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Mr. Whiskey, the Greatest of All

by Evelyn Somers

 

“For he keeps the Lord’s watch in the night against the adversary.
For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.
For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.”

—Christopher Smart
from Jubilate Agno

 

 

Isaac Martin stopped on his way to his dad’s house to pick up the mail. It was his first trip back home to Covington in two months. Winter had slithered away after one last, limp snow, and the grass-tufted tarp of spring was being drawn greenly over the yards in one fluid, fast motion. School would end in three weeks. He had been living in a church homeless shelter in University City, singing in their praise band in exchange for his lodging, and trying to complete his classes remotely, ever since he’d gotten arrested and thrown in jail (first) and kicked off campus (later) for an absurd dorm dispute with a fellow music major, a psycho Maltese percussionist named Den. In the end, the prosecutor said the arrest was ridiculous, and there had been no charges, but Big State U had not welcomed Isaac back. They’d sealed his future with a bogus investigation, and now he was trying to figure out what to do. He felt terrible for losing all his scholarships and ruining his future; though he still didn’t know what he’d done wrong. His sister, Jasmyn, said it was all about money and influence; but it was not just that, and they each knew it. They’d known it since he was nine and Jasmyn was fifteen. Something was right on them, tearing up their family. It wasn’t just him it was after. It was Jasmyn, and his dad. And most tragically, their mother, Adrianna. It had started when she was killed nine years ago. When his dad took to building his barricade and hoarding cats. Sometimes it seemed like only the band teacher, Mr. Wright, was on their side. But whenever Isaac thought this, he remembered St. Tamzin and imagined she was their side, too. Tamzin: a celestial agent of sometimes quixotic benevolence who seemed to reside mainly in and around Covington. Everyone knew about her, and some people called her “St. Tamzin,” though she wasn’t a real saint. No one was quite sure what she was. In fact, most people weren’t sure she existed, but they were afraid to disavow belief and lose her goodwill. Her arch-enemy, from the dawn of time—or, at least, from way, way back—was a she-devil evil bitch-spirit named Mary Black. Mary Black was the “something” that had been tearing up the Martins for years.

The mailbox was an antique cast-iron Victorian postbox that Randall, Isaac’s father, a scrapper by trade, had liberated from a condemned old mansion. The ornate box had a decorative medallion that looked like two lions facing each other, stirring kettle of apple butter. It was mounted on a pressure-treated pine post set out at the end of the driveway. The letter carrier couldn’t get to the Martins’ door because of Randall’s scrap blockade: a barrier of metal bits and appliances that he had picked up and hauled here. Stuff he could have made money off of, if he’d sold it instead of building the blockade. But no one would want the scrap now, and no one tried to steal it, because the cats had coated it with their spray.

Isaac had to juggle his pack and his trombone to get the mail. There was nothing that looked important in the box: a postcard advertisement for high-speed Internet. Then he saw that there was a real postcard stuck to the ad. Isaac had to peel the two cards apart. He gasped when he looked at the second card, the real one. It was addressed to his mother: “Adrianna Martin, Blue House, Pink Elephant Lane, Covington.” No house number. Pink Elephant was an actual road. There was not a blue house there that Isaac could think of, however, and his mother had never to his knowledge lived on Pink Elephant, though she had died there. Who the hell would play such a creepy joke?

But the stranger and creepier thing about the postcard was that his mother’s name and the first address had been crossed out, and above them was written, “No such person anymore.” Then underneath, the new direction, which was to “Mr. Whiskers c/o Randall Martin.” It was the Martins’ street address. There could be no mistake. Yet something about the writing: it was totally readable, but Isaac had not seen writing quite like it anywhere. Just looking at it made his skin prickle. Mr. Whiskers c/o Randall Martin

Mr. Whiskers was his father’s favorite cat.

The picture on the postcard, from the Roman catacombs (cat a combs?), was creepy too: a mountain of skulls in a dank, rock-lined subterranean chamber. The handwritten message, in fine-point marker in the same unusual writing, was on the front, across the photo of the skulls, not on the back, where it should be. It read “To My Darling Mr. Whiskers: ‘What you are now, we once were. What WE are now, YOU will be.’” As if the skulls themselves were speaking. It was signed “Your friend, counselor, and eternal lover,” with eternal darkly underlined.

Isaac read this again with a sensation he’d become very familiar with lately: a sensation that hovered between anger and disbelief. A creepy, anonymous postcard dredging up his mother’s death and threatening the cat? It was the last straw. One of many, since his arrest in February. Jasmyn said that depression was when everything felt like the last straw and your anger never left, just traded places with sadness, back and forth. He had never been depressed before, but she was exactly right. For a girl with only a high school diploma, whose main claim to notice was her breasts, she could startle them all with her wisdom. She’d inherited some of that from their mother, who’d been poor but country smart. The rest had come when she’d gone up on a pillar on the Big State U campus for weeks and become a pillar saint, denying her earthly self so Isaac could receive justice (it hadn’t worked).

He pushed his backpack up on his shoulder and headed for the scrap blockade. Randall had erected the scrap blockade just over onto the county side of their property so the city could not fine them. The blockade guarded the house, such as it was, and the Martins’ possessions, which amounted to nothing. And the cats, numbering a steady fifty. Their census should have waxed and waned: coyotes lurked in the brush, waiting to pick off the old ones. Hawks and owls wheeled above, peering down with accute raptor vision and waiting with infinite patience for the plump kitten that strayed too far from the clowder. Yet no cat was taken. They were not immortal entirely—the old ones died eventually of natural causes, and there were the usual fatal accidents and diseases—but some invisible entity guarded them from predators, at least.

You could cross the scrap line anywhere, but in and around the array of dead dishwashers and piles of old aluminum downspouts and barn roofing were lengths of two-by pried off old houses and barns, nails still poking through, ready to stab a foot. Isaac didn’t chance it. The “gate,” which sat between a heap of guttering to the rear and an overturned washer body in front, was a 1977 blue soft-top Chevy Nova on blocks. He opened the passenger door and got in. There was a terrible, gagging stench. It wasn’t cat pee—it was much worse. He scooted quickly across the seat to the driver’s side to get away from the stench and got out into the piss-smelling yard. That smell, the pee, he could tolerate.

Randall had left several days’ mail on the car’s dash, so Isaac grabbed it as he scooted and added it to the postcards. Before closing the door quickly, to seal in the unbearable odor, he leaned in and gave the horn three quick toots and was immediately swarmed by cats. Tabbies and piebalds and calicos and tortiseshells: they acted starved, though they just wanted attention. Soon more came: a mewling, leg-rubbing sea. When they saw where he was going, they set up a raucous meowing and followed him as he crossed the dirt yard. On the porch, in an old Shop-Vac drum—just the drum, no motor or or hose—a half-grown gray kitten peered over the rim to watch the tide of cats moving toward the porch. Next to the vacuum drum was a white wicker rocker with four cats piled asleep in the seat. They woke and cried drowsily at Isaac. The cats pooled and parted around him at the steps, trained to stay outside. He went up the steps, pushed gently on the front door, and found it unlatched.

Inside, Randall was standing in the middle of the living room eating Wheat Chex. Isaac was accustomed now to community meals at the shelter. He’d forgotten Randall’s solitary art of eating, another habit that had developed after Adrianna died: Gaze into space with a hollow stare. Hum and gulp and commune with the soul of . . . what? He was somewhere else; that was all Isaac knew. Like he was hearing a voice no one could hear but him. Not that they didn’t all sometimes hear voices. It seemed to be congenital among the Martins. Perhaps that was why Tamzin always hovered so near: they needed protection from the bad ones.

The cereal bowl was cracked and chipped. Some milk leaked from the corner of Randall’s mouth, a thick, ivory droplet. Evaporated milk from the food pantry. Randall poured it on the cereal without reconstituting it. Isaac had grown up with this. He used to think it was cream. Randall put it on noodles, too.

“You’re dribbling, Dad,” said Isaac. “And that bowl needs to be thrown away.”

“It’s fine. My dribbling—it’s fine, too. No worse than your trombone spit,” said Randall. He didn’t smile or greet Isaac, even though they hadn’t seen each other in months. He just hummed and finished the Wheat Chex. Then he set the cracked bowl on the coffee table, which was half a door from an old schoolhouse on iron hairpin legs. The knob was still on the door, and Randall used it as a cap holder.

“Why the bone?” he said, nodding at the trombone case.

“I have to practice. And I didn’t want to leave it.”

“Didn’t they kick you out of that place?”

“Yes. No. Not until May. I get to finish the semester. Jasmyn says they won’t risk a lawsuit by expelling me. She says they’ve perfected the art of the legally unimpeachable screw. The lawyer says so, too. Where’s Mr. Whiskers? There’s a postcard for him.”

“Don’t shit me.”

“And something from the vet clinic.”

“It’s his path-ology,” said Randall. “Why do you think I left it in the Nova? I’d rather not know he has cancer.”

Just then, Mr. Whiskers padded into the room, tail thrashing. They’d had him since his kittenhood, when Randall had found him, malnourished and near death, curled up hiding in the engine of an old wreck he was hauling. In the months before she died, Adrianna had fed him formula and brought him back. Later he’d lived mostly outdoors, until Randall had singled him out as a companion when Adrianna died. It was Mr. Whiskers who’d started the outdoor cats pissing on the scrap blockade, and the other cats kept doing it after he moved inside.

He was a truly handsome animal: a gray tuxedo cat, with four white paws, a white “shirtfront,” and a dashing white half-mustache above his mouth. The rest was a deep charcoal. He groomed religiously, and his short, sleek fur was thick and shining. His eyes were full-on green, and he had unusually long white whiskers (the occasion for his name) and eyebrows. His face and nose were long and noble. He wore a perpetual frown and would not tolerate fools or other cats; thus he was the only cat allowed inside. He walked with a sassy strut, and though he had been neutered, his ballsack remained prominent. Nevertheless, he had the dignity of a creature who has traded copulating in the bushes for higher pursuits. His tail and eyes were insanely expressive. The former twitched and switched like a whip; you always knew Mr. Whiskers was feeling deeply when the tail went into action. The eyes were almost human. When he was annoyed, they grew dark and unforgiving. When he was hungry or wanted attention, he stood on his hind legs, paws on your knee supporting him at full stretch, and gazed up into your face, commanding and imploring you. He was like a person in a cat body. In Randall’s estimation, he was the smartest cat ever made.

He was also a biter. Right now, seeing Isaac, he gave a high, wicked meow, flew at Isaac, and bit his ankle.

“Ow!” yelled Isaac and swatted him away.

Isaac had never taken to Mr. Whiskers. For a cat, he was full of dislikes and far too quick to bite, but he had to admit that Mr. Whiskers was very, very smart and loaded with personality. For a cat.

“He looks like he’s gotten thinner, Dad.”

“I been feeding him wet food and lard. He loves his lard. But I knew something was wrong, so Jasmyn took him last week.”

“Do you want me to open this?” said Isaac, pulling out the letter from the clinic.

“In a minute. What’s that postcard?”

Isaac showed him. Randall read it without his cheaters. His eyes were good for a man in his late fifties. For just a second he looked destroyed, and his face crumpled. Isaac wondered if he would cry. He’d never seen Randall cry. “I don’t understand why everything got turned so bad and why—”

“What?” said Isaac.

“Never mind,” said Randall. He took the envelope from Isaac and opened it and skimmed the pathology report. He looked down at Mr. Whiskers, who was lying flat on his side on the rug. “He’s been lying like that lately. I think he has a tumor in his belly.”

He showed the report to Isaac. Isaac read the dread word: Lymphoma. They had the cat’s name misspelled, and all through the report the pathologist referred to “Mr. Whiskey.” Mr. Whiskey presented with lethargy, shifting lameness, and reduced appetite. On physical exam Mr. Whiskey had enlarged peripheral lymph nodes (under the jaw, and by the hamstrings). CBC revealed increased WBC count (36,000 ref. range 5,500-19,500), mature neutrophilia and moderate lymphocytosis. Abdominal ultrasound of Mr. Whiskey shows many enlarged mesenteric lymph nodes throughout abdomen…

 

Jasmyn had had $4200 saved from her job at the nursing home for a Ford Escape, but she’d used most of it to pay for Isaac’s lawyer, and there were several weeks of lost wages from going up on the pillar to be a saint. And now Mr. Whiskers needed vet care, and she’d end up paying for it. But she didn’t say anything. She took Isaac back to the shelter the following Monday so he could focus on his homework and meet his teachers for lessons and his accompanist to rehearse. Before she dropped him off, they went together to the vet with Mr. Whiskers. Randall would not come. The vet had him down as “Mr. Whiskey” in the chart. “We have pretty good results with steroids. Mr. Whiskey would probably have another six months if we do that. With chemo, you’ll have maybe a year and a half,” said the vet. Steroids were $20 for three months. Chemo would cost more than the lawyer, and the cat would have to come back for treatments every week. It was a no-brainer, but Isaac felt sad. The sadness had traded places with anger. If Randall were there, he might have figured a way to barter for the chemo, but Jasmyn, who possessed many skills, lacked that touch.

“We’ll try the steroids,” said Jasmyn, and they were given a pill bottle. The tech had referenced the pathology report while writing the script; or maybe the vet clinic had him in the system wrong, and the bottle label, like the report, said “Mr. Whiskey.”

When Jasmyn pulled into the church lot to drop Isaac off, he asked if she wanted to come in and see his bunk.

“I don’t think so, Icey. I’m so mad about this every day of my life. You’re so smart and good; you’re just different, and no one gets it. I wish Mom were here.

“Does she ever talk to you?” said Isaac. He’d wondered more than once if Jasmyn had seen her when she went up on the pillar and denied herself.

“Does she talk to you?” Jasmyn asked quickly.

“You’re the one who stood on a pillar for weeks and hardly ate anything. You didn’t hear any voices?”

They’d both forgotten about Mr. Whiskers, in his Pet Taxi in the backseat, but now he mewed demandingly.

“Did you?”

Jasmyn said, “I heard things. It’s not what you think up there. I can’t tell you about it.

“Why not?”

“I just can’t. It was pretty rough.”

 

He went back home the next weekend to check on his dad. Mr. Whiskers looked thinner, but that didn’t make him any happier to see Isaac or the trombone. He streaked away when Isaac came in the front door.

But then, a few minutes later, he was hanging outside the living room doorway, waiting to ambush whoever stepped through. Eventually he gave up the ambush and simply strutted in, emitted his spine-tingling apha cat yodel, and bit Isaac’s shoe.

Randall didn’t say much, but he seemed hopeful. The veterinary supply company in the next county that sold him all the vaccine for the cats (in a hauling-for-meds barter, of which Isaac only knew the vague outlines) had given him a case of high-calorie gel. It came in tubes and smelled and looked like sticky fish toothpaste. Mr. Whiskers tried to run away from it, but once you forced him to confront a spoonful of the translucent, tobacco-colored gel, he was mesmerized and compelled by some irresistible quality of the gel to lick, lick, until he cleaned the spoon. Then he worked the stuff around in his mouth like a baby eating a ball of caramel.

“They say it’s a miracle paste,” said Randall. “If he gets fat again, I’ll believe them. It makes him hungrier, anyway. I doubled his lard, and he hasn’t puked it up.”

While Isaac was home, he borrowed Jasmyn’s car and drove out to the high school so Mr. Wright could listen to the pieces he was preparing for juries next week. Mr. Wright looked like he always did. He was balder, and he was growing a spotty beard. He was closer to forty than thirty now, and his wife, Ms. Figueroa, the former assistant band teacher, had just had a baby. First he hugged Isaac. Then he showed him a secondhand tuba in good condition that the band had bought recently. Isaac tried out the tuba. Then Mr. Wright showed him a picture of the baby—a red-haired girl named Veronica. He sang part of the Elvis Costello song about shouting and stealing clothes and the Empress of India. He acted like he always did, which made Isaac want to cry.

“All right, let’s hear you play,” he said, and Isaac got out his trombone and played the two pieces he was preparing, and a third, something he’d been messing around with.

“Wait. What is that? Did you write that?” said Mr. Wright.

“Yes. It’s only a little part. I think it’s going to be a symphony.”

“Man,” said Mr. Wright. “Look at you. Someone knocks you down, and you just get up and compose yourself.”

Isaac looked at him. “Did you really just say that?”

They both started laughing, and they were still laughing when one of the senior clarinets came in with a sack of belated Easter candy and offered them Peeps. Isaac grabbed one and ate it. He felt joy. This was joy. It was like things had always been here, in the band room, where he could imagine that something awful wasn’t eating their family. Isaac whooped and took another Peep and devoured it headfirst, little dot eyes and all, and Mr. Wright, smiling still, delighted to have him back, said, “What did she used to say? Roach-turd eyes?”

Isaac froze in mid chew.

Mr. Wright backpedaled. “I know someone who used to call them that. One of my cousins.”

He was lying. He’d meant Isaac’s mother, and there was no reason he would know what Adrianna used to say about Peeps unless they had spent time together privately, laughed together like he and Mr. Wright had just been doing. His mother was thirty-three when she died, and Jasmyn was fifteen. His dad was a fifty-year-old scrapper who even then was poor and not entirely on the planet. Mr. Wright was twenty-six and single. Isaac realized he had known about his mother and Mr. Wright without knowing. He remembered that Mr. Wright had been nice to him long before he was Isaac’s teacher. He had come to her funeral, and Isaac hadn’t wondered why. He was nine then. He didn’t think about why adults did anything: Mr. Wright had been Jasmyn’s band teacher at the time; it seemed to be reason enough.

Back at the church homeless shelter, he started a list of questions in one of his small notebooks that he used to organize his life and make sense of things. He kept the list with him when he was doing homework and wrote things down as they came to him:

Who sent the postcard to Mr. Whiskers?

Why did Den the psycho Maltese percussionist lie about me?

Was there ever a blue house on Pink Elephant?

Did my mother love Mr. Wright?

 

He finished his music history paper on the Ukrainian dumy, a kind of oral folk epic that in centuries past was performed by men who were disabled, or who apprenticed out as teenagers from poor families who couldn’t afford to help them. Isaac could relate. He went home again the next weekend. Five days until juries. His notebook was in his trombone case. Home felt different now that he knew he was probably never coming back to stay.

When he went through the Chevy gate and tooted the horn, the pee smell flooded his nostrils and cats swarmed him as they always did. It was feeding time, , and they flew away at a gallop when Randall came out on the porch with the food bucket. He walked around the side of the house to the retaining wall and poured a continuous string of cat chow along the top of the wall. The cats ran to it and lined up and ate; tails high, tails low. Fifty of them. So many that you could hear them crunching and purring from yards away.

His father saw him but didn’t wave. Isaac followed him inside and set his ’bone in the hallway. Mr. Whiskers sashayed toward him with a hint of unsteadiness. He was, in just a week, starting to look more like a Flat Stanley cat. Randall had gone in the kitchen, and he came back with a plate of tuna, biscuit crumbles, and lard. He sat and petted Mr. Whiskers in the hall while the cat ate. His callused scrapper hands were large and clumsy, stroking the cat’s side. Every one of the cat’s ribs showed, where his hands pressed the fur. Randall was talking softly. At first Isaac couldn’t catch what he was saying, it was so soft. But then he got used to the cadence, and his ears picked it up “You are the greatest of all. The greatest cat. Mr. Whiskers, you are the greatest of all. There will never be another cat as great as you.”

How could the father he knew be talking to a cat this way, crooning in its ear? The big hands ran over the thin ribs; and when Mr. Whiskers turned away, leaving the food only half finished, Randall picked him up as if he were made of fine blown glass. Mr. Whiskers put his face up to Randall’s and nuzzled him again and again. Randall crooned and Mr. Whiskers nuzzled. Neither of them acknowledged Isaac’s presence. It was love.

Love.

Quietly Isaac unlatched the case and slipped out the notebook and added My dad loves Mr. Whiskey, the Greatest of All, but he’s going to die to his notes.

 

Then his juries were over. They went as well as they could, given that he was depressed and technically homeless. He got all A’s. He didn’t think any of them were out of pity. His affiliation with Big State U was ended forever, and the future was muddy and clod-filled as a newly plowed field after a soaking rain. He could go home to Covington, help Randall pick up scrap. He could work at the bottle factory. He could finish his symphony, but what then? Who would perform it? He had no mentor to connect him with composing connections, no program to support him. Maybe he could start giving music lessons; but he wasn’t sure who would take them. He was not good with kids and had trouble talking to people; he made them uncomfortable. He was not antisocial; he just always felt how much he was out of place. He was not Mr. Wright, who everyone loved.

He decided to stay at the church homeless shelter for a while. There was no time limit for how long he could stay, so long as he helped with the music, and it was depressing to go home and see Mr. Whiskers wasting away. Each time, he was thinner, but Randall was in denial, munching cereal or noodles with Pet milk, humming his communion with the unseen whatever, nuzzling the paper-thin cat and saying that he was looking better, when the cat’s eye had begun to weep and he’d taken to pissing wherever he wanted, all over the house. Mr. Whiskers’s white shirtfront was getting dingy, and he slept twenty-three hours a day and then staggered up and picked at the tuna and lard; he wooled the fishy gel around in his mouth and smacked his gums sadly. His eyes were no less human, though, and you could see that he wanted to be himself and was trying to; his tumor-ridden body just wasn’t cooperating with his desire.

One night after Jasmyn took Isaac back to the shelter and he was lying in his bed, he started thinking about Adrianna and Mr. Wright and his father and the affair that must have happened when he was in second or third grade. He sat up and grabbed his notebook and wrote: All the adults I know have hidden pasts and secret selves, even the ones who are dead. Then he realized that he was an adult, too. My secret self is right here, he wrote. Meaning the notebook, but it was in his symphony, too.

Later that week, in Wednesday night worship at the church, they were singing a song that Isaac did not like because the lyrics were so overblown yet dirgelike. Isaac suddenly couldn’t stand to sing anymore. He kept seeing the cat’s human eyes, looking at him, pleading, in silent cat language, “I don’t want to feel like this. I want to strut around and bite you and be king of the cats, the Greatest of All. Please make this stop happening to me.”

He stopped singing. It took a while for people to notice. They kept on, the pastor playing lead guitar, the worshipers, some of them genuine homeless, all singing, and the other vocalists doing the harmonies, so into it that Isaac’s ceasing went unobserved. And now Isaac could hear another voice, inaudible to everyone but him. It gave him a terrible chill and made him think about the creepy postcard addressed to Mr. Whiskers. And about what Jasmyn had said: that she’d heard things on the pillar that she couldn’t talk about.

 

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
I will harm them, yes I will:
I’ll make them suffer, all.

Each little flow’r that opens,
Each little bird that sings,
I’ll ‘viscerate their colors,
and rip their tiny wings.

 

Who are you? Isaac thought; and in answer he heard, like an intruder in his mind, Ask your friend Mr. Whiskey. Ask your dead mommy. Ask your sister with the big tits. She thinks she figured me out up on that pillar and has me defeated, but she’ll be sorry. Ask Mr. Wright. Ask his sweet little baby Veronica. Ta-ta, Isaac! We’ll meet again, don’t worry.

The next morning he told everyone at the homeless shelter that he had to go home, his father needed him. He called Jasmyn, and she came and picked him up in a 2014 Escape.

“How did you get this?” he asked.

“How else? Dad,” she said. “He made some kind of deal for the down payment, and I can manage the rest.”

“What did he have left to trade?”

“Cats?” said Jasmyn.

They both laughed. But then Isaac had to tell her why he was coming home, and what he’d heard, the shrill singing that had chilled his blood. To her credit, Jasmyn believed him. “It’s Mary Black,” she said.

“I’ve got to warn Mr. Wright to watch his baby.”

But she just changed the subject. This frightened him because she must not understand how serious it was. She turned up the radio and would not say anything until they hit Covington. She took the long way around from the highway, and down Pink Elephant—and there was a blue house. It had been there all along; it was back from the road, amid a snarl of trees.

“Did you ever notice that house?” he said, pointing it out to Jasmyn.

“That’s where Mom died,” she said, and Isaac was silent after that.

They stopped at the back gate of the scrap line—it went all around their property on the county side. Isaac got out and opened it, and Jasmyn drove in, and he pushed it shut and wired it—it was a steel panel of barn roofing fastened on either side with a web of wire. It smelled redolently—the cats had even peed here.

Once the gate was secured and Isaac got back in, she turned to him. “Mary Black can’t get through the scrap line. She can’t hear us now, either. I don’t know why. I don’t think Dad even knows that’s why he built it. Maybe Saint Tamzin was talking to him, the way Mary Black was singing to you. Anyway, don’t tell Mr. Wright the thing about his baby, Icey. I’ve got this. But you can’t tell him.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Just don’t. Don’t. Trust me. His baby is okay. You asked me what happened on top of the pillar. Stuff happened. But I can’t tell you. Just trust me. I’ve got this.”

“What are you talking about?” he repeated. “What do you have?”

“Icey, I’ve just got this. Don’t ask me anything else. I can’t help Mr. Whiskers because Mary Black was after Dad, and she knew it would devastate him if the cat got sick and died. And maybe cats don’t count because they don’t have souls or something. But you and I have some protection, as long as we come back here every once in a while. There’s something here, inside the blockade that stops her. As long as we touch the ground here every so often, it seems like we take enough of it with us to keep her away.”

“Mr. Whiskey doesn’t have a soul?”

“I don’t know. He’s a cat.” Jasmyn obviously wasn’t interested in the question; she seemed more concerned about making sure Isaac wouldn’t talk to Mr. Wright. So he said he understood, which he did, up to a point.

But he avoided promising, and she didn’t notice.

 

Jasmyn was living in a duplex with two roommates and trying to save money, but going up on the pillar had changed her, and sometimes she showed up at Randall’s house for no reason and stayed for as much as a week. Isaac was staying there for the short term, singing for funerals at a hundred dollars a pop and practicing trombone and working on the symphony as much as he could. Mr. Wright had helped him start looking into other schools and said he shouldn’t worry about money yet; just see how things went. He decided to sit out a year and take some classes at the community college. He was delivering for Pizza Casa, using Jasmyn’s old car.

They’d all underestimated how long and valiantly a cat with lymphoma could live, how much of him could waste away and he would still be Mr. Whiskers. Randall built plywood steps to everything: even to the sink so the cat could nose around and lick the dishes if he felt like it (he didn’t). Six months passed, and he was still kicking. Then eight, then ten. Every morning when Isaac got up and came out of his room, Mr. Whiskers carefully climbed down the plywood steps from Randall’s bed and scratched at the bedroom door, and Isaac let him into the hall and he ran downstairs, white hocks flashing. How could he even run? There was nothing left. Then Isaac took him in the kitchen and got an energy drink for himself and plied Mr. Whiskers with bits of bacon, salami, butter, mayonnaise: a fatty smorgasbord. The cat would dig in for a few bites, then lose interest and wobble away. If you’d had x-ray vision, you would know that Mr. Whiskers’s bony pelvic girdle was shaped like a fearsome horned mask with two wide, rounded eyes set low, and a vast forehead below the horns. In the center of this massive forehead of bone were two perforations: a pair of angels or winged demons facing each other, bowed in prayer or secret powow. From behind, when Mr. Whiskers walked disdainfully away from his food, these same large bones of his hips jutted side to side in a way that made him look like a stately ship. He wore his imminent death with dignity; but his eyes still held that plea.

The morning came when Isaac got up and let Mr. Whiskers out and he ran with a staggering trot downstairs and would not touch his food at all. “Did you give him his pill last night?” Isaac asked, after Randall came in from feeding the cats and checking the scrap blockade.

Randall nodded distractedly. Someone had left a message on his cell about a refrigerator, and he was trying to figure out who it was.

“He wouldn’t eat at all, Dad,” said Isaac.

Randall shook his head and wouldn’t talk about it. Soon he went off to get the fridge. Isaac went out on the porch and warmed up his voice. All the cats disliked hearing him sing, and they acted out by sauntering over to the blockade and spraying. Then he heard the clang of the barn sheeting being moved around, and soon Jasmyn, who had worked night shift, drove up. He told her about the cat, and they went in and found him lying on the piano bench, sleeping in a way that was new in the last few days: a sleep of resignation and escape, in which he seemed to be pulling away from everything, but especially the pain of his tumors, which must have turned a corner in intensity.

“Poor Mr. Whiskers,” said Jasmyn. “We don’t let them go through this at the nursing home; we just pump morphine into them,” she told Isaac.

She stayed around while Isaac went and did the lunch shift at the Pizza Casa. When he came back, Randall was home. He was sitting in the front room with Jasmyn.

“We set a date,” Jasmyn told Isaac. “It’s next Wednesday.”

That was four days away. Isaac didn’t ask how Jasmyn had made this happen. “Are you going with him?” he asked his father.

“I can’t. Your sister will take him. She says he’s suffering and that we can’t watch him starve to death.” Randall picked up the cat and carried him out.

“Which do you think she wants more? For him to suffer? Or to die?” Isaac asked his sister. They both knew he meant Mary Black.

“I hope I’m right,” she said. “Because if I’m not, and it’s death . . .”

“Will he go to heaven?”

“I don’t know.”

“Mom won’t recognize him. The last time she saw him, he was a kitten,” said Isaac.

“Icey, it’s not actually like that. But it is kind of. I didn’t understand everything I saw on the pillar.”

She added, “I didn’t see Mom.”

 

The last day of Mr. Whiskers’ life, he woke and his bones ached, and the tumors in his throat and stomach gave him excruciating pain if he swallowed and made it impossible to eat without everything burning inside him.

But later the pain lessened. He nuzzled Randall, and for the first time in a while, it didn’t hurt when he was picked up and carried. He had always loved being carried. It was still winter, technically, but the day had turned out to be springlike. The boy who sometimes made a racket with the horn went off and came home smelling like pizza, and it woke his appetite for a second, and he ate some ham, and a few bits of salmon. Then the girl came, who smelled like her mother who’d fed him when he was a baby, and he knew what was going to happen. Tamzin, who watched over all the cats and fought the raptors away, and the dogs and coyotes, had whispered the knowledge into him. “Mr. Whiskers, I made you and now I am unmaking you. Seed to cat, to corse to earth.” He was going to the mother. The mother of the girl, but also the Mother of all.

The boy and the girl and Randall, whom he loved with the greatest love of any cat for any man ever, took him outside. He didn’t know why, but he was the greatest of all, and he had been placed in the engine of a car, where Randall had found him. He didn’t remember how he got there. Just that he was hungry and knew he was dying, but the man picked him up and carried him home, and he didn’t die. He was the first of many, many cats, and after the mother died, and the man started building his wall of metal, Tamzin had told him to piss on it. So he’d pissed and pissed, and taught the other cats to piss there, too. The more cats there were, the more they pissed on it. Mr. Whiskers had taught them, and they passed the knowledge from generation to generation, up to twelve generations (cat generations are short).

Outside now, he trotted a bit, listing to one side. He ate a piece of grass and looked into one of the window wells by the side of the house. The day was strange and new. He was weak, but Tamzin helped him explore.

The scrap blockade was a thing of beauty. Only he knew the secret. She could not abide cat piss. Not even the most imperceptible whiff of it,  picked up on a shoe or a car tire, while crossing the barrier. They were safe here because the cats had sprayed the barrier, every last inch, and Mary Black would not cross a line of cat piss to hunt a man, though she had gotten to Mr. Whiskers long before, when he was still in the car engine, planting a little seed of death.

It was a long way, but he did his best to saunter to the nearest point.  He walked past the pine tree that the woman had planted. Past a mole hill. (Why were the other cats not taking care of these moles?) Past a beetle coming to life in the warmth. He felt the instinct to chase it, but he was too weak.

He was tired when he got to the blockade. But determined.

Then he turned and backed up to it and sprayed with everything that was in him, to remind the others they had a job to do.

All the cats on the property, wherever they were, looked up.

“I’m the greatest of all,” he meowed to them.

The Pet Taxi was on the porch, but he disdained to look at it. He was looking at Randall, the man he loved.  Will I know you when I see you again? he asked.

Randall was asking the same thing at the same time.

“What do you think? Of course you will!” called Tamzin (but she was just a spirit, so none of them heard), perceiving Mr. Whiskers’s meow and glancing down for a second from where she’d been swatting away a hawk with its eye on a thin gray cat that was walking, very slowly, back to the house.

 

 

 

BIO

Evelyn Somers is the longtime associate editor of the Missouri Review and teaches writing and literature. She also serves as a staff writer for Bloom. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Georgia Review, Crazyhorse, the Millions, Florida Review, Southwest Review, South Dakota Review, Shenandoah, the Collagist, and Potomac Review, among many others. Her work in progress is a novel-in-stories about music, magic, and two warring female divinities.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

Invitations

by Kobina Wright

 

 

October 19th was thirteen days away.  After verifying that Marssarah Rabbat, known as March, had no plans, Bali Favre, decided to gather a few friends for March’s birthday.  Bali had initially planned for it to take place at her house, but it was the day after her gray morning, though she no longer felt the energy sucking dread of it, Bali felt a gnaw at the ragged tail of her mind and asked March, if she minded a change of venue.  March was thrilled, until she remembered Bren’s Sunday night meltdown.  Maybe meltdown was too strong a word, but there was definitely a waddling cycloptic attitude.

“If you don’t mind, run it by Bren before you set this in stone.  She was offended we didn’t invite her to Roman Sports Bar and Grill on Sunday.”  March was on her cell phone in the breakroom at her coffee shop, Steaming Mug.

March glanced up at the clock on the wall in front of her and then out through the small window that allowed her to watch her two employees tend to a short line of customers.  It was the time where morning rush was slowing to a trickle as break-time approached.

“Seriously?  She has to be invited to everything you do?”  Bali was standing at her bathroom mirror applying eyeshadow, then eyeliner with one hand.

“So… I think she’s under the impression that all my friends are her friends too.”

“Really…”

“Oh yeah.  Sunday night when I got home she was all pissy.  Yesterday, she acted like she was so busy she didn’t have time to speak to me.  Not that I care…”  The line was growing in the coffee shop.  The young woman, at the cash register, glanced over and observed March on the phone through the tiny window.  The woman raised an eyebrow and smirked.

“Wow.  Okay.  I’ll call her.  Get her permission to have your friends over to your house for your birthday.”

“Thanks lady.  I’d do it myself, but the line here is almost out the door.”

Bali examined herself for a time in the mirror.  She felt the breath of the troll in her head about to criticize her, so instead of waiting for it to speak, took two steps back from the mirror; tugged at her blouse; patted her butt through her jeans; grabbed her phone and walked away.  She dialed March’s landline.  Bren picked up on the second ring.

“Bali!”

“Hello Bren.  Glad I caught you.”  Bali slid her ten painted masterpieces into a pair of four-inch black suede booties.

In an unlit closet, Bali stretched on tiptoes to the high shelf above her clothes rack for her Mark Cross, python tote.   She tossed the empty handbag onto the bed and retrieved her full butter soft, milk chocolate leather handbag from the chaise near her bedroom window.  She picked up a bath towel from the floor and spread it onto the bed.

“Well, I called because I’d like to host a little shin-dig over there for March’s birthday.  It’s nothing fancy and it’s not a surprise.  I just got the ‘ok’ from March a minute ago, and wanted to call to make sure you’re cool with it.”

There was pause.

“You’re asking my permission?”

“Yes.”

“It’s March’s house…”

Bali thought, yes, girl, I know…  I don’t think you should have any say in the matter either… but to Bren she said, “You live there too, Bren.  I just wanted us all to be on the same page.”

Bali dumped the contents of the milk chocolate leather bag onto the towel and sorted through the contents.  Only the essentials would be invited into the python tote, which was a third of the size.

“Am I invited?”

“Of course you’re invited.  Bring your boyfriend, Alvin.  It should be fun!”  Bali could sense Bren’s eyes rocketing happiness, a cascade of glittery light.

“Okay!  Yeah, we should totally have it here.  We should make it a big party.  She’s got a ton of friends…”

“No.”  Bali stopped the content transfer between the two purses.  “Nothing big.  This will be a small intimate gathering.  Nothing more.”

Another pause.

Bali’s firmness startled Bren.  “Sure.  That makes sense.  A small party will make it special.  Who needs all that work planning a big party anyway, right?”

Bali didn’t dislike Bren, but hovered in a magnetic field in which Bren both annoyed and concerned her.  Bali noticed the widening of Bren’s eyes when Bali was near.  She saw the plastered benevolent smile, lips twitching ready to laugh at Bali’s smallest witticism.  Bren was too old for that – but there it was, posted on every corner of interaction.

She softened her tone. “What are you doing today?  I think I might try to find March’s birthday gift.  You wanna come with?”

“Aw!  I wish I would’ve known about your plans yesterday.  I plan to meet Alvin for lunch.”

“He’s not working either?”

“No, his shift ended early this morning.  He’s done for the rest of the day.  I figure I’ll let him sleep a few hours before I bug ‘im, then we’ll have a late lunch.”

There was a weasel in the story Alvin was giving her. It hid a stolen truth in its quiet earthy hole.  It was Alvin’s random work schedule that sounded a silent alarm.  She had no hard evidence, or even nearly opaque circumstantial evidence.  It would’ve been pointless to bring up unfounded suspicions.  She couldn’t articulate her concerns so then wished Bren a beautiful day.

This morning Elias would open the gallery while she drove out to Riverside Art Museum to take a look around in the museum’s shop.  If she had time, she’d have preferred to go to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art instead.  Where else could you get a Sister of Arp Coat of Arms scarf and a David Hockney, Expanding: February 1990 print?   But time was short and buying from LACMA’s online store didn’t really fit the aesthetic of the occasion. Buying local was charming, even responsible, she decided.  It was her duty to support the efforts of local artists.  She was a gallery owner, after all, even if it were lowbrow, and sold no art by any locals.

She had no doubt that Elias would open the gallery late, though Bali asked that he do his damnedest to be on time.  It was an issue, one that she didn’t want to knot bricks to.  She tried her best to be concise and professional in her brief speech, pointing out the value of his punctuality.  Without any emotion, he gave her his word.  Done.  The truth was, even if he were a few minutes late, she had no real room to balk.  Elias was remarkably reliable.  His craftsmanship was professional.  He even seemed drama-proof.

When she told him of the incident of the noise outside Saturday; her investigation and the shadow that moved towards her; the police coming by, finding nothing; he raised his eyebrows and mumbled a couple of phrases of disbelief, but didn’t appear overly concerned.  Despite his zombiesque reaction to the episode, he would, nonetheless, feel the ripple from the strange currents.  Yesterday’s three phone hang-ups were surely proof of it.  She felt a tickle of guilt over it.  Calling and hanging up… such a childish thing to do.

Bali picked up her cell phone again. She was prepared to leave a message, but it was picked up on the first ring.

“Hola!”

“Hola! Perdon! Tengo el número equivocado.”

“Wait.  What?”

“Jane?”

“Yes…?”

“Don’t answer the phone in Spanish if you’re not prepared to speak it.”

“Bali!  O-M-G!  I would have never guessed in a million years you’d be calling!  Hold on a sec.”  Jane placed Bali on hold, then picked up again.  “I’m back.”

“Why aren’t you in school?”

“Oh.  There’s no school today.  It’s some kind of teachers’ training or meeting day.  Or whatever.”

Bali remembered her days in school when the announcement came that there was no school on a certain day, for no apparent reason.  She remembered how lucky she felt, like finding a $20 bill on the street.  She reminisced about the feeling of unexpected breaks with Jane, giggling through adolescent spirited conspiracies about what the teachers were really doing on such days.

Before Bali, ran too far down the rabbit hole, she remembered why she was compelled to call.  It was all the ripples.  It was the acrid smell in the air left behind by childish logic.  Remembering her last interaction with Jane, Bali reflected on a silly battle of wills.  An ironic game of chicken played by a teenage girl and a very grown man.  The puzzle pieces from recent events needed further examination to determine if her young friend fit on any side.

“You remember when I introduced you to that guy, Max, at the gallery?”

“The one with the beard?”

“Yes, the one with the beard.  He doesn’t have a beard anymore though.”

“Okay.”

“In the gallery, were you trying to out-stay him?”

“Out-stay?”

“Were you trying to stall and make him leave before you did?”

A smile flickered in Jane’s voice.  “Maybe.”

Bali walked into the kitchen.  She scanned the contents of the refrigerator, pulled a bag of coffee out, then began prepping the coffee maker.

“Okay.  Maybe.  What about yesterday.  Did you call the gallery yesterday?”

“No…”

“Just to be clear, you didn’t call the gallery, maybe by accident… and then hang up?”

“No!  I wouldn’t just hang up like that.  Even if it were an accident, I’d at least say I messed up.  ‘Sorry. My bad.’  Something.”

“Okay.  Just checking.”

“Somebody did that?”

“Indeed, they did, but it was probably nothing.  Stuff like that happens all the time.”

“But not all the time to you.”

Bali smiled.  “No.”  Bali riffled through her cabinets and then went back into the refrigerator and pulled out a small plastic carton of lemon, poppy seed muffins.  She placed them on the counter then popped the lid.

“Since there’s no school, what are you plans today?”

“I don’t have any plans… I figured I’d live atomically today.”

“Atomically?”

“Right.  So atomic living is like, a theory made up by this girl, Kiran Ghandi.  It goes like this: when you have a choice between doing something, like, spontaneous or like, something ordinary, you should always choose the spontaneous one, if the spontaneous thing makes you happy.”

“Ah.  I see.”

“I saw Kiran Ghandi explaining it in a video on the internet.  That’s how I want to live for now on.”

“Interesting.”

“You should do it too!”

“I’m afraid that theory doesn’t quite work as well when you have to maintain a business and have bills to pay.  I suppose, though, it could be applied in small bursts in certain situations.  I’ll consider it.”

“At least I got you thinking about it.”

“In that vein… I’m going to drive out to the Riverside Art Museum Gift Shop today.  You wanna come with?”

“Heck yeah!  See!  Atomic living…”

“Now we just have to get your grandpa’s permission.”

“I’ll call him back right now!”

 

Jane left the house wearing printed jeans and a white pullover sweater.   Her strawberry blond hair was swept up in a top knot, adorned with an artificial daisy clipped to its base.  Jane’s perfume permeated the car with the scent of raspberries, licorice and vanilla.  She held a white handkerchief edged with lace.  Her eyes were watery and most likely red rimmed under her blue eyeliner.

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah.  I’m fine.  Just tired.  And I kind of feel like a headache is about to come.”

“I’m sorry you’re not feeling so hot… but you look so cute.  And you smell nice!”

Jane beamed.  Jane had worked methodically on acting cool, not wanting her to ever know that she very badly wanted to impress Bali, who was always so impressive to her.  Jane practiced setting her eyes a certain way.  She studied her look, determined to master hanging her lids at the center of her iris to nail the impression of world worn seriousness. Bali, however, was aware of the effect she had on the 15-year-old, and the attention she gave the girl gave Jane a sense of accomplishment.

When Bali and Jane had been on the 215 north for nearly fifteen minutes, Bali’s cell phone rang.  She had been expecting it and had considered letting the call roll into voicemail, but there was an opportunity mushrooming.  She would never admit – not even to herself – the petty enjoyment this call was about to bring her.   It was Bren.

“Hello Bren.”

“I have good news!  I just became free!  I can come with you to shop for March if you like.”

“Sorry.  I’m already on my way.  I’m on the 215 and I have Jane with me.”

“Jane?  Who’s Jane.

“You don’t know her.  She’s a brilliant fashionista who practices Atomic Living.”  Bali glanced over at Jane who smiled back at her.

“Oh.  Okay.”  Bren was afraid she might sound stupid if she admitted she didn’t know what Atomic Living was.  She’d look it up later on the internet.  “Guess I missed my chance.  Maybe I can meet the two of you there.”

“Don’t worry about it Bren.  We’ll only be there a second.  You take care and enjoy the rest of your day.”

Bren sighed heavily.  “You too.”

The phone was not on speaker mode, but Jane heard the exchange clearly as the brown hills in the distance approached and passed, approached and passed.  She felt a tidal wave of disappointment building up, racing towards her in the passenger seat at the thought of someone else butting in on her first outing with Bali.  She exhaled when Bali shut her friend down, and felt the wave recede.  No one as sophisticated as Bali ever wanted to hang out with Jane like this.  Her truth was, she hadn’t even known of anyone else as put together as Bali.  This was Jane’s day off and she got to spend it (at least part of it) with the most bad-ass woman she knew.

“Who was that?”  Jane dabbed at her nose and studied Bali’s profile.

“That was…Bren.”

“A friend of yours.”

“Not exactly.  She’s more like a friend of a friend.  She thinks she’s my friend.  I let her.”

“Why would you let her think she’s something she’s not?”

“There’s no harm in it.  She’s not in a good spot right now.  She doesn’t have a steady job, her boyfriend doesn’t seem to want her around much and as far as I know she has few friends of her own.  She kind of attaches herself to my friend March and her friends.”

“Like a parasite.”  Jane was proud of her quick assessment.  She studied her nails to hide her pride.

Bali chuckled.  “I don’t want to admit it, but that’s actually a spot-on comparison.”

“She sounds like a loser.”

“You shouldn’t call her that.  She’s not a loser.  She’s just a woman who’s just lost her way, I think.  Something has chipped away at her self-esteem.  She has a good heart.  She’s just very needy.”

“So you think she’ll eventually become your real friend…”

On the 215 north, they were passing the grounded airplanes behind the chain link fence of the old Air Force Base.  “I don’t know about that… Bren is a nice person, but she wants something from me that I can’t give.”

“And what’s that?”

Bali’s brown eyes twinkled as she glanced at Jane.  “I don’t know.  I have no words for it.”

The twinkle extinguished into a matted blank stare when Bali noticed, on the side of the road, a great white egret standing on the shoulder, as still as if it were standing dead.  Jane had spotted it too and they drove a half mile in silent reverence until there was another.

“Bali!  Another one!”

The second great white egret stood much like the first but Bali saw it quickly turn its head in their direction.  It didn’t look into the car, but beyond it and in less than a second, the car shot beyond its gaze.  Its lean white body was almost blinding in the desert sunlight.

Bali and Jane saw six more just as the first two, standing still, facing traffic on the dusty shoulder of the 215.  Some looked down at some crawling thing unseen by human eyes.  One looked up at the sky calculating.  Others were just seen, the details of their behavior lost from the shock of their presents and numbers.

Jane glanced at Bali with a mouth shaped like the letter “O.”  Her eyes were wide with the shimmer of a smile at the edges.  If the skies had opened up and suddenly snowed, the effect would have been the same on Jane.

For Bali, the sight of one great white egret would have been an anonymous gift of stolen breath.  The sight of eight was worthy of tears of gratitude, no doubt, but the birds, for Bali, were also a fence that surrounded a dark fog in which she could not see through.  It delighted her just as it had Jane, but it also brought a chill that pulled on the hairs of her arms and made her heart want to look away.  The army of great white egresses were ushering or guarding.  An unknown something was coming. Or maybe it was going.

 

 

 

BIO

Kobina Wright is a second generation California native with a degree in Communications from California State University, Fullerton. Wright is an artist, writer and entrepreneur and is a board member of The G.R.E.E.N. Foundation, an organization that helps to service the community through health education and navigation to support individuals and families to access quality health care.

Some of the publications Wright has written for include LACMA Magazine, The Daily Titan, and CYH Magazine. In 2001 she wrote her second volume of poetry titled, “Growth Spurt,” and in 2004, wrote her third volume titled, “Say It! Say Gen-o-cide!!” − dedicated to the Rwandan Genocide of 1994.

Wright’s work has been published in: The Bicycle Review; Boxcar Poetry Review; Burning Word Literary Journal; Crack the Spine; The Fiction Week Literary Review; The Missing Slate; Orion headless; The Passionate Transitory; Subliminal Interiors, Wilderness House Literary Review,  Blackberry: A Magazine, Blue Lake Review, Extract(s) and SNReview.

 

 

 

 

0

The Plagiarist

by John Mandelberg

 

 

When I was serving time in a California state prison for grand theft, I decided to take an English class from a college correspondence program. Then a woman teacher from a community college came to give a writing class and I decided to sign up. Everybody in the class wrote about themselves and their hard lives, except me. I pretended to, but actually I borrowed the stories of other men’s childhoods and wrote as if they were my own. My real childhood was too empty to talk about. When the teacher found out that my stories weren’t really about me, she was surprised and confused. But then she gave me special attention, because I was more like a real writer.

She was in her late fifties, and seemed very calm and unafraid to be coming into prison. But also she seemed sad and worn-out. I started to talk to her more than I thought I would. She was not attractive or pretty but she had a look of peaceful listening that made me want to talk more. Her eyes were very full and honest. Sometimes when the only guard who did not forbid us to use the copy machine was there, I walked with her to the office down the hall and talked to her while we copied things.

She always answered my questions in a serious and respectful way without talking about herself. Once we were talking about poetry, and she said she had published a book of her own poetry. But she didn’t seem proud of it and didn’t want to talk about it.

After I was released, I went back to Los Angeles where I had lived before. But I had trouble finding a job. I got the idea that I could make money by writing a book of stories. I wrote to that English teacher asking her for advice. For a long time, I did not receive an answer. I thought she probably didn’t want to be in touch with any ex-prisoner. But months later, I got a note from her in the mail. She was now teaching at a different community college, further north in the San Joaquin Valley. She said she couldn’t give me much advice about writing a book, but she wouldn’t mind if I sent her my stories to read.

This letter was the only touch of humanity I had felt for many months. I decided to go visit her, even though I expected that I would frighten her and that I would end up depressed and hating myself.

It took me eight hours to drive up from L.A. to that town, much longer than I expected. It was already getting dark when I arrived. I didn’t have much money so I slept in my car. The next morning I tried to clean myself up and called the community college to find out when she was there. I rested in the city park. Then I went to see her in the afternoon.

I waited on the asphalt outside a bungalow classroom where she was teaching, and met her when she came out. She was surprised to see me, but still seemed calm and patient. She smiled at me. We talked out in the haze, then she invited me to a little office she shared with some other teachers. I asked her if I could see her book of poetry. She hesitated but then pulled it out of a bottom desk drawer. Though the tiny office was crammed with books on all sides, she did not keep her own book in sight.

I don’t remember the exact title of the book, but it was something about smoke, landscape, and a color – like “Smoky Landscape with Yellow” or maybe “Landscape with Amber Smoke.” I looked through it and thought it was interesting at first. But the poems were long and complicated. I had trouble concentrating on any one of them. I noticed that the book had been published twenty years ago. I asked her if she had written another, or planned to.

“No,” she said.

I asked why not.

She sat and thought about it. It was after three o’clock. The other teachers had left, but students were laughing in the hall. She stood up, shut the office door, and sat back down.

 

She said, “About twenty years ago, I was an instructor of English at Cal State University at —. I had just divorced my husband, but I was happy. I had hopes of becoming a tenured professor, I had many good friends, and I had just published this book – my first book of poetry.

“The poems were mostly about a trip to Italy I had taken with my husband while our marriage was strained. I had enjoyed the trip and the beautiful Italian landscapes with such intensity, perhaps because I also sensed that the end of our relationship was coming. I did not write any of the completed poems in Italy, but I was constantly scribbling fragments and phrases in notebooks. Then when I came home, I looked at the California hills and cypresses and olive trees, which kept Italy close to my mind, and I worked very hard at assembling the poems from all the scattered pieces I had collected.

“I had planned to dedicate the book to my husband, because I was grateful to him even if I no longer loved him. After all, he had supported me through college when I was already in my thirties, and he’d taken me to Italy. But after we separated, I changed the dedication to acknowledge a good friend, an old professor of Italian who had helped me a great deal with Italian words and historical references.

“I felt so happy that fall, full of hopes for a good career, proud of my little book, confident that I was now beyond the difficulty of my divorce . . . Then one day a strange woman came to see me in my office. It was late afternoon, just about the time it is right now.”

She looked at the clock for a while, then went on.

“This woman, with thick dark-rimmed glasses and snowy white hair, knocked loudly on my door and came in. She seemed agitated. I asked her, ‘Can I help you?’ I did not recognize her at all. She held out a copy of my book, and I was flattered to think that she might want me to autograph it – she would be my first fan! ‘Is this your book?’ she asked. ‘Yes!’ I said happily.

“Then she said in a cold, angry voice, ‘Do you admit that you have committed plagiarism, that you have stolen every one of these poems?’

“I burst into laughter. I saw instantly that this was a joke or prank, and my mind raced to guess who might be behind it. But the woman only became angrier. ‘Why do you laugh?’ she shouted. ‘I am giving you one last chance to admit you are a plagiarist! Do you admit it?’

“‘No, of course not!’ I said, still laughing. The woman threw a thick envelope down on my desk. ‘I gave you a chance to admit it, and you did not,’ she said. ‘Now you’ll be very, very sorry.’ Then she ran off down the hall.

“I felt puzzled, in a pleasant, amused way. I curiously opened the envelope. Inside was a folded wad of photocopied pages of verse, much of which seemed to be in Italian. When I unfolded the pages like a book, I saw Italian and English versions of poems very similar to my own, on opposite pages. It appeared that someone had made slightly altered versions of my poems and then translated each one into Italian. But each Italian poem was credited to someone named Maria della R—, and each English version was labeled, ‘translated by Ellen T—.’

“I laughed and shook my head in amazement. Someone had undertaken a vast amount of work just to play this joke on me – who could it possibly be? The only person I knew well whose knowledge of Italian could’ve allowed him to do this was the old Italian professor. But he had left after his retirement for an extended trip to Italy. Surely he would not have had time to translate all my poems while preparing for his long-awaited trip, and anyway a prank like this would’ve been completely out of character for him.

“I just sat in my office and marveled at this strange homage to me and my poems. I kept laughing in disbelief. And as long as I sat there, I felt completely sure that it was nothing more than a joke.

“But when I finally stood up to leave, and locked the office and walked down the deserted corridor, I began to feel a little disoriented and frightened. I knew I had written all those poems myself. I distinctly remembered the trip to Italy, the golden landscapes, the cypresses – I remembered scribbling the phrases in the notebooks, on hot nights next to the open hotel windows while my husband called for me to come to bed – and I remembered the months of work I spent back in California, in my new apartment after I left him, staring at the pale yellow-brown hills from my window, going over these phrases again and again, trying to stitch them together – working with iron concentration so as not to think about my broken marriage. How could anyone dare to say, even as a joke, that I had not written every word of these poems myself?

“But – what if I had imagined the trip to Italy, the notebooks, everything? That seemed impossible, but –”

She stopped here, and looked at me steadily.

“Since I am telling you the whole story,” she said, “I should also tell you that I . . . I had mental problems when I was younger. I had delusions, and terrible fears about things that were not true. I was hospitalized when I was twenty. It took me . . . it took me years, to, to feel that I belonged in the healthy world again. So you see, I could not be completely sure that what I remembered was real. In fact, as I drove to my apartment, I thought the appearance of the white-haired woman might have been a delusion, and I expected that when I came home and opened the thick envelope that now sat beside me on the car seat, I would find that it contained course outlines, or tax information.

“But when I opened the envelope again, it still had my poems, slightly reworked in English, then translated into apparently fluent Italian. It was not that a few lines were similar here and there, or that merely the overall narrative or shape of any of these poems was the same as mine. No – every line of every poem corresponded to mine, both in English and, as far as I could tell, in Italian.

“That night I managed to calm myself. Already the strange white-haired woman seemed like a creation of my own imagination, and if that was troubling – but perhaps you won’t understand this – it also meant she couldn’t really hurt me. When I noticed that my eyes kept turning back toward the brown envelope on the kitchen counter, I put it into a cabinet, out of sight. I felt pretty relaxed then, and I slept well.

“But the next morning, as I remembered the woman’s accusation, I suddenly felt a weird sense of dread. I arrived at the campus, and found a note in my mailbox telling me to see the department chairperson immediately. When I went to his office, the secretaries stared at me and whispered, and the chairperson looked very grim. He pulled out a brown envelope just like the one I had been given. My heart began to pound and I saw spots in front of my eyes, and I had trouble hearing what he was saying. It was a very serious matter: I had been accused of plagiarism.

“After that, my memory is blurry,” she said. She looked out the small dirty window, to a sidewalk that crossed the dead lawn toward the parking lot. “I remember vaguely that over the next few weeks, I was interviewed by the dean, by representatives of the faculty senate I think . . . by the vice-president for faculty or someone, and by lawyers for the university,” she said. “They confronted me with a letter, written apparently by the same white-haired woman who had come to accuse me on that strange afternoon. In this letter, the woman, Ellen T—, claimed that she had met me at a specific writing seminar four years ago, and that she had shared with me her translations of an Italian poet, Maria della R—, who died in the 1950s.

“I had actually attended that writing seminar, and admitted it, but I had no recollection at all of meeting Ellen T— there, nor of ever hearing the name of Maria della R—. Someone did some research, and ascertained that Maria della R— was a real Italian poet, known in her own country but untranslated. The name of Ellen T—, who claimed to be a doctoral candidate temporarily away from her studies, wasn’t known to any specialists in English or Italian literature, but that was not unexpected, since she had not yet published any of her translations. There was no Internet yet, it was simply impossible to quickly check out any of her claims in detail. And of course she supplied transcripts and letters and certificates from her college in New England to prove that she was who she said she was.

“Soon I also heard from the small press that had published my book. They had received material from Ellen T— also. They were withdrawing my book from their catalog and threatened to sue me as soon as she sued them.

“The university gave me a hearing, and let me try to defend myself. All I could say was that I had never heard of Maria della R— or Ellen T— before, that I had written all the poems myself, that I had no idea whatsoever who Ellen T— was or what motive she would have for inventing this story, or for forging dozens of letters and documents in order to slander me.

“After terrible indecision, I brought in some of my original notebooks to show them. This was so very embarrassing for me, because those notebooks also contained my, my . . . most private thoughts about my husband and my marriage. But the members of the committee just glanced through the notebooks, looking skeptical. They seemed to think it would’ve been easy for me to have written all these notebooks, just to cover myself, long after stealing the ‘real’ poems – perhaps even in the last few days.

“I was completely humiliated. They suspended me from teaching, without pay, and then cancelled my contract.”

She stopped speaking and sat quietly. She played with a pen on her desk.

Then she resumed in a calm patient voice, “I felt I was in an endless nightmare. It was bad enough to lose my job and my teaching career, but to feel that I had lost my sanity too, that I could no longer be sure what was real and what was not, that my roots in reality, which had once been so difficult to grow, had all been torn away . . . well, I . . . I felt very strange . . . Do you know what I mean?” She looked at me in her honest way.

I said I knew what she meant.

She went on, “None of my new university friends would see me, none of them believed me. I think they had all been surprised by how learned and classical my poetry was, since I’d seemed so dumb and innocent to them at first, and now they felt justified in their earlier opinions of me. I was frightened that I was having another mental breakdown – I can’t tell you how frightened I was. I went to a therapist, and then to a psychiatrist for tranquilizers. I wrote a long desperate letter to the old Italian professor, enclosing samples of the Italian poetry, begging him for help – but he did not answer me. I even went to my ex-husband, sobbing and pitiful, and he would have nothing to do with me. He shut the door in my face.” She smiled faintly and distantly.

“When I told the therapist that someone must want to hurt me very badly by spreading these lies about me, she asked me who that could be: my ex-husband? a colleague? a former student? But I could think of no one. Either I had committed plagiarism without remembering it, or I was having paranoid delusions.

“Maybe I had absorbed all those poems into my mind, blocked out the memory of the woman who had given them to me, then regurgitated them, word by word, on the trip to Italy. But then I had to wonder: did I ever really go to Italy? Was I ever married? Had my whole life been a delusion, and was I still twenty years old and in the psychiatric hospital?

“All I could do was to spend my days in a stupor of psychotropic drugs and daytime television. After a long delay, the psychiatrist was able to get me on disability, but I spent all my savings. I could no longer read, write or think. I was afraid to go to the store, I was hardly eating. Then one day I received a letter from my old friend, the Italian professor. He was back in Sicily, after traveling for almost a year, and had just now found my letter.

“He wrote urgently to tell me that the poetry ascribed to Maria della R— was a fraud. She had been from northern Italy, and the poetry was written in southern dialect and with modern, even americanized slang that she never would’ve used. In fact he suspected these Italian poems were not even written by a native speaker of Italian. He urged me to see a lawyer.

“By this time I was so depressed and numb that I didn’t want to see a lawyer. But my therapist was so surprised – I suppose she had never believed me before – that she finally dragged me to a lawyer’s office herself. The lawyer sent a private investigator to see me, and he said immediately that Ellen T—’s white hair and thick glasses were probably a disguise. When the lawyer received all the papers from my hearing, he noticed discrepancies and repetitions in the phone numbers and addresses Ellen T— had supplied for her references. The stationery from her college in New England was not authentic. And by now nobody was able to contact Ellen T— by phone or certified mail.

“I had saved all my old class rosters and teaching records, and the investigator was able to get additional information from the university. He found out that a certain female student of mine from several years ago had since been arrested several times for stalking an ex-boyfriend. I only slightly remembered this young woman, and had forgotten that she was an Italian major. But I recalled that she had been disproportionately angry at me when I gave her a B instead of an A. She was probably the student whose very hostile anonymous evaluation of me turned up in my personnel file, and if so, then her handwriting looked just like Ellen T—’s handwriting.

“The investigator tried to locate this student,” she continued, “but he –”

Suddenly she was interrupted by the loud ring of an old-style beige telephone, which was on one of the other desks. The coarse buzzing sound startled us. “That phone doesn’t usually ring,” my teacher said. She sounded unusually nervous. She let it ring several times as we looked at it. Then she stood up, picked up the handset and said in a tense voice, “Hello? Who is this? No, I’m sorry. What was the name again? She’s not here. I don’t know. I really don’t know who she is. You’re welcome.” Then she sat back down in her chair. I heard her sigh softly.

“The investigator was unable to find her,” my teacher went on. “She seemed to have vanished along with Ellen T—, and it was reasonable to believe that they were the same person. The investigator’s report, a letter from the Italian professor, and a statement he obtained from an Italian journalist who had known Maria della R— and who said she had never written any poems like mine – all these convinced the university’s lawyers, finally, that the charges of plagiarism were false.

“I quickly agreed to a settlement, since I was desperate for money, and after paying the lawyer and the investigator, I received about $17,000, most of which I paid to the therapist and doctors. My book was never put back in the publisher’s catalog, though. But my mind cleared, and I was able to get off disability, I worked part-time as a cashier. After three years, I was able to resume teaching English, but I have stayed at the community college level since then, mostly here in the San Joaquin Valley.

“I’ve never heard again from the woman who called herself Ellen T—. I think she may be in a psychiatric hospital herself, or dead. But I still feel frightened of her. I like to think she could never find me here.”

The teacher was quiet again. I realized she was done with her story, as far as it went.

I said this ex-student must’ve been obsessed with her.

“Yes,” she said. “I can’t understand why. I will never understand it.” She blinked her calm, full, peaceful eyes.

I asked her if she’d ever written poetry since then.

“No,” she said. “I’d be afraid that it wouldn’t really be mine.”

But, I asked, she couldn’t still doubt that her trip to Italy, her months of writing, her poems and her life were real, could she?

“It’s hard to explain,” she said softly, “but once that fear came back into me, it never went away.”

The haze outside the window was turning to dusk. I thanked her for her kindness in seeing me. I invited her to dinner, as if I had any money to pay for it. But she politely declined. I gave her a folder of my bad half-written stories that I had so much trouble finishing. We said goodbye. I drove back to Los Angeles in the misty night.

 

In a couple of weeks, I received back in the mail the stories I had left with her. She had written nice but very general comments. I was a little annoyed that she hadn’t been more helpful. When I was in her office, I had copied down the number of the office telephone without her noticing, and now I decided to try calling her in the late afternoon, the same day of the week as when I visited her, thinking she would be there. She answered the phone, and sounded surprised to hear my voice. But she agreed to talk with me for a few minutes.

She said she wasn’t really qualified to give me detailed criticism, but she encouraged me to keep writing. She said that it would be good for my imagination, even if I couldn’t get anything published. She said I should not have unrealistic plans to make money from writing fiction, because almost nobody does. And even if I did get something published, it would have to be in some obscure literary magazine which couldn’t pay me anything anyway.

I said that I had been thinking a lot about her plagiarism story. I asked if she would be offended if I used it in a story of my own.

She paused a long time and then said, “No . . . no, I’d rather that you didn’t.”

Why not, I asked her.

“Well . . . because it’s not really finished,” she said. “We don’t know why this former student did what she did, or how she managed to do it, or what happened to her. We don’t know what it means. It’s just an odd anecdote, and it’s not realistic – it wouldn’t work.”

But I replied that I could make up new details if I had to.

“No,” she said. For the first time she seemed a little impatient. “You asked my permission, and I am telling you no. If anyone is going to write about it, I should be the one. It’s really my story.”

 

In a month I decided to call her again. I had finally found a job but I hated it and was feeling a desperate frustration. I needed some goal to desire, I wanted something to want. I told her that I really wanted to get something published, even if I couldn’t get paid for it. But now I couldn’t think of any more ideas to write about on my own. My stupid job was fogging my brain. But I couldn’t stop thinking about her story. I told her I was becoming almost obsessed with it. Again I asked her if I could write it.

“No, please don’t,” she said. “Please. This crazy woman, if she is still alive, could read it and remember me and come after me again. Please – you’re frightening me. Don’t make me feel sorry that I trusted you. It’s my story, it doesn’t belong to you.”

I begged her.

“No!” she said. “Please – I’ve tried to help you. You have to realize that there is nothing more I can do. You have a false impression of me, you think I’m important somehow – but I’m nobody, I’m nothing! Please don’t write about me. To bring up all this humiliation from the past – I couldn’t bear it. I’ve suffered just like you have – please promise not to write about me!”

Now her calm quiet voice was full of anxiety, passion, and desperation.

“OK, I promise,” I said.

But then I decided to write this anyway.

 

 

 

BIO

John Mandelberg’s short stories have appeared most recently in Prick of the Spindle, Beloit Fiction Journal, Santa Monica Review, and Storyscape. Apparently nobody wants to publish his novels but so what, he’ll keep writing more anyway. He lives in Los Angeles and usually doesn’t like any movie made after 1950.

 

 

 

 

0

Let That Be a Lesson

by Linda Boroff

 

 

A couple of scenic, twisting mountain roads link Santa Cruz with Silicon Valley, one maddeningly slow; the other lethally fast. People believe that this difficult commute is all that stands between us and the Valley’s ravening technology guargantuae, straining to spread south and plant their sarmak-campuses amid our beaches and redwoods.

We’re often mocked as throwbacks—Birkenstock-wearing, patchouli-reeking tree-huggers; clove-smoking dietary wackos. But decades ago, a rash of serial killings turned us into the “murder capital of the world.” Even now, suspicions linger that our ferny forests and riverbeds conceal yet more quicklimed horrors. Beneath our vintage hippie brand, a collective neurosis hums like background noise.

I returned here to heal, but that wasn’t happening. When you flunk out of law school, the consequences waste no time in manifesting. My deferred student loans awoke like the Spanish flu virus in that corpse frozen since 1918. A torrent of demand letters found me huddled weepily in my childhood bedroom, watching sitcom reruns. Like bricks, their paragraphs walled me into ruinous debt.

Ghosts of my aborted legal education trailed in my wake. Wherever I went, I spotted “tortious” conduct. Contracts shook its knotty head at every agreement I made. I couldn’t stop spouting half-baked legal advice to friends.

My childhood home soon became more prison than refuge. My parents’ tentative queries about future plans sounded like the mind games of the Spanish inquisitors. My boyfriend requested some space.

Yet, further humbling was in order: my frantic job search yielded just one tepid offer, and that from a law firm. I was to be an “admin trainee;” a serf, performing the most grueling and menial chores in the office. So much for my conquering hero courtroom fantasies.

Demand letter threats playing in my head like a repeating tune, I arrived for my first day. The firm occupied a hacienda style building with a low-pitched, glowering solar roof. In place of a lawn, water-sparing sedge grass with razorlike sawteeth undulated thirstily. A door the color of dried blood proclaimed Holland & Sklar, Attorneys at Law, in haughty gold cursive.

In the waiting room, a lighted case displayed a stuffed owl lashed to a gnarled tree limb, its eyes realistically desperate beneath the taxidermist’s glaze.

At last, a tiny woman nearly buried in a black turtleneck sweater opened a door and cocked her beaky little head at me, sharp obsidian eyes blinking rapidly. I followed her into a large cubicled room whose mushy gray carpet grabbed the soles of my shoes.

“That’s you,” she said, indicating a wooden table and chair wedged between a pillar and the wall. A flat, dusty computer monitor lay inert on the floor, as if injured.

“I’m Edie,” the woman said. “I work for Mr. Sklar. Mr. Holland recently died, and we’re disorganizing I mean reorganizing the office.” She cut off my understanding nod with a knifish glare and turned away.

I hung my jacket on the chair and hoisted the monitor onto the desk. Something about the place reminded me of the aftermath of an earthquake, the wrenched ground shuddering and spasming above broken strata, the air reverberating.

“It’s a pity you’ll never know Harv.” A tall woman in her late fifties was wheeling over an office chair. “I’m Eleanor,” she said, and sat down in it beside me. “I was Harv’s secretary.

“I’m so sorry,” I said, my voice hoarse with disuse.

“He was on borrowed time, poor thing. A heart infection. They cleared it up finally, but the damage was done.” Eleanor tipped her chair back alarmingly to grab a magazine from a file cabinet. “Here he is, the way I like to remember him.”

The magazine was at least twenty years old, judging from its garish colors and wacky typeface. On the cover, Harv as a youthful visionary gazed into the future from eyes of blue agate. Streaked blond hair tumbled to his collar. His smooth, regular features radiated a complacent moral purity.

“He had a golden aura, didn’t he?” Eleanor said fondly, stroking his magazine-

hair. I surveyed the auric Harv and nodded, wondering how he had looked at the end.

A man suddenly loomed above Eleanor, who mugged fear and straightened her back.

“Welcome, Melissa, I’m Tom Sklar.” He grinned at me with perfect but feral teeth. “I’m officially senior partner here now, though of course, Eleanor will never buy that.” He winked at her, and she lifted her chin in mock indignation, exposing a deeply corded neck.

Tom Sklar was one of those men who gets better-looking as he ages; his clipped graying hair flattered him more than the tousled brown mop in the law school picture on his desk. The years had chiseled the youthful pudginess from his face, and his brown eyes were now a steely gray-blue in their tinted contacts.

“Eleanor will welcome another tall gal here,” Tom said.

“Tom loves tall girls,” Eleanor smiled archly. I looked reflexively at the ring on his finger, and he followed my glance, and our eyes bumped and bounced apart.

“I’m sorry to hear about Mr. Holland,” I said, and Tom’s face morphed instantly into practiced sadness. “We go very far back, Harv and I. Eleanor will fill you in on the whole saga.”

“Maybe not the whole saga,” Eleanor replied, and something crackled between them like water hitting hot oil in a frying pan. I felt a sudden urge to run, but the carpet held my feet, and the mantra, “avoid further legal action” recurred in my brain.

Eleanor soon took to hanging out at my desk on the pretext of “training” me, but really for an excuse to talk. She was an encyclopedic authority on all matters Harv, fiercely possessive even of his wraith. The syllables of his name summoned her like a pheromone; so that people across the room had to whisper or cover their mouths when they mentioned him, or else she would arrive and hijack the conversation.

The law was woven through Eleanor’s life like a weft. She had grown up in Live Oak, an anomalous blue-collar neighborhood nicknamed “Live Okie.” Shy and coltishly tall, she grew her auburn hair long; somebody had once called it a river of fire she said proudly. The river was dammed now into a brassy bouffant cone, sprayed stiff and secured with a plastic tortoiseshell dagger.

Her eyes, large and greenish-gray, were still arresting in their iridescent eyeshadow and false lashes, despite the wrinkles. Decades of hurrying from desk to lawyer’s office, to kitchen, waiting and file rooms had given her a stretch-necked, giraffelike gait. As the day wore on, her lipstick would migrate into the vertical creases around her mouth.

Desperate to escape her brawling, hard-drinking parents, young Eleanor studied office skills in high school, winning awards for her shorthand and typing. After graduation, she endured interviews with grim, Dickensian office managers and lordly attorneys—until one banner day, she had broken through, a legal secretary at last.

I suddenly flashed on a disruptive young office beauty: on the gleaming hair and long limbs and riveted gaze; the silky blouses above the sternly fitted pencil skirts; the awe, the vulnerability, and the utter, unquestioning fealty. A wife’s perfect nightmare.

I could guess at the various jobs, the inevitable affairs, the getaways and lingerie and baubles and tears and scenes and abortions. The decades had marched past, and the lovers had aged and retired and some had even died. None had kept their promises. Now she was growing old, cast up like flood detritus on the banks of a river after the storm subsides.

Already a veteran when she joined the staff here, Eleanor had promptly seized the helm; within a couple of months, any competitors or challengers had resigned, retreated or been fired. “I whipped us into shape,” she said. “It wasn’t pretty, but I did what I had to. Harv could never assert himself the way he should have.”

Now, her boss gone, the once office queen was reduced to a ”floater.” Former subordinates ordered her to make copies or coffee, sent her on errands, and pointedly excluded her from smoking breaks and party planning.

I soon realized that the friendless Eleanor had laid claim to me. She hovered with fierce solicitude, herding others away like some secretarial sheepdog. I suspected that she was grooming me to summit the office hierarchy on her behalf. Armed with my college degree, and (nearly) year of law school, I would take power, restore office hegemony, and dispense retribution, while she guided me like some Lord Protector.

But this victory would require the toppling and vanquishing of Edie, the fierce tiny avian who had opened the door for me on my first day. As Tom Sklar’s secretary, Edie had been Eleanor’s chief rival. Harv’s death had catapulted Eleanor from her throne but hardly settled the feud.

The partners were former assistant district attorneys, tough competitors who had teamed up to prosecute one of the county’s emblematic serial killers. The ordeal had forged a bond. They left the DA’s office soon after to form a partnership, fueled by Harv’s popularity and Tom’s slick aggressiveness.

But the competition that the partners had resolved now played out by proxy in their secretaries, and the friction heated up like magma. Eleanor insisted that Harv was the “brains” of the firm, while Edie called Tom the “engine.” Their debates turned into screaming matches. I could imagine Eleanor looming like a T-Rex above the agile, ferocious Edie, feinting and darting and dodging to counter Eleanor’s verbal bludgeons.

Edie, because mere bad luck had taken down her rival, was denied a decisive victory. Even now in her triumphal role of “Administrative Director,” she couldn’t avoid Eleanor skulking on the periphery, watching for an opening. Edie responded by shrinking Eleanor’s duties to the most demeaning, below even mine.

“How can you stand this?” I asked after Edie had set her to cleaning the office refrigerator. Kneeling before a glass shelf encrusted with ancient yogurt smears and desiccated veggies, Eleanor looked up at me, her hands in rubber gauntlets, a damp bronze curl dangling from her forehead.

“Things will change,” Eleanor replied. “They always do, in time. Besides, I know something very damaging about Edie, and she knows I know.”

“What’s that?”

“She’s a witch.”

“Edie’s a witch?”

“She let it slip once; it explains everything. I realized that she’d been casting spells on all of us for a long time. How could I have missed it? I just didn’t put it all together until it was too late.”

“Eleanor,” I said, “witchcraft isn’t real. People pretend to have power…”

“Oh they have power all right, if they’re good. And Edie is good, oh my, so very good. In Harv’s case though, she went too far. And she knows it. She killed him.” Eleanor pried a tiny dried carrot from the glass shelf and examined it, turning it over and over.

I reminded myself that in Santa Cruz, no belief system was too exotic or outrageous to have its devotees; witchcraft was actually quite mainstream compared to some of them. A wave of dismay washed over me: how had I ended up here, babysitting a crazy, superstitious old woman rather than lighting up the law review?

“She leaves things for me,” Eleanor was saying. “Little twisted pieces of hair and scraps of paper with strange words written on them. She plants herbs on the property to use in her spells, so her husband doesn’t find them around the house. She knows I know. She tried to make me drink some yarrow tea once. That would have made me vulnerable. I threw it in the toilet, of course.” I shook my head. “She casts on everybody in the office—not you, not yet. But she’ll try, just watch her, because she knows you’re on my side.”

After this, I did my best to tamp down Eleanor’s obsession, changing the subject or even ignoring her when she presented “evidence.” She showed me a two-inch length of coiled black yarn she had found on the carpet that had not been there the night before. She searched her file drawers each morning and threw out items she swore were new, even an expensive scissors once. A stray push pin, a piece of thread—anything that could bind or immobilize was proof of Edie’s mischief. Eleanor checked the kitchen thoroughly for suspect spices, leaves or roots. She would walk past Edie’s cubicle, catch my eye and point surreptitiously inside, or motion her head to alert me that Edie was concocting spells rather than working on office business.

The magazine with Harv’s picture came to rest permanently in my inbox. Somehow I couldn’t bring myself to return it to the dark obscurity of the file cabinet. There was something reassuring in his benign, clueless presence. I would look into the optimistic blue gaze and wonder what he now must know.

Whenever I hear people talking of how children enrich one’s life, it sets me thinking in just the opposite direction—how thoroughly children can destroy a life. The local wisdom was that Harv’s endocarditis was only a secondary cause of his death. The true mortal blow had been struck by Harv’s delinquent son, Erik, age 15.

Harv’s fate was proof that a life well and ethically lived can veer off to an outcome so rotten as to turn people into deep and bitter cynics. Nothing you did mattered because if there could be Erik, then there was no justice, no order. Harv’s fate became a rationale for impulsively ditching a spouse, buying a sports car, or acting on a grudge.

Erik’s latest run-in with the law was an assault on the high school boys’ locker room. He and his accomplice, Fred Pettingast, a judge’s son, were caught in the act by the janitor.

This wasn’t mere drunken teenage vandalism, but an orgy of demolition. Swastikas were etched and painted everywhere, along with anti-Semitic phrases in Gothic blackletter and caricatures of Jews, blacks and Mexicans. They had pulverized the lockers, crumpling and piercing the metal beyond repair. Benches were splintered. They destroyed the plumbing in the showers with corrosive acid, and shattered the tiles into powder. The paint they used in the graffiti was so toxic that it required professional disposal of everything it had touched.

Fred insisted that Erik had been the instigator, while Erik, of course, claimed otherwise. Judge Pettingast must have leaned hard on somebody so that both boys would be undercharged and given probation, and the incident downplayed in local press.

Erik’s locker room exploit was not an isolated incident, though. He invaded, rather than attended school; entrepreneurial talent had made him a drug dealer by his junior year. His grades were good, shored up by cheating, bribery and intimidation.

When it all became too much to take, Harv would drop into Tom’s office and open his heart to the only person he could trust with his anguish.

“The kid’s sowing a few wild oats, so what?” Tom Sklar would comfort his partner. “Hey, I could tell you things I did at his age, you probably wouldn’t want to live in the same town with me let alone practice with me.”

“I couldn’t make it without you, brother,” Harv would choke up.

“Hang in there; you’ll get through this just fine, all of you will.” Tom would come around his desk to give Harv a hug, with a few mutual thwacks on their Barney’s jackets.

Eleanor’s adoration of Harv had spawned a proportional hatred for Harv’s German-born wife, Helga. Her digging into Helga’s background revealed a relative who had been a Nazi official in Bavaria, prominent enough to be hanged by the British after the war. Now, although Helga was a dedicated vegan, grammar school teacher, and Democratic party worker, in Eleanor’s eyes she was the Beast of Belsen.

Helga must have been beautiful once, but life’s stresses were aging her. Her skin was taut over her cheekbones. Her eyes, like Eric’s, which Eleanor described as “Hitler blue,” sometimes widened alarmingly when she spoke, a sort of tic.

“Come with me,” Eleanor said, leading me to the closet of cleaning supplies behind the restroom. She showed me that if you stood in just the right place, you could hear everything going on in Tom’s office. She had also used an ice pick to create herself a neat pinhole for discreet peeping.

“Some hot stuff goes on in there,” Eleanor said, fanning her face. “Helga and Tom. Yes, right under Harv’s nose. For years. They do their nasty here in the office. Tom the big family man. And Helga with her animal rights and eco-activism. Sometimes I was sure they knew I was here. It was like they were daring me to tell Harv.”

“Did you?”

“I had to. I finally couldn’t stand it any more.” A vision of Harv at the end suddenly invaded, the face gaunt with disillusionment and betrayal, the eyes now riddled with bitter self-doubt.

“He got sick right afterwards, one of Edie’s spells I’m sure. She went too far that time. They were all jealous because Harv was a great man. I was the only one who really tried to protect him.”

For months, Harv battled every complication his disease could throw at him. He surfaced at last from an ocean of antibiotics, weakened and wearied. His eyes had gone dull and pale, with brownish hollows beneath; his legs, once firm and tanned from the tennis he loved, were now thin and unsteady. The first thing he did was to file for divorce from Helga. The second was to retire.

To everyone’s surprise, the sickly, divorced Harv took on a sexual allure that the healthy, monogamous version had lacked. Women began to flock, stalk, and proposition him; even women he had once sent to jail offered themselves. Everybody wanted to care for him, to heal him from the inside out. Lock up your daughters, friends would rib him when Harv entered a room. But this stage could not last: like an incandescent bulb, Harv flared into a bright, final burn and then blinked out.

Late last Friday night, the phone rang. I was having a stiff scotch from the bottle of Glenlivet that my parents had bought me to celebrate my getting into law school. I used to tell myself that when the bottle was empty, I could put the whole experience behind me.

“I did it! I’m sorry to bother you at home, Melissa, but I had to tell you. I finally did it.“

“Did what?” My stomach gave a hard jump.

“I told Tom about Edie and her witchcraft. I waited until everyone left tonight, and then I went in and showed him all the evidence. Everything was marked with a date and catalogued. Tom always says the chain of evidence is the pivotal part of a case. Every single piece was there, where I found it and when. Edie was nailed!”

From my bedroom window, I saw a slate-dark, drizzling sky, and for some reason, I pictured Eleanor standing outside in that rain, the upswept hairdo soaked and collapsing of its own weight, sagging comically to one side like a duffel bag, the false lashes flapping wetly above the livid slash of lipstick.

“When you try to straighten things out,” Eleanor said, “and they keep getting twisted up again, you know there’s a powerful force working against you. I told Tom I’d tried to fight it for a long time, but her magic was getting stronger and he needed to take action now or it would be too late, the way it was with Harv. If he didn’t get rid of Edie, she would turn on him too and tell his wife and kids about the affair. Or else try to take you over. Edie is a very dangerous woman.”

I couldn’t bring myself to speak, so I tossed back the rest of the scotch, which seared a raw, welcome swath all the way down, burning through the hopeful lies; the presumptions and facades and well-worn excuses we employ to shore up our collapsing dreams.

“Oh I had her, all right. I even went out in the garden and pulled the plants she uses in her spells—star anise and bay leaves and lavender and rosemary and about a dozen more, and are they ever potent. Let her try to explain that away when Tom confronts her.”

“What did Tom say?”

“He said, “Well, Eleanor, it looks like you’ve done your homework. I know how much you care about the office, and I’m grateful for your work all these years.”

”That’s what he said?”

“Yes, and he should be grateful.”

My silence must have summoned back Eleanor the careerist. “It’s so considerate of you to hear me out, Melissa,” she said. “I apologize for calling on a weekend, but I did this for you too. Things will be different from now on, you’ll see.”

When I arrived at work on Monday morning, Edie met me in the waiting room. The stuffed owl observed us with its clever and knowing stare.

“Melissa, you should know that Tom had to fire Eleanor. So she won’t be here anymore.”

“Tom fired Eleanor?”

“He only kept her on here out of pity long past the time when there was no work for her. She lost important files and client information, and she was a handful for all of us—including you, I’m sure.” Transfixed by Edie’s pointed gaze, I said nothing. “Between you and me,” Edie said, “she was a disaster waiting to happen. I’m amazed at Tom’s patience. He felt terrible, of course, but he had to take the step of getting a restraining order to keep her from harassing us. So you let me know if she bothers you.”

As I turned away, Edie added that despite anything Eleanor may have told me, Tom was the most faithful of husbands and had always been a loyal friend to his partner. She hoped this whole unfortunate incident would not cause me to think of leaving the firm. In fact, Tom had even mentioned sending me to classes that would prepare me for another try at law school.

When my messages to Eleanor’s phone went unreturned, I drove past her small bungalow in Live Oak and knocked on her door. There was no response, though I thought I sensed movement within and I either glimpsed or imagined large, haunted eyes peering from a slat in the blinds.

Last week Edie moved me out of my cramped quarters and gave me Eleanor’s roomy corner cubicle. She and Tom even held a little ceremony with cake and tea to mark my elevation to legal research assistant. They presented me with all new office furniture and a new computer, and Edie even graced my office with a charming miniature spice garden under its own fluorescent lamp.

Shortly afterwards, my once boyfriend called to ask if would consider giving our relationship another chance. He sounded more ardent than he ever had.

As I drive to work, it occurs to me that each street, house and building in town has its own story, and that these are sometimes very bizarre ones. I remind myself  that this must be true of every hamlet in the world.

 

 

 

BIO

Linda Boroff graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in English. Her writing has appeared in McSweeney’s, The Guardian, Hollywood Dementia, Drunk Monkeys, Word Riot, Hobart, Ducts, Blunderbuss, Adelaide, Thoughtful Dog, Storyglossia, Able Muse, The Furious Gazelle, JONAH Magazine, The Boiler, Cold Creek Review, and others, including several anthologies. 

She was nominated for a 2016 Pushcart Prize for fiction, and she won first prize in The Writers Place short story competition. She has written one feature film which played in theaters and festivals in 2010. Her short story published in Epoch is under option to Sony and director Brad Furman (The Lincoln Lawyer). She wrote the script for the upcoming biopic of film noir actress Barbara Payton, Fast Fade, currently casting with producer Don Murphy (Transformers).

 

 

 

 

 

0

Disposal

by Zachary Ginsburg

 

 

Bethany ended the phone call with her husband and slid the kitchen knife back into its wooden block on the countertop. She tossed the unopened package of tortellini into the fridge and poured the boiling water into the sink. The sink flooded, and bits of soggy organic matter floated out of the drain and cavorted in the hot water like nudibranchs. As she reached to switch on the disposal, a small round object glinted in the basin. She fished it out and held in her palm her husband’s wedding ring.

“The hell?” she said aloud. She dried it off and laid it on a paper towel. On second thought, she slipped it into the pocket of her shorts. On third thought, she placed it back on the counter, because her shorts were pretty short and things tended to fall out of her pockets when she sat on the couch.

With her legs tucked under her on the couch, she gazed out the window across Lake Shore Drive at the boats bobbing in Belmont Harbor, thirteen stories below. Then she picked some gunk from underneath her fingernail and wondered why her husband had been so careless with his ring. By nature, he was a clean and organized person, even to the point of OCD. Everything in the condo had its proper place, from the leather box that held the TV remotes to the nightstand that stored his earplugs, sleeping mask, and Vaseline. When she would forget to use a coaster, he would lift her glass, slide one underneath, and remind her of the woodgrain. When she would forget to lay a towel down before sex, he would lift her ass, slide one underneath, and remind her of the eighteen-hundred-thread-count Egyptian cotton.

She kicked her legs up on the walnut coffee table and opened her laptop. She was in the process of designing a website for a nail salon. It featured a lifelike hand of adjustable skin tone, which would allow users to preview different polishes. Her clients expected this level of ingenuity from her. She made bold claims on the bulletin boards of Chicago coffeeshops and damn well lived up to them.

When his key jangled the doorknob, she closed her laptop and walked into the kitchen. He stripped off his sport coat and carried the smiley-face bag of takeout to their round oak dining table. Bethany handed him a plate.

“Check it out,” he said, nipping his chopsticks at her nose. “I’m getting better. Pretty soon I’ll be able to lift a grain of rice.”

The sweet garlicky smell of her pad thai made her stomach rumble, and she shoveled the entire plastic container onto her plate. “How was bowling?”

“Shot a two-twenty,” he said casually, scooping noodles into his mouth. “New personal best.”

“Did you win?”

“Oh, babe. This wasn’t league play.”

She chewed hard on a peanut. Did he really need to practice for his bowling league?

“Your ring’s on the counter,” she said.

He peered at the tan line on his finger. Then he scratched his stubbly chin, as if contemplating the best way to word it. “See, I’ve been taking it off, to bowl. But I thought it was in my work bag. Where was it?”

“The sink actually. The disposal.”

“You’re shitting me.”

She grabbed it off the counter and placed it on his napkin.

“It must have been when I was loosening it with the dish soap.” He rolled the platinum band around in his fingers and slipped it into the breast pocket of his checkered shirt.

“How was work, I mean, have you finished that new website?” he asked.

She burped softly and pushed the bean sprouts to the edge of her plate. She could hear the wheels spinning in his head: she’s getting quiet. I’ve done something wrong. Well, at least she hoped he was thinking this. He had done something wrong. She just didn’t know what it was yet.

 

It happened again a couple days later. Bethany was sitting in the kitchen, half working on her client’s website, half reading a news story about a missing woman from their neighborhood, when her husband called saying he would grab takeout on his way home from practice. She dumped the pot of water she had been heating and watched the nudibranchs dance up from the disposal and shake their tentacles. Amidst the merriment, Bethany spotted something shiny and lifted a ring that was not her husband’s. It was an engagement ring, with an awfully large diamond sparkling wet.

Her heart sank, and she plopped on the couch, clenching the ring in her fist. With her other hand, she teased the tassels on a throw pillow. Something about the innocence of the tassels, their simple purpose of adorning the pillow, made her want to cry. She pinched her thigh and wondered if she should have gone to more spin classes.

An hour later, he walked in the door, stepped out of his loafers, and crossed the beige handwoven rug they bought at Crate&Barrel. The smiley-face bag in his hand smelled sweetly of pad thai. Had she known “takeout” meant the same meal from two nights ago, she would have cooked the damn tortellini.

She marched to the table and set the ring on his placemat. “What is this?”

He turned it over in his fingers and raised one of his caterpillar eyebrows. She usually enjoyed this fuzzy expression but now analyzed it for discrepancies.

“Tiffany’s?” he said.

“Who?”

“I meant the jewelry store. Whose is it?”

“You tell me,” she said, dropping into the seat across from him.

Both of his eyebrows shot up as if the caterpillars were stretching their backs.

“What are you accusing me of?”

Bethany did not know the answer to this. Deep down, she felt he was having an affair, but why would it end with both his and her rings down the drain?

“Has anyone been here that I don’t know about?”

“You’re the one who works from home,” he said, hunching over his noodles. “I’m never alone here.”

“That’s not true. I go to coffeeshops. I go out with friends.”

“When was the last time you did either of those?”

“I went to my mother’s last weekend.”

“Your mother,” he said, spearing a piece of beef with his chopstick. “Are you going to call her after dinner? Tell her I’m having an affair?” His eyes hardened, and the muscles in his face tightened. “Are you two going to whisper behind my back?”

A flare-up. It was as if a switch flipped inside him. This was how she described these episodes to her mother, who often responded by calling him a “hothead.” She would never forget the first one, in college when she asked about his ex-girlfriend, and he spent the next hour ranting about how much he hated her, using insults she tried to wipe clean from her memory. Back then, she would offset these flare-ups with the reasons she loved him: his laugh, his caterpillar eyebrows, the way he would wait for her outside of her classes, the way they would talk until dawn, wrapped in each other’s arms. But tonight, she was having a hard time retrieving this affection.

“Goddamn it!” he yelled after dropping a saucy piece of beef in his lap. He stood, and it flopped to the floor, leaving a dark stain on his chinos. He snapped his chopsticks in half, stormed to the sink, and wet the orange dish towel. Nothing infuriated him more than stains.

A wave of schadenfreude lifted Bethany out of her despair. She tossed her unopened container of pad thai into the fridge and slunk to their bedroom. She decided against calling her mother. He wouldn’t win that easily.

 

His bowling league was the following night. He returned late on these nights after drinking with his friends, so she figured it was finally safe to cook tortellini. She had been brooding all day as she worked on the website and poured herself a glass of chardonnay. She considered reading The Art of Happiness, which rested on the coffee table for when she felt out of sorts, but the day had been taxing and reading seemed laborious. As the water heated, she watched the news, but this only made her feel worse. They ran a story on the missing woman she read about yesterday. A photo showed her smiling with thin eyebrows and highlighted hair cascading over her right shoulder. She was pinching a lock of it between her red fingernails, as if twirling it.

“Thirty-two-year-old Samantha Rogers was last seen at Diversey River Bowl, where she works as a bartender,” the newswoman said numbly.

Bethany turned off the TV and reached for the book. The doorknob rattled, and she jumped, imagining a burglar trying to pick the lock. She glanced at the knives on the counter, but before she could move, the door swung open. It was only her husband, carrying a bouquet of purple tulips.

“You may want to put on something nice,” he said, handing her the flowers. “I made a reservation at Mon Ami Gabi.”

This was her favorite restaurant. She breathed in the fresh tulips and searched his gray-blue eyes, finding them pleasant like the lake on a calm day. “What about the league?”

“I’m sorry,” he said, “for acting like a jerk. Can I treat you to salmon tartare?”

She took another whiff of the bouquet. “I’ll be right back.”

She chose her green dress, leaving the lavender one on its hanger. He didn’t deserve her best, at least not right now. It would take more than one dinner for her to put on a show. Still, she wished she’d known in advance so she could have painted her nails.

After she retrieved her phone from the kitchen counter and zipped it in her purse, she noticed the front door was open.

He must be waiting in the hallway, she thought, annoyed by his sudden impatience. This night was supposed to be about her, right?

She stepped into her ballet flats but remembered the pot of water boiling on the stove. She dumped it in the sink and hovered over the nudibranch dance party, scanning for rings. She found none but spotted a pale shrimp-like object rolling along the basin. She reached her hand into the hot water and pinched its squishy middle. When she breached the surface, droplets of water dripped off the red nail. She was holding a severed human finger.

Her arm spasmed in a reflex of terror, flinging the finger into the sink. She did not hear the thud she must have made toppling to the floor. After righting herself to her hands and knees, the kitchen spun as if their whole condo were spiraling down a drain.

The missing woman on the news. Could her husband have possibly…?

She pulled herself up by the counter but lurched back when she saw her husband blocking the doorway.

“You look pale,” he said, his hard unblinking eyes trained on her. “Have you eaten today?”

“Not a thing,” Bethany said, glancing at the knives. A last resort.

“We should get to the restaurant.”

“Will you pull the car around?” she asked. “I just need to make a quick call.”

“A call?”

“To a client.”

His footsteps died down the hallway in the direction of the elevator. She grabbed her phone out of her purse and dialed 9-1-1, but her finger hesitated above the green call button. Her husband, the man she’d lived with for the past seven years, the boy in college who made her laugh until sunrise. Could he really have murdered someone? She deleted 9-1-1 and dialed her mother instead. Her mother would be too shocked to say, “I told you so.” That would come later. But in the present moment, her mother would guide her out of this disaster. She would rattle off a list of instructions like a recipe, with safety popping out at the end.

 

 

BIO:

Zachary Ginsburg was born and raised in Chicago and worked there as an educator. He is currently pursuing his MFA in Fiction at The New School.

 

 

 

 

0

I Know

by Laura Fletcher

 

It was a fine, large-windowed restaurant she led him into, their heads already a little light from the martinis at the first bar. She wore a dress that brushed just the top of her knees, and fit pleasingly over the parts of her body that were beginning to warp with age. His shoes were shined and his blazer was well-tailored over shoulders that seemed used to stooping. He was holding her hand; her laugh was just a bit breathy.

A gentleman led them to a booth by a broad window; she pulled her wrap around herself as the outside chill seeped in through the glass. She paused for a moment on her reflection, her eyes deeply shadowed. Through the dark pane of her face, she could see flakes of snow lazily swinging their way to the ground. Her breath caught in her throat as she came to herself. Her hand squeezed the inside of her opposite elbow, the nails biting the flesh. She did not cry. She turned back to the gentleman, her eyes shining, and ordered a Manhattan. She would try not to resurface again.

Her husband regarded her, his brow furrowed, lips poised for a smile, hoping he could smile. She turned back to him. “What? We’re celebrating. And we’ll get wine, too!” she said, her eyes bright; her jaw set. He smiled a little pityingly, looking down at the table. “Yes, celebrating. Yes,” he replied; he paused as she smiled back at him, glad, but not showing her teeth. He continued: “It is a big, big deal. You should be proud.”

“We’ll pay off the house, and Cameron will be set for college, if tuition hasn’t tripled by the time he gets there.” She was ever practical in the face of transformative things.

“Even if it has, he’ll still be covered. And we could move – find somewhere bigger, by the river.” His eyes began to grow a little misty, the two martinis helping him see a back porch overlooking a gentle, green slope, a little dock, the constant, quiet hum of the water, of things that do not end.

“You know I won’t leave her house,” she said, low and direct, bringing him back to the tablecloth, the candle, how it shone on her hair. “Of course,” he said. “I know.”

Her Manhattan and his gin and tonic arrived. She thanked the waiter in a throaty way, making her eyes luminously grateful as they met his. He nodded curtly, but flushed a little. She found herself smiling – these moments of radiance were so few and far between now. She cherished them when they did arrive; she felt herself swelling with potency and potential, with power, as though there might still be things ahead after all. She took a long sip of her Manhattan, as though it could keep her there in that emitting state.

“So, what do you think; are we going to retire?” her husband asked with some joviality, as the warmth of his wife’s glow seeped into his fingertips. She bestowed her shining gaze on him and laughed, “Jonesing to be a house husband?”

“Jonesing to be a man of leisure!” and the little dock came back to him, evening, himself in a white Adirondack chair, bourbon, a book, Cameron.

They laughed together.

“$41 million…” he said, shaking his head. “It’s remarkable. You are a remarkable woman.”

Now she blushed a little, looking down, a rushing in her ears, her fist clenching below the table, every sense on high alert. And then her husband touched her other hand and she was back, dimmed, but present again. They looked at each other. He could sense tremors that perhaps she herself did not even feel yet, and scrambled to draw her gently away from them.

“Have you told anyone at the firm?” he asked, pointing towards what he hoped was a safer harbor.

“Just that we won, not how much or anything – that seemed gauche. Well, Amelia asked specifically so I told her, but that’s all.”

“It’s lucky for us they’ve been so supportive.”

“It’s counting as pro bono hours for them, so everyone’s getting what they want,” she replied. A tremor. Her eyes dropped to the table, hearing her own words, her throat catching, her eyes welling suddenly as she looked back at her good, kind husband and he, having been poised at the ready swiftly took her two hands, pressing her palms together and casing them with his, murmuring in as deep a voice as he could muster, “I know, Turtle. I know.”

“I don’t want this,” she whispered, her lashes glittering.

“I know. Me too. Me either. I know,” he whispered back, his own breath catching in his throat, leaning in as he pressed her hands again. They breathed together for a moment, then she pulled back, shaking her head, touching the corner of her eyes. “Okay. It was for Cameron. This changes things for him.”

“For us,” her husband interjected, touching his own eyes.

“Yes. Ok, yes. For us. This was for us.”

The waiter glided up to present them an amuse bouche from the chef, and to take their order if they were ready but there was no rush. They needed a moment to look over the menu.

He swallowed whole his spoonful-worth of whatever it was in one gulp; she perused the menu silently, decided, and sipped her spoon, watching him closely, still curious after all these years. He held the menu flat on the table and leaned over it, seeking without scrutinizing the first acceptable option he could find, which she already knew was the portobello ravioli.

She would test herself. “What do you think?”

“Ravioli.”

“It was the first thing,” she laughed, right again, the corner of her mouth twisting. His smile was wide, sheepish, caught.

“It was the first thing.”

They linked hands across the table, as though he were going to kiss her fingers, swear fealty to her. He met her eyes, “You’re still my first thing.”

She pulled her chin down, almost blushing. “Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

The waiter returned. Their hands slid back to their respective sides. He took their order and departed. She sank back in her chair, staring somewhere past the top of her husband’s head. She slowly turned her glass, with just the tips of her fingers. She had meant to say something, there had been something…but the space before her eyes wavered towards its center, her head was light, her arms felt heavy. She drank half her water and contemplated the final mouthfuls of her Manhattan. Her stomach rose a bit toward the back of her throat as she thought of the wine that was already on its way. She sipped her water again and excused herself to the ladies’ room. Her husband grabbed her hand as she passed, and she leaned down to kiss him, touching his face.

 

He waited as she walked away, then gently touched his temples. His throat constricted suddenly; his eyes watered. His breath came out in a tight cough. His hands came together, covering his face for a moment, then pulled down to his chin as he took in a deep breath. He blinked hard, and busied himself with stirring the end of his drink.

 

She was leaning forward over the edge of the sink, observing herself in the mirror. She reached to smooth the makeup that had caked slightly in the line from her nose to the corner of her mouth. She thought again how she looked like her mother – not the way her mother looked now, but the way her mother looked when she thought of her, how her mother would have been about her age when she looked like this. And in a rush, she felt herself stretching back along the chain of mothers and daughters that led to her, the final, broken link, limp with disconnect. Her face contorted horribly as she ran the water to drown it out, but it came anyway, her mother’s voice on the phone, first with extreme pathos, then rising with hysteria, “What? She…what?” and her own inability to repeat the words, forming them with dry, heaving sobs, her mother slowly joining her as the infidelity of death settled over them both. Like a malevolent, runaway train, there was no way to stop this once it had begun – it just had to be ridden out. She clung to the sides of the sink, eyes pressed tight, until the many-fingered demons clutching her heart and lungs began to relax their vicious grip.

She shook her head, patted a wet towel to her cheeks and chest, and pushed through the door to her husband.

 

The back of his neck came into view first: a patch of clean skin above his stooped shoulders, and she would have briefly hated his bad posture and misaligned collar if they were not so familiar to her, and she was ready to accept anything recognizable, solid, distracting. She ran her hand over his shoulder as she passed him. He started, looking up at her, and beamed. She smiled as she sat across from him, her lips pressed together. She looked down until he broke the silence welling up between them. “We could talk a little about her.”

“What else is there to say? We’ve told every story.” Her voice was like sandpaper over skin.

“Well…we could retell our favorites…” he stumbled, “and maybe there are some we haven’t told – I just…I was just remembering what her sneeze sounded like, just a huffy little cry and not a real sneeze, just a little baby sneezy sound.”

It had been just like that. This little bundle of miraculous continuity she had not even been sure she had wanted, but who had arrived and who could sneeze. It had become as familiar as an old cardigan, this vertigo sensation, as her stomach dropped and she curled in on herself, her shoulders wrapping forward like inverse wings. She knew that if she let herself contract, if she could bite the inside of her lip and twist her toes uncomfortably against the inside of her shoes and squeeze her eyes shut, it would pass – it would wrench through her, her grief a medieval torture device, and then it could be contained and then she could return to the world. He was right. She had not thought about that little sneeze. What a gift, what a precious gift: a sneeze, a rough pearl to add to the string of others rubbed to a bright polish with remembering.

She laughed, a small, genuine, grateful laugh, and began to decontract. “Yes, okay, yes. Let’s talk about her a little.” Her mascara had smudged in the corner of one eye, and he stared at it, suddenly fixated on how she was always like this, how so much armor had so many cracks, how it just took one good pry to pull the whole thing apart, how she was infuriating in her righteousness but also sometimes had smudged mascara and he just wanted to cup her cheek and rub it away with his thumb.

The wine arrived. The bottle was good. The waiter poured, and departed.

“So, what else have you got? What else have you been keeping from me?” she asked laughingly, trying to bring some brightness back to her eyes. His face fell as though struck, shoulders stooping even more.

“You know I don’t keep anything from you.” His voice was hurt, quiet. He was looking down.

“Oh Turtle, you know I didn’t mean it like that!” She floundered, “I didn’t mean anything – I know you don’t.” She reached across the table, opening her hand for his. “I’m so sorry…I just want more…more of her…and her sneeze,” her eyes welled, she sniffed, “that was so good, such a good one. I just want to talk more about her.”

He laid his hand in hers. She gripped it. After a moment, and without looking up yet, he gripped it back.

“I have another – it was before you went back to work – maybe one of the first times we all got out of the house, and it was just going to the diner, and she was asleep and Cameron was being good and when we got there, he wanted to push her stroller.” He had been speaking with his eyes half-closed, methodically but with vague anticipation, until here where an electric shock went through them both. He snapped to face her, his eyes wide. “It wasn’t that one, it was the old one. Cameron’s old one.” They both relaxed, imperceptibly. He pressed on. “He just wanted to push it, but he was really too little, and you stood behind him and had your hands over his hands on the handles and I was walking a little ahead and I just kept looking back at you and him and her and I just kept saying ‘This is my family, this is my family, this is my family,’ and you know I almost cried in that parking lot with my heart fit to burst?”

“This is your family,” she said, her voice tight and tender.

He looked up at her, reaching his other hand up to grip hers with both. “Yes –” he blinked hard. “I love you.”

“Always. Through everything.”

“Yes.”

They sat quietly for a moment, seeing each other. With a squeeze of his fingers, she leaned back. “I have one.” She twisted her wine glass in her fingers, then sipped it. “It was Christmas,” she paused, her breath caught in her throat, her face crumpled. “Her only Christmas….” He dropped his head too, wrung his hands while she raised her napkin to her face. They were both quiet for a moment, composing themselves. With an audible heave, she began again. “It was Christmas, and she was down for a nap…it must have been Christmas afternoon…I guess everyone was napping, because I’d fallen asleep in that big arm chair in her room. I came to with these quiet little sounds nearby – it was your dad. He was standing over her crib, holding her feet while she kicked, singing these little songs to her and she was, you know, making those little happy sounds back at him, and then I realized he’d pulled a blanket over me and I just thought ‘Oh, he’s a good protector. He’ll protect her.’” She swallowed hard, her voice cracking again. “And I didn’t say anything and I kinda smiled a little and went back to sleep thinking…thinking how…how safe we were.”

She sniffled lightly, glancing up to see the waiter gliding to the side of the table, plates in hand. She looked to her husband, his face inscrutable, trying its best to rearrange itself now that a stranger had shattered the thin, glass bubble they had blown for themselves, where they imagined themselves invisible, or at least alone, the sounds of the world muffled, they the only real things, the protagonists.

“Madame, your risotto, and sir for you, the ravioli.”

“Thank you…thank you, it looks lovely.”

“Our pleasure. Is there anything else you need at the moment?”

“No, thank you…no, that’s all.”

“Enjoy!” He glided away.

They were both quiet as he faded, each touching their forks but not eating yet.

“That’s what they were doing, you know.” He was now staring at her intently, gesturing slightly with one hand. She furrowed her brow. “They were keeping her safe. It was supposed to be the safest stroller in the world.”

“Mhmm.” Her voice was flat, but her chin raised slightly, edging it with challenge. He held her gaze, then sat back, slightly stunned. “You blame them. You still blame them?” He shook his head. “I don’t believe it. You still…do you?” His welling fury passed suddenly to the pleading of a small child. “Do you?”

He hunched forward, his shoulders round, his mouth open. He scrutinized her bowed face. He spoke haltingly, like a growl. “As far as anyone knew, it was the safest stroller in the world.”

Her eyes were squeezed shut. Her lips were thin. The floor seemed to tilt below her and she shook her head ever so slightly. “It wasn’t, though,” she barely whispered.

“Of course it wasn’t, of course. They just paid us $41 million because they were cheats and liars, and in this one, single, devastating case, murderers. But my parents did not know that,” he was almost shouting now, his face red with grief, indignation, wine. “They didn’t know; of course they didn’t know; no one knew…no one knew.”

The bubble that had ballooned around them faded again. Other tables came slowly into focus, sounds became louder, or more particularly, the immediate quiet surrounding them became louder, until they were forced to look around, to glance momentarily at the couples trying not to glance momentarily at them. His face reddened more deeply. She found his gaze, held it, hardening herself against what she was about to say. He waited, the hairs on the back of his neck rising in panic, in protest.

“Our baby is dead, and we are getting paid for it.”

She said it like it was something he did not already know. With complete clarity, he felt himself hurling his glass to the ground, enjoying the sharp shatter, shoving the table and all its contents into a magnificent and representative heap, he heard himself screaming that she was not the only parent, that his grief was also a pit that reached from his stomach to the center of the earth that no houses by the river or gin and tonics or other children could fill or close or even lessen – that he knew and he knew and he knew.

He convulsed from everything it took to control himself, and then his slumped shoulders slumped yet again toward the still-intact table. She waited, not sure if she was poised for fight or flight; the table, a tangle of plates, and one small, mangled body the only things lying between them.

He found he was still clutching his fork, and he gently laid it by his plate. He laid his hand beside it, his fingers lightly splayed. “I know,” he said, staring at the empty space in the middle of the table. “We could donate it all away, we could get divorced, we could take it out on Cameron, we could cut ties with my parents, we could commit suicide, we could both join a monastery and never speak again…and it won’t bring her back. It won’t make her even one tiny little bit less dead than she is now.”

She regarded him levelly, her chin jutted forward, her arms crossed. And then it was her shoulders that slumped, her cheeks that grew hot. There was nothing to fight, or to flee. “I know.”

He reached his hand across the table, asking for hers again. She stood instead, swinging around the table and sliding into the booth beside him, crushing herself against his wrinkled suit, his warm side. She turned her face up to his, the corners of her mouth raised in a question, an apology. He smiled back, touching the corner of his eye and reaching his other arm around her shoulders. He kissed her forehead, then adjusted his plate and, one-handedly, began to eat. She pulled her plate across the table and, between small hiccoughs, almost like a baby’s sneeze, began to eat too.

 

 

BIO

Laura Fletcher studied creative writing at Princeton University; her work has previously appeared in The Nassau Literary Review and Wax Antlers. She has been an educator, entrepreneur, consultant, product manager, and apprentice baker, though is happiest when she is a writer. She currently lives in Denver, Colorado and finds the mountains a great comfort.

 

 

 

 

 

0

Deus Ex Marina

by Megan Mooney

 

 

The fearsome Captain Longbeard stared dramatically into the roiling waves flowing around the back end of his ship’s keel. One does not generally think of graceful when imagining a sea-roughened pirate, yet the term easily applied to him. Longbeard held his figure in such a way that denoted his quiet agility; one that had either manifested from training in the deadly arts of the sword or perhaps it was that his mother enrolled him in ballet starting at the age of seven: an action that definitely didn’t lead to bullying and self-esteem issues. But the latter is obviously too specific to be true. Longbeard doesn’t even like ballet… that much.

That’s a bit of a tangent though, where was I? Right, got it. Draaama.

Captain Longbeard’s long silvery beard shone in the moonlight that peeked intermittently through the sheet of grey clouds above. It waved in the wind much like the pearly seafoam below that crests upon the waves and–

“Aaagh,” cried Captain Longbeard.

The first mate, Kyle (poor thing, really, awful name; got him beat up many times as a kid), ran up to him from the deck after hearing his cries, “What is it, Captain?”

“Pfft, pfft! Me damn beard got stuck in me mouth again when it was waving in the wind, much like the pearly seafoam below that crests upon the waves and– pfft!” The wind blew his beard into his mouth again. “I swear ye darn thing, I’ll cut ye off the next time this happens!”

“But Captain…”

“Whaaat!?”

“Ye name is Longbeard…” Kyle began.

“Ye point?”

“Well, ye might look rather silly without a beard.” At that, the Captain began stroking his beard with his wooden hook.

“I suppose thar is some truth in that.” He thought for a moment and continued stroking his beard then held the hook up to the moonlight and gazed at it. And it is in that moment,  in which Longbeard was staring at his hook of mahogany and Kyle just standing there awkwardly while his captain has a moment with an inanimate piece of wood, that it’s time to cue the tragic backstory.

* Ahem *

On a moonlit night, much like this one, Captain Goldenhook (as Longbeard was once known) stood at the stern of the ship, one leg up on the railing and his one good hand propped regally on his knee. His chest was puffed out and his hat was jauntily askew in the manner he had heard made you look was in fashion, but it’s not like he cared about that kind of thing because he had a big ship and treasure on four islands and certainly doesn’t care that his dad left him when he was young and basically has no insecurities to speak of at all. It’s possible the Captain revealed a bit too much of his past when the crew stole a few casks of whiskey.

There he stood, the picture of incredible Captainness (it’s a thing trust me), his velvet coat hung off his slender yet capable shoulders and several rings glimmered from his hand. The expression on his stubbled, but not as of yet, bearded, face turned into one of amused delight as he pondered his recent victories over several militaries and a few smaller pirate gangs. Treasure had flooded his hull so that his ship was slower than normal, but they should be safe, only a night’s travel from their island harbor. In the morning they would dock and unload their newest plunder and then depart to new adventures across the Seven Seas––        

Screeeeechh! Something scraped along the underside of the hull. The vessel leaned dangerously to port. Buckets, ropes, and other equipment could be heard sliding across the deck, and a few sounds of splashing could be heard soon after, one sounded suspiciously too large to just be equipment.

The Captain fell off balance and rammed into the railing, his hat tumbling off his head. At the last second, his hook, golden and really, really shiny, caught it by the brim. He placed it back atop his head. Tilted it to just the right angle, then went about yelling and stuff.

“Aye, crew!” What in the depths is going on down thar?!” Goldenhook lumbered  down the steps to the lower deck where his men were scrambling, some running around with ropes trying to secure anything left untethered, while others just kind of ran around screaming. “Blimey! Control ye’selves! I asked ye all a question, now what in Davy Jones is happening!”

Kyle ran up to the Captain and saluted him before addressing him very seriously, “I have no idea!” He paused and Goldenhook raised an eyebrow at him. “Captain!”

Screeeech! This time the sound had come from the bow side and it lingered longer. There could be no mistaking it this time. It was the Shirley.

[Sidenote: The Shirley is the most fearsome creature of the deep. It has never been seen before. Some have called it a kraken or a shark of enormous size. Others call it the physical embodiment of a nightmare. Therefore, the name–Shirley. We all know one.]

Captain Goldenhook rushed to the deck with the rest of his crew and watched as the enormous body of an enormous creature rose out of the boiling water and blotted out the moon. The men caught in its shadow were stunned into silence.

Then they screamed.

The silhouette of the creature lengthened towards the heavens and part of the silhouette split off from the rest and the shadowy stripe zipped across the sky and came smashing through the ship, cleaving it in two. The enormous mass reared back up revealing itself to be one of the Shirley’s enormous tentacles before cracking the main mast with a single swing. The scout at the top of the mast clung to it until it fell over into the cabins where the scout jumped off breaking their left leg.

The men scrambled for safety as the two sides of the ship were gradually swallowed by the waves and dark depths beneath. Other tentacles flashed up and grabbed onto a few of the men as they tried to escape. Their screams were muted by the sound of the crashing waves and the timber tearing apart.

Captain Goldenhook clung to the railing as he watched in despair at the state of his precious ship. The horror! He was considering the sizeable portion of the treasure it would take to make the repairs and replace the crew when he felt a tug on his coat. A tentacle had slithered over the deck and wrapped itself around him. He felt himself lifted into the air. He felt majestic and weightless like a bird. He didn’t scream. He accepted his fate. At least, that’s what he said afterwards.

He found himself dangling in front a gaping black maw. The tentacle’s grip tightened on Goldenhook and then thrust him towards the terrible, sharp beak of the Shirley.

The next day he awoke to the most terrifying sight of all. Not only was the majority of his crew missing, his treasure sunk, and ship drowned– but his golden hook, his namesake, was gone.

The Captain sustained no actual injuries, just the hook and its attachment were lost. He quickly got over the loss of his crew, treasure, and even his ship.

But damn it, if he didn’t really, really like that hook.

So he grew a beard and changed his name. He sought out new crewmembers and a new vessel. Luckily, Kyle had survived so he wouldn’t have to find a first mate that suited him. He also got a new hook, but this one was simple, plain mahogany, its nondescript nature a constant reminder of his great loss and a motivator to plunder more and more. With the treasure he bought more men and a ship more magnificent and powerful than any before, until he was absolutely certain he could never be overtaken again.

And that is what brought the Captain back to the scene of that fateful night, where he stood in front of a confused Kyle and stared at the ugliest piece of wood formed into a hook he could imagine. It mocked him. He squinted at it. Kyle squinted at it, too, not certain if that was what he was supposed to do or not.

“Captain!” a voice sounded from far off on the ship. Captain Longbeard realized it came from the scout on the main mast. The very same that had survived the destruction of the first ship. “The Shirley! It has been spotted!”

“Then make way for it! The monster is mine!” cried the Captain.

Captain Longbeard felt his long wait come to an end as this moment came to a head. His vengeance would come. He had stored the newest and most powerful cannons below decks, explosives and all other manners of warfare were strapped down on the main deck, the men working furiously to ready them for the inevitable battle. The Captain hobbled to the bow as the waves became more choppy. They followed a melodic rhythm not unlike that of a huge beast swimming in the depths and changing the tide. He smiled.

That is when he felt the ship lift up beneath him, he whipped his sword out of its sheath and prepared for the tentacles to start wrapping around the sides of the ship.

But they didn’t come.

Captain Longbeard walked with trepidation to the railing where he could see that the ship had not only been lifted off the sea, but now floated a good distance above it. SO far above the sea were they that the Captain could see the full massive silhouette of the Shirley below them, its tentacles thrashing at the place that the ship had just occupied. He then looked closer at the ship itself, to the hull where seawater streamed off and revealed barnacles that had been clinging to the ship below the water’s surface. Yet he spied something less expected, they looked like pale tentacles perhaps, yet they had nails on the tips of them? He could see four of these long appendages on the side he was on and then turned around to see that they were in fact attached to a … forearm?

“Look!” Kyle shouted, “It’s the Hand of God!”

He wasn’t wrong.

Captain Longbeard looked to the heavens and saw that the clouds swirled around a massive, tastefully hairy forearm. The hand it was attached to held the boat in its massive grip. It illuminated the night, like the moon come to rest on the terrestrial plane. They had been saved!

This really annoyed the Captain.

“Blimey! Stop that now, would ye?!” the Captain’s veins bulged as he shook his fist at the much larger one.

“Behold, I, your God have come to– wait, what?” the voice of God shook the deck as mightily as during any great thunderstorm.

“Ye are ruining my vengeance!” the Captain shouted back angrily shaking his wooden hook toward the sky.

“You do realize, you were going to die, right?”

“SOOOOOOOOOO??” the Captain really wasn’t a fan of backtalk, “I’m about to miss my chance to fight the Shirley.”

“I know. I know all. But you were definitely going to die, though.”

“No! What was going to happen was–”

“Umm, excuse me, Captain.” Kyle interrupted as the rest of the crew gathered nervously around the Captain. They were slightly perturbed by the disembodied voice that caused the deck to vibrate every time it sounded, but truly afraid at seeing the curvature of the Earth. They had always presumed it was flat. Then Kyle turned to the clouds above that were separated by the massive arm. “Are we definitely going to die, or are we only going to die a little bit?”

“How–How is that even possible? I mean really, how do you die just a little bit?” God, apparently, was a little sassy.

“You know, like when you wake up with a really bad headache.”

God was silent for a moment. There was a slight shift in the breeze that could have been caused by massive fingers pinching the bridge of an equally massive nose annoyedly, but one can never be certain about these things.

“That’s–that’s not anywhere close to dying. You know that, right? Maybe try drinking some water and not just rum all the time, Kyle.”

“Oh my God! God knows my name!” Kyle shouted and thrust his fists into the air then turned to get high fives from the excited crewmen around him.

“But yeah, you definitely would have died.” The crew stopped cheering. “You were all going to rush the Shirley and it was going to eat you. Like, all of you.”

“So, like, eat us a little bit or…”

“Completely! It was going to eat you completely!”

The crew were silent for a moment, considering this new information.

“Well, that’s not ideal,” said one of the crew in the back.

“No, which is why I came here to save you! You may not know it, but some of you could be the ancestors to some of the most important people in history! For example, you, Killian.  Your great-great granddaughter will discover the cure for cancer and save millions of lives!”

“Grand-daughter?” muttered a confused Killian, “ But women can’t do anything important.” He paused. “And what’s cancer?”

“Goodness, nevermind. Just know that despite your current station in life, all of you could hold great importance for the future of this world. Well … except for Jerry. That’s my bad, I guess. But because of the whole “free will” thing, I need you all to agree to be saved. If you all so choose, I can whisk you all away to a safe beautiful island full of food and drink–”          

“And women!?” shouted a member of the crew.

“Well, no, not really. It’s a deserted island, but–”

“Aaaah,” everyone in the crew except for the scout, who had one magnificent eyeroll, groaned, although Kyle did so halfheartedly.

“Well, well, can’t just force us into your little scheme, huh, God? If that is your real name!” cried the Captain.

“Well, it’s not my name, more of a title, really. My name is actually–”

“Don’t care! Me vengeance won’t be deterred by some silly cloud liver like you! Now men, let’s put it to a vote, who wants to be a man and fight the Shirley with ye Cap’n?! And who wants to be remembered as a cowardly, black-spotted, nattering wretch?!”

The scout’s hand raised. “Cap’n I think we should go with God’s plan, seeing as he is all-knowing and such, and knows that we shan’t live.”

“I should’ve known the woman would be the one to cower from glory! Any other cowards among us?!” the Captain shouted vehemently. Some of the crew members grumbled, but then the Captain continued. “I asked ye, are thar any more cowards among ye?”

“NO, CAPTAIN!” all of the crew except for the scout shouted. They quickly set their faces to their meanest expressions, saved for ransacking villages and or invading ships. All except for Kyle, poor thing, he really couldn’t tell his mean face from his constipated one.

“Good!” the Captain swaggered over to the railing and polished his hook victoriously against his velvet coat, then placed it against the railing near God’s glowing forearm. “Well, then, I suppose we’ll be having our fight after all. Set us down, God!”

“You’re an idiot.”

“Well, that’s me own choice isn’t it!” the Captain yelled back, shaking his fist to the sky.

“Unfortunately.”

The Hand of God gradually lowered the ship back down to the sea, the curvature of the earth gradually receding into its apparent flatness. The ship plopped the last few feet into their beloved watery depths and the crew cheered in a very pirate manner. The crew hurried back to their posts and readied the cannons, all except for one. No one noticed but the scout had meandered over to the railing closest to the Arm of God and she jumped to its safety.

“Well, have fun, I guess,” muttered the Voice of God as his arm slowly receded into the cloudbank and took her along with it.

“We will! And another thing…” the Captain continued shouting arrogantly into the night even as it returned to its regular moonlit-ness and not its previous holy lit-ness, until he had sufficiently gotten what he considered the last word. He then lowered his voice somewhat to address just the crew and not so many immortal beings. “Haha, he thinks we’re the idiots, well, we’ll show him won’t we, men!”

The Captain turned around and saw the deck was strangely empty.

“Men?”

The Captain did not see the tentacle slither over the deck railing behind him, but he did feel as it gripped onto him in a way he wished he had forgotten.

“Perhaps, the scout was ri–” his words were cut off by his being dragged under the surface of the waves.

It may go without saying, but Captain Longbeard and his crew did not get their glory or their revenge or anything else for that matter. Perhaps, they would have if they had listened to me. The Hand of God carried me off to a safe land, but I am still stuck with the same lame leg as I’ve had since the first Shirley attack. It reminds everyday to pass on this story to other women I encounter. Perhaps, one day they’ll believe me when I say they needn’t live to benefit another, when they have the power to change their lives all on their own.

 

 

 

BIO

Megan Mooney is a recent alumni of Miami University where she studied Creative Writing. As an aspiring humorist, Megan likes to inject her comic wit into stories that seek to subvert clichéd storylines. Like many people her age, she enjoys traveling and seeking outdoor adventures. Exactly where she will end up in her career still remains a mystery to her. She currently resides in Lafayette, Indiana, with her family.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

The Exorcism of Ecphora

by Annie Blake

 

 

I wasn’t sure who kept switching on the lights. The house was supposed to be empty. I waited for him to come home because I needed some reassurance I wasn’t losing my sanity. He came home.

***

But I’m sure I switched off all the lights after everyone left that morning.

***

When I was alone the next day, I could hear footsteps outside my room.

***

The more my ears open, the more my voice shuts down. It’s automatic. Sometimes I become a mute. The steps outside are full of water. Insidious seas. The opening of the door is an apertural view of a shell. But I am like a camera with an aperture stop. My room is heavy with empty.

***

I didn’t want to look at the door.  The knob was a potential bomb. But my hands turned and wrung me out anyway. I was under water. Fog can weigh you down under water. Sink you like a rock.

***

I could hear a ship sounding her bells in a storm. The kelp was the only thing alive in the sea. Even the fish were dead—upside down and gummy; sliced palms of haddocks. My hair and the kelp—how land and water marry.

***

I swam through one eye and then walked through the other.

***

Someone has left the light on in the dining room. For fuck’s sake. How many times have I told them to save electricity? I saw Keren approaching the stairs. I forgot he lived here. He looked a little like my son. Sometimes he looked like a native and other times he looked Russian. He didn’t look at me much. He was an introvert. It must have been him. He’s the one opening all the doors. I’ve told him before. He says he’s cold. All he wants is heat.

***

But I was his mother. Too young to know anything about estrus. The mind has a way of adjusting its aperture stop. A room surrounded by curtains susurrating with the floor—a scrambled view like egg battered in a jar. The wind bubbling at their hems—they are stage curtains all around. I’m in the middle—wind around my ankles and my heels—buzzing around like bees.

***

I obsessively worry about four things. I alternate them like the blades of a fan—the gentle suppleness of knives. How they spin through fingers and umbilical cords. How they promise the ooze of overripe summer.

***

When I stop at a red light I notice a line of cars in the rain. The dissonance of their wipers. The sagging rhythm everyone tries to keep in time with. Ridding the windshields of rain.

***

When you lose your ability to distinguish between fantasy and reality, you have nothing else to lose.

***

I told Keren I was an empty offering. The two bells on my body; feeling the firm curvature of fruit; milk of its figs. Here are the divides of our tongues—the longing of their sweet juices. His hands were more bone than fat, for he always ate grainy bread. His hair was as alive as kelp. A regenerative sauna. The body I was in—white and damp on the snow. Feeling the pleats of our moist skins like slithers of consciousness. Like the flash when a photo is taken. When I feel like I’m in a wound that tightens like the waist under a woman’s corset, I know I have to climb up its ribs again. When I feel like I’m in a widening wound like the hips of a rainforest, I know I’m heading the right way.

***

The laces of my dress are ribs. I held him. His breath bathed in the fermentation of fatigue. His fingers were long and could play the piano. His purpose was to evolve beyond onanism. My mother and father taught me to look for bean clams in the sea. Just under the sand. We dig with our fingers. The arperture of his nails—eggy salty pus. Clitorides. Eating raw; the wounds of our eyes.

***

The hair on his hands. The growing fibers of his arms. Fingers looking in the mud. For the twist of the umbilicus—the dark purse of her lips. A borehole. The four costae of the Ecphora. The easy snapping of ribs—the relief of his fingers like the tearing of threadbare fabric. Handfuls of eternal ash. The opening of the dry earth for mouths—the lifting of the gullet. The thawing of white on the field. He cleans the interior of the white buffalo. I learn from the divine licks of his teeth.

***

The bells were ringing to call the child who died. My body was turning over like red meat in the mist. Town criers are ringing their bells to summon me. It is the end of the war and there will be a holy wedding.

***

When children climb into a dry carcass of a buffalo, they must first eat what fills it. Then there will be the adjustment of their bodies inside by the unwinding of their joints. All children need shelter from storms. He scoops out the dust of burnt bodies; the cracked shells of the vase.

***

When children are spoilt with bruised fruit, they will break everything you have.

***

I am still an animal. He still wants me so he crawls inside my craw. He holds onto my entrails for he doesn’t want to feel disconnected. He is heavy. I unlatch my body. His arms outstretch—as well as his legs. Branches instead of switches, to keep me erect like a memento mori photograph. Like a hallway coat stand laden with coats. We can open more doors this way. Keren’s round parts are bulbs. He is growing. I can feel him. He builds a fire in my body for the extrusion of his bones to take place. We rise like the unmistakable mast of a ship. Even in the storm, camisoles are billowing. Lucent—a scintillating lighthouse.

***

I am standing in our body. I am russet. The color of potato when it is pulled from the earth or an Ecphora—my hand that spiders out of the sand. For I come from the earth; from the water first.

***

For posterity’s sake.

***

The ox is ploughing the earth, making furrows in my body with his plow. He made goblets out of his horns.

***

Menstruation is circular. I mistake it for the putrefaction of fish. Sometimes I smell the exploitation of fish at the marketplace. Their high protein content makes my body able. I drink from his horns. He explains they are aphrodisiacs. I eat croissants for breakfast because they look like horns and the croitre of moons. Made of glass. Air. Viennoiseries with laminated dough.

***

I’m sick of sitting in the dough of the unknowables—their knuckles knocking, kick-starting me like the manufactured steel of automobile parts. In grade school, I cried because I didn’t want my mother to leave me. When she left, the teacher took me outside. She told another teacher she was looking for lice.

***

She wasn’t looking for lice. She was pulling my hair.

***

 I stopped squalling. Fear and silence hold hands instantaneously. Sometimes the only way to make someone love you is by tip-toeing in their shadow.

***

Walking in front of them is harder than letting yourself hang.

***

Keren swims inside. He pulls the nails out of my hands. I unknit my web because when I was young I wore lace veils to church; a lace dress up to my chin. My finger nail catches on to the lace.

***

She shakes like her gallows. Her legs are her last.

***

 It is walking into the fall—the unmasking of our leaves. And feeling this time, I will live to bud. The gentle creak of the doors in the hallway. The lights divulging all my rooms.

***

The pigeon is fixing a nest on my balcony. It was winter— its winds untying its cries like the primitive crimes of animals. It is a large bed I sleep in for he could not bear the crying of newborns.

***

Maybe he carries the cries of his mother. Of himself.

***

I remember my mother’s silver coins splashing like paint against the wall. The cooked spittle of her belly. Simmering; how it curdles into maggots in the sink. I watch while she strains the tubes in her throat.

***

His father’s exquisite concentration of his fingers while loading his gun. Her tuft of red hair—whatever is left under his fingernails. The hot blood-speckled skin of a pecked buffalo. The fur is taken off when the circumference of skin tries to hold the weight of a metal bullet. Blades for a tongue. The licking of blades. Shining silver swords.

***

His hands are sewing me. My father’s noose. His dollar bills and his will—he lets loose from his wrists. His fingers, though work-stained are lissom when tying rope. I am tightening up my daughter’s ballet bun so her wisps of hair are bent back. The elegant twist and overlap of a hair net. A stiff coat of hairspray. She is taught there must be no deviation from the steps she is taught. The rope’s final rip through the well floor. The bucket tapping against the floor—breaking dark red coral.

***

The blood-run snow—welling in the deep wrinkles of her skin.

***

My son tells me I’m so nice now. He asks, Were you angry because when I was small I was bad? We hold each other like red ribbons around a gift. No, I say. It was all about me.

***

I can now throw my voice like a dart.

***

When she awoke her skin was unrippled like she had been sleeping in a glass box. The scales of my shells are opening. I have learnt to break open the clam by unjamming its hinge ligament.

***

Rain is sweetest under the dry fan of eyelashes. On top of the cracked egg of snow. The mouth is a clam. Teeth—a wreath of diamonds. The tongue a live mollusk. My hair—a curtain of herb in the spring air.

***

My body green and sown in the field.

 

 

 

BIO

Annie Blake is an Australian writer, thinker and researcher. She is a wife and mother of five children. Her main interests include psychoanalysis and metaphysics. She is currently interested in arthouse writing which explores the surreal nature and symbolic meanings of unconscious material through nocturnal and diurnal dreams and fantasies. Her writing is a dialogue between unconscious material and conscious thoughts and synchronicity. You can visit her on annieblakethegatherer.blogspot.com.au and https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100009445206990.

 

 

0

Baby Fever

by Pascale Potvin

 

“We need an ambulance! My friend’s been stabbed and she’s pregnant! Uh … uh … four months!” someone’s cry pierced through my dizzy fog. That’s when I noticed everyone in the kitchen and that they were staring at me. Overwhelmed, I looked down, still clutching my burning belly. My hands were red. Oh.

#

TWO MONTHS EARLIER

“How far along are you?” asked Trish, looking up again from across the table. Her gaze pushed into me like a bulldozer. I leaned back into my chair, insecure about my answer.

“Eight weeks,” I said.

The three women attacked their notepads with their pencils.

Their names were Olive, and Kate (I think), and, in the middle, leading the interview, sat Trish Barton. That woman was all I’d heard her to be. She was blonde, with great skin, and so petite; you could have never guessed that she’d had two children. Nor that they’d been home births. Her kids (a boy and a girl) would probably grow up to be as small as her, too, since she was raising them vegetarian. Basically, she was everything that every Elk Creek mother wanted to be. Already she intimidated me, and she was five years my junior.

“And you’re married?” she asked, with a smile as perfectly tight as the rest of her face.
I’d been expecting to be asked a lot about my living situation.

“Yes,” I answered. “As of recently, uh, his name is James.”

“Oh, congrats. How did you meet?”

“Four years ago,” I said. “He… was at a bar where we were having a company party. I didn’t- uh, I don’t usually go out, and he could tell. He stole me away”. I thought of it, of that image of James in his striped button-up. He’d pulled his sleeves up as he’d approached me, as if telling me he was determined to seduce me–though he’d probably just wanted to show off his arms. I still couldn’t believe I’d fallen for that overgrown frat boy. I chuckled to myself, thinking about it. When I looked back at Trish, though, her face hadn’t moved.

“What do you do?” she asked.

“Uh, I was an accountant for a car company,” I said. “I’m looking for a replacement.”

“And your husband?”

“Yes. He got a job at a hospital in the city, um-”

“Oh. Nice.”

“He’s a doctor.”

Her mouth opened the tiniest bit before she went back to her notepad. I tried to peek.

“And where are you living now?” she smiled up at me.

“It’s a house on Collingwood Street,” I said.

“Oh, so you’re the new owner,” Her high-pitched voice flapped its wings excitedly. Her face had opened up now. A little weird. “Well, lovely, lovely. Will you have transportation?”

“Yes, we have a car.”

“Okay. And how are you liking Elk Creek?”

“We love it,” I said. “We wanted to go somewhere family-oriented. And this was worth leaving, like, everything behind in Michigan.”

“So you understand the purpose of Elk Creek Mothers’ Association?”

I nodded. “Keep the community safe and organize events for moms and kids,” I said.

“And what will you contribute, if you’re chosen?”

I paused, massaging my hands together. Secretly, I hated questions like this; the job hunt was going to be a pain.

“Well, I love children more than-” I started. I was about to say anyone, then I realized that that might not be the best idea, considering who was interviewing me, “-anything. More than anything, I’ve always known I’ve wanted to be a mom, and…” I realized that I probably shouldn’t focus on myself, but on the benefits for the kids.

Trish and her vice-presidents wrote as I spoke. I couldn’t, despite trying, read their notes or their faces.

I told James all about it over dinner. We sat across the width of the dining room table, as the other way might have required us to cup our mouths and yell. I didn’t know why he’d gotten us such a big table, but I supposed that the room allowed for it.

“I’m not gonna get it,” I said, twirling my spaghetti on my fork, then sticking a load into my mouth.

“Of course you are,” he said. “It’s a volunteer position.” He stabbed into a meatball.

“One that everyone wants,” I mumbled, covering my chewing with my hand. “Why do you think I had to do an interview?”

“Is it really this elite thing?” he asked, chuckling and looking up at me. James had blue/green eyes; their color shifted like the tides. In this light, now, they looked a pale, consuming green. He was still so handsome to me with his short, curly brown hair; his thick eyelashes; the quirky asymmetrical-ness of his rectangle face. “But it’s called Ec-ma. Ec-ma,” he continued. “They couldn’t have a prettier name? Makes me think of eczema.”

I laughed until my phone started vibrating on the kitchen counter. I jumped upward, gulped down my noodles and jogged to it.

“Pregnant,” James reminded me.

I ignored him. “Hello?” I answered, in a semi-strangled voice.

“Hi. Lillian? This is Trish, from ECMA,” she said. “I’m calling to offer you membership to our group.”

“No way! Oh, my gosh. Thank you so much!” I exclaimed, looking back at James. He did a double thumbs-up.

“You’re welcome,” she said. “Do you accept?”

“Yes, for sure.”

“Great. Are you available this Thursday at 7:30 PM for our monthly public safety meeting?”

James would be back from work by then. I’d have the car in time.

“Yes, that’s fine,” I told her.

“It’s at the police station. Do you know where that is?”

“Yes,” I lied. I’d figure it out.

“Perfect. See you then,” she said. “Bring a notebook.” And she hung up.

“Told you you’d get it,” James said as I put the phone down. “They loved you.”

I strode back toward him, grinning.

“I admit, I got you something to celebrate,” he said, opening the glass door to the liquor cabinet. I squinted at him as he took out a bottle. “Non-alcoholic cider.” He pointed at the label.

I came closer and kissed him. He kissed me back, grabbing at my arm. He tasted like tomato sauce, and his stubble scratched at my face, but the moment was still nice.

We each had a glass and then we had sex.

When I got up the next morning for the bathroom, I found some blood in my underwear, which James had said was normal for pregnant women after sex. I filled the sink to soak them and then also drew myself a bath. I was nervous for my meeting that evening and I wanted to relax (also, the big tub, with jets, was one of my favourite features of the new house). I sat for a while in the hot, bubbling water and thought of baby name ideas. I’d been thinking of suggesting Madeline if it was a girl, which I was sort of hoping would be the case. Madeline sounded like a girl who’d laugh fervently, who’d love hugs and who would have her father’s eyes.

The meeting went fine, though I was exhausted by the time it ended. I wasn’t surprised; wanting to impress the group was probably piling onto my recent moving stress and crushing me. I went to bed before James that night, but still woke up late the next morning. When I went to the bathroom, I found more blood. Bleeding was normal at this stage, I assured myself. So was the pain in my abdomen. It had happened before.

Unfortunately, both symptoms continued sporadically for the next week, and pretty much non-stop the week after that. The exhaustion was the same.

“Would you be able to get me an ultrasound? For, like, as soon as possible?” I called James on his break the day I decided this was a problem. We hadn’t yet managed to procure a new family doctor, so he would have to play that role for now. I was grateful to have him.

“Of course. How you feeling today?” he asked. I could hear him close a door.

“The same,” I said. I hadn’t left the bed. “I officially think I’m gonna miscarry.” I was going to cry. Neither of us had yet said that word.

“Please don’t worry yet,” he told me in his most caressing voice. “It’s probably stress.”

“It hasn’t been that bad,” I argued, turning onto my side and sliding further under the covers.

“Yeah, but this started as soon as you joined the group,” he said. “That can’t be a coincidence. And…”

“…Yes?”

“I don’t know. Something about that group just kinda weirds me out,” he admitted.

“What do you mean?”

“Like… come on. Everyone here just worships those women. Plus, they’re making you do their bidding, for free, just for the honour of it?” I tried to intervene, but he continued, “You sure you haven’t accidentally joined some sort of cult?”

“In small-town Wisconsin?” I scoffed. Fuck, it hurt to do that. I rolled onto my back, holding myself. “Everything’s normal. Come on. It’s for the community.”

“The way you describe them, they just sound creepy. Are they not?”

“It’s not that bad,” I repeated.

“Really? You sure you’re not hurting and bleeding ‘cause they turned our baby into a demon baby or something? Rosemary’s Babied you up-”

“Stop,” I held back my laugher by the belly. Laughing wasn’t a good idea, either.

“Okay, but admit it. You’re taken by the elitism,” he said, his voice now dipping a little, like a frown. “And that’s what’s weird to me, ‘cause you’ve never seemed to care about that kind of thing.”

“I’m just trying to make new friends here, James. Mom friends. I’m bored and I’m lonely.”

“I get it. But you can do that without this Trish woman, can’t you? How old is she, again?”

“Twenty-eight.”

“Right,” he said. I realized that she was a full decade under him.

“I guess I want my kid to have a good social standing,” I finally admitted. “You know I was bullied.”

James took in a harsh breath. “I understand,” he said. “And I think that’s great that you’re trying to give that to our children, but I think maybe you’re putting too much pressure on yourself. On top of looking for a job-”

My insides fell. “Are you asking me to quit the group?” I asked.

“I wouldn’t do that,” he said, quickly. “Actually… eh, I was wondering…”

They hit the ground. “If I shouldn’t get a job?”

“You’ll be on mat leave soon enough, anyway,” he finally said. “And you know I can support us both.”

I didn’t answer. I only swivelled my jaw.

“Then, maybe later, we can reconsider if you wanna work or not,” he said. “I don’t know. Think about it?”

“Fine,” I said. “But, please, get me that ultrasound.”

James was able to schedule me one for five days later–a Saturday. Unfortunately, I felt exponentially worse by the day. By Friday morning, it was like I had a hole tearing through me. The demon baby theory didn’t seem so implausible anymore.

I wept on the bed, leaving phone messages for James. I took my usual (maximum) dose of Tylenol, and then upped it a bit, but still, not much changed. When I finally struggled my way out of bed, I noticed that I’d left a bloodstain. I went to the bathroom and took off my clothes. I felt so weak and vulnerable, even nauseous, so it took a while. I ripped the pad off of my underwear–which, along with my pajama pants, had been stained, nonetheless–and threw it out. At least none of the blood seemed clotted.

I managed to make myself a hot bath, with jets. Once I got in, it helped the pain, a bit, but it worsened the nausea and the exhaustion. When I got out and checked my phone, it was still only nine o’clock. I had no idea if James would get my messages before his break.

I went back to the bed, in my bathrobe, to sit and try to think of what to do. If we’d been back home, I would have called a cab to the hospital, but there were none in this puny town. I could call an ambulance, as it’d come faster than a cab would from the city, but that seemed excessive. I would just have to make it a few hours. There was no way I was contacting ECMA, either; they couldn’t know that this was happening. I had just been accepted. I’d already forced a smile and gone to the last two meetings.

I changed into new underwear with a new pad, and new pajamas, then lay back down. Just a few hours.

It was easier thought than done, though. I held myself on the bed and cried for about thirty minutes until I gave in and lugged myself to the dining room.

“Forgive me,” I rasped, pulling out a bottle of scotch and a glass from the liquor cabinet. But she was probably already dead. I poured myself a glass then the contents down my throat. The burning it caused distracted from the burning in my abdomen. I poured another.

I was disoriented when I heard James yell, “What the fuck is this?!”

I lugged my head up from my arms, wiping my mouth. I looked at my hand. My saliva was brown. I looked to my right. James was standing next to me. I was still sitting at the dining table. I’d fallen asleep. I’d never fallen asleep at a table like this.

“Is this why this is happening? Is this what you’ve been doing during the day?!” he continued. I looked up at him. He was sneering, his eyes burning hell into me. I’d thought that I’d already seen him at his angriest, but apparently I hadn’t even seen him close. “What kind of mother are you?!”

“No,” I groaned. “Have… you found me like this before?”

“Well, I don’t know,” he said, leaning down further into me. “You’ve been really emotional-”

“Because I’m in fucking pain and I’m fucking losing my baby,” I said. I strained myself up straighter, but my head was spinning. “I need the hospital.”

He stared into me for a few seconds. His eyes had gone paler, colder. “No,” he said.

My heart jump-started. “What the f-” I tried.

“You’re not going anywhere. They can’t see you like this. Even if you’re not a drunk, they’ll think you are.”

“It’s… not… optional.”

“Sure it is,” he said. “Didn’t you want a home birth so bad? Like what’s-her-face? Have a home miscarriage.”

Then, he passed me for the kitchen. I put my head back on the table and cried again.

The pain woke me up before James the next morning. I heaved myself over to the bathroom–a ritual now–and the usual blood was there. I started to undress when I was taken by nausea.

I sensed James walk in behind me puking.

“Hungover?” he snarked.

“Please,” I whimpered.

I got changed, and he drove me, in silence, to the hospital. It was in the car seat that I started to really feel the bleeding. Feel it get thicker.

After the painfully long drive, I was given away to a Dr. Schuster, a middle-aged black woman with black ponytailed braids. She helped me put on a hospital gown, and she set me down on the plastic bed. I was shivering. I covered my eyes as she checked me. I felt her clean me. It was cold. But there was no colder feeling than the one in my belly–and, though I knew that it was just fear, it also felt an awful lot like a dead baby.

“I’m so sorry. You did have a miscarriage,” she said, standing over me, dropping each word down gentler than the last.

But it doesn’t matter how gently you drop a child’s corpse onto her mother’s face.

She might as well have dropped a boulder on me, I thought. And, in that moment, I wondered what my daughter looked like. She’d probably resembled red, thick lava when she’d been ejected from the center of my core–but now I was a volcano with no purpose left, and now both of us were cold.

“I’m gonna give you an ultrasound to make sure there are no further complications and that you’re safe,” Dr. Schuster said, and I grimaced. I was grateful, at least, to have her instead of James.

“It still hurts,” I grumbled, lips dry.

She had me open the front of my gown. She put the ultrasound gel on my belly then felt across it with the stick.

“Is it all out?” I muttered.

“Actually…” she said, her voice shaking now, “I’m going to have to put you into surgery.”

“Why?” I rasped, sitting up quickly and wincing.

“You’ve had an ectopic pregnancy.”

I hadn’t heard of that before, which wasn’t a good sign.

“Your egg failed to travel through your fallopian tube,” she explained. “Your foetus has been growing in there, and now it’s burst it. You’re bleeding internally and… your other tube might have been damaged, too. I’m going to have to go in to try to save it.”

Everything, then, felt like it was spinning and shifting. Probably because everything was. I erupted, again, this time with tears.

When I woke up in a hospital bed, I tried to shoot up straight. My abdomen cried out in pain, and so did I. I remembered that I’d had surgery. A nurse called for Dr. Schuster, who entered shortly after.

“Can I have kids?” I mumbled.

“I’m so sorry, Lillian,” she said, her face struggling to stay adrift. “It’s not likely you’ll be able to conceive. Your tube was badly ruptured, and your other one was…”

I tuned her out, then. I retreated all the way under the covers and closed my eyes.

When I was more awake, she gave me and James the instructions for my care.

“No working for eight weeks,” she said. “And absolutely no sex.” Her expression had finally given up and died now. So had mine. It had gone down with my baby.

My baby had died and taken the rest of my insides with her.

James took my hand in his. It was stiff. I looked up at him. He was pale and frozen over. Definitely also dead.

“Again, I’m so sorry for your loss,” Dr. Schuster said to us. “Take your time to grieve, but remember that-”

“Thank you,” James snapped, which made me cringe a little.

And the drive home felt like the one there.

“I called Trish,” he said, breaking the silence, keeping his eyes on the dark road ahead. “Begged her to keep you in the group.”

“Of course she’s not gonna keep me in the group,” I grimaced, picking at a cuticle. “It’s a mothers’ association, and I’m no longer a mother.”

“Well, she said they’d discuss it.”

“I could have done it myself,” I argued, pausing to clamp my teeth together. “It could’ve waited.”

“I thought you might be embarrassed.”

Something about that rubbed me the wrong way. It even struck me.

“Why would I be embarrassed?” I asked, then, in a weakened voice. “…Because it’s my fault?”

He didn’t answer.

“For drinking?” I pushed. “Or for putting too much stress on myself? Daring to look for a job?”

James let out a dense exhale. “I didn’t say that, Lil,” he muttered.

It wasn’t a denial that he believed it, though.

“I can’t believe you think that.” My voice was shaking. “You did this to me, not me.”

At that, he pulled the car over and turned to look into my eyes. But he kept his grip on the wheel. “Excuse me?” he growled.

“You’re a doctor. You know what an ectopic pregnancy is, James. You know it was failed from the beginning. When your sperm entered me and ripped me up slowly from the inside.”

I watched the anger bubble up inside him, then. “You don’t mean that,” it finally escaped as a chuckle. “You still have those hormones going.”

“Hormones?! I just lost my purpose in life.”

“So did I!”

“But you’re not the one who had to just go through that,” I screamed, the hairs on my arms rising with my voice. “Have some humanity! I just want my husband to comfort me right now, not fucking attack me!”

But all he did was turn back toward the wheel. He stared again at the black nothingness ahead, and it reflected in his eyes. We sat there, listening to our own hard breaths, until he finally spoke again.

“Humanity is defined by the ability to reproduce, isn’t it?” he said, and he turned the car back into the road.

I was too stunned to even respond. Had he just implied what I thought? Had my husband just diagnosed me with not being human anymore?

I was taken by rage. He had done this to me.

The continuing, torturous silence was shaken, thankfully, when my phone vibrated at my feet. I struggled, aching in every sense of the word, to pick up my purse and retrieve it.

“Hello?” I groaned.

“Lillian? This is Trish,” came Trish’s glossy voice from the other side. But she also sounded a bit more genuine, more normal now. “I wanted to say that I’m so, so sorry to hear about what happened. I can’t imagine what you’re going through.”

I know you can’t, I thought.

“Thank you, Trish,” I said. “I appreciate it.”

“Do you need some time to yourself or do you have it in you-”

“Just lay it on me.”

“Okay. Well… we talked about it for a long time. It was difficult. Because we could really feel how passionate you are about the association, and we’ve appreciated having you so far. So… we actually came up with a possible compromise, if you’ll accept it.”

I felt the littlest fragment of life return to me.

“What kind?” I asked, leaning against the window.

“So, we have an official Facebook page, you might know. I like to keep it active, to attract attention. Like, post some content a couple times a day. But I wouldn’t mind that job being taken off me, if you want it,” she said. “It seems perfect for your… situation. You’re homebound, correct?”

“Right.”

“Well, since it’s online,” she said, “You won’t have to leave home to do it. And… since you’ll be behind a computer, and no one can tell who’s posting, anyway, no one will tell that you’re…”

“Not pregnant,” I said. It was such a pity offer, but I still appreciated it. I couldn’t believe that Head Mom Trish Barton was being more forgiving than my husband. “So… I just have to post as if I were pregnant? Or a mom?”

“Uh, exactly.”

“Well, okay,” I said, and then took in a cold breath. “Thank you… so much.”

“No problem. I’ll e-mail you more details in the morning, and you can let me know when you’re ready to start. For now, get some rest and feel better.”

“Thanks.”

The next morning, I went to the office computer and indeed found an email from her.

Hi Lillian, it said,

If you go to Facebook you’ll see I made you an admin for our page. That means you’ll be able to post to it under our name. Take a look at the past content, if you haven’t already, to get an idea of what kind of stuff is good. Articles about parenting are great, as long as it’s not ‘disciplining’ tips or anything too aggressive like that. Also please look for funny ‘memes’ about motherhood. Basically just fun, light-hearted stuff. Oh, and add appropriate captions, please.

Posts should go up once every morning and once every afternoon. You can start whenever you feel ready. Just let me know when that is and I’ll leave it to you 🙂

Take care,

TB

I can start today, I wrote her, or I may die of boredom.

I went on Google and looked up ‘parenting article’. I clicked on a page titled What to Expect When Your Child Starts Kindergarten.

It opened with an image of a mother and daughter smiling together.

Oh … god.

  1. You’ll want to keep track of all of the school activities and meetings and help out when you can, it said.
  2. Making friends with other parents will be a huge stress-saver.
  3. Your child may cry because they’re scared or because they miss you, but that doesn’t always mean that they don’t want to be at school.
  4. Your child will be a lot more tired than before. They may start to fall asleep in weird places. It will be cute.

As I read, the pain where my baby used to be flared up like a phantom limb. I couldn’t do this. I hadn’t realized how difficult this would be.

ECMA definitely didn’t realize it, either, though. They had been so kind to find this job for me. If I didn’t do it, I had nothing left.

I decided to just try a different route. I exited the article and Googled, ‘Mom memes’.

The first image was a simple illustration of a woman, accompanied by the text, That moment when you’re checking on your sleeping baby and their eyes open so you run before you make direct eye contact.

My eyes swelled and my hands contorted. Just hurry up and post it, I told myself, then you can go wallow under your covers again. I saved the image and put it up on the Facebook with the caption, Haha, I hate when this happens!

Pressing every key was like stabbing myself over and over.

I was still under the covers that afternoon when I heard James unlock the door. Thankfully, he fussed around cooking in the kitchen for a while before approaching the room.

“Lil?” he mumbled. “I made dinner.”

My brain foggy, I forced myself to get up and follow him to the dining room. He helped me sit down at the table. He’d set out steak and potatoes for us. Plus, a bottle of wine, with wine glasses. He offered me one.

“Thank you, the food looks amazing,” I said, “But not right now.”

“Why not?” he asked, uncorking the bottle. “You can drink it now.”

I stared into my lap and ran my tongue between my teeth. “What is this?” I finally asked, my voice sharp.

He sighed. “I wanted to make it up to you, after last night,” he admitted. “You were right. I shouldn’t have been fighting with you.”

I sighed, too, nodding. I was still hurt by what he’d said, but I didn’t want to bring it up. Clearly, he didn’t either. So we made dull conversation about his day as we ate. I avoided talking about mine.

When we finished, he took away the dishes and I went to the living room couch.

“What are you up to tonight?” he asked, entering from the kitchen behind me. “Want to see what’s on TV?”

“Could you get me my book?” I countered. “In the bedroom?”

“Sure,” he said. Then, “Why don’t you read in there? You’ll be warmer.”

“I guess, but I’ve been lying there all day.”

“I could help entertain you,” he said. He came up behind me and rubbed my shoulder.

I turned, looking up at him with a grimace. “You know I can’t have sex, James.”

He chuckled. “I mean, it’s actually not that big of a deal-”

“Except I’m really not up for it. In any capacity.”

He paused. “Okay, okay, just trying to be close with you,” he grumbled, before walking away.

Of course, I was going by what Dr. Schuster had told me–and James, as her peer, should have known better–but, in truth, I was most resistant for my own reasons. I just could not get that image of James’s invasive, destructive sperm out of my mind. I did not want his semen anywhere near me anymore, after what it had done to me. I was disgusted by it, by the very idea of sex with him.

Unfortunately, throughout the next few weeks, James continued to try to initiate it with me. And, as I continued to say no, he continued to get grumpier. Funnily enough, I couldn’t remember him ever being this horny before. It was interesting that he wanted to fuck me the most now that he didn’t consider me human.

Eventually, he got the message and he stopped pushing. In one sense of the word, that is. Instead, he began to push himself, sometimes, onto my healing abdomen while we were cuddling… to even, some nights, knee it in his sleep. But I suspected that he wasn’t asleep.

When I would go to the computer to post for ECMA, in the morning, I also started to find paused porn videos left open on the computer. I understood that James needed to get his urges out, somehow, but, like the kneeing, it happened just a little too often to seem truly accidental. This was another expression of frustration at me, then. James was rubbing in my face that I wasn’t satisfying him. He was showing me exactly who all of the younger, hotter women were that were getting him off.

I only really started to become afraid when the porn started to get violent. I would go to the computer to find images of women–though that wasn’t what they were being called, in these video titles–being stepped on, hit with things, choked. Their faces always showed distress or discomfort, and when they didn’t, it was because they were being shoved into a bag, trashcan, or toilet. At that point, I shouldn’t have been surprised that this was the kind of thing that James was into. But I felt that this porn might have become more than just a taunting… had it also become a threat?

I cried a lot during those weeks. Fearing for myself, what he might do to me in my sleep, I locked myself in the bathroom at night and slept in the tub. Weirdly, he never challenged me for it. He acted like everything was normal. He’d ask me how I was feeling. I would tell him everything was great, and he’d smile.

When I went in for my first check-up with Dr. Schuster (Aileen, she said to call her), she told me that I was behind in my healing. It was most definitely the kneeing, I knew. But I realized what I had to say.

“We had sex,” I told her. “I’m sorry.”

She shook her head. I felt a heavy shame for disappointing her, even though it had been a lie.

“I understand you want to try again,” she said, sitting down at her chair across from me. “It’s common for couples in this situation to have trouble dealing with it, at first.”

I wrung my fingers.

“I hope this isn’t intrusive for me to say, but… your husband has seemed depressed lately,” she continued, her wide face dipping a little. “He’d mentioned how many kids you two wanted… so I wanted to ask you how you’re doing, mentally.”

I looked back into her eyes. James and I had never actually talked numbers. Both of us adored kids, of course, but it had made sense to me to just take it one at a time.

I almost said nothing. “How many kids did we want?” I decided to ask. It came out grumbly.

“Pardon me?” asked Aileen.

“How many did he say we wanted?”

“Well… he’d said at least eight.”

I felt so heavily confused and disturbed, in that moment, like I could fall over–like she’d reached out and slapped me. Eight kids? Eight? Where the heck had he gotten that idea? My personal limit would probably have been half that number; why did he go around saying something so outrageous, when we’d never even discussed it?

I had an itch of a thought, and so when I got home, I did my own personal Googling. One of the results included a page in a women’s health blog, What is Reproductive Coercion?. I dismissed it at first, but the title kept chipping at me until I went back and clicked on it.

Have you ever heard of men obsessed with getting and keeping their partners pregnant?, the author wrote. Chances are that you haven’t. However, new studies have found that this form of domestic abuse is almost as common as are bruises and broken bones. Whether subtle or forceful, it is just another form of power and control that a man can exert over a woman’s body and life. He may be performing reproductive coercion if he:

  1. Sabotages your birth control. Maybe he’s lied about having had a vasectomy, or he ‘accidentally’ keeps ripping the condom, or he tells you that your birth control is making you fat. He might even escalate to doing something like rip out your contraceptive ring.
  2. Isolates you–limits your access to money and transportation. It may also be a strategy to prevent you from acquiring birth control. Or maybe he wants you to quit your job so that you can focus on being a mother (and be totally dependant on him). Isolating you can also prevent you from getting refuge from your family or friends.
  3. Verbally, psychologically and/or emotionally pressures you into having sex and/or getting pregnant.
  4. Uses violence or threats of violence to pressure into having sex and/or getting pregnant.
  5. Wants you continuously pregnant. He may attempt to make another baby either directly after you give birth (or miscarry), or as soon as your previous child begins kindergarten (and your schedule opens up).

A stinging, tingly feeling surfaced in my limbs as I read. It gradually got stronger, then moved to my core.

I sat, paralyzed, thinking back to the beginnings of my relationship with James. He’d been upfront about his traditional leanings, his need to get married and to have kids. I’d found it endearing, romantic—as I had his eventual suggestion that we run away together. Men with a passion for children are attractive to many women, including myself. And, because I’d shared his passion, I suppose that I had never had to face his wrath. Until now.

As Aileen had suggested, he was probably refusing to accept that I was now infertile. His obsession with sex was probably a desperate, delusional attempt to get me pregnant again. Either that, or he was panicking and trying to control me in other ways.

I almost scoffed at the predictability when I came to the computer, one morning, and found ‘pregnant woman porn’. Of course James had this fetish. And of course he was going to go down this road; this was the ultimate taunt, the ultimate display of what I could never be for him.

I should have grimaced and closed the tab as quickly as possible, of course. That was what I usually did. This time, though, something different happened. I stared at the image. Really stared at it.

The woman was leaning on all fours, her eyes jammed shut and her mouth agape, her inflated belly dangling pathetically. Her hair, a mess, fell partially in her face and was pulled partially back by the man fucking her from behind. I hit play on the video. The words suffer, you pregnant bitch clotted together in my mind.

When I finally did close the tab to get to my Facebook responsibilities, my bitterness lived on. It always did, when I did this work. This time, though, it was even more intense. It filled the room, now. Plus, now that it knew what revenge felt like, it wanted more of it.

I had a few notifications from comments on my latest pregnancy meme–one that had especially made me feel like killing myself. They were idiotic, tart messages like ‘sooo truuueee’ and laughing faces; god, I pitied these women’s children. Rage spiralled in my stomach, flashed underneath my skin as I stared down their profile photos in the same way I had the woman in the video. Their big bellies and smiling husbands made me wish upon them the same fate. I wanted, so horribly, for them to feel that humiliation for being pregnant. That trauma.

I realized that maybe I could get them close.

I logged out of Facebook and created a new account under the pseudonym Joe Coen. I then went back to the ECMA page and to the profiles of frequent commenters. I composed a message, which I sent to all of them:

Here’s where I’d like to see you soon 🙂

And I attached the porn link.

A few hours later, I received a call from Trish. When she said we needed to talk, my inner sanctum–the satisfaction I’d made for myself–imploded on itself. She knew that it had been me. Somehow. How? It made no sense how she would. Yes, I controlled the Facebook page, but it was also accessible to everyone. And the world was not short of misogynistic men who sent messages like that.

It was probably a coincidence, then. This was about something else. Still, the worry would keep me up all night if I didn’t talk to her today. I asked her to come over, preferably before my husband came home.

The low look on her face, when I opened the door, made my worry flare up worse. I invited her over to the kitchen. Her steps were careful. I was definitely in trouble. My mind ran in zig-zags, debating what to do.

I offered her a seat at the counter, and, when she denied a drink, sat across from her. I forced a smile. I decided that unless I was offered undeniable proof that she’d tracked me down, I would do just that–deny.

“So,” she said. She was still avoiding eye contact. She rested her French-tipped hand on the counter and cleared her throat. “I don’t know if you heard, but a lot of women from our Facebook received a really nasty message this morning.”

I widened my eyes and gasped. “Oh no,” I said. “Did you want me to do something?”

“That’s not why I came, no,” she said, and she finally looked back at me. “I’m here to ask you to tell me, completely honestly, if it was you.”

Her eyes pressed into me like a drill, making me shake.

“W-why would you think it was me?” I responded. Acting had never been a thing of mine.

“Because I had a miscarriage once,” she said.

My shock, then, was real.

“Surprise,” she chuckled, baring teeth. “Yes. I was pregnant once before Noah, and no one knows except my husband.”

“I’m sorry-”

“Don’t. I’m just trying to make a point,” she said, resting both arms on the counter now. She was shaking, too. “I had become such a mess, y’know. I hid it well, but I was super depressed for about six months, and… angry. Like, I hated pregnant women… moms in general. I had thoughts that… and, my therapist–yup, I have one of those, too–told me that that can happen when you miscarry.”

I swallowed, gripping my shirt.

“And so I can’t imagine how much worse it might be, for you, because…” she continued, pursing her lips and speeding up her blinking. “I thought about it today, and maybe having you do the Facebook may not have been the best idea. Right?”

I put my head down and nodded.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” she asked. “If it was too much-”

“Because… I need… “ I struggled, putting my face into my hands.

“Do you have a support system?” she asked, quieter now. “Your husb-”

“Is that a line from your therapist?” I retorted.

“Maybe,” she said. Do you want his number?”

I looked back up at her. Chuckled. “Maybe,” I said, crossing my arms. “Now that I’m out of the mommy group. Now that everyone’s gonna hate me.”

She shifted in her seat.

“How about this?” she said. “I’ll keep your secret if you keep mine.”

I found myself leaning back toward her. The heavy look in her blue eyes was filling me with some hope.

“And… I understand that you need friends right now. So, even though I’m gonna have to kick you out of the group…” she continued, “You can still come to our social events.”

“…Do I have to pretend to still be pregnant?”

She paused. “No,” she said. “That would be cruel. And… weird. And people would figure it out. Besides, they’ll understand. I’ll just warn them about your situation, if that’s okay, so that they don’t say anything… uncomfortable. But we’re capable of socializing with people other than mothers. We could even use it.”

I thought about it. “I don’t know if I’d be able to handle it, honestly,” I said.

“Well, you can leave if you really need to. But I really think that if you get to know them, you’ll hate them less.”

“Is that what worked for you?”

She nodded. “We’re having bake sale Sunday afternoon,” she said, then. “I could use some extra hands. Would you be able to help, or are you still out of commission?”

“I should be, but I really need to get out of the house.”

“Great.” She actually smiled. “Most of the women you sent those messages to will be there. I hope that you can make friends.”

That hot, sunny Sunday afternoon, I drove up to Trish’s place early. It was tall, multi-sectioned, with lots of big windows and a fancy BMW parked out front. As soon as I saw it, I sped up and drove down a couple of blocks to park. Then I remembered that I was also driving a BMW. I took several deep breaths.

Once parked (closer, now), I reached, with some pain, for the pan of date tarts in the passenger seat. I strained my way with it to her door. I had been expecting to see a table or two on her lawn for the bake sale, but there were already several rows of tables propped up, ready to be used. This might as well have been a baked goods convention.

The door was partially open, but I knocked anyway, and soon heard the approaching clacking of what sounded like wedges.

“Lillian! You came,” she exclaimed, with her IKEA-white smile. She was wearing a purply sundress and had done herself up all nicely. “You’re the first one here. Come in!”

I handed her the pan and she thanked me and led me to her kitchen. “I’m about to start putting things out,” she told me. I walked behind her through her large, wood-and-stone living room; her little boy and girl were playing quietly in front of the fireplace. Seeing them gave me a flash of cold.

The kitchen was more modest and cozy. The floor was yellow tile. To my left was a wooden table cluttered with baking supplies. Trish went around it to the counter against the wall. A multi-colored curtain hung on the window next to her.

“Oh, good, Rick put in the muffins,” she said, peering into the oven. My body tensed.

I got worse as more mothers arrived. Trish figured that I should be sitting down, because of my healing, so she set me up at one of the tables to sell things. That meant that I was approached by all of the moms wanting to offer something and those wanting to buy.

I tried to make conversation, and get to know them, like Trish had suggested–I really did. Unfortunately, my anger rattled so loud in my brain that I could barely hear anything that they said. When I tried to talk about myself, my jaw remained so tense that it barely even worked. It was pathetic, trying to speak. The woman across from me would always end up walking away in silence. That made me more irritated, though. Trish had told them what I was going through.

So, like the nauseating smell of the melting icing, every new addition to the party further constricted my throat. Every new belly, every new child on that lawn took more air out of me. The sights became too much. The conversations–about the school, about bedtime routines, breastfeeding–circled around me like hyenas. The laughter–fuck, especially when it came from a child–sounded like the ugliest cackling.

I found myself wishing agony on the pregnant women, especially. Stretch marks, saggy breasts, vaginal stretching–things that could lead their husbands to cheat on them. That cheating would mess up their children so bad that they’d become drug addicts and criminals. Yes. That would make me feel better.

The baby in my belly had, at this point, been officially replaced by a solid mass of pure fury. And, unlike my baby, this fury had a heartbeat, which I felt pulsing hard through my body. Unlike my baby, it was twisting, crying, and kicking.

“Are you doing okay?” Trish’s voice came floating above me. Suddenly I was back in the world. Self-conscious again.

“Yeah,” I managed, looking up at her.

“You don’t look it. No offense.”

That’s when I realized how sweaty I was. And also that I was shivering. Like a sick woman.

“This may have been too much too fast. I’m sorry,” she said. She waved me up and then led me back into the house. “Eliza, can you take over for Lillian?” she yelled. Once we were out of the sunlight, and away from all of the bodies and voices, I found myself gasping for breath.

“Do you need to lie down?” she asked me.

“No. Let me do something else,” I pleaded, heaving. I was still holding onto a stupid slice of hope that I could make it back into the group, one day. I needed to prove that I was still mother material–not just another child to be taken care of.

“Okay… well. I just made another cake. Maybe you can help me decorate it.”

I nodded, but cringed a little when we found Kate in the kitchen. I knew her from the group and from Facebook. She was young, Italian looking. Thick eyebrows, small belly.

“Hey! Glad you could make it,” Trish said to her.

Kate nodded. “I was just looking for you,” she said. “Sorry I’m late.”

“Right. How dare you have an ultrasound?” Trish giggled. Her smile then left and she got quiet.

Keep cool, Lillian, I thought. Please.

Kate looked at me. “Is everything okay?” she asked. “You two kinda rushed in here.”

“Uh-huh,” said Trish. “Lillian was just overheating.” In a sense, not a lie.

Kate and I smiled at one another, but as her eyes dug into me, my embarrassment deepened. She was definitely wondering if this had something to do with my miscarriage. There was nothing I could do to stop her from wondering it. I looked away and focused hard on the wall above the stove.

Trish walked to the oven, then, to take out the cake. She moved it from its pan onto an embroidered plate and then placed it on the table.

“It’s strawberry shortcake,” she said. “Just needs some whipped cream and strawberries.”

“Do you need any more help with anything?” asked Kate.

“Don’t worry,” said Trish. “Unless you want to help me clean up.”

Kate did. The women cleaned, chatting, as I sat silently decorating and trying to recover. Now that I felt like I had some breath back in me, my inner fire had, thankfully, blown out. The foundation to it was still there–a gaslight that could easily ignite another flame–but, for now, I was sane enough to question all of those horrible thoughts I’d been having. I held back tears.

“Lillian?” Trish ended up saying. Fuck, she’d noticed. “Are you alright?”

“Yes,” I tried to say.

“Do you want to call your husband?”

“No,” I demanded. Too quickly. A tear finally escaped. Child. I was a child. “He’s busy,” I said, in a diluted voice.

“Is that why you didn’t invite him today?” she asked, taking the seat next to me.

“Yes,” I managed, standing up. The cake looked good enough now, but I needed something else to give me an excuse not to look her in the face. I grabbed a knife from the other side of the table and started to cut it up.

“Lillian,” Trish protested, placing a hand on my arm. “If something was going on at home, you could tell me. That’s something we do for women here. We help. You know that.”

I stopped moving but the knife shook hard in my hand. Hers felt like soft tissue. I found myself turning towards her.

“Is it okay if Kate stays?” she asked me, slowly.

I nodded, swallowing some tears and snot. I had to accept it. I was still that sad little girl who just needed some friends.

Kate approached me with softened eyes.

“Sit back down, love,” she told me, placing a hand on my shoulder. “Tell us what’s wrong.”

I nodded again. Sniffing, shaking, I started to sit, and I reached to put down the knife.

“Have a piece of cake,” Trish told me.

“Yeah!” said Kate. “Or- I brought madeleines.”

 

 

 

 

BIO

Pascale Potvin is from Toronto, Canada, and has been writing since childhood. She is currently working on a budding book trilogy. She has also just received her BAH in Stage & Screen Studies from Queen’s University, where she has written a few award-winning short films. Some of her blog pieces can be found at onelitplace.com, where she works as an assistant.

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

Countercurrent Me

by Mike Yunxuan Li

 

 

Movement I: Pre-Industrialization

 

1

After coming to Higher’s Private High School for just a few days, I noticed people here were essentially the same. Although they looked different, dressed different, came from different backgrounds, they all became indistinguishable from one another under the directional selection of job security. They were all “chill” and “easygoing”, they all laughed at the same memes, they all pretended to care about stuff, they all had this self-centered image of themselves, and most importantly, they all desired similar futures. Sadly, the things I thought were important for individuality, especially in this country: ability, self-actualization, and the courage to execute risks, were simply not visible in them. And yes, personality was not on my list. To me, personality was like DNA. Every cell in the body has the same DNA, but not all cells necessarily express all of their genetic information.

Then there is Epigenetics.

However, I couldn’t really judge these young adults too harshly because I was just like them, in a fundamental manner—well at least, until one day, something reminded me of that morning in the Pacific.

Kien was perhaps never as developed, and probably would never be as developed, but there was an inherent herby essence to it, a taste unique to Kien and me. The night was always filled with the brightest and loneliest stars, and from the top of our Kraser hills, we could see them twinkling above our heads, as if telling us they would always be there and our time together would forever lag. The walk from school to the mall and from mall to the subway station always felt sweaty in the breezy summers when lightning was imminent amidst the humid air molecules. The streets in the village were always lit with something. The areas that were dark felt just as creative because someone was with me, and together, the night transformed into a stage that simply served to highlight lights. Someone was always with me, and together we would look up to the blue ceiling, peek through street lights, explain road directions to foreigners, converse about anything, and through moments like these, memories were created, and now it hurt. It didn’t hurt because they were memorable. It hurt because they were only memorable.

That morning, 5 rows of Pexler tanks vacuumed our plantation. Pexler was like Ford. You knew where it came from just by looking at it. Our neighboring island, Kurston, wasn’t simply declaring a war on the state of Kien. They were sending a message—a message of completed industrialization and initiated New Yorkrization (westernization on steroids). I knew it would happen one day. The strong would be foolish to not swallow the weak.

Before the sun fully resuscitated from the seals of morning frosts, father jetted into my room. He had to be worried. Father rarely ran. He took my hand, and together, we scuttled out the back door into a nearby Kan forest. When we looked back, our mansion was gone. Bricks of black and white subordinated under the wheels of Pexlers. 20 acres of cash crops microwaved on the spinning plate of Kurston advances.

He put his hands on my shoulders and confronted my pupils with that once in a lifetime father to son seriousness, “We didn’t lose everything. Half of my wealth is in your mother’s house. Remember I’m the wealthiest farm owner in Kien? They only want me.”

The scent of his vinegary sweat, our kind of medicine boiling on stove, titrated by dirt in the smoke, was for a second the only vision of home and for a while, the only thing I could remember.

Bullets started raining down the forest. Long-tailed widowbirds woke up from their bowled nests and flopped into the air. Some got shot and fell to the forest floor. Others got injured and screamed like cats. Most escaped the forest only to be vaporized by the blue sears of Kurston flamethrowers, so horrifying yet hypnagogic, almost like a nightmare in a VR video game. Seconds later, the remaining strands of black tails realized their disconnections from bodies that no longer existed, and drizzled down one by one like kites whose strings had been cut—things that one would only see falling from the clouds in the obsolete tales of 2012 and the like. The volume was a long blackness that slowly encased Kan. Lines of professional K soldiers marched towards our direction.

He pushed me west.

My legs moved.

They paused behind a coconut tree.

He stepped out from the pile of banana leaves. The leader, dressed in grey cotton cloth, holding a fencing sword on his left hand, holstered his revolver and took out this photo from his front pocket. He placed it next to father’s face and smooshed his face with a magnifying glass over to the photo.

The first ordinary person that actually had an interesting story to tell was unfortunately not part of my first week at Higher’s. And that was a major problem. The seat across from me in chemistry class had been empty for days—the consequences of which was our group only had three members, a big reason for our snail-like progress on the project.

Just as I thought the seat would be empty forever, the unexpected happened. Ten minutes into class on Monday, the chemistry teacher spoke up for the first time since the initiation of our projects. “Guys, I want you to stop whatever you’re doing for a second.” His voice was extra smooth, like a mellow drumstick on timpani, which surprisingly produced pitch, which made me expect something. The classroom returned to its orthodox organization. I placed the periodic table in front of me in its default setting. I took off my steaming goggles and pushed the beaker aside with extra caution.

Inside the beaker was the essence of our project, the subject worthy of a Nobel Prize, the 7 inch Aplysia, a ditto looking sea slug, which I named Innocencie. Nobody really cared what it was called. It could be dabplysia and no one would give two dimes. Apparently, a professor from Columbia named Eric Kandel had done some extensive research on Aplysias half a century ago and used this little creature to show how memory and learning worked. In the past few days we’d been squirting water relentlessly on its siphon and repeatedly shocking its tail with voltages that were oftentimes uncomfortable even for us in order to examine the degree to which collateral axons had retracted or reframed. Long story short, the whole project was basically about torturing Innocencie on a daily basis to gauge out some numbers on a grid that had already been figured out by the Eric Kandel guy 50 years prior. I poured in a cup of sea water to keep Innocencie strong.

“I almost forgot, today is Remembrance Day. Let’s all close our eyes for a brief moment and remember all the loved ones in our lives,” he announced.

Someone raised a hand in the back. “When is the next legit holiday, like a day when we actually don’t have school?”

“The next staff development day, Justin,” he responded, which was basically a nicer way of rephrasing the legendary “furlough day.”

Tony shot me a glance from across the table.

Anna covered her face with her slender fingers.

Innocencie crawled a few inches upward like a slimy Virginia Creeper, his head breaking open the water surface, as if he wanted to participate in the remembering of someone too. Another cup of seawater went in and he retrieved to the bottom. Sensitization got him.

I closed my eyes. The taste of the ocean was at the tip of my tongue once again as Innocencie continued to exhale. Bubbles jazzed inside the beaker.

It was dusk when I reached mother’s place on the southern end of Kien. News of Kurston’s temporary occupation of the north had already spread like wildfire across the waterways of the commercial south.  The government was actively setting layers of defense lines near the Kranel Strait that divided Kien into palpable halves with the capital, Kannonbalver, situated conveniently on the southernmost tip. As our boat lumbered through the floating bellies of random carps, scratching foams against mountains of dying Warty Venus clams—a perpetual noise that could be felt through the vacillation in my shoelaces, I remembered seeing bridges incinerating in rainbow, from lipstick red to pumpkin orange, aloe green to death charcoal, the smoke overlapping all natural scents of sea urchins and abalones in the thin ocean breeze, boiling a family of seafood raw like a damn steam pot. The water was completely drenched in oil as if it was never an ocean to begin with.

The officers escorted us, the northern refugees to their main camp in Krunen, where we would sign a few papers and stay until jeeps could be arranged for our departure. While waiting for our rides, they greeted each of us individually, assuring that Kien would fight until its last soldier to preserve the holy capital from Kurston contamination. The president even burned all of Kien’s 132 steamships to manifest his determination in defending his citizens, whom he called sons from a different mother. I felt secured. In fact, most of us did. The Kranel Strait had been an insuperable natural barrier that coated the heart of Kien for the past however many years that Kien had remained an independent state. There was every reason on earth to believe we still had a decent shot. I mean who would not be optimistic when lines of blue-coated soldiers aligned the strait, converging Russian machine guns on that one port the Kurstons could possibly board from, when imported cannons dotted the shore, determined to dissect the bastards that took father into their atomic components, when the waters had been trapped, stockpiling potential energy to repeat the glory of the Battle of Red Cliffs, when the president was dedicated, ready to sacrifice his own life for ours?

I could still recall that moment of astonishment when I opened the door to her apartment. A man in grey uniform shoved a booklet up my face. “Passport United States of America,” it read. Before I could grasp it, something thunderous went off in the distance.

It came.

I dived forward, landed flat on the cold concrete when a zoom of light skidded down the lane, blowing a neighboring bungalow into ashes of rusts. I braced myself as a second rocket zipped along the adjacent driveway, liquidating the already rotted ashes into protonic particles of invisibility, as if killing a house once was not enough. The cochlea were unwiring their snaily shells, pupils in my eyes bleeding from the lights, and every major lobe in my brain hallucinating, and yet I remembered the lady in that house, who was no more innocuous than a single mother working 4 shifts for the sakes of 4 children, half of whom probably would have graduated from middle school next year. A wind blew, dusts whirled, rearranging shape of the bungalow, and a moderate photo of purple and yellow managed to escape into the open air of brown snow. It must’ve been her graduation photo—her smile, wide and innocent, as if she’d already found the media naranja of her life.

And then, it deteriorated in the already microwaved air, the air doing nothing.

The sky had its belly cut open by then. Blood falling, in sheets, clotted the only layer of ozone visible from here. Missiles and meteors and objects beyond recognition showered down the village, a tad syncopated, captured through the retinas like lenses of a slow motion camera, as if meant for Kien to witness the bullet down its own throat, through the esophagus, across some tubes, into the capital, and death. It was tragically beautiful like those constellational portrayals of heavens in animes and tear-inducing like those technological depictions of air-strikes in Hollywood films with melancholic orchestral backgrounds, except minus the melancholic orchestra in Kien. In the horizons, rows of familiar dots treaded over the sun-set plastered cornstalk shadows. They were headed for the capital.

I felt a tuck on my shoulders. Tony gave me a quick wink and closed his eyes and the guy in uniforms was still standing there with the Passport United States in his hands with his hands still on my shoulders. A scent of feminine pheromone brushed my cilia as the footsteps of milk dabbled inside the dark hallway. Go, she said. I looked up.

Precisely a week ago we were having coffee by the Kinanel Beach with me complaining just about everything in life, and a week later she still appeared calm and contained when our nation was literally on the countdown to death, when father was literally—

I hopped forward and clenched her legs. Father, I breathed. She stopped me. She told me she knew. The president was still here, the capital was still free, the thousands of blue coated warriors were still willing to die for us, and the Kraner Strait was still intact. Yes, the president had boarded Helicopter Plasma 1 for Keren, yes the capital was captured, yes Kien soldiers could not fight for us, because yes the Kraner Strait no longer mattered. The Kurstons had boarded from the south sea.

The smell of Innocencie’s jizz returned. The past, not in complete scenes, flashed through cortex like car lights through freeways captured from space.

“Mansen?”

“Sorry guys I forgot my makeup this morning. I look like complete shit right now,” she said. A sweet scent of perfume blew in our faces. The smell of the sea faded.

Every syllable in her voice was the Earth—distinctively feminine at the core and gradually more Justin Bieber masculine as it echoed to the crust. Lights and periodic table stood nice and firm in front of my fovea. Something, either the direction of the voice or the unforeseeable activities beneath the table, told me that the seat next to me had been filled. Our fourth member was here.

My eyes focused on the periodic table, zoomed in on H and He like they were her eyes. They frowned with such sorrow, pronouncing curls of eyelid doubles, as if I’d just heard the most Hollywood memory-loss tragedy. “Well, if you look like shit without makeup, then maybe that means you DO look like sh—” words found their ways out of the memory.

There was a second of silence. Actually no. There was a sharp inhale (indicative of speech), but she didn’t let it out. I understood. It wasn’t that she wasn’t mad, for she had to be mad. It was just not considered “chill” to be argumentative in a place where 30 self-conscious young men and women aligned themselves for judgments.

Tony nudged me from the side, “Bro, I think you went a little too far. I don’t think that’s…”

Seriously, she’d let us down for two whole days, and yet the first words she blabbered out had no “sorry” in it? Nobody cared about your little looks; we just needed your beautiful mind to contribute its beautiful worth. Plus, I didn’t even say shit! And also, people here are more sensitive than rabbits. Any comment slightly out of the ordinary will raise eyebrows, implying the typical “Huh? That doesn’t make any sense” in such a sassy and judgmental manner, as if they’re the ones that founded the magical wonderland of common sense itself.

Then there are only 3 forms of young people English: American’s sassy tone, English’s classed sound, and just the bleak inferiority of everything else.

Tony wasn’t a bad person, so I let go of the periodic table and said, “OK.” This little feud wasn’t really between us anyway. However, I was wrong about one thing when I turned to face this girl for the first time.

 

NOTE: This self-contained excerpt is from his novel, Countercurrent Me.

 

BIO

Mike Yunxuan Li is a rising junior at Cornell University majoring in Neuroscience and minoring in Creative Writing and Spanish. he wrote his first YA novel, which is still in progress, right after graduating from high school. His poem, “Borrow,” recently appeared in Autumn Sky Poetry Daily and Better Than Starbucks. Through writing, Mike hopes to break down what we think of as “human nature” and “common sense” under the microscope to explore what’s actually logical from the habits we inadvertently exhibit as humans. Outside of writing, he loves playing Go, an ancient strategic board game, and classical music.

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

Unconscious Authorship Inc.

by Cal Urycki

 

 

The rattle of fingertips on keyboards echoed in his head, like the pitter of fat raindrops against a window pane. He could tell by the tempo of the quiet clicks what sort of sentences were being typed: a long one filled with clauses, with short miniscule pauses whenever someone hit the comma button, followed by rapid rat-a-tat’s as the rest of the sentence materialized on the imaginary page in his head, one letter following another in quick succession. He could hear the lack of surety behind others, with long, languid pauses followed by even faster key strokes, trying desperately to make back up the time lost contemplating the next few words. His own sequence was a well-oiled machine. He had long ago eliminated the small pauses after periods, instead pushing onwards as if the sentence. had never actually stopped but was all one continuous thought one line of consciousness that could not be halted. by any amount of punctuation.

His only pause was a brief breath in and out after an indented line, a quick moment to refresh and then continue. He sat in a cluster of workspaces, each one only 5ft by 5ft, just enough room for a chair and desk with a keyboard, surrounded by high walls that prevented him from seeing anything beyond his square area. He had no screen to see the words he typed, he was only to continue and not stop until he was told otherwise, and he was good at it. He had found that special trance state in which his fingers moved without any thought. The movements had become completely involuntary and unconscious; his eyes would dart across an imaginary screen before him, looking far beyond the gray wall of his workspace.

Sometimes he imagined what sort of art he would create, was creating. He would, of course, never know if it was him or someone else that wrote the words that were eventually assembled, but he held on to the belief that he was responsible for some of the words, some of the bits that were called especially extraordinary by critics. It was April 27th, and a new text was due out in three days. He resolved to pick up his already blistering pace in hopes that some of his words might make the final cut and find their way into the text. He pushed his dexterity even further, eliminating punctuation altogether at times in hopes that maybe by producing a large volume of words he might increase his chances that one of his would be selected and eventually he heard a steady tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap and he knew he was repeating words which happened sometimes but he was never supposed to do on purpose in fact he was never supposed to type on purpose at all just move his fingers however they felt like moving and leave his brain out of the equation completely but he thought maybe now if there was a tap in the April text it might be his and he might finally have some proof that he was contributing more than the monkeys around him that just typed aimlessly without regard for pace or structure or beauty. He finally caught himself and stopped for a brief moment and shook those thoughts from his mind. He was supposed to leave the thinking to the Assemblers.

The texts each month were said to be amalgamations of all the sequences being created in the warehouse, but he had no way to really verify that, as neither he nor his coworkers knew what they typed, unless they tried to remember. Trying to remember often made one type with a purpose, which was one of the first rules of the job: don’t think. The Assemblers cut up long transcripts of endless walls of text that he and his coworkers created and stitched them into the most beautiful, definitive texts that he had ever seen. He read most of them, that is, he skimmed them enough to see that none of his passages had made the final cut and then put it up on shelf, never to be opened again. If he were being honest he hardly understood anything that came out in the publications. The punctuation was sometimes in odd places, thoughts seemed to run on forever, and there was never a concrete grounding, nowhere that he might find some footing as a reader. As has already been mentioned, even remembering what one typed was a dangerous proposition, given the chance that the text might become too self-aware. Each day a section of text was selected randomly by the Checkers, and should your text be found in violation of company rules, your job was the least of your worries.

He had seen employees removed from the typing floor by Checkers, and the looks of dread he saw on their faces were all that he needed to understand the dangerous risk he took by remembering his words. He thought they could never prove that his text was aware if he never admitted to it. What could they possibly point to in any of his texts and prove guilt? He was typing unconsciously for all they knew, and even unconscious words can become aware on their own, it didn’t mean that he did it on purpose or that he even knew that it happened.

Maybe the point was moot. Even if one day the compendium contained his words and his words alone, he could never take credit for his creation. He could never admit that he knew that they were his words, or how he knew them to be his. He wouldn’t even receive a pay raise. Many of his coworkers speculated that the monthly texts, given their continuity, were taken from the same handful of Typists each month, but giving out a pay raise would alert them to the fact that their words were being selected, and the knowledge that their words were being selected would spoil the magic of unconscious typing, a magic that the company was founded upon, a magic that had eliminated nearly every other mainstream publisher. The monthly compendiums contained more truth, more insight, more experience than any one author or group of authors could hope to muster on their own, even when working with a purpose. The numbers alone were too great to overcome. He slowed his pace back to its normal humming drone and continued, working hard to switch his brain back off and just type mindlessly, to ignore the record of text he knew he had just created and the danger it posed to his job and his well-being.

As the rattle of keys lulled him back into his comfortable trance, he heard a small discordant change in the sea of keystroke sounds. It started with a sudden stop in someone’s sequence, followed by rapid typing, panicked typing, typing that didn’t even care if it formed words anymore. That change sent waves across the sea of noise and others began moving more frantically, their pace desperate, pleading for something to rescue them from- he heard a noise that was not the deep methodic breathing of his coworkers or the chatter of keyboards. He heard the soft footfalls of rubber-soled shoes on the cold concrete floor of the warehouse. The same panic found his fingers as well. They moved as frantically as the others around him, trying to blend in with the others, give those shoes no reason to enter his square. As the footsteps grew nearer, their pace slowed, and he knew they had come for him. He had gone too far, and his remembering had finally caught up with him. The footsteps finally stopped, and he knew they were standing at the opening to his square, but he did not dare look behind him. He squeezed his eyes shut and continued to type, praying, wishing that they would just move on and go away, that they would see how quickly he typed and how many words he produced even if they were never that good and decide that he wasn’t worth the trouble.

He felt a cold hand on his shoulder and froze.

“I’m with the Checkers, you need to come with me.”

It wasn’t a question or a request. It was a precise command to be followed. He stood from his chair and turned to see a tall man in a dark suit standing behind him, stone-faced, eyes obscured by thick black glasses. He felt a lump in his throat and nodded. The Checker turned and walked back the way he had come, errant Typist in tow. The Typist peeked into the long rows of squares they passed while they walked. Everyone sat perfectly still, typing less frantically now. To those attuned to the tempo of keystroke clicks, an allegorical sigh of relief could be heard in the light taps as their fingers flitted from key to key without a care in the world. The Checker had found his mark, and it wasn’t any of them.

The Checker led him to the western wall of the warehouse, to a small inner building sectioned off from the rest of the warehouse floor: The Checkers’ room. Inside it was painted the same gray as the rest of the warehouse, but the desks didn’t have the same tall walls surrounding them. Men dressed similarly to the one that had retrieved him sat at the desks and pored over wide sheets of paper covered in miniscule letters. The men at the desks read the letters with apparent ease. He guessed that the thick black glasses they wore magnified the words somehow; no ordinary person could read words that small without straining their eyes.

“Go to Room C, I’ll be there in a moment,” the Checker said, pointing to a large ‘C’ painted over a doorway at the far end of the room. The Typist walked past three rows of desks towards Room C. It occurred to him how few Checkers there were. He thought there must be at least half as many Checkers as Typists, how else would they check all the words that were typed? Especially if his coworkers typed anywhere near as quickly as he did.

The door to Room C was open, and he walked inside, where he saw a metal table and a chair on either side. He took a seat at the far end of the room. It looked like the interrogation rooms he saw in crime dramas. Two Checkers would come in and do the good cop bad cop routine but as long as he played dumb he would be okay. He might still lose his job, but maybe that would be the worst of it if he didn’t reveal anything incriminating.

The Checker that removed him from the warehouse floor entered and pulled the door shut behind him. He had a manila folder bulging with papers in his hand. He dropped it on the table with a loud thud and sat in the chair across the table.

“You’re pretty quick, aren’t you?” the Checker asked, staring at the Typist with those impossibly dark glasses. Those glasses made the Typist squirm. In obscuring his eyes, the Checker appeared to the Typist something inhuman, separate from him, indifferent to his troubles. The rest of the Checker’s face betrayed no emotion, the Typist felt as though he was speaking to a machine, a vessel that was there to do a job, that never wondered or dreamed of creating art, of doing anything other than checking long pages of text.

“I don’t know how fast I type. I don’t really think about it,” the Typist replied. He gave himself a mental pat on the back for his response. He had to be extremely careful- revealing that he had any inkling of what he produced could be the end. The Checker stared at him for another long minute with a perfect poker face. He reached into the folder and removed the tall stack of papers. He glanced over the first one, following the lines with his finger.

“Sometimes he imagined what sort of art he would create,” the Checker read aloud. The Typist held his breath, trying to conceal any expression that might betray his recognition.

“Who do you think wrote that?” the Checker asked.

The Typist thought for a moment and then shrugged. “I guess it could have been anyone. That’s the point of unconscious writing, right?”

“So it could be you?”

“There are hundreds of us in that warehouse. It could be anyone.”

The Checker offered him a half grin and put the paper down. “I’m gonna level with you, if that’s alright.”

His breath smelled like a freshly burned cigarette, it reminded the Typist of smoldering ashes. He nodded.

“This sort of thing happens. It’s natural. We understand that. Our job here isn’t to hurt anyone or get people fired.” He rose from his seat and slowly paced from side to side as he continued. “I have a pile of proof in that folder there, and it doesn’t look good for you, buddy.”

The Typist squirmed in his seat.

“There’s two ways we can do this. You can refuse, and the company will sue. You’ll never work here, or anywhere else again.” He turned and leaned over, his hands on the table, his smoky breath less than a foot away from the Typist’s face. “Or you sign a confession for me now, and we make this problem go away. You go back and do your job, and don’t cause any more trouble.” He finally pulled away and sat back down in the chair. “It’s your call, bud.”

He removed another paper from the folder: a long, small-font legal document with a red ‘X’ beside a line that the Typist knew his signature was expected to appear beside. The document text was around the size of the pages he saw Checker’s poring over in the front room. He couldn’t have read the words even if he tried. The Checker handed him a red pencil, something that he had never seen in person. He took the pencil and clutched it clumsily, staring down at the document. He would be forfeiting his innocence, but in a way the document asserted his ownership of his words. They legally belonged to the company, of course, but he would have some sort of final proof that they were his words. Maybe they’d even appear in the Compendium. He wanted to ask if the confession excluded his work from publication, but decided against it. He pressed the pencil into the paper and scrawled an ugly squiggle of a signature, or what was meant to be a signature.

The Checker took both the pencil and the document from him and packaged it all back up in the folder.

“Is that all you needed?” the Typist asked.

The Checker reached into his jacket pocket and removed a thick set of black glasses and set them down on the table. “Put these on for me. I’ll be in to check on you in a few minutes.” The Checker turned and left Room C, shutting the door on the way out.

The Typist gingerly picked up the glasses and stared at them. They were impossibly black, and heavier than he expected. They weren’t made of plastic like other glasses, and he could hear a slight whirring of mechanical movement coming from inside them.

He took a deep breath and put them on. The material grew colder when it touched his skin, and all he saw was blackness. Eventually a small light grew in the corner of his vision and images flashed rapidly before him. He saw dozens of warehouses like the one in which he worked, all slightly different than the one before. He saw endless rows of square writing spaces, and then he rushed past them all, soaring just above the ground. He looked into each square and saw himself staring back, sometimes waving, sometimes smiling, sometimes crying. He felt his head throb as the images continued to flash across his eyes. He cried out and tried to pull the glasses off his face, but to no avail. They had fastened themselves the moment he put them on, and they didn’t so much as budge as he tore at them. He saw torrents of words, line after line of words that made sense, words that meant nothing, words that belonged together and words that he didn’t even recognize. They flew past him before he could read them, always averting his gaze just enough that he couldn’t see what they said, what they were trying to tell him. His head throbbed, and even when he tried to shut his eyes the images persisted, refusing to leave his senses alone. The pages eventually returned to black, to the nothing he saw when he put the glasses on. He sat, slumped in the chair, unconscious. The glasses slowly slipped from his temples and fell to the metal table below with a loud clatter.

***

            His heart raced as he typed faster than he ever had before. The words just came so naturally to him that it was as if he was transcribing something that he had heard a million times before. Each word knew which word was to follow, and so did he. He sped along, filling up imaginary page after imaginary page. He was sure he was finally creating something worthy of the Compendium, something he would be able to say was his own creation, even if only to himself.

He broke off the thought and during the pause he heard something he had never once heard in the warehouse: silence.

He paused again to confirm and indeed, it was completely quiet in the warehouse when he stopped typing. He thought to stand up from his chair and look around, but knew how obvious it would be that he was violating the rules if someone saw his head poking above the barriers. He glanced around his square and saw nothing out of the ordinary, but felt a paranoia creeping in. I appeared, for the first time since he had started the job, that he was actually alone. The calming drone of keystrokes was gone, like a white noise that had suddenly stopped. He heard soft footfalls on the warehouse floor. The footsteps finally stopped and he knew they were standing at the opening to his square, but he did not dare look behind him. He squeezed his eyes shut and continued to type, praying, wishing that they would just move on and go away, that they would see how quickly he typed and how many words he produced even if they were never that good and decide that he wasn’t worth the trouble.

He felt a cold hand on his shoulder and froze.

“I’m with the Checkers, you need to come with me.”

 

 

 

BIO

Cal Urycki is a young author from Central Illinois. He is currently attending Southeast Missouri State University where he is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing. He enjoys reading and writing fiction, as well as competing and training on the SEMO Track and Field Team. After graduation in 2019, he plans to attend an MFA program and continue writing.

 

 

 

 

0

Invasions

by Robert Douglas Friedman

 

 

I started my first real job the same year that Argentina invaded the British Falkland Islands.

My own invasion of New York City had thus far been a spectacular disaster. Base camp was the crusty kitchen table of a sublet apartment in Hoboken, where I sat circling want ads with increasing desperation. Every morning I would rise and prepare for a fresh assault across the river, my target visible beyond the sagging rooftops and rippling clotheslines of that scenic slum.

The defeats were piling up and a full retreat was imminent. Then I had one of my rare moments of luck. Which my new boss, Jonathan the news director, enjoyed pointing out.

“Know why I hired you?” he asked

We were in Jonathan’s office. It had glass walls that looked out over the perpetually frantic newsroom. A leather bullwhip hung on the wall behind Jonathan. He sometimes swung it above the heads of staff writers and editors.  More often, he cracked it against the door that led to the business department.  Jonathan didn’t like the business department.

He straightened his tie in the mirror behind his office door. “Because when I threw all three hundred resumes in the air, yours fell on this side of my desk.  Hand me that tie clip, will you?”

I tossed it to him.  It was a Mickey Mouse tie clip.

“What do you think?” he said as he fastened the clip. “Does it make a statement?”

“A clear one, yes.  It’s crooked, though. So you were swayed by my impressive qualifications?”

He straightened the clip and settled back down into the big leather chair behind his desk.  “Good.  Then I’m ready for my meeting with the advertising department.  Your qualifications?  Absolutely. I studied them day and night. What’s your name again? Ed?  Ted?  Fred? Doesn’t matter. You lost Dickensian waifs are a dime a dozen. We pay you with loose change from the vending machines.’

“Speaking of which, can I have a raise?”

“Yes – on the day after the day hell freezes over.”

“Sounds reasonable. Thank you for your continuing cooperation.”

Jonathan was the best part of the job.  He seemed more fictional to me than real, a New Yorker character brought to sudden life.  Jonathan ate at the Algonquin Hotel and the Russian Tea Room, was married to a beautiful French woman, commuted daily to his Connecticut home. He spoke fluent Russian and French, the result of his years spent as a foreign correspondent in Moscow and Paris.

Most amazingly, he liked me.

“Stay on top of this Falkland Islands thing for me,” he said, suddenly serious, his sharp gray eyes fixed on mine. “Monitor the newswires, keep an eye on all the telexes, read every newspaper and magazine. You’re my point man on this thing.”

A glorified copy boy was more like it. But it didn’t feel that way.

“This is a hot story. Pay close attention and learn, Douglas. It’s a great opportunity.”

 

Opportunity: that was the word I kept hearing. Mindy Lowenthal used it as she showed me around the newsroom. Mindy, an office temp, was in her late 20’s. She had long black tangled hair, a warm smile, and wore subtle perfume that lingered.

“Okay, listen closely,” she said. “This is your opportunity for a grand tour before everyone else starts showing up late as usual.  Over to your left are the clocks.  It’s part of your executive position to make sure they’re all on time.  You know, like when daylight savings comes.  Assuming you last that long.”

I looked at her. “Thanks for the vote of confidence.”

She shrugged. “You wouldn’t be the first person bounced out of here.  Or the last.” She pointed at the wall. “As you can see, we’ve got clocks for everywhere there’s a Global News bureau or correspondent. London, Tokyo, Moscow, Sao Paulo, that’s in Brazil in case you don’t know, Mexico City, Paris, and Geneva. I was in Geneva during my junior year abroad. Did I mention that I went to Vassar?  I’m beautiful and bright.”

“You forgot self-effacing.  What’s that window under the clocks?”

“You’re quick. I like that.” She leaned over and slid the little window open. “That leads to the telex room. The telex guys pass messages and news from the Associated Press through it all day long to Marcia and Tim, the domestic and foreign editors, who edit and rewrite the copy. You met them on your interview.” Mindy looked around and dropped her voice.  “Marcia’s a sour mean old witch and Tim’s a prissy little wuss.”

“Is that in their personnel files?”

She laughed. “It should be. You see that weird looking door in the wall behind your desk?  Under the big map with all the pins?  By the way, the map shows where all two hundred of our correspondents are located.  It’s been there forever. Some of those guys probably died during the War of 1812. That door is for the pneumatic tube system. Part of your job is to take the copy that Marcia and Tim churn out, stuff it into tubes, and send them through the system to all the different magazines in the building. You know – Business Day, Chemical Monthly, Aviation News, etc. And, of course, since your title is research assistant, your job involves a fair amount of research. The company library is downstairs on the 7th floor. You’ll get very familiar with it.”

I sat down at my desk. “How come you know all this stuff if you’re a temp?”

She fluffed her hair and noticed me noticing. “Oh, I used to work here.  I was Jonathan’s assistant. I quit to work on my Master’s at Columbia. I told you I’m bright. I come in whenever they need me. Like this week, they wanted me here because you’re starting.  Jonathan’s secretary, Debra, doesn’t have the time to train anyone, but really she doesn’t have the personality. You’ll see.

“Who else do you need to know about in this place?  Lisa is sweet but very conservative. She turns bright pink if you swear around her or talk about sex, so I do both. Victoria, she’s friendly but ambitious, though I think her main ambition is to snag herself a lawyer from the legal department on the 15th floor. She gets off on that floor by accident at least three times a day. Barbara, their boss, is a little ogre. She runs the business department like a feudal lord. Jonathan hates her. And Judy is her right-hand henchman.  Befriend them at your own peril, young knight. Did I mention that I’m in a Renaissance group?  I’m Lady Jane. No need to bow but please remember that I’m royalty.”

“I’ll keep it in mind.”

“Barry the photo editor is out today but you’ll meet him tomorrow. That will be an experience.”

“What do you mean?”

“You’ll see.”

“That sounds ominous.”

“Barry is unique. That’s probably all you need to know for now, except that if you ask me out for a cup of coffee after work, I’ll say yes.”

“I see. Well, thanks for the tour. I really appreciate it. And I look forward to that cup of coffee.”

She smiled. “Me, too. Glad to be of service. It’s always interesting to see how long the next one is going to last.  I give you maybe six months.  Possibly eight. Welcome to Global News.”

I had a new job and a potential date. Maybe my luck really was improving.

 

Debra also used the word opportunity during lunch.

“You’ve got a real opportunity to prepare for your retirement here,” she told me.

“But I just turned 22.”

“You’re right.  Maybe it is a little late. But you still have some time left.”

We were sitting across from each other in the break room eating Japanese food. Debra, who was dressed in black, had a Yukio Mishima novel in one hand and a pair of chopsticks in the other. She had barely finished the tiny portion of noodles in front of her. But then Debra looked like she rarely ate very much.

“I only read Japanese literature,” she said, “because their stoic sense of fatalism appeals to me.” She absently straightened her short brown hair.  “And my own highly developed sense of fatalism tells me that one day you’ll be old and sick and unable to work, so you should begin preparing for it now.”

I took a bite of my chicken teriyaki. “Can I finish lunch first?”

“Sure.  Don’t let me bring you down.  I always see the cloud inside any silver lining. And don’t bother to joke with me. I don’t have much of a sense of humor. Jonathan always tries to make me laugh but it never works. By the way, sooner or later, Jonathan gives everyone nicknames.  Want to hear mine?”

“Sure.”
“Charon. You know, from Greek myths.  The one who ferries the dead across the river Styx. Speaking of Jonathan, he wants to see you right after lunch. Remember to start your pension plan as soon as possible.  You’ll thank yourself later.”

 

Jonathan was hanging a basketball hoop on the wall as I entered his office.  It was a genuine hoop. A regulation-sized basketball sat on his desk.

“There he is.  Thank God I brought you on board. Your assistance in our organization is critical.  How are you at drilling?”

“I’m quite expert, sir.  My father is a dentist.”

“Excellent, Jeeves, excellent.  Drill me a fresh set of holes, will you?  I’ve never been good at these menial proletarian tasks.  I think I hit some wiring earlier.  Be careful, though.  I felt a distinct shock. I’d hate for you to become collateral damage on your first day. It could take hours to replace you.”

I drilled. We hung the hoop.

Jonathan stepped back and ran a hand over his balding head. “Looks good.  Looks straight. You may turn out to be invaluable. Now talk to me about the Falkland Islands.”

I sat down in the chair across from his desk and gathered the notes I took earlier in the library. The basketball flew past my head.  It made a satisfying swish and fell into the open file drawer beneath the hoop.

“First sighted by Spanish and Portuguese seamen in the 16th century,” I began, “the Falkland Islands were visited by a British expedition close to 100 years later and claimed for the crown.”

Jonathan closed his eyes, lowered his head, and pretended to snore. “Fascinating.  Wake me when you reach this century. Always remember that nobody wants old news, Douglas. Hence the first three letters of the word ‘news.’ Pass me that ball.”

He caught the ball one-handed, spun his revolving leather desk chair around, and tried a backward shot over his head. It bounced a few times on the rim and then went through the hoop.

“Nice shot.”

“Of course. Continue.”

“On April 2 in  this year of our Lord, 1982, the Argentine navy landed on the Falkland Islands with thousands of troops and seized control.  The underlying goal may have been to distract everyone in the country from their economic troubles. Inflation is over 600%.  Manufacturing is down.  Jobs are impossible to find. There’s growing civil unrest, mass union demonstrations, etc. For obvious reasons, the military junta is not very popular, and their political opponents seem to disappear on a regular basis.”

“Not the site for my next vacation, in other words.”

“Seems like it might be an acquired taste.  On April 3, the Argentineans seized two associated groups of islands, South Georgia and the Sandwich group. Also on April 3, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 502, which calls for the withdrawal of Argentine troops from the islands and an immediate end to hostilities.”

“Which ain’t happening.”

“No, sir, it is not.”

“And that’s where we stand today?”

“It is.”

“Your assessment?”

“Imminent war.”

“I agree.  You’ve done your homework, Douglas, and quickly.   Good job.  I’m quite serious. I’m impressed. I’ve already dispatched one of our most experienced correspondents, Dan Burke, to cover events down there. Your research confirms that I made the right decision.”

I felt like cheering, or at least grinning from ear to ear.   I did neither.  It would lack coolness. Instead, I  picked up the basketball and took a shot from the corner of the room.

I missed, of course. I was not Jonathan.

He shook his head and frowned. “Better practice that jumper, Corporal, or we’ll never have a chance against Navy next week.”

“Will do, sir.”

 

Marcia, the foreign desk editor, was not pleased about Jonathan’s new pastime.  She and Jonathan shared an office wall.

“What the hell is he up to now?” she asked.  Her voice held the raspy memory of many cigarettes.

The wall shook as Jonathan took another shot.  “Jesus Christ,” she muttered.  “The shit I have to put up with here.”

She turned to me and forced a yellow smile. Marcia was probably in her 40’s but looked 60. She had bad skin and a worse dye job.

Spread out on her desk were dozens of index cards with contact information for foreign correspondents. Marcia had indecipherable handwriting so she was the only one who could read whatever she wrote. I believe she viewed this as a form of job security.

“Well, Douglas, how are things coming along?”

“Fine,” I replied.

“Are you enjoying your first day here?”

“I’m glad for the opportunity.”

My answer seemed to please her. “Keep in mind that you can learn a lot. And not from Jonathan. It’s people like me in editorial who can teach you what you need to learn.”

“Sounds great,” I told her.

“Here’s the first thing you should learn.” She looked around to see who might be listening and gestured me nearer. “I don’t like Tim,” she whispered, “and he doesn’t like me. So even though we sit next to each other, I’ll need you to deliver the notes I write him. Just take them from my outbox and put them in his inbox. That way he and I never have to talk.”

Amazing. “Okay. No problem.”

She looked pleased. “You’re adaptable. I like that. I think we’ll get along just fine.”

 

Barry, the photo editor, did not feel the same way. He looked me over from head to toe the next morning as I entered the office and hung up my raincoat, an expression of angry contempt on his bearded face.

Barry was about a foot shorter than me and at least fifteen years older.  He looked like an outraged leprechaun.

He continued staring as I sat down at my desk with my morning coffee and bagel.  You could buy both from a café called Fritzl’s on the first floor.

“How old are you?” Barry demanded.

I unwrapped the aluminum foil around my toasted bagel. The cream cheese was nice and creamy.  “Twenty-two.”

“Nobody’s twenty-two.”

“Okay, fine, I’m not twenty-two.”

“Glad to see you have the courage of your convictions.”

I took a bite of the warm bagel. “Hey, I’m just being agreeable.  I don’t like to upset my feeble elders.”

He glowered at me and then grinned, running a pale hand through his ginger beard.  “Heard you were a smartass.  Okay, I like smartasses.  Even if I do have socks older than they are.”

I washed the bagel down with some coffee. “You might consider shopping.”

He snorted. “And you might consider where I was when I was your age.  I don’t like you for it.  I resent you.  I truly do.  You’re a smartass, I like smartasses, but I resent you. You might as well know it.”

I wiped some cream cheese from my face. “Thanks for the update. Where were you at my age?”

“I was hauling my skinny ass through the jungle while the Viet Cong tried to kill me in fifty different ways.  Bombs, bullets, bungee stakes, you name it. I was infantry. No college deferment for this poor boy from the Bronx. Nossir. Just basic training and then a swift trip to the heart of darkness.”

“Conrad.”

“Yeah, you’re right, Joseph Conrad. A reader, yet.  Probably have a friggin’ English degree. I used to read a lot, too. Sometimes I’d even take a day to read when I was on R&R.  After all the drinking and whoring I’d sit down and make my way through Tolstoy, Hemingway, Crane. I read about war.  Then I lived it.”

I finished the first half of my toasted bagel and started the second. They’re best when still warm.

“One time,” he continued, staring into the distance, “I went back to base camp, and I was all clean and shiny the way you are now, fresh from my time off, relaxed, you know, I’d had my ashes hauled and had this calm demeanor, and I saw this guy, a buddy, Earl was his name, we were in basic together. Earl. Earl from Alabama.  Fucking Earl. He was sitting there drinking his coffee, just like you are right now, and eating something, just like you’re munching on that bagel, and we were talking, and the next thing I knew old Earl’s head had blown up and his brains and skull and blood were all over my clean uniform, it was some sniper out there in the shadows and no more Earl.  So long Earl. Dirt nap for the Earlster.”

I put down the bagel. My appetite was gone.

Barry grinned at me as the rest of the department started arriving.

“Remember, I don’t like you,” he told me.

“Got it,” I replied.

 

What did I think of these people?  Like Jonathan, they all reminded me of characters I had met before in a novel or a movie. So did the other residents of our 50-story midtown building. Global News was just one department in a huge multimedia conglomerate that was more like a Wall Street firm than a publishing house. I was surrounded by carefully groomed executives wearing custom-made Italian suits, elegant women of independent means who worked just for the fun of it, scruffy foreign correspondents with their ties undone and rumpled Burberry raincoats casually tossed across their shoulders.

The correspondents would visit from Nepal, Burma, Egypt, Peru and other exotic locales and sit in Jonathan’s office sharing news and gossip in equal measure. I would watch as he smiled, shook their hands, and sent them off to cover breaking stories in Rome, Jerusalem, or Helsinki.

I was nothing like any of these people. I was from a small town and had attended a small state college. If they thought of me at all, it was as a  recent graduate with a typical corporate future. But I knew that I was different, and young, and that my future would be my own. Meanwhile, I studied them like an anthropologist doing field work in the wilds of Borneo.

 

Mindy was right about Tim, a slight, fastidious man who seemed frightened of Marcia despite his earlier experiences as a foreign correspondent in war zones. I didn’t blame him. Marcia scared everyone but Jonathan, who delighted in annoying her.

Mindy was also correct about Barbara, who ran the business department with an iron fist and was prone to sudden bursts of rage. “A thousand dollar expense I can hide!” she shouted at her assistant Judy one day. “But not five thousand dollars! What the hell was Jonathan thinking?”

I knew what Jonathan was thinking because he told me. We were in his office during this outburst and overheard every word.

He shrugged. “What can I say?  It costs money to cover a war. The bribes alone are a fortune. Burke is doing a great job and we can’t leave him high and dry.” He took a deep breath.  “Okay, bring me up to date on this nasty little confrontation, Steinbeck.”

Jonathan had learned that I enjoyed the novels of John Steinbeck. My official nickname was now Steinbeck. I admit that I kind of liked it.

Every day, I reviewed the Associated Press newswire stories as they printed out from the teletype machine – literally hot off the presses – along with dozens of newspaper articles and magazine stories in the library downstairs.

I also read Dan Burke’s informative dispatches from Argentina. I was really starting to like Dan, who wrote with clarity and compassion about both sides of the worsening conflict. Dan had a feel for everyday people and how traumatic events affected them. He was only five or six years older than me and taking risks that I wasn’t sure I would ever be brave enough to take.

I cleared my throat. “On April 25th, British forces retook South Georgia Island and captured an Argentine submarine. They also sank an old Argentine battle cruiser, General Belgrano, with a nuclear submarine. Fierce battles broke out between the British navy and the Argentine air force. On May 4, yesterday, the Argentine forces sank a British destroyer, the HMS Sheffield, but Dan estimates that Argentina has lost 20-30 percent of their air force. The main British forces are on their way across the Atlantic.”

“In other words – escalation,” said Jonathan. “Prediction?”

“Argentina is about to get its ass kicked.”

“Agreed. And so are you if you don’t get out of my office. I need some alone time for my afternoon nap.”

“I’ll try and keep it quiet out there.”

 

Hoboken’s future looked a lot brighter than Argentina’s. Gentrification was in the air. Old brownstone buildings that you could buy a few years earlier for $20,000 were  getting snatched up for six-figure sums. The fruit trucks selling fresh produce on side streets and the old Italian delis and the barbershops and the shoe repair stores and the pizzerias were disappearing as law offices and condo developments sprang up. On Washington Street, which ran through the heart of town, sleek late-model Saabs and Honda Preludes were replacing the clunky American junkers that once filled every parking space. Maxwell’s – a hot new club where you could eat a bad meal while listening to indie-rock bands like the B52s, REM, and the Feelies – was turning away eager customers.

Even the drug dealers who did business around the Steven’s Institute campus every night could feel the change as a flood of new customers increased demand and diminished supplies. My downstairs neighbor, a drug dealer named Raymond, was not happy with the situation.

“Those yuppies are a pain in the ass, man,” he told me, scratching his neck. “They want designer goods and the profit margin on that product line is minimal. I’m starting to wonder if I took the wrong career path.”

“It’s a possibility,” I told him.

In the mornings, I would walk the cramped Hoboken streets from my apartment to the bus stop as the intoxicating smell of chocolate hung over the city. Sometimes I followed my nose to the source, Lepore’s Home Made Chocolates, where they crafted delicious candy fresh every day and you could get a warm breakfast croissant with dark chocolate melted inside.

My regular bus driver was an aspiring stand-up comedian who tried out jokes on his passengers every morning. We would boo or cheer each joke as he took notes on our responses.

“Thanks for your help, everyone,” he would announce over the sound system as we arrived at Port Authority Bus Terminal. “Come by and see me this Saturday night at the Improv.” But we already knew his whole act, so why bother?

 

Hoboken was changing and so was I. Within a month, I fell into a work routine that felt like I had followed it for years. I would hop off the bus and walk across town past the porn shops and bait-and-switch electronics stores to our building at Sixth Avenue and 48th street, weaving my way through the sidewalks crowded with other morning commuters. The women all wore sneakers and carried their dress shoes in shoulder bags, and the men all had newspapers folded under their arms. Homeless people rummaged through garbage cans, waved their arms, muttered, shouted, and begged for cash. Cabs accelerated into turns and pedestrians scattered like schools of frightened fish.

I would pass the High School of Performing Arts, where students often danced and sang for passers-by just like their fictional counterparts did in the movie “Fame.” Then I would march north through the perpetual wind tunnel of Shubert Alley where bright playbills left behind after last night’s shows fluttered and circled in the breeze like lost tropical birds.

My work day began at 8:30 am and ended at 4:30 pm, and every day was pretty much the same in our dysfunctional office. I now understood why nobody lasted in this job. It wasn’t the work. It was the vicious bickering. On Fridays, the staff would adjourn to a local Irish pub called Molly Bloom’s for drinks and more drinks, but I always politely declined the invitation. Eight hours a day with this crew was more than enough.

The stressful daily grind that had become my life was disrupted one Wednesday afternoon when my parents dropped in from New Jersey for a visit. They were the last two people I expected to see strolling into the lobby. I was on my way back from delivering a package to the basement mailroom when I spotted them, my father towering over everybody else and my mother smiling beside him. My mom wore a new black dress and my dad a blue blazer with gold buttons. They were holding hands.

“Hello there, young man,” my father said. “Surprised to see us?”

“Yes,” I replied. “Shocked, actually.”

I was also shocked by how glad I was to see them. “What are you guys doing here?”

My mother’s smile grew bigger. “You look so professional in your business clothes. So grown up. We’re going to see a matinee of “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.” Your father thought it would be nice to see where you work.”

“How about it?” my father asked. “Embarrassed to be seen with your old parents?”

“Speak for yourself,” said my mother. “I’m not old.”

“It’s a figure of speech,” my father said.

“Well, you figured wrong,” my mother said.

I laughed. Surprisingly, I was not embarrassed by them at all. Maybe I really was grown up.

“Come on,” I said.

We rode the elevator to the 37th floor while my father rattled off statistics about my employer. He was a business teacher and always did his research. My mother the nurse was fascinated to hear there was a fully staffed company medical office on the 12th floor.

Everyone was very gracious in the newsroom and my parents were duly impressed by the clocks on the wall, the big map, the constant clattering of typewriter keys. Jonathan, who was taking a phone call in his office, waved through the glass and then finally emerged to shake my father’s big hand.

“We’re very lucky to have Douglas here,” he said. “I just wish he’d stop stealing from the pension fund.”

My father laughed. “I think I like this guy.”

My mother turned to me. “I’m very disappointed in you. Didn’t I raise you not to get caught when you steal?”

This time Jonathan laughed. “I see where Douglas gets his sense of humor.” He gently shook my mother’s hand.  “Your son learns fast, gets along with everyone, and will go far.”

My parents were thrilled with this glowing report and went off to their matinee in high spirits. I sat down at my desk feeling better than I had in a long time.

Barry looked up from the photographs he was reviewing and grinned. “Your folks seem like nice people,” he said. “I’m adopted and never knew mine.  And I still hate your guts.”

“Understood,” I replied.

 

I didn’t feel good for very long. Dan Burke was missing.

“Needless to say, I’m deeply concerned,” said Jonathan at our weekly staff meeting.

British forces had landed on May 21, which was also the last day we received a dispatch from Dan. It was now May 23 and the ground fighting had grown intense.

“There goes five thousand bucks down the drain,” muttered Barbara.

Jonathan turned to her. “Excuse me, Barbara? Did I just hear you correctly?”

She hesitated. “I certainly hope Mr. Burke is alright. But the cost remains an issue.”

I’d never seen Jonathan angry before. “I sent him down there and I hope like all hell that he’s okay. So please spare me the callousness and sarcasm. This is a man’s life we’re talking about here.”

“And spare me the condescension,” said Barbara. “I’m trying to do my job and keep this department financially solvent despite constant undermining. I’ll be in my office if anyone needs me.” Nobody else said a word as she slammed the door behind her.

Jonathan stared at her closed office door for a long moment and then shook his head. “Marcia, please reach out to our contacts in Argentina and see if we can get any word about Dan. Ask them to check all the local hospitals. Meanwhile, we have a coverage vacuum. Any suggestions?”

Marcia frowned thoughtfully, although it was hard to tell since frowning was her usual expression. “I’ll look into it and see if anyone is available.”

“Please do. Thank you. That’s it for today’s meeting, everyone. I’ll keep you all informed as we learn more.”

 

Dan Burke wasn’t the only person missing. Also off the grid was the woman who sublet me her Hoboken apartment, a former NYU business major and apparent criminal who was nowhere to be found.  Unfortunately, she had not forwarded my rent payments to the landlords, Ernest and Catherine, who lived on the first floor and until now had been very friendly. They were so friendly that I always snuck past their doorway to avoid getting dragged into a conversation with this pair, who addressed me endlessly about different exciting topics like the weather while ignoring each other.

Ernest and Catherine were no longer friendly. In fact, they were now threatening to evict and sue me.

“That’s rough, man,” said Raymond the drug dealer when I ran into him one morning. I was on the way to my job and he was on the way home from his job. “But I’ve always liked your apartment more than mine, so it could be good news for me.”

“Thanks a lot,” I replied.

He smiled and yawned. “Hey, I’m just busting your balls, dude. The rumor is they want to sell the place fast and cash in on the big real estate boom. That’s pretty funny since they had seventeen fire violations the last time the building was inspected.  It’s even funnier since Ernest used to be the fire captain. The point is, they’re eager to get rid of us both. If I were you, I’d use this information to arrive at a mutually satisfactory resolution to your dispute. I plan to do the same.”

“I appreciate it. I will.”

Mindy was missing, too. We never got together for coffee because she met someone in her Renaissance group who quickly became her new beau. He was an earl or maybe a duke. Whatever his title, he swept Lady Jane off her feet and they were now probably living somewhere in a drafty castle on the Scottish moors, or maybe in a one-bedroom coop in Flushing. Who knew?  Who cared?  I was worried about Dan Burke.

The Falkland Islands war was no longer a distant geopolitical event with a wide range of contributing factors for me to research and discuss with Jonathan. It was real. Dan could be horribly wounded or dead along with thousands of others. I hadn’t given mortality a whole lot of thought before but I was starting to understand the brutal fact of it. Dan’s parent’s phoned every day and Jonathan took those calls. He looked somber and drained every time he got off the phone with them.

Mortality didn’t seem like much of an issue to Tim the domestic desk editor, though, who had volunteered to replace Dan in Argentina and was now winging his way south. Tim was an experienced correspondent, spoke fluent Spanish, and was willing to report from a war zone rather than continue working with Marcia and the rest of us here in the main office. I didn’t blame him.

Jonathan asked me to help cover the domestic desk until he could find a replacement for Tim. This new role involved greater interaction with Marcia. Her limited tolerance ran out almost immediately and it wasn’t long before she was sending me notes via her outbox rather than talking to me. This was not a great loss.

Finally, after some very long weeks, word came about the fate of Dan.

 

“I have some great news to share,” announced Jonathan as he emerged from his office with a big smile. “Dan Burke is alive and well.”

The office erupted in cheers. Even Marcia looked happy. I was surprised to feel tears in my eyes and roughly brushed them away before anyone else noticed.

“He’s currently being held in a British detention area,” Jonathan continued. “Apparently, he lost his press credentials in the middle of the fighting and was captured along with thousands of Argentinian soldiers. He suffered minor injuries but is otherwise no worse for wear. The U.S. State department has contacted his family and is arranging for his release.”

Jonathan paused. “While I have everyone’s attention, I’d like to make another announcement. As some of you know, I was recently offered the opportunity to take over as the editor-in-chief for one of our magazines, Business Management News, which is headquartered in London. I’ve accepted the offer and will be leaving at the end of next week. It’s been an adventure working with you all. Thanks so much for your support and hard work, especially during this difficult time. Douglas, do you have a moment?”

I followed Jonathan into his office and closed the door behind us.

“I know my imminent departure comes as a bit of a surprise,” he said.

“Yes,” I said, “it sure does.”

My tone of voice gave me away and Jonathan looked at me. “I was sworn to secrecy, Steinbeck. Only a few people in the business department were informed.”

“Okay. I understand.” But I didn’t really. He had hired me while knowing that he was about to leave. That wasn’t exactly a crime but he could have told me the truth. I was trustworthy. Besides, I thought we had a mutual respect thing going on.

“Good. The reason I asked you in here,” he continued, “is that I’d like to make you an offer. You’ve done an excellent job filling in after Tim’s departure. So how would you feel about taking over the position of domestic desk editor?”

“You mean keep working with Marcia? How much of a raise are we talking about here?”

He didn’t smile. “Unfortunately, our budget doesn’t support a raise. But, of course, a promotion like this would put you on a great career path.”

“And what if I chose to remain in my current position?”

“It’s no longer an option. We’re combining the two roles.”

“I see.  Twice the workload, no extra money, and I’d have to work closely with Marcia? That’s quite a path.”

“It’s still a great opportunity, Steinbeck.  And, yes, you would work closely with Marcia. I know she can be difficult but Marcia is really rather knowledgeable. You could learn a great deal from her.”

I couldn’t believe he was saying this stuff to me, or that he was handling me in the same smooth way I’d seen him handle other people. But then Jonathan was a company man and leaving behind a fully staffed department would make him look a whole lot better to upper management.  So would the cost savings of using me at the domestic desk instead of someone more experienced and expensive.

“Yes,” I said, “her people skills and patience are legendary. Maybe I should have gone to the Falkland Islands with Tim. A war sounds like more fun.”

Jonathan frowned. “Think seriously about this offer, Douglas. You have a few days to decide. Bear in mind that it’s career suicide at this company to turn down a promotion.”

“Understood,” I said. “I’ll give your offer all the consideration it deserves. Thanks very much for thinking of me. I really appreciate this potential opportunity. And congratulations on the new job.”

Jonathan wasn’t the only one around here who could handle people.

He grinned. “Thanks. This has been in the works for a long time and it’s a challenge I look forward to taking on. Plus, on a personal note, my wife’s family is in Paris so we’ll be just a hop, skip, and a jump away from them. Happy wife, happy life, Steinbeck.”

“Good to know.”

What could I say?  Don’t go because it’s been great fun working with you despite the fact that you were playing me the whole time?  Stay here because Marcia is the midnight spawn of Satan and working with her will destroy my mortal soul?  Life was too damned short to worry about any of it.

I picked up the basketball and took a final shot at Jonathan’s hoop. The ball swished through the net. It felt good to be on target for once.

“I’ll get back to you soon,” I told him but I already knew my answer was no.  I had been invaded. It was time to beat a hasty retreat before I got captured.

 

 

 

BIO

Robert Douglas Friedman’s short stories and humor pieces have appeared in Story Quarterly, Narrative, The Satirist, Boomer Lit Mag, Jokes Review, Penny Shorts, Literally Stories, and many other publications. He is the founder and president of Raising the Bar Media. Robert lives and works in New Jersey.

 

 

 

0

Lightning

by Cleo Egnal

 

7 September, 1940

She drummed her fingers softly on the worn oak of his writing desk. It belonged to his father, he had mentioned that once, but the details and context of the conversation were lost to her. She tapped rhythmically, playing out a tune that got itself stuck in the recesses of her mind. A sharp pinch of memory reminded her that he hated when she did “that blasted thing” with her fingers when she was nervous. Out of belated courtesy she folded her hands together and rested the shape in her lap, trying to keep her buzzing body steady. He wasn’t there, of course, to reprimand her absentminded habit, but she thought it polite, regardless, to cease her nervous tapping. Maybe she was worried he could hear it, wherever he was. Maybe they were that connected.

The tune, faded and distant and blurry, somehow, continued to dance around in her head; she tapped (her foot, this time) in time with the nonexistent music as she blocked the sounds of sirens and checked the clock again. He was late. And bombs were falling.

They had spoken earlier that afternoon about what to have for supper, but never decided. The thought, when it occurred to her, prompted her to move from where she had been sitting, sorting through mail like she always did right before he came home to her, and make her way to the kitchen. The sirens grew louder (or had she just started really paying attention?) as she made her way without thinking through the flat.

As she stared at the empty plates set out on the small square table in the corner of the kitchen, trying to orient herself and remember what exactly it was she came into the room to find in the first place, she thought about whether or not he was hungry. They usually ate together at six-thirty; they were both punctual about things that way. Well, she only was when it came to food. He could have been made of gears and ticking clocks, though, the way he navigated time effortlessly and always managed to arrive exactly when needed, or intended. She constantly found herself wanting to be somewhere and only arriving when the odd workings of the universe finally allowed her to find her left shoe. He wasn’t like her in that regard. So it was odd, terribly odd, that at eight-fifteen the plates were empty and the kettle was screaming and her reliable clock was broken.

She snapped her fingers as she recalled her purpose for venturing into the kitchen; she meant to turn the kettle off before heading down to the shelter. It was shrieking, the kettle, that was what reminded her; it was a miracle its voice didn’t get lost in the droning sirens. She wondered why the sirens had to blare on so incessantly. Surely one or two warnings would be enough. But no, it had been going on too long and her ears were ringing and as she turned the knob on the stove all the way to the right, and as the kettle began to quiet and all that was left was the slight sizzle of boiling water, she wondered what would happen if she just stayed. He would be confused, after all, if he wandered in and she was nowhere to be found. She couldn’t very well duck into the shelter without him, he wouldn’t know where she’d gone. He’d be standing in the foyer, absolutely muddled.

Of course, this was all fanciful thinking. He could hear the sirens just as clearly as she could (although she wished sometimes she couldn’t, they were completely bothersome at times) and would know immediately where to find her. But something about him coming home to an empty flat made her incredibly sad, she didn’t know why, and so she contemplated staying. She could make them both some tea — after all, the kettle had been prepared — and reheat dinner and he would come home to a warm meal instead of wondering if she was still in one piece. She supposed that was what she was wondering, at the moment. If he was in pieces somewhere, bits of him scattered throughout the city. She imagined a corner of his ear carried by the wind through Trafalgar Square, right by his office, while his ring finger headed south along the dusty streets toward Whitehall. She imagined his pinky toe sauntering off to Charing Cross to catch the train home, unaware that it had lost the rest of him. She imagined this all somehow detached from the idea that it was entirely possible he wasn’t, at the moment, whole.

Her instincts for self-preservation proved stronger than her worry at him coming back to an empty flat. After a few more moments of wandering around, waiting for him, she grabbed the basket filled with snacks and knitting and old magazines she had begun keeping by the door, threw the first thing she saw on the coat rack over her shoulders, and headed out toward the building’s air raid bunker. She brushed aside the creeping heat of fear that was making its way up the base of her spine and turned her thoughts instead to whether or not she would be able to carve out a comfortable spot for herself among the thirty or so others she predicted were already there.

The sirens continued and the night wore on, seemingly endless, occasional shudders racking the brick wall against her back. A single bulb rattled overhead, swinging ever so slightly, a present reminder that the earth above them was turning to rubble. She passed her time knitting the beginnings of a scarf and tapping out music on the concrete floors. No one asked her to please stop doing “that blasted thing,” and somehow the lack of reprimand struck her harder than if the action had been met by communal disdain. The quiet of the bunker, louder almost than the sirens, hummed like electric lights, the very outsides of it electrified by such intense fear she wondered if they would all simply perish from that. The inside of the silence was vast, dark, terrifying. It was so loud, all that quiet, she pressed her hands against her ears to try to block it out but all she heard was muffled sirens screaming from all corners of London and some occasional sobbing. She couldn’t tell from whom it was coming; it might have been her.

For seventy six more days, each time she made her way to the bunker, she couldn’t shake the feeling that he would suddenly walk through the door, expecting his tea and supper, and she would have to explain that she was terribly sorry, but preparing a meal had slipped her mind in all the chaos, and would he be opposed to eating out just this once? He would wrap his arms around her and say no, he didn’t mind at all, and he would take her by the hand and they would walk together through an unbroken city, without worrying about anything but rain falling from the sky.

 

BIO

Cleo Egnal is a fiction writer with a B.A. in Written Arts from Bard College. She currently resides in Los Angeles, California, where she spends her days dreaming of the English countryside and working on her novel. She has been published on The Other Stories and Ranker. Besides writing fiction, she is also passionate about Victorian history, fashion history, and music.

 

 

 

 

 

0

Defenestration

by Martin Kleinman

 

Sarah and her friends come from affluence, which is why she said “defenestration,” while I simply said that Glenn jumped out the fucking window.

To me, at that stage of my life, there was no excuse for that.  It wasn’t like the souls who had flung themselves out of the North Tower and into a clear blue Tuesday.  You do remember that day, when school kids scurried, hair dusted with destruction, and squinted into morning’s glint.

And it wasn’t like that time in ’41 when Abe Reles, aka “Kid Twist”, flew headlong out of Room 623 of Coney Island’s Half Moon Hotel while under police protection.  Murder Incorporated’s master of death-by-ice pick landed on a restaurant roof the night before he was to testify against Albert Anastasia, and thus transformed from short psychopath to spin-art corpse.

No. To my way of thinking, there was no excuse for what Glenn did.  None.  Sarah and Glenn grew up on the Upper West Side of New York, well after the “Panic in Needle Park” days, and before today’s calamity of condos.  A guy like that? He should have jumped for joy, not out of a building.

I would later learn that Sarah and Glenn had been inseparable theater conservatory stalwarts at SUNY Purchase back in the day.  After a few years of audition rounds and regular rejections, Sarah shed her ScarJo dream, and drifted back to her fallback career, graphic design.

Glenn’s theater career lurched like Chutes and Ladders.  He earned just enough positive reinforcement to keep him good and hooked on the acting profession.  After winning a couple of lucrative TV ads, he moved to Chelsea.  The checks rolled in.

At that point, I came into the picture.  I met Glenn’s sister-from-another-mister at a concert in Prospect Park and, in short order, Sarah moved in with me, to the upper upper upper upper West Side of Manhattan, 214th Street and Broadway.  “Soooo convenient,” she’d tell her friends, throwing serious shade at my down-at-the-heels Inwood pre-war apartment, two floors above Liffy II and the Dominican cigar makers.

 

I asked Sarah about that angry four-inch scar on the underside of her left forearm, early on in our relationship.  I couldn’t help but notice that this wasn’t a half-hearted pass, an across the wrist swipe.  This was a vertical slash, a deliberate ditch.   “It’s an old cat scratch,” she said, the first time I mentioned it.  We were in bed, aglow.  I ran my forefinger down her arm, gently touching the injury’s ridge.  Her arm recoiled.  Her face tightened.

“It’s an old gardening accident,” she told me another time.  I leaned in to kiss it.  She turned her back to me, then sat up in bed, then left the room.

 

Just months after he moved to Chelsea, Glenn’s parents divorced. His dad was a Hollywood movie producer and the mom – have you heard of her? Belle Taylor? – was a cabaret singer of local renown, with a residency at the Carlyle.

The divorce was contentious and Glenn needed Sarah’s sympathetic ear and that meant daily, late night phone calls and emergency visitations.  “Gotta go – gonna talk him down off the ledge again,” she’d say, no matter the hour, or day of the week.  Her tight smile that told me my permission was not expected, needed, or wanted.

And, time and time again, I’d amble down to Liffy II for a pint or seven while watching the Yankees.  And I’m not ashamed to say that I’d stew about being a third wheel, left out of this tightly knit childhood army-of-two.

Six months after Sarah moved in with me, Glenn called to ask if Sarah and I cared to join him at the Carlyle to see his mother, Belle, perform.  Comped.

What I remember: our Stoli martinis were very dry. Very large. Very potent.

What I remember: warm waves of applause lapped the bandstand. The crystal clink of highball glasses.  Stunning young women in red-soled Louboutins, squired by greying guys who flashed gold cufflinks.  Snappy bow-tied waiters, hair slick with pomade.  Gold-rimmed plates of Dover sole.

What I remember: Belle’s wisp of a smile. Red fingernails that caressed an onyx Neumann microphone.  A sultry slit skirt. Tired kohl-lined eyes turned heavenward to receive her spotlight sacrament.

What I most remember: Belle’s encore, Jobim’s “Waters of March,” its playful melody a bikini bursting from lyrics ripe with life.

And so she sang: “A stick, a stone, it’s the end of the road; it’s feeling alone, it’s the weight of your load…”

Backstage.  Belle’s dressing room.  Her generous fuss over our bodega bouquet of red roses. A barren jar of Noxzema, the centerpiece in a coronation of crumpled tissues.  Vise-tight hugs for Glenn and Sarah.

What I did not know: Belle was drowning in a confluence of indignities.  Her divorce had become final.  She had been dropped by her third record label in six years.  Days after we saw her perform, Carlyle management called her agent.  They were going in a “different direction.”

Upon hearing the Carlyle’s news, she opened a Provençal rosé and began to drink.  She slipped Billie Holliday’s version of Arlen’s “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues” onto her turntable and, after the Barney Kessel guitar solo, opened her tenth floor living room window, inhaled sooty summer as it swept past her sheers, and leapt onto 86th Street in the pink silk kimono she bought in a Le Marais shop during her last Paris engagement.

 

The late night calls between Sarah and Glenn continued, fervent, now that Belle died.  Summer passed its sunlit torch to autumn.  The leaves fell.  The temperatures plummeted.  Without the promise of holidays past, joy went absent.  New York was encased in January.

One Saturday, a snowstorm blew in from Canada.  Twenty-six hours later, more than two feet of snow blanketed Broadway.

It was then that Glenn’s calls stopped.

 

“He’s in trouble,” Sarah said.  “I just know it.”

What I remember saying: he’s a big boy.

What I remember thinking: baseball’s spring training is only four weeks away.

What I remember feeling: hope, which came from my childish, vestigial, sense of renewal each new season of baseball brings.

 

I am old enough to remember the old Meatpacking District.  Pools of blood from primal cuts once coagulated on cobblestone streets.  Trucks spewed hydrocarbons into what that passed for air in those dirty days.

Today, the area is overrun by establishments that attract the rich and mindless, including predatory bros from Jersey, who careen about in Cayennes.

Glenn’s broken body was eventually found by city snow plow operators on Ninth Avenue.  As the thin sun of winter rose, a viscous river of red seeped from his mouth onto winter’s white, icy street.  His face, still now for all time, looked startled, confused.  His unseeing eyes fixed heavenward, as if to receive his final sacrament.

 

A detective in a belted, full-length black leather trench coat filled us in.  Sarah collapsed in my arms.  My knees buckled and I felt my eyes float.  The detective noticed, and snapped at me.

“Stay strong for your wife,” he admonished. I held her close now, gently rubbing the underside of her left forearm.  She stayed by my side this time, and sobbed.

This is what we later learned: A Jersey bro, drunk, lurched past our fallen friend.  His entourage-of-the-entitled laughed as their drunk friend nudged Glenn with his foot.

The drunk lunged for a mailbox, to steady himself.  He pulled himself upright, staggered towards his friends and, for no apparent reason, punched one of them in the cheek.

“Fuck you,” the guy spat, stunned.  He rubbed his reddened face with his left hand and clenched his right.  A woman tried to stay his arm, but the drunk’s jutted chin was too tempting a target.  The force of the blow spun him into a parked Uber and onto the snowy sidewalk, beside Glenn.

At that point, he noticed the white ear buds Glenn wore.  Oblivious to Glenn’s condition, he pulled out one of the buds and music blared into that frigid Sunday morning.  The men and women in the group laughed and helped their friend to his feet.

“Shhhhhh!  He’s sleeping,” one of the women slurred as they ambled down the block, laughing with the abandon afforded the careless, as pigeons parted for a skidding Escalade, as a  furious wind whipped off the river, unable to silence that playful Jobim tune:

“A stick, a stone, it’s the end of the road; it’s feeling alone, it’s the weight of your load…”

 

 

  

 

BIO

Martin Kleinman is New York City story teller.  He has told his tales of real New Yorkers in his short fiction collection, “Home Front,” (Sock Monkey Press 2013), in fiction anthologies and literary publications, in www.thisisthebronX.info, and on his blog www.therealnewyorkers.com, as well as in the Huffington Post, and in venues all around New York City – from KGB Bar to Union Hall.

A native New Yorker, Marty has written two books on workplace innovation trends, and is finalizing a second collection of short fiction.  “Defenestration” is from that new short fiction collection.

 

 

 

 

 

0

UP ABOVE and the DOWN BELOW

by Linda Leigh

 

 

In April 2013, I was awarded a scholarship to SAIC (School of the Art Institute in Chicago). Unfortunately, I developed breast and lymph node cancer which I called The Blimp. School started in August, so I put off going until my treatments with chemo and radiation were complete. The school was very accommodating with this arrangement.

When 2014 rolled in I was ready to begin my life in the windy city of Chicago, and really excited about beginning a new and adventurous life. I started having large yard sales and sold most of my worldly goods and the rest went into storage. I said my goodbyes to apartment, family, friends and my cat Isabella, whom I raised from a kitten and thought was going to a good home (more about that later). After my train trip to Chicago I found a place to stay while I took care of my paper work at the school. Everything was verified that I was indeed ready to start the following week. Then a snag came the very next day. I was texted to come to the school immediately. It was discovered that my high school transcript did not have my graduation date on it and I was told without that document I could not attend. Unfortunately my high school in New York is now defunct, and the school now has an office for graduates to call and request their transcripts. At this time the school was closed and would not be open until September. Also the office would have to request info from the state to get that information for me.

Needless to say I am now homeless. Now I live in the elements. What does that mean when you don’t have immediate housing and may have to live on the streets? Actually, when I was asked by my granddaughter if I was homeless I looked at my daughter who was about to cry and said, no, I live in the elements. I then asked my daughter if this sounded better? She replied, yes. The journey will be memorable from how I got here to wherever it takes me.  Family and friends do not keep in touch nor have they come to visit. Lots to think about. But I am a very resourceful person and will definitely make the most of the situation I find myself in.  I will dance through these mirrors and windows and come through stronger and more informed.

•  •  •

A  Good Day

As I listen to a young girl’s poem or spoken word about how she got over her depression, and it being a good day, I thought back to a time that I rarely talk about — the moment I had a dark day.  Although I have never gone to the point of harming or killing myself, I do remember back in the fall of 2012 when I fell into a dark hole and could not climb out.  I actually sought help at a facility in downtown Los Angeles that a friend had recommended.  They had me do different tests and some talking and found that I was basically okay — nothing more, nothing less. But I knew it was something.

I remember it was a Tuesday in November I decided I would Love my depression, yes, I said love it like I did chocolate or a friend or a lover. When it descended upon me I told it, good to have you.  I love you, thank you for being here.  After taking a shower and getting dressed for class I walked to the door and could not open it to go out. I walked back into my room, got into bed and said, I love not having to go out, and I love you warm, cozy bed with my covers and sheets and pillows, thank you, I love being here.

I thanked my apartment and rejoiced in the fact I was in a dark hole loving it as much as I could. And finally one day after two months of this madness I realized it was gone almost as quickly as it came and that was a very Good Day.

•  •  •

Women in the Down Below settle their disputes by being overly aggressive, loud, and squabbling up in each other’s faces.  They put hands on one another.

In the Up Above angry bursts are not as confrontational but are settled by nippy, hurtful and sarcastic statements.

I listened to two young women while I was waiting for my train to arrive.  The women were both Asian and a Caucasian man.  They started talking about a co-worker who had cut and colored her hair.  Their conversation went like this “Did you see her new do?”  Asked one of the women.  The other replied,” Yes, and she was so proud of it.” First woman: “I know. I didn’t know what to say.  So I said, you got your hair cut.  I just couldn’t tell her how bad the color and cut was.” “I know,” replies second woman, “she was so enthused and happy about her hair.”  They giggled and seemed to be enjoying the moment in all its dishonesty.  I watched them and listened intently to them the whole time not caring if they noticed me watching them. I thought, what a sham.

In the Down Below, people are more intense, their anger is explosive but they are very honest in their opinions.  They may be quick to strike out at anyone at any time. At the same time there is so much more living than I’ve ever seen clothes, food, advice to get help and services.  Everyone seems to have a hustle; selling one cigarette for fifty cents, clothing they may have gotten for free goes for one dollar or more; candy and sunglasses even food … Cooking in covered and uncovered skillets. The side of buildings are used without thought for a bathroom while drugs are peddled freely on almost every corner and in front of buildings including the Police station. And trust me, no one does anything about it.

Everyone has a story, some are more horrifying than others. Like the women who’ve told me about their mothers and/or fathers that molested them as children, then put them on the street at eleven years of age for prostitution or the mother that gave her daughter up because she was too dark. All types of people live on Skid Row — educated college professors, business persons, chefs, lawyers, accountants, singers, actors, and of course the Vets, as well as the less educated or non-educated.

At the URM (Union Rescue Mission) where I now reside, I am treated with respect by the other women and the director. Actually, she did something for me she never did for anyone else. I had some boxes that needed to go into storage, and she let me leave them in her office and she personally put them in storage for me.  The women who ran the storage area also made sure my things were not rummaged through, and because my hair was starting to grow back from the chemo they would call me Mrs. Cosby (because of the color). I sleep on the fourth floor. It is like a large dormitory for women, about one hundred fifty, and you are assigned a bed which you get to sleep in every night if you follow the rules.  At night I had women who would ask to sit on my bed and tell me stories about how they were treated as children. Like the mothers and fathers who raped them at very young ages and then put them on the streets to sell themselves at eleven so their parents could have money for the Candy Man.  This revelation was shocking for me because I grew up in a very loving neighborhood where the children were monitored and loved. So this information was new and I began to look at black people in a different awareness always thinking we as a people would never treat our children with little or no respect or regard for their welfare. Another woman revealed to me that she was given up at birth because she was born too dark to a mother that was very fair and had three children before her that were the same color as her mother.  She told me how they were reunited when their mother was dying and asked her to help with the funeral cost and for her church to bury her mother.  And she did even though they, her siblings never communicated with her except at this time.

This is a humorous event that took place at URM, I think so anyway. A young woman comes in and announces she is going on a date with a gentleman she just met and who is really fine, well-mannered and dresses really nice. This young woman is getting ready for her big hot date. She puts on a beautiful frock (the women here have great taste and are very fashionable) and stilettos — yes, they do wear them in The Down below. Her face is made up to perfection, as well as her hair, set in long waves that cover her back, looking like a movie star. She adds one final touch, some bling earrings that dazzle and blind the eyes, then picks up her purse and exits the room. To our amazement, and it’s only been one hour, she is back at the URM taking her shoes off. A friend of hers asks what happened? The young woman starts to tell us that this guy gave her his address, and as she is walking by the tents on Skid Row, she finds it. A Tent, she exclaims, with an address and he is there waiting for her.  With a flourish, he flips open the flap and invites her in where to her amazement are two lawn chairs which she commences to sit on.  She notices that he has two coolers. He asks, “would you like something to drink?” She replies, “yes.”  He opens a cooler with drinks and offers her one which he opens and gives to her.  He then asks her ,“are you ready for dinner?” She hesitantly says yes again, and he opens the other cooler and offers her a sandwich (I don’t know what kind because she never says.) So she eats and drinks and thanks him for a lovely evening and leaves soon after.  After she has lamented about her tale of events she exclaims, at least he lives in a luxury tent and not a pup tent.

There is a white woman that lives on the streets and comes to the DWC called the Judge.  She is filthy and is foul smelling and even more foul with her mouth and manners.  When she enters the building the woman in charge of showers that day immediately takes her and allows her to have an emergency shower.  The shower monitor then rummages through the bins of clothing donations and finds her decent clothes to put on so she is ready to have breakfast.  This woman I am told was once a judge in New York and that someone had killed her whole family while she watched, and then they raped her and left.  I often wonder what she had done to make someone that crazy to do that to her.  I see her all the time now and she looks worse than when I first saw her, almost sickly.

Another white woman that comes in is from a very wealthy family. Being here is an eye opener to say the least, everything takes longer to get done, whether it is housing, medical, or transportation etc.

•  •  •

I am really tired today. I was up at four o’clock this morning. I tried to go back to sleep, but now it is five-thirty.  I take a shower, which I do every morning and evening, especially down here. The filth is so appalling that I feel grimy from walking in the streets of downtown. It’s like if I don’t get that energy off of me I will drown in it.

I am dressed and skipping out the door to the Downtown Women’s Center where I volunteer cooking for over one hundred and fifty women, and I can boil three hundred eggs perfectly with a golden yolk. Actually I went through their Set to Bake program. A group of us baked the goods that went into the DWC’s café.  The program got cancelled and Chef Carlos, told Miss Faye, the director of the day center, that he wanted Theresa, Briana and I to work with him.  When breakfast is over I will catch the bus to The Up Above, Alhambra is where I used to live before coming down here.  I will put some items in my storage so my room at the Russ won’t be overcrowded.  I try to keep things minimal, so far good job.

It is November the weather is still warm on my way home from the DWC.  I can’t believe how time has flown. There is a wedding taking place this evening at the San Julian Park. The cleaning crew has been here all day preparing the park for this momentous occasion.  I guess when you are in a community it can become your home.  My understanding is that the bride and groom met here on Skid Row.

It is seven o’clock at night, the festivities are about to start. I am watching out of the bathroom window of the second floor. A real minister is going to perform the ceremony and the guests are strutting into the park and take their seats at tables set up for this special day.  The groom has arrived with his best man, and the music has started playing. It is soft and mellow.  A songstress steps up to the stage to sing. She has a beautiful voice, full and rich.  The song ends and a pause is felt and walking music for the bridal party begins, six bridesmaids with escorts approach, very elegant.  I wish I had a camera, no one would believe this.  Oh, how sweet, two flower girls with a ring bearer come forward.  A long dramatic pause as the bride arrives and makes a spectacular entrance on the arm of a fine looking older gentleman. It could be her father, uncle, brother, or could be a friend.  Does not matter she is glowing and exquisite — yes exquisite.  It is nearing the end of the ceremony. Bride and groom exchange vows and kiss… The food is catered and smells delicious. The band is setting up, yes, a real band. The party is about to begin.  I whisper to the couple, may God bless you and may your marriage be strong especially in the Down Below. All I can say is this bride has marvelous taste.

•  •  •

This morning I got myself ready — went to the beach. While there I studied for the Food Handling test that was to take place later this week.  It is warmer than I thought it would be.  I saw a beach chair by itself and took it.  The owner, an older woman in her eighties, came back and claimed it. She was really miffed.  I laughed to myself. I knew it was wrong to take that chair.  Saw a sea lion and heard its cries.  Were the waves too harsh?

•  •  •

It is Saturday, February 28, 2015.  This is the last day of the month. This is my six month anniversary for being in the down below.  Still waiting for housing I was promised to move from the Russ to the Rosslyn Hotel.  Leslie, the SRO coordinator, told me that I am moving on January 23.  She informed me that my background check had been lost and they have to submit a new one.  I have waited three more weeks and now it is February 24. Finally, I have met with the  Housing Authority and I am told everything looks good.

I cannot believe that I have been living in the Down Below for two years, so much has happened in a short span of time. People come and go like soft waves, whispering as they touch the sand on the beach, or the touch of fingertips that barely meet.  Here in the Down Below life appears to be tenuous at best. I have my apartment at the Rosslyn Hotel. It was such a big deal to move in here and it turns out not so big.

Walking the downtown section of Los Angeles CA, from Fifth and Main streets to Fifth and San Pedro, can be an experience unto itself which I try to do very Monday, Wednesday and Friday on my trek to the L.A.M.P. On any given day the streets from San Julian to San Pedro can be clean or littered with garbage, urine and or excrement and the odor can knock you into space. Hell you might even see a person you thought was asleep but was really dead.  Sometimes the streets are overcrowded with tents with more women and families are moving in every day and Asians soon will be the new majority in the Down Below.

•  •  •

This morning my sister-in-law Nellie, died from a rare form of cancer, she was sixty-four years of age.  She leaves behind my brother, her husband Albert g. Leigh III, her son Albert G. Leigh IV, his wife Olga and their three children Dyanna, Albert G. Leigh V and Peter. Christina Leigh Rueckner her daughter, and her husband Franz their two children Karsten and Liezel and her youngest son Brian Leigh, his wife Charlotte and their two children Tatiana and Tyler

When my father Albert G. Leigh, Jr.  made his transion, his six children realized we were now the front line — meaning, the next to go.  We also speculated on what would happen if one of us made our transition.  And what it would feel like.  Never did Nellie cross our minds. She was not even on the radar.  She being always healthy and in control. it took all of us by surprise.  How appropriate (relevant) she left on Valentine’s Day with her loving family surrounding her.  Good bye Nellie you are much loved and in our hearts you remain.

My heart is sad.
I missed you before you even took flight.
I knew it was inevitable,
But I prayed for a miracle.
But the heavens wanted you more.
Your job for now was through maybe a lesson or two.
You have made me wake-up to the fact that
tomorrow is now.
Living in the moment and doing what is needed for
me right now—not then, not later.

•  •  •

                                          Nellie
My heart is sad
            I missed you, before you even took flight.
                        I
                                    Knew it was inevitable.
            I prayed for a
Miracle.
                        But the heavens wanted you
                                    more.
            Your job,  for now is through.
Maybe,
                        a lesson too.
            You
                        made me wake up to the
                                    fact
            that tomorrow is
                                    now.
                        Living in the moment
            doing
                        what is needed
                                    right now
and
            Certainly not later.

(poem done two different ways)

 

For the past three weeks I have been sick with a bladder infection. The first two weeks I had no idea what I had.  Week one could not get out of bed, and the mere energy of the television made me weak as if my energy was being pulled through it.  My favorite shows on PBS are the mysteries and they were a no go.  Very interesting those electrical currents from the television and what they can do to you.  The second week I thought I had contracted African trymarosamiasis.  I somehow mustered up all my strength and dragged myself to see the doctor and found out I had, a bladder and intestinal infection.  Antibiotics were prescribed and the infection cleared up.  I could not even visit the L.A.M.P. and work on my projects which is where I had my first attack of being sick.  The second attack occurred at the Star Apartments’ art show.  Interesting, in this condition I could not see anything surrounding me in this environment — not clutter, dirt, grime or the people piled up in their tents. They are all a blur on my lenses.

In my listless state of consciousness all I thought about was what is really important to me and realized I really wanted to teach meditation. o I proposed this idea to Hayk at the L.A.M.P. and to La Shalle at the Rosslyn where I live. Both classes are scheduled to start very soon. I have recovered from and have a clearer vision and more vitality to do this work.  I am encouraged to move forward and to perform the Forgiveness Meditations to the Earth at the beach.  I have schedule one for the 26th of June at nine o’clock in the morning. Posted it on Facebook. I’ll see what happens.  I am really looking forward to this event.

•  •  •

Another thing that has taken place in my coma-like-state is that I realize my family has never supported me in my endeavors, although I have been there for them.  I am the constant one that makes arrangements to go to everything, including things that their friends might be involved in.  Well, I vowed that I would not attend my sister’s birthday party since she has not come to visit me — not one time.

Saturday, June 18, has arrived. I’m going to the party dressed and heading out the door to catch the Gold Line to Pasadena.  It is somewhat overcast today but warm.  I arrive in Pasadena. It is sprinkling. I’m cheered up even more.  My sister sent Uber to pick me up. We make it to Altadena and it is raining. She lives next to the mountains.  I walk into her house and the setup is magnificent, and my niece has catered the event.  There are so many people I haven’t seen in twenty to thirty years, and they had their children and grandchildren with them.  I had the best time. I am glad I did not sit this one out being stubborn and missing this glorious day.  There were tents set up in case the sun was beaming on us.  It turned out very useful for all this rain.  A trio played music from the ‘70s and ‘80s. People danced while the children got in the pool on huge swans and flamingos floats.  Close to two hundred people came to wish Gloria a happy birthday.  It really shows how much love she has given over the years to so many people.  Thank you for a wonderful day and evening.

•  •  •

Another busy day.  Arrived at the doctors’ office at 7:35 this morning. I hope to be out of here by eleven I have a poetry class in the building next door.  It is now 8:30. I came early because if you don’t you may never be seen by the doctor.  So many people in the waiting room, which is too small for the amount that are here today.  Oh, God, kids are crying and cell phones blare their crazy obnoxious sounds.  There’s a sign that says, no cell phones — turn them off. Otherwise, you have loud and argumentative conversations clamoring all over the room, especially here in the Down below.

Finally, numbers are being called. Oh, yes, you are given a number in order to be checked in.  Of course someone will come and get you take your vitals.  Hoping my weight reflects how my clothes are fitting a lot looser.  It is nine o’clock and I am still sitting, waiting, hoping I am out by eleven. I will be fine. Cheeze they have only called one person’s number and I am number 13.

•  •  •

On July 4, 2016, I awaken several times during the night. Damn those folks with their fireworks. Wasn’t it enough that City Hall had a big splash?  I tried going back to sleep and awoke at 8:30am.  I am late. wanted to leave house at 7:00am to go to the beach.

Oh well, slow start should I go or should I stay?  That is the question. Go get ready open the door step into hallway.  Door closes and locks. That settles it. I make way to the elevator today. It is the express, no stops to other floors.  I have to get out of Down Below, it’s smothering. Up Above is cleaner and cooler.  I make my way to Metro 7th street station and find I have to wait twenty-two minutes for Santa Monica train, and this is not even the weekend. It is 10:00am, and wait, oh good, they are changing the Long Beach train and changing it to Santa Monica, now all those people have to leave the train. Too Bad.

How am I feeling? Not sure I am ready for this. Great, a young black man is arguing with his sister on his cell phone … who wants to hear this crap? Not me! Who cares? He doesn’t have a car and wants someone to watch his children, and man, is he giving this person hell.  Thank God, he and his girlfriend finally depart and it is QUIET!

Okay, here you are — end of the line — Santa Monica Pier. New question: Do I stay here, or catch the 534 bus to Will Rogers Beach? Okay, stay — experience something new in this part of the world. Found a spot to enjoy my time here.

Wow, it’s getting crowded already. Did I make the right choice?  I am finding I do not want to be around a lot of people today, and it seems they are all in this one space near me.  This is a big piece of seashore, why are they converging here?  I am trying to relax and enjoy this moment, but it is busy here. A Mexican woman, brightly dressed, shouts in a  sing song voice — Mango, Mango. Oh man, another vendor, this time it’s a man shouting buy his umbrellas and beach pails and small surfer boards.

What time is it — can I really stomach this?  Relax and breath, that is what I tell myself. At least you are not sitting in that heavy energy in the Down Below.  What’s going on with you? I have to ask. Reflect on what you are feeling. Do you feel like your space has been invaded? I chuckle. Okay, look at all the people arriving now.  Wow, the waves are bigger and people are having fun and enjoying the waves thundering over them, laughing.  The children’s laughter washes over me like the waves they gleefully jump into.

I notice this woman whom I saw earlier with her partner.  The toddler with her is tentative going into the water. She gently leads him in and smiles.  I watch. She is heavy in weight with many tattoos.  Earlier I think, did I judge her? I watch her now and feeling much emotion that the people here are just in the moment not caring about what the television or other media say they should look like or be.  Somewhere deep I feel a connection with humanity so profound it moves me to write, least I lose this ennui.  How beautiful we are when for a few precious moments on, one is thinking about how we are big booty and bust; at this time with the waves thundering against their wonderful bodies they are in the thrill of the moment. I need to get away from the Down Below more often. The reflection they generate is not full and complete. Ha ha, my imposed deadline to leave the beach at 12:00pm has now come and gone.  I am more relaxed now and not ready to leave.

I walk on the sand, happy that the sun is not bearing down and scorching the earth. I walk-on.  Actually, feels kind of cool.  On the train ride back I watch my thoughts and I really don’t want anyone sitting next to me, so I scoot my bag over just enough to make it uncomfortable for someone to sit. Space issue again?  Finally arrive at 7th street. Why am I rushing almost like? (Need to find word).

Trying to get home out of the streets of the Down Below.  Hush, hush, your minds take your time breath.  I noticed the streets are cleaner; what, no urine smell? I glide, taking in my environment.  Today is a good day.  There is peace inside of me.  Lunch is calling what should I eat.

 

Children run to
Thundering waves
Their laughter and the sound of the surf
Are One

•  •  •

Children rush to the water
            Thundering
         Waves washes over their
            Bodies
         Resounding laughter mingles
            Laughter
         Rushing sounds of the waves
         children’s voices become one
            and
         there is tranquility
         inside of me

 

 

 

BIO

Linda Leigh was born in Queens, New York. She enjoys creative writing and poetry. Ms. Leigh now resides in Los Angeles and is an accomplished artist, her works are displayed throughout California. She is also very involved in Social Justice in her community.

 

 

 

 

 

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NEW SERIES FROM

The Skid Row Zine Writing Group

Ivy Pochoda Introduction

 

In 2009 I moved from my hometown of Brooklyn to Los Angeles, a city that is still both familiar and unknowable to me. Accustomed to walking or riding the subway, I found I couldn’t visualize the city’s shape even as I moved along its streets and freeways. I still can’t. But driving to and from my Echo Park apartment back then I was struck by something else that surprised me: all the ways in which people lived out of doors—the tent encampments, permanently parked camper vans, makeshift shelters of many materials all improvised for living in the elements. They made Los Angeles, amidst its evident wealth, even more mystifying, gave it a texture I hadn’t expected, a secret soul.

Two years later I moved just east of Downtown to the Arts District which was just beginning its rapid gentrification. Skid Row sits between Downtown and the Arts District. As I drove or rode my bike past its sprawling community of tents, shelters, medical and social services, murals, missions, and churches the initial impression of chaos eventually gave way to a pattern of communities each with its own character. Here were activists; here were artists; and here were the hopeless and the helpless in various associations of their own. I began to see the shape and depth of the neighborhood though I could not have imagined how much more it would mean to me one day.

One evening I emailed the Lamp Arts Program, a multi-discipline studio affiliated with The People Concern, one of Los Angeles’s largest social services agencies, and offered to give a course in creative writing. I did not know what to expect when I turned up for my first class. Would the participants be lucid, intelligent, capable? The truth is they were all of these things and more. Each of them was on a journey and they each showed up with a story to tell whether it was drawn from experience or summoned by wild inspiration. Their work is remarkable—it’s profound, smart, and quite often funny.

We meet once a week. (I am not always in charge of the sessions these days as some of the participants have stepped up to run the class.) We do warm up exercises and in class writing assignments. Some participants are working on longer projects: chapbooks, one-act plays, essays, and short stories. And out of these meetings, we formed Skid Row Zine—an independent magazine dedicated to the voices and stories of people living in and around Skid Row.

 

Our first piece from the Skid Row Zine writers group:

UP ABOVE and the DOWN BELOW by Linda Leigh

 

0

The Carousel

by Maggie Herlocker

 

 

I stared at the wall behind his head, examining the yellowing spots on the once white wall with great intensity. I think I wanted to find shapes, images, anything to distract me from the conversation I knew was coming. I could hear the whir of the air conditioner, but it did nothing to temper the dry, triple digit July air. That whir was the only thing I could hear in the deafening silence.

My father leaned forward, his elbows on the table, his hands folded. I thought of how my mother always scolded me for having my elbows on the table.

“I’m so happy you came.”

I looked at his face, light from the window cutting his face into two. He looked tired, the lines in his face deep with age and weariness. I wondered if he hadn’t slept well, nervous for our meeting today. This was our fourth meeting in the last couple months. He had contacted me back in May. He was going to be doing some business in the Sacramento area and wondered if I wanted to meet up. We got coffee the first time, awkwardly recounted our lives over the past decade.

“I know that I wasn’t really there for you much growing up, and I want you to know how much I’ve regretted that.”

He fiddled with his straw wrapper, rolling it between his fingers. The sound of silence was all that was between us anymore. The screeching of a chair being scooted against the linoleum floor broke our silent battle.

“Samantha?”

“Dad?”

He dropped the straw wrapper and folded his hands again. He sighed. Eyes cast down, he looked almost childlike, a child who knew they’ve done something wrong and are about to be reprimanded.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered.

⠂⠂⠂

“Come on Samantha, you can do it!”

I thought about this day often, the day at the pool. Pictures from that day show a three-year-old me standing on the edge of the pool, my inflated floaties around my small arms, my red, white, and blue striped bathing suit already giving me a wedgie. It was a hot August day in Roseville, and my mom and dad took me to the community pool to get out of the house and cool off. The pool was crowded. It appeared that many families had the same idea. Other children were splashing around in the pool, many mothers sitting around fanning themselves, tanning, gossiping with each other. My mother was among them, sipping a cold Coca-Cola she had gotten from the snack bar, like she did every time we went to the pool.

I had been to the pool before, but usually stayed in the kiddie pool. My dad had decided that this time I would go in the regular pool with him.

I was scared. That is one thing I distinctly remember.

The water looked so deep, my dad looked so far away. How could I, a very small child, jump far enough to be caught in his outstretched arms? I questioned the buoyancy of my floaties, could they actually save me from drowning?

“Samantha, don’t worry about it, I’m right here. I’m going to catch you, it’ll be okay!” my dad called over the yells of the children playing in the water. He always called me Samantha, never Sammie like my mom did, and definitely never Sam. He was grinning, his tanned arms stretched out to me, his curls of hair sparkling with water. Finally, the three-year-old me took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and jumped.

The water was cold and all around me, but only for a quick second. The floaties did their job and stopped me from going under, and my dad did his job and caught me. My hero.

“See, it’s just fine!” he laughed and I couldn’t’t help but squeal with delight and splash my arms in the water.

At that point, I didn’t know any better. I didn’t know that my father, the one who should have always be there to catch me, would disappoint me the most.

⠂⠂⠂

I didn’t know what to say. I knew my dad was sorry. I could tell he was genuinely upset with himself for all that he had missed in my life. Since the first time we met for coffee, I wondered if and when he might try and apologize. He’d been trying so hard, asking all the right questions about my schooling, if I had any boyfriends, what my plans after graduation were. But it’s not like one apology and lunch at a burger place was going to fix it.

I knew he had picked this place on purpose. It was our little secret spot. I’d only been here one other time since I was a kid.

It was right before I was leaving college, moving to southern California, going to UCLA on a full scholarship. My dad had sent me a card, congratulating me on graduation, the check inside showing just how much he cared. Part of me wanted to tear up the check and never deposit it. But I didn’t. Instead I deposited all five-hundred dollars into my special savings account that I couldn’t touch until after my college graduation.

I almost turned around that summer day and didn’t go in, but I was compelled to move forward, pushed by some force determined to dredge up old feelings. The food was exactly the same as I remembered it: good but not that special, kept in business because of people like me, desperate for feelings of nostalgia and the past.

Finally, I spoke. “Do you remember the carousel?”

⠂⠂⠂

The California State Fair. We went every year, driving from our home in Roseville to the fairground in Sacramento for the event. But this year was different, I was nine years old, and it would be a day I would remember clearer than any other. My mom stayed home with a headache, I later found was faked. It was just me and my dad and I was so excited. My dad had been away a lot lately, I was told on business, so I hadn’t spent as much time with him as I had become accustomed to.

I was too young at that point to see the subtle changes in the way my parents acted around each other. The walking on eggshells, the fighting coming from another room, the days my dad didn’t come home until much later than work would have kept him, if at all. He didn’t want to be at home. At that point in a child’s life, our parents are our whole world, our example of what a happy couple are, what we should aspire to become, to meet someone and fall in love just like your parents. But no one is perfect, especially not your parents.

On that day, at the fair, it had all seemed perfect. We headed out mid-day, blasting the AC in my dad’s car, the temperatures already in the 90s. We listened to a classic rock station on the radio, my dad beaming with pride as I belted out the lyrics with him.

When we got to the fair, it was obvious my dad was spoiling me, but I wasn’t about to complain.  He bought me whatever fried foods I wanted, sharing in the plethora of goodies laid out in front of us that I would have never been able to eat on my own. Corn dogs, fried crispy and perfectly browned, funnel cakes covered in powdered sugar, my fingers sticky from the many times I licked them to relish every last bit of sweet. We shared a large lemonade, the freshly squeezed juice with just the perfect amount of sweet and tart, quenching our thirst.

It was getting late and the hot day turned into a warm evening. Summer in the San Joaquin Valley was always this way, hot and then warm, begging children to keep playing outside, past when the street lights had turned on. My dad and I were both sweating buckets but I wouldn’t have changed it for anything. The sun was setting, a beautiful orange sunset. There were a few clouds in the sky, turned pink, looking like the cotton candy I had consumed earlier in the day.

Stars began to pop up, demanding to be noticed through the electric lights of the fair. They provided a natural magic to the night.

“Alright Samantha,” my dad said, looking at me from across the picnic table, a smile crinkling the corners of his eyes. “We have time for one more ride. What’s it going to be?”

I sat there thinking long and hard. It’d be another whole year before I’d get to do this again, so I had to pick just the right ride.

“The carousel,” I decided finally.

He grinned. “Carousel it is then.”

We walked across the field, my sticky hand in his, to the carousel.

It wasn’t the nicest carousel in the world, the paint was chipped on most of the horses, the brass poles tarnished. But I thought it was beautiful. I’d always had a love for old, broken things.

We waited in line behind other fair goers, ages varying from newborn babies to grandparents. Everyone loves a good carousel ride, though no one can really express why. The feeling of being a child, just in the moment. When we finally got to the front of the line, I tried to pick out which horse I would choose to ride. There were many options, but the one that caught my eye the most was one of the more beat up horses. No one was riding it this go around.

The girl operating the ride asked my father how many would be riding and he replied that there were two of us. I was so excited. Something about riding this with just my dad made me feel giddy. Finally, the gate was opened.

I rushed in, making a beeline for my horse.

“Walk, Samantha,” I heard my dad call from behind me, a laugh in his voice.

I approached my horse and got up on the platform. She looked quite disheveled, the paint falling away to reveal the wood underneath. I felt bad for her, this inanimate horse, I’m sure she wasn’t chosen as much as the others. I was relatively tall for a nine-year-old, so I was able to climb up on the horse without assistance from my dad.

He had caught up to me and was getting on the horse next to mine.

“Guess you don’t need your old man’s help anymore.”

He was smiling, but I should have seen then, he was sad. But how could I have noticed in the magic of the fair?

Once everyone else had mounted their horses, the ride began with the classic ring of a bell. As the speed increased and the horses began to rise and fall, I was transfixed by the joy of this, the joy of pure childhood. I looked over at my dad, he was watching me, a smile across his face. I tipped my head back and laughed, the world turning upside down and sideways. I watched the world spin by, the lights of the fair smearing together. The song that was playing was the perfect mix of circus and delight, the old organ music ringing out of crackling speakers. Some of the bulb lights were out but it didn’t matter to me. I was so happy in that moment.

The horses began to slow to a trot and then stopped. My father dismounted first, then helped me down, even though I didn’t need the help. We walked towards the exit with the rest of the elation filled equestrians. Outside the gate, my father took me over to the side. I looked at his face in the light of the carousel. Something in the way his eyes looked at the ground told me something was wrong.

⠂⠂⠂

I looked my dad dead in the face, his eyes looking the same way they had the night of the fair. I knew he remembered it. “The carousel at the fair when I was nine,” I reminded him. “It was the last time I remember being happy with you.” I dropped my eyes then. It was too much to look into his deep brown eyes in that moment, they were so full of memory and regret.

He was quiet. I wanted so desperately to know what he was thinking, to know if he realized that I would never feel as joyous as I did that night on the carousel. I still wish I could have stayed on it forever, spinning through life, laughing at the world as it changed but I stayed the same, forever a child and her father.

Finally, he spoke. “I remember that so differently.”

I looked up, surprised. He was staring at me with his sad, brown eyes.

“That night, the carousel, you and I together, I remember that as one of the saddest nights of my life. I knew I was going to break your heart.”

⠂⠂⠂

“Samantha, I need to tell you something important.”

I looked up at him expectantly. He kneeled down in the grass to get on my level, to look me in the eyes. A random, cool breeze blew past me and made me shiver.

“Your mother and I, well, we’re not getting along anymore. She wants me to leave. She wants a divorce.”

I was quiet. What was I supposed to say?

“You understand this doesn’t change how much either of us care about you right?”

“Can I go with you?”

My dad looked surprised by my question, but then his eyes softened, his brows coming together, sad and concerned. “No, honey. You have to stay with your mom. I’m moving to Ohio, and I’m going to be on the road a lot for work. You have your school here.”

That’s when the tears came. My world was spinning, the carousel next to me becoming something else, showing my confusion and devastation as a swirl of light and sound, unable to focus and separate my thoughts. Of course. Of course, I wouldn’t be able to go with him. It made sense, but it didn’t make it easier.

“I’ll still be around as much as I possibly can!” Lies. “I’ll call and see you when I’m in town and I’ll take you to the fair next year if you want.” More lies.

I couldn’t stop crying. I remember not being able to breathe, my sobs racking my entire body. Eventually my dad picked me up, even though I was much too big to be carried, and he took me out to the parking lot, to his car, holding onto me tightly the whole time.

⠂⠂⠂

Nothing was the same after that. He was gone in the morning when I woke up, gone without a trace.

“Honey, you need to come out of your room, you can’t stay in there all summer.” My mother’s voice came in through my bedroom door. I didn’t want to talk, but I was glad she respected me enough not to come in. It had been a few years since my dad left. I was thirteen now, already an angsty teenager, a stereotypical child of divorce. Over the years, I’d retreated more and more into myself, barely even talking to my mother. School was the only thing that mattered to me. I knew the only way to get out of this place was college and I wanted a scholarship. I didn’t want to owe my parents anything.

“Sammie, please,” I heard a new pleading in her voice. “At least come with me to take the dog on a walk. We don’t have to talk if you don’t want to, but you need to come out of your room.”

I sighed, but lifted myself off of my bed. “Fine, I’ll come,” I called to my mom, still from inside my room.

“Okay!” I heard a new joy in my mom’s voice. “I’ll meet you downstairs in five!”

I lethargically put on my tennis shoes. I wanted to make my mom happy. Maybe she was still hurting too.

I met her downstairs, she already had our dog Timmy on his leash. She was dressed in her trendiest workout clothes, even though we wouldn’t really be exercising that hard.

“Ready to go?” she asked, smiling.

“Yeah, sure.”

We headed out, going down our block to the park that Timmy loved. My mom handed me the leash.

“You’re really much better at walking him.” My mom had never been a huge Timmy fan, she hated how big he was, how much of a nuisance he was. When my dad had first brought him home from the pound she was horrified. Not only was she worried about his size, I was just starting to walk at the time, but of course his fur and drool got all over her pristine house. The real offense. But I loved him so she gave in and let him stay. I realized as I was walking him that my dad easily could’ve taken Timmy with him, but he must have left him behind for me.

“You okay, sweetie?” my mom asked, noticing that I was deep in thought. “Sorry, that was probably a dumb question.”

I didn’t really answer, just kept walking.

“I know things have been hard for you, things that you don’t quite understand. I know I’ve never really explained the divorce to you, but your father and I just could not be under the same roof anymore. And with his job, there’s no way you could’ve gone with him. Plus, I wanted you to stay, even though I know how close you two were.” She looked at me sideways, a small smile on her perfect pink lips. I tried smiling back, but I’m sure I failed.

My mom stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and turned to look at me. “Samantha, I need you to listen to me.”

I stopped, Timmy sniffed some of the bushes nearby as I turned to face my mom.

“I don’t want you to be mad at me or your dad, this isn’t something that either of us wanted. Besides honey, it’s been a few years now, I thought things would be better between you and I.”

I raised my eyebrows.

“Don’t you look at me like that. I know this has been especially hard for you, but I need you to stop being angry.” Like that was so easy to do. “It took a lot for me to ask him to leave, it was not an easy decision.”

“You asked him to leave?”

“Yes Samantha, I asked him. It was just not working, I needed him to go.”

“I still don’t understand, what wasn’t working?”

Now it was her turn to roll her eyes at me. “It’s hard to explain, you’re too young to understand.”

“Try me,” I said crossing my arms across my chest.

My mom let out a sound of frustration, but then took a breath with her eyes closed. “He just wasn’t around enough, with his job, his insane amount of travel was just never what I wanted. I wanted someone who would stay and be a part of the family. And I just couldn’t take it anymore and he wouldn’t budge. This was my only option.”

I listened to what she said, unsure if it really was her only option, and it didn’t stop me from being angry, at her and my dad. Neither of them seemed like they wanted to fight for each other, to fight for me.

When we got back to the house, the phone was ringing. It was my dad, but I didn’t want to talk to him. I was still devastated and now I was angry too. When I did talk to him, it was awkward and sad, neither of us knowing what to say to the other. He stopped calling as frequently after a while and I never called him on my own. All I wanted was to get back on the carousel. I wish I had never gotten off.

⠂⠂⠂

I didn’t break eye contact with him as I felt my own brown eyes, identical to his, fill with tears.

“I remember how much you cried, knowing that I was leaving your mother, leaving you. I knew you didn’t understand it, how could you? It must have seemed like it came out of nowhere.”

Now it was my turn to sit quietly.

“I already said I was sorry for not being in your life more. It wasn’t what I wanted.”

“Was it what she wanted?” I said, glowering, my pain turning to anger.

“Who? Your mom?”

“Nancy.” I spit out her name like venom.

My dad looked taken aback. “No, of course not,” he said quickly. “My job is why I moved to Loveland all those years ago. Nancy was just why I stayed.”

I looked at the wedding band on his finger. It was foreign, nicer than the one he had with my mom.

He met Nancy in Ohio and moved in with her only a few months later. I felt betrayed. But he sounded happier than I had heard in so long that I kept those feelings to myself. I was invited to the wedding, but I refused to go. Also, it was in Loveland in October, so I had school, but he didn’t seem to think about that. He seemed hurt that I couldn’t go but I didn’t care. It was my own little act of betrayal.

But that wasn’t even his biggest betrayal, not by a long shot. I could handle Nancy, I got over it, I even met her over Skype once, an awkward affair, all of us strangers. No, it wasn’t Nancy. It was Charlotte. The other daughter.

“Why did you miss my graduation?” I demanded, desperate to make him feel some of my hurt.

“Charlie was in the hospital with pneumonia that weekend, you know that. I couldn’t leave her or Nancy then, she was only five. I thought I had explained all that?”

Charlie. I almost laughed. Of course, she could have a boy nickname from my dad, but I could never be Sam. Over the years I tried the name out, seeing if it would catch on in high school or anything, but I never responded to it when people called out at me. Samantha was my name and there was nothing I could do about it.

I didn’t laugh at him, but I did allow myself to roll my eyes. “Of course,” I said dramatically, “the other daughter needed to be taken care of.”

“Come on Samantha, that’s not fair. You didn’t come to mine and Nancy’s wedding.”

“Yeah but I was twelve and in school. I couldn’t leave to go out of state during the school year, not when school was the only thing I really cared about.”

He was quiet then. “I know. It’s not fair for me to be hurt by that, not after all I’ve done.”

I didn’t answer, unsure what to say at that point.

“Look,” my dad began, “I can’t change what I did or didn’t do, but we can change how we move forward. I want to be back in your life, I’ve already missed so much. But you have to let me.”

I sat there wondering what it was that I wanted. Did I want him in my life? It had been kind of nice seeing him recently, even though we were both shy and closed off. I thought about what it might look like.  He had covered me in so many silly little wounds that I often wondered if they may ever heal. Was he worth opening all of those up again?

“Okay.”

“Okay?”

“Yes, okay. I’ll give this a try. Just know some days will be easier than others.”

My dad grinned. “Of course! We can take all the time you need!”

I gave him a small smile back.

“Would you be interested in meeting Charlie?”

My smile wavered.

“I think you would get along really well, if you’d give it a chance.”

“I– I’m not sure I’m ready for that yet.”

My dad’s smile dropped. “I get it. No, that makes sense. I was getting too ahead of myself.”

“It’s okay,” I said quickly. “I just think we need to work on what’s going to happen between us first, before I can do that.”

My dad’s smile returned, smaller this time. “Of course, honey.”

“You should come visit me in San Francisco sometime, see my apartment.”

My dad grinned. “I’d love that. I always had a soft spot for that city.”

“Who doesn’t?” I said, grinning back at him. Something felt so right in that moment, us agreeing on something so easy.

A waitress came up to the table. “I’ve got two cheeseburgers, two chocolate chip shakes, and an order of onion rings?”

“That’s us,” my dad said, and she placed the tray on the table and walked away. My dad divided up the food and placed the onion rings in the middle. It was what we always got when we came here.

Watching him, tasting the food, being there, I couldn’t help but smile.

 

 

BIO

Maggie Herlocker is a first-year fiction writer at the University of New Orleans’ Creative Writing Workshop, on her way to a Master of Fine Arts. Maggie moved from her home state of California to New Orleans in the summer of 2017 and is still suffering from In-N-Out withdrawals. A young woman who never quite grew out of her goth phase, Maggie’s work tends to have a darker side, often disguised in humor. Her short story, The Carousel, won first place in Chico State’s yearly creative writing contest in 2016.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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