles and her empty wallet.

Tara could leave, but Yoon couldn’t. For some reason, he’d always expected her to wait for him. But here she was, running away without a care in the world for him. So much for the sibling bond.

“She’s being selfish,” he grumbled, dropping his gaze to the fabric at the back of Sandie’s jacket. The rain had stopped completely as they neared the edge of the main drag, with the first shops taking shape as they pulled out of the darkness. There were more street lamps here, but still no people. It wasn’t the sort of place to have hooligans and vandals out at all hours. Just two kids on a bike.

“Oh I see,” Sandie said, his low voice cutting through the still air without remorse. “She’s too stupid for school so why bother going?”

Yoon nearly tumbled off the bike and Sandie was forced to drop his feet to the ground or risk his second crash of the night. Yoon yanked himself off and pulled himself to his full height alongside Sandie. “My sister isn’t dumb, you asshole.” His breathing was loud, an almost animalistic echo filling his ears. Who the hell did this guy think he was?

Sandie was hardly intimidated. With his hood down, his full face was on display and a smirk twitched on the edges of his lips. His pale skin looked almost otherworldly in the lamp light and the shadows playing off the bags under his eyes gave him a haggard appearance. It wasn’t a long day that was painted on his face, but rather a long life. A permanent state of exhaustion hung on his frame even as he held a cocky tilt to his head.

Yoon paused. He thought about Sandie leaving so his mom could have a nice date. He thought about a shadowy dad figure, disappearing one day without a second glance. Really, Sandie was placing just as much trust in Yoon as Yoon was in him. For all Sandie knew, Yoon could be the organ-harvesting delinquent out to find a mark. But he’d still offered a ride.

 Sandie said nothing, observing Yoon with an even gaze. It was something Tara did too, watching and waiting, knowing Yoon would eventually fill the silence. Yoon sighed, trying to ease the tightness in his chest. Anger was so much easier to carry than this. No amount of petulance would begin to fill the aching chasm that formed in his chest when he thought of losing the company of his misery.

“She’s good at school,” he finally mumbled, scuffing the wet pavement with his shoe.

She was. Maybe balancing checkbooks and cooking dinners on a tight dime weren’t the “college-ready skills” that he saw in pamphlets around the high school, but he knew Tara would do well because she held herself to standards higher than anyone could set for her.

The evening had started so normally, but Tara had blurted out her plans in a fit of frustration. She was going to college. She laid it all out with words that were foreign in Yoon’s ears but familiar on Tara’s tongue. Scholarships. Work study. Housing plans. She’d arranged it all already. This was no spur of the moment decision and the realization that Yoon had been playing the fool the whole time stung the most. “How could you abandon your family?” their mother had asked and there was no surprise or disappointment on Tara’s face. It was resignation at best that flattened out her usually expressive features and kept the prim pinch on her lips.

Yoon knew there was pain somewhere in there. A flicker of hope that her aggressive self-sufficiency might be recognized or applauded. A good brother would have offered support when her eyes flicked across the table to land on him. A good brother might have suggested a rational discussion when their mother’s eyes followed suit, burying him under their collective gazes.

Instead, he’d gone for the door. Nearly three hours later, he was almost back, standing just two blocks away on the side of Pearl Street with a relative stranger, bemoaning his own loneliness and whining about his sister’s ambitions.

“My mom says she’s abandoning us. My mom’s really bad at holding down jobs and keeping up the house and all that.”

“So you agree with your mom?”

“No,” he said, surprised at how fast the word came to his lips. His mother was someone he never wanted to be lumped in with.

“Sure sounds like you do.” That was probably what Tara thought too, as she went to bed alone while Yoon ran wild in the streets. It was what made going back so hard, that heavy weight in his stomach and the sticky drag of his feet. No emotion weighed more than shame.

Sandie’s hand landed on his shoulder but Yoon couldn’t meet his gaze. “I think you’re being too hard on your sister. It’s a shit hand, for sure, but you gotta make it through the rest of high school.”

Sandie fished around in his sweatshirt pocket and produced a pen with a brutally chewed cap. He started scribbling something on the back of Yoon’s hand as he spoke. “In the meantime, go home. Try to keep your shit together for a few more years and text me if you get stuck by anymore frogs in the road.” He tapped the phone number written on the back of Yoon’s hand before moving back to his bike.

As expected, the lights were off and the house silent when Yoon pushed open the front door. He could just make out his mother’s form on the couch, a mostly empty bottle of liquor on the coffee table in front of her. No worries about accidentally waking her then.

The door to his bedroom yawned open at the end of the hall, but his feet stopped one door earlier. His fist hovered over the door, reticent to slice through the tentative silence. Silence didn’t necessarily mean peace, he reminded himself as he traced over the poorly written numbers on the back of his hand.

Tara didn’t answer his quiet knock, but he pressed the door open anyway. The moonlight filtering in through the blinds glinted over her wet eyes. She offered no objections to his presence, which he took as an invitation to continue. With the ease of experience he dodged the hip-slashing edge of her desk and the pile of textbooks stacked at the foot of her bed.

Her sheets were old like his, only pale pink with yellow daisies, and they were pilled and worn thin. He moved next to her, shoulders just barely touching. Laid out like sardines, they stared at the blank expanses of her ceiling.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered.

“I know,” she said. The faint rise and fall of their chests was the only movement in the early hours of the morning and Yoon wished he could capture this moment forever. Soon she’d be gone and this silence of mutual understanding and comradery would be gone as well.

Tara sighed and her fingers tangled themselves in Yoon’s, unknowingly touching the phone number there. “I’m not trying to leave you behind. But I have to do this for myself.”

“I know,” he echoed. He wanted to tell her how much she was hurting him. He wanted to tell her how scared he was to be here alone. But he’d had his tantrum, he whined his grievances. Enough of that. He wanted to be the sort of person who stopped for lonely frogs and the sort of person who kept strangers company in the middle of the night. Maybe tomorrow he’d send Sandie a text. Maybe they could become friends. Maybe Yoon could repay him for his kindness.

For now though, he held tight to his sister’s hand.



BIO

Tori Bissonette (she/her) is a Vermont-transplant currently living in Philadelphia. She studies creative writing and English as a graduate student at Arcaida University. Her writing primarily deals with human connection and the human condition through a realist lens. Presently she’s the Submissions Manager and Nonfiction Editor for Marathon Literary Review, Arcadia’s MFA-run literary magazine. When she’s not writing, she can be found hiking or cooking. This is her first publication.

Concerto de Aranjuez Transcribed for the Ukulele

by Paul Garson



   “If there’s one thing I’ve learned in life it’s that both the game of chess and the piano are percussion instruments,” said my Bisabuelo Domingo de Navarra as he tuned the ukulele he had brought back from Hawaii before I was born, in fact before my grandmother was born. I remember he told me that it still had a sticker on its back, one that said, ‘Welcome to Pearl Harbor.”

    “I thought the piano was classified as a stringed instrument,” I said while wondering how at 94 he could still wrest a tune from the antique ukulele, almost a toy at that.

   “Yes, in the classical sense but when you’re playing Rachmaninoff with the necessary jackhammer hands pounding out the notes, the piano becomes a percussion instrument like a kettle drum. And as far as chess, you never saw Bobby Fisher banging out his variation of the Sicilian Opening. Ten megatons at least.”

    “But chess is a game of finesse,” I said hoping I could egg him on to a game, my regional tournament just a week away.

   “Finesse, schimesse,” laughed my Bisabuelo, then held the ukulele next to his good ear, strumming the four strings until satisfied with what he heard. “Okay, let’s give her a good twanging.” He began to play Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concerto de Aranjuez.

   “How is that you can play that piece with only four strings when it requires at least six if not the eight of a full-sized guitar?”

   “Easy peasy. Just make each of the four strings sound like two.” And he played on for five more minutes. Until his fingernails started bleeding or what was left of his fingernails. He stopped and dipped them in the bowl of ice water he kept ready, then said, “Did you know that Rodrigo who wrote this did not play the guitar himself?”

   “How is that possible?” I said watching the water in the bowl turn red.

   “He heard the music in his head…like the chess moves you see in your head.”

   “When did he write that music?”

   “1939, just about the time the Nazis tore into Poland.”

   “Why did he call it Concerto de Aranjuez?”

   “There was a famous place in Spain, a very beautiful estate, just south of Madrid. So beautiful that only members of the Royal Court of King Phillip II were allowed to dwell there. This was the time of the Conquistadors and Spain’s expeditions to Mexico and South America. A lot of gold was brought back so the King could afford to spend some money making the place even fancier.”

   “Were you ever there?”
   “Yes, during the Civil War in 1936. I was only nine.”

   “Which side were you on?”

   “The side of music,” said his Great Grandfather. “But then one day I played the wrong tune on the small guitar my father had given me.” With that he held up his hands, the splintered nails still bleeding. “They thought they would keep me from ever playing again, but they were wrong. I learned to play through the pain. Just like you and your chess.”

   “But my fingers don’t bleed when I play chess. There is no pain at all. Anywhere.” Then I laughed and said, “Unless I lose.”

    My Great Grandfather put down the ukulele and brought a guitar case out from under his bed and opened it. He held it up close so I can see it its outline. “I have something new to show you.”

     “Is that a Gibson, a Fender, a Martin? I don’t recognize the shape.”

     “No, though they made excellent guitars. This happens to be a Stradivarius.”

     I had to laugh. “Are your trying to trick me. I can tell the shape of a violin from a guitar.”

    “Yes, you can. But it truly is a Stradivarius guitar, one of a small handful. The Stradivari family made about a thousand instruments, some 960 violins, but they also made a few violas, cellos and guitars with the same passion and unique quality of construction.”

   “I wish I could touch it.”

   “I wish you could, too. Do you know what secret makes the Stradivarius violin’s sound so unique?”

    “I understand it was the wood.”

     “True, the wood was a most important part. There was another ingredient that went into the best Stradivarius violins. And also this guitar.”

      I laughed again. “Did they soak the wood in a special pasta sauce?”

      “Close, but no cigar,” said my Bisabuelo. “You guessed the right color. You saw it in my bowl of ice water.”

      “Blood? Are you saying blood was used?”

      “That’s why they say the Stradivarius cries like no other violin…ask Paganini or better yet Ithzak Perlman since he’s still with us.”

       “I will ask Mr. Perlman since I understand he also plays chess.”

        “I get the feeling you are challenging me to a game?”

        “Well, I have the tournament next week and there are a lot of older players, some almost as old as you.”

      “Is that possible?”

       “Well, maybe not. But I’m only 12 and there are old guys in their 30s and even 40s I will have to play. I heard some weren’t too happy about playing me. Because of the gizmo. They say my voice sounds too scary.”

       “Well, if they want to hear scary, let me come along and play my ukulele with my toes.”

         I laughed and said. “So…will you play, just one game?”

         “Okay, but you know I have trouble remembering all those Be5‘s and Nf3’s.  I can’t play in my fuzzy old head like you do.”

        “Don’t worry about the notations. Just use your real board and tell me what piece you moved and where.”

       “Okay, I can do that. Is your gizmo ready?”

        “Is the green light on?”

        “Yes.”

         “You can go first.”

        “Please don’t beat me in three moves again. Remember I’m just an old man who plays the ukulele.”

         “Sorry, I can’t promise to show any mercy.”

         “I understand, completely.”


BIO

Paul Garson is an American writer and photographer who lives and writes in Los Angeles in a small apartment with an old rug and a loyal cat. He has written nonfiction articles—many with his own photography—for over 70 US and international publications as well as written a dozen nonfiction books. He has high hopes of being a space tourist or at least getting to Iceland before it turns into Hawaii.

“The Language of Flowers”

by Jennifer Lorene Ritenour


When I think about Amá’s death it comes in pieces and the memories, they’re all out of order, as if someone took them and shook them around in my head. The first memory is always different, but the last memory is always the same, with her being in a box. Right now, I’m thinking about her hair. It was thick, wavy, and soft brown, and in the light it had a little red in it. She didn’t have much of a waist but she had great legs. Thick in the thighs without being like Jell-O. She wore tight mini-skirts to show them off. The men whistled and she would smile. She drove them loco. It always made me laugh because I know she did it to mess with them.

*

Nicole lived in the apartment next to us. I felt bad for her because one time I heard all this yelling coming from her house, and then the next thing I heard was crying outside my window. I pulled up the blinds and I saw Nicole sitting there in the dirt where a bush should be. I opened my window and talked to her through the screen and asked her what was wrong. She just kept crying. I told her that she couldn’t be crying all night underneath my window, so she had to tell me what was up. And she got real quiet. She said that her parents were fighting and she didn’t want to be there anymore, with them. I told her that I had to sleep. We have school tomorrow. She didn’t move and kept sniffling. I told her that I didn’t want to hear her sniffles all night. Eventually, I took off the screen door and let her crawl into my window. She slept on the floor.

*

Amá used to say that she had a tickle in her throat. It wasn’t a deep cough but more like a hacking sound. When she’d finished coughing she’d grab a Ricola and suck on it. She kept a bag of them in her purse. I got tired of seeing her reach for those medicine candies. I told her to go to the doctor. I have no insurance mija, she would say. I told her to go to the free clinic. Her eyes looked foggy, like an old dog or something.

*

Amá taught me the sign of the cross and The Lord’s Prayer when I was real little. She’d said I didn’t need anything else. One day when she was dropping me off at school and we were stopped at a red light she asked me if I remembered the prayer and the sign of the cross. So, I showed her. A black mascara tear rolled out from underneath her sunglasses and she said, Nothing can get in the way between you and God.

*

I used to go to the liquor store after school. This guy from Iran owned it. I know he was from Iran because I asked him. His store sold Mexican candy and it was close to my house so I would always get Lucas there. The chili powder kind. It comes in a little plastic salt shaker. You shake it into your hand and then lick it. I brought Nicole there after she slept on my floor for the first time. She said she didn’t like hot things. So, I bought her limón flavored. She held out her hand, and I remember thinking how it looked like a scared white bird. I shook the candy into her palm. And she looked at me and she looked at the stuff in her hand, and I knew she was thinking that I gave her salt, but I told her it was okay. I poured some in my hand up and I dipped my tongue into my palm and she smiled. Then she dipped her tongue into her palm and smacked her lips and said it was okay.

*

My abuelos came to visit us from San Pedro, we lived in Riverside, and they sat on the couch and talked to each other in Spanish. I didn’t know hardly anything they talked about. I knew only the simple things. ¿Hola, cómo estás? And some of the bad words. Pinche. What I knew was useless. Sometimes my Abuelo would smile at me and I would smile back all awkward. My Abuelita, well, she couldn’t even look at me without sadness at that time. I think it was because she was ashamed of the sin I was born from, because my parents weren’t married, and probably because my dad left us. I only saw them during the holidays up until that point. When Amá  got sick we just sat on the couch and looked at our hands when we heard her coughing in the bathroom.

*

I remember once when we went to visit my abuelos in San Pedro and stayed the night. Amá wanted to take me to my first bonfire. It was just me and her at Cabrillo Beach though. My abuelos didn’t feel like going. Amá had on an orange-colored bikini, a white cover-up, gold sandals and she looked like a freaking Goddess. It was night, and we were sitting in front of the fire. I wore my regular clothes. Three men sat at a bonfire next to us. One was Mexican like us. They drank beers and sang songs to Amá. She laughed but it wasn’t a real laugh, it was a fake one, because she whimpered a little at the end. She was scared. And I just stared into the fire because I didn’t want to be around that. Then I felt really uncomfortable, like something was on my back, and I looked to the side and one of the men was looking at me all nasty. You know, where their eyes become slits. And he quietly puckered his lips. That’s when Amá said it was time to go and when we got into the car she cursed in Spanish about men and then complained in English that she can’t even take her daughter to the damn beach.

*

I had woken up all scared and sweaty. But I couldn’t remember my nightmare. Something about losing teeth. Nicole was sleeping on my floor that night, and my sheets were too damp. So, I got out of bed and I lay down next to her on the cool floor.

*

I remember one doctor visit at the clinic. Me and my abuelos and Amá. She was gone inside one of those little rooms. The doctor came out and said a bunch of Spanish to my Abuelos. My Abuelita put her hand to her chest. My Abuelo squeezed her when she said mi dios, mi dios. I knew that. I got worried. Then the doctor went back to the room and my Abuelos sat down and they had wet faces. I heard a nurse behind the counter say to the other nurse, without whispering, that she couldn’t believe that woman tried to hide it for so long, and the other one said that she would probably go soon. They didn’t think I knew English.

*

Amá used to have a picture of my dad in her wallet. It was the only picture I ever saw of him. He had thick dark hair and tanned skin, a long nose and hazel eyes. He wore a blue flannel shirt and some jeans and some boots. I had his hair, that’s it. I looked nothing like him. Except for the eyes. Amá, her eyes were a deep brown. She used to say, I thought I had a prince but he ended up being a pendejo. I’d ask her why she kept this picture then. She’d put it away quick and then say, looking down, that it was for me. 

*

Nicole had asked me what was wrong. We were in my bed, underneath the covers. It was cold, but we both had our hoodies on so I didn’t mind it much. I was crying then. I remember I couldn’t open my eyes and look at Nicole. I told her my mom was gonna die and I didn’t know why this was gonna happen and that there was nothing I could do about it. And it hurt so bad. I think it was in that moment I really felt it, before it even happened. It was like there was this burning thing in my chest and I couldn’t cry it out because I didn’t want to wake my family, and I didn’t want them to find out about Nicole sleeping in my room. She touched my face. And I opened my eyes. Nicole’s eyes were watery too. She said she didn’t know why my mom had to die. She stroked my forehead when she said this. I asked what could we do with all of this? She didn’t know. Nothing, she said. I let her hold me that night, my face in her chest. Our hot breaths under the blanket. She ran her hands through my hair and shushed me to sleep. 

*

Amá wanted to keep her hair. I found her once in the bathroom in her robe. She used to lay all day in that robe. It was pink and always looked so soft. Like she was wrapped up in cotton candy or something. I found her in the bathroom; she was sitting on the floor. Her robe had green vomit stains on it. Her hands were moving slow. And I could see her scalp. All she had were these thin wires sticking out of her head. She moved her hands over the tile like she was looking for the rest of her hair.

*

Amá came home crying once. I was sitting on the floor in front of the TV. I think I was eating macaroni and cheese. She came in holding her high heels, and there was all this make-up running down her face. She sat on the couch and lit a cigarette. Her hair was curled and framed her face like a lion. I told her she looked like a dead clown. She put her cigarette out and laughed. She laughed really loud. She asked me to come to her and I did. She wrapped her arms around me and kissed the top of my head. Mija, mija, she said. She told me that it was better to come home to a daughter then to a stupid man. She must have really thought he was the one. Whoever he was.

*

I waited for Nicole one day at the liquor store. She didn’t show up. So, I put the chili Lucas and the Limón Lucas in my backpack. When I got home, I knocked on her door. But I didn’t hear nothing. I wanted to turn the doorknob, but I was scared of her parents, these white people that yelled all the damn time but I’d never seen. I had put my face up real close to their window. Through the cracks in the blinds and I saw that her living room had nothing in it but carpet.

*

Amá was in the recliner and I was sitting at her feet. They were just like ice. Her skin, which used to be smooth and soft brown, was grey and loose. Her eyes were rolled up and her teeth were chattering. Her hair and her eyebrows were gone. She was just a round head popping up from her robe. Abuelo was holding her hand. He was on his knees, and he was asking God to help her. He said his prayer over and over to where it didn’t sound like Spanish or even English, but another language that only he and God understood. His forehead was all tight. Abuelita lit all these candles with pictures of Mary and Jesus and Saints on them. I asked her what the hell were they good for, these candles. Don’t do nothing but make the room hot. But Abuelita wouldn’t understand me, and I didn’t have the energy to try and say it in Spanish.

*

Amá sold Avon for extra money. She kept the samples she liked and convinced our neighbors to buy lipstick and rouge and all kinds of creams for their faces. On New Year’s Eve there’d be a line of women waiting to have Amá make them pretty, like her, and even if they didn’t come out looking like Amá, they came out feeling like her. Their backs straight and smiles all big.

*

One time I was sitting on a bench near the basketball courts at school during lunch; all the kids circled me and asked me where my weird friend was. The white girl who wore the same clothes every day. I knew what clothes they were talking about. A black T-shirt and a pair of dirty jeans. I told them that I didn’t know and that I couldn’t worry about it right now. And one of the girls got real sassy and said that maybe Nicole was living in a box in an alley somewhere. I told that puta not to play like that. And my eyes, I knew they had lots of anger in them because she backed off and got this fear on her face. She said that I really was weird like Nicole. Everyone left me alone. And I thought about the night Nicole held me to sleep. Then, I felt real cold. 

*

Amá was put into the hospital after her fingernails and toenails fell off. I used to rub the raw area, where the nail used to be, real light, when she was sleeping. After school I would take the bus to the hospital. I would sit in a chair in the room that Amá was put in. I would do my homework while these ladies, sometimes men, would come in and fix her wires and that little bag of water they put in her and that little bag of liquid for the pain. Amá didn’t talk much and I didn’t talk much. When she could talk she would say mija, and I would say Amá. And she would roll back. 

*

Mija, she said in a daze in front of the TV. ¿Qué? I said. The movie she was watching was Cinderella from the 1960s. The actress had brown hair, wearing her cleaning clothes, and had a perfect smudge on her white cheek. Nothing, she said. Then the fairy godmother came on the screen and waved her wand and changed Cinderella’s life. Amá laughed and said Cinderella was stupid. It’s better to be the Fairy Godmother because she can do anything she wants with that star shaped wand. I laughed too.

*

I went to the liquor store the day after Nicole was gone. I bought myself a mango sucker. I wanted something fruity. I sat on the floor against the store’s wall. The concrete was hot from the sun, so I kept my sandals on. I wanted to hear someone say: Hey.  And I wanted to look up and it be Nicole. I’d ask her where she’d been. She’d sit down next to me. She’d have cut her blonde hair short. She’d say that her parents got better jobs and that they moved into a house. That she had her own room now and she had lots of different clothes. Dresses. A light blue dress, almost silver, would look nice with her yellow hair. I’d tell her that it was a nice area, and what was she doing down here? She’d say that she wanted to find me and eat candy and ask me to live with her once Amá died. Her parents became good, like parents on TV, but this was just my daydreams.

*

The day I stopped doing my homework, I knew I was running out of time. Her eyes, the whites, turned as yellow as banana skin. Amá would shake, and finally I just couldn’t take it, and I asked the doctor why she shook and why her eyes were yellow, and he took off his glasses and he sat down and he looked at the floor and he said that her pain was so big that her painkiller had to be bigger and that plugged up her liver, which made her eyes yellow. I asked, what about the shaking, could you make her stop doing that? And he looked at me and he told me that the morphine wasn’t touching her anymore.

*

Amá sang in the bathroom while she crimped her hair. Everything from Gloria Estefan to George Michael. She didn’t sound like a Disney Princess but she didn’t crack any glasses either. Sometimes when she was on the phone outside on the porch smoking and talking, I’d go into the bathroom, stare into the medicine cabinet mirror, put on her lipstick, and sing all dramatic. She’d come back in, my lipstick already wiped off, and tell me that was a good impression.

*

I went to the liquor store and I bought the chili Lucas. The owner asked if I was sure I didn’t want the limón flavor like I always get. I told him I used to buy that one for my friend but she moved away and that I really like the chili kind. He told me he would make sure to keep the chili kind in stock. I thanked him and walked out of the store crying. I knew this was my last trip to this store because Amá was going to die and I would have to leave Riverside and live with my Abuelos in San Pedro soon. I don’t even know the store owner but he was nice to me without even knowing what was happening.

*

I remember her stomach being swollen like Amá was going to give me a brother or a sister. But I knew that it was all the sickness swelling up inside of her. My Abuelos ate downstairs at the cafeteria. I never felt like eating anything then but candy. Amá kept saying, No pueden encontrarme. And I told her that I loved her, but I don’t think she heard. Everything she said at that point was in Spanish. She would giggle, and I would get scared because she didn’t even seem like Amá anymore, she seemed like a demon with her yellow eyes. And for the first time I told God. I closed my eyes tight and I told him he did this to her and now it’s enough, that he needs to take her because her gums are red with blood now. And I opened my eyes. And I remember I saw the sickness in Amá’s stomach move. It went up the side of her chest, where her once full breast used to be. And then to her throat, like a frog, and I was scared that she was going to choke, but I stayed in my seat. Then her mouth opened and out of it came this large ball of moving lights. So many lights, like tiny rainbows. And it went through the window like it wasn’t ever there. 

*

One time Amá painted my toenails. Black and orange for Halloween. I felt silly with them, so I asked her to do it too. She shook me lightly by the shoulders and said that she wasn’t a niñita like me.  But then I gave her my sad-girl face, and she sighed and said okay. That day we wore sandals together to the grocery store but no one noticed our feet and that was okay.

*

I dreamt about Nicole. We were standing in a dark room. I couldn’t see the floor, the walls, nothing. She poured the Lucas into my hand and instead of the candy, it was sparkling light that fell from the container like water. Thank you, she whispered.

*

The church was filled with flowers. White ones, yellow ones and red ones. All marigolds. We had a picture of her when she wasn’t sick blown up and put on an easel. Her coffin was closed. No one wanted to see her all shriveled up and bald. I couldn’t listen to the priest; I just kept staring from her picture to her coffin. She was really in there. That’s what I kept thinking. And her picture, it was so weird, it felt frozen in time. And the other thing about it, about pictures of dead people, is that even if you didn’t know that they were dead at the time, you could look at their picture and think, that person is dead. Or at least I could always tell. But the priest, he made us repeat the words about Jesus and Mary and mothers and sons and stuff, and I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about, but he kept singing it like a song, and I swear each prayer lasted like twenty minutes. The whole thing took forever. At one point he had us stand and sit back down a couple times too. And that’s all I remember about it, the picture, the closed coffin holding her sick dead body, and the little priest at the podium singing. Then after that we drove to the cemetery and they brought the coffin to the plot and they lowered Amá into the ground, and when I saw that, I thought, it’s over. Her friends were there and a few men that I didn’t know, though none of them had been there while she was in the hospital, none of them, even when she was alive they couldn’t see her soul. Pendejos. We all looked down on that box. I was never going to see her again. I was never going to feel her curls on my cheek when she hugged me, or smell her musky perfume. I was never going to hear her sing while she got ready for work. I was never going to listen to her cry about her boyfriends. My fat tears plopped on her casket. She deserved a nice man, a prince, to love her. There was so much never. 

*

I skipped the funeral party. I left everyone in my old house, neighbors, cousins, tios, eating their food. It was the middle of the day and our apartment was right by the orange groves. I walked through them and smelled the citrus while I kicked up dusty dirt and listened to my Walkman with Amá’s Santana mixtape on repeat. As the sun went down behind the mountain, I made sure to get back home before everyone would worry where I was at. I just wasn’t hungry.

*

My new life in San Pedro, those who were born here call it pee-drow, began with Abuelo’s voice echoing in the house when he left to go to work, construction. The smell of his coffee floated into my new room under the crack of the door. Abuelita warmed up his pan dulce, just for a couple seconds to make it warm. My stomach grumbled before the hum of the microwave started and filled the house with sugar. I heard him leave from the rattle of the security door.

*

I went to the kitchen, and there Abuelita stood, back turned to me, with her arms up to her elbows and soapy water. She stared out the open window at the wall of jasmine on a trellis, and I wondered what she thought but didn’t ask. She was in a trance. Stared at the jasmine but didn’t really see it. She inhaled the perfume from the flowers and it was like her mind went somewhere else, somewhere private and hers. She shook her head and scrubbed a dish like she never even stopped. A pink concha, on a plate, was left on the table for me. I sat down and ate it in torn-off pieces. She made me a cup of decaf to go with it, brewed with cinnamon and sugar.

*

Abuelita wore a bright-colored sundress. A striped pattern of green, fuchsia and turquoise. Her gold-hooped earrings dangled from her thick earlobes when she would put a dish in the rack to dry. When she was done, she took her earrings out. She sat at the table with me and ate with me even though she probably wasn’t that hungry.

*

In Abuelita’s room there’s a dresser mirror with prayer cards shoved in the corner. Doilies are sprawled across its surface with one small jewelry box in the center. I open it sometimes. The wood smells like mothballs. Inside are two of Abuelita’s small hoop earrings, a pearl drop necklace, an opal ring, and Amá’s turquoise bracelet that she strung herself. I put on the bracelet. It hung on my wrist, heavy. She could have had her own jewelry store. I opened the top dresser drawer to find large silk panties, nylon stockings to the knees, Abuelita’s underthings. Among them I found a photo in black and white and recognized Abuelita because the small mole above her right eyebrow was there. The ‘40s and ‘50s, those unfair decades, but everyone looked like movie stars. I liked the way Abuelita’s hair was curled tight and how her teeth peeked from behind her dark lipstick. She looked at the camera, over her bare shoulder, all flirty. The blurred outline of her body reminded me of the fuzziness in dreams.

*

In the nightstand drawer is a wooden box with La Santa Biblia in gold lettering. Once, I lifted the rusty latch and inside saw the portrait of Jesus; one hand was raised, one hand tapped his chest, a thin golden halo surrounded his head. His face looked feminine and soft. His beard was trimmed into two peaks and reminded me of something more devil-like than holy. A ring of thorns squeezed his exposed heart. When I saw the drops of blood, I couldn’t help but flinch and bring my own hand to my chest. I flipped the thin see-through pages of the Bible. It fanned a smell of its own like money. I pinched out a piece of the page from the Bible with the word sangre printed on it and placed it on my tongue. Bitter. I don’t know why I thought it would taste like cotton candy. Jesus’ eyes squinted at me, and I snapped the book shut in its case. 

*

In my room there’s a crack in the wall. Stretched up near the ceiling from the Northridge earthquake. It happened in the middle of the night and felt like our house was a new toy in a baby’s hands. I got up and yelled for Amá, reached in front of me in the dark. I felt clothes. Lost in the closet. Freaking out, I told myself I was going to die in the closet, suffocate by sweaters. Then Amá wrapped her cold hand around my forearm and pulled me into the doorway. She held on to me tight while the earth moved under our feet. Though she held her breath, her heart beat fast against my cheek. I looked up at her face, focused on the mole above her eyebrow, Abuelita, not Amá.

*

Abuelo came home and smelled like a wet sock, and his hair was plastered to his head from his yellow hard hat. He barely said hello as he put his empty coffee canister in the sink and then jumped straight into the shower. He met us when the food was placed on the table, wore a fresh white T-shirt, sweat pants, hair slicked back from being shampooed. His face was freshly scrubbed, but his puffy eyes and droopy cheeks showed how tired he was.

*

From the kitchen table, I noticed a hornet’s nest in the corner of the window near our front porch. It looked like a honeycomb. I stared at the slick wings of the hornet, its jittery body crawled up, in, and around its nest. I pointed to it and Abuelo stood from the table. He sighed, grabbed the broom, and then went out the front door. I sat inside the house, safe, while Abuelo took the stick end of the broom, held his breath, counted to three, and whacked the nest. It crumbled like graham crackers.

*

I watched Abuelita through the window water the plants. She stood on the balls of her feet and stretched herself taller to get at the tomatoes that hung over our porch. Her chapped and rough heels lifted from the bottoms of her yellow slippers covered in dirt. I worried when she got shaky, like I wouldn’t be able to catch her. She wiped her sweaty face with the back of her hand and came inside the house. 

*

Abuelo put the paper down in his lap and told her she looked sick. But she waved her hand and said she was fine, just a fever. We told her to rest, and for once she listened. I hummed a song to her while she slept in the recliner. Abuelita’s cheeks were sagged, her mouth randomly chewed, her snores got stuck in her nose, and then came out in squeaks. She woke up for a moment and then settled back into sleep. I hummed a song to her sweaty forehead, her faded red eyelids, and the soft hairs in her nostrils. 

*

I made Top Ramen for dinner. Me and Abuelo ate in silence, slurped our noodles; neither of us got full. Cooking isn’t so bad, I said. When we finished our meal, Abuelo took the plates away and filled them with hot water and soap. He scrubbed them with a sponge and then turned them upside down on the rack to dry. The next morning, I made us cereal in the same bowls we ate the ramen from. As soon as I poured the milk in the bowls, rainbow bubbles rose; Abuelo didn’t rinse them well enough. That afternoon, our new neighbor came over, an Italian lady. She heard about Amá and made us lasagna. This dish of mourning, she called it.

Abuelita told me my clothes were like a boy’s. That I wear too many T-shirts and jeans. I told her just because our family has changed doesn’t mean I have to wear dresses all the time. I have one ugly dress, lime green with white polka dots. I wore it to Amá’s funeral. I refused to wear black. Abuelita had ironed it and when she was done, I pictured her wedged shoes sinking into the carpet as she approached my door, hanging the dress on the door knob to my room, sighing before she turned away. Sometimes she still tries to get me to attend misa and hangs that ugly dress on my door.

 *

Abuelita wanted to keep the vanity table when I moved in with them. Round with a gold filigree frame. No one used it since Amá died. It was in my room with a sheet over it. I got up from the edge of my bed and locked the door. I turned off the light on my nightstand. The moonlight peeked through the blinds in the window, enough for me to see without bumping into things. I took the sheet off and stood in front of the mirror. I stared at the outline of me with my face in the shadows. Amá, I said her name, and then three times I said: Araceli, Araceli, Araceli. In time, I saw a jasmine flower unfold it’s petals in the mirror. Her face popped out of its center. Skin soft and brown again. And then I saw her eyes, just two tiny dots of light in them. Her mouth opened and all of these spiders crawled out all over her face like rippling black smoke. I couldn’t scream, stuck in place, the fear rushed through me in hot and cold sweaty waves. You gotta let me go, Amá said. Her voice sounded like when I talked into the floor fan as a kid, all shaky. You gotta get it all out and let me go, she said. I grabbed my stomach. I told her I saw her in the light already. She said, that was my soul and this is my spirit. And then her image flickered and dissolved. I fell to the floor. All of the sadness I carried inside of me, keeping her spirit here, so unnatural, it all came out of me in one glowing stream.

*

I agreed to go to the cliffs with Abuelo one Sunday. Just once. He said he was too tired to go to the cemetery. It was too much to watch Abuelita cry over the names and dates on the marker of her only daughter. To watch her tears hit the stone and then dry up from the sun. Abuelo was too tired to go to misa. It was too much to see the rest of the people sit in the pews and soak up all the light from the stained glass windows of the church. So, me and Abuelo went to the cliffs, he gripped my hand and spoke in a Spanish that lost me. We had walked to the edge of our city, carrying old plastic grocery bags filled with jasmine that we had picked from the trellis that morning. We had dropped the star-shaped flowers one at a time over the cliffs. Watched them catch the breeze, float, and then fade into the waters below.

*

I dreamt I was in the darkness and I could hear Amá crying. Her tears sparkled with the light of her soul. I saw her face cover my ceiling. The same face I saw in the mirror. But this time she was smiling and this time there was no darkness and this time her tears fell from heaven and turned into white jasmine flowers that looked like stars and pressed upon my chest and rippled throughout my body as she sang my name: Viviana, Viviana, Viviana.

BIO

Jennifer Lorene Ritenour is from San Pedro, California and has lived in Las Vegas, Nevada. Her writing is informed by place. Her style has been described as dirty fabulism. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Witness Magazine and Waxwing among other places. “The Language of Flowers” first appeared in two parts in the Santa Monica Review. For more information visit: jenniferloreneritenour.com

MOHUA

By Maitreyee


I

The trees that stood before the gate of their house swayed in the gentle breeze. Spring had brought about tiny, yellow flowers on them. But the flowers had almost all fallen off by now. The Mohua petals filled the surroundings with a sweet, sleepy smell. These Mohua are said to be flowers of intoxication. Sweet liquor is made out of their juice. Some sages have called them the flower of attraction, flowers of illusion, and therefore fit to be metaphors for life. But those sages are mistaken; life is not what is sinful. Life is a penance; and that thing we do to escape from it, that is the actual sin. The drinking is sin, the wanting is sin, the dreaming is sin, and death is sin. Even austerity (unbeknownst to these sages) is a sin.

Salim knows this because his mother has made him learn it, many times over. You have to endure the life you are given, you have to be thankful in living it. But Salim has committed every possible sin on the list. He instinctively knows that. But logically, what Keshav says is also correct. If you do something not as an escape but as enjoyment, it turns from sin into penance, because it turns from escape into life. That is also how love works. He has read that love is the biggest redeemer of all; the most vital of feelings – he has read it keeps the heart beating and the universe going. But you have to enjoy it in order for it be a penance. Salim’s mother never taught him sex could be anything but a penance, a righteous act. And he knew it was correct because when he said that in class, their doctor, Miss Anshu, had him applauded. Until a few years ago, Salim would feel really lucky. He had love in his life, he had money, and he had a basement to live in. Jasleen had it better, Malik and Hafiz had it way better, but their mother had chosen him over them. He was supposed to get married to his mother when he grew up. But in recent days he has started to feel slighted when other boys spoke about girls they liked. When he said this to Keshav he laughed so high all the crows from the Peepal tree flew away. He said Salim’s mother was a b**ch and a c**t. Salim didn’t defend his mother. He had begun to learn how wrong all this in theory was. But this was his life and she was his family. If she wanted to marry him, she could. No amount of wrong could turn this from right.

Keshav was a slumboy of heavier built with long stretch marks on his ribs. He had recently taken up the job of selling IDs to potential buyers. When Salim had asked him where the photos in the IDs came from which they changed after being paid to, at first he couldn’t tell. One day, Keshav came up from behind and sat down on the slum fence by him, saying nonchalantly “I found out where they take the photos from.” On Salim’s asking many times, he said “They kill them. That’s what they do.” Salim thought Keshav was really cool. He knew people who are killed for the good of the world get to heaven. But he still felt a certain chill at the thought. That was always Salim’s fault. He could never change how he felt. Over time, Salim learnt which people were killed. That was the way it always was with Keshav and Salim, they learnt together and realised together. They chewed Mohua petals together. Keshav didn’t make fun of his book reading. He said Salim should create similar books for book-reading if he wants. “You should write it so raw and painful that the readers fear to read it” He said once “because they know it so real that they know what happens in the end.” Keshav is bitter that way. He does not believe in fairy tales. He likes books on murder scenes and fight scenes.

When it came to sex, however, he could never make it come at home. He thought he did well but as he grew, he learnt the difference between the robotic and the human. Keshav didn’t get the subtle difference. Nor did most people in fifth grade. Even Malik and Hafiz couldn’t make him feel. Not even for Miss Anshu who had become a contestant for his mother’s place in his little heart. But once his thoughts had run over Malik’s best friend; that’s when he had an inkling of what it should feel like. Malik played Men’s football at the neighbourhood club, and Salim often went to his practice, committing the young men to memory. Keshav said there was no difference in essence between a man and a woman; and he had read that in school too, men and women are equal in all things. But he knew he must marry a girl. When he first realised he would have equally liked to have Miss Anshu as his bride, he felt a huge sense of guilt. He didn’t even go to the slum wall to meet Keshav though he had promised stock. But it was true. He would like to sleep by her side, cupped in her arms. Feel her heartbeat and hug her from behind in the kitchen. Maybe she would let him marry a man later, too.

As Salim continued to grow up, things started to clear and cloud simultaneously. Almost all of the most important things in Salim’s life happened over the course of the summer in seventh grade. It started when the Mohua first blossomed in the trees, and climaxed when he met Keshav for stock on the first day of school after spring break. There was always enough stock at home. What Salim went to the slum fence for was not the stock but Keshav. He waited for him, his feet dangling over the kickable bricks. But when he saw a tall, dusky figure walk out from behind those trees of sin, his words got caught up in his throat. He found it funny that the first word he thought was ‘puberty’.  Salim had been waiting for his own. Keshav had grown up. Deep ridges now formed in his cheeks as his smiled; the tilt of his lips had become even more crooked. His eyebrows had deepened. Jaws chiselled out. He himself seemed unaware of it. Salim realised with that caught up throat he had not one but two things now, that for the first time in his life he wouldn’t ever be able to share with Keshav.

II

Salim walked up to the fence from under the shade of the Mohua trees and climbed to the other side. No matter how hard it is, he always must take the route through the front door during daytime. From here he could see his mother slouched on a plastic chair, her head towards the ceiling. He was a little surprised when she made no movement at his coming in. It was a good opportunity to turn right back out. On his way out he saw a bare-chested, broad-shouldered delivery man pass by him. He stiffened, his clenched chest loosening like rabbits. He knows what this is. A man’s jealousy. He walked about the corner and entered through the back door, his heart beating wildly.

The back door led through the kitchen to the cellar, which Salim had perfected into a basement living area. It was far from perfect, however. The house stood proud in what remained of an 18th century Thakurbari, with the first floor locked and sealed. Salim’s mother had rented that ground floor where she started a necklace making workshop. Salim wondered if the landlady knew about the basement. One day Salim had ripped off the plaster in the process of being thrown down the stairs and that had revealed passages, with several tiny rooms and one leading to the river. These days Salim didn’t like to spend the night in the basement. He wondered if the landlady was aware of the man who lived in the tunnel.

Salim had heard and smelled him walk, eat, hum and even smoke once. He found some rice and fish in the fridge which he took with him downstairs. The rubble from the broken plaster wall still lay around after seven months. He sat down on the floor and slid his right hand into his trousers. With each mouthful, he increased the intensity of the movements. Salim had wanted to go to the rooftop after lunch now that Keshav was away, but he didn’t get to do that. By the time he regained his consciousness, he could already hear Malik’s haggard breathing from the room above. With an involuntary sigh, he got up and climbed into the light.

But the noises had stopped. He could now hear the new man’s deep voice break into a cracking high-pitched scream. Salim ran into the bedroom in time to see the delivery man push his mother to the ground and lash belt after belt on her. Salim’s chest smarted again; he felt his blood rise up. Malik and Jasleen stood in separate corners, nonchalantly chewing on a paan each. Hesitatingly, Salim walked up to the man and placed his trembling hand on his collar. He didn’t look convincing at all. But he asked him to leave his mother alone. The man smiled and wiped his spit. He put a stop to his mother sleeping by them again.

From that day onwards, the horrible spitting man became a sole centre point for everyone. Their mother no longer spent much time with them. One night, Salim wondered if his mother had already changed her mind about marrying him. To pair intense dismay with infinite relief is an odd thing do to; but both resulted to tears that night and Salim balled up on the floorsheet and cried.

“Did the fisherman bite your hand again?” Keshav asked, breaking into his chain of thought.

“It’s a new one this time” he replied “He’s everywhere and everything now.” Salim had two new, hazy scars on the back of his palm. His eyes went back and forth helplessly, from his own scrawny body to Keshav’s lithe stomach and back.

The delivery guy was everywhere, but to Salim there was a newer, more exciting personage now, and he felt like crying when he thought of it. Salim was bringing back milk from the adjacent market on the first Sunday of his vacation, rejoicing in the well known smell of the flowers that adorned his path. The tree-grove started a little away from the hustle of the morning haat. His revere came to sudden stop when a tall, middle aged metrosexual passed by him to the opposite side. ‘Metrosexual’ was a word Salim had newly learnt on the internet. That well groomed man spiked a sudden chill in Salim’s arms. But no, not because of his appearance. It was his smell. A good smell? Perfume, shampoo? It was a musty, decade old smell of damp. Salim was only too familiar with it. Wishing Keshav was there, he traced the man to a clean, two storied blue house. Then he went home.

At home he stole some phenyl from the kitchen and cleaned all rooms on the passageway from the cellar to the tunnel. He even cleaned his own room. Then he dropped on his floorsheet and slept for the first time since his mother forgot of him.

Next morning after eating some bread and changing his trousers he waited at the Mohua groove for the clean blue thief. But he waited in vain. It was on the day after the next that the lean middle aged muse walked down to his home. Salim hid behind the tree and followed him at a distance. At the third turn he bent down to tie his shoes. Salim slid from behind the Peepal tree and sniffed the blue thief’s shirt. Sure enough, the smell was not there. Salim could even catch a whiff of the Phenyl. At that moment the man stretched up and turned towards him. A terrified Salim turned and sprinted towards the super mart.

Keshav had turned away to snicker at Salim’s retort. “Maybe you should rethink about marrying your hands-throwing momma then,” He said with a chuckle. “Bloody H**ker”

Salim knew what that was. But right now his eyes were fixed on the building at the other end. Every morning around this time the horrid delivery man would come up to drop off mail to this house. Oddly, he delivered all kinds of things. “Wo!” said Keshav “That’s boss. Wait it’s been a while.” He jumped down from the brick fence and ran up to the delivery man. Without knowing the exact words and while mixing up the profanities, Salim thought in essence oh crap. He jumped down too, and before Keshav could find him, reached school.

School was intolerable that day. On the hallway after the last class was over he met a classmate with long black hair. He pulled her into a vacant room (the hundred year old private school was filled with unused places) and pressed his body with hers. The enraged girl took a minute to realise what was happening and while he waited for the unfeeling, mechanical process to reach completion she landed a swinging chop on his throat and walked off. He could feel her crying long after she was gone. He stretched on the ground and waited for them to come drag him away. But surprisingly nothing happened. It annoyed him. He snorted some stock till he felt like himself and made straight to the tunnel. The thief was bundled up on the right side, probably sleeping. Salim produced a cracking kick for his shoulder. This time he was completely convincing. Before the man could react Salim held him up by his collar and laid punch after punch over his clean-shaven face. The man did not retaliate, but calmly accepted Salim’s vehement curses. They eventually fell down, both breathing heavily and wincing with pain.

III

Anil had a very straightforward routine in his everyday life. Three years ago he moved to this city, (some people might say like a creep) and has lived ever since on his lakhpati family’s inheritance. He was a man of simple tastes. In his early twenties he had run away from home with the ambition of joining the civil services. There he rose rapidly through the ranks, but was rumoured to have resigned after the woman of his dreams turned him down. If you could take a peek into his mind you would be able to see how he congratulated himself to have lived the classic bourgeoisie lifestyle, in a half-satirical, bitter sort of way. Every morning he would wake up, complete his training routine, eat his fill and go on a walk. At a certain time and certain point on his walk he would pass by a private school and look for a single mother who would be saying goodbye to the daughter. He would smile on his way and move on. That, he would happily often conclude, was all he allowed himself. His ardour for the woman, he would say, had all subsided except for a lingering affection; but her daughter was his daughter, and she was everything to him now. Most people snickered at this thought, some people wondered if it was perverted, but there was indeed nothing perverted about Anil’s love for the family he had claimed as his own. She might not see it, but he saw that vacant place in the little girl’s marvellously vast life and he wanted to be worthy of it. He was on good enough terms with her mother to be able to do that monetarily – as they owed their first meeting to that infant child – and for now, that was enough. He was even trying to give up smoking and drinking, because he couldn’t imagine the darling angel coming in contact with that swirling poison. He said this to the collar boy, whom he really found amusing.

“I did find you smoke once though.” Salim replied. 

“I do it whenever I am stressed. It’s my way of coping with everything that’s going on” said the blue thief, slightly ashamed of his easy life.

They talked for a while about some things. But the clean thief wouldn’t tell Salim what he was doing in the tunnel. On Salim’s commenting how it was his house actually, the thief made it clear to him that it wasn’t; it was the landlady’s house and his mother was the one who paid for it. Salim asked him if he wanted to buy some stock. The man thought for a while and said yes. He said his name was Sayan. Salim almost laughed out aloud. There were two things in the world that Salim knew well about. One was stock and the other was identity; this man was lying about both. This man had never taken a snort in his life. But when he produced actual bank notes, Salim made sure to get them exposed as counterfeit.

“They are real.” Said Keshav, holding them up in the light.

Salim was still enraged at Keshav for knowing the delivery man, better still for liking him. The worst part was the delivery man was actually fond of Salim. In a sick way Salim knew he was his favourite. One of those days, Salim and Hafiz were sitting down for lunch. It was on those rare occasions when his mother was not high. Salim couldn’t really eat like this; but he was really saddened by Hafiz receiving an extra egg. By the time the delivery man came home Hafiz was already done with both the eggs. The man asked Salim what was wrong. Hafiz told him about the prehistorically existing egg-serving story. He said the reason Salim was never happy about eating with them was because he was a little man who wanted grown man’s food. The delivery man picked Hafiz up and threw him against the wall. Salim bolted up terrified. The man picked up a hot ladle and struck Hafiz with it. All Salim could do was to cry and assure him that he did not want the second egg. He asked their mother cook another egg for Salim and made him eat it.

Not that Salim didn’t once use this to his advantage. By the third week, that man’s younger brother had started coming to their house too and had taken a fancy to Jasleen. Salim was horrified at the thought. And sure enough, she brew trouble. Mother and Jasleen had always been against each other about men, and she soon confronted Jasleen for shamelessly pursuing a man who was too good for her. She asked Jasleen why it was always her priority to ruin their mother’s life. Things soon escalated and mother held up Jasleen’s hand on the stove. The delivery man snatched Jasleen away from mother and the usual scenario was recreated. Malik who tried to come in between them ended up bleeding from his forehead. Salim yelled at the top of his lungs “Stop! STOP!” but no one heard him. In the end he had to make it end by piercing his hand through the pointy fishhook left behind by Jartha.

And this is exactly what he would never tell Keshav. This was the kind of thing his friend hated the most. It was the only thing that could ever made Keshav cry. Salim asked Keshav what the tunnel man could be doing. Keshav thought for a while and told him that recently a lot of young girls had been reported missing. The man could be a detective and hiding there to catch boss.

“Did boss do that?” asked Salim, his hands going cold.

Of course not silly, replied Keshav.

Anil knew about the identity-theft in the neighbourhood. He even knew about the drug racket. He was never bothered about any of that. But there was something about this missing person’s case; it caught his fancy enough to drive him out like in the old days. There was something artistic, mysterious about these kidnappings. To satisfy himself, he had hung around the gang leader, even lived under his girlfriend’s roof. He had not been wrong. Those people were as clueless about this as he was, and probably more worried. After all, this was not the way professionals did it. This was subconscious social mockery. But the dinghy tunnel turned out useful in the end. If not for that hiding place he would never have found out about the abandoned hydrogen plant by the riverside.

IV

Salim sat on the hill by the river in a dejected mood. His eyes followed Salima, his namesake, as she walked by the bank towards the ruins. She was Mehrab’s sister, the girl whom Salim had pinned to the wall the other day. Even though he knew he would never apologize, Salim felt uneasy every time he thought of it. Anil said he would never let a single sin touch his angel without her permission. He was sin. He knew if Keshav knew what he had done, he would have stiffened, and said in a soft voice “That’s an awful thing to do.” What if Mehrab had other ideas about this? Salim decided he would actually be really sorry if someone else ended up with the same unfeelingness.

Salima was soon out of sight. Salim knew girls shouldn’t be going about alone. He got down from the hill and did what he was best at doing. The sister crossed the Mohua grooves and the Palash grooves until she was pretty much walking through the barren land of the decaying chemical plant. Now the boy was really worried, almost sure she was giving up her safety for something stupid. They were walking through a path with only a few thorny shrubs and wild grass here and there. Salim kept to the grass. His heart stopped at the firm grip on his collar. “This is a first” said a well known voice from behind. “You are following a girl through creepstreet. Salim-Salima. Nice.”

Salim said nothing. He undid the hands from his collar and crawled ahead. The sister stopped before a bunch of trees. It seemed she would go towards the highway instead. Keshav had been only teasing him till earlier, but now he added. “Don’t follow her. Let’s go back. She might board the car.” What car? Salim turned towards him. Keshav said nothing, only pulled him backwards.

“Are you involved in this?” said Salim. Keshav shrugged. “It’s her choice. Let’s go.”

“Are you involved in this.” It wasn’t Salim’s own voice.

“Why do you care?” Keshav’s eyes shot afire. “Have you found yourself another whore so soon because your mother will no longer give you your midnight kiss?”

“Well maybe you should go look for someone else because you have successfully mocked and overlooked everything I have ever cared for!” Salim pushed the tall boy away. “Funny to hear you talk about whores after all the people you visit with your murder money! You never taught me any of that!”

Leaving the boy groaning on the ground Salim rushed to the road from where muffled screams were emanating. He crouched down behind the bushes but he could see no one. “This way” said Keshav in a hush. Salim followed his finger and saw two pale naked women carrying an unconscious body into the chemical plant. “Holy hell” said Keshav. Salim ignored him and tiptoed to a creak among the ruins.  Behind the chemical plants were series of abandoned workers’ quarters. The women crouched over the body like two mad cavemen. When they were close enough, they saw Salima was still alive but unable to make any noise. “The twin sisters,” an astounded Salim said under his breath.

But the women seemed to catch on to something. They got up to look around. Salim jerked back in fear. Keshav grasped his hand and led them to place behind the barrels. It was so dark and so jammed no one could know there was any space there except the ones within. Salim lay down for what seemed like eternity, spooned tightly in Keshav’s arms. Keshav closed his eyes and breathed in sync with him.

“I didn’t” Keshav whispered as they untangled after the women were gone “I didn’t meet any whores, with or without my stupid money.”

“One of us must go report.” Said Salim. Keshav nodded. “You will be okay?”

In those days they still kept up the telephone booth, but the nearest one was at the marketplace, which was six miles away. No one can run that distance that fast, but Salim had that day. How he would come to regret that decision! He had years enough to balance them out; to figure out what he regretted the most – the punch, following Salima, the goodbye or the moment he turned around. That was it. When he hung up on the kind dispatcher and lifted his head towards where Keshav waited for him, and saw the smoke rise into the sky. And he ran back. Fighting, fainting, falling he ran half the way till he realised it was pointless. He sat down on the wet ground and pressed his hands upon his aching jaws. It would take him months to learn how the kids had been tied together, gagged and blown up; it was originally meant to have been a house on fire but the plant had blown up too with what remained in it. It would take him years to learn the mechanics.

The whole neighbourhood knew how close the two boys were. His mother came down to meet him and wiped away his tears. Is my little prince doing well? She asked. Salim sat stoned, unable to process what she said. She placed her hand on his head and stroked his hair lovingly. Then she promised him she would make sure he felt better. But before she could kiss him, he got up. The Mohua flowers were long gone, leaving two old, commonplace trees behind. Miss Anshu’s Hospital wasn’t really far from his place. He calmly walked up to her and sat down. The truth is he doesn’t remember how she looked, why he sat down and what he said.

They waited till ten o clock. The police did arrive despite the commotion of the blast. His mother and Malik arrived. The roadside workers injured in the blast all arrived. It was unbearable. Mother and Malik put on a great show; their child would never say such a thing in any other circumstances except a shock of this intensity, he had been on drugs in company of the unfortunate boy, his mother had toiled lifelong for them etc, etc. When Salim realised he would have to go back to the basement anyways, he decided to go take a stroll.

Outside, Anil was sitting on a bedi smoking. When Salim saw him, he sat down by his side. Really sorry about your friend, Anil said. Salim shook his head. It didn’t matter anymore. He had successfully entered into the penance of life, nothing was anymore an escape. “Death is about to become commonplace.” he said, looking at the blinking lights of the unending queue of ambulances. Anil was amused again. But then Anil did the unthinkable.

He extended his palm and offered Salim a smoke.

The kid looked at the spiralling fumes. His lungs burned in anger yet ached for them. In the end he lost to an ancient sigh, and stretched his fingers out.



BIO

‘Maitreyee’ (She/Her) is currently completing her senior secondary from Kolkata, India. She likes to tell stories that deal with concepts of Behavioural Psychology, Perception and Dialectics. Her involvement with the heritage of Bengal, though relatively new, has had a great impact on her characters and the world they live in. Her work has previously been published by Rigorous and The Write Order. She has written for and is actively associated with Wallflower Scribbles, a student based social media community that aims to explore local culture and support youth empowerment in the region. She is planning to complete her first book ‘All Good Girls Go To Alsergrund’ in the very near future.


Annual Rites

by L. Shapley Bassen


     Sunday, March 4th, 2001, Marwa set aside homework (fine-tuning preparation for the Intel Science Fair in Brooklyn in two weeks) to accompany her Stuyvesant High School classmate Judy and her father out to a cemetery on Long Island to put stones on Judy’s mother’s grave. Judy lived uptown from Marwa in Greenwich Village. A monster snowstorm was predicted for Sunday night through Tuesday; TV meteorologists were frenzied, storm-tracking this and Doppler-4ing that. Dr. Yamaguchi, Judy’s father, was less depressed than Marwa thought he would be because he was “getting a chance,” he said, “to drive his midlife-crisis-red Nissan out of the City.” Marwa had stayed over at Judy’s on Saturday night so they could get an early start. Marwa didn’t understand the Yamaguchi family mood, especially since eight-year old Nina was coming along to the cemetery for the first time, but she had felt honored when Judy had asked her to come along.

     Dr. Yamaguchi was about the same age as Marwa’s father, in his fifties, but that was about the only similarity she could see. Dr. Y (Why?), as he liked to be called, was mid-height. While he was not fat, he had a distinct belly that pressed against the belt of corduroy slacks.

     “I am not a fashion-plotz,” Dr. Why apologized.

     Judy suffered not only over paternal wardrobe but also her father’s “faux-Yiddish that he somehow thinks makes him an honorary member of my mother’s tribe.”

     Marwa could not think of an occasion that could compel her father ever to apologize or speak faux anything. He was tall and trim. “A banker is not a shopkeeper.” She had never seen her father even in slippers without socks. But Dr. Why didn’t care Judy and Nina weren’t sons.

     Dr. Why was a Japanese-American who had married a Jewish woman. Because of the impending blizzard, they wouldn’t be going after the ceremony to the condo of her Lensky grandparents. Judy’s Lensky-Yamaguchi mini-genealogy included Dr. Why’s parents, both deceased, who had been in the concentration camps for Japanese-American citizens during WWII. He had family living “in Northern California where the mud slides,” Dr. Why added from behind the wheel.

     Beside him, Nina was occupied with changing a CD. 

     The sporty red sedan had just crossed over the Williamsburg Bridge and was moving toward a huge cemetery. Marwa had an early memory of this garden of stones. She had asked How do stones grow? Her older brother Sharif said Stupid girl. She thought (1) stupidity was bad; (2) girls were stupid; (3) there was an important difference between stones and living things.

     Dr. Why started singing. Nina put a CD in and pressed Play. 

    As Nina sang along with the motherly teapot from BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, Dr. Why stuck to, “Life is just a bowl of cherries…Don’t take it serious, life’s too mysterious…”

     “My father prides himself,” Judy said, “on singing a song when another one plays.”

     Dr. Y tapped his head. “You should see what flashes in your brain. ‘You work, you slave, you worry so’–”

     “–But you can’t take your dough when you go, go, go,” Nina sang.

     “Nice, Dad,” Judy grumbled.

     Marwa patted Judy’s hand. “Commiserate with the shark guy’s kids.”

     “What?” Dr. Why said.

    “Archaic sharks on the Discovery Channel, Daddy. They were a hundred feet long with teeth shaped like triangles the size of my hand,” Judy said.

     “I don’t want to imagine their kids,” Dr. Why teased.

     “Not the shark guys, Daddy, the sharks had the teeth,” Nina said.

     “Toothless scientists studying ancient sharks?”

     “Yes, Daddy, the scientists were utterly toothless,” Judy said.

     “They were not. They sat inside the shark’s jaw,” Nina opened her mouth wide. “They could both fit inside it!”

     Marwa thought of repetition. Arachnids had eight appendages, the octopus eight arms, oxygen’s atomic number was eight. She said, “The Chinese consider eight good luck. They exchange eight tangerines for the Chinese New Year.”      

     Nina said, “I’m eight.”         

     “Ijtihad,” Dr. Why praised. “It means the ancient Islamic tradition of questioning. Ijtihad.”

    The car had moved past the wide ocean views rimming Brooklyn’s Atlantic shore. The highway curved to parkway to eastern Long Island. Marwa looked out at the reddening trees. They would green next, willows haloed in yellow with neon forsythia. Purple, yellow, and white crocus were budding out of patches of old snow.

     The night before, Marwa maneuvered Judy away from morbid topics to a tetrahedron sculpture on a windowsill beside a giant geranium plant. It looked like Judy’s tiny two-dimensional Jewish star expressed in three-dimensional bronze wire nine-inch outlines stuck into a wooden base. They faced each other across the coffee table and put the sculpture between them like a Ouija board.   

      “Vibrations?”

     “None.” Marwa stood up and went to a tall glass centerpiece at the dining table. “Hey, this is new.”

     “Hey, be careful, it’s my mother’s last extravagance. My dad only took it out today. It’s a Klein Bottle,” Judy said. “Hand-blown.”  

     The transparent object looked like a one-legged stork bent over, its beak hollowed into a tube against the one leg. Marwa made a face.

     Judy said, “Wanna blow into it?”

     Marwa took the fragile object out of Judy’s hands and replaced it on the table. “We do not,” she said.

     Judy curtseyed, “You’re such a prude, Queen Victoria.”

     Marwa wandered over to two large prints framed above the couch. “I like the Magritte with the men falling like raindrops. Like scales on a fish, all in one direction. Like worshippers bowing to the Kaaba.”

     “You think conformity is beautiful?” Then Judy backed off, “Are you hungry?”

     “I dreamed last night that I was eating my way out of a bathtub filled with spaghetti.”

     Judy had chased Marwa into the small kitchen. They made grilled cheese sandwiches with tomatoes and sour pickles. Marwa didn’t tell Judy about Descartes’s three dreams or her own.

     Nor had Marwa told Judy about seeing Denim Prix (Pree) two weeks before, during February break when the Yamaguchi sisters had been away in Florida with the maternal grandparents she was about to meet at the cemetery. Denim Prix was the highest paid male model in the world, and he lived in Marwa’s building in Battery Park City. She had met him in September.

     Marwa’s parent were working that week in February, and Joey was looked after by Mrs. al-Banna, an Egyptian widow at their mosque. For this week that New York public schools had off, her mother took Joey to Mrs. al-Banna’s apartment over on East Broadway.

     Marwa had been left to herself to work on the Intel Fair preparation, which she had dutifully done until the weather changed for momentarily to Spring. The sun rose into a cloudless sky, and the temperature climbed to fifty degrees. Marwa might not have known, so engrossed in spreadsheets and graphs as she was, had not a pigeon perched on her windowsill and pecked at the glass. It had been months since Marwa had seen a pigeon fly this high and close to the building. All winter, there had been only seagulls and terns in the distance over the Hudson.

     Marwa stared at the blue-necked white pigeon. It quickly flew away, and then she looked down at the street. People were walking without coats. A carnival breeze was blowing at street level. Marwa decided to go out for lunch. Mounds of snow from the last storm remained, but melt was in the air, puddles everywhere. Marwa left her parka behind. She walked along the esplanade. The sun glittered on the river.  

     Pree wasn’t sitting on the bench where they’d met. He leaned against railing and stared at the water. He wore a dark wool cap pulled over blond curls. Pree turned and saw Marwa. The cap was a dark outline around a smile. His green eyes were outlined in brown. She smelled coffee brewing and thought his skin explained why coffee was called ‘brown gold’. She said yes to lunch nearby in a small cafe decorated for Valentine’s Day, all red hearts and bow-and-arrowed Cupids on the windows, doorway, and cashier’s counter. They found a table.

     Marwa kept talking.

     “The month of February is named for one of the aspects of the Roman goddess Juno. The whole month was sacred to Juno Februata, patroness of the fever — febris — of love. The original Valentine’s Day was Rome’s Lupercalia. Guys handed out proto-valentines with girls’ names on them to be partners in erotic games. I take Latin.”

     Pree signaled a waitress who tripped when she saw him. She spilled the water she poured   and rushed to put in their orders.

     “It’s a good thing she’s not carrying knives and oranges,” Marwa said. 

     “What? Why?”

     “The Koran tells of Yusuf, Joseph, ‘the noble angel’ and the rich women. They cut their hands with knives intended for oranges when they first see him. When they see Yusuf, their hands just slip.”

     The shaky waitress returned with their food and iced tea for Marwa, hot coffee for Prix.  

     Pree sipped and said, “It’s like acid.”

     “Your coffee?”

     “The way the waitress looks at me.”

     Marwa couldn’t swallow.

     “I don’t want you to think I like it,” Pree said.

     Marwa stared at a red cardboard heart. “The Catholic Church replaced Juno Februata with the mythical martyr St. Valentine. They said he was a Roman teenager who was executed at the exact moment his girlfriend received his invitation, the first Valentine.”

     “People look at me as if I’m food. As if they’re starving.”

     Marwa forced herself to take a sip of the cold tea. “There are a lot of people worse off.” It’s what her mother would have said.

     He laughed and pulled off his cap.

     Dizzied by his gold curls, Marwa thought of her hijab and blurted, “There wasn’t any observable differential.”

     “What?” Pree asked.

     “Deferential?” he asked.

     “Differential,” Marwa said. “The diamond I told you about in September. At the bench on the esplanade. I don’t know why I lied like that.”

     “To impress me,” Pree said easily, eating his sandwich. “It worked, but I didn’t believe you. Don’t you like your salad?”

     Marwa looked down and saw the food. She took a forkful, swallowing with the help of the iced tea. 

     “Why didn’t you believe me?” she asked.

     Pree shrugged. “I never believe anyone.”    

     As they were walking back to their building, he invited her to his apartment, then laughed when she said no. He twisted the gold ring on his middle finger

     “I hoped you wouldn’t. But you say the view is lousy from your floor.” Pree put his hand on her arm. “You may never talk to me again — but I want you to know something. From the time I was half your age, there were people — of both sexes — who wanted to buy and sell me. And they did. I even thought they cared. But it got — old and it got — ugly. And now I wish I could outvirgin you.”

     His hand steadied her. Then he let go.

     “Oh,” he swallowed a curse, “that came out wrong. I don’t mean — I don’t know how to talk to anyone,” and Pree left her rooted there.

     Why hadn’t she said anything or run after him, caught up? He didn’t want her. She hadn’t misunderstood him. It was just the sudden heat, the ides of February, all the others’ fevers for him including her own.

     The memory and its heat were blown away by the bitter March wind at the cemetery. Dr. Why walked ahead, taking Nina’s hand out of her coat pocket and putting it with his hand inside his big brown leather glove. Nina had been quiet since they left the highway for the wide avenue that took them past several large cemeteries. They had stopped at a strip mall of grave monuments and a florist where Dr. Why bought green metal cones and three bouquets of daffodils. You could taste the storm coming, a metallic flavor in the icy air. At the gravesite, Judy’s grandparents and uncle and aunt were shivering. There were embraces and small talk. Dr. Why, Judy, and Nina stuck the daffodils inside the cones into the ground.

     Judy’s Uncle Robert took out a prayer book and read, “Yis’ga’dal v’yis’kadash sh’may ra’bbo…v’imru. Omein.”

     Judy’s relatives all repeated, “Omein.”

     Judy and Nina joined in a second behind as their father did. The prayer went on for a short time, but Marwa knew it was over when a final-sounding “Omein” was echoed.

    The grandfather cried, but Judy’s grandmother just pressed her lips together tightly and held her husband’s hand. Uncle Robert’s wife unfolded a piece of paper and read a poem.  It was very short.

     “‘Once out of nature I shall never take/ My bodily form from any natural thing,/ But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make/ Of hammered gold and gold enameling/ To keep a drowsy emperor awake;/ Or set upon a golden bough to sing/ To lords and ladies of Byzantium/ Of what is past, or passing, or to come.’”

     Then each family member picked up a pebble from the ground and ceremoniously placed it on the top of the headstone. Marwa thought, Once out of nature, why would all the questions Nature forces us to ask even matter? They wouldn’t matter without matter. But they were the most important questions we asked here. Then a huge black crow flew to a tall yew hedge and folded its wings. It waited, flapped, cawed loudly, waited again, and then flew away. Nina huddled between her father and her sister, but she didn’t cry until Judy did. Uncle Robert’s wife had tissues. There were embraces again and tearful farewells. Back in the car, Nina made no move to put in a CD.

     Judy asked Marwa if Muslims observed annual mourning.

     “In the twelfth lunar month, Dhul-Hijah, at the end of the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, for Id al-Adha, in late January or February usually, we visit the graves of our relatives. The Feast of the Sacrifice. But all my family’s graves are in Egypt.” Although no one asked, Marwa filled the silence by adding, “The Id marks Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son at Allah’s command, according to the Koran.”

     “Did he kill him?” Nina said.

     “No, it’s the same in Judaism,” Judy explained. “Abraham’s son Isaac. There’s an angel or a scapegoat instead. A goat appears. Abraham kills the goat. That’s where the word ‘scapegoat’ comes from.”

     Nina said, “An escape goat? It didn’t escape. It should be an instead-goat. A steadgoat. Why’d God want to kill the son or a goat?”

     “Abraham wanted to show Allah that nothing was more important to him than Allah. For us, it is a sheep, not a goat.” Marwa said.

     “It was Abraham’s idea? Marwa, you said at Allah’s command. I don’t think he should’ve killed a goat or a sheep,” Nina said. “I’m going to be a vegetablarian.”

     “A vegetarian,” Judy corrected gently. “A vegan. Tell Marwa where babies come from.”

     “Doesn’t Marwa know?” Nina said.

     “She’ll admire your theory,” Judy encouraged.

     “Well, I don’t believe it any more, of course,” Nina began, “but when I was little, when I saw fat pregnant women, I couldn’t figure out how the baby would get out. Then I thought of belly buttons and figured baby buttons grew during pregnancy. When it was time for the baby to come out, a special baby button doctor knew how to unbutton the buttons. Like those trapdoor pajamas they put on kids.”

     Marwa realized that Dr. Why had been silent since he’d started driving back to Manhattan. He didn’t utter a word until they were nearly at the Williamsburg Bridge, and then he asked Marwa about her Intel Fair project. He expressed surprise when she told him it was not only her synesthesia but also his research that had inspired her, but Marwa saw the Crayola Timberwolf grey in his voice and could almost hear a low howl.   

     Every September for a generation now, I remember that journey with Judy’s family. I take the subway downtown from my lab to the 9/11 Memorial. I don’t leave from my apartment on the West Side. I need to go to work first before facing Pree’s name carved with the others into the black stone around and far above the waterfalls in the recreated foundation of the Towers. On the subway, I always retrace my steps of August, 2001. It was as blistering hot as the blizzard cold in March. That August day, Judy got a tattoo to mark her loss of virginity the month before. I got my ears pierced. I told Judy ear-piercing was okay because Safiyah and Fatima had gold earrings. In the summer of 2001, Judy and I had internships in different university labs and were anticipating senior year in high school. Judy messaged me at Stonybrook from Hopkins in Baltimore. In that July, Pree took me on a chaste date to a movie star’s mansion in Southampton. In her absence (starring in France), Pree vacationed there. The celebrity offered her home as penance for being one of the many who had abused his youth. After the hot day of tattoos and piercing, later in August, I broke Pree’s heart. Even at virginal seventeen, I understood that he was sacrificing his desire to regain innocence to my lust for his experience. Of 9/11, I have many memories. I have a thin scar over one eyebrow where I was cut by something falling out of the sky. It is better than a tattoo. When I go every year and penitently place a pebble at Pree’s name, I remember the rabbi at the cemetery: “The Hebrew word for ‘pebble’ is tz’ror which also means ‘bond.’ When we pray, we ask that the deceased be ‘bound up in the bond of life’ – tz’ror haHayyim. By placing the stone, we show that the person lives on in and through us.”


BIO

A native New Yorker now in RI, L. Shapley Bassen was the First Place winner in the 2015 Austin Chronicle Short Story Contest for ‘Portrait of a Giant Squid’. She is s a poetry/fiction reviewer for The Rumpus, etc., also Fiction Editor at https://www.craftliterary.com/, prizewinning, produced, published playwright: originally at http://www.samuelfrench.com/author/1158/lois-shapley-bassen, now https://www.concordtheatricals.com/p/1563/the-month-before-the-moon ; 3x indie-published author novel/story collections, and in 2019, #4, WHAT SUITS A NUDIST, poetry collected works at https://www.claresongbirdspub.com/featured-authors/l-shapley-bassen/
FB Author page: https://www.facebook.com/ShapleyLoisBassen/?modal=admin_todo_tour
LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/in/lois-bassen-11482a5/
Website: http://www.lsbassen.com/

The Two Missing Words

By Dave Henson


When a commotion outside Mep Dugan’s open bedroom window woke him, the dream scurried into the thick undergrowth of his subconscious. Widow Splenks was arguing with baker Brown. Mep stuck his head out the window and saw that a toss further down the street Lucas Diddle was shaking his fist at the milkman.

Mep wondered why nobody in the village got along anymore. The thought yanked the dream into daylight. The dream tried to squirm away, but Mep held it tight ‘till it was clear in his mind: Two words had gone missing from the village, and their absence was the reason no one got along anymore.

Mep couldn’t remember what the two words were but felt he’d know if he saw or heard them and so set out on his search.

The first place Mep looked was the library. What better place for words to hide? But after rifling through the pages of nearly a hundred books, he was overwhelmed. Volume after volume, shelf after shelf. Mep asked Lydea the librarian for help. He didn’t tell her the whole story. She had a way of arching her eyebrow at Mep and making him feel peculiar. Mep just asked Lydea to be on the lookout for two words that, while perhaps unknown to her, felt vaguely familiar. Words that seemed out of place, perhaps in the margin of a book or in a sentence where they didn’t belong. Despite Mep’s careful manner of asking Lydea for help, she arched her eyebrow.

The next place Mep sought the missing words was on Lerry Lowdly’s street corner. Lerry took to the corner from dawn to midday and spoke mostly nonsense to no one in particular. The village folk ignored Lerry’s gibberish, which Mep thought made it an excellent place for the words to hide in plain sight.

“A day of clouds seeks the shadows,” Lerry said as Mep approached him.

“Never mind me, Lerry. I’m just going to stand with you a spell.”

Mep listened as Lerry went on about such things as the soil having its way, bark shinnying up the tree and stones in soft places. After a few hours, Lerry announced that the river’s climb to the sun was steep and walked off.

Mep wasn’t ready to call it a day himself. A short ramble outside of the village, was a babbling brook — a tranquil place for missing words to hide.

When Mep got to the brook, he was shocked at how many rocks the words could be hiding under. But determined as ever, he took off his shoes and socks and waded into the stream. He flipped over stone after stone, but found no missing words. Exhausted, he sloshed to dry land and lay down under a tree.

… A pain in Mep’s foot awoke him — a crow was pecking his big toe. “Hey, stop that.”

“I’m here to help,” the crow said. “I have the two missing words.”

The crow told Mep that his tenacity was impressive and that it had long-standing familial ties with a murder of crows in the village. For those reasons, the crow gave Mep the missing words.

When Mep heard the two words, they shone in his mind like shafts of light through breaking clouds. No wonder their absence had caused so much trouble. Mep thanked the crow and offered to dig up some worms to show his appreciation. The crow said thanks, but no thanks and flapped away.

Mep, so excited he forgot to retrieve his shoes and socks, rushed barefoot to the village. He spoke the two missing words to everyone he met and convinced the town crier to repeat them over and over.

The missing words found their way back into the villagers’ vocabularies and conversations. Arguments grew less frequent and nearly stopped. But the villagers began to overuse the words, wedging them into verbal exchanges where they weren’t necessary, where their intent was to dismiss, manipulate or create advantage. 

One morning the crow who had returned the missing words to Mep glided through his open bedroom window. The crow told Mep that if the villagers didn’t stop using the words selfishly, they would disappear for good at dusk.

Mep spent the day begging his fellow villagers to use the rediscovered words as they were intended so that their little town didn’t again find itself in the throes of acrimony. No one paid him any mind.

Just before dusk, as Mep noticed the crow circling lower and lower, he came upon Lydea the librarian in the park. Mep explained all that was at stake to her.

Mep thought Lydea’s face softened, thought he’d gotten through to her, that there was hope. “Peace be with you, Love,” she said. Then she arched an eyebrow. “Now fuck off, you peculiar little troll.”


BIO

David Henson and his wife have lived in Belgium and Hong Kong over the years and now reside in Peoria, Illinois. His work has been nominated for Best Small Fictions and Best of the Net and has appeared in numerous print and online journals including Fictive Dream, Pithead Chapel, Moonpark Review, Fiction on the Web, Red Fez, Bewildering Stories and Literally Stories. His website is http://writings217.wordpress.com. His Twitter is @annalou8.

Matters That Concern Me

by Walter Weinschenk


I’ve experienced some difficulties lately.  I’m thinking of the most recent chapter of my life though that chapter may not be as recent as I suppose it to be.  Hard to say, hard to think.  I’m speaking of the project I’ve completed.  I have built additional brick walls within the confines of my room to buttress existing walls.  I had planned this endeavor for quite some time and designed it with precision and constructed it with care and, presently, the brick reinforcement that I had envisioned and needed in a dire way stands firmly before me.  Though it took considerable effort, that effort is best understood as a symptom, a side-effect or manifestation of limitless need, an ever-evolving need that I don’t quite understand.  It rises and dissipates, hibernates and wakes, sleeps and rouses itself in some part of me and, without hesitation or forethought, proceeds to wage war against me from within.  It is an asphyxiation of sorts.  The present expression of this come-and-go need, this rise-and-fall desperation is only one chapter in an endless array of chapters in my book of need and is by no means the last chapter or next-to-last chapter.  It can be said that the struggle to resolve some need or all need that arises within me serves to define me, more or less.  I had a need and this particular need could not be ignored and attending to it could not be delayed.  The nature of that need, this time, was much in line with the way it always is though somewhat at variance with it.  I have added a brick lining to the walls in my room despite the fact that the room was not very large to begin with and isn’t simply a room:  it is, in a very real sense, a sanctuary, some days more than others.  The old walls that defined the room (and there could not have been a room without the presence of those walls) had been in place for as long as I can remember and those walls continue to stand but, somehow, I became convinced that they were not enough.  I came to believe that the walls as they existed were in need of immediate fortification and so, now, they are fortified.  I was convinced that the added strength would provide longevity.  There was no other possibility, there was no other way to live, it could be no other way, it had to be just so, now and forever.  It’s done, at least for now and, perhaps, forever.

It took some time, I forget how much time.  It was backbreaking labor though I hardly remember having been engaged in the process.  The dull clay lining of brick, the color of overripe fruit, is solid and sublime.  The work is complete in every way at this particular juncture.  I know it, I see it and I presently experience it but the story of its construction is a dim memory, barely a memory which is, more or less, the equivalent of a dream and, like a dream, it is ephemeral and dissipates in time.  A dream cannot be explained and the same holds true for memory:  it cannot be explained.  I have created a new reality for myself in the form of new brick walls but I am the only one who sees those walls and appreciates that reality.  It is, nevertheless, a statement that I alone could make and stands as utter and absolute proof of my effort and, no doubt, I had to have made such effort to get to this point and achieve what has been achieved thus far.  There is no other explanation.  It is there, I am here and my new reality is confirmed by the fact that the area of my room has now been diminished by the area of space committed to, and consumed by, the additional inner wall that now stands flush against the existing wall to which it is adjoined.

The job seems to have been done rather well, at least that’s my impression.  Those bricks are as straight as straight can be.  They run perfectly across and around me as any horizon you might detest with all your heart as you stand upon the beach and peer out in all directions.  That horizon is the only thing you see.  It encompasses you like a circle of elderly trees.  Detest, I say, because that horizon is perfectly straight, sharp against the sky and well-defined in a threatening manner like the edge of a razor that needs to be kept at a distance for fear of the potential that lies within it like electric current that rides within a wire and can’t be seen but threatens because it exists and is, in this way, quite inhuman, perfectly inhuman.  The vertical lines are plumb, of that you can be sure.  What I’m left with is a hardened insular lining.  I am protected like a fox in a lair, a bear in a cave, no doubt you understand, you empathize, you’ve been there.  You might even picture yourself sitting in my room in place of me, needing something, wanting something, faced with a predicament that can never be defined even if we took all the time until the end of time and back to the moment that has just passed to define that need, that predicament, that problem and you might as well spend the whole of your life seeking a resolution that is somehow satisfactory.  In fact, it becomes you all at once and you find yourself doing just that, seeking something out, seeking the answer, all the while knowing there is no answer and so you let it go until it arises again.  It’s a never-ending start and stop.  I said that it becomes you and that is unfortunate but, after all, we are only human.  It is hard to keep it all in mind because the memory of the problem and solution are crushed, one atop the other, each forged into the other so that each consumes the other, each overtakes the other, each is enmeshed and adjoined with the other in the way that a crimson meteor crashes to earth and becomes one with it so that there is only one thing left.  The two become one and one is all that remains and all there is.  It is an answer of sorts.  The resolution has been formulated and all will be fine, at least for a while, until the problem reemerges years or months or seconds from now  and, once more, it will stare you down, mock you, concern you, seek your pity or petition you for closure until you can no longer stand that state of irresolution and you feel compelled to resolve it, once again, knowing that it’s not something within your power to resolve in any effective, enduring way.  For now, however, the new brick wall – my double wall – will suffice.  It is a holy bulwark.  It will harden until it is no longer capable of hardening and, at some particular time, it will cease to be a memory.  I will have become accustomed to it and I will come to believe that there never was a time at which it did not exist.

But it is not fear of a thing that gives rise to the problem and it is not fear of a person that gives rise to the problem because, in truth, there’s nothing I seek to avoid and I have no one to fear.  The problem is a bit more complex, I suppose.  It begins with me:  I bask in my own invisibility.  I celebrate my own distance from things.  I see a world that exists beyond my window and beyond my walls but I need to be decisively separated from it and I see the whole of the world through my window and through my mind’s eye and I remain far from it.  I am here and there, I am in and out, I can see but I can’t be seen.  I feel secure and insecure simultaneously and it is a remarkable thing.  I look out through my window, I gaze, I raise my head slowly so my eyes are positioned just above the sill and I peer out at whomever walks by.  I watch every move but he or she or they that I watch don’t feel my eyes upon them.  They don’t feel the traction of my vision upon their backs and they fail to detect the drag of my cognizance of their existence hovering over and beside them though it feels to me that my stare is so heavy and so immensely forceful that it surprises me that no one feels the trembling weight of it or senses the heat of it or hears the drone of it.  I know each who crosses the path of my vision at the very moment that he or she or they cross my path.  Their presence is announced long in advance by the shuffling of their footsteps upon the pebbly pavement and I feel their presence as their presence rises and fades, much like the memories and dreams that invade my consciousness in the moments just before my eyes are scalded open in the light of morning while (and all the while) I remain untouched, unseen, unknown and this, for some reason, has given me a source of meaning and method of experience that is personal and can’t be explained but exists and takes the form of an underlying vibration that coops the space within my being and evolves into a form of problem, an unwanted noise, a throb of consciousness that claims my entire attention as I pace the inner sanctum of my room.  It is, perhaps, the wriggling embryo of an enigma that lifts its head and arises unannounced and needs to be resolved and, when it yawns and wakes and pulses, it requires that I attend to it.  This is my pattern, this is my purpose, this is my sequence, this is the order and character of events that comprise the ether of my experience.  Those parts and participles and fragments are nothing more than pieces of problems that emerge in variant form but they coalesce, eventually, as a continuum, a unitary problem that has phases just as you and I experience the flow and confluence of day and night, wakefulness and unconsciousness though each phase has a different feel over time.  Consequently, my existence can be summarized as a continuing dialectic, a quivering procession.  My endeavor to resolve the problem is really my attempt to apply salve to an unending series of lacerations.  Problem, resolution, problem, resolution, over and again:  it is tantamount to a sweeping, desperate effort to satisfy a craving for refuge within an enclave or behind some rock or curtain or wall.  I seek an escape from the eyes of others.  I need to remain unseen.  I reserve and effectively retain my place outside the line of sight so that others may remain oblivious to my existence while my eyes fill with theirs.  I suppose there is nothing new or exciting about this.  I’m no different than anyone else.  I suppose we occupy ourselves in individual efforts to rectify or resolve whatever requires resolution, each in our own way, though I really wouldn’t know, will never know, can never know.

I rarely leave.  I stay within my own very well-defined perimeter that is framed by solid physical borders, now bolstered to an even greater degree by the addition of a solid brick lining with a surface so rough and real that it scrapes my skin as I brush my hand against it. Even if I wanted to saunter out on my own in the pale light of day, it would be difficult to do so.  Even if I no longer savored the space between myself and others and even if I felt compelled for some reason to link arms with he or she who walks down the street, even if I wished to join the ranks of humanity, even if I felt a need to stand on some street corner and greet each passerby as each walked by and extend my best wishes with joyful words that surge out of me and flow through the medium of my raspy voice, it would be so difficult, so extremely difficult.  It is difficult to leave the castle keep within which I have enveloped myself though, of course, I need to emerge every now and then because the exigencies of life demand it.  One must shop for groceries, one must buy clothes, one must argue with one’s neighbor or stand still upon the stool while the tailor draws the dull chalk like a knife across the coarse fabric of one’s new suit and one must sit in the chair while  one’s hair is styled as pieces of it fall past one’s eyes onto the floor and one must complete an array of tasks and indulge in various rituals and seek various allowances to accomplish the entirety of it all, the grand act of living.  One needs to leave one’s home.  If you wish to live, you have no choice but to leave and walk out into the world.  But to get out, one must get in and this is no easy feat.  First, there is the street and the doorway that would need to be opened, a heavy wood door, modern, pale like the skin of an old apple, beset by a small window that stares out warily like some cyclops eye, too small and high to be of much use to anyone and if that door were a face, it would be the blandest of faces, unknowing and apathetic.  Despite its appearance, that door would open easily but only after the latch is released and, unfortunately, it is often a bit difficult to manage.  It takes time to jiggle the key so that the latch turns but it becomes a habit after a number of attempts like anything else in life.  As you enter you would walk and as you walk you would find that there is a steady lowering of the ceiling that looms over you, high above your head at first but drops steadily at a gradual angle and lowers to such an extent that it almost brushes against your scalp as you pass beneath it and there comes a point at which you are forced to crawl along the floor to get to where you need to be.  As you proceed through the corridor, the flat blue matte walls are gradually overtaken by shadow but you navigate through it, narrow as it is, as the heat almost overtakes you and you struggle through two or three twists and turns, much like the jumble of paths and furrows that cross, back and forth, within some labyrinthine hedgerow until you are delivered into the confines of a small anteroom, not much larger than the dimensions of a Kashan rug, floral gray, onto which you step and from which you quickly step off, no larger than the top of a kitchen table, leaving it behind as you notice (and you will notice) that the room has no prominent features other than a bookshelf and lamp.  You notice that these walls, unlike the walls through which you have crawled, are spotted copper much like the spotted skin of your own arms that you can still see in the dim, dull light.  You sense the odor of plants and soil and moisture and, indeed, there are several wilting Philodendron set neatly on a narrow table that run the length of the wall in front of you.  At this point, you have no choice but to commit to climbing the black steel spiral staircase which you enter by stepping through an open archway.  You climb up and around the incremental steps that wind tight like a rubber band, your hand firm upon the winding rail as you walk in tiny, concentric circles and rise for an indefinite time and it seems like such a long time though you realize, soon, that it is but a moment until you reach the hallway, lit bright by a modest chandelier that protrudes overhead and shows you the way and guides you along but if you could only see the structure through which you have just ascended, you’d know that you’ve risen through a small white tower, a turret of sorts, which embraces a lone window with curtain drawn.  If you were to study this tower from the street, you’d note to yourself that the window is framed in black.  That window is my window.  You’d notice as well that my tower is topped with a cone roof, a primitive hat built of slate shingles that wind around in circles, smaller and smaller, culminating in a pin-like point at the very top but you are inside, not outside, and you have now come face to face with the cedar door to my room and, if you were to enter, you would notice the lining of brick that buttresses my walls and you would see the lone black-framed window with curtain drawn, that same window you noticed while standing on the street, and you would see me sitting at my desk or standing by the mirror or lifting the curtain that hides the window in order for me to peek out of it and, having arrived, you might not remember how you got there.  It may feel like a dream or a memory and, though your journey is vague like a dream or a memory, it is a reality nonetheless.  You are now here and being here is proof of the fact that you came here whether or not you remember the details of how it is you arrived.

This is how it is but this it’s not the entire picture.  What’s missing are the fields and forests of experience and the tangle of gullies and gorges of thought and need and resolution that come together to form an inextricable knot and comprise the evanescent conundrum that is my essential self. What’s missing is the sublime feeling that comes over me as I find my bed at night after having jettisoned many of my preoccupations.  I lie down upon a bed that is situated beside and beneath the sill of the window.  It is the very same window that you saw while standing on the street and would surely recognize if you were to enter my room.  I lie down and my head is so close to that window that I can feel the chill of its frame in winter and the heat of its pane in summer.  I am secure in the knowledge that my window is immediately accessible and it happens to be the case that many of my concerns wash away like leaves in the rush of a river in spring and this sense of peace arises only because I realize that my window is so close at hand.  The air settles around me and it is then that I hear the sounds of distant things.  I hear the rolling of railroad wheels.  I hear the insane drone of motorcycles on a highway.  I hear the languid roll of a plane overhead.  I hear all these things and, as I hear them, I feel myself drawn like a minnow into a gentle eddy of cool serenity.  I revel in the sense of distance between myself and the train and the motorcycle and plane and I can almost imagine the thoughts and concerns of the people aboard trains or those who ride motorcycles or sit high in flight above the clouds.  I delight in the mystery of that distance.   It feels as though I can see them though they have no conception of me and have no reason to think of me but I think of them always and can practically visualize the expressions on their faces.  I embrace them in my mind but they would have no reason to think of someone who thinks of them and projects a conception of them within his own consciousness and takes pleasure in that distance as he lies in bed on the verge of sleep and, in his final wakeful moments, wonders not of himself but of them.  It is an aberration of intimacy.  It is an elegy to the tenuous ties that connect me loosely to others as I meander through the shadows of their lives.  It is life literally passing in different directions, one past the other, each and all somehow free and somehow tethered.  This is how it is as I stare into the grey-black ceiling above me searching for planes and trains and motorcycles as the darkness of that ceiling becomes my own dark night and my eyelids sink into the floor of the gorges of my eyes like doors of a store that slowly close at the end of a long day.

This is how it is but it is only part of my particular picture because, like everyone else, I wake up.   These matters, these sensations, this procession of thought and the long coil of longing are the remains that I gather.  They are part of the whole.  The dreams that cascade through the thermosphere of my sleep are forever lost within the whirlwind of my own oblivion except for bits and pieces.  What’s left are fragments of thought and memories of a dream rather than the thought itself or the dream itself.  Dreams fade, memories fade, the sense of things fade, it all fades so incredibly fast.  No matter how hard one tries, those dreams and memories and sensations cannot be retrieved but for the edges and corners.  A moment or two passes and my thinking mind returns and its quadrants quickly fill with complete thoughts, rigid thoughts, and this barrage of thought is inconsequential though some of these fleeting thoughts are worth hanging onto.  There is always a category of thought that is key to survival and must be retained and developed if one is to navigate life and progress or proceed to some destination, however defined.  These are the mundane thoughts, the practical thoughts that serve as markers etched onto one’s mental compass and, in fact, much of my thinking is devoted to practical things such as cooking but I soon veer from the practical and settle into a quasi-reverie that is a peculiar form of consciousness in itself.  These are the moments that I spend wondering and peering out the window during the days that my eyes wish to wander like children.

In fact, my eyes have their own innate desire to latch on to those who walk by.  Passersby approach from the end of the street and cross directly in front of the window through which I stare.  I sit and wait and suddenly, as if on cue, I see someone, anyone, walking along the sidewalk in my direction.  There appears a man, there appears a woman, there appears the postal worker making his or her rounds, there appears the delivery man or the plumber or the electrician or the person who walks for the sake of walking.  If I wait long enough, I will have something that resembles an encounter, one in which my eyes are steady above the sill as I peer out, scan the street and behold some random person.  I will let my eyes latch onto his or her being and I will wind up thinking very hard and wondering very hard.  I gaze and theorize, I gaze and wonder, I gaze and fall into an ocean of want, a river of need.  I need to know who it is that my eyes follow.  I need to know the thoughts that are housed in his or her head.  I need to know what lies within the inner sanctum of his or her essential self but I know that it’s impossible to know.  There is no language through which that self can be communicated.  This question, this predicament, can never be resolved.  Conversation is inadequate no matter how honest and earnest and open a particular person might be.  That is the problem, it’s a real problem:  it is an unending deficit, a perpetual hiatus, an experiential nausea and it causes me to suffer from one moment to the next and, perhaps, I’m the only one who feels it and faces it and cowers before it.  I cannot know anyone in any real sense and, consequently, I’ve come to recognize and realize the vacuity and tyranny of raw need that cannot be assuaged.

If there is an exception, if there is one person who is capable of being known, it is the blind tenant who lives across the hall.  He is remarkable and astonishing but, as extraordinary as he is, I am discouraged in his presence.  I may visit him or not but I am less inclined than ever to interact with him and I have purposely kept my interactions with him to a minimum since these encounters always end in a way that is debilitating and unsettling.  I do visit him, however, from time to time.  I cross the hall, I knock on the door and I hear the latch unlock from within.  The door opens wide and the light of another world pours forth over me like shafts of sunrise.  Before me stands the blind tenant who ratchets his head down to face me and his face formulates a smile as soon as he hears my voice.  He is tall and heavy, his shoulders are wide and his red tussled hair falls unevenly about his neck and ears.  He embraces me, he grasps my shoulders, he pulls me through the door, he ushers me around a sparsely furnished room as he begins to talk and he rambles incessantly in a voice that is both gruff and happy and pleasing.  He offers wine or beer or bourbon and I take him up on it, I drink with him, I drink the beer or bourbon or wine and I ask for more and he delights in pouring.  I drink until I’m drunk, I laugh at his joke, I listen to his story and he and I join in laughter.  He laughs uproariously.  We toast each other.  We exclaim “to life!” in unison and we continue to drink but, invariably, the visit takes an odd turn.  He’ll draw me over to the large living room window that overlooks a street that runs parallel to the street that is mine to look out upon.  He’ll open that window as wide as he can and, as blind as he is, he’ll somehow know that someone is just then passing, close upon the sidewalk.  Somehow, he will spot that person who is no one in particular.  It may be some unsuspecting dog walker, for example, and he’ll yell “good morning” though its long past morning.  The dogwalker may yell back “good morning” and the blind tenant and the dogwalker might then carry on animated conversation about dogs and walking and the winter to come.  I can only hear one side of the conversation but I do hear the laughter that comes from each side of the window as that laughter punctuates the paragraphs of their conversation.  It is at this juncture that I begin to feel distance between myself and the blind tenant and the space between us explodes in the minefield of my mind and it is at about this time that I decide to leave.  Even though their conversation continues and the blind tenant and the dogwalker are happily engaged in explaining themselves and telling tales and recounting the twisting turns of their respective lives, I will feel an overpowering urge to leave, to escape, to run for my life and I will feel aching, debilitating need coalesce within me as though it were organic, soon to ferment like yeast or fester like infection.  I find my way out.  I fall through the door while the blind tenant continues his conversation.  I stagger back across the hall, I see my cedar door and I crash into it.  I open it quickly and I close it quickly and I throw myself onto my bed and I let the experience come to an inglorious end.  I let it become a memory, I let it be what it is:  something that I cannot quite grasp, something that evades me.  I proceed to let months or weeks or days pass until the time comes, once more, to visit the blind tenant.  Though it may be long, long, long into the future, that day invariably comes and, invariably, I summon the will to visit again.  I always visit again.

There is more, however.  There is more that I encounter, more to my reality and more to the tunnel of experience through which I pass.  There is the matter of rent and there is the matter of the landlady.  Rent is one of those things that one must deal with.  The landlady is real and my obligation to pay rent to her is real.  It is the pinion that holds the wheel in place and allows it to spin in circles.   There is also the matter of the landlady’s daughter who is no longer young but, when she was young, I was young as well.  When we were children, the landlady’s daughter would run in circles and I would run after her.  She had heather hair and her bangs would bounce against her forehead as she ran.  She would laugh while she ran and, when she laughed, two glistening teeth would ride high in her mouth and, indeed, she would laugh quite often.  I would laugh as well.  There was joy in running and there was joy in laughing and I recall running and falling and laughing.  It would not be an exaggeration to say that we were inseparable.  On occasion, she or I might sing.  We would collect sticks.  We would see who could jump the highest or farthest and we would march into piles of leaves with great vehemence.  We would strip petals from flowers in the garden.  We would dig through the dirt with our fingers.  We would retreat to the steps and sit.  It may have seemed as though we were waiting for someone to arrive or something to happen but, in fact, we were waiting for nothing and no one at all.  Her favorite color was blue and blue became my favorite as well.  Sadly, the friendship came to an end when she began having problems with her legs.  She had trouble running and then she had trouble walking and there came a time at which she could run or walk no more.  She sat in a wheelchair from that point on.   I saw less and less of her until I hardly saw her at all.

There is also the matter of the landlady’s son who lives somewhere nearby and visits his mother on occasion.  I don’t know his name though, perhaps, I should.  He is thin and his arms dangle as he walks and he wears a fedora and I find him repulsive.  He doesn’t comport with my conception of what a landlady’s son should be.  He doesn’t fit the model.  He is overly confident and self-assured, he is loud, he is argumentative, he is petty and you can tell that he tries not to smile.  He walks as though he owns the ground.  Ordinarily, this would not be a problem because, in truth, anyone can be loud or crude or narcissistic in some way, to some degree, at any particular time though some people more than others.  In this case, however, his presence is a problem.  Those who walk in my direction are forced to change direction to avoid walking into him.  He stands upon the sidewalk as if it were a conquered nation and his presence is enough to force those who pass by – those who I claim as my own – to avoid me, leave me, disengage from me.  The landlady’s son forestalls the only opportunity I have to behold the miracle of some other person, some stranger, some being who has a personhood all his or her own.  He repels all those who would otherwise enter my life and command my attention and serve as points of wonderment.  He destroys those possibilities.  He trespasses upon my psychic space as well:  though the silence of the evening doesn’t belong to him, the thought of him is enough to disrupt the delicate stillness and quiet harbor of my own inner peace.  He upsets the panorama of light and air and stars in the night that comprise my universe and he upends the reverie in which I may be immersed.  If he were to stand below my window and laugh or scream or berate his mother, his life would thereby be imposed upon my own – and so it is:  he disrupts both her life and my life in this fashion.  He imposes himself upon my personal eternity, he upsets the array of opportunities that are open to me at any given moment and, as he does, he folds my life into smaller and smaller dimensions.  Because of him, I cannot contemplate or confound myself with the mystery of trains or motorcycles or planes that I might otherwise hear in the distance.  I am prevented from contemplating or understanding those who happen to be walking along the sidewalk or rolling down the tracks or passing through the clouds or speeding down the highway as the sound of wheels and engines split the night.  My mind is pulled like a moon caught in gravity’s grasp so that it circles about him and is bombarded by his statements and exhortations.  The space we share is thereby sliced to shreds by his razor-edged voice.  Simply stated, I am dislodged from my world through his presence and I’m hurled into his.  My incessant effort to come to terms with my own world is upended.

There is another matter of concern and that matter is the dream that recently visited itself upon me.  I had a dream, most of which I can remember, and it was truly a memorable dream.  I dreamed that I looked down upon the street and noticed someone who slowly tilted her head, up, up, up until she was looking straight up, searching for me, patiently waiting for me to appear at my window.  When I lifted my eyes above the sill, I spotted her and, as I spotted her, I saw a smile that I think I’ve been waiting many years to see and I lifted my head so that I was standing tall by the window and gleefully yelled “how are you?” in as loud a voice as I could muster.  I didn’t care the hour and didn’t care if I upset the entire neighborhood with the sound of my voice.  I dreamed that she saw me and received my greeting and yelled in as loud a voice as mine: “how are you?” and it went on from there.  It was as happy an occasion as I can recall and it was a beautiful thing and I cried in my sleep and felt the drip of a tear as it ran across my cheek and jumped over my nose into my pillow.  At that moment, I woke up and remembered my dream in minute detail and this was quite unusual because I rarely remember my dreams.  I retained her image in my head and even though she was a creation of my own mind as it swam in sleep, I nevertheless thought of her as if she were real.  I thought about her often and I can’t help but think of her often.  Though her visit was not real, I spend time wishing she’d reappear.  I want her to search for me and find me.  I need to hear her cry out “how are you?” as if it were a statement and, if I were to hear those words, I would respond “how are you?” and I would luxuriate in her words and she in mine.

In addition to the matter of the landlady’s son and the matter of my recent dream, there is the more pressing matter of the landlady herself and the rent which lies at the core of our relationship.  In the absence of my obligation to pay rent, there would be no landlady and there would be no landlady’s son.  She exists, of course, and has a place in my life and has had a place in my life for longer than I can dream or remember.  If she did not exist, I would have some other reality to cope with.  I might live somewhere else, in some other town or city or in some other room or attic or cellar.  I might not spend most of my day peering out a window and, in that event, my eyes might not have the opportunity to lock onto the back of some unsuspecting stranger and I might not lie in the bed in which I presently lie while lost in the sound and mystery of the noise of trains and planes and motorcycles as the sound cascades into the plasma of the night.  I might live somewhere else and, for all I know, I might be someone else.  I might be well connected, socially adept, well-liked, sought after, loved.  I might owe rent to someone else and might have to answer to someone else but in a different way than at present or I might own my own home in which case I would answer to no one.  The possibilities are limitless but my reality, my only reality, is one in which I am bound to a person who has been my landlady for as far back in time as I can remember, to the extent I am able to remember.  Her need for me to pay rent emanates from her core and that need is palpable and endless.  In order to extract a check from me, she seeks me out and listens to me and cajoles me and soothes me and encourages me and insults me and this has been the case for countless years.  She can be kind, she can be understanding, she can be demanding, she can be disagreeable but she doesn’t know me and doesn’t seem to want to know me but I sense, in her case, that there is more to the story than her overriding need for me to pay rent.   She has tired eyes.  She draws her brown-red hair into a bun one day and lets it fall upon her shoulders the next because, perhaps, she lacks the strength to twist it.  There are times at which she seems lost as when her voice is weak and her eyes are red and the glistening edge of a tear appears beneath one eye, then another.  I can determine for myself that she feels defeated as when her left shoulder sinks lower than her right and her cheeks appear pale and the laces collapse upon the tops of her shoes with every step she takes, over and again, as if those laces share the burden of her defeat.  I think I can tell when she is sad though I say nothing and firmly believe that I shouldn’t say anything.  I’m tempted, during the course of her visits to ask, “how are you?” but I hold back.  It feels wrong or ill-timed or inappropriate or all of these at once.  I wish not to take the chance because, if I were to ask, “how are you?”, she may not answer and that would be devastating.  I won’t try, I just can’t, I know how it may go and it terrifies me.  The question that I could ask is a question that can’t be asked.  I have a strong sense that she has a multiplicity of needs that shroud themselves within a panoply of selves that cohabit within her but all this is based upon conjecture and the bits of things I’ve observed that I think I remember.  It is all part of my experience and it feels like dejection.

There is, however, the approach that I devised in my own mind based, to some degree, upon memory and dream and an element of hope which is a small raft in a large sea, difficult to cling to but the only thing one can hope to hold onto if one wishes to avoid drowning.  That hope will become a reality because I see it in my mind’s eye.  I am certain of it and I can say with utmost assurance that the event or experience I contemplate will happen as though it has already happened.  It cannot refrain from happening.  It is bound to happen.  Reality bends in my direction, it has no choice, it can be no other way just as history has no other option but to be whatever it is, at least to the extent that it can be retrieved or remembered or dreamed.  What will happen is this:  I will peer out my window and see a blue dot at the end of the street and that featureless blue dot will grow and advance in my direction.  That blue dot will define itself and come closer and take on the features of a human being and, before long, I will not see a blue blur but will see, rather, the landlady’s daughter once again.  She will approach in her wheelchair from far, far down the street and I will recognize her and find comfort in her familiar image.  I will remember her, to the extent that I am able, in the form and manner of the person she is and I will recognize the array of bits and pieces of her that have lingered in my memory.  The woman I see will be the same person as the girl I once knew.  I will realize that she’s been gone, long absent, deeply missed and I will suddenly realize how much I’ve missed her.  I will realize her as a person, here and now, in the course of this new time, this new immersion, this new day.  She will come from the far end of the street toward my window, closer and closer, and I will hear and feel the dull vibration of the steel silver wheels of her wheelchair as they screech and moan until that screech and moan ceases.  She will sit upright in that chair and I will see her situated directly below the sill of my window and she will allow the wind to lift grey tufts of her hair so they float like feathers above her head as the wind lurches past her in spasms and her hair will rise just so high as to reveal bright earrings, each laden with glassine diamonds that light electric, energized by the spears of the sun’s light that land like arrows and those glistening targets will fire like twisted lightning against the coral sky.  I will slowly lift my head above the windowsill and slowly stand and I will feel the gentle push of the airstream against my face and under my hair and around my shoulders and my features will be clear and evident for her to see and she will ask “how are you?” and I will respond “how are you” and I will let those words fly in the air in a manner in which they can be heard and felt and understood and they will be heard and felt and understood as a statement and they will mean and can only mean “I need you.”


BIO

Walter Weinschenk is an attorney, writer and musician. Until a few years ago, he wrote short stories exclusively but now divides his time equally between poetry and prose. Walter’s writing has appeared in a number of literary publications including the Carolina Quarterly, Sunspot Literary Journal, Cathexis Northwest Press, Beyond Words, The Closed Eye Open, The Write Launch and others. His work is due to appear in forthcoming issues of The Courtship of Winds, Ponder Review, The Raw Art Review and Iris Literary Journal. Walter lives in a suburb just outside Washington, D. C.



An Artist’s Whore

By Grace Ford


            The first stroke is the hardest—that’s what artists always say. They don’t speak much once they’ve gotten started, tucked deep into the fervid concentration required for true genius, but they tend to chatter a bit before their brush first finds the canvas. They get a little jitter in their hands, rolling and rerolling their shirtsleeves, shifting around on their stools. Creative nerves. Yes, the first stoke is the hardest. One particularly crude man told me that the same can be said about sex, and he grinned when he saw me blush. I never posed for him again.

            Once they put their brush to canvas, I become a body, my contours and angles theirs to consume and regurgitate. The exchange of money makes me a common commodity. Like a prostitute—you can wander the streets as the sun slips away, and if you have the right intentions, you’ll find one of us to strip down for you. These are the things I think about while I pose—an ideal time for useless thoughts—and the painters wonder why my skin flushes pink as the minutes pass. They ask if I’m feeling too warm, and should I like them to open a window? Sure, open a window; the passing breeze might distract me.

            “Is it the candles?” Mr. Barrow asks.

            I jump, startled. The linen sheet shifts beneath me. “I’m sorry?”

            He doesn’t look up from his canvas but stands now in a warm cast of firelight from the dozens of lit candles strewn about the room. The half-darkness is oppressive in such a small flat. His eyes flicker over his work, hungry, obsessive, grappling for a flaw.

            “The candles,” he repeats. “I like the contrast they give, but it can make the room rather hot. I could open a window.”

            There’s a window facing West, opening onto the lamplit street. It must be drizzling outside; the glass pings as its spit with rain. He doesn’t wait for my response, doesn’t even glance over to consider my expression—a charmer, he isn’t. The night air chases out the thick perfume of mineral oil and sweat.

            “That’s better,” Mr. Barrow says, and returns to his canvas.

            I say nothing, resume my pose: one arm supporting my head, which looks off with an expression of unassuming sexual allure, the other draped across my side to emphasize the curve of my waist, making sure to keep my thighs slightly crossed. Too much on display is distasteful, though not enough is boring. Art, it seems to me, must always strike a balance of provocative and socially acceptable. 

            Mr. Barrow is talker, always mumbling something, even now as he continues to paint. Technical musings about light and color theory that seem to spill out of his throat, unnoticed. It comes so quiet, I barely catch it, and I find myself straining to listen.

            Then, “I’d like to include the birthmark.”

            The beat of silence that follows is deafening. Out of instinct, my arm shifts to cover the dark, oblong shape that sits, like a stubborn coffee stain, in the crook of my waist. Part of it still shows, the massive thing.  

            “I told you up front, Mr. Barrow,” I say. “It’s my one condition: no birthmark in the painting.”

            “You don’t need to call me that,” he mutters, but I ignore him. He puts down his brush. “There’s no need to be ashamed of it. It’s very unique.”

            “I’m not ashamed.”

            “Then why hide it?”

            “Precisely because it is unique,” I say. “Recognizable.” I would kill for a glass of water at the moment, my mouth has turned so suddenly dry.

            His eyes linger on my face, and he does not pick up the brush again, instead grabbing a paint-stained rag to wipe his hands. In the glowing half-light, I lose his face to shadow.

            “Dorothea,” he says quietly. My name—I didn’t expect him to remember it. “Do people call you Dot?”

            I watch him, watch the vacant, deft movements of his hands. “Some people do,” I say.

            “May I?”

            “Mr. Barrow-”

            “If you call me Benedict, I’ll call you Dot. How’s that?” He smiles for the first time, and I think of the crude man who grinned at me over the lip of his canvas, eyeing my bare breasts. This smile is small and crooked, more of a grimace, unpracticed and unused. The opposite of a circus clown, but perhaps just as upsetting to young children. The thought makes me inadvertently smile back.

            “Fine,” I say. “Yes, that’s fine. Now are you going to paint, Benedict, or are we just going to chat?”

            He laughs, a short, keen sound, and that seems to be his answer. He plucks up the brush and sets back into his work.

            Two hours later, I pull a cotton robe over my shoulders as Benedict adds the finishing touches, of which there can never be enough, to the piece. From a standing position now, I linger near the settee, my gaze unable to settle. The flat’s layout is nauseating. It’s a tiny space, half kitchen and half art studio, the floor littered with stacks of books, crinkled paint tubes, and unfinished sketches. There’s an inordinate amount of furniture on the studio side, where I’m trapped, and a shocking lack thereof on the kitchen side. The whole place feels unbalanced, off-kilter. Reflective of the mind that put it together, perhaps. Unnerved, I start to inch towards the foyer where my coat hangs, intending to leave the man absorbed, unaware of my absence, but the floor creaks underfoot. Benedict snaps from a trance.

            “Oh, please,” he says. “Let me get your coat.”

            I let him because he said please, although he doesn’t sound too enthusiastic about it. He disappears into the foyer.

            I can’t say whether it’s curiosity or suspicion that draws me towards the painting, or if I even intend to take a peek at all. I seem to float towards it, thoughtless, willing to let my eyes consume it. My legs and breasts, milky white and slightly exaggerated, stretch across the velvet settee on the canvas, my face not truly my own but rather generally female. And in the middle of that Aphroditic figure, a dark brown stain.

            Benedict has returned, coat in hand. When I turn, he looks like child caught with his hand in the cookie jar, strikingly guilty yet pleading innocence with his eyes.

            “Paint it over,” I say.

            “Look at it,” he says, shaking the coat in hand. “It’s beautiful. Just look at it.”

            I repeat myself through clenched teeth, like an animal: “Paint it over.” I grab my coat from his hand as I pass him, the urge to hit him, slap him, harm him in some tangible way pounding at the thin skin of my mind as I do. He won’t do it, I know, not on the request of someone like me, but my face is burning and taught with fear that I can’t let him—a stranger—see. I leave him with a toneless “good evening” and scuffle out onto the London streets, headed for home.

⁂        ⁂        ⁂

            Lucille’s house has a leak again. Springtime showers have kept the roof damp and saturated, moisture gnawing through the wood. Drops cascade down to patter against the cast iron stove that sits against the far wall. They sizzle passively on contact—Lucille must have stoked last night’s embers back to life already, but the kettle is still in the wash basin. She hasn’t yet started her morning tea.

            The leak is a familiar trouble spot, one that my mother had patched up almost every spring when she was still around. On Sundays, when her employer insisted she take the day off—that’s when she came to see me. She’d splurge on the carriage fare to bring her down from the countryside and into London, still wearing her black maid’s dress and white bibbed apron, hair concealed under that horrid lace-trimmed bonnet. I could always identify the tell-tale sounds of the carriage horse’s metal-clad hooves clinking down the street, and my heart would swell. She paid for my stay in Lucille’s house monthly out of her paycheck, but in the springtime, she would patch the roof in exchange for one month’s rent free. I’d like to say she was generous, but really, she was just a show-off. I spent those Sunday afternoons squatted on the street outside the house, hand raised against the sun so that I could watch her work. She would hitch her skirts up to her knees— “The only time a lady can be indecent is when she’s doing a man’s work.”

            I had just turned twelve on the first Sunday that she didn’t show. I waited at the open window of my bedroom on the house’s second story, listening for the sound of the carriage horse. Lucille reasoned that the weather was too bad to make it down from the countryside—there had just been a late-winter blizzard, and the roads were slick with ice. My mother came the following Sunday, then missed the one after that, then returned again, then missed the next two. Her visits became fewer and farther between, until they stopped altogether. After the snow melted away, I prayed every night for the leak in the kitchen to spring, as if she might return to patch it up. The leak came back, but she never did.

            I grab a pail from the cabinet under the wash basin and set it on the stove top to catch the falling drops.

            “That leak’ll be the death of me.” Lucille waddles into the kitchen, stray hairs wiggling as she shakes her head at the ceiling. She has one hand on her bad hip, whichever one she’s decided is bad today, and the other on her chest as if she’s short of breath. “Either it or you,” she adds. Her cockney accent curls the end of her words. “You were out so late; I nearly went to comb the streets myself.”

            “Artists prefer the night,” I say, waving a hand towards the heavens. “They draw creativity from the moon, or something.”

            Lucille tsks at me as she waddles over to the wash basin in search of the kettle. “Cheeky, just like she was.”

            Never a day goes by where she doesn’t compare me to my mother—salt in the wound if I’ve ever seen it. I can’t blame her, of course. Old people reminisce as a form of grieving, because if they never stop grieving, the funeral is never really over. I can’t blame her, but I can’t thank her either. Best to just let her have her funeral.

            I’m headed for the door, mind set on St. James Park and the glorious show I’m sure to see today, when Lucille says, “It’s Sunday. Has she written you?”

            My next step falters, and I pause in the doorway. It’s been years since she bothered to ask that question. She doesn’t even check the mail slot for rent payments anymore, which leaves me to check it for death notices. “She hasn’t,” I say. “But she might.”

            The silence that follows is filled only by the ping of waterdrops from the unpatched roof.

            It’s late in the morning as I reach St. James Park along the River Thames, and the sun is almost at its pinnacle, preparing a lazy slip into the afternoon. The park is packed—absolutely stuffed. Tents hoisted, blankets spread, tea chairs erected for posh bums to rest on. The greenery is strewn with an amalgam of tussore silk, Dutch linens, and fine gingham. I stare, lips curving into a grin, and staring back at me are the perfectly circular tops of dozens of parasols, blushing ivory and crepe under the new spring sun. Of course, they must have parasols, lest they burn and ruin their porcelain skin. I find an empty spot on a slope, close enough to observe the scene but far enough away to not disturb it.

            If there’s one thing that’s predictable in life, it’s the schedule of the high society folk. It is spring, and the rain has eased for the time being, and therefore the lovely ladies and gentlemen of high society simply must promenade by the riverside. The tents and tables would be those of their families, their mothers taking tea in the shade while counting how many gentlemen beg to kiss their daughters’ hands. A mating ritual, that’s really what it is—the showing off of this year’s most eligible wombs.

            The scene plays out in front of me: the languid movements, the perfectly paired, color-coordinated couples strolling the garden paths, the hush of the Thames shifting in its bed. I could almost convince myself I was asleep, dreaming of a strange world in which humans were really just animals. Peacocks and tigers flashing their colors and stripes. How ridiculous it looks from afar, how absurdly lavish. I wonder if my mother ever thinks the same thing about the family she cares for, or if it looks different when you’re on the inside. Perhaps, despite their extravagant clothing, she knows them to be just as boorish as the rest of us. Perhaps she feels affection for them.

            Of course, she does. Didn’t she also promenade like a peacock when she came of age? She had a different gown for each gala, each ball—the daughter of a wealthy country gentleman is never to be caught in the same ensemble twice. Didn’t she, too, carry a dowry so large that young bachelors tripped over their trouser cuffs to win her hand? Before she got pregnant, that is, and threw it all away for a man whose name I’ll never know. Perhaps she shouldn’t have fanned her plumage so wide, and she wouldn’t have been sent off to servanthood under the hush of propriety. I might have known my father, my grandfather. I might not have been born at all.

            But then, who am to judge who a woman gets naked for?

            The ground vibrates close behind me—footfalls—and I glance up to see Benedict Barrow towering over me. He grimaces, the smug bastard, as if we should be happy to see each other. I look away, drawing my knees up to my chest.

            “Dot,” he says in that flat tone of his. “Haven’t seen you here before.”

            “Likewise.”

            “I come here to paint sometimes,” he says. I imagine he motions to a little easel set-up somewhere in the distance, but I don’t care to look. “May I join you?”

            I let out a grunt, some noncommittal noise that he apparently interprets as the affirmative. He settles on the grass beside me. My eyes fall to the ground, suddenly uncomfortable with the idea of him watching me watch the rich folk, although that’s what I came here to do. I have no other excuse at the ready, but I know the question is coming.

            “What are you doing here?” he asks.

            “It’s a nice day,” I say. “Just thought I’d enjoy it. Not much work on Sundays, anyhow.”

            He nods, stretching his legs out in front of him. “Even the wicked must rest, contrary to popular belief.”

            If it were anyone else, that would have gotten a laugh from me, but I can’t bear to give him the satisfaction. Wicked, indeed.

            A cool breeze blows in off the Thames, sending the tents and parasols swaying in a lazy dance. A large white sunhat tumbles across the grass with a man in pursuit close behind, undoubtedly on behalf of some beautiful lady. If I were alone, I would giggle, commit the scene to memory. Unfortunately, I am not.

            “I’m sorry about what happened last night,” Benedict says, and I go stiff. “I didn’t realize that it was so important. I painted over it, of course, like you asked.”

            My only response is, “Good.” I know he’s lying by the casual slip of his tone, but if I say anymore, I’ll give myself away.

            He seems relieved by my easy acceptance, visibly relaxing, crossing his legs Indian style. “Can I ask why it’s so important?”

            My fingers tear at the grass beneath me, and I look at him, take in the calculated eagerness of his expression, the shadow of genuine confusion. He wouldn’t understand my fear even if I explained, couldn’t comprehend my reputation’s fragile state. He is a painter, a generally disrespectable profession, saved only by the fact that it is a pursuit of the arts. Benedict Barrow can claim passion as his vice, the betterment of humanity as his goal, even as he sinks closer to impoverishment. There is dignity in his purpose, whether actual or performative. His mother can disown him while taking solace in the fact that he’s simply a “dreamer.” There’s no solace in your daughter being a whore.

            In my mind, I see his painting, my birthmark on full display, the birthmark that my mother used to trace with her fingers as she bathed me. She would say it looked like a cloud, and I, ever eager to be right, would tell her, “No. Clouds are white.”

            “Clever girl,” she’d say, pinching my side.

            I imagine her in her employer’s great hall, carefully polishing the silver as she does every Tuesday, only to look up and see that a new painting had been brought in. It might take a moment or two, as buried as I am in the recesses of her memory, to recognize it. Her eyes would linger on the brown cloud-shaped mark until they filled with hot, shameful tears. My stomach clenches in my gut.

            It’s only now that I feel the sting behind my nose, feel the slide of warm liquid down my cheek. I swipe the tear away with the back of my hand. Benedict stares out over the park, not seeming to notice. He might have forgotten that he even asked the question.

            “There’s someone who would recognize it,” I say. I hesitate, trying to ease the tightness in my throat, then add, “If they saw the painting, with the mark, they’d know what I do for a living.”

            He doesn’t acknowledge that I’ve spoken, not even a nod, just lets the words hang there like some limp, dead thing. I draw my knees closer to my chest. A game of croquet has been set up near the gardens, and the young men stand with mallets propped up on their shoulders like lumberjack. Fancy lumberjacks. The thought lifts my mood just a bit.

            “Pose for me again,” Benedict says, throwing the words out into the breeze.

            A sharp laugh explodes from me. “No,” I say, and he laughs too.

            Another minute passes in silence.

            “If I gave you something to wear, would you pose for me again?”

            “Something to wear?”

            “A dress. A gown.”

            “What’ve you got a gown for?”

            “Nevermind that. Would you?”

            He’s quite quick with his words when he uses them, isn’t he? I study his expression, eyes narrowed. I search for the hidden intentions there, on his countenance, the plan he’s undoubtedly spinning as we speak, but I find nothing. His gaze is characteristically vacant of anything but impulse and desire. I leave him longing for an answer as my mind wanders back to the painting, sitting on some easel in some corner of his flat, waiting to be sold—inaccessible. Just out of reach, existing only because I’ve allowed it to exist. Something hardens in the pit of my stomach.

            “I can’t paint the birthmark if I can’t see it,” Benedict adds, and one corner of his lips turns up in a smirk.

            I look out again over the grass, at the ladies in their glittering garments. A few have stopped to watch the croquet game, and they clap silently with their gloved hands when one of the boys makes a good shot. Benedict watches me watching them. He thinks he has me.

            “What kind of gown?” I ask.

            He offers me a hand and tugs me to my feet.

            His flat is just a few streets East of St. James Park, around the corner from an ornate catholic church that stands packed between rows of low-rent, low-maintenance residencies. I recognize the lane now in the light of day: a stretch nicknamed rue des affamés, which loosely translates to “street of the starved.” An affectionate nod to the creatives that flock to the area. How fitting for him.

            The flat is even more jarring in the day, without copious amounts of candlelight to romanticize its humility. It seems the décor simply fell from the sky, and Benedict never bothered to rearrange it. I wander to the middle of the room, uneasy, stepping around loose papers and books. Benedict retreats to a corner behind a folding room divider without a word. I glance at the front door, aware of all the empty space in the room, filled only with inanimate objects and our two bodies. My eyes flit around the room in search of the painting. They catch on canvas after canvas, some blank, some smattered with brushstrokes but ultimately unfinished, and a handful of completed paintings lined up against the far wall beneath the windows. None of them are mine, but I almost want to destroy them in its stead. My fingernails dig into my palms. He’s hidden it somewhere. If I try hard enough, I can pretend he did so out of shame.

            From the corner where Benedict disappeared comes the sound of a door opening, then closing again, and the swish of fabric against hardwood.

            “Here,” he says.

            I turn to him. From a coat closet in the corner, he’s pulled a dress, a full-length scarlet evening gown studded with false rubies and trimmed in gold lace. The film of dust and old age on the surface is apparent, but the color is as vibrant as if it were new.

            “The sun hasn’t touched it in years,” Benedict says. He carries it over, giving it a light shake. “It was my mother’s, but she has no use for it now.”

            The glow of the silk seems to pull my mind from the painting. I want to reach out, to touch it, but I hesitate.  

            “Do you like it?” he asks. “I know it’s a little outdated, but it’s the most expensive thing I own.”

            He says that as if it matters. “It’s beautiful,” I say.

            He holds it out to me.

            It’s ridiculous how fast I give in. I slip the dress on behind the room divider, telling myself that the painting could have been back there, and it was a good opportunity to check. It wasn’t.

            A long, oval mirror on the wall reflects my image, and I suck in a breath seeing it. The dress fits like a glove, the waistline falling just below my bust and hiding all of my curves in the flowing skirt. A stiff gold chiffon collar frames my face, the square neckline hides my breasts from view. Everything is enclosed, encased, like a suit of armor.

            Benedict sets me in his best armchair, an acceptable champagne-colored thing that could be passable with an artist’s touch. He gives me a book—System of Transcendental Idealism—and tells me to pretend to read.

            “Cultured ladies read,” he tells me, and I sneer at him. As if I don’t know what cultured ladies do.

            He moves me how he wants, until he finds the perfect angle, sun slanting in through the windows to fall across my cheek like a spotlight. Then, he takes up his position on the stool, and tucks into his work. At first, I try to turn my head ever so slightly this way and that, still searching for the painting among the piles of rubbish, but Benedict tells me to keep still, and I know I won’t find it today. We stay like that for hours, taking a break only to eat, until the sunlight ebbs away and casts the flat in graying night. He’s forced to abandon the piece for now, but I could have gone on for hours more—my muscles are barely tired, my skin white and cool under the touch of silk.

⁂        ⁂        ⁂

            I pose for Benedict Barrow twice a week after that day, always in the red gown; standing at the window, paging through a book, taking afternoon tea. I feel an ease in the work that I never have before, but then this isn’t work I’ve ever done—dressing up instead of dressing down.

            Every day, I look for the painting. The easels, canvases, books, and other rubbish moves around the room almost daily, but the one thing I want to see never appears. More than once I try to build up to the nerve to ask him about it, to quench my fears and leave the whole ordeal behind me, but I can’t seem to find the words. Benedict never seems to notice my pensive silence. He talks, constantly distracted, while he paints—stories of the family he never sees, the father he loathes, and I am more or less forced to lend an ear. Not that I mind it all that much. It seems to me that he hasn’t had someone listen to him in a long time, someone to think of as a friend. I haven’t either, although I refrain from telling long rambling tales about my childhood, content in the knowledge that I could if I wanted, and he would be forced to listen. We seem to have found a rhythm, the artist and I, come to an unspoken agreement about our relationship: he talks and paints, I listen and pose.

            As Spring is melting away into the long days Summer, the clandestine search for the painting fades from the forefront of my mind. If it were here and of any value to Benedict Barrow, I would have found it by now. I start to believe that he’s gotten rid of it, shoved it in some cupboard or closet to be forgotten by both artist and model. The new paintings are so much better. In the gown, my figure stands out like a bloodstain against the drab background—royalty among poverty—and I seem to almost lift off of the canvas toward the eyes. There’s no reason to keep the old pieces, strewn with the nude bodies of strange women. These are the real masterpieces.

            Benedict beams at each canvas when it’s finished, tells me it’s beautiful, tells me I’m beautiful, though only while riding that crazed, inspired high that plagues him in the afterglow of a finished work. His other pieces seem to disappear from the flat as the days go by, and with them, I imagine, my own nude depiction. I don’t ask, happy to see them gone, happy to let the memory of the night we met fade into surreality.

            It’s a humid Saturday night when Benedict meets me at his front door, breaking our little ritual. I usually knock twice, wait for his call from the main room, and then let myself in. The dress will already be slung over the lip of the room divider, and he’ll offer that crooked grimace of a smile, tell me he’s been expecting me.

            Tonight, he’s waiting at the door, and opens it as I raise a hand to knock. I jump back, startled, but Benedict is all teeth and hands, giggling as he pulls me inside.

            “Mr. Barrow.” I say his name with a mother’s scolding edge, but he doesn’t seem to notice. He bundles me through the foyer. My feet catch on various objects strewn about the floor, and he has to hold me up by the elbows.

            “I’ve done it, Dot, I’ve really done it,” he’s saying. He’s pulled me to the center of the room, closer to the table where a lamp is lit, the only light source in the room.

            “Done what?”

            “It’s happened, that’s what I’m telling you. We did it.”

            His hair is a mess, a flopping mass of dark spikes and curls—he’s been dragging his hands through it repetitively. His eyes are cloudy, glazed over as if he’s inebriated.

            “Have you been down to the pub today?” I ask, only half-joking.

            He laughs, giving me a good whiff of his breath, which reeks of Earl Gray but nothing else; he’s completely sober.

            “Tell me what it is and maybe I can be excited too,” I say, smiling. He holds me by the elbows still with clammy hands, gives me a gentle shake, hot breath wafting over my cheeks. For a moment, my stomach turns.

            “I sold a painting.” He breathes the words out. His eyes flicker wildly between my own. “At St. James Park, this morning. To a fine couple, a gentleman and lady with a daughter just of age this season. Rich folk, Dot. I mean rich.

            Though the sale of his art means nothing for me, I find his excitement infectious. “One of ours?” I ask.

            He nods, a sharp jerking movement.

            “That’s wonderful,” I say, if only to match his joy.

            Benedict releases me, letting out a long sigh and running both hands through his hair. In the lamplit room, his eyes glimmer—he might be crying, or maybe it’s just a trick of the light. He turns away, towards the little stove and wash basin in the corner, as if to take stock of the life he has now before he leaves it. He’s already forgetting that I’m there.

            “Wonderful,” I say again, a little too loudly. There’s a swimming in my gut that I can’t understand, so I try to swallow it. “You’ll be the talk of the town soon enough,” I add. 

            Benedict stands stock-still now, half-lost in shadow, gazing at the far wall. He could be in a painting himself, just now, the way the light is bathing his backside in a divine yellow glow. The way he stands removed from me, now the artist.

            “Which one did they buy?” I ask, quietly so that my voice doesn’t disrupt the refuge of the moment. I cannot end this, this pause before he says what I already know.  

            He is silent, glistening palms running through his hair again. My throat tightens. “Was it Lady in Red at the Window?,” I ask. My mouth is so dry. “That was my personal favorite, but you did such fine work on all of them-”

            “The nude painting,” Benedict says.

            “Oh,” I say, just before reality strikes me.  

            He half-turns back toward me, toward the lamp on the table. His features are a mask. He doesn’t look at me, won’t look at me, and if he did, I’m not sure that he would even see me. The bastard can’t even see me.

            My teeth are clamped down hard on my bottom lip, and I taste blood, though in my shocked state, I can’t understand where it’s coming from. My body trembles with each twitchy beat of my heart.

            “It was beautiful,” Benedict says. A smile is slipping absently over his face.

            I want to scream at him, but there—yes, of course, there it is—the wet electricity of tears behind my eyes. If I scream, I’ll cry, and maybe that’s what he’s wanted this whole time: the knowledge that he could have me and break me. My hand is over my mouth, holding it all in, and I’m running, running through the door, down la rue des affamés, passed St. James Park where high society promenades on spring afternoons, now sleeping under the blanket of night. I run home.

            Lucille greets me in the kitchen when I stumble in, ready with a dry towel to wrap around my shoulders. I hadn’t even noticed it was raining. I’m soaked down to the skin, wet hair matted to my face.

            “What a nightmare,” she says after a good look me, and I can’t help but agree. The painting is gone. My marked body is displayed like an exposé of my sin on some rich man’s wall for his wife and children to see. For his staff to see. For a maid who was once a mother to see, to recognize the cloud-shaped seal on her daughter’s side and know that she raised an artist’s whore. Despite all logic, my mind whispers, she knows, she knows, she knows.

            My limbs quiver as Lucille helps me into the bathtub. She doesn’t speak, keeps her eyes down and hands busy, for the sake of politeness if nothing else. I let her guide me like a child, settling me in the warm water, rubbing a washrag over my trembling muscles.

            She opens the drain once I’m clean enough, and gravity pulls the water into a torrent of yellow and brown, a whirlpool littered with debris from my body. My skin is exposed in the water’s absence, slick and red from heat and friction. My breath comes ragged, and my breasts heave in front of me, those bulbous lumps of flesh that men so covet, that they hang on their sitting room walls in front of the world.

            “She’s never coming back for me,” I say, and I choke on the words.

            Lucille kneels beside the bathtub, rubbing a calloused hand across my naked back.


BIO

Grace Ford is an undergraduate student studying creative writing at the University of Illinois- Urbana Champaign. Ford is attending the university on scholarship from her high school where she was awarded the Timothy Robert Creative Writing Award. She grew up in rural southwest Michigan, where she discovered her passion for writing at the age of nine, and she now lives in Springfield, IL with her family.


Hollywood, Guido Orlando, The Pope and The Mother

by M. F. McAuliffe



THE POPE

Was Pius XII. Who gave the world the commandments of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; who told the world what sin was, fleshly and deathly, and when and how and how often to do penance.

GUIDO ORLANDO

Is sitting in the lobby of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel at 2 or 3 o’clock on a Wednesday in January, 1983. He is sitting there for the calm of the lighting, quiet and comforting leather chairs and lounges where time doesn’t pass or change. It could still be 1953, with this constant stream of wide-eyed tourists happy to spend and be astonished.

Opportunity has always walked through the door of this hotel, always found The Great Orlando – King of Contacts, publicity campaign manager extraordinaire, friend of the Pope, of former kings’ former wives, hamburger chain owners, Hollywood small fry, Ernest Hemingway –

He has always waited here. The currents of the day have always brought every kind of creature to the web of his perception. The post-war years were good. The post post-war years not so good – too much television, the studios falling apart. The post post post-war years are thin and tedious, the glamour gone, the fascination; the only glittering gatherings retirements, funerals, wakes.

The hotel remains, his oldest friend. And so he comes to sit and see what today will bring. These people are, yes, almost, maybe, no. Too many, too rushed, too scheduled, too planned, too Disney tourist –

His luck has vanished. He’s living on stocks and favours. He needs a writer.

He needs a writer because people are blind. People have to be made to see; they have to be told what to see. How can they see The Great Orlando in these lesser, daylight times without someone new and young to tell them?

There is a woman coming through the doors.

THE WOMAN

Whose name is Francesca, is of a certain age: dyed hair, wide mouth. Who performs the attentive, emotional work of carrying a conversation further, whose speech is powdered and laboured, whose face is slashed with lines as though by knives, a vertical surface of vertical scars, whose laugh is a vocalized smile. Who has stopped writing.

Whose husband had left her fifteen years ago for a woman fifteen years younger, whose every affair since then has been with a writer, been a temporary, unsatisfactory, hopeful, hopeless saga. Her last fling but one – on her way back to Australia for work – had been on Hydra. An Irish poet, she said, whose friends had formed a committee to get Seamus Heaney the Nobel Prize.

In Australia she was a temporary tutor sitting across from Jayne, another temporary tutor, in their temporary office. They were both new to the college, new to the city or the state; they were both filling in for lecturers on sabbatical. They were looking at the agenda for the Staff Committee.

“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” Francesca, husky, half-laughing, half-strangled.

Jayne looked up and turned towards Francesca. They had both been drafted onto the committee, both hated it. The word committee reminded them Hinstantly of the Hincident on Hydra.

A committee to push for the Nobel! To push the work! they said. Jayne was as aghast as Francesca was amused. Work was good or it wasn’t, they said. Worth was slow, complex, immense, a filtering through decades or centuries of chance, usefulness and clarity slipping past time and change.

“Deciding a Nobel must be quite an undertaking.” Francesca was considering, elaborating. “I suppose there must be stipulations. Procedures. Lists.”

“Mm.” As Francesca didn’t say any more Jayne turned back to the staff committee’s list.

The world was a net, not a list.

“A committee’s the sort of thing a group of men would find reasonable, would do. A team passing the ball down the field for a goal.”

“Long live the kingdom of footy,” she said. Francesca laughed.

She pushed the agenda aside and pulled her stack of assignments closer. Francesca’s elaborations were so anxious to establish harmony they were wearing. Her parties were as fussy as her speech, full of introductions that introduced to no avail: old friends to new academics, new friends to experts in restoring old houses; tales of London, the ways of English and American crossword puzzles, wine from the Barossa and the Loire.

She didn’t want to agree or demur or argue or play compare and contrast. On its way to her cup of pens her gaze passed over the window – low buildings, smoggy trees, hazy, indeterminate distance, a gridded lack of mercy. She had to start putting out feelers for another job.

She gave the assignments the evil eye from the corner of her eye and saw, coincidentally, the assignments were a footy high. Oh, stop, she said to the larrikin streams of her mind.

Jayne was happy to see someone from home was coming to visit, but was still surprised when Francesca appeared in Los Angeles three years later to see her and her new American husband, a writer whose editor was not returning his calls.

Naturally Francesca encountered Guido Orlando as he sat at a small round table in the lobby of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel at 3 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon in early 1983. Tall, statuesque, long red hair and line-scarred face: she had the kind of used lusciousness he immediately recognized, a woman whose best gifts lay in the silk-soft flesh of her address book.

THE MOTHER

The winter evenings so dark so early. It felt like eight o’clock at five. Her arms were tired, the basket so full she could scarcely get her fingers around the handle. The string bag was a shapeless weight at her feet. Marriage had swallowed her. The beach and picnics, food handled and cooked, packed, cup and thermos; more baskets, her sister’s as well as their own, children born and fed and attended to, fed and fed and fed.

Glenelg on Fridays: the hairdresser, then Barnett the butcher, corned beef, flank, shoulder of lamb or lamb chops; the fish-shop next to it, butterfish, whiting, gar, bream; Coles, Woollies. The picture theatre at the top of Jetty Road, dark and uncrowded of a late morning, the entrance a dark square of presences as the tram carried her past, dark ghosts inviting her to darkness and light: Katherine Hepburn, Joan Crawford. How they swung their shoulders in the mansions where they lived, able to carry any weight and control where it went. Swinging their shoulders and legs they turned to the light with a quip and a dismissal. How nothing got them down.

The world came when they beckoned. Whether it came or not didn’t matter. How it was theirs to ignore from the beginning.

She almost missed her stop, rocking with the tram’s rocking, the old, comfortable leather seats, a tenth of a degree’s pale warmth because there was no draught from the doors, no wind behind the afternoon’s thickening darkness. The overcoat she’d made was warm, large, mohair; it swept, sweeping down her height, another arm or muscle to balance the weight of the shopping.

She got off at the tramstop, walked, turned the corner. The house was as dark as the street.

She put the meat and fish into the fridge, the rest of the shopping into the cupboards. Jayne was sick and still asleep. The Little Golden Book and the chocolate cat in purple silver paper stayed waiting in their brown paper bags, the bags twirled at the corners for the cat, flat at the corners for the book. She had to start dinner, see how the child was. Jay would be home at five, dinner immediately after. Tuna casserole: it was quick and everyone liked it. They could use ramekins instead of plates, eat in front of television. Jayne in her dressing gown if she was well enough to get up. Brian home from Lobethal for the weekend, easy to get on with.

#

Saturdays.

How they had become a battle and a grind.

Saturdays had been wonderful, dancing till the last tram, or sometimes going to the pictures with the girls from her table at work. They all loved the pictures, all talked and giggled about the awful side lanes the theaters emptied you into from the door under the red exit light, the crumpled newspapers, pie-wrappings, cigarette butts, trickles of water across the footpath. And the smell. And then all that gone as you stepped into Rundle Street.

They worked at the only milliner’s still open during the Depression. Laid off from time to time, they saved the ticket price and went when they could. The size of the auditorium, the semi-circular sweep of the balcony, sitting in the gods in the dark and the anticipation, the picture so large you were in it. You were still in it even as you walked to the swaying, rail-ringing tram. Even as you left the tram and walked home your mind still moved in thick, creamy light.

Before she was married she went home to her parents’ house, where she and her sister lived, instead of going home to the second best dancer in Adelaide. Jay was slight and quick, such a good dancer, provider –

Dancing! Helpmann so light on his feet at the Palais on North Terrace, the upstairs ballroom with the sprung floor and floor to ceiling windows looking straight into the plane trees; Helpmann such a dancer he’d gone to London, danced in the Royal Ballet, danced with Margot Fonteyn, danced in The Red Shoes.

After Helpmann left she danced with Jay, who was nearly as good, who wanted to marry her.

Had married her, Kathleen.

And taken all her freedom. She had to leave work; it was against the law for a married woman to be employed, taking a job from someone who needed it, unless she or her family owned the business. Now she had no money except the housekeeping, and though he was generous it was a donation; she knew it could change or stop. She saved from it, secretly, to have some hope of scope or decision. She lost control over her time: shopping, cooking, cleaning, washing. Though she could still walk to her sister’s in an hour she had to be back in time to cook the hot hotel dinner which was all Jay would eat, and a hot hotel breakfast every morning, even Saturday. Roast leg of lamb after Mass on Sunday.

Then the War, Jay working all hours, Holden’s making munitions instead of cars. She lived in silence, the sky was iron. The day France fell the whole city was silent, the colour of guns. Once television came all it was was guns, and that’s what they watched on Saturday nights after cleaning the stove, washing up, eating, cooking, preparing, watering the garden, gardening, trimming the edges, mowing the lawn.

There was no going back. Time wouldn’t stop; the war wouldn’t stop. It went on after it stopped.

How she had loved Marlene Dietrich, her cigarette smoke white as the gowns of the women her white shirts outshone.

#

The Hills moved in just after the maisonette next door was built, just after the War. The Hills made deep, rich garden beds: peas, beans, cauliflower, potatoes, turnips, trombone in winter; strawberries, sweet corn, tomatoes, and lettuce, and loquats and apples from the trees in summer.

Their chooks laid big, rich eggs, yolks almost orange. Mrs. Hill sold eggs to the neighbours and charged the same as the grocer. She sent Jayne to the side fence or the Hills’ back door to pay and bring the eggs back, heavy and fragile, shells thicker than any she’d ever known, the eggs themselves so round and solid, so large and heavy they almost spilled out of the bag.

Mrs. Hill told her she made Alec hand all his wages over every week; she added the egg-money. The Hills were Presbyterian. They never went out beyond the pictures, never invited anyone home, never visibly turned a light on after dark; they were saving for a house.

Some months after they moved in Mrs. Hill invited her to the pictures; her group went to the Bay on Thursday nights. Over the fence she explained she couldn’t go to Glenelg on Thursday nights, she had to be home to cook dinner.

Mrs. Hill’s mother eventually came to stay, old and sick, to sit on the seat outside the back door in the long warm afternoons, her ivory fingers and hands as stiff as the knees under her crotcheted knee-rug and one black dress.

Violets, Iceland poppies, pansies; deeply fragrant, almost black Burgundy roses, pink Lorraine Lee roses, gerberas, geraniums, hydrangeas; hibiscus, frangipani. As they came into flower she cut little bouquets from their garden and sent Jayne next door to give them to Mrs. Hill for the old lady. Eventually, over the fence, Mrs. Hill explained that the flowers made a mess, the petals and pollen spread a sticky dust.

#

She looked at The Advertiser on Friday mornings to see what would be on in town on Saturday, but Jay was up till all hours laying cement around the house before the war, at Holden’s till all hours as soon as it started, uninterested after. If he wanted to go out on Saturday night it would be to a Holden’s or Hibernians’ ball.

Helpmann had been gone twenty five years. His body had been so light it was almost though he weren’t there at all; as though they were both moved by an idea of movement so clear and encompassing he was only a point of balance and impulse, an almost intangible will and joy.

She didn’t like the Bay. She loved the Mount Lofty Ranges and the Morialta Falls, water breaking on the rocks in a rich white flow, a stream of the same white flash that diamonds caught. Even when she was putting out picnic sandwiches or pouring tea from the eternal Thermos she felt the pressure of that effortless sharp break into splendour. Sometimes, in the tram, tired, on the way home from shopping, she could feel it at the back of her mind, the wish for it.

Brian was her great comfort. She could talk to him like an adult, describe things to him. He’d understand anything she meant at a glance; they’d be convulsed before a word was spoken.

Jayne was late and an accident, sullen and a nuisance. She didn’t want to do anything; she didn’t want to be anything. She didn’t want to go out or get dressed up or play sport or go to the pictures. When she finally asked her what she wanted she said she wanted a cat.

Something else to be attended to and fed.

THE DAUGHTER

The next afternoon, a Thursday afternoon in January 1983, Francesca and Jayne and her husband sat in The Great Orlando’s current apartment. Mae West’s former apartment, he said. Francesca asked flattering questions; Jayne’s husband took assiduous notes.

Jayne was puzzled – The Great Orlando had offered them neither water nor tea nor coffee nor anything else. She saw no signs of actual occupancy. The Great Orlando to be on the skids if he was bothering with the likes of them, she thought; they had no experience, contacts, influence, power. It was crazy, it was nuts; it had to be The Great Orlando bored and going through the motions. It was all of them going through the motions. She didn’t have anything like a real job; the ink on her green card was so fresh it could have smeared. Her husband had a personnel job in a factory; the factory was relocating to one of the Carolinas, and they were not. At the college Francesca’s position was now permanent, no longer temporary. And that was the extent of their collective wealth.

After The Great Orlando had opened and stood at his door, offered his right hand, (his left around a long slim cigar), had bade them enter as though the carnation in his buttonhole had made him a monarch, and after the flattering, anxious questions and the expansive answers and The Great Orlando had presented them with the last copy of his Esquire profile as they left, after they walked over the pink and green terrazzo, down the slightly damaged steps, managed their legs and backs and shoulders into the cab Guido had phoned for, after everyone in the back seat furtively pooled the contents of their wallets, Jayne sat.

She was displaced. She was lost.

There he was and had been, all unknown, all along. An ancient and unsuspected spider, a mechanism, a robot hired for one amount of money to pursue a vastly greater amount of money, to spin his threads across countries, across oceans.

The ocean was Glenelg. The Bay, the beach was the edge of Southern Ocean, dark, unimpeded, breath-chokingly huge and thick, its wrinkled skin lying and heaving to the horizon and then continuing, rounding the curve of the world not in a block but in a net of waves and layers, each layer its own temperature and gathering of creatures and ever-darkening water, down to the fire-bearing fissures in the skin of the seabed, to slotted doors into red-hot, liquid iron; the Southern Ocean liquid on liquid, so salt and vast and unfooted her mind struggled at the conception of it, and it continued to Antarctica, cliffs and states and countries of tall white cold ice, silent until it shifted and uttered vast subsonic groans, bigger than all the cream, sandy beaches and yellow or dust-red deserts of Australia.

And there this man sat, beside her where she couldn’t readily see him, find his face, his aspect, couldn’t dismember him with her eyes; in his suit, carnation and moustache, wanting money, wanting to fabricate money out of the stories he told, the people he’d met, the people he introduced, manipulated, had photographed and published in the papers of gossip and record.

There he sat, web-bare above the terrazzo expanse of Mae West’s former floor, framed by pewter-coloured wrought iron stair rails descending from a corner, just as he had sat, walked or sat once upon a time in a dark wood hotel room in Hollywood, with a thin Hollywood afternoon curtained outside, when he had thread-footed across an ocean, ignoring it. And then across Europe, to the Pope.

Hired by hat manufacturers to persuade the Pope to exhort women to wear new hats to church, showing renewed devotion to peace and hope and the world after war, thanks be to God.

To exhort women, under pain of sin, to buy new hats to save American hat manufacturers and him, the spider in the dark wood hotel room one thin Hollywood afternoon, from bankruptcy.

At his behest, the Pope, who owed him a favour, had sent his edict into her childhood, the light her parents turned on from the doorway, into her sleep in the dark mornings, into her chest of drawers, the drawer where her hats and berets were kept. Get up it’s time to get dressed we don’t want to be late

Her father commanding, her mother in the bathroom, angry, sweating, dressed in her corsets, yelling about being late. They were late every day every week and it was her fault. They would be late and the whole parish would see, it was her fault her hair was tangled and took so long to do (she’d combed it, just finished combing it), her mother combing her hair again, yanking on more tangles, pulling on the roots of the hair she was plaiting, poking her head forward poking her shoulder forward, pulling the beret from her chest of drawers down, pulling the bottom edge of the beret down onto the ache spreading across the back of her head.

“Damn’ man and his hats!” Her mother was yelling, poking her shoulder, pushing her forward. “New hats! I was a milliner! As though I haven’t made enough hats!” Pulling her hair tighter, the first knot, the root of the plait a dull, tugging pain. “Men don’t have to wear hats. They have to take their damn hats off!”

THE POPE

Was someone her mother wanted to speak to.

THE DAUGHTER

Her mother was looking through the tramstop window. They were waiting for the tram to town. Her mother wanted to go shopping for material for clothes, patterns and material for a summer dress, for pyjamas, for blouses, so they were going to go to Moore’s, Harris Scarfe’s, John Martin’s, Myers, up the escalators, past the Manchester departments, to the tables with rolls of material. The patterns were at the counter, in huge, heavy volumes. Though they looked at them all they usually got Simplicity.

She hated the patterns, the dresses, the material, being measured, poked, pinned, turned, pushed, and fitted, hated the mess of her mother’s sewing and sewing table, set up for weeks or months. She hated being told how to look.

THE POPE

Of World War II, of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, of sending Italian Jews to Germany. Pius XII was someone Jayne wanted to speak to.

“You’ve proved there is no God,” she would say. “We’re cursed with each other.”

GUIDO ORLANDO

And there he was and is and forever will be, in Esquire and his West Hollywood apartment, talking about his fantastic campaigns.

There he is, Jayne sees, a full-page photo at the front of the 1971 Esquire feature, nearly seven pages of a magazine which measured 13 ½” x 10” at the time, another one of those faces made more attractive by being half in shadow, veins on the back of a hand, a cigar, a cascade of medals, a knowing look; there he is, photographically surrounded by all those beauties, pretty girls and women who might as well have been machines machined into existence, the way he sold them, events, photos, reputations, outcomes. There he is in a modest Hollywood hotel talking feverishly though the night because he won’t spend the price of a sandwich to feed the Esquire reporter, nor the price of a dinner, either, though he insists on meeting at dinner time.

And in Mae West’s old apartment, that spacious ‘30s architecture, cool and clean, his skin is smelling of powder, is looking like paper; he’s a spider in a three-piece suit of armour.

There he was, falling into the past as first the taxi (dropping them all at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel) and then her husband, drove south (their ancient, third-hand Volvo) down the I-5, home to the South Bay.

In her mind Orlando is upright on the couch from which he rises twice daily – there are no more clients, he lives on the market because he knows there will be no more clients – to take his stocks for a walk. There’s a groove in the terrazzo where they’ve travelled out to the footpath, where he drags them by their leashes and Swarovski crystal collars like trembling three-legged chihuahuas.

She opened the window slightly to create some movement in the air.

The Great Orlando in Hollywood for decades – a happenstance, a spasm of cosmic junk, time, chance, money, talk; a tiny hidden Pope, a lobbyist, an agency, an army and proto-committee of one –

She closed the window. The air was as grey as the sky.

There must have been thousands of them. Tens of thousands; all the history of all the tumultuous plains, armies, monasteries, palaces, castles, roads, churches, cities, towns. All the minds, mouths, commandments…

By the hair on the back of her headie-head-head, the only question was how to stay out of their reach.


BIO

M. F. McAuliffe is an Australian writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. Her long poem “Orpheus” was staged by La Mama as “Orpheus, an Australian Tragedy” at the Courthouse Theatre, Carlton, in May 2000. From Nov 2016-Feb 2017 her poem “Crucifix I” appeared in the Yoko Ono installation “Arising” in the Reykjavik Art Museum. Co-founder and co-editor of the multlingual magazine Gobshite Quarterly and Reprobate/GobQ Books, her titles include the novella Seattle, the short story cycle I’m Afraid of Americans, The Crucifixes and Other Friday Poems, and 25 Poems On The Death Of Ursula K. Le Guin. She is also co-author, with Red Earth Poetry Award-winner Judith Steele, of Fighting Monsters, and with Portland sculptor and artist Daniel Duford, of the limited edition artist’s book, Golems Waiting Redux.

THE TEARS OF THE GARDENER

by Robert Collings


The LaGrange Conservatory in Philadelphia is the most prestigious music school in the world for aspiring concert pianists, a fact that is well-known to professional insiders.  Juilliard may be more familiar to the public, but a mention of a diploma from LaGrange in the proper circles will always produce a reverent silence before another word is spoken.

A few years ago, one of the first-year students at LaGrange was murdered, and the case got a lot of attention in the local media.  The murdered boy was named Randall Taneda, and he was only 18 years old at the time of his death.  He had been shot point-blank in the stomach in his dorm.  The story also made the national news, but it was one of those open and shut murder cases that do not seem to have legs in the national consciousness, and the story quickly faded away.  The killer was a man named Alfredo Juan.   He initially denied involvement in the crime, but soon made a full confession to police.  He was found guilty and sentenced to death.  He had spent close to ten years on death row as his case worked its way through a myriad of appeal levels and various procedural delays.   Then, without apparent reason, Alfredo Juan demanded that his appeals be stopped and that he be executed as soon as possible.  Despite this, the legal process seemed to grind on, and the case gained some renewed notoriety in the local press over the new angle of a condemned killer insisting to be put to death by lethal injection.  As a reporter for the Philadelphia Sun, I became interested in the last phase of Alfredo Juan’s legal battles, particularly the reason behind his execution-by-choice.  I had never intended to be present at the actual execution, and I could never imagine being invited to witness such a grisly spectacle in any event.

I had made several requests to interview Alfredo Juan on death row, but all my requests had been denied.  Then, when his appeals had finally been exhausted and on the eve of his execution, someone from North Bend Maximum Security called me and told me that Alfredo Juan wanted to speak with me before he died.  I was told that I only had ten minutes with the condemned man and if I wanted a story then I should hustle down the Interstate to North Bend State Prison as quickly as I could.  The execution was set for midnight and it was now close to 7:30 pm.  I dropped everything and ran for my car. 

Before I tell you about my conversation with the condemned killer, some background detail might be in order.

All happy families may be alike, but there is no such thing as a happy family without problems.  Still, the Taneda family seemed about as problem-free as any family could be.  They were a third-generation Japanese American family and they had done well for themselves.   They lived in a suburb of Chicago called Oak Park, an affluent area just west of the city.   Randall Taneda’s father was a former concert pianist who taught music theory at Chicago University.  His mother was also a pianist, although she never made it to the concert stage.  She taught piano to advanced students who were still in high school, and she specialized in preparing the senior students for the grueling examinations they had to endure before they could go on to any post-secondary training.  

The Tanedas had two daughters who also played piano, both younger than Randall, but Randall was the crown jewel of the family.  Hailed as a prodigy by the time he could talk, he was giving concerts at local venues at age five and when he entered Grade One, he had already been written up in several trade magazines as an up-and-coming pianist to watch.  Up to the moment he left home to travel to Philadelphia, life for Randall Taneda seemed bereft of any drama at all.   He had no friends and no social life.  Other than the laurels he received for playing the piano, his only achievement in life appeared to be passing his driver’s test on his first try.  There were no funny stories about him, no goofball behavior.  All he did was play the piano from morning to night.  His extraordinary talent had put him on an upward trajectory through the music world, and Randall seemed content to ride the wave all alone, solemn and detached, finding fulfillment in the ability to dazzle anyone who ever came into his orbit.  Most aspiring youngsters who get accepted into the LaGrange Conservatory will charge out the front door and shout the joyous news to the rest of the world.  But Randall Taneda’s life on the concert stage seemed to be preordained, and acceptance into LaGrange was more like a formality than any grand achievement.   

Shortly after Alfredo Juan’s death-wish pronouncement that triggered my interest in the case, I made a visit to the Taneda home in Oak Park.  Mrs. Taneda was friendly and helpful.  She was quick to point out that Oak Park was the birthplace of Ernest Hemingway, and from the open doorway she pointed in the direction of the original Hemingway house.  Her husband was not there, and the older daughter had married and was no longer living at home.  The youngest daughter, Kate, was still at home and she was a senior at a local college.  She was not at school that day, and she gave me a pleasant hello along with her mother.  After that, she stayed in the background for the rest of my visit and I got the impression that she did not wish to be involved in any more publicity surrounding her brother’s murder.  I understood this, and I kept my own distance.

The first thing Mrs. Taneda wanted to do after I entered the house was show me Randall’s old bedroom.  I was surprised at the sight of the room when she opened the door.  Her son was just out of high school when he was killed, but this was the room of a child.  Mrs. Taneda insisted that the room was exactly as Randall had left it, and I did not seek further details.  The room was sparsely furnished with a small bed and desk and a kid-sized chest of drawers against the far wall.  There was a large oval rug on the floor with Disney-type caricatures of dancing musical notes.  Each note had its own happy, singing face, and all were frozen in the sort of over-the-top merriment that can only exist in the minds of children.  Mrs. Taneda had obviously preserved this room as a shrine to her son.  There were trophies and other celebratory memorabilia arranged in rows on every available surface, and all the walls were crammed with framed photographs of Randall at various stages in his charmed life as a musical prodigy.   The walls of the bedroom reminded me of those trendy sports bars where you can’t see the walls for the photographs.  I doubted that Mrs. Taneda had ever been in such a place and I had the good sense not to say anything.  There were framed newspaper clippings, too, all arranged in chronological order as one moved clockwise around the room, all of them a testament to the genius of Randall Taneda.  I was particularly struck by a huge, ornately framed photograph of Randall as a three-year-old that hung over the headboard of the bed.  It depicted a shining, scrub-faced child, perfectly coiffed and impeccably dressed in a dark suit and tie, sitting at a baby grand piano with his hands extended and his tiny fingers on the keys, chin up and eyes sparkling, flashing all those baby teeth in a huge smile for the camera.   If this room was truly the way Randall Taneda had left it, I could not help wondering how a teenaged boy could ever tolerate sleeping under such a picture of himself, in a kid-bed beside a kid-desk.  Just like my ruminations about the photos in the sports bars, I did not think these observations were appropriately solemn and I wisely kept my mouth shut.

I noticed that Mrs. Taneda kept the rug vacuumed with the loop pile all pointing in the same direction, and I tried my best to avoid stepping upon the dancing figures.

Aside from the time-warp of his bedroom, the only hint of anything out of the ordinary with Randall Taneda was something his mother volunteered to me towards the end of my visit.   This was a quirk the parents noticed when Randall was around six years old.   Mrs. Taneda told me that he suddenly developed a behavioral phobia when it came to the piano skills of other kids his age.  She said there was no lead-up to this, and it just appeared overnight.  Randall would either run from the room when another kid was at the piano, or he would press his hands tightly over his ears and close his eyes when forced to stay in his seat.  Ordinarily a talkative, articulate child, he had refused to explain why he was doing this or what might be wrong.  He refused to say a word about it.  His parents took him to a child psychologist, whereupon they both noticed an immediate change in Randall’s behavior.  Within two or three weeks, he no longer showed the slightest reluctance to listen to another kid play.  He continued to handle all the pressure like a true professional, and he never fell out of step again with any hint of quirky behavior.  His parents looked upon this episode as a temporary neurosis only, a blip in the radar, and Randall himself never once brought up the subject.  Mrs. Taneda insisted that Randall was “over the moon” with happiness when he pulled out of the driveway in his little car to begin the long drive to Philadelphia.  She never saw her son alive again.

My visit to the Taneda home did not last long, and I was surprised when Kate Taneda appeared and volunteered in her quiet voice to walk me to my car.   I thanked Mrs. Taneda at the door, and Kate led me down the walkway to the street.  When we were safely out of earshot of the house, this shy girl stopped walking and turned to me.

“Did my mother tell you my father was busy at his work?” she asked.  

“Yes, at the University,” I replied.

“My father doesn’t come home when he doesn’t have to,” she said.  “He avoids coming home.”

I knew what she meant.  “Your brother’s death has been hard on the family.  That won’t be going away, unfortunately.”

I could see Kate appreciated my candor.  She looked back at the house.  “You know how mothers keep a baby book when their children are born?  My mother never kept a baby book for me or my sister.  But she kept one on Randy from the day he was born until the day he left for LaGrange.  She goes into that room all the time and closes the door and reads from the book.  She reads out loud, like she’s reading it to Randy.  I can hear her.”

This gave me a bit of a chill, and I decided to be candid with Kate once again.  “Your sister got out, and you should, too,” I said.

Kate nodded.  “Did she tell you the story about Randy and how he went through a phase where he wouldn’t listen to another kid play the piano?”

“Yes, she did.”

“That happened before I was born,” she said.  “But I knew my brother.   He was a genius at a lot more than the piano.  I knew he would always tell our parents exactly what they wanted to hear.”

Kate then wished me a good day and she walked away without saying anything more.  I watched her go, and I hoped for her sake that she would soon escape from the house as her sister had done. 

If ever there was a study in contrasts, I would put the life of Alfredo Juan up against the life of Randall Taneda every time.  Randall Taneda’s life had been chronicled with obsessive care almost to the time of his death, whereas Alfredo Juan never even knew his real name or the date of his birth.   He told people he was born in Puerto Rico and came to the U.S. when he was still a toddler.  He did not know who his parents were, and he appears to have been shuffled around between various households in the greater Philadelphia area up to the time he was in his early teens, when he struck out on his own.  At a young age, he was alternatively called “Alfredo” and “Juan”, but he had never understood the connection between the two names.  He told the psychiatrist at his murder trial that he thought he had “12 brothers and sisters” but he was unable to provide further details.  He was mostly illiterate, and his exact schooling was unknown.  He described his entire education in a single memory where he saw himself sitting in a classroom and looking at “a big blackboard with white letters.” 

Until the criminal justice system started a rap sheet on Alfredo Juan, there had been no formal record that he had ever existed.  At the time he had his first juvenile run-in with the law for some petty theft, he had been using the name “Alfredo Juan” for most of his life and the name stuck as part of his criminal record, along with his fingerprints.  Although he had a rap sheet a mile long by the time of the Randall Taneda murder, it was mostly for things like house burglaries and purse-snatching and shoplifting, all piddling offences when it comes to the horrors of crime in the big city.  None of these offences had any violent component to them in terms of bodily harm to anyone, and none ever involved a weapon.  This was the likely reason Alfredo Juan had never done any hard time in state prison, and his multiple jail terms were only counted in weeks or, on rare occasions, one or two months.   He did drugs but never trafficked in them, so his rap sheet was remarkably free from any drug convictions as well.   Nobody knew Alfredo Juan, and nobody even saw him.

When the fingerprints on the murder weapon were traced to Alfredo Juan, his current address was unknown.   The police made inquiries at his last known address on his rap sheet, but they were told by the occupant that he did not know anyone by that name, although he said there was a guy who matched Alfredo Juan’s description who used to show up there with “crack pipes”.  The crack pipe man had not been there in over a year and the guy didn’t know where he was.   When Alfredo Juan was finally tracked down and arrested for the Taneda murder, he had been living on the streets and eating out of garbage dumpsters.  The police report showed that he had exactly 87 cents in his pockets.  Aside from the clothes on his back, these coins represented the grand total of Alfredo Juan’s worldly possessions.

Alfredo Juan initially told the police that he had never been anywhere near the murder scene and had never heard of the “orange” conservatory.  When he was shown the crime scene photographs of the murdered boy lying on the floor of his dorm with a gun beside him, he said he had never owned such a gun and did not even know how to shoot one.  When told that his fingerprints were found on the gun, he paused and said, “Well, maybe I was there but that don’t prove nothing.”   The police were patient with Alfredo Juan and eventually he gave them a full confession.

Like a lot of murder stories, Alfredo Juan told a story that was heartbreaking in terms of the fates that were aligned against Randall Taneda on the last day of his life.  Alfredo Juan said he had heard on the streets a few weeks before the killing that there was a music school on the outskirts of the city where “rich kids brought their money.”  The rumor was, these kids all came from various parts of the country and they all had large sums of cash on them when they arrived.  If you were able to rob one of these kids just as they arrived at the school, you could make a big score.  The rich students apparently lived in a “box building” until they paid enough money so they could move into the “big castle”, and this was the reason they brought so much cash with them.

Alfredo Juan said that he was not exactly sure about the directions, but he eventually managed to make his way across the city and up to the LaGrange Conservatory.   He knew he had found the right place because “it looked like a castle”.  He had been given a handgun by someone named “Carl” and he had agreed to split the money with “Carl” when he returned.  The police were never able to locate “Carl”, although the weapon itself, a 38 revolver, was eventually traced to a gun shop in Detroit that had sold the gun new a few years earlier.  The gun had gone through multiple hands since then and it was impossible to trace it back to “Carl” or anyone else.  

Alfredo Juan said that he walked through the main gate of the LaGrange Conservatory and went over to the “box building beside the castle”.  There were a few people around, but no one paid any attention to him.  When he reached the box building, he was surprised to be able to open the main door.  Once inside the hallway, he was surprised again to find that the first door he tried to open was also unlocked, and the room was empty.  This was the room that had been assigned to Randall Taneda.  He said he could hear a lot of “piano stuff” coming from the other rooms and he thought that maybe a “piano kid” might be moving into the empty room that he had so easily stumbled upon.  He told police he waited around just inside the door and listened for the footsteps of the “piano kid” so he could steal his money and split the booty with “Carl” when he got back to the city streets.  He said he was holding the gun because he wanted to “scare the rich piano kid”.  He repeated several times to police that he never wanted to shoot anyone because such an act would be “an offence against God”.

Alfredo Juan said he listened for approaching footsteps for a few minutes, but the sounds of the pianos made it hard for him to hear anything, so he decided to lean forward and put his ear to the door.  At that moment, Randall Taneda stumbled into the room with his box of clothing.  He had pushed against the door and was propelled forward when it suddenly opened.   Alfredo Juan said, “the boy run into me with the box”.   Randall Taneda immediately dropped the box, so they were now standing face-to-face with nothing between them.  In the same moment, Alfredo Juan pushed the gun into Randall Taneda’s stomach.  There was a brief struggle, and he pulled the trigger.

Alfredo Juan remembered how the boy just crumpled to the floor and he knew right away he was dead.  He said he panicked and ran out of the room.  He left the “box building” and ran across the grounds to the street, and then ran down the sidewalk as fast as he could to get away.  No one saw him, and no one followed him.  When he had exhausted himself, he stopped running to catch his breath.  It was then he realized he did not have the gun with him.   He wasn’t sure how he had lost the gun because he didn’t remember many details after Randall Taneda suddenly appeared in the room with his “big box of shirts”.  The police found the clothing scattered on the floor and the empty box had been tossed to one side, as if someone had rifled through the box looking for something.  Oddly, Alfredo Juan denied doing this.  He insisted the “piano kid” dropped the box as soon as he came into the room and it had stayed upright with the clothing in it the whole time.  Even when shown the police photographs of the scattered clothing and the empty box, Alfredo Juan remained steadfast.  He had never touched the box or anything inside the box.

Much like Randall Taneda’s acceptance into the LaGrange Conservatory, the criminal trial of Alfredo Juan was little more than a formality.   His lawyers tried to have his confession thrown out, but the police had done their homework and there was nothing the defense could do about it.  As soon as Alfredo Juan was arrested and brought into the interrogation room, he was read his Miranda rights.  When he said that he had understood those rights and did not wish to have a lawyer present, his interrogation began.  All of this was captured on camera, right down to the grand finale showing the chief homicide detective slowly reading out a 12-page written statement with Alfredo Juan nodding away and putting his mark on the bottom of every page.   The recording had even captured a muttered comment from one of the detectives off-camera as Alfredo Juan carefully signed the last page with an illegible signature that he said he used “only on important documents.”  The cop had remarked, “Poor bastard doesn’t know how important this one is.”   The criminal trial took three days, and the jury returned a guilty verdict in under an hour. 

The sentencing phase of Alfredo Juan’s criminal trial took a little longer, but the outcome was never in doubt any more than the original verdict.   This was an election year, and the DA wanted to send a strong message to the public that he was tough on crime and he was not going to tolerate any innocent kid being gunned down in the prime of his life by some scumbag vagrant.   The defense called a psychiatrist to the stand who had attempted to piece together Alfredo Juan’s fractured life history.  Among other things, the psychiatrist said that Alfredo Juan had been sexually abused throughout his childhood and was now left with a “tenuous hold on reality.”  None of it mattered.  The prosecution asked for the death penalty and the jury agreed. 

Alfredo Juan was then sent to North Bend State Prison, and this was where I was sitting with him over ten years later in a cramped interview room just off the death row cell block.   The guard had reminded me about the strict time limit, and he left the room without any further warnings.  Alfredo Juan and I were left sitting across from each other at a small table, and I was surprised at the lack of security.  There were no other guards and the two of us were alone in the room.  Alfredo Juan was not handcuffed or shackled, and he could have easily reached across the table in order to tear my throat out if that had been his disposition.  I had never broken the ice with an interview subject by having them lunge for my throat, but then I had never spoken to anyone with only three hours to live, either.   By the clock on the wall, it was three hours exactly.

Alfredo Juan had muttered a greeting to me, and then he just stared down at the table.  I was surprised at how short he was, and how passive he looked.  I had fully expected to meet someone with a chrome bolt running through his tongue and a body crawling with gang symbols and other sinister looking artwork, but this man had no tattoos and no piercings.  He did not even possess the sort of sneer one often sees on a dog-tough street punk.   He just looked lost and alone, like someone’s half-brother who shows up once a year for dinner and doesn’t have a clue what to say to the other family members.  I could see that his head had been freshly shaved, and there was a shadowy outline on his skull that showed he had hair if he had wanted to die with any.  He wasn’t being electrocuted, but perhaps this sort of tidy-up was still part of the execution protocol.  I didn’t know, and I didn’t ask. 

Although I had rehearsed my questions for him over and over during the drive to the prison, my mind had now turned idiot-blank and we just stared at each other.  Without thinking, I blurted out, “Did they give you a last meal?”

It occurred to me that I had just said the most insensitive and stupid thing one could possibly say to a condemned man on the eve of his execution.   I expected Alfredo Juan to hurl himself towards me in a murderous rage exactly as I had feared, but instead he just shook his head and kept looking down.

“The only good meals I ever had were in jail,” he said quietly.  “I never asked what they were, I just ate ‘em.  They say you’re supposed to ask for something special for your last meal.  I didn’t know what to ask for that was special, so I said I wasn’t hungry.  I didn’t want them laughing at me.”

There was true sadness in this, but I was not there as a social worker.  I tried again.  “I’ve written about your case, I guess you know that.”

“Someone read the newspaper stuff out to me,” he said.

“I’ve tried to arrange an interview before, I’ve always thought – “

“I didn’t kill that boy,” Alfredo Juan suddenly interrupted.

I did not want to hear this man’s protestations of innocence. “Mr. Juan – “I began.

“Call me Spike,” he interrupted again.  “That’s what the guards call me here, ‘cause they say I look like a spike that’s been nailed in something, like the body of Christ.”

Unlike Alfredo Juan, I did not warm to the comparison.  I said, “I don’t wish to call you by that name.  It is – not appropriate in the circumstances.  Why don’t you tell me why you asked me to come here?  I have tried and tried to set up an interview before, you always said no.  I’m here now, I’ll listen to you.”

“I didn’t kill that boy,” he said again.  “I was just telling the police what they wanted to hear.  I was hungry.”

“Mr. Juan – “

“Spike.”

“Please, I’ve told you I do not wish to call you by that name.  I am not calling you by that name, I refuse to do it.   Now I want to get something straight with you.  You can tell me anything you want, just do not tell me you didn’t do this crime.  I know your case, I know everything about it.”

Alfredo Juan was not impressed.  “There was a guy on the Row,” he went on.  “He told me about the Japanese.  He said they don’t kill themselves with a gun to the head, ‘cause then they can’t have an open coffin at the funeral.”

“What, you’re telling me that Randall Taneda killed himself?”

Alfredo Juan was still staring down at the table.  “Makes sense to me,” he said.

“Your fingerprints just happened to be on that gun, is that what you’re saying?”

“No, I was there.”

“You were there in his room and you surprised him, and you killed him.  We all know this.”

“You don’t know anything.  I was gonna rob him and then I just ran out.”

“You accidentally dropped the gun on your way out, is that what happened?”

“Makes sense to me.”

“You took the time to rifle through his box of clothing, didn’t you?  You were looking for money.  Was he standing back watching you do this?”

“I didn’t touch that box.”

“Who touched the box then?  Another student?”

“No, he did.”

“Who are you talking about?”

“That kid.”

“The piano kid?  Randall Taneda?”

“He must have scattered the stuff around to make it look like a robbery.”

I was determined to reason with him despite the valuable time that was being wasted.  “Mr. Juan – “I began.

“Spike.”

I was now feeling more at ease with Alfredo Juan, and I had forgotten that I was speaking to a man who now had less than three hours to live, by about six minutes. 

“Stop it,” I said firmly.  “Stop saying that.  We are not using nicknames like buddies on the street.  You want me to believe you surprised Randall Taneda in his room with that gun, then you dropped the gun, then you ran out, and then Randall Taneda himself scattered that clothing on the floor and shot himself in the stomach to make his suicide look like a robbery gone bad?  Is this what you want me to write tomorrow?  Your new fantasy story after ten years of telling the true story?”

Alfredo Juan shrugged.  “Maybe he didn’t want his mother to be ashamed.”

I was scolding him now and I knew my time was quickly running out. “You don’t know a thing about the boy you killed,” I said.  “You don’t know him; you don’t know his mother.  You have no guilt over what you did.”

Alfredo Juan was unmoved.  “You didn’t see the look in his eyes,” he said quietly.

“What look?”

“I looked into the eyes of that boy and God whispered to me.”

“Tell me what you saw in his eyes.”

“Sadness.  He was crying.  A person like you doesn’t know the look of true sadness, but I saw it.”

I tried to humor him.  “Okay.  You dropped the gun and ran away, and the boy killed himself.  Why didn’t you tell all this to the police?”

“I was hungry, I told you.”

“You must have talked to your own lawyers.  Were you hungry then, too?”

“I told them about the promise from God but all they did was look at me funny.  So, I didn’t say nothing.   Some promises, people just don’t understand.”

“So tell me then, what did God whisper to you?”

“God promised me that I would lose my soul unless I dropped the gun and ran.”

“That’s a warning, not a promise.”

“You don’t know true sadness, and you don’t know what it means when God whispers to you.”

“Maybe not, but I know a warning when I hear one.”

Alfredo Juan was adamant.  He said, “A warning is just a caution.  A whispered promise from God is a sure thing.”

I now had about a minute left, and I knew the guard was not going to negotiate.  “If you’re innocent like you say, then tell me why you insist upon being executed.  Will you at least give me that much to write about tomorrow?”

“You wouldn’t understand.”

“Is this why you brought me here?  To tell me things I won’t understand?”

“Well, I’d like a favor.”

I anticipated what was coming and I was going to draw the line.  “I will not write about your innocence and lie to people.  I am not going to do that.”

Alfredo Juan then threw me the hook that I will never forget.  He said, “They told me I can have somebody watch the execution.  I thought you might want to stick around and be out there when they do it.  I don’t know many people.”

I could not fathom this request and I did not know what to say.  Mercifully, the guard appeared, and I knew this crazy interview was over.   I rose from the chair and Alfredo Juan looked directly at me for the first time.  He said, “I told you I don’t know many people.  Would you think about it?”

“I’ll think about it,” I said, as the guard led me out of the room.  “I’ll give it some thought, that’s all I can tell you.”

“You wanna know why I’m doing all this?” Alfredo Juan asked me.

I was now halfway out the door, and I gently resisted the guard.  “Yes, tell me.”

“I don’t know, so you tell me,” he said.  There was a pause and then he added, “It’s only in a person’s last words.”

With that enigmatic response, another guard closed the door upon Alfredo Juan and my last memory of the meeting is watching him stare down at that table, a hopeless life about to end. 

Shortly after midnight, Alfredo Juan was given a lethal dose into his arm and he was pronounced dead about ten minutes later.  I did not attend his execution and I was feeling guilty for telling him that I would “think about it” when I had no intention of attending.   I did not want to watch anyone being put to death, and I felt no obligation towards Alfredo Juan.   My only face-to-face dealing with him was that ten-minute death row conversation, and I assumed that someone would show up and represent him, or mourn him, or whatever designation is given to those lucky souls who witness an execution at the behest of the condemned man.   When I talked to one of the reporters the next morning who was there, he told me that no one had attended for Alfredo Juan: no friends, no family, no one.  I was the only one he had asked, and I was not there either.  

The reporter I spoke to was from another newspaper and he seemed unaffected by it all.  “It was nothing, really,” he said.  “The guy was behind a curtain lying there on this gurney, all strapped down.  They put him to sleep and that’s it.”

“Still, you witnessed the death of someone,” I observed.

“My grandfather used to be the warden up at North Bend when I was a kid,” he said.  “They used to hang them, and he’d give me all the gruesome details.  This wasn’t like that at all.”

I thought about my discussion with Alfredo Juan in the prison, and his strange comment about a person’s last words.  “Did Alfredo Juan have any last words?” I asked.

“Oh, yeah.  Before they strapped him down, he looked out at all of us.  He said, ‘I apologize to God, but my life isn’t worth living.’  Those were his exact words.  He didn’t say anything more, and he was dead a few minutes later.”

“I guess you could call that a confession of guilt,” I said.  “He told me last night that he was innocent.”

“My grandfather used to tell me that every goddam one of them said they were innocent,” the reporter said.  Then he gave me a big smile.  “I got a kick out of Grandpa swearing to me just like I was an adult.  Different world back then.”

I thought about this.  I finally said, “All I know is, I’m sorry to God, too, and I wasn’t on that gurney.”

The LaGrange Conservatory was located north of the city in an area called Ambleside Park.  This was a multi-acre property that was protected from the street by a high boxwood hedge.  The hedge was manicured to such laser-perfection that you could have cut paper on one of the edges.  Only the roof of the school was visible from the street, but as you entered the property through the main gate you could see the venerable old building through a long row of walnut trees that surrounded the driveway.  To my untrained eye, the place looked more like a private hospital from the Gilded Age than an academy of learning, the sort of place where one would expect to find railroad tycoons and assorted robber barons convalescing in quiet luxury.  This was early May, and the grounds rivaled any English country estate in full bloom.  As I pulled off the driveway to the parking lot, I noticed several gardeners scattered throughout the property, all of them wearing identical blue-gray coveralls with the name “LaGrange” on the back.  They all worked like bees, hovering quietly over the flowers and the shrubs with a determined purpose, each one of them secure in the knowledge that they were every bit as vital to the LaGrange Conservatory as all those prodigies tucked behind the ivy covered, red brick walls.  

As soon as I got out of my car, I heard a cacophony of piano sounds coming from the smaller, box-shaped buildings to the left of the main building.  There were two of these buildings, both identical, one behind the other, and both constructed with the same red brick.  They even had ivy growing up around the windows and the doorways, just like the grand old mansion beside them.  By their architecture they were obviously built long after the main house, and they had to be the “box building” student residences that Alfredo Juan had described to the police.  The music coming out of those buildings amazed me.  It was impossible that every student would be playing the same composition, yet the piano-sounds reminded me of one of those Claude Debussy “tone poems” where a batch of diverse, random-sounding notes come together into an inexplicable and mysterious whole.

The residence closest to the parking lot was the building where Randall Taneda was killed.  His room was just inside the main door on the first floor, the first one on the left.  Alfredo Juan lay in wait for him in the vacant room, watching the parking lot and biding his time until the doomed occupant showed up.  Randall Taneda would have carried his possessions a short distance from the lot, entered through the main door, and in a few moments his life would be over.  I took a few steps forward until I was standing on the grass.  I was now closer to the building and closer to the piano sounds coming from the brick walls.   Alfredo Juan had been executed only a few hours before, and the music seemed like an uplifting tribute to young Randall and a funeral dirge for his killer, both at the same time. 

I was lost in these thoughts when I heard a voice: “No classes today.  The kids are all playing.”

I turned my head and saw one of the gardeners standing beside me.  He was an older guy.  He was listening to the piano-sounds and nodding in silent approval.  “Today they’re celebrating the birth of Tchaikovsky.  No classes, so what do these geniuses do?  They get a respite from practice, so they go off and practice all day.”

“I guess you have to practice your whole life to get accepted here,” I said.  “Probably all they know.”

“There’s a lot of dead composers out there,” the gardener said.  “Pretty soon, every day will be a holiday for the birth of someone.”

“Might not make much difference,” I said, half-joking.  “They all sound pretty good already.”

“Wouldn’t make the slightest bit of difference,” the gardener agreed.   “The classes don’t mean a whole lot.  The kids who come here can play rings around their instructors.  They just want to get that hunk of paper and then hit the world stage.  Nothing else matters to ‘em.”

I looked at the box building and thought about how Randall Taneda would have been banging away on his piano on every holiday and day off and every other chance he got.  “I write for the newspaper,” I said.  “I’ve done a few pieces on the boy who was murdered here a few years ago.”

The gardener had heard all about the case.  “That was a long time ago,” he said.

I nodded.  “They executed the killer this morning.  I thought I should come out here to observe the occasion.  Not sure why, it just seemed like the right thing to do.”

“Closure?” the gardener asked.

I was surprised at this insight.  “Yes, I suppose you could say that.”

“I hate that guy like everyone else,” the gardener said.  “Still, I don’t believe in capital punishment.  Too final.”

I pointed to the building.  “Randall Taneda’s room was over there, right inside the door.  As soon as he came into his room, bang.  They think there was some sort of struggle over the gun, but it was all over for him.”

“Well, I guess you’d know about the case,” the gardener said.

I thought about the hundreds of trial transcript pages I had read.  “There’s one part of it I just don’t get,” I said.  “It’s silly, really.”

“Oh?”

I said, “The killer, this Alfredo Juan, he insisted that Taneda came down the hallway from the opposite end of the building with his box of clothing.  He insisted he was listening for footsteps, and not looking out the window at the parking lot.   Obviously, Taneda would have come from the lot with his box of stuff because his room was just inside the door.  The killer would not be listening for any footsteps.  All he would have to do was peep through the blinds and look out the window at the lot.  And that’s exactly what he did.  It’s a little detail, and there’s nothing about it in the court transcripts or the arguments of the lawyers.  Didn’t matter anyway.   It bugs me, because Alfredo Juan had no reason at all to lie about such a trivial detail and then spice up his story with another lie about footsteps.”

“Well, the guy was right,” the gardener said.  “The kid had to walk all the way down the hall from the other end.”

“Why is that?” I asked, surprised.

The gardener nodded towards my car.  “There was no parking lot here then.  The student lot was behind the building.  They built the second dorm about five years ago where the old parking lot was.  They decided to build a bigger lot out front and you’re parked in it.”

Like a lot of answers to trivial questions, I was surprised at how obvious this answer was.   “I guess Alfredo Juan was telling the truth about the footsteps,” I said.  “He just lied about everything else.”

“The kid would have parked his car in the back lot and then carried his box down to his room,” the gardener said.  “That’s what I did, anyway.  Otherwise, you’d have to walk all the way around the building.”

I thought I had misunderstood him.  “What do you mean?  You had a room here?”

“My room was right across the hall from the one where the kid was killed,” he said.  “That was a couple of years before, and I was long gone by the time it all happened.”

I was still not getting it.  “You mean you were a student at this place?” I asked.

The gardener smiled and bounced the trimming shears in his hand.  “Hard for you to believe what can happen to a failed prodigy?”

I was ashamed now, and I stammered out an apology: “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it that way.”

The gardener flashed a smile.  “Don’t worry about it, I get that all the time,” he said.  “My whole life I was told how great I was.  My piano teachers all told me this.  My parents told me every day.  When I got accepted into LaGrange my family held the biggest party you have ever seen.   My first day here, I walked from the parking lot down the long hallway just like that poor kid must have done.  All the dorm rooms have pianos in them, and all the new students were playing away like crazy.  I wasn’t ten steps into that hallway when it struck me that these kids were all prodigies just like I was.  They were all geniuses who’d been stroked their whole lives, just like I had been stroked.  I realized there was nothing special about me at all.  I was a star in my own little world, but I was just an average guy at LaGrange.  And there was something else…”

The gardener paused and looked over the grounds, admiring all the beauty and all the perfection.  “I would cry a thousand tears over this, but it didn’t matter.  I heard those pianos, and I knew those kids were better than I was, better than I ever would be.  The average person might not have noticed any difference in the playing.  But I’d heard enough to know.  I knew in that moment that I was never going to make it.”

I thought about Randall Taneda as a child and how he would cover his ears when he was forced to listen to another child play.  “Maybe you were being too hard on yourself,” I volunteered.

The gardener shook his head.  “Nope.  Once you think you can’t cut it, you’re toast.”

I was staring at the gardener now, waiting for him to say something uplifting about the redeeming power of wisdom and how in the end everything works out for the best.  Instead, all he did was hold up his pruning shears and say, “But I stayed close to the music.”

The gardener may have said something more, but I was not listening to his voice any longer or thinking about his tears.   I was thinking about Alfredo Juan, and how frightful it must be to know in your heart of hearts that your life is no longer worth living.   I was also thinking about Randall Taneda, the boy with such great expectations, walking down that long hallway towards the room at the far end where Alfredo Juan was waiting for him. 

Both would be listening to the voices of the pianos behind the walls; the dissonant sounds coming together in cryptic harmony, the whispered promises of things to come.



BIO

Robert Collings is a retired lawyer living and writing in Pitt Meadows, B.C. “The Tears of the Gardener” marks his first appearance in Writing Disorder.  Robert’s short memoir, “The Spaghetti Party – A Memoir of my Father”, is published online in the Euonia Review (eunoiareview.wordpress.com).  “The Man Who Threw the Punch” is published online in Scars Publications (scars.tv). “Boardwalk and the Upper Crust” has recently been published online in Mobius magazine (mobiusmagazine.com).  “The Man Who Threw the Punch” is forthcoming in Conceit magazine in April 2021, and in cc&d magazine in May 2021.These and other short stories are contained in Robert’s collection called “Life in the First Person”.  He’s also written a satirical novella called “One Dog’s Life”, along with two screenplays now doing the rounds of the agents and producers in Hollywood. Robert has not won many awards in his lifetime, although he’s proud of a “Participation Certificate” he received for coming dead last in the 50-yard dash in the third grade.


Boxes

by Alison Bullock


It all started because of an uncooperative carburetor.  Either it wasn’t firing or it was firing too often, one of the two, and so Etta’s husband Albert told her to bring their old Dodge Dart down to Iron Joe’s garage.  Iron Joe’s was on the far side of town, but Albert knew the owner and insisted the guy would give them a fair shake. Normally, he’d have been skeptical about letting his wife handle an errand so mechanical in nature, but it was tax season and he just couldn’t do it himself.   Though it was in a run-down, unfamiliar part of town, Etta reluctantly agreed to take the car over. 

She took the car sputtering and backfiring all the way down Central, and following her meticulous notes, turned left on Depot and right on Willard.  She passed a dilapidated newsstand, (the kind that sells magazines of questionable taste), and prayed that the engine would hold out.  By the time she rolled into Iron Joe’s parking lot, the car was coughing up plumes of black smoke.  She could just picture Albert’s reaction if he’d known. “Why the hell didn’t you have it towed there if things got that bad?” he’d say, making her feel incompetent and silly.  Etta had never been good at deciphering when something had crossed a line to being “that bad.”

The mechanic on duty was kind.  He didn’t mention the billowing smoke at all.  Just told her that it’d be a few hours, and asked her if she planned on staying. 

“Well, yes,” Etta said.  It hadn’t occurred to her to make alternative arrangements.  She asked the way to the waiting room, which turned out to be a single folding chair near the register, sandwiched tightly between the cigarette machine and gum.  Etta found the arrangement to be perfectly suitable, as long as she kept her elbows tucked in tight.

For the first hour she kept herself busy by looking through her accordion-style coupon case. She tsked when she saw that her 25-center on Hamburger Helper had just expired. At ShopRite, where they tripled your coupons, she could have gotten some practically for free.   Ahh well, she thought.  Another opportunity lost

She moved on to organize her wallet, smoothing a wad of crumpled bills on her lap.  George Washington stared up at her.  Something about him seemed familiar.  It was only after close inspection that Etta realized how much he resembled an old boyfriend she’d had back when she was a teenager.  Of course their hairstyles were nothing alike, but their mouths were nearly identical. The thought of Robby Wilding made Etta sigh.   Robby was the smartest boy in her English class—sensitive and kind. A boy who’d been so enamored with Etta, that when she was around him, she felt like an altogether different sort of a person. One night on the phone, he confessed to having had a crush on Etta the very first day he laid eyes on her.  He’d seen her from afar, but had known instantly. “What was I doing?”Etta asked, breathlessly. “Who was I with?” Robby couldn’t provide that level of detail.  He did remember sneaking over to her house that very night and carving his initials onto a painted, antique milk can in her front yard.  “That very first night?” she’d asked, nearly frantic with glee. She’d always considered herself somewhat plain, certainly not the type who normally drew that kind of attention. The very prospect thrilled her.  She’d hurried to hang up the phone, and raced outside to find the milk can.  There it sat in a sprawling patch of Black-eyed Susans.  Searching everywhere, Etta finally found his hastily scrawled RW near the base.  She traced the prickly lines with her fingers.  Etched in paint, and filled with teenage angst, it had been her first and only love letter. 

As it turned out, she and Robby only dated for a few months before his family moved away to Montana. The can, however, still remained in Etta’s possession even to this day.  She planted her geraniums in it every summer.  At first it had seemed disloyal to keep it, back in the days when she and Albert were first married, but now she was glad that she had.  The can reminded her that she’d once been desirable, if only to a seventeen-year-old boy, who surely hadn’t known any better.  A boy, Etta shuddered to think, who would be turning sixty any day now.

Sixty.  Etta couldn’t believe it.  She sighed and looked down into her lap.  The bills she’d been holding had fallen into disarray.  She hurried to shuffle them together, making sure to arrange them by descending denomination before slipping them back into the billfold of her wallet.  She checked her watch.  Her wait was not even half over.  Exhaling loudly, she rose from her chair, and purchased a package of peanut butter crackers.

“I think I’ll go for a walk,” she told the cashier, who only stared back blankly at her.  She seemed to evoke that response a lot from people—something that could be described as mild indifference.

A quick right out of the parking lot led her to a string of tired looking shops with faded awnings. The first one had a sign that read Posner’s Engraver’s.  Etta stood nibbling on her crackers while she contemplated the phrasing.  Something didn’t seem quite right.  The two possessives seemed to pose a grammatical problem.  The mistake did not bode well for management.  Next, she passed a store called Trinkets and Treasures.  It was a strange little hodgepodge of a place.  A sterling silver tea service sat on a shelf alongside a shiny purple bowling ball.  Etta thought of going in, maybe browsing a little; she did have a weakness for bric-a-brac, but in the end she decided against it.  Dusting already took up most of her Thursdays, she reasoned, and moved on. She was nearing the end of the block and about to turn back when she saw a sign posted on the door of a seemingly vacant storefront. 

Invitation to Life Seminar – Free- All Are Welcome

Etta’s interest was piqued.  She liked the idea of a seminar; the word itself thrilled her, sounding as important as a caucus or a summit. Suddenly Etta imagined herself as less of a disgruntled housewife, and more of a diplomat.  And wasn’t that just what she needed too?  An invitation to get started on her life, instead of just simply waiting around for something to happen? Imagine Albert’s reaction, she thought, when he asked her about her day over dinner that night.He’d be expecting some boring story about a 2 for 1 sale over at Shoprite, when she’d let it slip about the fascinating seminar she’d attended, and watch his jaw drop.  The very image of Albert’s stunned expression was so pleasing that it made Etta stop and rest one hand on the door knob.  But what if it’s some kind of trap?  she worried, picturing herself being bound and gagged by a group of religious zealots.  Oh, but a seminar, she countered, and in a moment of unprecedented bravery, she went in.

A series of cardboard arrows led Etta down a narrow stairway and around several corners until she finally reached a basement clearing.  For a long moment, she hung back, silently observing.  The drop ceiling had several tiles missing, and along the far side of the wall were stacks of unused, dusty chairs.  A portly, red-haired woman stood at the front of the room next to a faded green chalkboard.  The woman, who was clearly the teacher, was dressed in a floral caftan, the kind of garment sold at discount stores for larger women. Her wide feet spilled out over the edges of her embroidered velvet slippers, and her hands, which she gestured with frequently, were covered with yellow chalk dust.  Occasionally, the teacher bent down to glance at her written materials, which she kept stacked atop an old wooden crate.  The informal set up came as a disappointment to Etta, who had been hoping that her invitation to life might include a podium.

Though the room was nothing fancy, the teacher seemed to hold the undivided attention of her pupils, who sat in a single row of chairs with wrap-around desks.  There were three students all together: a grey haired man with a cane resting against one knee, a young woman with a baby in one of those portable car seats at her feet, and an enormously tall man, whose legs were so long, that he needed to keep them extended out in front of him, in order to keep his knees from hitting the desktop. As the instructor turned to write something on the board, she looked over to see Etta waiting in the wings.

“Excellent!  Another student,” she trilled, motioning for Etta to take a seat next to the young mother, right in the center of the front row. 

Etta paused.  Center seat of the front row seemed like an awfully big commitment, but yet leaving now, after she had already been spotted would be even more unthinkable.  Etta silently slipped into her chair while the class made a series of brief introductions. The young mother’s name was Jennifer, and she gave Etta a small smile while absentmindedly shaking a rattle in her baby’s direction, the tall man’s name was William, he had a distinguished air about him, and the old man’s name was Barney. 

“I’m going to ask you a question,” the teacher, who had introduced herself as Miss Marjorie, said.  She was handing out squares of paper and pre-sharpened golf pencils.

“You’ll have five seconds to record your answers, and I give you my solemn word that your answers will remain completely anonymous.”  Miss Marjorie emphasized this point by putting one hand up in a scout’s honor position before using the other to turn an imaginary key before her tightly sealed lips. 

“Write the first thing that comes to mind. Ready?”

Etta grabbed her pencil and watched it quivering as it hovered over the page.

“If you could change one thing about your life, what would it be?” Miss Marjorie prompted.  “GO!”

Etta’s pencil started moving spontaneously, as though it had a mind of its own.  Milliseconds later, she was flipping the paper over.  On the underside, in large looping letters, she had written the word MARRIAGE.   The answer had surprised even Etta herself.  It wasn’t as though the union were a blatant failure; she and Albert weren’t bickerers and he’d certainly never laid a hand on her.  Until now, she might have described the relationship as mildly disappointing.

“TIME!” Miss Marjorie screeched, and she scurried to collect the slips in a paper sack.  Etta wasn’t certain she felt comfortable turning her innermost thoughts over to a complete stranger.   “Come on now,” Miss Marjorie goaded, clearly picking up on her reticence. “Privacy killed the cat.”

Etta was fairly sure that it was curiosity that had led to the cat’s demise, but maybe her instructor was making a point.  Maybe an inordinate need for privacy could be equally toxic given the right circumstances.  In fact maybe Miss Marjorie, in her Walmart housecoat and Payless slippers, had gotten to the very root of Etta’s problem. Maybe she was too self-contained.  Etta glanced sideways at Jennifer, the young mother next to her, who virtually popped her paper into the bag, seemingly without a second thought.  How nice to be so implicitly trusting of the world.  Etta imagined Jennifer living a joyous and carefree life, listing her full name in the phonebook, and picking up random hitchhikers on a passing whim.  Tentatively, Etta added her own carefully folded square to the paper sack.

Miss Marjorie read the slips to herself.  “Well, that’s never happened before,” she mumbled. Etta and a few of the others cocked their heads in question. “You all wrote down the same thing,” she explained bluntly.  So much for Miss Marjorie’s pledge of anonymity.

Etta felt the blood rush to her head.  Miss Marjorie said not to worry, that this only meant that she could tailor the class to meet their needs very specifically.  Apparently the lecture hadn’t been planned beforehand.  Etta considered this cause for suspicion and was glad when William, the tall man, inquired what Miss Marjorie’s qualifications were to offer marriage advice.

“I am a seasoned actress William,” she answered.  “I deal in the human condition, which means that I understand people… their frailties…what makes them tick.” After a few seconds of uncomfortable silence Miss Marjorie lifted a finger and added,   “Once a man with a loaded gun broke into my home with the full intention of murdering me. Instead I made him a scrambled egg and convinced him to turn himself in to the police.” After another dramatic pause she said, “I know how to connect with people. I can teach you how to connect with your spouse again.”

Miss Marjorie turned away from them then, as though the matter were closed for discussion, and for the next hour she offered some of the most unorthodox advice Etta had ever heard.  Their first lesson was on how to laugh at their spouse’s jokes.  Laughing at a person’s jokes, her teacher said, was a form of generosity.  It created goodwill.

“Now listen carefully, because there’s a right way to do this.”  Miss Marjorie bent down and contorted her face as though suppressing a laugh.  “You see, you haven’t been getting along, right?  So it’s natural that your laugh will not come bellowing forth.  Instead, your laugh will escape from you, as if by accident.”  Miss Marjorie demonstrated.  “This kind of unintended laugh will be very satisfying to your partner.”

Etta raised her hand.  “Isn’t this all a little deceitful?  I mean shouldn’t we be working on being honest with each other, instead of play acting?”

Miss Marjorie gave her a dull stare.  “Sometimes, benevolence is more important than honesty.” 

Etta was shocked to learn that Miss Marjorie intended for each of them to get up in front of the class and demonstrate their laughs.  They were to stand up in pairs.  One of them was to simply utter the phrase, “Duck, Duck, Goose,” to which their partner was instructed to “unleash” their laughter.  Jennifer, the young mother, was paired with Barney, the older gentleman, and mercifully, they were asked to go first.  Jennifer’s was a giddy, self-conscious laugh that Etta didn’t find at all convincing.  Barney’s performance was even worse.  Too pronounced, Etta decided. Too obvious.

When it was her turn to stand in front with William, she wanted to bolt from the room, but couldn’t summon her legs to move.  Reluctantly she stood up, her palms sweating and her knees shaking wildly.  “Duck, Duck, Goose,” she fairly whispered.  William looked her right in the eyes.  A slow smile crept across his face and he let go a low, rumbling laugh so convincing that Etta began to wonder if there had been something really unique about her Duck, Duck Goose delivery after all.  The thought filled her with satisfaction, and without even planning it, she found herself blushing, turning her head away, and giggling shyly in response.

“THAT’S IT!”  Miss Marjorie bellowed, pointing her finger in Etta’s direction. “ERTHA HAS GOT IT DOWN PERFECTLY!”

After such a bold endorsement, Etta didn’t have the heart to tell Miss Marjorie that she’d gotten her name wrong.  If she needed to go by Ertha for the remainder of the class, so be it.

Towards the end of the lecture, Miss Marjorie retreated to the back of the room, where she pried open the brass lock of a nearby trunk. Reaching inside, she produced four dusty boxes and set them on the table, informing her students that there were “novelty items” inside.

“Don’t open them up until you get home,” she said.  “It will spoil the mystique.”

The contents of the boxes varied, although she guaranteed that each would provide fodder for their spouse’s jokes.  The students were to simply set their new acquisitions on their kitchen tables and wait for a response.  Their homework assignment for the week was to perfect their reactions to the jokes, the way they had practiced in class.

Homework? Etta hadn’t realized that the class was ongoing.

“How much?”  Barney, the old man, said, pointing at the box. 

“Twenty dollars,” Miss Marjorie said, “I’m selling them to you practically at cost.”  None of the students moved.

Twenty dollars seemed like a lot for a novelty item, especially one that she wasn’t going to be permitted to see first, but after all, the seminar had been free.

Etta eyed the boxes with curiosity.  The last time she had made a blind purchase like this was as a child, at the Greenville Town Fair from an enormous woman called “Mrs. Pockets.”  Mrs. Pockets wore a tent-like gown, not unlike Miss Marjorie’s, except that hers was covered in multi-colored pouches.  For a nickel, you could choose any pocket you liked, and the prize within it was yours.   Etta remembered how thrilled she had been with her set of wax lips, but equally exciting was the mystery of it all.  Mystery was definitely something that was lacking in her life these days.

“I’ll take one,” she said, rising up from her chair.

“Ooh, she’s a brave one,” William crooned, and the rest of the class nodded approvingly.  For the second time that day, Etta felt herself blush.

She left the seminar with her prize safely tucked under one arm.  She had been noncommittal (though secretly pleased) when Miss Marjorie asked if she could expect her “star pupil” the following Wednesday.  Apparently, the class was to run for five weeks.  Etta was well aware that Miss Marjorie could be some sort of huckster, and yet, a part of her yearned to go back.   She had experienced such a range of emotions in the one hour, from fear, to elation, to curiosity.  Etta wasn’t accustomed to having so many different feelings piggybacked together like that.  Somehow, she felt stretched

Back at the garage, the mechanic was just finishing up with the car.  He warned her about an unrelated problem with the back axle, and recommended that she make an appointment to get it taken care of as soon as possible.

“I’ll tell my husband,” she promised, and hurried out to her car.  She couldn’t wait to get home and open her box.

Once in her kitchen, Etta cast off her coat and immediately began tearing at the cardboard packaging.  Inside she found a tightly wrapped ball of tissue paper.  Hastily, she peeled off layer after layer, until she finally came to what she was looking for.

It was some sort of strange-looking doll, with unkempt, fluorescent-pink hair and an unfortunate nose.  Motion Activated Troll Doll, the package said.  Apparently, if you clapped or waved your hand in front of it, the doll would dance and sing.  Etta was irritated to find that she couldn’t test this immediately.   For twenty dollars, she would have expected the batteries to be included.  Judging from the troll’s costume (it was wearing a grass skirt and holding a ukulele) Etta guessed that it would probably be performing something Hawaiian.  Nervously, she went to retrieve two AA’s from the hall closet.  Suddenly it seemed as though the entire fate of her marriage rested in the hands of a five- inch plastic figurine.  She inserted the batteries and listened tentatively while the troll serenaded her with I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts.  Was it funny?  Etta couldn’t tell. 

Albert arrived home late from work that night.  Etta busied herself in the kitchen, her laugh at the ready.  When Albert tossed his keys onto the table as usual, the troll burst into song, but Albert was already halfway out the door, leafing through a stack of bills as he sauntered away.

“Goddamnit!” he muttered, “The phone company’s overcharged us again.”

As let down as Etta felt, she still doggedly pursued a reaction.  She wedged the troll between the salt and pepper at dinner, and tried stationing it next to Albert’s toothbrush at night.  The problem, as Etta saw it, was in how consistently preoccupied Albert was.  She’d never noticed how extreme the situation had become.  At any given moment, he seemed to be reading a paper, reviewing the bills, or watching television.

After three days without any reaction, Etta was ready to give up, when something happened that she wasn’t expecting.  It was Saturday, which was Etta’s laundry day.  She had collected Albert’s pile of socks and underwear, and was lifting the lid of the washing machine, when a familiar noise jumped out at her.  There at the base of the well was the gyrating troll.  How in the world?  Etta wondered, and then she realized how, and smiled.  And to think he never even gave the slightest indication of noticing the thing.

Finding the troll reminded her of an earlier time, when she and Albert were first dating.  They’d played a silly game that involved surprising the other with a rubber cockroach. How the game started, Etta couldn’t recall now, but it had gone much the same way, with one of them hiding the bug and waiting for the other to find it unexpectedly.  Albert had been better at the game, as he showed a great deal more restraint.  Sometimes he waited months before springing the cockroach on her, and this really led to a much bigger surprise.

One Christmas, at least six months after the last insect sighting, Albert presented her with a small, carefully wrapped package.  Inside was the cockroach, which of course made Etta scream and laugh, but underneath it was an engagement ring.  Come to think of it, the very presentation had been part of the reason she’d said yes.  She’d had fun with Albert.  Etta shut the lid of the washing machine, not knowing what surprised her more, the fact that she and Albert used to have fun, or the fact that she’d forgotten.  Well I’ll be, she thought, and silently crept downstairs to the garage where she set the troll on top of the lawnmower.

Spurred on by success, Etta decided to return to the seminar the following Wednesday.  Albert wanted the back axle repaired anyway, and what with Iron Joe’s opening on Wednesday, it only made sense to take it then.   An excited Etta dropped off the car, nearly skipping all the way to class.   Miss Marjorie greeted her in a new, magenta caftan, but with the same velvet slippers as before.  She enveloped Etta in a warm embrace, and whispered in her ear.

“So glad you could come Ertha,” she crooned, “we need your energy here.”

Etta never corrected her teacher.  The truth was she liked the idea of assuming a new identity once a week, and what’s more, this new version of her name, with the r in the middle, gave it a sort of growl that she was partial to.  Before the start of class William stuck out his hand to re-introduce himself.   “I’m terrible with names,” he confessed.

Etta embraced the moment.  “I’m Ertha,” she said, and then there was no going back.

Once they were all seated, out came a new batch of papers and pencils.  Etta worried that they’d be expected to reveal more secrets today, but thankfully she was wrong.

“Tell me three things that your spouse does well,” their teacher commanded. 

Etta thought hard and wrote down “yard work, bill paying, and crossword puzzles.”

Their assignment for the week, Miss Marjorie said, was to pick one of these talents to brag about to an outside party.  It was crucial, she explained, that their spouses should overhear them doing this.  They should arrange to be on the phone in mid-brag when their partner entered the room.  Barney and some of the others became so befuddled trying to decide who their contact person should be, that Miss Marjorie finally said it would be alright to just fake the phone call.  Etta pictured herself expounding on Albert’s qualities to a dial tone and cringed.  She raised her hand.

“We could always call each other,” she suggested.  Miss Marjorie thought this was an excellent idea, and had them exchange telephone numbers on the spot.

At the end of class their teacher pulled out a new set of mystery boxes.   The price this time was thirty dollars.  Once again Etta plunked down her payment, and considered it money well spent. The boxes turned out to contain some sort of headgear, which they were to attach to their phones.  Etta never learned why these were needed, but by then she had begun to trust Miss Marjorie’s instincts.

Once Etta had the gadgetry fully assembled, the phone seemed to ring non-stop.  The first call came from Jennifer. “Well you know how handy Bob is,” she said, before Etta even had a chance to say hello. “That man can fix anything.”  

A few minutes afterwards, William called to tell about his wife’s green thumb.  During dinner, the phone rang again.

“My Shirley is the best damn cook this side of the Mississippi!”  Barney barked in her ear.

Albert, who was busy cutting his rump roast while reading the newspaper, looked up.  He eyed Ettas’s headgear, (which she had worn to the table so as not to miss any important calls).

 “You got a family reunion coming up?” he asked.  Etta understood the question immediately.  Once a year, while planning her family’s reunion, she received a similar flurry of phone calls, usually from various cousins calling to make arrangements.

“These are classmates from that life seminar I told you about,” Etta said.  (She had described the seminar in the briefest of terms, never revealing the emphasis on marriage counseling).  

“Oh,” Albert said.  He raised one perplexed eyebrow, a man on the verge of asking a question. Then he thought better of it and turned back to the sports page. 

After dinner, Etta cleared the dishes and prepared to make her own call.  Albert was in the adjoining den and was definitely within earshot.  She dialed Jennifer’s number and went through the required pleasantries, but then she got down to business.

 “I’d be absolutely useless if the yard was up to me,” she said, quite out of the blue.  

“ ‘Course Albert does all of that.”  Etta walked a few steps closer towards the den. “He lays down that grub killer and even pokes those holes in the lawn, what do they call that?  Percolating the soil?” 

“Aerating!” Albert yelled in from the den. 

Etta smiled.  “Oh that’s right aerating.  See what I mean?” she said loudly.  “He’s practically an expert.”

Later, when Etta was at the sink scrubbing the roast pan, Albert came into the kitchen and leaned over her to get a glass out of the cupboard.  He stretched one hand upwards and rested his other on the small of her back.  It was the tiniest of gestures, and it was probably strictly for the purpose of keeping his balance, but still it made Etta wonder.

The phone calls continued throughout the week, with the compliments slowly growing more meaningful over time.  Jennifer confessed that her husband was better with the baby than she was, and Barney told about how his wife had once hocked her wedding ring to help him settle a gambling debt.  Sometimes, when they called, Albert would answer the phone.

 “It’s for you Ertha,” he’d say, clearly pleased with his little joke.  She’d had no choice but to tell Albert about the name mix-up, and he seemed to find the situation entertaining. 

All in all, it had been a successful week.  The troll had turned up once more; (she’d found it in the crock pot when attempting to make the Sunday stew, only to place it directly back into Albert’s shaving kit), and for several nights in a row Albert had come to the table without his newspaper. While the progress may have seemed small to some, Etta considered it progress just the same. She counted the days until her next class.

On the third Wednesday, Miss Marjorie taught them to meditate.  “What does meditation have to do with marriage?” Jennifer wanted to know.  Miss Marjorie said that to make an adequate half of a relationship, a person must be whole on their own.  According to Miss Marjorie, meditation would help them to achieve this state of totality.  They sat cross-legged on the floor, where everyone (with the exception of Barney) was able to find their “sitz bones.”  Miss Marjorie lit scented candles and instructed them to “go to the place where they were accepted.”  Jennifer shared later that she had gone to her sister’s house, and William said he went to his mother’s kitchen.  Etta was embarrassed to reveal her own choice.   After much deliberation she had decided to stay right there in Miss Marjorie’s basement.

She left class that day with a forty dollar mystery box; a box that turned out to contain enough candles for her to “build her own sanctuary.”  She set up shop in her sewing room, putting candles on every available surface, and placing a towel on the floor in the center of the room.  Every morning she sat on it, breathed deeply, and practiced the chants Miss Marjorie had taught her.

“What no headgear today?” Albert asked her once, while passing by.

“Headgear is not permitted in the sanctuary,” Etta told him gravely. 

Albert chuckled all the way to the kitchen.  Three days later when she came to do her meditation, she found the troll occupying her spot on the towel.

The following week they were assigned the task of mimicking their spouse’s mannerisms and favorite expressions.  Imitation, it seemed, was another form of flattery.  Miss Marjorie called it “mirroring” and said it explained why couples with a strong emotional connection began to look alike. 

Physically, Etta and Albert were practically opposites. Etta had straw-colored hair and a complexion so fair, she’d once been nicknamed “Beyond the Pale.” Albert, on the other hand, had hair that was almost black, and tanned so easily that an aunt of Etta’s had once referred to him as “that nice Egyptian fellow.” The prospect of the two of them ever looking alike seemed preposterous, and Etta voiced her concerns. 

Miss Marjorie sniffed. “The emotional connection is what we’re focusing on, dear.” She pulled an artist’s pallet and a glass of water, seemingly out of thin air and flicked a glob of yellow, and then blue paint into the clear liquid. “Our spirits emit auras with distinctive shades,” she said. “A scientific fact that I’m sure you’re all aware of.”

Barney nodded, somberly.

“The colors of two people’s auras can blend together, with a little coaxing. It’s a process I like to call empathic blending.” She swirled the contents of the glass, and held it up high.

Etta hadn’t ever heard of such things as auras, and suspected that Barney hadn’t either, but she was mesmerized by the tornado of yellow and blue, dancing around each other, intertwining, until they finally formed the most beautiful, verdant green.

Back at home, Etta tried her best on the assignment, but honestly wasn’t sure how successful mimicking Albert had been. She spent the better part of the week slamming cupboard doors and muttering obscenities.  Albert seemed more perplexed than flattered by the behavior, and Etta wasn’t sure if there’d been the slightest bit of aura blending.  Regardless of this minor setback, Etta remained upbeat.  It hadn’t been a total loss.  Their boxes had contained lovely hand held mirrors.  Besides, that was the week that she started getting together with some of her fellow students outside of class.

On Friday, Barney called and asked if she could give him a lift to visit his sister in a nearby nursing home.  Etta knew that Barney didn’t drive anymore (a senior van picked him up from class each week), and so she said she’d be happy to take him over. It turned out to be a lovely afternoon; they had a nice chat on the drive over, and Etta had even gone in to visit the sister, who was the spitting image of Barney, but with longer hair.

The next day Jennifer called to see if Etta would like to join her and the baby for a walk.  They went to the park, where they took the stroller up and down the paved pathways, chasing every squirrel that the little girl pointed to.

“Do you have kids?” Jennifer asked, as they walked along. Etta and Albert had been desperate for children, but after several unsuccessful pregnancies, (the last one life-threatening), Albert begged her to stop trying.

“We have a cat,” Etta answered. A memory rushed forward—Albert holding a cardboard box with a kitten inside, his eyes searching Etta’s, checking to see if he’d done the right thing.

“Meow!” said the baby, who had clearly been listening. They all laughed.

Etta hated to see the afternoon come to an end.   “See you Wednesday!” Jennifer called out her car window, as she was driving away.  Yes, Etta thought happily.  See you Wednesday.

Her weeks had taken on a certain structure that she found reassuring. It was only later, that she realized with regret, that the seminar would soon be coming to a close.  Miss Marjorie had said five weeks, which meant that they only had one last session together.  William called beforehand, and suggested that they all go out for lunch afterwards, as a sort of graduation celebration.  Etta thought it was an excellent idea.  Grandma’s Country Kitchen was just down the road, and Barney had recommended their tuna melts.

Their final lecture dealt with outside threats.  “When a country goes to war,” Miss Marjorie explained, “the citizens within generally stop bickering and become unified.”  She felt that these same dynamics could occur within a marriage.  If they could somehow arrange to be threatened or hurt by an outside party, she assured them that their spouse would quickly come to their defense. Barney reminded her that spikes in patriotism were often short lived.

“I’m well aware of that Barney,” she said, and she gave him a stern look.  “Remember, what we’re trying to do here is to build positive momentum within your relationships.  Ultimately you people will be responsible for keeping the ball rolling.”  Miss Marjorie said that outside threats could go a long way towards rebuilding intimacy, even inducing protectiveness and physical contact.

“Albert hasn’t given me a real hug in years,” Etta said wistfully.

While Barney remained skeptical, Jennifer became quite enthused by the idea of an outside threat, and suggested that they phone each other pretending to be bill collectors or obscene callers.  William wondered if a fender bender might be in order.  Miss Marjorie said that the right idea would come, and took out their two hundred dollar mystery boxes.

“Two hundred dollars!” Barney protested.

“The Grand finale,” Miss Marjorie assured them.

Some had to run to the bank across the street for the cash, but none of them even considered skipping that last purchase. They collected their final boxes at the door, each student hugging Miss Marjorie goodbye on the way out.  Over at Grandma’s Country Kitchen they all ordered tuna melts with four cups of steaming black coffee.  It was Barney who suggested that they open their boxes together.

“What, here?” Etta asked.  The opening of her mystery box had become somewhat of a sacred ritual.

“Why not?” Barney answered.

Etta felt silly explaining, though she thought she noticed that the others were somewhat tentative as well.

“I’ll start,” Barney offered, and nobody protested.  He pried the box open, and began unraveling the mass of tissue paper within.  Slowly he removed layer after layer, the suspense growing steadily all the while.

“Good things come in small packages,” William said excitedly, when the tissued mass had shrunk to the size of an egg. 

When Barney unraveled the final section, there was a brief moment of stunned silence.

“There’s nothing there,” Etta said stupidly, before rummaging through his discarded papers.

“Did it fall to the floor?” William asked, trying to be helpful.  Everybody bent down to look under the table, but all they found were their own feet.

“Check yours,” Barney said urgently, and they did.

“Empty,” they took turns saying, one after the other.

Etta couldn’t believe it.  “So she strung us along, to get what, an extra eight hundred dollars out of us?”

“I never trusted her,” Barney muttered.

“No wonder she wouldn’t join us for lunch afterwards,” William said. “I should’ve known she was making excuses. A clay cleanse? What does that even mean? People don’t eatclay, do they?” Nobody answered the question—the four of them suddenly feeling ill-equipped when it came to predicting the limits of human behavior.

“Maybe we should run back and see if we can catch her,” Jennifer offered, but nobody got up.  They knew she wouldn’t be there, just as they knew they’d never be able to track her down.  Barney astutely pointed out that after all that time they’d never even learned her last name.

Etta drove home feeling ridiculous and naïve.  Who would follow a set of cardboard signs into a basement anyway?  A bunch of desperate souls ripe for the taking, she decided.  Miss Marjorie had practically hand picked them. It was hard to believe that she had felt so adventurous and filled-up only hours before.  One empty box later and she was fully deflated. 

As soon as Etta got home she sank into a kitchen chair with her coat still on.  So it was all a big hoax, she thought. The sobs erupted unexpectedly and Etta quickly buried her face in her hands.  She never heard Albert enter the room.

“What’s wrong?” he asked worriedly.  “Is your mother OK?”

Choking out her answer, Etta told him about Miss Marjorie being a con artist and her box being empty.

Albert didn’t ask what box, or why it was important. He had always been a man of few words, and today Etta was glad of it.  Instead he did the unexpected.  He took his wife into his arms and held her, for what seemed like a very long time.


BIO

Alison Bullock‘s short fiction has appeared in Halfway Down the Stairs, Anti-Heroin Chic, Every Day Fiction, Boston Literary Magazine, Mississippi Crow, and the Momaya Annual Review. She was a finalist for one of Glimmertrain’s short fiction contests. She lives in Massachusetts. 

© Anne Jones Photography

Kerplunk

By Jennifer Makowsky


Today when I see our weekly list of clients and their pictures, I get excited about a man named Heinrich Garby because he looks like my father.  I run down to the morgue to find Mr. Defazio. He’s puttering around, pulling up his pants over his big belly and looking around like he often does when he doesn’t know what else to do with himself. It’s like he’s lost. It’s a sunny Saturday morning, but it could be midnight down here with the florescent lighting and lack of windows. I hold up the list with the guy’s picture, trying to fight the smile forming on my mouth. Adrenalin is zipping around inside me, but I try to ignore it and look serious.

“Mr. Defazio, I would like to do the make up for this man,” I say in my most sincere voice, standing up straight.

Mr. Defazio stops puttering and comes forward, squinting at the photograph. Then he looks at me with a scrunched forehead. “What, do you have something against this guy? You seem awfully excited, Elizabeth.”

He can always read me. I’m sure the look of excitement is all over my face despite trying to look grave. I’ve always had a hard time suppressing my facial expressions.

“No, it’s just,” I pause and then spit it out. “He looks like my father.”

The perplexed look doesn’t leave Mr. Defazio’s face, so I elaborate. “I know it sounds weird, but my dad disappeared ten years ago.”

“Disappeared? You told me he passed away.”

“I just said that because I didn’t want to talk about it. But it’s like he’s dead because he just vanished one day. Poof!” I throw the fingers of both hands out. “Like a magician waved a wand.”

The look Mr. Defazio gives me is one I am expecting. It isn’t one of sympathy. It teeters on disdain. He acts hard and embittered and hates tears and emotion. He says it’s because he’s from Jersey, but I know it’s really because he masks his emotions with other emotions that are easier for him to express. When his wife Mora was living, she had been a crier. Everything made her burst into tears. This made Mr. Defazio mad. I often wonder why he went into the funeral business when he hates tears so much. Sometimes he excuses himself from speaking with the clients of a funeral we are handling and goes down into the morgue and kicks the bottom drawers. There are dent marks from his shoes lining the bottom of one drawer in particular. It’s gotten worse since Mora died.

“Vanished?”

 “Well it felt that way.” I say. “He sent a letter a year later. He took off with some woman he’d been having an affair with. Last I heard, he was in California.”

Mr. Dafazio raises his eyes to the ceiling. “Always with the dramatics,” he says, putting his palms up in exasperation and then slapping them down on his thighs. “I thought you meant he went missing for real. Like the police were involved.”

I shrug. “Doing this guy’s makeup might give me some closure.”

He lets out a grunt and shakes his head, rubbing the back of his neck. “It’s not an easy case, Elizabeth. You might be better off letting me do it. Pretty grim, if you ask me.”

“What happened to him?”

“The guy worked for a local nursery. He was moving a Saguaro for the city over on the East Side when it fell on him. The thing weighed close to 3,000 pounds. And you can imagine the way it left him with all those spines in it. Not a pretty sight, Elizabeth.”

I remember seeing a story on the local news about it. Man Crushed by Cactus or something.

Occasionally Mr. Defazio lets me do the make up for the “tough“ cases although he does most of them himself. These are the victims of car accidents and gunshots with open wounds and lacerations that need layers of special makeup and powders. I’ve never seen someone crushed by a cactus.

I make a steeple with my hands as if I’m praying. “It could really help me.”

He sighs. “Fine. But you’re going to need tweezers and a lot of patience.”

He turns and shuffles toward the stairs to leave, but stops and puts his hands on his hips and looks at the floor, his back to me. “You’re a damn good desairologist. The best. Besides me, of course.”

A desairologist is the technical name for what I do. I never use it though. It sounds too formal like I’m a scientist or doctor. When someone asks me what I do for a living, I tell them I give dead people their color back before they bow out of the world for good. Before I did this, I was a hair stylist. One day after my then-client, Louisa, dropped dead of a stroke, her husband walked into the salon where I worked and asked if I’d do Louisa’s hair one last time, and her make-up. Luckily, I’ve always been good with cosmetics. I guess having once been a goth paid off.  All those years of using white pancake makeup and layering eye shadow weren’t for nothing. I now know how to blend and spread foundation like paint into a canvas. It isn’t lost on me that my skill at making people look alive comes from trying to make myself look dead years ago. Anyway, I made Louisa look almost better than she looked in life. After that, I signed up for mortuary school and never looked back. Since then I’ve been hanging out in the back of the 90-year-old building downtown six—sometimes seven—days a week, tinting blue lips pink and putting the last curls into women’s hair. When I’m not doing aesthetic work, I’m assisting Mr. Defazio with a bunch of other stuff—ordering caskets, memory cards, and flowers.  In a way, I’ve become his partner since Mora died.

Monday morning, after Mr. Garby’s family gives the okay, Mr. Defazio embalms Mr. Garby’s body and then finds me in the front office.

“He’s all yours, Elizabeth. Good luck with all that.” He shakes his head and makes a dismissive gesture with his hand as if he’s tossed out a dirty Kleenex.  I nod resolutely, standing up and wiping the palms of my hands on my jeans. I am excited to give Mr. Garby his last coat of shine, but a little nervous as I take Mr. Garby’s photograph from the desk and head downstairs to the morgue.

Mr. Garby is waiting for me on the metal table, dressed in a pair of Levis and a blue and black cowboy shirt. The outfit is fitting, so to speak, because my father wore Levis religiously and had a couple cowboy shirts in his wardrobe. Mr. Garby doesn’t look bad for being killed by a 3,000-pound Saguaro. As I step closer to him, I see his face is rosy from the embalming, but is perforated with dozens of thick cactus spines. His blondish gray hair has been combed out by Mr. Defazio, but there are still spines twisted through it and little clumps of dirt.

Before I get to his face, I cut Mr. Garby’s nails. It’s a myth that your hair and nails keep growing after you die. Your skin retracts, so they appear longer. But Mr. Garby’s are a little long to start with and there’s dirt beneath some of them. With his hand in mine, I start to talk to him. This is not unusual. I talk to the dead when I’m working on them.

“Hi, it’ me, Elizabeth,” I say, looking at the embroidery in his shirt—red flowers stitched into navy fabric. My father had one with a similar pattern but the flowers were green. I take a breath and just launch in, mid-story. ”I no longer have roommates. I bought a house,” I switch hands and begin cutting the nails of Mr. Garby’s other hand. My heart has sped up and feels like a throbbing fist in my throat. “And no, I’m not married. I haven’t met the one.“ I pause and click my tongue. “Remember how you were always telling me to dump Mike Tinnerson because you thought I was too good for him? Well I did it. Finally.”

I begin to scoop the dirt out of Mr. Garby’s nails with the end of the nail scissors and think of Mike Tinnerson who I dated when I was nineteen and going to cosmetology school. He was the last guy I dated before my father cut town. When I was with Mike, he would call me fat and openly check out other women. But when I wasn’t with him, he would whine when I stayed home to study instead of hang out with him in his father’s basement watching The Price is Right and getting stoned. My father used to call him “The Tin Man.”  When are you going to dump that rusty Tin Man? he used to say with an exasperated huff. You’re far too good for him, Beth.

After my father left, I fell into a depression and pulled the plug on that relationship. In a way, my father leaving opened up my world. I began cutting assholes out of my life right and left. Like an asshole-swiping ninja. It wasn’t lost on me that my father was acting like an asshole himself.

“Anyway, mom really lost it after you left. She must have used half her settlement from the divorce to get plastic surgery. I can’t say I blame her. Men can just go off and find a younger woman if they want. Any woman, really. Women her age are limited as to what they have left to pick from. Unless they look young.” I stop as a shot of panic ripples through my chest.  For a moment I hear my mother telling me to get out there and find someone before all the good ones are gone. I shake the thought almost as quickly as it crosses my mind and continue. “Anyway, she had a facelift and breast implants put in.”

I take the tweezers and begin plucking the large Saguaro spines out of Mr. Garby’s face, but there are smaller ones that require the magnifying loupe glasses we use when we need to see every last detail of something. “It’s been years since we heard anything from you. Did you ever marry what’s-her-name? Actually I know her name because I did some cyber stalking. I know Erica’s a makeup artist. Like me,” I pause and let out a tight laugh. “Well not like me. She works on living people in Hollywood or some shallow bullshit like that.”

I feel my throat tighten with anger and stop. At the same time, the door at the top of the morgue stairs opens, followed by the sound of Mr. DeFazio’s heels banging down the stairs. I pause with the tweezers in my hand. I know that angry descent. He walks by me without looking, around to the other side of the wall where most of the morgue drawers are. In a few seconds I can almost hear him kicking the bottom drawers before it actually happens.

When he settles down, I yell over the wall, “I take it your last client was a crier?”

The shuffle of Mr. Defazio’s shoes gets louder as he rounds the wall with an exasperated look like he’s just run a marathon. There are beads of sweat dripping down his forehead that he’s dabbing with a white handkerchief.

“What is it with people and all the emotion, all the drama?”

I laugh and say in a sarcastic tone. “You’re never dramatic, are you?”

“Well I’m not emotional!” he yells, giving the closest bottom drawer a swift kick.

“Not at all,” I say.

He groans and puts his hands on his hips, looks at Mr. Garby, and shakes his head wearily. “I don’t understand it, Elizabeth. This guy’s just moving a cactus on the East Side, doing his job, and then goes kerplunk, killed by a cactus of all things. I was just talking to a woman upstairs whose husband went kerplunk—just like that—working on the job. Mora went kerplunk doing her job—God rest her soul. Who’s next? Are you gonna find me down here one day kerplunked?” He walks towards the stairs again, looking up at the door, shaking his head. “I don’t know how God sleeps at night.”

After he leaves, I turn back to my father, I mean Mr. Garby, and get close to his forehead where there are still several larger Saguaro spines that need plucking. “His wife, Mora,” I say, “was upstairs with a local florist placing an order when she suffered a massive heart attack and died instantly at the front desk. I wasn’t there, thank god, but Mr. Defazio has mentioned her going kerplunk upstairs almost weekly for the past few weeks. I think because the anniversary of her death is tomorrow. If Mr. Defazio ever keels over on the job it will because all that rage will take hold of him and give him a coronary.” I sigh a long sigh that feels like it’s been sitting inside me all stuffed up for years. “I was angry for a while. Angry at you, which made me angry at a lot of things. But I’ve been feeling better lately. Maybe because I started seeing a good therapist. And I’ve been venting—telling all the other dead people down here about how pissed I am at you.”

The door at the top of the stairs opens again and the sound of footsteps clomping down the stairs makes me stop in mid-pluck and look up. Mr. Defazio is standing at the bottom of the stairs looking at me like he has something he wants to say. But he remains quiet, rubbing his belly like a pregnant woman.

“Back so soon? Did you forget something?”

He looks beyond me for a moment and then snaps to. “Yeah, yeah, I think I forgot my phone down here. I can’t find it.”

He putters around.

“I haven’t seen it,” I call over my shoulder.

I shrug as if I’m telling Mr. Garby What the heck is up with him? Mr. Defazio rarely forgets anything. As he’s walking around, half-poking around the drawers, he begins to whistle. That’s something he does a lot. He whistles the theme to The Andy Griffith Show and Colombo, the theme to The X Files, the love theme to The Godfather, which was his and Mora’s song.  Right now, that’s what he’s whistling as he’s pacing back and forth, not really looking for anything anymore.

“I wonder what God does this,” he finally says. “That woman up there was pretty broken up. Her husband was operating a forklift and had a heart attack. Only forty years old. What kind of God, Elizabeth? What kind of God?”

I put the tweezers down. “You got me, Mr. Defazio. What kind of God lets a lot of the shit happen that happens in the world?”

I’ve never seen him like this. He’s rubbing the back of his neck and looking at the floor. Normally, he would have come down and kicked the bottom row of drawers while shouting some cuss words in Italian before going upstairs again.

“Have you ever thought of therapy?” I ask.

“Thought of it?” He wrinkles his heavy, dark brow. “Like how?”

“I mean thought of going to therapy? It might help you sort some things out. It’s helped me a lot.”

“Come on, Elizabeth. I’m not crazy.”

“I know you’re not crazy. I’m not crazy either.”

He walks over to the table where I’m standing above Mr. Garby. “Well, you’re down here talking to this man like he’s your father.” 

“Ha ha ha,” I say in a deadpan tone. “Try it. The dead are great listeners and you don’t have to pay them. It might help.”

He looks down at Mr. Garby for a beat longer than he normally would. He holds his hand out and gestures to the tweezers in my hand. “Give me those.”

I hand over the tweezers. He swiftly plucks the cactus spines out of Mr. Garby’s face. Each spine leaves behind a little gray circle as he plucks it. “You’re taking too long, Elizabeth. How long can a man be so humiliated?”

“He’s dead.”

“I know that. I’m just sayin’,” He pauses and doesn’t finish his sentence like he doesn’t know where he’s going with it. Then he looks down at Mr. Garby. “Anyway, this guy whose wife I was just talking to upstairs had a daughter. Maybe five years old. Cute little thing. Now she’ll grow up without a father. And you,” he says addressing Mr. Garby now. “wherever you are. . . “ He raises his eyes to the ceiling, “heaven, the afterlife, wherever,” he turns his eyes back to Mr. Garby, “You’re without your kids. Without your wife. Totally alone.”

I get the feeling he’s really talking about himself. He’s unloading in a way I’ve never seen, like he’s a different person.

“Mora and I never had kids,” he says as he continues to pluck the spines out of Mr. Garby—behind his right ear now. “I told her I didn’t want any.” He pulls with more effort than is necessary. “It’s bizarre. I come from a big Italian family. You’d think I’d want a big family myself, right?”

He pauses, looking down at Mr. Garby. Is he waiting for him to answer?

“Why didn’t you want kids?” I ask, hoping not to break the spell.

“I lost two brothers when I was ten years old,” he says, still looking down at Mr. Garby. “They were babies. Twins. Had some kind of genetic thing.” His bald patch catches the overhead light, which is so bright it could burn a hole in the floor if we left it on too long. “I never really knew them.” He exhales then straightens up and continues, not looking at me. “I saw what it did to my mother. She was never the same after that. I think that had something to do with my decision to deny Mora kids. Now I’m paying for it.”

“In what way?”

He hands me the tweezers. “I’m alone,” he says, still not looking at me. “I’m totally alone, Elizabeth.”

I swallow hard. It’s like seeing one of your parents cry. I want to ask him if he’d rather kick a drawer or something.

I take a shallow breath. “So not true,” I say, turning to pluck the spines behind Mr. Garby’s left ear where a cluster of what looks like dead grass is caught in the back of his hair. I snatch it out. “You have your brother in Newark.”

“Yeah, 3,000 miles away.  And he’s got his own problems. His wife has a pill problem and his daughter’s flunking out of school.”

I sighed. “Wow, that sucks.”

“Yeah.”

There’s a beat of silence before I say, “You have me.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know I’ve got you,” he says waving my words away like they’re bees buzzing around his head.

I almost smile as he says it. It’s the reaction I was expecting. His vulnerable lets-talk-about-it attitude was odd, even if it was nice to see his human side. It was making me feel like we had switched bodies since I‘m the one always spouting about feelings and trying to draw his out, much to his annoyance. Now I’m almost regretting ever doing that.

“But you got your own life,” he says, looking down with his hands on his hips.

“You know my life is pretty low-key, right?” I roll the clump of dead grass between my thumb and middle finger. I’m always talking about how my job is my life and I practically live here. “I promise that I won’t let you go kerplunk down here alone. Cuz I’m always here. And not just here here,” I point to the ground to indicate the building. “I mean I’m here if you need me—that kind of here.”

He gives a long exhale and straightens the collar on Mr. Garby’s cowboy shirt then buttons the top button where the top of the scar from his embalming surgery is visible. “Honestly, let the man have some decency, Elizabeth.”

He begins to back away, then stops and looks up at the ceiling again. “Your father was a numbskull to leave, Elizabeth. I hope you know that.”

I sigh. “Yeah, I know.”

He’s heading back upstairs when I call out. “Thanks, Mr. Defazio. Just remember you’re not alone, okay?”

“Yeah, yeah, I know.”

He sounds like himself again. I can’t help grinning. I can only see him on the stairs from the knees down. I’m wondering why he’s just standing there when he says, “Call me Frank, Elizabeth.”

Then he continues back up the stairs, whistling the love theme to The Godfather.



BIO

Jennifer Makowsky is a writer from the Northeast who moved out west to attend the University of Arizona and earn her MFA in Creative Writing. Her work was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has appeared in Gargoyle, The Portland Review2 Bridges ReviewMatador ReviewHeavy Feather ReviewBlue Earth Review, and others. She lives in Tucson where she teaches English to adults.  


Hit That Ridge Again But This Time Hit It Full Speed

By Riley Winchester


In the summer of 2003 I flipped a go-kart on its head in an attempt to impress my dad. I didn’t intend on flipping the go-kart, because my dad didn’t have some weird fascination with upside-down quadracycles, but in my attempt to impress him that’s ultimately what happened. What I was doing was following a simple order he had given.

Before the flip, I had been putzing around in the go-kart all afternoon with my younger sister Kylan in the passenger seat. We drove back and forth and around in laps in a brown barren field across the street from our house. I imagine we looked so tiny and slow in our cherry red 110cc go-kart, traversing the dry vast field like a Ford Focus driving through a Mad Max movie.

Across the street from us, my dad stood in our driveway and watched while he ate from a bag of cheddar cheese curds. At the time, I thought he was the biggest and toughest person in the world. He stood six-feet-tall; he wasn’t heavy but he was by no means thin—he had a small swell for a stomach, a flat chest, muscular biceps, and broomsticks for legs. 

I grew bored of driving the same routes and Kylan was too scared to drive, so I turned the go-kart back toward my house and started home. I was ready to take a break from driving and do my usual summertime activities, like reading lowbrow juvenile literature or paralyzing my mind with Nickelodeon.  

On the way back I hit a small bump in the ground that I hadn’t ever hit before. I was going slow enough that the go-kart only did an underwhelming little jump, bouncing maybe half an inch off the ground. I didn’t think much of it and kept driving toward my dad.

The closer I drove toward him, the more I noticed how excited my dad looked. His eyes had ballooned bright and his cheese curd chewing had been enlivened into cheese curd chomping. I stopped the go-kart about ten feet away from him and he ran up to the driver’s side and squatted down to talk to me.

“Did you feel that?” he said with a wide smile and raised eyebrows.

“Feel what?”

“That jump!”

“Uh,” I thought for a second, “yeah, I did.”

The smell of cheddar cheese emanated from his mouth and pervaded the air between us. My eyes squinted as I looked at him, attempting to block out the sun. Kylan sat silently in the passenger seat, not yet old enough or familiar enough with my dad to know what was about to come out of his mouth. But I knew, and I could already feel the nerves building up and the knot in my stomach cinch tighter and hotter.

Then he said it.

“Hit that ridge again but this time hit it full speed.”

———

Nobody asked for the go-kart but one day my dad came home with it and surprised us all—my mom, two sisters, and me. He had somehow jammed it into the bed of his pickup truck, and when he returned home he fashioned a homemade ramp to drive the go-kart down out of the bed. But since it was a kid’s go-kart, he couldn’t fit behind the wheel to drive it. So my first time behind the wheel of a go-kart I had to drive in reverse down a steep decline on thin planks of wood that had been rotting in the back of our barn for at least two full presidential terms.

I think it took me forty-five minutes to drive down the five-foot-long ramp because my foot was anchored on the brake and only let off it for millisecond-long intervals.

It was around the time of both mine and Kylan’s birthdays, so my dad justified the go-kart purchase by saying it was a shared birthday present for us. That summer I was hoping for either some new Yu-Gi-Oh! Cards or the latest releases in the Captain Underpants series—Captain Underpants and the Big, Bad Battle of the Bionic Booger Boy, Part 1: The Night of the Nasty Nostril Nuggets, and its sequel Captain Underpants and the Big, Bad Battle of the Bionic Booger Boy, Part 2: The Revenge of the Ridiculous Robo-Boogers. And I doubt Kylan had a go-kart on her birthday wish list. Nevertheless it’s what we were stuck with that year.

This wasn’t the first instance of my dad coming home with a new toy—as he called them—nor was it the last. At least a couple times a year he would come home with a quad or a UTV or a golf cart or some other small engine vehicle either packed into the bed of his truck or hauled in a trailer.

The funny thing was my dad always claimed the toys weren’t for him, even though we all knew they were. If he came home with a youth go-kart that he couldn’t fit in and drive, we knew his reason for buying it was so he would have something new to tinker on in the barn, a new engine to tear apart and figure out, a new project to consume his evenings and weekends.

My dad was a worker, blue-collar as they come, and he believed in the virtues of work, work, work, and then, when all the work is done, find some more work or make some more work. This was something I never understood. I didn’t like work, not one bit. It made me tired and sweaty, so why would I ever seek out more of it?

I thought my dad had some rare, still undiscovered mental illness—or at least some shades of masochism—because of his psychotic predilection for work. To me it was an unhealthy obsession with labor and an equally unhealthy aversion to leisure. We couldn’t have been more different in our philosophies.

My dad never sat still or slowed down. When I would help him finish a project in the barn, I thought I now had the freedom to sit and relax inside, read a book, study for tomorrow’s spelling test, level up my team in Pokémon Ruby on my Game Boy Advance. I would turn and start walking toward the house, then my fantasy would be interrupted by something like, “Grab me a 9/16 socket and a flashlight. And get under here and hold the light for me. It’s darker than rabbit shit—I can’t see a damn thing under here.”

His go-go lifestyle never allowed him to sleep in either, not so long as there was work to be done. And there was always work to be done. If I ever slept past 7:30 a.m. on weekends, my dad would Kramer-burst into my room, turn the light on, peel my eyelids open, and say, “Get up, don’t sleep your day away.” It was 7:30—the moon still hung hazily in the sky, the grass was blanketed with morning dew—and my day was already in danger of being slept away. When I would grumble and plead to sleep in for another hour, he would say, “Tough shit. When I was your age I was waking up at four in the morning to go milk cow tits.”

He wasn’t a man to ever slow down and stop and smell the roses, simply because he was too busy digging up an area for a new rose garden somewhere else. I didn’t understand. I liked slowing down and smelling all the pretty roses.

———

I swallowed down the gigantic nervous lump in my throat and said, “OK.” The word smacked of cowardice as soon as it left my mouth. I didn’t want to hit that ridge again, and I sure as hell didn’t want to hit it full speed. But I knew this was a rare opportunity for me, an opportunity to show my dad that I wasn’t weak or scared, and prove to myself that maybe we weren’t as different as I thought we were.

I turned the go-kart around and drove back toward the field, toward the ridge I was supposed to hit full speed, and away from the safety of my house. I sat at the end of the driveway, neurotically scanning back and forth across the street, checking for cars that I knew weren’t there. We were way out in the boondocks, no cars or any signs of civilization were within a country mile. And I knew that, but I needed to bide my time as long as I could before my imminent ridge-hitting death.

The go-kart trundled through the field. I stared at the ridge as I drove past it. I stared at it like an abandoned baby zebra stares at a clan of hyenas during a hungry summer in The Serengeti. Once I had driven what I thought was far enough past the ridge, I turned the go-kart around so I could hit the ridge while driving toward my dad. I figured if I was going to die trying to impress him, he ought to see it.

I looked at Kylan in the passenger seat—quiet, innocent, blissfully unaware—and wondered if I would be posthumously charged with murder after I inevitably killed us both.

The go-kart and I were still. My arms were rigid, hands glued to the wheel, right foot scared of the gas pedal. Sweat percolated through the papery hairs on the back of my neck. I licked my lips. They were dry, like the field I was about to barrel through at full speed against my will. The go-kart engine hummed, soft and unassuming. I took a couple deep breaths. I looked across the street toward my dad but all I saw was a fuzzy outline. The field ahead of me was speckled with heat mirages, looking like I was about to drive through a dozen little puddles.

Something possessed me—I don’t know if it was a murderous demon or a surge of dumb courage—and I hit the gas.

The engine screamed and I felt the stuffy air wash over my face as I charged toward the ridge. My foot pinned the gas pedal to the metal frame below it. It felt like I had broken the sound barrier in that brown barren field. I was going too fast and my mind was too scrambled to see where the ridge was. I started to panic, but my panicking was interrupted.

I hit the ridge.

And this time I hit it full speed.

The go-kart did a weak one hundred eighty degree flip, slammed back into the arid, compacted dirt, and kept moving forward on its head, sliding through the dirt and leaving a trail of red paint chips and indents in the earth.

When I finally came to, and when I finally found the courage to open my eyes, I looked straight ahead, out at the tree line off in the distance. It looked different now, like the trees were coming out of the sky instead of the earth. Kylan cried and screamed, castigating me for being stupid enough to flip the go-kart. Physically we were both unharmed—the roll cage, seatbelts, and helmets ensured that. But we were handling the mental trauma differently. Me, in shock and silence. Kylan, in tears and screaming.

I heard a familiar voice over Kylan’s screams.

“God damn! You really hit that, huh boy!”

My dad squatted down and looked at Kylan and me, still dangling upside down.

“I didn’t expect you to flip the damn thing,” he said.

He manhandled the go-kart back upright onto its four wheels and pulled Kylan out of the passenger seat.

“I’m gonna walk Ky back, OK?” he said. “You drive it back and pull it into the barn, bud.”

I tried to tell him I was too scared to drive it back but I couldn’t get the words out. It felt like concrete had been poured down my throat. It was then I realized I was nothing like my dad. He could flip a go-kart and get right back on it. I didn’t want to flip go-karts, let alone even drive go-karts. I wanted comfort and stillness and safety. I wanted to be anywhere but behind the wheel of that stupid go-kart in that stupid field.

———

Years went by and things remained the same. My dad continued his busy lifestyle, and I continued to do, and be, the opposite of him. He spent his time playing around with motors and listening to classic rock on the old radio in the barn. I spent my time playing online video games and listening to prepubescent boys call me slurs and say how they all had defiled my mom.  

Then in November of 2013 my dad was diagnosed with stage IV colorectal cancer.

Life hadn’t just thrown a couple speed bumps his way, it had laid out miles of spike strips ahead of him.

Still, he continued, to the best of his ability, to live the same life as he had before. He underwent a total colectomy in March of 2014, and his colon and the cancer were removed. He was fitted with a colostomy bag, which was now, without a colon, his only method of releasing excrement. He joked that he now saved so much time without having to stop what he was doing to use the bathroom, and he could be even more productive than before. Life, he thought, had regained a sense of normalcy.

But the normalcy was short-lived.

Seven months after the total colectomy, the cancer came back, and this time it refused to be defeated. The cancer perniciously took hold of his body and destroyed it from the inside out. It spread to his lymph nodes, his peritoneum, his lungs, tumors invaded his back and lumped along the crease of his spine.

By December of 2015, the cancer had completely seized his body and there was no hope of recovery, not even a miracle could save him. There is nothing else in this world that weakens and destroys someone like cancer, not even the most destructive war or brutal fight. Nothing else can strip someone of their essence, of their self—these always remain, even after the worst defeat. But cancer will. It will take these elements of someone’s being and shatter and trample them into the dust for everyone to see.

My dad was admitted into hospice care where he was put into a medically induced coma. His body was plastered with Fentanyl patches, his veins ran heavy with Dilaudid and Oxycodone and Alprazolam and Methylphenidate and other pharmaceuticals to alleviate his physical pain and shut off his mind.

I spent five days in a sofa chair by his bedside. I had never seen him sit so still, never in the eighteen years I had spent with him. He had never looked so small. His body had shriveled; bones now outlined the parts of his arms that were before inhabited by muscle. His face was sallow and pruned to the jagged corners of his jawline. The biggest and toughest person in the world had been beaten, abused, and destroyed into a frail little fragment of what he once was. For the first time in my life I was bigger than him, and I hated it.

The man I saw in the bed, I thought, wasn’t the same man I had known, the man who raised me. The man who was always on the move, never living a passive life, the man who told me to hit that ridge again but this time hit it full speed—because he wanted me to live fast and take chances like he did—was no longer there.

He died Sunday, December 6, 2015, at 2:25 p.m.

Sometimes I wonder if it wasn’t the metastatic cancer that killed my dad but the stillness. For five days he lay in that hospice bed, motionless, unable to get up and move and live how he always had. I imagine the back of his mind was filled with little anxieties the entire time he was in hospice—the oil change my car needed, the water softener that needed to be refilled with salt, the shaky stair banister that he planned on replacing. It must have driven him crazy.

After he died, my mom, sisters, and I individually spent some time in the hospice room with my dad. Although his body had been essentially dead since he arrived at hospice, and I had spent five days with him like that, it was strange to see him now eternally still. I sat in the sofa chair by his bedside and stared at him. I wanted to say something but I couldn’t. There wasn’t anything blocking my ability to speak—my throat was clear and my voice box was smooth and ready. I didn’t say anything because I thought nothing needed to be said between us. Everything that needed to be said had already been said, and it was now the time for silence.

As I stared at my dad longer, I created this image in my head of him opening his eyes, turning toward me, smiling, and saying, “Get up, we gotta go home and snow blow the driveway!” Or, “Come on, we gotta run to the hardware store right quick!”

Part of me thought it would actually happen. I convinced myself enough of it that I inched my right index finger toward my dad and poked him on the shoulder to check if he was actually dead or just faking it.

He wasn’t faking it.

I laughed when I thought of how ridiculous I must have looked, how ridiculous I was for even having a thought like that. I like to think my dad, wherever he was, laughed too.

———

Had my dad been born in the Neolithic Period, he would have taken the newly developed scrapers, blades, and axes and cultivated a thousand acres of land overnight by himself.

Had my dad been born in Antiquity, he would have given Plato a wet willie and said, “Shut up with all that science talk and gimme that hammer over there.”

Had my dad been born in the Age of Discovery, he would have circumnavigated the world three times over before Magellan had even left port.

Instead, he was born on a summery day in April in 1966, and he was my dad.

At times I thought the only thing we had in common, and the only modicum of proof that I was his son, was how much we looked alike—we’re basically twins born thirty-one years apart. We thought differently, we acted differently, we lived differently. He liked to work; I liked to think. He was fearless and outgoing; I was demure and reserved. He lived fast and didn’t think about consequences; I preferred to take things slow.

My dad once said that people have a lot more in common than they realize, but it’s just that differences stick out a lot more and that’s what we notice. I had never given that much thought until after he died—I had always discredited it as another one of his hackneyed little aphorisms he liked to throw around sometimes to seem intellectual. The differences between my dad and me stood out much more when he was alive. But now with time apart—physically and emotionally—I’ve become privy to all that we shared in common. 

We had the same sense of humor and laughed at the same jokes—whenever he heard a new joke somewhere, he couldn’t wait to share it with me. We never took ourselves too seriously, no matter how serious of a situation we were in. We both liked mindless action movies with no plots. We both liked Detroit sports, and we even went to some Tigers, Lions, and Pistons games together. We both liked to eat our French toast smothered in ketchup.

They’re little things, but they’re little things that mean a lot to me.

And I know they meant a lot to him.

The day I flipped a go-kart on its head I thought I would never in a million lifetimes understand my dad. I thought I could never understand someone so different than me, someone maniacal enough to convince a six-year-old kid to attempt suicide by go-kart. It was a confluence of confusion and terror. I wasn’t even sure if my dad was human. But, as it turned out, I just didn’t yet understand the simplicity of his life philosophy.

My dad wasn’t content with putzing around in a go-kart in the brown barren field across the street. That wasn’t enough for him. He believed that, sometimes, you just gotta hit that ridge again but this time hit it full speed.

 

 

BIO

Riley Winchester’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Ligeia Magazine, Miracle Monocle, Sheepshead Review, Ellipsis Zine, Beyond Words, Pure Slush’s “Growing Up” Anthology, and other publications. He lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

 

The Punk of Spring or The Rite of Punk 

By Ed Peaco


According to Amazon, the score of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring cost $14.93 in paperback. This discovery delighted guitarist Franko Tucker, a self-branded prog-punk musician who was hipped to Stravinsky by Hermes Agee, a young Franko fan and fellow guitarist, though classically trained. From their friendship, they decided to make a punk version of The Rite of Spring for Franko’s band, Franko and the Futile. Franko had just turned 30 and wondering what he’d accomplished in life, and he realized he needed Hermy’s conservatory expertise to pull it off.

Franko, a tattooed stick figure of a man whose main nutrition came from bar food or what could be eaten quickly from a can, was squabbling with The Futile over whether to work up The Rite of Spring or play covers of songs people liked and knew. The Futile (prematurely balding drummer Merk Moskwa with his fedora, and Fletcher Harrington on bass with a heavy keychain slung over his hip) weren’t getting how cool The Rite of Spring could be. Franko settled the matter when Hermy, back from Berklee for the summer, insisted on Stravinsky and insisted to be there to avoid total collapse.

Hermy, currently wearing a man bun and a vintage sport jacket with elbow patches, had enlisted two players from his former high-school group, the Teen Strings, to make the effort sound more or less like Stravinsky. He demonstrated on his tablet with a music keyboard.

While Hermy was a necessity, Franko sometimes found him arrogant, an egghead type, irksome. However, he worked well with The Futile. They came around when Hermy told them their roles would be mostly the same — Fletch’s fuzz-bass throb, Merk’s double-bass kick-drum machine-gun approach. Better for The Futile, Hermy wrote a couple of raucous punk pieces for them — “Punk Prelude” and “Pots and Pans” — despite his mother’s preference that he stay on a strictly classical path.

Franko sported a colorful sleeve of tattoos on one arm, a scene of slithering creatures emerging from jungle greenery. He had a good fan base, at least in the sprawling city of Bristol Springs, Missouri. But some of his old friends from high school were the kind of folks he’d now normally avoid, as they were excelling in their careers and starting families.

He made an exception for Olivia Ellis, who he remembered from concert band.

One day, in Walmart, he was wearing his LeBron James number 23 jersey and shorts. He thought he spotted her in Produce, but he could have been wrong. He remembered Olivia as a gangly girl with long, shiny dark hair, strong minded, prickly, with few friends. He recalled she was married to a guy named Bob. But 12 years later, she looked filled-out, curvy. Her hair was short now, with a long shock that fell over her right eye. He had to say hello.

“Wow, you’ve put on a whole lot of ink since I saw you last — maybe since school?” she said.

“It’s on my fingering arm, to keep peoples’ eyes on me,” he said. “I’m making enough cash with my music these days: casinos, private parties, exhibition halls.” Thankfully, he wouldn’t have to talk about meeting quotas in call centers or busting down boxes at loading docks.

“Cool,” Olivia said. She talked about her work in real estate. “Did you know I’m working on a new development on the Central Square? Didn’t you say you lived there, on the west side of the square?”

“Yes, I heard something about that.” He had received numerous booklets and updates in the mail about the project, and consistently ignored them.

“The plans are for mixed use. You might end up where you are, but nicer — elevator, no more stairs.”

“How’s Bob?”

“Who, Shithead? His real name can’t be used,” she said with a clenched fist.

“I get the gist.”

“No, you don’t,” she said with piercing, dark eyes. “There’s more. I got a great attorney and the house.” Then Olivia launched into a story of being screwed at the real estate office where she worked. “I coddled a bunch of investors over a month or more,” she said. “I wiped their asses! Then the boss took me off the project. I don’t care anymore.”

They made plans for lunch after he returned from a two-week mini-tour of Russellville, St. Joseph, Ottumwa, Marshalltown, Kirksville and La Crosse.

MONDAY

After the overnight haul from La Crosse, the first thing Franko did was hit Aunt Millie’s for a pancake breakfast. Then he went to his fourth-floor walkup, but he found that fencing, blockades and huge wrecking machines were in place.

He bawled like a cow as he remembered he forgot about the demolition. He fell to his knees and bawled again, loud enough to be heard on the other side of the square. Franko had meant to look at the information before he left for the mini-tour, but as usual, he blew it off.

Now he was panicking, sweating in his armpits and crotch. He thought about Olivia Ellis. He couldn’t find her phone number at first, then he found it in his contacts.

Thankfully, she picked up. He tried to speak to her, but he was slobbering: “Help. I fucked up! Really fucked! Forgot. What to do, help me, help me. Help!”

“What’s going on?” she asked, trying to extract what Franko’s trouble was. He hadn’t removed his belongings from his studio apartment. “Stay where you are. I’ll meet you there. Franko, just breathe.”

When she arrived downtown, people were standing around, watching the setup for tear-down activities.

“All of this probably happened a day or two after the band headed out on the tour,” he said.

“Did you really leave all your shit in the building and go away for two weeks?”

“’Fraid so, but I did have some stuff with me.”

She swept into action, grabbed some city official in a suit, tie and orange plastic hard hat. He said they had a lost-and-found in the Public Works building, just a few blocks off the square. The plastic-hard-hat fellow told Franko to go there immediately.

“Could I take a quick look in my place before everything falls apart?” Franko asked.

The hard-hat’s reply: “No.”

At Public Works, Franko was grateful to find some of his belongings: boxed-up documents, a plastic tub including random things like dishes and a few books, a skateboard, spare guitar and keyboard, but not his laptop. He felt foolish but pleased to be with Olivia. He asked about his ancient MacBook laptop, but it was not among his effects.

Franko thanked the official and stood awkwardly, then skulked away. He returned to the square, where the crowd had expanded. Olivia drove home in her 370Z two-seater. She promised to return shortly with her spacious Chrysler 300 she kept for tooling around with clients. Well-to-do people in the crowd were cheering, and a few activists flew black flags indicating contempt over the destruction of longstanding structures.

Franko felt like flying a black flag, too, but he spent time avoiding people he recognized. After a time of sinking hope, Olivia returned. They filled the back seat and the trunk with Franko’s diminished chattel. He asked about the two upscale rides. “They’re used. You know, impression is everything in the real estate game,” she said.

—   —   —

Franko’s items actually amounted to a fairly substantial heap. They unloaded his crap into a spare room at the back part of her house, where Olivia made a place for Franko to work and sleep until he could find a place of his own.

“Have you checked with your insurance people?” Olivia asked.

“Who?” he asked, “No,” not wanting to admit he thought renter’s insurance was a big waste.

“You might get a check for some of your losses.”

Franko said, “My laptop is all I really want. It has all my music — all the tracks for The Rite of Spring. I had to break down and redo what Stravinsky did. I thought I was being brilliant by leaving the laptop behind so it wouldn’t be lost on the tour.”

“Have you heard of a memory stick, or even better: the Cloud?” He sat on an ottoman and hung his head between his knees. “I have a Mac. It’s got GarageBand. Use mine,” she said.

“Will I bother you staying here?”

“No, nice to have you here instead of Shithead.”

After dinner, Hermy came over to Olivia’s place to work on The Rite of Spring with Franko. Hermy plugged in and messed around with some intricate chord changes for a few minutes and immediately blew Franko’s mind.

“You have more talent in one broken fingernail than all the gray matter in my little tiny cranium,” Franko said.

“Have you actually looked at what Igor did?”

“Yes, that’s why I’m freaking out. I’m inputting chunks of The Rite of Spring in ways that will make sense for a six-piece. Franko and The Futile is just a simple garage band. What did I get myself into? Can we loop some of this?”

“No, folks will think it’s canned, and they’ll be right. We’ll just have to do the best we can.”

“One bar of 3/4, next one bar of 5/4, to a bar of 7/4, and, for a breather, three bars of 6/4, and back to 5/4. That’s why I’m getting ready for these screwy rhythms. And that’s why Merk and Fletch need something they can handle. Igor has made it really hard.”

Franko cued the second “episode” of The Rite of Spring on Spotify, then he gyrated and lurched from the abrupt directions of the piece. “We need a different title: The Punk of Spring or The Rite of Punk. Or both!

By now it was midnight, and Olivia was sleeping. Franko and Hermy decided to take a walk around the block. It was a mild evening. Halfway around, Franko was bathed in a sweet scent of something. He advanced toward the scent; he didn’t really know where it came from — flowering shrubs? He stepped onto the springy grass, seeking a more intense aroma.

“Hey, you better stay off people’s lawns. They don’t like that,” Hermy said.

At that moment, Franko detonated a ringing alarm, along with several flashes from the front-door area. A clumsily moving figure dashed out with a huge flashlight. The alarm stopped. The scowling man’s unruly hair became gauzy in the back-lit spotlight.

Franko, remaining stone-cadaverous still, saw that the approaching figure was wearing pajamas and a bathrobe. The garment slunk at an angle, with one side drooping. Then a big dog, growling and barking, appeared beside the man.

“Good morning, gentlemen. I’m Pleetus Ambercrombie,” he said, glaring at Franko. “And who, the fuck, are you?”

Then another fellow emerged from a home across the street and moved toward the others.

Pleetus looked over at the emerging neighbor. “Take it easy, Gibby,” Pleetus said. “I got Adolf here. He’s got a good bark that makes folks take notice.”

“But you might want to straighten up your britches,” Gibby told Pleetus. “These guys don’t look like much of a threat to me.”

Franko attempted to engage Pleetus, but the scruffy homeowner put his hand up like a traffic cop giving the stop signal.

“No trespassing,” Pleetus said.

Franko noticed that Pleetus had a chin beard about eight inches long, decorated with short stacks of beads.

Glaring at Franko, Pleetus thrust his hand into the pocket in the drooping side of his pajama bottoms and said, “Don’t approach me.”

Franko backed up. “Sorry, I just wanted to smell the shrubs. We’re just out for a walk. I’m staying around the corner.”

Pleetus busted out in an eruption of chuckling. “You’re a shrub smeller, ay?”

The big dog closed in on Franko, who tried to move away. It was making a muttering sound and did a half-circle to get behind Franko. Adolf was busy: nuzzling, growling and nipping. Then Franko felt something. “Hey, that dog bit me! Call him off!”

Pleetus said, “Adolf won’t hurt you. Nothing to worry about.” Gibby looked on, eyes darting from Pleetus to the two interlopers. “Go back to your house, Gibby,” Pleetus said. Then he focused on Franko and patted the drooping pocket of his pajamas. Pleetus called the dog, and it reluctantly returned to his master.

Franko pulled out his phone shakily and made a call. Luckily, Olivia picked up.

“Who’s yer callin’?” Pleetus asked.

“Our friend Olivia. She lives around the block,” Franko said.

“Oh, L’il’ Olive Oyl,” Pleetus said. “Just keep in mind, I got access.”

“To what?” Franko asked.

“I got access to use a firearm. Don’t approach me. Just think about what ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ means to you in your situation.” Pleetus patted his bulky pajama pocket, causing the bottoms to droop to his knees before he could hoist them up.

Franko had a little nervous titter over that, and Hermy whispered to him to shut up.

A vehicle arrived and parked two houses down the street. Olivia emerged. “Hey, I’m looking at you. Yes, you, Pleetus, the Barney Fife bum-fuck of the block,” she said. “You know the police have blown you off.”

“No trespassing,” Pleetus said.

“You are a pathetic old man. Just go back to bed with your dog,” Olivia said, as Adolf resumed barking.

Olivia corralled Franko and Hermy and brought them away from the fray. As they packed themselves into the 370Z, she explained that people have door-bell cameras for security. “I wish I’d told you all of this before I fell asleep,” she said. “Pleetus’s system is on a really sensitive trigger, and the lens is really powerful. He’s known as a local nut job.”

TUESDAY

Franko stayed up that night, recreating the score on Olivia’s Mac. While taking a break, he found old-west memes on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and the neighborhood website, portraying Olivia, Hermy and Franko as bandits. He recognized the photos all doctored up. Damn, the geezer had pretty good social-media skills, Franko thought.

When he woke up, Olivia was out. He hoped she wouldn’t see the pictures yet. Each mugshot was cast as an old-time sepia frame. Wording at the top of the image was One Way or Another, probably because Pleetus had enough social-media savvy not to use Dead or Alive.

Later in the morning, the two other perpetrator/victims of Pleetus’s digital onslaught found out. Hermy phoned Franko to whine about his mother’s nagging him for staying out late.

Olivia texted to Franko, “messed up last night. shudda stayed away”

Franko: “gonna blow over”

Olivia: “pleetus can be toxic”

Merk and Fletcher found out, too, and they thought the photos were fantastic. The only thing they didn’t like was that they weren’t included.

—   —   —

That evening at rehearsal, Hermy focused on the business of The Futile not being able to deal with five, seven, and such. “Not judging, just sayin’.”

Franko nodded toward The Futile and said, “Listen up.”

Hermy introduced Brianna and Bethany, twins from the Teen Strings, and handed out some sheets. “They’re known as The B’s.”

“Who’s who?” Merk asked.

“It’s easy to tell them apart,” Hermy said. “Bri plays the violin and has one side of her head shaved. Beth plays cello and has really long hair.” Then he launched into some notes. “The B’s will play the main dance melodies — ”

“ — if you can call them melodies with those brutal changing time signatures,” Bri said. “I had to add 13 new time sigs into my software. I haven’t feared time so dreadfully.”

“I wrote a short piece in four that will sound Rite of Spring-ish, or call it something else. It’s something you guys can riff on when we need it. Everything will be integrated,” Hermy said.

“Hold up,” Beth said. “This is the coolest — the really bitchin’est stuff — we’ll play until college. Hey, Bri, are you saying we should water down this stuff just for convenience?”

Bri swiveled toward her sister: “It’s a score for a ballet. How can dancers step to all this tangled rhythm? Some of that pounding at the end could just as well be in three or four.”

“Igor didn’t want to make it easy, but we can if we want to,” Hermy said. “Franko and The Futile will play over the B’s in 4/4 or just go orgasmic.”

“Or like a three-year-old?” Fletcher asked.

“Same for me?” Merk asked. “Noise ahoy! That’s ‘Pots and Pans,’ right?”

“Let’s carve out a chunk of the score so each player gets a solo. Do whatever we can,” Beth said. “There’s a lot of momentous shit for all of us.”

“I’ll point when we want explosives,” Hermy said. “Then I’ll give the throat-cut sign to back off. Don’t worry, Bri, the strings will be amped up just like everything else.”

“Hey, Hermy,” Beth said. “If it’s OK with you, let the B’s name thing go by the wayside? This will be our first professional gig.”

“So, how do you want to be called?” Hermy asked.

“By our names.”

FRIDAY: THE SHOW

Franko had two T-shirts for gigs, the prog choice, showing Frank Zappa’s album, “Hot Rats”; or the punk selection with a smiling skeleton holding a cocktail with “Holiday in Cambodia” by the Dead Kennedys. Zappa was the choice for his prog show of all prog shows.

The B’s showed up at the Error Code Bar, each wearing a Teen Strings hoodie.

Before set-up, Franko wanted to give a pep talk, but he couldn’t get anyone’s attention. Instead, he just chatted with Merk and Fletcher, while the B’s whispered between themselves about Hermy.

Merk interrupted the B’s, seeking another review of who’s who. Then Hermy went over some rough places and how he’ll cue them. The two string players tuned up, then they switched instruments and tuned again.

The B’s had a good laugh while others were confused, not getting the twins’ humor.

It was hit time, but few people were in the place yet. Two tables were occupied by girlfriends and the father of the B’s. Hoping to lure sidewalk traffic, Franko kept the front door open and continued to call for numerous unnecessary sound checks. After a while, the musicians got bored with the sound checks and dispersed.

Bri played magic tricks to pass the time. Beth fidgeted through all the sound checks and chewed gum to bother her sister. They decided to lose the hoodies; they’d be too hot on stage.

The open door brought in a few people. However, the tactic lured a police officer in as well. In a professional tone, the officer told Mike, the proprietor, that the loud music coming out of the open door was disturbing the patrons of the restaurant next door who were dining al fresco.

Mike told Franko, “Never prop the front door open ever again, and never do anything that would cause a cop to enter the building.”

Then eight young women barged in and told Franko, who was sitting on a bar stool, that they were on a bachelorette scavenger hunt. They assumed Franko was the owner. After a little banter with the women, he sent them to Mike. They had a large list, including something soft and something hard — “Could be from the same guy,” said the ring leader. After this quip, massive merriment burst out among the squad. Mike poured complimentary shots of cheap vodka all around and handed out beer coasters as business cards. Franko wished he were the owner and could have poured free shots for eight women.

The scavengers left after a disorderly chat with Mike, and in a short time, the room was beginning to fill up. The band assembled again. Olivia arrived and hopped onto the stage and collared Franko. “Hey, remember, if you make anything from your show, it goes to mortgage and food.”

Once Franko sent Olivia off the stage and the musicians assembled, they made a last and genuine sound check. He greeted the crowd, which was big for Franko and The Futile. They began to play The Punk of Spring or The Rite of Punk, with a two-part overture, “Pots and Pans” melting into the “Prelude to The Punk of Spring,” both by the trio of The Futile. Then the strings and Hermy executed some Stravinsky time fracturing.

Twenty minutes or so into the performance, in Episode Four, “Spring Rounds,” Franko thought he was seeing something around the front door. As people were moving toward the stage, he could make out an elderly bearded fellow wearing a black full-dress tailcoat tux and a stovetop hat. He was speaking into a bullhorn and scurrying table to table. During a quiet passage, the bullhorn overtook the music.

Franko thought it was some kind of fire alarm or tornado thing. He couldn’t hear the music. The bullhorn sounded like puking in his head. Then he could hear, and he heard words:

“Stop! You must stop!”

“You’re destroying America!”

“Degenerate music! Europe syrup!”

The crowd booed the intruder, but Franko still didn’t know what was up. He turned to the band and called for more “Pots and Pans.” Then he jumped off the stage, where he could more clearly hear the spew of the bullhorn.

“Degenerate intellectuals!”

“Horseface cosmopolitan!”

“A total botch-job sleaze!”

Franko realized that the asshole with the bullhorn was none other than Pleetus and his intricate chin beard. Adolph the dog was by his side.

Franko found a security guy. “Where were you?” Franko asked. “He needs to leave!”

“I thought it was part of the show. Sorry, boss.”

“The dog goes too,” Franko said.

“Dog? I thought it was one of them comfort critters. We’ll get it, chief.”

Bereft of his bullhorn, Pleetus could still bellow. On his trip toward the sidewalk, he had one more chant: “No trespassing!”

Franko hopped back on stage for the end of “Pots and Pans.” The crowd cheered.

The string players launched into the last episode of “Part 1, The Adoration of the Earth,” which sounded like a different kind of chaos. A ferocious, extended roar came from the audience. The plan was to have an intermission, but they played through instead.

After the show, Franko said, “It seemed to go really well until Pleetus got in the way. Even when he pulled out the bullhorn, it was OK. Did you see him getting the boot?”

“We couldn’t see it,” Hermy said. “I think the audience thought he was part of the show!”

Olivia came up to compliment the band. Franko said he couldn’t find her until he came down to deal with the mess that Pleetus was making.

“I was sitting with the B’s father, and we were comforting Adolf. He was whimpering under the table because the music was so loud, poor thing,” Olivia said.

“Anyway, ‘Pots and Pans’ was fun, the ‘Prelude’ sounded like a real tune, I mean something better than the stuff I write. And the actual Igor parts blew my mind,” Franko said.

“For me, the douche with the bullhorn was the height of my evening,” Merk said.

“Hell no!” Hermy said. “The B’s were killin’ it.”

“Joke!” Merk said. “You B’s were great!”

Beth was about to say something, but Bri hushed her sister. “Don’t get worked up about people calling us B’s. Come on, just be cool. We got our names in the flier.” Bri approached Hermy, cuffed him on the upper arm and congratulated him on his solo: “The shit!”

Beth did a curtsy before Fletcher and said, “The first distorted electric-bass solo on a piece by Igor Stravinsky. Well done!”

“It wasn’t distorted, it was fuzzed. I like the ZVex fuzz pedal,” Fletcher said. 

“Well, oh, anyway, Igor should be here.”

Merk caught Fletcher and asked him, “Hey, about what Franko calls us, ‘The Futile.’ We aren’t futile anymore. How about ‘Franko and the Funktones’?”

“No, we must own our futility!” Fletcher shouted.

“Well, I’m not going on tour being called futile,” Merk said.

NEXT MONDAY

Franko never read the paper except when somebody tells him he’s in it. This time, Merk was the one to tell him. The fussy performing arts freelancer really slammed The Punk of Spring or The Rite of Punk. They got a good laugh.

Desecration of a hallowed imperative of the canon, not to be smeared with excrement by barbarians. “Pots and Pans”? Disgusting!

Hermy wrote in a text: “kinda like Pleetus, different POV”

Fletch weighed in: “excrement, cool!”

Normally, Franko ignored phone calls from people he didn’t know. A few minutes later, he listened to the voicemail. It was Jane Zhah, the music director of the Bristol Springs Symphony. He thought, another nasty review? I’m up for it! Franko immediately called back.

Zhah said she was in the Error Code Bar for The Punk of Spring or the Rite of Punk. After Franko’s sputtering, Zhah told Franko the symphony is always looking for innovative music from local and regional composers whose work could be arranged for the whole orchestra.

“We have a ‘Best of Bristol Springs’ evening every season. This process would require a great deal of work for you and your ensemble, me, and our concertmaster. I hadn’t made up my mind about next season,” she said, “but after last Friday night, I’m all in for The Punk of Spring or the Rite of Punk. How about you?”

—   —   —

Olivia, at her cubical, called Franko, still energized by his conversation with Jane Zhah. Olivia asked him to come downtown for lunch. “Pleetus is parked next to the office. He has a huge banner on the side of his pickup with our faces like those Instagrams. Everybody in the office can see it.” She sounded a little jittery.

When Franko showed up at the restaurant, he found her, elbows on the table, head in her hands. “Everybody in the office was looking out the big windows, snickering, shooting weird glances at me. I just want to unload a lot of crap from certain people making my life miserable.”

After a few minutes, she stood up and led the way out, emphasizing her need for a drink. “What’s this, a liquid lunch?” Franko asked. When they sat down at a nearby bar, Franko saw that Olivia was trying not to cry, and he decided not to hug her or touch her hand.

They cozied into a booth, and she ordered a double of Maker’s Mark. She was furious, tearing up a cocktail napkin into little balls.

“My boss fired me with a text. It said he couldn’t have bad publicity, ‘people like you here.’ Can you believe it?”

“You’ll be OK. You always wanted to be your own boss.” Franko was doing his level best not to look happy or say anything about the symphony thing.

“I would have laughed except for the humiliation, but instead I almost lost it,” she said.

He asked for a club soda with lime, and the server asked Olivia if she wanted another. Franko was surprised that she was already ready for another.

“One thing, maybe a strange thing to say: Wish my picture on the banner wasn’t so bad,” she said.

“It’s OK.”

“No, it really sucks!” She laughed.

After a third and a fourth and maybe more, Franko suggested they leave. He was concerned about what she might do next.

She said, “Well, what the fuck, screw them all!”

Later, back at the house, she calmed down. He insisted that she drink some water and eat something. Her mood soured even more.

“Mr. Franko Tucker, what did you do this fine day?” she said with a sneer.

“I ran into some friction with The Futile. They were disappointed that they didn’t get their pictures up on the banner. But I like mine.”

“You like it, do ya? I’m the only one who’s getting crapped on for this. All because of you!”

“How’s that?”

“Think about it,” she said, throwing Franko’s favorite coffee mug across the room, making a gash in the wall and scattering pieces on the floor. “I got fired, terminated, dumped — do you understand any one of those?”

“OK, OK, OK. My bad.” He moved toward her in hopes that he could prevent her from destroying something else.

Sitting on the carpet, she pulled her knees up to her chin. She said, “One good thing: You’ve been in the house for a whole week and you haven’t screamed and threatened me yet. That’s 1,000 percent better than Shithead.”

“I know it was all my fault. What can I do for you?”

“When I get some clients, you can clean homes before I put them on the market,” she said. “And sorry I smashed that mug. Oh, and Public Works found your laptop.”

SIX WEEKS LATER

Franko got busy that Thursday morning when he heard Olivia pounding stakes for a real-estate sign: Open House: Sunday 2-4. He started in the master bathroom where he expected the worst scum. It was his first cleaning job. The tub looked OK, basic white, but with every squirt of chlorine-based cleaner and each swipe of the non-abrasive scour pad, the tub got more gleaming than before. One problem about this project was that the vicious fumes irritated his eyes and throat. It wasn’t all that bad, but his fingers, palms and wrists were on fire. He wondered how his new side job would affect his guitar work.

At least he could listen to The Rite of Spring on Spotify blaring from his phone.

Franko was still working on the tub as his stomach suggested lunchtime. Thankfully, Olivia arrived just then with sandwiches. His hands had turned a rosy brilliancy.

“No gloves, no knee pads, no safety glasses?” she said. “I told you to go to Harbor Freight and get some gear. I even gave you cash to do that!”

“I didn’t think I needed gear, but I guess so.”

“Yeah, your hands are melting!”

“Not really.”

She scrounged through her bag. “Here, it’s shea butter. Spread some on and work it in.”

“Nice,” he said, but he didn’t like the smell of women’s stuff on him.

They went to the store and Olivia outfitted Franko with a pair of PVC-coated rubber gloves and construction-grade knee pads with foam padding.

“You’re treating me like a kid,” he said.

“No, I’m treating you like an adult, which you do not do for yourself,” she said. “Do you still have those five twenties?” Olivia selected the gear and placed it on the checkout counter, and Franko delivered the cash.

Back at the house, she gave Franko a two-liter bottle of Mountain Dew for the afternoon. Hermy dropped in to see the place and to see what Franko was doing. Olivia gave Hermy a tour that wrapped up in the master bathroom.

“Franko’s working hard, and so am I,” she said. “I got my LLC from the state and the crap from the IRS. I sold the 370Z. Boo-hoo! But I needed quick cash.”

Hermy announced to Olivia that they were doing The Punk of Spring project again in the fall and next year with the symphony.

“Yeah, that’s all I hear from Franko,” she said.

Franko had little to say. For the first time, he had a chance to simply enjoy her presence. Her shampoo or cologne reminded him of the scent of the shrubs on Pleetus’s lawn. The association made him feel good and bad at the same time. He understood this mess had been the best thing that ever happened and the worst, tied up in a series of unlikely events.

She said she’d be visiting a few people who might want to list their homes with her. She told Franko his job was to finish cleaning the house by the end of the next afternoon, in time for the open house.

After Olivia left, Hermy sat down. They jawed about music and women, and Hermy complained about his mom.

“True, but you’re suffering from whiny-baby syndrome,” Franko said. “And you’ll be going back to school soon.”

“And isn’t it bliss without any crap from Pleetus since the show — nothing!” Hermy said.

While Franko finished the bathroom, Hermy remarked on Olivia’s beauty and her excellent lawn signs that made her look even better. “She looks like Kylie Jenner.”

“Really?” Franko said: “No, she’s older and she’s an actual person.” Then he wandered into daydreaming. He took pride in not doing something stupid, such as making a move on her. He felt like he was somehow being a grown-up, and it felt weird.

When Olivia returned, she was at first annoyed to see Hermy still there, but she eased up when she saw that Franko had made progress. “So, you really do have some useful skills — beyond the guitar,” she said.

“That wasn’t very nice, but I can live with that,” Franko said. “What about Hermy: Shouldn’t he be held accountable, too? He was there at the beginning of the whole Pleetus episode.”

“You, Hermy: You’re just an accessory,” she said. Then she turned her attention back to Franko with a guarded frown. “You’re the guy doing community service.”


BIO

Ed Peaco wrote numerous short stories in the ’80s, ’90s and early aughts. Then he took a different path as a writer for the regional newspaper where he lives, focusing on local music. This story fuses his interests in short fiction and music. He continues to write short fiction where he lives in Springfield, Missouri.
A few notes —
• Another story by Peaco is scheduled to be published in 2021: “Additional Guests” in The MacGuffin.
• “Systematic Desensitization”: Alabama Literary Review, Vol. 5, No. 1, 1991; and Santa Fe Writers Project fiction contest, 2002, posting among the best 65 entries
• “The Precarious Limb”: River Oak Review, Winter 2000-Spring ’01; and a reading of the piece, June 2002, Evanston (Ill.) Public Library
• Book reviews for the Antioch Review, 1996-2004




STAY IN TOUCH