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The Two Potters

by Norbert Kovacs

 

 

The man and the woman made pottery in the large studio attached to their home. The man owned the studio and the home and decided the pottery they made. They painted this most times an off white with very simple designs, a favorite being small flowers. They gave their flowers small dot centers and narrow, thin petals crowded close together. The two made their clay cups and plates as if it were a duty. After breakfast each morning, the man went ready for the potter’s wheel in the studio. He made the pottery for its own sake and no other reason. He lumped the wet, soft clay onto his wheel to start and spun it. He shaped with his hands, hollowing out the hole for a vessel, flattening and pressing flat for a plate. He fixed his eyes on the clay as it spun and spun. As he worked, he talked to the woman who made items at her own wheel across the room. The two talked about their pottery, about whether they would make more or less than the previous day, whether one found it difficult to shape that day’s clay, who should fire in the kiln next, and so on. When he had shaped and fired his pottery, the man painted it the standard white that he liked above every other color. He took his old, well-used brush and painted the rims of  his work gray in thin, double-banded lines. He loved painting these neatly and in parallel. The two showed and sometimes gave their finished items to friends and family who were interested. The couple spent most of their day in the studio, but even outside it, the man thought about making the pottery.

The woman told the man as they were working in the studio one day that she felt tired and would stop early. She removed her black, soiled potter’s apron and hung it on a hook by the kiln. She was a quiet, reserved woman. She had a plain, lean body and bound her thick, blonde hair in a ponytail at her neck. Her dark eyes, dense and small, moved tensely behind her black-rimmed glasses; she had a face smooth and colored like a peach.

“After I take a nap, I’ll wipe in the clay bin,” she said. She meant the large wooden box where they stored wet clay. They cleaned it occasionally when it ran empty to keep the wood from rotting. The woman went into the house to lie down as the man continued at his labor.

An hour later, the woman returned, her hair slightly astrew from her nap. The man heard her moving and wiping at the clay box across the room as he shaped at his wheel.

“You won’t need  any extra clay?” she called to him after she had cleaned. “I found some stuck in the bin bottom.”

“No, I have enough to last today.” The man replied without lifting his head from the spinning wheel before him. After he was done forming and shaping a few last cups, the man had done. He set his newest pieces aside to continue the next morning and went to stow his apron. He discovered the woman standing over and admiring a clay hoop at her worktable.

“What is that supposed to be?” the man asked coming to her side. He was a large, tall man with strong arms and hands. Thick bands of brown hair hung over his forehead. He was much bigger than the woman.

“A wrist hoop. See.” She took the hoop from the table, slid it over her right hand, and let it dangle from her wrist.

“Sort of strange, how rough on the edges it is.” The man’s dark, narrow eyes moved over the hoop’s outline.

“I just started it. I have more to do to get it nice.”

“Certainly. Well, a diversion once in a while never hurt anyone.” The man slid the hoop off the woman’s arm and set it on a shelf beside where her apron hung. He hung his own apron on a hook beside hers and moved toward the hall for the house. When he did not hear her follow after him, the man turned and discovered she had taken the clay hoop from the shelf and was turning it over in her hand.

The next day, the man kept busy at his wheel into the afternoon. When he finally slowed at the work, he looked across the studio toward the woman; he had not taken note of her since early that morning. He discovered she had left her wheel and was molding a large cup on her work table. The cup was the size and dimensions of their usual except for the bottom and brim; she made these bulge outward in thick, heavy bands, each like the hoop she had made the previous day. The woman pressed her thumb into the band that formed the top brim to widen it, at each push forcing the clay out, round and thick. She added more clay to the brim as she worked.

“Why are you giving the cup those heavy bands on the top and bottom?” he asked. “We never do.”

The woman took her hands from the cup. “I thought someone might like drinking from a bigger cup than the ones we make. Besides, I think this type of brim and bottom look nice.”

The man made a face. “It would be awkward for us to do any new kind of pottery. We should do our usual stuff instead. We are used to it. We do it well.”

“But what if this new cup is good?”

“The cup isn’t. I mean, look at it. People checking out our stuff will say it’s strange that it has this wide brim. Our cups don’t.  Rather than have everyone feel bad over it, I’d do the pottery you have been.”

The woman set aside the new cup as the man urged, fetched some fresh clay, and started on a cup he could recognize. However, she did it all holding back a frown, and her dark eyes lowered.

The man entered the studio a few days later and discovered the wet clay bin was empty. The woman and he had gotten new clay for the bin only the past week and the man knew they could not have used it all since. “Would you know what might have happened with the clay in the bin?” he asked the woman.

She said, “I threw it into the woods behind the house. It was full of grit and sand and wasn’t any good to use. I was going to tell you.”

The man stared at her. “You might have let me check it first. I hadn’t seen anything to make me think it so bad. Now we’ll have to get new clay for today’s stuff.”

The two drove to the old man down the hill who provided them clay to get a new supply. They filled the bin from the back of their van and returned with it to the studio. When the two had set the bin again in its corner and made to get their aprons, the man noticed a black cloth hanging in the corner beyond the woman’s pottery wheel. He had not remembered the shelf there being covered. He crossed the room and pulled off the cover to check beneath it. He found the shelf full of newly made clay hoops and rings. He realized the items were all like the wrist hoop the woman had made earlier.

“So this is what became of the clay you said you threw out,” he said to the woman. “You’ve been making these when I’ve gone back into the house, haven’t you?”

She lowered her head. “I have.”

“You understand that there is no excuse for this stuff. I pay for all this clay; I expected you to make it into the pottery we always do.”

The man seized several rings from the shelf and dashed them on the floor. The rings burst and sent debris around his feet. The man reached for more rings from the shelf when the woman cried, “Please don’t. I won’t have those rings broken after the work I did making them.”

“Work?”

“For those rings. Please, I like the rings and hoops and to have them. Let me.”

“Are you being serious?” The man did not imagine it possible.

“Yes.”

“You would choose to go on making them?”

“Yes.”

The man scowled but sensed she was telling the truth. He did not feel he could dissuade her either, at least not easily. “Alright. Since you really want to, I’ll let you,” he said. “But it will be only after you’ve done the pieces I have expected made here each day. I own the studio and have decided what we make. I will make pottery our usual way even if you will not. But now you can get your own clay from the man down the hill to make the things you will. I fetch clay for the pottery I want done here. And if you’re to fire your things in my kiln, you must help me at my tasks too, like glazing the cups.”

The woman agreed. The man and the woman made pottery in the studio again at their two wheels. The man continued to shape his items per his custom. The woman made items for him as they agreed; many days, she finished these early and started on her own. However, the man resented the small freedom he had let the woman to create though it did not distract him. He made to discourage her for it. He moved around the studio, after tools and supplies that he did not need, just to get in her way. She withdrew from the spaces that the man invaded and did not complain about his taking them. She made her rings and hoops in the corner of her worktable, her back to him. She made them without slowing. She glazed the items and they shone in the cool electric light of the studio.

The man had let the woman use glaze as a one allowance but he thought poorly of her enthusiasm for it.

“You are adding too much glaze to those hoops,” he cautioned. “I had got it for the cups, you know.”

The woman used less and glazed fewer rings and hoops after the warning. However, the man saw she glazed these fewer pieces more. She glazed some rings in thin layers two or three times and admired them, once fired, under the light by her worktable.

Soon, the man discovered the woman cut corners in making their regular cups and plates. She left cups outside at night and did not fire them in the kiln as he said she should. She did not glaze all the plates as he had asked. At the same time, she made more of her rings and hoops once she had made their standard. The shelves behind her table filled with the things and it seemed she produced a greater number in each batch. The man realized the woman hoped to do more of her own pieces and less of his.

The woman wore some of the new rings she made as earrings. She said they were beautiful and that she felt beautiful wearing them. The man said the rings were not any good as earrings, for they were clay, not a shined or precious metal as he had seen women wear. “Clay is to make plates and cups,” he said. The woman wore the earrings in the studio and in their home anyway. She touched the hard, small rings with her fingers and studied them hanging at her ears in the mirror. She wore clay hoop bracelets on her arms when she had on the earrings too, saying they complemented one another. She wore the earrings and the hoops even when she was together with the man in bed and he asked she remove them.

“How can I enjoy it when you have those on?” he asked.

“The earrings make me beautiful,” she said and reclined before him.

The man grumbled. He did not argue the point however as he drew near her.

Soon, the man did not object to the woman wearing her ornaments in the studio or the house. The woman was beautiful after all just for herself, he thought.

The woman refined the new items she made, giving them special marks and features. She created rings of compact, neat O’s that she notched with squares and circles. She painted her creations and tried, as the man thought, to have them seem more beautiful than any cup or plate in the studio. She thought well enough of her skill that she wore her glazed and painted earrings in town.  She told the man that people had noticed and talked with her over the pieces.

“I made friends with a few of the folks,” she said. “Three of them are coming to observe me in the studio.”

The man was in disbelief. “I wish you hadn’t let them. Do I need to hear you and them chatter over your pottery while you make it?”

“I think the right word is discuss, not chatter.”

“You know what I mean.”

“I’ve invited the people and they are coming the day after tomorrow.”

When her friends made their visit, the woman showed them her creations on the shelves. She took out the rings and spread many of them in her palm. The man heard the friends ask for and be given several of the creations to keep. Then the friends went to her work corner and watched as she made some rings and hoops. After she had designed a few, one friend, a young man, said, “I love these rings you make. I am going to make my own.”

A young woman in the group raised her head. “I plan to do the same in the studio I will open. We can make them there together if you like.”

The man listening across the studio thought the two young people were ridiculous to talk about fashioning clay into rings. I will laugh at them as I do with the woman, he imagined. He worked at his wheel and felt that his pottery had the right pattern and form as ever. In the meanwhile, the friends encouraged the woman as she talked of making her work. The man saw the woman shape a new mound of clay and form it unlike he ever had known. The form had a large, very rounded hoop, just bigger than an armband. She propped this on a short stem atop a square base. Her friends fell silent before it.

“This is different than the hoops and the rings you have been making,” the young man beside the woman announced. “It’s more beautiful. It’s a piece of fine art.” The other friends agreed.

“I’ve never had this appreciation,” the woman said, breaking into a smile.

“I will create art in my new studio as you have done here,” her friend, the young woman, told her.

The man across the studio heard it all. The hoop on the stem did not seem art to him. The piece appeared too simple. It was not the great, highly shaped sculptures that he had encountered in art books. However, the woman’s friends treated it as something worth reflection.

After the friends left, the man complained to the woman about the hoop art. “I won’t let you make any more of it. I bent enough allowing you to do those rings. But these mounted hoops are too much.”

The woman turned from him. “I’ll work at my friend’s new studio then. She was alright with having that young man join her and she’ll be alright with me.” She added, “I could produce my pottery there and not bother with making anything more for this studio if you are that upset with me.”

The woman spoke seriously and the man realized she might go and do as she said if he pushed her. The woman long had been his partner and he did not wish to lose her. He decided to recant. “Don’t go,” he said. “I’ll let you create your artwork in our studio. Use the kiln to fire it—you’ve fired that many of my things that you should. I’ll make my things as I have in my half of the room and let you to yours. All I ask is if you would help me make a few of the studio-style items sometimes. Consider that I let you make your rings and hoops once you told me how important you felt about them. I didn’t stop you.”

“You’re right, you didn’t,” the woman said quietly. “You might be more considerate than I believed. I’ll stay.”

The woman made many artworks with the new freedom the man allowed. She created pots, vases, and boxes studded with small rings and large hoops. She made figurines and bas reliefs. She took liberties in creating each of her new pieces. Then the woman re-created the man’s usual pottery items, the cups and plates, in her new style. She made cups of hoops stacked upward and plates of hoops set one within another. The man, surprised by the designs, studied the woman producing this new pottery. He watched carefully as she formed a large, decorative plate.

“How can you round your hand on the clay’s edge like that?” he asked while she worked the item. “What happened to the ways I’d shown you to mold clay?”

The woman saddened, fingering the side of the plate. “I know those ways well. I’ve only adapted them.”

“But you do it so strangely.”

“I have my own style now. Even when it comes to cups and plates.”

The man felt upset to hear it. From the shelf near her, he picked up a plate that she had glazed and fired. The plate was a concentric nest of rings, some fat, some thin, arranged closely and fused into a whole. The plate had a smooth face despite its many-parted design and he imagined it could have been set on the wall for decoration. However, the form and the style were not his. He set the plate aside and returned to his potter’s wheel to create as he was used to doing.

The woman labored carefully over her work, the man discovered. He watched once as she made a new pot. She bowed her head over a mound of clay that was to become the object and shaped it with her hands.  Her hands lifted and goaded the clay into the form. She tucked and rounded where the pot was to bulge and flattened and pressed where it was to be straight. She smoothed and stroked the pot once shaped, and it seemed she touched a fine, fragile thing. Her hands made the clay clean and bright under the studio light. She had cared in making the old cups and plates well, the man remembered, but he realized she did much more in making her new pottery. The woman colored her works with glazes she got from her town friends rather than use the man’s any longer. She used ocean blue, sun yellow, and fire red pigments, bolder colors than the studio hues. The man never did figure how to color pieces as attractively.

One day, the woman took liberties firing in the studio kiln. She did not ask the man if she might use it per their habit. Sometimes she did it when the man had planned to fire and it irked him.

“I was about to fire a plate,” he told her. “I think you might have asked whether you could. It holds up my work.”

“You do not create as much as you had,” the woman said, “I’ve been doing a lot lately so I thought it okay to use the kiln when I needed. I didn’t think of being in your way.”

“And then,” she continued, “I’m trying all these new things with the pottery. You aren’t. Couldn’t my stuff be given some priority because of it?”

The man never had heard the woman argue for preference. But he quickly admitted to himself the woman was producing more than he. He had scaled down his production while hers had expanded. “However you like–” he said before walking to his wheel.

The woman placed her artwork on the same window shelf where the man had his finished work. Her tall, slender vases stood beside his fat cups, her hoop-eared pots beside his flat plates. She put cubes studded with rings next to his mundane, glazed dishes. The man realized the woman’s work was much different than his. She was developing forms and a style that he never would have.

As she continued her new endeavors, the woman brought her young friend, who owned a studio, to help in making an art piece. The man watched the two huddle in the woman’s half of the studio crowding close around her table. He called to them from his wheel, “Don’t you feel the two of you will get in each other’s way, bottled in that corner?”

“My friend and I have made things in smaller spaces,” his partner answered.

“Well, won’t you be questioning each other how to make whatever it is you’re making?” The man started all his items alone and imagined having a collaborator from the get-go would prove distracting. He had produced his best when he had forgotten the woman , the studio, and the world.

“We will I’m sure, but I don’t believe it will be a bad thing. Wait and see what we make before you decide.”

The man turned to his clay and spun it. “Alright, I’ll wait,” he said shortly.

The two women pieced the material before them. The man made a plate at his wheel, inspected, and liked it. He set the piece aside. He observed the women forming clay into rings. To do each, they rolled a bit of clay into a line and curled the ends. They then fused the ends of each ring within the circle of the prior, extending a chain across the  work table. They fired the clay form and fetched it from the kiln when done. The man faced his wheel and worked. He shaped clay into a few plates. He inspected the unfired plates and thought them clean and neat. However, he found it dull to study them long. He brought them across the room to fire. As he loaded the plates into the kiln, the man watched the women glaze their chain in blue and apple green. Their wide-headed brushes passed along and between the chain’s links and the glaze shone as the sun does on water. The man went to his seat and started a new cup. When the man’s plates had done firing, he fetched them and the women put their chain again in the kiln. The man returned to his work. He smoothed the side of the cup and held his hand there as the wheel ran. He turned it many times before he realized the cup’s side was not becoming any smoother or finer. He stopped turning and looked toward the women. They were retrieving the chain from the belly of the kiln. The two set the fired item on a tray and brought it to their table. The hard-glazed chain shone brightly. Its blue and green had become pure with firing. They lifted the chain and let an end dangle over their palms. The links slid and clacked against one another, their color shifting between deep blue and a fine, bright green. The man never imagined the women could have produced the thing. The chain was more brilliant and intricate than any item he ever had made. It was all hard clay but shifted like water in a stream. His partner played the chain in her hand and he quietly studied its changes of color and light.

When her friend left, the woman set the chain on a tray and went into the house for she was done creating that day. The man stayed in the studio, however. He made several clay rings at his table. He was going to link them into a chain that he hoped would be like the women’s. He made the rings for the links, long and stretched with heavy, bulked ends. The rings resembled two handles from his cups welded together. He fired the chain and retrieved it from the kiln. He glazed the work heavily in an brilliant white for he meant the piece to shine when done. He fired the piece a second time and brought the chain to his work table. He jostled the chain but found the thick-ended links failed to move freely. They clacked very hard in short motions. He realized his product was an ungainly creation next to the women’s.

The man was depressed when he resumed work in the studio. The woman now visited her friends at the alternate studio more often than she produced at home. He did not encounter her some days. He feared she might move in with her young artist friends and abandon his studio altogether. Lately he had become used to her producing art and liked to think of her work as a foil to his. He admired how when he held the line, she crossed it; where she endeavored freely, he maintained a cool control and order. He had come to know who he was as a potter by contrasting with her. He felt learning that difference had made them more of a pair. They could accept they were not a perfect union and, knowing it, still work side by side. If she left, he worried he would not be with the woman again. He tried new work in the studio instead of his old style in hopes of convincing the woman to stay. While he created with perhaps too strong a line and restraint, the man thought the woman might view him as an artist like those she had befriended in town. He hoped deep inside that this would keep them a close and loving couple.

 

 

 

BIO

Norbert Kovacs lives and writes in Hartford, Connecticut. His stories have appeared in WestviewGravelSTORGYCorvus Review, and The Write Launch. Norbert’s website is www.norbertkovacs.net.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Offing Buck

by Victoria Forester

 

 

I can handle losing my husband to the television for every Monday night of football season, but I’m not giving up my place in his life to a five-hundred-dollar-man-stealer with shit for breath and a habit of rolling in the neighbor’s compost. “Larry,” I say, “I just don’t know if things are working out with Buck.” He gives me this can’t-you-see-it’s-Alex-Trebec-on-the-tube kind of look, but I go on anyways. “I thought it would be good for us, but now he’s driving me nuts. It’s been well over a year and he’s still no good with the neighborhood kids and, well, do I have to bring up the Labrada’s cat again? He doesn’t respect me at all and, frankly, sometimes I get the impression that he’s more important to you than I am.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Kristi, he loves children.”

Can you believe the listening skills at play here? “Buck’s gotta go!” I scream. That’s when Larry gets all teary and defiant and picks up the 95-pounder—right off the floor and into his arms like a new bride—and carries him out the front door, yelling, “I’ll take Buck for five-hundred, Alec! The answer is what the hell is eating her?

I’m so angry all I can do is vacuum even though I’ve already filled three micro-filter bags with Buck hair this week and that was out of the den alone. I clean the house until dark muttering to myself. Around ten, I pull back the sheets and I have to pluck two fistfuls of Buck hairs off my side of the bed before I can lie down to call Gina.

“It’s me,” I say. “He’s not home yet.”

“He’s in the car, Kris.”

“In the driveway?”

“Yeah, I can see them from my living room. They’re in the back together.”

“You think he’s going to stay there all night?”

“Who knows. Let him. It’ll give him time to think.”

“What am I going to do?” I groan.

“Apologize. Say you were wrong. Lay low for a couple of weeks. Then, drive Buck to New Jersey. Let him out at a playfield. Get back in your car and come home. Tell Larry he ran off on you in Little Neck.”

So, for ten golden days it’s like a honeymoon. I can take a long walk without looking like an epileptic being jerked around by a dog who’s got to pee every two feet like an incontinent. Larry and I do everything together. We make lost dog flyers and take romantic walks around the neighborhood every evening asking if anyone has seen Buck, making new empathetic friends. We go to the movies to get our minds off him and, best of all, Larry really needs my sweet loving these days.

Then one night, we’re all cuddled up watching stupid pet tricks on Letterman and Larry gets a little teary. “When we get Buck back,” he says, “I’m gonna teach him how to do that.”

“Sure, hon,” I say. “That’d be fun.” I stroke his cheek and he scrunches my hair up in his fingers, working it back and forth over my ear. We’re about to kiss when there’s a scratching at the front door.

For the next two weeks it’s Buck the Wonderdog Walks Home. First night, he’s all matted and skinny and reeks of rotten meat and Larry stays up until four in the morning shampooing and conditioning his hair with cupfuls of my expensive Barbour products. It’s like a scene from Out of Africa with my husband pouring the warm water all over Buck’s hair from the white and gold-trimmed Lenox pitcher my mother gave us on our first anniversary. Larry uses his own toothbrush in the dog’s mouth and then uses it again on himself in the morning before he gives me a quick peck on the lips. He’s up early, with only three hours of sleep, singing and cooking eggs and extra bacon for the three of us. Reporters call us all day long and Larry decides to take a week off from work to teach Come Back Buck how to use and flush toilets just like that mutt on Letterman before they’re scheduled to appear on the local cable channel. Then, after an intense period of training, Buck takes a shit in my Louboutins and Larry calls it Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, insisting that he sleep between us in the bed each night. I have to put a pillow over my head because Buck moans when Larry scratches him behind the ears.

“How was I suppose to know he’d come back!” Gina cries into the phone before I hang up. Later, she slips a card in my mail slot for forgiveness and there’s an article clipping inside. Antifreeze Deadly Attraction for Dogs. That Gina, I think, she’s a pretty good friend.

One Sunday, when Larry and I are working in the yard, he starts wrestling with Buck in the leaves. He shrieks like a kid being tickled when the dog licks his face. “Whoa Buck, whoa big fella!” He laughs, then, “Har, har, honey, he just slipped me the tongue!” That afternoon, I go to the corner store and stock up on antifreeze.

When Larry’s in the shower, I show Buck the large blue puddle spreading out from under the car. He sniffs at the sweet liquid and then goes after two kids whipping by on their bikes in the street. I hear them scream until they reach Northern Boulevard and Buck comes trotting back. Larry leans out the front door with a towel wrapped around his hips. “What was that all about?” He asks.

“There are more important things for a dog to know than using a toilet,” I say and push past him. That night, while Larry cuddles with Buck and watches a re-run of Lassie on Nick at Nite, I watch for the involuntary flinching of Buck’s muscles, hoping for a trail of electric blue mucus snaking from his nose. In the morning after Larry leaves for work, I make coffee and look out the window. There are six dead squirrels in the driveway where the car used to be. They lie on their backs with their legs straight up in the air. I put on yellow rubber gloves that come to my elbows and pick them up one by one. I carry them in a triple lined trash bag to the dumpster on Hollis Street and come home to hose down the driveway. Buck growls at me when I come in the kitchen door.

“Blah!” I yell at him and wave my arms. “Go hitch the chuck wagon you shit-for-brains-leg-humping-home-wrecker!” He schleps to the bedroom and I spend a good half an hour at the kitchen sink scrubbing to the elbows with an antibacterial soap.

I call Gina ten minutes before Larry comes home. “I’ve got to make it look like an accident or Larry will start to suspect something. Buck’s already giving him clues.”

“Kristi, you are my vbf, right? That’s why I gotta tell you you’re starting to scare me. You think this dog’s ratting on you?”

“Look, Buck gets all tense around me. When he growls, Larry holds his nose up to his own and says in this weird baby voice, ‘It’s okay, tiger, it’s just mommy.’ It makes me sick.”

“You just have to get rid of this one and do it quick.”

“P.S. I know. I’m gonna put rat poison in his food tonight.”

Buck eats every last drop of his chopped liver and Raidux. I am practically dancing around the kitchen, but then I have to remember to act natural when Larry comes home, so I click on Oprah and cover up with my new cashmere pashmina.

“Hey, hon,” Larry says and kisses me on the top of the head on his way to the kitchen to feed Buck and get himself a beer. I yawn loudly and get up to follow him.

“So, how was your day?” I ask as usual, and Buck scarfs his second dinner like a starving hog. Then he starts regurgitating his food all maniacal demon like. Larry gets down on his knees near him and we are both screaming Oh my God! There’s blood in Buck’s foam and he can’t stop wheezing and heaving just like that Linda Blair from the Exorcist. I see the terror in Larry’s eyes and he holds onto the arm of my shirt like a child, crying, “What should I do, Kris? What should I do?” This is the very moment of my first regret. I swear to you, I feel like I’m falling through the earth, but I am right there on the floor with them. I think, O’Jesus, O’Mary, please stop this. Please don’t let Buck die. I’m sorry. I’m sorry for what I’ve done. Oh, our Lady of Perpetual Hope, forgive me for this sin!

Then, I’m like a woman possessed. “The emergency clinic!” I scream and, in two shakes, Larry, Buck and I are peeling out of the driveway going sixty-five through the streets of Bayside bringing our Bucky to get his stomach pumped for twelve hundred dollars.

Buck shits liquid charcoal for the next three days and I have to be at the ready to usher him out the kitchen door or I find myself cleaning the black soup off the linoleum every couple of hours. Larry spends half a paycheck on a steel and plastic organizing system of boxes and cabinets, shelves and utility pails for the garage. Every potentially hazardous substance is sealed tight. “Our house is baby-proof now,” Larry winks and kisses me through the air, but before I can say ho there, pardner, he’s sprawled out on the floor cradling Buck in his arms.

When Buck’s all better, Larry takes him to the mall to have their portrait done. He fixes a bow tie around Buck’s neck and they sit in front of a faux lake backdrop. Larry gives me the wallet-sized copies for my birthday and reminds me that money’s been a little tight ever since Buck had to have his stomach pumped.

Gina informs me, “If Buck can survive Raidux, he’s got at least ten or twelve more years on him. Maybe fourteen. Fifteen tops. You’d better get used to it, babe. Either that, or hire a professional.”

“What like a hitman?”

“That’s what I’m saying. It’s obvious you’re no Amy Fisher,” she says.

“I wouldn’t even know the first thing about how to find one.”

“You can find anything on the Internet.”

 

I arrange a three o’clock meeting with Oren Welch at the Blue Moon Motel across town. “I’m losing my husband,” I cry. “I married a different man!”

Welch rolls onto his side on the bed and runs his hand down his enormous belly as I talk.

“Look, I’ve got Buck hair imbedded in all my clothing,” I say and pull my shirt closer to him for inspection. The man takes an eyeful. Welch looks like a guy who would plow his Buick through a whole pack of children at a school crossing. He nods his big mooncrater face and slides his hand into his shirt pocket for a pack of Lucky’s.

“So, what you want?” He asks and lights up.

“What do I want? I want him dead,” I say.

Welch thumbs the wallet-sized portrait I hand him. “This is a fine-looking dog,” he says. “I got a couple of kids who’d love to have a dog like this.”

“Do you want this job or not?”

“Well, how ‘bout I just nap the dog. Christmas is coming.”

“Oren, can I call you Oren? Do you live within a hundred miles of here?”

“Well, uh—”

“This is the dog that walked home from Bayonne.”

“This is Come Back Buck? Oh, I don’t know …”

“I’ll get somebody else.”

“Nah. I’ll do it. It’s just I’m not used to whacking dogs. You know what they say: A dog’s a man’s best friend and all. And this—this Buck—well, he’s the best of the best.”

I start to put my wallet away.

“All right,” Welch says, “you want an accident?”

“Yes, an accident. When both my husband and I are home, so he never suspects me.”

“Fine. You got it.”

“What exactly am I getting?” I ask.

“Dogs get hit by cars all the time. You got yourself a $3000 hit-and-run. $1000 up front for my retainer.”

I sigh and hand him ten crisp one hundreds.

“Lady,” he says. “You should know you’re getting a screaming deal for offing Buck.”

 

I tell you, I’ve lived all my life by the book. I have never been involved in crime. I never even went through that shoplifting phase all my teenage friends seemed to live for. I am not the criminal type, but that dog has pushed me to limits I never even knew I had and I cannot go on like this for a moment longer. I am to let Buck out the front door at exactly 2:00 p.m. on Sunday just moments after Welch will plant the wounded cat across the street, drive off to loop around the cul-de-sac, and floor it when he sees Buck coming. Welch’s contract guarantees satisfaction.

It’s 1:58 p.m. on Sunday. “Bucky wanna go out?” I ask as I walk to the front door. Larry has been organizing the plastic buckets in the garage, sponging down their surfaces with a biodegradable cleanser. When I open the door, I see Larry heading down the driveway. “Where’re you going?” I call.

“There’s a hurt cat across the road. I think its leg’s broke.” He starts to run.

“No, wait!” I cry, and then Buck tears out the door after Larry. I hear tires screeching down the road. Across the street, the cat pulls its lower body along the ground with its forelegs. I let go of the screen door and, like in slow motion, it careens back and slaps the house. I run to the end of the yard. Then Welch plows his Buick through my husband and the dog.

Anyways, it’s been real busy at the house these days with the papers wanting to do follow up stories to “You’re a Million, Buck” and “A Dog, a Man, and the Woman Behind Them.” Larry even got his picture taken for People with Dana Reeves who told him never to give up hope. So now Larry takes Buck to rehab with him and Bucky’s learning to be a Service Dog. Just between me and you, it’s not what I expected out of life. I’m making interview appointments left and right. Redbook called me to do an exclusive on wives who stand by their men. The National Assistance Dog Service wants me to be the new poster girl for their ad campaigns because, it’s true, I’m what’s known as a looker. We sold the rights to our story to CBS and they’re airing the TV movie, Man’s Best Friend, next Sunday afternoon. We’re having a big party with all our new friends from further out on the Island, but believe you me it’s not all fun and games. Sometimes I have to run out of the house and chase the neighborhood kids away from the yard when I hear them yelling Tripod! Tripod! and rocks come flying over the fence. And then I go back in and Kitty wants me because, even though she’s got this high-tech motion-responsive wheeled cart, she still needs help with the big jobs.

And once in a while, Larry still cries, “Hon, I can’t stop thinking about the scared look on Bucky’s face. He looked even more scared than I was.”

I pull his head to my chest and say, “Shhh, baby, don’t worry yourself. We still got each other and one thing we know for sure: No matter what happens, Buck’ll always be here.”

 

 

BIO

Victoria Forester’s writing has appeared in or is forthcoming from various literary journals, including Washington Square Review, Spectrum Literary Journal, Funicular Magazine, and Moonchild Magazine. She recently became a doctor, but can only prescribe one insanely powerful sleeping pill in the form of a 300-page dissertation. Follow her on Twitter @DoveVictoria and Instagram @victoria.forester.

 

 

 

 

0

Recovery

by Paul C. Rosenblatt

 

 

After my wife Mim died I was lost.  Day after day of painful emptiness.  I ached.  Nothing was interesting.  I was just hanging on by my fingertips. Then one day, 14 months after she died, I decided I owed it to her to get back on my feet.  But I couldn’t just do it.  At 84 there wasn’t much of a “me” left now that Mim was gone.  I first had to figure out who I was.

How does a person figure that kind of thing out?  I don’t know, but it seemed that I had to have a self that was built on who I had been.  Who was I in my life with Mim?  And what of who I was then might still make sense as part of the self I would have moving forward?  I made a bit of progress thinking that through, but I was stuck because there was another very, very big part of my past life that I couldn’t come to grips with.  The person I was before Mim was someone I didn’t know or understand or maybe didn’t want to know or understand.  So I couldn’t deal with it.  But then I felt trapped and not able to move forward.  Instead of being back on my feet I was stuck on my butt, thinking in circles.

One morning I was sitting in the living room Mim and I had shared for years.  I hadn’t changed it after she died.  Still the same cream colored walls.  Still the walnut colored bookcase, filled with books one or both of us cherished.  Still the two easy chairs and couch with their faded flowery upholstery.  Still the same print on the wall of a forest.  I was sitting in one of the easy chairs thinking in circles about needing to get back on my feet but not being able to do it.  And then the phone rang.  It was a very strange call.

“Mr. Cohen?”

I didn’t reply, thinking it was a spam call.  But my pause didn’t deter the person on the other end of the line.

“Agent Jack Smith of the U.S. Justice Department.  I’d like to come by to talk about help you can give us with an investigation.”

I assumed it was a spam call, though I never had one like it.  Just in case it wasn’t spam, I thought I’d act like he was who he said he was.  “Mr. Smith, I’m sure you have the wrong number.”

“No, Mr. Cohen.  This is no mistake.  We in the Justice Department think you can help us.  Would 1:00 this afternoon be a good time to come by?”

“What’s this about?”

“I would rather tell you in person.”

I was curious, and thought I could use a break from thinking in circles. “Okay,” I said, “Give me your supervisor’s phone number.  If the person you say is your supervisor persuades me that you are who you say you are, I’ll see you at 1:00.”

After I hung up, I called the number he gave me.  The person who answered said she was the secretary to the Deputy Chief, Organized Crime and Racketeering Section, U.S. Attorney for Northern Illinois.  She told me that I couldn’t speak with agent Smith’s supervisor, but she sounded authentic and vouched for Smith.  And as she talked, the background sounds of a busy office increased my confidence that Smith was who he said he was.  So I decided I’d meet with him.

*  *  *  *  *

Promptly at 1:00 the doorbell rang.  I buzzed Agent Smith past the downstairs security door.  When he reached my apartment door, I opened it a few inches with the door chain secured so that it couldn’t be opened further.  He held up an identification card and badge.  They looked authentic.  The picture on the card matched the face on the man at my door, a distinguished looking African-American man.  He had on a dark suit, even though it was a hot summer day.  He was in his 40’s, balding, muscular, about 6 feet tall, and maybe 30 pounds overweight.  He looked safe enough, though like a man who had spent his entire life being serious.

I let him in.  Smith had a voice that commanded attention, a military posture, and no patience with small talk.  His first words after we sat down were about what brought him to my apartment. “Mr. Cohen, I am with the organized crime unit of the U.S. Attorney for Northern Illinois.  We have discovered a new source of information, but we cannot tap into it without unusual help.  We think you are uniquely qualified to provide that help.”

I snorted in amusement.  “I’m an old man, not qualified to do anything.”

He nodded but clearly didn’t agree with me, because he kept on with his recruiting pitch.  “We think your unique qualifications include your age and your past.  We know you were once associated with organized crime and served a prison sentence.”

It was a shock to me that he had brought up that part of my life, because that was at the heart of what I had been stuck about.  I didn’t understand who I was back then, didn’t like what I remembered about myself, and wasn’t sure how to deal with it or that I wanted to deal with it.  But I knew that dealing with it was key to getting back on my feet.  Quite a coincidence that a stranger would invite himself over to talk to me about what I had been struggling with.  I sat in silence, trying to figure out what forces in the universe brought him to me, what it meant that a federal agent knew I had done bad things and thought that was good, and whether his coming here now would help me.  My mind was racing, but I didn’t say anything.

Smith took my silence as an invitation to say more.  “In your 20’s you were associated with the Pinky Goldfarb gang and were convicted of assault and numbers running.  You served 37 months in prison and have been out of contact with organized crime ever since.”

I sighed.  Agent Smith was definitely putting it to me to think about my old self, but I didn’t know if I wanted to think about it now or talk with him about it.  I was feeling anxious and replied with words that were comfortable enough to say and moved the conversation away from my criminal past and time in jail. “While I was in prison, the Goldfarb gang was wiped out, every one murdered.  So I couldn’t go back to them even if I wanted to.  After I was released from prison I got a job as a conductor on the el trains and enrolled in night school.  I met Mim, the woman I married, my first week in night school.  I earned a teaching degree, we married, and I taught high school science for 37 years.  Mim was a wonderful partner, and teaching was a good life.”

Smith smiled the smile people give who want to seem like they appreciate what one has just said but are impatient to get on with their agenda.  “Mr. Cohen, because of your experience in organized crime and your age, you can help us in a way nobody else can.  Just two miles from here is an eldercare facility, Quiet Shelter.  It only admits residents who have been involved with organized crime and guarantees confidentiality for anything that is said there.  Elderly residents who know a lot about organized crime can say whatever comes to mind without risk of the information getting to the authorities.”

I laughed.  “Makes sense.  Lots of old farts babble whatever comes to mind.  Organized crime would need a place where their elders could blab without risk to anyone.  Do they call it Quiet Shelter because everyone’s quiet about what they hear there?”

He frowned.  “I don’t know why the name is Quiet Shelter.  But it is a shelter from gang warfare.  People from all gangs are safe there, even from gangs that have been at war with theirs.  It is also a shelter in that everyone who works there has personal or family connections to organized crime and can be trusted to keep secrets.”  Smith cleared his throat. “Now here’s where you come in.  We want you to become a resident of the facility for a month and then report to us what you learn about criminal activities.”

Shit!  Smith wanted me to walk into a nest of people my age who had done criminal things.  Would it be good or poisonous for me to be around those people?  Would I discover and come to understand pieces of myself from my criminal and prison days by getting to know them and by becoming a person who fit in with the social life at Quiet Shelter?  And did I want to discover those pieces of myself?  He was trying to push me into a place where I could possibly learn enough to deal with the part of my past that I’d been stuck dealing with.  Did I want that?  I felt a rush of anxiety.

And there was also the fact that mobsters beat, mutilated, or killed people who annoyed them.  I was often scared in my days in the criminal world and jail.  If I was in Quiet Haven as a snoop I’d be scared all the time.  I knew what they would do to a snoop if they caught one.  Lots of confusing thoughts, lots of anxiety.  But I’m a good poker player.  So I just looked at him as though I was calmly paying attention as he continued his recruiting pitch.

“My unit is particularly interested in money laundering, but we would use or pass on to other authorities anything you told us about drug dealing, illegal gambling, bribing government officials, hijacking, and other crimes.”  He leaned back and watched me, like the devil trying to con me into destroying myself.

I was thinking of saying, “Go to hell!  Get out!”  But I decided I needed to hear more.  Our conversation was pushing me to think in new ways about the old self I needed to deal with.  And I was puzzled by why Smith and his people had targeted me.  So I asked him:  “Why me?”

Smith replied with the assurance of a man who could speak for a powerful police agency. “You have an organized crime past, so you are eligible to live in the facility.  The Quiet Shelter staff would assume you know things that some people in organized crime would not want revealed.  We think we can trust you because you have not been a law breaker for 60 years, not even a driving violation.  You live near Quiet Shelter, so it makes sense that you would choose it.  We identified more than 50 people in this part of the Chicago area who could potentially help us.  But after checking out everyone you clearly are the best person for the job.”

I wondered what he meant by “checking out.”  “Did you people spy on me?”

“We did not follow you or tap your telephone, but we looked through court documents and reviewed your medical records.  And one of our agents sat next to you at a teachers’ union meeting last month and did a basic assessment.”

Ha!  HIPAA didn’t protect my medical records from the feds, even though they were not investigating me as a possible perpetrator of a crime they were trying to solve.  And I remembered the guy at the union meeting.  He seemed too interested in me.  I thought maybe he wanted to con money out of me, but he was conning information out of me.

Smith continued.  “Our man said you were smart and hard to read.  I agree with his assessment.  I think you would be good for the job.  For example, if you were shocked by my invitation to be an undercover informant, I could not tell.  And for an 84 year old man, you seem in good shape.”

“Looks are deceiving.  Sometimes I almost can’t get up from the toilet or out of bed.  Often I black out for a few seconds when I stand up.  I have back and hip pain every day.  In fact, I’m having trouble right now.”  I stood up carefully so as not to black out, but I couldn’t straighten up.  My left hip was, as usual when I first stand up, hurting intensely and feeling very unreliable.  I didn’t say anything to Smith.  I was focused on dealing with my body.  I pushed my left hand against the part of my left hip that was aching and walked slowly around the living room.  At the end of the third lap my back was hurting less and was less bent over, and my hip didn’t hurt and was working well enough.  So I returned to my chair.

Smith had quietly watched me stand up and walk around.  Once I sat down he said, “We know from your medical records that you have health problems, and those problems make it believable that you would need an eldercare facility.”

“Ha!  Being in bad shape makes me eligible for federal employment.  Agent Smith, this is entertaining, far better than daytime television.  But I never wanted to be a rat, and I know what people in organized crime do to informers.”  I picked up an AARP Bulletin near my feet and tossed it to the side.  “It doesn’t sound like anything a sane person would want to do.  What would be in it for me?”

He looked at me with a totally unreadable facial expression. He was a good poker player, too.  “It is a chance to help your country, and we would pay all your eldercare expenses plus the rent for this apartment while you were in the eldercare home.  We would also pay you $1000 a week.”

“Combat pay.  But I want to be safe.  How could I be safe being a rat?”

“Nobody in our agency will leak information that might compromise your safety.  And we would protect you by never using you as a grand jury or trial witness and by making all records of your role in our investigations top secret.”

“So I’d be on my own at Quiet Shelter?  If I screw up I’m dead.”

“We would protect you by having nothing to do with you.  Anything we did to try to protect you could tip off the Quiet Shelter staff that you are an informant.  The plan is that you would be there for a month and out of contact with us.  We would debrief you only after your month was up and you left Quiet Shelter.”

“Tough work for an 84 year old with no acting ability.  So how would I get in and out?”

“You would apply for admission on your own, and if you apply for one month, Quiet Shelter would automatically discharge you when the month was up and the money you paid ran out.  We will not contact your son, but you could encourage him to take you out periodically for walks, meals, and the like.”

My son Zach.  I still thought of him as a kid, but he was in his 50’s, had a nice job, and was planning for retirement.  I wouldn’t want to endanger him.  He would be worried if I went into an eldercare facility, and he would certainly visit and take me for outings.  Thinking about Zach made me want to get Smith out of my apartment and give myself room to think things through.  I stared at Smith, who was watching me like a cat eyeing a mouse.  “Okay, Smith, give me your calling card and a day or two to think about this.  I’ll get back to you with more questions or my decision.”

He handed me a calling card and we said our goodbyes.

*  *  *  *  *

After he left I went to my computer and looked up the Illinois Department of Health report of eldercare facility inspections.  It said that Quiet Shelter had no violations over the past three years.  Wow!  It’s a rare eldercare place that gets a clean “pass” on any inspection, let alone three years’ worth.  Then I did a web search for ratings of eldercare facilities by residents, family members, and friends.  There were seven ratings of Quiet Shelter. All were positive, 4 or 5 stars.

I went downstairs, squeezed into my old Honda Civic, and drove the two miles to Quiet Shelter.  It was a sunny day, and I don’t see well on sunny days, even with sun glasses.  Also, my reaction time is slow, and I get confused in complicated driving situations.  But I’m safe enough on streets I know, and the route to Quiet Shelter was along streets I knew.  I’d driven by the place hundreds of times, but it had never registered on me.  This time I drove slowly by the front, then turned to drive by the side and the back.  It was an imposing, four story, red brick building.  The grounds were well kept, lots of greenery and flowers.  Fences and shrubs made it impossible to see into the lower floor windows or to get close to the building anywhere other than at the entry to the building from the parking lot.  I thought about parking in the lot and going in to check out the lobby and get whatever brochures they had.  But just imagining doing it filled me with anxiety.  It felt so risky.  How could I help Smith when what he wanted me to do filled me with anxiety?  I turned around and drove home to think things over.

When I got home I made myself a cup of tea and sat down to write my reasons for going along with Smith and for not going along with him.  After a few minutes it was clear that my major reasons for not entering Quiet Shelter were the risk to my son and the risk to me.  I decided my son would be safe if he didn’t know about my working for the FBI.  The risk to me, I could live with.  It’s not like I wasn’t taking risks by driving, living alone, or even standing up.

As for reasons to do it, I was way too cynical about the criminal justice system and organized crime to think I could make a dent in the world of crime.  I didn’t need the money, and I felt no obligation to Agent Smith.  But as I thought about spending a month in Quiet Haven I had a horrible flashback, to a time I had avoided thinking about for decades.

As one of the bullies for the Pinky Goldfarb gang, I had been sent to collect protection money from a Jewish newsstand operator named Morris.  I had done dozens of “collections” and knew the routine.  I got off the streetcar and strode up to Morris, who was standing in front of his newsstand.  It was a cold, windy, dark afternoon in November, and it was drizzling.  Morris was a short thin man, with a thin beard, and thin clothing.  There was a little boy standing next to him who was also thin and wearing thin clothing.  I said with the confidence of an experienced bully who had a violent organization behind him, “Morris, I’m here to collect money that you owe Pinky Goldfarb.”  All the previous times when I collected money from a guy running a small business, the guy grumbled about it but always paid his $3.00 or whatever it was.  But Morris started screaming at me, “You fucking thief!  I hardly earn enough to eat and feed my family. We live in a tiny, dark basement flat with mice and cockroaches.  $3.00 is a lot of money to me.  Giving you $3 means we will eat almost nothing for days.  Look at my little boy Abie.  He’s the size of a six year old, but he’s 10.  We’re starving.  Leave me the hell alone.”  He turned and walked into his little newsstand.  I said, “Morris.  You know bad things will happen if you don’t pay.  You will lose your business and who knows what else might happen.”  He stumbled out of the newsstand and swung wildly at me with his right hand.  I dodged the swing and shoved him away from me.  He lost his balance and fell into the street.  His head hit the pavement, and instantly a big truck with brakes screaming ran over his chest and head.  He was dead.  His little boy Abie screamed and screamed.

As people gathered around Morris’s lifeless body, I turned and ran.  Three blocks away I staggered into an alley behind a row of stores, bent over and vomited.  Vomiting didn’t clean out what was in me.  It’s still in me.  I earned my living by extorting money from people earning barely enough to survive.  Doing that was evil. And then this guy Morris died.  I could have saved him.  I could have just walked away from him.  I could have let him hit me; it wouldn’t have hurt.  I didn’t have to push him away from me.  So many people going hungry because of what I did.  Morris dead.  And little Abie an orphan.  I hadn’t thought about that stuff for a long time, but I knew it was always in me, always eating at me.

Thinking about that gave me compelling reasons for spending time at Quiet Shelter.  My criminal past was at the crux of my being stuck trying to work out who I was.  It was who I was in those years in the Goldfarb gang and in jail that I couldn’t deal with or even remember well enough in trying to make sense of my past self.  Who was I back then?  What was there about me that I could do such harm to people?  How did all the other gangsters from those days live with themselves now?

Quiet Shelter would give me a chance to dig into my past.  I would get to know people like who I was and hear stories about people doing things like I did.  A month in Quiet Shelter might open up closed doors in my memory and tell me very unpleasant things about my old self, but I needed to understand that old self to figure out who I was now and what was reasonable to do next.  Maybe I’d learn from others how to live with an evil past.  A month in Quiet Shelter could be a godsend.

I didn’t need to ask Smith more questions.  I called his office phone and told his voice mail, “This is Cohen.  I’ll do it.”

 

 

 

BIO

Paul Rosenblatt is a retired professor who grew up in Chicago and lives in Minnesota.  As an academic he has published 14 books and more than 200 journal articles and chapters in edited books.  As a beginning writer of literary works he has pieces coming out in Streetlight Magazine, Avatar Review, and an edited book of writings.

 

 

 

0

Thick Skin, Locked Jaw, Yes Ma’am

by Rina Sclove

 

 

Liana isn’t quite sure what to do with herself when the commander holds the gun out in front of her. She knows what she’s supposed to do — take it, lie on the mat, do the practice drill like they’d gone over. Hand on the barrel, finger away from the trigger, elbows tucked.

She knows what to do with her body. But what to do with herself — of that she isn’t so sure.

Body over mind, she tells herself. It is only her second day of basic training but she is a soldier nonetheless, all thick skin, locked jaw and “yes ma’am.”

The commander holds out a gun and Liana takes it, the metal sharp and cold in her palm. Like ice, but heavier, the kind of weight that she knows she isn’t meant to hold. Her hands carry it nonetheless — she is a soldier, after all — and somehow she makes it to the mat, lies down with legs spread apart, propped up on her elbows. When the time comes she lifts the gun, waiting for commands.

She had expected it to be different, somehow, as if accepting orders would feel more grave if she had a killing machine in her hands. She’d had nightmares about if for the full week after she was given the draft notice, envisioned her hands bloody with a stain she couldn’t remove, metal dragging her deep down into the earth, straight through the crust and into its burning core.

It is her body that she was chosen for, sturdy and strong, everything a soldier’s is meant to be. Her mind had also played a part — she’d gotten good grades in school and had always followed instructions perfectly. Nobody, though, had asked about her heart. She thinks of how she cried into her pillow for that bitter week and knows that it was a mistake, that they would have found something too soft to not be crushed within the grasp of army-greens.

She is just as much blood as she is bone and muscle, kindness in the way that is iron. This is something she knows, seeped from her heart to her mind, all the way to her palms, steady as they hold the cold steel of the gun. It comes as a surprise, then, that when the commander barks at her to load she feels nothing.

It’s because it’s an empty cartridge, she tells herself, pushes it in and ignores the way she knows it isn’t true.

The commander keeps shouting orders and Liana keeps following them to the letter. It is because she is a soldier, she tells herself. It is because the gun is empty.

Only it isn’t. Her arms have started to ache with the weight of it, unyielding metal turning her limbs into lead. How could it be empty if she felt it so sharply, if her arms were not screaming for all of the ways in which it is full?

The commander gives the order to shoot, and Liana is sure that this is the one that will make her feel something. She will cry, shake, scream, gasp for air, anything to let the world know that her skin might be iron but kindness is blood, all heat, bubbling as it melts the steel facade. That there are things that are stronger than her hands, and this, this will be the proof of it.

Only it doesn’t, not yet, and oh god what if I never –

No. She is a soldier, but she is kind, and she can be both. She has to be.

The target is shaped like a person. She isn’t meant to be aiming for anything, only getting a feel for how to shoot, but she can’t take her eyes off of it. It looks small, Liana thinks, though maybe it’s just the distance. At any rate, it should make her sick to shoot at it, should make her feel something, anything.

In the end, it doesn’t even make her hesitate.

She pulls the trigger, shoots the gun, feels the kickback make her entire body tremble. The gun is empty, the person metal, but this is still real, and she doesn’t know what to make of that.

Afterwards, the commander gives her notes on her form and she listens with a soldier’s ears, attentive and unyielding. So it is only when she is dismissed to sit with the others that she realizes that the kickback was the only thing she’d felt, that when her body shook it was only at one kind of impact.

Bea is crying, Veronica is staring wide-eyed at her palms, and Mich and Jo are whispering frantically over the guns lying in their laps. They are soldiers, all of them, and good people. Shooting at something doesn’t make you less of one. There is a war, after all, and a country full of other good people to defend.

Still, though. She’s supposed to feel something when she does it, and Liana can’t help but wonder what is so wrong with her that she can’t.

She has a soldier’s body, she’s always known that. But it is only when she looks to her arms and realizes that they are no longer struggling with the weight of the gun that she wonders if she has a soldier’s heart, too.

Had they looked at it after all? Did they examine it during her physical, peek into its caverns and crevices, feel it beat and decide that it was just as metal as the rest of her? Or was it the opposite? Had she forgotten in all of the chaos that soft things cannot be crushed, only molded, that they will fit any uniform so long as they’re put in it?

Kindness, steel, a gun in her palms — which will be stronger, when it matters? Will she?

Liana thinks of a target-shaped person, of an icy burden she can no longer feel beating in her chest and loosens her grip on the gun, finally registering the way the metal had bitten into her skin.

She doesn’t know if she has a soldier’s heart. Doesn’t even know what it would mean if she did. Still, she shudders as she casts her eyes towards the open sky, lips moving somewhere between a prayer and a promise as she begs for a good one.

 

 

 

BIO

Rina Sclove is currently a junior in high school at Princeton Day School. She lives in Princeton, NJ with her parents, two sisters, and beloved fish, Algae-Won Kenobi. She has previously had work published in Canvas Literary Journal and Adelaide Literary Magazine and hopes to become an author someday!

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

Everyone Smile:
It’s Epy’s Doo-dooseum and Glucy’s Pooscapes

by Douglas J. Ogurek

 

 

I can read cartoon characters’ lips. Well, a cartoon character—Professor Vye Carioso. I know everyone in Deichild loves Glucy’s Pooscapes. I know because Vye Carioso told me.

Glucy is a little genius. Glucy is my child. She is so talented. I know. Before she was born, I knew. I held headphones over my belly. I played Pasteven Sirpast’s Pee Opera. And Glucy didn’t respond. Not a single push. She was unimpressed. I knew that she would outdo Pasteven as a child prodigy.

I knew about Glucy’s talent on the night she was conceived. While Unin was grunting and thrusting away, I was doing some charity work: planning to sell my older daughter Expoxyna’s drawings to neighbors. At a crazy discounted price. Epy’s a genius too. When Unin was done, he gave me a new pair of heels. They had twenty-two curls, and super bright prodigy projections. They made me two feet taller. It makes sense, since I excelled in my heelogy courses. My next child would do great things too. I just knew it.

I remember the first time I read Vye Carioso’s lips. I was pregnant with Glucy, and in the fuzzyglow room. I ripped out a mypeel’s eyes for Epy. I hate it when mypeels scream, but Epy really likes the lipstick you get when you rip off their fur and pluck out their eyes, then stuff chewyglows in the sockets and keep them alive for a couple days. That lipstick is so pretty. And I cut off the mypeel’s tail so Epy could play with it.

Then it was naptime for Epy. So I cut out the mypeel’s tongue and used my nipple dials to turn down the television volume. Did you know my breast screens are among the largest in Deichild?

Epy’s favorite cartoon, You’re the Smartest Kid in the Universe, was on. Vye Carioso, the main character, was looking at me. I’ve always thought that Vye’s doll Migol looks a lot like my girls. Especially the lower part of the forehead and the eyelashes. The sound was off, but, amazingly, I could read Vye’s lips. “Syrupity! Well color me pookle tink, Heli Wonup. You’re almost there, gonk-gloop.” Then he flicked his brain rain at the screen.

Dink Nose came into the fuzzyglow room and interrupted us. She still had pink frosting all over her face from the cupcake that Epy rubbed on her. I read Vye Carioso’s lips again. “There is the selfish one.”

Dink Nose comforted the mypeel and looked at me like I did something wrong.

I said, “Playing with mypeel tails is good for Epy’s dexterity.” As tertiary sub-candidate for secondary associate assistant to the associate vice president of the fourth toenail decorating committee of Mothers of Prodigees, I should know. The MOP Guide to Brilliant Children has a whole chapter on mypeels. And that lipstick? Perfect for prodigies (like my girls) with super high ICutes.

Migol slammed his heavy head into Vye’s hand. When Vye stopped jumping around and crying, I read his lips. “Have the selfish one leave. I have to tell you something of the highest sluppleglup.”

Dink Nose said, “What’s with glasses?”

My six-inch-wide lenses let Epy see what I see. I let the mypeel go outside. Dink Nose said that I was so compassionate. Yes. She said that maybe the mypeel that I had blinded would learn to play the piano and become a virtuoso.

I said, “Not better than Epy will be. I need you to get my smileypop.”

When Dink Nose left, I read Vye’s lips again. “Heli Wonup, your baby will be brilliant. Just gonk flump. Yeah-hah, woo!”

“I know. Just like Epoxyna.”

“There are no slups, cloops, or glomps about it.” He flicked brain rain.

Dink Nose returned before I could respond. She looked out the window and pointed out a skyumph. “Isn’t she in Epy’s class?”

The skyumph showed Nogol Bragara’s girl Sapina accepting her award for prettiest left eyelash in Deichild.

I uploaded onto my butt screens images of Epy’s awards for best early afternoon somersault ending in a one-footed hop and cutest blink for girls between three and three-and-one-third years old who live in chartreuse and fuchsia houses on Macarooli Street. Then Vye could see her talent. I said, “Sapina’s mother’s smileypop is half the size of mine.”

“That explains a lot.” Dink Nose looked at my framed image of Epy’s spit-up. It was ranked in the top two hundred spit-ups among infants in Poopyhead County. She said, “Maybe you should have some planet named after Epy.”

How could I take advice from a dink like Dink Nose, when her one pair of heels was only one inch high? They didn’t have prodigy projections. And the heels didn’t even curl. Besides, if I did have a planet named after Epy, it would be this one.

I went back to Vye Carioso, but Epy woke up and said, “Look, Mommy. I’m funny.” She sprayed DinkStink in Dink Nose’s face.

I laughed. “Yes, you are very funny.”

Dink Nose laughed a fake laugh. It sounded like a witch’s laugh.

I said, “That’s not a real laugh.”

Dink Nose said, “Was your laugh real?”

Epy turned on her MommyMute and screamed, “I want to go to the playandplayandplayground and I want to go now.”

When my ears stopped hurting, I told Dink Nose to take her. What else was Dink Nose going to do? She doesn’t have kids.

Dink Nose sang, “When you ask, I will work on your behalf/And when you fall, I will surely—” She stopped and said, “Sorry.” She does that a lot. Sings, then stops.

When they left, I talked more with Vye. He said, “So so talented. Your daughter Epoxyna is the flonk of the slup.” True. Talented. That’s what Dr. Slappy Proppybap said after Epy used her pencil to stab a classmate in the eye. He said that shows her artistic need to go beyond the surface.

I asked what I needed to do to make sure my next baby was a genius too. Vye told me to save my afterbirth, then watch YTSKITU episode thirty-nine: “Others Should Do What You Say.”

He also asked me to do some prodigy prepping, like rubbing ickyme blood on my stomach. I had to keep one of the creatures in a box in my old purse—my new purse is an Achievery, and it has four prodigy advancement screens, and Dink Nose waited in line seven hours for it—and poke it with needles to keep the blood coming. That’s a big sacrifice for me. Those ickymes last three days.

***

Nachovember 4, 20peepee

Dear Epy and Glucy addicts:

The Doo-dooseum is built! Epoxyna Wonup, my 5-year-old prodigy, designed it.

In my last MOP-mail, I gave you a chance to make donations toward the Doo-dooseum. Geeyick! That was my reaction when none of you responded. By the way, geeyick means, “I don’t understand.” Glucy, my 15-month-old, another prodigy, invented it. It’s now being considered for the MOP Guide to Infant Prodigyisms. More on Glucy later.

So I was disappointed in all of you for not donating. Then it hit me—you were overwhelmed by the beauty of Epy’s sketches for the Doo-dooseum. That’s why you didn’t donate. You couldn’t even think straight. As the mother of 2 prodigies, I understand.

Don’t worry. I’m giving you another chance to show your appreciation. The first 850 Deichildans to donate more than 100 stickers will get a free gift: a coupon good for 2% off any item in Epy’s Boogjestic jewelry line. Every piece in the line is made with a genuine treasure from Epy’s nose. Maybe you’ve seen the ads on the TalentRail or my breast screens, which are some of the largest in Deichild. I need you to be sure that the stickers you donate are glih green or yeeff purple only. Glucy invented these colors, which were added to the MOP Directory of Prodigy-named Colors. Use the attached color chart to be sure that you’re using the right colors.

But wait, this will make your week: Glucy Wonup’s Pooscapes is coming to the Doo-dooseum as the opening exhibit. It is poo! It is shiny! It is colorful! And it is genius! I know.

Prodigy art expert Meuppia Caliber (a fellow tertiary sub-candidate for secondary associate assistant MOP membership) called Pooscapes “the most beautiful infant-created portfolio since my own Soldera’s Snotscapades.”

Just so you know, Epy’s spit-up is ranked among the top 200 ever in Poopyhead County, but Soldera’s is not. And I’ve seen Meuppia’s smileypop. It shows that Soldera only has 17 teeth colors. If you look at my smileypop, you’ll see that Epy has 23.

I’m sure you’ll want to bring gifts to Glucy while we prepare her masterpiece. She’s registered at One in a Million Zillion, Talented Offspring in the Air, and My Child Phenom. To make sure that we’re not flooded with all the offerings that are sure to come, I have attached a list of time slots. These will fill up quickly, so I need you to choose your delivery slot and send it back now.

We do ask that you only wear glih and yeeff clothing when you drop off your gifts.

Who wants to bring books for Glucy? They must be at the college reading level. Glucy already reached toward my breast screens (size “bowog”—Epy invented that masterpiece—big) when I was showing a Boogjestic ad, so we assume she’ll be at a college reading level soon.

Also, we Wonups have always stressed the importance of fairness. So you will probably want to bring something for Epy. Besides, she designed the Doo-dooseum! You may bring brownies and cupcakes. Epy has no specific color requirements—she’s not fussy. We only ask that the cupcakes and brownies are dodecagon-shaped.

I’m sure that some of you will be tempted to bring me gifts. But this is not about me, so please refrain from doing so. Invest your money. For instance, you could make a down payment on my next prodigy’s masterpiece.

Dinks can get child service hours for helping to set up Pooscapes. I need dinks to only wear white clothing, so that Epy and Glucy can stain them as desired.

I’m sure you’re wondering about the grand opening of the Doo-dooseum and Pooscapes. You can enter the raffle to get your name on the list for those who can line up first to get tickets. We do not want to start a riot because of people fighting to get tickets.

When the Doo-dooseum opens, you might be able to purchase a copy of the original sketch autographed by Epy. This cost is only 352 stickers. And 100% yeeff or glif only please.

Attached is a free gift: an image of my first menstrual pad after I had Glucy. You’ll see where she gets her talent. Ha ha.

You will get your next Glucy and Epy fix soon. In the meantime, try to tide yourself over with the free gift, which you might consider framing and hanging as an example for your own children. If you are interested in displaying it on your breast or butt screens, I need you to contact me regarding the specific guidelines and advertising rates.

Ehehkahily,

Heli Wonup, TSC SAA AVP FTDC MOP

P.S. Ehehkah is another Glucy word. It means, “excellent.”

***

Glucy is brilliant. She’s my two-year-old. I know she’ll be just as brilliant as Epy, my six-year-old.

The day that she was born, Glucy grabbed Dr. Purple Murplebupple’s finger. It’s like she was saying, “Someday, I’ll be just as good as you.” With the way things are going, maybe Glucy will be his boss someday! “Syrupity.” That’s what Vye Carioso would say.

The first time I brought her outside, Glucy reached toward the sky. Maybe when she gets bored with brain surgery, she’ll be an astronaut. My daughter, an astronaut. Ehehkah! That’s another word that she made up. I’ve submitted it to the MOP Guide to Infant Prodigyisms.

Glucy was three weeks old when YTSKITU episode 39 came on. I remember it was three weeks because Unin and I were shocked that she wasn’t walking or reading. It probably had to do with all those dinks coming to Deichild. Still, Dr. Murplebupple was amazed at Glucy’s physical aptitude, and Dr. Slappy Proppybap couldn’t get over her mental acuity.

Before the episode started, Dink Nose came into the stretchysweet room. She had my new Achievery purse. It had four display screens. The tag said that she only waited in line for three hours. I said, “No good.”

Epy corrected me. “Mommy, it’s gwood. I want you to say gwood.” Epy—she’s the only child I’ve ever seen who was just as brilliant as Glucy at three weeks—coughed two times that day, so I kept her home from school. That’s the Trumpetal School for Children Who Get Bad Grades in Normal Schools Because They’re Not Challenged by the Material and They’re so Much Smarter Than the Other Kids.

“Okay,” I said. “It was no gwood.”

Dink Nose said, “How do you say it? No glood?”

Epy stomped. “Gwood,  gwood.”

“Oh, no grood?”

Epy started screaming.

Dink colleges don’t make those dinks very smart. I know that her college didn’t have a single course in economics of sex (my major) or male reactions to movements (my minor).

“Mommy make her stop.” Epy was about to turn on ShockMa to convince me to get Dink Nose to stop, so I changed the subject and told Dink Nose her waiting time left something to be desired—Toutranda Heirlift’s dink assistant waited in line six hours for Toutranda’s Achievery purse.

Dink Nose sang, “Lady, you’re the reason, the reason for all of it./You are the reason my life is full of—” Then she said, “Sorry.”

“You can finish it, you know?” I said. “You’re the reason my life is full of excellence.”

Having Epy home meant more prodigy/mommy time! And a chance to add color to her teeth. So I nailed an iew to the smiley board. Dink Nose started crying and getting all mad.

There’s something wrong with people who don’t have kids. Everything was normal: the iew was screaming and squirming and bleeding like usual. But Dink Nose screamed, “You’re the kindest person I’ve ever known.”

Probably true, but she didn’t have to scream it.

Epy kept saying, “Ehgick.” Another Glucy word. It means, “I’m hungry.”

I was getting ready for YTSKITU when Epy turned on her MommyMute. She screamed so loud that my ears got stuffed for a few minutes. Her voice is so powerful. So I’m giving her singing lessons so she can improve her gift. A singing surgeon astronaut!

I deserved the MommyMute: Epy asked for dodecagon-shaped meatballs, and I made decagon shapes. But the deafness—it was only temporary—turned out to be a good thing: I didn’t have to turn down the volume on the TV. My girls. They’re always looking out for me.

Vye Carioso tossed up his Migol doll. The doll came down and its head smashed Vye in the face. I read Vye’s lips. “Syrupity! Look at that glup in your hair. Just gloopy-flup.”

I told him it was the gum that Epy put in the wig that she picked for me that day. It was a white wig, but she made it look so much prettier with the gum. And she spit some juice in it to add even more color.

“So, so gifted.” Vye slammed the doll into his head and his elbow patches sparkled. “First Epy shall design something fleep-flump amazing.”

“But she’s already achieved fame with her talents. She’s already designed one of the top two hundred spit-ups in Poopyhead County.”

He got onto his knees. “And such an inspirational spit-up it was. But that’s just the gonk on the flump.”

A commercial came on, so I sawed off the iew’s horns, ground them down, and then started mixing the powder with brightbright to make some tooth dye for Epy.

Dink Nose started unnailing the iew. “Thanks to your compassion, this creature’s going to have such an easy time out there.”

“Don’t get its blood on the carpet.”

“Maybe it can use some of Epy’s meatballs instead of its horns.”

“That’s silly,” I said. “When you see how it’s added to Epy’s teeth colors, you’ll understand the sacrifice it has made.”

“That explains it.”

Vye came back on. Migol’s head slammed into his mouth. Vye spit out some teeth, then I read his bloody lips. “Oh, you’re so close, Heli. But first make that dink go away.” So I sent out Dink Nose, and told her not to come back until she waited seven hours for a new Achievery purse for me.

She let out the iew, then sang, “You are a woman like no other, something rich./You, woman, are a mother f . . . sorry.”

Epy slapped Dink Nose across the face. It was a good slap. She might be a professional volleyball player someday, when she’s not saving lives or making discoveries in space or bringing people to tears with her voice.

But I did want to hear Dink Nose finish that part of the song. “You, woman, are a mother of geniuses.”

Dink Nose tried to get out of going for the purse, but I said, “Eeeyah.” Guess what. Another Glucy word. It means, “Stop talking, idiot.” Dink Nose is too fond of herself. Like she thinks she’s above wearing heels. I wore heels with seventeen curls that day.

Vye flicked his brain rain, and I read his lips. “Stick a glopown’s tail in a wigglybop. Glomp glup. It will expel green and pink liquid, liquid that Epy will use to paint a building that’s just fleep-flump.”

I went to the window and used my large nipple dial—it’s large because my breast screens are so much larger than most—to activate my skyumph. It showed a video of Epy turning on and off a light. Award-winning cute. I told Vye that I would display Epy’s Doo-dooseum painting on that.

“Well color me pookle tink, you’ll do more than that—you’ll have your husband build it. It will be the Doo-dooseum. Syrupity!” Migol ripped off part of Vye’s lip, then stuck a rattle in Vye’s eye.

I knew right away I’d do it. I do anything I can to give my daughters a better life than I had. When I was their age, I didn’t have wall chutes. I didn’t even have anal glides. Imagine having to spend all that time wiping! And in a bathroom! And there was no such thing as Mothers of Prodigees to look after gifted children like me back then. Living under such terrible conditions takes its toll, but I made it. When I was a child, I even designed the Snazzyboog home décor line that featured my boogers.

I said, “What about Glucy?”

Vye wiped the blood coming from his eye, and blood spattered when he talked. “So so talented, slup-plup. All the Wonups are just the flonk of the slup.” Migol’s hair is the exact same color of Glucy’s, when the sun is setting in fall and we tint the windows glih. Glucy made up glih. It’s a beautiful shade of green. When I asked about her favorite color, she picked something green out of her nose and said, “Glih.” She understood me. So that’s where glih was created.

I read Vye’s bloody lips. “Wait, please, until episode sixty-six: ‘Way Above the Others,’ and then I will tell you how Glucy will create something slup glup gloppity gloop.” He skipped and shouted, “Yeah-hah, woo!” and blood came out of his mouth.

I applied the iew horn/brightbright mixture to Epy’s teeth. I used yeeff, another Glucy color. When I asked her what color she likes, she said, “Yeeff” and threw her juice on the stickysquirm room floor. It made a beautiful purple splotch. I’m sure that yeeff and glif will be on the cover of the revised version of the MOP Directory of Prodigy-named Colors.

I took a new image of Epy’s teeth with my smileypop. So my smileypop showed six more teeth colors than Toutranda Heirlift’s had. And mine was so much brighter.

Then I got Glucy’s wigglybop, and made plans to get a glopown creature. I said, “You’re going to be a star, Epy.” She hit me and stuck pink frosting in my wig. It was so pretty. Epy was going to design a syrupity building. I knew it.

***

Janpoohairy 13, 21peepee

Dear Epy and Glucy addicts:

This is the announcement that most Deichildans have been losing sleep over because you’re so excited. As an official tertiary sub-candidate for secondary associate assistant to the associate vice president of the fourth toenail decorating committee of Mothers of Prodigees, I’m pleased to announce the Doo-dooseum, designed by Epy Wonup and featuring Glucy Wonup’s gloopy-flup Pooscapes exhibit, is set to officially open on Marchmallow 15. Glucy picked that date by sticking a booger on the calendar. She has the cutest little boogers.

I remember my boogers when I was Glucy’s age. They were just as engrossing, and beautiful enough to start the Snazzyboog home décor line.

The number of you who signed up for the Doo-dooseum and Pooscapes ticket raffle leaves something to be desired. At first, I was like “Geeyick. This isn’t gwood.” (Geeyick and gwood are words that my daughters, both prodigies, invented). I thought, if other Deichildans haven’t seen the projections about the raffle on the squigglybounce, TalentRail, or my skyumph, then where have they been? Then it dawned on me: you thought that the idea of getting a chance to line up to buy tickets was too good to be true.

Don’t panic. There is still a chance for you to see what Bow2Child architecture critic Sy Cophany Kidyoked called, “one of the most ambitious works ever to be created by one sister and exhibited in a museum designed by another and to be located at 12 Tumblumshum Road.”

Back to opening day. To ensure that there are no riots on that world-changing day, I have created a schedule for seeing the exhibit. Children with 17 to 22 teeth colors accompanied by mothers with 12 to 21 curls in their heels will have first viewing time. Children with fewer than 5 teeth colors and mothers with fewer than 5 curls get in last. I based the schedule on Epy’s teeth colors (23) and the number of curls (22) in my heels. In each case, I assume that these are the most in Deichild.

I need anyone who’d like to receive Glucy and Epy’s autographs to do so on opening day between 2:12 p.m. and 2:41 p.m. Better line up a little early (48 hours in advance): we expect long lines. Autographs will be available for 399 stickers each for Glucy. Only bring stickers that are 100% glih or yeeff, which are Glucy’s favorite colors. She invented them. Also, I need you to wear glih or yeeff lipstick. Use the attached form to order. If you need advice, I can help: I took advanced lipstick shades at Momgrab U. Your clothing should also have those colors. You need to wear a gwood wig and face paint—Glucy is afraid of adults who don’t. Please bring a thick marker (glih or yeeff only, preferably cupcake-scented) so that Glucy can sign your stuff. Glucy will also be allowed to keep the marker and decorate your face, wig, and clothing as she wishes.

Epy’s autograph requirements are a lot less stringent. Just wear a dodecagon-shaped hat, and bring some things for her to put on your face and she’ll sign away. Special: all those who wear something from Epy’s Boogjestic jewelry line get one sticker off the 399-sticker price!

For those of you unable to wait in line, you may purchase a copy of their signatures in a frame touched by Epy and Glucy.

Kiddyups who are overwhelmed by the beauty of Epy’s architecture or Glucy’s exhibit will have access to recovery rooms. There, you can relax while watching videos of Epy saying “No” and “Mine”—it’s adorable, and it may help boost your child’s ICute—and Glucy doing inspiring things like blinking and touching things.

Those who wish to smell Glucy’s fresh sparkling feces may do so in a special group tour available for 199 stickers. It gets better. Those who take the tour will get a coupon gwood for 2% off Doo-dooseum and Pooscapes squigglybounce-, airplane-, TalentRail-, and home-size posters.

If you’re a dink, not to worry. We have many openings for dinks who need child service hours. These include museum games like DinkDunk, Pink-a-Dink, and Spin-a-Dink-Till-He-Pukes. All dinks who volunteer for Decorate-a-Dink Café will get a special treat: the café will loop the Glucy video that played at the last Least Valueless Dink Awards. It’s the one that shows her sleeping and breathing, and all kinds of cute stuff like that.

Separate viewing times are available for dinks, who must pay a seven-sticker non-parent surcharge. Dinks who have decided not to have children (as opposed to those who cannot) will be assessed an additional 3-sticker selfishness fee.

Before entering, all dinks must wait for a half hour behind a school bus in the parking lot, then help teachers create picket signs for their annual raise ten times higher than those of dinks. And I need any dink woman to go before my subcommittee to determine which displays you can see and for how long.

Well, ehEHehEHehEH. That’s Glucy’s word for “I’m tired.”

Glihly and yeeffly,

Heli Wonup, TSC SAA AVP FTDC MOP

P.S. Attached is a virtual bottle of Glucy’s spit-up. Drag it across your screen to be inspired!

***

Epy used her ShockMa on me just before YTSKITU episode sixty-six came on. I deserved it: I didn’t program the leaves on our trees to change to dodecagon shapes. Worse, I didn’t change the waterfall in our yard to cotton candy colors. How dare I stifle her creativity! I know, though, it’s because of the way that I was raised. It’s my mother’s fault.

Epy screamed and stomped and drew on the walls and the furniture. Her drawings were beautiful. She’ll be a great artist someday. I know it. Like the time she took our kitty Smackpull from the litter box, then threw him against the wall? Dr. Proppybap said that shows her need to use her creativity. She was “thinking out of the litter box.” Ha ha.

I used my nipple dials to change the trees and water. But Epy was still upset. Prodigies! She used her green permanent marker on the curtains. Genius. I could see the same talent that created the Doo-dooseum. It was under construction then. My husband Unin—he owns Bow2Child—decided to have it built to celebrate Epy’s 3/17th birthday. Looks like all those late nights studying seduction methodologies at Momgrab U paid off!

The dinks complained. They said that we wiped out many dusteenies’ nests to build it. But so what? You can’t use dusteenies for any cosmetic purposes. And they aren’t even pretty birds.

Glucy started to cry too. I gave her a marker. She threw it at my face. Then—this is ehehkah—she held her hands like you sometimes see Pretzelbent Bleeblah hold her tiny hands. I wouldn’t be surprised if Glucy (or Epy) became Pretzelbent someday. Who wants to guess who made up the word Pretzelbent? That’s right, gwood. It was Epy! Then I looked in the mirror, and a streak from Glucy’s marker took my breath away with its beauty. So beautiful that I later had pictures of it dropped all over Deichild.

Dink Nose came in. “What’s with face?”

“Proof of prodigy.”

“Poof of prodigy,” said Dink Nose. “I just saw Nogol Bragara’s daughter’s toe on a truck wrap.”

“So?” I said, “Epy’s toe was on an airplane wrap.”

“But wasn’t that a fourth toe? This was Sapina’s third toe, and it was so . . .” She wiped a tear. “. . . beautiful.” Then she did that witch cackle again.

Sometimes I think that dinks like Dink Nose have way too much time on their hands. To notice something so small. Besides, she doesn’t know anything about toenail decoration. She doesn’t even wear toenail polish, and that day, I had the Deichild skyline painted on my pinkie toe. And I had to deal with an ickyme screaming in my purse for three days to get the buildings to glow like that.

Dink Nose tied her heelless shoes—her fingernails weren’t even painted! She said, “I heard that sometimes Nogol Bragara eats Sapina’s boogers.”

“Nogol was in my testosterone tweakage course at Momgrab University.”

“That explains her dark glasses.”

“I got an AW (anesthesiologist’s wife) in my lip glistening final. She only got a CW (chief executive’s wife).”

“But she says that eating boogers makes a better daughter/mommy bond.”

Dink Nose wasn’t wearing the Doo-dooseum logo. Glucy drew that too. It only took her six seconds. Brilliant. I said, “Where’s your logo?”

“Now what did I do with that?” She picked a clump from Smackpull’s litter. “Oh, here it is.”

Obviously, she was trying to show me that Epy’s logo was so powerful that it made her feel whole. It clumped her together. I gave her another logo.

She started singing. “I’ve watched your children growing up./Your mothering makes me feel like throw—” Epy sprayed DinkStink in Dink Nose’s mouth. Dink Nose turned green and coughed and we laughed.

I took Dink Nose’s hand and crushed the litter over her head. We laughed more. “My mothering might make you feel like throwing up your hands and dancing, but you need heels for that.”

YTSKITU episode sixty-six came on, so I muted it. Migol ripped off one of Vye’s earlobes. I read Vye’s lips. “Syrupity, Heli Wonup. Look at Glucy’s diaper screens. Will slups never cease to gloop?”

I had a three-screen display on Glucy’s diapers. I told Vye about what they showed: Glucy’s ICute, a video of her brilliant performance as a mud puddle, and a super cute video of her yanking Smackpull’s tail.

“So close, Heli Wonup, so close. Yeah-ha, woo!”

Epy started hitting my leg. I got down so she could hit my face too. I am a good mother. I know it. She put a booger in my wig. It was like a jewel.

Migol stuck the earlobe in Vye’s nose. Vye said, “You must have that dink leave the room.”

I told Dink Nose to take Epy outside and let her play with the DinkDunk. But first I ate Epy’s jewel. I know I’m a better mother than Nogol Bragara, and Dink Nose needs to understand that.

Migol used a spoon to eviscerate Vye. Then I read Vye’s lips. “Heli, Glucy is so, so gifted.”

“I’ll have her first steps on video,” I said. “Her first one hundred thousand steps.”

“No matter which way you sloop the flump, Glucy has talent. And she has something syrupity to add to the Doo-dooseum.”

“Well let’s be fair. Epy’s talented too. She’s a prodigy in architecture, logos, and fonts.”

Vye flicked brain rain. “How gloopy-flup you are.”

“She’s designed thirteen variations of the scribbly font.”

Migol played with Vye’s intestines and Vye continued. “And Glucy will match, but never exceed, Epy’s skills.”

“More than skills.”

“Glucy will create the first exhibit in Epy’s Doo-dooseum. It shall be called called Pooscapes. It’s in the cloop-clups.”

I took out my smileypop. “That will make it the most popular opening exhibit of all time.”

“First rip the marblettes off a rindego’s wings. Glup gloop. Then put a female adolescent huskido in a brainshaker. When the creature expires, mix the stuff that comes out of its ears with the marblettes, then put it in Glucy’s cereal.”

“She eats Cocoa Virtuosos.”

Migol took off his diaper and Vye spun his own intestines like a lasso. “Yeah-ha, woo! Tune into episode 103, ‘Make Mommy Listen,’ and I’ll give you some tips on conceiving your next champion.”

“Prodigy. My next prodigy.”

Migol shoved his poopy diaper in Vye’s face. And I went to get a rindego and a female adolescent huskido.

***

Apepillow 3, 21peepee

Dear Epy and Glucy addicts:

Your turnout at the Doo-dooseum grand opening leaves something to be desired. Duffy Puffy Today Prodigentertainment editor (and my sister) Famby Proxy called the Doo-dooseum and Pooscapes “Deichild’s brilliant but by no means superior response to the Holyouth Poo Zoo, and evidence that genius runs in the family.” Although Famby’s dink assistant only waited in line 2 hours for her purse—it has 3 screens versus my 4—and my dink assistant waited 7 for mine, Famby has a point. So I must conclude that the reason nobody came to the grand opening was this: you were afraid that I would judge you because your children have not achieved the same success as mine. Please don’t be embarrassed. Remember, if every child were on top, then we wouldn’t have any super prodigies.

To show our willingness to forgive your completely understandable oversight, we’re offering you an opportunity to have your photo taken with Epy and Glucy. All I need you to do is show up. And bring your MOP guides and directories. I’d be happy to sign them for free, if you donate 200 stickers to the Wonup Genius Fund.

Please don’t beat yourself up for failing to come to the grand opening. You have another chance to redeem yourself: to make up for the unexpected loss in revenue, we are accepting donations of essential items. Examples include heels (over 20 curls and purchased after a 6-hour wait only please) and cosmetic creatures. Sticker donations are always welcome. I need you to drop off donations between 2:10 p.m. and 2:27 p.m. Also, we’ve let up on the sticker requirements. Before, we required that stickers be 100% yeeff or glih. Now you can give whatever color you want, for 3% of the sticker’s surface. Imagine it: your colors right beside those created by Glucy Wonup! All deviations will be returned and the donator will be charged a non-super prodigy color usage fee.

Sticker donations will be used for the purchase of more toys to reward Epy and Glucy for their creative efforts. We will also use stickers to buy a new security system; we discovered a dink prowling the premises and trying to help a baby dusteeny. She said its nest was destroyed and its family was killed when the Doo-dooseum was built. But we all have to adapt, don’t we?

When I was in the Super High School for Children Who Get into Power Struggles with Their Parents Because the Children Are So Much Smarter, a short circuit shut down my breast screens for over 2 hours. But I persevered. And today, not only is my resolution top-notch, but my breast screens are among the largest in Poopyhead County.

I have to confess: I’ll also be using your much-deserved contributions to upgrade my girls’ teeth and my smileypop. As an official tertiary (as opposed to Famby’s quaternary) sub-candidate for secondary (as opposed to Famby’s tertiary) associate assistant to the associate vice president of the MOP fourth toenail decorating committee, and with my recent nomination for quaternary associate sub-candidate for partial membership in the tertiary committee for finger painting in the fluff sparkle branch of the western northeast region of MOP, I was surprised and disappointed to discover another kiddyup mother (who never took a course in male systems, and whose children are nowhere near as successful or talented as mine) had a smileypop that showed her child had 15 teeth colors. That’s only 10 fewer than mine. The citizens of 323215335/llkkhesxcgghghjjkk14414;m n ht

Oh, Glucy just took over the keyboard. Who wants to analyze what she typed? It won’t be difficult to see her brilliance.

As I was saying, the citizens of Deichild owe it to each other to reward those with the most talented children.

Your mistake in not coming to the grand opening is a blessing in disguise: our shipment of accessories inspired by Glucy’s masterpiece has arrived. So bring your stickers—remember, 97% yeeff or glih—because you may now purchase breast and butt screen animations of Glucy stretching her fingers as she creates her art, and purse and heel projections of Epy throwing our cat Smackpull into pink water. It will give your children something to aspire to.

A special offer to my fellow Momgrab U alumni: advertise Glucy and Epy’s ICute on your skyumph, breast screens, or butt screens and you can purchase heel projections that feature the Doo-dooseum logo for a huge discount. Not only will you have 2% off the suggested MOP price, but you’ll also get a true classic: my childhood photos advertising the Snazzyboog jewelry line. It pays to be a Momgrab U Glowing Ovary!

Film directors looking to make a documentary: due to the long lines that we anticipate, I need you to line up at the rear of the Doo-dooseum 2 days from now. We’ll start interviewing directors 5 days from now. Both Glucy and Epy are natural actresses. At the Trumpetal School for Children Who Get Bad Grades in Normal Schools Because They’re Not Challenged by the Material and They’re so Much Smarter Than the Other Kids’ tri-annual “Little Luminaries” performance, Epy got a Phenomenal Characterization of an Inanimate Subsurface Object Award for her spot-on portrayal of dirt. And I expect that Glucy will follow in her sister’s footsteps: to date, Glucy is the only starlet in Deichild to rub feces on her face in an attempt to mimic a mud puddle.

Calling all dinks: get service hours by allowing soon-to-be moms to operate remote-controlled Glucy and Epy robots at your house. The robots can play in your yard and tear apart your flowers or smash your fruits and vegetables. Or inside, they can destroy the things you’ve done while you should have been raising children or buying things to maximize your beauty for your husband or show your advanced socio-economic status. Note: all dinks seeking admission will have to pay an additional 3-sticker greed fee, and wait for an additional 45 minutes while a crossing guard pulls cardboard cutouts of children back and forth in front of you.

And to all the other mothers of prodigies out there, here’s something that you don’t hear enough: You’re welcome! You’re welcome for the Doo-dooseum and for Pooscapes. You’re welcome for setting an example for your children. You’re welcome for making possible the best art that Deichild has ever seen.

And to all those Epy and Glucy addicts who’ve lost so much sleep in anticipation of the next Doo-dooseum exhibit, I can’t give you anything specific, but I can say that Epy and Glucy have combined their artistic genius, and that “urin” for a real treat. Ha ha.

323215335/llkkhesxcgghghjjkk14414;m n htly,

Heli Wonup, TSC, SAA AVP FTDC MOP & QASC, PM TC FP FSB WNER MOP

P.S. I have attached an image as a free gift. The actual smile is made of Glucy’s umbilical cord, and the eyes are pieces of afterbirth. Now you know where my children get their creativity. Ha ha.

 

 

 

BIO

Douglas J. Ogurek is the pseudonym for a writer living somewhere on Earth. Though banned on Mars, his fiction appears in over fifty Earth publications. Ogurek founded the controversial literary subgenre known as unsplatterpunk, which uses splatterpunk conventions (e.g., extreme violence, gore, taboo subject matter) to deliver a positive message. He guest-edited Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction’s UNSPLATTERPUNK! and UNSPLATTERPUNK! 2 anthologies. Ogurek reviews films at that same magazine. Recent longer works include the young adult novel Branch Turner vs the Currants (World Castle Publishing) and the horror/suspense novella Encounter at an Abandoned Church (Scarlet Leaf Publishing). More at www.douglasjogurek.weebly.com. Twitter: @unsplatter

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

A Clean Break

by Vincent Barry

 

 

“Tengo curiosidad,” she goes, curious about, she means, what I just said in there— “in there” being Tough Love, a no cost West Side addiction rehab that we both attend weekly,— well, given our whereabouts, perhaps weakly; “said,” being my lover’s quarrel with Fitzgerald, whose belief in “clean breaks” I was challenging—anger/authority issues, y’see,— mere moments before—I mean his what you can’t come back from—“clean breaks” Fitzgerald called ’em. . . .  It also happens to be what tonight’s meeting is called—“Clean Breaks”—, which I guess started the whole rumpus of sounds to begin with. . . . All right, all right, displacement too, I know. . . . “ADA”—anger, displacement, authority, that sums me up, I’ve been told— even if it doesn’t add up, to me. . . . Make that DADA— I forgot “denial.”

Anyway, “I was just saying,” I essay to her in a soft note ’cause, I admit, I’m at the—er— stage—if you favor theatre— or phase—if you relish lunar likeness—, wherever, I admit that my swooning soul is estimating the strength of its warmth of feeling for her,— “I was just saying there are no clean breaks.” Then, with more tremor, “Ask Gatsby,” and wonder, my nerves on a hair-trigger, “What’s keeping our drinks?” hers Black, mine White, Russians both; and, too, whether “Gatsby” is lost on her, my wide-eyed West Side Luisa.

We’re on a break, y’see, she and I, which we are boldly taking where no one I’m sure on a TL break has ever gone before, the Inner Sanctum, a dive devilishly set at the end of a murky, mauve-streaked alley, though near enough to the dirty yellow light of Tough Love that we can run up to IS like a couple of kids playin’ hooky and holler fish and be back in time, after having had, as the poets say, mysteries heaped upon us, about the mischief that is past and gone, while inviting new mischief in and, of course, imbibing Etta James’ “At Last.”. . .

I know, I know, hardly an ardent commitment, but here’s the thing—the thing is—what? well, we speak the same language, so to speak, albeit different, she and I, our languages. . . . And besides, late word from home has left me this night dejected, bored and blue. “How,”— who was it said?— “how can a man be more at home than that?”

“Gatsby?” she goes with snappish humor. Then, “¿No está flotando—?” and stops, self-collecting, to take a few quick puffs of a smoldering Pall Mall, which she then removes from her stenciled red mouth and holds meditatively between arching fingers.

An easy silence ensues. Her lips gradually tighten on a mirthless grin. More pause. Then she slowly begins to jab the air with the unfiltered PM as though keeping the time or setting the back-beat for what she’s about to say. Which is, in perfectly cadenced English, “Isn’t he the one floating on a raft in a West Egg pool with a bullet in his back?”

“He’s the one,” I agree, and add with a slowly drawn breath,“¡Maravilloso!” meaning literacy.

Y’see, wherever, whenever, I come upon it, literacy, it’s marvelous, isn’t it?—I mean like a rare gemstone of the Borate Class? But she—

“You mean,” she cuts me like a whip,“in a woman— !” Then, continuing with cold brusquerie, blood mounting to face and neck, large, fuliginous eyes quivering, she lets fly at me like a stretched rubber band, “¡Si fuera como hombre—!” by which I gather from my broken Spanish she means, “If she were a man I wouldn’t say that.”

“I never meant that!” I protest.

My tone sounds defensive, just as when my eyes first clapped upon her at an earlier meeting—“Fresh Starts,” I think it was— when she was saying, “One must recover everything from memory—,” and, as she paused, perhaps to recover her English, I blurted from,— who knows from where?— but with anger fueled, “Spoken like—!” and she stopped me, as now, albeit now after a marked pause, though clearly still riding the earlier wave of poetic inspiration with an identical rasping, “Your mansplaining is in plain view!”. . .

Lying then, “I never meant that,” but now, twice shy for once burned, but still wondering how the hell she knows a sockdolager word like mansplaining, I try, this time truthfully, with the quickness of a bell hop at a ritzy hotel, “Plain as a Pikestaff?” and, happily, she jerks out, “Subtle as a needlepoint.” Imagine that! And I know we’re okay, okay for sure when she reassures softly, “Somos buenos.”

Then the Russians arrive, which, as if a posthypnotic cue, sets off a spluttering, strangling version of “Carthago delenda est.”

“¡Trump debe ser destruido!” she flings out, of our Dear Leader, her disorder of thick, dark hair tossing from side to side. Then, flushing fulgurously, “¡Huracán Maria!…¡tres mil muertos!….¡ninguna electricidad! . . . ¡treinta mil—!” “I know,” I try catching up her unavailing wrath with a kindling eye, “I know, I know,” I say again, “thirty-thousand still without roofs,” and she cries dolefully, of Puerto Ricans, “¡Americanos! ”—“I know, I know,” clasping her thin, deep-veined hand, the one with polished nails of different colors drumming on the table top.Then, still trembling and hot-eyed, she says scornfully, of President Plunderbund, “And he calls himself the best thing that ever happened to Puerto Rico! Pah!”. . .

And I imagine, for her lightning flashing eyes and her smoke-drawn tight mouth, the ventripotent Punchinello-in-Chief hanging by a red silk tie upside down, Mussoliniesque, from a makeshift girder in front of 666 Fifth Avenue, . . . and she asks, “Why are you grinning like an idiot?” and I, smiling idiotically I’m sure, I hear only, through the whorls of bluish-white skail, a sensual post coital,“What are you thinking?”

 

“Look,” shunting back to the main line of my thought, “I just mean—meant—” “Yes?” “George Wilson didn’t kill Gatsby.”  “Oh, really? Who then? Daisy?” “In a way, yes, in a real way, yes, actually,… his past is what—”

“¿Su pasado?” she goes, before, with aspirating English, “Next you’ll be quoting Faulkner’s,’’ then back to Spanish, “El pasado nunca está muerto. Ni siquiera ha pasado.” A pause punctuates a fierce squash of a half-sucked cig into a skull-shaped ash tray inscribed “Dig It” around the word “Life” in an open grave centerpiece. Then a tap out of another from a white on red soft pack that tells us we are, of all the gin joints, so to say, we are “WHEREVER PARTICULAR PEOPLE CONGREGATE,” beneath an armorial crest that promises in Latin, “In Hoc Signo Vinces,” and I wonder if we will—conquer.

“Es cierto,” I agree, “the past,” I continue, mumbling above my white drink, that Max, a preternaturally grave man with a close-cropped head and hard jaw, who reminds me of Norma Desmond’s Max, except, of course, for his chrome-hook of a hand lost looking for love in Afghanistan, has just delivered,“the past is never dead.” Of it, the past, that being the undead dead, Max’s quick ironic look inquires, before my head wags him away, and with a sheepish obeisance he slues off, Norma’s Max does, into the Sanctum’s dark den. . . . A waiter could do worse.

“Ni siquiera ha pasado,” rolls more Faulkner from her with the musical ups and downs of the Caribbean, and I nod, “It’s not even—” “Pasado,” she breaks in.  And I think, “Literacy! I love—” but, of course, naturally dare not say, favoring instead, “Faulkner was right,” adding “You can’t come back because there are no clean breaks to come back from.”

“‘Oh, por favor,” she goes, the swimming wonder of her eyes again snapping, her fugitive flush now paling, “How long since—?” “Donkey’s years,” I break in sullenly, which she chases with a laughing, “¿Años de burro?” and I know where she’s going, ’cause I know, y’see, she’s perceptive,—I mean she knows, sees, can imagine, ’cause stuff comes out in recovery that she’s, as she might say, “rápido para recoger el ritmo.” “Ah!—” I bluff, then from her,“ “Ah Wilderness?”

Ah Wilderness!…Unbelievable!”

“¿Increíble—por qué? . . . From a Puerto Rican, you mean?”

“No, no!” I protest, as to her earlier “from a woman.” “I never meant— ” then meekly, “More like,” with a bluffing laugh, “Ah the Far Off Odor of Home.”

“¿Casa?. . . Did I ever mention—?” and she breaks off indignantly, but of course I know she meant it, home, and I say, “You implied as much,” and from her, “Then, por favor. . . .”

“The last time actually,” I answer, “as it so happens,—”

“By chance.”

“—exactly—!”

“Nada es casuaidad,” she says, and I agree, “Nothing’s by chance,” and add, “Unless you mean, by chance, el mar—”

“Ah, the sea!” she goes with a nod. Then, “Si, el mar que trae todas las oportunidades.”

“‘—that brings all chances,’” I go on, recognizing Tristan, then, “‘I would like to try the sea that —’”

“—trae todas las opportunidades —,” she goes, and I, mesmerized, “‘but to what land?’” “Of all oportunidades?” “Of course,” then realize, “no matter—.” “Claro,” she smiles. Of course, I allow,  “So long as it heals my wound.” “Sana la herida,” she whispers like an amen.

That’s when—well, I dare to wonder, “Could it be that we’re not, as the poet says, she and I, ‘two souls tinged with the same hue’?” Then I pick up, “As it so happens—,” continuing, “—from my brother this morning of my sister:

“‘Richard,

‘Sorry to pass on bad news.  Kit passed away this morning. She had been ill with stomach cancer and the last few weeks things turned for the worst.

‘The particulars of funeral . . . .’”

“¿Es todo?” she asks. It is, all. “Your brother,” she says dryly, “is excellent at—” then fills it out— “notificación de muerte.”

“Other than of death,” I get out, “I never hear from him.”

“And him?” “Him?” “From you? “I have no deaths to report.” “Or have you no way to report them?” I don’t reply. “Oh bien,” she goes, unfastening her eyes from mine, “a man doesn’t have to say what he feels to feel what he doesn’t say,” and I feel . . .  sad, neglected, abandoned. . .  . Then a wide, uncomfortable pause.

“So,” at last from her, “will you go back for the—?” “Hmm, interesting construction,” I break in, “‘back’ ‘will.’”  “Pasado futuro.” “Exactamente. . . .¿no lo ves? …There is no back back there.” “Because you’ve made a clean break?” “No, because there’s no clean break to make—ever.” “With the past?” “Si, con el pasado.”

A meditative interval passes, then she sighs, “Bien entonces,” and continues in English, “Well then, ‘the best you can do is manage and protect it as one does an afflicted member of one’s family.’”

Imagine!

“Who—?” I falter on it. Then, a bit manically, “I demand to know! Who said that?”

“You demand,” she laughs with sidelong glances. “Why, you sound positively— Major Strasserish!”

“So?” I go, Casablanca not lost on me, “So what? Does that mean you’re gonna plug me?”

“And if I did?”

“Well, if you did,” I ponder bemused, before, “there would be nothing else to do but—” making space for her to complete my thought, “Round up the usual suspects?” she laughs across at me.

We sit quietly for a while with Etta:
You smile

And then the spell was cast

And here we are in heaven

For you are mine—

At last, from one or the other of us, “We better be getting back.” Her half-smoke squashes in the overloaded ash tray that rests on a Jackson I slip under it. We get up to leave with a “Volviendo,” from one or the other of us.

“’Something wrong with—?” flings the gelid, muddled Max, staring with a cold grey fish eye at our untouched Russians.

Looking at each other in an interpretive way, “No,” we assure him in tandem, our words entwined with laughter low and the mystic chemistry of our being, adding, “solo con nosotros.”

Once outside we quickly escape the puddle of purple cast by a naked light bulb, and

then, side by side, with guileless confidence, stride for stride, with cloudless smiles, we make our way with fresh decision through the gathering mist toward the xanthic light at the mouth of the alley, and, from one or the other,—no, no! it’s from me, allowed along the way, definitely from me, like a tipsy reveler trying his damnedest to mask a disenchanted sadness, “Luisa, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

 

 

 

BIO

Vincent Barry’s affection for creative writing is rooted in the theatre. After a stint with the Peace Corps more years ago than he prefers to remember, Barry’s one-act plays caught the attention of the late Arthur Ballet at the University of Minnesota’s Office for Advanced Drama Research and Wynn Handman at New York’s The American Place Theatre. Some productions followed, as well as a residency at The Edward Albee Foundation on Long Island. Meanwhile, Barry was teaching philosophy at Bakersfield College and authoring textbooks. Now retired from teaching, Barry has returned to his first love, fiction. His stories have appeared in numerous publications in the U.S. and abroad. Barry lives with his wife and daughter in Santa Barbara.

 

 

 

 

 

0

Sore Throat

By Carolyn Geduld

 

 

The Single Women By Choice Society had been invited to march in the July 4th parade. Patsy was rummaging through her exotic clothing chest for an outfit. Everyone was supposed to wear red and white. Some of the single women by choice were also celibate by choice. There had been a skirmish between those who wanted to wear white to celebrate their celibacy and those who wanted to wear red to celebrate their sexuality. In the end, it was decided that they should wear both.

Patsy was one of the celibate by choice members. At forty-five, she was still attractive, with cropped blond hair and regular features. She could have had any number of relationships. Starting in high school, she had refused to date or have sex. It was not for her. But she was very sociable. Besides the Single Women By Choice Society, she belonged to the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society, two book clubs, a rotating gourmet group that cooked meals at each others’ houses, and she was active in the Democratic Party. Also, she worked full-time at the reception desk at the hospital. She figured that she must have greeted half the town during the twenty years she had the job. She refused promotions rather than give up interacting with the public.

At the bottom of the chest, Patsy found the red boa she had purchased during one of the cruises she had taken with friends. Travel was her passion. She lived simply in order to save for trips. That was how she acquired her exotic clothing. A dress from India decorated with tiny mirrors and beads. An embroidered peasant blouse from Poland. A hand-knit fisherman’s sweater from Ireland. The boa was from somewhere in the Caribbean. And—aha!—there was the white linen skirt from Belgium. Perfect.

She decided that she would wear all white, to signal her celibacy, with just the red boa to comply with the Society’s requirement. As far back as she could remember, Patsy hated being touched. She endured hand-shakes and hugs, but when someone laid a hand on her otherwise, she startled as if she had been burned. It felt like a burn. Being touched was painful. She always stifled a scream. Her mother called her unnatural. She especially did not want to be touched by her mother.

After many years of secret shame, Patsy now wore her celibacy like a badge. She proudly spoke of her identity, even in lectures given to the Single Women By Choice Society and to other groups.

“Choosing to be celibate is a rational decision. It does not have to be due to a traumatic sexual history or even a dislike of sex. It can be philosophical or spiritual. It is as deliberate a decision as the decision to become a vegetarian, a pet owner, or an avoider of social media.  It is a personal choice and nothing to be embarrassed about,” she would say.

July 4th was sweltering that year, but the Single Women By Choice Society members gamely marched, carrying their banner and wearing red and white. They were between the South High School Baton Twirlers, in colorful cheer-leader outfits, and a semi-cab pulling a cumbersome comic hero float. The pavement was so hot that the bottoms of Patsy’s sandals stuck with every step. Perspiration streamed uncomfortably down her shirt. Many of the onlookers stood under umbrellas or grouped under shade trees.

They were nearing a local brewery when three young men banged out the door and began to catcall the twirlers. Clearly, they were drunk. As the twirlers moved ahead, the men noticed the women in the Society. For a moment, they quieted, as if puzzled by these older woman with the unintelligible banner. Single By Choice? Were they a bunch of man-haters? Lesbos?

“Hey, Cunts. Wanna fuck?” one yelled out.

All three were guffawing loudly and staggering.

As Patsy moved a few steps nearer to them, the one who had yelled reached out and grabbed the boa by each end, yanking her closer to him.

“I’m gonna fuck you, bitch” he slurred into her ear.

The women stopped marching. They shouted at him to release Patsy. As she struggled, he pulled the boa tighter. She began to choke. Then, in a fast swirl, both the club members and the two friends of the assailant rushed to rescue her. The driver of the semi was running in her direction. Further back, costumed comic heroes were climbing off the float. The onlookers were dragging their astonished children away from the scene. Finally, a motorcycled policeman arrived and ordered the assailant to let Patsy go. The assailant did as he was told. The policeman told him to lay face down on the ground.

Patsy fell down next to him. She was having trouble breathing. Possibly, she passed out because the next thing she was aware of was an EMT taking her blood pressure in an ambulance. There was an oxygen tube in each nostril.

“Just try to relax. I’m making sure you are breathing properly,” he said. “Don’t try to talk.”

During the next several hours under observation in the emergency room, the policemen came to take a report, which she wrote out so as to leave her bruised larynx undisturbed. Her elderly mother showed up. Society members came and went, observing the two visitor rule. Over time, Patsy’s breathing and blood pressure stabilized. Someone brought a pair of yoga pants to replace the ruined linen skirt.

But the emergency room was harder to endure than the memory of the attack during the parade, which seemed faded and unreal. Patsy could only recall sketchy moments. The heat. The tightness around her throat. The man’s voice saying “I’m going to fuck you, bitch.” The inability to take a deep breathe. The crumpled skirt. She did not remember fearing for her life or any particular emotion.

In the hospital, she was examined by the medical professionals, who held her arm while taking blood, prodded her neck, placed the head of the stethoscope on her chest and back. Her friends patted her arm and kissed her. Only her mother knew to spare her the agony of touch.

For Patsy, the assault continued for hours after the choking. She trembled whenever anyone approached her.

When she was discharged with instructions to not spend the night alone, she went to her mother’s house and curled up in her old bed. She pulled on a quilt even though it was summer and later kicked it off. She was alternating between icy chills and feverish heat flashes. Far into the night, she stared at the ceiling while shivering, then sweating. Her throat hurt, reminding her of the sore throats and other illnesses of childhood, suffered in the same room. Her mother would try to put her hand on Patsy’s forehead, but Patsy would bat it away. Then her mother would turn and walk out. Now that Patsy was an adult, her mother did not even try.

When she finally fell asleep, she had a nightmare that startled her awake again. She could not remember what it was. It was still very dark. Lying in bed in the dark, waiting with a sense of foreboding, not being able to make a sound—this seemed familiar to Patsy, although she did not know why.

The next day, Patsy returned to her apartment. She had arranged to take several days off from work until her larynx healed. She spent the days as she had in her old bedroom, lying in bed, tossing the blankets on and off. The tv was on a news channel, with the volume turned low.  Patsy was unable to concentrate on anything but her own scattered thoughts. She wondered what had happened to the boa. Was this what made her a target for the assailant? The blaring red material on her white outfit? The assailant had been inebriated. She knew that meant he was not in his right mind. Maybe the red color was enraging the way it was for a bull. What a bull who saw red tried to do was gore the one who enraged him. Sex is a kind of goring, isn’t it?

Patsy shuddered. Her deepest objection to sex was the pain. She knew she could not tolerate it. Possibly, she could not survive such pain. When she pictured a man entering her, she imagined a bull’s hot breathe from its enormous flared nostrils, rough hooves scraping at her fragile skin, and an oversized, insistent penis pounding its way into an opening that was too small to accommodate it. She knew she would be split, torn, and left bleeding, dying on the ground as she could have been when the ambulance arrived on the day of the parade. As this terrible vision subsided, she became aware of the twisted sheets beneath her. The pillows had been tossed onto the floor. The blankets lay in a crumbled wad beside her.

She dragged herself out of bed and to the shower. The bedding and her pajamas would have to be laundered. She did not recall whether she had drank any water that day. No doubt dehydration was partly responsible for her condition. And lack of food. She had forgotten to eat.

Forcing herself, she put on a clean sweat shirt and sweat pants, made tea, stripped the bed, and managed to eat a banana. Looking at her phone, she saw many texts, emails, and voice mails from friends. Peeking out her front door, she saw casseroles, flowers, and cards in a pile. She left them there.

Patsy would soon force herself to respond to her friends and then return to work. She would put on what she now knew had always been a mask. To those who knew her, she would return to the cheerful, sociable persona who had made a rational choice to abstain from relationships and sex. She had always believed this was true. Now she understood that she had been faking for most of her life. Beneath the cheerful exterior was stark terror. She was sociable to appear more normal than she felt. And her rational choice was based on irrational fear.

The image of the bull popped back again. She shuddered. Then, as if it had been there all along waiting for her to remember, Mr. Bull came into her mind. Mr. Bull. One of her mother’s boyfriends when she was a child. A big man, larger than any of her mother’s other boyfriends. Sometimes he grabbed Patsy, leaving bruises on her arm.

“He doesn’t know his own strength,” her mother would say.

Even more than the memory of the parade, the memory of Mr. Bull was shadowy and scattered. Mr. Bull gripping her arm with his enormous hand. Mr. Bull pushing her away from her mother with force. Mr. Bull red-faced with anger. Mr. Bull bellowing at her.

How terrified she had been of Mr. Bull.

Then he was gone. She never saw him again. She stopped thinking about him. Instead, she thought of other kids and clubs and activities and school work. She built a solid fence of friendships around herself.  She did not allow anyone to touch her.

Her assailant at the parade was in jail awaiting sentencing. One day he would be back in the community again when he was released. That did not bother Patsy. Instead, she had another worry. Where was Mr. Bull? Was he still in the area?  She dropped the mug of tea she had been holding when this occurred to her. Shards flew over the kitchen floor. She left them to look out the window. She needed to see if Mr. Bull was lurking outside of her apartment.

Patsy knew she was becoming crazy. It was highly unlikely that a man who must now be in his seventies would have any interest in her. She had simply been the young daughter of his old girlfriend, who sometimes got in the way. He could be a thousand miles away or dead. Surely she would have noticed such a strikingly tall man if he had been stalking her all these years.

Although Patsy, who had prided herself on her capacity for reason, knew this, she could not stop herself from looking for Mr. Bull wherever she went. At work again, she waited for him to come limping to the reception desk. In public, she scanned the area to see if a towering figure was approaching. She startled at any loud angry voice, remembering his roar.

Slowly, the memory of the assailant who had choked her was replaced by Mr. Bull. It was Mr. Bull who choked her. She was wearing her pretty white dress when he put one of his massive hands around her neck and squeezed. Someone in the background screamed at him to let go.

Patsy’s larynx healed and in a few days, her voice returned to normal. Anyone who did not know about the parade would just have thought she had recovered from laryngitis.

But although no medical reason could be found, Patsy’s throat never stopped hurting again.

 

 

BIO

Carolyn Geduld is a mental health professional in Bloomington, Indiana. Her fiction has appeared in Pennsylvania Literary Journal, Not Your Mother’s Breastmilk, Dime Store Review, Dual Coast, Otherwise Engaged, and others.

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

Georgey-Dear

by Tetman Callis

 

 

The new girl at school, one Isabel, arriving mid-semester at Green Meadow High in a Bailey High letter jacket, aviator glasses, baggy pants and baggy shirts, her voice creamy, warm and smooth. No earrings gold-hooped or pearl-dropped, no bracelets bangling; rather, a wristwatch on a stretch-link band and a thin silver necklace with small crucifix the accouterments of this dark-haired girl who wears no makeup, no sticked-on glisten to full red lips; in her face the self-containment of an Etruscan goddess inscrutable, face framed by straight hair parting in the middle to reach the shoulders of this teenager gaining unfashionable weight.

Dark-eyed Isabel eyed by George, lately of Penny and George, now solely of George, George of blue eyes and Chemistry class and Choir; tall pale boy, fifteen-thin with round, open face and gold wire-frames, slight overbite, khaki windbreaker jacket. Blonde hair short in military style, sneakered feet scuffing along in adolescent fashion, pack of illicit cigarettes hidden upon his person; sophomore George, wise fool toeing a line between too cool and childhood, faced with a mouth too smart and flowing over with unpracticed wit, talking too much but ever-ready to be silenced by a kiss.

Not often so silenced.

Silenced so and recently so by Penny, lately of George and Penny, now of the free and easy again, said to be making time with a soldier-boy; Penny, frosh but senior-tall, red-headed fresh girl several levels sexually more explicit than the George she had attempted to lay before tiring of trying to teach him how to kiss, not to mention the hints she dropped along the way regarding the brushing he might have done to the flavor of spaghetti from off his overbite before dropping by her house to be silent in fits and starts, with time between bussing lessons occupied by gossipy talking of all the doings at Green Meadow High; the goings-on in classrooms and hallways, bathrooms, ball-fields and -courts, and the choir wherein Penny and George and twenty-seven others sing—the Green Meadow Larks.

#

Chemistry class in the afternoon, fidgety kids ready for special events, today’s a basketball game breaking the routine of a routine day, Mr. Rubicon, teacher extraordinaire, saying, “Okay, all you with your tickets, go straight to the gym next period for the faculty/exes game, and all you—”

“What if you don’t got a ticket,” a boy holding a tumbler says.

“All of you who don’t have tickets—” Mr. Rubicon says.

“Are you playing, Mr. Rubicon?” says a girl at the retort rack.

“—I have tickets here, they’re fifty cents each, and yes,” Mr. Rubicon says, “I am playing.”

“Isabel,” says George to the new girl in the Bailey High letter jacket, “Are you going to the game?”

“Mr. Rubicon,” says a boy running water at the stainless-steel sink, “I didn’t know you could play basketball.”

“I’d like to go,” says Isabel to George, “But I don’t have the money.”

“Of course he can play,” says the retort girl, “He played for Green Meadow when he went to school here.”

“I’ll loan you the money,” George says.

The tumbler boy says, “Mr. Rubicon, you were a student here?”

“Have you been asleep all year?” says the retort girl, “Everyone knows Mr. Rubicon went to school here.”

Isabel says, “That would mean paying it back.”

“He’s not everyone!” comes a boy’s voice from across the room.

“I’m not everyone,” says the boy with the tumbler, putting his tumbler down on the counter next to the stainless-steel sink.

“You’re not anyone,” says the boy at the sink.

“Then I’ll just give it to you,” George says, “As a favor.”

“Screw you!” says the de-tumblered boy.

“Language!” says Mr. Rubicon, saying, “Everyone, get all your equipment rinsed, dried, and put away.”

“No,” Isabel says, “No favors of money.”

“Take your seat, Michael,” Mr. Rubicon says.

“Mr. Rubicon, sell me another ticket,” George says, “I got a friend.”

“He’s got a friend,” says the girl at the retort rack.

You’ve got a friend . . . ,” sings the boy at the stainless-steel sink, “Here, give me your tumbler,” he says to the girl at the retort rack.

“Isabel, here,” George holds out a ticket.

You got to roll me . . . ,” sings the girl at the retort rack, “Get Isabel’s, too,” she says.

“No,” says Isabel to George. She shakes her head and won’t take the ticket, turns to take her tumbler to the sink.

“Tumblers, please, everyone, thank you,” says the boy at the sink.

“You going to the game?” says someone in the back of the room.

George watches Isabel walking away from the held-out ticket. He waits a moment, crosses the room to her desk, sets the pink ticket down on her stack of schoolbooks. He turns and does his own walk-away.

“You better show up so I’ll have someone to talk to,” Isabel says to his back.

#

Up he shows and sees her sitting on gymnasium floor, in sideline corner at the exes’ goal-end (first half), away from the bleachers crowded with students. She sits cross-legged, sketchpad in lap. George sits beside her, cross-legging down.

“Hi!” he says.

“Hi,” she says. She smiles, her smile rare and always the same, tempered, turning inward, as though she knows a secret.

“You showed up,” she says.

“Of course,” he says, smiling his always bright-open smile, his face-scruncher top-heavy with maxillary teeth, a sight of no pleasure to George. He’s seen it in snapshots, sideways in a mirror once or twice, underlining a nose that to George looks as though God got halfway done with his Art project when the bell rang, so he finished up real quick by sticking a knob on the end before hurrying down the hall to Biology class.

George cranes his neck to see the sketchpad. “What are you drawing?” he says.

“Just . . . ,” Isabel pauses, nods to the bleachers, “Them.”

“Cool!” George says, “I didn’t know you draw. Let’s see.”

She shows him. He looks at her page, at the students in the bleachers.

“Oh,” he says, “See the red-head? That’s Penny, she was my girl.”

“Was?” says Isabel.

“Yeah,” George says, nods, “She dumped me for some G.I. just last week.”

“That’s too bad,” says Isabel, not like she means it and not like she doesn’t.

“Yeah,” George says, “Oh well.”

“Do you still like her?” says Isabel, working at the sketch on her pad.

“Not much,” George says, “What do you think?”

Isabel shrugs, “I’ll take her out of the picture.”

“No,” George says, “Don’t do that, then it wouldn’t be true.”

“It’s as true as I make it,” Isabel says, and looking at George she says in a matter-of-fact, “It’s not what’s in it that matters, it’s how does it all fit together.”

The game takes the remainder of the school day, George and Isabel staying to the end, him talking, her sketching. After, he ditches Choir practice to walk her to her home.

“I’m going to my grandmother’s house today,” she says.

“Oh,” George says, “Little Red Riding Hood.”

“Don’t say that,” Isabel says, “It’s not funny.”

“Sorry,” George says, “How about,” heartbeat pause, “Small Communist Motorcycle Thug.”

“Very clever,” Isabel says.

Isabel’s grandmother’s house turns out to be the house next door to the house where George’s pre-Penny girlfriend, Virginia, a dark-haired beauty brooding in hip-huggers always threatening abdication, had lived until she came down with a pregnancy unassisted by George, and she and family moved away. George tells Isabel the story as they sit a spell in Grandma’s front yard.

“Did she have the baby?” Isabel says.

George shrugs a shrug and says, “I don’t know, they moved away.”

“Of course,” says Isabel looking at the yellow grass of Grandma’s yard, small green shoots just beginning their upshooting thrust through last year’s chaff.

“Look,” she says.

“Spring soon,” George says.

“Will you get in trouble for missing Choir?” says Isabel, opening her sketchbook, digging around in her purse for a pencil.

George says, “I don’t care, I’d rather be with you.”

“That’s sweet,” Isabel says, “I’m going to draw you, you don’t mind?”

#

George stops going to Choir, Penny-tainted training to sing on command now superseded by the fresh new passion of green-shooting spring days and Isabel to walk home, Isabel to talk with, Isabel to think about.

The second day he walks her home they sit a while inside her house, down narrow stairs into a dark-paneled den, sounds of family about: mother, stepfather, brother and an uncle and maybe a baby, too. There is a crib in the den but never the sight of the tot.

Third day they stand in the street outside her house, talking three hours while leaning on a car, George smoking cigarettes.

“You’re one of the few people,” Isabel says, “I can open up to. We might get a good, deep friendship.”

“Cool!” he says, this cheerful lad, talkative much regarding school. Political too, a Texas Democrat by inculcation, talking of the world and of the end thereof, Apocalyptically Protestant George by reverend immersion baptized, chatting of the end of time with deeply Catholic Isabel, who boycotts grapes. George likes grapes. Isabel sketches George as he smokes a long, filtered cigarette.

“Don’t let my mom see that,” he says.

“I haven’t met your mom,” says Isabel.

She confesses deep hatred of her father.

“He left a long time ago,” she says, “I don’t know where he is but I hate him.”

George says, “That’s too bad.”

“It’s caused me to adopt,” Isabel says, “Other male relatives as father-figures.”

George smokes on his long filtered cigarette.

“I’ve tried to kill myself twice,” she says, “Because of my stepfather.” George says, “You have?”

“Yes,” Isabel says, her honey voice smoky, “Let me show you,” Isabel pulling up the sleeves of her Bailey letter-jacket.

“This one I did with a screwdriver,” she says of the short ragged scar across a wrist, indicated by fingertip, “When I was six.”

She lets that sleeve down and mirrors the pointing gesture, her other wrist showing a thin pale line.

“And this one I did with a razor,” she says, “When I was twelve.”

George says nothing, knowing naught to say.

“And it gets worse,” says Isabel, pulling her sleeve down, “I’ve been a friend of the Devil’s for nine years now.”

George lights another cigarette.

“I don’t understand,” he says.

“You know—the Devil,” Isabel says, “I feel like he’s with me right here, right now.”

“I’m with you now,” says George, “Do you mean me—you don’t mean me.”

“No, I don’t,” Isabel says,

“No, I don’t mean you.”

“Well, I don’t—” says George to Isabel’s saying, “It’s probably not true.”

#

George stops by Ernie’s on his way home from Isabel’s, Ernie the last duck-tailed greaser in America, with headful of shiny black slick-back do. Ernie quit school that winter, halfway through his third sophomore year dropping out to shack up with the love of his life: the repair of motorcycles. This pleasant evening Ernie has turned the gently sloping concrete drive of his parents’ house into an ad hoc repair shop, Ernie sitting enraptured among the parts.

George approaches.

“Hey, Ernie,” he says.

Ernie looks up, saying, “Hey, Squidge,” and sharing the carbonized grease on his hands with a mechanic’s quondam red rag, stands up.

“What’s up?” Ernie says.

“Coming home from a girl’s house,” George says.

“A girl,” Ernie says, “Hey, dude! Bum a butt?”

“Sure,” George says, pulling out his paper pack of cigarettes, shaking two out to give one to his friend, smoke one himself, lighting them both.

Ernie smokes and he gestures at parts at his feet.

“Check out this bike man—Kawasaki,” he smokes, “Gotta grind the valves.”

“Cool,” says George, “Say Ernie, man, you been around.”

“I been around, Squidge,” Ernie says.

“Let me tell you about this girl,” George says, “See what you might think.”

George tells. It takes another cigarette apiece.

“Sounds like you got her hooked,” Ernie says.

“How can you tell?” says George.

“Look, it’s like this,” Ernie says, “She told you about that Friend of the Devil stuff, not somethin somebody tells just anybody, and the stuff about her tryin suicide. It’s because she trusts you and if she trusts you, she likes you. You like her?”

“Think about her all the time,” says George.

“Hey, Squidge,” Ernie grins, “You Romeo, man.”

“It’s kind of scary,” George says.

“Aw, man,” Ernie says, “Don’t be scared,” and he sits, tinkering again with the vivisected motorcycle, saying, “She’s just a girl.”

“She’s not,” George says, “No ordinary girl.”

“You said it, man,” Ernie says, frowning upon an unrecognized part, “Friend of the Devil—not every day you meet one of those.”

#

Saturday: George rolling out of bed and padding pajama-clad into homey kitchen to find himself in his mother’s cross-hairs with sleep still in his eyes.

“Penny called,” his mother says from her post by the sink, “She says Mrs. Busoni wants to know why you quit the school choir. And so do I.”

George opens his mouth but he doesn’t stand a chance.

“Oh,” his mother says, “It doesn’t matter,” she dries her hands on a limp gray towel, “I don’t know why I ever bothered even having you.”

George says nothing and looks at the floor.

“Do you hear me?” says his mother.

“Yes ma’am,” he says.

“Now eat your breakfast,” she says, “And don’t even think about turning the TV on.”

George mumbles, “Yes ma’am.”

“Quit mumbling!” she says and says, “There’s a Choir practice this afternoon, right?”

“Yes ma’am,” George says.

“That’s what I thought,” says his mother, saying, “You best better plan on your being there.”

George says, “Yes ma’am.”

“Now go get dressed,” she says, “And don’t take forever to do it.”

“But what about my breakfast?” George says in a voice at least two sizes smaller than his actual size.

“Don’t. Talk. Back. To me,” says his mother, saying, “What did I just tell you to do?”

“Yes ma’am,” George says, returning to his room with its window and bed and chest of drawers, straight-backed chair and closeted clothes, bookcase, games, table lamp, nightstand and detritus of childhood, George shutting the door behind him, looking out his window. He takes his Scout pocketknife off his nightstand, unfolds the blade and makes to slit his wrists. The blade is dull. George breaks the skin of one wrist, then stops. Later the wrist throbs and itches, red-scabbed and swollen. George wears long-sleeved shirts several days.

#

Choir practice this Saturday afternoon is none too fun at start, what with the morning at home and being forced to go and his voice changing but Mrs. Busoni, skilled teacher of high school choir, can make a grouply muchness from much individual meagerness, George’s not the only occasionally flat-footed voice in the mix.

George and Penny don’t speak, though she gives him a knowing look, a haughty look, a look to protect herself. He returns what he thinks is a look of anger; in truth much closer to a look of sullen hurt.

Soon they are singing, Penny and George and the twenty-seven others, and Everything is beautiful, in its own way . . . .

#

George sits at his window Saturday night, looking out at suburban streets where not much is happening, ticky-tack houses and only so many persons per square. He thinks of Isabel and when he is through, he thinks of Isabel. He has stopped by her house twice this day, once on the way to and once on the way from. Neither time is she home, Isabel’s brother says, telling George at the door where said brother stands wearing what looks to be eye makeup. George has called Isabel twice this evening but neither time has she been home, her uncle tells George over the phone. Uncle could have been naked for all George knew.

George plans to ask Isabel to go steady, first chance he gets.

He comes within one minute of getting that first chance, afternoon of the very next. Already he has called her once this sunny Sunday afternoon and they have telechatted a bit before he has to finish his chores. Once done, he’s going to call her again, but he’d really rather see her.

“Mom?” he says to his mom in the living room of her house.

“Yes, dear,” she says from her upholstered plush rocking chair, “What is it.”

“Can I go over to a friend’s house?” he says.

“Can?” she says, coffee cup in hand, “Can?” she says, looking him up and down, up down and through where he stands before her, “Your legs aren’t broken, are they?”

“No ma’am,” says George, growing smaller.

“Well?” says his mom as she rocks.

“May I?” George says.

“What friend,” says his mom.

“Isabel,” says George, “She’s a girl I know from Chemistry class.”

“Are your chores all done?” says his mom.

“Yes ma’am,” he says.

“They better be,” she says.

“They are,” he says.

“You better not be lying to me,” says his mom.

“I’m not,” he says.

“Don’t you sass me!” says his mom, stopping her rocking, clutching her cup.

“Yes ma’am,” says George, smaller still, “I mean, no ma’am.”

“Oh shut up,” says his mom, rocking on, “Okay, you can go.”

“Thank you,” says the teensy George.

“Don’t you be late for supper,” says his mom.

“Yes ma’am,” George says, “I mean, no ma’am, I won’t.”

George walks the few blocks to Isabel’s house as quickly as he can. She is home, and the two young likers stand outside, leaning against the car of Isabel’s uncle while they talk, George smoking while Isabel shows him her latest, Isabel sketching while George tries to tell her how it feels to hit the high notes of the “Unchained Melody,” but words fail him. Set to ask her to go steady, time fails him or he it as the words are about to tumble down his tongue when Isabel’s mother appears at the door to call, “Isabel, time to come in for supper!”

“Okay!” Isabel calls in response, then to George, “Gotta go,” and she’s gone.

George returns home, where not even television can keep him from thinking about Isabel all evening long.

#

Monday in Chemistry class, amid the Bunsen burners and reductive reagents, while reactions take place in sparkling tubes, George tells Isabel, “Isabel, I think I’m going to drop this class.”

“Why?” says Isabel.

“I’m just not doing very well,” George says, “I don’t think I’ll even get a C this six weeks.”

“Oh, don’t quit,” says Isabel.

“Why not?” says George with a careless air of savoir-faire, “After all, all the time my mom is telling me what a quitter I am.”

“George,” says Isabel, “You’re only a quitter if you quit.”

George thinks about this for the rest of the day. In fact, for the rest of his life, but that’s jumping ahead. He walks with Isabel to her house after school. They lean on the usual as usual.

“What do you think about going steady?” he says.

“Do you mean in the abstract?” she says.

“No,” he says, his voice curving in surprise around the “o” part of “no.” “I mean, with me.”

“Why,” says Isabel evenly.

“Why?” George says, tone rising like a pop fly.

“Yes,” Isabel says, “Why—simple question—why do you want to go steady with me.”

“Um,” says George, fishing in a pocket for his cigarette pack, “Well,” he says, finding the pack and pulling it out, “I guess just as,” he says as he taps from the pack a cigarette, “I want to be more secure with you,” says he and he sighs. He lights the hard-earned smoke, takes a puff, and says, “All I need is another girl running off on me.”

For an hour they discuss this steady business, this George’s insecurity, his serious and sensitive side, touching lightly, sparingly, as though for spice, on the hatred and bitterness locked inside the mystery of this girl Isabel come over from Bailey in the middle of the semester.

“I don’t want to push something on you you don’t want,” George says, “But I do want to go with you I guess as a symbol of our relationship I mean you can read me pretty well and you got a better understanding of me than just about anyone else but I’m very torn apart inside because I want you to go with me but on your own free will.”

“I’m going to leave the decision up to you,” Isabel says as she puts the final touches on her latest sketch, “But I do think you’re rushing things.”

#

George sits at his window that night, looking out, ruminating, chin on fist. He wants to know if he loves Isabel. He wants to know what love is. He wants to know if he’d know it if it screamed in his face. He wants to get a good grade in Chemistry class, feel excited about Choir again. He looks at his closed bedroom door, looks out his window, sings quietly, Oh, my love, my darling . . . .

Next morning, George stops by Ernie’s on the way to school. Ernie is on the drive tinkering as he listens to George tell his story.

“Squidge, my man,” Ernie says, “She might be playin hard-to-get.”

“You think so?” says George.

“I dunno, man,” Ernie says, “Fleamales, who can figure, I dunno.” He picks up and peers at a part to a disassembled two-stroke engine, “I do know I don’t know what the fuck this is or where it goes.”

#

George speaks with Isabel after school regarding the pressing matter of steadyship.

“No,” she says, looking away from him, “I still don’t think we should.”

George feels there’s something she’s holding back, just a gut feeling of his, this groping at the amorphous obvious which functions as male human intuition. He gives the problem more thought. He has never put half so much contemplative energy into any one problem in Chemistry class, which class he has decided not to drop. He also decides that before Isabel goes steady with him, which he doesn’t seem to doubt will eventually happen, he better ought to tell her of the (four) girls he’s said he loved since he hit Green Meadow High, the most recent being the brazen Penny.

After supper he telephones to tell her but speaks instead to her brother, the eyeliner lad, who tells George that Isabel has just left. Much later that evening, while George’s dad is off in some barroom getting addled on draft and George’s mom is down the hall at home driving nails into a two-by-four and George is in the living room watching television, the doorbell rings. George answers.

“Isabel, hi!”

“Hi, George,” says Isabel, “My brother told me you called and came by. I’m sorry I hadn’t left a message for you but I had to go with my mom to pick up my uncle at the bus station.”

“That’s okay,” says George, standing shirtless at the door.

“I’ve thought about us going together,” Isabel says, “And decided to give it a try.”

“Oh wow!” says George, trying to control the span of his smile, “But there’s something you should know.”

He tells her of the (four) girls. It doesn’t take so very long.

“And then Penny was the last,” he says.

“It doesn’t matter,” says Isabel, “That’s all behind you now, right?”

“Of course!” he says.

“Just one thing,” Isabel says, “I don’t want a ‘kiss-on-every-corner’ relationship,” she smiles.

“Fine with me!” says George, “But wait,” he holds up a hand, “I want to give you something.”

He leaves her on the porch where she stands in the cast of the yellow bug-light. He returns a minute later, says, “Here,” and holds out to her a small silver ring.

“As a token of our,” he says, “Going steadyship.”

Isabel smiles again, takes the ring, says, “Thank you, Georgey-dear.”

“You’re very welcome, Isabel,” he says.

“Well,” she says, “I guess I should go.”

“Oh,” says George, “Okay. Will you be okay? I mean, I’d walk you home but I can’t,” George glancing over his shoulder, “I’m not allowed out after nine on school nights.”

“That’s all right,” says Isabel, “I’m sure I’ll be okay.”

Isabel goes and George returns to television watching but not with paying attention to the flickering images on the tubeface. He calculates how much time he figures it will take Isabel to walk home, adds ten minutes, then calls her house. She is there, arriven safe and sound. After George hangs up, it occurs to him he would not have known what to do had she not so arrived.

#

Next day, after school, and Isabel’s fingers unringed.

“It’s a bit too small,” she says, leaning on her uncle’s car, chatting with George.

“Well, why don’t you,” George says, “Wear it on the chain around your neck?”

“Next to The Cross?” says Isabel, eyes wide.

“Sure,” says the perky George, “Why not?”

Isabel has no answer other than looking down the street away from George. She finds an answer down there, saying without looking back, “I’ll try to make the ring bigger.”

George, not knowing much about rings or other feminine mysteries, does not disbelieve this is possible.

“Are you ashamed of me?” he says, “Because you hardly ever talk to me at school and you’re not wearing my ring.”

Isabel, who hardly ever talks to anyone at school and has never worn a ring, looks at George and says like she’s saying the sky is blue, “If I were ashamed of you, I wouldn’t be going steady with you.”

Later, after discussion of the migrant workers’ crisis, Isabel in passing refers to going steady as “a game.”

“Game?” says George, “A game?”

“A trial,” she says, “I mean a trial.”

“Makes me wonder why you’re going steady with me,” George says.

The sky is still blue and Isabel says, “Because you want me to, Georgey-dear.”

#

George drops by Ernie’s after Isabel’s, a new motorcycle disemboweled in the drive, Ernie divining entrails.

“Ernie,” George says. Ernie looks up from his work.

“Squidge, hey,” he says.

They smoke, Ernie talking bikes.

“Yamaha,” Ernie says, “Shit. Those people make fuckin pianos. You don’t see Harley-Davidson makin’ no fuckin’ pianos.”

“But are they any good?” George says, “Yamahas?”

“Yeah,” Ernie says, “That’s the shit—they are any good. Shit, you’re standin’ in one.”

George looks around him at the parts arrayed on the drive.

“Scattered all to jumbly little pieces,” he says. He looks at Ernie, “Do you know how to put them all back together?”

“Dunno,” Ernie says, “Haven’t done it yet.”

“Sort of reminds me of Isabel,” George says and seeing Ernie’s look, says, “I mean, she seems like she cares and she seems like she doesn’t. She hates her stepfather and she doesn’t, she wants to go with me but she doesn’t talk to me in school not even in Chemistry class. She’s real practical but she’s so religious it’s spooky. And I think she’s a Communist.”

“A Communist?” Ernie says.

“Yeah,” says George, “It’s like she’s a bunch of pieces that aren’t put together right.”

“A Communist?” says Ernie.

“Mm-hm,” says George with his mouth closed.

“Maybe,” Ernie says, “She’s schizo.”

“You think so?” says George.

“Maybe,” Ernie says, “Friend of the Devil, you know.” Ernie flicks his cigarette butt into the street in a high smoking arc.

“Wow,” says George, “I wonder. Schizo. Maybe. We talk about a lot of stuff but there’s something she’s holding back, I just know it.” George makes to flick his cigarette butt but it drops from his fingers and lands at his feet where he grinds it into the pavement, George saying, “Oh, the heck with it, maybe she’s just a normal fifteen year-old girl who has problems at home, who fell in love once and is afraid to risk it again, and who’s looking for new ways to see the world.”

“Maybe,” Ernie says, “Kiss her yet?”

“No,” George shakes his head, “We don’t even hold hands.”

Ernie says, “And you’re goin’ steady, man?”

“I think so,” says George, “But she’s not wearing my ring yet, she says it has to sit next to her Holy Water on the altar in her bedroom until Wednesday night then she can wear it on her chain next to her cross.”

“She has an altar in her bedroom?” Ernie says, “I thought she was a Friend of the Devil.”

“It’s how she keeps him away,” says George.

Ernie says, “Gimme a cigarette, man.”

George fishes his pack from his top pocket, offers it to Ernie.

“But Ernie, listen man,” says George, “Things do seem to be picking up a little—she touches me more, in little barely noticeable ways but I notice, of course, every change she has towards me.”

“Gimme a light,” says Ernie.

George hands Ernie his pack of matches, Ernie lighting while George is saying, “Man, I want to touch her hold her kiss her, love her, and tell her how I feel.”

“So do it,” says Ernie through a fresh cloud of cigarette smoke.

“No, man,” says George, looking at his feet, “I can’t, not yet.”

“Aw, Squidge,” Ernie says, shaking his head.

#

The gorgeous evenings of spring at the end of longer warming days—George the singer tripping lightly down the walks of the hood from a Choir practice where he catches Penny looking at him and she catches George looking at her but still to one another they do not speak—George stopping by Isabel’s to spend time with her on the way home. This evening they’re talking of the international situation and it doesn’t seem to fit into the conversation but Isabel says, “I love you, George,” not three minutes’ distance from their discussion of the imminence of nuclear holocaust.

“Wow,” George says not knowing what to say, so he says, “I don’t believe it.”

“Believe it,” she says, “It’s true.”

“Not like with Penny,” he says in a muttery way.

“She told you she loved you?” says Isabel.

“Two months ago today,” George says, “And I told her—and I want to tell you, really—but I can’t, my emotions have fooled me so many times before. When did this happen?” George says, “That you love me.”

“I’ve known since Monday,” Isabel says, “But you really freaked me out when I came to your house and you answered the door with no shirt on. I’ve never seen a guy with no shirt on that close up.”

“No?” says George, “But what about your brother, or your uncle or your stepdad?”

“Never,” says Isabel, looking down the street. She looks back George’s way, “There’s some stuff I want to show you,” she says, “I’ll be right back.”

She goes inside. George smokes a cigarette while he waits thinking of Penny, of Choir, of singing “The Hallelujah Chorus” and Isabel is back, notebooks carried in her arms.

“These are some journals I kept while I was at Bailey,” she says, “Some drawings and some stuff I wrote.” She hands them to George and says, “I want you to see them.”

George takes them.

“Take them home and read them,” she says, “Maybe they’ll help you understand me better, help us be closer.”

“I’d like to be closer,” says George.

“Close enough for marriage?” says Isabel.

“I haven’t really thought about it,” he says, “Do you want to get married?”

“Are you proposing?” she says with honey through a teasing smile.

“No,” he shakes his head, “I was just asking.”

“Well,” says Isabel, “I might, if I was with a guy and he really wanted to, I mean, if you really want to…….. ”

“Frankly,” says George, “I think it’s a little soon to be worrying about it,” but that night after he goes home, worry the question he does as he sits by his window, humming quietly to himself while reading swatches of Isabel’s Bailey journals, tough going, hard to read too much of at once. She seems to have hated everything while she was at Bailey, herself not the least. And the drawings are raw with sex, dismemberment and the ever-proximate darker side of Christianity. Crucifixions abound, images of the Devil running a close second.

#

Another Sunday comes and George cannot get out of his house. He has done all his chores, he has been good, he hasn’t missed a Choir practice since Penny ratted on him, but his mother won’t let him go.

“I want you to stay for dinner!” she says, “You know I always make a big Sunday dinner for us all to enjoy together!”

“Yes ma’am,” he says.

Hours pass. George becomes a smidgen smaller.

“Mom,” he says, “When will we be eating?”

“We’ll eat when I’m good and ready!” she says, “Now quit your whining and get out of my kitchen!”

“Yes ma’am,” says George.

“And get that look off your face!” she says.

“Yes ma’am,” he says and goes to the bathroom to look in the medicine cabinet mirror and see about the look on his face.

That evening after Sunday dinner enjoyed as a family, George’s mom simmering in her caffeinated rage and George’s dad stewing in the dregs of a six-pack, George is permitted to go to Isabel’s, taking her journals with him to where he finds her sitting on the hood of her uncle’s car, sketching.

“I read as much of these as I could,” George says handing Isabel the notebooks, “It was hard, there’s so much bitterness.”

Isabel takes the notebooks.

“I love you,” George says.

“Don’t say that,” says Isabel.

George sits beside her on the car.

“But I do,” he says. He starts tickling her under her arms, setting her to laughing and squirming and reaching to tickle him back, crushing his pack of cigarettes.

“Whoa!” he says pulling the crushed pack out of his pocket, “Look what you did.”

“Good,” she says, “Don’t tickle me.”

George pulls broken cigarettes out of the pack.

“Six,” he says, “You got six.”

“Too bad I didn’t get them all,” says Isabel, “You shouldn’t smoke.”

“I know,” says George, finding the seventh cigarette intact, putting it to his lips and lighting it.

“You just blew your chance,” says Isabel.

“What do you mean?” says George.

“I don’t like the taste of cigarettes,” Isabel says.

“Oh,” says George, then tells her of Choir Camp.

“What’s Choir Camp?” says Isabel.

“This summer,” he says, “I’m going to be gone about two weeks for Choir Camp, up in the mountains.”

Isabel stops her sketching, says, “You’re going to be gone for two weeks?” puts down her pencil, says, “I won’t see you?”

“It’s okay,” he says, “I’ll be back, it’s not forever.”

“No, it’s two weeks,” says Isabel, “I won’t see you.”

“I’ll be back,” he says.

Isabel returns to her sketching, says, “Georgey-dear, what are your hopes?”

George is silent. A sedan goes by on the cross-street at the end of the block.

“You can open up to me,” Isabel says, “What are your fears, your ambitions, your desires?”

George is silent, his ambitious desire being a more physical intimacy with Isabel, his fear one with suspecting if he tells her this, he’ll assure it will never happen. He sighs.

“I,” he says, “It’s like a wall goes up when you ask me that, I don’t know what to say or how to say it.”

“I’d like to know more about your emotions,” Isabel says, stopping her sketching in the growing gloaming.

“I’d like to let you know,” says George, “But I can’t break through that wall, it just goes up.”

“Are you ashamed of your emotions?” says Isabel, “Because it’s okay to have emotions, just so long as you keep your reason ruling over them.”

“To hell with reason,” says George, “I love you.”

“Don’t talk like that,” says Isabel.

“You could shut me up,” says George with a lilt.

“How?” says Isabel.

“Well,” says George, “It’s been a while since I smoked that cigarette.”

“Georgey-dear,” says Isabel, “I’m sorry, but the truth is I would feel personally degraded if I kissed you.”

“You what?” says George, voice rising in a curve.

“It’s just,” Isabel says, “I’ve been brought up to believe that a girl or a woman who kisses before marriage is a whore. And some of my relatives have called me that.”

George, who has been brought up to believe in the constant harsh scrutiny of a wrathful God, says, “That’s crazy, you’re not a whore just because you kiss a guy!”

Isabel says nothing.

George says, “It’s just hard to believe it isn’t because of me, I mean, after being put down all these years, it’s just hard to believe.”

“Who put you down, George?” says Isabel.

George waits, then says with a blurt and a trace of a whine, “I’d like very much to be able to touch you more, I mean, you claim to love me but you won’t show it and you won’t take any from me.”

“Well, if you like,” says Isabel, “You can hold my hand, if it would make you feel better.”

“You sound so enthused,” George says, “If you’d just show your love every once in a while, I’d feel a lot more secure.”

“What are you insecure about?” says Isabel in her even, sweet tone.

“Us!” says the flabbergastive George, “It’s impossible to feel at ease when you’re going steady with someone who won’t let you touch her and it’s happened so many times before, girls just turn off at me, I feel like giving up, dying and the hell with the rest of the world.”

“Oh, George,” says Isabel. It’s almost dark. She reaches out and touches him tentatively, on the shoulder. He waits before responding.

“I’m sorry,” he says, “I have no right to push myself on you, I’m rushing things.”

“It’s okay,” Isabel says. She looks away from him, down the street.

#

Ernie greasy with motorcycle grease sits in his driveway, surrounded by motorcycle parts: pistons, rings, nuts bolts and struts, his stuff scattered around him, Ernie somewhat engrossed.

“Ernie!” George calls as he walks up.

“Squidge man,” says Ernie wiping hands on grass by the drive, “How you been?” Ernie spreads his arms wide over the disassemblage he sits among, “Harley-Davidson, man!”

“All right!” says George catching the infection of Ernie’s enthusiasm.

“Say, you still goin with that Isabel chick?” Ernie says, “You better be, cuz I saw your ex-girlfriend at the gas station yesterday and she asked how you were.”

“Penny?” says George.

“For my thoughts,” Ernie grins, “Yeah, major babe, dude, too bad she got away cuz anyway, she was askin about you and I told her you were goin steady and all she said was, ‘What stupid girl would go with him?’ ”

“She said that?” George says, “I can’t believe she would say that!”

“Believe it,” says Ernie.

“She’s the stupid girl who would go with me just two months ago!” says George.

“Yeah, but listen,” Ernie says, standing up, “Here, gimme a cigarette. Thanks.”

George lights Ernie’s cigarette.

“Listen, Squidge,” says Ernie, “It was the way she said it, over and over, and then she tells me the guy she was seein dumped her.”

“The G.I.?” says George.

“Fuck, I dunno, whoever,” Ernie says with dismissive wave of cigaretted hand, “But she says she’s been dumped, and she says you Choir people are havin rehearsals every day for a show that’s comin up, and, she says she’s goin to Choir Camp this summer and so are you.”

“Yeah, I am,” says George, “She sure was talkative.”

“Yeah,” Ernie says, “Choir Camp, man,” he shakes his head, “Too much. So you talk to Penny much at rehearsals?”

“No,” says George with a downward loop of tone like something tastes bad, “But she did say hi to me today.”

“Hey,” says Ernie, “So anyway, how are things goin with you and Isabel?”

“Oh, fuck, I dunno,” says George as he looks down, scuff-kicking one toe on the drive, “She’s just . . . fuck, I dunno, we haven’t had much time to talk lately, she’s busy helping some ex-con brush up on his math so he can get a better job and I’m in rehearsals all the time. Her and me are going steady, right?”

“That’s the report,” says Ernie.

“She still won’t let me kiss her,” George says, “And all the time she tells me she wants me to open up to her, but I don’t know what to say.”

“Maybe you’re empty inside,” Ernie says.

“Very funny,” George says, “I want to tell her how I feel, how I really feel, but she’s so strange about our relationship, I just can’t. She had me look at some journals she kept when she was at Bailey and ever since I did, all she talks about are other guys in her past. Most are relatives, but I still get jealous.”

“She sounds like a day full of chores,” Ernie says, “I never heard of two people goin steady who never kiss.”

“We’ve talked about it,” George says.

“I bet you have,” says Ernie.

“She said it would be ‘personally degrading,’ as it is against her ‘tradition’ and she still won’t wear my ring,” George says, “I hope I don’t lose my temper at her if she doesn’t wear it tomorrow, cuz she said she was going to.”

“Well, don’t lose your temper, Squidge, that won’t get you anything,” says Ernie, “And sides man, it’s not like she’s the only lamb in the flock.” Ernie flicks his cigarette butt into the street, “I swear that Penny’s still interested in you. Major babe, dude.”

George says nothing.

“Here,” Ernie says, “Gimme a hand with these pistons.”

“All right,” says downcast George.

“Man,” says Ernie, “Give me motorcycles any day of the week. As long as you get the Jesus nuts on, you’re all right.”

“The Jesus Nuts?” says George.

“Yeah, the Jesus nuts,” Ernie says, “They’re the nuts like for the handlebars and the wheels and stuff, that if any of them fall off while you’re ridin, only Jesus can help you.”

#

“You’re not wearing my ring,” says George, standing near sketchpad-lapped Isabel where she sits on her uncle’s car.

“Someone spilled the Holy Water and it has to be reblessed,” she says.

“Oh,” says George.

“George, there’s something I want to tell you,” Isabel begins, “Actually, tradition has very little to do with kissing you.”

“What is it, then,” George says.

“I almost got raped last year,” Isabel says, George turning to look at her when he hears this, Isabel continuing, “The guys chickened out, it was five guys, they had me backed against a wall and when they were about a yard away I started screaming and they took off and I knew them all, they were all friends. I’m afraid if you get started with a kiss you won’t stop and besides my family is pretty protective of me. My brother got mad when he saw you tickling me. So I won’t kiss in public.”

“Wow,” says George, “Well I’m glad you’re all right.”

“I’m glad too,” Isabel says, looking down the street, “Georgey-dear, I want to hear about the girls in your past, tell me about them.”

“Well there were the four,” he says, “That I told you about that I told them I loved them . . .”

“Yes, you told me about them,” Isabel says, “Were there any others, any other girls in your past?”

“Yes, I guess,” George says, “I guess there have been a few.”

“Tell me about them,” Isabel says, still looking down the street.

George says “Okey-doke” and he does, starting at kindergarten and working his way up. He’s telling her about Denise, the nine-year-old who was his girlfriend when he was ten, and about the kissing of said Denise, when Isabel says, “Was it exciting to kiss her?”

“Why would you care?” George says, “We never will.”

“Oh,” Isabel says, “I wouldn’t say that.”

George’s story goes on. He’s telling of last-year’s Lisa, auburn beauty who sat on her porch swing as close to George as she could get and asked George, “Do you mind,” to which George replied, “Come closer,” at the hearing of which tale Isabel says, “Well if touching you makes you excited I’d better stop.”

“I don’t know what you’re getting at,” says George, “You never touch me anymore anyway.”

There is silence.

“Would you believe me if I told you I loved you?” says George.

“No,” says Isabel.

“Why not?” says George.

“No comment,” Isabel says, looking away from him again, then commenting, “After all those other girls I find it hard to believe you would truly love me.”

George lights a cigarette.

#

Next day’s afternoon and it’s after after-school Choir practice with choristers leaving the Choir room when Penny approaches George and says, “Hey George, how you doing?”

And George looks at her and says, “I’m doing all right.”

“Think we’ll be ready for the show?” Penny says.

“I suppose we will,” says George.

“Say,” Penny says, “I didn’t mean to be mean to you, I still like you.” She scrunches up her shoulders just a little, “Can we still be friends?”

“Yeah,” George says, almost smiling, “I suppose we can.”

“Oh good,” Penny says, lowering shoulders, “I hear you got a girlfriend, you still going with her?”

“Yes, I am,” says George.

“What’s her name?” Penny says.

#

George stops by Isabel’s on his way home from Choir practice. He has been thinking. His steady and steadily unkissable girl is sketching in her frequent place, sitting on her uncle’s car, which doesn’t appear to George to have moved since he met Isabel some weeks before.

“Isabel,” he says, “Can we talk?”

“Sure, Georgey-dear,” she says, “We always talk.”

“I’m mad at myself for playing the fool,” says George, not looking at her, “For being a fool to think you’d fall in love with me.”

“But I do love you,” says Isabel, “As a special friend.” She puts down her pencil, closes her sketchbook, says, “There’s a thin line between friends and lovers, and if I get to know you better we can cross it.”

“It’ll be better for us if we break up,” says George, “I can get myself together then and maybe later we can work something out.”

Isabel waits a moment and says, “Can I ask you a favor?”

“Sure,” George says without enthusiasm.

“Can I keep the ring?” says Isabel, “I was going to start wearing it yesterday but I’ll probably wear it tomorrow.”

“Go ahead,” says George.

“If anyone ever asks me where I got it,” she says, “I’ll say you gave it to me.”

George is beginning to have his doubts and when he finally looks at Isabel and sees the terribly sorrowful look in her dark eyes, his heart melts and his voice cracks as he says, “Do you think we ought to break up?”

“No,” she says.

“All right then,” he says, “We won’t.”

Isabel smiles.

#

It’s just a week until the big spring Choir show and Mrs. Busoni has her Larks a-twittering at rehearsals every day. Penny often talks to George before, during and after these rehearsals and Georgey-dear, chatterbug that he is, doesn’t stop to think of how he is far more open with the far more open Penny than ever he is with Isabel, as he tells Penny of the disquieting steadyship with the mysterious sketching girl.

“I can’t remember any time in my life when I was as happy as I am now,” says George, “I’m very happy to know she’s mine.”

Penny does not address directly the issue of the contradictions apparent in George’s story, preferring to listen while she considers the matter of possession and its varieties of display.

#

George wants to go to Isabel’s house, it’s been a few days though he sees her at school. His father is gone off someplace and his mother is in the back yard, pruning trees to within an inch of bushdom. He goes to her to get permission.

“Isabel’s again?” she says, sweat running down her face while she rests her long rusty shears on the trunk of an amputated mulberry, “Don’t you think you’re going over there too much?”

George doesn’t think this and he doesn’t think telling his mother so would be giving her the answer she expects, and she is holding heavy shears with long rusty blades, so he says, “Um, I don’t know.”

“You don’t know?” she says, “You don’t know? Well you don’t know much, do you?”

George says nothing. He looks at the ground. The grass is all up and green now, the last trace of winter gone.

“Well, I know,” his mother says as she lops another branch from the mutilated mulberry, “And you’ve been going over there too much, probably bothering her and her family but they’re too nice to tell you. Don’t you have any other friends whose houses you can scurry off to if you need to go somewhere so bad?”

“There’s Ernie,” George quietly says.

“Ernie,” his mother says, “Oh there’s a great friend, your motorcycle bum dropout friend, well, if you just have to go see him go see him, but don’t be picking up any bad habits from him.”

“No ma’am,” George says, “I mean, yes ma’am.”

“And be back here in two hours,” she says, “I want you home in plenty of time for your dress rehearsal tonight because I am going to come see your show tomorrow and I want you to be ready.”

“Yes ma’am,” George says.

#

“So lemme bum a cigarette and you can give me the Isabel news,” Ernie says, putting down the wrench he has been wielding to finish the reassemblage of the Harley-Davidson still in surgery on his parents’ drive. George gives him a cigarette, lights it, and sits down near him to smoke one himself, give the news.

“I haven’t seen her so much lately,” says George, “I been real busy with Choir practice.”

“Oh yeah,” Ernie says, “Your show’s comin up. Say, I’m gonna come see that.”

“You are?” says George.

“Sure,” says Ernie, “Squidge my man, I’ll have this here bike rebuilt and will ride it in style to your concert.”

“Concert’s tomorrow,” George says.

“No problem,” Ernie says, “Now talk to me about Isabel, I know you want to.”

“Well,” George says exhaling cigarette smoke, “She finally let me hold her hand, said she guessed she didn’t mind sweaty palms all that much and she’d hold my hand if I promised I’d stop tickling her.”

“And did you?” says Ernie.

“Oh yeah,” says George, “I suppose when she gets to know me better and she’s sure I won’t try to rape her, she’ll give in to kissing.”

“Could happen,” says Ernie.

“She said something though before she held my hand,” says George, “That kind of bothered me.”

“She does that,” Ernie says.

“It kind of got me mad,” George says, “and I told her just how I felt about it, when she told me she’d ‘seen enough pregnant fifteen-year-olds.’ I guess as she gets to know me better she’ll trust me more.”

“Could be,” Ernie says, “She doesn’t trust herself.”

“Maybe,” says George shrugging, “She told me also that her major hang-up is me and she says it’s one she doesn’t want to get over.”

“She your major hang-up?” Ernie says.

“Ernie!” calls Ernie’s mom from behind the front screen door, “George’s mom is on the phone, wants to know if George is here!”

Ernie looks over his shoulder at the door, calls, “He’s right here, mom!”

Ernie’s mom calls, “She wants to know if he’s getting in trouble!”

“Not yet, mom!” Ernie replies.

#

George calls Isabel on the phone before he goes to rehearsal.

“You know that mind-contact stuff you were telling me about?” he says, “Well, Saturday night just as I was getting into bed, it suddenly hit me you were trying mind-contact with me so I concentrated on you and I seemed to hear you ask, ‘Do I know you?’ and I answered ‘Yes! Yes, you know me!’ Then I lost the connection.”

“Hmm,” says Isabel, “I was trying open-ended mind-contact off and on all night, but I don’t remember contacting you.”

“Oh,” says George, “Oh well,” and opening up he says, “I had a weird dream later, you were in it, you want to hear it?”

“Sure,” says Isabel, “Maybe I can analyze it for you, I’ve been studying dream analysis.”

“Okay,” says George, “Here goes: I dreamed I was in Chemistry class on a cloudy day, and Penny was there, sitting in the desk in front of mine. You were there too, one row over and two seats up. I was tickling, poking and generally bothering Penny, then I kissed her on the neck. She didn’t mind but Mr. Rubicon did and made me move back one desk.”

“Is that it?” says Isabel.

“No, there’s more,” George says, “I decided to tell you after school I had to stay for Choir practice even though there wasn’t any Choir practice, so I could walk Penny home, but I didn’t see you after school so I walked Penny home anyway then went back to school to get my books. I saw you at your locker with your uncle and talked with you but I don’t remember what we said. Then the dream ended. But never once in the whole dream, even when I talked with you at your locker, never once did I see your face.”

“Is that it?” says Isabel.

“Yeah,” George says, “That’s it.”

“It’s real simple, George,” says Isabel, “The dream means you prefer Penny because you think you can get more out of her and because my family is standing guard over me.”

“Really?” says George.

“It’s real simple,” Isabel says.

“Well,” says George, “Despite what my dreams say, I prefer you.”

“Georgey-dear,” says Isabel, “A dream is a wish your heart makes.”

A dream is a wish your heart makes . . . ,” sings George.

“Oh George, stop it,” Isabel says.

“Isabel,” says George, “How much, I mean, the, that attempted rape, how much did it affect you?”

After a moment Isabel says, “Since three of the guys were fairly good friends, I must have done or said something to provoke them sexually and I don’t want to provoke you.”

“Isabel,” George says, “Just being around is enough to provoke some guys.”

“No, no,” says Isabel, “I must have done something because they were friends and why would they have done such a thing if I hadn’t done something to provoke them? But since then, as I’ve told you, I’ve learned how to defend myself.”

“Yes, you’ve told me,” George says.

“Well,” Isabel says in her smooth even tone, her sweet honey of a voice, “I want you to be real clear on that, that you better not try anything because I know how to defend myself and I know precisely where to hit you to make you fall down and throw up.”

George says nothing. Isabel waits a moment and says, “Georgey-dear, are you mad?”

“Yes,” George says with a discernable strain of petulance in his voice, “It’s not like I’m going to try to rape you! I don’t know whether you know it or not,” he says, anger curling the edges of his words, “But I respect you a lot more than those five guys and anybody else you’ve messed around with since then did!”

Right away George knows he has said The Wrong Thing. There is a long pause.

“Isabel?” he says, his voice smaller now.

“Yes?” Isabel says.

There is another pause, not so long this time.

“I’m sorry,” he says, “I shouldn’t have said all that.”

“That’s okay,” says Isabel, her voice smaller too, “I shouldn’t talk so much about that, I’m sorry too.”

“Well, I guess I should go,” he says, “I gotta go to rehearsal.”

“Okay,” she says.

“See you at school tomorrow,” he says.

“See you at school,” says Isabel.

#

That night at the final dress rehearsal for the Green Meadow Larks before their big spring show, Penny waylays George before rehearsal begins, backstage near one of the storage rooms where when no one else is about she takes him by the arm and says, “Did you brush your teeth tonight?”

“Well of course,” he says, the very idea.

“Then come with me,” she says, the fair young “maiden” with pleasure in her e’e, taking George by his belt buckle to pull him into the storage room, “I have something I want to show you,” she says and closes the door behind them.

She shows him what she has to show him for a few minutes until they hear through the door the muffled sound of Mrs. Busoni saying, “Is everyone here? Where are George and Penny?”

When they appear from the wings a few moments later it seems to Mrs. Busoni that George has just tucked his shirt-tail in.

#

The day of the night of the big show and George has reached a decision. He waits for Isabel outside Chemistry class. She arrives almost late.

“Isabel,” he says, “I have to talk with you.”

“What is—” she says but the tardy bell rings.

In class a few minutes later she sends him a note, passed from her desk by allied or at least neutral hand to hand across the room to where he sits.

What do you want? she writes.

He writes back, I want to break up. I won’t give you all that shit about not wanting to hurt you. We’re too different for each other.

The note is relayed back to Isabel with the teacher-evading subterfuge mastered by almost all children before they hit puberty. Back and forth the notes go.

I agree with you, Isabel responds, I don’t care if you believe me or not, but I love you. Can we still be friends?

To which George replies, I think we can still be friends.

To which Isabel replies with unerring aim for the chink of guilty conscience in George’s armor, Can I keep the ring?

Yes, George writes back, You already asked and I already told you.

#

Ernie gets the Harley together at last, just in time to take it for its test spin on the way to the Green Meadow Larks Spring Choir Concert that evening in the Green Meadow High Gymnatorium. He starts her up, straddles her saddle, revs her with a twist of his throttle wrist. She sounds good. He takes her down the drive of his parents’ house and into the street, sprinting up to speed and beyond, fudging a bit on the limit. The sun is still up and he rides along through the hood, showing off himself and the Harley-Davidson, a good bike when it’s put together right.

He hits a bump in the road, hears the metallic rattling sproing of small dense object against fender and spokes, sees in an instant the flash of setting sunlight reflected from a Jesus nut falling off what he thinks is probably but he doesn’t have but an instant to wonder before he knows he won’t be laying this hog down on its side and “Fuck!” he says as he loses steering and pitches over the handlebars at a speed of somewhere between fifty and sixty feet per second.

#

George’s dad can’t make it to the show tonight, he’s not real clear on why, but George’s mom is certainly going to be there, she’s got George all buffed and scrubbed and shined and pressed and is driving him there herself, she doesn’t mind being a little early, she can chat with the other mothers. As they drive through the hood on the way to the school, they pass a cross-street where there’s been some kind of accident. They pass too fast for George to see much of what’s going on but he does see Isabel sitting on a curb near the ambulance, making a sketch on the pad in her lap. He’s sure it’s her and he’s sure he sees what looks like a silver ring on her marriage finger, reflecting for a glinting moment the setting sun’s light.

All is abuzz with typical pre-show excitement at the Green Meadow Gymnatorium. Backstage in the makeshift green room, smiling Penny closes in on George and to him quietly says, “Did you brush your teeth?”

“Of course!” he says and smiles.

“Well, good,” purrs Penny, putting an arm around George’s shoulder, pulling him closer to her, hip to hip.

He gives her a kiss.

“Places, everyone,” Mrs. Busoni says.

 

 

 

 

BIO

Tetman Callis is a writer living in Chicago. His short fictions have been published in various magazines, including NOON, New York Tyrant, Wigleaf, Atticus Review, The Gravity of the Thing, Queen Mob’s Tea House, and Neon Literary Magazine. His short fiction, “Grilled Cheese Sandwich with Pickles and Fries,” appeared in the Winter 2010 issue of The Writing Disorder. He is the author of the memoir, High Street: Lawyers, Guns & Money in a Stoner’s New Mexico (Outpost 19, 2012), and the children’s book, Franny & Toby (Silky Oak Press, 2015). His website is www.tetmancallis.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

Not a Seamless Lunch

by Anna Linetskaya

 

Edgar was looking at the screen, but none of it made sense. What he had worked for, what he returned to day after day, was no longer there. The sense of deep unease took over him as the realization settled in: somewhere, someone had changed the meal preferences on his Seamless page.

He looked around the office to see whether any of his colleagues were facing the same problem. Unfortunately, the cubicle divider in front of his desk obscured most of his workmates. Meggie, the only person he could see without lifting from his ergonomic chair, was standing by the receptionist’s desk, her face as serene as that of a seasoned yogi. No wonder. Not only did she make it to Hot Vinyasa class every morning before showing up at the office at precisely 7:15AM, she also found time to make and actually bring her own lunches to work. That Meggie, she did not have anything to worry about. She did not depend on Seamless. Although usually it meant chewing on a wilted spinach leaf from used Tupperware, today, her independence finally paid off.

Meggie was no good; Edgar needed a more reliable source to estimate the seriousness of the  lunch predicament. He could Bloomberg-chat Kenny, his work buddy from Compliance. It would not be the first time they used the terminal for personal communication. Strictly speaking, such communication was against corporate policy, and it was Kenny’s job to preclude it. Yet, it was not the ethical implications of technology misuse, but rather Kenny’s complete uselessness when it came to food choices that stopped Edgar from going down that route.

Kenny, who called himself an omnivore, was, in Edgar’s opinion, simply a person deprived of taste buds, let alone a palette. Kenny would eat everything and anything, so long as there was enough of it. Rice and beans? Yes, please. Cheese nachos? Pack two. You say, “Kosher pizza?” Kenny says, “How high can I pile it on the plate?” In other words, Kenny was happy as long as there was Seamless, regardless of what it actually offered.

No, Kenny was no good either. Edgar needed to find someone of his own caliber, someone who could relate to his quandary. A person who, although aware of the calorie count and the circumference of their waist, was passionate about food. A person who saw lunch as a personal getaway from the humdrum of the office life. Someone who appreciated the fact that you get only one try when it comes to placing your Seamless order. There was no Redo button on that page, after all.

If there was indeed a firm-wide Seamless crisis (and not just a glitch on Edgar’s page), Sander the Foodie and Tim the Golf Guy would be the ones to show visible signs. Edgar made a decision: he would stand up and personally survey the field. But he would have to do so discreetly, so not to alter the natural state of his colleagues’ distress. For that he needed a believable disguise. Water cooler trips were painfully passé; the way to the men’s restroom lay through the corridor and did not allow for much observation. One last option remained: he would make his way to the Health Station.

The Heath Station was a rather new development, a by-product of the HR’s preoccupation with employees’ health and wellbeing. In a rare burst of creativity, the HR team had decided that the obvious solution to the problem of obesity—fewer calories in and more calories out—was utterly obsolete. What the office workers needed was more food but, this time, of the nonperishable and prepackaged kind. Granola bars, protein bars and shakes, fiber cookies, and fat-free crackers: anything that had the word healthy on its shiny packaging had already made or was quickly making its way to that magic cabinet, strategically positioned in the middle of the office floor.

The trip to the Health Station was ideal. It provided both a long, winding path and a perfect lookout spot. It also provided a much-needed pick-me-up snack. Edgar almost reached the coveted cupboard when a sudden “Later, all!” distracted him from the task at hand. To his surprise, the number of people from whom he was to choose his confidant was diminishing right before his eyes. Tim the Golf Guy (responsible for the awakening “Later, all!”) and five other colleagues from his group were exiting the office one by one. Only Meggie and Laura, a timid, middle-aged woman whom Edgar did not know well and had no interest in knowing better, remained.

The field trip. Of course. Of all days, today had to be Tuesday the 15th. The day that six out of nine people on Edgar’s team were scheduled to work at their new client’s office. Edgar recalled how happy he had been when they elected him to stay behind in the office with Meggie and Laura. With most people from his team gone, it felt almost like a vacation. He had his food, he had his Internet, and he had very few people around to bother him.

Little did he know that Tuesday the 15th would also be the day his trusted food deliveries, with their luscious but calorie-conscious offerings, disappeared from his Seamless account. Who in the world had decided to change the list? Who needed to fix what was not broken? But most importantly, why did it have to happen on the day Edgar got to get not one but two lunches delivered?

One of the reasons Edgar was so excited to stay behind on the field trip day was that he got to use the absent colleagues’ lunch allowance as he pleased. Of course, they would have to play fair and share the six extra lunch funds between the remaining people from the team. But out of the three remaining people, Edgar was one; Meggie did not use the lunch allowance lest she lost her “Homemade Lunch Queen” title; and Laura, who knew? With a little bit of nudging and a comment or two about the upcoming bikini season, she would surely give her extra lunch money to Edgar. And he would know how to use it wisely. He had his Favorite Seamless tags sorted exactly for such an occasion.

Edgar’s perfect plan was now ruined by events outside of his control. He had all the lunch credit in the world, but his trusted purveyors of sustenance were no longer there to supply him with their goods. Edgar found himself in a predicament right out of a children’s fable: he had everything he needed, but he didn’t know what to do with it. That was the only thing he could focus on as he sat back down on his ergonomic chair and stared at his Seamless page, still in total disarray.

For the second time in the last five minutes, an unexpected sound interrupted Edgar’s musings. The annoying bing was trying to attract Edgar’s attention to a new incoming email. In it, a faceless but very caring HR person was encouraging Edgar to please finalize his lunch choice so it could be placed promptly and delivered to his desk on time.

It was not that Edgar was afraid of choice. To the contrary, he appreciated the power that came with conscious decision-making. He grew up in a family of Jewish academics who evaluated every life occurrence in terms of a cause and effect (or, if not that, then at least a correlation). From an early age, Edgar’s parents had instilled in him the desire to choose correctly and the belief that such a choice was actually possible. You only needed to collect all the relevant information to make it.

So this is what he had to do now. Since he had been deprived of his preferred lunch options, he needed to collect all the information necessary to make a well-informed and, more importantly, correct choice of his upcoming unfamiliar meal. The first call of duty was the culprit itself: his Seamless account. Here, Edgar had to be careful not to misplace his anger; it was not actually Seamless the Company who had mixed up his options, but rather the omnipresent, conniving HR.

It was the HR, who, in the best tradition of Big Brother, oversaw from which six restaurants Edgar was to eat his lunch on any given day. Of course, such power could not have been delegated to a single department without the proper checks and bounds set in place. Although on paper it looked like the HR made the calls, in reality it was the result of the monthly employee survey which determined the lucky six. Edgar, ever an active corporate citizen, made sure to advocate for his favorites, which almost always made it on the list. Apparently, on Tuesday the 15th, the HR blatantly overstepped its power by changing delivery options sans referendum.

Now, Edgar needed to get to know the new players. He carefully studied the six unfamiliar names that appeared on his Seamless account. None of the descriptions that accompanied the names spoke to him; none of the wording enticed Edgar to sample the goods. How on earth, after being spoiled with his favorite restaurants’ follow-up surveys and having his ego massaged by their social media’s targeted campaigns, was he to choose from this unappealing mound of impersonal information?

The actual websites of the six contenders did not prove to be any better. Yelp pages did provide some nice visuals, but Edgar, a seasoned customer, knew that all the niceties of the presentation would be gone the moment the food was placed in the delivery box. Edgar saw the delivery box as the ultimate equalizing device: it stripped the food of all visual appeal, allowing the essence of the dish—its ingredients—to take center stage.

The ingredients. Here is where Edgar faced a real challenge. Only four out of six restaurants listed the ingredients of each dish on their respective menus, and not a single one provided the actual ingredient amounts used. It was simply impossible to say whether a chicken salad was a true chicken salad or a bunch of greens sprinkled with morsels of canned chicken meat. And what about all the sausages? Were they 100% beef or were there remnants of fatty pork added to the mixture for taste and texture? Although not observant, Edgar’s Jewish heritage rebelled at this purposeful omission.

Edgar decided to act. Instead of wasting his time on soulless descriptions, he would call up the restaurants to get all the information he thought was material for his decision. He hoped that the restaurant owners were at least savvy enough to provide a phone number and a sufficiently competent person to answer Edgar’s pressing questions.

Edgar picked up the phone and dialed the first number on the list. The handset was heavy and felt alien in his hand. It had been a while since he had actually used it. To Edgar, the concept of a phone conversation was a thing of the past, a feature of a society where people had not yet discovered the beauty of instant messaging. With it, you could take time to deliberate, to think the answer through, and to embellish it with visual content if needed. With a phone conversation, you had no such opportunity. By picking up the phone, you were entering the terrain of real-time debate and were foolishly subjecting yourself to the possibility of a verbal attack.

Edgar took a deep breath and suppressed his desire to hang up after the second ring. Luckily, an abrupt “Yes?” put an end to Edgar’s suspense. Although it was a rather unfriendly way to initiate a conversation with a potential customer, Edgar made a conscious effort to evoke the sense of appreciation and gratitude that he was trying to foster towards others, rude service people included. He had read somewhere that those who deliberately practice gratitude experience lower levels of stress and are on average happier and more resilient than their ungrateful compatriots. Despite his growing irritation, Edgar reminded himself that he should not take it personally and should not make assumptions about the person at the other end of the line. According to the little cheat-sheet of happy life principles Edgar had pinned above his desk, he also was supposed to “remain impeccable with your word,” even more so during the upcoming conversation.

The first order of business was to make sure that the person on the other end was qualified to provide the information Edgar needed. After confirming that it was indeed the correct restaurant and that they did deliver lunches on a regular basis, Edgar inquired about the person’s first name and dietary preferences. It was important to establish rapport so Edgar’s new phone acquaintance, Thang, could feel comfortable enough to share his honest opinion. It was equally important to establish whether or not Thang was affected  by any of the restrictive food fads, such as veganism, and to adjust the weight of his honest opinion accordingly.

Thang proved to be solid. Not only did he eat fish, meat, and poultry, he also happened to receive part of his reimbursement as lunch credit to be spent in the restaurant, so he had vast firsthand experience with the menu. Thang’s brief lament about being “short on cash to buy food for the family” did not dissuade Edgar; it was obviously meant as an ice-breaker and not as a real complaint. Surely, Thang could get a doggy bag ‘to-go’ to take lunch leftovers back home.

Edgar felt like he was onto something. Maybe the damages caused by the Seamless disaster  could be reduced to a minimum, after all. Although Thang could not name the exact amount of beef used in the Wild Meatloaf Wrap, he assured Edgar that, where Thang came from, “It would be enough to feed a family of four.” There was just one thing left to clarify, and it was not Thang’s country of origin. It was gluten.

What followed caused Edgar to temporarily loose his state of equanimity. He was prepared to face Thang’s potential ignorance on the topic and had his brief three-minute lecture on the dangers of gluten ready. He was prepared to discuss which modifications could be made to the wrap to make it gluten-free, and was ready to sacrifice some of the nutrients. He was even prepared to face the “Yes, it contains gluten” defeat. That he could handle.

What he could not handle was the blatant “So, you are Jewish and celiac?” remark. Who was Thang to box Edgar in like that? To put this label on him? No, Edgar did not have celiac disease or wheat sensitivity. But Edgar did have a right not to be labeled “celiac” every time he wished to avoid gluten. He was much more than his dietary preferences, and he felt it was his civic duty to nip any such attempt at objectification in the bud. Feeling that he no longer could remain impeccable with his word, Edgar hung up.

He stared at his phone, trying to process what was happening to him. Thang’s words touched a rough spot deep inside Edgar. It always came down to that with food, to the need to explain that it was not a matter of religion of allergies. Edgar simply liked to know what exactly he put into his body. The careful process of selection was time consuming and, on occasion, stressful, yet he accepted those small discomfort as the price he had to pay to stay in control. To stay in control in a world where the produce was manufactured, not grown; where a carton of milk could be spiked with arsenic; where a calf may not see the light of day before becoming a steak. How was that his prudence and responsible attitude towards food always managed to turn into a cause of conflict and mockery?

Edgar looked at his computer screen. The onerous message from the HR was still there, staring back at him. He needed to make a choice, and he needed to make it quick: it was by now 11:05AM, which meant he had less than five minutes before the 11:10AM order submission cutoff.

Overcome with emotion, Edgar took a deep breath and resolved to switch to cold logic. He thought he needed to make a choice, but did he really? Granted, the whole system was set up to foster this belief: the Seamless account was his; the HR prompted Edgar to finalize his choice. But there was a loophole in the system, and Edgar had seen it being used before. For some reason, his brain chose to suppress this knowledge, but now that Edgar had a complete recollection of it, his mind was set. He looked at the email, clicked Reply button and typed in the words that were sure to put an end to this lunch debacle: “In the meeting. Please, spend today’s lunch credit (mine, Tim’s, Sander’s) as you see fit. Best, Edgar.”

Edgar took another deep breath, clicked Send, and sat back in his chair. His gaze rested on the mood-enhancing lamp, which the HR strongly encouraged to position against the cubicle divider wall behind the computer screen. The deep indigo colors of the cubicle wall were supposed to bring a sense of calm, while the pale yellow and bright orange of the lamp encouraged one to rise to one’s potential like a rising sun. Edgar realized he hated those colors.

Edgar stood up. Suddenly, he realized he hated not only the colors but the very idea of the mood-enhancing lamp. He hated the cubicle wall. He hated Meggie, who was standing right behind it with her bright, toothy smile and her stinky collection of Tupperware containers. He hated Laura, who was munching on another carb-free, sugar-free, fat-free, fiber-rich protein bar she had just gotten from the Heath Station. Most of all, he hated the fact that he had just given away his right to choose to the very people who made all of this happen.

Did they really care about Edgar when they made those choices? Did they ever stop to consider his well-being or the fact that his bad cholesterol had gone through the roof since he had joined this workplace? Did they know that what he really needed was someone who could care for him without any hidden agenda?

Edgar stormed out of the office. He needed to clear his mind, and this time deep breathing exercises were not up to the task. Edgar needed a good old walk in the park, needed to feel the sun on his face and the wind against his skin. A walk like the ones he used to take as a child with his Grandpa. Back when he still could run and play and laugh, all under the watchful eye of his guardian, who pretended to read his Sunday newspaper in the shade of a poplar tree.

* * *

Edgar walked through the park entrance across from his office building. Most of the benches along the main path were occupied by people who looked very much like him. Those people, dressed in different shades of gray with occasional splotches of white and light pink, were the happy few who were actually allowed to step away from their desks during the day. Many of them were holding Styrofoam containers and paper bags covered with grease stains of different shapes and sizes. The aroma emanating from those receptacles overpowered all other smells in the park: the lunch hour had finally arrived.

Edgar’s stomach responded to the smell with a predictable rumble of hunger, but his mind refused to budge. He wanted none of this. He did not want to stuff his face with a dripping sandwich while checking his email on his phone. He did not want to gulp liters of flavorless coffee from a Venti cup to get thought the afternoon low. He did not want to eat from a doggy bag, even if it came from the most coveted food truck in the area.

What he wanted was to eat with abandon, just like he used to as a child. To eat without thinking that he should be eating something else, to eat without thinking that he should be doing something else. To eat food that had been prepared with love.

Edgar found an empty bench in a remote corner of the park and sat down in the shade. He closed his eyes. Like when they were all still living together and when the smell of his mother’s kotletu would force everyone to drop whatever they were doing and gather around the table. Like on a cold winter night, when his grandmother would heat up the oven, and while the rugelach were baking, they would all play cards and steal spoonfuls of warm custard from the jar. His mind was overcome with those pleasant memories; the stress of the lunch debacle slowly started to subside.

“Do you mind if I sit here, sir?” said a voice out of nowhere. Edgar opened his eyes and saw a little boy about ten yeas old standing next to him. The boy was holding a carefully wrapped foil parcel in his hands. Edgar shifted and gestured the boy to sit down next to him.

“My mom is over there, at the kiddies’ playground with my little sister. It is not often that I get to take my lunch to the park with them. I’m usually at school, you know. But when I do get to come here, I really like it.” The boy smiled at Edgar and started to unwrap his parcel.

“I hope it’s a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. My mom makes them the best! She knows that I like them, and she puts these little heart-shaped jelly beans on top. I’m all grown up now, but I still like it very, very much.”

As the boy unwrapped the foil, Edgar could see a huge smile lighting up on his face. Inside, the boy found what he was hoping for. His joy was pure, his satisfaction almost complete. Almost. Edgar could sense that something was amiss; something was stopping the boy from taking that coveted first bite.

The boy lifted up his head and stared Edgar straight in the eye. Then, without saying a word, the boy broke the sandwich in half, tore off a piece of foil, carefully wrapped one half, and extended it to Edgar.

Humbled, Edgar accepted the offering. He took a bite, chewed, swallowed, and looked back at the boy.

Seamlessly, all of it made sense.

 

 

BIO

Anna Linetskaya is an emerging writer who, after years of academic work and legal practice, finally finds herself writing pieces she truly enjoys. She is currently working on her first novel while completing her MFA in Creative Writing at the City College of New York. When not working on her book, Anna is sure to be found reading books of others. She is unapologetic about her reading locations and is particularly proud of her reading-while-walking skill. Her most recent publication, “myLife: a Story,” appeared as a series of installments in Visitant.

https://www.linetskaya.com/

 

 

 

0

Day Hike

by Priscilla Mainardi

 

 

“What did you think of her?” I said to my brother. We had just started up the trail, wide enough here at the beginning so we could walk side by side.

“Nice,” Jake pronounced. “A little nervous, but who wouldn’t be?” He stopped and turned to me. “You should have seen the look on your face.”

“I hope I didn’t laugh. I thought Mom was kidding at first. I thought she meant Becca was like a daughter to her, not an actual daughter.” I stepped around a rock that stuck up in the middle of the trail. “Amazing that we never knew, or even suspected.”

“Mom didn’t even know anything about her.  Until recently, that is,” Jake said.

Becca had gotten in touch with our mother in late February, and they met for the first time a few days later at a halfway point in New Hampshire. My mother didn’t tell me any of this when she called me last week to confirm Sunday brunch with Jake, something we had done every few weeks since I moved back from California.   She just said, “I have something important to tell you and your brother.”

Becca, our new-found sister, was the important thing she had to tell us.

 

Jake and I began to ascend a steeper part of the trail. Afternoon sunlight slanted through the trees. I unzipped my jacket, loosened my scarf. Becca had complimented the scarf when I arrived at brunch this morning. My college friend Elvira always compliments people when she first meets them, to get them to like her. Was that what Becca was doing? I wished I’d thought of it myself.

“What happens now?” I asked Jake. “Is she going to be, like, part of the family?”

“If she wants to be. And if Mom wants her to be. I don’t think it’s so much about us.”

But it is about us, I wanted to say. Jake’s calm made my natural reaction — surprise, confusion, resentment at just learning about Becca now — seem somehow irrational. “I wonder if Dad knows about her,” I said. Our father left when I was in third grade. “And what do we know about her father?”

Jake held up a hand. “Wait, Lydia.  Are you forgetting we have a nephew now too?”

I laughed. “Right,” I said. “Andrew. How could we have made it this far without knowing anything about them?”

“Think how it must be for Becca to find out about us, after all these years,” Jake said. “Or how it was for Mom, having the baby taken away from her. Imagine how she feels.”

“Okay, Mr. Empathy.” Sometimes Jake was a little too nice. He lumped everyone together and acted like they were all the same, when they clearly weren’t.

We hiked in single file until we came to a fork. I described the route I’d taken once before, to the top of the ridge, then down along the stream that ran through the gorge. We’d end up a quarter mile down the road from the parking lot.

“Sure we won’t need crampons?” Jake said.

More snow appeared in the woods as we climbed but the trail was dry. “I doubt it,” I said.

Jake checked the time on his phone. “Just think,” he said, “two hours ago, we were sitting down meeting Becca.”

“Three hours ago, I didn’t even know I had a sister.”

 

“How did you find us?” I asked Becca. “I mean, find out my mother was . . . find out who your mother was?” I stopped, took a breath. I was trying to play it cool, a cool I didn’t really feel. Mangling my sentences wasn’t helping.

Becca gave a wide smile. She had her answer ready. But then she’d known about us, whereas we’d just learned about her. Maybe this explained her calm. Or maybe she came by it naturally. “Andrew fainted on the basketball court,” she said, “and when I took him to the doctor, they were worried that he might have a heart condition, and wanted me to check with his closest relatives.” We must have look alarmed at this, because she held up a hand, smooth and pale, with pink nails. “I asked my parents, and they gave me the name of the adoption agency. My lawyer wrote to the agency and told them the situation, and they gave me your mother’s name.”

“But Andrew — is he okay?” I said.

“Oh, yes, he’s fine. They decided he was probably just dehydrated.”

“Well,” said my mother, at her cheeriest, “we’re glad he’s okay, and so glad you found us.”

We were in her dining room, eating quiche and sausages and out of season strawberries. Sunlight poured in through the tall windows. My mother seemed a little too happy, her cheeks flushed an unusual pink color, her eyes bright. She kept jumping up for things she’d forgotten in the kitchen, a pitcher of orange juice, bread and butter. We usually ate bagels and cream cheese or French toast at the kitchen table, watching the birds come and go from the bird feeder outside the window. Brunch wasn’t usually this varied and complex.

Becca told us she’d grown up in Portsmouth, where she still lived and worked as a florist. She was forty-four and divorced, and Andrew was in eighth grade. She was tall and blond with little resemblance to either Jake, who was stocky and strong and dark, or me, of average height with medium-brown hair. She looked like she’d never done the things I’d done: put white powder up my nose, slept in a park wrapped in all my clothes, snuck out of a restaurant without paying, taken off my clothes in front of a camera.

I took a bite of quiche and gazed out the window. Most of the snow had melted from the grass, though there was still a little patch on the north side of every tree. Jake was describing his programming job, his girlfriend who worked as a physical therapist, the apartment they’d moved into together in Burlington. I had met his girlfriend, but hadn’t seen their new apartment yet. When did people stop seeing the places where their siblings lived? Twenty-six seemed too young. You think you’ll always be as close as when your rooms are next door to each other, and you kick each other every night for space on the family room couch.

We hadn’t even talked since the last brunch.  And Jake hadn’t seen my place either. I told Becca about the tiny cabin I lived in, that I chopped my own wood and worked at the general store. This sounded homey, like the store carried maple syrup and maybe bolts of calico, but I mostly sold hotdogs and lottery tickets. Becca didn’t need to know every little thing about me, and I broad-stroked it, hoping “I spent a few years on the West Coast” sounded intriguing rather than secretive. And who knew what Becca wasn’t telling us? It was our first meeting after all.

 

“Slow down,” Jake said. “I can hardly keep up with you.”

I slowed my pace and glanced down the valley where the sun lit up the tops of the bare trees. “You know, Mom used to say that to me all the time. Talk smaller steps. She was always criticizing me for something. Remember how she used to move my hair out from behind my ears all the time?” Becca’s hair was a perfect blond coif that curled in to cover her ears. “After awhile I started to think I might as well go ahead and actually do something wrong.”

Jake laughed. “Maybe she wasn’t criticizing, maybe she just couldn’t keep up with you. And maybe your hair did look better covering your ears.”

“You sound just like her.”

I meant it as a mild putdown but Jake just laughed again.

“What about my job?” I said. “She’s always after me to get a better job.”

“We all know you could be doing more with yourself than selling scratch-offs.”

“Can’t she just be happy I moved home?”

“She’s glad you’re rid of what’s-his-name,” he said.

He means Jimmy, my old boyfriend, who I followed to California so he could make movies.

“Still, maybe this explains a few things,” I said. “Maybe Mom was always measuring me up against some invisible ideal daughter.”

“I think you’ll have to let that one go, Lydia. Becca’s just another flawed human being like the rest of us.”

Later we would go to one of Andrew’s basketball games and I would see that this was true. She wore jeans and a sweatshirt, went without makeup, chewed her nails in the stands, joined in when the other parents booed the referee to protest a foul call.

“Was Mom upset about it all her life, do you think,” I said, “or did she just forget about the baby and move on?”

“I’m sure she never forgot,” Jake said.

“So she got pregnant and gave the baby away. Couldn’t she have had an abortion?”

“Not back then.”

“But still,” I persisted, “she kept it a secret all these years. Even though she knew this day might come.”

“Give her a break, will ya? This has been hard on her too. Hardest.”

He sounded like Elvira, who used to say to always err on the side of kindness and generosity. Or was it forgiveness and generosity? I could never remember. “Okay, sure, a break,” I said.

We’d been climbing steadily and stopped to catch our breath and take a drink of water. Jake seemed pretty calm about the whole thing. Maybe this was because he hadn’t spent the whole brunch comparing himself to Becca in every little detail — hairstyle, make-up, clothes, the way she spoke, held herself, had a worthwhile career.

But now that I thought about it, Jake hadn’t even looked all that surprised when Mom told us who Becca was. Maybe there was another reason he was so calm. I turned to him. “How long have you known?”

Jake held up a hand. “Hear that, Lydia?” he said. “That sort of rushing sound?”

I stood still and listened. All I heard was the rustle and creak of tree branches. “The wind?”

“More like water. Is there a stream?”

“I think we cross a creek soon,” I said.

We resumed walking.  Soon we came to the source of the sound. The creek had widened and gouged out a new course down the side of the mountain, carrying away rocks, uprooting trees.

“Last time I was here this was a trickle,” I said.

“Think we can get across?”

We were almost to the top of the ridge, so it didn’t make sense to turn around and go back the way we had come. I climbed up on a rock and looked for a place to cross. “How about there?” I said, pointing downstream where some fallen trees formed a makeshift bridge.

We moved down the rocky creek bank. There was more snow here, a thin coating with deeper patches here and there. The rocks on the hillside were unstable, and shifted uneasily when I stepped on them. I told myself that it didn’t matter who had learned about Becca first, now that we had both met her. Or that it shouldn’t matter. But still I was curious. “So how long?” I said.

“Only a little while,” Jake said. “I heard Mom on the phone one day when I was over there. It was soon after Becca had gotten in touch with her. She seemed upset when she hung up. I asked her what was wrong and she told me the whole thing.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“It wasn’t mine to tell. But I know Mom wanted to. She just wanted to find the right time. Not have you learn accidentally, like I did.”

“Why didn’t she just tell me sometime when we were alone, like she did with you? Why spring Becca on me at a brunch?  She hardly ever even calls me.”

“She’s just trying to give you some space.”

We skirted a massive fallen tree, then angled upward to get back to the log bridge and the trail. Here the terrain was so steep there was no underbrush, no thorny bushes to impede us, and we climbed steadily. Finally we got back to the creek, and crossed it on the fallen logs.

We stopped to take another drink, then we were climbing again. Clouds moved past the sun. A chilly breeze blew and the tree branches scraped and rubbed against each other. We plunged into a pine forest. Tall trees darkened the trail, filling me a feeling of gloom.

Jake stopped. “Whoa,” he said. “What happened here?”

A section of the hillside had collapsed, leaving a steep cone of dirt and pebbles with old tree roots sticking up from it. A foot wide path was all that was left of the trail.

“Now I wish I did have my crampons,” Jake said, sizing up the narrow path. Then he shrugged and started across. I hesitated for a moment, looking for a safe place to step.

“You coming?” Jake said, and when he turned to look at me, his foot slipped off the edge. He reached for a handhold, but there was nothing to grasp on the rock wall, and he started sliding down the steep hillside. He grabbed one of the roots to stop his fall but it snapped.  He bent his knees and went down, sliding on his back to the bottom.

He landed in a tangle of rocks and fallen branches.  “Jake,” I called. “Jacob.”

His voice rose up to me. “Damn. Fuck. Son of a. . . ”

“Anything broken?” I shouted. “Are you bleeding?”

“No blood. But I wrenched my ankle. I don’t think I can climb back up.”

“Don’t move. I’m on my way.”

I went down the trail a few yards and looked for a way to climb down to him. “Don’t,” Jake called. “It’s too dangerous.”

I had only gone a few feet when I dislodged a good-sized rock, which clattered down the hillside.

There was a deathly silence after it fell. Heart racing, I called out, “Still there?”

“Yo,” came Jake’s reply. “You should probably go get some help.”

I climbed back up to stabler ground. “Can you call someone?”

“No service,” he called back up after a moment.

“I’ll be back,” I said. “Don’t get hypothermia while I’m gone.”

I went back along the trail a few yards, then climbed the steep hill and picked my way through the underbrush until I reached the top of the ridge. Here the trail descended through the gorge. It was the shortest way back.

The woods were clasped in dim light, and the temperature was dropping. I half-walked, half-ran down the trail, wishing I hadn’t left my phone in the car. But who would I call, even if I did have service? Mom? But I wouldn’t want to worry her. Becca had given me her number, but I didn’t think a forest rescue was what she had in mind.

The trail leveled off and narrowed to a thin ledge. To the left was the rocky drop-off into the stream, to the right the steep side of the mountain. A little creek splashed down the mountain, and the water had dripped onto the ledge and coated it with a thick layer of ice. Crossing it looked very risky. I could end up dashed on the rocks below. Instead I could go back up to the top of the ridge, and hike down the way we had come. But then I thought of the fallen tree I would have to get around, the make-shift log bridge to cross in the dark. Even if I could find the trail, it would be hours before I returned to Jake.

I had only taken two small steps across the ice when my feet started to slide. I held my breath, fighting for balance. Everything will be okay, I told myself, retreating. I just have to find a way to get across. Everything will be okay.  It was the same thing Jimmy told me when we were running out of money in Oakland, the same thing my mother told me when she came to visit me in the hospital when I got back to New York. I left Jimmy after we made the porno, with just enough money for the bus ride east. I felt nauseous and dizzy on the bus and blamed it on the diesel fumes and the stress of moving back home broke. But my period was late too and I thought I might be pregnant. I planned to borrow money from Elvira for an abortion.

The bleeding started in the middle of Pennsylvania. Elvira met me at Port Authority and instead of taking me to her place on Rivington Street, we took a cab to Bellevue.

It was an ectopic pregnancy, and I had to have surgery and stay in the hospital for three days. I wasn’t on the maternity ward, but on a wing with other would-be moms who had had some kind of trouble. My mother came, Jake came, Elvira. I was out of it for a day or two right after the surgery and when I came back to myself, I could hear a girl down the hall crying for her daughter. She called her name, Rosie, Rosie, Rosie, over and over all day long.

Was it like that for my mother? Did she feel that desperate and bereft when they took Becca away from her? At the time, while I was recovering, I just wanted the girl to shut up.

Kindness and generosity. And forgiveness too. I repeated the words like a mantra, the way I did when I thought about my father, who’d left us so long ago. I thought of him dropping to the ground to crawl on his belly to retrieve Jake’s baseball when it rolled under the back fence. I must have been six or seven. The army crawl, he called it, for tight places.  It was from his Vietnam days.

I lay down on my stomach and inched across the ice. When I no longer felt ice under my hands, I crawled a few more feet, then stood and walked. The trail blended in with the forest floor, disappearing and reappearing in the fading light. I forced myself to keep going.

The darkness was nearly complete now. I never even saw the second icy ledge.

 

I landed in a snowbank. I stood up carefully, and moved my arms and legs.  Nothing hurt. I brushed snow and ice and old leaves from my clothes and looked around to see where I was. I called Jake’s name, waited, called again. All I heard was the rushing of the stream. I made my way to the bank. Here there was less underbrush, and what little light was left in the sky came through the break in the trees above the stream bed.

It was too much to hope that Jake and I were at the bottom of the same ravine. I tried to picture the geography, but though I knew the trails, the map in my head was pretty fuzzy. I headed downstream for a few minutes, through a level wooded area, then back to the stream. I wandered toward the whitish glow of another snowbank. But when I came to it, I saw that it was the same one, the shape of my body still imprinted on it.

I sat down on a rock. The woods were eerily silent and black and I tried not to think about what other living things might be lurking out there in the trees.  I was starting to feel hungry, and went through my jacket pockets. Old ticket stubs, matches from a Brattleboro restaurant, tissues. I thought of brunch, of eggs beaten and baked into a crust, of warm sausages and bread and butter and strawberries.

This morning I had followed into the kitchen my mother when she returned for the bread she had forgotten. “Any other siblings out there I should know about?” I said, only half kidding. I unwrapped the stick of butter she’d set out on the counter.

She turned, holding out the bread knife. “I’m sure there are things in your life you’d like to forget. That you’re happy we’re not bringing up today.”

But you’ve always known,” I said, “and never said anything. That’s what I don’t get.”

My mother took her time arranging the slices of bread on a plate. I could tell I had wounded her though I hadn’t meant too. Finally she held the plate out to me.  It was the plate with the pinecone design that she used to serve cookies on when I was little. “Look, I’m sorry,” she said. “Can we just take it from here?”

I looked at her hand holding the plate, the familiar long fingers, the trim nails. Even the veins in her hand were familiar to me. My mother had a life before me, before Jake, before our father came and went. My mother had a Jimmy.

 

It was too cold to sit still. I had find Jake, get us out of here, call my mother, tell her I was going to look for a new job. Then I would drive up and see Jake’s new place, and together we’d go visit Becca.  And Andrew, too. Meet our new nephew.

It couldn’t have been much past six o’clock, and I could only hope that we were close to the road or the main trail that led up the gorge and that somebody, anybody, would happen by, close enough to hear us, or see us even, if we could manage to light a fire. I walked back to the stream. The moon appeared over the edge of the ravine, round and bright and so low in the sky it appeared extra large.

“Jake,” I called.

I heard a sound, a faint reply from far away that carried above the sound of the water, that might have been a squirrel or the wind moving through the trees. I went a little further along the stream and called again, then a little further.

“Lydia?” I heard my name again a few minutes later, more distinctly this time but still far away.  Jake was on the other side of the stream. I found a narrow place and tried to jump across but landed with both feet in the shallow water. I moved along the bank, water squelching from my boots, calling his name and hearing my own in reply, over and over again, until I found him.

 

 

 

 

BIO

Priscilla Mainardi attended the University of Pennsylvania and Rutgers University, where she earned an MFA in creative writing. Her work appears in numerous journals, including Pulse – Voices from the Heart of Medicine, the Examined Life Journal, and BioStories. She teaches writing at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey and serves on the editorial board of the online journal, The Intima.

 

 

 

 

0

Little Nell Answers the Bell

by James R. Kincaid

 

 

“It is not the death of Little Nell, but the life of Little Nell, that I object to.”
—K. Chesteron

 

 

“You realize, Nell, this Ohio Valley League we’re in is about as tough as they come.  You realize that?”

“I do, Coach.”

“’Ohio Valley’ sounds cozy, I know, like a mother’s arms, but it’s more like a brass-knuckles free-for-all when it’s football we’re talking about.”

“Uh-huh.”

“You realize that?”

“I do, Coach.”

“This isn’t the military, Nell; you can loosen up.  I want to get to know you a little, understand what’s driving you.”

“You mean what bats are flying in my belfry.  Why would a sane female want to play football?”

“I don’t mean to say you’re crazy.”

“What is it you want to know?”

“Why do you want to join the team?”

“Because it’s there.”

“Not bad.  OK, then, next question:  why do they call you ‘Little Nell’ at home?  I assume they do since I heard your brother yell that at you a couple of times in class.”

“That important to my football career?”

“Absolutely central.”

“I was named for my grandmother seven generations back, part of a string of Nell’s, all connected to Dickens’ famous—or was then—Little Nell.”

“I see.”

“Really?  You know about that?”

“Oh yeah, most famous child death in the century—fictional child death, I mean.  People crowded the New York docks as the packet ships came over carrying the latest serial part of The Old Curiosity Shop, calling out ‘Is Nell dead?’  Almost as if readers couldn’t wait for her to croak.  1840, around in there?”

“I’ll be damned.”

“Language, Nell!”

“Sorry.”

“That’s OK.  Didn’t think I’d know that, did you.  Took a lot of English classes in college, but I also Googled some stuff last night.  It sounded familiar, Little Nell, and there it was, all official and scholarly on Wikipedia.  Nell Trent, your name and hers.”

“And it’s been the name of all my Trent grandmas, Nell has.  Pretty goddamned corny.”

“Well, anyhow, foul mouth, tell me about football, which I don’t remember reading about in Dickens.”

“I’m fast on my feet, quick to learn, tough.  I can be the best running back you ever had.”

“Running back, huh?”

“You were expecting place-kicker, water-girl?”

“Maybe.  God, Nell, running back!  It’s not just open-field, you know, little of it is.  You go through the line, you block, you get the shit kicked out of you.  Not like you’re hefty, not at all.”

“Put me in coach!”

“Yeah, that John Fogarty song.  But it’s about baseball, where you’d not end up in seventeen different hospitals.  Look, Nell, I’m entirely open to you trying out, joining the squad.  But let’s be reasonable.”

“Just give me a chance, coach.  Don’t decide yet.”

What could he do but agree?

The physical arrangements—dressing area, showers, uniform, attitudes of the other players—were simple, simple, at least, compared to letting this little girl (and little she was) be a running back, participate in even one play at that position.  But how could he let her on the squad as a running back and not let her run a play from the backfield?  He could tell the boys on defense not to hit her hard, not to hit her at all, but word might get back to Nell, or the Title 9 people, or his own conscience.

So———————–

“You all know Nell Trent, I expect.  Here she is, anyhow, and we’re going to go through the playbook, Section 4-A and -B, with Nell at tailback.  She knows the plays, I think, and the rest of you idiots sure as hell should.  You’d better, as we have our first game in eight days.  OK, go get ‘em.  Defense, get ready.”

Section 4-A was safe enough, he figured:  passing plays where the tailback had sideline routes and some option runs, two to her, but even these allowing her to scoot wide and get her little tail out of bounds.

4-B was another matter:  off-tackle plays, a pitch-out that turned inside, some brutal blocking assignments.  Holy Hell!

But then it happened.  This kid, this Charles Dickens freak, not only could run routes faster than hell, she could somehow snake through the line and even block like nobody’s business, throwing herself at the ankles of boys double her size, getting herself upright in time to throw a second block.

No sign she was getting tired or, more important, mutilated.  More likely she’d cause serious injuries than sustain one.

Nell was the only one on the field not surprised by the way things were working out.  If anything, she was pissed at herself, disappointed in not shining more brightly, kicking ass more resoundingly.

* * *

The first game went well enough.  Nell played maybe a third of the plays on offense, Coach not entirely trusting what he’d seen in the practices, practices where Nell offered nothing but consistent evidence of being the best tailback in the conference – in any conference.

Still, he wanted to be cautious and limit the damage, if damage there were to be.  What damage there was, however, was all to the other team.  Nell not only scored a touchdown on a long run but managed to clear the way for a teammate to score another, caught two passes and completed another on an option.  Nobody on the field was playing at her level.

What choice did he have?

Nell, meanwhile, wasn’t exactly patient, willing to bide her time.  She understood well enough what the coach was doing and thinking, but it made her furious that he’d be such a candy-ass.  Smart enough, though, not to claw at him directly, she let loose on the kid she was getting used to bumping against in the huddle, the big and ungifted fullback. She knew him mostly by way of his ass, which she followed into the line on straight-ahead plays.  He wasn’t fast enough to block defenders on outside plays; the problem was keeping him from getting in the way of the ball carrier, her own self.

“That shit, that miserable shit!” she explained to DeCastro, the fullback in question.

He didn’t pretend to misunderstand:  “Yep.  Coach sucks.”

“He does that again next game, I’ll. . . .”

“Want me to talk to him?”

She was so stunned so forgot to abuse him:  “Would you do that?”

“Sure.  Why not?”

“Damn, that’s so nice of you – but no.  It’d seem like I didn’t have the balls to confront him myself.”

“OK.”

“You like football, De Castro?”  She had no idea why she was getting personal, as this blub was the last person she’d want to do that with, assuming she wanted to do it with anybody.

“No.”

“Why you here?”

“My dad.  Real boys play football, you know, like they also spit and cuss and fondle their balls.”

“You do all those things?”

“No.”

“Damn.”

“I’m lost out here, Nell.”

“On the field?”

“Yeah, on the field.  At school.  Everywhere.”

“Can I help?”

“Sure.  You’re the one who can.”

 

 

 

 

BIO

James R. Kincaid has published about forty stories and some novels: A History of the African-American People by Strom Thurmond (co-authored with Percival Everett), Lost, You Must Remember This, Wendell and Tyler (a new adult trilogy), Just Wally and Me, and Chasing Nightmares, along with a collection of short stories and a play, “The Court-Martial of Lt. Calley.” He has taught at Ohio State, Colorado, Berkeley, Southern Cal, and is now at Pitt.

 

 

 

0

The River Kent

by Annie Blake

 

for mein kleiner geist

 

paper is white like snow / my pen skates / scores the shine / i moved a mountain this morning / like it was running on wheels / because my five year old daughter said / look / i can now crack my own egg /

 

there was someone inside me who kept moving / i smoked a cigarette by the lake / the sun

the color of the inside of a blood orange peel / and the light of the fall / she wanted to keep trying to save kent / i held my breath / i knew dying had to do with patience / letting go of my greed

for money / when i planted my impatiens and it drowned sideways into the soil / i turned myself upright / my children were so happy / they clapped and sang like they were in a concert / saving the children of the world /

 

 

i still need to focus like the point of a spin / dive in without a splash / to retrace his old tracks / but i couldn’t suck in enough breath / showers of the holocaust / the tunnel i’m in / growl

of the sea / massa confusa / nine circles of hell / hot and spiritual / it doesn’t feel like a holy blessing /

 

i don’t want to leave men on sinking ships / children need their mothers / but if he was my son and he was all grown up /

 

i’m a gemini / twin pillars / gates of jerusalem / the east gate / jachin and boaz / promontories / there is a space on the shore where you can lie down and sunbake under its blue lights /

mountains have nipples like eyes / moist and primitive / they are still looking for something /

 

reductionists give me headaches / her voice / hollow tree / dead wood / my mouth an oval mirror  wide enough to swallow newborns / shape-shifting / inlet of her waist / the more fixed her core the more water can purpose her body / her face red / and her eyes hot and body wet in childbirth /

 

my husband shows me how to let hot water run through / till the pipes sound hollow / dirty water rises like reflux /

 

when my eyes open before dawn / i see a girl who is looking through my tallboy / i fold back

my blankets / i walk towards him / he is as tall as a man even though he is just a boy /

she said he was a hautbois / i said to her / who do you think you are / where did you come from / she continued kneeling and rummaging through my drawers like she owned them herself /

 

i told her to at least wait till i took out what i wanted / since everything belonged to me / she moved to one side / but when i searched / there was nothing there that was worth keeping / she took out all the clothes and washed them in the fireplace / bleached them till they were almost white / but i was still angry / so she put them back in my drawer / she told me to make an oboe out of all the wood / her voice was in her eyes / it came out in tufts of hair / they hurt me

like splinters of wood / she said hautbois was pitched wood or woodwind / syrinx /

 

i keep skating around on ice like my pen on paper / i have to stay in a circle

because that was one of the rules / two of my children deviated / skated through a wall

and into another room /

 

there was an underground kitchen my whole family was building / it was difficult to get into

this complex because there were skirting boards surrounding the entrance / we went down

an elevator / the kitchen could only be viewed like we were looking at it like a doll house /

it was opulent / and very expensive / we were all in a cherry picker because it was so high /

our heads were swinging and swimming like the clouds do before they break through with rain / cotton balls dipped in mud instead of chocolate / it wasn’t finished yet /

 

because idealism can never be realized /

 

i wake at five in the morning / pouring cereal like marbles into my cup / my doubts succulent

at sunset / they quaff water after a run /

 

living here is living without connective tissue / my surrogate father / hubristic like a fat balloon /  we wash our hands with spirits under the same tap / a ghost swung open the hallway doors

like the saloon doors of a country and western tavern / they told me she was curled up in a box

in the attic / or some other obscure place /

 

i broke my neck trying to wind through reeds / when i was young i thought they were weeds / i can hear a song within the ogham / crafted a flute and a whistle like the wind weaves them

for the thatching of my roof / that poke heaven / teeth through gum / she protected me

even as i dragged her around the house like a broken doll / she whines like a two year old / i have decided not to buy any more masks for my children to play with / i realized

that it was wrong of me to construct them from my own wood / i found her in a box in the attic / she was sitting in there / her legs crossed /

 

my children ask me to remember to smile when dropping them off at school / one says i look like a cross between an old man and a ghost / my other child says i’m a plum / sweet on the inside but my skin is so sour / they laugh / i frown / i say / i always smile to the children / for the grown-ups / it’s too much effort hiding what i’m really feeling /

 

a cross is hard to bear / loss pinned down with a nail on his feet / narcissistic triangulation

of families / the triangle and the trinity / hypostatic / a man with a black fencing mask is sitting fat like buddha and wrapped like an egyptian / he waits cross-legged for me /

 

i want to know the secret of nakedness and the stone soup / the girl rose and stepped up

the drawers like they were stairs / her body was blue / wings of flames / chimneys

are like cigarettes / they eventually burn out / she flew up the chimney / music of the oboe /

a channel or a river / songbird and church smoke / prima materia and flight /

au-dessus de la mêlée /

 

doors and windows can look simple / one or a hundred / zap me like static electricity / a man approached me / he said he just needed paper and spirits / i found some of my father’s whiskey and rolled up some paper / sunk it inside / message in a bottle / he gave it to me / i carried him up the drawers like i was climbing a scrubbing board / he was so heavy / his head dangled

like a newborn’s / the pain in his body made up his bones / i left him lying in the fireplace /

 

my sheer bed canopy / that reminds me how beautiful cages are not meant for birds

with wings /

 

the tiniest birds / the roundest bellies made of velvet or felt / like i dress my children’s chest /

as sticky as velcro / familiar names / i have tried so hard to forget / scare me like the groans

of planes skidding the sky when i’m supposed to feel safe in my bed / the robinia tree / the blood in rubinia and rubedo / is the most beautiful tree in my yard / but long enough to crash

into my children’s room if it falls a certain angle / my rapture in listening to what the wind

has to say is not full-bodied or pure / beauty is safety / i can never grip it for very long /

 

white journal paper / lines and snow / horizontal / snow white lies dead / horizontal like lines / schooner on a green lake when there is no smoke / she needs unity to rise to sit up like a chair /

for introspection / life and air in a glass box / holy water and fish / like saint rita in her coffin / her god gown is mystical but / i would rather sleep without it because when i sweat / my dreams are too morbid /

 

my child cries before bedtime / she said her dreams are scary because she can’t move or speak

in them / she might try to walk down the stairs and fall / i tell her i’ll come and settle her

if she cries / but she says / how will you know if you don’t hear me cry / mothers are like tooth fairies / they know how much it hurts to lose old teeth / to have a finger and money and blood

in your mouth /

 

 

i have to trust my mother / the one that’s grown with blue wings / trust she can take flight /

like airplanes flying for hours over the ocean / some birds look like fairytale animations /

i like them but i get confused / i don’t know whether these birds are made or real / they have tails / blue and precise like airplane wings / and a spoonful of sugar / marys

are always dressed in blue / she stares at me and never gives answers / i have to find the answers myself /

 

clouds pinned to wooden ceilings like cotton wood / like the overly thick eyebrows

of the president / his carrot and the stick / i’m sick of being mutually exclusive / of being patient with my legs / our feet are not a tail or wings / they tangle before i fling them into the sea /

my hand over my mouth / not to stop gulping water or to stifle a laugh / i have words that i can’t let spill /

 

i make letters from alphabet soup / anything linear and sensory that mutually exclusive people understand / they enjoy reading everything about me as long as i taste like honey /

i have a craving for sweetness / but i will never eat anything with more than eight percent sugar / i trained myself on blandness / so that i can taste hypervigilance / when everything is sweet

there’s no longer any inherent value / like sex without foreplay /

 

i walk into the bathroom and wring out the mat / i didn’t notice there was a flood / i see my shadow in the bathtub / i start panting like a hot animal / it looks like an egyptian pyramid

with long wooden legs / it’s my son / he’s sitting in a tomb or in linen / i pull up the body / i vomit skeins of threads / green and gold and a wine cork / his head is a jar / circumference

and the portal of pi / piping of the steam and the whistle of his beaks /

 

four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie /

 

 

 

 

BIO

Annie Blake is an Australian writer and divergent thinker. She is a wife and mother of five children. She started school as an EAL student and was raised and, continues to live in a multicultural and industrial location in the West of Melbourne. Her research aims to exfoliate branches of psychoanalysis and metaphysics. She is currently focusing on in medias res and arthouse writing. She enjoys semiotics and exploring the surreal and phantasmagorical nature of unconscious material. Her works are best understood when interpreting them like dreams. She is a member of the C G Jung Society of Melbourne. You can visit her on annieblakethegatherer.blogspot.com.au and https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100009445206990.

 

 

 

 

0

As I Lay Scratching

by AN Block

 

 

“Happy Valentine’s Day,” I tell my probably soon-to-be-ex-wife, Mad Lee, offering her a half-empty bottle of calamine lotion and some cotton balls.

Once we communicated just through our eyes. Today, I never know which Lee I’m going to get: Silent, Dangerous, or once in a rare while now, Romantic.

She shakes her head, as though flabbergasted I’m still hanging around, snatches the peace offering, tightens her lips, and says, “Keep your distance! Asshole!”

 

Our first so-called date, wandering around campus, amounted to a procession of awkward sound bites. Hot Lee was out of my range, but she looked so eclectic to me, even with the crazy eyes and corny holiday sweater, I got goose bumps. All I knew, this girl inhabited Planet Chameleon.

The Saturday night following I bumped into Mysterious Lee prowling the shadowy lit quad in sunglasses, wielding a flash light. “My roommate’s visiting some Yalie,” she blurted out, when I waved hello. “All weekend. Shacking up.”

“Yeah? And, I just scored some killer weed,” I told her.

“I like your style,” she said.

Shortly thereafter we landed in bed, don’t even ask how, but the fact that I’d had minimal prior amatory practice, without being dead drunk, that is, came to life quickly.

“Cool it,” she told me. “I got this.”

“Go for it,” I said, keyed up to the max. “Be my guest.”

So, Inscrutable Lee placed an ancient Paul Anka 45, Tonight My Love Tonight, on the turntable, set it to automatic replay, lit a ginger-scented candle, and we just slammed away for what seemed like an hour, before crossing the finish line in tandem.

“This,” she said, “is an omen. A new all-time record.”

We high-fived.

She brought me home to meet her mother Bella, who rolled her eyes and said, “True love? I’ll believe it when I see it. You two better shit, or get off the pot.”

We eloped four months later and spent our wedding night vowing we would never-ever-ever fall into the same traps our parents did, or settle for what they settled for in life. We would escape the cycle, liberate our consciences, stay relevant and transpire through every obstacle. Pure Lee made me swear we’d add only raw unirradiated milk and brown sugar to our coffee. We’d squeeze our own OJ.

Right after which she freaked out.

“We’re twenty-one,” she said, as we whizzed through the White Mountains on our two day honeymoon. “This is insane.”

“You’ll be twenty-two in a few months,” I said.

“But I don’t know who I am yet,” Hysterical Lee told me. “What my identity is.”

Right then, glancing up at the craggy-faced stiff lipped Old Man of the Mountain, I thought, Holy fuck, Smart Lee’s right!

“Come over here,” I said though, “and let’s play house. Worse comes to worse, we get a divorce. What’s the problem?”

“I like it,” Soft Lee said. “Hey, pull over, you.”

I got paranoid someone might de-materialize, but felt so invigorized from my Perfect Lee, I thought I’d bust. Was this really happening, could something this beautiful last?

Trouble surfaced one month in. “Ooh, Lee, thank you Lee for cooking such a delicious healthy dinner,” she’d said. “Why, Russell, so considerate of you to show your appreciation,” she continued.

One might conclude that our initial utopia had worn off.

 

Now, she stands in front of me, her eyes oblique slashes. She stops tearing at the scaly skin on her arms long enough to slather on gobs of lotion.

At times like this I go for a nice easy 7 miler, and let whatever sweat I work up drip where it may, but I’m nursing an Achilles now and there’s ice on the streets, so I stand there cringing, licking my lips.

“I’m an asshole,” I start singing, basso profundo, “I’m an asshole, I’m an asshole till I die, but I’d rather be an asshole, than a drunken Theta Chi.”

“Rules have been violated,” Righteous Lee says, and she goes on in her usual inherent manner.

“Okay, stop. Sweetheart, what are we gobbling about?” I ask her. “Did I commit the unpardonable digression of mixing whites up with reds and blues again?”

“I’ve told you, don’t throw your gross scummy nauseating clothes in with mine, ever. Do yours separately, dumb-ass.”

“No disrespect,” I say, “but isn’t there something still not quite right with you, upstairs? Shouldn’t you be still seeing that counselor-in-training?”

She goes bulimic on me. “Who ran out of gas on the highway? Who drops his oily junk oozing germs everywhere, leaving a bloody mess in his wake? Who married me under false pretenses?”

“Pretenses? Did I claim I had a neat fetish? Did I promise to fit you out in jasmine?”

“You led me to believe that you’d have a real job by now. Not tending bar. The situation is not under control, okay?”

“Hey, peace, baby.”

“Ooh, Russell Stone, high scorer on the basketball team!”

“I was.”

“Woo-hoo! At some Montessori School where your teammates just circled around the court and wouldn’t shoot the ball.”

Fill in the blanks: today it’s posing I’m an athlete, yesterday it’s how bartenders are drug pushing retro-bates who’ll lie in your face. “Weasels!” she’d said. The day before, I’m a loud “party hearty” fraternity brother polluting her air space with Old Spice.

The worst is this full-blown allergic reaction Awful Lee’s developed. She’s so fair-skinned, all I have to do is brush against her and she breaks out in rashes and welts. She starts to itch. Forget an occasional kiss, if I even dare step forward she shrinks back, scratching like crazy.

I get it: she’s trying to rewire my brain to her specifications.

What I don’t know though, being stuck in this whole allergic quagmire, is it really me, or is this more just Insane Lee?

 

 

 

BIO

AN Block teaches at Boston University, is Contributing Editor at the Improper Bostonian and a Master of Wine. Recent stories have appeared in Buffalo Almanack (recipient of its Inkslinger Award for Creative Excellence), Umbrella Factory Magazine (a Pushcart Prize nominee), Lowestoft Chronicle (a Pushcart Prize nominee), Solstice, The Maine Review, The Junto, Constellations, Contrary, and several others.

 

 

 

 

0

Herman Loves Brooke

By Anthony J. Mohr

 

 

Tonight, Herman likes what he wrote. His head rests in his hands; his fingers reach up to what’s left of his hairline before they massage their way to his temple, then down the pale cheeks to the stubble on his neck. Even though the window of Herman’s apartment is open to the marine layer that makes summer nights in L.A. so blessedly cool, he sweats, for he is gazing at Brooke’s yearbook picture.

Herman feasts on her dimples, her eyes, the bangs across her forehead. He turns to her signature, Brooke Day Lord, sloping upward in the brisk penmanship of a seventeen year-old who revels in the adoration of her peers and the love of both parents. Nothing more than her signature appears in Herman’s yearbook, not even “Good luck.”

To other classmates Brooke wrote much more. Herman has a list, taped to the wall, of her send-offs. “Loved your parties.” “Remember the dancing Sunflowers.” “I’ll never forget that concert.” And she signed every one, “Love, Brooke.”

Then there’s what Brooke wrote to Matt Harper, about the grunions. They really exist, those little fish who ride in on the waves at night to spawn on the beach. Ask anyone who lives in Southern California. Grunion hunts make Herman recall how, when they were seniors, Matt Harper snatched away Herman’s chance with Brooke, snatched her thanks to call waiting, eight minutes into Herman’s only phone conversation with her. She had asked Herman to call back. He’d tried for two hours, but this time she had ignored the call waiting signal. That Friday night Matt had taken Brooke to the football game, and eight months later, to the senior prom. Herman had watched them dance, had gaped at them until his date got angry and went home. Matt Harper is now married to a ditz named Amber, but she is a friendly ditz, and when they happened to meet four years ago, Amber  had actually invited Herman to dinner. Herman accepted so he could employ the tactic he’d used with so many other classmates: ease the conversation into their high school days and keep evoking memories until Matt had suggested they browse through his yearbook. When they reached Brooke’s photo, Herman memorized as much of her message to Matt as he could. Moments after Matt turned the page, Herman had excused himself and gone to the bathroom, where, fighting back tears, he wrote down every word he recalled.

Herman knows he is not a stalker. Others may think him dim, but Herman is smart. Indeed, Herman can be brilliant when the topic interests him, and Brooke has enthralled Herman since they’d met in English class. A normal person would have banished her to the edge of memory. But Herman is not normal. No, that is not true. It is Brooke who’s not normal. She is charming, gorgeous, always talking with someone or laughing at something. How could anyone find comfort with another girl after meeting Brooke? Despite the years that have passed since graduation, as he did in school, Herman loves Brooke.

Herman’s plan is to make Brooke come to him. Yes, he will write to her, and his missive will be long, so long that everyone, including Brooke, will call it a novel, but every word in Herman’s novel will call to Brooke Day Lord. Brooke won’t realize what Herman has done. She will hear that an old classmate wrote a book, and—Herman prays —she’ll read it. Once she starts turning his pages, Brooke will realize that everything Herman says resonates with her. Herman will offer her prose carefully culled, at times from Brooke’s own words, so that Brooke will conclude that Herman understands her so completely she will want to know him once more, this time forever. Brooke will never learn Herman’s plan, for he has not approached her since high school. Of course Herman has dated since then. One girl snorted instead of laughed. Another swore too much and prefaced her sentences with “you know.” A third couldn’t stop saying “awesome.”  Worse, none of these women liked to read. Can you blame Herman for remaining faithful to Brooke? In her senior sketch, Brooke had confessed a passion for fiction, and mutual acquaintances tell him that Brooke still devours novels. If Herman can write a novel that sells, it will get into Brooke’s lovely hands.

 

Herman reflects on the progress of his plan. First he learned to write, a feat that should stun his teachers, should they read his novel. Ms. Skovern gave him a B in English but called his work insipid. Brooke got an A in that class and went on to an elite New England college where her degree in English came with a Phi Beta Kappa key. Herman matriculated to the local community campus, where they taught him to write business memos. Since then Herman has spent many dollars to develop a voice that calls to the world, not just to the insurance company where he works as an adjuster. First came the extension classes; next, the workshops:  Aspen, Breadloaf, Sewanee. Tin House, Kenyon, Squaw Valley. Within two years Herman had become such a fixture at these gatherings that many attendees were greeting him by name.

Herman has absorbed Steinbeck and Styron, Cheever and Roth. He writes constantly, to the point that more than one instructor gently suggested that “there is nothing more I can teach you.” That was the signal to enter Phase Two, during which Herman generated words about Brooke, at sunrise and at two in the morning, words about her body and her hobbies, her pet sayings and favorite movies, palaver at first, but turning sharper not only with practice, but data mined from Google and Lexis/Nexis. Some of his information came from beefy investigators working out of dumpy offices, happy to pocket a C-note for a couple of hours’ effort. And when Herman stumbled upon former classmates, he asked them about Brooke, always making sure to focus his inquiries on someone else—have you seen Amanda Bramalea? What’s new with her?—and then, as an aside, toss in a question about Brooke. Eventually Amanda Bramalea sent Herman a polite e-mail asking him to stop spying on her. He told the bitch he would—why risk trouble?—and switched the focus of his inquires to another girl until, seven months later, she too had called to protest. Herman never cared. He and Brooke hardly talked in high school, but now, trait by trait he was discovering what to write to convince Brooke Day Lord to link her life with Herman Blix.

He knows so much about Brooke now. When a dollop of information arrives, it goes into a file consisting of notes, some typed, some scrawled, but each a window onto the girl. Many of Herman’s finds are thumb-tacked across the wall above his computer. Almost three hundred identifiers—Herman’s word for them—are ready to make their way into his text. In high school Brooke liked Mustangs; now she drives a BMW. She once invited her friends to a lunar eclipse party that started at midnight. Her parents took her to Café Swiss for her fifteenth birthday. Taped to the opposite wall are articles—chiefly from their high school newspaper and a few from her college—that mention Brooke. Naturally her senior profile is there. Beside it is a photo of the Ala Wai Yacht Harbor in Honolulu, taken from a room on the twentieth floor at the Ilikai Hotel, the exact suite where Brooke and her parents once stayed. Below it is Brooke’s wish list from Amazon.com, featuring Above Hawaii and collections of works by Picasso and Miro.  She also wants Ann Patchett’s next novel, anything by Mark Twain, and several CDs.  (Among them, three Billie Holiday albums and Fetes from Nocturnes by Debussy.)  Thanks to his investigator, Herman possesses her handwritten voter registration form and a car loan application. Next to them is the report from a handwriting analyst: The tail on her y swings back, making her “clannish.” Her self-esteem is strong because she crosses her t’s at the top of the stems. Brooke has high ideals and aspirations; look at the height of her f’s. Farther to the right hangs one of Herman’s prize catches: a copy of a paper Brooke wrote for a college English class. Some Internet bulletin board had contained a statement that her professor returned student essays by leaving them in alphabetized slots outside his office. A hundred dollar payment to a friend’s cousin back east had convinced a townie to go there early in the morning, filch the paper, make a copy, and replace it before Brooke showed up. That essay contains golden nuggets that Herman can sprinkle throughout his book.

And the two have so much in common. They like orange juice. They don’t like scallops. They don’t like Snapchat. They use initials in their email addresses. They share the same birthday month. Their mothers play bridge.

Herman relishes weaving these snippets into his plot, every word of which arrows toward Brooke. Once, during Christmas vacation, Brooke sat on her date’s glasses. The first time Brooke kissed a boy, KOST-FM was playing Al Stewart’s Time Passages.  That one hurts, but to succeed, Herman must employ such details for his project.

 

Herman’s iPod plays a suite of hits from his senior year, the last time he was near Brooke, even though they walked the halls in opposite directions. The music drives him forward, typing ever faster until his fingers produce a mash of letters on the screen. Sheryl Crow sings, “All I Wanna Do,” and Herman’s head sways. “At least you had fun, and that’s what counts,” Brooke told Herman when he awkwardly described a party to her. Herman inserts the quote at a strategic plot point. Cruisin’ by Booker T & the MG’s blasts into his ears, and he patterns a paragraph’s cadence after that instrumental.

He stops drinking his Pepsi when the iTunes queue plays Sting’s If I Ever Lose My Faith in You. Herman types to the tune. He must retain some faith in Brooke for him to pursue this project, mustn’t he? Four songs later, at two A.M., Whitney Houston belts, “I Will Always Love You.” “I will always love you, Brooke,” Herman whispers after he backs up his chapter.

 

Work is sludge-slow the following morning. Telling his supervisor he must visit a hospital to interview a man who was hurt in a fall, Herman leaves his cubicle and drives his Toyota Camry to 2517 La Presa Drive, the house where Brooke lived as a teenager. The new owner is demolishing it next week, and Herman wants a final look. Herman breaks the lock with a hammer brought along for that purpose. As he suspected, the bolt is old and weak. No one will care; they’re tearing the place down. The interior offers bare walls in bad need of paint. No matter. Herman photographs it all, fills a memory chip with pictures of the house—even the closets. Herman is proud of his imagination. He has already guessed the layout, admittedly with the help of Google Earth and drive-bys. He happily realizes that only minor revisions will be needed to the scenes that take place in her high school home. But now he can add more details that Brooke will recognize: the step down into the living room, the view from what must have been Brooke’s bedroom into a back yard full of flowers, citrus trees, and the swimming pool.

Herman resumes writing the moment he returns home. Dinner consists of a bologna sandwich, consumed between key strokes. Tonight Herman focuses on Brooke’s early years. Obviously, he has copies of her birth certificate as well as her parents’ birth certificates and marriage licenses. He has found a blog about parental traits that produce model offspring, and he creates characters based on that information. The mother has no job, although before getting married she worked in New York for a fashion magazine.  Her father is a judge, which immunizes him from the pressures of business and frees him to spend time with his child. Mom and Dad are fair, affectionate. Neither parent ever spanked Brooke. Her parents are inseparable, for only a storybook marriage can produce such a happy girl.

Herman knows less about the grandparents. He re-reads their birth certificates and marriage licenses and goes on-line to verify that they are still—my God! Coleman Day died last week at the age of ninety-three. Natural causes, it says. The brief obituary serves up four identifiers: Brooke’s grandfather graduated from Syracuse, owned a chain of hardware stores, enjoyed playing the trombone, and saw action on Okinawa. “He is survived by his wife Martha, his daughter Marian, son Leon, and his granddaughter Brooke Day Lord. Services will be private.”

Herman kills off one of Brooke’s grandfathers. Beat up your characters, they told him in his writing classes, and be merciless about it. It pains him to expose Brooke to tragedy, even in fantasy, but Herman must touch her, and what better way than by taking her alter ego through a loss that, when Brooke reads the book, will be relatively recent? Herman debates between a heart attack and a lingering death. Which hurts more? Sudden death. He won’t let Brooke say good-bye. And then comes one of those moments when Herman just knows that he’s connecting with her. He writes furiously about how Coleman used to tickle Brooke. “She laughed so easily.” Herman knows Brooke seldom played with dolls, and he has Grandpa Coleman ask her why. “‘They’re for lonely people,’ Brooke said.”  Herman pauses to consult an identifier before moving on. “That night,” he writes, “Coleman told Brooke a story about a Princess and her invisible monkey who lived in the castle. One day the monkey ran away.” Herman describes how everyone in the kingdom searched for the creature. “Brooke clapped her hands when they found it, because even though no one ever saw it, the subjects knew that the invisible monkey made them happy.” Herman checks another identifier to confirm that she called Coleman “Papa,” and then Herman takes off again, fingers flying over the keys. “’Papa,’ Brooke said in a serious voice. ‘There’s no such thing as an invisible monkey. You made that up.’” When Coleman admits he did, Brooke hugs him and says, “’Now I know how to tell a story.’”  Finally—he can do it because he is writing a novel—Herman shifts into the grandfather’s point of view for the departure scene:

“After dinner you asked how you could become a princess. Something I ate did not agree with me and I asked if you could wait until tomorrow night for the answer. Sure, you said so lovingly. Brooke, I died that night, quietly, without kissing you goodbye. I heard you at my funeral saying that now you will never know how to become a princess, but you know that stories can make you happy. Brooke, that is the only time I remember you not smiling.”

 

Two nights later Herman invents a high school boyfriend and names him Harold. (Herman refuses to give the character one of those alpha male names like Rod or Brett.) Harold resembles Herman. This part is tricky, but Herman blends a few of Matt Harper’s qualities into Harold’s psyche, not many, just enough to increase the chance that Brooke will be drawn to the character. Herman has thought clearly about this and realizes that Matt Harper has more, well, life skills than Herman. But Herman can learn. By the time the book appears and Brooke reads it, Herman hopes to possess many of the qualities he gives Harold. Harold is the man to whom she will become engaged in the final chapter.  But first he must keep them apart through college, dialing down their relationship to occasional dates when they come home for the holidays. Harold must suffer through their Diaspora: “Harold broke free from his fraternity brothers just before one vomited on the slobbering babe who was next to him, grinding hard. Reeling up the stairs to his room, Harold staggered to his desk where he opened the yearbook and read, once more, what Brooke had written on graduation day:  

Herman reaches for his identifiers. He spends an hour blending her farewell messages, and every word that emerges belongs to Brooke:

Dearest Harold,

Remember me in your lifeRemember the good times, the parties, talks, midnight swims, papers, parents, teachers, tests, grunion runs, fun, dancing, birthdays, concerts, roses, roses, roses, roses, and sunflowers! Remember them all, and remember me.

Love and love,

Brooke”

 

A hard Santa Ana wind blows the following night, but the whoosh against his window doesn’t faze Herman, for somewhere in France’s Languedoc region, Brooke skips through a field, holding hands with her European boyfriend—an Olympic ski hopeful with a diplomat for a father. He presents her with a rose and a kiss. Is Brooke vacationing or studying in Europe? Both. She’s spending a year in Florence. Where is Harold? At home that summer, missing Brooke. Beat up your characters. Harold works at a wastewater treatment plant where only the thought of Brooke allows him to survive “the acrid, putrid stench that pierced the deepest recesses of his being.”

The wind abates moments before Herman finishes the chapter and withdraws a piece of apple pie from the refrigerator. Another hour and the street sweeper will appear in a snub-nosed truck that hisses as it moves. Herman’s iPod is not playing tonight because he preferred an easy listening station, thinking it would help him write the sunflower scene. It did, but now the music makes Herman reach for the phone and dial the first four digits of Brooke’s phone number before replacing the receiver.

“It’s 63 KBDeegrees in the Southland,” the disc jockey says. “You heard Ten Sleep perform a cut off their Woodwind album. Just got a call from Daryl in Santa Monica. Says he wants to thank us for playing Ten Sleep because it gave him the nerve to propose to Carla. And Carla said yes. Congratulations, Daryl and Carla. Now if any of you want to call in and dedicate your favorite love song to someone special, the request line is open. Call 323-KBD-HITS. That’s 523-HITS. Our music may change your life as well.”

Herman telephones the station and somehow gets through. He knows that Brooke does not have a favorite love song, so he asks the request line operator to pick something heartfelt to dedicate to her. He gives his name as Harold, for his plan could be in jeopardy if Brooke learns of his love too soon.

“You sound like you really care about her,” the receptionist says in a sympathetic voice.
“Yes,” comes Herman’s instant reply, and he adds, “I love Brooke.” Herman has whispered that sentence so often in the dark, but until this moment, no one has heard it.  His eyes turn moist. To Herman, Brooke is there, her perfect head resting on his shoulder.
“We’ll get it right on for you. I have a good feeling about you and Brooke.”
Whoever answered that phone keeps her word. “We just got a call from Harold, in Tarzana. He wants to dedicate a special song to Brooke. Are you listening, Brooke?  Because I think Harold loves you. Here it is, for you, Brooke. Harold’s a good man.  Don’t let him get away.”

The DJ plays the Luther VanDross version of Superstar. Herman stares vacantly across the room at the window through which only inky black is visible. He wonders if Brooke is listening. Is she with anybody tonight? She must be, even though last week Herman confirmed that Brooke is still single. Tears drop from Herman’s eyes, and he doesn’t bother to wipe them away. The music transports him to a beach on a night when  every inbound wave shimmers with grunions en route to the sand where they will lay their eggs and try their best to escape Herman and Brooke’s laughing attempts to catch them. She was supposed to be his girlfriend. If Matt Harper had waited one more minute before poaching on their phone call, Brooke would have hunted grunions with Herman, not Matt. She actually had asked him to take her come the summer. Since their phone call had occurred on October 10 (Herman still has that year’s calendar with October 10 circled), Brooke was asking for a date eight months hence, a date to spend hours with Herman in the dark, waiting for the grunions to arrive. In what would have been one of the few suave remarks Herman ever made in high school, he was about to reply, “You’re on, Brooke. How’s June 29? But I hope I get to see you before then.” But he never uttered those words, because Brooke had suddenly said she had another call, the call from Matt Harper.

Finally, Herman is ready to write about the grunion hunt that should have been theirs. Once he does, his first draft will be complete, ready for editing. Before starting that chapter, however, Herman must make certain preparations. He’ll begin tomorrow. He has saved enough money.

 

He calls in sick. Then, armed with a copy of the Times’ real estate section, Herman drives to Sunnyvale, the neighborhood where Brooke lives. His chest tightens as he turns onto Starlight Drive, Brooke’s street, a lane graced by eucalyptus trees. Herman avoids the urge to pass by her off-white cottage with its red shutters and roses in the yard. He has enough pictures of it. Instead he turns onto Jupiter Way, where he spots the house for rent. It is the closest available dwelling to Brooke’s, but its address is 12874, and Brooke once swore she would never live at an address with five numbers, so neither will Herman. Slightly farther away is a stucco duplex at 1103 Neptune Drive. From the roof, he can see Brooke’s chimney. He puts down a month’s rent. Being this close, Herman ardently hopes, will provide added inspiration as he writes the grunion scene and polishes his manuscript.

 

Nightfall. Tired after transporting his computer and reassembling his identifiers on the walls, Herman faces the empty screen. No words come. He climbs to the roof, where he sees Brooke’s chimney etched against golden moonlight. Still no words. Herman walks the neighborhood, as near to her house as he dares, and he lingers there until words emerge from wherever in his brain they slumber. Repeating the nascent phrases under his breath, he races back to his keyboard. Tonight, yards from where Brooke sleeps, Herman finishes that phone conversation, and his alter-ego Harold drives to the beach with Brooke.

Herman writes furiously without making a sound except for one “oh shit” when he accidentally deletes a phrase. Harold’s meeting Brooke’s parents in the foyer, the small talk Brooke and Harold share en route to the beach, the taste of the roast beef sandwiches Brooke made for their picnic—Herman piles on the identifiers. As they eat the carrots and celery she packed, Brooke and Harold talk of English class and Student Council, of ball games and algebra. After finishing Brooke’s chocolate chip cookies, they saunter along the beach, holding hands until the waves turn silver with grunion and Brooke runs toward the water. Herman peppers his prose with her trademark shrieks: “Neat,” as she sees the fish riding in on the waves, “Ick,” when she tries to pick one off the sand. Even when his iPod runs out of tunes, Herman does not stop typing. He hears no sound now except the tap-tap of fingers on keys. When the street sweeper whines past at three-thirty A.M., Herman doesn’t pause to look. Although the grunion run is over, the couple is not ready to drive home. They sit quietly in Harold’s Mustang, conversing through the night, listening to the surf, until Brooke announces that recently, a friend taught her to play the harmonica. The moment Harold says he would like to hear a song, she withdraws the  instrument from her purse and launches into Row Row Row Your Boat. Then Harold accepts her invitation to play, but he never makes it to the first merrily. After he blows  futile air, Brooke musses his hair and says he’s “cute.” He gives her back the harmonica, their hands touch, and then their fingers interlock. Neither speaks. Brooke and Harold are about to experience a sunrise, and so is Herman, who drips with sweat. His stubby fingers start missing keys at the same time that Harold’s fingers caress Brooke’s cheek. Herman has injected every joule of energy he possesses into this fictive moment. The lingering kiss at dawn, written the moment the sun illuminates Brooke’s chimney, makes Herman shiver, as does Harold when Brooke purrs, “That’s so good.”

 

On the day his lease at Neptune Drive ends, Herman finishes the book. Writing with Brooke nearby has yielded spectacular results, impelling Herman to hone his prose beyond what he believed his abilities allowed. Now, his last night near Brooke, one task remains before he performs the final spell-check and the final back-up. He needs to change Brooke’s name. To have done so earlier would have eliminated the impact that typing her name has had on him. Slowly, fighting his fingers which drag on the mouse pad, he slides the cursor up and left to the Edit prompt and clicks. The word “Find” appears. Another click. “Find what:” “Brooke,” Herman types. He feels unfaithful to her, but he must continue. Click number three: “Replace.” Up comes “Replace with:” Herman pauses. He is certain he’d feel just as nauseous if he were about to knife Brooke. “Do it,” he calls out and forces his fingers to type—he’s struggled for months to pick a name—“Jennifer.” Herman exhales before forcing his cursor to the “Replace All” tab. He grips his mouse harder. Press, and Brooke disappears from his book. “Darling, I didn’t want to hurt you,” Herman says aloud after he absorbs the message on his monitor: “Word has completed its search of the document and has made 1,104 replacements.” One more global search and replace, and Brooke Day Lord becomes Jennifer duPaige.

Tomorrow he will begin the hunt for a publisher. He knows it will take time, and he expects rejections. Charlotte Bronte, Agatha Christie, James Joyce. They all were turned down. Herman will be patient and persistent, and if he fails to place his novel, he will  publish it himself and seed every bookstore in Sunnyvale with copies. If he must, he’ll pay the merchants to display them. To place a copy before Brooke’s green eyes—Herman asks for nothing more.

 

The creamy white envelope jiggles between Herman’s fingers until he mangles it open and withdraws the check, a small advance but high for this little publishing house that Herman found on the Internet. But after months of queries and form letters saying no, Herman feels too shocked to scream, and he feels too good to cry. Wanting to do something besides stare at the draft, Herman bolts from his apartment and drives out to Brooke’s neighborhood, where he navigates his Camry along a route that resembles a comet’s elliptical orbit, streaming in from afar to approach but not touch Brooke’s Starlight Drive home before retreating into the cosmos via Moonridge Way and out to Morningstar Avenue until it intersects with Aurora, and Herman can retrace his orbit once more. As he drives, Herman ponders the effect his novel will have on Brooke. Will she reach for the phone or e-mail him? Will she suggest a grunion hunt or coffee? His book should appear in April, cool for the California beaches but a month into grunion season. They’ll meet at Starbucks, the one off the Coast Highway, a mile from her house, where they will giggle together as they plan their belated grunion hunt. Brooke will pack a picnic dinner, and Herman will find the best place to encounter those delightful little fish.

 

Herman remains disappointed that Brooke did not attend the launch party, held, at his insistence, in a book store near her home, even though within days his work is galloping up Amazon.com’s list. Reviewers warmly welcome him as a “new voice, mature beyond his twenty-nine years.” The publisher’s Monday morning flash reports stagger Herman. Several weeks later, his editor calls with the formal announcement: Herman has written a best-seller. The author manages to whisper thank you before stumbling to his couch where he lies torpid for the rest of the day, watching Brooke against his closed eyelids as she reads his pages and emits dainty gasps. Images of Brooke’s “aha” response remain with Herman for weeks, through speaking engagements in bookstores stocked with comely women who stroke their hair and try to flirt with Herman while he autographs their volumes. They want you, the Denver store manager says with a trace of envy. They think Harold is you. Harold is so caring, so devoted to Jennifer. Harold is a SNAG—sensitive new age guy. That’s you, Herman. But Herman remains expressionless as he signs his name, politely accepts the business cards women hand him, and sleeps with none of them, doesn’t even fantasize about them. Instead Herman repairs to his room in whatever hotel his publisher has ensconced him in whatever city he is visiting, and wonders if Brooke will contact him tomorrow. It’s been weeks since the publication date. Surely tomorrow an e-mail from Brooke will appear on his screen. Surely tomorrow.

But tomorrow does not bring Brooke Day Lord. Instead a studio executive calls, and a week later, when Herman enters the patio at The Ivy, the executive actually turns off his iPhone and exclaims that Lamm Brown has agreed to play the part of Harold. Dude, that’s huge. He’s got two Oscars. And we’re casting Alexandra Fields as Jennifer. She loved your book. Dude, she’s single. You hear what I’m saying? Now have your people call so we can make a deal. Herman hears but does not taste as he swallows his young greens. En route to the bathroom, he surveys the patio, for he knows that Brooke frequents this restaurant.

 

Herman misses it when he checks his e-mails the next morning. The suite of fan messages is especially long and he does not notice the initials “bdl.” Only later when he scans the list again does Herman see, in the “subject” column, “Congratulations from Brooke Day Lord.” Herman’s trembling hand cannot control his mouse. The cursor resembles a seismograph as it whips down the screen. If this is what he thinks it is, he is poised to embark on a new life. They will have so much to talk about, so much to do. And they’re still young, their lives ahead. Herman allows himself a two-second smile before his mood plunges and he wonders if he can hold Brooke’s interest through even one date. It took over a decade to craft the precise phrases that, he finally knows, have touched her. He won’t have time to do that during their first dinner, let alone across the rest of his life. Herman tries to reassure himself. Brooke has written. He has won her. With that thought, Herman double-clicks Brooke’s e-mail. Her words burst onto the screen, and Herman immediately hits the print key, fearful that a computer malfunction will make her precious electrons scatter. Only when he holds the hard copy in his hand does Herman stop shaking enough to be able to read:

“Congratulations on your book. It’s good to see a classmate doing well. Sincerely, Brooke”

Herman dives for the landline. He will not risk a dropped call by using his cell phone.

 

As his fingers race across the keyboard, Herman occasionally pauses to fork a dollop of apple pie into his mouth, eating it slowly, getting all the juices. He finishes his treat moments before the street sweeper arrives. It comes earlier here on Jupiter Court. The advance for his second book has enabled Herman to buy a house on this Sunnyvale street, less than a quarter mile from where Brooke lives. He sits there now, in his capacious writing space above the three car garage that contains Herman’s new BMW, the same model as Brooke’s. Taped to the left of Herman’s monitor is Brooke’s e-mail. He needs her inspiration. The sequel is harder to write, because his first cry to Brooke consumed Herman’s choicest identifiers, forcing him to rely on anecdotes he initially rejected. Oh, he can re-use some of her key speech patterns, but now Herman has to mine deeper for prose that will summon Brooke into his arms. Fortunately, the royalties permit him to hire a better investigator.

Whenever Herman becomes too tired to write, he estimates the weeks it will take to finish his book, the months before it’s published, and the date Herman might hear again from Brooke. At least a year and a half, more likely two years. Herman and Brooke will have entered their thirties, still time to start a family, still young enough to have fun. Herman remains optimistic. Brooke is still single. And did she not contact him? Yes, but when he phoned and left a message on her voicemail (“Hi, Brooke, this is Herman Blix. I really appreciated your e-mail and would love to talk to you.”), she didn’t call back. She also  ignored his second call. Is his Brooke that shy? He knows he can get her to come, this time to stay. And they’ll go grunion hunting. They will pick a silky night and pack a picnic and….

Stop daydreaming, Herman commands himself. Finish the book. Herman’s fingers take off again, tapping tapping tapping on the keys, reaching for the words that will make Brooke seek him once more.

 

He notices the e-mail three nights later only because he recognizes the name: Amanda.Bramalea@carefree.net. Even then Herman delays reading the message until his creative energy wanes, which tonight does not occur until three A.M.

“Oh my dearest Herman,

I am stunned at the way your book touched me. You kept me up all night, which is amazing because, as your character Jennifer says, sleeping is one of my favorite pastimes. When I finished, there were tears in my eyes and a smile on my lips. 

Herman, I am so sorry I suspected your motives last year. If only I had realized how you felt about me. I sensed you next to me turning the pages, saying all the right words. You know me so well, but how can that be?  We hardly talked to each other in school. I had no idea you were so perceptive. How did you learn about me and roses and sunflowers? I love them and love them. And calling Jennifer The Cat. I always wanted that nickname in school, but that flit Brooke Day Lord got it because she had green eyes. And she was allergic to cats. Fred, my little kitty, has blue eyes, just like mine.  Had I known what you were really like back thenoh well, that opportunity has passed. But has it really? We’re still young, aren’t we? If sixty is the new forty, our twenty-nine has to be the new fourteen. Okay, seventeen. That means we’re still kids. Herman, let’s be kids together. It’s fun to be a kid, isn’t it? Oh listen to me, so forward. What I mean is, let’s spend time together, while we’re twenty-nine and carefree. Let’s pick a night when the grunion are running. Do you have any idea how few people have ever seen a grunion run? You and I know that those fish are not mythical creatures. We’ve actually seen them, and it would be magical to be by your side the next time I watch a grunion ride in on a wave. If you will indulge me, I have to tell you about my last grunion hunt. It was in June after we graduated, and I was with Justin. I had packed a picnic dinner, and we drove down to the beach….”

To read the rest of Amanda’s e-mail, Herman must scroll down. He does not. He deletes it after scribbling the new identifier and taping it to his wall. Brooke is allergic to cats.  Herman did not know that until now.

 

BIO

Anthony J. Mohr’s work has appeared or is upcoming in, among other places, DIAGRAM, Eclectica, Evening Street Review, Hippocampus Magazine, North Dakota Quarterly, Saint Ann’s Review, War, Literature & The Arts, and ZYZZYVA. He has been anthologized in California Prose Directory (2013), Golden State 2017, and elsewhere. His work has received five Pushcart Prize nominations. He is an associate editor of Fifth Wednesday Journal. Once upon a time, he was a member of the LA Connection, an improv theater group.

 

 

 

 

“Herman Loves Brooke” originally appeared in the May 2008 issue of Word Riot.

 

 

 

 

0

Gail

by Lily Tierney

 

Gail just started her new job at a bank, and she could not help but notice the furtive looks the other employees were given each other.    Gail didn’t know it then, but they were betting how long she would last.   It seems that they have a constant turnover with this particular job.  The job is stat typing long charts that seem to go on forever.  Gail knew what she was getting herself into, but her unemployment was just about to run out when this company hired her.    It sounded like a lot of work with little pay, but she thought it was better than nothing.

So today she is sitting up straight typing a bunch of numbers bored as hell.  Gail knew everyone was watching her especially the supervisor.  Her name was Gertrude, but they called her Trudy.  Her hair was completely gray, and she bragged about having all of her own teeth.   Her skin was surprisingly smooth without many wrinkles, and she wore high heels to make up for her diminutive height.    She was well past retirement putting her age at about seventy two or seventy three.  She was an old battle axe that kept her eyes on Gail all the time.   One time she rushed back from lunch to make sure Gail had enough work to do.   The other employees pretty much stayed away from Gail because they were afraid of Trudy.  On the other hand, Trudy stayed on their good side by not demanding too much from them.  If she tried any nonsense with them, they would bully her out of her job.  They all knew she didn’t really have any job, but came in each day to keep an eye on the stat typist.  Gail was given one break in the morning, and had exactly one hour for lunch.  One day, she tested Trudy by coming back a few minutes late.

“Gail, I expect you to be back on time.  I don’t tolerate any lateness.  You’re getting paid to be here to do your work,” Trudy scolded Gail in front of her co-workers.

It was the same with coming in the morning and going home at night.  If Gail was a minute or two late, the old battle axe was mouthing off about it.  The other employees would come and go as they pleased taking their time coming back from lunch.  Trudy would not say a word pretending not to notice.

Gail kept to the everyday grind wondering how long the previous typists lasted.  When she got her first paycheck, she felt a little better but not much.  She knew she had to get the hell out of this job.  It was the worst she ever had.  The bank rented five floors in the building.  Gail was on the elevator going to lunch when it stopped on the floor below.  A very professional looking man walked into the elevator and smiled at Gail.  She thought to herself that he must not know the rules about speaking to the stat typist.

“Hi, I have seen you around.  My name is Hank,” he said.

“Hello, I’m Gail the new stat typist on the floor above yours,” Gail said, taking a closer look at Hank.

“Are you going to lunch?  Well, how about if we go together?” he asked.

“Yes,” Gail blurted surprised by her forwardness.

Gail was a cute blonde in her thirties with an alluring smile.  She had beautiful green eyes that most men could not look away from.  Hank was under her spell.

“I don’t know much about the bank.  I am an outside auditor, and have been here for about a month,” he said.

“I’ve been here for only a week myself,” Gail said.

“How is your job?”  Hank asked.

All she could do was look silently at him with a little smirk on her face.

“I get it,” he said laughing.

She explained the job to him, and then told him about Trudy.  He listened shaking his head from side to side.  Gail admitted she would be going out on interviews soon.  She did not intend to stay there any longer than she had to.  Hank laughed and agreed with her.

“If you want, I could check with my company to see if they are hiring,” he said.

“That would be great,” Gail exclaimed happily.

Gail looked at her watch and realized she would be late coming back from lunch.  She finished her food, and explained to Hank she had to get back.

“Please, sit back down,” he said, grabbing Gail’s arm.

“But, I really have to go,” she exclaimed.

He picked up both checks and paid, and walked with her back to the office.

“Thank you for lunch.  I really enjoyed myself for a change,” she said, looking at Hank.

“How about you give me your number, and we can get together some time?” he asked.

“I would really like that,” she said, looking for a piece of paper and a pen.

She quickly wrote her number down and handed it to Hank.   They rode the elevator up together, and Gail watched Hank get off on the floor below hers.  The elevator doors closed and all she could think of was Trudy’s mean twisted face.  She arrived on her floor walking quickly back to her desk.   To her surprise, Trudy was nowhere in sight.  Gail sat down and started typing her numbers.  Then she heard Trudy’s loud mouth.  Apparently, she was having lunch with her granddaughter.  Well, wouldn’t you know Trudy was late coming back herself.  Gail was seething sitting there typing.  She felt like she was in a sweatshop or worse. Once, when she was in the bathroom getting ready to go home, she overheard two women talking.  They were guessing when Gail would quit.  One asked whether or not she would walk out like the last one did, or actually give notice.

Sitting at her desk, Gail felt like picking herself up and walking out.  She hated the job, but she knew she needed it.  She sat and continued to type the stupid numbers.  Trudy was talking and laughing with her granddaughter, on company time, and watching to make sure Gail was typing her fingers to the bone.  Trudy knew Gail hated her and the job equally.  It was some kind of game they all played with the stat typist to help the days go by.  If they were having a bad day, or something personal was bothering them, all they had to do was look over at the stat typist and think how lucky not to be her.

The day finally came to an end, and she hauled ass out of there.  It was 5:01 p.m. when she walked toward the elevator.  It was empty when she got on and it stopped on the floor below.  Hank walks in and was surprised to see Gail.

“Are you heading straight home?” he asked.

“No,” she replied.

“Well why don’t we go to dinner?” he asked.

“I would love to,” Gail replied.

At dinner, Gail tried to unwind from a hectic and stressful day.  Hank realized how much the job was affecting her.  Hank was divorced with no children in his forties.  He was a pleasant looking man who looked distinguished with his glasses.

“Do you know anything about the numbers you are typing?” He asked Gail.

“I don’t know or care, but there is definitely something going on.  There is something weird about Trudy hiring me, because she knew I had no intention of staying,” Gail stated flatly.

“Anything else strange that you have noticed?” he asked.

“Everything,” remarked Gail half-joking.

“Do you think you could make copies of the stats you are typing?” he asked.

Gail looked shocked and surprised.  All she could think was something was fishy.  She thought of Trudy and a disgusted feeling washed over her.

“Yes, I can make you copies,” she said.

Hank smiled and looked very pleased.

The next day at work all Gail could think of was how to make copies of the charts she had already typed.  She needed a miracle and got one.  That afternoon one of the employees on the floor below them was having a birthday celebration.  Everyone including Trudy went to the party leaving Gail alone on the entire floor.  Gail took the charts and hurried to the Xerox Room to make copies.  She kept listening for anyone that might be coming back.  She heard no one.   She quickly came back to her desk putting the copies in her pocketbook.  She put the originals in the bin that Trudy would take at the end of the day.   She heard someone approaching, and saw Trudy coming back.  Gail sat back down and immediately started typing ignoring Trudy.  Trudy ran over to the bin removing the typed charts placing them in her desk drawer, then went to the ladies room.  Gail dialed Hank’s extension, and let it ring three times then hung up.  Gail thought to herself she could not wait to give Hank the copies.

At five o’clock Gail picked herself up without saying goodnight to Trudy and headed toward the elevators.  Hank was waiting across the street in the coffee shop.  She walked in and handed Hank the copies of the charts she had made.

“Gail, I am so proud of you.  You don’t know how much this means,” he told Gail in a very sincere tone.

“I am glad to help,” Gail said, looking triumphantly at Hank.

Hank suspected there was enough evidence in the charts to charge Trudy and her accomplice with bank fraud.  Her accomplice worked on the same floor as Hank, and was a co-worker she knew for years on the job.  His name was Steve, and he was married with five children.  Surprisingly, no one knew they knew each other.  The two were fraudulently obtaining loans with fake documents.  Steve would approve the loans then deposit the money into his account.  He would then transfer the money immediately into a foreign bank account by international wire transfer.

The next day at exactly nine o’clock in the morning, FBI agents were waiting for Trudy and her co-worker Steve.  Gail watched as the FBI handcuffed Trudy leading her out toward the elevators.  Steve on the floor below got the same treatment.  The employees were all in shock, and some started to walk over toward Gail to see if she knew anything about it.  Gail ignored them, picking herself up and headed toward the elevators for the last time.  She was starting a new job the following week with Hank as his assistant.  She could hardly wait!

 

 

BIO

Lily Tierney’s work has appeared in Harbinger Asylum, Veil: Journal of Darker Musings, The Stray Branch,  Illumen Magazine, Polu Texni, and many others.  She enjoys reading and writing poetry.

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

José María Writes A Story

by Annette Freeman

 

“You know very well you’re not real.” —Lewis Carroll

 

A man met another man going towards the faculty office. It was last Wednesday evening, and I overheard their conversation. I was waiting for a bus. The two men stopped to speak, and I heard one ask the other if he knew the story of the English Department colloquium that had taken place some years ago, the one which prompted the decision to remove Experimental Fiction from the curriculum. The second man said he had not been there himself, but he had heard the story from someone who had been present. I happened to have some information about this famous (or infamous) incident, and I turned towards the two men. I introduced myself and apologised for interrupting them. After explaining the reasons for my interest in their conversation, and also intimating that I had some details about the incident in question, I abandoned the bus stop and we all retired to the faculty common room. We settled down to listen to the story that the second man had heard from someone who had been there.

 

“This was six or eight years ago,” he began. I interrupted briefly to suggest that it could have been as many as ten. He nodded in assent, and continued. “A group of English post-grads had gathered over an evening wine in the campus courtyard café. There were six or eight in the group and the topic under discussion was The Story. I mean, of course” (he said) “the concept of narrative as a vehicle for revealing life, truths — or lies. Each of the students present had a different view. One argued deeply for the merits of Moretti’s views on distant reading and the irrelevance of the canon. Another was passionate about Barthes’ views on the pleasures of the text. Yet another was a fanatic about Borges and talked for half an hour about labyrinths. Each had a particular spin on how fiction worked, and what the limits were (or even if there were any) on what a writer could achieve.  After four or five of the students had given their views, each subtly different but equally earnest, there was a pause as a waitress hurried towards them bringing the pizza they’d ordered.”

It was at this point that I was able to interrupt again with the information that I had been that waitress. My companions were surprised and interested. I explained that I had been an undergraduate at the time, working a part-time job, and I’d managed to overhear only mere snatches of the now-legendary discussion, but I’d heard enough to make me wonder ever since just precisely what was said. I was intensely excited to have the chance to finally find out. Our companion continued.

“An older member of the group, a man with studious glasses and a striped scarf, returned from the bar with another bottle of house white (legend has it that it was chardonnay) and began refilling glasses. His companions reminded him that he had not yet given his views on the subject of The Story. His name was Dr. Joseph Martin and his specialty was Experimental Fiction, particularly that in the Hispanic tradition. Dr. Martin took a comfortable cross-legged posture on the couch and said that, indeed, he had a story for them. “Back in the ‘nineties,” he said, “I borrowed a copy of Lewis Carroll’s Alice Through The Looking Glass from a fellow I knew at school. He’d been given the book by a great-aunt, and he presented me with an anecdote to go along with it. I’ll tell you what he told me, and though I can’t vouch for the authenticity of it one way or the other, I’ve always thought that it had the ring of truth. You’ll have to decide for yourselves.” The students assumed expressions of alert interest. They approved of unreliable narrators, and prepared to engage with this story, whatever it was.

“Inside the front cover of the Lewis Carroll novel” (he went on) “given to my school friend by his great-aunt was a dedication, inked there in copper-plate handwriting: “To Mary Jo, from an admirer.” The great-aunt, whose name turned out to be Maria, told her great-nephew that she’d bought the book at a second-hand bookshop, long since closed, and that she’d found inside it, not only the inscription, but also a set of thin-folded pages.”

At this point, the students in the group couldn’t help some light-hearted jeering. The story was already difficult to believe, and it had barely begun. But their companion assured them that he was getting to the point, and that it was a point worth considering. He continued:

“My school friend and I discussed at some length how these pages might have found their way into the novel, and who their author might be. I wondered about the proprietor of the second-hand bookshop (who had been a notorious eccentric), but my school friend suspected his Great-Aunt Maria, a busty spinster who favoured pink crimplene outfits and who was known in their family for her pretensions to be a writer of fantastical allegories. When you hear the story told by those pages, you may understand why we were so interested in knowing their authorship.”

“Joe Martin was certainly a raconteur,” said the man who was telling us this story. “He knew how to craft the build-up, the hook, the tension, the telling details.” Certainly, I have never forgotten that pink crimplene outfit (though I had to Google ‘crimplene’). We had found a bottle of chardonnay in the common room fridge, overlooked from the last faculty drinks, and had settled down to listen, unconsciously mirroring the students in the story. The man who knew from someone who had been there, went on:

 

“ “This is the tale that was in that hand-written manuscript,” said Joe Martin. “My school friend had read the pages through as soon as his great-aunt had given them to him. He’d read them lying on his stomach on the floor of his bet-sit, on the floral carpet with the smell of dust in his nostrils. The hand-writing was, he told me (for I never saw the sheets myself) clear and legible, in blue ink; and the prose was literate and straight forward, leaving no ambiguities as to its meaning. It told a well-made story which followed a classic arc.”

The students protested: would he never get to the plot-line? Half the bottle of chardonnay was already gone, and they needed more pizza. At last he began…

“There was once…” What could be more classic than that opening? It lacked only the dark and stormy night, as I remarked to my companions in the faculty common room. “There was once a thin bearded man, a lawyer, who ran his own practice from an office in the city. Which city was not specified, but from the details which followed, I assumed it to be” (said Dr. Martin) “a modern western city in the 1970s or 1980s. The area of law in which he practised focused principally on commercial disputes. His days were filled with leases, contracts, commercial property, intellectual property, dictation to his secretary, and the reading of letters from his clients transferring their problems to him. In short, it was not a life that our hero found particularly congenial.”

I interrupted again at this point, as I wanted to know whether the story-teller’s use of “hero” indicated that we were going to hear a conventional Joseph Campbell arc; but our friend said no, Joseph Martin had merely adopted that term in re-telling the story to indicate the principal male protagonist, whose name was not yet revealed but which would be, momentarily. I nodded, and urged him to go on.

“Our hero was a great book lover. In his small apartment, where he lived alone, he had many books stored lovingly on bookshelves built for the purpose. There was little else in the apartment, as our hero was not someone who valued what he derisively called ‘things.’ In fact, apart from a large sofa which was also his bed, and a cupboard for his clothes, and of course a bathroom, the apartment held little other than the impressive array of books.

Many of these books had not yet been read by our hero, but his view was that a library of unread books was much more valuable than a library of books already read. Amongst his titles were the Karma Sutra, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, and Lewis Carroll’s Alice Through The Looking Glass. As soon as he had time he planned to read The Tibetan Book of the Dead, as he thought from its title that it would be a book after his own black heart. As to the Karma Sutra, he had purchased this in his youth when he had been under the spell of eroticism, but of late his interest in this subject had been waning. While he continues to admire pretty women, and is not immune to the pleasure of contemplating an impressive cleavage across a dinner table, these days he finds himself bored by the messy and brief business of sex. Alice Through The Looking Glass had been given to him by an aunt.

There was no kitchen in the ascetic apartment. Our hero ate all of his meals at a small bar downstairs where the waiters knew him, as he was such a frequent customer. He had his preferred seat on a stool at the window bench where he could read the daily newspaper, drink two or three espressos, and work himself up into a rage against the politicians of the day. After he’d been frequenting the bar for several months the waiters began to address him as ‘José María,’ which was not his name. He assumed that either they had mistaken him for someone else, or they had christened him with this Spanish name because of his dark beard and his habit of swearing colourfully under his breath while reading about politics (both well-known Latino traits.) He never corrected the waiters; he smiled to himself behind his beard when they called him José María. He liked the idea of having a nom de guerre, his real name unknown. He was a solipsist at heart, he thought.

One day, fed up with his daily work at the office, our hero decided that he would write a story. All his reading had convinced him that he too could write like those published authors” (the listening chardonnay drinkers smiled wryly in appreciation of this sentiment) “and in any case, his story would not be published. He would write for his own satisfaction.” (Chardonnay glasses were raised in salute.) “So in the afternoon he moved the hated commercial files from his desk, told his secretary that he was not to be disturbed, closed his office door firmly, and sat at his desk to write. He felt that he had some important and interesting things to say. For some time past he had been thinking, while driving to work, about a short story that he wanted to tell.

The story has as its heroine a woman, quite attractive, short, dark-haired, a nose like a strawberry and prone to smile a lot. José Marìa calls this character ‘Mary Jo’. He is pleased with this sobriquet, alluding as it does to his own pseudonym. This story, his first, describes Mary Jo as a rather eccentric person who lives alone, enjoys the company of handsome men, likes to read and to drink wine, and is a loyal friend. In the story, Mary Jo is taken out to dinner by a handsome bearded man, and the couple orders a good Rioja with their meal. It turns out that the bearded man” (who seems rather similar to someone we know, said Joe Martin) “is an incorrigible gossip. He asks Mary Jo a lot of questions about mutual friends of theirs, and about her love life. Since she is rather drunk, she happily gossips along with him. As the meal is finishing they are still chatting together amicably and maliciously. Mary Jo asks if the restaurant would serve her a glass of champagne. Champagne is one of Mary Jo’s weaknesses. The bearded man gallantly orders a whole bottle of Moet et Chandon and the two proceed to enjoy it together.

At this point in the conversation the bearded man asks Mary Jo to tell him an interesting story about her past love life. Mary Jo, it turns out, is a woman of little discretion who cannot hold her drink, and consequently she tells the bearded man about an affair she had in the past. This affair involved a love triangle and made a particularly interesting story, and the bearded man was well repaid for the champagne he had bought. The high point of Mary Jo’s anecdote came when she let slip a crucial detail about the man with whom she’d had the affair, whereupon the bearded man exclaimed: “I know him!” And indeed he did; and Mary Jo was mortified, even through the champagne haze.

Our hero, the putative José Marìa, was pleased with his first attempt at writing a story. He felt that his little tale illustrated the perfidy of the female and the reasons why sex is nothing but trouble. He drove home satisfied, and enjoyed dinner and a glass of red wine in the bar where they called him José Marìa, smiling behind his beard.

The next day he was sitting at his desk in the afternoon, dealing with the many terrible letters from his clients who wanted him to do many things immediately, and he was feeling put-upon and tired of it all. Perhaps, he thought, I will leave all this behind and become a full-time writer of clever and revealing stories. His secretary came to his door to announce that he had a visitor. A woman had arrived without an appointment and according to the secretary she was anxious to speak with him as soon as possible. Our hero put aside his daily mail and politely welcomed his new client into his office. The secretary closed the door as she went out and the visitor sat in the comfortable visitor’s chair in front of the desk. She was a short woman with dark hair, a distinctive strawberry-shaped nose, and a worried look. Our hero did not find her unattractive but he had sworn off all that sort of thing lately; he repressed any erotic thoughts. As he looked at his visitor she seemed strangely familiar, but he couldn’t place where he might have known her.

She soon came to the point of her visit. She blurted out her troubles, telling our hero that her name was Mary Jo, and that she had come to consult him, as a lawyer, about what she could do to stop a serious breach of confidential information. ‘José Marìa’ was dumbfounded. In a blinding light he recognised his visitor.

“But you cannot come to me for help!” he said. “You are my character and I am your author!”

At this Mary Jo burst into tears and the result was that José Marìa found himself in the peculiar situation of warmly embracing and comforting his own fictional character.”

By now the students drinking wine in the courtyard were laughing. I, waitressing at the time, was clearing glasses from nearby tables and I distinctly remember this moment, though I had no real idea of what had caused the outburst. I now learnt that the post-grads suspected Joe Martin of concocting this whole tale as a post-modern joke — the school friend, the manuscript in Alice Through The Looking Glass, the pink crimplene. Why couldn’t you tell us this funny tale without all that backstory, they asked? But he insisted that the story wasn’t his, that he had heard it from his friend who had found it in a book given to him by his great aunt Maria. And he went on: “it has another side, if you’ll stop scoffing for long enough to hear it.” The students urged him to explain himself, and he continued the story:

“Despite the fact that Mary Jo was a character whom José Marìa had invented in a short story, she felt real enough to him when he had his arms around her in a strong hug. Although he had recently decided that sex gave very little return on investment, this hug was pleasurable to both of them, and soon the author found himself in the possibly unique position of having an affair with a character from his own story.

But being the kind of man he was, José Marìa could not think about settling down domestically for more than an infinitesimal moment, and within a short time his affair with Mary Jo was over. She was rather upset about this, and for a while she would telephone and write him notes. But as he said to her, how could the relationship be expected to work, given that she was an invention of his?

Eventually Mary Jo accepted this philosophically and went back to the life he had created for her, living in her small apartment, reading books and drinking wine. At first José Marìa was curious as to whether Mary Jo could continue to have things happen to her, if he, her author, did not write more stories with plots and narratives describing her life. But curiously she seemed capable of carrying on alone, if in a rather monotonous round of doing the same things. But there was another concern. José Marìa was a kind, if eccentric, man and he didn’t like to think that Mary Jo, his Mary Jo, was sad or lonely. As she was his character he felt some responsibility for her. He decided to write another story in which her life improved.

In this new story Mary Jo was described as leading an inexorably happy life. She was given a wide group of friends, men and women, she went to parties, and enjoyed all the fun, sun and peace that her author could imagine. José Marìa couldn’t bring himself, however, to write a new lover for her. In this second story she always remained a little wistful and it was implied that she was carrying a torch for a certain handsome bearded man. Mary Jo came home to her apartment one afternoon after drinking wine in the sun with friends to find that a gift had been delivered. It was a small volume of Alice Through The Looking Glass. It was accompanied by an unsigned inscription which simply read: “from an admirer.” Mary Jo was thrilled to receive this gift and thought immediately that she knew who had sent it, though her author tried his best to stop her from leaping to conclusions. Similar small gifts continued to arrive intermittently over the next few weeks — nothing too ostentatious: a slightly worn copy of the Karma Sutra, or another small item that José Marìa didn’t want. He liked to see Mary Jo smile.

Despite that fact that he was a lawyer, José Marìa was also a skillful storyteller and he soon realised that his character Mary Jo was becoming flat and stereotypical, and to round out her character and make her more believable he needed to introduce some conflict into her life. So Mary Jo found the gift-giving puzzling, given her assumption about the identity of the gift-giver. She wondered if it indicated that José Marìa (her author) would like to renew their romantic relationship. Certainly she had been enjoying life recently, and she was smart enough to realise that she owed this substantially to José Marìa. She thought of him fondly and looked forward to the possibility of reviving their love affair. Unfortunately this possibility was scotched when, one evening on the promenade by the sea, she spotted José Marìa having an aperitif at a small beachside café (which had once been “their” favourite café) with a dark Spanish-looking beauty. It seemed that José Marìa had moved on in his love life.

Mary Jo, being only human, felt a twang of jealousy. Her author had included this trait in her character when he had first invented her. It was his belief that the tendency to jealousy is innate in all women (he was, at heart, a gentle misogynist), and so he felt that he could not leave this characteristic out of Mary Jo.

Mary Jo’s jealousy was well-founded. José Marìa had indeed gone back to his philandering ways. He took the Spanish-looking beauty on a short vacation to a tropical resort where they enjoyed a romantic weekend in a luxurious hotel. This was rather a large investment for José Marìa, but to ensure that he got value for money he took home with him the free souvenir sarong that the hotel had left covering the sumptuous bed. It featured palm trees and parrots and was vividly and tropically coloured, and had printed across it “Port Douglas” in large curlicue letters. José Marìa was happy with this souvenir, reminding him as it did of the enjoyable time he had spent on the hotel bed.

He returned home. Some weeks passed, as did the Spanish beauty, who moved on like all of José Marìa’s women. She had been a passing fancy. One day he was looking through his desk drawers for a misplaced document when he came across the half-finished story he had written about Mary Jo. He felt a little sentimental at the thought of her and decided to continue the story by sending her another little gift. After all, she was special amongst all the women he had known, in that he had invented her. So he wrapped up the souvenir sarong and left the small parcel on the doormat of her apartment on his way home from work. He had written on the package, in rudimentary Spanish (which he’d picked up from his last girlfriend): ‘para Mary Jo, un abrazo fuerte, J-M.’

When Mary Jo discovered the package and saw who it was from, she was rather annoyed. “Just another useless gift, sent to confuse me!” she said. She tossed it onto her coffee table with some junk mail and forgot about it for several days. Eventually she was curious enough to open it. Her character naturally had some stereotypical feminine curiosity, so she couldn’t resist forever. Mary Jo opened the package and shook out the sarong. She saw the words “Port Douglas” emblazoned across it and recognised it immediately as a souvenir sarong from a certain big hotel. It so happened that she was quite well aware of José Marìa’s trip to Port Douglas and with whom it had been taken. It had been the subject of extensive gossip in the chic waterside bars where their mutual friends drank cocktails, and of course, as we know, Mary Jo’s author had created her to be a gossip (that was where the trouble had started.) It did not take too much feminine intuition (with which Mary Jo’s author had generously endowed her) to imagine the sarong draped over the hotel bed and the goings-on which were accomplished on top of it.

José Marìa had included patience and intelligence in Mary Jo’s character, so she waited for a few days, thinking the matter over. Eventually she decided that José Marìa needed to know what an insulting gift he had given. She decided to write to him and explain the error he had made. As she composed this note in her mind a better idea came to her. She would write a short story in which retribution was delivered to José Marìa, gently but very clearly. She sat down at her kitchen table with a pen and paper.

Mary Jo took for the form of her story the contemporary fable. She favoured stories with a clear-cut moral message. After opening with a moving passage reprising their early relationship, and describing the shock of the gift in poor taste, she added a confrontation on the telephone. She called José Marìa and told him firmly that his gift was insulting. She included a little shouting (for verisimilitude — they were, after all, both strong-minded people). At first José Marìa could not understand what he had done wrong. However he eventually understood Mary Jo’s point when she threatened to send him an intimate item belonging to her new boyfriend (a person she invented for the purpose of the argument). José Marìa agreed that he would certainly not like to receive such a thing, even freshly laundered.

José Marìa was chastened, but he decided that it was best to move on and to forget all about Mary Jo, even though she was his creation. Mary Jo, for her part, certainly wanted to forget all about José Marìa. She went on with her life. One afternoon she was in her apartment stirring a risotto (her specialty — her author had made sure she was a good cook), and she was listening to the radio. The broadcast was a talk show which José Marìa often listened to when he was driving home. The radio host began taking phone calls from people who were encouraged to describe the worst gift they had ever been given. Mary Jo realised immediately that she had a winning story, so she phoned the radio show and broadcast — to the whole city — the story of José Marìa’s gift to his ex-girlfriend of the sarong upon which he had had his adventures with a new woman. The radio host was incredulous. People began calling in from all over the city, amused and amazed at the idiocy of José Marìa. As he listened in his car her author was appalled. She had named him to the world, but luckily ‘José Marìa’ was a nom de plume.

This story was Mary Jo’s revenge on José Marìa and she was satisfied with it. It suited her sense of justice, which her creator had made strong in her. The radio show was offering a prize for the best ‘bad gift’ story, and Mary Jo won it hands down. The next day a huge bunch of red roses and a beribboned basket full of chocolate was delivered to her door. But the day after she also received a letter from the radio station sending her two movie tickets as her prize. She wondered who had sent the flowers and chocolates. She had not written that ending to her story.”

 

As the man who knew from someone who had been there finished his report on Joe Martin’s tale, the chardonnay bottle stood empty and the faculty common room was still. We silently contemplated the devastating effect of allowing a fictional character free reign, of undermining authorial authority, and of generally letting meta-fiction get out of hand. We gulped a little and each turned pale, as the full import of such a nightmare scenario sank in. Unlike the mocking students of long ago, none of us doubted the truth of the tale. I rose, walked to the common room bookshelf and picked up a copy of Unamumo’s Neibla, a text which had, for a while after the incident, been more or less banned in the English Department. Now I knew why.

 

 

 

BIO

Annette Freeman is a writer living in Sydney, Australia. She was born and raised in Tasmania, which she suspects is reflected in her writing in ways too mysterious to analyse. Her shorter work has appeared in the University of Sydney Student Anthology, BrainDrip Magazine, Collective Hub Magazine and Travel Post Monthly. She has a Masters of Creative Writing from the University of Sydney, the support of a terrific writing group, and boundless respect for a fine sentence.

 

 

 

 

 

0

Meetings

by Margaret Karmazin

 

I.      I adjust my coat collar, straighten my shoulder bag strap and put on my Meetings Face. Better to do it now, like a method actor – get into character and make sure it doesn’t resemble Resting Bitch Face which I have a tendency to normally wear unless actually smiling.

This particular meeting is political, so I have made myself look competent and even slightly corporate.  Smoothed the hair out, put on a dark gray outfit, gold earrings and my gold colored watch. I have added an official looking notebook, which I will doodle in during the presentation, but unless you are sitting next to me and making a point of looking, I will appear to be “taking notes.”

Let me tell you right here that I hate meetings.  Anymore, I pretty much abhor most social gatherings, but I continue to attend them because They keep telling you that if you don’t, you’ll probably die sooner.  Really though? Enduring shallow relationships where no one gives a hoot about you except that you make financial contributions to the Cause or you fill up a space and make it appear that whatever this meeting is about is “working” are good for your health and give you more of a chance to make it to a hundred?

Gretta, the leader (she started it and we play with her bat) and Marcella, who is apparently going to be Treasurer/Secretary though no one seems to have any say over how the money is spent besides Gretta, are sitting at the head table. Everyone politely listens to Gretta’s stream of consciousness.  She has forgotten to shave or wax her throat, which is sprouting a forest of post-menopausal hairs. From this point on, out of terror, I will shave my own neck just in case.

“We need to come up with a different design for our business card,” Gretta says, which immediately gets my hackles up since I was the one who designed the logo, though I was not permitted to lay out the card.

Like the butt-licker I am, I immediately start doodling potential card designs in my official looking notebook. The problem is that Gretta seems to want entire paragraphs on this two by 3.5 inch piece of cardboard. Nevertheless I persevere, knowing the entire time that no matter what I submit, she will not choose it.  If it were up to me, I would make the card simple with a web address on it so anyone can just look at the website to see what the group is about.  Later I hand my sketch in only to be told by Gretta, “Several people have handed in ideas. We’ll decide later.”

What?  Were they all frantically sketching during the meeting too and somehow passed their papers up to her table without me noticing? Or did she collect these at some earlier secret rendezvous? And why won’t she smile?  Why can’t she fucking ever SMILE?

But I remain in my professional political meeting mode, holding onto my composure while visualizing her being ripped apart by hyenas.  The thing is though, I am not planning to do any of thing things she wants people to do like canvas for our Party or harass voters by phone. This is a rural area, people have barking watchdogs and guns, and a serial killer might live in one of the farmhouses – who knows?  And I personally hate it when people call me to tell me whom to vote for. So what am I even attending this meeting for?

I’ll tell you what for – just to be with other people of my own Party in this vast sea I live in of citizens from The Other Party.  I am here just for human companionship with people I don’t want to run over with a steamroller.

So I smile ingratiatingly and stay till the meeting is over, after which I escape to my car and drive the half hour home.  Soon I will be comfortably dressed in sloppy stretch clothes while wearing my Resting Bitch Face, and smug about having made the effort to socialize so that I won’t drop dead earlier than expected.

 

II.      I’m preparing for my Meditation/New Age group discussion meeting. For this, I adorn myself in the local New Age style of one hundred percent cotton leggings and soft tunic top, also cotton and preferably of ethnic design. Shoes, which will be removed at the door where you line them up neatly on a woven mat, are Birkenstock and constructed of nicely weathered leather though many of the participants are vegetarian or even vegan for the purpose of respecting animal rights. (Leather covering for massage tables is also conveniently overlooked.)

I wear my graying hair loose and fluff it as wildly as I can, before inserting large silver dangle earrings, handmade in Indonesia, and a silver bangle bracelet, ethnic looking though counterfeit. Gold is a no-no. Gold implies a woman who kowtows to The Man. My shoulder bag is soft brown leather so it can pass between the Political meeting and the New Age meetings even though a cow died in the making of it.

When I arrive, the leader, Sage, is setting up for Meditation with the help of Bodhi – her given name is Christine but she was blessed with this new moniker by a guru in Phoenix. Bodhi doesn’t talk much since she believes that talking distracts from her communion with the Universe and drains her spiritual energy. She is arranging an altar at the front of the room with little Hindu statues, incense and other paraphernalia. Sage regards me critically.

“Dennis and I would like to have a session with you.”

“What for?” I innocently ask.

“You need to work on some issues that have to do with honesty. We can help you. Maybe Thursday evening?”

“Honesty?”

“Uh, yeah. We feel that you need to work on that, that you’re not being totally honest.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I say, though I kind of do. She and I both know that I don’t live my life fully in the New Age/Hippie manner. So much for meditational tranquility; this cocky New Age dictator with her tousled red hair, hippie dresses and frequent supposedly subtle attempts to get everyone to take their clothes off and massage each other has ruined my mood.

“Interesting,” I say.

“What is?” she asks, her hand in midair as she decides where to place a Ganesh statue.

It occurs to me to wonder why all the Hindu stuff.  Are we supposed to be worshipping Hindu gods and if so, why?  I realize that I really don’t fit into this group…well, I do and I don’t.

“It’s interesting that Dennis would be giving advice on honesty when he spends all of his time complaining about what the war did to him instead of making a serious effort to clear up his own psychological problems and get on with his life.  I find it curious that he, who has no experience in counseling, would take it upon himself to advise me who took several courses in psychology and who read the entire DSM for pleasure. I think I will pass.”

Of course, Sage does not know what the DSM is.  “Well, if you change your mind, I think it would be good for you.”

I nod.  “I suppose you do.”

The others arrive, including Dennis who looks sourer than usual, and we sit on the floor in a circle. Everyone appears properly New Agey, especially Crystal who, though middle-aged, maintains an ethereal look with her floaty Indian dresses and pale blonde, fly-away hair.

“Why don’t we continue our work on expressing our anger before we meditate?” suggests Sage, which is not really a suggestion but an order.  Sage has a lot of anger of her own built up, due to having married while young and still a virgin and never having enjoyed sowing her wild oats. Apparently men in general are to blame for this or so one can deduce from her frequent ranting against them. She passes around throw pillows for people to beat up during tirades of their own and starts the ball rolling by handing the woman next to her the Talking Stick.

“Dawn, what is your state of mind today?”

Dawn, who is a wraithlike drama queen, gets right to it.  “I-I-,” she says flutteringly, “I just think I need some space. Joe just doesn’t understand. I mean he babysits Ariel whenever I ask, but it’s more than that. What we need is to see other people when we want to. You know, experience so we have more to bring back to the relationship.”

Uh huh, I’m thinking. Why doesn’t she just say she wants to fuck around? Talk about honesty. We’ve been over this before and somehow, her conventional husband expects her to stick to their original agreement made four years earlier at her childhood church in a white dress and tux and then celebrated at a backyard picnic.

I listen to her go on and then to the next person, a young guy wearing a man bun who is so accommodating that I want to punch him hard on the arm and shout, “MAN UP!”  He is worried about school. None of the offered classes enrich his soul.

This goes on until it’s my turn and I don’t really have anything to say.  It’s not that I never get mad – hell, half the time I am mad about something, but just not mad about the sort of things the group approves of.

But I try to fit in.  After all, don’t I come here for human contact and to make friends, though now I realize that these are not really people I’d want to have lunch with. I accept the Talking Stick and say, “Uh, yeah, the Me Too thing. While I can’t say that anyone has sexually abused me, I can identify with the rage.” I realize that this is coming out in a totally dispirited way. “I mean,” I add lamely, ” the men I personally have dealt with in my life were for the most part decent.”

Oh dear, I shouldn’t have said that.

Sage regards me with disgust and I hear a low moan from Crystal on my left.  “Maybe you’ve blocked out things that happened to you. Whatever.”

“This doesn’t mean that I believe Kavanaugh,” I clarify. “Because there is no doubt he did it. I just mean-”

Crystal reaches for the Talking Stick and in defeat, I hand it to her.

By the time I’m back home, I am so grateful to be there that I kiss the cat so intensely that he meows in protest. I set him down and vow never to return to that group, but undoubtedly, I’ll be there again the following week.

In the bedroom, I remove the silver earrings and, in rebellion, put on big gold hoops.

 

III.       It’s a half hour until I have to leave, but I’m dressed and ready. Driving at night is not my favorite thing to do, but the Writers Group has to meet then since some of the members have full time jobs. For this, I dress like I do at home, only without stains or bleach marks on the clothes. I do comb my hair and the earrings are silver hoops for no reason; I just like them.

The meeting takes place at Richard’s house. Richard lives with his partner Thomas and is Libertarian though only Democrats appear to support gay rights. Thomas greets us as we enter, but soon leaves for a meeting of his own. Richard sets out a plate of cookies and offers tea or coffee. I wonder if he minds hosting the group and would offer my own place, but it is not central to where the others live, as is Richard’s house.

Four others arrive, three long time regulars and the new Christian guy.  Christian Guy is in his forties and very meek – Walter Mitty of the twenty-first century.  He is, from what I have observed so far, a bit on the dim side, but everyone treats him with kid gloves, as they might someone with Down syndrome attempting to compose a poem. Christian Guy’s real name is Michael and he has brought the same story as last month, but revised.

Rachel begins. She is in her late fifties and comes off somewhat hard-edged and I remember she is a dog trainer, so appears to enjoy being Alpha and in control.  She reads her mystery story, which isn’t bad. The others critique mildly but everyone seems to like it. I don’t have anything to add, it seems okay and ready to submit somewhere. Myra reads her poem, which is about a sunset and is trite and boring, though of course I don’t say this. Rachel speaks up and implies that the poem is good and Richard chimes in with a restatement of what Rachel just said. I keep quiet; I’m a bit afraid of Rachel.

Then it’s Michael’s turn to read his revised story. Just like last time, the characters are simple-minded and it is ingenuous and saccharine sweet. God wins all in the end. I am thinking that no publisher I have ever submitted to would even consider it. Michael will have to send it to some cheerful, sentimental magazine if such a thing exists; possibly religious periodicals accept such things? Yet, no one mentions this problem, while I know full well they must be thinking about it.

“Um,” I say tentatively, “Marsha seems…um…a bit…not sure how to put this…maybe childish? Like she just accepts what Gregory tells her and decides to keep the baby even though she already has two kids she doesn’t take care of and has no means of support?  I mean, exactly how is she going to live? And what about her husband’s parole coming up? Will he get it or not? And will he continue to beat her up if he does?”

“Oh, I think it’s fine,” says Richard.

“Yeah, I don’t have a problem with it,” says Lee Ann, the mother of a teenage girl who is currently driving her insane and shows up frequently in her irate essays.

I feel confused, as if I am suddenly on another planet and not wearing any pants. The eternally suspicious mother is saying that these characters are just fine swallowing anything anyone tells them and that whatever the preacher says is right? Because Michael is fundamental Christian, we have to pamper his belief system?

Suddenly, I feel a violent stab of homesickness, picturing my sweet husband in his recliner cozily watching Netflix. I could be there with him now. What am I doing here with these people who obviously don’t like me?

But now it is my turn to read my latest sci-fi story, which takes place on a space station and involves a prostitute and a smug, rightwing head of security who wants to banish the ladies from the station even though the men are lonely.  A delegation of aliens is arriving for first contact and since the aliens communicate best through body contact and smell, the prostitute is called in to facilitate this form of communication. She is the heroine of the day while the smug head of security ends up humiliated.

At first, Richard seems to like the story though the others are quiet. Finally Rachel says, “Maybe you don’t need to be quite so descriptive of what the prostitute does in the opening. I mean, you can just say she is a prostitute.”

I don’t mention that this is exactly what rejecting editors tell you not to do.  Show, don’t tell, they always say. None of these people have had as much experience as I have of being rejected, nor have they had anywhere near as many things published.

“You know,” says Lee Ann, “I don’t think they really would ask the prostitute to meet with the alien. They just wouldn’t do it.”

I silently nod though I’d like to ask her how much sci-fi she has actually read.

Richard, who first said he liked the story, now says, “You had to bring politics into it, didn’t you?”

I am rather stunned and my face flushes. Yes, I brought politics into it since politics are actually related to everything in LIFE.  I want to scream, how come Michael can “bring politics into it” just by being fundamental Christian, but if I do it, it’s not kosher?

“That reminds me,” Richard goes on, “a friend of mine read your letter to the editor, the one about the Middle East? And he said, ‘I thought you told me she was intelligent.'”

While my face burns, I make the decision then and there that I will not return to the writer’s group. As I drive home, I wonder why I go to meetings at all.

Oh, I remember…it’s to make friends.

 

My husband turns his head as I open the door.  He is cozily in his recliner just as I had pictured, Roger the cat on his lap. The TV is on to a nature show where a mother cheetah is worried about protecting her cubs while she desperately searches for food. I have never been so happy to see all this in my life.

The next day there is a lake association meeting but I refrain and let husband go by himself.

 

 

 

BIO

Margaret Karmazin’s credits include stories published in literary and national magazines, including Rosebud, Chrysalis Reader, North Atlantic Review, Mobius, Confrontation, Pennsylvania Review, ASIM, The Speculative Edge and Another Realm. Her stories in The MacGuffin, Eureka Literary Magazine, Licking River Review and Mobius were nominated for Pushcart awards. She has also published a YA novel, REPLACING FIONA, a children’s book, FLICK-FLICK & DREAMER and a collection of short stories, RISK.

 

 

 

 

 

0

Suit Yourself

by Lindsey Godfrey Eccles

 

 

This afternoon while I’m showing a new listing the weather finally turns, and when I put on my rain jacket I find something in the pocket that I should have thrown away a year ago.  I continue the walk-through, showing my client the rock fireplace, the exposed beams and the “lodge” feel – he’s a nice young guy, born overseas, polite and sophisticated, the kind of tech money we depend on now – but the whole time I’m also palming a children’s puzzle piece, exploring its shape, noting the way it fits into my hand.  By the time we get to the chef’s kitchen I am feeling too warm.  Breathless, and a little nauseated.  I have to duck outside, and I sit down too hard on the damp stone steps.  My client is nice about it, but he’s spooked.  As we shake hands and I watch his car go down the gravel drive I know I won’t hear from him again.

I’m finding it hard to care.  I pull the piece out of my pocket.  It’s from the cheap kind of puzzle, hasn’t been treated well, and the shiny paper has almost come loose from the cardboard.  I slide out from under the porch roof and run my fingers over it, letting the misty drizzle cool my cheeks and the back of my neck.  I don’t want to think about the puzzle piece or where it came from or why it’s in the pocket of my rain jacket.  But what the hell.

 

I’m in my mid-fifties, and I live alone, which is absolutely fine with me.  I’m not married anymore, and I don’t have any children.  I do have a niece who lives in Florida.  Amanda.  She’s just three years old now, and she’s the light of my life – that is embarrassing to say, but it is exactly what I mean.  I can see things more clearly when she’s around.  I used to go down there every few weeks or so to see her, but my last visit was more than a year ago, when my brother kicked me out of his house seven hours before my flight.

I should say that I never got along with Stevie all that well when we were kids.  He’s a lot younger than I am, and we’re just different.  He didn’t finish college, and I did, and he thinks that means I think I’m better.  I do think I’ve done more with my life than he has.  That sounds wrong.  What I mean is that I’ve gone farther.  The distance from where we started and where we are now is farther, for me.  For example, Stevie tells jokes that make me uncomfortable.  I don’t think he’s a racist but on the other hand, I would have trouble defending him to someone else who thought he was.  Sometimes, I want to ask him, haven’t you been paying attention?  Haven’t you learned anything at all?

I always loved Stevie, but we weren’t close, and after our parents retired and moved to a golf course in Southern California we didn’t see each other much.  The gap between us always felt faintly embarrassing to me.  It’s a question, usually unspoken, but a question, when I mention Stevie to somebody.  Your brother is twelve years younger?  And they wonder.  But Stevie married Whitney, and now they have Amanda.

Things were getting better between me and Stevie.  He likes it, or did like it, when I visited, and for a while he was sending me photos and videos every single day.  I watch them over and over now, sometimes while I’m on the phone with a client or another agent.  There is one video of Amanda jumping into foam pit one of their neighbors built in his backyard for the kids.  The foam pit is safe, I guess, but the way she launches into it, belly first, it gets to me.  She is so brave.  I watch her over and over, flinging her head back, not even looking at the pit, not even watching where she is going.  She lands, rolls, stands bottom-first and lifts her arms for someone to pick her up.

But all of this is how it was a year ago, not how it is now.  From what I understand, Stevie and Whitney – she’s his wife, did I mention that? – have been having problems, as they say.  Stevie is more or less a stay-at-home dad, though I doubt he would describe himself that way.  He does some kind of freelance marketing, I think, but he doesn’t work much, and he doesn’t pay the bills.  This is okay with me, and I think it’s okay with Whitney, but I don’t think it’s okay with Stevie.  Whitney is a nurse practitioner in the maternity ward of the county hospital down there in South Florida, where they live.  They live on a golf course too, like our parents, but it isn’t very nice.  A little embarrassing, mostly flat, not many trees.  People drive golf carts around on Stevie’s street as if they were wealthy people of leisure, but to me they just look like they can’t afford cars.

Anyway, Stevie doesn’t work, and he stays home with Amanda.  They can’t afford day care on Whitney’s salary, even with overtime.  Stevie loves Amanda.  I can tell, from the photos he sends.  He likes to dress her up.  She has cheerleader outfits for the Dolphins and the Marlins and the Hurricanes.  We’re not even from Florida originally.  What gets me isn’t the outfits, though, so much as the way that he does her hair.  When he dresses her up he always puts her hair in braids, and not just the simple Pippi Longstocking style sticking-out braids, either.  He can do it all – French braids, the braids that look like fish skeletons, you know, intricate stuff.  He can do the braids that make her look like a Bavarian barmaid that snake all around her head.  It’s amazing what he can do.  I don’t know where he learned these things.  My mother never braided my hair, and even if she had, he would have been too little to notice.

It isn’t easy, I don’t think, even for a man in his generation, to stay home and take care of the kids.  He must get lonely, and he must have doubts.  I am not sure I could have done it myself, if things had worked out differently for me.

 

Stevie’s house is like a shoebox, a giant baby blue shoebox, lined up alongside dozens of other shoeboxes painted in various shades of pastel.  I always felt uneasy, walking down that street, which doesn’t have sidewalks or even a curb, but just sort of slopes down into a shallow drainage ditch.  Before the last time I had never visited during a big storm, but anyone could see that it wouldn’t take much to flood this whole neighborhood.  When I take Amanda for walks we stick to the middle of the street, which is okay, because the only traffic is retirees in electric golf carts.  Amanda likes those; she points at them and says “golf carts!”  “Are those cars,” I ask her, and she shakes her head all the way side to side with a big smile on her face: “Those are golf carts!”

The day before the morning Stevie kicked me out of his house was a Sunday and because it was September, that meant football.  I don’t watch the NFL myself, but I don’t mind the game.  It reminds me of when I was younger – there were so many afternoons in New Orleans at the bar I tended in the Quarter, with every sort of person walking in and out and the game on all day long.  And it’s something to talk about when there isn’t anything else.  I am sitting with Amanda on the pale green carpeted floor in the long hallway that connects the rooms of the shoebox like buds on a vine.  We are putting together a thirty-five piece puzzle, which is a little old for her, but she is remarkably good at puzzles.  This is a jungle scene, with every manner of African animal peeking out of a tangle of vines and leaves – including some that I am pretty sure belong on the savannah, not in the jungle.  I have my back propped up against the wall, and Amanda is sitting cross-legged on my lap.  It is hard to put the puzzle together on the soft carpet because the pieces wouldn’t stay joined when you try to add another piece, but there isn’t a free table in the house.  We do the best we can.

“Where’s the rest of the elephant, honey?”

Amanda frowns at the piece in her hand, then holds it out to me.

“Nope.  What color is the elephant?”

Stevie pounces on Amanda out of nowhere.  “The elephant is purple!” he shouts, and he lifts up Amanda, who cries “Purple Daddy!”  The puzzle piece falls on the carpet.

“Hey,” Stevie says to me, holding Amanda over his head like a trophy he’s just won.  She is giggling and kicking her legs.  “How about we invite some friends over for the game later?”

“How ‘bout that?”  Amanda says.

“Um,” I say.  It’s the last day of my visit, and I want to spend it with Amanda, and plus there are some things I want to discuss with him and Whitney.  Just some suggestions.  I’m not that kind of older sister – I would never tell somebody how to raise their child – I’m not my mother – but I have a couple of suggestions.  Plus, I don’t like the way he said it, as if he hasn’t already invited his “friends” over, as if I really have any say in it at all.

“Of course not,” I say.  “That’s fine.”  Stevie gives me a look.  I’m not always very good at hiding my feelings.  “That would be fun,” I say, stretching my lips into a smile.

“Great!”  He holds his hand down to me.  “Want some help up?”

I shake my head and brace myself against the wall to stand.  Stevie is already walking down the hall with Amanda held high, her auburn curls bouncing against the ceiling with the rhythm of his steps.  He knows I’m watching.

In the kitchen Whitney is cooking.  Or doing what passes for cooking in this house.  Sometimes it seems like days pass before I see these people sit down to something I recognize as a meal.  Whitney is digging through the cabinets pulling out bags and boxes, then reaches into the fridge for a three-quarters-full quart jar of something viscous and pale yellow.  My stomach rolls a little.  When she notices me watching she smiles brightly.

“Jackie!  Want to give me a hand?”

I nod and walk around the kitchen island.  I grab a saucepan from the drying rack where I left it earlier that morning and reach my hand out for the jar of yellow.  Nacho Cheez.  It is too thick to pour, so I try shaking it over the pan, and when that doesn’t work I run a little bit of water from the tap, close the jar, and shake it.  It pours like a charm.

I start when I notice Whitney watching me.

“This looks really good,” I say.  She smirks and turns back to the cabinets.

I’m not sure how to handle Whitney.  She seems to care about my brother, and she’s pretty, though maybe fifteen pounds overweight.  She used to be a dancer, apparently, but that is hard to imagine.  Now she works in a hospital and supervises a team of about a dozen other nurses, pulling three or four long shifts a week plus all that paperwork.  I appreciate that she supports my brother and my niece, really I do.  I just wish she could be home more.  Amanda misses her mother.

I turn the electric burner under the saucepan on low and find a little plate to put under the serving spoon I’m using to scrape up the yellow goo from the bottom so that it doesn’t stick or burn.  If there were an exhaust fan or a hood I would turn that on, but there isn’t.  I turn to Whitney.

“Maybe I’ll take Amanda to the park before the game?”

Whitney frowns a little, then smiled again.  “The game,” she repeats.  “Yes, that sounds like a good idea.  It’s so kind of you to come help us out.”

The park isn’t actually a park, but it is a good excuse to get out of the house.  At the end of the road, where the development ran out of steam in an open marsh, there is one lot with a driveway but no house.  It has been leveled, or built up, or whatever they do in this part of the world where developed land has to be wrestled from the swamp, but no house was ever built.  It’s okay for playing so long as you keep a close eye on Amanda, because God knows what would happen if you let her wander off the abandoned plot into the tall grasses and wetlands beyond.  You know the stories you read about alligators appearing out of nowhere and pulling little kids under the water?  I can’t think about it.  But I know other neighborhood kids play here sometimes, because we sometimes come across a deflated basketball or a plastic doll with multiple amputations in the scrubby weeds.  It’s like a sad little treasure hunt.

We haven’t been there long when Amanda starts complaining about being hungry, which, to be fair, she probably is, so we walk back.  The sky is low and close, like a winter hat I don’t want in this heat, and I have learned to be wary of ominous skies.  It isn’t like where I live now, in Western Washington, where the clouds can hang over you for days without giving up more than a drizzle.  Here, clouds mean business.  Amanda pulls her hand out of mine and runs up the cement walk to her house, startling me.  I look around and see two or three cars I haven’t noticed before, big shiny cars alongside the rows of pink and yellow and blue shoe boxes.  The cars seem so much more permanent than the homes.

Inside the party has started.  Rap music blasting away like no tomorrow, like it isn’t the middle of the day on Sunday.  I stoop a little and rest my hands on Amanda’s shoulders.  “Shall we go find your mama, little honey?”  I ask.  She nods, slowly, with a tiny frown etched between her brows.

I have to tell you a little bit more about Whitney.  I admire her.  It isn’t easy to do what she does, support a family on a nurse’s salary.  But, honestly, I don’t understand her.  I know this makes me sound old, and I feel old when I talk to her.  And I don’t understand her relationship with my little brother.  He treats her well enough, from what I can see, but she always has to check in with him.  Do you know what I mean?  Not just about important things, like what kind of car she’s going to buy, but about everything.  How Amanda will wear her hair that day.  Whether the jeans Whitney is wearing look all right.  And sometimes it seems to me that Stevie will say, seriously?, or you’ve got to be fucking kidding me, for no other reason than to remind her that most of the time she is wrong.

“Here’s your mama,” I say, as we work our way down the hallway to the little kitchen at one end of the house.  Whitney is still standing over the stove, but the pan of yellow goo has been set to the side to congeal.  She is chewing thoughtfully on a tortilla chip while she stares at a pot of water on the burner, uncovered, tiny bubbles forming and releasing from the bottom of the pot, well short of a boil.  A half-empty package of discount macaroni rests on the counter next to the stove.  “I decided to cook something healthy instead,” Whitney says.

“No like it!”  Amanda screams suddenly.  “No like paaahsta!”  Whitney flinches and her shoulders rise up around her ears.

“It’s okay, honey,” I say, lifting Amanda to my hip.  “Something healthy.”

“Pasta is yucky and bad!”

Whitney sighs and folds her arms across her chest.  She starts flexing and pointing her left foot, dragging her toes along the green linoleum of the kitchen floor.  Green to match the carpet.

“You don’t have to eat it,” she says.  “Mama’s just a little tired of chips and dips, that’s all.”

“How about I cook something?”  I say.  I love to cook.  On Saturday mornings I might drive an hour both ways just to visit the farmer’s market in Tacoma.  “How about I roast a chicken?  That makes a lovely Sunday supper.  And I could mash some potatoes to go with it, with maybe a little parsley sprinkled on top, for a bit of green.”

Whitney looks at me as if I am absolutely insane.

“Pars-ley?”  Amanda says, frowning again.  “No like it,” she says, but more softly this time.

“Or not,” I say, picking up a dirty sponge from the sink.  I wipe up some stray bits of gooey cheese dip and drop the sponge back into the sink.  “How about I order a pizza?”

“How ‘bout that!”  Amanda says.

“We’re fine!”  Whitney shouts.  She grabs Amanda, who squeals happily and kicks her legs, and puts her down on the countertop.  Amanda reaches her hand into the pan of cheese dip and presses a gooey yellow palm to her face.  Whitney takes a deep breath and sighs.  “I’m sorry.  Please do order pizza.  That would be very helpful.”

An hour later Whitney and Amanda and I have joined the “guests” in the living room at the other end of the shoebox, with a sofa, two reclining chairs, and an eighty-five-inch flat screen television.  I can barely look at it.  Amanda holds her hands over her ears.  We sit together on the floor in the corner of the room, next to the sofa, as far away from the television as we can get.  Sitting on the sofa is a large, friendly-looking man whose name, he tells me, is Sal.  I try to chat politely with him, but the noise from the television is so loud, even during the commercials, that all I can really do is smile and shrug my shoulders.  Amanda has found another jungle puzzle, one that I sent to her last month, and sets to work.  I try to watch the game a little, but the television is so large and close that I can’t focus.  It’s all flashing colors and bodies colliding and sportscasters yelling and really, it’s just too much.

I do notice something ticking across the bottom of the screen, separate from the game.  I find that if I ignore most of what is happening on the screen and focus only on the words at the bottom, I can just about make it out.  There are exclamation points and little symbols that look like rain clouds and lightning.  I try to look out the window, but the shades are drawn.

“I’ll be back in two minutes,” I say to Amanda, leaning against the wall for support as I stand.  I miss my yoga during these visits.  There doesn’t seem to be anywhere to do it that doesn’t feel silly and uncomfortable.

“Two minutes,” Amanda agrees.

I walk back down the hallway, scrunching the fuzzy carpet between my toes.  Outside I can see that the weather is about to turn even worse.  The air has that strange quality that you get down here, where it is so humid and so warm that even before it rains moisture beads up on the cooler surfaces of the sidewalks and the cars.  And then, while I’m standing there looking at the sidewalk, the first drops fall.  I look around to make sure nobody’s windows are down on the cars parked outside, but they’re all fine, closed up tight.  Then I take a few steps down the sidewalk so that I’m clear of the porch roof and tip my face up to the sky.  A drop lands on my right eyelid; another hits my chin.  I open my eyes when I realize another car has arrived and is idling in the street.  A reed-thin teenager is standing there, hefting a large, cube-shaped bag made of bright red plastic.  “Pizza?” he says.

After I’ve paid and thanked the delivery boy, I place the pizza boxes carefully on the kitchen counter, hoping the grease doesn’t soak through.  I’m looking through the cabinets for the largest set of matching plates I can find when Whitney appears.  “Amanda is asking for you,” she says.  “Oh, you don’t need to do that.  Let’s just bring it into the living room and throw the boxes on the floor.  Nobody will use plates anyway.”

“Fine,” I say.  Whitney grabs a roll of paper towels and leaves me with the pizza boxes.  Maybe I shouldn’t have ordered so many.  I manage to get them into the den – I can’t help thinking of it as a den, it reminds me of a room in our parents’ house, growing up – and look around for someplace to put them.  There isn’t a coffee table.  “I’ll take those!”  Sal shouts, jumping up from the sofa, and lifts the boxes out of my hands.  Then he drops them right on the floor.  Everyone laughs.  My cheeks start to burn, but I feel Amanda’s hands gently take hold of one of my legs, hugging me like a tree.  My hand drops to the top of her soft little head.

 

It is raining hard now.  I can hear it on the roof just a few feet overhead.  I’m squinting at the little ticker at the bottom of the television screen, but I can’t really read it and I don’t want to get any closer.  They are still showing the little cloud and the little lightning symbol, all the time now.

The game seems to be going well; everyone is happy.  Another one of the guests, Sue, who I’m told is the wife of the hospital supervisor, is pouring shots.  She seems nice, but I don’t like to drink during the daytime.

She won’t leave me alone.  “Julie!” she shouts.  Sal nudges her and whispers in her ear.  She corrects herself.  “Jackie!”  I smile and shake my head, pulling Amanda closer into my lap.  I should have mentioned, there are other little kids there, three in total, counting Amanda.  One of them is standing right up against the television screen, reaching out to touch it until Stephen swats his hands away, over and over, like it’s part of the game.  The other one, a girl, is trying to use the toilet in the one bathroom down the hall.

Sue has a bottle in her hand.  It looks like whiskey, with a picture of a red demon on the front.  “Are you sure?” she smiles.  Sue must be my age, at least, though she is very fit.

“No, thank you,” I say.

“It’s easier with some cherry coke.  I bet Whitney has some.  Want me to go see?”

“No, really.  Thanks.  I’m fine.”

“Suit yourself,” Sue says, and shrugs.  “I’m gonna keep my eye on you, though.”

Amanda squirms around in my lap until we are nose to nose.  Very slowly she opens her hand and presses her palm flat against her eye, then moves it to mine.

“Want to go for a walk,” I say, before I remember the rain.  “Want to check on the rain?  How about that?”

Amanda tilts her head to the side, then nods.  She scoots off my lap holding a puzzle piece that looks like an anaconda, or maybe just part of a tree branch, I’m really not sure.

Outside the rain has started to collect in the muddy drainage ditches on either side of the road.  The ditches don’t actually seem to drain anywhere.

“How deep do you think that is?”

“Two deep!”  Or maybe “too deep.”  I’m not sure.

I squat down on my heels next to Amanda on the concrete porch step.  “Now you know, honey, you must never play in the ditch when it fills up with water like that.  You know that, don’t you?”  Amanda nodded.  Then she threw her puzzle piece out onto the wet lawn.  As I was standing up to go fetch it, she took off running for the street.  When she reached the part of the lawn that sloped down into the drainage ditch – this didn’t take long, the lawn isn’t very big – she slipped, landed on her bottom, and slid towards the ditch.  The water was only a few inches deep, and she didn’t topple all the way over, thank goodness, but her sky blue cheerleading outfit was soaked.  When I caught up to her her lower lip was sticking out, her eyes screwed up like tiny wet pebbles, her face brightening to tomato red.

She screamed and screamed, and when I picked her up she kicked, not happily, trying to get me, kicking to hurt.  I held her away from my body as best I could – not easy, but I think I mentioned the yoga – and carried her back into the kitchen, Amanda screaming “I hate Auntie Jackie I hate Auntie Jackie I hate Auntie Jackie I – ”  It was raining hard now, and we were both wet.  I plopped her down on the counter and turned around to find some paper towels.

“Oh my God – ” someone was shouting, and I whipped around, just in time to see Amanda tumble head first off the kitchen counter, reaching out for something, I don’t know what.  Somehow I got my hip and part of my leg under her, so instead of diving straight to the floor she thudded into me, slid down my leg, and rolled across the floor.  I dropped the roll of paper towels but before I could get to her, Sue had scooped her up.  Sue was already wobbly, but she kept a tight hold on Amanda.

“Oh my poor little girl, poor little girl,” she was whispering, pressing Amanda’s soft coppery head against her chest.  Amanda was squirming and whimpering, and I needed to take her back and make sure she was all right.  “I’ll take you to mama.  I’ll take you.”

“Oh no,” I said, “Let Whitney rest.  I’ll handle it.”  Sue gave me a sharp look and turned towards the television room.  “Don’t worry, Jackie,” she said.  “I know you aren’t used to having small children around.  I’m sure her parents understand.”

I stood alone in the kitchen.  The counter in front of me was wet and muddy in spots from Amanda’s soiled outfit, and I could see streaks of crusty yellow cheese dip where the pan had been sitting earlier on.  There was some shouting from down the hall – happy shouting, I think, but was hard for me to tell – and all of a sudden I felt very warm.  It was warm in the kitchen and I knew it would be even warmer in that tiny room with the huge television and all those people.  My clothes were already wet, so I thought, what the hell, and I walked back out into the rain.

 

It was halftime, and the President was on the television.  I was watching from just inside the doorway.  I had heard her voice and got curious – what did the President have to do with any of this?  But of course tomorrow is the anniversary of the attacks, and people’s emotions will be high.  And she was even a New Yorker herself, sort of, for a while.  I guess it makes sense for her to say something.

“I still can’t get used to that voice,” Stevie says.  “Or that face.”  Everyone laughs.  The rain on the roof has gotten so loud that I can hear it even over their laughter, over the music and the television, but I can’t hear what the President is saying.  Instead I look at her face.  She is serious today, no toothy grins.  It is a difficult day for her, but I miss her grin.  I fell in love with that grin during the debates last fall, the way she could just shake her head a tiny bit and smile, no matter what happened.  I wish I could do that.

“It’s better than last year, at least.”

“I don’t think so.  At least Obama had a little class.”

“Are you kidding me?  What do you know about class?”

Two fat thighs, two small breasts, and a left wing,” stage whispers one of the men.  I take a step back while everyone starts laughing again.  I look at Whitney, holding Amanda, who is squirming away towards her daddy.  Who is also laughing.  Whitney is laughing.

“That was a good one,” Sal says.  I look around the room.  I was introduced to everyone, at some point, but I’m not all that good with names, especially when they come rapid fire, one after another, boom boom boom.  Besides me and my brother and my niece and Whitney, there are two couples – Sue and her husband, who is tall, slender, and silent, and Sal and his round little wife – and the two little kids.  The little boy, who I think is Sue’s grandson – is that possible? – is still right in front of the TV, though now he’s sitting cross-legged and picking at something on the floor that looks like a piece of pepperoni.  The little girl, who must belong to Sal, is pulling books off the shelf at the back of the room.  I remember what Sue said about how I wasn’t used to “small children” and the back of my neck gets hot again.

“Would anybody like a cup of tea?”  I ask, as loudly as I can without shouting.

Sal’s wife hears me and chuckles, patting my hand.  I stare at the President’s serious face, her calm blue gaze, her blond hair shorter than ever, almost a pixie cut.  Maybe I will get a haircut like that when I get back home.  I could drive into Seattle, have lunch with somebody, make a day of it.  I do that a lot.  I have a lot of friends, back home.

There isn’t much seating in the television room, but most of it is empty.  Everyone but Sal’s wife and Sue’s husband is sitting on the floor or leaning against a wall.  The floor is covered in pizza boxes and wadded-up paper napkins and half-eaten slices.  There are plastic cups of coke and whiskey all over the place.  I have a vision of Amanda picking up one of the cups of coke – which Stephen lets her drink when Whitney isn’t around – without knowing it has whiskey in it.  I want to gather them up but I don’t know which ones are abandoned or whose cup is whose.  I make my way over to where Amanda is sitting in Stephen’s lap, staring open-mouthed at the screen.  The President lifts a hand in farewell, and a car commercial comes on.  I lean down and whisper into Amanda’s ear.  “Want to come into the kitchen with me?  I could get you some milk in a sippy cup.”  Amanda frowns and Stephen wraps his arms closer around her shoulders.

 

I’m standing in the kitchen, looking out the front door, which is open.  The next door neighbor, an older gentleman like most of the people around here, is bent double under the weight of the sandbags he is carrying from a shed behind his house to his front porch.  I wonder if he needs help, and then I wonder if we should be doing something about sandbags.

One of the most irritating things about being a divorced woman in my fifties is the fact that everyone assumes my husband left me for a younger woman.  I can see it, the pity edged with contempt in their eyes.  These days, as often as not, I don’t mention my marriage at all.  It ended for a lot of reasons – not just the fertility problem, although that didn’t help – but to tell you the truth I just couldn’t stand the thought of growing old with him.  Couldn’t imagine a future with him that I wanted any part of.  And here’s something else I don’t mention very often – I felt the same way about my friends’ marriages.  Even the ones who seemed happy, or who said they were.  By the end, marriage just seemed pointless, ridiculous.  So I left him.  Of course if we had children it would have been harder to get away.  So that’s a blessing, I suppose.

My house sits in a little clearing, almost an acre, in the middle of a second-growth forest close to Mount Rainier, which is a big volcanic peak southeast of Seattle.  A lot of the homes I list are in the same area.  There’s a ski mountain nearby, so lots of vacation rentals in winter as well as summer, but you would be surprised by how many people live there year-round, like me.  Mostly retirees, of course.  There’s a former airline pilot, a somewhat well-known novelist, some people in their early forties who started at Amazon at the right time.  I’ve been there for fifteen years now, and I don’t imagine I’ll ever live anyplace else, so long as I can take care of myself.  You’d be surprised how many people visit from Europe and Asia, just to see our national parks.  I’m out and about with clients most days, especially on weekends.  It’s not as lonely as you might think.

 

I tip my chin to my chest and the warm water soaks my hair to the scalp, streams down my shoulders, my back, my legs.  My bare feet sink into the prickly grass, saturated now so that I am standing in a couple of inches of water, at least.  The drops pound onto the top of my head like a shower with a massage attachment.  I lift my face and smooth back my hair.  The neighbor with the sandbags appears on his porch, gives me a long look, and goes back inside.  The ditch between the lawn and the street is full now, rushing merrily with frothy brown water.  I see a styrofoam cup float by and disappear.  Next come a dirty tennis ball and a child’s sock.

Back inside I sneak into Whitney and Stephen’s closet to look for a robe, but I can’t find one.  Instead, I strip down to my underwear and wrap myself up in an oversized bath sheet.  When I turn around, Whitney herself is sitting on their bed with a plastic cup in her hand.  When I start to say something she lifts her other hand and sighs, then pats the bedspread next to her.  I sit.  She drinks the brown liquid in one long swallow, then wipes her mouth and tosses it on the floor.  I can hear shouting, and then the light pounding of a toddler’s feet running down the hall.

“Shut the door, will you?”  she says.  “I don’t want to drink anything else.”  She shrugs.

“Okay.”

She is still looking at me so I go on, “I think that’s fine.”

“I guess so.  You know Steve and I only drink on weekends.”

“Okay.”

“As far as I know, anyway.”  She laughs.  “We’re doing the counseling.  It isn’t helping, Jackie.”

“If you can just – ”

“I’m not blaming you.  I know you only try to help.  Please understand that.”

“I know you aren’t blaming me.  What would you blame me for?”

Whitney looks at me.

“Does this mean – are you going to file?”

Whitney lies back, crosswise on the bed.  “I don’t really have time.”  She puts her hands over her eyes.  “I’ll let Stephen do it.”

“Do you think, if you did something about the drinking, it might help?”

Whitney inhaled sharply.  “Watch it, Jackie.”

“I really don’t care if you drink or not, Whitney.  You brought it up.  I just want – ”

“I know what you want.”

A thought occurs to me.  Whitney has no siblings, no parents any longer.  How bad are things between Stephen and Whitney, really?  If they divorced, would she get custody?  Would she need help?  No, it can’t be as bad as that.  I push the thought away.  “Amanda is such a lovely little girl.”

Whitney sighs.  Her hands are still covering her eyes.  “Lovely, lovely, lovely.”

I stand up.  “Can I make you some tea?  I brought along my favorite.  It’s herbal and it tastes like licorice.  Will you try it?”

“Jackie, Jackie, Jackie.”

I sit back down on the bed next to her, staring at the window shade, which is drawn down, as always.  I listen to the rain pounding on the roof.

 

The little kids are running races down the hallway.  All three of them have been outside, I can see.  Amanda is still wearing her muddy cheerleader’s outfit.  They leave tiny damp footprints on the carpet.  Sal is leaning in the hallway at the end closest to the television.  He winks at me, then stumbles away.

I make my way slowly down the hall, hoping none of the little kids run into the backs of my legs.  I think maybe the game is over.  Someone has finally turned down the volume on the television, but the rap music is back on.  Maybe it’s hip hop.  I don’t really know the difference.

Amanda rushes past me yelling, “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy I am so fast!”  And then she stops dead right in front of me.  I stumble against her and have to reach down and grab the stiff collar of her jumper to keep from knocking her over.  I look where she’s looking, at the sofa.

Stephen is lying there, on his back, wobbling a little bit from side to side as if he’s trying to get up.  I start to laugh until I notice the look on his face.  He’s not trying to get up, I realize, he’s reaching for the bottle lying on the carpet next to him, demon side down.  He can’t reach it, and he’s getting frustrated, and then the smell hits me.  The whole room reeks of alcohol.  The other two little kids run past me and knock over a stack of books on the far side of the couch, shouting happily.  Sue is perched on the edge of the sofa and she swats at her grandson half-heartedly.  She turns and looks over her shoulder at Stephen.  “You want some help, sweetheart?” she asks, then leans down and tries to kiss him on the lips.  At least that’s what I think she’s trying to do, though her aim is poor and she ends up planting one on his chin.

Stephen sputters and rolls away from her, landing on the carpet.  I pull Amanda back so that he doesn’t land on her.  “Daddy?”  She says.

Stephen’s eyes are closed, but when he opens them he is looking straight at me.  He snarls, like an animal, an angry, wounded animal.

Sue laughs.  “What was that?”  Stephen snarls again, then falls back, his eyes closed.  Slowly he turns so that he is resting flat on his back on the floor.  His cheek is pressed against a plastic cup lying on its side.

“Could you take Amanda to her mother, please?”  I say to Sue.

“No no no no mama no mama no.”  Amanda presses against my legs.

“Sweetheart, she passed out a few minutes ago.”

“What?”

Sue scoots over to Amanda on her knees, then leans into her face.

“Sweetie, your mama is having a little rest.”

“Daddy?”  Amanda says again.  She pulls away from me and climbs onto Stephen’s chest.  He’s built like a bear, barrel-chested.  Whitney has told me, in one of those wine-fueled conversations where we are both saying more than we should, that she likes that about him.  But now I worry that Amanda will fall off.  Stephen’s t-shirt has ridden up towards his shoulders, and she grabs handfuls of the hair that covers his belly and chest as she climbs.  He grunts a little but otherwise doesn’t move.  Amanda lies belly to belly with him for a moment, then pushes herself up and sideways so that she is kneeling on his chest on her hands and knees.  It could be comical, but it isn’t.  “Daddy, play,” she demands.  Stephen doesn’t move at all.  “Honey,” I say, but Amanda won’t look at me.  I move towards her but she screams and wraps her hands in her father’s shirt and won’t let go.  “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!”  Stephen doesn’t move.  Amanda is red and sobbing now, screaming, bobbing up and down gently with the rise and fall of her father’s breath.

 

Sue was right; Whitney has passed out on the bed.  Amanda has fallen asleep too, on Stephen’s chest.  I have been checking from time to time to make sure that he’s still breathing.  I realize that I haven’t seen the two other little kids, Sue’s grandson and the little girl, in quite a while.  I can only assume that the rest of the adults have passed out in various places.  It isn’t really my problem – is it? – but they’re just kids, and none of this is their fault, and so I go looking for them.

They aren’t in the house, I quickly realize.  It isn’t a big place, with no attic and of course no basement, not in South Florida, and the house is not a whole lot more than a kitchen and a television room with a hallway in between.  Amanda and I sleep together in a closet-sized nursery next to her parents’ room.  When I woke up this morning I saw her sleepsack-covered bottom high in the air, her cheek pressed against the bare sheet.  She is so little, so delicate, so perfect.  There’s no one in the kitchen or the room with the television.  I think about turning off the rap music, which has gotten even louder and more unintelligible, but then I think, why bother.  I don’t want to listen to the rain.

I’m hesitating outside the door to Amanda’s room, but then I think to myself, what the hell, it’s my room too for this weekend, so I push it open.  It takes a moment for my eyes and my brain to connect, for me to begin to understand what I see, but there is a tangle of half-undressed arms and legs strewn across my blow-up bed on the floor next to Amanda’s white wooden crib.  “Mmm,” says the tangle, and I shut the door again.  No kids in that room.

I peek in on Whitney just to make sure the toddlers haven’t wandered in there, but they haven’t, and she is still alone on the bed, which is a relief, I will admit – one less thing for me to decide whether or not to do something about – so now I have to check outside.  The rain hasn’t slowed, and the thunder is coming regularly, booming and booming while the rain thumps like thousands of tiny fists over our heads.  This time the lights flicker when the lightning flashes, and I start to count, one Mississippi – but before I get to two the thunder booms again.

When I push open the front door, my breath leaves my body, my hands fall limp against my side, I am rooted to the concrete porch.  I wait, hoping that my eyes will stop seeing what they are seeing, that the images will resolve into something different, something that is not unthinkable.  Sue’s little grandson and the older girl are floating in the drainage ditch that runs along the street.  But – they are on their backs, on their backs, on their backs, and even as I start to run for them, stubbing half the toes of my right foot on the steps, stumbling down onto the waterlogged lawn – there are at least three or four inches of water standing over the grass now, rising up and up the porch steps, and I’m bleeding from my scraped-up toes into the water – the little boy surges up like a hooked fish, splashing and kicking the soiled water, and the little girl follows, grinning as she punches him in the belly; they are both gasping for breath and soaked, wet to the bone, but all the same they are laughing and yelling at each other and the little girl screams over and over, “I won I won I won I won I won.”  I make my way towards them, feeling the Florida mud ooze up from underneath the lawn between my toes as the water laps around my shins, seeping into the cuffs of my jeans.  The little girl is so delighted with herself that she lets me pick her up without a word and sits on my hip, grabbing my shirt with two dirty hands.  The little boy tries to stand up but he can’t, there’s too much water and the lawn with the mud beneath it is too slippery, and he falls down face first, so I have to put the girl down to lift him out – so he can breathe, for Christ’s sake – and then, because she thinks it is funny, she falls face first into the water too, toppling like a little tree, and yes it could be funny, couldn’t it, if it weren’t all so horrible.

Finally I have got the kids inside, and I’ve stripped them both to the skin, but the girl is too big for Amanda’s clothes and even if she weren’t, I’m not going back into that little room anytime soon.  The boy is still in diapers but I don’t see a bag anywhere that looks like it might have diapers in it, so I just wrap them both in towels and sit them on the kitchen floor.  There is a brilliant flash of lightning and the lights go out and the rap music stops as the thunder rolls over us like a train, before I even have time to think about counting.  The children are both staring at me, wide-eyed, as if I have something to do with all of this, as if the storm or any of the rest of it is my fault.  “Come on,” I say.  “Let’s go check on your friend.”

“We don’t have any friends here,” the little girl says.

 

Amanda is still asleep on her father’s belly, and so I take the last dry towel from the bathroom and cover them with it.  I stand over them, dripping onto the carpet.  Asleep like this in the dim, filtered light, Stevie looks so young, far younger than forty-two, which I still have to remind myself is his age.  When your little brother who is so much younger than you that he was in diapers when you started high school – when that man is in his early forties, then you know something has slipped away, gone forever, and you might as well just forget about ever getting it back.

I am standing in front of the quiet, dark television now, and I take a deep breath, close my eyes, listen to the rain on the roof.  It is so insistent, not like the rain back home, so soft that by the end of November I hardly even hear it.  People were never meant to live in places like this.  I walk around the room pulling up shades but it doesn’t make much difference, we are right in the thick of the storm.  I wonder if there is a radio, something that runs on batteries.  I wonder if there are flashlights.  I look out the window to the golf course across the street but all I can see is water.

I look back at Amanda.  I could take her now, right now, just take her and wrap her in a blanket and start walking.  Or, we could drive off in one of the trucks parked outside – it would be hours before anyone noticed.  By that time we would be so far away.  We could get onto the interstate before the water rises too high, drive north, fast, out of this storm, out of this swamp.  I look at Amanda again, sleeping on her father’s chest.  Her fingers are curled gently around the hem of his shirt.  He snores a little, and she rises up and down, up and down.

Back in the kitchen the other two children have gotten into the pantry cabinet, and there is breakfast cereal spread in brightly colored lumps all over the floor, which is damp.  I look around for an overturned bottle or carton, but I don’t see anything.  “Hey,” I say, “hey hey hey,” and I lift them onto the counter.  I sit on a stool in front of them and lean in.  “What are your names, anyway?  Please tell me your names.”

“Beth,” the little girl says smartly.  She tugs at the towel I’ve wrapped around her shoulders.  “And this is Josh.  His daddy is Sal.  He’s just two, like Mandy.  You should put a diaper on him.  He’s gonna poop in that towel.”

“Thanks, Beth,” I say.

“You better do it now.”

“I will,” I say.  “Can you two stay right there?  Can you be very still and very safe?”

Beth nods seriously as I point to the floor.  It is unmistakably wet, and a little stream of water is slithering from the front door towards the hallway.  Beth holds her towel in one hand and puts her other arm around Josh’s shoulders.

With the shades down it is almost dark in Amanda’s room.  I try not to look at anything as I sidle towards the chest of drawers where Whitney keeps her diapers.  This room, aside from what’s been going on down on the blow-up bed, is well kept.  You can tell that the child who lives in this room is loved.  I’m not looking at my bed – or what was once my bed, you can bet I won’t be sleeping on it again – but I can hear breathing, and there is a smell of alcoholic breath that pervades the air of the room with its tart funk, and another vaguely familiar smell that I am not going to talk about.  I can’t tell who’s in here, but I need to get out as soon as possible.  I slip my hand into the drawer and grab a package of diapers and the wipes from on top of the chest.  While I’m at it I pull out a handful of Amanda’s clothing too.  The drawer bangs a little when I close it, but no one stirs from the mattress on the floor.  When I leave I close the door quietly but very, very firmly.

In the kitchen we play dress up.  Beth is in a cheerleading outfit that won’t zip up the back, and Josh is wearing pink jersey pants and a sparkle tank top, but at least I got him into a diaper without incident, even though Beth was shouting, he’s pooping, he’s pooping! when I came back.  He wasn’t.  Apparently this is her favorite joke.  I take the towels I had wrapped the kids in and mop up the soggy, multicolored piles of cereal from the kitchen floor.  Then I roll them up –a breakfast burrito! I say, but Beth just stares at me – and push them against the bottom of the front door.  That doesn’t really keep the water out, and it just keeps snaking its way across the kitchen towards the hallway, as if the whole house sags right down the middle.  I walk down the hallway in my bare feet, and it already feels damp.  Back in the kitchen I study the front door, but there isn’t a bolt, no way to lock it except with one of those little toggles on the handle that doesn’t lock from the inside.  “Do not,” I say to the kids, holding up my index finger, “do not open this door.  Do you hear me?  Don’t open it.”  Beth nods at me, then looks at Josh.  Who knows what they think of me.  Who knows what they will do.

 

The next morning the sun is shining hard and bright, right through the unshaded windows into my eyes.  I’m lying on the sofa in the television room and Whitney is standing over me.  “What the hell, Jackie?” she says.

The light is blinding and I shade my eyes as I look down at the floor where Stephen and Amanda were sleeping next to me.  They’re not there anymore.

“What did you do?  I’m so embarrassed.”

“What did I do,” I repeat stupidly.  I have a pounding headache even though I didn’t have a drop to drink yesterday.  Whitney sighs, loudly.  I am running through what I remember: the water in the kitchen, the tangle of limbs on the blow-up bed in Amanda’s room, Amanda herself, Stephen snarling on the floor, the flood.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Jackie.  Where is Amanda?  Is she all right?”

“Of course she’s all right.  She’s in her bed.  Finally.”

What is that supposed to mean?  Finally in her bed?

“What about Stephen?  Is he okay?”

“Everyone is fine!  Why do you keep asking that?”

“Good,” I say.  “Great.  That’s great.”

“The floor isn’t fine though.  Just look at the goddam floor.”

When I stand on the carpet I can tell that it is wet, even here.  When I look down the hallway I see the front door standing open and sunlight glinting off brown water beyond.

“Why is the door open?”  I ask.  “There’s still so much water.”

“Why is the door open?  Why is the door open?”  Whitney laughs, and covers her eyes with one hand.  “That’s really funny.”

“Did everyone go home?”

Whitney’s laugh sounds a little insane now.  “You have no idea how embarrassed we are.  But we’re so lucky.  So lucky!  What if something worse had happened!”

I’m shaking my head.  I’m so confused.

“Jesus, how much did you drink last night after we went to bed?  That’s really sick, you know.”

What is she talking about?

“At least Josh was with you on the sofa.  Why you thought it was appropriate, or funny, or whatever it is you thought, to dress him up like that, I do not know.  Sue didn’t say anything, but I can tell you from the look on her face, she won’t be bringing him around here anymore.”  Whitney wiped the back of her hand across her face.  “Jesus, Jackie.  My boss’s wife.”

“I’m sorry, Whitney, but I really don’t know what you are talking about.”

Whitney stared at me.  “Sue woke me up this morning.  Standing over me and Steve and holding Amanda by the hand.  Apparently she was trying to wake you up but couldn’t.  The front door was standing wide open, Jackie – wide open – and Beth was playing around naked in the standing water in the front yard.  You know how dangerous that is?  There could be snakes, there could be alligators, there could be human feces – Jesus, she can’t even swim!  Anyway, Sue got Beth back inside and put some clothes on her, changed Josh and brought Amanda back to me and then she left.  So yeah, everyone is fine.”

I’m staring back at Whitney now.  I know that a lot of things depend on what I say next.

But none of this is my fault.

“It almost sounds like you are blaming me for what happened yesterday,” I say slowly, enunciating each word.

“Jesus Christ, Jackie!”  Stephen explodes from the hallway.  “You wanted to babysit!  You begged me to babysit Amanda this weekend.”

“What?  No – ”

“That’s why you’re here.  Just like always.  You know that, Jackie.”

I look at Whitney, but she is staring at the floor with her lips pressed together as if she’s afraid something will pop out.

“That’s not right.”

I came so far to get here.

“It is right,” Stephen says.

I sit back onto the sofa and curl my legs up under me.  “I’m visiting,” I say.  “I came to visit you, and Whitney, and Amanda.”

Stephen starts laughing an ugly laugh and turns away.

“I’m your sister,” I say.

Stephen spins around and faces me.  “Get the fuck out of my house,” he says.  “Just get the fuck on out.”

Whitney follows Stephen out of the room.

 

Amanda is lying on the blow-up bed and watching me pack.  There isn’t much to do, and most of my things are damp from resting on the wet carpet.  I want to tell Amanda not to sit on the blow-up bed but then I think, why bother.  She is clutching a ragged old stuffie in her hand and singing softly, “Ay, bee, cee, dee, huh eff gee.  Ellempee.”  Only two.  She is so smart.  She is going to be so brilliant.  “Come to your Auntie, little honey,” I say.  Amanda shakes her head no, then grins and crawls over to where I’m kneeling on the wet carpet.  Something inside me slips loose.  “What doin’?”  she asks.  “I have to pack, little honey,” I say.  “I have to go away now.”  I pick her up and I want to ask her to put her arms around my neck, but I know better.  She lets her head fall on my shoulder and kicks her legs gently against me.  I stand, holding her like that, for a long time.

Outside I send for an Uber but the driver calls my cell and says he can’t come down the street because of the standing water.  We consult on where to meet.  I take off my shoes and step onto the lawn.  Floating there, half stuck on some taller blades of grass, is a piece from a puzzle, waterlogged and peeling apart.  I put it in my pocket and wade across the drainage ditch.  In the middle of the street there is only an inch or so of water, and I almost call the driver back, but then I think what the hell, I’ve got seven hours until my flight, and I start walking.

 

 

BIO

A native Texan, Lindsey Godfrey Eccles has lived in Seattle for many years, spending as much time as she can in the mountains and occasionally practicing law. She is looking for a good home for her first novel, a magical reimagining of the early history and culture of the Pacific Northwest. You can find her on twitter at @LGEccles.

 

 

 

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