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Deus Ex Marina

by Megan Mooney

 

 

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

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

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

“Aaagh,” cried Captain Longbeard.

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

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

“But Captain…”

“Whaaat!?”

“Ye name is Longbeard…” Kyle began.

“Ye point?”

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

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

* Ahem *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then they screamed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But they didn’t come.

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

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

He wasn’t wrong.

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

This really annoyed the Captain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No! What was going to happen was–”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So, like, eat us a little bit or…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re an idiot.”

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

“Unfortunately.”

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

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

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

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

“Men?”

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

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

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

 

 

 

BIO

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Exorcism of Ecphora

by Annie Blake

 

 

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

***

For posterity’s sake.

***

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

***

I can now throw my voice like a dart.

***

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

***

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

***

My body green and sown in the field.

 

 

 

BIO

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

 

 

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Baby Fever

by Pascale Potvin

 

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

#

TWO MONTHS EARLIER

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

“Eight weeks,” I said.

The three women attacked their notepads with their pencils.

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

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

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

“Oh, congrats. How did you meet?”

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

“What do you do?” she asked.

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

“And your husband?”

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

“Oh. Nice.”

“He’s a doctor.”

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

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

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

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

“Yes, we have a car.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Pregnant,” James reminded me.

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

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

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

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

“Yes, for sure.”

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

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

“Yes, that’s fine,” I told her.

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

“Yes,” I lied. I’d figure it out.

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

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

I strode back toward him, grinning.

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

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

We each had a glass and then we had sex.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…Yes?”

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

“What do you mean?”

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

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

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

“It’s not that bad,” I repeated.

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

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

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

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

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

“Twenty-eight.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s… not… optional.”

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

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

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

I sensed James walk in behind me puking.

“Hungover?” he snarked.

“Please,” I whimpered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is it all out?” I muttered.

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

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

“You’ve had an ectopic pregnancy.”

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

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

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

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

“Can I have kids?” I mumbled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the drive home felt like the one there.

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

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

“Well, she said they’d discuss it.”

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

“I thought you might be embarrassed.”

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

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

He didn’t answer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So did I!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hello?” I groaned.

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

I know you can’t, I thought.

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

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

“Just lay it on me.”

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

I felt the littlest fragment of life return to me.

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

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

“Right.”

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

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

“Uh, exactly.”

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

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

“Thanks.”

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

Hi Lillian, it said,

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

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

Take care,

TB

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

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

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

Oh … god.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pressing every key was like stabbing myself over and over.

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

“Lil?” he mumbled. “I made dinner.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wrung my fingers.

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

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

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

“Pardon me?” asked Aileen.

“How many did he say we wanted?”

“Well… he’d said at least eight.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I realized that maybe I could get them close.

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

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

And I attached the porn link.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My shock, then, was real.

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

“I’m sorry-”

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

I swallowed, gripping my shirt.

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

I put my head down and nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

She shifted in her seat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is that what worked for you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah,” I managed, looking up at her.

“You don’t look it. No offense.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Right. How dare you have an ultrasound?” Trish giggled. Her smile then left and she got quiet.

Keep cool, Lillian, I thought. Please.

Kate looked at me. “Is everything okay?” she asked. “You two kinda rushed in here.”

“Uh-huh,” said Trish. “Lillian was just overheating.” In a sense, not a lie.

Kate and I smiled at one another, but as her eyes dug into me, my embarrassment deepened. She was definitely wondering if this had something to do with my miscarriage. There was nothing I could do to stop her from wondering it. I looked away and focused hard on the wall above the stove.

Trish walked to the oven, then, to take out the cake. She moved it from its pan onto an embroidered plate and then placed it on the table.

“It’s strawberry shortcake,” she said. “Just needs some whipped cream and strawberries.”

“Do you need any more help with anything?” asked Kate.

“Don’t worry,” said Trish. “Unless you want to help me clean up.”

Kate did. The women cleaned, chatting, as I sat silently decorating and trying to recover. Now that I felt like I had some breath back in me, my inner fire had, thankfully, blown out. The foundation to it was still there–a gaslight that could easily ignite another flame–but, for now, I was sane enough to question all of those horrible thoughts I’d been having. I held back tears.

“Lillian?” Trish ended up saying. Fuck, she’d noticed. “Are you alright?”

“Yes,” I tried to say.

“Do you want to call your husband?”

“No,” I demanded. Too quickly. A tear finally escaped. Child. I was a child. “He’s busy,” I said, in a diluted voice.

“Is that why you didn’t invite him today?” she asked, taking the seat next to me.

“Yes,” I managed, standing up. The cake looked good enough now, but I needed something else to give me an excuse not to look her in the face. I grabbed a knife from the other side of the table and started to cut it up.

“Lillian,” Trish protested, placing a hand on my arm. “If something was going on at home, you could tell me. That’s something we do for women here. We help. You know that.”

I stopped moving but the knife shook hard in my hand. Hers felt like soft tissue. I found myself turning towards her.

“Is it okay if Kate stays?” she asked me, slowly.

I nodded, swallowing some tears and snot. I had to accept it. I was still that sad little girl who just needed some friends.

Kate approached me with softened eyes.

“Sit back down, love,” she told me, placing a hand on my shoulder. “Tell us what’s wrong.”

I nodded again. Sniffing, shaking, I started to sit, and I reached to put down the knife.

“Have a piece of cake,” Trish told me.

“Yeah!” said Kate. “Or- I brought madeleines.”

 

 

 

 

BIO

Pascale Potvin is from Toronto, Canada, and has been writing since childhood. She is currently working on a budding book trilogy. She has also just received her BAH in Stage & Screen Studies from Queen’s University, where she has written a few award-winning short films. Some of her blog pieces can be found at onelitplace.com, where she works as an assistant.

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

Countercurrent Me

by Mike Yunxuan Li

 

 

Movement I: Pre-Industrialization

 

1

After coming to Higher’s Private High School for just a few days, I noticed people here were essentially the same. Although they looked different, dressed different, came from different backgrounds, they all became indistinguishable from one another under the directional selection of job security. They were all “chill” and “easygoing”, they all laughed at the same memes, they all pretended to care about stuff, they all had this self-centered image of themselves, and most importantly, they all desired similar futures. Sadly, the things I thought were important for individuality, especially in this country: ability, self-actualization, and the courage to execute risks, were simply not visible in them. And yes, personality was not on my list. To me, personality was like DNA. Every cell in the body has the same DNA, but not all cells necessarily express all of their genetic information.

Then there is Epigenetics.

However, I couldn’t really judge these young adults too harshly because I was just like them, in a fundamental manner—well at least, until one day, something reminded me of that morning in the Pacific.

Kien was perhaps never as developed, and probably would never be as developed, but there was an inherent herby essence to it, a taste unique to Kien and me. The night was always filled with the brightest and loneliest stars, and from the top of our Kraser hills, we could see them twinkling above our heads, as if telling us they would always be there and our time together would forever lag. The walk from school to the mall and from mall to the subway station always felt sweaty in the breezy summers when lightning was imminent amidst the humid air molecules. The streets in the village were always lit with something. The areas that were dark felt just as creative because someone was with me, and together, the night transformed into a stage that simply served to highlight lights. Someone was always with me, and together we would look up to the blue ceiling, peek through street lights, explain road directions to foreigners, converse about anything, and through moments like these, memories were created, and now it hurt. It didn’t hurt because they were memorable. It hurt because they were only memorable.

That morning, 5 rows of Pexler tanks vacuumed our plantation. Pexler was like Ford. You knew where it came from just by looking at it. Our neighboring island, Kurston, wasn’t simply declaring a war on the state of Kien. They were sending a message—a message of completed industrialization and initiated New Yorkrization (westernization on steroids). I knew it would happen one day. The strong would be foolish to not swallow the weak.

Before the sun fully resuscitated from the seals of morning frosts, father jetted into my room. He had to be worried. Father rarely ran. He took my hand, and together, we scuttled out the back door into a nearby Kan forest. When we looked back, our mansion was gone. Bricks of black and white subordinated under the wheels of Pexlers. 20 acres of cash crops microwaved on the spinning plate of Kurston advances.

He put his hands on my shoulders and confronted my pupils with that once in a lifetime father to son seriousness, “We didn’t lose everything. Half of my wealth is in your mother’s house. Remember I’m the wealthiest farm owner in Kien? They only want me.”

The scent of his vinegary sweat, our kind of medicine boiling on stove, titrated by dirt in the smoke, was for a second the only vision of home and for a while, the only thing I could remember.

Bullets started raining down the forest. Long-tailed widowbirds woke up from their bowled nests and flopped into the air. Some got shot and fell to the forest floor. Others got injured and screamed like cats. Most escaped the forest only to be vaporized by the blue sears of Kurston flamethrowers, so horrifying yet hypnagogic, almost like a nightmare in a VR video game. Seconds later, the remaining strands of black tails realized their disconnections from bodies that no longer existed, and drizzled down one by one like kites whose strings had been cut—things that one would only see falling from the clouds in the obsolete tales of 2012 and the like. The volume was a long blackness that slowly encased Kan. Lines of professional K soldiers marched towards our direction.

He pushed me west.

My legs moved.

They paused behind a coconut tree.

He stepped out from the pile of banana leaves. The leader, dressed in grey cotton cloth, holding a fencing sword on his left hand, holstered his revolver and took out this photo from his front pocket. He placed it next to father’s face and smooshed his face with a magnifying glass over to the photo.

The first ordinary person that actually had an interesting story to tell was unfortunately not part of my first week at Higher’s. And that was a major problem. The seat across from me in chemistry class had been empty for days—the consequences of which was our group only had three members, a big reason for our snail-like progress on the project.

Just as I thought the seat would be empty forever, the unexpected happened. Ten minutes into class on Monday, the chemistry teacher spoke up for the first time since the initiation of our projects. “Guys, I want you to stop whatever you’re doing for a second.” His voice was extra smooth, like a mellow drumstick on timpani, which surprisingly produced pitch, which made me expect something. The classroom returned to its orthodox organization. I placed the periodic table in front of me in its default setting. I took off my steaming goggles and pushed the beaker aside with extra caution.

Inside the beaker was the essence of our project, the subject worthy of a Nobel Prize, the 7 inch Aplysia, a ditto looking sea slug, which I named Innocencie. Nobody really cared what it was called. It could be dabplysia and no one would give two dimes. Apparently, a professor from Columbia named Eric Kandel had done some extensive research on Aplysias half a century ago and used this little creature to show how memory and learning worked. In the past few days we’d been squirting water relentlessly on its siphon and repeatedly shocking its tail with voltages that were oftentimes uncomfortable even for us in order to examine the degree to which collateral axons had retracted or reframed. Long story short, the whole project was basically about torturing Innocencie on a daily basis to gauge out some numbers on a grid that had already been figured out by the Eric Kandel guy 50 years prior. I poured in a cup of sea water to keep Innocencie strong.

“I almost forgot, today is Remembrance Day. Let’s all close our eyes for a brief moment and remember all the loved ones in our lives,” he announced.

Someone raised a hand in the back. “When is the next legit holiday, like a day when we actually don’t have school?”

“The next staff development day, Justin,” he responded, which was basically a nicer way of rephrasing the legendary “furlough day.”

Tony shot me a glance from across the table.

Anna covered her face with her slender fingers.

Innocencie crawled a few inches upward like a slimy Virginia Creeper, his head breaking open the water surface, as if he wanted to participate in the remembering of someone too. Another cup of seawater went in and he retrieved to the bottom. Sensitization got him.

I closed my eyes. The taste of the ocean was at the tip of my tongue once again as Innocencie continued to exhale. Bubbles jazzed inside the beaker.

It was dusk when I reached mother’s place on the southern end of Kien. News of Kurston’s temporary occupation of the north had already spread like wildfire across the waterways of the commercial south.  The government was actively setting layers of defense lines near the Kranel Strait that divided Kien into palpable halves with the capital, Kannonbalver, situated conveniently on the southernmost tip. As our boat lumbered through the floating bellies of random carps, scratching foams against mountains of dying Warty Venus clams—a perpetual noise that could be felt through the vacillation in my shoelaces, I remembered seeing bridges incinerating in rainbow, from lipstick red to pumpkin orange, aloe green to death charcoal, the smoke overlapping all natural scents of sea urchins and abalones in the thin ocean breeze, boiling a family of seafood raw like a damn steam pot. The water was completely drenched in oil as if it was never an ocean to begin with.

The officers escorted us, the northern refugees to their main camp in Krunen, where we would sign a few papers and stay until jeeps could be arranged for our departure. While waiting for our rides, they greeted each of us individually, assuring that Kien would fight until its last soldier to preserve the holy capital from Kurston contamination. The president even burned all of Kien’s 132 steamships to manifest his determination in defending his citizens, whom he called sons from a different mother. I felt secured. In fact, most of us did. The Kranel Strait had been an insuperable natural barrier that coated the heart of Kien for the past however many years that Kien had remained an independent state. There was every reason on earth to believe we still had a decent shot. I mean who would not be optimistic when lines of blue-coated soldiers aligned the strait, converging Russian machine guns on that one port the Kurstons could possibly board from, when imported cannons dotted the shore, determined to dissect the bastards that took father into their atomic components, when the waters had been trapped, stockpiling potential energy to repeat the glory of the Battle of Red Cliffs, when the president was dedicated, ready to sacrifice his own life for ours?

I could still recall that moment of astonishment when I opened the door to her apartment. A man in grey uniform shoved a booklet up my face. “Passport United States of America,” it read. Before I could grasp it, something thunderous went off in the distance.

It came.

I dived forward, landed flat on the cold concrete when a zoom of light skidded down the lane, blowing a neighboring bungalow into ashes of rusts. I braced myself as a second rocket zipped along the adjacent driveway, liquidating the already rotted ashes into protonic particles of invisibility, as if killing a house once was not enough. The cochlea were unwiring their snaily shells, pupils in my eyes bleeding from the lights, and every major lobe in my brain hallucinating, and yet I remembered the lady in that house, who was no more innocuous than a single mother working 4 shifts for the sakes of 4 children, half of whom probably would have graduated from middle school next year. A wind blew, dusts whirled, rearranging shape of the bungalow, and a moderate photo of purple and yellow managed to escape into the open air of brown snow. It must’ve been her graduation photo—her smile, wide and innocent, as if she’d already found the media naranja of her life.

And then, it deteriorated in the already microwaved air, the air doing nothing.

The sky had its belly cut open by then. Blood falling, in sheets, clotted the only layer of ozone visible from here. Missiles and meteors and objects beyond recognition showered down the village, a tad syncopated, captured through the retinas like lenses of a slow motion camera, as if meant for Kien to witness the bullet down its own throat, through the esophagus, across some tubes, into the capital, and death. It was tragically beautiful like those constellational portrayals of heavens in animes and tear-inducing like those technological depictions of air-strikes in Hollywood films with melancholic orchestral backgrounds, except minus the melancholic orchestra in Kien. In the horizons, rows of familiar dots treaded over the sun-set plastered cornstalk shadows. They were headed for the capital.

I felt a tuck on my shoulders. Tony gave me a quick wink and closed his eyes and the guy in uniforms was still standing there with the Passport United States in his hands with his hands still on my shoulders. A scent of feminine pheromone brushed my cilia as the footsteps of milk dabbled inside the dark hallway. Go, she said. I looked up.

Precisely a week ago we were having coffee by the Kinanel Beach with me complaining just about everything in life, and a week later she still appeared calm and contained when our nation was literally on the countdown to death, when father was literally—

I hopped forward and clenched her legs. Father, I breathed. She stopped me. She told me she knew. The president was still here, the capital was still free, the thousands of blue coated warriors were still willing to die for us, and the Kraner Strait was still intact. Yes, the president had boarded Helicopter Plasma 1 for Keren, yes the capital was captured, yes Kien soldiers could not fight for us, because yes the Kraner Strait no longer mattered. The Kurstons had boarded from the south sea.

The smell of Innocencie’s jizz returned. The past, not in complete scenes, flashed through cortex like car lights through freeways captured from space.

“Mansen?”

“Sorry guys I forgot my makeup this morning. I look like complete shit right now,” she said. A sweet scent of perfume blew in our faces. The smell of the sea faded.

Every syllable in her voice was the Earth—distinctively feminine at the core and gradually more Justin Bieber masculine as it echoed to the crust. Lights and periodic table stood nice and firm in front of my fovea. Something, either the direction of the voice or the unforeseeable activities beneath the table, told me that the seat next to me had been filled. Our fourth member was here.

My eyes focused on the periodic table, zoomed in on H and He like they were her eyes. They frowned with such sorrow, pronouncing curls of eyelid doubles, as if I’d just heard the most Hollywood memory-loss tragedy. “Well, if you look like shit without makeup, then maybe that means you DO look like sh—” words found their ways out of the memory.

There was a second of silence. Actually no. There was a sharp inhale (indicative of speech), but she didn’t let it out. I understood. It wasn’t that she wasn’t mad, for she had to be mad. It was just not considered “chill” to be argumentative in a place where 30 self-conscious young men and women aligned themselves for judgments.

Tony nudged me from the side, “Bro, I think you went a little too far. I don’t think that’s…”

Seriously, she’d let us down for two whole days, and yet the first words she blabbered out had no “sorry” in it? Nobody cared about your little looks; we just needed your beautiful mind to contribute its beautiful worth. Plus, I didn’t even say shit! And also, people here are more sensitive than rabbits. Any comment slightly out of the ordinary will raise eyebrows, implying the typical “Huh? That doesn’t make any sense” in such a sassy and judgmental manner, as if they’re the ones that founded the magical wonderland of common sense itself.

Then there are only 3 forms of young people English: American’s sassy tone, English’s classed sound, and just the bleak inferiority of everything else.

Tony wasn’t a bad person, so I let go of the periodic table and said, “OK.” This little feud wasn’t really between us anyway. However, I was wrong about one thing when I turned to face this girl for the first time.

 

NOTE: This self-contained excerpt is from his novel, Countercurrent Me.

 

BIO

Mike Yunxuan Li is a rising junior at Cornell University majoring in Neuroscience and minoring in Creative Writing and Spanish. he wrote his first YA novel, which is still in progress, right after graduating from high school. His poem, “Borrow,” recently appeared in Autumn Sky Poetry Daily and Better Than Starbucks. Through writing, Mike hopes to break down what we think of as “human nature” and “common sense” under the microscope to explore what’s actually logical from the habits we inadvertently exhibit as humans. Outside of writing, he loves playing Go, an ancient strategic board game, and classical music.

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

Unconscious Authorship Inc.

by Cal Urycki

 

 

The rattle of fingertips on keyboards echoed in his head, like the pitter of fat raindrops against a window pane. He could tell by the tempo of the quiet clicks what sort of sentences were being typed: a long one filled with clauses, with short miniscule pauses whenever someone hit the comma button, followed by rapid rat-a-tat’s as the rest of the sentence materialized on the imaginary page in his head, one letter following another in quick succession. He could hear the lack of surety behind others, with long, languid pauses followed by even faster key strokes, trying desperately to make back up the time lost contemplating the next few words. His own sequence was a well-oiled machine. He had long ago eliminated the small pauses after periods, instead pushing onwards as if the sentence. had never actually stopped but was all one continuous thought one line of consciousness that could not be halted. by any amount of punctuation.

His only pause was a brief breath in and out after an indented line, a quick moment to refresh and then continue. He sat in a cluster of workspaces, each one only 5ft by 5ft, just enough room for a chair and desk with a keyboard, surrounded by high walls that prevented him from seeing anything beyond his square area. He had no screen to see the words he typed, he was only to continue and not stop until he was told otherwise, and he was good at it. He had found that special trance state in which his fingers moved without any thought. The movements had become completely involuntary and unconscious; his eyes would dart across an imaginary screen before him, looking far beyond the gray wall of his workspace.

Sometimes he imagined what sort of art he would create, was creating. He would, of course, never know if it was him or someone else that wrote the words that were eventually assembled, but he held on to the belief that he was responsible for some of the words, some of the bits that were called especially extraordinary by critics. It was April 27th, and a new text was due out in three days. He resolved to pick up his already blistering pace in hopes that some of his words might make the final cut and find their way into the text. He pushed his dexterity even further, eliminating punctuation altogether at times in hopes that maybe by producing a large volume of words he might increase his chances that one of his would be selected and eventually he heard a steady tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap and he knew he was repeating words which happened sometimes but he was never supposed to do on purpose in fact he was never supposed to type on purpose at all just move his fingers however they felt like moving and leave his brain out of the equation completely but he thought maybe now if there was a tap in the April text it might be his and he might finally have some proof that he was contributing more than the monkeys around him that just typed aimlessly without regard for pace or structure or beauty. He finally caught himself and stopped for a brief moment and shook those thoughts from his mind. He was supposed to leave the thinking to the Assemblers.

The texts each month were said to be amalgamations of all the sequences being created in the warehouse, but he had no way to really verify that, as neither he nor his coworkers knew what they typed, unless they tried to remember. Trying to remember often made one type with a purpose, which was one of the first rules of the job: don’t think. The Assemblers cut up long transcripts of endless walls of text that he and his coworkers created and stitched them into the most beautiful, definitive texts that he had ever seen. He read most of them, that is, he skimmed them enough to see that none of his passages had made the final cut and then put it up on shelf, never to be opened again. If he were being honest he hardly understood anything that came out in the publications. The punctuation was sometimes in odd places, thoughts seemed to run on forever, and there was never a concrete grounding, nowhere that he might find some footing as a reader. As has already been mentioned, even remembering what one typed was a dangerous proposition, given the chance that the text might become too self-aware. Each day a section of text was selected randomly by the Checkers, and should your text be found in violation of company rules, your job was the least of your worries.

He had seen employees removed from the typing floor by Checkers, and the looks of dread he saw on their faces were all that he needed to understand the dangerous risk he took by remembering his words. He thought they could never prove that his text was aware if he never admitted to it. What could they possibly point to in any of his texts and prove guilt? He was typing unconsciously for all they knew, and even unconscious words can become aware on their own, it didn’t mean that he did it on purpose or that he even knew that it happened.

Maybe the point was moot. Even if one day the compendium contained his words and his words alone, he could never take credit for his creation. He could never admit that he knew that they were his words, or how he knew them to be his. He wouldn’t even receive a pay raise. Many of his coworkers speculated that the monthly texts, given their continuity, were taken from the same handful of Typists each month, but giving out a pay raise would alert them to the fact that their words were being selected, and the knowledge that their words were being selected would spoil the magic of unconscious typing, a magic that the company was founded upon, a magic that had eliminated nearly every other mainstream publisher. The monthly compendiums contained more truth, more insight, more experience than any one author or group of authors could hope to muster on their own, even when working with a purpose. The numbers alone were too great to overcome. He slowed his pace back to its normal humming drone and continued, working hard to switch his brain back off and just type mindlessly, to ignore the record of text he knew he had just created and the danger it posed to his job and his well-being.

As the rattle of keys lulled him back into his comfortable trance, he heard a small discordant change in the sea of keystroke sounds. It started with a sudden stop in someone’s sequence, followed by rapid typing, panicked typing, typing that didn’t even care if it formed words anymore. That change sent waves across the sea of noise and others began moving more frantically, their pace desperate, pleading for something to rescue them from- he heard a noise that was not the deep methodic breathing of his coworkers or the chatter of keyboards. He heard the soft footfalls of rubber-soled shoes on the cold concrete floor of the warehouse. The same panic found his fingers as well. They moved as frantically as the others around him, trying to blend in with the others, give those shoes no reason to enter his square. As the footsteps grew nearer, their pace slowed, and he knew they had come for him. He had gone too far, and his remembering had finally caught up with him. The footsteps finally stopped, and he knew they were standing at the opening to his square, but he did not dare look behind him. He squeezed his eyes shut and continued to type, praying, wishing that they would just move on and go away, that they would see how quickly he typed and how many words he produced even if they were never that good and decide that he wasn’t worth the trouble.

He felt a cold hand on his shoulder and froze.

“I’m with the Checkers, you need to come with me.”

It wasn’t a question or a request. It was a precise command to be followed. He stood from his chair and turned to see a tall man in a dark suit standing behind him, stone-faced, eyes obscured by thick black glasses. He felt a lump in his throat and nodded. The Checker turned and walked back the way he had come, errant Typist in tow. The Typist peeked into the long rows of squares they passed while they walked. Everyone sat perfectly still, typing less frantically now. To those attuned to the tempo of keystroke clicks, an allegorical sigh of relief could be heard in the light taps as their fingers flitted from key to key without a care in the world. The Checker had found his mark, and it wasn’t any of them.

The Checker led him to the western wall of the warehouse, to a small inner building sectioned off from the rest of the warehouse floor: The Checkers’ room. Inside it was painted the same gray as the rest of the warehouse, but the desks didn’t have the same tall walls surrounding them. Men dressed similarly to the one that had retrieved him sat at the desks and pored over wide sheets of paper covered in miniscule letters. The men at the desks read the letters with apparent ease. He guessed that the thick black glasses they wore magnified the words somehow; no ordinary person could read words that small without straining their eyes.

“Go to Room C, I’ll be there in a moment,” the Checker said, pointing to a large ‘C’ painted over a doorway at the far end of the room. The Typist walked past three rows of desks towards Room C. It occurred to him how few Checkers there were. He thought there must be at least half as many Checkers as Typists, how else would they check all the words that were typed? Especially if his coworkers typed anywhere near as quickly as he did.

The door to Room C was open, and he walked inside, where he saw a metal table and a chair on either side. He took a seat at the far end of the room. It looked like the interrogation rooms he saw in crime dramas. Two Checkers would come in and do the good cop bad cop routine but as long as he played dumb he would be okay. He might still lose his job, but maybe that would be the worst of it if he didn’t reveal anything incriminating.

The Checker that removed him from the warehouse floor entered and pulled the door shut behind him. He had a manila folder bulging with papers in his hand. He dropped it on the table with a loud thud and sat in the chair across the table.

“You’re pretty quick, aren’t you?” the Checker asked, staring at the Typist with those impossibly dark glasses. Those glasses made the Typist squirm. In obscuring his eyes, the Checker appeared to the Typist something inhuman, separate from him, indifferent to his troubles. The rest of the Checker’s face betrayed no emotion, the Typist felt as though he was speaking to a machine, a vessel that was there to do a job, that never wondered or dreamed of creating art, of doing anything other than checking long pages of text.

“I don’t know how fast I type. I don’t really think about it,” the Typist replied. He gave himself a mental pat on the back for his response. He had to be extremely careful- revealing that he had any inkling of what he produced could be the end. The Checker stared at him for another long minute with a perfect poker face. He reached into the folder and removed the tall stack of papers. He glanced over the first one, following the lines with his finger.

“Sometimes he imagined what sort of art he would create,” the Checker read aloud. The Typist held his breath, trying to conceal any expression that might betray his recognition.

“Who do you think wrote that?” the Checker asked.

The Typist thought for a moment and then shrugged. “I guess it could have been anyone. That’s the point of unconscious writing, right?”

“So it could be you?”

“There are hundreds of us in that warehouse. It could be anyone.”

The Checker offered him a half grin and put the paper down. “I’m gonna level with you, if that’s alright.”

His breath smelled like a freshly burned cigarette, it reminded the Typist of smoldering ashes. He nodded.

“This sort of thing happens. It’s natural. We understand that. Our job here isn’t to hurt anyone or get people fired.” He rose from his seat and slowly paced from side to side as he continued. “I have a pile of proof in that folder there, and it doesn’t look good for you, buddy.”

The Typist squirmed in his seat.

“There’s two ways we can do this. You can refuse, and the company will sue. You’ll never work here, or anywhere else again.” He turned and leaned over, his hands on the table, his smoky breath less than a foot away from the Typist’s face. “Or you sign a confession for me now, and we make this problem go away. You go back and do your job, and don’t cause any more trouble.” He finally pulled away and sat back down in the chair. “It’s your call, bud.”

He removed another paper from the folder: a long, small-font legal document with a red ‘X’ beside a line that the Typist knew his signature was expected to appear beside. The document text was around the size of the pages he saw Checker’s poring over in the front room. He couldn’t have read the words even if he tried. The Checker handed him a red pencil, something that he had never seen in person. He took the pencil and clutched it clumsily, staring down at the document. He would be forfeiting his innocence, but in a way the document asserted his ownership of his words. They legally belonged to the company, of course, but he would have some sort of final proof that they were his words. Maybe they’d even appear in the Compendium. He wanted to ask if the confession excluded his work from publication, but decided against it. He pressed the pencil into the paper and scrawled an ugly squiggle of a signature, or what was meant to be a signature.

The Checker took both the pencil and the document from him and packaged it all back up in the folder.

“Is that all you needed?” the Typist asked.

The Checker reached into his jacket pocket and removed a thick set of black glasses and set them down on the table. “Put these on for me. I’ll be in to check on you in a few minutes.” The Checker turned and left Room C, shutting the door on the way out.

The Typist gingerly picked up the glasses and stared at them. They were impossibly black, and heavier than he expected. They weren’t made of plastic like other glasses, and he could hear a slight whirring of mechanical movement coming from inside them.

He took a deep breath and put them on. The material grew colder when it touched his skin, and all he saw was blackness. Eventually a small light grew in the corner of his vision and images flashed rapidly before him. He saw dozens of warehouses like the one in which he worked, all slightly different than the one before. He saw endless rows of square writing spaces, and then he rushed past them all, soaring just above the ground. He looked into each square and saw himself staring back, sometimes waving, sometimes smiling, sometimes crying. He felt his head throb as the images continued to flash across his eyes. He cried out and tried to pull the glasses off his face, but to no avail. They had fastened themselves the moment he put them on, and they didn’t so much as budge as he tore at them. He saw torrents of words, line after line of words that made sense, words that meant nothing, words that belonged together and words that he didn’t even recognize. They flew past him before he could read them, always averting his gaze just enough that he couldn’t see what they said, what they were trying to tell him. His head throbbed, and even when he tried to shut his eyes the images persisted, refusing to leave his senses alone. The pages eventually returned to black, to the nothing he saw when he put the glasses on. He sat, slumped in the chair, unconscious. The glasses slowly slipped from his temples and fell to the metal table below with a loud clatter.

***

            His heart raced as he typed faster than he ever had before. The words just came so naturally to him that it was as if he was transcribing something that he had heard a million times before. Each word knew which word was to follow, and so did he. He sped along, filling up imaginary page after imaginary page. He was sure he was finally creating something worthy of the Compendium, something he would be able to say was his own creation, even if only to himself.

He broke off the thought and during the pause he heard something he had never once heard in the warehouse: silence.

He paused again to confirm and indeed, it was completely quiet in the warehouse when he stopped typing. He thought to stand up from his chair and look around, but knew how obvious it would be that he was violating the rules if someone saw his head poking above the barriers. He glanced around his square and saw nothing out of the ordinary, but felt a paranoia creeping in. I appeared, for the first time since he had started the job, that he was actually alone. The calming drone of keystrokes was gone, like a white noise that had suddenly stopped. He heard soft footfalls on the warehouse floor. The footsteps finally stopped and he knew they were standing at the opening to his square, but he did not dare look behind him. He squeezed his eyes shut and continued to type, praying, wishing that they would just move on and go away, that they would see how quickly he typed and how many words he produced even if they were never that good and decide that he wasn’t worth the trouble.

He felt a cold hand on his shoulder and froze.

“I’m with the Checkers, you need to come with me.”

 

 

 

BIO

Cal Urycki is a young author from Central Illinois. He is currently attending Southeast Missouri State University where he is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing. He enjoys reading and writing fiction, as well as competing and training on the SEMO Track and Field Team. After graduation in 2019, he plans to attend an MFA program and continue writing.

 

 

 

 

0

Invasions

by Robert Douglas Friedman

 

 

I started my first real job the same year that Argentina invaded the British Falkland Islands.

My own invasion of New York City had thus far been a spectacular disaster. Base camp was the crusty kitchen table of a sublet apartment in Hoboken, where I sat circling want ads with increasing desperation. Every morning I would rise and prepare for a fresh assault across the river, my target visible beyond the sagging rooftops and rippling clotheslines of that scenic slum.

The defeats were piling up and a full retreat was imminent. Then I had one of my rare moments of luck. Which my new boss, Jonathan the news director, enjoyed pointing out.

“Know why I hired you?” he asked

We were in Jonathan’s office. It had glass walls that looked out over the perpetually frantic newsroom. A leather bullwhip hung on the wall behind Jonathan. He sometimes swung it above the heads of staff writers and editors.  More often, he cracked it against the door that led to the business department.  Jonathan didn’t like the business department.

He straightened his tie in the mirror behind his office door. “Because when I threw all three hundred resumes in the air, yours fell on this side of my desk.  Hand me that tie clip, will you?”

I tossed it to him.  It was a Mickey Mouse tie clip.

“What do you think?” he said as he fastened the clip. “Does it make a statement?”

“A clear one, yes.  It’s crooked, though. So you were swayed by my impressive qualifications?”

He straightened the clip and settled back down into the big leather chair behind his desk.  “Good.  Then I’m ready for my meeting with the advertising department.  Your qualifications?  Absolutely. I studied them day and night. What’s your name again? Ed?  Ted?  Fred? Doesn’t matter. You lost Dickensian waifs are a dime a dozen. We pay you with loose change from the vending machines.’

“Speaking of which, can I have a raise?”

“Yes – on the day after the day hell freezes over.”

“Sounds reasonable. Thank you for your continuing cooperation.”

Jonathan was the best part of the job.  He seemed more fictional to me than real, a New Yorker character brought to sudden life.  Jonathan ate at the Algonquin Hotel and the Russian Tea Room, was married to a beautiful French woman, commuted daily to his Connecticut home. He spoke fluent Russian and French, the result of his years spent as a foreign correspondent in Moscow and Paris.

Most amazingly, he liked me.

“Stay on top of this Falkland Islands thing for me,” he said, suddenly serious, his sharp gray eyes fixed on mine. “Monitor the newswires, keep an eye on all the telexes, read every newspaper and magazine. You’re my point man on this thing.”

A glorified copy boy was more like it. But it didn’t feel that way.

“This is a hot story. Pay close attention and learn, Douglas. It’s a great opportunity.”

 

Opportunity: that was the word I kept hearing. Mindy Lowenthal used it as she showed me around the newsroom. Mindy, an office temp, was in her late 20’s. She had long black tangled hair, a warm smile, and wore subtle perfume that lingered.

“Okay, listen closely,” she said. “This is your opportunity for a grand tour before everyone else starts showing up late as usual.  Over to your left are the clocks.  It’s part of your executive position to make sure they’re all on time.  You know, like when daylight savings comes.  Assuming you last that long.”

I looked at her. “Thanks for the vote of confidence.”

She shrugged. “You wouldn’t be the first person bounced out of here.  Or the last.” She pointed at the wall. “As you can see, we’ve got clocks for everywhere there’s a Global News bureau or correspondent. London, Tokyo, Moscow, Sao Paulo, that’s in Brazil in case you don’t know, Mexico City, Paris, and Geneva. I was in Geneva during my junior year abroad. Did I mention that I went to Vassar?  I’m beautiful and bright.”

“You forgot self-effacing.  What’s that window under the clocks?”

“You’re quick. I like that.” She leaned over and slid the little window open. “That leads to the telex room. The telex guys pass messages and news from the Associated Press through it all day long to Marcia and Tim, the domestic and foreign editors, who edit and rewrite the copy. You met them on your interview.” Mindy looked around and dropped her voice.  “Marcia’s a sour mean old witch and Tim’s a prissy little wuss.”

“Is that in their personnel files?”

She laughed. “It should be. You see that weird looking door in the wall behind your desk?  Under the big map with all the pins?  By the way, the map shows where all two hundred of our correspondents are located.  It’s been there forever. Some of those guys probably died during the War of 1812. That door is for the pneumatic tube system. Part of your job is to take the copy that Marcia and Tim churn out, stuff it into tubes, and send them through the system to all the different magazines in the building. You know – Business Day, Chemical Monthly, Aviation News, etc. And, of course, since your title is research assistant, your job involves a fair amount of research. The company library is downstairs on the 7th floor. You’ll get very familiar with it.”

I sat down at my desk. “How come you know all this stuff if you’re a temp?”

She fluffed her hair and noticed me noticing. “Oh, I used to work here.  I was Jonathan’s assistant. I quit to work on my Master’s at Columbia. I told you I’m bright. I come in whenever they need me. Like this week, they wanted me here because you’re starting.  Jonathan’s secretary, Debra, doesn’t have the time to train anyone, but really she doesn’t have the personality. You’ll see.

“Who else do you need to know about in this place?  Lisa is sweet but very conservative. She turns bright pink if you swear around her or talk about sex, so I do both. Victoria, she’s friendly but ambitious, though I think her main ambition is to snag herself a lawyer from the legal department on the 15th floor. She gets off on that floor by accident at least three times a day. Barbara, their boss, is a little ogre. She runs the business department like a feudal lord. Jonathan hates her. And Judy is her right-hand henchman.  Befriend them at your own peril, young knight. Did I mention that I’m in a Renaissance group?  I’m Lady Jane. No need to bow but please remember that I’m royalty.”

“I’ll keep it in mind.”

“Barry the photo editor is out today but you’ll meet him tomorrow. That will be an experience.”

“What do you mean?”

“You’ll see.”

“That sounds ominous.”

“Barry is unique. That’s probably all you need to know for now, except that if you ask me out for a cup of coffee after work, I’ll say yes.”

“I see. Well, thanks for the tour. I really appreciate it. And I look forward to that cup of coffee.”

She smiled. “Me, too. Glad to be of service. It’s always interesting to see how long the next one is going to last.  I give you maybe six months.  Possibly eight. Welcome to Global News.”

I had a new job and a potential date. Maybe my luck really was improving.

 

Debra also used the word opportunity during lunch.

“You’ve got a real opportunity to prepare for your retirement here,” she told me.

“But I just turned 22.”

“You’re right.  Maybe it is a little late. But you still have some time left.”

We were sitting across from each other in the break room eating Japanese food. Debra, who was dressed in black, had a Yukio Mishima novel in one hand and a pair of chopsticks in the other. She had barely finished the tiny portion of noodles in front of her. But then Debra looked like she rarely ate very much.

“I only read Japanese literature,” she said, “because their stoic sense of fatalism appeals to me.” She absently straightened her short brown hair.  “And my own highly developed sense of fatalism tells me that one day you’ll be old and sick and unable to work, so you should begin preparing for it now.”

I took a bite of my chicken teriyaki. “Can I finish lunch first?”

“Sure.  Don’t let me bring you down.  I always see the cloud inside any silver lining. And don’t bother to joke with me. I don’t have much of a sense of humor. Jonathan always tries to make me laugh but it never works. By the way, sooner or later, Jonathan gives everyone nicknames.  Want to hear mine?”

“Sure.”
“Charon. You know, from Greek myths.  The one who ferries the dead across the river Styx. Speaking of Jonathan, he wants to see you right after lunch. Remember to start your pension plan as soon as possible.  You’ll thank yourself later.”

 

Jonathan was hanging a basketball hoop on the wall as I entered his office.  It was a genuine hoop. A regulation-sized basketball sat on his desk.

“There he is.  Thank God I brought you on board. Your assistance in our organization is critical.  How are you at drilling?”

“I’m quite expert, sir.  My father is a dentist.”

“Excellent, Jeeves, excellent.  Drill me a fresh set of holes, will you?  I’ve never been good at these menial proletarian tasks.  I think I hit some wiring earlier.  Be careful, though.  I felt a distinct shock. I’d hate for you to become collateral damage on your first day. It could take hours to replace you.”

I drilled. We hung the hoop.

Jonathan stepped back and ran a hand over his balding head. “Looks good.  Looks straight. You may turn out to be invaluable. Now talk to me about the Falkland Islands.”

I sat down in the chair across from his desk and gathered the notes I took earlier in the library. The basketball flew past my head.  It made a satisfying swish and fell into the open file drawer beneath the hoop.

“First sighted by Spanish and Portuguese seamen in the 16th century,” I began, “the Falkland Islands were visited by a British expedition close to 100 years later and claimed for the crown.”

Jonathan closed his eyes, lowered his head, and pretended to snore. “Fascinating.  Wake me when you reach this century. Always remember that nobody wants old news, Douglas. Hence the first three letters of the word ‘news.’ Pass me that ball.”

He caught the ball one-handed, spun his revolving leather desk chair around, and tried a backward shot over his head. It bounced a few times on the rim and then went through the hoop.

“Nice shot.”

“Of course. Continue.”

“On April 2 in  this year of our Lord, 1982, the Argentine navy landed on the Falkland Islands with thousands of troops and seized control.  The underlying goal may have been to distract everyone in the country from their economic troubles. Inflation is over 600%.  Manufacturing is down.  Jobs are impossible to find. There’s growing civil unrest, mass union demonstrations, etc. For obvious reasons, the military junta is not very popular, and their political opponents seem to disappear on a regular basis.”

“Not the site for my next vacation, in other words.”

“Seems like it might be an acquired taste.  On April 3, the Argentineans seized two associated groups of islands, South Georgia and the Sandwich group. Also on April 3, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 502, which calls for the withdrawal of Argentine troops from the islands and an immediate end to hostilities.”

“Which ain’t happening.”

“No, sir, it is not.”

“And that’s where we stand today?”

“It is.”

“Your assessment?”

“Imminent war.”

“I agree.  You’ve done your homework, Douglas, and quickly.   Good job.  I’m quite serious. I’m impressed. I’ve already dispatched one of our most experienced correspondents, Dan Burke, to cover events down there. Your research confirms that I made the right decision.”

I felt like cheering, or at least grinning from ear to ear.   I did neither.  It would lack coolness. Instead, I  picked up the basketball and took a shot from the corner of the room.

I missed, of course. I was not Jonathan.

He shook his head and frowned. “Better practice that jumper, Corporal, or we’ll never have a chance against Navy next week.”

“Will do, sir.”

 

Marcia, the foreign desk editor, was not pleased about Jonathan’s new pastime.  She and Jonathan shared an office wall.

“What the hell is he up to now?” she asked.  Her voice held the raspy memory of many cigarettes.

The wall shook as Jonathan took another shot.  “Jesus Christ,” she muttered.  “The shit I have to put up with here.”

She turned to me and forced a yellow smile. Marcia was probably in her 40’s but looked 60. She had bad skin and a worse dye job.

Spread out on her desk were dozens of index cards with contact information for foreign correspondents. Marcia had indecipherable handwriting so she was the only one who could read whatever she wrote. I believe she viewed this as a form of job security.

“Well, Douglas, how are things coming along?”

“Fine,” I replied.

“Are you enjoying your first day here?”

“I’m glad for the opportunity.”

My answer seemed to please her. “Keep in mind that you can learn a lot. And not from Jonathan. It’s people like me in editorial who can teach you what you need to learn.”

“Sounds great,” I told her.

“Here’s the first thing you should learn.” She looked around to see who might be listening and gestured me nearer. “I don’t like Tim,” she whispered, “and he doesn’t like me. So even though we sit next to each other, I’ll need you to deliver the notes I write him. Just take them from my outbox and put them in his inbox. That way he and I never have to talk.”

Amazing. “Okay. No problem.”

She looked pleased. “You’re adaptable. I like that. I think we’ll get along just fine.”

 

Barry, the photo editor, did not feel the same way. He looked me over from head to toe the next morning as I entered the office and hung up my raincoat, an expression of angry contempt on his bearded face.

Barry was about a foot shorter than me and at least fifteen years older.  He looked like an outraged leprechaun.

He continued staring as I sat down at my desk with my morning coffee and bagel.  You could buy both from a café called Fritzl’s on the first floor.

“How old are you?” Barry demanded.

I unwrapped the aluminum foil around my toasted bagel. The cream cheese was nice and creamy.  “Twenty-two.”

“Nobody’s twenty-two.”

“Okay, fine, I’m not twenty-two.”

“Glad to see you have the courage of your convictions.”

I took a bite of the warm bagel. “Hey, I’m just being agreeable.  I don’t like to upset my feeble elders.”

He glowered at me and then grinned, running a pale hand through his ginger beard.  “Heard you were a smartass.  Okay, I like smartasses.  Even if I do have socks older than they are.”

I washed the bagel down with some coffee. “You might consider shopping.”

He snorted. “And you might consider where I was when I was your age.  I don’t like you for it.  I resent you.  I truly do.  You’re a smartass, I like smartasses, but I resent you. You might as well know it.”

I wiped some cream cheese from my face. “Thanks for the update. Where were you at my age?”

“I was hauling my skinny ass through the jungle while the Viet Cong tried to kill me in fifty different ways.  Bombs, bullets, bungee stakes, you name it. I was infantry. No college deferment for this poor boy from the Bronx. Nossir. Just basic training and then a swift trip to the heart of darkness.”

“Conrad.”

“Yeah, you’re right, Joseph Conrad. A reader, yet.  Probably have a friggin’ English degree. I used to read a lot, too. Sometimes I’d even take a day to read when I was on R&R.  After all the drinking and whoring I’d sit down and make my way through Tolstoy, Hemingway, Crane. I read about war.  Then I lived it.”

I finished the first half of my toasted bagel and started the second. They’re best when still warm.

“One time,” he continued, staring into the distance, “I went back to base camp, and I was all clean and shiny the way you are now, fresh from my time off, relaxed, you know, I’d had my ashes hauled and had this calm demeanor, and I saw this guy, a buddy, Earl was his name, we were in basic together. Earl. Earl from Alabama.  Fucking Earl. He was sitting there drinking his coffee, just like you are right now, and eating something, just like you’re munching on that bagel, and we were talking, and the next thing I knew old Earl’s head had blown up and his brains and skull and blood were all over my clean uniform, it was some sniper out there in the shadows and no more Earl.  So long Earl. Dirt nap for the Earlster.”

I put down the bagel. My appetite was gone.

Barry grinned at me as the rest of the department started arriving.

“Remember, I don’t like you,” he told me.

“Got it,” I replied.

 

What did I think of these people?  Like Jonathan, they all reminded me of characters I had met before in a novel or a movie. So did the other residents of our 50-story midtown building. Global News was just one department in a huge multimedia conglomerate that was more like a Wall Street firm than a publishing house. I was surrounded by carefully groomed executives wearing custom-made Italian suits, elegant women of independent means who worked just for the fun of it, scruffy foreign correspondents with their ties undone and rumpled Burberry raincoats casually tossed across their shoulders.

The correspondents would visit from Nepal, Burma, Egypt, Peru and other exotic locales and sit in Jonathan’s office sharing news and gossip in equal measure. I would watch as he smiled, shook their hands, and sent them off to cover breaking stories in Rome, Jerusalem, or Helsinki.

I was nothing like any of these people. I was from a small town and had attended a small state college. If they thought of me at all, it was as a  recent graduate with a typical corporate future. But I knew that I was different, and young, and that my future would be my own. Meanwhile, I studied them like an anthropologist doing field work in the wilds of Borneo.

 

Mindy was right about Tim, a slight, fastidious man who seemed frightened of Marcia despite his earlier experiences as a foreign correspondent in war zones. I didn’t blame him. Marcia scared everyone but Jonathan, who delighted in annoying her.

Mindy was also correct about Barbara, who ran the business department with an iron fist and was prone to sudden bursts of rage. “A thousand dollar expense I can hide!” she shouted at her assistant Judy one day. “But not five thousand dollars! What the hell was Jonathan thinking?”

I knew what Jonathan was thinking because he told me. We were in his office during this outburst and overheard every word.

He shrugged. “What can I say?  It costs money to cover a war. The bribes alone are a fortune. Burke is doing a great job and we can’t leave him high and dry.” He took a deep breath.  “Okay, bring me up to date on this nasty little confrontation, Steinbeck.”

Jonathan had learned that I enjoyed the novels of John Steinbeck. My official nickname was now Steinbeck. I admit that I kind of liked it.

Every day, I reviewed the Associated Press newswire stories as they printed out from the teletype machine – literally hot off the presses – along with dozens of newspaper articles and magazine stories in the library downstairs.

I also read Dan Burke’s informative dispatches from Argentina. I was really starting to like Dan, who wrote with clarity and compassion about both sides of the worsening conflict. Dan had a feel for everyday people and how traumatic events affected them. He was only five or six years older than me and taking risks that I wasn’t sure I would ever be brave enough to take.

I cleared my throat. “On April 25th, British forces retook South Georgia Island and captured an Argentine submarine. They also sank an old Argentine battle cruiser, General Belgrano, with a nuclear submarine. Fierce battles broke out between the British navy and the Argentine air force. On May 4, yesterday, the Argentine forces sank a British destroyer, the HMS Sheffield, but Dan estimates that Argentina has lost 20-30 percent of their air force. The main British forces are on their way across the Atlantic.”

“In other words – escalation,” said Jonathan. “Prediction?”

“Argentina is about to get its ass kicked.”

“Agreed. And so are you if you don’t get out of my office. I need some alone time for my afternoon nap.”

“I’ll try and keep it quiet out there.”

 

Hoboken’s future looked a lot brighter than Argentina’s. Gentrification was in the air. Old brownstone buildings that you could buy a few years earlier for $20,000 were  getting snatched up for six-figure sums. The fruit trucks selling fresh produce on side streets and the old Italian delis and the barbershops and the shoe repair stores and the pizzerias were disappearing as law offices and condo developments sprang up. On Washington Street, which ran through the heart of town, sleek late-model Saabs and Honda Preludes were replacing the clunky American junkers that once filled every parking space. Maxwell’s – a hot new club where you could eat a bad meal while listening to indie-rock bands like the B52s, REM, and the Feelies – was turning away eager customers.

Even the drug dealers who did business around the Steven’s Institute campus every night could feel the change as a flood of new customers increased demand and diminished supplies. My downstairs neighbor, a drug dealer named Raymond, was not happy with the situation.

“Those yuppies are a pain in the ass, man,” he told me, scratching his neck. “They want designer goods and the profit margin on that product line is minimal. I’m starting to wonder if I took the wrong career path.”

“It’s a possibility,” I told him.

In the mornings, I would walk the cramped Hoboken streets from my apartment to the bus stop as the intoxicating smell of chocolate hung over the city. Sometimes I followed my nose to the source, Lepore’s Home Made Chocolates, where they crafted delicious candy fresh every day and you could get a warm breakfast croissant with dark chocolate melted inside.

My regular bus driver was an aspiring stand-up comedian who tried out jokes on his passengers every morning. We would boo or cheer each joke as he took notes on our responses.

“Thanks for your help, everyone,” he would announce over the sound system as we arrived at Port Authority Bus Terminal. “Come by and see me this Saturday night at the Improv.” But we already knew his whole act, so why bother?

 

Hoboken was changing and so was I. Within a month, I fell into a work routine that felt like I had followed it for years. I would hop off the bus and walk across town past the porn shops and bait-and-switch electronics stores to our building at Sixth Avenue and 48th street, weaving my way through the sidewalks crowded with other morning commuters. The women all wore sneakers and carried their dress shoes in shoulder bags, and the men all had newspapers folded under their arms. Homeless people rummaged through garbage cans, waved their arms, muttered, shouted, and begged for cash. Cabs accelerated into turns and pedestrians scattered like schools of frightened fish.

I would pass the High School of Performing Arts, where students often danced and sang for passers-by just like their fictional counterparts did in the movie “Fame.” Then I would march north through the perpetual wind tunnel of Shubert Alley where bright playbills left behind after last night’s shows fluttered and circled in the breeze like lost tropical birds.

My work day began at 8:30 am and ended at 4:30 pm, and every day was pretty much the same in our dysfunctional office. I now understood why nobody lasted in this job. It wasn’t the work. It was the vicious bickering. On Fridays, the staff would adjourn to a local Irish pub called Molly Bloom’s for drinks and more drinks, but I always politely declined the invitation. Eight hours a day with this crew was more than enough.

The stressful daily grind that had become my life was disrupted one Wednesday afternoon when my parents dropped in from New Jersey for a visit. They were the last two people I expected to see strolling into the lobby. I was on my way back from delivering a package to the basement mailroom when I spotted them, my father towering over everybody else and my mother smiling beside him. My mom wore a new black dress and my dad a blue blazer with gold buttons. They were holding hands.

“Hello there, young man,” my father said. “Surprised to see us?”

“Yes,” I replied. “Shocked, actually.”

I was also shocked by how glad I was to see them. “What are you guys doing here?”

My mother’s smile grew bigger. “You look so professional in your business clothes. So grown up. We’re going to see a matinee of “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.” Your father thought it would be nice to see where you work.”

“How about it?” my father asked. “Embarrassed to be seen with your old parents?”

“Speak for yourself,” said my mother. “I’m not old.”

“It’s a figure of speech,” my father said.

“Well, you figured wrong,” my mother said.

I laughed. Surprisingly, I was not embarrassed by them at all. Maybe I really was grown up.

“Come on,” I said.

We rode the elevator to the 37th floor while my father rattled off statistics about my employer. He was a business teacher and always did his research. My mother the nurse was fascinated to hear there was a fully staffed company medical office on the 12th floor.

Everyone was very gracious in the newsroom and my parents were duly impressed by the clocks on the wall, the big map, the constant clattering of typewriter keys. Jonathan, who was taking a phone call in his office, waved through the glass and then finally emerged to shake my father’s big hand.

“We’re very lucky to have Douglas here,” he said. “I just wish he’d stop stealing from the pension fund.”

My father laughed. “I think I like this guy.”

My mother turned to me. “I’m very disappointed in you. Didn’t I raise you not to get caught when you steal?”

This time Jonathan laughed. “I see where Douglas gets his sense of humor.” He gently shook my mother’s hand.  “Your son learns fast, gets along with everyone, and will go far.”

My parents were thrilled with this glowing report and went off to their matinee in high spirits. I sat down at my desk feeling better than I had in a long time.

Barry looked up from the photographs he was reviewing and grinned. “Your folks seem like nice people,” he said. “I’m adopted and never knew mine.  And I still hate your guts.”

“Understood,” I replied.

 

I didn’t feel good for very long. Dan Burke was missing.

“Needless to say, I’m deeply concerned,” said Jonathan at our weekly staff meeting.

British forces had landed on May 21, which was also the last day we received a dispatch from Dan. It was now May 23 and the ground fighting had grown intense.

“There goes five thousand bucks down the drain,” muttered Barbara.

Jonathan turned to her. “Excuse me, Barbara? Did I just hear you correctly?”

She hesitated. “I certainly hope Mr. Burke is alright. But the cost remains an issue.”

I’d never seen Jonathan angry before. “I sent him down there and I hope like all hell that he’s okay. So please spare me the callousness and sarcasm. This is a man’s life we’re talking about here.”

“And spare me the condescension,” said Barbara. “I’m trying to do my job and keep this department financially solvent despite constant undermining. I’ll be in my office if anyone needs me.” Nobody else said a word as she slammed the door behind her.

Jonathan stared at her closed office door for a long moment and then shook his head. “Marcia, please reach out to our contacts in Argentina and see if we can get any word about Dan. Ask them to check all the local hospitals. Meanwhile, we have a coverage vacuum. Any suggestions?”

Marcia frowned thoughtfully, although it was hard to tell since frowning was her usual expression. “I’ll look into it and see if anyone is available.”

“Please do. Thank you. That’s it for today’s meeting, everyone. I’ll keep you all informed as we learn more.”

 

Dan Burke wasn’t the only person missing. Also off the grid was the woman who sublet me her Hoboken apartment, a former NYU business major and apparent criminal who was nowhere to be found.  Unfortunately, she had not forwarded my rent payments to the landlords, Ernest and Catherine, who lived on the first floor and until now had been very friendly. They were so friendly that I always snuck past their doorway to avoid getting dragged into a conversation with this pair, who addressed me endlessly about different exciting topics like the weather while ignoring each other.

Ernest and Catherine were no longer friendly. In fact, they were now threatening to evict and sue me.

“That’s rough, man,” said Raymond the drug dealer when I ran into him one morning. I was on the way to my job and he was on the way home from his job. “But I’ve always liked your apartment more than mine, so it could be good news for me.”

“Thanks a lot,” I replied.

He smiled and yawned. “Hey, I’m just busting your balls, dude. The rumor is they want to sell the place fast and cash in on the big real estate boom. That’s pretty funny since they had seventeen fire violations the last time the building was inspected.  It’s even funnier since Ernest used to be the fire captain. The point is, they’re eager to get rid of us both. If I were you, I’d use this information to arrive at a mutually satisfactory resolution to your dispute. I plan to do the same.”

“I appreciate it. I will.”

Mindy was missing, too. We never got together for coffee because she met someone in her Renaissance group who quickly became her new beau. He was an earl or maybe a duke. Whatever his title, he swept Lady Jane off her feet and they were now probably living somewhere in a drafty castle on the Scottish moors, or maybe in a one-bedroom coop in Flushing. Who knew?  Who cared?  I was worried about Dan Burke.

The Falkland Islands war was no longer a distant geopolitical event with a wide range of contributing factors for me to research and discuss with Jonathan. It was real. Dan could be horribly wounded or dead along with thousands of others. I hadn’t given mortality a whole lot of thought before but I was starting to understand the brutal fact of it. Dan’s parent’s phoned every day and Jonathan took those calls. He looked somber and drained every time he got off the phone with them.

Mortality didn’t seem like much of an issue to Tim the domestic desk editor, though, who had volunteered to replace Dan in Argentina and was now winging his way south. Tim was an experienced correspondent, spoke fluent Spanish, and was willing to report from a war zone rather than continue working with Marcia and the rest of us here in the main office. I didn’t blame him.

Jonathan asked me to help cover the domestic desk until he could find a replacement for Tim. This new role involved greater interaction with Marcia. Her limited tolerance ran out almost immediately and it wasn’t long before she was sending me notes via her outbox rather than talking to me. This was not a great loss.

Finally, after some very long weeks, word came about the fate of Dan.

 

“I have some great news to share,” announced Jonathan as he emerged from his office with a big smile. “Dan Burke is alive and well.”

The office erupted in cheers. Even Marcia looked happy. I was surprised to feel tears in my eyes and roughly brushed them away before anyone else noticed.

“He’s currently being held in a British detention area,” Jonathan continued. “Apparently, he lost his press credentials in the middle of the fighting and was captured along with thousands of Argentinian soldiers. He suffered minor injuries but is otherwise no worse for wear. The U.S. State department has contacted his family and is arranging for his release.”

Jonathan paused. “While I have everyone’s attention, I’d like to make another announcement. As some of you know, I was recently offered the opportunity to take over as the editor-in-chief for one of our magazines, Business Management News, which is headquartered in London. I’ve accepted the offer and will be leaving at the end of next week. It’s been an adventure working with you all. Thanks so much for your support and hard work, especially during this difficult time. Douglas, do you have a moment?”

I followed Jonathan into his office and closed the door behind us.

“I know my imminent departure comes as a bit of a surprise,” he said.

“Yes,” I said, “it sure does.”

My tone of voice gave me away and Jonathan looked at me. “I was sworn to secrecy, Steinbeck. Only a few people in the business department were informed.”

“Okay. I understand.” But I didn’t really. He had hired me while knowing that he was about to leave. That wasn’t exactly a crime but he could have told me the truth. I was trustworthy. Besides, I thought we had a mutual respect thing going on.

“Good. The reason I asked you in here,” he continued, “is that I’d like to make you an offer. You’ve done an excellent job filling in after Tim’s departure. So how would you feel about taking over the position of domestic desk editor?”

“You mean keep working with Marcia? How much of a raise are we talking about here?”

He didn’t smile. “Unfortunately, our budget doesn’t support a raise. But, of course, a promotion like this would put you on a great career path.”

“And what if I chose to remain in my current position?”

“It’s no longer an option. We’re combining the two roles.”

“I see.  Twice the workload, no extra money, and I’d have to work closely with Marcia? That’s quite a path.”

“It’s still a great opportunity, Steinbeck.  And, yes, you would work closely with Marcia. I know she can be difficult but Marcia is really rather knowledgeable. You could learn a great deal from her.”

I couldn’t believe he was saying this stuff to me, or that he was handling me in the same smooth way I’d seen him handle other people. But then Jonathan was a company man and leaving behind a fully staffed department would make him look a whole lot better to upper management.  So would the cost savings of using me at the domestic desk instead of someone more experienced and expensive.

“Yes,” I said, “her people skills and patience are legendary. Maybe I should have gone to the Falkland Islands with Tim. A war sounds like more fun.”

Jonathan frowned. “Think seriously about this offer, Douglas. You have a few days to decide. Bear in mind that it’s career suicide at this company to turn down a promotion.”

“Understood,” I said. “I’ll give your offer all the consideration it deserves. Thanks very much for thinking of me. I really appreciate this potential opportunity. And congratulations on the new job.”

Jonathan wasn’t the only one around here who could handle people.

He grinned. “Thanks. This has been in the works for a long time and it’s a challenge I look forward to taking on. Plus, on a personal note, my wife’s family is in Paris so we’ll be just a hop, skip, and a jump away from them. Happy wife, happy life, Steinbeck.”

“Good to know.”

What could I say?  Don’t go because it’s been great fun working with you despite the fact that you were playing me the whole time?  Stay here because Marcia is the midnight spawn of Satan and working with her will destroy my mortal soul?  Life was too damned short to worry about any of it.

I picked up the basketball and took a final shot at Jonathan’s hoop. The ball swished through the net. It felt good to be on target for once.

“I’ll get back to you soon,” I told him but I already knew my answer was no.  I had been invaded. It was time to beat a hasty retreat before I got captured.

 

 

 

BIO

Robert Douglas Friedman’s short stories and humor pieces have appeared in Story Quarterly, Narrative, The Satirist, Boomer Lit Mag, Jokes Review, Penny Shorts, Literally Stories, and many other publications. He is the founder and president of Raising the Bar Media. Robert lives and works in New Jersey.

 

 

 

0

Lightning

by Cleo Egnal

 

7 September, 1940

She drummed her fingers softly on the worn oak of his writing desk. It belonged to his father, he had mentioned that once, but the details and context of the conversation were lost to her. She tapped rhythmically, playing out a tune that got itself stuck in the recesses of her mind. A sharp pinch of memory reminded her that he hated when she did “that blasted thing” with her fingers when she was nervous. Out of belated courtesy she folded her hands together and rested the shape in her lap, trying to keep her buzzing body steady. He wasn’t there, of course, to reprimand her absentminded habit, but she thought it polite, regardless, to cease her nervous tapping. Maybe she was worried he could hear it, wherever he was. Maybe they were that connected.

The tune, faded and distant and blurry, somehow, continued to dance around in her head; she tapped (her foot, this time) in time with the nonexistent music as she blocked the sounds of sirens and checked the clock again. He was late. And bombs were falling.

They had spoken earlier that afternoon about what to have for supper, but never decided. The thought, when it occurred to her, prompted her to move from where she had been sitting, sorting through mail like she always did right before he came home to her, and make her way to the kitchen. The sirens grew louder (or had she just started really paying attention?) as she made her way without thinking through the flat.

As she stared at the empty plates set out on the small square table in the corner of the kitchen, trying to orient herself and remember what exactly it was she came into the room to find in the first place, she thought about whether or not he was hungry. They usually ate together at six-thirty; they were both punctual about things that way. Well, she only was when it came to food. He could have been made of gears and ticking clocks, though, the way he navigated time effortlessly and always managed to arrive exactly when needed, or intended. She constantly found herself wanting to be somewhere and only arriving when the odd workings of the universe finally allowed her to find her left shoe. He wasn’t like her in that regard. So it was odd, terribly odd, that at eight-fifteen the plates were empty and the kettle was screaming and her reliable clock was broken.

She snapped her fingers as she recalled her purpose for venturing into the kitchen; she meant to turn the kettle off before heading down to the shelter. It was shrieking, the kettle, that was what reminded her; it was a miracle its voice didn’t get lost in the droning sirens. She wondered why the sirens had to blare on so incessantly. Surely one or two warnings would be enough. But no, it had been going on too long and her ears were ringing and as she turned the knob on the stove all the way to the right, and as the kettle began to quiet and all that was left was the slight sizzle of boiling water, she wondered what would happen if she just stayed. He would be confused, after all, if he wandered in and she was nowhere to be found. She couldn’t very well duck into the shelter without him, he wouldn’t know where she’d gone. He’d be standing in the foyer, absolutely muddled.

Of course, this was all fanciful thinking. He could hear the sirens just as clearly as she could (although she wished sometimes she couldn’t, they were completely bothersome at times) and would know immediately where to find her. But something about him coming home to an empty flat made her incredibly sad, she didn’t know why, and so she contemplated staying. She could make them both some tea — after all, the kettle had been prepared — and reheat dinner and he would come home to a warm meal instead of wondering if she was still in one piece. She supposed that was what she was wondering, at the moment. If he was in pieces somewhere, bits of him scattered throughout the city. She imagined a corner of his ear carried by the wind through Trafalgar Square, right by his office, while his ring finger headed south along the dusty streets toward Whitehall. She imagined his pinky toe sauntering off to Charing Cross to catch the train home, unaware that it had lost the rest of him. She imagined this all somehow detached from the idea that it was entirely possible he wasn’t, at the moment, whole.

Her instincts for self-preservation proved stronger than her worry at him coming back to an empty flat. After a few more moments of wandering around, waiting for him, she grabbed the basket filled with snacks and knitting and old magazines she had begun keeping by the door, threw the first thing she saw on the coat rack over her shoulders, and headed out toward the building’s air raid bunker. She brushed aside the creeping heat of fear that was making its way up the base of her spine and turned her thoughts instead to whether or not she would be able to carve out a comfortable spot for herself among the thirty or so others she predicted were already there.

The sirens continued and the night wore on, seemingly endless, occasional shudders racking the brick wall against her back. A single bulb rattled overhead, swinging ever so slightly, a present reminder that the earth above them was turning to rubble. She passed her time knitting the beginnings of a scarf and tapping out music on the concrete floors. No one asked her to please stop doing “that blasted thing,” and somehow the lack of reprimand struck her harder than if the action had been met by communal disdain. The quiet of the bunker, louder almost than the sirens, hummed like electric lights, the very outsides of it electrified by such intense fear she wondered if they would all simply perish from that. The inside of the silence was vast, dark, terrifying. It was so loud, all that quiet, she pressed her hands against her ears to try to block it out but all she heard was muffled sirens screaming from all corners of London and some occasional sobbing. She couldn’t tell from whom it was coming; it might have been her.

For seventy six more days, each time she made her way to the bunker, she couldn’t shake the feeling that he would suddenly walk through the door, expecting his tea and supper, and she would have to explain that she was terribly sorry, but preparing a meal had slipped her mind in all the chaos, and would he be opposed to eating out just this once? He would wrap his arms around her and say no, he didn’t mind at all, and he would take her by the hand and they would walk together through an unbroken city, without worrying about anything but rain falling from the sky.

 

BIO

Cleo Egnal is a fiction writer with a B.A. in Written Arts from Bard College. She currently resides in Los Angeles, California, where she spends her days dreaming of the English countryside and working on her novel. She has been published on The Other Stories and Ranker. Besides writing fiction, she is also passionate about Victorian history, fashion history, and music.

 

 

 

 

 

0

Defenestration

by Martin Kleinman

 

Sarah and her friends come from affluence, which is why she said “defenestration,” while I simply said that Glenn jumped out the fucking window.

To me, at that stage of my life, there was no excuse for that.  It wasn’t like the souls who had flung themselves out of the North Tower and into a clear blue Tuesday.  You do remember that day, when school kids scurried, hair dusted with destruction, and squinted into morning’s glint.

And it wasn’t like that time in ’41 when Abe Reles, aka “Kid Twist”, flew headlong out of Room 623 of Coney Island’s Half Moon Hotel while under police protection.  Murder Incorporated’s master of death-by-ice pick landed on a restaurant roof the night before he was to testify against Albert Anastasia, and thus transformed from short psychopath to spin-art corpse.

No. To my way of thinking, there was no excuse for what Glenn did.  None.  Sarah and Glenn grew up on the Upper West Side of New York, well after the “Panic in Needle Park” days, and before today’s calamity of condos.  A guy like that? He should have jumped for joy, not out of a building.

I would later learn that Sarah and Glenn had been inseparable theater conservatory stalwarts at SUNY Purchase back in the day.  After a few years of audition rounds and regular rejections, Sarah shed her ScarJo dream, and drifted back to her fallback career, graphic design.

Glenn’s theater career lurched like Chutes and Ladders.  He earned just enough positive reinforcement to keep him good and hooked on the acting profession.  After winning a couple of lucrative TV ads, he moved to Chelsea.  The checks rolled in.

At that point, I came into the picture.  I met Glenn’s sister-from-another-mister at a concert in Prospect Park and, in short order, Sarah moved in with me, to the upper upper upper upper West Side of Manhattan, 214th Street and Broadway.  “Soooo convenient,” she’d tell her friends, throwing serious shade at my down-at-the-heels Inwood pre-war apartment, two floors above Liffy II and the Dominican cigar makers.

 

I asked Sarah about that angry four-inch scar on the underside of her left forearm, early on in our relationship.  I couldn’t help but notice that this wasn’t a half-hearted pass, an across the wrist swipe.  This was a vertical slash, a deliberate ditch.   “It’s an old cat scratch,” she said, the first time I mentioned it.  We were in bed, aglow.  I ran my forefinger down her arm, gently touching the injury’s ridge.  Her arm recoiled.  Her face tightened.

“It’s an old gardening accident,” she told me another time.  I leaned in to kiss it.  She turned her back to me, then sat up in bed, then left the room.

 

Just months after he moved to Chelsea, Glenn’s parents divorced. His dad was a Hollywood movie producer and the mom – have you heard of her? Belle Taylor? – was a cabaret singer of local renown, with a residency at the Carlyle.

The divorce was contentious and Glenn needed Sarah’s sympathetic ear and that meant daily, late night phone calls and emergency visitations.  “Gotta go – gonna talk him down off the ledge again,” she’d say, no matter the hour, or day of the week.  Her tight smile that told me my permission was not expected, needed, or wanted.

And, time and time again, I’d amble down to Liffy II for a pint or seven while watching the Yankees.  And I’m not ashamed to say that I’d stew about being a third wheel, left out of this tightly knit childhood army-of-two.

Six months after Sarah moved in with me, Glenn called to ask if Sarah and I cared to join him at the Carlyle to see his mother, Belle, perform.  Comped.

What I remember: our Stoli martinis were very dry. Very large. Very potent.

What I remember: warm waves of applause lapped the bandstand. The crystal clink of highball glasses.  Stunning young women in red-soled Louboutins, squired by greying guys who flashed gold cufflinks.  Snappy bow-tied waiters, hair slick with pomade.  Gold-rimmed plates of Dover sole.

What I remember: Belle’s wisp of a smile. Red fingernails that caressed an onyx Neumann microphone.  A sultry slit skirt. Tired kohl-lined eyes turned heavenward to receive her spotlight sacrament.

What I most remember: Belle’s encore, Jobim’s “Waters of March,” its playful melody a bikini bursting from lyrics ripe with life.

And so she sang: “A stick, a stone, it’s the end of the road; it’s feeling alone, it’s the weight of your load…”

Backstage.  Belle’s dressing room.  Her generous fuss over our bodega bouquet of red roses. A barren jar of Noxzema, the centerpiece in a coronation of crumpled tissues.  Vise-tight hugs for Glenn and Sarah.

What I did not know: Belle was drowning in a confluence of indignities.  Her divorce had become final.  She had been dropped by her third record label in six years.  Days after we saw her perform, Carlyle management called her agent.  They were going in a “different direction.”

Upon hearing the Carlyle’s news, she opened a Provençal rosé and began to drink.  She slipped Billie Holliday’s version of Arlen’s “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues” onto her turntable and, after the Barney Kessel guitar solo, opened her tenth floor living room window, inhaled sooty summer as it swept past her sheers, and leapt onto 86th Street in the pink silk kimono she bought in a Le Marais shop during her last Paris engagement.

 

The late night calls between Sarah and Glenn continued, fervent, now that Belle died.  Summer passed its sunlit torch to autumn.  The leaves fell.  The temperatures plummeted.  Without the promise of holidays past, joy went absent.  New York was encased in January.

One Saturday, a snowstorm blew in from Canada.  Twenty-six hours later, more than two feet of snow blanketed Broadway.

It was then that Glenn’s calls stopped.

 

“He’s in trouble,” Sarah said.  “I just know it.”

What I remember saying: he’s a big boy.

What I remember thinking: baseball’s spring training is only four weeks away.

What I remember feeling: hope, which came from my childish, vestigial, sense of renewal each new season of baseball brings.

 

I am old enough to remember the old Meatpacking District.  Pools of blood from primal cuts once coagulated on cobblestone streets.  Trucks spewed hydrocarbons into what that passed for air in those dirty days.

Today, the area is overrun by establishments that attract the rich and mindless, including predatory bros from Jersey, who careen about in Cayennes.

Glenn’s broken body was eventually found by city snow plow operators on Ninth Avenue.  As the thin sun of winter rose, a viscous river of red seeped from his mouth onto winter’s white, icy street.  His face, still now for all time, looked startled, confused.  His unseeing eyes fixed heavenward, as if to receive his final sacrament.

 

A detective in a belted, full-length black leather trench coat filled us in.  Sarah collapsed in my arms.  My knees buckled and I felt my eyes float.  The detective noticed, and snapped at me.

“Stay strong for your wife,” he admonished. I held her close now, gently rubbing the underside of her left forearm.  She stayed by my side this time, and sobbed.

This is what we later learned: A Jersey bro, drunk, lurched past our fallen friend.  His entourage-of-the-entitled laughed as their drunk friend nudged Glenn with his foot.

The drunk lunged for a mailbox, to steady himself.  He pulled himself upright, staggered towards his friends and, for no apparent reason, punched one of them in the cheek.

“Fuck you,” the guy spat, stunned.  He rubbed his reddened face with his left hand and clenched his right.  A woman tried to stay his arm, but the drunk’s jutted chin was too tempting a target.  The force of the blow spun him into a parked Uber and onto the snowy sidewalk, beside Glenn.

At that point, he noticed the white ear buds Glenn wore.  Oblivious to Glenn’s condition, he pulled out one of the buds and music blared into that frigid Sunday morning.  The men and women in the group laughed and helped their friend to his feet.

“Shhhhhh!  He’s sleeping,” one of the women slurred as they ambled down the block, laughing with the abandon afforded the careless, as pigeons parted for a skidding Escalade, as a  furious wind whipped off the river, unable to silence that playful Jobim tune:

“A stick, a stone, it’s the end of the road; it’s feeling alone, it’s the weight of your load…”

 

 

  

 

BIO

Martin Kleinman is New York City story teller.  He has told his tales of real New Yorkers in his short fiction collection, “Home Front,” (Sock Monkey Press 2013), in fiction anthologies and literary publications, in www.thisisthebronX.info, and on his blog www.therealnewyorkers.com, as well as in the Huffington Post, and in venues all around New York City – from KGB Bar to Union Hall.

A native New Yorker, Marty has written two books on workplace innovation trends, and is finalizing a second collection of short fiction.  “Defenestration” is from that new short fiction collection.

 

 

 

 

 

0

UP ABOVE and the DOWN BELOW

by Linda Leigh

 

 

In April 2013, I was awarded a scholarship to SAIC (School of the Art Institute in Chicago). Unfortunately, I developed breast and lymph node cancer which I called The Blimp. School started in August, so I put off going until my treatments with chemo and radiation were complete. The school was very accommodating with this arrangement.

When 2014 rolled in I was ready to begin my life in the windy city of Chicago, and really excited about beginning a new and adventurous life. I started having large yard sales and sold most of my worldly goods and the rest went into storage. I said my goodbyes to apartment, family, friends and my cat Isabella, whom I raised from a kitten and thought was going to a good home (more about that later). After my train trip to Chicago I found a place to stay while I took care of my paper work at the school. Everything was verified that I was indeed ready to start the following week. Then a snag came the very next day. I was texted to come to the school immediately. It was discovered that my high school transcript did not have my graduation date on it and I was told without that document I could not attend. Unfortunately my high school in New York is now defunct, and the school now has an office for graduates to call and request their transcripts. At this time the school was closed and would not be open until September. Also the office would have to request info from the state to get that information for me.

Needless to say I am now homeless. Now I live in the elements. What does that mean when you don’t have immediate housing and may have to live on the streets? Actually, when I was asked by my granddaughter if I was homeless I looked at my daughter who was about to cry and said, no, I live in the elements. I then asked my daughter if this sounded better? She replied, yes. The journey will be memorable from how I got here to wherever it takes me.  Family and friends do not keep in touch nor have they come to visit. Lots to think about. But I am a very resourceful person and will definitely make the most of the situation I find myself in.  I will dance through these mirrors and windows and come through stronger and more informed.

•  •  •

A  Good Day

As I listen to a young girl’s poem or spoken word about how she got over her depression, and it being a good day, I thought back to a time that I rarely talk about — the moment I had a dark day.  Although I have never gone to the point of harming or killing myself, I do remember back in the fall of 2012 when I fell into a dark hole and could not climb out.  I actually sought help at a facility in downtown Los Angeles that a friend had recommended.  They had me do different tests and some talking and found that I was basically okay — nothing more, nothing less. But I knew it was something.

I remember it was a Tuesday in November I decided I would Love my depression, yes, I said love it like I did chocolate or a friend or a lover. When it descended upon me I told it, good to have you.  I love you, thank you for being here.  After taking a shower and getting dressed for class I walked to the door and could not open it to go out. I walked back into my room, got into bed and said, I love not having to go out, and I love you warm, cozy bed with my covers and sheets and pillows, thank you, I love being here.

I thanked my apartment and rejoiced in the fact I was in a dark hole loving it as much as I could. And finally one day after two months of this madness I realized it was gone almost as quickly as it came and that was a very Good Day.

•  •  •

Women in the Down Below settle their disputes by being overly aggressive, loud, and squabbling up in each other’s faces.  They put hands on one another.

In the Up Above angry bursts are not as confrontational but are settled by nippy, hurtful and sarcastic statements.

I listened to two young women while I was waiting for my train to arrive.  The women were both Asian and a Caucasian man.  They started talking about a co-worker who had cut and colored her hair.  Their conversation went like this “Did you see her new do?”  Asked one of the women.  The other replied,” Yes, and she was so proud of it.” First woman: “I know. I didn’t know what to say.  So I said, you got your hair cut.  I just couldn’t tell her how bad the color and cut was.” “I know,” replies second woman, “she was so enthused and happy about her hair.”  They giggled and seemed to be enjoying the moment in all its dishonesty.  I watched them and listened intently to them the whole time not caring if they noticed me watching them. I thought, what a sham.

In the Down Below, people are more intense, their anger is explosive but they are very honest in their opinions.  They may be quick to strike out at anyone at any time. At the same time there is so much more living than I’ve ever seen clothes, food, advice to get help and services.  Everyone seems to have a hustle; selling one cigarette for fifty cents, clothing they may have gotten for free goes for one dollar or more; candy and sunglasses even food … Cooking in covered and uncovered skillets. The side of buildings are used without thought for a bathroom while drugs are peddled freely on almost every corner and in front of buildings including the Police station. And trust me, no one does anything about it.

Everyone has a story, some are more horrifying than others. Like the women who’ve told me about their mothers and/or fathers that molested them as children, then put them on the street at eleven years of age for prostitution or the mother that gave her daughter up because she was too dark. All types of people live on Skid Row — educated college professors, business persons, chefs, lawyers, accountants, singers, actors, and of course the Vets, as well as the less educated or non-educated.

At the URM (Union Rescue Mission) where I now reside, I am treated with respect by the other women and the director. Actually, she did something for me she never did for anyone else. I had some boxes that needed to go into storage, and she let me leave them in her office and she personally put them in storage for me.  The women who ran the storage area also made sure my things were not rummaged through, and because my hair was starting to grow back from the chemo they would call me Mrs. Cosby (because of the color). I sleep on the fourth floor. It is like a large dormitory for women, about one hundred fifty, and you are assigned a bed which you get to sleep in every night if you follow the rules.  At night I had women who would ask to sit on my bed and tell me stories about how they were treated as children. Like the mothers and fathers who raped them at very young ages and then put them on the streets to sell themselves at eleven so their parents could have money for the Candy Man.  This revelation was shocking for me because I grew up in a very loving neighborhood where the children were monitored and loved. So this information was new and I began to look at black people in a different awareness always thinking we as a people would never treat our children with little or no respect or regard for their welfare. Another woman revealed to me that she was given up at birth because she was born too dark to a mother that was very fair and had three children before her that were the same color as her mother.  She told me how they were reunited when their mother was dying and asked her to help with the funeral cost and for her church to bury her mother.  And she did even though they, her siblings never communicated with her except at this time.

This is a humorous event that took place at URM, I think so anyway. A young woman comes in and announces she is going on a date with a gentleman she just met and who is really fine, well-mannered and dresses really nice. This young woman is getting ready for her big hot date. She puts on a beautiful frock (the women here have great taste and are very fashionable) and stilettos — yes, they do wear them in The Down below. Her face is made up to perfection, as well as her hair, set in long waves that cover her back, looking like a movie star. She adds one final touch, some bling earrings that dazzle and blind the eyes, then picks up her purse and exits the room. To our amazement, and it’s only been one hour, she is back at the URM taking her shoes off. A friend of hers asks what happened? The young woman starts to tell us that this guy gave her his address, and as she is walking by the tents on Skid Row, she finds it. A Tent, she exclaims, with an address and he is there waiting for her.  With a flourish, he flips open the flap and invites her in where to her amazement are two lawn chairs which she commences to sit on.  She notices that he has two coolers. He asks, “would you like something to drink?” She replies, “yes.”  He opens a cooler with drinks and offers her one which he opens and gives to her.  He then asks her ,“are you ready for dinner?” She hesitantly says yes again, and he opens the other cooler and offers her a sandwich (I don’t know what kind because she never says.) So she eats and drinks and thanks him for a lovely evening and leaves soon after.  After she has lamented about her tale of events she exclaims, at least he lives in a luxury tent and not a pup tent.

There is a white woman that lives on the streets and comes to the DWC called the Judge.  She is filthy and is foul smelling and even more foul with her mouth and manners.  When she enters the building the woman in charge of showers that day immediately takes her and allows her to have an emergency shower.  The shower monitor then rummages through the bins of clothing donations and finds her decent clothes to put on so she is ready to have breakfast.  This woman I am told was once a judge in New York and that someone had killed her whole family while she watched, and then they raped her and left.  I often wonder what she had done to make someone that crazy to do that to her.  I see her all the time now and she looks worse than when I first saw her, almost sickly.

Another white woman that comes in is from a very wealthy family. Being here is an eye opener to say the least, everything takes longer to get done, whether it is housing, medical, or transportation etc.

•  •  •

I am really tired today. I was up at four o’clock this morning. I tried to go back to sleep, but now it is five-thirty.  I take a shower, which I do every morning and evening, especially down here. The filth is so appalling that I feel grimy from walking in the streets of downtown. It’s like if I don’t get that energy off of me I will drown in it.

I am dressed and skipping out the door to the Downtown Women’s Center where I volunteer cooking for over one hundred and fifty women, and I can boil three hundred eggs perfectly with a golden yolk. Actually I went through their Set to Bake program. A group of us baked the goods that went into the DWC’s café.  The program got cancelled and Chef Carlos, told Miss Faye, the director of the day center, that he wanted Theresa, Briana and I to work with him.  When breakfast is over I will catch the bus to The Up Above, Alhambra is where I used to live before coming down here.  I will put some items in my storage so my room at the Russ won’t be overcrowded.  I try to keep things minimal, so far good job.

It is November the weather is still warm on my way home from the DWC.  I can’t believe how time has flown. There is a wedding taking place this evening at the San Julian Park. The cleaning crew has been here all day preparing the park for this momentous occasion.  I guess when you are in a community it can become your home.  My understanding is that the bride and groom met here on Skid Row.

It is seven o’clock at night, the festivities are about to start. I am watching out of the bathroom window of the second floor. A real minister is going to perform the ceremony and the guests are strutting into the park and take their seats at tables set up for this special day.  The groom has arrived with his best man, and the music has started playing. It is soft and mellow.  A songstress steps up to the stage to sing. She has a beautiful voice, full and rich.  The song ends and a pause is felt and walking music for the bridal party begins, six bridesmaids with escorts approach, very elegant.  I wish I had a camera, no one would believe this.  Oh, how sweet, two flower girls with a ring bearer come forward.  A long dramatic pause as the bride arrives and makes a spectacular entrance on the arm of a fine looking older gentleman. It could be her father, uncle, brother, or could be a friend.  Does not matter she is glowing and exquisite — yes exquisite.  It is nearing the end of the ceremony. Bride and groom exchange vows and kiss… The food is catered and smells delicious. The band is setting up, yes, a real band. The party is about to begin.  I whisper to the couple, may God bless you and may your marriage be strong especially in the Down Below. All I can say is this bride has marvelous taste.

•  •  •

This morning I got myself ready — went to the beach. While there I studied for the Food Handling test that was to take place later this week.  It is warmer than I thought it would be.  I saw a beach chair by itself and took it.  The owner, an older woman in her eighties, came back and claimed it. She was really miffed.  I laughed to myself. I knew it was wrong to take that chair.  Saw a sea lion and heard its cries.  Were the waves too harsh?

•  •  •

It is Saturday, February 28, 2015.  This is the last day of the month. This is my six month anniversary for being in the down below.  Still waiting for housing I was promised to move from the Russ to the Rosslyn Hotel.  Leslie, the SRO coordinator, told me that I am moving on January 23.  She informed me that my background check had been lost and they have to submit a new one.  I have waited three more weeks and now it is February 24. Finally, I have met with the  Housing Authority and I am told everything looks good.

I cannot believe that I have been living in the Down Below for two years, so much has happened in a short span of time. People come and go like soft waves, whispering as they touch the sand on the beach, or the touch of fingertips that barely meet.  Here in the Down Below life appears to be tenuous at best. I have my apartment at the Rosslyn Hotel. It was such a big deal to move in here and it turns out not so big.

Walking the downtown section of Los Angeles CA, from Fifth and Main streets to Fifth and San Pedro, can be an experience unto itself which I try to do very Monday, Wednesday and Friday on my trek to the L.A.M.P. On any given day the streets from San Julian to San Pedro can be clean or littered with garbage, urine and or excrement and the odor can knock you into space. Hell you might even see a person you thought was asleep but was really dead.  Sometimes the streets are overcrowded with tents with more women and families are moving in every day and Asians soon will be the new majority in the Down Below.

•  •  •

This morning my sister-in-law Nellie, died from a rare form of cancer, she was sixty-four years of age.  She leaves behind my brother, her husband Albert g. Leigh III, her son Albert G. Leigh IV, his wife Olga and their three children Dyanna, Albert G. Leigh V and Peter. Christina Leigh Rueckner her daughter, and her husband Franz their two children Karsten and Liezel and her youngest son Brian Leigh, his wife Charlotte and their two children Tatiana and Tyler

When my father Albert G. Leigh, Jr.  made his transion, his six children realized we were now the front line — meaning, the next to go.  We also speculated on what would happen if one of us made our transition.  And what it would feel like.  Never did Nellie cross our minds. She was not even on the radar.  She being always healthy and in control. it took all of us by surprise.  How appropriate (relevant) she left on Valentine’s Day with her loving family surrounding her.  Good bye Nellie you are much loved and in our hearts you remain.

My heart is sad.
I missed you before you even took flight.
I knew it was inevitable,
But I prayed for a miracle.
But the heavens wanted you more.
Your job for now was through maybe a lesson or two.
You have made me wake-up to the fact that
tomorrow is now.
Living in the moment and doing what is needed for
me right now—not then, not later.

•  •  •

                                          Nellie
My heart is sad
            I missed you, before you even took flight.
                        I
                                    Knew it was inevitable.
            I prayed for a
Miracle.
                        But the heavens wanted you
                                    more.
            Your job,  for now is through.
Maybe,
                        a lesson too.
            You
                        made me wake up to the
                                    fact
            that tomorrow is
                                    now.
                        Living in the moment
            doing
                        what is needed
                                    right now
and
            Certainly not later.

(poem done two different ways)

 

For the past three weeks I have been sick with a bladder infection. The first two weeks I had no idea what I had.  Week one could not get out of bed, and the mere energy of the television made me weak as if my energy was being pulled through it.  My favorite shows on PBS are the mysteries and they were a no go.  Very interesting those electrical currents from the television and what they can do to you.  The second week I thought I had contracted African trymarosamiasis.  I somehow mustered up all my strength and dragged myself to see the doctor and found out I had, a bladder and intestinal infection.  Antibiotics were prescribed and the infection cleared up.  I could not even visit the L.A.M.P. and work on my projects which is where I had my first attack of being sick.  The second attack occurred at the Star Apartments’ art show.  Interesting, in this condition I could not see anything surrounding me in this environment — not clutter, dirt, grime or the people piled up in their tents. They are all a blur on my lenses.

In my listless state of consciousness all I thought about was what is really important to me and realized I really wanted to teach meditation. o I proposed this idea to Hayk at the L.A.M.P. and to La Shalle at the Rosslyn where I live. Both classes are scheduled to start very soon. I have recovered from and have a clearer vision and more vitality to do this work.  I am encouraged to move forward and to perform the Forgiveness Meditations to the Earth at the beach.  I have schedule one for the 26th of June at nine o’clock in the morning. Posted it on Facebook. I’ll see what happens.  I am really looking forward to this event.

•  •  •

Another thing that has taken place in my coma-like-state is that I realize my family has never supported me in my endeavors, although I have been there for them.  I am the constant one that makes arrangements to go to everything, including things that their friends might be involved in.  Well, I vowed that I would not attend my sister’s birthday party since she has not come to visit me — not one time.

Saturday, June 18, has arrived. I’m going to the party dressed and heading out the door to catch the Gold Line to Pasadena.  It is somewhat overcast today but warm.  I arrive in Pasadena. It is sprinkling. I’m cheered up even more.  My sister sent Uber to pick me up. We make it to Altadena and it is raining. She lives next to the mountains.  I walk into her house and the setup is magnificent, and my niece has catered the event.  There are so many people I haven’t seen in twenty to thirty years, and they had their children and grandchildren with them.  I had the best time. I am glad I did not sit this one out being stubborn and missing this glorious day.  There were tents set up in case the sun was beaming on us.  It turned out very useful for all this rain.  A trio played music from the ‘70s and ‘80s. People danced while the children got in the pool on huge swans and flamingos floats.  Close to two hundred people came to wish Gloria a happy birthday.  It really shows how much love she has given over the years to so many people.  Thank you for a wonderful day and evening.

•  •  •

Another busy day.  Arrived at the doctors’ office at 7:35 this morning. I hope to be out of here by eleven I have a poetry class in the building next door.  It is now 8:30. I came early because if you don’t you may never be seen by the doctor.  So many people in the waiting room, which is too small for the amount that are here today.  Oh, God, kids are crying and cell phones blare their crazy obnoxious sounds.  There’s a sign that says, no cell phones — turn them off. Otherwise, you have loud and argumentative conversations clamoring all over the room, especially here in the Down below.

Finally, numbers are being called. Oh, yes, you are given a number in order to be checked in.  Of course someone will come and get you take your vitals.  Hoping my weight reflects how my clothes are fitting a lot looser.  It is nine o’clock and I am still sitting, waiting, hoping I am out by eleven. I will be fine. Cheeze they have only called one person’s number and I am number 13.

•  •  •

On July 4, 2016, I awaken several times during the night. Damn those folks with their fireworks. Wasn’t it enough that City Hall had a big splash?  I tried going back to sleep and awoke at 8:30am.  I am late. wanted to leave house at 7:00am to go to the beach.

Oh well, slow start should I go or should I stay?  That is the question. Go get ready open the door step into hallway.  Door closes and locks. That settles it. I make way to the elevator today. It is the express, no stops to other floors.  I have to get out of Down Below, it’s smothering. Up Above is cleaner and cooler.  I make my way to Metro 7th street station and find I have to wait twenty-two minutes for Santa Monica train, and this is not even the weekend. It is 10:00am, and wait, oh good, they are changing the Long Beach train and changing it to Santa Monica, now all those people have to leave the train. Too Bad.

How am I feeling? Not sure I am ready for this. Great, a young black man is arguing with his sister on his cell phone … who wants to hear this crap? Not me! Who cares? He doesn’t have a car and wants someone to watch his children, and man, is he giving this person hell.  Thank God, he and his girlfriend finally depart and it is QUIET!

Okay, here you are — end of the line — Santa Monica Pier. New question: Do I stay here, or catch the 534 bus to Will Rogers Beach? Okay, stay — experience something new in this part of the world. Found a spot to enjoy my time here.

Wow, it’s getting crowded already. Did I make the right choice?  I am finding I do not want to be around a lot of people today, and it seems they are all in this one space near me.  This is a big piece of seashore, why are they converging here?  I am trying to relax and enjoy this moment, but it is busy here. A Mexican woman, brightly dressed, shouts in a  sing song voice — Mango, Mango. Oh man, another vendor, this time it’s a man shouting buy his umbrellas and beach pails and small surfer boards.

What time is it — can I really stomach this?  Relax and breath, that is what I tell myself. At least you are not sitting in that heavy energy in the Down Below.  What’s going on with you? I have to ask. Reflect on what you are feeling. Do you feel like your space has been invaded? I chuckle. Okay, look at all the people arriving now.  Wow, the waves are bigger and people are having fun and enjoying the waves thundering over them, laughing.  The children’s laughter washes over me like the waves they gleefully jump into.

I notice this woman whom I saw earlier with her partner.  The toddler with her is tentative going into the water. She gently leads him in and smiles.  I watch. She is heavy in weight with many tattoos.  Earlier I think, did I judge her? I watch her now and feeling much emotion that the people here are just in the moment not caring about what the television or other media say they should look like or be.  Somewhere deep I feel a connection with humanity so profound it moves me to write, least I lose this ennui.  How beautiful we are when for a few precious moments on, one is thinking about how we are big booty and bust; at this time with the waves thundering against their wonderful bodies they are in the thrill of the moment. I need to get away from the Down Below more often. The reflection they generate is not full and complete. Ha ha, my imposed deadline to leave the beach at 12:00pm has now come and gone.  I am more relaxed now and not ready to leave.

I walk on the sand, happy that the sun is not bearing down and scorching the earth. I walk-on.  Actually, feels kind of cool.  On the train ride back I watch my thoughts and I really don’t want anyone sitting next to me, so I scoot my bag over just enough to make it uncomfortable for someone to sit. Space issue again?  Finally arrive at 7th street. Why am I rushing almost like? (Need to find word).

Trying to get home out of the streets of the Down Below.  Hush, hush, your minds take your time breath.  I noticed the streets are cleaner; what, no urine smell? I glide, taking in my environment.  Today is a good day.  There is peace inside of me.  Lunch is calling what should I eat.

 

Children run to
Thundering waves
Their laughter and the sound of the surf
Are One

•  •  •

Children rush to the water
            Thundering
         Waves washes over their
            Bodies
         Resounding laughter mingles
            Laughter
         Rushing sounds of the waves
         children’s voices become one
            and
         there is tranquility
         inside of me

 

 

 

BIO

Linda Leigh was born in Queens, New York. She enjoys creative writing and poetry. Ms. Leigh now resides in Los Angeles and is an accomplished artist, her works are displayed throughout California. She is also very involved in Social Justice in her community.

 

 

 

 

 

—————————————————————————————————————————

NEW SERIES FROM

The Skid Row Zine Writing Group

Ivy Pochoda Introduction

 

In 2009 I moved from my hometown of Brooklyn to Los Angeles, a city that is still both familiar and unknowable to me. Accustomed to walking or riding the subway, I found I couldn’t visualize the city’s shape even as I moved along its streets and freeways. I still can’t. But driving to and from my Echo Park apartment back then I was struck by something else that surprised me: all the ways in which people lived out of doors—the tent encampments, permanently parked camper vans, makeshift shelters of many materials all improvised for living in the elements. They made Los Angeles, amidst its evident wealth, even more mystifying, gave it a texture I hadn’t expected, a secret soul.

Two years later I moved just east of Downtown to the Arts District which was just beginning its rapid gentrification. Skid Row sits between Downtown and the Arts District. As I drove or rode my bike past its sprawling community of tents, shelters, medical and social services, murals, missions, and churches the initial impression of chaos eventually gave way to a pattern of communities each with its own character. Here were activists; here were artists; and here were the hopeless and the helpless in various associations of their own. I began to see the shape and depth of the neighborhood though I could not have imagined how much more it would mean to me one day.

One evening I emailed the Lamp Arts Program, a multi-discipline studio affiliated with The People Concern, one of Los Angeles’s largest social services agencies, and offered to give a course in creative writing. I did not know what to expect when I turned up for my first class. Would the participants be lucid, intelligent, capable? The truth is they were all of these things and more. Each of them was on a journey and they each showed up with a story to tell whether it was drawn from experience or summoned by wild inspiration. Their work is remarkable—it’s profound, smart, and quite often funny.

We meet once a week. (I am not always in charge of the sessions these days as some of the participants have stepped up to run the class.) We do warm up exercises and in class writing assignments. Some participants are working on longer projects: chapbooks, one-act plays, essays, and short stories. And out of these meetings, we formed Skid Row Zine—an independent magazine dedicated to the voices and stories of people living in and around Skid Row.

 

Our first piece from the Skid Row Zine writers group:

UP ABOVE and the DOWN BELOW by Linda Leigh

 

0

The Carousel

by Maggie Herlocker

 

 

I stared at the wall behind his head, examining the yellowing spots on the once white wall with great intensity. I think I wanted to find shapes, images, anything to distract me from the conversation I knew was coming. I could hear the whir of the air conditioner, but it did nothing to temper the dry, triple digit July air. That whir was the only thing I could hear in the deafening silence.

My father leaned forward, his elbows on the table, his hands folded. I thought of how my mother always scolded me for having my elbows on the table.

“I’m so happy you came.”

I looked at his face, light from the window cutting his face into two. He looked tired, the lines in his face deep with age and weariness. I wondered if he hadn’t slept well, nervous for our meeting today. This was our fourth meeting in the last couple months. He had contacted me back in May. He was going to be doing some business in the Sacramento area and wondered if I wanted to meet up. We got coffee the first time, awkwardly recounted our lives over the past decade.

“I know that I wasn’t really there for you much growing up, and I want you to know how much I’ve regretted that.”

He fiddled with his straw wrapper, rolling it between his fingers. The sound of silence was all that was between us anymore. The screeching of a chair being scooted against the linoleum floor broke our silent battle.

“Samantha?”

“Dad?”

He dropped the straw wrapper and folded his hands again. He sighed. Eyes cast down, he looked almost childlike, a child who knew they’ve done something wrong and are about to be reprimanded.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered.

⠂⠂⠂

“Come on Samantha, you can do it!”

I thought about this day often, the day at the pool. Pictures from that day show a three-year-old me standing on the edge of the pool, my inflated floaties around my small arms, my red, white, and blue striped bathing suit already giving me a wedgie. It was a hot August day in Roseville, and my mom and dad took me to the community pool to get out of the house and cool off. The pool was crowded. It appeared that many families had the same idea. Other children were splashing around in the pool, many mothers sitting around fanning themselves, tanning, gossiping with each other. My mother was among them, sipping a cold Coca-Cola she had gotten from the snack bar, like she did every time we went to the pool.

I had been to the pool before, but usually stayed in the kiddie pool. My dad had decided that this time I would go in the regular pool with him.

I was scared. That is one thing I distinctly remember.

The water looked so deep, my dad looked so far away. How could I, a very small child, jump far enough to be caught in his outstretched arms? I questioned the buoyancy of my floaties, could they actually save me from drowning?

“Samantha, don’t worry about it, I’m right here. I’m going to catch you, it’ll be okay!” my dad called over the yells of the children playing in the water. He always called me Samantha, never Sammie like my mom did, and definitely never Sam. He was grinning, his tanned arms stretched out to me, his curls of hair sparkling with water. Finally, the three-year-old me took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and jumped.

The water was cold and all around me, but only for a quick second. The floaties did their job and stopped me from going under, and my dad did his job and caught me. My hero.

“See, it’s just fine!” he laughed and I couldn’t’t help but squeal with delight and splash my arms in the water.

At that point, I didn’t know any better. I didn’t know that my father, the one who should have always be there to catch me, would disappoint me the most.

⠂⠂⠂

I didn’t know what to say. I knew my dad was sorry. I could tell he was genuinely upset with himself for all that he had missed in my life. Since the first time we met for coffee, I wondered if and when he might try and apologize. He’d been trying so hard, asking all the right questions about my schooling, if I had any boyfriends, what my plans after graduation were. But it’s not like one apology and lunch at a burger place was going to fix it.

I knew he had picked this place on purpose. It was our little secret spot. I’d only been here one other time since I was a kid.

It was right before I was leaving college, moving to southern California, going to UCLA on a full scholarship. My dad had sent me a card, congratulating me on graduation, the check inside showing just how much he cared. Part of me wanted to tear up the check and never deposit it. But I didn’t. Instead I deposited all five-hundred dollars into my special savings account that I couldn’t touch until after my college graduation.

I almost turned around that summer day and didn’t go in, but I was compelled to move forward, pushed by some force determined to dredge up old feelings. The food was exactly the same as I remembered it: good but not that special, kept in business because of people like me, desperate for feelings of nostalgia and the past.

Finally, I spoke. “Do you remember the carousel?”

⠂⠂⠂

The California State Fair. We went every year, driving from our home in Roseville to the fairground in Sacramento for the event. But this year was different, I was nine years old, and it would be a day I would remember clearer than any other. My mom stayed home with a headache, I later found was faked. It was just me and my dad and I was so excited. My dad had been away a lot lately, I was told on business, so I hadn’t spent as much time with him as I had become accustomed to.

I was too young at that point to see the subtle changes in the way my parents acted around each other. The walking on eggshells, the fighting coming from another room, the days my dad didn’t come home until much later than work would have kept him, if at all. He didn’t want to be at home. At that point in a child’s life, our parents are our whole world, our example of what a happy couple are, what we should aspire to become, to meet someone and fall in love just like your parents. But no one is perfect, especially not your parents.

On that day, at the fair, it had all seemed perfect. We headed out mid-day, blasting the AC in my dad’s car, the temperatures already in the 90s. We listened to a classic rock station on the radio, my dad beaming with pride as I belted out the lyrics with him.

When we got to the fair, it was obvious my dad was spoiling me, but I wasn’t about to complain.  He bought me whatever fried foods I wanted, sharing in the plethora of goodies laid out in front of us that I would have never been able to eat on my own. Corn dogs, fried crispy and perfectly browned, funnel cakes covered in powdered sugar, my fingers sticky from the many times I licked them to relish every last bit of sweet. We shared a large lemonade, the freshly squeezed juice with just the perfect amount of sweet and tart, quenching our thirst.

It was getting late and the hot day turned into a warm evening. Summer in the San Joaquin Valley was always this way, hot and then warm, begging children to keep playing outside, past when the street lights had turned on. My dad and I were both sweating buckets but I wouldn’t have changed it for anything. The sun was setting, a beautiful orange sunset. There were a few clouds in the sky, turned pink, looking like the cotton candy I had consumed earlier in the day.

Stars began to pop up, demanding to be noticed through the electric lights of the fair. They provided a natural magic to the night.

“Alright Samantha,” my dad said, looking at me from across the picnic table, a smile crinkling the corners of his eyes. “We have time for one more ride. What’s it going to be?”

I sat there thinking long and hard. It’d be another whole year before I’d get to do this again, so I had to pick just the right ride.

“The carousel,” I decided finally.

He grinned. “Carousel it is then.”

We walked across the field, my sticky hand in his, to the carousel.

It wasn’t the nicest carousel in the world, the paint was chipped on most of the horses, the brass poles tarnished. But I thought it was beautiful. I’d always had a love for old, broken things.

We waited in line behind other fair goers, ages varying from newborn babies to grandparents. Everyone loves a good carousel ride, though no one can really express why. The feeling of being a child, just in the moment. When we finally got to the front of the line, I tried to pick out which horse I would choose to ride. There were many options, but the one that caught my eye the most was one of the more beat up horses. No one was riding it this go around.

The girl operating the ride asked my father how many would be riding and he replied that there were two of us. I was so excited. Something about riding this with just my dad made me feel giddy. Finally, the gate was opened.

I rushed in, making a beeline for my horse.

“Walk, Samantha,” I heard my dad call from behind me, a laugh in his voice.

I approached my horse and got up on the platform. She looked quite disheveled, the paint falling away to reveal the wood underneath. I felt bad for her, this inanimate horse, I’m sure she wasn’t chosen as much as the others. I was relatively tall for a nine-year-old, so I was able to climb up on the horse without assistance from my dad.

He had caught up to me and was getting on the horse next to mine.

“Guess you don’t need your old man’s help anymore.”

He was smiling, but I should have seen then, he was sad. But how could I have noticed in the magic of the fair?

Once everyone else had mounted their horses, the ride began with the classic ring of a bell. As the speed increased and the horses began to rise and fall, I was transfixed by the joy of this, the joy of pure childhood. I looked over at my dad, he was watching me, a smile across his face. I tipped my head back and laughed, the world turning upside down and sideways. I watched the world spin by, the lights of the fair smearing together. The song that was playing was the perfect mix of circus and delight, the old organ music ringing out of crackling speakers. Some of the bulb lights were out but it didn’t matter to me. I was so happy in that moment.

The horses began to slow to a trot and then stopped. My father dismounted first, then helped me down, even though I didn’t need the help. We walked towards the exit with the rest of the elation filled equestrians. Outside the gate, my father took me over to the side. I looked at his face in the light of the carousel. Something in the way his eyes looked at the ground told me something was wrong.

⠂⠂⠂

I looked my dad dead in the face, his eyes looking the same way they had the night of the fair. I knew he remembered it. “The carousel at the fair when I was nine,” I reminded him. “It was the last time I remember being happy with you.” I dropped my eyes then. It was too much to look into his deep brown eyes in that moment, they were so full of memory and regret.

He was quiet. I wanted so desperately to know what he was thinking, to know if he realized that I would never feel as joyous as I did that night on the carousel. I still wish I could have stayed on it forever, spinning through life, laughing at the world as it changed but I stayed the same, forever a child and her father.

Finally, he spoke. “I remember that so differently.”

I looked up, surprised. He was staring at me with his sad, brown eyes.

“That night, the carousel, you and I together, I remember that as one of the saddest nights of my life. I knew I was going to break your heart.”

⠂⠂⠂

“Samantha, I need to tell you something important.”

I looked up at him expectantly. He kneeled down in the grass to get on my level, to look me in the eyes. A random, cool breeze blew past me and made me shiver.

“Your mother and I, well, we’re not getting along anymore. She wants me to leave. She wants a divorce.”

I was quiet. What was I supposed to say?

“You understand this doesn’t change how much either of us care about you right?”

“Can I go with you?”

My dad looked surprised by my question, but then his eyes softened, his brows coming together, sad and concerned. “No, honey. You have to stay with your mom. I’m moving to Ohio, and I’m going to be on the road a lot for work. You have your school here.”

That’s when the tears came. My world was spinning, the carousel next to me becoming something else, showing my confusion and devastation as a swirl of light and sound, unable to focus and separate my thoughts. Of course. Of course, I wouldn’t be able to go with him. It made sense, but it didn’t make it easier.

“I’ll still be around as much as I possibly can!” Lies. “I’ll call and see you when I’m in town and I’ll take you to the fair next year if you want.” More lies.

I couldn’t stop crying. I remember not being able to breathe, my sobs racking my entire body. Eventually my dad picked me up, even though I was much too big to be carried, and he took me out to the parking lot, to his car, holding onto me tightly the whole time.

⠂⠂⠂

Nothing was the same after that. He was gone in the morning when I woke up, gone without a trace.

“Honey, you need to come out of your room, you can’t stay in there all summer.” My mother’s voice came in through my bedroom door. I didn’t want to talk, but I was glad she respected me enough not to come in. It had been a few years since my dad left. I was thirteen now, already an angsty teenager, a stereotypical child of divorce. Over the years, I’d retreated more and more into myself, barely even talking to my mother. School was the only thing that mattered to me. I knew the only way to get out of this place was college and I wanted a scholarship. I didn’t want to owe my parents anything.

“Sammie, please,” I heard a new pleading in her voice. “At least come with me to take the dog on a walk. We don’t have to talk if you don’t want to, but you need to come out of your room.”

I sighed, but lifted myself off of my bed. “Fine, I’ll come,” I called to my mom, still from inside my room.

“Okay!” I heard a new joy in my mom’s voice. “I’ll meet you downstairs in five!”

I lethargically put on my tennis shoes. I wanted to make my mom happy. Maybe she was still hurting too.

I met her downstairs, she already had our dog Timmy on his leash. She was dressed in her trendiest workout clothes, even though we wouldn’t really be exercising that hard.

“Ready to go?” she asked, smiling.

“Yeah, sure.”

We headed out, going down our block to the park that Timmy loved. My mom handed me the leash.

“You’re really much better at walking him.” My mom had never been a huge Timmy fan, she hated how big he was, how much of a nuisance he was. When my dad had first brought him home from the pound she was horrified. Not only was she worried about his size, I was just starting to walk at the time, but of course his fur and drool got all over her pristine house. The real offense. But I loved him so she gave in and let him stay. I realized as I was walking him that my dad easily could’ve taken Timmy with him, but he must have left him behind for me.

“You okay, sweetie?” my mom asked, noticing that I was deep in thought. “Sorry, that was probably a dumb question.”

I didn’t really answer, just kept walking.

“I know things have been hard for you, things that you don’t quite understand. I know I’ve never really explained the divorce to you, but your father and I just could not be under the same roof anymore. And with his job, there’s no way you could’ve gone with him. Plus, I wanted you to stay, even though I know how close you two were.” She looked at me sideways, a small smile on her perfect pink lips. I tried smiling back, but I’m sure I failed.

My mom stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and turned to look at me. “Samantha, I need you to listen to me.”

I stopped, Timmy sniffed some of the bushes nearby as I turned to face my mom.

“I don’t want you to be mad at me or your dad, this isn’t something that either of us wanted. Besides honey, it’s been a few years now, I thought things would be better between you and I.”

I raised my eyebrows.

“Don’t you look at me like that. I know this has been especially hard for you, but I need you to stop being angry.” Like that was so easy to do. “It took a lot for me to ask him to leave, it was not an easy decision.”

“You asked him to leave?”

“Yes Samantha, I asked him. It was just not working, I needed him to go.”

“I still don’t understand, what wasn’t working?”

Now it was her turn to roll her eyes at me. “It’s hard to explain, you’re too young to understand.”

“Try me,” I said crossing my arms across my chest.

My mom let out a sound of frustration, but then took a breath with her eyes closed. “He just wasn’t around enough, with his job, his insane amount of travel was just never what I wanted. I wanted someone who would stay and be a part of the family. And I just couldn’t take it anymore and he wouldn’t budge. This was my only option.”

I listened to what she said, unsure if it really was her only option, and it didn’t stop me from being angry, at her and my dad. Neither of them seemed like they wanted to fight for each other, to fight for me.

When we got back to the house, the phone was ringing. It was my dad, but I didn’t want to talk to him. I was still devastated and now I was angry too. When I did talk to him, it was awkward and sad, neither of us knowing what to say to the other. He stopped calling as frequently after a while and I never called him on my own. All I wanted was to get back on the carousel. I wish I had never gotten off.

⠂⠂⠂

I didn’t break eye contact with him as I felt my own brown eyes, identical to his, fill with tears.

“I remember how much you cried, knowing that I was leaving your mother, leaving you. I knew you didn’t understand it, how could you? It must have seemed like it came out of nowhere.”

Now it was my turn to sit quietly.

“I already said I was sorry for not being in your life more. It wasn’t what I wanted.”

“Was it what she wanted?” I said, glowering, my pain turning to anger.

“Who? Your mom?”

“Nancy.” I spit out her name like venom.

My dad looked taken aback. “No, of course not,” he said quickly. “My job is why I moved to Loveland all those years ago. Nancy was just why I stayed.”

I looked at the wedding band on his finger. It was foreign, nicer than the one he had with my mom.

He met Nancy in Ohio and moved in with her only a few months later. I felt betrayed. But he sounded happier than I had heard in so long that I kept those feelings to myself. I was invited to the wedding, but I refused to go. Also, it was in Loveland in October, so I had school, but he didn’t seem to think about that. He seemed hurt that I couldn’t go but I didn’t care. It was my own little act of betrayal.

But that wasn’t even his biggest betrayal, not by a long shot. I could handle Nancy, I got over it, I even met her over Skype once, an awkward affair, all of us strangers. No, it wasn’t Nancy. It was Charlotte. The other daughter.

“Why did you miss my graduation?” I demanded, desperate to make him feel some of my hurt.

“Charlie was in the hospital with pneumonia that weekend, you know that. I couldn’t leave her or Nancy then, she was only five. I thought I had explained all that?”

Charlie. I almost laughed. Of course, she could have a boy nickname from my dad, but I could never be Sam. Over the years I tried the name out, seeing if it would catch on in high school or anything, but I never responded to it when people called out at me. Samantha was my name and there was nothing I could do about it.

I didn’t laugh at him, but I did allow myself to roll my eyes. “Of course,” I said dramatically, “the other daughter needed to be taken care of.”

“Come on Samantha, that’s not fair. You didn’t come to mine and Nancy’s wedding.”

“Yeah but I was twelve and in school. I couldn’t leave to go out of state during the school year, not when school was the only thing I really cared about.”

He was quiet then. “I know. It’s not fair for me to be hurt by that, not after all I’ve done.”

I didn’t answer, unsure what to say at that point.

“Look,” my dad began, “I can’t change what I did or didn’t do, but we can change how we move forward. I want to be back in your life, I’ve already missed so much. But you have to let me.”

I sat there wondering what it was that I wanted. Did I want him in my life? It had been kind of nice seeing him recently, even though we were both shy and closed off. I thought about what it might look like.  He had covered me in so many silly little wounds that I often wondered if they may ever heal. Was he worth opening all of those up again?

“Okay.”

“Okay?”

“Yes, okay. I’ll give this a try. Just know some days will be easier than others.”

My dad grinned. “Of course! We can take all the time you need!”

I gave him a small smile back.

“Would you be interested in meeting Charlie?”

My smile wavered.

“I think you would get along really well, if you’d give it a chance.”

“I– I’m not sure I’m ready for that yet.”

My dad’s smile dropped. “I get it. No, that makes sense. I was getting too ahead of myself.”

“It’s okay,” I said quickly. “I just think we need to work on what’s going to happen between us first, before I can do that.”

My dad’s smile returned, smaller this time. “Of course, honey.”

“You should come visit me in San Francisco sometime, see my apartment.”

My dad grinned. “I’d love that. I always had a soft spot for that city.”

“Who doesn’t?” I said, grinning back at him. Something felt so right in that moment, us agreeing on something so easy.

A waitress came up to the table. “I’ve got two cheeseburgers, two chocolate chip shakes, and an order of onion rings?”

“That’s us,” my dad said, and she placed the tray on the table and walked away. My dad divided up the food and placed the onion rings in the middle. It was what we always got when we came here.

Watching him, tasting the food, being there, I couldn’t help but smile.

 

 

BIO

Maggie Herlocker is a first-year fiction writer at the University of New Orleans’ Creative Writing Workshop, on her way to a Master of Fine Arts. Maggie moved from her home state of California to New Orleans in the summer of 2017 and is still suffering from In-N-Out withdrawals. A young woman who never quite grew out of her goth phase, Maggie’s work tends to have a darker side, often disguised in humor. Her short story, The Carousel, won first place in Chico State’s yearly creative writing contest in 2016.

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

The Swamp Witch

by Megan Parker

 

 

It began with a question, a deal, a wish.

A child’s barter—a promise of acorns, of berries, of stolen coin.

It ended, as we never thought, with a sacrifice squeezed of words.

#

On the hem of town, where dirt married water and clung clay-thick to our bare feet— where years of toes and heels stitched paths through swamp grass atwitch with creatures unseen, and zephyrs green with gas slipped through our hair greasy from unwash, where roots unfurled in secret knots, and fawns flicked their velvet ears against our cheeks—there would we find the swamp witch.

She is magic made flesh, a crone of gator skin and boar resolve, who, long ago, was as human as the rest of us. Her magic shaped destinies, her lips spelled fortune and downfall alike. She was fox-clever, and for generations the town sought her guidance, her destinies of scattered salt and painted cards, until her hair wrung silver.

But time is a giving thief. It cut her tongue sharper, and her spells lost their soft edges. She peered into soul-kept secrets and offered the town truths only guilt would nourish. She became devil-kissed, our parents said, and so the town cast her out to the coniferous muck.

Her bones turned to alder branches, her fingers calcified to cloven hooves. She broke teeth on pebbles in her bread, and animal hide furred over memory too human to preserve. She grew into whispers personified, into bedtime stories told to us by mothers who dried their tears with faded Tarot cards, by fathers whose futures were lost in mirrors of moon and gun smoke and blood.

To our parents, she was as ghost.

To us, she was as real as the wishes we carried.

For that is what we brought her. Our wishes, plucked and braided into wreaths of juniper brambles, into quilts woven with anhinga feathers. These offerings we would present to her in exchange for answers, for truths and salvations only magic could have wrought.

On winter solstice nights, we trekked the forested wetlands to find her lair. Each year, her hollowed tree would move to a spot yet discovered. We used to tie ribbons around pin oaks to guide us between seasons, hoping to see her in spring or fall. When they unraveled on a breeze, the youngest of us would drop painted stones from their pockets to mark the path. These too were lost, consumed by hungry water lizards. The stones rattled in their swollen bellies as they darted through the bog like otters.

The swamp witch had made this covenant with us. Only on winter solstices could she re-form as human and ripple the water for our futures. Only on these nights could we pay her in gifts cast from our own hands, in wishes shaped from children’s dreams. If we were worthy, the swamp would lead us to her and home again.

We safeguarded her secret from our parents, who hung nets of sticklewort across our windows and splashed angelica oil on our door lintels to ward away her ghost-spirit. Devilry, they said of her. She’ll trick your soul from your body. She’ll stitch her lies into your tongue.

Each season our numbers dwindled as the oldest of us stepped into adulthood, and magic was snuffed from memories. Superstition then took root in them, a ghost-chill pimpling grown skin. For that, said the witch, was the cost of adulthood.

The grown were blinded to what they did not want to see.

But we knew better.

We have huddled with the swamp witch around fires dug into silt and clay, flames of blue and green leaping skyward from burning, brackish roots. We have rubbed our fingers over the fleshy undersides of skinned raccoons and rabbits, circling oil with our thumbs to preserve the pelts. We have split the fans of gator tails with stone knives to feast on spines of meat. We have mixed moonbeams with swamp water, have drunk the sky of stars.

We could never tell of these moments.

At dawn, the swamp witch would whisper our wishes against the flat of her hooves and cast them into the vermillion glow. We would follow the rising sun through muck and grass, past trunks of dappled maple and calloused blackgum, until our town shed its foggy cloak. And we slipped between the anointed planks of our homes and into bed, our parents still adrift in dreamscapes.

When breakfast hearths blazed heat for salted pork and porridge, we would hear her on a sigh of wind and knew it was done. Our wishes answered in dried stacks of firewood in wet winter, in fathers returned home in summer from the war, in grandparents’ painless dips into the eternal. In bodies free of bruised beatings when magic slips from our lips.

For years, it had been so, the oldest of us raising the youngest of us in stories of the swamp witch, teaching the tots to seal their lips. And we would have kept our promise always, had the swamp witch not broken bond instead.

#

On our final swamp solstice, the winter night stretched long as a cat against its bones, and we took turns leading each other by lantern light through the rot-ripe mire. We trailed our palms against the prickled skin of black ash, let beards of moss tickle our shoulders, listened to the hiss of wind-washed grass. The littlest among us sang in nervous whispers behind cupped hands:

Thither flies the chickadee

With a wish for you and a wish for me . . .

Around our necks and within our pockets we carried our gifts for her, little treasures made with hope. We listened for her voice in the rattle of branches, in the reedy clack of cattails against our cottoned thighs.

Suddenly, a fox appeared on the path ahead, brown as dried blood in moonlight. He tilted his head as one does to hear a question. His bright eyes, swollen yellow, never blinked from our faces as he spoke his greeting:

Riddles three answer me,

And I will show you in.

Riddle poor, go forth no more,

Else tricks you’ll find herein.

It always went like this. The swamp witch loved her tests, for how else might she trust us? How else might we prove we were not yet grown, had not swayed in our belief? That we were worthy of her gifts?

The cleverest of us had never failed to solve the fox’s riddles. The first two questions we answered true. But the fox showed us his sharp smile on the last.

I walk afore you every day, but you cannot see me. What am I?

We hunched our backs to him, loomed together our fingers as though we could share our thoughts through touch.

Dreams? we wondered. The wind? Might it be the witch herself?

You are the stars, we said at last, triumphant, who are yet unseen in daylight.

Incorrect, replied the fox. His teeth lengthened like knives. But since you answered the first riddles in truth, I will claim but one of you, and still I will show you the way. Otherwise, return home now without spent wishes. Do you accept my bargain?

The smallest girls and boys, still young enough to feel afraid, shed tears in silent drips, but we nodded our heads. This was the way of things. This was sacrifice. The fox walked up to a girl who had not yet grown into her dress. Her hair, bowed with blue ribbon, curled in a red tail down her back, and when the fox nipped her palm, she didn’t startle.

Wide-eyed, we watched her transform in the shadows of the cypress. Her ears shot past her head in twin points. Her muzzle lengthened, her lips drew thin and black. She shrank until her dress belled like a lily around her, until she pulled herself from the seersucker bodice with four paws. Together with the fox, she trotted the path ahead, and we followed the brush of her tail through inky shadows.

Noises collected within the swamp like fat on milk, thickest on that, the longest night in winter, for the swamp never saw a cold December, and all living things rejoiced in its warmth.

When we came upon a tunnel of trees, the foxes stopped and sat back on their haunches.

This is as far as we can lead you, said the he-fox. Do not tarry within this stretch of wood. Do not let the thorns prick you. And whatever you do, do not eat of the fruit. And he and the she-fox darted into the bristly brush.

Let us link hands, we said, to withstand temptation.

We walked single file on our toe-tips through the soft squish of earth, arms stretched taut as bow strings. The night-creatures’ sounds extinguished as the tunnel folded around us. Nameless trees coiled over our heads, twisting their spiked iron boughs toward our faces. Pricked on their spindly fingers were orbs of fruit, glowing gold and bronze in the shadows of the trees. Punctured on spikes, they dribbled honeyed juice in our hair, slicked our joined fingers.

We are nearly there, we whispered to each other. Steady.

But for the hungriest of us, for him whose father came home from hunts empty-handed, this test proved the most difficult. My wish, he had told us earlier that eve, is for a belly full year-round.

From last in line, he stretched out his unheld hand and captured a palmful of golden juice. We turned to warn him, to remind him of the meat the witch would grant to slake his hunger—but his lips were already aglitter, and we could do nothing as a tree bent toward him. It wrapped him so completely in iron limbs as to make him invisible.

It was not until a strange light burst between the branches that the tree showed us the boy, transformed into a glob of fruit, bronzed and shimmering and too dangerous to touch. Trembling, we left him captured on the bough and slipped from the mouth of the forest onto the lip of swamp.

Whoops and chitters of nocturnal creatures exploded around us once more, and in between their night howls, we heard her speak. Now, for courage. Consume but one, and all may enter.

On a log green with ferns, we found three items with our lantern’s glow: a toadstool of slime, a flower of barbs, and a vial of glass.

We gathered our heads together. Our tongues withered as we deliberated, curling away from taste of slime and prick of barb. We debated so long that the moon slipped in the sky.

Surely, we said, we must choose between the toadstool and flower, for what bravery lies in an empty vial? Besides, what if death pours clear and we make it visible?

Ah, spoke the most audacious, but what better way to test our mettle than with mystery? For what courage can be found in reluctance? And despite our protests, she pressed the glass vial to her lips.

Hands over mouths, we waited for her to wilt like a rose or disappear into nothing. But she bloomed instead, beautiful and unscathed.

A tide of wind gushed through our ears and hair and noses in a torrent, bearing the carrion smell of rotting plants and rodents, the sweet laugh of the witch rising above.

Beside the quiet lap of swamp water, where shadow bent solid and moonlight painted all to bone, we found a massive hollowed tree. And before it stooped the swamp witch.

She had wrapped herself in the quilts and sashes we’d sewn for her from wool and feathers. Her cloven feet churned the muck, and her skin overlapped in iridescent black scales like plates of oiled armor, rippling between patches of silver fur. Horns spiraled from her matted skull, and her hair fell in coarse braids to her feet. As we approached, she watched with eyes elliptical, pupils splitting the blue irises like arrows.

My darlings, my darlings, she crooned through jagged, mossy teeth, Worthy of the world’s wishes.

We slipped our acorn beads over her head, tucked sprigs of lavender behind her tufted ears, and placed rocks of sugar beneath her dry tongue. Two coins of gold the richest of us dropped into the folds of her sash, a request she had whispered to us on yesterday’s wind. She kissed our brows each in turn, her humid lips smearing stardust.

I am afraid, my dears, that this is the end of us, she said, bowing her head. My magic is far too aged. My bones are breaking, my lungs are emptying. I use these coins soon to seal my eyes as I journey to lands unknown.

All of us wept and clung to the folds of her feathers and scales. Do not leave us, we begged. Never leave this world. For what is this world without the magic of you?

I must go, she said, stoppering our tears with her hoof tips. I was never meant to live forever. Your offerings have sustained my magic these years past, but no longer. You must understand.

The swamp lamented with us—the wind a serrated screech through our limbs, creatures keening as we sobbed. She embraced us each in turn, inquiring as to our wishes. But we no longer had wishes to offer. Even she could not undo our misery.

Please, we begged. Is there no magic that can spare you? Is there no wish we might make?

The witch paused, and something unfamiliar flickered in her eyes. There is one way, she said, drawing out each word as we drew breath. One way that your wishes might yet be preserved. And then, as if to herself, But how could I ask this of you?

She gave herself a little shake and halted last before the bravest of us, the lovely girl who drank of mystery. The witch lifted her chin delicately with a cloven toe. An exchange.

The girl frowned. Of what?

We all stood in silence, hearts thrumming like wings in bone cages. Beating, beating with trepidation, with fear that felt like hope—

To preserve magic, the witch said, marking us each with her stare, we must nourish it. Dress it in pure belief, in brazen courage. She looked to the brave girl once more. As I once was called to do, and many before me.

And what part do I play? asked the girl, jaw tight but eyes wide. Willing.

The witch offered a sad smile. The worthy sacrifice.

#

In winters past, we trapped rabbits for the swamp witch. Sliced the delicate membrane between hide and meat, thumbed gore onto each other’s faces as we laughed. We stretched their hides between branches, watched blades of fur bend like grass in wind.

We had never skinned a fur-less thing.

We had never seen the hidden side of human flesh.

It stretched in the most unexpected way, the skin, at once supple and delicate. We didn’t watch what the swamp witch did with the rest, a ritual of bone and veins and muscle. The swamp erupted in a chorus of howls and hisses, and we squeezed together like fingers around a knife, cutting our pain against each other’s shoulder blades, watching dawn rise like a bloody fist.

Sheaves of light poured over the murky water at our feet, the gold rippling past knee-bent cypresses, floating pads of lilies, the graceful leaps of frogs. When the light shimmered over the horizon and night’s wild threnody died on a breath, we turned around.

The swamp witch stood as beautiful and terrifying as she always had, yet something seemed to stir the air around her. Her scales and feathers glistened with an incandescence we had never seen. We looked at her and felt magic rise like bread in our stomachs, warm and full and sweet. She smiled. Her teeth dripped red.

With purpose comes sacrifice, she said. For youth is but a dying ember, its warmth a temporary balm. But magic— She hesitated, meeting our gazes one by one. Magic ignites. It is the lifeblood of the world, the heartbeat that orchestrates our every breath. It is the dream that soothes nightmare, the hope that launches a thousand wishes. Without it, we drown in mundanity, in hopelessness.

She ran a hoof over her newest hide, sunbeams highlighting its tiny hairs. We felt our skin prickle in response. Do no grieve for what is freely given.

And what of our wishes? we asked, trying to summon bravery. We had never felt fear in her swamp, and now our lungs were wet with it. Might we wish for her return?

Magic may never undo a wish, said the witch. And a sacrifice rejected is an insult to truth.

Her words hummed the air around us like a spell. The witch plucked the golden coins from her sash and returned them to the giver. Your wishes have gone stale, she said. Return home. My creatures will guide you safely from the swamp.

As if summoned by her words, the he-fox appeared at the tree line. He sat in silence, his eyes full of ghosts.

She turned toward her hollow tree, looking once more at us over her shoulder. Remember what was lost tonight in pursuit of desire, and likewise what you have gained. Remember that wishes can destroy as equally as they can save, that to find joy we must be willing to bleed. This shall be our new covenant.

And she vanished on a breeze of fur and claws and feathers. A moment later, the hollowed tree winked out of sight.

We traipsed to the edge of the clearing toward the fox, hand in hand and tongues sour with unspoken words. When we turned around, we saw that the brave girl’s skin was gone too. We tried to ignore the way our shadows stretched with lanky fingers and longer legs as we walked beneath dappled boughs.

We tried to ignore the feast of sorrow that gnawed on our spines, the bodies we stepped out of and abandoned to the moss.

Our last refuge of permanence.

 

 

BIO

Megan Parker is a mom and freelance editor by day and a devourer of worlds by night. She loves weird stories, especially those spiced with dark and creepy twists, but she’s always amenable to happy endings. Her fiction and poetry have been published or are forthcoming in Harpur Palate, The Sonder Review, FLARE, and Fiolet & Wing: An Anthology of Domestic Fabulism, among others, and her story “A Good Thing” was the tertiary winner of SNHU’s 2016 Fall Fiction Contest. Currently, she resides in San Angelo, TX, with her husband and daughters, where almost nothing of note occurs. You can find her exploring the world via twitter @MegsMcSparren.

 

 

 

 

0

In the Kelp Forest

by Rosemary Harp

 

 

 

Tess Chen is in high demand as a pet sitter around Arriba Circle. She can be trusted with feeding schedules and keys. She does not snoop or help herself to popsicles. Since summer vacation began, she has looked after a middle-aged cat, a clutch of frantic and incestuous hamsters, and Jorie Wexler’s black and yellow ball python. The python job was the easiest and the hardest: the snake only needed to be fed once a week but it ate frozen mice the Wexlers kept in a Ziploc bag in the spare freezer in their garage. One week Tess dropped a frozen mouse and the tail broke off the rigid body when the corpse bounced on the concrete floor. Tess didn’t mind picking up the mouse so much—after all, she’d just plucked it from the freezer bag—but touching the lone, fleshy tail filled her with dread, as if the tail might somehow reanimate and begin wriggling between her thumb and forefinger.

Her current job watching Cricket, the arthritic spaniel across the street, is her best yet. At ten dollars a day for three days it’s the most lucrative, and she really needs the money: if she earns $100 by August, she can enroll in the junior scuba course at Sacramento State. She has $60 so far. Tess is going to be a marine biologist. Underwater everything is softly muffled and diffuse; on land, under the pitiless sun, life feels to Tess jarring and amped up. When she can’t sleep at night, she imagines herself swimming through a kelp forest. Scuba lessons are the first step to a refuge among the gently waving kelp and glimmering schools of yellowtail.

Plus, taking care of Cricket gives Tess a legitimate reason to walk past Sven Ragnarsson’s house three times a day. Three times a day she crosses the tarry asphalt in an agony of wondering. Will Sven be standing in his front yard swinging a tennis racquet at nothing? Swimming quiet laps in the backyard? Practicing? When she hears the reedy strains of his oboe seeping out his closed bedroom window over the diligent hum of a hundred neighborhood air conditioners, she knows she will not see him and goes about her business with Cricket more quickly, while still being careful to follow Mrs. Kipps’ instructions.

Stacey Kipps, in Tess’ class at Sutter Middle School, is a cheerleader, but not the kind who shakes a couple perky pompoms and chants, “Be aggressive! Be, be aggressive!” in the direction of a twelve-year-old quarterback. Stacey competes throughout California doing harrowing routines where she tops human pyramids and gets tossed skyward by other tiny but startlingly powerful girls. Tess has seen the cheer team perform on the local public access cable channel.

For years Tess and Stacey scrambled across Arriba Circle, drank lemonade from each other’s refrigerators without asking, whispered urgent secrets into each other’s ears, and once whipped each other into such a fit of hilarity Stacey peed her pants and they were asked to leave the public library, which they did without a trace of shame, still laughing and clutching each other, a faintly swampy scent coming from Stacey’s damp Guess jeans.

Stacey doesn’t invite Tess over anymore. There was no falling out, just a slow attrition Tess had no control over that lasted all of sixth grade. Stacey declined most, then all, invitations from Tess, but for a while returned about half of Tess’s phone calls—a maddening pattern Tess could not decode. After each of these infrequent conversations, Tess lay on the floor in her bedroom trying to identify what she’d said that was stupid or objectionable. When she finally worked up the courage to ask Stacey if she’d done something wrong, Stacey replied in a bright, hard voice that, no, she’d just been really, really busy. Then came the day in seventh grade when the two girls passed each other in the halls of Sutter Middle and Stacey looked away. It was around that time Tess started thinking about the kelp forests with their dappled light.

 

Stacey cried when she said goodbye to Cricket: apparently this parting was hard on her. She did not acknowledge Tess’s presence in her kitchen.

“You be good while I’m gone, Crickety-crick,” Stacey said and buried her face in the old dog’s liver colored neck while Tess reviewed the details of Cricket’s care one last time with Mrs. Kipps.

Tess wants to be the kind of girl who likes dogs, but she isn’t. Girls who like dogs, Tess believes, hug their friends whenever they meet, even when they just saw each other a couple hours ago. They make colorful bracelets of complexly knotted string, exchange them with each other, and wear them on their bare ankles. They play soccer and have matching shin guards. Tess does not make or exchange—she can hardly bear to call them by name—friendship bracelets. Tess likes making odd little sculptures out of feathers and glue and glossy hard candies. She likes Trivial Pursuit. Tess reads the game cards to herself at the kitchen counter. She is careful to slide the cards she has read into the back of the box so they will not appear during a real game, which would pose an ethical problem.

The air shimmers above Arriba Circle’s asphalt surface. Tess can feel the heat through the thin rubber soles of her sneakers. No Sven. She keys into the Kipps’s house, which is an exact copy of her own and Sven’s and every other house on Arriba Circle: three bedrooms, a combined kitchen-dining room, and a living room, all one on floor. And every house has its own small pool. If you were to fly high above the neighborhood, it would look like that monster from Greek mythology, the one with a hundred watery blue eyes.

Cricket lifts herself one shuddering leg at a time to a standing position, trembles with pleasure, and limps over to Tess. When Cricket approaches Tess with her eager tail and dripping smile, Tess’s limbs go stiff, but not with fear. In the syncopated rhythm of panting and wagging, she hears, “I want, I want, I want.” It is for this open, exposed wanting that Tess cannot forgive dogs.

Tess refills Cricket’s water, places four ice cubes in the bowl, and portions out exactly half a cup of dry food. The dog eats and drinks gratefully. Tess removes Cricket’s leash from the hook by the kitchen door, but does not take Cricket out right away. Instead she walks through the Kipps’s living room and down the long, thickly carpeted hallway to Stacey’s room.

Stacey’s room is pristine. Tess’s room, though architecturally identical to Stacey’s, is always a disaster of shifting piles of books and half-filled diaries to which she has lost the key. Stacey’s Cabbage Patch Dolls and stuffed Care Bears are gone, Tess sees. So is Stacey’s rainbow bedspread, which has been replaced by a grown-up looking mauve one. Lying on the bedspread is one of Stacey’s green and gold cheer team uniforms. Tess holds up the sleeveless pleated dress and for an instant has a wild, un-Tess-like urge to try it on in front of Stacy’s gold-framed full-length mirror. But no, the dress will be far too small. Not for the first time Tess feels the genetic injustice here: she is Asian (half), but it is Stacey (“we might be Irish, maybe?”) who is tiny and lithe.

As she lays the dress back on the bed, Tess sees a matching mauve telephone on the nightstand.  A roaring whirlpool of white noise fills her head as she wonders if the telephone has its own line. The idea that Stacey has her own phone number, one she has never shared with Tess, provokes her to a rage that gets its power from grief.  She lifts the receiver and dials the Kipps family’s number, which she knows as well as her own. She can hear her breath amplified back to her. Sure enough, all the other telephones in the empty house cry out. Tess places the telephone back on its cradle slowly. The urge to destroy something, maybe the phone itself, rolls over her in waves, but as always she swallows her rage, forces it down, down, down until it sits like a sick animal in her stomach.

But then the Ragnarssons’ back door swings open and Sven stalks outside barefoot, wearing white shorts and a t-shirt that says FILA. For the moment, Tess forgets the private phone. Half-hidden behind gauzy curtains, she watches Sven sit on the edge of the pool with his legs dangling in the shallow end. His back is rounded over something. When he shifts position slightly, what Tess sees makes her breath trip in her lungs: the telltale, oblong blue box of Trivial Pursuit game cards. Sven pulls one. Reads. Flips the card. Reads. Flips it back. Here is method—ritual, even. Clearly he has done this before. The sickly weight in Tess’s stomach eases then morphs into a mad flutter.

“Cricket!” Tess calls. “Cricket, come!” She runs down the hall and back into the kitchen where Cricket snores raggedly on the tile.

“Let’s go out!” Tess jerks open the drawer under the microwave and there is Cricket’s supply of chewed-up tennis balls, same as ever.  She shows Cricket a greenish-gray specimen.

“Look! Ball!” she says. “Do you want to play?”

Cricket gazes up at the ball, and at Tess, with a love that is limitless. She thumps her tail twice then stands.

“Good girl!” she trills. She sounds a bit crazed even to herself.

The Kipps’s back yard is shadeless and mostly devoted to cement pool deck, but a strip of grass runs alongside the chain-link fence that borders the Ragnarssons’ yard.

Tess tosses the ball. Cricket hobbles after it and plops it at Tess’s feet.  After a few runs, Cricket warms up and moves more nimbly, like she’s tapping into reserves of youthful zest. When she drops the ball at Tess’s feet, Cricket tosses her head to request another round of the game. Tess looks over at Sven with each toss.  He cannot ignore her forever.  Or maybe he can. He reads and flips more Trivial Pursuit cards.

After fifteen tosses she calls, “That’s cheating, you know.”

Because Tess Chen is innately unable to flirt these words come out sounding less like cute teasing than the scolding of a disappointed librarian.

Sven looks up. He is not a kind boy, exactly, or a warm one, but he is honorable, and any questioning of his honor angers him.

“It is not. I put the cards in the back after I test myself. It’s no different than playing a real game.”

Tess tosses; Cricket runs.

“It is different,” she says. “In a real game you only see one question per card. You’re seeing all of them.” This has just occurred to her and she knows she’s in pot-kettle territory.

Toss. Retrieve. Cricket pants harder.

Sven stands. He crosses his arms over his chest and his legs drip on the patio. The water evaporates so fast it’s as if the dark circles on the pale cement were never there. Almost everything makes him mad, Tess thinks. It’s fascinating to her that such a quiet person should also be so stormy.

“Come play me, then, if you’re such an expert,” he says.

“Ok,” she says, as though this isn’t the single most amazing thing she could conceive of. She walks around to the gate.

Here are the things Tess loves about Sven Ragnarsson: everything. To be more specific, she loves his blonde curls. When they loop down around his ears he will get them shorn off and start all over again. She can predict within thirty-six hours when the haircut will happen. She loves that he wears shorts even on the coldest days in January. She loves that he is descended from Vikings. She loves that he can build or fix absolutely anything. She loves his oboe. She even loves, or maybe she especially loves, that he isn’t very nice to her. Although, and she treasures this memory, when Trevor Dixon called her “half-breed,” Sven clenched his fists and said, “shut up!” with a fury that surprised everyone on the school bus—Tess most of all.

Sven’s parents are a matched set of large, blonde, NPR-listening Minnesotan transplants, the only other people in the neighborhood, besides the Chens, who compost. Her parents privately poke fun at the Ragnarssons for being such square, solid, Midwestern-type citizens.  The Chens pride themselves on being old Berkeley hippies. Like her parents, the Ragnarssons are Democrats, rare in their Sacramento exurb, and this gives Tess a safe feeling of solidarity in this Orwellian election year. Whenever Tess sees Mrs. Ragnarsson she feels a shy, semi-hysterical compulsion to confess: I love your son, have loved him my whole life.

Sven sets up the board on the table by the pool.

“What color do you want to be?”

“Blue,” she says. Sven pauses like he’s about to object, like he wants to be blue or maybe just wants to fight her for it on principle, but then closes his lips over his braces. He selects yellow for himself and they begin.

“What is the capital of Yugoslavia?”

“Who sang ‘My Way’?”

“Who was executed by burning on May 30, 1431?”

“Who created the character Tom Sawyer?”

They move their little pie pan-shaped game pieces around the board. When Sven thinks a question is too easy, an affront to them both, he clutches his stomach and rocks forward groaning. Tess is so charmed by this gesture she considers making up questions like “what color do you get when you mix yellow and blue?” or “what country fought in the American Civil War?” so he’ll do it again.

Sven pushes play on a portable cassette deck and Tess recognizes one of her favorite albums. Tess believes only obscure bands from England with gloomy young frontmen and a heavy dependency on synthesizers are valid. It’s interesting to think that maybe Sven shares this view.

“You’re dogsitting Cricket?” he asks.

“Yeah, they’re away at one of Stacey’s cheer competitions.”

Tess realizes as the words leave her mouth that it was a tactical error to put Sven in mind of Stacey and cheerleaders.

But with a noise like “Mhhh” Sven dismisses all cheer-related activities, rolls the die, and counts out spaces.

“Ha, I can get the green wedge,” he says. But he doesn’t know the name of Jacques Cousteau’s boat and the game goes on. When Tess rests her forearms on the surface of the table, she has to pull them away quickly because the metal is so hot. The needle on the Ragnarssons’ big, round-faced thermometer claims it’s 137 degrees, but the thermometer sits in the direct sunlight and can’t be correct.

“Hang on. My brain is overheating. Ozone layer depletion,” Sven says. He slides out from the table, kneels by the pool, and dunks his head. He rises and gives his curls a doggish shake, intentionally spraying needles of water at Tess, who does not give him the satisfaction of squealing.

She decides to dunk her head, too. She sets her glasses by the pool’s edge and submerges her entire head into that womb-warm, chlorine-blue world. She used to swim here with Sven when they both needed inflatable water wings and he still had an older brother. Tess remembers Mats Ragnarsson only hazily:  a bigger, darker, sweeter version of Sven.  In her memory, he stands on his hands underwater and his long, upturned legs wave in the harsh sun.

“Let’s go,” Sven calls. Tess hears him above the soothing hum of the filter and yanks herself back into the blinding world. In the Kipps’ backyard, Cricket wheezes. Tess sticks her head over the fence. Cricket lifts her head then lets it sink again. Her ribcage rises and falls.

“Come on,” says Sven. Tess turns from Cricket back to Sven.

Three to three, they play on.

In her newfound ease, Tess sings along with Sven’s music, which is also, amazingly, her music.

“You like Echo and the Bunnymen?” he asks her. She detects an incredulous note in his voice. Maybe some grudging respect, too.

Tess nods.

“Most people only know their one hit,” He says.

Tess rolls her eyes to signal her disdain for hits and the people who like them. She is not a habitual eye roller and the operation makes the tricksy little muscles around her eyes ache briefly.

“Who directed the classic thriller ‘The Birds’?”

“What is the chief export of Nicaragua?”

“Who is known as The Belle of Amherst?”

With the Emily Dickinson question, on which Tess doesn’t skip the merest beat, she earns the brown wedge and pulls into the lead.

“Ugh!” Sven says.

In frustration real or playful—he is not a gracious loser—Sven reaches over and yanks her ponytail as he often did five years ago or more. First there is pain and then her body lights up with a million pricks of electricity that surge from her scalp down her spine then fizz like a Fourth of July sparkler in her toes. The pain is like the sudden, flooding memory of an old dream.

Hurting her, she somehow understands, has always been his excuse to touch her. To touch her gently would be against unnamable rules, but to pinch her, pull her hair, shove her is allowed. And to be touched by him is to know why she has skin.

“You have a lot of general knowledge,” he says.

“Thanks.”

“How old are you now?”

“Twelve,” she says. “but my birthday is in three weeks.”

He should know this, she thinks, because his birthday is exactly two years and ten days before hers and he attended her first eight birthday parties. Sven was born the day of the first moon landing, which seems to Tess cosmically apt—his birth a starry phenomenon, a giant leap for mankind. She wonders why he is asking her age and wonders if maybe he is doing the math on how soon they can get married. If they got married, they could play Trivial Pursuit every day.

“What are you going to do with the money? From all your pet sitting?” he asks.

So he has noticed her, she realizes, going around the neighborhood, unlocking doors, punching in alarm codes, steeling herself for frozen mice. She wants to tell him about the scuba course, maybe even the kelp forest, but also wants to keep it safe and private in case it’s contemptible. But Sven shrugged at the mention of cheerleading, said Tess knew a lot, and asked her age for mysterious reasons of his own. She has known him her entire life. So she goes ahead and tells him.

He rearranges the colored wedges in his game piece.

“Wait, but, are you good at math?”

Tess is not.

“I thought you were more like, I don’t know, creative,” he continues. “You need to be really excellent at math to be any kind of scientist.”

Tess is sinking now; the roaring white noise from Stacy’s bedroom is whirlpooling back into her head. Marine biologists are biologists. She knows that, of course, but at some point the image of herself suspended in the perfect peace of the kelp forest overrode the reality of science, with its calculations and data. Would she really want to study kelp? Or even marine animals?  She’s not that interested in animals.

Then she thinks: Cricket.

She runs to the gate in the side yard that adjoins the Kipps’s yard, where Cricket is lying on the cement a foot from the pool. Tess recognizes the heaviness of Cricket, the way gravity is working on her, and knows the truth. Panic hits, then guilt, then more panic. She wants to call for Sven, but to address him by name, urgently and in need, is impossible.

Without being called, he comes over the fence. A hand flies up to cover the lower half of his face exactly the way her hand is covering the lower half of her face. They stand side by side.

“It’s not your fault. Cricket’s older than me, even. That’s almost a hundred in dog years,” he says.

But Tess is thinking about Cricket’s position by the pool and knows Sven sees what she sees: Cricket died trying to get to water.

“When do they get home?” he asks.

“Late tonight.”

“We have to move her.”

Cricket is not heavy between the two of them, but there is the problem of limbs, the problem of tail. They find their stride. Cricket’s fur is warm against Tess’s bare arms. She remembers the pallbearers at Mats Ragnarsson’s funeral.

“We’ll go through the garage,” Sven says. But the garage door is locked. They shift Cricket’s weight and start again, this time for the back door. Tess slides an arm out from under Cricket’s midsection and tries the knob.  It too is locked. In her excitement to get outside to Sven earlier, Tess locked herself and Cricket out of the Kipps’ house.

Sven swears. Tess has never heard him curse before and it’s a terrible and violent thing, a man’s anger rather than a boy’s. They set Cricket down.

“I can break in through the laundry room window,” Sven says. “I do it at home when I lock myself out. These houses are all the same.” He says the last part in disgust, like the sameness of their houses is a moral and aesthetic insult to him personally. Tess finds that sameness comforting.

He goes to the laundry room’s exterior wall and Tess follows. Sven rattles the window in a series of small, swift jerks until they hear a click. Sven slides the window open horizontally and pops out the screen.

“Cup your hands and boost me.”

Tess does. The weight of him, concentrated in one calloused and dusty bare foot, tugs at her hard. Then the weight disappears; Sven is up and through. He replaces and locks the breached window and reemerges from the kitchen door. They take Cricket once again.

“She usually stays in the kitchen, right?”

“Yeah.”

They lay Cricket on the cool tile by the refrigerator and survey. There is a crime scene grimness to the whole scenario.

“Maybe you should put some food in her bowl so it doesn’t look like you forgot to feed her,” Sven suggests. “No, don’t.  It should look like she ate well. Stacey will freak out if she thinks Cricket died hungry.”

The mention of Stacey sends all of Tess’s blood to her feet. Dizzy, she plays out the scene where the Kipps family returns home, sleepy but happy, balancing multiple cheer trophies, to find Cricket inert on the kitchen floor. Stacey will gasp then sob. Blame will be promptly assigned. Stacey will never, ever phone her from the private line.

Sven interrupts.

“I won’t tell,” he says.

“I know.”

She does know. That is the sort of boy he is. But she also knows that they won’t ever play Trivial Pursuit again.

“If they don’t pay you I can loan you money for your scuba course.”

“Thanks, but that’s ok,” Tess says. She is genuinely moved by this offer, but the scuba plan feels like something a stranger, or a much younger child, dreamed up.

Sven stares down at Cricket with his fists clenched.

“It’s their own fault for leaving the dog with a little girl,” he says to no one.

Tess wants only to get out of that kitchen, out of that house, but at the same time she knows that once she leaves there is no going back, ever. Sven goes first and Tess locks the door behind them. By the time she pockets the key, Sven is beyond the fence, in his own yard. He disappears through the door, identical to the open door Tess is standing in, identical to the back door to her own house. It’s like he was never there.

 

 

 

BIO

Rosemary Harp is a Chicago-based writer of fiction and essays. She holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from The University of Michigan and an M.A. in English Lit from the University of Virginia. Her writing has appeared in Mid-American Review, Motherwell, and other journals. She is working on her first novel.

 

 

 

0

The Table

by Robert Klose

 

 

I first saw the table about ten years ago, while driving in my pickup through Wiscasset, Maine, along the coastal route.  It was autumn, the air aflutter with falling leaves, and I spotted it at a yard sale, off to the side, suggesting it might have been spoken for.  Nevertheless, I stopped.  The table was simple but elegant, its round top made of laminated oak and fastened to a slim, four-sided stem.  The stem itself was supported at its base by a pedestal consisting of four curved buttresses, one attached to each face of the stem.  (Three of these buttresses were in excellent condition; but the fourth was damaged, as if a portion had been chewed off by a dog.)

As it turned out, the table was still available.  The seller was a husky, middle-aged man who blurted, “One hundred dollars.”

“That’s a lot for a yard sale item.”

“It’s hand-crafted,” he said, more in afterthought than an attempt to sweeten the deal.

“Still…”

“Yes?”

“I’ll give you seventy-five.”

He was aghast.  “I’d rather burn it than sell it for that price.”

“In that case, I’ll take it.”  After paying the man I threw the table into my pickup and headed north again, ahead of a threatening rain.

I brought the table to my still-almost-empty house and set it down in the middle of my empty kitchen, under a circular fluorescent ceiling light from the fifties.  (The realtor had touted the house as having “charming mid-century touches.”)  Then I surrounded it with what I had for seats — an aluminum lawn chair, a windsor chair, a metal folding chair, and a lobster crate.

I sat down in the lawn chair, looked out over the table — now the only piece of quality furniture in the house — and said, “There.”  I felt that in delivering the table to its appointed place, I was, in a way, inaugurating my new home.

As time went on, the inevitable accumulation of “things” progressed.  Beds, more chairs, night stands, book cases, end tables, dressers and a sofa.  The table, though, remained my home’s stillpoint — a neutron star whose gravity gathered everything unto itself.  In the morning I ate breakfast there; in the evening I opened my mail and paid my bills upon it; when I had guests, we sat around the table; and when I found a baby robin in the backyard, I put it in a shoe box and set it upon the table, where I could observe its return to health under the steady glow of the overhead fluorescent, which bathed the table in a continuous, soft light, like a museum piece.  Finally, in a delicate balancing act, I made love to a now erstwhile girlfriend upon the table, calling out to her in my moment of ecstasy, “My flower!”

In short, I loved the table and sensed that, no matter how my station in life might progress and improve, I would never part with it.

 

 

Winter came.  Waterways froze, icicles descended from the eaves, and chimneys puffed peaceably along.  That’s when I saw her.  The Russian woman.  I was driving along the main road through town.  The snow was flying about in periodic gusts, and had been coming down since early morning.  Enough had fallen so that the plows had rumbled it into long, high ridges on both sides of the road.

She was hobbling through the drifts, hunched over old-womanishly, clutching a large paper bag of groceries against the front of her gray wool coat.  She was wearing only flats, and every so often one flew off, so that she had to pause, backstep, work it back onto her foot (along with a dollop of slush), and then press forward again.

I pulled over and rolled down the window.  “Do you want a ride?”

I had startled her.  She threw me a desperate look and barked, “What!”

“A ride?”

“Oh, yes,” she said, matter-of-factly, as if she had been expecting me.  She got into the truck and I could feel the cold emanating from her body.

“Where to?”

“What!”

“Where can I take you?”

“Home.”

I knew the accent.  “You know…”

“What!”  (It came out as “Vaht!”.)

“We have a growing Russian community here.”

“I know,” she said with something resembling disgust.  “I am part of it.”  And then she asked, crossly, “How did you know I was Russian?”

“Your accent.”

She examined my face, as if I were joking.  “I have no accent,” she said in broad Slavic vowels.

I followed her directions, down poorly plowed side streets and around corners banked with snow.  She revealed herself in snippets.  St. Petersburg.  A research chemist.  A husband, Oleg.  America.  Two sons, Sasha and Timur.  Then no Oleg.  Lost to a designing American woman.  Oleg took Timur.  Now she cannot leave America.  She is here.  She is stuck.  She has Sasha, but other than him, nothing.  Nothing!  “My name is Ada,” she said after taking a breath, as if to punctuate her tale of woe, giving each syllable desperate weight.  Ahduh.

“Here,” she commanded, and I stopped the truck in front of a three-story, peelpaint apartment house.  It must have been frigid inside, because the windows were frosted over, icicles hanging in front of them like bars.  In a second floor window there was a clear patch, framing a pale face, round and searching.  “Sashinka,” said Ada, softly.  Then she turned to me and ordered, “You will come in for tea.”

Having time on my hands, and hounded by curiosity, I followed Ada up the icy front steps and into a dim vestibule which smelled like old blankets.  The wallpaper was from a distant era, scaling off in broad swatches.  I watched as she stepped out of her flats and planted a wet foot upon the first step.  I followed.

Halfway up the stairs there was a thundering from above.  Sasha made a raucous descent, jabbering in an insistent ragtime of Russian.  “Da, da,” said his mother.  “Da.”  They embraced as if the boy had just arrived from a distant journey.

Sasha looked me over, and I him.  He was ten or eleven, blond, with a broad forehead and wide-set, light blue eyes, a narrow chin.  He was, in other words, a Russian.  He put out his hand and I shook it.

Ada shed her coat and threw it over the wooden railing.  Her figure confirmed that she was younger than I had at first thought.  Perhaps forty.  When she took off her knit hat her light brown hair fell forward, plain and straight.

Their apartment was spartan, and cold.  A shoddy card table its centerpiece.  Two wooden folding chairs.  A foam chair/bed occupied one corner, and a canvas cot stretched along a wall, its only gloss a neatly folded, red and yellow afghan.  Between these was a small, overladen bookcase.  The whole scene was austere, Soviet.  Sasha, in anticipation of his mother’s arrival, had already set out tea and a platter of small, plain cakes.  Ada and I sat in the two chairs with Sasha squatting between us on a stool.  She watched as I took my first tentative sip.  “Do you like the tea?” she asked.

“Superb,” I said, my breath visible.

She hauled out the box it had come in.  “Five hundred bags,” she proclaimed.  “And only two dollars!”

More snippets.  She walked everywhere.  No car.  Little money.  Tutored Russian and cleaned the public library at night.  Sasha got straight A’s.  Spoke English like a native.  No, better.  If only Timur…

“Are you cold?” she asked.  This was Sasha’s cue to jump to his feet and scrape an image in a pane with his fingernail.  “It’s colder inside than out,” he announced with a smile, as if to show that they could take it.

“Oil is expensive,” remarked Ada as she cupped the tea in her hands.  Sasha ran back to the table and bumped it with his knee.  A leg collapsed.

“Jesus!’

I was on my feet, dancing to dispel the pain.  Ada rushed to my assistance while Sasha tried to right the table.  “Go in bathroom and put cold water on it,” she commanded.

“The tea…”

What!

“The teapot,” I managed, still fanning my lap.  “It’s still pouring out.  On the floor.”

Sasha was already there, mopping and straightening while trying to hold the table up with his shoulder.

“Some day,” said Ada to my back as I hobbled to the bathroom, “I will have a real table.”

 

 

The first day of spring.  Maine looked as if it had the potential for warmth once again, its ice and snow having been cashiered into rushing rivers and streams, its front yards and fields awash in mud.

Galina Sergeivna called.  She was the linchpin of the local Russian community.  Eighty years old, she had the broad, nesting doll expanse of the older Russian woman, but, having survived the siege of Leningrad and then a trek west with her family into Nazi arms, she also had a broad expanse of will.

Her voice was insistent, urgent.  But this was normal.  Even when she was proffering borscht, her voice was insistent, urgent, as if the fate of the world depended on my lifting a small, red, shriveled beet to my mouth.

“Listen,” she told me, breathlessly.  “Ada…”  The news took wing from there.  Ada’s situation was desperate.  As if I didn’t know.  I had spent the better part of the winter chauffeuring her about and leaving anonymous packages of groceries at her door, which, one day, brought the rhetorical cry:  “If I knew who it was, I would kill him.”

Pride.

Now her poor situation had worsened.  As a foreigner, she was not entitled to public assistance.  Her tutoring brought her pin money, and the cleaning job in the public library was enough to pay the rent and insure that Sasha always had clean underwear.  But that job had been a risk.  Even in a small Maine town, one can get away with paying someone under the table for only so long.  The director of the library, having visited and fallen in love wth Russia, was willing to do this.  But the new town manager — an old cold warrior — was not.

Galina recited refrain after refrain.  “She doesn’t even have…  She doesn’t even have…”  And then, like a bolt from the blue, it came at me:  “…a table.”

I swallowed hard for the two of us.  “Yes, she does,” I countered, lamely.  “She has a card table.”

“No,” said Galina Sergeivna, rushing to Ada’s defense.  “It broke.  One of the legs bent.”  I could feel her leaning into the phone.  “It broke off.  Gone.”

Did Galina Sergeivna think I had a table to spare?  Did she know that I was the one who had left all those groceries at Ada’s door?  If so, was she now trying to coerce me?  Impossible.  She was the soul of altruism and honest intent.

“I don’t have a table,” I told her by way of preemption.

“You don’t have a table?” she echoed, astonished.

“Well, I do have a table, but…”

“Oh, so you do have a table.  Well, maybe you could give it to poor Ada.  I would give her mine, but one of the legs is bent.  It is only a matter of time before it…”

“Breaks off.”

“Yes.”

I didn’t know what to say, yet I knew that any pause with Galina Sergeivna was pregnant with the chance of her inserting a paragraph of design.  This she immediately did.

“Listen,” she said.  “I have an idea.  My son Misha is going on sabbatical.  He’s going away.  In his garage he has a table that his mother-in-law gave him.  He can’t bring it inside yet because he has to get rid of his own table first.”  Galina Sergeivna breathed hard for a moment, considering.  “Well, I could see in my mind’s eye that neither table would fit into Ada’s apartment.  By the way, it’s solid bitch…”

“You mean beech.”

“Yes.  What did I say?”

“You said ‘bitch’.”

“Did I?  Impossible.  Why would I say that?  Anyway, you could take this table and maybe let Ada have your table for a little while.  I was at her apartment the other day and thought that a small round table would be perfect there.”

“Well…”

“Yes?”

“Is it really made of beech?”

“What?”

“Bitch.”

“Yes, go to Misha and have a look.  The garage is open.  This could work for everybody.”

I went to Misha’s.  The garage was open.  The table was beautiful — a broad, finely finished surface of immaculate bitch.  It would look perfect in my kitchen.  And who knows?  The way these things work, Misha just might learn to live without it.  I made the necessary arrangements with Misha and within the hour the table was standing in my dooryard, waiting.  Fifteen minutes later I was hauling my round oak table up Ada’s creaky, winding staircase.  Five minutes after that, she had adorned it with a lace tablecloth and was filling my cup with steaming black Russian tea.  It was curious that she resented the gifts of groceries but welcomed the table without so much as a thank you, as if she had been expecting it.

“I’m happy to lend this table to you until you can get a decent one of your own,” I said, staking my right to reclamation should it become necessary.

“Oh, yes, yes,” she said, nodding.  “We will take good care of it.”  As she said this, Sasha clapped the remaining three legs of the card table together and brought the shabby thing down to the curb.

That evening I ate supper alone, seated at Misha’s lovely table.

 

 

In time Ada’s situation improved.  In a desperate maneuver to remain in the States, close to Timur, she registered as an undergraduate at the university, majoring in political science.  This secured her a student visa and also granted her the privilege of sitting in a classroom with forty American eighteen-year-olds wondering what on earth the course had to do with sex.  By virtue of her Russian Ph.D., she was also awarded a tuition waiver and a stipend of four hundred dollars per month.   In addition, she had five private Russian language students.  On the weekends she and Sasha collected bottles and cans.  During one of my visits she opened a closet packed with plastic bags of returnables.  “Forty-three dollars!” she sang.

“In Michigan it would be eighty-six,” I remarked

“What!”

“In Michigan they pay ten cents per bottle or can.  So you would get double the money.”

“What a country!” she said, slapping her forehead.

I visited Ada and Sasha often.  Every time I did, Ada waxed poetic about the table.  One day she told me to close my eyes when I came through the door.  “Now open them,” she said, and I beheld my table, but it looked somehow different.  If it were a living thing, I would say that it had been rejuvenated.

“I refinished it,” said Ada, clasping her hands.

“Oh.”  In truth, it looked wonderful.  She had removed the old finish and restained it.  Darker.  Fresher.

Sasha threw himself over the table and draped it with both his arms.  “I love this table,” he said.  “Do you know how to say that in Russian?”

“I had only a year of Russian in college,” I told him.

“That should be enough,” he said, chastising me.  “Try.  Try to say, ‘I love this table.'”

“I can’t.”

Ada chimed in.  “Then say, ‘Sasha loves this table.'”

“It’s no easier.”

“Start by saying ‘Sasha.’  You can say that, can’t you?  It’s the same in English.”

“Sasha,” I said, blankly.

“Now say ‘lyoo-bit.'”

I repeated the word.

“Now ‘etot stoll’.”

I repeated it.

“Now the whole thing.  ‘Sasha lyoo-bit etot stoll.'”

I did as I was told.

Sasha applauded while his mother went to fetch the tea and I sat down at the table, which was redolent with the aroma of fruitwood stain.  As Ada set the tea down, I accessed my dormant Russian.  “Ada, ” I volunteered.  “I think I can say, ‘I love this table too.'”

“Good,” said Ada.  “But first tell me if you want sugar or honey.  And drink the tea before it gets cold.  How are things where you work?”

 

 * * *

 

I stayed late into the evening.  When I finally left, toward ten, it was dark.  A solitary streetlamp shed a paltry light.  As I approached my car I caught sight of a moving shadow off to my right.  Who was this? A mugger?  In Maine?  Alarmed, I quickened my steps, but too late.  It was upon me.  I turned and cowered.  “Get away!” was all I managed to cry before a hand grabbed my arm.

“It’s all right,” counseled a man’s voice, heavily accented.  “It’s me.  Oleg.”

I lifted my eyes and squinted at him.  “I don’t know you,” I said.

“Yes you do, although we haven’t met.”

This, then, was Ada’s ex-husband.  As my eyes adjusted I could make him out.  His youngish, boyish face and thick, brown, blow-dried hair brushed straight back.  Like Stalin.  He even had Stalin’s tiger eyes.  “What do you want?”

“I’ll be brief.  I see you’re spending time with Ada.”

“Not the way you think,” I was quick to answer.

“No matter,” said Oleg.  “Things take on a life of their own, even when you think you have control.  I know you gave her a table.”

I relaxed a bit, calmed by his quiet manner, although I remained on my guard.  “How would you know that?”

Oleg shrugged.  “How did I know you were here this evening?”

“Good question.  How did you know?”

He shrugged again.  “Don’t worry about it.  I’ll bet she told you that I am some sort of monster.  If not a monster, then maybe a Bukhara from Brighton Beach.”

“She didn’t tell me anything.  And anyway, it’s none of my business.”

Oleg smiled.  “That’s a very American thing to say.  In Russia, everything is everybody’s business.  Don’t you want to know why I left her?”

“I’m not the least bit interested.”

Oleg narrowed his eyes.  “That’s a lie.  You’re really dying to know, so I’ll tell you.  We came here with Sashinka and Timurka — our boys — two years ago.  I found that I wanted to stay.  For a man like me, there are more possibilities here.  But Ada longed for St. Petersburg.  What could I do?  We separated and I found an American woman.”

“For the green card,” I said, and immediately regretted it.

“Don’t worry,” said Oleg, sensing my alarm.  “I’m not going to kill you for speaking the truth.  Of course, for the green card.  I don’t love this woman.  She’s too old for me.  And now Ada feels trapped here, because of Timurka.”

A silence settled over both of us.  “All right,” I finally said.  “Now I know more than I knew before, but I don’t see why you had to tell me this.  It doesn’t change anything.”

“I love her,” said Oleg matter-of-factly.  “I just want you to know that.  If I knew she needed a table, I would have given her one.  I build houses, you know, so I could have made her one.  From cherry.  Very expensive.  So then, your table is harmless, but please remember what I said about things taking on lives of their own.”

Having said that, he turned and disappeared into the night.

The next morning, while reading the paper, I was stunned to see Oleg’s name in the police blotter.  He had been summoned.  For assault in a local bar.  Only an hour after approaching me in front of Ada’s house.  He was free on bail.

 

 

I didn’t tell Ada about my meeting with Oleg.  Instead, life went on as usual.  I visited her on a regular basis and began to get close to Sasha, who became interested in me when he learned I was a biologist.  I took him on field trips to the coast and found him to be a quick learner with a keen eye for detail.  Between my normal visits for tea and my relationship with Sasha, I found myself at their apartment more and more.  As the weeks and months passed I made fewer references to the table being mine, that concern having been supplanted by a subtle but persistent fear that Oleg was lurking in the bushes.

Still, I felt at ease with Ada and Sasha.  The simplicity and quiet of their small apartment made it seem like some distant place divorced from both Ada’s and my preoccupations.  Now and then, as we drank our tea, I caught her peeping at me.  When I did, she blushed.  Her manner of serving tea was usually brisk and antiseptic, but on one occasion, as I took the cup from her, her hand brushed mine and I caught a flash of heat from her.  She quickly left the table, scurried to the kitchen, and gazed out the window.  For my part, I continued to sip my tea and nibble at my cookie.

One day, Galina Sergeivna called.  As usual, her message was urgent.  Misha had returned from his sabbatical and wanted his bitch table back.  Could I bring it to him that evening?  I asked for a little time to arrange things so that I would not be without a table, but I could hear Misha in the background, whispering to his mother, “Tell him tonight.  I must have it tonight!”

What could I do?  I agreed and delivered the table to him, trucking it over in my pickup.  I returned home to a void in my  kitchen.  Girding myself, I called Ada.  “Do you remember the table I loaned you?” I asked.

“Remember?  What do you mean?  I eat on it every day.  I work on it.  Sasha does his homework on it.  It is the center of our lives.”

“Yes, but do you recall that it was a loan?  The time has come when I need to have it back.”

“What!”

“Not right away,” I said, wincing, as I did not feel comfortable making the same unconditional demand as Misha.  “Please keep it while you look for a new one.  I’ll even help you.”

I could sense her panic at the other end of the line.  “Oh,” she moaned.  And then, “I’ll give you anything you ask for the table.  We have gotten used to it.  Two hundred dollars!”

“Ada,” I pleaded.  “I’m not looking to sell it.  It…it has sentimental value.”

“Three hundred!”

“Ada!’

She slammed the receiver down.  What did that mean?  Was I getting my table back or not?  I called her.  After five rings she picked up.  “I’m comforting Sasha,” she said.  “He loves that table.  He’s used to it.  He’s devastated.”

“Ada,” I insisted.  “Put Sasha on the phone.”

She hung up again.  I decided to go to bed in the interest of letting tempers cool.

In the morning the phone rang.  I steeled myself for Ada’s next assault, but it was Galina Sergeivna.  “Listen,” she said, “we know about the table.”

“We?”

“All of us,” she said, cryptically.  “And we want you to know that we’re on your side.”  After a pause she added, “You did tell her it was only a loan, right?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Well, then you have every right to ask for it back.  I mean, if this were Moscow…”

“What do you mean?  What if this were Moscow?”

“Well, in Russia we help each other like this.  It’s not unusual to give someone furniture.”

“But I didn’t give it to her.”

“Yes, I know.  But you went there from time to time and had tea on the table, and you reminded her that it was yours?”

“Yes,” I said.  “But were those things I had to do?  Ada says it’s killing Sasha.”

“That’s ridiculous,” said Galina Sergeivna.  “He’s a big boy.  What is he, eleven?”

“Twelve now.”

“Twelve then.  Children that age recover quickly.  Well, I just want you to know that we’re on your side.  I had friends here last night and they’re all from Moscow and they all agree that this isn’t St. Petersburg.”

“Ada’s from St. Petersburg.  Maybe your friends could talk to her.”

“No,” said Galina Sergeivna.  “They won’t.”

“But why?”

“Because she’s from St. Petersburg.”

I hesitated to call Ada.  If I followed through and took the table, I would be thought of as cold and uncaring, at least by Ada and probably the other St. Petersburgers in the community.  Perhaps it was best to just let her keep the table.  Could she live with that?

By evening I was still mired in indecision.  I decided to go over and speak to her personally.  I got into my truck and pulled up in front of her apartment, but didn’t get out.  As the vehicle idled I once again considered simply not mentioning the table again, and perhaps the situation would resolve itself over time.  Suddenly I was startled by a tapping on the window.  Oleg.

“You scared me half to death!” I said as I rolled down the window.  “What do you want?”  Then I noticed his bruised forehead and a gash across his left cheek.

“I was in the neighborhood and I saw you sitting here,” he said.

“I’m thinking about taking the table back.”

“Yes,” he said.  “I heard.  The arrogant Muscovites are all on your side, except for Ludmila in the bakery, who remembers the old days and feels that a loan is as good as a gift.  Russian and American cultures are very different.  This is what happens when you get mixed up with a Russian woman.”

“Look,” I said.  “This whole thing is crazy.  I’m not mixed up with Ada.  But now I’m thinking that maybe it’s best if I let her keep the table.”

Oleg grabbed my arm with alarming force.  “No.  You can’t,” he said.  “Then you’ll give her an opportunity to play the martyr.  You must take the table back.”  I tried to avert my eyes, but they became stuck on a black object shoved into his belt.  My God.  A pistol.  I began to stammer.

Oleg smiled, then pulled his jacket front together.  His expression dropped and he glared at me for one, long moment, as if to say, “Now you get the message.”  And with that, he went on his way.  I didn’t go in to see Ada.  I drove home and ate a TV dinner while sitting on the floor.

That night, as I lay in bed, I thought of Anna Karenina.  What was it about these Russians?  In America, people got splinters, hit their thumbs with hammers, and stubbed their toes.  In Russia they rolled under locomotives.  Could an entire country have such an insatiable appetite for drama?  And why were they always at each other’s throats?  Why couldn’t the Muscovites talk to the St. Petersburgers?  Why did both these groups hate the Russians of Brighton Beach?  I could only surmise that, as a result of historical deprivations, they always perceived the pie of opportunity as being too small, even in a land of excess like America.  This made them suspicious of each other.

This led to more questions.  Why did they treat ulcers with vodka?  Why did they curse the lives they left behind, yet weep at the thought of their country?  I was reminded of something Paul Theroux wrote about riding the Siberian Railway.  He reported the grinding monotony of day after day of a featureless, snowbound landscape as the train crawled westward toward Moscow.  And then, after an eternity of unbroken whiteness, the passengers saw a wisp of black smoke on the horizon, emanating from one of Russia’s industrial cities.  At which point a man, a peasant, stood up and recited a poem that went something like, “Even the smell of our industry calls us home to Mother Russia.”

I suddenly felt that I understood why the table meant so much to Ada, as it would to most any Russian.  In a life which offered little variety, much grayness, and little hope of improvement, any gloss whatsoever was a pearl of great price.  As I dozed off I felt that I had reached my decision:  I would let her keep the table, even if she crucified herself as a result.

That night I dreamed.  The image was stark, threatening — Ada with the table slung over her back, Christlike, stumbling along the main road in a driving rain, determined to throw it down at my doorstep, but not until she had fallen three times.  Or was it two?

I awoke in a sweat.  And then I laughed.  Was I becoming Russian?  I rolled over and went back to sleep.

The next day, after work, I stopped at Galina Sergeivna’s house to drop off the quart of milk she had asked me to pick up for her.  I pulled into her gravel driveway and regarded the small, rundown abode which still managed to look fanciful, like a dacha.  It was painted brown and yellow, with a low peaked roof and filigrees about the eves.  Flower boxes brimmed with marigolds.  The shutters had cutouts of daffodils.  As I went up the steps, Glinka, her porch cat, meowed and ran through my legs.

“Oh, come in,” she said with the hint of insouciance that belied, I was convinced, some intent.

I had long since grown accustomed to Galina’s flame red hair and the prominent mole, as big as a marble, that sprouted in the middle of her forehead.  Her fruity perfume wafted in her wake as she moved to the sofa in her tiny living room and motioned for me to take the easy chair opposite her.  It was the perfect old person’s home:  four small rooms, all on the same floor, yet with space for a piano.  Knickknacks abounded, a lifetime of work for a dust rag.

Galina Sergeivna, normally composed and cheerful, seemed uncharacteristically nervous and preoccupied.  “So,” she said, “have you decided?”

“Yes.  I’m going to forget about the table and let her keep it.”

Galina Sergeivna laid a hand across her neck and sat bolt upright.  “Are you sure that’s what you want to do?”

“No, I’m not.  But when I considered all the options, this one made me feel the best.  And it will preserve the peace.”

“Yes,” she said, looking first at the floor, and then heavenward.  “Russians prefer peace above everything.  Even freedom.”  Then an almost beatific smile broke across her lined face as she turned to me.  “But maybe not more than love.”

I thought that an odd comment.  But I disregarded it and continued.  “I think I know how to handle this in a way that will allow Ada to accept the table.”

“Oh?”

But I said nothing else, and Galina Sergeivna suppressed her curiosity.  I nodded and got up to leave.  As I opened the door she said, “Please come by tomorrow evening around seven.  There’s someone I’d like you to meet.  It’s very important.  We’ll have tea.”  She would not let me leave until I had promised.

From Galina Sergeivna’s house I went to the florist and bought a lush bouquet, which I brought to Ada’s apartment.  I knocked on the door and it swung open.  When I called out there was no answer.  But there, before me, was the table.  It had been taken apart, its top standing on its side against the pedestal.  Using a coin from my pocket, I screwed it together again and laid the flowers upon it, my peace offering.  Then I scribbled a note:  “I’ve found a table that’s better for my house.  Please enjoy this one in good health.”  Then I left the apartment.

As I came onto the street it occurred to me that Oleg, if he was still lurking, may have seen me.  My God, what would he think now?  And what about that pistol?  But when I went outside all was clear.

The afternoon turned to evening, and still no call from Ada.  And no one answered when I tried to call.  Curious.  The silence persisted into the next day.  When evening came I went to Galina Sergeivna, who was waiting in the doorway, kneading her hands in her house dress.  “I thought you’d never come,” she said.

Galina Sergeivna introduced me to an older Russian woman named Zinaida, who looked to be straight out of the days before glasnost:  her thick, salt-and-pepper hair was held back with bobbie pins; her stockings were as thick as cloth, with a visible seam; she wore a plain beige blouse topping a brown wool skirt.  All of this was in contrast to her brilliant, welcoming smile as she took my hand and rolled it in both of hers.  She spoke no English.

We sat around a card table and had tea and pound cake, Galina Sergeivna translating my every word for her friend.  When the subject of the table came up, Zinaida’s eyes flashed with intense interest.  She asked many questions.  Did I give the table or lend it?  Did I show continuing concern for it during the course of its absence?  Was Ada from St. Petersburg?  Finally, Galina Sergeivna threw me an imploring look.

When I told her about the flowers she put her tea down and swallowed audibly.  Then, clearing her throat, she translated this conclusion for Zinaida, who immediately clucked and then emitted a dense paragraph of rapid-fire Russian as Galina Sergeivna repeatedly chirped, “Da, da, da.”  Then she turned to me and said, “Then you do understand.”

I looked blankly at the two women.  “Understand what?”

“That Ada is in love with you.”

I was speechless.  Of course, I had suspected something, but I was sure I had done nothing to encourage Ada.

Zinaida took a tissue from her bosom and blew her nose.  Her eyes were brimming with tears.  “Zinaida is happy for you,” said Galina Sergeivna.  Then she leaned across the table, not translating, leaving poor Zinaida to fend for herself.

“It was the table,” said Galina Sergeivna.  “Ada told me, very early on, that it was the greatest act of kindness anyone had ever done for her, especially since enduring the hell she has known here in America.  Oleg, Timur, food, money,” she enumerated on her fingers.  “And all the attention you paid to little Sasha.  Now you see why she couldn’t give it up.”

“To guarantee my visits?”

Galina Sergeivna nodded.  Zinaida honked.

“I’ve been trying to call Ada for several days, but there’s been no answer.”

Silence.  Galina Sergeivna’s eyes grew soulful.  “Are you saying that you love her?”

“No,” I clipped.  “I don’t.”

There was a cry like a wounded animal, from another room.

“It’s her,” said Galina Sergeivna, searching the pockets of her house dress for a tissue of her own.  “Ada.  She told me everything.  She came here to seek refuge.”

“From whom?”

“Who do you think?”

“Oleg?”

Galina Sergeivna nodded.  Then she turned to Zinaida and assaulted her with a tidal wave of Russian to bring her up to date on all that had transpired since the last translation.  Zinaida wept anew into her sopping tissue.  After confirming that her friend would survive, Galina Sergeivna turned back to me.  “Ada told him everything too,” she said.  “Finally.  Just the other day.  He exploded.  Did you know that he has a gun?  He threatened to take Sasha, so that she would be left with nothing!”

I swallowed.  “Where is Sasha?” I managed in a bare whisper, while Ada’s howling continued on the other side of the door.

Galina Sergeivna steeled herself and leveled her gaze at me.  “He took him.”

I splayed my hands out on the table and regarded both weeping women while, in the next room, Ada continued to vent her grief.  “Did she go to the police?” I asked.

Ada looked at me as if I were a moron.  “Police?  What police?  What rights does she have?  Oleg has a green card, a job, an American wife, a big house.  Ada has nothing.  If this was Brighton Beach she would be sitting on a subway grate with her hand out.”

Ada’s cries had become deafening.  I could hear her pacing the floor.  “My heart is bleeding for her,” I whispered to Galina Sergeivna.  “But I just don’t love her.”

“Ach,” she said, sniffing and looking off into the distance.  “Ach.”

“Let me talk to her,” I volunteered.  “I can’t leave her like that.”

Galina Sergeivna waved me off with her tissue.  “No,” she said.  “She has to understand that this is America now and things are different here.  It’s a woman’s job to talk to her, and I will do it.”

“Then I have to go,” I said, excusing myself.  I reached out for Zinaida’s hand, but she was using both of them to clutch the tissue to her nose.  I left the house feeling as if I had committed a murder.  As I descended the steps, I caught sight of a distant figure, a man, coming down the street at a rapid pace.  He was carrying — or rather, swinging — a bouquet of flowers, while inside, the women were squawking like hens.

 

 

 

BIO

Robert Klose teaches at the University of Maine at Augusta.  He is a regular contributor of essays to The Christian Science Monitor.  His work has also appeared in NewsweekThe Boston GlobeExquisite CorpseConfrontation and elsewhere.  His books include “Adopting Alyosha — A Single Man Finds a Son in Russia,” “Small Worlds — Adopted Sons, Pet Piranhas and Other Mortal Concerns,” “The Three-Legged Woman & Other Excursions in Teaching” and a novel, “Long Live Grover Cleveland,” which won a 2016 Ben Franklin Literary Award and a USA BookNews Award.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

The Bridge

by Trish Perrault

 

 

From his apartment above Butler’s Clothing Store, Lloyd had a good view of Main Street. On the sidewalk below his window, mothers and fathers protectively clutched the hands of their children as they hurried across the bridge that led to the brick schoolhouse. As a boy, Lloyd had attended the elementary school, but he didn’t remember his foster mother, Edna, ever holding his hand. Through the closed window, he heard the children’s voices drifting across the river. He watched as they smiled and waved goodbye. Lloyd wondered what it would be like to have someone smile at him again.

Using a hand towel, he patted the thin brown hair that still clung to his scalp and peered down the street at the C&L Market. His mouth opened in surprise when Mable Hastings’s bright pink hair appeared in the early morning sunshine. He’d been expecting Clara Donovan, the owner of the market. Sadie, Mable’s six-year-old daughter, wore bright yellow mittens with a matching hat and rubber boots. Lloyd chewed the soft skin of his cheek as he thought. He did not stock bright colors in his store. Edna had told him solid colors like navy, brown, and gray lasted longer because they didn’t stain.

Lloyd watched as Sadie and Mable started across the cement bridge built as part of FDR’s New Deal back in the thirties. Chunks of ice bobbed in the river below. Mable walked stiffly beside her daughter. Clara had told him that Mable’s ex-boyfriend had shoved her down a flight of stairs a few weeks earlier.

Sadie skipped gleefully into a puddle, splashing her boots. Lloyd’s throat felt tight. He’d never been one for sentimentality, but Sadie’s innocent laughter floating skyward made his chest ache.

Checking the clock, he calculated how long it would take Mable to walk to the school and then to the market to open up the shop. Every morning, Lloyd walked to the market. While Mable assembled his sandwich, she would tell him about her daughter. Lloyd knew that Sadie’s favorite color was yellow, she had a book about kittens in her backpack, and she was afraid of men. What Mable didn’t say he heard through the town of Emery’s grapevine. He knew that the once purple bruises at the base of her neck were put there by her ex-boyfriend, Buck, and that Clara Donovan had driven her to the hospital last week. He’d also heard that Mable and Sadie were living, temporarily, in a one-room studio over the C&L Market.

Mable pointed at something in the water below the narrow bridge. The little girl stood on the toes of her yellow boots so she could see over the railing. Lloyd pressed his cheek against the cold windowpane. A gnarled pine tree, at least a hundred years old, with sharp branches, had fallen across the river. He had seen the dead tree when he’d gone for his morning swim earlier. As a little boy, Edna used to drag him down to the river every morning to swim. Even in the winter. She’d read that ice-cold water helped the immune system and decided the cold water would fix Lloyd, who she complained was too quiet and motionless for a boy. At first, he feared the water. He worried about the slimy fish and river snakes that hid in the rocks, but Edna had made him go into the water, watching him from the riverbank. As he grew, he came to like his time alone in the river. The sound of the nearby rapids had drowned out Edna’s incessant chatter.

Below his window, a red truck pulled up and parked in the middle of the bridge beside Mable and Sadie. Lloyd recognized Buck Tucker as the man swung out of the driver’s side door. He stood well over six feet, much taller than Lloyd and a lot heavier. Buck held open his arms and said something to Sadie. The little girl cowered from him, burying her face in Mable’s jacket.

Unsure of what to do, Lloyd opened the window and bent towards the screen so that he could hear what was being said. He knew that it would take him two minutes to get downstairs – but he was only wearing a towel. His fingers gripped the windowsill.

“Don’t come near us!” Mable screeched as she faced Buck. Mable pulled her daughter behind her.

“What’s your problem? I didn’t do nothing except stop and say hello!” Buck said, stepping in front of the young woman.

Lloyd looked down the sidewalks, but they were empty.

“Stay away!” A green car turned down Main Street and slowed down as it drew past Buck’s truck. Lloyd recognized the four-door sedan as belonging to the Mr. Wilke, the former mayor. Buck swore then stomped over to his truck and opening the door. The truck’s tires screeching as exhaust poured out of the rusted tailpipe. Mable picked up her daughter, cradled her against her chest, and hurried across the bridge in the direction of the elementary school.

Lloyd stayed frozen and unblinking as he stared at the spot where Buck had been yelling at Mable. He wondered if he should call the police, but knew the chief was a distant uncle of Buck’s.

Across the bridge, the schoolhouse door opened, and Mabel came out. Lloyd watched as she crossed back over the river. She hurried down the sidewalk to the C&L Market and disappeared inside.

Lloyd turned away from the window and scanned his cramped apartment. There wasn’t much to see. On his nightstand sat a white alarm clock, a pair of wire-framed reading glasses, and a paperback. Several math and science books were stacked on the table beside a brown recliner. The red light on his answering machine remained unblinking.

Lloyd’s elementary school teachers had told Edna he could learn to be more social; after all, he earned high marks in school. Over time, though, they’d started to see him the way Edna saw him. Lloyd had pretended not to notice their rubbernecking and whispers. As a young man, he’d ignored Edna when she insisted he read self-help books. Most out-of-towners who stopped by the clothing store hadn’t noticed he was quiet. In fact, most outsiders were preoccupied with trying to figure out if Edna was a man or a woman. She used to cut her hair butch-short and had worn the same chinos and button-front oxford shirts that Lloyd wore.

Twice, Lloyd had asked Edna about his birth parents, but Edna hadn’t thought there was much to tell. The last time he’d asked, she took his hand, took her last breath, and died.

This had been six months ago. After the funeral, Clara Donovan had started coming by on Saturday evenings with a casserole and salad that they would share. Sometimes she’d bring a bottle of wine. He supposed she’d felt bad for him since he had no family. Clara helped him clean Edna’s apartment and restock items in the store. He remembered how embarrassed he had been when an order of women’s undergarments came in. Clara had held the pieces of colored silk against her chest for him to admire—slips, pajamas, lace underwear, a selection of brassieres, and stockings with garter belts. He flushed as he remembered Clara buying one of the slips. A peach-colored one with small bits of ivory lace that had felt light as air. His hands had shaken as he folded the silky garment and placed it in a small paper bag. Not wanting her to know he felt uncomfortable, he’d started to dust the shelf beside the register. Clara left the store and didn’t answer him when he said goodbye, slamming the door so hard the windows rattle. After that, she stopped coming by on Saturdays. He sometimes thought about the slip and wondered if she was dating someone, but he never asked.

Shaking off the memory, Lloyd flung open his bedroom closet. Seven carefully ironed white oxford shirts hung on wooden hangers next to seven pairs of pressed, putty-brown pants. He thought of Mable’s pink hair, Sadie’s yellow mittens, and Clara’s peach-colored slip. He decided that today he’d take out the catalog and order more colorful clothing. Maybe light blue.

On his way out of his apartment, Lloyd paused on the stair landing. He’d bought the building fifteen years earlier and made two apartments above the store. Lloyd crossed the hall and opened the door to Edna’s old apartment. The heat from the radiator made the air dry and stale. The one-bedroom apartment was almost identical to Lloyd’s. A white Formica table stood with two chairs next to the kitchen counter. A plaid loveseat sat near the fireplace, a brown recliner near the window. A small black-and-white television with rabbit ears stood in the corner. The only personal item in the room was a set of three framed pictures of some famous actress from the forties that Edna had admired.

Lloyd grabbed an umbrella as he left. He decided to write up an advertisement for the apartment. Tightening his fingers on the handle of the black umbrella, he tried to brush off his discomfort at the thought of a stranger living so close to him.

 

Twenty-five-year-old Mable Hastings stood at the meat slicer, her arm moving mechanically back and forth as she quickly sliced ten thin pieces of boiled ham. She wondered why Lloyd ate the same thing every day. Since he owned the only clothing store in town, she knew he could afford to eat something different every day of the week. When she said as much to Clara, her boss, the older woman told her to mind her own business.

Mable didn’t want to think about her own business. A lump formed in her throat as she remembered Buck confronting her on the bridge. Her fingers started to reach up to touch the healing bruises at the base of her neck, but instead she grabbed a poppy seed hard roll, picked up a knife, and sliced the bread in half.

“Would you like to try Swiss cheese on your sandwich?” Mable asked. The older man was standing near the candy bar rack, reading the cork bulletin board, which was littered with business cards and flyers. She wondered if he felt lonely living above the store all by himself. Looking at his brown pants and gray overcoat, she remembered that his mother used to wear the same drab clothing.

Lloyd spun in her direction. “No, thank you.” His eyes flickered to a spot over her right shoulder.

“I tell my daughter it’s good to try things when you’re young. That way you won’t stop trying when you get old.”

“Edna used to s-say that.” He looked back at Mable and smiled a little.

Mable stopped slicing a tomato and gave Lloyd a hard look. He usually only spoke in one- or two-word sentences. “My mother died when I was five,” she said matter-of-factly, wondering if he would continue the conversation.

The half-smile slipped from his face. “I’m sorry.”

Lloyd didn’t ask about her father, but she figured he’d heard the gossip. Her father left town the day after she was born.

“Did you see the flyer with the kittens?” she asked. “Sadie and I like the marmalade one.” Lloyd stepped closer to the flyers. “You have a cat?”

He shook his head. “Edna’s allergies.”

Mable said softly, “Maybe now that she’s gone, you can get one.” She placed the sandwich on a piece of plastic wrap.

Lloyd leaned his umbrella against the counter. “Ah…Mable…” She watched his mouth move up and down, but no words came out. Lloyd’s blue eyes met hers, and then he blushed and turned his head. He cleared his throat often. She realized he was eyeing the telephone and wondered if he wanted to use it. “Ah…Mable…”

“Yes?” Mable said, leaning forward.

He inched closer but kept a foot between them. She noticed his eyes were a lovely shade of blue. “The bridge—”

The bell rang frantically at the front of the store.

“Good morning, beautiful.” Clifford Tucker’s voice filled the small store as he entered. Mable anxiously watched Buck’s father, Clifford, stomp towards her in his heavy work boots. She knew Buck, her ex, would be close behind.

Clifford’s face was bloated and red from years of drinking. “Clara around this morning?”

“She’s at the post office,” Mable said. The bell rang a second time, and she saw Buck’s head over his father’s shoulder. The bottles on the shelves clinked against one another as he stomped past them. Mable glanced at the phone on the wall. The last time she’d called the police, Buck’s uncle, the police chief, had threatened to arrest her because she scratched Buck’s face. Clifford had calmed the chief and Buck down, saying it was a lover’s quarrel. That wasn’t the first time Buck had hit her, but that time he’d gone too far. Sadie had seen him hurt her.

“I’m almost done with your sandwich, Lloyd,” Mable said, ducking her head. Buck’s bloodshot eyes glared at her just a few feet away.

“Where’s the aspirin?” Buck asked, rubbing his thick forehead where it met the bridge of his nose.

Mable looked at the shelf and was about to reach for a box of Bayer when Lloyd said, “Above your head.” He swung his umbrella, the tip passing by Buck’s ear, towards the yellow and brown boxes.

Buck turned, his mouth curled in an ugly sneer. “Oh, Butt-ler, I didn’t see you standing there.”

Lloyd lowered his umbrella.

“You still jumping in the river every morning?” Clifford asked. He tapped a greasy white lighter against the counter.

“Yes,” said Lloyd. He leaned his umbrella against the deli case and carefully poured coffee into a paper cup.

“Crazy,” said Clifford, adjusting his belt around his distended belly. “You have to have a screw loose to jump in that water.”

Mable saw Lloyd’s face turn red as he pretended to read the flyer with the week’s sandwich specials. Compared to Buck and his father, Lloyd looked small; he was only a few inches shorter but lean, whereas Buck was already getting soft in the middle.

“Swimming isn’t crazy,” she said, her voice almost lost in the Tucker men’s laughter. She wished she had learned to swim as a child. There had never been time, moving around from one foster home to another.

“You wouldn’t catch me going in there,” said Buck. He slapped the counter with a flat hand.

Mable flinched. Her hand hit the side of a jar of pickles and knocked it over. Buck snickered. She threw the spilled pickle slices away and wiped up the juice. “That’ll be three dollars even,” she said to Lloyd.

Buck leaned a hip against the counter and stayed there. Lloyd reached around him to hand Mable a five-dollar Billy. “Thank you, Mable.”

Mable opened the register and held out the change, but Lloyd shook his head. She tucked the extra cash into her pocket. Lloyd was one of the few customers who tipped.

Lloyd’s footsteps on the wooden plank floor were quiet as he walked away. She noticed he wore old-fashioned rubber galoshes. She wished he wouldn’t leave. She opened her mouth but didn’t know what to say to keep him in the store.

“Bye, Butt-ler,” Buck called as he waved a limp hand in the other man’s back.

“That’s mean,” she said, lowering her voice.

“If you’re weak, you get what you deserve,” Buck said, stepping closer to her. Mable shifted so that her hip pressed against the box freezer.

“Calm down, Buck,” Clifford said, gripping his son’s wrist.

Buck jerked his arm, pulling Clifford off balance. His angry eyes met Mable’s. She turned away and grabbed a broom leaning against the wall.

“I always thought Butt-ler was a pathetic little turtle.” Buck stuck his head out and opened his mouth in a half-smile.

Clifford’s unlit cigarette fell out of his mouth and rolled onto the floor as he laughed. “A turtle—that’s a good one!” he said.

Mable’s heart pounded in her chest. “He doesn’t look like a turtle,” she said, her voice thin. Buck leaned over the counter and winked. Dark stubble covered his face. At one time, she’d thought he was handsome.

“A freak,” said Buck. He grabbed an apple and took a single bite before flinging it into the wastebasket near Mabel.

She stepped closer to the phone, wondering when Clara would be back from the post office.

“His mother got pretty crazy at the end. Not shaving her legs and letting her armpits go…I nearly got sick every time I saw her.” Clifford coughed.

The bell over the door jingled, but Buck was blocking Mable’s view of the door. She remembered Mrs. Butler giving Sadie a cherry lollipop whenever they went into the clothing store. “She seemed nice to me.”

“Edna probably liked you,” Clifford sang. He grabbed a can of soda out of the cooler and walked to the front of the store. “Buck will pay.”

Mable watched Clifford’s wide back on the other side of the glass door, and wished he had stayed. The older man was rough, but he only let Buck go so far. Her fingers shook as she pressed the keys on the register, ringing up Clifford’s soda and the large coffee that Buck was drinking.

“I’ll have something sweet too,” Buck said, leaning close. Mable could smell the sweet apple on his breath. Buck playfully grabbed her hand and yanked her arm.

“Look at me.”

Mable shook her head. “Leave me alone.”

“Look at me,” his voice louder.

The bell over the door rang, and Mable felt a moment of relief, thinking Clifford had returned.

“Pardon me, Mable.”

Mable’s head jerked up. She saw Lloyd standing near the sugar and boxes of cake mix. “I came in to retrieve my umbrella.”

She saw the umbrella leaning against the side of the deli case.

“Here you go, Lloyd.” She lifted the umbrella towards him handle first.

“Thank you.” His face and ears were tinged with red. He stepped closer to the rack with the candy bars and read the notices on the bulletin board.

Buck turned to face Lloyd. Lloyd looked at Buck’s hand on her arm.

“Aren’t you supposed to open the store?” asked Buck, his hand releasing Mable’s.

“In a few minutes.” Lloyd gave a slight nod then took out a pair of slim reading glasses and put them on his nose. She rubbed her arm as she noticed he was studying the flyer with the picture of the kittens.

“Then what do you want?” asked Buck, his voice and body tense.

“Nothing,” Lloyd said, easily.

“Everything all right, Lloyd?” Mable asked, her eyes going from Buck to Lloyd. She looked at the door hoping someone would come in to help her.

“I thought”—he cleared his throat and tapped the tip of the umbrella against the wooden floor—“I thought you might like some company, Mable.”

Lloyd’s light blue eyes met Mable’s a second time. Mable read the uncertainty in Lloyd’s lined face. She blinked, her eyes felt suddenly damp. Then she picked up the broom again and slowly swept the space behind the counter. Her chest hurt as she tried to breathe, but a faint smile had of relief formed on her lips.

“She doesn’t need your company,” Buck said.

“I’ll stay anyway,” said Lloyd. Lifting his cooling coffee to his lips, he watched the other man.

“Thank you, Lloyd,” Mable said, matter-of-fact.

Buck finally left the store. Lloyd stayed, reading cat food labels and browsing the shelves until Clara returned from the post office. Mable saw him return to the bulletin board and take down a flyer and stuff it into his overcoat pocket. When he left, Mable told Clara about Buck and Clifford.

“I am going to ban those two from coming into my store,” Clara said, turning away from the window. She pulled the bag of trash out of the bucket and tied the plastic in a knot.

“You don’t need to do that,” Mable said. Through the tall glass windows in the front of the store, she watched Lloyd walking down the sidewalk in the direction of his store. “It was nice of Lloyd to stay, don’t you think?”

The trash bin’s lid banged shut. Instead of answering Mable’s question, Clara picked up the bag. Her high heels made a marching sound as she swept past her and out the backdoor. Mable knew Clara was angry, but she wasn’t sure why.

 

Lloyd stepped around the puddles that littered the cracked sidewalks. He walked past Edna’s old house; a young couple lived there now. The Gonzalezes. They had painted the siding a bright yellow, and there was a pink swing set in the side yard. Most people in town didn’t like the couple. Some thought they were odd for boiling bananas; others were annoyed when they spoke Spanish in public. Lloyd decided the house looked better yellow.

Turning back towards the C&L Market, Lloyd saw Clara Donovan step out of the store. She carried a bucket of sand, which she spread across the sidewalk. She was fifty. Seven years older than Lloyd. The sun glistened on her still brown hair. She’d been married once, but her husband had died of a sudden heart attack. Edna told Lloyd it was a blessing, Clara’s husband dying so quickly, but sometimes Lloyd wondered if Clara wished she’d said goodbye.

Inside the clothing store, Lloyd put his umbrella next to the cash register and stowed his sandwich in a small icebox beneath the counter. He brushed a feather duster across the stacks of neatly folded shirts and pants that covered the shelves that ran along the back of the store.

The wooden floorboards were broad and long. Dust clung to the crevices even though Lloyd swept every day. He pulled out the flyer for the kittens and admired the creature’s golden colored fur. Surveying the store, he pulled out a box and wondered if it was the right size for a kitten to sleep in. He glanced at the box off and on throughout the morning as he tried to imagine whether he’d like a cat living with him.

The store smelled of leather boots and the steam that leaked from the radiators. He turned the knob on the radio to a talk program about cars and opened his ledger to calculate the sales for the previous month. The morning passed quickly; the afternoon passed more slowly. He ate his ham sandwich and waited on the customers who came in to buy sturdy flannel shirts, suspenders, handkerchiefs, and cargo pants. Only one woman stopped in front of the cabinet of women’s undergarments. A few regulars stopped in to gossip and talk about their misfortunes while Lloyd nodded and sipped his tea. Because he said little and didn’t tell everyone how to live their lives, people seemed to like to tell him their troubles. Lloyd felt relieved that he’d been spared all their difficult troubles.

 

After he had closed the store, Lloyd spent an hour at the small library next to the elementary school. He picked up three paperback Westerns and placed them in a cloth tote bag. Down the aisle, he noticed Clara Donovan hunched over a stack of books. She was wearing a slim-fitting coat. Lloyd noted with surprise that on the cover of one book was a picture of a near-naked woman being embraced by a man dressed like a ship’s captain. Lloyd hesitated, unsure if Clara would appreciate him seeing her reading a romance book. His fingers tightened on his book bag. Stepping behind another shelf, he watched Clara pick out several books, quickly slip them into her book bag, and then stop at the librarian’s desk to check them out. In the dim library light, her brown hair seemed darker against her cranberry raincoat.

After she had left the aisle, he passed the table where Clara had been sitting. A light scent of flowery perfume lingered in the air. His gaze followed Clara. She stood at the reference desk talking to the librarian, Mrs. Brogle. For the second time that day, he wondered why Clara had stopped coming by his apartment on Saturday nights. Lloyd smoothed a hand over his thin hair. He needed a new hairstyle. Maybe a blow dryer.

After checking out his books, Lloyd stepped outside. Donald Wilke, the town’s former mayor, struggled to pull a cigarette from the pack in his hand.

“Wish they let us smoke in there like they used to,” Mr. Wilke said, sticking a cigarette in his mouth and lighting it. “The building’s made of brick.”

Lloyd said, “The b-books…”

“They’re just making these rules to get my goat and drive me crazy,” said Mr. Wilke.

Mrs. Brogle came out and lit a cigarette. Clare stepped around the older woman.

“Well, look who’s over there,” Mr. Wilke said, pointing his cane over Lloyd’s shoulder.

Lloyd recognized the dark-haired teenager sitting on the stone retaining wall that curved around the white protestant church. Carter Payne. The boy waved. Only Clara and Lloyd waved back.

“Those teenagers hang out over there and smoke and drink all day instead of getting jobs,” Mrs. Brogle said, taking a drag on her cigarette.

Lloyd saw no cigarette or bottle in the boy’s hands.

“What jobs?” said Clara.

“Speaking of jobs,” Mr. Wilke said, “I saw that girl you hired fighting with Buck Tucker on the bridge this morning.”

“What happened?” Mrs. Brogle asked, her birdlike eyes bright in her tired face.

“She’s going to get herself killed if she goes back to him,” said Mr. Wilke.

“She’ll go back,” the older woman predicted.

“Mable is not going back,” said Clara, touching the heart-shaped pin on her lapel.

“They always do.” A thin stream of smoke pouring from Mrs. Brogle’ sharp nasal passages. “They can’t break the cycle.”

Clara’s hand went to her throat; she reached for a pair of sunglasses and put them on her nose. “Not if I can help her,” she said, matter-of-factly.

Lloyd thoughtfully regarded the sunglasses. He recalled a time when Clara had had a black eye. She had been married then.

Mr. Wilke sniffed. “Bleeding heart,” he said, trying to lighten the tension that had descended over the group.

Lloyd reached out hesitantly as if to brush the fabric of Clara’s sleeve but she stepped around him and his hand fell back to his side. Mrs. Brogle’s head whipped back and forth. Her dull eyes suddenly alert as they bounced back and forth between Clara to Lloyd. Lloyd’s cheeks redden.

 

Lloyd waited at the crosswalk, he saw Clara drive by in her burgundy car with old Mr. Wilke in the passenger seat.

Lloyd looked both ways before he crossed the street in front of the library. There was no traffic. Down Main Street, he noticed Mable’s pink hair as she walked across the bridge. Her daughter rode a few feet ahead of her on a pink bicycle with training wheels.

Lloyd said hello to Carter Payne as he passed. Suddenly, Lloyd heard the loud, high-pitched whine of a truck’s engine and saw Buck Tucker’s truck barreling directly at him. A hand grabbed Lloyd’s jacket, jerking him away from the edge of the road.

“You okay, Mr. Butler?” Carter asked. His face was filled with angry pimples. Lloyd nodded, unable to speak. Horrified, they watched as the red truck veered across Main Street. Sadie stopped pedaling her pink bike, frozen on the side of the bridge.

Lloyd’s mouth opened. His shout joined Mable’s. He dropped his book bag and umbrella and ran to the bridge.

The truck swung wide, skidding on the ice as it headed directly towards Mable. The wheels spun in the opposite direction, wildly careening across the road. Then, the vehicle crashed, catching the front tire of Sadie’s bike and jerking the girl so hard that her small body was thrown into the air.

Lloyd watched in horror as the little girl disappeared over the side of the bridge.

The bike lay mangled on the bridge’s sidewalk. Mable ran to the side where Sadie went over, gripping the bridge’s railing as she screamed and pointed at the water. Lloyd’s lungs hurt as he ran in the cold air. He searched for the little girl in the dark water flowing around the ice blocks. He prayed she wouldn’t get caught in an ice drift. His legs pumped faster and faster as he neared the bridge.

Twenty feet below the bridge, he saw Sadie clinging to a downed tree in the middle of the river.

“Save her! Please save her.” Mable pleaded, her arms waving wildly. “I don’t know how to swim.”

Buck staggered towards her. Blood ran down the side of his face from a large gash in his forehead. Buck stumbled and reached towards Mable.

“Get away!” Mable screamed, pulling away and turning back to the river. “Sadie. Sadie.”

Lloyd ran to the side of the bridge and started down the riverbank. His shoes slid against the ice and mud. As he neared the edge of the water, he saw that the girl was settled in the middle of the tree. Her mittens clutched the wet bark. If he moved quickly, he decided, he could reach Sadie in time. Lloyd kicked off his shoes and threw his overcoat onto the ground as he flung himself into the frigid water.

His eyes stayed on Sadie, measuring each slip and dip of her body in the fast moving current. A massive sheet of thick ice covered the river behind her. Lloyd knew he’d never find her if she slipped under. He was twenty yards away when Sadie’s fingers slipped; she fell lower into the water. Only her head was now visible. Lloyd remembered how panicked he felt as a boy when he started swimming. Edna had called out to him, telling him to keep kicking, until, finally, he’d pulled himself to shore.

Ten yards away, he made sure Sadie was still hanging onto the tree. The tip of her chin touched the water as she anxiously searched the top of the bridge for her mother. If she made a sound, he couldn’t hear it. He couldn’t tell if she was crying, but he knew she must have been freezing.

“Don’t let go. Hang on,” he shouted as he pushed his body forward. Usually, he didn’t swim this far out. The overflowing river and ice blocks made it too dangerous.

He focused every bit of his concentration on fighting the pull of the water, just as he had that time when he was a boy. When he was ten feet away, he stopped swimming to tread water. Thick pine branches scraped the girl’s chin. He wondered if she’d been hit by the truck. This close, he could hear Sadie crying and asking her mother to help her. Lloyd pushed his body closer and broke a tree branch that was preventing him from reaching the little girl.

“Hang on. You can do this,” Lloyd said, repeating the same words Edna had once said to him. The water pulled at his waist, chest, and thighs.

The girl’s face was white with shock. Above them, Mable’s cries were drowned out by the sound of rushing water.

He inched forward and held a hand out to the girl, willing Sadie to reach out to him. Then he remembered that Mable had told him the girl was afraid of men. “Do you remember me? Lloyd, from the store?”

The little girl shook her head, not looking at him.

“My mother, Edna, used to give you lollipops in my store, remember?”

Sadie remained still. Lloyd inched closer so that he was only an arm’s length away. A large branch lay between them. The tree could sink if he tried climbing over it to reach Sadie.

“I like grape,” he said, not feeling his feet. “What’s…what’s your favorite?”

The little girl turned then and looked over at Lloyd. Her lips were purple against her white face. “Ch-cherry,” she whispered.

“Your mom wants me to get you.” Sadie’s mittens slipped. The girl seemed so small against the sheet of ice next to the tree.

Sadie shook her head and pressed her body against the tree.

He swam closer to the tree just as Sadie’s mittens slipped, and she went under the water. Lloyd dove under, the water pushed him, and he scraped the top of his head. His numb fingers felt for the girl, his body thrashing wildly in the water. Then, his hand grabbed something soft. He yanked the girl against him. Surfacing, he gasped for air. Sadie began choking and coughing. Water ran down her nose and out of her mouth. Lloyd fiercely pulled the small child to his chest.

He thought of Mable standing on the bridge. “I got her,” he shouted. A flash of joy rushed through his body.

“Hold on tight,” he told Sadie. “You’re okay. You’ll be okay.” Lloyd slipped his arm around her chest and kicked his feet against the current.

When they were close to shore, he stood up. His knees buckled, and he almost dropped the girl. He pulled her closer and carried her over the rocks and blocks of ice along the shore. Carter came to Lloyd holding out a blanket. Lloyd wrapped it around the little girl and then scanned the bridge. Clara held Mable in her arms.

“She’s okay,” he called up to them. The crowd above him clapped and cheered. A woman dressed in an EMT uniform ran down the embankment. She pulled Sadie from his arms. Lloyd, exhausted and shivering violently, followed slowly behind. Carter ran to get more towels and blankets.

By the time Lloyd reached the bridge, Sadie lay on a gurney in the back of an ambulance. Mable knelt beside her, holding her hands.

The ambulance driver swung the door closed and jumped in behind the steering wheel. Lloyd watched the vehicle, its lights and sirens blaring as it sped in the direction of the hospital.

Buck stood on the sidewalk, bleeding and crying. A state police officer held out a pair of handcuffs and ordered Buck to turn around.

Clara’s eyes were wet and soft as they met Lloyd’s. She wrapped a wool blanket around his dripping body.

“That was brave of you, Lloyd.” He felt the pressure of her strong fingers against his cold flesh.

“It was lucky.” His thin, wiry frame shook as he watched the ambulance drive away. “The water was w-warm today.”

 

Two hours later, just as the sun was setting, Lloyd noticed a car stopped in the middle of the bridge. He saw Mable’s pink hair. He sprinted down the stairs and called out to her, worried that something had happened to Sadie.

“Mable?”

“She was crying for her little bear.” Mable clutched a stuffed bear to her chest. “I almost lost her,” she said, watching a piece of ice break free in the water. Her cheeks were damp. “You saved her.” She rubbed her sleeve against her runny nose. “I don’t know what I would do if something happened to her.”

Lloyd regarded the long building that was his clothing store on the other side of the bridge. He remembered Edna pushing him into the river when he was a boy and how angry he’d been. Today, he saved Sadie’s life. If it wasn’t for Edna, he might not have reached the girl in time.

“You’re doing your best,” Lloyd told Mable, thinking of Edna. Remembering how she’d taken him in and tried her best to be his mother. His throat hurt. The sun shifted in the sky and moved towards the mountains. “Tell Sadie I’ll bring her cherry lollipops tomorrow – if she wants.”

After Mable had left, Lloyd stayed on the bridge, watching her car’s rear lights until they disappeared. He glanced up at his apartment and saw the lights on in his living room. The back apartment, where Edna once lived, was shielded in darkness. He would stop by the hardware store in the morning to pick out some paint. Maybe yellow. Then he’d tell Mable that the apartment was hers and Sadie’s for as long as she needed it. From the pocket of his overcoat, he pulled out the flyer he’d picked up earlier that day. His index finger traced the still damp picture of the marmalade kitten.

Down the street, the door to the C&L Market swung open. Lloyd heard Clara’s high heels on the sidewalk. He pulled his shoulders back, stood up straight, and then turned to watch Clara walk towards him. In the soft, honey-golden light, Clara’s face seemed to glow. As she drew closer, he noticed for the first time that her eyes were the color of field grass in early summer.

She leaned against the bridge’s cement railing, her arm touching his as they stood side by side, gazing into the distance. Behind them, they heard the cars and trucks slowed down as they passed over the cement bridge.

“I wonder what they’re saying about us,” Clara said. She placed a bare hand on the sleeve of his coat.

Lloyd took a deep breath and covered her fingers with a warm hand. She turned her wrist so that their fingers entwined.

“They’re probably saying I’m one heck of a lucky man,” he said.

 

 

 

BIO

Trish Perrault earned her MFA in creative writing from Lesley University and works as an adjunct professor. Her stories have been published in Snowbound – Best New England Crime Stories 2017, The Literary Nest and The Lindenwood Review (May 2018). Trish lives with her family just south of the Adirondacks.

 

 

 

 

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A Marvelous Peace

by Joe Fortunato

 

 

There is a marvelous peace in not publishing.
—J.D. Salinger

 

John Malachi flung his pen across his office and sprang to his feet, sending his chair rolling back, crashing into the wall behind him. He bellowed through the open doorway in the general direction of his assistant’s desk. “Any word from Reinhardt yet?”

Cheryl Solanich startled. By the time she looked up, Malachi—coat and tie off, sleeves rolled up, salt-and-pepper hair disheveled—was pacing in front of her desk grasping a fistful of papers.

She took off her black-rimmed glasses. “There’s no need to yell, John; I’m right here,” she said.

“I wasn’t yelling.”

“You know I would’ve put him straight through to you if he’d called.”

“It’s not like him to be late for a meeting.” He sat in the chair by her desk, tapping his feet rapidly. “I’m worried.”

“About him, or the deal?” Cheryl asked with a smirk.

“Both.” Malachi drummed his fingers on her desk.

He cocked his head. “What’s with the new hairdo?”

“I was wondering when you’d notice.” Cheryl gingerly patted her short, pinkish, kind-of-spiky hair. “I had it done Saturday.” She batted her dark blue eyes and flashed a roguish smile. “Like it?”

“I hate it. It’s unprofessional and undignified.”

She swiveled her chair in a complete circle her outswept arm taking in the entire storefront office. “Look around.”

“Well, can’t you dye it brown again, and de-spike it or something?”

“No,” Cheryl said. “Do you want me to call his cell again?” She lifted the receiver of her desk phone. “Third time’s a charm, right?”

“Yeah, go ahead.” He resumed his pacing. “If he doesn’t sign these contracts today, the whole thing goes up in flames. And me with it!”

Cheryl punched Reinhardt’s cell autodial number with the eraser end of a pencil, and, cradling the receiver, glanced up at her boss shaking her head. “Straight to voice mail, like before.”

“Try his office.”

“I doubt he’d be there. He was supposed to come here first thing, right?”

“Do you see him?” Malachi spread his hands and twisted left and right. “Me neither. Call.”

She pencil-punched Reinhardt’s office number. “This is Mister Malachi’s office calling. Has Mister Reinhardt checked in with you? No? Hmmm. Yes, I know, three hours ago. But he hasn’t shown up yet. Well, if he calls or comes in, will you tell him to ring Mister Malachi right away, please?” She half-whispered into the phone, “He’s apoplectic.”

“I heard that,” Malachi muttered.

Cheryl covered the receiver, “You were meant to.” Then, back to the phone, “And if we hear from Mister Reinhardt, I’ll tell him to call you. Okay, thank you.” Cheryl hung up. “No dice.”

“Damn him!”

“His assistant says she hasn’t heard from him since lunchtime Friday. Now she’s worried too.” She added, “About Mister Reinhardt, not your deal.”

The deal. It was a make-or-break arrangement for the tiny publishing house. House? More like hut!

The odds were stacked against Malachi from the start. He was an attorney—and a successful one—who knew next-to-nothing about publishing, beyond having represented an emerging author once in a dispute over royalties. But John Malachi was a dreamer, an idealist.

A little over two years ago, the forty-two-year-old divorcé hadn’t a care in the world. Then, one day, out of the blue, he bought out the contract for his partner-track position at a Philadelphia law firm, emptied his bank account, and cashed in virtually all his assets—house, car, boat, and what remained of some so-so investments—leaving himself with just enough to live on and to pay his ex-wife’s alimony for the next three years.

Malachi used the money to team up with his best friend, Steve Borek, an English professor, to found a small publishing company. Since English professors aren’t celebrated for their colossal salaries, Malachi supplied the lion’s share of the capital, while Borek contributed his expert eye for quality literature. The pair incorporated, and Malachi Borek was born.

The plan was to seek out and disseminate superior works of literary fiction by unknown writers. The fledgling publishers leased a pricey medium-sized suite in a prestigious Center City high-rise, hired a top-notch designer to trick it out with stylish furniture, carpeting, and fixtures, and waited for agents and authors to beat down the door.

The trouble was, most unknown writers stay unknown—and unread—for a reason: they stink! Instead of agents and authors, creditors beat down the door. By the time the endeavor hit bottom, Borek had bailed, and the creditors, particularly the high-priced decorator, had taken the door.

However, Malachi, too stubborn (or too stupid) to accept total defeat, decided to go it alone. Using a little of the three hundred thousand dollars of his own money he’d held in reserve, he downsized the office space to a small drop-ceilinged storefront in a Northeast Philadelphia strip mall and hired his recently-widowed twin sister, Cheryl, as his administrative assistant. The place had been a Laundromat until a few months ago, so in addition to the change machine cemented to the floor by the door, an exposed pipe between Cheryl’s desk and Malachi’s office presented an omnipresent tripping hazard. What passed for his office had no door, and was made of what had to be the cheapest composite paneling available. Cheryl swore the wonky fluorescent lights were sucking the vitamin D out of her and causing her vision to flicker.

To fill the space, Malachi picked up a couple of cheap desks, a few chairs, and a brown metal filing cabinet at a bankruptcy auction. On the walls hung three or four landscape prints, each about a quarter of a notch higher in quality than Dogs Playing Poker and Velvet Elvis. To complete the transition from prince to pauper, he swapped out his leased Claret Mica Lexus GX 460 SUV for a red Kia Rio.

“Maybe he’s dead,” said Cheryl.

“If he is, I might as well join him.”

“God forbid, don’t say that!” She made a sign of the cross. “But he could be. I mean, he weighed at least three hundred pounds and smoked three packs a day. He could’ve had a heart attack. Or been murdered.”

“People don’t get murdered just because they’re fat smokers. And stop talking about him in the past tense,” Malachi said. “Besides, he can’t be dead. He has a contract to sign. After that he can be as dead as he wants.”

“John, he’s only one client.”

Malachi looked at her as if she’d sprouted a turd from her head. “He’s only one client? Cheryl, Reinhardt is my only client. Or would have been if he hadn’t up and died on me.”

“I thought you said he wasn’t dead.”

“Well why else would he be more than three hours late?”

“You always say writers are the most unreliable people on the planet, always acting fickle and changing their minds.”

“Gus Reinhardt isn’t a writer. He’s an agent. They’re a little more reliable. And one of his clients is Paul Quickthorn, the guy who wrote The Nicodemus Pendant and three other best sellers before it. Quickthorn’s not happy with the way his publisher handled the publicity for Nicodemus. He claims they edited the hell out of the thing, and then pushed him too hard with an impossible schedule of interviews, signings, and appearances. He figured after three consecutive best-selling novels, he’d earned the right to rest on his laurels for the fourth.”

“So he’s looking for a new publisher.”

“Right,” said Malachi. “He thinks a smaller house, where he’d be a huge fish in a tiny sea, would treat him with more respect, coddle him. I happened to cold call Reinhardt at just the right time. It was kismet. We talked on the phone, met for lunch a couple of times, and I made some promises. Reinhardt took them to Quickthorn, who liked what I offered, and agreed to sign a two-book deal with me. Gus is supposed to sign a preliminary deal today, and bring in Quickthorn next week.”

“Except now he’s probably dead.”

As the words left Cheryl’s lips, the little bell above the door tinkled and a fat man in a charcoal cashmere coat waddled in huffing, a lit cigarette dangling from his pale lips, an inch-and-a-half of ash dangling from the cigarette. He coughed, and the ash floated to the gray-speckled linoleum floor. The man looked around, and in a hoarse voice asked, “This isn’t one of those non-smoking offices, is it?”

“Gus! No, smoke all you want, my friend.” Malachi rushed to greet him with a hearty slap on the back, pumped his hand and said to Cheryl, “See? I told you he wasn’t dead.”

Reinhardt knitted his bushy grey eyebrows. “Dead?”

Before Malachi could think of a reply, Cheryl came to the rescue. “Can I get you a cup of coffee, Mr. Reinhardt?”

“Yes, please,” he rasped. “Black, one Splenda.”

She grabbed her pocketbook, said, “Be right back,” and rushed out the door.

“Where’s she going?” Reinhardt asked Malachi.

“To the Starbucks across the street.” Reinhardt shot him another quizzical look. Malachi added, “Uh… Our Keurig is in the shop.” He made two mental notes: stop saying stupid stuff, and, as soon as he signs this contract, buy a Keurig.

Malachi put his hand on Reinhardt’s shoulder and guided him to the office.

“Geez, Gus, for a while there, I wasn’t sure you were coming.”

“Yeah, well, I got tied up in some tough negotiations that took longer than I’d anticipated. I’m sorry I didn’t call. My smartphone fell in the sink last night while I was brushing my teeth, and when I went to check in with my office this morning, it kept shutting down on me. Luckily, it’s insured, so I can get a new one cheap.”

Cheryl came in with two coffees, placed them them on Malachi’s desk, gave her boss a thumbs up behind Reinhardt’s back, and walked out.

“So, let’s get down to business, shall we, Gus?”

“That’s what I wanted to tell you.”

“Tell me? What tell me?”

Reinhardt lit a cigarette. “The negotiations I was into today were with Quickthorn’s publisher.”

“Wait a minute,” Malachi said. “I thought I was going to publish him.”

“His almost former publisher, then.” Reinhardt loosened his tie. “You see, John, Quickthorn never really wanted to leave Dolce-Placer. They’d been good to him, put him on the map. He just wanted to shake them up a little, you know, get a better deal, a lighter load.”

Malachi began to see the light. He swiped his hand over his face and groaned.

Reinhardt continued, “When he told them he’d decided to go with a small house, at first they thought he was bluffing. Which, of course, he was, but they couldn’t be sure.”

Another groan, this time from deeper in the throat. “No, please, Gus.”

“Last night, Dolce himself called me and said they were ready to talk in earnest. So early this morning I hopped an Acela to New York, we talked, and I rushed back here as soon as i could. I wanted to tell you in person. I’m sorry we had to use you that way. You happened to call at just the right time.”

The groan had evolved into a growl.

“The clincher,” said Reinhardt, “was that Dolce-Placer just hired a new editor, a guy whose style Quickthorn has always respected. Quickthorn made it a condition that this man would be the only one to edit his material.” He shrugged, “They agreed, and Quickthorn signed a five-book deal with Dolce-Placer. And Steve Borek will be his editor.

“Borek?”

“Yeah. You know him?”

With a roar, Malachi leaped over the desk, knocked Reinhardt and his chair backward with a crash and a thud, and stretched his fingers around Reinhardt’s plump neck. The agent puffed and panted, began to turn blue. Malachi released his grip and collapsed on top of him.

#

The medical examiner determined Reinhardt died of a massive heart attack, probably as a result of the physical assault, with obesity and cigarette smoking listed as contributing causes. Malachi apparently succumbed to a brain aneurysm that burst while he was attacking Reinhardt.

Two days after her brother’s funeral, Cheryl started her new job as a barista at the Starbucks across the street.

 

 

 

BIO

A native South Philadelphian, Joe Fortunato taught math and physics for twenty years before retiring in 2014 to pursue writing. Prior to his teaching career, he spent more than two decades as a voice talent and radio personality in New Jersey, Delaware, Philadelphia, and New York City.

In addition to making his debut in this issue of The Writing Disorder, Joe’s stories have appeared in The Storyteller Anthology and The MacGuffin. His hobbies include acting in community theater, and oil painting. Joe lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, with his wife, Deb, their cats, Punkin and Sadie, and a black-mouthed cur named Rufus

 

 

 

 

0

Ketchup Sandwich

by Shamar English

 

 

Growing up in poverty is phantom pain, it never goes away like hunger. It lingers for seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, decades and so on. You never forget because you always remember.

You have to devour whatever edible thing you can find. Food fluctuates in my home like the stock market. The one thing I can make and eat heavily are sandwiches. Particularly, special sandwiches since there isn’t always meat.

So, I make syrup sandwiches, sugar sandwiches, cheese sandwiches, wish sandwiches, and jelly sandwiches. Not too many peanut butter sandwiches. I tried a few times, but it wouldn’t stick to my stomach. It smelled like seaweed and paste and tasted like chalk.

But ketchup sandwiches are my satiety. I can eat more than one like a can of Pringles. They get me through the days pacifying my growling belly. It sounds gross, but not when you’re ravish by hunger.

Ketchup sandwiches subdued my impending starvation more times than I can ever recount. So, whenever the refrigerator and cabinets are full of food I go directly for the bread and ketchup.

 

 

BIO

Shamar English is a budding writer. He has a piece published in literallystories2014 magazine, and another piece that will appear in Better than Starbucks magazine. He’s originally from Santa Barbara, California, but lives in Douglasville, Georgia, with his family and attends Georgia State University pursuing his bachelor’s degree.

 

 

0

Pink Lemonade

by Michael McCormick

 

 

Greg, Ricky, Joel, and Sean all left the basketball court and headed over to the parking lot. Three two-on-two games in a row and now everyone was exhausted (particularly Sean, who every one of his friends and family members agreed was a monster on the court). They were now ready for some lunch.

“Where we gonna’ go?” Ricky asked, wiping sweat off his face. “Can we do something other than Sonic?”

“I’m good with anything,” Sean said, dribbling one of the basketballs on the parking lot.

“I just want a drink,” Greg said. “I don’t really care what we eat.”

“How about Luby’s?” Joel suggested.

“I’m not in the mood for Luby’s,” Ricky replied.

“I need a drink,” Greg said. “What are places that I can get a drink?”

“There’s Jack and John’s,” Sean suggested.

“Blegh!” Ricky replied. “Forget that.”

“Why don’t we just get a pizza somewhere?” Joel asked. “Then we can get drinks somewhere else.”

“Can we not make a million stops?” Ricky replied.

“What about Sam’s?” Sean suggested.

“Yes, let’s go there,” Joel said, wiping a bead of sweat on his neck. “Can we get out of the sun already?”

“Yeah, let’s go to Sam’s,” Greg said. “I’m down for some Mountain Sunrise.”

“Ricky?” Sean asked.

“What’s Sam’s?” Ricky replied. “I’ve never heard of it.”

“It’s a steakhouse,” Joel said. “You’ll like it. Come on, let’s go! It’s freaking hot!”

“Alright, whatever,” Ricky said. “I’m okay with steak.”

With that, the four friends hopped in their cars and drove away from the park. Being the very middle of lunch hour, the roads were quite busy. It took nearly twenty minutes for the four to arrive in the parking lot of Sam’s Steak Shack.

Sam’s Steak Shack had been up and running in central Houston for nearly thirty years. While hardly known outside of Houston, the steakhouse was massively popular within the city. Top quality steaks, excellent service, and a clean and relaxing atmosphere made for the perfect spot to eat. In addition, the steakhouse was known for being home to the Mountain Sunrise, a drink that could not be found at any other restaurant. Popular among young males (particularly young males who had only recently become legally allowed to consume alcohol), the Mountain Sunrise had a unique flavor and delightful taste that was very difficult to forget. Most diners who experienced this delightful taste for the first time looked forward to paying several visits to Sam’s Steak Shack in the future for the sole purpose of having the drink again.

After a ten-minute wait, a woman led the four friends to their table in the back of the restaurant. Greg was frustrated that he had to wait so long just to get his drink, Ricky was so hungry that he was about to start gnawing on the table, Joel was just relieved to finally be out of the sun, and Sean had his mind set on taking a thirty-minute shower as soon as he arrived home.

“Next time we play ball, I’m bringing a pack of Budweiser,” Greg said as he sat down. “I hope that isn’t illegal.”

“If it is, I’m not bailing you out,” Sean said.

“It’s okay, his granny will probably take care of it,” Ricky said.

“Shut up,” Greg said with a grin. Ricky chuckled.

“Hey Sean, when’s your interview again?” Joel asked, taking a look at his menu.

“Monday,” Sean replied. “Wish me luck guys. It took me five freaking months to get this interview. If I don’t get the job, I’m probably going to smash a window.”

“Then you’d better stay away from my car,” Greg said.

“Ah, I’m sure you’ll get it, Sean,” Ricky said. “Who wouldn’t hire someone with your smoking hot body?”

“I think it’s going to be a guy,” Sean replied.

“And how do you know he won’t be interested in your hot body?”

“Oh, shut the hell up.”

Ricky chuckled.

Having never been to the restaurant before, Ricky looked around. It seemed like every other steakhouse he had been to before. Walls made of wood, pictures showing the restaurant in its earlier days, pictures of the food served at the restaurant, and several other pictures of the famous Mountain Sunrise. Ricky was quite curious to see what it tasted like.

Greg also looked around the restaurant. Every table was full. Mostly with young men, though there were a few families. Almost every young man in the restaurant had a glass of Mountain Sunrise to their side. Greg could hardly wait to get his own glass of the delicious beverage. He was sure that he was going to have drunk at least three glasses by the time he left the restaurant.

Greg also noticed at least two young men who had glasses of what appeared to be water. Greg was baffled why any man would come to Sam’s Steak Shack and not order the Mountain Sunrise. It was utterly bizarre to him. Water could be found at every other restaurant in existence. Could these men just not see the Mountain Sunrise advertisements all over the walls?

After another minute or two, their waitress returned to their table with a pen and notepad in her hand.

“What can I get y’all to drink?” the waitress asked.

Greg said: “Mountain Sunrise” without even blinking.

Sean, who also had been looking forward to a glass of Mountain Sunrise since Sam’s Steak Shack was decided on, also ordered the drink.

Ricky, although he didn’t know what Mountain Sunrise tasted like, was very curious as to why it was so popular. He also ordered a glass.

Joel looked at the beverage section of the menu. The menu heavily promoted Mountain Sunrise (there was a large picture of the famous drink at the top of the beverage section), but he was not interested. He had tasted Mountain Sunrise before and he wasn’t a fan of it. There was another beverage that he was hoping the restaurant served (he had only visited the restaurant once before). Sure enough, his favorite beverage was written in clear letters at the bottom of the page.

“Can I get some pink lemonade?” Joel asked.

“Sure,” the waitress replied, writing the order on her notepad. “Okay, I’ll be right back with your drinks.”

After the waitress left, Greg stared at Joel with a puzzled expression.

“Pink lemonade?” Greg asked. “What?”

“Umm…yeah,” Joel said, looking at the steak section of the menu. “I ordered pink lemonade.”

“Are you serious, Joel? Pink lemonade?”

“What’s wrong with pink lemonade?”

Greg smiled and chuckled. “Well now I’ve seen everything.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I don’t know. We come to Sam’s, the only place where you can get Mountain Sunrise, and you order freaking pink lemonade. I just can’t wrap my mind around that.”

“Well, what if I like pink lemonade?”

“Honestly, I would be a lot less weirded out if you got water. Freaking pink lemonade. Seriously.” Greg chuckled and looked at his menu.

“Dude, leave him alone,” Sean said to Greg. “Let him drink what he wants.”

“I’m not going to stop him from drinking it,” Greg replied. “I just find it kind of weird, that’s all.”

“How is it weird?” Joel asked. He was feeling incredibly irritated.

“Let me repeat what I said. We’re at Sam’s. The only place where you can get Mountain Sunrise, and you order pink lemonade. You don’t see anything weird about that?”

Joel breathed deeply in frustration. “No, I don’t.”

“It is pretty weird,” Ricky said. “Why would you even get pink lemonade?”

“Because I like pink lemonade,” Joel replied. “Why would you even ask me that?”

Greg and Ricky both snickered.

“He’s probably also gonna’ order a salad,” Ricky said.

“That’s what I was thinking,” Greg said.

The two laughed even harder. Joel was becoming more and more infuriated.

“Guys, knock it off,” Sean said. His tone of voice showed that he was incredibly frustrated. “If he likes pink lemonade, let him like pink lemonade.”

“He can like it all he wants,” Greg replied. “I won’t stop him. But it’s still weird.”

“No, it’s not,” Joel muttered. His face was turning red.

“Hey, let’s go to a bar later tonight,” Ricky said. “Forget beer, let’s get drunk on pink lemonade.”

Greg and Ricky laughed so hard that diners sitting nearby looked in the direction of their table. By that point, Joel was very close to blowing a fuse. Sean had half a mind to break Greg and Ricky’s noses.

“Come on, Joel,” Greg said. “Be a man and get some Mountain Sunrise like the rest of us.”

The “be a man” comment ended up being what completely set Joel off. Without even trying to control himself, Joel screamed: “I don’t like Mountain Sunrise!”

Joel’s scream was so loud that everyone in the restaurant heard him. To many, a negative statement about Mountain Sunrise was practically a crime inside the doors of Sam’s Steak Shack. The diners didn’t seem to approve of Joel’s remark.

“Who said they don’t like Mountain Sunrise?”

“Dude, what the hell is wrong with you?”

“Get the hell out of here!”

The other diners were clearly exaggerating, as a large amount of laughter began to fill the restaurant. Joel, however, was not the least bit amused. He now wanted to get out of the restaurant as soon as possible.

“Did you hear that, Joel?” Greg said with a grin. He pointed his thumb at the other tables. “I told you it was weird.”

Just as Sean was about to stand up to keep Joel from strangling Greg, the waitress returned to the table. She walked up to Joel.

“I’m sorry sir,” the waitress said. “We don’t have any pink lemonade at the moment. Can I get you something else?”

“Ohhhhh,” Greg and Ricky said together. They both started laughing.

Joel looked at the waitress for a moment. He took a deep breath and said: “No, nothing for me then. Thanks.”

“Are you sure?” the waitress replied.

“Yes. I’m fine.”

A confused expression appeared on the waitress’ face, but she just shrugged and said: “Okay then.” She then walked away.

Before he could hear any more negative remarks about his beverage preference, Joel stood up and began to walk away from the table.

“Where are you going?” Greg asked with a grin.

Without even looking at Greg, Joel replied: “Getting pink lemonade.” He then exited the restaurant without another word.

 

 

 

BIO

Michael McCormick is a graduate from the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, where he received his Bachelor of Arts in English. He is currently pursuing his Master’s Degree in Creative Writing. He is an aspiring author, having written stories since he was a child. His prose poem “Eight Minutes”, was published in the UTRGV journal Gallery in 2016. He currently resides in Edinburg, Texas.

 

 

 

 

 

0

Finding Jesus

by J L Higgs

 

 

As was customary, Rabbi Zeitel arrived at his office at precisely 9:00 am.

“Good Morning, Mrs. Lieberman,” he said to his assistant, who was seated at her desk in the outer office.

She returned his greeting. Then handing him a note, said,“You have a message.”

Having removed his hat and winter overcoat, Rabbi Zeitel adjusted his yarmulke and scanned the pink slip of paper.

“An emergency meeting of the council?” he said, massaging his beard and furrowing his bushy eyebrows. “He said nothing else?”

“What else should he say to me?” she responded.  “The phone rings, I answer it.  He asks, is Rabbi Zeitel in?  I say no.  He asks I give you a message.” She pointed at the note.

“Thank you, Mrs. Lieberman.”

“You are very welcome Rabbi Zeitel.”  She smiled.  “Would you like some coffee?”

“No thank you, Mrs. Lieberman.”

“Perhaps a bagel or a danish.”

“No, I am fine, Mrs. Lieberman.  Thank you,” he said going into his office.

An emergency meeting of The Interfaith Community Council was unprecedented.  The council promoted respect and tolerance for differing religious views and practices and its next scheduled meeting was only two days away.  Its members were the ministers of the churches on the town’s aptly named Church Street.  On one side of the street, within a few blocks of each other, were a Temple, a Catholic Church, and a Christian Evangelical Church.  Across the street, splitting the distance between the Catholics and the Evangelicals were the Unitarian Universalists.  The Lutherans were separate, about a mile further down the street.

The council had been founded following an act of vandalism to Temple Beth Israel. In a show of community solidarity, the other church congregations had appeared unannounced and helped remove anti-semitic graffiti defacing one of the temple’s walls.

With his colleagues gathered in a circle in the basement of Church St. Christian, Reverend Johnson, a bald, stout, black man with a bull neck, began speaking.  “I’m sorry to call all of you here today,” he bellowed.  “A serious matter has arisen that requires the council’s attention.”

“What’s happened?” asked Reverend Robyn, the height sensitive UU minister, a wearer of always sensible black shoes, flats.

“Well, I’m sure as each of you arrived here this morning, you probably noticed it,” said Reverend Johnson.  “Our nativity scene?” he said to their blank expressions.  “Baby Jesus?  He’s gone from the manger?”

“That’s awful,” said Reverend Robyn, reaching out and touching Reverend Johnson’s hand.  “What can we do to help?”

“I don’t mean to sound insensitive,” said Rabbi Zeitel, “but this is a crisis?”

“It’s probably a prank by one of those teenage juvenile delinquents we see around town,” said Father Omyzanski of the Polish Catholic Church, Our Lady of the Assumption, not to be confused with the Irish or Italian Catholic Churches in other sections of the town.

“We don’t know that, Vincent,” said Reverend Robyn.

“When we were young, something like this would never have happened,” replied Father Omyzanski.  “And if it did?  Sister Mary George would’ve gotten a confession in less than two minutes.”

“Well, that may be true, Oz,” replied Pastor Brown of the Lutherans, steepling his stork-like patrician fingers while Father Omyzanski’s face reddened.  He hated the undignified image it conjured up of him amid a group of gaily attired munchkins.  “But, the facts are the Baby Jesus figurine is missing,” continued Pastor Brown.  “We need to focus on what can be done to find it.  Do you have any leads, Julius?”

“Just this.” Reverend Johnson held up a jaggedly torn yellow paper.  He slid his horn-rimmed glasses down from atop his head and read aloud, “My birthday is not for three more days.  I should not be here.  JC.”

“Well, he has a point.  The 25th is three days from now.”

“That’s irrelevant.  It’s a nativity display for God’s sake!”  shouted Father Omyzanski.  “Sorry,” he quickly added, seeing his colleagues shocked expressions.  “I didn’t mean to offend anyone.”

“Did you notify the police?” asked Reverend Robyn.

“Yes, but it didn’t sound like they considered Baby Jesus’ disappearance a priority,” said Reverend Johnson.

Rabbi Zeitel, who had been sitting quietly, leaned forward in his metal folding chair.  “If I may make a suggestion,” he said.  “The solution to this problem seems rather straight forward to me.  A plastic figurine molded in the image of an infant that has a light bulb above its tokus has disappeared.  We buy a new one.  Replace one tchotchke with another.  Problem solved.”

“Well, it’s not as simple as all that.”

“Please.  What is it I’m not understanding?” asked Rabbi Zeitel.

“We’re talking about something more than a piece of plastic.  The infant Jesus is an important symbol of Christianity,” said Father Omyzanski.

“And Christianity is somehow injured if we replace this symbol with another copy?”

“It’s difficult to explain, Herman, you’re not being a Christian,” said Pastor Brown.

What chutzpah, thought Rabbi Zeitel.  “Bob, Jesus was a Jew.  I am a Jew.  Please.  Explain how not being a Christian is relevant in this instance?”

“Please everyone,” said Reverend Johnson, holding up his hands.  “We need to work together.  Church St Christian has displayed this nativity set every year since its founding.”

“So, you are saying its significance has to do with tradition.  That I can understand.  Tradition is important,” said Rabbi Zeitel.  “Robyn, what do you propose we do?”

“Well, for starters, we could create posters and attach them to telephone poles.  And I’m sure the local supermarkets will let us place notices on their entryway bulletin boards.”

Pastor Brown sighed, thinking – Lost Dog.  Named Fido.  If found please call… “Sounds reasonable,” he said, smiling at Reverend Robyn.  “I suggest we email the members of our congregations and ask if anyone knows anything about the disappearance.”

“It wouldn’t hurt to search the neighborhood,” offered, Fr. Omyzanski.

“Herman?”  asked Reverend Johnson, looking at Rabbi Zeitel.

“I am happy to do whatever I can to help.”

“Thank you, everyone,” said Reverend Johnson.  “With all of us working together, I’m sure we’ll find Baby Jesus before our Sunday School’s Christmas pageant.  For as in Matthew 7:7, ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened to you.”

The following morning, Reverend Robyn, a skilled organizer of things ranging from protests against social injustice to delivering meals to shut-ins, was in her element.  The UU church basement was full of volunteers creating colorful posters.

At Oakgrove Lutheran, Pastor Brown and the Lutheran Church’s Secretary were reviewing membership lists and composing an email to be sent to the members of all the congregations.

In Our Lady’s parking lot, Reverend Johnson, Rabbi Zeitel, and Father Omyzanski were dividing the neighborhood search volunteers into groups.  Before beginning their mission, Reverend Johnson had everyone join hands.  Then he delivered a long prayer, ending with an emphatic Amen to rousing cheers.

On Thursday, when the council gathered for its scheduled meeting, all the attendees were feeling downcast.

“Are there any positive developments at all?” Reverend Robyn asked Reverend Johnson as he entered the basement meeting room.

“Here,” he said, taking a group of photos from his suit coat’s inside pocket and handing them to her.

Reverend Robyn, thumbed through the photos, confusion etched on her face.  Then she handed them to Father Omyzanski.

“Disgraceful,” he said, handing the entire lot to Pastor Brown after reaching the final one.

Pastor Brown flipped through the photos, his facial expression altering from surprise to amusement.  He then handed the photos to Rabbi Zeitel.

On top of the stack was a photo of the missing Baby Jesus figurine in front of the Eiffel Tower.  Rabbi Zeitel turned the photo over and on the reverse side it said, “Having a great time!”  Next was the Baby Jesus lying at the base of the Taj Mahal and on the back of that photo was the same message.

“Boy,” said Rabbi Zeitel, with a twinkle in his eyes, “that Baby Jesus, he sure gets around.”

Rabbi Zeitel continued through the stack.  Baby Jesus standing alongside a bear skin helmeted guard at the Tower of London.  Lying across the tips of the Pyramids in Giza.  Leaning against the Leaning Tower of Pisa.  And the last photo, Baby Jesus scaling the Empire State Building in New York City.

His head shaking, Rabbi Zeitel said, “Talk about a wandering Jew.”

Pastor Brown burst out laughing and Rabbi Zeitel joined in.  Reverend Robyn, trying to contain herself, covered her mouth with her hand. After a few minutes, Pastor Brown and Rabbi Zeitel regained their composure.  But, when their eyes made contact, they erupted in another round of tear producing laughter.

“Hunh,” grunted Reverend Johnson taking the photos from Rabbi Zeitel.

“C’mon guys,” said Reverend Robyn, her face deeply flushed.

“I am sorry,” said Rabbi Zeitel, wiping tears from his eyes and trying to catch his breath.  “Please.  My apologies.  Let’s continue.”

“You must admit, that’s a great job of PhotoShopping,” said Pastor Brown, stifling a smile.  “But seriously, does anyone have any thoughts on what we should do next?”

“Well,” said Father Oz.  “Perhaps we’ve been overlooking the obvious.”

“Which is?”

“Praying for the safe return of Baby Jesus.”

“That’s a fantastic idea, Vincent,” said Reverend Johnson.  “After all, doesn’t The Bible say we should call upon God in the hour of need?”

“But…”

“It couldn’t hurt,” said Reverend Robyn interrupting Rabbi Zeitel.  He shrugged his shoulders.

“Fine,” said Pastor Brown.  “We’re in agreement.”

Reverend Johnson immediately dropped to one knee and bowed his head.  “Heavenly Father,” he began, “we come before you, your humble servants, asking for your help in our time of need.  As you know Lord, Baby Jesus is missing.  We’ve done our best to find him and bring him safely home.  Psalm 55:22 says, cast your burden on the Lord, and he will sustain you. That’s why we’re asking for your help.  For The Bible says when the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears and delivers them out of all their troubles.  And whatever you ask in prayer you will receive if you have faith.  So, Lord, we’re asking you to please restore Baby Jesus back to our loving arms.  For this, we pray, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.”

As he got back to his feet with a big smile on his face, Reverend Johnson boomed, “I feel better already.  How ’bout you, Robyn?”

She nodded.

“Well,” said Pastor Brown, standing up. “I am sorry my friends, but I must leave.  I have promised to visit a member of my congregation who has been ill.”

“A good shepherd must attend to his flock,” said Reverend Johnson, patting Pastor Brown on the shoulder.  “I think we can call today’s meeting to a close.  We’ve done what we can.  Now, it’s up to God.”

The following morning, being Christmas Day, Rabbi Zeitel arrived at his office well before his customary 9:00 am.  He’d expected roadways clogged with holiday travelers.

“Good Morning, Rabbi Zeitel” called out Mrs. Lieberman as he unlocked the office door.

“Good Morning, Mrs. Lieberman,” he replied, bending down to remove his galoshes.  “And how are you on this beautiful morning?”

“Why kvetch.  I am wonderful.  Thank you for asking, Rabbi Zeitel.”

“Mazel Tov.”

“Would you like some coffee?  It will warm you up.”

“No thank you, Mrs. Lieberman.  I’m fine.”

“Perhaps a knish.  I made them myself.  A little nosh is always good to start the day.”

“Not right now, Mrs. Lieberman.  Perhaps later,” replied Rabbi Zeitel as he hung his coat and hat on the hooks outside his office door.

“Rabbi Zeitel,” said Mrs. Lieberman, following him into his office. “I should tell you, Reverend Johnson called just before you arrived.  He said something about a miracle.  God being good. And answering prayers.”

“A miracle?”

“Yes.  He said, when Rabbi Zeitel arrives, please tell him there has been a miracle.  So, now I have delivered his message.  There is a miracle.”

“And he said nothing about the nature of this miracle?”

“No, he did not.  The only other thing he said was that he would appreciate it if you would come see him this morning if that is at all possible.”

“Well,” said Rabbi Zeitel snatching his hat and coat off the hooks.  “We must go!”

“Go where?”

“To see Reverend Johnson of course.”

“But Rabbi Zeitel.  The goyim?” she said shaking her head no.  “I cannot do that.  Why… who will mind the office?”

“Mrs. Lieberman.  No one person or group has a monopoly on God.  Come.  We go now,” he said, holding her coat for her.  Mrs. Lieberman slipped into her coat while continuing to shake her head in bewilderment.

Rabbi Zeitel led the way, taking Mrs. Lieberman’s arm whenever they encountered a large pile of slush.

“Rabbi,” said Mrs. Lieberman.  “You forgot your galoshes!”

“Eh, no matter,” he said, grasping the handles of Church St Christian and pulling the doors open.

As the doors swung closed behind him with a muted thud, Rabbi Zeitel saw that Mrs. Lieberman was not beside him.  He pushed the doors open, took her by the arm, and steered Mrs. Lieberman inside.

“It’ll be fine, Mrs. Lieberman,” he whispered to her.  “They’re all God’s houses.”

On the dais at the front of the church, Reverend Johnson stepped from behind the lectern.  Spotting Rabbi Zeitel, he waved for him to come to the front of the church.  Rabbi Zeitel reassured Mrs. Lieberman that she was safe among the goyim and that he was not meshuggener.  Then he started down a side aisle.  As he reached the front pew, he saw Reverend Robyn, Pastor Brown, and Father Omyzanski seated there.  They each shook his hand as the congregation jumped to its feet,  hooting and hollering.

Leaning over, Reverend Robyn shouted in Rabbi Zeitel’s ear, “He’s back.  The Baby Jesus was back in the manger this morning!”

The congregation roared loudly, drawing Rabbi Zeitel’s attention back to the dais.  There, Reverend Johnson, his entire face a smile, held the Baby Jesus out toward the congregation.  Claps, cheers, and foot stomps erupted.  Baby Jesus was back!

 

 

 

BIO

J L Higgs’ short stories typically focus on life from the perspective of a black American.  The primary goal of his writings is to create a greater understanding between racial, ethnic, and religious groups in America.

He has been published in various magazines such as Indiana Voice Journal, Black Elephant, The Writing Disorder, Contrary Magazine, Literally Stories, and The Remembered Arts Journal.

He and his wife reside outside of Boston.

Drawings as well as URLs to published stories are located at:

https://www.facebook.com/JL-Higgs-ArtistWriter-1433711619998262/

 

 

 

 

 

0

The Ministry of Brooms
a Children’s Story

by Patrick Moser

 

 

Brad Totenberg will tell you that his title, Minister of Brooms, has no religious significance. His job is to administer. But somewhere along the line the ad dropped out, and now he’s just Minister. He’s fine with it. He has no religious convictions save the usual ones (the Ministry more or less expects them). Brad doesn’t pretend to be a devout man—there’s no special collar or hand signals or anything—but if people believe him to be some kind of religious figure, he doesn’t disabuse them. That’s their right. At any rate, the title makes his job easier.

He travels to areas where people have been swept. They call them “dust-ups.” He offers sincere condolences to the community and monitors reactions. The dust-ups are awful. People get lost. His job as Minister is to remind the people who are not lost that buying brooms is the best way to protect themselves from being swept.

Brad and I have settled into our seats on a commuter jet. We’re flying to Kansas City, an airline hub. From there Brad will take a connecting flight out to the desert where there’s been another dust-up. Fifty-eight people were swept. Our flight to KC is less than an hour, so I don’t have much time to interview him.

“Good morning, Mr. Totenberg,” says the flight attendant. “How’s business?”

“Business is broomin’,” Brad replies.

The flight attendant grins at the line and passes on. Brad takes this hop frequently, so the crew has gotten to know him well. Brad himself doesn’t smile when he uses the slogan. He understands the play on words, of course—he used to get quite a kick out of it when he first started at the Ministry. It’s not that the line has become so commonplace among people outside of the Ministry these days. It’s simply that Business is broomin’ is an accurate description of his job now.

No joke.

“You say you’re writing a children’s story?” Brad asks me.

“Yes, that’s right.”

“You mean it’s for children.”

I shake my head. “No, not really.”

“But there’s children in it, right? I mean, it’s about children.”

“Well, you might say they’re the inspiration.” I reflect a moment. “But there’s not any children in the story, at least not yet.”

Brad nods politely. My explanation makes no sense to him. I imagine his water-cooler conversation back at the Ministry: How the hell can it be a children’s story if it’s not for children and they’re not in it?

The flight attendant walks by again, and I make sure my seat belt is securely fastened. If we hit turbulence, I don’t want to bang my head off the overhead bin or fly into the lavatory. “It’s hard to explain,” I tell him. “I’m not quite sure I understand it myself. That’s why I wanted to talk with you.”

“As long as you’re not one of those broom-banners,” he says leaning toward me confidentially, pushing his shoulder into mine. He’s got the aisle, I’m the window. “We get a lot of crackpots chasing after us.”

I shrug with my right shoulder—he’s got my left pinned. “I can’t vouch for not being a crackpot.”

He laughs. We both settle in now as the crew and plane make final preparations for the flight. I’m not sitting next to an emergency exit so I don’t have to read the special instructions card located by the seat. I don’t have to ask the flight attendant to reseat me because I can’t or won’t perform the functions described on the card in the event of an emergency. I’ve made sure my portable electronic devices are set to “airplane” mode until an announcement is made upon arrival.

The flight attendant begins the safety demonstration. She doesn’t talk or make eye contact with the passengers. A recording provides information as she pulls out various props and goes through the motions of what to do in the event of an emergency. I can’t tell if anyone is paying attention to her. Her face is neutral as she demonstrates how to fasten a seat belt. Mine is already fastened. She indicates the emergency exits (behind me), the oxygen mask (above me), and the life vest (beneath me). I don’t think I’ll need a life vest on this flight since we’re flying over land, but there are some deep lakes between here and KC. In that scenario, I’d be glad to have a life vest and know how to deploy it. I would not inflate the vest before evacuating the plane. Once the emergencies are covered, I’m encouraged to sit back, relax, and enjoy the flight. Before we know it, we’re taxiing over to the runway. We’re at a small airport, so the whole process doesn’t take long.

“You sweep yourself?” Brad asks me.

I confessed that I didn’t. It’s silly, but I’m a little afraid of brooms. I’d probably brush myself first thing if I ever picked one up. I’m sure it’s me and not the broom. To ease Brad’s mind I say, “I got my broom safety training pretty young. At camp in the eighth grade.”

He wags his index finger at me. “You see there, that’s the key.”

We zoom up the runway and lift into the air. I ask over the rattle of my tray table, “How young?”

He raises his voice over the engines: “Teachers should be sporting brooms at Daycare. There should be broomories in every elementary school, middle school, high school, and college in the country.” He points his index finger straight up to emphasize his point: “If the first thing a preemie sees from his glass bunker in the ICU is broom bristles, then at least he knows he’s got a fighting chance of getting out alive should some nut job bust in.”

We reach altitude in a matter of minutes and level off. When the flight attendant starts the drink service, Brad orders a soda. I ask for water with no ice. I’ve taken out a notebook and written down “nut job.”

Brad glances down at my pad of paper. “Know what they call a crackpot who works in a big grocery store?”

I lift my head. “No.”

“A wal-nut.”

I smile. “Know what they call a nut job in California?”

Brad lifts his eyebrows. “What’s that?”

“Picking pecans.”

He wrinkles his brow a moment, then says, “Good one.” He’s being nice. I know my nut-job humor needs work. I wouldn’t have Brad’s facility, given his occupation and constant traveling. He takes me under his wing a bit and recites others he’s heard on his latest trips—to Florida, California, Oregon, South Carolina, Texas, Connecticut. Apparently the jokes are all well known. I’ll just give the punchlines: pea-nut, chest-nut, hazel-nut; and of course, the funniest one: donut.

“The nuts sure add up,” I say.

“A passel.”

There’s a pause in our conversation that tells me the chit-chat period has come to an end. Brad’s a patient man. He has to deal with dust-ups, after all. And crackpot broom-banners. He waits for me to begin the interview.

I dither with my pen. It feels too soon to ask him my real questions. We haven’t even gotten our snacks yet. I’m not a professional journalist. I don’t interview people for a living. I’m just a writer with an idea for a story that I’m not sure is going anywhere. When you write a story, the reader expects you to have a point and get to it quickly. If I bumble my question to Brad, offend him in some way, it could be a very long short flight. And we’re sitting so close together, as airline space goes these days. If a nut job broke from the galley with an electric broom, we’d all be swept in about five seconds.

I pick up the thread of our conversation before the jokes. “So you want to see brooms everywhere.”

“That’s the goal. A broom in every room. Normalize them.”

“On planes?”

“Planes, trains, automobiles, motorcycles, mopeds, tandem bikes, baby strollers.” He ducks his head slightly, looks down the aisle behind us. “I’d feel a lot less naked, believe me.”

As Brad straightens up to take his soda and bag of peanuts from the flight attendant, his coat pops opens and I see a dark handle sticking out of a shoulder holster.

I’m alarmed. My armpits suddenly feel like someone is pricking them with pins. I lower my tray table carefully, not making any sudden movements. I accept my own plastic cup of water and peanuts. When the flight attendant has left, I nod discreetly at Brad’s holster. In a low voice I say, “Is that what I think it is?” I don’t know what the rules are for Ministers—maybe they’re allowed pack-a-brooms on planes when the rest of us aren’t.

Brad half-grins, the way Harrison Ford does in some but not all of his movies. He slips his right hand inside his coat and whips out a pint-sized lint roller. “I wish,” he says. He runs the roller down his sleeve a couple of times. “Optics are everything. I can’t ever have people seeing dust on me, not even a spec. That’s not going to be easy with this latest deal in the desert.” He eyes his sleeve, scans the front of his coat. Satisfied, he returns the roller to its holster. “Whisk brooms are where the kids need to start. As they get older, you graduate to the mid-range jobs. With the upgrades and converters nowadays, they practically sweep themselves. But all of them, big or small, will protect kids from being swept.”

“Will they?” I ask.

“Absolutely. And they need to know it’s their right to sweep. At the appropriate age, of course. Until then”—he jabs his thumb toward his chest for emphasis—“we’ve got their back.” The gesture is very effective. It gives me confidence in what Brad is saying.

I write down notes, mostly for something to do. I decide there is no good time for me to ask him what I want to ask. I just have to jump in and feel it out as I go.

“The dust-up in Connecticut,” I begin.

Brad nods. “Now that was a real tragedy, pure and simple. My heart goes out to those folks.” He pulls on his bag of peanuts and it explodes. Whole nuts and tiny halves fly into the air. They land on our clothing and down in the seats. Some hit the floor in the aisle where they bounce and scatter.

“Goddamn it!” he gripes. He checks his coat and pants, assessing the damage. “That really chaps my hide. Why the hell can’t they make a bag of peanuts that opens without raining nuts all over the damn cabin. Jesus, is that possible? Just lower the broom on me right now.”

I set my bag of peanuts on his tray table to calm him. “I already ate lunch,” I say.

“Thanks.” He’s gruff, but it’s not directed at me. He flicks the nuts off his lap with his hands, then gives himself a quick once-over with the lint roller. When he’s satisfied there’s no peanut crumbs clinging to him, he returns the roller once again to its holster. The second bag of peanuts he opens more carefully. Once he’s got a couple of them in his mouth, with a swig of soda, he’s back to his friendly self.

A woman walks by, headed for the lavatory. Her heels grind the tiny peanuts into the carpet. The little jobbers look oily, so it won’t be easy to get the stains out. I imagine this happens frequently enough nowadays so the airlines take it into consideration when they design the carpet. It’s probably easier than changing our whole approach to bags of snacks. You never know when one’s going to explode on you, so you simply manage the fallout. If it were me, I’d go with a camouflage design: forest-floor, or maybe hoedown-bar.

I ask Brad, “Do you ever think that we might . . . I don’t know how to say this . . . .” I run my eyes over his jacket. It really is very clean. “That we might be over-brooming?”

Brad chomps a nut. “How’d you mean?”

I let out a breath. “Well, we have so many of them. You’d think the streets would be, I don’t know. Cleaner, I guess. Do more brooms really keep the dust down? Or do they stir it up more? I guess that’s part of my question.”

Brad nods. He points his index finger at his mouth. I give him a few seconds to finish chomping. “I see what you’re getting at,” he says finally. He brushes his hands together a couple of times to clean them. “You have to understand the basic principles.” His voice is calm and clear, a professor at the podium. “You’re mistaking brooms for what they stand for. That’s freedom, which you can never have enough of. Without brooms, there is no freedom. We’d all be swept. So that’s the first thing.”

I’m taking notes, trying to get his exact wording down so that I understand the basic principles.

“The second thing, don’t confuse sweeping with being swept. That’s absolutely the worst greenhorn maneuver there is. They’re two completely different planets. It’s like Venus and Timbuktu.”

I didn’t realize Timbuktu was a planet. Then again, we lost Pluto awhile back, so maybe there’s been a discovery.

Sweeping is for normal people,” Brad explains. “Guys like you and me. It’s our God-given right. Being swept is for the nut jobs. And since there’s always gonna be nut jobs in this world—What are you gonna do?—you have to protect yourself against them. Mr. G-man can’t help you. It’s swept or be sweeped.” Brad stops, shakes his head. “It’s sweep or be swept.” He nods to himself, getting it right. “I hate to say that, and I wish it were otherwise, but that’s the reality.”

I write silently for a minute. “You don’t sell brooms to people on your trips, do you?”

“Me?” Brad shakes his head. “Not me personally. That’s a different section of the Ministry. I just minister. Make sure, as I say, that everyone knows their rights.”

“How is that?” I ask. “I mean, whenever I hear about these dust-ups, I’m shocked. I’m horrified. Afterward I feel numb. I don’t know what to do. I think that’s why I’m writing this story. Somehow it makes me feel less helpless to put words down on paper. It helps me sort out my feelings.”

“Feelings about what?”

“I’m not sure. The people it happened to, I suppose. People sweeping, people swept. I imagine myself in their shoes, losing someone I love.” I turn to Brad. “But you, you actually go to all those places. You see the sites and speak with the people. How does that feel?”

“Feel?” Brad shakes his head. “I don’t meet with the actual people. I’m there post-op. For the clean-up.”

“Making sure people know their rights,” I say.

Brad cocks his wrist and pistols me with his thumb and forefinger. He also winks and makes a clicking sound out of the side of his mouth like he’s calling his favorite horse. The finger, the wink, and the clicking sound all pop simultaneously. Brad’s timing is perfect. The combination is impressive yet folksy, a reassuring gesture.

“Do you ever want to speak with them?” I ask.

The plane bounces roughly a couple of times, and the seat belt light blinks on. A voice over the intercom tells me to return to my seat and keep my seat belt fastened. I’m already in my seat. My seat belt is already securely fastened. I pull my cup of water off the indented circle on the tray table, which is a smart convenience. It’s a very effective use of space, which the airlines are tops at.

“That wouldn’t be appropriate,” Brad says.

I spell out appropriate on my pad of paper. I hope I remember to look the word up later in the dictionary to get all of the meanings. I don’t want to short-change Brad. I know one of the meanings is fitting, which is appropriate in itself given my last observation about the cup holder. Though I suppose there wouldn’t be a connection between Brad’s verbiage and how the airlines go about their business. That would be like two completely different planets.

I take time to formulate my next question, a work-in-progress. “Do you ever feel . . . I don’t know, soiled by it all? I mean, once the dust settles. Do you bring it back with you? Not actual dust, of course, since you have the lint roller. But maybe the cloud of it might be the best way to put it. Because you know there are going to be more dust-ups. More people swept away.”

“There’s always gonna be more dust-ups. That’s a given, God forbid. But you know what?” Brad leans against me again. “The dust-ups energize me. There’s no other way to say it. What your writing does for you? I tell you what, a good broom will do exactly the same thing for people. Makes them feel less helpless. When they grip that handle and know with one little sweep of the arm they can take out a dirtbag, that’s real security of mind. That’s something they can holster and take home with them. Or go shopping, or to the grocery store.” Brad snaps his fingers and points at me. “Your book clubs. People are afraid out there. They’ve got a right to be afraid. That’s what I tell them.”

I write for a minute after Brad finishes. I look over my notes, trying to get the rights sorted out. “People have a right to sweep,” I say slowly. “And they have a right to be afraid. Brooms help them feel less afraid. And you sell them brooms.”

Brad frowns a bit and looks up, like he’s doing math in his head. Only the numbers don’t seem to be adding up for him. He pops another nut in his mouth. “I just let them know their rights.”

It’s hard to argue with Brad’s logic. Brooms carry a lot of power, I admit. Certainly more than my pen. I can’t say I haven’t felt it myself. “You know, I dream of lowering the broom.”

He stops chomping. “On people?”

I nod.

“But bad ones, right?” He shifts in his seat. “You’re not talking about . . . .”

“Oh, no,” I say. “Of course not. Not me. They’re always bad people.”

Brad looks relieved. “Well, of course they are. And you know what? I hear that a lot. It’s perfectly normal.”

The plane is humming along now. No more bumps. The seat belt light blinks off. Simultaneously a voice tells me the Captain has turned off the Fasten Seat Belts Sign. I may now move around the cabin.

“They’re not really dreams,” I say. “I mean, I’m not asleep. It’s just before I fall asleep. Usually it helps put me to sleep. They’re more like . . . fantasies.” I say the word cautiously, like I’m ready to unsay it, depending on his reaction.

Brad nods. “You and me both, brother. There’s a lot of bad dudes out there. It’s not only normal, it’s your duty to lower the broom on them. You need to protect yourself, and your family.”

I sit a moment, trying to sort out my feelings. “I worry that the dreams make me numb,” I tell him. “Or that I am numb for having them. That I’m kind of a nut job myself.” I say these last words almost in a whisper. “I worry that the bad dudes are thinking exactly the same thoughts as I am. That we’re all numb to one another. That we don’t know how to listen to one another anymore.”

“But you don’t act on those thoughts,” Brad says. “That’s the difference. You understand what’s what between fantasy and reality. The nut job, he’s way out in left field.”

“Sometimes I feel like I could cross into left field pretty easily.”

Brad turns to face me now. “You know what’s going on here, don’t you? You’re preparing. That’s what that’s all about. Should you ever need to actually lower the broom on someone—‘cause the bad dudes are out there, sure as shootin’ and God forbid—you’d be ready. And you know what?” He points his finger at my chest. “You’d be a goddamn hero. Put that in your story.”

I stare at my note pad and recite the Ministry’s official slogan, which I’ve written down: “Our lives are better with brooms.”

“Course they are,” Brad says. “Mine is.”

“What about the people who are swept?”

“You can blame the nut jobs for that.”

“What about their lives?”

Who? The nut jobs?” Brad almost comes out of his seat. Then he leans back and laughs. “Now that was a good one,” he says, slapping my arm. “You had me going there for a second.”

Brad checks his bag, but all the peanuts are gone. I can feel us descending already. Following the landing announcement, I make sure my seat back and tray table are in their full upright position, my seat belt is still securely fastened, and that all carry-on luggage is stowed underneath the seat in front of me or in the overhead bin. I actually don’t check this last one since I’d have to climb over Brad to do that, and then my seat belt would not be securely fastened.

“How’s it gonna end?” Brad asks.

“That’s a good question.” I rest my pen. In a few minutes I’ll be using caution when opening the overhead bins as heavy articles may have shifted around during the flight. A bizarre image pops into my head of chubby A’s, An’s, and The’s rolling around up there, one of them tumbling out when I pop the hatch and hitting me in the face. I try not to be alarmed by my own brain. “Endings are tough,” I admit. “They say it’s supposed to make complete sense, and yet still be surprising.”

Brad finishes his soda. He uses the napkin to wipe off any last crumbs on his hands, then wads the paper up and sticks it in the cup. The flight attendant makes a last pass and collects our trash. If she notices the peanuts ground into the carpet, she doesn’t show it. I imagine there’s a crew coming aboard in KC. They’ll hoover up any stray nuts, or blow them so far into the corners that no one will even notice. The cabin will be all groomed for the next flight.

“What you could do,” Brad says, “if you wanted to work a kid into the story. Have a tyke bust out of the broom closet, as they do, pretending to sweep a bunch of his friends, who are play-acting bad guys. That makes sense. But it’d be surprising too, like a little Jack-in-the-Box. If you did it right, you’d scare people. It’d be like Stephen King.”

“That’s a possibility,” I say.

I press my notebook in my lap. The landing gear doors bang open beneath us. I hear the wheels lever down and lock into place.

It’s always hard for me to talk about my stories. They sound dumb when I try to explain them out loud to people. It’s like listening to someone yap about their dreams. Boring.

But Brad is a friendly ear, and I doubt I’ll get the chance to meet someone from the Ministry again. They’re so busy helping people. Even if my ending doesn’t turn out exactly this way, I try it on him for size. I’m interested in his reaction as a Minister.

“What if I had parents standing in a school parking lot,” I say, “waiting for their kids to come out. A siren suddenly blasts, and a mom sees a group of boys running from the building carrying her son’s body on their shoulders. He’s bloodied, but she recognizes his clothes—his red jacket, the jeans, his white tennis shoes with the rainbow laces. Then his hair and face. He’s on his back, lifeless, arms dangling down as they race him across the playground. He’s heavy. His head and neck jerk up and down as the boys run. They’ve never practiced this before. They’re all screaming, except for her son. Other kids are doing the same thing. Running from the building, carrying the limp bodies of their classmates. This mom has her hands to her face. Just as they reach the parking lot, and the mom is running toward her son—she’s supposed to stay behind the yellow tape with the TV cameras, but she can’t help herself—he suddenly springs off their shoulders with a shout of triumph and lands on his feet.”

“He’s alive?” Brad asks.

I nod. “The mom knows this is just a drill, but she breaks down crying anyway. They’ve scared her to death.”

Brad waits for more. When I stay silent, he says: “Doe she die?”

“No,” I say. “Not literally.”

“Oh.” He nods and rolls his bottom lip out. “Does anyone die?”

“Not in this version. They’re just practicing, but they have to act like it’s real. I don’t want anyone to die, not if I can help it.”

I’m saved by the plane bouncing hard on the runway. “I’ll probably change it,” I add. “Go more with the Stephen King idea.”

“No,” he says over the sound of scraping wheels. “It’s real good. I was surprised.”

We deplane and say our goodbyes in the terminal. Brad strides off. I wish him well in the desert and wherever else his travels take him. He waves back, tells me Good luck with the story.

I find my gate and take a seat. I have a couple of hours before my flight back home, time enough to work on my ending. I look up at a television news program. I’m too far away to hear anything. I just get the visuals, four or five separate shots that are repeated so they run together in a continuous loop. They’re at a small-town church somewhere. The newscasters continue moving their mouths, though there doesn’t appear to be any new information. The story is on-going. A woman’s voice, friendly yet insistent, asks for my attention, please. And not just me, all passengers. She tells me if any unknown person attempts to give me any item, including luggage, to transport on my flight, not to accept it, and to notify airport personnel immediately. The message is so important that she repeats it five minutes later.

I look around the terminal to see if I can spot an unknown person who might attempt to give me any item, including luggage, to transport on my flight. If I do spot one, I’d like to report them.

I wonder if anyone else is listening to the woman’s voice.

 

 

 

BIO

Patrick Moser has an MFA in fiction from the University of Arizona and teaches writing and French at Drury University (Springfield, Missouri). He writes mostly nonfiction about the history and culture of surfing, including essays in Gingko Tree Review, Kurungabaa, Sport Literate, and Bamboo Ridge. He is the editor of Pacific Passages: An Anthology of Surf Writing and has collaborated on two books with world surfing champion Shaun Tomson: Surfer’s Code, and The Code. He is a recipient of the Carol Houck Smith Scholarship at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. This is his first short story.

 

 

 

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Happy Home

by Jessica Bonder

 

There was John the Saint, rescued dollhouse on his shoulder, salvaging the damned from its curbside purgatory. The trash heap cross the street from 24 Cleveland, the punk house John the Saint calls Heaven, for what was a Tuesday, he’d been eying the lot. The amassed sinners—busted electronica, three-legged chair, neck-crooked lamp—spilled out into the street like drunks down an alleyway, unforgiven vagrants. Throwaways. Squatters loiterers deviants weirdos—to the forlorn rejected, John the Saint could relate. The family cross the street, apparently, was moving; or cleaning out their garage; or maybe they died. The dollhouse turned sideways, its insides exposed, gutted and empty. Abandoned memory, it needed saving. It needed a reason.

Love.

John the Saint’s legs like exclamation points, skinny and black, exact. Navigating a maelstrom of anarchist artists, girlfriends passed out, stepping over their bodies. A game of tic-tac-toe just to get to the door, the Saint’s paint-splattered Docs tap-dancing through chaos. In the front room, what was once a living room, before milk crates and fixies and a drum kit took over, knelt Tomás at his shrine, his sacred vinyl reliquary, spinning 7-inches. Rad. The latest Meat Sweats, limited edition LP, Do the Shit My Way, Side B. Oh the temptation! To abort the mission, pull up bucket overturned, pop a squat and flood heardrums. Talk shop. But no! John the Saint’s committed—after all, he’s a saint—committed to his calling, his ministry to the lost. Call it recovery. Of the dollhouse he spied, from his perch on the roof, dead leaves mildew cigarette butts pigeon poop. For Luz, he thought, it’ll be a gift for Luz. Mascara plastered procumbent Luz. Luz on the floor on vodka on vicodin. His almost-bride, his last-chance wife. Last night or this morning, they’d had a fight.

Hey John man, where you goin’, que pasó?

Be right back yo, gotta go get somethin’.

Luz had been a lot of places and had seen a lot of things. None had been nice—there’d been no nice things. Even on days blue sky and birds chirping, days standard beautiful, did Luz fascinate the ceiling. Did Luz lay wasted, did Luz lay waste, closed curtains on a sun so badly wanted in. John the Saint met Luz down at Veterans Park, she had been pepper-sprayed, there was a protest. Luz coiled on the ground, tight as a spitball; John a fallen angel, reluctant descendant, apostate apostolic. As it happened that day, Cupid copped the enemy—his bow riot shield, his arrow, baton. Upon John did her immolated eyes first fix, Luz the first thing saying: My name means light.

It was love instamatic, a Polaroid love.

John loved Luz because Luz knew his past. Knew the things he did, knew he wasn’t no saint. Luz had the goods on this stray of a man, his fleas, ticks and bruises. Took him anyway.

Luz coming-to is Dorothy out of Oz, from black-and-white to color, homecoming to night. What is that, she says, scrounging for a ciggy, spoon-banging Mr. Coffee to evict las cucarachas. The machine was infested again. Stuck it in the freezer, doused it with vinegar, Luz tested all remedies, swore nothing worked. God! She hated living here, really she did, this two-story infection, open-plan open wound. So what is that, plays Luz on repeat, fractured princess pointing her rusty spoon wand. Misfit bent permanent. Gone. It’s a dollhouse, says John, and lays it at her feet, her feet bare and dirty. Splintered toes. Scabby bug bites. Half-shell nailbeds coated obsidian, dagger rose ankle—she was no Venus. John says here, it’s a gift for you babe.

I got this for you.

Do you like it.

What sounds a dollhouse before it crashes, prior its defenestration, ruled not a suicide? What sounds a dollhouse launched out a window, when a tiny home humbly meets the sky once? What sounds the site before the asteroid hits, comet of pretend, implodes on the lawn? What sounds a mad girlfriend, storming up the stairs, hated gift piggybacked, she be little but she be strong? What sounds a bedroom door, kicked down and dreams flown, en route to the highest ledge in the joint? From the zenith of despond, does Luz pitch the offering, with a fuck you John, she wants a ring. A ring with a diamond. A ring that is gold. The dollhouse rots, grows dandelions in spring.

What sounds a question asked over and over.

Tell her John tell her.

Why can’t she have nice things?

 

 

BIO

Jessica Bonder is an American fiction writer. She has published short stories and prose poetry in The Stockholm Review, The Lonely Crowd, The Honest Ulsterman, STORGY Magazine, Split Lip Magazine, Black Heart Magazine, The Bohemyth, Vending Machine Press, The Fiction Pool, and Unbroken Journal. Honors include: Nominated for the 2017 Pushcart Prize by Black Heart Magazine; Longlisted for the 2017 Berlin Writing Prize; Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train’s Fiction Open (March/April 2017);  Longlisted for STORGY Magazine’s 2017 EXIT EARTH Short Story Competition; Finalist in Split Lip Magazine’s 2017 Summer Mix Tape Flash Fiction Contest; Shortlisted for Short Fiction Journal’s 2017 Short Fiction Prize; First Place in STORGY’s 2015 Short Story Contest.

 

 

 

 

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