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GLUE

by Briana Morgan

 

 

Mom says hi to the army man at the front door. I’m playing with my model T-Bird (the one me and Pop put together before he went to war). Me and Pop like making models. He and Grandpa used to put them together when Pop was my age, so Pop says me and him are “carrying on tradition.” I asked my teacher what tradition is, and she said it’s something to be proud of.

I’m happy me and Pop have something to be proud of.

I’m playing with my car on the living room floor when Mom tells me to go back to my room. I don’t want to. Mom has lots of stupid rules. She tells me to do things that don’t make sense. Pop always makes sense, so I listen to him.

I go to the kitchen instead of my room. There’s a window over the counter, and I can peek out without being seen.

The army man isn’t talking anymore. He must be waiting for Mom to say something. It takes her a long time to talk. She says bad words I’m not allowed to—words she won’t even let Pop say in the house.

“You’re shitting me,” Mom says. Shitting is a very bad. Pop uses it all the time, but Mom never uses it unless something goes wrong.

My tummy feels wobbly, like something’s crawling around inside.

Did something happen to Pop?

The army man shakes his head. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Pearson. That’s all we know right now.”

“What the hell does missing mean?” Mom asks. “How can you lose an entire human being? He’s not a set of keys!”

Hell is another bad word. Mom’s using so many off-limits words, she must be worried about Pop. She says something to the army man that I can’t hear because her voice is tiny.

The army man says sorry again. Mom shuts the front door in his face. She closes the blinds and pulls the curtains together, blocking out the sun. When she walks past the kitchen, she doesn’t see me. I must have turned invisible.

Mom goes to her room and shuts the door.

The house is quiet forever. I’ve been sitting so long that my butt is sleeping now. I’m not supposed to say butt, either, but it’s not a bad word like shitting or hell.

I slide off the counter and tiptoe down the hall.

The door to Mom and Pop’s room is still closed, and it’s so quiet. The cool doorknob twists easily under my fingers. I slip into the room and shush the door for making creaky sounds. Mom must have turned invisible too. I can’t see her.

I trip over the stupid rug and fall flat on my face. Even though I’m so big now, I’m crying like a baby. Sticky blood runs from my nose and stains the clean carpet. I’m scared that Mom will spank me for the mess—so scared I don’t feel the pain in my face.

Mom comes out of the closet. She hasn’t turned invisible. Her eyes are red; her nose is running. Instead of being mad, Mom hugs me and tells me she loves me.

“I love you too,” I say, “but why was the army man sorry?”

“We’ll talk about it later,” Mom says.

Why can’t we talk about it now? Too many stupid rules.

“Was it something bad?” I ask.

“I said later, Johnny. Let’s get you cleaned up.”

Mom cleans me off in the bathroom. Her wedding ring gets covered in blood as she wipes my face, and I feel a little bad. I don’t cry anymore. Mom tells me I’m brave and touches the flag pin still stuck to my shirt somehow.

“I’m not as brave as Pop,” I say.

Mom doesn’t say a word.

 

The next thing I know, it’s Sunday. I sit at my desk working on a plane that Pop and me started before he went away. Mom rests on my bed while I work. She’s too long for my mattress, so her feet hang over the edge. I laugh at that.

Mom doesn’t laugh. She hasn’t laughed in a long time.

I stick my tongue out (it helps me do better) as I squeeze the tube of glue. I’m not allowed to glue stuff on my own, so I can only work when Mom sits in the room with me. She isn’t watching me put the model together, but it’s still okay. She doesn’t make sense—not like Pop does, anyway. Pop always knows what’s all right and what’s bad. Pop knows everything in the whole wide world.

Mom doesn’t even know when Pop is coming home.

“When will Pop be back?” I ask.

“Did I say we would talk about this later?”

“No,” I say, “you said we could talk about the army man later. It’s later.”

“You wouldn’t understand,” she says. “I’ll tell you when you’re ready.”

I don’t have anything to say because I’m ready now. I want to know what the army man said to her. I want to know about Pop. I don’t want to make Mom mad, though, because then she might go back to the closet and cry, and then I won’t know anything.

When Mom says nothing else, I go back to making the model. I’m squishing the tube of glue, but no more is coming out. There are still a lot of pieces to put on, and Pop isn’t home. “You said he’d be back before I ran out of glue.”

“He will be,” Mom says.

“No, he won’t,” I say, “because the glue is all gone.” I get up from the desk and drop the tube into the trash can. Mom is sitting up on the bed. I go and sit beside her.

Mom sighs and ruffles my hair. Her eyes are red like she’s been crying for a year, and maybe she has. “You can’t be out already, dear. He’s only been gone for a couple of months. We got that before he left, remember?”

Pop’s been gone forever. “There’s no more, I promise. Can we pretty please get some?”

Mom scrunches up her face, and her hand falls from my head. “That glue’s expensive, Johnny, and the store is closed today.”

“Tell Mr. Slattery it’s an emergency,” I say.

Mom chews on her lip, and her voice sounds dreamy. “It doesn’t work that way, but it won’t hurt to call him.”

I pretend I’m in the army while Mom talks on the phone. My imagination turns the chairs into trees. I crawl through Vietnam on my hands and knees, looking for that guy named Charlie. The grown-ups in town talk about Victor Charlie. I figure he must be a really bad guy.

After Mom hangs up the phone, she tells me to get in the car. I run back to my room first to get my flag pin off the desk. Mom’s fingers fumble to stick the pin to my shirt. Her wedding ring glints as she fusses over me.

“You miss Pop,” I ask, “don’t you?”

“Of course I do.” Mom steps away from me and smiles, but her face looks hard and scary. Her skin’s pale like this morning’s oatmeal. “Let’s go.”

The hardware store is locked up when me and Mom get there. Mr. Slattery opens the doors for us with a big grin on his face. I grin right back at him. He’s a nice man even though he limps. It isn’t his fault he got shot in the war—the one I’m too small to remember—Coreeea, Pop calls it.

Mom says that life isn’t fair. She means people get hurt for no reason sometimes.

Mom and Mr. Slattery talk about the weather as they go off to find the glue. Mom tells me to wait by the register. She doesn’t want me touching anything. She thinks I’ll break something, but I won’t. I do what she tells me anyway, and she and Mr. Slattery disappear behind the shelves.

The lights in the store are turned off, so it’s dark. I’m scared without Mom nearby. I have what Pop calls heebie-jeebies. I glance down at my flag pin and try to be brave—as brave as Pop is for fighting in the jungle. I want him to be proud of me. I want him to know how brave I’ve been, and how grown-up I’ve gotten while he’s been away.

Something runs across the floor behind me, and I don’t want to be alone anymore. I forget about being brave, and the heebie-jeebies take over. I don’t know where Mom and Mr. Slattery are, but I go running down the aisles. My feet make a lot of noise. I wait for Mom to yell at me and tell me to be quiet.

Mom and Mr. Slattery are in the middle row of shelves. By the time I find them, my heart punches my ribs. I have to stop to catch my breath. They still haven’t seen me. Maybe I won’t get in trouble after all.

Mom’s back is touching the shelves. Mr. Slattery stands in front of her, leaning on his cane. Mom says something I can’t hear because she’s still so far away, and Mr. Slattery smiles. He reaches over her head to get a tube of model glue that looks just like the one I threw away. Then, he holds it out to Mom and smiles even bigger.

I’m happy Mr. Slattery found the glue. I can finish the plane before Pop comes back home. He’ll be so proud and so will I—the plane is my tradition. I close my eyes and see Pop’s face inside my head. He’ll be so happy when he sees what I’ve done.

I open my eyes. Mom’s hand touches Mr. Slattery’s face, and she leans into him. I think she’s going to whisper something in his ear, but her lips land on his mouth instead. They’re kissing and it’s nasty, but I can’t believe my eyes.

She’s kissing Mr. Slattery like she kisses Pop, and I feel sick.

The oatmeal from breakfast wants out of my tummy. I bend over and puke on the shiny gray floor. I feel wetness on my face. I’ve been crying. I’m crying and I smell like puke and I taste oatmeal and I want to go home. I just want to go home.

Mr. Slattery looks sad and scared at the same time, just like I do when I get caught stealing cookies. He’s leaning on his cane again. “You said you’d tell him, Debbie.”

“I didn’t want to upset him,” Mom says. “He doesn’t even know about the telegram. I didn’t have the heart to tell him.”

I don’t know what they’re talking about. I don’t like it when grown-ups confuse me. My tummy is still doing flips, and I hate that even more.

“I want to go home,” I say.

Mr. Slattery sighs. “Use the bathroom in the back, all right? But we need to talk about this soon, Debbie. I mean it.”

Mom cleans me off in the hardware store’s bathroom. She lays her wedding ring on the sink while she wipes my face again, and it makes me cry. I can’t stop crying. She touches the flag and tells me to be brave. That makes me think of Pop, and I’m crying even harder.

Me and Mom leave without buying the glue. She doesn’t say goodbye to Mr. Slattery. We go straight to the station wagon and drive away without cleaning my puke off the glistening floor.

We’re halfway home when I remember that Mom left her ring in the bathroom. I tell her through my tears that we have to go back so she can get it. If she puts the ring on, everything will be all right.

“Don’t cry, please,” Mom says. “Your father’s been gone for a long time now, Johnny, and I don’t know when he’ll be back. Mike’s a nice man, you know. He wants to take care of us.”

I touch my flag pin without saying a word, because Pop’s taking care of us too.

 

It’s Thursday, forever later. Mr. Slattery is at the house when I get home from school. He and Mom sit at the kitchen table. They’re drinking coffee. Mom looks at me when I walk inside, but Mr. Slattery stares at his cup.

“How was school?” Mom asks.

“Boring,” I say, even though it really wasn’t. Some girls were making a big fuss over Elvis, and this boy named Nathan danced around with his hips. Everyone thought it was funny except Mrs. Harper. She sent him to the office.

“Sit down, please,” Mom says.

There’s an empty chair between her and Mr. Slattery. I sit and scoot the chair over so I’m closer to Mom. I’m still mad at Mr. Slattery. I hope he knows it too.

“Mr. Slattery brought you some more glue,” Mom says. “He remembered that you needed more. Wasn’t that nice of him?”

“I don’t want it,” I say. I don’t like Mr. Slattery, and I don’t want his presents. Pop’s the only one allowed to get me presents. Mr. Slattery isn’t my Pop, and he never will be. My Pop is the best man in the universe.

“Use your manners,” Mom says.

I try again. “No, thank you.”

Still, Mr. Slattery doesn’t look up. “I knew this was a bad idea. He hates me now.”

“He doesn’t hate anyone,” Mom says. “He’s not even allowed to use that word. Isn’t that right, Johnny? You don’t hate anyone, do you?”

“I don’t want to answer,” I say.

“Johnny,” she says, “that’s no way to behave. Why don’t you show Mr. Slattery your models?”

“I don’t want to show him my models,” I say. “I just want to go to my room and play with them all by myself. I want Mr. Slattery to leave. I hope he never comes back.”

I get up from the table and run all the way back to my room. I sit against the wall on the other side of the bed. No one will see me in the corner.

As I sit on the floor, I get madder. Mom knows the models are for me and Pop only. I don’t want Mr. Slattery to touch them. If he touches them, I’m scared they won’t be special anymore.

It feels like years before Mom comes in. Mr. Slattery’s walking stick thumps into the room. That makes me so mad, my face feels like it’s burning. My eyes are hurting and I really need to cry, but I can’t cry right now. I have to be brave—brave like Pop is while he’s fighting off the bad guys.

Mom’s feet stop at the edge of the bed, and I crawl under it before she can see me. It’s cool and dusty under the bed. The springs squeak as Mom sits above me.

“Johnny, I’m sorry, but Mike makes me happy,” she says. “God knows I need some happiness right now.”

“Make him go away.”

“That’s not fair,” Mom says. “You don’t understand how I’m feeling right now, Johnny. Grown-ups have needs, and sometimes, when those needs aren’t met—”

“Debbie,” Mr. Slattery says as he thumps into the room, “You should tell him what happened to Tom. The boy deserves some honesty.”

Mom sighs long and loud before she answers, “I suppose.” She gets down on her hands and knees on the floor and reaches out to me under the bed. “Can you come out so I can talk to you, please?”

“I don’t want to come out.”

“Johnny.”

“No way.”

“What would Pop say if he saw you like this?”

I feel sick inside at the mention of Pop. He doesn’t like it when I don’t listen to Mom, and he spanks me whenever I talk mean to her. It’s safe under the bed, though. I don’t want to come out. I don’t want to talk to Mom. “Is this about the army man?”

“Yes,” she says, “it is. Now could you please come out from there?”

I crawl out wiggling like a worm because I want the truth. Mom pulls me onto the bed and holds me on her lap. My feet are dangling in the air. I look at them instead of Mom.

Mr. Slattery stays at the edge of the room. He leans against his cane without saying anything. He’s waiting. I glance up at him and look back at my shoes.

“The officer the other day was here to give a message about Pop,” Mom says. “I sent you to your room because I didn’t want to scare you.”

“I hid in the kitchen.” I look up at her. My fingers brush the flag pin. “I was trying to be brave.”

Mom’s mouth tightens, but she doesn’t get mad. She just goes on with her story. “Your father’s all right, but the telegram said that he’s missing in action.” She waits for a minute to see if I understand, but I don’t. She says more. “That just means the army… doesn’t know where your Pop is right now. He got lost is all, Johnny.”

“That might not be bad,” Mr. Slattery says. “Your father and I knew men in Korea who went MIA and were found alive later.”

Mom shoots him a mean look that I’ve never seen before. When she looks back at me, her face is hard. “The army doesn’t know where he is. They’re looking for him, but… they might not find him. Understand me?”

“He might never come back,” Mr. Slattery says. “This guy Tom and I knew was taken prisoner, and he never—”

“I think you should leave.” Mom is madder than I’ve seen her in a while. The tone of her voice makes me feel really sick. My stomach drops into my bottom.

“You told me Pop was coming back,” I say.

Mr. Slattery shakes his head. “You shouldn’t have told him—”

“Get out of here,” Mom says, and it’s clear she really means it.

“He could’ve gotten killed,” Mr. Slattery says. “The boy needs to know—”

“Get out!

Mom pushes me off her and drops off the bed. She rushes toward Mr. Slattery and knocks the cane out of his hands. The attack makes him lose his balance, and he grabs onto Mom’s shirt. She falls with him. Then, she’s screaming in his face and scratching at him and it’s so scary that I want to cry.

I don’t even want to be brave anymore. I rip the flag pin off my shirt so fast that the back of it falls off. I yell at Mr. Slattery and tell him that I hate him. The pin flies out of my hand and across the room before I know I’ve thrown it.

It hits Mom’s cheek. She freezes.

I can’t hold the anger and the fear in any longer. I cry and can’t help thinking Pop won’t like me when he comes back.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I’m so sorry, Mom. I didn’t mean to hit you.”

“It’s okay,” Mom says. I don’t believe her.

Mr. Slattery sits up and puts his arms around Mom. He holds her as she cries into his shoulder. I can’t hate him—I can’t hate someone who makes Mom happy. I’m not mad at him either. I’m mad at the war. I’m mad at the war for taking Pop away and not letting him come home yet.

After Mom gets quiet, I walk over and pick up my flag pin. The sharp part sticks my hand. Mom wipes her face on my sleeve and looks confused when I hold the pin out to her.

“I don’t deserve this. I stopped being brave.”

“Oh, Johnny,” Mom says.

Mr. Slattery picks up the back and takes the pin from my hands. He motions for me to come closer. I have to step over his cane, and I feel bad that Mom knocked it over.

Mr. Slattery is close enough to touch me. He pulls the front of my shirt away from my chest and holds the pin in his right hand.

“You’re still being brave,” Mr. Slattery says. “Even soldiers still cry on occasion.”

My tears splash against his hand as he puts the pin on me. As I glance down at the little flag, pride fills up my chest. If what Mr. Slattery’s saying is true, then even Pop cries, and he’s the bravest man I know. I don’t feel bad about crying now. Pop would still be proud of me.

Mr. Slattery reaches into his pocket and takes out a silver tube full of model glue. Then, he holds it out to me. “This is for you, if you want it.”

The silver tube is shiny. I reach out and I take it.

 

 

BIO

Briana Morgan is a thriller, crime, and horror writer who loves dark, suspenseful reads, angst-ridden relationships, and complicated characters. Her interest in Jay Gatsby scares her friends and family. You can find her in way too many places online, eating too much popcorn, reading in the corner, or crying about long-dead literary heroes. She currently resides somewhere near Atlanta, Georgia. For updates on her work, visit her website, http://www.brianamorganbooks.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Alien Honor

by Richard C. Rutherford

 

 

Marge likes to look in windows. When she does, she talks about the things she wants: food, clothing, furniture, cars, a house, a husband, but especially food. Just inside the window, people are eating. Marge gets irritated by the way people eat.

“Look at ‘em in there, Runt. They get a piece of meat on their fork and they just start waving it around like it’s some kind of magic wand or something.” She put her face close to the glass and yells, “If you’re gonna’ eat, eat.” The lady with the fork looks at us and shakes her head, so maybe it isn’t food.

Food is nice, but I like to look on the surface of windows. My reflection is on windows. I’m still getting used to the way I look. I have a blue hat that I can rotate to shade the sun. My coat has a collar that turns up around my ears. I would have preferred a smoother texture. This material gets snagged easily and the stuffing comes out. But it has big pockets and I like green.

“Yeah, bitch, I’m talking to you.” Marge pokes her finger on the window. “Eat your food.”

A man opens the door and tells us to move along or he’ll call the police. Marge tells him to have sex with himself and starts walking. I turn my head, but keep my eyes on my reflection. Marge has a small nose. Mine is much bigger. I practice a smile. Smiles feel different than they look.

I’m lucky I found her. I know all the definitions, but Marge knows the applications. She knows the rules. She blends in. She has command of her body, moving with ease, lifting her feet just enough to take the next step. She tells me I walk like I’m marching and that I draw too much attention to myself. Marge keeps her head still, shifting her eyes instead. She says I talk too loud. Marge can mumble.

I catch up, dragging my heels. Marge turns down an alley. She says, “You’re not going to shit your pants today, are you?”

“No.”

“You better not. I can’t have no man shits his pants.”

I liked those pants. They had big pockets.

I’m still surprised at the difference between the fronts of buildings and the backs. In front, you have to pay money for everything you take out. But in the back, everything is free. On sidewalks, you have to be in a hurry, but in back you can take your time. Privacy is easier; two nights ago, I watched as this body I’m wearing rolled out of a moving car. I had time to repair the liver and fix the puncture.

Marge stops. “Whoa. I smell fries.” She leans over a dumpster and sniffs. “Runt. Get in there and get me those fries.”

I stand on my toes and look in, smelling for fries. She sniffs again. “No stupid, over here. Get in there.” I put my hands on the edge, jump up, and swing a leg over. Marge pushes me in. “Right there. In that bag. Give it to me.” I crawl over, find the bag, and hand it out. She snatches it from me and starts eating, talking about French fries and ownership.

Since I am in the dumpster, I look around for anything useful. I find a flat magnet stuck to the side, a small battery containing some electricity, and a narrow cardboard tube about the size of my little finger. I put these tools in one of my coat pockets, find three loose fries and eat them before Marge can take them from me. I stand up. In the dumpster, I am taller than Marge.

“Marge, there’s never any money in dumpsters. Look at all the stuff people throw away.” I push some bags around. “But there’s never any money. Seems like there would be some old, used money in here. How come people don’t throw away their old money?”

She stares at me but doesn’t answer. She doesn’t answer a lot of my questions. She looks into the empty bag, hands it to me, and walks away. I catch up with her at the sidewalk and remember to drag my heels. I don’t want to tell her my secret: I want to surprise her. But my time will run out; there are things I don’t understand and I need help.

“Marge, you probably noticed that I’m different from other people.” She keeps walking. I manage to keep up, side-stepping while dragging my heels. Two men are coming down the sidewalk, but they don’t look at me.

“See Marge, I was on this ship,” I wave my hand at the sky, “in space. Naturally it matured, outlived its usefulness, and ejected me.” She doesn’t respond. I say, “So here I am.”

Marge stops and put her hands on her hips, leans over. “What are you talking about?”

“I need to build another ship and get back out there.”

People don’t like it if you stand in the middle of the sidewalk. It makes me nervous and I know Marge is upset. I say, “I’m an alien. I can’t stay here. I need money to build a ship.”

“Get a job.” She starts walking.

I have my first laugh. I call to her, “I’m not gonna work.”

Someone walking past me says, “No shit.”

When I catch up with her, I say, “Look Marge, everything I need is at K-mart. But they won’t let me have it without money.”

“You’re building a spaceship? You need a lot of money. Rob a bank.”

Of course. Some of the simplest solutions don’t occur to me. That’s why I need Marge. Okay, I am making progress. I hadn’t thought of that.

When I catch up again, she iss mumbling something. “What?” I ask.

“You don’t have a gun.”

“Simple. I’ll build one.”

She seems like she is trying to look tired. “Out of …?”

I trace my memories back through trash piles and dumpsters. “I’ll see you at the soup kitchen this afternoon. And, I’ll have a gun.”

“Well, don’t leave for outer space without me.”

“Marge. I’m taking you with me.”

She mumbles again and walks away. I turn back for the alley.

In a trash pile, I find something I can use. A bathroom scale. With both hands, I hold it in front of me and squeeze. The gauge registers pounds of pressure. Perfect. I find an empty bottle and break the thick bottom out of it. I need some adhesive and a grinder, so I head back to the sidewalk. There is a good spot by an empty storefront. I sit down to build my gun. It is easy.

I’ve been a crystal maker for six generations. The bottle bottom was the key. I hold it up to the light and calculate the angles. Then I use the cement curb to grind the edges into facets.

I peel gum from the sidewalk and chew them together for adhesive. I break my magnet in half, connect it to the battery with aluminum foil, and use the gum to attach them, the crystal, and my small cardboard tube. With a nail, I bore a hole in the front edge of the scale. I line the tube up with the hole, pull a hair from my head and calibrate the gaps. Then I carefully reassemble the scale.

I look around. I am concerned about having a weapon in public. When I stand up, I feel conspicuous. Covering the gun with my coat, I hurry to meet Marge.

She hasn’t waited for me. Inside the soup kitchen, I find her hunched over her food like everyone else. I try to shuffle, but I am excited. “Marge,” I pull my coat back slightly, “Look.”

“Bathroom scale.”

“Not anymore. C’mon. I’ll show you.”

“I got you a job,” she says through her food. “Get something to eat, sit down.” She gestures to the line. “Get some food.”

“Marge.” I nod down at my gun. I whisper, “I can’t sit down. It might go off accidently.”

“Everybody!” She speaks in her loudest voice, waving a piece of bread. “Everybody get back just a little. My boyfriend here has a bathroom scale. It’s loaded and it could go off at any moment.”

I tuck my head and brace myself. But when I look around I see only the shapes of people eating. Still, I feel they might suddenly grab me. I back up to the wall, then slide along the side of the room to the door and out.

I pace the walk outside. Finally, she emerges. I hurry up, but before I can speak, she says, “Be here tomorrow at three o’clock. You pass out food, then do the dishes and clean up. We get five dollars and all we can eat.”

It is going to be dark soon. I am walking backwards in front of her. “Marge, I have to show you how this works. Come on.” I turn into an alley.

“Okay, little man.”

Behind a building, I find a dumpster filled with trash. Looking around, I see no one, and pull the gun from my coat.

She breathes out. “Look, you little weasel. Tomorrow you’re gonna work at the soup kitchen. I can’t have no husband of mine hanging around alleys, shootin’ off bathroom scales.”

We are about ten yards from the dumpster. Husband?

“Marge. Watch.” With both hands, I hold the gun out before me, aim the opening, and squeeze twenty pounds of pressure. A thin beam of light shoots out, hits the side of the dumpster, creating a small dark circle, which starts smoking. Then it burns through, superheats the contents, and they blow up, splitting the sides of the dumpster and knocking it over.

I look over, smile, and raise my eyebrows.

“Do that again.”

The dumpster’s contents are strewn around the ally, burning. “See, Marge. And that’s just twenty pounds’ pressure. But now we have to go. The police might come.”

She nods. “Uh-huh, do it again.”

I aim at a garbage can and squeeze five pounds. It explodes, blowing the top off, sending shrapnel flying. I hear a siren, distant, but approaching.

“Marge, we gotta go. Now.”

I put the gun back under my coat and start walking. Marge hurries up beside me. “How’d you do that?” She pulls my coat, “Where’d you get that?”

I walk without my shuffle. Marge hurries beside me. I say, “Tomorrow morning, we’re going into a bank and get some money. Then we’re going to K-mart and buy the material we need.” I walk faster. She keeps up. “Then we’re going to that empty building on Third Street, we’ll seal it up, convert it, and,” I wave my arm at the sky, “we’re out of here.”

I pat the gun. Marge follows, breathing hard. I feel like a policeman.

The next morning, I pick out a nice bank and sit out front by the fountain. I am calm when the security guard opens the doors. I have my gun under my coat. Marge has a plastic bag to put the money in.

She can’t stop talking. “I helped my dad rob a 7-Eleven once.”

“Marge.”

“Okay. Well, not actually rob the place. But I did stand lookout while he got a whole case of beer out the back.”

“Marge, please.”

“What?”

“Let’s just think about what we’re going to do.”

“Okay. I’m just saying. If you’re worried about me or if you think I can’t handle this or if you think I’m nervous—” She lifts her head and looks down the street. “—I’m cool as a cucumber. When I helped my dad that time— “

“Marge!”

“Okay, okay.”

I stand up. I know what I am going to do. I know just how to do it. I say to Marge, “Okay, let’s go get some money.” My liver is beginning to leak again.

I lead us into the bank with Marge stepping on the backs of my shoes. I look up at the high ceilings, feel the spacious expanse, wishing I could convert this building instead.

I step up to the first teller, flip my coat back, showing her my gun. “I need some money.”

She is arranging paper, looks up and laughs at me. “What are you going to do with that?” I don’t have an answer. She turns away, saying, “Get help, and get a bath.”

Quickly, I side-step to the next teller, pulling my gun out. “I want money.”

She puts both hands on the counter. “Clyde, you better get your ass out of this bank. Now. And take Bonnie with you.” I look back at Marge. Bonnie?

The next teller doesn’t give me a chance to speak. “Walt!” She calls over our heads, “Get these bums out of here.”

Marge has been standing motionless. She is beside me in an instant, takes the gun, backs up to the center of the floor, and carefully sets it down. She says, “I weigh over two hundred pounds.” She shakes the bag and holds it up. “If you don’t give us all your money—right now—I’m going to weigh myself.”

I hold my hand up to her. “Marge, no.”

But the security guard tackles her from behind, knocking her down. They slide across the floor. She struggles with the guard, but he twists her arm up behind her, grabs her collar, and starts dragging her to the door.

I pick up the gun, and as I follow them, I pop the top off and removed the crystal. I look at it sparkling between my fingers, then throw it in the trash.

The guard is having trouble getting Marge out the door. She has hold of his pant leg. “Shoot him, Runt! Shoot the son-of-a-bitch!”

The scale hangs loose in my hand.

I am out of time. I will have to get in with Marge.

 

 

 

BIO

In 2016, Richard C Rutherford had work accepted by Fiction Southeast, Stone Coast Review, Hypertext, Red Fez, The LA Review, Squalorly, and The Tishman Review. Upcoming in Visitant. For thirty-seven years he raised cattle at the edge of the desert. He supports local bookstores and reads DeLillo when he needs a dose of humility. He has daughters, so he’s a feminist. He has a large collection of stories.

 

 

 

 

0

Hail Mary

by Erin Smith

 

 

During my two seasons on the show Peter’s Rule, I played little Bobby Van Camp—the adorably witty next-door neighbor to the McMahon family—and I said his catch phrase eighty-one times. This is especially impressive given there were only twenty episodes in each season.

Bobby was brought in as a last-ditch effort when the once-popular show started tanking in its fifth season. The writers tried to save it when Peter, drunk, flirted with a secretary at his company’s Christmas party. They tried to save it when Peter’s teenage son got with the wrong crowd and smoked weed.

When none of that worked, the writers brought in me, Bobby Van Camp, the kid from across the street. I had the cutest dimples, an infectious laugh, questionable parental oversight, and a no-nonsense attitude to give Peter’s Rule the kick it needed.

But it didn’t give it the kick it needed. Those things never do.

I didn’t know that, of course. For me, it was my family. Off set, I played in my room alone at home, but here I need only walk into the McMahon kitchen to see my playmates, Chris and Trisha. Off set, we hadn’t received child support from my dead-beat dad in more than five years, but here I had Peter, seated at the kitchen table, dispensing honest, helpful advice.

After Peter’s Rule my gigs dried out. I had my growth spurt; my voice changed. I had acne and limbs that seemed too loose, too long. The last three on-air roles I played under my stage name, Ray Goodman, were junior high and high school bullies, one uncredited. I felt like a lesser Anthony Michael Hall from Edward Scissorhands—the Geek from Sixteen Candles still trying to be relevant.

With the gigs went the money and I dusted off my given name, Ray Carter, and enrolled in public high school. Life went on.

When I was in college, an agent from the studio called to see if I’d be interested in resurrecting the role and doing a guest appearance. The money was so good I kept doing it. I retained her as an agent and she booked me gig after gig on the touring circuit.

And don’t I look cute! Thirty-three year old Little Bobby Van Camp! I sign posters and say the line that made me briefly famous: “Ain’t that what family’s for?”

+

I watch the line of impatient patrons snake back from the ticket stanchion into the lobby, where those entering the theater—shivering against the cold—must thread through a wall of people in their Sunday best.

Gladys is at the stanchion, fiddling in vain with the ticket scanner. Her brow is crinkled, her shoulders hunched. I watch from my place near the emergency exit and count to ten in my head. When I get to eight, I start to panic that I might have to step in and do something. But finally, mercifully, Gladys puts down the scanner, stubs the tickets and smiles cluelessly at the red-faced couple standing in front of her.

“Your seats are two floors up. Enjoy the show.”

The old bat has worked for the Broadline Theatre for over thirty years and refuses to be told how to do her job. It’s nothing personal. She treats everyone like they’re just a young punk usher and no one of any consequence. I started at the Broadline seven years ago as an usher earning a little over minimum wage and now I’m a manager. But still no one of any consequence. I haven’t been anyone of any consequence since I was Bobby Van Camp.

Here, I’m Ray Carter. My fellow ushers know who I was, but it’s brought up so rarely, and never by me. When I first started I begrudgingly signed a few autographs. But I don’t do that now.

“This is Janine calling Ray,” the voice crackles over my earpiece.

I push the button on my cheap radio and say, “Go ahead Janine.”

“Ray, there’s some vomit in the vestibule, near the trashcan.”

“This is Ray calling housekeeping . . .”

Along with vomit in the vestibule, there’s magic in the air. It’s always there in the moments before the show starts. I see it on the patrons’ faces as they shuffle through the thinning lobbies. The real world is put on pause. Something better than real is about to begin. It’s like the magic on the set before the director shouts “action.”

Those are moments I remember on the set of Peter’s Rule.

Between takes, I would sit at the McMahon kitchen table. I’d go over my lines in my head, but I’d think so hard about them that they would move on my lips, then whisper out.

“Relax, sweetie” Alexandria—Wendy, Peter’s wife—would say.

The cameraman would take his place. The director would lift his microphone.

All was quiet on the set.

All is chaos at the Broadline Theatre.

I reach the First Mezzanine as the two-minute fanfare sounds. Jodi, a Level Supervisor, walks toward the patrons standing by the windows, wine in hand, staring out on the park below.

“Two minutes, two minutes folks,” she’s saying over and over.

As I approach her, I’m trying to look like I’m here to do my job. I’m holding up my fingers in the peace sign, waving them around to anyone who comes near me as they make a mad dash for their seats. My mouth is even moving, but I’m not saying anything related to a two-minute warning. I’m rehearsing my lines. I’ve been thinking of them all day, so hard they are appearing on my lips, unbidden.

They start to whisper out as I follow Jodi to the Center Mezzanine doors and the theater turns to black.

“. . . coffee sometime . . . something to eat maybe?”

We close the last door, locking the magic in with over three thousand people. Soon, the conductor’s baton will drop, the orchestra will strike their first chord. But this is the moment before, the moment of greatest anticipation.

“Thanks for helping,” Jodi says.

I nod, the words still swimming in my brain, willing my tongue to form a sound.

The usually awkward usher uniform—knee-length skirt, white button-up shirt under a gaping-open black coat lined in bright red with yellow rope-like trim—looks good on Jodi’s slight frame. Her body type, shared, I’m sure, by less than five percent of the US population, was what the makers of the uniforms had in mind. On me, the pants hang a little low, my belly pokes out over my belt, accentuated by the obscene openness of the coat. I could stand to lose ten pounds. This uniform reminds me of that every time I put it on.

Jodi adjusts her radio, unclips it from the top of her skirt and clips it in a different location.

“Ray, can I ask you something?”

“Yes,” I say, sucking in my belly and thinking of my lines, now caught in my throat.

“Would you be able to cover my shift tomorrow night? Something came up.”

Some directors don’t mind a little ad lib, as long as you capture the intent of the lines.

“Uh,” I manage to say.

“If you can’t it’s fine . . .”

There’s a long pause. I feel like someone should be feeding me a line. In slow motion, words and thoughts pass through my mind. Coffee. My calendar hanging in my kitchen. Date. Is there something written on tomorrow?

“It’s fine,” Jodi says, walking away. “Think about it and get back to me. I’ve still got John to ask.”

I watch her leave and feel the lines slipping away.

In the glare of the light, behind the camera, I can almost feel the frustration of the director. I was only seven. I was bound to forget some lines now and again.

I’m not sure what my excuse is now.

+

My agent calls.

“Twenty-five years,” I repeat back to her. “Wow.”

If I could low whistle under my breath like they do in the movies, I’d add that in, too, for effect.

She charges ahead. “Clear your calendar. Reunion episode will be filmed late next month with a Christmas release. Then things get really crazy. I’ll email you details when I get them.”

I go to my wall calendar as my agent hangs up and look at the empty square that is today. A day off. Me in a bathrobe in my cramped high-rise with Flintstone, my tabby cat. Why didn’t I say I would take Jodi’s shift? She’d already found John by the time I recovered enough to say yes. With a heavy sigh, I flip the calendar to November.

Flintstone rubs against my leg. As I draw a long, red line from the middle to the end of the month, I make a mental note to ask my neighbor to stop in a few times while I’m gone.

Red on the calendar is for Bobby. It’s mostly for the area Cons (ValleyCon, RetroCon, StaticCon) where Peter’s Rule is a mainstay. I’m at every one of them. There’s red writing on Friday.

ValleyCon.

The white space flashes by in a blur of Bite Squad and binge watching, and then I’m there.

On the stage, a table is set up with four chairs, two bottles of water at each station, labels facing out. The forum is sponsored by Krystal Water Corp, and the backdrop of the stage is a sign with their logo—blue waves with the words “Feel the Kool.” I remember hearing they’re currently in a copyright lawsuit with the cigarette manufacturer.

I’ve spoken in front of more depressing backdrops. Three years ago, StaticCon was sponsored by a denture cream. Last year, ValleyCon was sponsored by a drain cleaner.

I wait in the wings with Valerie Sweet—Trisha, Peter’s daughter. I look at her now and I don’t see a speck of that scared possibly pregnant girl on the screen, holding her stomach in the bathroom as her dad pounds on the door shouting that other people live in this household, too, you know.

Now, Valerie is old like me. Older. She keeps her hair pinned back around her oval face and when I look at her, I always think she’d look better with bangs, like she had on the show.

Valerie catches me staring at her forehead and purses her lips at me.

“You ready for November?” she asks.

I shrug. “Rough schedule.”

“Not when you’re used to it,” she says and does this thing where she touches the back of her hair, gives it a little bounce. She looks away, not just looks away, but physically turns her body away from me. I’m so busy noticing this—noticing I’ve always noticed this—that I hardly feel the sting. I have to remind myself she’s insulting me, but I just keep thinking twenty-five fucking years I’ve had to deal with this bitch.

I could say so many things. Like, how was the schedule for the incontinence medicine commercials you did? I could remind her she hasn’t been in a single successful sitcom since Peter’s Rule except for Swiss Queen and she was killed off in the middle of the second season.

I could say so many things, but Valerie’s back is to me now and she’s right. The bitch is actually right. I sleep until noon and go into the theater four days a week around two in the afternoon. It’s been so many years since I’ve worked in the TV industry that I have no idea of the demands of the schedule anymore.

“Where are the others?” I ask.

Valerie shrugs, her back still to me. “They have three minutes to get here. Relax.”

The other two on the panel are Ms. Alexandria Deacon—mother Wendy—and Caleb Wilson, who played little Chris, the boy who got pressured to take a puff off a joint. Ironic, considering that I’d caught him smoking a joint in the back of the studio long before his on-screen character was tempted by older classmates. The little sociopath offered me a puff.

I was eight!

Caleb looks good in an expensive suit and struts onto the stage with all the vigor of a game show host—which is what he’s been doing for the last ten years. I think of that moment behind the studio sometimes when it’s late at night and I’m flipping through channels and see Caleb, microphone in hand, encouraging beautiful co-eds to take their time at whatever game they’re playing.

Alexandria looks polished and dignified as always. She smoothes out the skirt of her grey suit and smears a dab of Vaseline on her teeth before she takes her seat.

The panel host tells a joke and opens it immediately for audience questions.

There’s two dozen or so people peppered on folding chairs. A gruff looking man in flannel takes the mic.

“Is this thing on?” he asks, tapping the microphone. “Can you hear me?”

“You’re good,” the host says impatiently.

“Okay, well, I just wanted to know what the cast knows about the twenty-fifth anniversary reunion episode?”

Alexandria leans into her microphone and answers, smile absolutely gleaming. “We’re all going to be there.”

Valerie nods vigorously. “And we’re all really excited.”

After the panel discussion, I wander through the convention hall past the 20th Century Fox booth and a statue of the MGM lion.

“Mr. Goodman, sir?”

The voice comes from behind me. I turn to see a man, maybe a decade older than me. He has a camera around his neck and he’s wearing a button-down Hawaiian T-shirt.

“I’m sorry to bother you, but can I have your autograph?”

He holds out a headshot. I take it, along with his sharpie.

It’s a familiar image: young Bobby Van Camp, smiling into the camera. I remember the day they took it. I remember the way the photographer looked bored, saying over and over, smile. Smile.

Smile.

I frown, thinking how I didn’t even need to hear it. The smile came so easily, photo after photo.

I scribble my signature across the upper corner, last flourish crossing my little forehead.

“Thank you, sir,” he says. “This sure means a lot. I remember watching the show when I came home from junior high, every Wednesday night. My dad wanted me to join the baseball team but when I learned practice was Wednesdays I said no. I don’t think my dad ever forgave me for that,” he adds sheepishly.

I pat him on the shoulder and turn to go, think better of it and turn back.

“Ain’t that what family’s for?”

The look on his face makes it all worth it.

+

Inside the hall of the Broadline Theatre, three thousand people are tucked into the dark, watching the magic unfold. On the lit stage, for eighty-seven minutes before intermission, the actors sing and dance and deliver their lines seamlessly, something that stresses me out to comprehend. On the set of Peter’s Rule we were averaging four takes per scene. I have that to look forward to next week when we begin filming.

During the first act, I make my rounds and go to the bar to get my complementary beverage.

“Diet Coke,” I say to the bartender. I’m watching my figure.

At the Gallery Left doors near the bar I hear two ushers talking.

“It’s her mom,” one usher says to another. “Cancer, I heard.”

I know they’re talking about Jodi. Everyone knows it, though she hasn’t made any formal announcement. This is our theater family. We know everyone’s business. And Jodi has seemed off her game lately.

I wander down to the Second Balcony and see Jodi sitting on one of the blue couches. She has her legs crossed tight, this way she does where she can wrap her foot back around to the other side of the opposite ankle. I’ve seen this for the last seven years, wondering if it’s the length of her legs or something else—flexible muscles, supple connective tissue. I try not to think about it too long, try not to stare at her legs. Most of the female friends I’ve had throughout the years have told me they can sense within a millisecond if a man glances at their chest. Are legs the same?

Jodi is looking down at a sheet of paper, maybe the usher position sheet, but she’s really studying it, like she’s never seen it before and she needs to wrap her head around it, which makes no sense because Jodi has worked at the Broadline longer than I have, going on ten years, I think.

Right before I get to her, she flips the pages, held together by a staple in the upper left hand corner. I see a glimpse of it as the page turns. Looks like graphs.

She looks up at me and I get the feeling I’m seeing something personal—something I shouldn’t be seeing. Like Jodi coming out of the shower, reaching for a towel. Jodi on the toilet, turned slightly, caught mid-wipe.

I shake these thoughts from my head and clear my throat, ready to deliver my line. The script would go something like this:

RAY

How many late seaters?

JODI

Three.

But I see those graphs and I can only imagine what they are—white blood cell counts, clinical cancer staging, insurance Explanation of Benefits—and I want to break from the script.

“How’s your mother?” As I say the words I know I’ve chosen the wrong ones. I say them with what I hope is tenderness, but Jodi looks like I’ve slapped her all the same.

“She’s dying, Ray. How do you think she’s doing?” Jodi says, folding the pages in half and tucking them next to her. Her legs are uncrossed now, both feet planted firmly on the floor.

She delivers the line like a bad actress, her face flushed, her eyes dead. She sounds like she’s reciting lines she quickly memorized off stage. She looks like she was given the line with absolutely no context and is now trying to look convincing.

This line is to be delivered with anger, the director might have said to her.

“I guess I was really asking how you were doing,” I say, my calm voice hiding my panic.

Jodi has felt it, too; that I’ve seen her vulnerability. She stands abruptly.

“Five late seaters,” she says, getting us back on script, where we belong.

“Great,” I say, writing a small “5” on the upper corner of the paper I’m holding. I look at it after I’ve written it for a moment too long. What I’m really looking at is the flyer I’ve written it on.

FIVE BANDS, ONE NIGHT!

SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 7!!

It’s not the official event report. It was my idea of a distraction for Jodi, perhaps well-intentioned, but not well thought out.

I fold the flyer in half and stick it in my jacket pocket.

“Thanks,” I say and walk down the stairs to the First Balcony. When I get to the bottom of the stairs, out of view, I lean against the wall by the women’s restroom and take the flyer out of my pocket.

One last look and I pitch it in the trash. Without a script, my timing is horseshit.

+

I’m horseshit with a script, too. We all are with this one.

“Alright folks,” the director yells. “Let’s take a five-minute break.”

It’s day two of filming. Shooting for the The Peter’s Rule Reunion has been slow. Turns out there was enough interest to make it into a three-night special. Each special is an hour long, or about 44 minutes of screen time. Each ten-hour day on set gives us an average 16-24 usable minutes of film. We’ll have all three episodes done in nine days if all goes according to schedule.

Between scenes, I sit at the McMahon family dining table and study the script and think of the last time I watched an episode of Peter’s Rule. I was in public high school. I’d gone to the home of a girl in my English class to complete a project. Her TV was blaring in the living room as we sat at the dining room table, A Separate Peace and notebook paper spread out before us. I glanced at the screen every few minutes, each word my classmate said drowned out by the laugh track.

I pull my phone out of my pocket. I text my neighbor and ask how Flintstone is doing. He answers in pictures—Flintstone on the bed, Flintstone eating.

I glance around the studio.

Caleb is on his phone, pacing and talking too loud about funds and timing. Valerie is in her makeup chair, reading a magazine. Alexandria disappears to her room and Oliver Thomas lumbers over to the table, struggling to breathe. He grabs the back of the chair and it groans under his weight. With a rush of air, he sits and stares straight ahead. I don’t think he’s had any acting gigs since his cameos on Law and Order.

It’s hard for me to separate our scripted and unscripted moments together. Peter and Bobby sat at this table twenty years ago just as Oliver and I are sitting now.

“I love you like a son,” Peter once said to Bobby.

“Your character will resonate if you call on your personal experience,” Oliver once said to me.

But so much of my personal experience was here, at this table. That’s why it’s painful to see Oliver this way. I focus on the wood grain while I listen to his breathing settle to a low rasp.

None of us has said an unscripted word to each other in two days. But I have the urge to say something to him now. I glance at the script, look at the wood grain, think of Jodi.

“I’ve been practicing my line,” I say.

He jolts to attention like I’ve shocked him, but he recovers and smiles at me.

“Oh, yeah?” he asks

So nice. He’s always been so nice.

“It takes me a little longer to remember them now,” he says.

There was an episode of Law and Order where Oliver played a grandfather who is wrongly accused of a crime, convicted and sent to prison. I remember the scene when they gather the proof of his innocence and rush to the governor’s office to exonerate him. He dies at the end of the episode, right before they arrive. Shanked in the lunchroom over a stupid argument. His dead body is uncovered just long enough for the detectives to see his face and shake their heads.

What a shame.

I feel like I’m looking at that man now, laid out on the table. Oliver’s mouth hangs open slightly.

“That’s the funny thing,” I tell him. “I’m fine with all the new lines. I just want the old one to sound just right.”

He nods like he understands but doesn’t say anything. Instead, he traces an imaginary line on the table with his fingernail.

“I guess we all have our lines,” I say, keeping the conversation moving, unsure how or if to stop.

Oliver looks confused.

“Alright, places everyone,” the director calls.

Oliver doesn’t move.

“This isn’t the table, you know?” he says, and I’m not sure I hear him correctly over all the commotion around us. “I wonder what happened to our table?”

+

It’s December and the big advertising blitz for the The Peter’s Rule Reunion is in full swing; I mute my TV when the promos come on. I brace myself for awkward work conversations. Criticisms. Or, worse yet, compliments.

While I was in my red Bobby bubble, the real world kept going. The Broadline is training new usher hires. Flintstone is happy to have me home.

Jodi’s mom is dead.

I got the mass e-mail from work while still on set. Please pass on your sympathies, it said. I don’t call. I don’t e-mail. I stop by the Broadline to get my check and ask Eric at the Stage Door if he’s seen her around.

“Who knows?” he asks, exasperated. “Do you see all the people coming in and out, man?”

The crew of Wizard of Oz is loading out. The crew of White Christmas is loading in. The stage door is chaos.

I wander into the empty auditorium and stand in the dark at the back of the Orchestra section. The stage is completely empty, the curtain is up. The floor looks scuffed and I can see little x’s of tape here and there.

After a month long run, those actors know each blemish on that stage by heart. Just as Oliver knew the McMahon’s table. I didn’t say it to Oliver, but I was sure the table, the couch, the beds, all of it, the whole set of Peter’s Rule was taken out to the dumpster after it was over.

I don’t know how long I’ve been standing there when I hear the inner door softly close. It’s Jodi, wearing a heavy coat wrapped around her body protectively. She’s looking up at the empty stage. For a second, I think she doesn’t know I’m here.

Then she walks over. “Eric said you were looking for me.”

“I just wanted to say I was sorry.”

Jodi dismisses me with the wave of her hand, but she doesn’t move, just stays with her eyes glued to the stage.

“We never really got along. She was always broke and borrowing money. Never paid it back. Her insurance didn’t cover everything, so I know where this is going,” she waves her paycheck. “And that’s on top of the cost of the cremation.”

I open my mouth to speak but realize I’m just going to say “I’m sorry” again and I think how worthless that would be. I need something meaningful, just that perfect line to make everything better. I dig deep inside myself, feeling this is my only chance. My Hail Mary. I call on the spirit of Bobby Van Camp, the little boy with the big heart.

But Jodi beats me to it.

She shrugs and says, “Ain’t that what family’s for?”

I’m horrified. But then she laughs. It’s an honest laugh that fills the empty theater and ricochets off the rafters and catwalks far above us.

“I’m sorry,” she says with a grin that tells me she is the opposite of sorry and it’s so good to see her smile, even if it is at my expense. “I was so young when that show was on. I remember the reruns, though. I never told you when you started that I always wanted to punch that kid.”

I let out a rush of air, strange relief washing over me.

“When I got older, believe me,” I say. “I did, too.”

Her smile softens to a worried frown and her eyes return to the stage.

“I just saw the ad on TV last night . . .” I cringe and wait for her to go on. “And I couldn’t stop laughing at the irony. And at the fact that yo . . . that he was right. I mean, isn’t that what family’s for? Leave you broke and broken hearted. No answers. Leaving you alone?”

In the semi-dark of the theater, I see a tear streaking down Jodi’s cheek.

On the stage, housekeeping comes out with a broom and starts to clean away the Wizard of Oz and that’s when it hits me that the McMahon table probably wasn’t thrown in the garbage. It was more likely cleaned up and taken to storage to be picked out by another set designer on yet another sitcom where another father-like character dispensed advice and where another child sat between takes, practicing his lines, wanting so bad to make his TV family proud.

I love you like a son, Oliver said. Or was that Peter?

Jodi sniffles.

I turn away from the stage.

The last page of this script is blank. So I write it.

I reach out and take hold of Jodi’s hand, gently. She looks over at me, surprised, but she holds on, then squeezes my hand back as we stand in the empty theater.

 

 

BIO

Erin Smith is a writer, funeral director, and shiatsu therapist living in the Twin Cities. A transplant from the South, she’s seen her O’s lengthen in her fourteen years in Minnesota and has learned to love All Wheel Drive. When she’s not writing, she can be found with her cat, Chloe, on her lap. Erin has been published in Liars’ League NYC, Mount Hope Magazine, Here Comes Everyone, Smoky Blue Literary and Arts Magazine, Strange Mysteries, TWJ Magazine, Anotherealm and Mortuary Management Magazine. Find her at www.erinsmithwrites.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

Blindfolded

by James Mulhern

 

 

“I need to get that chalice, Aiden. The Boston Globe article said some people think it has curing powers. I don’t know if I believe it, but I hope so. The chalice is a replica of a sacred relic from the Middle Ages. If I have your mother drink from it, maybe she’ll get better and come home to us. Won’t that be nice?” She rubbed my head gently and smiled. We were sitting in her Blue Plymouth across the street from Mission Church in Boston. An old man pushed a lady in a wheelchair up the ramp to the front door.

“Won’t God be mad?”

“I’m going to return it, sweetheart. We’re just borrowing the chalice to make your mother well again. I think God will understand. Don’t worry.” She rubbed my cheek.

We crossed the street and entered the musty darkness of the church. The smell of shellac, incense, and old-lady perfume permeated the air. Bright light shone through the stained-glass windows where Jesus was depicted in the fourteen Stations of the Cross.

“Let’s move to the front.” My grandmother pulled me out of the line and cut in front of a humpbacked lady, who looked bewildered.

“Shouldn’t you go to the end of the line?” she whispered. Her hair was sweaty and her fat freckled bicep jiggled when she tapped my grandmother’s shoulder. The freckles reminded me of the asteroid belt.

“I’m sorry. We’re in a hurry. I want my grandson to get a cure.”

“What’s wrong?” she whispered. We were four people away from the priest, who stood in front of the altar. He prayed over people, then lightly touched them. They fell into the arms of two old men with maroon suit jackets and navy blue ties.

“My dear grandson has leukemia.”

The woman’s eyes teared up. “I’m sorry.” She patted my forearm. “You’ll be cured, honey.” Again her flabby bicep jiggled and the asteroids bounced.

When it was our turn, my grandmother said, “Father, please cure him. And can you say a prayer for my daughter, too?”

“Of course.” The white-haired, red-faced priest bent down. I smelled alcohol on his breath. “What ails you young man?”

I was confused.

“He’s asking you about your illness,” my grandmother whispered.

“I have leukemia,” I said proudly.

The baggy-faced priest recited some mumbo-jumbo prayer and pushed my chest. I knew I was supposed to fall back but was afraid the old geezers wouldn’t catch me.

“Fall,” my grandmother whispered. “Remember our plan.”

I fell hard, shoving myself against the old guys. One toppled over. People gasped. His friend and the priest began to pick us up. I pretended to be hurt badly. “Ow! My head is killing me.” Several people gathered around us. My grandmother yelled, “Oh my God” and stepped onto the altar, kneeling in front of a giant Jesus nailed to the cross. “Dear Jesus,” she said loudly, “I don’t know how many more tribulations I can take.” She crossed herself, hurried across the altar, swiping the gold chalice and putting it in her handbag while everyone was distracted by my fake moaning and crying.

“He’ll be okay,” she said, putting her arm under mine and helping the others pull me up.

When I was standing, she said to the priest. “You certainly have the power of the Holy Spirit in you. It came out of you like the water that gushed from the rock at Rephidim and Kadesh. Let’s get out of here before there’s a flood.” She laughed.

The priest frowned. The lady who let us cut in line eyed my grandmother’s handbag and shook her head as we passed.

 

That night I slept in what was my mother’s room. As often happened, I awoke to the sound of my grandfather’s voice.

Whenever he visited, the bedroom glowed with tiny white lights, illuminated bubbles floating in the air. My face and ears became hot and red, and I heard a buzzing noise that eventually stopped. I had confided to my mother about his visits, but no one else. Her claim of hearing the voices of dead people and her ‘visions’ led to a diagnosis of schizophrenia. My grandmother and father had her declared mentally incompetent and she was committed to a psychiatric facility. Nanna was granted guardianship of her, and me as well, because Dad said he couldn’t handle a child on his own.

“I’m not happy with you, Aiden,” my grandfather said. “Why did you allow your grandmother to steal the chalice from the church? Tis an awful thing to do.”

He sat at the bottom of my bed, wearing black bottle-thick glasses, his dark hair a curly mess.

” ‘Goodness is the only investment that never fails.’ A smart man by the name of Toreau said that. You must return the chalice to the church.”

“Who’s Toorow?”

“You’ll learn about him in school. Mr. Toreau is a famous writer who lived about a half hour away from you, in Concord.” My grandfather was an autodidact. He never went to college. He couldn’t afford it and wasn’t allowed admission because he was an Irish immigrant. My grandmother and he, though they did not know each other, emigrated from different parts of Ireland in the late 1930’s. With hope in their hearts, just a few belongings, I’m sure, and not much money, they journeyed to the promised land of their imaginations.

When they first arrived, it was difficult to get good jobs. People hated the Irish. He dug graves during the day and hauled large bags of mail onto the trains at South Station during the night. She was a maid for the rich protestant Brahmans on Beacon Hill. Eventually, attitudes changed, my grandmother was able to become a licensed practical nurse, and my grandfather, well, he died.

“Aiden, your mind is wandering. You need to listen to me.”

“Yes, Grandpa,” I said.

“You must get your mother out of McCall’s.” McCall Hospital is the largest psychiatric hospital in the Boston area. “She needs to live a normal life. And you must be with her. Every child should be with his ma. The shower of savages at that hospital are pumping her up with all sorts of terrible medicines.” His voice cracked. “Like you, Aiden, she has the gift, and it is horrible that she is being punished for it.”

To me “the gift” seemed like a curse, a burden.

“It’s not a curse,” my grandfather said, reading my mind. “Second sight is something that has been in your family for years. Your grandmother’s mother possessed it, and she, too, was demonized. Of course, it was different in Ireland. Many believed her, but still there were those who acted cruelly. There are always people who are blind to the gifts in others.”

“What do you mean, demonized?”

“Treated badly. Laughed at. . . . Terrible thing to do to another human being. People said she was tick.”

Tick?”

“Stupid. Even your grandmother thought her ma was out of her head. The story goes that your great-grandmother retreated into herself. Once, she was joyful, envisioning life’s possibilities, but slowly she withdrew, hurt by the malice of others.”

“What happened to her?”

“She dropped dead while lifting a bucket from a well. Tumbled right over the stonewall she did. And the night before she had heard the banshees.”

“What’s a banshee?”

“You ask a lot of questions.” He laughed. “A type of fairy or spirit. Her entire family listened to the wailing. Then, in the pitch-black of that windy night, they heard three knocks on the door, which means someone is going to die. The next day your great-grandmother was bloody dead, her body covered in green muck. All for a bucket of water.”

“Did they believe her then?”

He laughed, somewhat bitterly. “Yes, Aiden. But what good did it do the poor woman. Dead she was. . . . Aiden, most people are afraid to believe in things they cannot see. It frightens them and they become nasty. This is why you must keep your secret for now. Think of a way to free your ma. I don’t want Laura to suffer like your great-grandmother, driven to despair.”

“What I am I supposed to do?”

He told me a secret that might convince my grandmother.

“You’ll figure it out, son. I’m counting on you.”

“Grandpa?” I called a few more times, but the bubbles of light faded and he was gone. I went to the bathroom and positioned my face under the faucet to drink some water. In the mirror, my cheeks appeared sunburnt. The color would fade by the morning, as it always did.

 

Nanna’s back was to me when I entered the kitchen. The table was set—one white plate, a green paper napkin, and silverware.

“It’s about time you woke up, sleepyhead.” She smiled and brought a red mug of coffee to the table, then opened the refrigerator and passed me the cream before moving back to the stove.

“Over hard, as you like them.” She flipped an egg and wiped some grease off her pink nightgown. Rollers dangled precariously atop her forehead.

“Thanks, Nanna. . . . I was thinking.”

“Here we go.” She laughed. The bacon sizzled.

“Maybe we should return the chalice?”

“Hand me your plate.”

She put two eggs and three strips of bacon on it. The toaster popped.

“Grab the bread, and butter it while it’s hot.”

She poured herself a cup of coffee, black, sat down and faced me. Nanna rarely ate breakfast. She preferred to smoke and drink coffee, sometimes with whiskey in it. She lit a cigarette and exhaled smoke from her nose.

“Now why would we do that?”

I put three sugars and cream in my coffee, looking down while I stirred. “Because it’s wrong to steal.”

She laughed. “Phooey.” She waved her hand at me. “I told you we are just borrowing the chalice.” She put her hands on her hip. “I think God is happy we are helping a sick person. We are doing Christian work. Like those missionaries in Africa and China.”

” ‘Goodness is the only investment that never fails.’ ”

Her face blanched and her large hazel eyes widened. “Where did you learn that?” She looked behind her for a second, as if someone might be there.

“I read it in one of Grandpa’s books. It was underlined.”

Her face relaxed and she spoke softly: “I can’t tell you the number of times I heard your grandfather say that. And a bunch of other malarkey.” She laughed. “He had another favorite expression.” She tilted her head and laughed. ” ‘If it was raining soup, the Irish would go out with forks.’ ”

“That’s funny.”

“It is and it isn’t, which gets to the heart of this conversation, Aiden. People need help. That chalice may cure your ma. Stealing it was only a venial sin, not a mortal one.”

“What’s a venial sin?”

“A minor sin. Like a white lie.”

“Is lying about leukemia to make people feel bad and distract them a venial sin?”

She sighed. “Yes, Aiden.”

She turned on the faucet and looked out the window. “Everybody lies. You need to get used to it. The sooner, the better.” She rinsed my plate. “It’s going to be a beautiful day.”

Through the glass, beyond the oak trees, the blue sky was filled with cumulus clouds, a foamy ocean above us. “What’s a mortal sin?”

“It’s more serious, a grave violation of God’s law.”

“Was stealing the chalice a venial or a mortal sin? And how do you know the difference?”

She turned towards me. “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Don’t think about things so much.” Like my grandfather, her “th” often sounded like “t” or “d.” “Now go get ready.” She brushed me away with her hands. “Scoot.”

 

The drive to McCall Hospital took a half hour. Located in Somerville, just outside of Boston proper, you reach the entrance after winding up a slope of lawn to a sandstone Admissions building. Beyond that structure and throughout the large campus are several brick edifices with classical flourishes, such as gabled roofs, Roman columns, and ivy-covered walls. Large oak and birch trees, like sentinels, line the knolls, where dormitories from a bygone era stand, rooted in stability, a quality the clinicians nurture in their patients. We knew the place well. Nanna drove the circuitous road to my mother’s building, a ward of approximately twenty-five patients, all with a variety of illnesses: schizophrenia, mania, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and borderline personality. Above the entryway the limestone sculpture of a woman wearing a tunic stood with one arm resting on an anchor.

Just inside the doorway, on the left, was the nurses’ station, and across from there, the patient lounge with an old television, a scratched pool table, and shelves of tattered books and games. My mother’s room was at the end of the hall on the right, a coveted spot.

“Can I help you?” a short, small-framed nurse with over-bleached hair and gray eye shadow greeted us.

“We’re here to visit my daughter, Laura Glencar.” My grandmother motioned to me. “This is her son, Aiden.” She puckered her lips. “I don’t think I’ve met you. Are you new?”

“I started last week. My name is Nancy. You can call me Nurse Nancy. Let me find out who’s taking care of your daughter. ‘Maura Fender’ you said.” She turned to look at the white dry-erase board with patient names, room numbers, and nursing assignments.

“Laura Glencar!” Nanna rolled her eyes at me. “This one’s a tool,” she mumbled.

“She’s new, Nanna. Give her a chance,” I whispered.

“She’s not new to hearing,” she whispered back, then smiled at the nurse.

“Oh, it’s me!” Nurse Nancy said.

“What did I tell you?” she said, a little too loudly.

“Right this way.” Her hips swiveled in front of us.

“We know how to get there, Nancy Nurse. You don’t have to bring us. I think your time would be better spent, memorizing that board, don’t you?” Nanna smiled at her.

“Oh, but it’s policy.”

“Must be a new policy. Never happened before.”

Nurse Nancy fingered her gold necklace. “I want to do things right.”

“I can understand, dear,” my grandmother said.

“You have some lovely visitors,” she announced to my mother, who was seated by the window looking at patients walking across the lawn. She turned and smiled gloriously, as she always did. My mother was a very attractive woman: thirty-four years old, wavy auburn hair, light green eyes with specks of gold, and fair skin sprinkled with tiny freckles across the bridge of her nose.

“Give me a hug.” She extended her arms. Nanna sat on the bed next to her and plopped her handbag near the pillow. I embraced her, loving the familiar smell of her Avon perfume.

“Thank you, Nancy. You just made my day.”

Nancy beamed and left.

“She’s a dumb girl,” Nanna said. “Didn’t even know you were her patient. Can you imagine that?”

“Ma, don’t be so hard on her. She just started working here.”

“That’s a poor excuse, but never mind. Aiden and I have something for you.”

My mother clapped her hands and smiled. Outside the window, patients walked in circles, hands behind them, not talking with one another, lost in thought, some muttering to themselves or moving their arms in strange ways.

Nanna reached into her handbag and carefully placed three items on the tan bedspread: the gold necklace and cross, a small jar of red wine, and finally, the golden chalice, which sparkled in the well-lit room.

“Mom, where did you get that cup?” Her eyes widened. “It looks like part of the Queen’s crown jewels.” She laughed.

“A friend of mine loaned it to me.” She warned me with her eyes.

“Who?” She giggled and raised the chalice. “Such beautiful stones. This must be worth a fortune. Do you know a museum curator?”

“You could call Joshua that. He works for a very reputable institution. Started it from the ground up. The building is as grand as a temple.”

“Where is it?” Her eyebrows squished together.

“Jerusalem, New York. He’s visiting some relatives in Boston.”

“Jerusalem?” She laughed and folded her palms over the chalice in her lap. “I think you’re telling me a fib.” She raised the cup in a beam of sunlight. “It’s beautiful, but what am I supposed to do with it?”

“Drink this wine. Joshua says the cup has healing powers. I hope he’s right.”

“It’s gorgeous. Thank you.”

“I have to return it, Laura.”

“I figured that.”

“Will you drink from it?” My grandmother’s eyes pleaded.

“There’s nothing wrong with me.” She folded her arms. “But if it will make you happy, I will. Pour some, but be careful not to stain the bed.” Her shoulders drooped.

As my mother sipped, Nurse Nancy came in.

“Hey. What are you drinking?” She looked at the small jar, which my grandmother quickly shoved into her handbag.

“Cranberry juice. It prevents urinary tract infections,” Nanna said.

Nurse Nancy’s eyes squinted. “I hope that’s all it is. Laura is on medication and alcohol could interact in a negative way.”

“Of course it’s not alcohol,” Nanna said. “I’m a Christian woman. Today is Sunday. In our family, we abstain from alcohol in reverence to Our Lord Jesus Christ. I’m insulted that you would suggest such a thing, Nancy Nurse.” She wrapped the chalice in a cloth and placed it in her handbag, then clasped the gold cross around my mother’s neck.

 

The next Saturday, my grandmother announced at breakfast that we were returning the chalice.

“Do you think Mom’s cured?”

“God works in mysterious ways. I’m not sure that a sip of wine from that beautiful cup performed such a miracle, but I pray that it did.” She wiped her hands on her apron and hung it on the wall. “I often doubt the possibility of miracles, but then I find myself thinking that every moment is miraculous. Do you know what I mean?”

“Like just being alive?”

“Exactly.” She threw my crumpled napkins into the wastebasket. “We make our own miracles. There’s a saying from the old country, ‘It’s the good horse that draws its own cart.’ We must make things happen on our own instead of sitting on our arses waiting for Jesus to put the world right.” She smiled and motioned for me to get up from my chair. “That’s why we will do what needs to be done. Now go get dressed.”

 

In less than an hour we were in front of Mission Church. My grandmother always had the hardest time parallel parking.

“Get out,” she said.

I stood on the sidewalk and shouted, “Stop. You’re gonna hit that car.”

She bent over the seat and looked at me through the passenger window. “How much room do I have?”

“About two inches.”

“Christ.”

She extended her arm across the top of the seat and turned to look behind her before reversing and smashing into the white Ford Mustang.

“Shite.” She glanced around to see if anyone was watching. Everyone was inside, listening to the Mass.

After rolling up the windows and locking the car, she stood on the street, opposite of where I stood on the sidewalk.

“You smashed the bumper.”

“How do you know it was me? Look at the scratches on the door. Obviously, this individual doesn’t know how to drive.”

I joined her and traced my fingers along the scratches.

“Don’t do that.”

“Why?”

“You’ll leave fingerprints.”

I laughed. “You think they’re gonna dust the car for prints?”

We watched two cars pass. My grandmother waved at the drivers. “Let’s get this over with.” She straightened her blue dress and grabbed my hand. “Hurry and cross.”

“Do you have the chalice?”

She patted her handbag. “It’s inside my bag. I had to remove my makeup and a brush to make room. The sacrifices we make.”

We both laughed. I opened the large carved wooden door for her. She looked at the white Mustang before entering and whispered, “We’ve got to make this fast. Before the Mass ends. I don’t want a scene with the owner of that car.”

The air was musty, warm, and dark. It took my eyes a few moments to adjust.

The priest said, “A reading from the first Letter of Saint John. . . .’Beloved: See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God. Yet so we are.’ ” People turned in the pews to look at us walking down the aisle. My grandmother bowed to them. ” ‘The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now.’ ” He paused and looked at us as we climbed the altar, then continued reading, half-watching us. ” ‘What we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.’ ”

My grandmother pulled me to a bench at the side. We sat down. The cool stone felt good against my back. The priest stared at us. People in the congregation were moving in their seats, whispering and watching us.

My grandmother put her hand in front of her mouth and whispered, “I have no idea what the hell he’s talking about. Sounds like a bunch of palaver.”

“Everyone who has this hope based on him makes himself pure, as he is pure.” The priest held up his index finger and smiled, then walked over to us and whispered, “Can I help you?”

“Yes, Father, like you were saying, that bit about ‘bestowed’ and ‘God’s children now.’ ”

“I don’t understand, my friend.” The people in the pews were talking louder.

A man shouted, “Is everything okay, Father?”

“Yes. Yes,” he called back. “I’ll be right with you.” Again he held up his index finger.

I pulled the chalice out of my grandmother’s handbag. “It is revealed!”

“Where did you get that?”

“A homeless man on the Boston Common was drinking beer from it. I recognized it as the stolen chalice, Father. I read that article in the Boston Globe,” my grandmother said.

“He was all dirty and sad-looking. I think he needed some healing,” I interjected.

“We prayed with the man and asked him to let us return it,” my grandmother said. “I told him, ‘God will forgive you because we are all God’s children’ and some of that other stuff you were just saying.”

The priest’s face lit up. “It’s a miracle,” he hollered to the congregation, holding the chalice above his head and walking to the center of the altar. “Thanks be to God.”

The people repeated, “Thanks be to God.”

My grandmother pulled me from the bench. “Let’s get the hell out of here,” she whispered.

People clapped as we hurried down the aisle.

“Wait,” the priest said. “We don’t know your names.”

“I’m Elaine, and this is my grandson Galahad.”

We ran out the door and across the street.

Her hands shook as she tried to unlock the door. “Aiden, you’ll have to do it for me. I’m a nervous wreck.” She handed me the keys.

An elderly gentleman with a cane yelled, “Yoo-hoo. Come back. We want to speak with you.” He teetered on the steps, clasping the railing.

“Yoo-hoo,” my grandmother answered and waved. “We’ll be right over.” Then to me after I unlocked the door: “Hurry up. Get in the car.”

I ran to my side. We slammed our doors at the same time. My grandmother rolled her window down. “I’m terribly sorry. My grandson is hyperventilating. He gets nervous around crowds.”

I breathed hard, as if on cue, and waved to the man, then held my chest, pretending I was going to die.

The man started down the steps with his cane, holding precariously onto the railing.

“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” my grandmother said, “Let’s get out of here before that buttinsky falls!” We swerved into the street and sped off. “Who says ‘yoo-hoo’ anymore? He must be demented.”

“Where’d you come up with those crazy names?” I had my hands pressed against the dashboard because she was driving so fast.

“Something I read. Probably one of your grandfather’s old books.”

 

When we pulled in the driveway, I said, “Grandpa will be happy.”

“What are you talking about?” She scratched her head.

“Grandpa likes when we do the right thing. He wants Mom to come home.”

“Of course, your grandfather would want Laura to leave that sad place.” She opened the car door. “Let’s go inside.”

I followed her across the front lawn and called out, “He’s very upset she has to stay there.”

She turned and stared at me. “Your grandfather is dead, Aiden. Stop your foolishness.” She shivered. “Let’s get in the house.”

In the living room, she sat on the couch and patted the spot next to her. “Come sit with me.”

“Aiden, lots of people have dreams about people they’ve lost. I’m glad you dream about your grandfather. He was a good man. You remind me of him.” She wrapped her arm around me and kissed me forehead. “Would you like some tea?”

“Sometimes Grandpa visits me at night.”

“I sometimes dream of him, too. What good times we shared.” She stared into the shadowed room, then turned on the lamp.

“He told me to tell you that it was not your fault that he died.”

“Of course it wasn’t my fault.” She puffed on a cigarette, eyeing me suspiciously. “I’m tired.” She rubbed her temples and closed her eyes.

“Then why do you cry at night and ask God for forgiveness? Grandpa says he’s in the bedroom with you. He wanted me to tell you he’s sorry. He said he was always ‘full as a bingo bus,’ whatever that means.”

Nanna’s face quivered and she put her cigarette in the ashtray.

“Where in God’s name did you hear that expression?”

“What does it mean?”

“It’s an Irish saying for very drunk.”

“He said you should stop blaming yourself for leaving him in the chair that night when you went to bed. It’s not your fault that he choked on his vomit.”

My grandmother shook and tears streamed down her face. I wrapped my arms around her. “Grandpa loves you, Nanna, and I do, too.”

 

The next week, we went to McCall’s again. Nurse Nancy smiled. “Laura is doing great today. She’s been busy drawing. Quite a talented artist.”

“She gets that from me. I studied at the Louvre in Paris.”

“Really?” Nancy cocked her head. She led us down the hallway.

My grandmother asked, “You think I’m too dumb?”

Nancy laughed. “Not at all. It was a stupid thing to say.” She turned. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you.”

“No offense taken. Next time I’ll wear a beret and carry a paintbrush.”

“Here we are,” Nancy said outside Mom’s room. She smiled, picked lint off her white skirt and blew it off her finger, then leaned into my face. “I bet you’re excited to see your mother.”

“We’re good now. You can go,” my grandmother said.

When she had gone, I said, “I didn’t know you were an artist, Nanna.”

“Don’t be silly, Aiden. That was blarney. Nancy Nurse is a bit too uppity for my taste.” She pushed me forward. “Go in. Your mother will be so happy to see you.”

“Hi Mom,” I hurried to her bed, where she sat drawing in her sketchpad. She wore a green dress that accentuated her eyes.

“I want to eat you up.” She kissed my face and hugged me tight. “I’ve missed you so much. There’s no one to talk to at this place.” She looked past me.

“Aren’t you going to give me a kiss, Ma?”

“You need to visit with Aiden. I have to use the ladies room. That will give you alone time.”

“Ma, that’s not necessary.”

“My taking a pee is necessary.”

We all laughed.

“Enjoy your visit. I’ll be back.”

My mother asked about my favorite subjects in school, my grades, my teachers, and did I have a girlfriend.

In a few minutes we heard loud voices in the hall. “I’m taking her home, Nancy Nurse. I have every right to. I’m her mother and I was appointed guardian by the court. So mind your business. Haven’t you got a bedpan to empty?”

They entered the room.

“Let me at least get in touch with the psychiatrist on call?”

“That won’t be necessary. Nothing he says will change my mind. . . . Laura, pack up your things. You’re coming home.”

“Please give me a few moments to collect the paperwork, Mrs. Mulroy. You need to sign her out A.M.A. That means against medical advice.”

“I know what it means. I’m a nurse, too. And I’m familiar with the procedure. Do what you must. That will give us time to get organized.”

My mother and I were already packing her suitcase.

“I’m sorry for bringing you here,” my grandmother said to Mom. “You should be home with Aiden and me.”

 

Nanna signed the necessary forms and we left. Before getting into the car, both my mother and I saw him. My grandfather was sitting on the grass beneath a tree. He smiled and waved to us. One star shone in the twilit sky.

“Hurry up you slowpokes,” my grandmother said, then turned towards the tree. “What are you looking at?” She followed our gaze.

“Hope,” my mother said, laying her arm over my shoulder and guiding me into the backseat before closing my door.

When they were inside, I said, “How can you see hope?”

My grandmother started the car and looked at my mother. “Hope is sitting right beside me.”

Mom touched the back of my grandmother’s neck. The car moved forward.

I opened my mother’s sketchbook, which she had placed in the back seat. A paper image of a painting fell out. She had begun copying it, using different shades of pencil. A blindfolded woman wearing a green gown sat atop a light brown globe, her head bent to the left as she played a lyre with a single string. In the background, one star shone in the gray-blue sky. Printed underneath the reproduction was “Hope, 1886, George Frederic Watts.”

I thought of the chalice, the wine, and the revelation of God’s pure love. But mostly, I cherished hope.

 

 

BIO

James Mulhern has published fiction in many literary journals and received several accolades. Three stories were selected for different anthologies of best short fiction. In 2015, Mr. Mulhern was awarded a full-paid writing fellowship to study at Oxford University in the United Kingdom. That same year, a story was longlisted for the Fish Short Story Prize. He has also received other awards. His novel, Molly Bonamici, and his collection of short stories, Assumptions and Other Stories, received favorable critiques from Kirkus Reviews and are Readers’ Favorites. The short story, “Blindfolded,” is an excerpt from Aiden’s Secret, a paranormal mystery in progress, soon to be completed.

 

 

 

 

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My Green Card  

by Maria Lopez

 

 

Recently a friend gave me a greeting card. The front of it was a beautiful bright green, like the fresh grass and trees in the Bronx Botanical Gardens. My friend didn’t know the effect her little card had on me. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. For years my secret dream and hope has been to have a green card. And here I was holding one in my hand! All I could do was make fun of myself – How easy it is to make my dream come true! I’m so excited I’d better be careful not to have a heart attack before I get to enjoy this gift. I need to calm down.

A Chinese classmate once told me a proverb – “If you want something very badly, you won’t get it. You have to be calm and put yourself in a higher state of mind, and things will come to you.” That’s good advice to avoid a heart attack, but not to get a green card. I had a roommate who’s very religious, and she told me to be patient and leave my situation in God’s hands. With all respect, God has no special influence with immigration officers. Paying an immigration lawyer also doesn’t help. When I first came here and got a job as a maid in a big house, I went to a big office in Queens that had a big sign outside – “Immigration Lawyers. If you have legalization problems, we can help you get a green card.” The sign also said, “We handle divorces and bankruptcies, as well as foreclosures.” I ran there every week on my day off with twenty-five dollars in my hand and gave it to the lawyer who was supposed to be helping me. He was from my country, Colombia, so he spoke Spanish, was well dressed, and seemed very professional. He took all my information and wrote it down, asked me how much money I’d brought that day, and told me he was going to the court and I should come back next week. He said the same thing every week, and every week I expected him to hand me my green card.

One day, after I had given him a hard-earned two hundred dollars in total during the eight weeks I’d been going to him, I was sitting in the waiting room full of desperate people like me when the police came. Some of them went into the lawyers’ offices, and some talked to us. One policeman was Puerto Rican and spoke to us in Spanish. He asked if we had gotten receipts for the money we gave the lawyers.  Nobody had.

I started to cry and told the young policeman that I had already paid two hundred dollars! Two other women were crying harder than me. One of them, who was beautiful, young, and well dressed cried out, “Two hundred?  That’s nothing! I gave him two thousand dollars!” The other one, middle-aged and humble-looking, wailed, “Ay, I paid him three thousand and five hundred dollars!” The policeman was astonished. He asked the women, “Where did you get so much money?” The middle-aged lady said she had sold her house back in her country. The young beautiful one told the policeman she saved all the money she made from cleaning offices at night. After that, no one paid any attention to my poor, lost two hundred dollars, the most money I’d ever had in my life. It couldn’t compete with their thousands.

The next thing that happened was the three lawyers and their three young secretaries, all pretty girls in high heels, all crying, were led out of the offices by the other policemen, their hands behind their backs in handcuffs. We all stopped talking and stared, confused, wondering if we were the next to be arrested! But no, the police went out and loaded the lawyers and their beautiful secretaries, with their mascara running down their cheeks, into the police cars. One secretary got a high heel caught in something and it broke off as she was getting in. The broken heel was left in the street as the cars pulled away.

I was so nervous, thinking they might come back to arrest us that I sneaked out the door and walked as fast as I could to the subway. I could feel an invisible hand grabbing the back of my collar. I got on the first train that came in which was going the wrong way for me, but I didn’t care.

Next week on my day off I headed to Queens as usual, but this time it was different. Someone had told me that they wouldn’t arrest me: “You’re a victim,” he said. I was nervous anyway, but I was more curious. When I got there I stood across the street and looked at the closed storefront. It had a big sign taped to the window. The only word I recognized was “Police.” Finally I got the courage to cross over. A man was passing and I asked him if he spoke Spanish. He did, and he told me that the lawyers didn’t have a license to operate this business. They weren’t real lawyers! I told him I’d given them two hundred dollars to get a green card.  I was hoping for a little sympathy, but he hurried off, almost laughing, and said something that sounded like “Furgedaboutid!” I didn’t know what the words meant, so I quickly wrote down what I’d heard, and looked for a Spanish person who could speak English and was friendly. I stopped a woman passing by who seemed to have the complete package, and read aloud what I’d written. “Olvidalo,” she said, “Forget about it.” I thanked her. But I never did forget about it. I’d still like to have my two hundred dollars back.

Since that time, I’ve seen a few immigration officers and explained my situation. I asked if there was any way I could become legal and get my green card. They didn’t have me arrested, thank God, but the answer was always the same – no. They may have even felt a little compassion for me, but compassion wasn’t in the job description.

So I never got the legal green card, but I still have the green card my friend gave me. Who knows? Maybe some day in the future when there are no borders, a green card from a friend will be more important than one from the government.

 

 

 

BIO

Maria Lopez is from the Andes Mountains in Colombia. She grew up in a little shack with no running water or electricity; she only had the moonlight to lead her at night. She could not read or write in Spanish as she had no education, so she had her work cut out for her when she moved to New York and had to learn English. Through working for Americans and free writing classes at the public library and colleges, she has learned to read and write English, better than she speaks it; her pronunciation leaves many Americans scratching their heads. Writing has become her newfound passion and priority.

 

 

 

 

0

You Kill Me

by Emily Glossner Johnson

 

 

Jimmy Gemini looked at his eyes in the photo on the cover of an eight-year-old issue of Rolling Stone. He could see how wasted he was. He was shirtless and had no tattoos; he’d never been much for tattoos. A pair of faded jeans hung low on his hips. One hand was in his pocket, the other in his ash blond hair, fingers laced through it.

He couldn’t remember the photo shoot or the interview he gave. He flipped the magazine open. The year had been 2005 and the interviewer called him a rock god. His guitar skill was compared to that of another Jimi, right down to his left-handed playing. His album that year was the critically acclaimed and internationally bestselling You Kill Me and his music was at its best: hard rock with enough of a pop sound to cross over to top forty and enough edge to be played on the alternative stations. His band that year played to sold-out arenas and auditoriums and large outdoor venues. Jimmy Gemini was everywhere and everything.

“Jimmy!” his mother yelled from downstairs.

Jimmy closed the magazine. “What, Ma?”

“I just saw it. It ran past the dining room doorway.”

“What do you want me to do about it?”

“Get it out of here!”

Jimmy sat on the floor of the bedroom where he grew up in the little house once occupied by his brothers and sisters Paul Jr., Ronny, Joseph, Angela, Tommy, and Gina, and his father Paul Sr., his mother Mary, and him, the baby of the Gianni family. Now it was just him and his mother in this house that he’d paid off. He’d offered to buy his mother a bigger house, but she wanted to stay where she’d spent decades with his father. He’d shared his bedroom with Tommy and Joseph, and a lot of their stuff was still there: books from childhood to their teenaged years, athletic equipment, old guitars, model cars and airplanes, trophies. Jimmy’s mother didn’t like to get rid of things, though everything had its place in the neat, clean house.

“Jimmy!”

Jimmy sighed. “What is it?”

“Come down here.”

“Just a minute. Jesus.”

Jimmy had most recently hit rock bottom in July of 2012 when he was found wandering in a subway station in Queens wearing nothing but bicycle shorts and a single flip-flop. A man who’d recognized him had called a cab that had taken him to his mother’s house in White Plains. The tabloids caught wind of the incident and headlines announced that Jimmy was either near death or admitted to a psychiatric ward. The truth was more mundane. After a three-month stint in rehab, the longest he’d ever been in, he came back to his mother’s and had been there ever since, under the radar, away from the world, preparing for his comeback.

Elizabeth was through with him and didn’t want him around their kid.

“I’m clean now,” he’d said to Elizabeth the last time they spoke.

“How long will that last?” Elizabeth had said.

“For good.”

“I’ve heard that before.”

Jimmy knew she had, a number of times. But this time he’d been clean and sober for nine months, the longest he’d ever gone since he first started drinking and smoking weed when he was a teenager.

“How was Ashton’s birthday?” he asked her. “I can’t believe he’s three already.”

“He’s four, Jimmy.”

“Right, right. Did he have a big party?”

“Jimmy, I don’t want to do this.”

“Do what?”

“You know what. I don’t want to talk about Ashton with you. You can’t see him.”

But Jimmy would see him. He’d show Elizabeth. He’d stay clean and make music and get back on top.

He went downstairs and found his mother in the kitchen, making pies. “I want you to get that thing out of here,” she said.

“Just get a mousetrap.”

“A mousetrap, he says! I have mousetraps. Don’t you see them? And I’ve got poison in the cupboards.”

Jimmy looked at his mother’s lined face and bouffant hairdo dyed the darkest of brown. “Well, I don’t know what I’m supposed to do,” he said.

She sighed.

He went over to the sauce that simmered on the stove and ate some of it from the spoon that was resting across the top of the pot. His mother slapped his arm. “Stay out of there. You’re putting your germs in it.”

Jimmy grabbed an apple from the fruit bowl on the counter. “Who’s coming over?” he said between bites.

“Tommy and your sisters and the kids.”

“Angela?” he said.

“I just said your sisters. Why?”

“She doesn’t like me.”

His mother patted his face hard. “Don’t you say that. You two are family. She loves you.”

Jimmy examined his unfinished apple; it was overripe and bruised. He threw it away. He noticed his mother’s fancy pink dress and string of pearls contrasting with her yellow apron and house slippers. It was Sunday. “How was church?” he said.

“It’s going downhill fast is where it’s going. I should switch to St. Luke’s.”

“What’s the matter with St. Ambrose?”

“That woman.” His mother ground the shortening and flour together. “She gave the sermon today. She thinks she’s a priest—”

“What woman?”

“They call her the pastoral associate. I’m not having it. She’s conceited and she wears designer clothes.”

“How do you know about her clothes?”

She held up her hands. “Ah.”

“So go to St. Luke’s.”

She continued with the pie dough, the shortening and flour forming little balls. “Your father loved St. Ambrose. If he only knew.”

“So stay. Or go. Whatever.” Jimmy paused. “What kind of pies you making?”

She ignored the question, looked up at him and wiped her brow. Her hand left a smudge of flour on her forehead. “Did you call Mr. Daniels?” she said.

“Ma, I’m not going to sell insurance.”

“Then what will you do? It’s been a year and nothing.”

“It’s been nine months. I’ve been writing music. I’m going to get back into the studio.”

She wiped her hands on her apron and pointed at him. “That life,” she said. “That life is over.” She put a spoonful of water into the dough mixture. “Set the table.”

He set the dining room table and shoved in a few chairs from the kitchen to make room for everyone. In the living room, he put up the card table and folding chairs for the kids. When it was all done, he went out to the front porch for a smoke. It was what he had, nicotine. And caffeine. He drank a lot of coffee, black and strong. So these were it… the drugs he was allowed. He drew deeply on his cigarette.

* * *

All through dinner that day, Tommy and his brother-in-law Mark were on Jimmy’s case about calling Mr. Daniels. “What’s the matter with selling insurance?” Tommy said. “You know, you could do worse.”

“Not much,” Jimmy said.

His other brother-in-law, Scott, had always been star struck by Jimmy. He stayed out of the conversation until Jimmy mentioned going back into the studio. “That’d be great!” Scott said.  “Great?” Jimmy’s mother said. “That’s what nearly killed him.”

Scott bowed his head and dragged his fork through his pasta. His wife, Jimmy’s sister Gina, patted Scott’s hand.

All the adults were drinking wine except for Jimmy. Jimmy felt as though he should have been sitting at the kids’ table.

“I think you don’t want to sell insurance because you know you can’t,” Angela said. “Look at yourself, Jimmy.”

“What?” Jimmy said. He looked down at his Pink Floyd t-shirt, skinny jeans, and Vans.

Angela straightened her silk scarf and touched her bobbed hair.

“Jimmy will be fine,” his mother said.

“Aw, Ma, you ought to let him fend for himself for a change,” Angela said. “You’ve always taken care of him.”

“Come on, Angela,” Gina said. “Leave Jimmy and Ma alone.”

“Sitting right here,” Jimmy said.

“You’ll call Mr. Daniels and get a job,” his mother said to him. “And that’s all I have to say about it.”

“I don’t need the money,” Jimmy said.

“That isn’t the point,” Tommy said. “You’ve got to do something with yourself.”

“I bet you’re writing music, right, Jimmy?” Angela said.

“I am,” Jimmy said.

“How much have you written? Truth. How much?”

Jimmy looked at Angela, ready to reply. But then he looked away.

Later that night after everyone had gone home and Jimmy’s mother had gone to bed, Jimmy picked up the peach schnapps his mother used to make her fuzzy navels. She and his sisters always drank them before dinner. He opened the bottle of schnapps and smelled it. Truth. How much? Fuck Angela, he thought, the fucking prima donna. He’d write music when it came to him—the inspiration would hit, and it would be incredible.

He looked at the bottle, the label, and then in a rush, brought it to his mouth and took a big swallow. It was sickly sweet but pleasantly warm going down. He took another swallow, and another. Then he stopped. He put water in the bottle to bring the level back to where it was and returned the bottle to the buffet.

So much for nine months.

* * *

It was one bottle of vodka—just one—and it was his own, not his mother’s schnapps. He bought it that morning. Grey Goose, his favorite. It stood on his little desk in his old bedroom; sunlight through the window blinds created stripes across it.

Just one bottle. No one would know and he’d get his fill after getting a taste for booze from the schnapps the night before.

He sat down at the desk and ran his fingers down the bottle. He remembered meeting Elizabeth at a party after a show in 2007.

“So are you really a Gemini?” That was the first thing she’d said to him.

“No,” he said. “A Scorpio.”

She laughed and it lit up her face, her blue eyes.

“Then why not Jimmy Scorpio?”

“Why not indeed?” He said. He was floating on a cloud, high as the sky. He’d been shooting up in the largest laundry room he’d ever seen with some guys he didn’t know. Then he’d done a little coke and had a few more glasses of champagne.

Elizabeth had just started modeling then so she wasn’t famous. She was as tall as Jimmy. When he kissed her later that night, he loved that their faces were right across from each other’s and that their lips met with such ease.

She’d been a trooper when Ashton was born. She wanted to give birth naturally—no drugs or epidural—and it overwhelmed Jimmy to see her extreme pain. But fortunately Ashton didn’t take long to come out, and then there he was—Jimmy’s son.

He missed the kid. He missed Elizabeth. He wasn’t always faithful to her and she knew it. A few times, she even left him for a while, but she always came back. Other girls he fucked meant nothing and she must have known it—she had to have known it. His extracurricular fucking was a compulsion like the booze and drugs. Elizabeth wanted to help him; she was wired that way. And so he’d done a little time in rehab here and there, talking about his addictions, getting clean for a while and being devoted to Elizabeth. But then it would start up again and finally she’d had enough and didn’t want to help him anymore. “It’s futile,” she said, and she left with Ashton.

He wrapped his hand around the bottle of Grey Goose. One bottle. That would be all. Then he’d work on getting back to the studio with the guys and making some awesome music.

* * *

A week later, Jimmy woke up with his head at the foot of his bed; he was in his clothes he had worn the day before. He rolled onto his side and looked at the three empty Grey Goose bottles lined up next to the desk.

There was a fourth and fifth bottle next to the bed, unopened, waiting. On his nightstand were a few packs of peppermint gum and a tin of Altoids. Between these and his cigarettes, his mother couldn’t smell the alcohol on him. And she never came into his room, not after that first time when she cleaned and made the bed and he nearly lost it.

“I’m not twelve!” he had said.

“I try to help and this is what I get?”

“All I ask is that you give me my privacy, all right? I can make the bed and clean the room myself.”

She sighed and left the room and he stood there for a while, his hands fisted in his hair. Man, he had wanted a drink.

Now he opened one of the bottles and took a big swig. He lay back on the bed and lit a cigarette. Staring up at the ceiling, smoking, he thought about the music he was going to write. But his mind couldn’t focus and nothing came to him.

* * *

Jimmy woke at 3:26 a.m., his mouth dry and his head spinning. He went downstairs to get a glass of water. A corner shelf in the kitchen held his mother’s cookbooks on the lower shelves, and knickknacks, his mother’s rosary, several magazines, and some mail on the upper shelves. Jimmy heard scratching from beneath the shelf. Then a peep, and another peep.

On his hands and knees, Jimmy looked under the shelf and saw two shining eyes. The mouse. With him there, it had no escape. He could capture it, but he needed something to put it in. What could he use? The water glass. He stood and downed the water and then got on the floor with the glass.

“Come on, buddy,” he said to the mouse, holding the glass under the shelf and moving it in sync with the mouse’s back and forth scurrying. “There’s nowhere to go. I’ll get you away from the old lady’s traps.”

The mouse froze. Jimmy shoved the glass closer to it. The mouse backed into the corner. Jimmy jiggled the glass a little, wondered if he should have put some food at the bottom of it, and then suddenly the mouse was in the glass. Jimmy nearly shouted. Instead, he drew the glass back slowly and as soon as he was able, clapped his hand over the top of it. The mouse, helpless, looked up at him. “It’s okay, little guy. I’m going to set you free.”

Jimmy went down the stairs that led to the back door. Once outside, he took the mouse around to the small backyard and the row of arborvitae that stood against the fence. There, he put the glass on the ground. He shook it slightly, and the mouse bounded out and away, a dark shape leaping over the grass to the darkness under the arborvitae.

* * *

The next night, Jimmy flopped down on his bed. The room spun madly, but despite it, Jimmy, spread eagle, fell asleep and dreamed.

Elizabeth hovered before him. “Jimmy,” she said, “Did you call Mr. Daniels?”

“No. I’m writing music.”

He was in a hospital bed. “Christ, Jimmy,” Angela said. “You’re going to kill Ma if this doesn’t stop.”

If what doesn’t stop? He couldn’t remember. His memory wasn’t what it used to be. Coke. There’d been coke. And pills. And he was drunk to begin with. She hated him, Angela did, but she stayed by his bed for hours each day. And then Ma was there. She wore pearls and a light blue dress and clutched her rosary. Shit, she looked old.

“I’m going to write so much music, Ma,” he said. He’d forgotten once how to play his guitar—once, twice, a few times. A few other times, he’d sat down on stage in the middle of shows. And sometimes, he’d wandered off stage. But that was long, long ago. What were the guys doing now? Where had they gone? It didn’t matter. Back in the studio, they’d be like brothers again.

He found a girl one night and they shot up. While he was lying back, smiling, she stopped breathing. He whacked her hard on the back, twice, and she came to life again. “You died,” he said, and she laughed, and he laughed, too, and they smoked some weed and fucked, fumbling, he and this girl with dirty dreadlocks and cartoon character tattoos covering her body like bruises.

“I’ll buy you a bigger house, Ma.”

“I want you to do something with your life!”

“I am. I’m Jimmy Gemini!”

“You’re my son, James Gianni. Pray with me now. Come to church.”

He’d given a shitload of money to her church. He didn’t have to pray. He was fine. God was good. He’d call Mr. Daniels, sure—he’d call him a douche bag. Jimmy, Jimmy, you’re just going to get back into it, they said. You need to do something with yourself. Set a goal. Be a normal person with a normal life. But he already had a goal. It was a good goal and he was going to reach it.

* * *

The next morning, Jimmy looked out the living room window in time to see the white cat from across the street run by with a mouse in its mouth. The mouse, his mouse—Jimmy knew it.

“Aw, shit,” Jimmy said.

“What’s the matter with you?” his mother said from the doorway.

He turned around. “I got that mouse out of here last night.”

“Was it dead? Because if it wasn’t dead, it’ll come back.”

“It’s dead, Ma,” he said. “It’s dead.”

 

 

BIO

Emily Glossner Johnson has had stories published in Postscripts to Darkness, The Outrider ReviewThe Linnet’s WingsSliver of Stone Magazine, Lynx EyeThe Mondegreen, and a number of other literary journals. She has essays in The Ram Boutique and Amygdala Literary Magazine, and an essay in the book Parts Unbound: Narratives of Mental Illness and Health, published by Lime Hawk Literary Arts Collective. She has a poem forthcoming in The Poeming Pigeon and a story forthcoming in Masque and Spectacle. In December of 2016, The Mondegreen nominated her story “Santa Lucia” for a Pushcart Prize. She has a B.A. in English from SUNY Buffalo and an M.A. in English from SUNY College at Brockport. She lives in Syracuse, New York.

 

 

 

 

0

Tunnel Vision

by Nancy Antle

 

 

Jack was walking down the twisty two-lane in the foothills of the Ozarks, against the traffic like he was supposed to, even though very few cars travelled that particular stretch of highway. He was trying to make his way into town to get himself some beer. He’d downed the last one in his ice chest about an hour ago and he didn’t think he could make it the rest of the long, sweltering day without something to fortify him. His daughter, who he lived with, had refused to take him to town. He could still hear her shrill voice, so much like her mother’s, lecturing him about how irresponsible he was and how she wasn’t going to help him kill himself.

When he heard the car coming towards him, he was concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other. He didn’t have time to look up and find it with what vision he had left before it whooshed by him blaring the horn. The smart thing might have been to bail into the ravine next to the road but he hadn’t really had time to react. Probably a good thing. Sure as shit he’d have broken something or impaled himself on a sapling.

His old dog, Tate, a terrier, yipped a belated warning bark, as the car’s tires screeched around the bend. Not long after, Jack heard the hum of an engine coming down the road behind him on the other side. He kept on walking, but hoped maybe the car held someone he knew who would give him a lift. The car slowed to his pace and a woman’s voice called to him from across the road.

“Hey! You know I nearly hit you?” she said.

“Just trying to get to town get some beer,” Jack said. “But, thank you for turning around to tell me I’m in the way.”

“Town’s nearly five miles. Maybe you should figure out a way to get there without walking in the road. You’re gonna get yourself killed.”

He squinted trying to see the face behind her voice. There was something familiar about it. Or maybe it was just wishful thinking. It had been over thirty years for God’s sake.

“How about you give me a ride to town?” he said. “Seeing as how you’re so worried about me’n all.”

“Are you a serial killer?” she said.

He chuckled. “I’m not, but I suppose that’s what they all say.”

“Can’t you just walk through the woods or something?”

“Lady, I can barely see well enough to follow the road.”

“Well, shit…” she said, more to herself than him, it seemed.

He squinted uselessly again. He still couldn’t see her face. “Beverly?” he said.

She was silent for a moment. All he could hear was the idling car and the call of a crow in the trees.

“Do I know you?” she asked.

He crossed the road hoping she wouldn’t speed off. “It’s Jack,” he said.

She gasped. “Oh, my God!”

“Kind of ironic, huh?” he said. Ironic that she’d almost killed him twice, now.

“I can’t believe it,” she said

He could see her more clearly once he was close-up. She was looking at him, smiling – something he’d imagined for a long time. He smiled back.

“Get your butt in here,” she said. “Before you get us both run over.”

Jack felt his way along the hood of the car to the passenger side door and opened it. Tate jumped in without being invited and Jack followed.

“I cannot believe this,” she said again.

He couldn’t either. She had been his future. The woman he planned to marry even though he never told her. He’d often thought if he hadn’t been such a chicken shit he would have asked her and life would have been better. He’d hoped for this kind of meeting one day but in his imagination, it was better than this.  He was cleaned up, wearing nice clothes, his good boots. This was not the way he wanted her to see him.

He fastened his seat belt while she peeled out, heading back to town – back to where she’d just come from. He turned to look at her through the narrow hole of his vision. He couldn’t get over how much she looked the same and he told her so. She tried to return the compliment but he knew she was just being nice seeing as how he’d gained fifty pounds and his hair was gray. At least she didn’t seem fazed by his scruffy state.

He was surprised how quickly they fell into a long-ago pattern; how natural their conversation was as if they’d been out of touch only a day or so. There was the old familiar rush of lapping up each other’s words as if they were thirsty – asking questions, interrupting for more details.

Jack told her about his two failed marriages and his three grown kids; his retirement from the military on account of his retinitis pigmentosa.

“What’s that?” she asked.

“Tunnel vision. At least that’s what they called it when my daddy had it.”

“Sounds serious.”

“It is – your vision kind of closes up – slowly over time.”

“That’s awful.”

Talking about his disease always made him uncomfortable but, luckily, she was in a hurry to tell him about her life so he didn’t have to figure out how to change the subject.  Beverly’d recently gotten a divorce, thank God there were no kids; been working as a librarian in a middle school in LA for twenty years; was in Tulsa for a conference and drove out to see her old hometown; a trip down memory lane.

“Why the hell would you want to remember this God-awful place?” Jack hoped maybe she was looking for him. But he was also thinking about the paper mill that had shut down leaving behind an empty shell; the boarded-up businesses on Main; and of course, all the people out of work, trying to get by anyway they could. All changes that had happened after she was years gone.

“It wasn’t so God-awful when we were young was it?” she asked.

He sighed. “Hard to remember.” He cleared his throat in the long pause, then hurried to ask her more about her life in California. What was her commute like? Was the smog still bad? Did she miss the seasons? He’d been close to where she lived when he was in the service so at least he had a clue what questions to ask.

As she answered, her voice faded, and Jack quit listening, feeling himself pressed into the car seat, pulled into it by the weight of the past calling him back. There was the time they took the dune buggy his father helped him build all over the back roads, up and down, until they got lost in the boonies, far away from anyone they knew. There was the time they went to the horror movie and couldn’t quit talking about how terrified they were for months after. There was the time they swam in Blue Hole in March, teeth chattering as they ran back to his car, wrapping up in threadbare beach towels, blasting the heater. And, always, always there were the hours spent sitting on the hood of her car, staring at the stars, talking, never once considering how small and insignificant they were to the universe.

Jack felt the silence wrap around them like the suffocating heat outside. He knew she was looking at him, that he’d missed a question.

“Sorry,” he said. “I must’ve spaced out.” He adjusted the shoulder harness on the seatbelt that was choking him then patted Tate’s head.

“Guess you didn’t really want to hear all that,” she said.

“No, I do. Really. My mind wanders. Sorry.”

She laughed. “It’s okay. My mind wanders all over creation sometimes.”

She flipped on the radio. A twangy country song that Jack was not familiar with filled the space. She turned it off again.

“So, tell me more about your retini…your tunnel vision. There’s nothing the doctor’s can do?”

“Not a thing. It’s genetic.” He didn’t want to talk about it. Didn’t want to dwell on what the future held for him. That was part of Beverly he’d forgotten; how her curiosity made her cold – oblivious to any pain she might be causing with her questions.

“How much can you see right now?” she pressed on.

“I don’t know.” He sighed. “I guess about the size of dime.”

“And it will get worse?”

He nodded.

“What are you going to do?”

He snorted. “I’m just gonna keep putting one foot in front of the other and hope I don’t get run over by something I don’t see coming.”

“Haha,” she said.

They reached the intersection and the four way stop sign.

“Where do you want me to take you?” she asked.

“The Qwik Trip on Main is fine. They always have Coors.”

She drove slowly to the end of the street and parked the car in front of the store.

“Thanks for the lift,” Jack said. “I appreciate it.”

“I’m going in too,” Beverly said. “I need a bag of chips or something. I’m starved.  I can drive you back?”

“Sure,” Jack said, fighting to keep his voice even. “I’d appreciate that.” He climbed out with Tate in his arms. His hands shook as he tied him to the bench in front with the leash he pulled from his pocket.

The ice, cold air inside made Jack shudder. He threaded his way through the maze of aisles until he stood in front of the refrigerator case searching for the beer he wanted.

“Let me.” Beverly’s voice was suddenly beside him again. One of the glass doors sucked open. “Coors, right? I’ll take it up for you.”

He grabbed another box and followed her to the register where they clunked the boxes of cans onto the counter next to her chips and Coke.

“Is this all together?” the clerk asked.

“No. Separate,” Beverly said, pushing her stuff to one side.

Jack blinked back the sting in his eyes and sweat slipped down the middle of his back. The cash register dinged and he fumbled with his billfold, passing the guy a couple of twenties. The clerk put his change into his upturned palm and he stuffed it into his pocket.

“Crap,” Beverly said.  “I forgot to get some Advil. Here’s my keys if you want to put your beer in the car. I’ll be out in a minute.”

He nodded and went back into the heat of the day shocked again by the change in temperature. He put his beer on the rear floor of the car then returned for his dog. In a few minutes, Beverly emerged with a blast of cold air while he was still beside Tate, fumbling with his leash. She crouched next to him and he smelled her perfume – some kind of flowers and spice. He wondered why he hadn’t noticed before. Her fingers touched his where he held the knot and he pulled his hand back.

“Got it,” she said, standing. “C’mon, I’ll take you home.”

They drove back the way they’d come, Jack navigating. Even though he couldn’t see much of anything, he remembered how to get where he needed to be. He directed her to a side road and then another one that ran along a creek under the dogwoods.

“You can let me out right here,” he said. “Anywhere.”

“You sure?” She put her foot on the brake and the car came to a soft stop. “I don’t mind taking you all the way to your house.”

“That’s okay. My daughter’s place is way back there. Not much more than a cow path the rest of the way. It could do a number on your car. Besides I’m not going all the way home with the beer.”

“Really?”

“Can’t listen to my daughter lecture me.” He cleared his throat. “I have an ice chest in the woods where I keep it. I’ll go there and have a few, then head home.”

“That sounds lonely…” Her words hung between them.

He remembered these kinds of conversations – the hints – never asking for something outright – saying what she really meant. He didn’t take the bait. Didn’t even bother to answer her. He took no pleasure in not inviting her – but what would be the point of having a beer together? Just get his hopes up before she disappeared again and left him with a different incarnation of her lodged in his head for another decade until dementia saved him.

God, he’d thought about her so often over the years. Some weeks, months, he’d thought of little else. Now here she was in the flesh, so much like she used to be, and yet, different. He knew it would be stupid to ask her to stay.

“Well, I hope your daughter won’t be too pissed at you,” she said.

“I’m used to it.”

“And, I’m glad I ran into you – so to speak.” She laughed.

“Ditto.”

Jack undid his seatbelt, opened the car door and Tate hopped out. As Jack turned to get out himself, Beverly put a cool hand on his arm. He stared at her long white fingers on his tanned skin and felt an ache in his chest. She didn’t say anything else and what he could see of her blurred as he slid out. He waved, a brief flap of his hand, like the wing of a bird, and tried to smile but felt maybe he failed. Then he and Tate walked into the woods.

It wasn’t until he was all the way to his ice chest that he realized he’d forgotten the beer. He stopped, cocked his head toward the highway, straining, hoping to hear her coming back to him. Water gurgled in the creek and grasshoppers chirred in the underbrush and after a time she was there too.

 

 

BIO

Nancy Antle received her MFA in Creative Writing/Fiction from Southern CT State University in 2013. Prior to that she wrote books, stories and poems for children and young adults for thirty years and was published by Dial, Viking and Cricket Magazine. She is mostly writing for an older audience now and her short stories have been published by Noctua Revew, CT Review, The Los Angeles Review of LA and Drunk Monkeys. She was a volunteer writing mentor for seven years with the Afghan Women’s Writing Project via online workshops. She has also taught fiction writing at SCSU, The Mark Twain House Museum and online for the Gotham Writer’s Workshop.

 

 

 

 

 

0

Leftover Mud Pie

by Mona Leigh Rose

 

 

I’ve roomed with the Black Widow for four semesters.  Two college years.  That’s like ten in dog years.  She’s a love addict.  Meets a new guy in study group or at a bar, lets him sweep her off her size six pumps, charms his family, makes fevered plans for the future.   A few months in, she loses interest, takes up with a new guy.  Problem is, the wuss can’t bring herself to break-up with an old “the one,” tell him he’s been replaced by a new “the one.”  That’s my job.

“It isn’t you, it’s her,” I coo into the phone.

“Only saying that to make me feel better.”

“No, really.  You’re a great guy, [insert name here].  Any girl would be lucky to date you.”  Twist the phone cord around my finger, wonder whether tonight’s Seinfeld is new or a rerun.

“But she said she loved me, said,” sniff, “I was the one.”

“That’s the problem.  She loves you too much, got scared.  She’s not ready for–” pause for effect “–true love.”

Lost count how many times I’ve delivered those lines.  My Nana told me a man in love is dumber than a post.  Roomie’s castoffs taught me a new lesson:  A man with a broken heart will believe lies so brash even a post would thumb its nose.

Not that Roomie ever asked me to be her muscle.  I can’t stand loose ends, unfinished business, even someone else’s business.  Not much of a social life of my own, unless you count days spent in the library shooing undergrads who use the deserted stacks as a hook-up spot.  So I helped her out of a tight spot or two, and soon enough, her chore became my calling.

The overture goes something like this:

Her:  “Can you get the phone?”

Me:  “You know it’s him.  He’s called, like, ten times today.”

Her:  “Can’t he take a hint?”  Exaggerates eye roll.  “Besides, [insert new guy’s name here] is waiting for me downstairs.  Taking me to Monty’s for dinner.  He might be the one.”  Rubs lipstick off teeth, smiles at reflection.

Me:  “Fine.”  Mimic exaggerated eye roll.  “I’ll take care of it.”

Her:  “You’re the best.  I’ll bring you my leftover mud pie in a doggy bag.”  Blows kiss, bounces out door.

I’m a darn good breaker-upper.  Sometimes we even become buddies, bond over his heartache.  That’s how I got to see Glenn Close play Norma Desmond on opening night, learned to roller skate on the Venice boardwalk, hiked to the Hollywood sign for the first time.

Everyone was happy until Mr. Boomerang came along.  Roomie put Boomie through two spin cycles.  For their first break-up, I used all the usual comfort words, told him he was a catch, he’d meet the right girl, yada, blah, et cetera.  He moseyed into the sunset, bent but, thanks to my soothing tones, not busted.  Fall semester he showed up again, first on the answering machine, a week later at the door.

Seems they ran into each other at Three of Hearts, shared a pitcher of Amstel Light.  Another round of sunset hikes in Runyon Canyon, weekend trips to Ojai, long walks on the beach.  He was “the one” for the second time.  I like Mr. Boomerang, nice guy, smart, psych major.  Had high hopes for him.  But when Roomie casually dropped a new man’s name in conversation over Cheerios, when she stretched the phone cord around the corner and behind her bedroom door, when Boomie’s voice on the answering machine veered from cheerful to concerned to suicidal, I knew my big solo wasn’t far off.

Pick up the ringing phone one rainy Friday night in January and prepare to cut him loose.

“It isn’t you, it’s her.”

“Bullshit.”

“No really, I’m not trying to make you feel better.  You’re a great guy, any girl–”

“I brought you chicken soup from Langer’s when you had a cold.”

“Um, right, thanks.  Anyway, any girl would be lucky–”

“I told you which box had the See’s Candy at the white elephant gift exchange.”

“Wait, what?”

“Don’t bullshit me.”

“I’m not bullshiting.  She loves you too much–”

“Cut the crap.  She met someone else, didn’t she?”

“She’s scared–”

“Are you reading from a script?”

“Of– of course not.”

“So spit it out.  Why is she ducking my calls?”

An ant crawls out of a crack in the plaster wall, then another.  Smash them with a paper towel.  “She’s not ready for–” one Mississippi, two Mississippi “—true love.”

“What do you know about love?”

My stomach lurches.  “I know enough . . .”

“When was the last time your heart shot fireworks when you held someone’s hand?”

“I have connections with people, feel sparks.”

“To hell with sparks.  I’m talking about a raging fire, an inferno of feeling that incinerates all reason.  Do you even date?”

“What’s this got to do–”

“And don’t count meeting a study buddy for coffee.”

Close my eyes, need to focus.  “This isn’t about me.  You’re hurt now, but you’ll meet someone–”

“Of course it’s about you.”

“I’m trying to help, let you down easy.”

“Exactly my point.  If you had the first idea about real love, you’d never think having your heart stomped on by a self-absorbed bitch could ever be easy.”

“Don’t call her a bitch.”

“Why do you protect her?”

“I don’t protect her.  I help the men– I mean, I’m helping you.”

“You enable her vile narcissism–”

“Vile?”

“–and how does she repay you?”

The light from the microwave shines on my finger, bloodless in the tightly wound phone cord.  “I– um, I like mud pie?”

“Jesus.  She breaks your heart every fucking day and you don’t even see it.”

“I’m not gay.”

“Didn’t say anything about gay.  I see the way you look at her, same way I do.”

“She’s my friend.”

“She’s not your friend.  She’s your idol, your goddess on high.  And you’re her pet, her toady, her maid and her minion.”

“No, she . . .”

“She uses you like she used me, and is probably using some other poor fool right this minute.  Do yourself a favor.  Don’t break up with me, break up with her.”

The dial tone bounces against the kitchen wall, echoes in my head, even after I hang the receiver back in its cradle.  My legs feel heavy, my head light.  Can’t muster up the energy to move.  A line of ants marches across the counter now, dozens stagger single file under the weight of crumbs and cereal bits twice their size.  One collapses, struggles to right himself.  The others make a tight detour around him, continue on with their loads.

I flinch when Roomie bounces through the apartment door, flips the light switch.  “Why’s it so dark in here?”  She tosses a gold foil swan on the counter, narrowly misses the ants.  “Tonight was a-mazing.  Bradley brought me a dozen white roses, hired a violinist to serenade me while we sipped champagne.”  She twirls, skips down the hall.  “He’s taking me to Big Sur tonight, need to pack a bag.”

The foil swan stares at me, my face reflected in its creased wings.  Look like a little girl in a broken funhouse mirror.

“I really think Bradley could be the one,” Roomie shouts over the slamming drawers and clanking hangers.

Unwrap the foil, smooth the edges flat.  The sliver of coffee ice cream half melted, the fudge congealed in clumps.  Slide it next to the line of ants.  One changes course and the others follow.  The whole army converges, crumbs still balanced on their heads.  They swarm over the gooey mess.  Soon a wriggling mound covers the foil from crust to whipped cream.

Roomie sashays past the kitchen, an overnight bag slung over the shoulder of my new raincoat.   “We’ll do your birthday dinner another time.  You’re cool with that, right?”

The foil shudders, then slides slowly toward the crack in the plaster.

 

 

BIO

Mona Leigh Rose is infatuated with short stories, the shorter the better.  Her work appears or is forthcoming in The Writing Disorder, Avalon Literary Review, and Jewish Fiction.net, among others.  She is honored that one of her stories has been selected for the flash fiction anthology The Best Small Fictions 2017.  She lives and writes in Santa Barbara, California. http://monaleighrose.com/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

Good Things for Jeannie Smith

by Josh Trapani 

 

  

 

I never learned where the idea of hiring Harris Cooger came from. As with many things that happened when I worked for GOA, the Gun Owners of America, there were no explanations, only demands. Everyone was busy, there was little time for deliberation. Barrone said we were in crisis mode.

It started when Rachel James, the tiny blonde who’d survived a dozen years as Barrone’s assistant and was, remarkably, still allowed access to sharp objects, stood in my office doorway. “Barrone says go ahead and look into Harris Cooger.”

“OK. Who is Harris Cooper?”

Cooger.” She spelled it, then raised an eyebrow. “Wasn’t this your idea? Mechler said it was your idea.”

Mechler. That duplicitous son of a bitch.

In my six years at GOA, I’d moved several notches up the chain from Director to Associate VP. Now I was gunning — no pun intended — for a Deputy VP slot that would give me a larger office, bigger paycheck, and even more crushing workload. Mechler, I suspected, fancied the same job.

Before I could reply, Rachel hoofed it back to her desk, afraid to be away in case Barrone bellowed for something. Frank Barrone, VP for Strategic Initiatives, was a legend in the gun lobby. He’d started his career as House Committee staff 35 years before, moved into one of Our Party’s administrations as a Schedule C, then worked through corporate posts at Midway and Beretta USA before landing at the association. Barrone was dedicated as a monk, ruthless as a czar, and seasoned as a stick of beef jerky. As a boss, he was like Mount Etna: constantly smoking, ready to erupt at any time. We worshipped him.

A Google search for Harris Cooger confused me. I expected a pollster or PR consultant, but the only mention of the name, with that weird spelling, was on a plain black website that could have been designed by a teenaged Slayer fan in the late 1990s. His contact information — an AOL e-mail address, for god’s sake — was as archaic as his self-description: “psychic hit man.”

I rose from my desk and trudged to Mechler’s office. He held up a finger, bidding me wait, which I ignored. “Harris Cooger?” I demanded. “It’s on you if you want to suggest that Barrone hire some kind of New Age quack.”

Mechler smirked. “You know how things get garbled around here.”

“Leave me out of it,” I growled.

I returned to my office and forgot the whole thing. Have I mentioned I was busy? I clocked around 70 hours a week. Plus, Barrone was online 24/7, so I was, too. I slept with my phone on the nightstand, sound up. I’d set the ringtone to gunshots, specifically continuous fire from an AR-15 assault rifle. This was a source of tension between Barbara and me, but my responsiveness at all hours was undeniable.

Barrone said we were in crisis mode. I’d be hard-pressed to recall a time we weren’t. We reacted to everything, in a tornado of projects, initiatives, meetings, conferences, campaigns, talking points, surveys, polls, reports, letters, petitions, and other time-consuming debris constantly swirling around the office. Whether important or not, everything was urgent. The sky was falling every day. My association buddies, no matter what industry they represented, always felt like their thing was on the brink of cataclysm. Maybe this constant state of urgency was required to do jobs like ours. You might wonder what happens when crisis mode becomes business as usual, but that’s beside the point.

Especially since the national picture was terrible. Many of GOA’s friends on the Hill had lost their jobs in the last election. Their replacements wouldn’t meet with us at all; those that did continued voting the wrong way. The Other Party occupied the White House, with President Smith pressing an aggressive legislative agenda. Worst of all, gun control advocates included a spokesperson without peer: Jeannie Smith, the President’s daughter. Despite her history of childhood cancer, the cause she cared most about was gun violence, for which she, naively but predictably, blamed guns.

Jeannie was a high school junior, that age where most Presidents and First Ladies shield their kids completely from the media, much less let them actively participate in policy debates. But the only world Jeannie knew was one where her parents were public figures, and her self-possession exceeded her years. Her appearance enhanced her appeal: she had just enough cherubic child left in her face to balance all the signs that she was about to become an exceptionally beautiful woman. The girl knew how to build a platform, but more than that: Jeannie had class. She argued respectfully and avoided the oversharing, generalizing, and lecturing that dominated social media. America was too cynical and divided to have a sweetheart, but Jeannie Smith was the closest thing. “The little bitch,” as Barrone called her in private, was unassailable.

All that swirl of work and, in large part thanks to Jeannie and her father, none of it was gaining us any traction: we were in the weakest position anyone could remember. The ideas got wackier as our desperation grew.

Barrone said we were in crisis mode. Barrone was right.

 

 

The next afternoon, I was totally in the zone, plugging away organizing one of our new initiatives — I think it was Bring Your Gun To School Day — when my phone buzzed. It was a text from Barbara. She’d sent me a selfie of her and Sarah. They sat on a bench at the mall, wearing silly hats. Barbara did this sometimes, texted me random photos of their day. It irritated me. I found it distracting, first of all. It seemed to require a reply, though I never knew what to write. And I wasn’t sure what the point was: it felt like I was being labeled remiss somehow. I loved those two, and I spoiled the heck out of them. Barbara drove a forbidding Mercedes SUV with unmatched safety features and a tricked-out car seat for Sarah. When she wasn’t chauffeuring our daughter to one thing or another, she’d often be found in vigorous sweaty communion with our home Stairmaster or top-of-the-line spin machine, indulging her obsession with fitness. It’s true that Sarah wasn’t allowed in the main living room since the blueberry incident, but she enjoyed her own collection of toys whose combined retail price was in the five figures.

I ignored the text and tried to settle back into work, but then a calendar invitation for a meeting with Harris Cooger appeared in my inbox. My annoyance level rebounded. In a flash, I stood outside Rachel’s cubicle.

“Why am I invited to this meeting?” I demanded.

In his office, Barrone yelled, the sound only partly muffled by the door. Rachel didn’t look up from her screen. “Mechler told Barrone you recommended bringing Cooger in.”

“Mechler is a lying sack of shit.”

Rachel gave no sign she disagreed with this assertion.

“And why is Mechler suddenly my middleman to Barrone?” I asked.

Now she looked up, but only to award me one her patented Really?! looks, the kind of people got for cluelessness. “See you at the meeting.”

 

 

I sat in my home study that night, playing with my Twitter account and brooding. What was Mechler up to? Usually I could sniff out the faintest scent of office politics, detecting strategies and motivations with a bloodhound’s precision. This was a useful talent at GOA, which was like a bathroom where the abundant spray of fake potpourri couldn’t mask the pervasive odor of shit. But, in this situation, things didn’t add up. Did Mechler think this nonsense would earn him the Deputy VP slot? Eliminate me from consideration? Or something else entirely? All I knew was that we’d waste Barrone’s time the next day, and he’d be furious.

There was a soft knock and Barbara came in. Her hair was in a tight ponytail; spandex pants showed off the lean body from which even all that fanatical cardiovascular activity had failed to excise some of the curves. Thank God. I disliked recent pictures of us together; she sleek and angular and me office-doughy.

“Sarah’s getting ready for bed,” she said. “Maybe you’d like to read her a story?”

“I’m pretty busy.”

She came closer. “Twitter, Brad?” I winced. GOA’s public affairs people recommended we each maintain personal Twitter accounts. I was trying to be a team player.

She read my profile description over my shoulder. “Passionate advocate of Second Amendment freedoms. Proud husband …” she paused for dramatic effect. “And dad.”

“Give me a break, Barbara. We’re in crisis mode.”

“Views expressed are entirely my own,” she quoted. My whole feed was retweets from GOA.

“So what? I agree with my employer’s perspective. I’m helping to amplify our voice.”

“When was the last time you read her a story?” she asked.

“I’m working to ensure that she grows up in a world where the right to bear arms isn’t …” This was over-the-top even for me, and I changed course. “I had a terrible day. I’m too beat.”

Barbara rested her hand on my shoulder, then left. I turned back to Twitter and, Barbara’s sarcasm in mind, retweeted a piece about how most Americans opposed gun control directly from the Fox News website, rather than from GOA’s feed.

That’d show her.

 

 

The first thing that went wrong at the meeting the next day was that Mechler didn’t show up. “This is Mechler’s meeting,” I informed Rachel, unable to hide my desperation. This earned me another Really?! look.

“He had to go to the Hill,” she replied, dialing the polycom into the conference line. “He said he’d try to call in.”

The second thing that went wrong was that Harris Cooger and his assistant were right on time. Their incongruity with the staid conference room jarred me. Cooger was built like a bull: trapezoidal face, massive forearms. With a long gray beard and angry green eyes, it was like being stared down by Gandalf the Grey fresh out after serving a tenner at Soledad Prison. His assistant, introduced as Billy, looked like the guy who runs the Ferris wheel at a parking lot carnival. Crank thin, with a lazy eye and weak mustache of sandy fuzz, the word that came inevitably to mind was peckerwood.

When Barrone charged in five minutes late, however, he appeared unfazed by the visitors. “Let’s go,” he ordered. Oversized bifocals perched on his bulbous nose, he peered around the room with hostility, baring incisors like crooked fenceposts. Acne or chicken pox had left his cheeks cratered with pockmarks and when he yelled, face reddening with fury, it felt like being attacked by the world’s biggest, meanest strawberry.

“Mechler here,” came the static-y voice through the polycom. I had just enough time to be relieved before he continued, “I may have to go suddenly. Coffman should lead.”

Barrone turned to me, but I couldn’t take my eyes off Cooger and Billy. They frightened me.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Cooger said, and with his penetrating gaze I could believe this was literally true. I shivered.

“Don’t confuse appearance for competence,” said Billy, sounding a thousand times more educated than he looked. “Like everyone else in America, we’re businessmen. We portray the image most of our clients expect.” He gave that a beat to sink in, then declared, “We can help you.”

Barrone raised his eyebrows.

“Our approach is unorthodox,” said Cooger.

“Progress can’t always be measured,” Billy elaborated. “Sometimes only felt.”

Barrone, desperate for anything that might help us, appeared fascinated. My discomfort grew.

“But what do you do?” asked Mechler, somewhere on Capitol Hill and oblivious to the atmosphere in the room.

“I focus,” Cooger answered. “My attention: my thought, will, and desire. I focus, and I nudge.”

“Nudge?” asked Barrone, eyes narrowing. “Like Cass Sunstein?”

“I nudge circumstance. I nudge karma. In a particular direction. Tell them, Billy.”

“He makes bad things happen,” Billy explained.

Barrone looked intently at Harris. “We need a bad thing to happen to the President.”

Harris didn’t flinch. “Yes.”

I felt deeply uneasy. We were desperate, sure, but this was crazy.

Barrone said, “It could be any number of things.”

“Don’t suggest specifics. I can’t control what happens, or when.”

“In an essentially probabilistic, quantum universe,” Billy explicated, “there’s no way to predict.” His lazy eye drifted upward, as if in heavenly rapture.

“Like I said, I nudge,” continued Cooger. “When the bad thing happens, I can’t prove causation. You, the client, must accept that if something occurs within the term of the contract, we caused it.”

“I can live with that,” said Barrone. I hadn’t realized Barrone was ready for a Hail Mary like this.

Mechler’s voice chimed in from the ether. “Coffman’s idea to bring you in was out-of-the-box, I’ll give you that.” I cringed. “But I’ll ask again: what do you do?”

I needed to correct the record, but was spellbound as Cooger leaned closer and answered with a question of his own. “Do you know that dark, murky place at the edge of your nightmares?”

“I don’t dream,” announced Mechler.

“I don’t sleep,” Barrone boasted.

I’d never thought of it this way, but knew exactly what Cooger meant. I whimpered, “Yes.”

Cooger looked at me. So did Billy … or, at least, he swiveled his head in my direction. “Have you noticed that’s where all the bad things emerge from?”

I hadn’t noticed, but believed it if these two said so.

“That’s the place I go,” said Cooger.

“It’s a bad place,” Billy added, underscoring the obvious in a way that gave me chills.

“I’ve heard enough,” said Barrone. “Mechler.” There was no response. “Mechler?” Nothing but static. Mechler was gone. “Coffman.” Barrone gave me the look I’d always found so scary before encountering Harris Cooger’s Manson lamps. “Make it happen.”

 

 

Cooger and Billy left surprisingly professional paperwork, even as their contract more resembled a tour rider. They planned to pitch a tent in Lafayette Square, across from the White House. (I wouldn’t have thought proximity mattered, but didn’t want to ask.) The contract stipulated that GOA would pay for the tent and chairs, food and lodging, modest daily fees, and a hefty bonus payable when and if the bad thing happened.

This was Mechler’s project, right, so I didn’t sweat the details. I sent the contract down to get our boilerplate added: indemnification and all the other legal hoo-ha that GOA included to cover its ass. I told the finance people this was a favor for Mechler, but of course the final document came back for my signature. It sat on my desk until Rachel buzzed to inquire, on Barrone’s behalf, as to its status. So I signed it myself, then moved back to the other 75 million projects on my plate.

At home, a few nights later, with Barbara and I snugly ensconced at opposite ends of our king bed, I started to think about the situation again. What might “the bad thing” turn out to be? Was it possible that Harris Cooger could harm the President of the United States by sitting in a tent and “nudging circumstance?” It was a nice fantasy. I hated President Smith. He was smug, corrupt, incompetent, and gravely mistaken about the direction the country should go. Maybe the harm wouldn’t be physical. Impeachment, for instance. Unlikely given the Other Party’s control of Congress, but you never knew. Or, even better, criminal prosecution. President Smith in prison, now that was a fitting fate: getting fucked up the ass the same way he’d done to the country.

But President Smith was only one guy. We needed to change people’s views. For that, the undeniable truth was that nothing was more effective than an attack. But only if it fit a certain profile. Not another 9/11 or Boston Marathon thing: guns needed to be involved. And the perpetrator needed to be a terrorist; some random nutjob wouldn’t do. Maybe one of those batshit crazy ISIS people. At a school. And the entire thing — kids’ screams, Allah Akbars, the whole caboodle — broadcast on Facebook Live. Maybe the guy could even say, “Too bad no one’s armed or you could stop me” before firing … say it in both Arabic and English, just to beat everyone over the head with it.

I didn’t wish for it. But if such a tragedy occurred, GOA would be foolish not to take full advantage. With thoughts of what such an incident would do to national polling numbers, I drifted into slumber.

I awoke in the downstairs room that I’d set up after my last promotion. Barbara called it a man-cave, but it was a home theatre. Either way, the room was all wrong: its angles off, the edges hazy and darkened like a far-off horizon.

Suddenly, Harris Cooger materialized out of the wall. He appraised the surroundings. “Nice place, Mr. Coffman.”

“I see what you did there,” I told him. “You came from the dark, murky place. Didn’t you?”

He smiled. “Let me ask you something, Mr. Coffman.”

“Call me Brad.”

He scrutinized me. “Won’t it bother you if people die?”

“The world would be a better place without President Smith.”

“What about those kids you were thinking about?”

“Yes, but …” I paused, but only for a beat. “Give me a break, Harris. We’re in crisis mode.”

“I’d hate to burden your conscience with the idea that, by hiring me, you share responsibility for what happens.”

“Then why mention it?”

“You might have thought of it yourself one day,” Cooger responded. “After the bad thing happens. When it’s too late to undo. Then you’d have to face it alone.”

“Face what alone? The view from my new Deputy VP’s office?”

“No.” He pointed his thumb back behind him. “Face that alone.” The walls of the room roiled like a stormy sea, flashed like lightning. Terror seized me. “Take my hand, Mr. Coffman. Come with me to the dark, murky place.” A bloodcurdling scream from behind the wall pierced the air, punctuating his invitation. “I have things to show you.”

As if hypnotized, I reached out my arm to take his hand. Then I came to my senses and jerked it back. “What is this, a Stephen King movie? No fucking way, dude. And I thought I told you to call me Brad.”

Cooger appraised the room again: gargantuan flat-screen TV, custom-built wall unit, Bose speaker system, leather seats. “This must be a great little escape.”

I scanned the still-churning wall apprehensively. “Can you make that stop, please?”

“How often do you get to enjoy this place?”

I shrugged and he shook his head. “What’s the point if you never get to use it?” He snapped his fingers. “Ah, it’s not really for using, is it?” I said nothing, but he’d hit on some truth. “I bet what this room represents gives you far more pleasure than using it ever could. That’s true of a lot of things that are yours, isn’t it?” Again, he gave me a few seconds to mull it over before he went on. “But it all has a cost. None of it’s free.”

“Free?” He’d touched a nerve, and I was tired of his presumptuous clairvoyant moralizing. “Of course none of it’s free. I earn it, every penny, by slogging through shit 70 hours a week!”

He met my anger with a spot-on mimic of Rachel’s Really?! expression, which brought home to me the way I’d described my job. The dark, murky place mocked me with the sound of automatic rifle fire, and all my fear turned to rage. Cooger laughed and disappeared into the wall. In a mix of fury and catharsis, I screamed after him, “Slogging through shit! Slogging through shit!”

That was when Barbara tapped my shoulder and woke me up. “Your phone’s going off,” she yawned. “And you were mumbling about hogging the zit, or jogging to quit, or something.” Once I was sufficiently conscious to make those infernal gunshots cease, she rolled back over.

I basked in relief: my encounter with Cooger was a dream. Then I checked the phone. The message was from Mechler. Whats happening w psychic initiative, he’d written. At 2:14 am. Was he under the illusion that I reported to him, or just being sarcastic? Either way: what an asshole.

Barbara emitted a snore that sounded like a dismissive snort. I got out of bed. Something about the dream sent me to Sarah’s room. I crept in and nestled into the glider by her little bed, placing the phone on her dresser.

Unlike Barbara, Sarah’s sleep was silent. They say that small children change incredibly fast, and the times I’d been away for work I noticed something different about her each time I returned. But I could never put my finger on what precisely changed. In the glow of the nightlight, her face looked ageless. I could envision her as an eight-year old, a 16-year old, a grown woman. I saw the future in her features and wondered, as I hadn’t since her birth, about the person she’d become.

The sound of gunshots disturbed my reverie. I swatted for the phone and knocked it to the floor. I stood up and nearly tripped over it, catching myself on the edge of Sarah’s bed.

“Mama?”

“Sarah, it’s just me. Daddy. Goddammit.” Had I kicked the phone? Where had the stupid thing gone?

“Mama! Mama!” Her panic grew.

“It’s OK, Sarah. It’s Daddy.” I reached under her bed, groping, and managed to push it further away. The artillery barrage continued, my daughter’s room transformed into a scene from Saving Private Ryan.

“Ma-MAAA!” came the full-on shriek. “Ma-MAAA!”

“Sarah, chill, OK?” My fingers felt the phone and I got down on my belly for the extra reach to grab it.

I heard footfalls. The light came on and Barbara’s voice said, “Honey, it’s OK. Mama’s here, Mama’s here.”

“Ma-maaa!” The cry changed from fear to relief as Sarah leapt out of bed and ran to her.

I finally grabbed the phone and stood triumphantly, only to be confronted by a squinting, angry Barbara. Sarah sobbed, her face buried in Barbara’s shoulder.

“Would you turn that thing off?” Barbara demanded. The cessation of gunfire was bliss. “What are you doing in here?”

“I wanted …” This would be difficult to explain. “I came in here to …”

“You woke up a three-year old,” she said, in the tone she might use to inform me that I’d put my underwear on over my pants. “And me. Again.”

“It was an accident.” I peered at my phone.

“Brad!”

“It’s from Barrone,” I told her. I expect status report on Cooger at 3:30 staff meeting.

“I don’t care if it’s from God.”

Sarah, groggy and disoriented, released her death grip on Barbara. “Daddy?”

“Comfort your daughter, maybe?” Barbara said.

“Sure, yeah, hold on.” Got it. Will do. I thumbed back.

Barbara plopped down in the glider, Sarah on her lap.

“I can take her,” I offered.

“No! I want Mama!” Sarah exclaimed.

Barbara shot me a withering look. “Shut the light when you leave.”

 

 

My terrible night’s sleep didn’t mitigate the work I needed to do. Late the next morning, I took an Uber the half mile from GOA’s office to Lafayette Square. It was bright and sunny, warm for the season. The streets were filling with office drones. Lunchtime in downtown DC was a cattle call. Fortunately, I stayed busy enough to eat at my desk and avoid the whole scene.

If you’ve ever walked by Lafayette Square you know that, besides tourists congregating for White House pictures and suit-and-tie types scurrying between buildings, there are always protesters of one variety or another, some with tents. Cooger’s tent — a miniature version of the backyard type people rent for weddings, white with a fake window, about eight feet square — stood out. It was far classier than the others, and the only one without signs. Billy sat in front of it, sketching on a pad.

“He inside?” I asked, trying to peer in.

“He’s at lunch,” Billy told me. He scribbled strange symbols. Was he creating the proper aura for Cooger’s work? Inscribing an occult incantation to weaken the President? Preparing for his weekly Dungeons & Dragons group? Whatever it was, I noticed he was doing it on stationery from the Four Seasons, the most expensive hotel in town.

“Where?”

“He likes that place up a few blocks.” He gestured, his eye still on the pad. “The steak place.”

“The steak place.” This was supremely unhelpful in narrowing it down. But I had a hunch and headed up to K Street. Capitol Steak and Seafood was one of the priciest restaurants around, and I found Cooger alone at a table for four. A platter of surf and turf, largely consumed, rested before him. Various side dishes — mashed potatoes, mushrooms, asparagus — littered the table. A nearby chiller held a bottle of white wine, though there was red in his glass.

“Brad,” he greeted me cheerily. “Long time.” He winked in a creepy way that made me wonder whether my dream the previous night was truly the product of my own subconscious. But that was ridiculous.

“Just checking on things,” I stammered, standing next to his table like a supplicant.

“Doing your due diligence. Smart.” He put a forkful of steak into his mouth and chewed thoughtfully. “I must say: this place is good, but not quite up to the standard of the hotel restaurant.”

“You mean at the Four Seasons?”

Cooger nodded, then raised a mocking eyebrow. “Maybe I’m not the only one around here with special powers?”

“You are staying there,” I chided.

“We’ve got to stay somewhere.”

“I saw your assistant,” I told him. “He was writing in some kind of runic script.”

Cooger guffawed, displaying strands of expensive beef trapped between his teeth. “It’s not runic script, Brad. It’s math. Complex math. Billy may look like he flunked out of carny school, but he’s got a Ph.D. in astrophysics from Caltech.”

“Then why is he minding a tent for you?”

Cooger shrugged. “More lucrative and less taxing, I suppose.”

“How is it going?” I was unable to hide my sarcasm. “Working hard?”

“Sure am,” he responded. Eyes twinkling, he asked, “How is your work going, Brad? Enjoying your job?” He forked another bloody nugget of steak into his mouth.

“You know,” I said. “I recall that when Jesus faced down the Devil, he slept out in the desert and fasted for 40 days. He didn’t stay at the Four Seasons and go out for surf and turf and Bordeaux at 11:30 in the morning.”

“I’m not Jesus.”

“Clearly.”

A tuxedoed waiter approached the table. “More wine, Mr. Cooger?”

“Yes, please, Hector.” We watched him refill the glass in silence.

After Hector departed, Cooger sipped his wine and looked at me seriously. “Brad, I need my strength for facing down the dark, murky place. It all helps: rest, sustenance, even a little libation. Let me tell you what it’s like there.” He gestured with his fork. “It’s like a prison, but an alluring one. Full of tormented souls who can’t leave.”

I couldn’t help it. “The dark, murky place is the Hotel California?”

“No, Brad. It’s a dangerous place, and one that can wear you down until you’re nothing but an empty shell.” He nudged the remains of his lobster with his fork and pursed his lips. “Have you ever spent time in a place like that? Can you imagine how it saps your soul?”

I checked my watch. I needed to get back to the office. “No, not really.”

The waiter returned to the table, carrying another massive slab of meat.

“Thank you, Hector. Could you wrap that up, please?” Cooger caught my stare and explained, “Billy needs to eat, too.”

“Can’t he go to Cosi?”

“I think the Gun Owners of America can afford a steak. Anyhow, Brad, we’ve got things well in hand here.” Cooger smiled. “But look, all this food, and I didn’t offer you anything.” He scanned the table. “Want some mushrooms? I’m not going to finish them.”

“How about you bring them for Billy?” I quipped.

“Good idea. Thanks, Brad.”

 

 

One doesn’t become an Associate VP at a trade association without the requisite bullshitting skills. Which is to say I survived my status report on the project that afternoon. But I was uneasy.

I was right to be.

About a week later, Rachel appeared at my office door. “Harris Cooger is here to meet with Barrone.”

I jumped up.

“Did you know about this?” she demanded, though I was clearly shocked.

We rushed to Barrone’s office. Somehow, some way, Mechler was already there. God, I hated him.

Cooger was euphoric. “Gentlemen, I’m happy to report success.”

“What’s happening?” asked Mechler.

“You’ll know within 24 hours.”

What’s happening?” demanded Barrone.

Cooger chuckled. “I can’t tell you.”

“Why not?”

“Well, Billy would say that it’d disturb the space-time continuum. My explanation is it would be unwisely fucking with karma. Either way, you’ll find out soon enough.”

Barrone glowered. “Cute.” He pushed a button on his desk phone. “Get me public affairs. Wiggins, anything big happening now?”

“Like … like what?” came the voice of GOA’s public affairs director, nonplussed.

“Like anything big!” snarled Barrone.

“Biggest story today is the Instagram sex thing with that reality TV star. Slow news day …” Wiggins trailed off and I imagined him wincing, waiting for Barrone to chew him out for whatever he’d missed. Instead, Barrone buzzed off without another word and glared triumphantly.

Cooger laughed. “Just remember you heard from me first.” He proffered a thin white envelope. “I’ll expect payment by the first of next month.”

I grabbed the envelope. The total charges, including all those nights in a five-star hotel and all that steak and wine, must be off the charts. Barrone would blow a gasket. And who knows what nefarious uses Mechler would find for such an invoice.

After Cooger left, Barrone commanded, “Find out what he’s talking about.”

I spent the rest of the afternoon trying. I called my friends on the Hill, checked in with the reporters I knew, even utilized my weak connections at the Smith White House. There was nada. Mechler also turned up blank. Barrone fumed.

My sleep that night was abysmal. I kept checking my phone for news alerts. Barrone messaged me and Mechler hourly to see if we’d heard anything. On her side of the bed, Barbara tossed and turned, until at some ungodly hour she yanked off the blanket and said, “Maybe you should pick up a dozen roses and play some Barry White for your phone, since you’re planning to make sweet love to it all night long.” She grabbed her pillow and departed the bedroom.

The next day, midafternoon, Rachel sent an e-mail ordering staff to assemble in the conference room. The President had announced a press conference, and Barrone wanted us to watch live. Whatever Harris Cooger had done, this was it.

“Sit next to me,” Barrone said. He attempted a smile. It would have been a proud moment save that Mechler already sat on Barrone’s other side.

To our surprise, as we watched on the big screen, the President and First Lady trudged to the podium together. They looked grim.

One of my colleagues yelled, “Resign!” to general amusement.

“Ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon,” President Smith began. “Cindy and I come before you today with heavy hearts.”

Barrone muttered, “Whatever weighs down their hearts lightens mine.” I chuckled.

“Many of you know,” said the President, “that Jeannie, our daughter, has struggled with leukemia. We’ve just received news that the cancer has returned in an extremely aggressive form. It’s metastasized to her lungs, liver, and brain. Doctors have no suggested treatment, and we’re making arrangements for her last days to be as comfortable as possible.”

Our collective mirth vanished, we all looked at the floor. The First Lady began speaking about her memories of Jeannie as a small child. Barrone’s jaw clenched audibly. “Clear the room now,” he ordered. “Rachel, you stay, along with Mechler, Wiggins, and Coffman.”

When everyone was gone, he turned to us. “So this is what Harris Cooger has done for us. Coffman, do you know what you’ve accomplished here?”

Mechler began to interject. “Don’t forget, I also had s …”

“You have totally fucked up everything!” Barrone roared. I’d witnessed Barrone furious — at me, at others, at the world — many times, but never like this. “Do you know what this means?” he screamed. “He will be untouchable now. He’ll have the sympathy of the whole goddamned nation! I can picture it already. The Jeannie Smith Gun Control Bill. Honoring the legacy of the President’s poor deceased daughter.” He pounded the table with his fist. “Who can stand against that?”

Nobody dared speak, except Mechler, who offered, “I knew Coffman’s idea would never work.”

This was a step too far. I needed to let him have it. “Mechler, you f…”

“Shut up, Coffman,” Barrone said, with a look to wilt flowers, turn green grass to yellow husks, and transform butterflies to smoking black cinders falling from the sky. Then he dropped his voice to a chilling whisper.

“Let me tell you two things that will happen now. First, tomorrow morning, bright and early, we’ll meet with Harris Cooger again, and he’ll begin reversing this thing. Stat. Rachel, make it happen.” He paused for a breath. “Second, damage control.”

 

 

I sat in my home study that night, working on my Twitter account. Demonstrating I was still a team player by retweeting GOA’s stuff was like trying to fill the Pacific Ocean with a teaspoon. But it was something to do.

When Barbara peeked in the doorway, I didn’t wait for her to speak.

“I know,” I said, “it’s getting close to Sarah’s bedtime.”

“Read her a story, Brad. Play dolls with her.” Her voice surprised me with its softness. “She wants to spend time with you. And I bet it’ll take your mind off things.”

“Today was miserable.”

She saw the stricken expression on my face. “Is it Jeannie Smith?”

I nodded.

“Such a tragedy for that poor girl, and her parents.”

I looked at her, surprised, not by the sentiment she’d expressed but by her thinking the tragic aspect of it had anything to do with my shitty day. She met my look, then her eyes cut over to my screen. She shook her head.

“Oh, Brad. No.”

You’d think she’d caught me posting on Ashley Madison or looking for prostitutes. All I’d done was tweet GOA’s meme and hashtag.

Guns don’t kill people, cancer does. #RIPJeannie.

“What’s wrong with it?”

“Brad, if you don’t know …” Her voice was taut.

“We don’t want people to lose sight of the real issue,” I explained.

Barbara didn’t respond. She threw up her hands as she walked out of the room.

I yelled after her. “I’m amplifying our voice. Give me a break, Barbara. We’re in crisis mode. Our meme will go viral. Our hashtag will trend. Wait and see!”

 

 

“It’s simple, really,” Barrone said. “Undo it.”

It was 8:30 the next morning and Mechler, Barrone, and I were back in the conference room. Cooger and Billy’s luggage was piled against the wall. Job done, they were headed for the airport.

“It’s not that easy,” Billy responded.

“You made it happen, didn’t you?” Barrone challenged.

Cooger shrugged. He looked rather proud of himself.

“Our contract stipulates you accept that we did,” Billy answered, one eye focused on us while the other checked the corner for dust mites.

“So you can undo it.”

Cooger and Billy said nothing.

“We’ll pay you double,” Barrone offered. “Triple!”

He didn’t quite understand the financial commitment this would entail … most of it, if the previous contract was any guide, for high thread count sheets and sommelier service. “Um,” I ventured, “we might want to …”

“Shut up, Coffman.”

“I’d love to take more of your money,” said Cooger, “but I can’t reverse it.”

“Why not?”

“It’s complicated. Billy?”

“He only does the dark, murky place,” Billy explained. “He’s, like, a bad stuff specialist.”

Mechler snorted. “So put us in touch with a good stuff specialist.”

Cooger and Billy exchanged glances. “I suppose there’s someone we can recommend. But she’s on a three-month retreat in the Himalayas. It’ll take time to reach her.”

“We don’t have time,” Barrone hissed through gritted teeth.

“Honestly,” Cooger said, “you’re better off not going with a third-party vendor on this.” He looked at me. “From a karmic perspective, the best thing is for the person who desired the harm to seek to undo it himself.”

“That means one of you guys,” Billy added.

Barrone, Mechler, and I exchanged looks.

“Coffman,” said Mechler.

“Mechler,” I said.

Coffman,” barked Barrone.

“What about you, Mr. Barrone?” Billy suggested. “After all, you’re the b …” He stopped talking as his own boss laid a hand on his shoulder and shook his head.

“Coffman,” Cooger decreed.

They all looked at me, like a pack of drooling wolves who’d cornered a cute little bunny rabbit with a fluffy white tail.

“What does he need to do?” asked Barrone. “Is there some shiny, happy place he needs to go to?” He eyed me ominously. “Even shinier and happier than GOA?”

“Do I get all-you-can-eat surf and turf?” I asked. Everyone ignored me.

“The most important thing,” Cooger said, “is to find a peaceful spot and focus. You must eliminate all distraction and relax.”

“We can help him relax,” Barrone said, then yelled, “Rachel, get in here now! Take Coffman’s phone. Lock his office door.” Rachel shot me a sympathetic look as I meekly handed over my phone. “And move all meetings downstairs. Nothing in this conference room.”

“Think of it like prayer,” said Cooger. “Gather all your feelings of benevolence, goodwill, and lovingkindness, and send them to Jeannie Smith and her parents.”

“Ugh.” Barrone grimaced.

“Or meditation. Have you ever tried meditation, Mr. Coffman?” Cooger asked.

Even if I had tried that hippie BS, I’d never admit it in front of Barrone and Mechler. Though Barbara did yoga at the gym sometimes. At least I thought it was yoga. Maybe she’d said Zumba.

“This is like meditation,” Cooger explained, “except your point of focus isn’t your breath or a mantra, it’s the good things you want to happen. For instance, you can picture Jeannie’s sickness as dark clouds, and envision the sun burning them off. It’s important to imagine Jeannie and the President and First Lady as healthy, happy, smiling, laughing …”

“I think I’m going to be sick,” muttered Barrone.

Billy held his watch up close to his face and nudged Cooger.

“We’ll miss our flight if we don’t get going. Questions, Mr. Coffman?”

“Um.”

“Very good.” Cooger smiled, satisfied.

Everyone except me stood up. Cooger and Billy grabbed their bags.

“Make it happen, Coffman,” Barrone ordered, exiting after them.

“Good luck, Coffman,” Mechler gleefully called, following the boss.

I admit: flipping my middle finger at his retreating back wasn’t the best way to begin my quest for lovingkindness. But the bastard deserved it.

 

 

Not yet 9:00 am, and I considered the day I’d expected to have. There was a ton to do and I couldn’t do any of it. Deadlines would be missed. People would be angry. Barrone waltzed out without making any provision for my workload. Didn’t any of it matter?

Now my job was to “nudge circumstance.” Not a bad description for much of GOA’s work, honestly. This realization led to a moment of despair, but only a moment. Barrone considered what I was doing high-priority. He’d cleared the conference room for me, after all, which — given the volume of meetings around this place — would inconvenience practically everyone. If this work was indeed important, I ought to give it a try, as idiotic and — come to think of it — humiliating as it seemed.

I sat back in my chair and closed my eyes. Good things for Jeannie Smith, I thought. Good things for Jeannie Smith. I pictured the words running across the darkness behind my eyelids, like one of those stupid scrolling tickers every TV newscast has taken to using.

Repeating this phrase was like counting sheep, with the same effect. When I next opened my eyes, it was 10:30. I was embarrassed. I was also desperate for caffeine and needed to drain my main vein something fierce. But as I walked past Rachel’s desk, her head swiveled up in dismay.

“Brad,” she whispered, “you’re not supposed to leave the conference room.”

“I haven’t had any coffee.”

She glanced toward Barrone’s office. “He will flip his shit if he sees you.”

“And the bathroom’s not optional, either.”

“You need to get back in there now.”

This made me angry. “Do you want me to piss in the conference room coffee pot? My bodily functions don’t cease at Barrone’s command.”

In a huff, I went to the men’s room, relieved my bladder, and washed up. Then I headed to the kitchen, grabbed the largest cup I could find, and filled it with coffee. Rachel and I stared each other down as I walked back the other way.

In the conference room again, I hesitated over the coffee I’d so eagerly sought. My little catnap had been nice. Maybe I could arrange more. I sat back, closed my eyes, and tried again with the Good things for Jeannie Smith stuff. At first I was too irked by Rachel’s behavior and, now that I thought about it, by the way we all tiptoed around Barrone. I knew the guy was a superstar, and yeah, he was the boss. But did he have to be a complete asshole all the time?

Eventually I drifted off again, and when a soft knock at the door woke me, it was nearly 1:00 pm. I felt good. Sleep was underrated, especially when you took away the threat of being woken up by an automatic rifle fire ringtone. I went to the door. Outside, on the floor, was lunch from Sushi Bob’s in a plastic container.

Though ravenous, I ate slowly, savoring Rachel’s act of kindness along with the food. Why couldn’t there be more kindness around here, I wondered, instead of Mechler’s backstabbing and Barrone’s malevolence? Weren’t we all on the same side? I regretted my gruffness with Rachel. It occurred to me what an extraordinary job she did, tolerating Barrone’s moody browbeating and running interference for the rest of us. She was remarkable.

Maybe, I thought, I should take some of these warm fuzzies and aim them at the First Family.

Yeah, right. My mind wanted to go everywhere but there.

As I polished off my lunch, I thought about how I needed to lose weight. Sushi was kind of healthy, right? Maybe I’d already taken the first step.

I followed the motion of the second hand around the clock … four revolutions before I took my eyes away.

I mentally catalogued my retirement investments. Were they properly diversified? This was an issue worth revisiting once I escaped this room. Along with the weight thing.

I counted. Several times. Once almost to 1,000.

After an eternity, I tiptoed out of the conference room. Rachel was gone, Barrone’s office dark. I dumped my stale coffee in the kitchen, then rummaged through the fridge and wolfed down someone’s leftover pasta that they’d probably planned to have for lunch the next day. Well fuck ‘em, I thought, a guy’s gotta eat. But then I felt sorry — what happened to all those kindness vibes? — so I washed the container and put it back in the fridge with a $20 bill inside.

I hadn’t been aware of the hum of the building’s ventilation system, but I noticed its absence when it shut down at 9:00 pm. The silence grew profound when I flipped off the fluorescent lights and lay down on the conference room floor. In the dim quiet, I stared at the ceiling tiles and felt like a prisoner locked in his cell. Except nothing stopped me from leaving: to a restaurant for a real dinner, to a bar for a drink or ten, even home for a few hours’ rest in my own bed … or, given things with Barbara, on one of our many couches.

I didn’t move.

I awoke when the ventilation system kicked back on at 6:00 am, after the most solid, peaceful night of sleep I could remember. As I strode through the empty office, the physical exertion added to my wellbeing. It occurred to me that, at home, Barbara would already be awake and pounding away on the Stairmaster. Did she get a high from exercise? Surely it wasn’t solely fear of a few extra pounds that kept her motivated. Fear could only get a person up in the morning for so long. Soon Sarah would rise and … did she have daycare today? Or was it only afternoons? I couldn’t remember. Photos of the two of them hung in my office. I made casual small talk with coworkers about them. But they were there, and I was here, and that was that.

It would be different for President Smith. He lived and worked in the same place, and his wife and daughter were part of the endeavor. GOA endlessly made hay on social media with all the sordid stories about the First Family: the accusations, conspiracy theories, claims of corruption. It wasn’t enough for people to disagree with the President’s policy positions. They needed to hate him. Even better if they hated his whole family. That was how to mobilize action. It was also, I realized with the morning’s clarity, a good way to keep those of us who ought to know better motivated through an endless crisis.

I sat down in the conference room again and tried once more to do what Cooger had suggested. I imagined the corniest image ever: President and Mrs. Smith frolicking — I apologize for that word, but it’s the right one — through a green field, holding their daughter’s hand. The sun shone, wildflowers bloomed. Puffy white clouds drifted lazily overhead, stolid bumblebees and delicate butterflies flew hither and thither. Total cliché. A scene you’d see on TV only as dreamy irony or a Claritin commercial.

Then it happened: the First Couple transformed into Barbara and me. Jeannie shrank down to the size of a three-year old and became Sarah. She grinned up at us.

It was that image, equally heartbreaking and stupid, that sent me into the mental time warp. Days passed. I didn’t worry about my work, ponder what else to scavenge from the office kitchen, or watch the second-hand travel around the clock. Uninterrupted by the ding of e-mails, the constant Twitter refresh, or the dreaded gunfire ringtone, my mind settled into focused, concentrated thought.

I wished good things for Jeannie Smith. I wished them for her parents, and for the parents of all the imaginary kids I’d envisioned gunned down, whoever they were. And the kids themselves: what had I been thinking, more worried about poll numbers than actual lives? I wished good things for Sarah and Barbara. For Rachel. For Wiggins. My kindness, my magnanimity, seemed boundless.

But of course there was a limit. I hit it when my attention turned to Mechler. The gushing fountain of lovingkindness abruptly sputtered to impotence. I tried again. Total failure to launch.

Then I thought about Barrone, a man to whom I’d devoted more attention than to my own wife and daughter. A man who kept me, kept all of us, in constant fear and stress. Around whom we slavishly maintained a cult of personality. Like some tin pot dictator, the more absurd his ideology and outrageous his demands, the more we loved him. All so that he might bestow on us … what? In my case, a Deputy VP slot that meant more abuse at his hands.

How could a person live like he did? Constant work, continuous agitation … his physical condition must make my office pudge look like Olympic triathlete. I imagined his arteries, clogged and brittle. His heart, angry and swollen. Pounding through meetings where he growled and glared, phone calls where he screamed into the receiver, nights he spent firing off one angry message after another. How long could his heart hold out? It was miles away from kindness, but I began imagining that heart of his going kablooey.

Then I started to desire it.

This was much easier, and a hell of a lot more fun, than imagining good things for Jeannie Smith or anyone else. I was like Harris Cooger in that regard: a natural bad stuff specialist. Circumstance, or karma, or whatever, must have recognized it, because the wall I’d hit became real. It wavered and flashed and pulled me in: finally, I entered the dark, murky place.

Inside was cavernous: the illumination orange and shuddering, as if torchlit. It was like no place I’d ever been, yet somehow familiar. A distant chanting put me in mind of the movies. Was this the Mines of Moria? Some dungeon from Conan the Destroyer? Yogurt’s cave in Spaceballs?

Suddenly it dawned on me.

It was that scene from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom — you know the one — and I was the high priest. On the altar before me rested a giant stone god, hungry for sacrifice. Its eyes and mouth were lit by the glow of molten rock. In my hand, I held my victim’s still-beating heart. Cratered and rotten, just as I’d envisioned Barrone’s, it ejaculated black blood with each feeble throb. I was frozen in place, shocked and disgusted.

I looked up at the statue again. Its face was familiar: pockmarked cheeks, globular nose, crooked teeth. The chanting increased in volume and pitch, and the god’s voice rang in my head: Make it happen, Coffman.

Wait, I thought with dawning horror, if the god is Barrone, who is the victim?

The chanting reached a crescendo. I looked down and gasped as I saw who was in the cage, whose heart I held in my hand. Not Barrone. No, not at all. It was ….

“Coffman. Coffman!”

I opened my eyes. I was back in the conference room. Rachel stood at the door.

“It’s Barrone,” she said, eyes wide. “Brad, it’s bad. He’s …”

I stared at her, the reality of what I’d somehow done sinking in. There was both hope and trepidation in my voice as I asked, “You mean he’s …?”

“He’s incredibly pissed off. Like, beyond the pale, even for him.”

“Uh.”

“Go back to your office,” Rachel told me. “Close the door. Stay away from Barrone right now, OK?”

“What …?”

“Jeannie Smith died this morning,” she said. “Now go.”

 

 

Being in my office felt at once familiar and strange, like moving through your house after returning from a long trip. I checked Fox News: the top headline was Jeannie’s death. I didn’t know how much of it, if any, was my responsibility. But I was sorry.

2,472 unread messages sat in my e-mail inbox. My office phone flashed with 17 new voicemails. On my smartphone, which Rachel had placed next to my computer, were 30 new texts, including 13 from Barrone and 10 from Mechler. Yeah, those idiots kept texting me even after they’d taken the phone away.

There was also a text message from Barbara. Of all that junk, it was the only thing I looked at. She’d sent a silly little photo of herself and Sarah bundled up on a playground bench. Both were smiling. This time, I saw it for what it was: an invitation.

Beautiful, I texted back. I’ll be home soon.

 

 

I wasn’t as talented as Cooger. Barrone lasted 12 more years. It was a stroke that finally did him in, and it happened in the middle of staff meeting. The story I heard is that no one called 911 because they confused the shaking, inability to speak, and contorted face with his normal paroxysms of rage. Mechler, by then quite advanced in the Deputy VP slot we’d both coveted, ascended to Barrone’s position. I saw a photo of him online. He looked terrible, like a snaggle-toothed old fox who’d outrun one too many hounds. There but for the grace of God, I thought.

Sarah’s now about the age Jeannie was when she died and, though she lacks the First Daughter’s celebrity clout, in some ways reminds me of her. Her intelligence, curiosity, passion. I love the way she is, and at the same time can’t wait to see who she’ll become. For one thing, no one would have guessed that Barbara and Brad Coffman’s daughter would be an ardent environmentalist, but that’s where she seems headed as of now.

A few weekends ago, the three of us were on Capitol Hill, going to dinner. We came up from the Metro just as the sun was setting, and I spied a miniature backyard wedding tent outside the Rayburn Building. In front of the tent sat a skinny man who looked like he was sketching in a pad.

“Dad?” Sarah asked.

Though it wasn’t on our way, I approached. The sunlight near-blinded me. I couldn’t make out the man’s features. Then I noticed another man, this one stocky, walking toward us, carrying something. For a moment, I was sure it was Harris Cooger, bringing dinner in a doggie bag to Billy.

“Brad?” asked Barbara.

But when I got close enough, “Billy” turned out to be one of those pestilential Lyndon LaRouche supporters. “Cooger” was just some guy carrying a bag. He walked right by.

We went on to dinner.

Too bad. I would have liked to thank them.

 

 

BIO

Josh Trapani is a scientist turned policy wonk who lives just outside Washington, D.C. He helped start the Washington Independent Review of Books and served as its first managing editor. His fiction and humor have appeared in Parent CoThe Big JewelThe Del Sol ReviewNeutrons ProtonsBrick Moon Fiction, The Higgs Weldon, and others.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

The Dead Doll

by Sola Saar

 

 

I was back in Los Angeles at my mother’s house and very pregnant with my first child.

My younger sister Katrina already had twenty-six children.

She seated several baby dolls at the dining table, then placed tiny sauce bowls and teacups in front of each of them. Katrina put Marissa, a doll she’d been carrying around everywhere for seven years, in a high chair on my right. With her tangled black curls and exaggerated eye makeup drawn on with a thick black Sharpie, Marissa looked like a deranged version of me, a junkie child beauty pageant star whose blank stare evoked more than her manufacturers had originally intended. She taunted me with her permanently raised arms.

My sister began this tribe of dolls when she first discovered medical reality television at fifteen. While she liked shows focused on obesity or various deformities, “The Birthing Channel” was her favorite. It was a channel entirely devoted to playing live births, 24 hours a day. Her addiction to this channel vexed my artist mother, but to me it seemed reasonable for someone whose autism diagnosis allowed her to create a world entirely of her own obsessions. It was one I sometimes envied. The gruesome videos only bothered me when she watched them in the living room.

After school, she’d sit on the couch dunking cookies into her milk, transfixed by the endless loop of women giving birth. The shows were very theatric. Operatic music played as sweaty women wept through their contractions, cat hissing sounded as they lashed out at the nurses, and triumphant trombones blared when they finally pushed out lumps of unformed reddish flesh. I always wanted to look away when walking by, discomfited by people not only abandoning their privacy, but turning it into melodrama, but Katrina liked to dwell in their intimacy. She’d pause the television at the exact moment when the baby disconnected from its mother and run back to her room, leaving us with a still of the parturition.

One night I heard loud groaning noises coming from her room and, feeling concerned, opened the door to check on her. When I entered she was sitting in bed with a doll under her shirt, legs spread, crying murderously as I asked her what she was doing. She held up a bald beige doll with one hand on its head and the other on its bottom and said, “This is my son, Xavier.” She lay back, sweating from her performance, and cradled the thing in a towel.

The next morning, Xavier was at the breakfast table sitting next to Katrina. When asked about the “doll,” she frowned and told the family, “Xavier is not a doll. He just has alopecia and severe growth failure,” as though if he weren’t tiny and bald, we might mistake him for human.

Over the next eight years, she had fifteen more doll-children from the same process and adopted eleven others from around the world. She said she was inspired by a television special on Angelina Jolie.

I had recently gotten a job teaching English at a high school far, far away.

I was home this week because my mother wanted to throw me a baby shower. I told her I’d only been to one baby shower and it had made me anxious. She told me I probably wasn’t eating enough meat.

I stared at my empty bowl and scraped the morsels of oatmeal from the dolls’ tiny saucers. I could only hold down bland food in the morning. My sister had left the dishes for me to wash and retreated back to her room. She’d taken all her dolls except Marissa, who remained in the high chair with oatmeal on her face.

I walked over to her, feeling a need to stroke her matted hair, touch her soft eyelashes. Squeezing her head, I remembered my sister would strap her into a car seat, on top of a heap of her other dolls, and leave them there in the hot sun. I pulled Marissa up by her hair to hold her and her head popped off. I looked down at her body, still stuck in the high chair. Frantically, I tried to screw Marissa’s head back on, believing I could easily reattach it, but it was too loose, and would not affix. I peered down the hollow trunk of her body. Some part had been lost, and her head would only stay on if I sat her in a certain position and leaned it against the back of the chair. I let her rest there and hoped my sister would figure out how to snap it back into place.

“Vera, I need to talk to you,” my mother said, suddenly appearing behind me.

I flinched. “I was just cleaning,” I said, turning around. She stood there in a slinky nightgown with her hair tied up in a silk scarf.

“What are you wearing tomorrow? I know you’ve given up a little since you’ve been pregnant, but no sweatpants at the shower.” I looked down at my black-and-white sweatpants, which had food stains on them.

“I have a dress,” I said.

“Don’t wear black.”

“It’s yellow,” I said. “What are you doing today?”

“I have to take your sister to therapy,” she groaned. “In the valley. Did you ask your husband for a recommendation that’s a little closer?”

“I forgot to,” I said. “He’ll be here Saturday. Why don’t you ask him then?”

She unraveled her scarf and let out her frizzed ringlets. My mother was half- black and half-German, although with her olive skin and green eyes she was usually mistaken for being Latina or sometimes Jewish. I had inherited her hair and my father’s Icelandic complexion, one shade above albino.

“Another thing you might want to think about is that when I got pregnant with you, I was petite, like you. So I had a horrible labor that lasted nine hours.”

“Okay.”

“And I did an entirely natural birth. No drugs,” she added, almost bragging. “I wouldn’t recommend it though, for a first born. I didn’t suffer for your sister, even with her giant head!”

“What?” I asked.

“There are ways of making birth less painful now,” she said. “Prenatal massages, acupuncture, transcendental meditation. I feel like you haven’t done any research. Are you prepared for this child?”

“I stayed up all night watching live births moms posted on the Internet.”

“Wonderful! So now you kind of know what to expect. But it’s going to be so much more excruciating than you could imagine.”

Suddenly Katrina burst into the room carrying a naked decapitated doll.

“Oh no!” she lamented. “My daughter’s dead!”

“What?” I asked.

“Marissa’s dead!” she moaned.

My mom and I paused skeptically for a few uncertain seconds.

“How’d she die?” I asked.

Katrina looked around apprehensively, and then stuttered, “Marissa had to have surgery. She had to have the body repaired because her neck broke. She tried to have the body repaired but it didn’t work on her and so she died.”

“She will be missed,” my mother told her, still primping her hair. “We have to go soon, Katrina. Start getting ready.”

My sister stood there waiting for a reaction, her tall body rocking back and forth. Suddenly, she broke into tears.

“My daughter’s dead!” she bawled.

“Sweetie, you have other children,” my mom consoled her. “It’s okay.”

She let out a long sob, and said, “but Marissa was too young to die” before leaving the room.

“At least she won’t carry around that damn doll anymore,” mom whispered to me.

“Except she has a whole closet full of other dolls,” I reminded her. “Anyway, weren’t we talking about my baby?”

“Right. I have some ideas for shower games I wanted to talk to you about,” she said.

“Like what?”

Katrina burst into the room again, no longer crying.

“I think we should have a funeral!” she said, her eyes widened like a cartoon’s.

My mother took a while to respond. She sometimes indulged my sister’s eccentric requests, reluctantly supporting her for a few minutes before disappearing into a bottle of red wine.

“It sounds like a lot of work,” she said finally. “I don’t have the time. Why don’t you write a nice poem? Vera will help you.”

“But she’s my daughter,” Katrina pleaded.

“I don’t want to,” my mother said.

“But why?”

“Because I’m not throwing a funeral for that doll!”

“She’s not a doll, she’s a midget. Did you make a mistake?”

“No.”

“But she’s a human midget. Did you make a mistake?”

“Sorry. Midget. But I think they like to be called little people.”

“But I think we need to have funerals for humans. So we can move on!”

“Fine! Have the Goddamn funeral!” she said, growing impatient. “But this is your thing. I’m not helping you organize this fucking—” she stopped herself. “I already have Vera’s funeral—I mean baby shower.”

“Let’s have the funeral Saturday!” Katrina said.

“Right after Vera’s baby shower is convenient.”

“Yippee!” my sister said with a firm nod. Still sniveling, darted off to her bedroom.

“Are you really going to go through with this?” I asked.

“I’m going to see what the therapist tells us. But I think it’s a good sign she wants to kill off that creepy doll!”

“I broke it.”

“What?”

“I broke the doll when I was cleaning. It was an accident. It just snapped off. I didn’t think it would kill her.”

My mother gasped and closed the door. My sister had sensitive hearing.

“What did you think, she was just going to go on living without her head like a chicken?” she whispered.

“I don’t know. I thought she’d get another one.”

“It doesn’t work like that. You know how long she’s had this one.”

“I thought you said it was good she was moving on.”

“Well now that I know you killed her, she’s not really moving on.”

“Let’s just not say anything about that.”

“Fine. We’ll take this secret to the grave— no pun intended.”

I rolled my eyes and waddled off to my childhood bedroom.

*

That day I took my mom’s advice and booked a prenatal spa day at a salon downtown. They had a “Pregnant Gal” special that included an 80-minute massage, acupuncture session, and pedicure.

The spa had a custom-formed massage table for a round belly. I tottered over in my towel, which barely covered my backside, and jumped on my tiptoes to hoist myself onto the high table. I opened the door and called for help. A masseuse appeared, toned and groomed, and asked if everything was okay.

“Yeah I’m fine. Can you help me onto the table?” I asked.

She shut the door and took out a stepping stool. She held out her arm and helped me roll onto the table. My towel slipped off in the process.

“I’m sorry,” I said, covering myself with my hands.

“It happens all the time,” she said, smiling at my naked penguin body.

She extracted fresh towels from the cabinet and laid them over my body, mummifying me from my shoulders to my calves. Then she left the room.  I remained frozen on my side, afraid the towel might fall off again. I still had not gotten used to my body— this teetering, temporary body with a stomach so heavy and unbalanced that even the fitted pregnancy table made me feel as though I might topple over.

As I lay staring at a single flaming candle, my neck planted in the moldable pillow, this woman’s hard knuckles fingering my back, I felt my baby girl being to kick. She seemed to like this woman kneading my back much more than I did, because she kicked with more vigor than she had in weeks. Perhaps it was fun, like a rollercoaster, having someone squish the bubble around you, but I felt nauseated by her touch. My baby and I would probably disagree on many things.

“Not so hard, please.” I said to the masseuse. The baby stopped kicking.

She took some warm, pungent oil and smeared it over my neck and back. She told me to turn over and started making tiny circles on my abdomen in a way that was pleasant but alien.

“How many months along are you?” she asked.

“Seven months,” I said with a plastered smile. “It’s my first child.”

“Boy or girl?”

“Girl.”

“It’s a girl!” she beamed. “Aren’t you so excited?”

“Yeah!” I replied, trying out an intonation that was higher pitched than usual. “We are thrilled! We are going to name her Maria.”

She grinned at me, still circling her fingers on my stomach. This baby was already making strangers so happy. I thought pregnancy would have made me happier, given me a sense of instant social validation that would glide me through the day like a fine-tuned compliment, or at least glowing skin. I thought when I satisfied all the important life markers— husband, child, occupation—all by the age of 25, I would have a life that was mine, that didn’t require the constant explanation my own family did. But pretending I was as fulfilled by these things as people expected me to be was exhausting. None of these things were for me, the real, true, inner me, they were just feeding some idealized version of me that persisted despite her dysfunctional family.

“What does your husband do?” she asked.

“He’s a psychiatrist,” I said.

“Oh! A doctor!” she gasped.

“I guess psychiatrists are technically doctors,” I said. “I mean most of them are drug dealers really. He’s not like that, but his cohort is full of the absolute worst people.”

She furrowed her brows and began pounding her fists on my arms. Perhaps it wasn’t the time for my opinions on the pharmaceutical industry. I looked at my arms; they had grown so plump in the last few months. My whole body had swelled like a mosquito bite. I wondered if I’d ever get my 23-inch waist back, or if after giving birth my stomach would deflate like a hot air balloon and I’d just be left with a sack of skin I’d have to lift up to wash.

“You live around here?” she asked.

“No I live in New York. I’m here for my baby shower.”

“How fun! We just threw one for my daughter’s best friend. My daughter’s a little older than you. Hasn’t found anyone yet, though. It’s hard.”

“Yeah, it’s hard.”

“All of her friends are married. I think she’s too picky.”

“Hmm, well, it’s good to be picky,” I said. “What does she do?”

“She works as an aid to special needs children. She really likes it.”

“Oh, cool. I was going to teach special needs—my younger sister has autism— but I got a job at a private school and took that instead.”

“That must be hard on your parents,” she said, massaging the area underneath my breasts.

“It’s just my mom. My dad lives in Colorado.”

“Oh.”

“And her doll just died.”

“What?”

“She had a doll she carried around all the time, like a child. It died.”

“Oh no! How did it die?”

“Complications from surgery.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay. We’re having a funeral for it the same day of my shower.”

“Really?” she laughed. “A funeral for a doll?”

“Yeah.”

“That’s cute,” she said.

“I just wish it weren’t the same day.”

“Yeah but you’re lucky— you have a husband and a baby on the way and she will never have those things. She’ll never have anything real.” She stopped massaging me.

“Her dolls are just as real to her,” I said.

“Exactly,” she said, patting my belly as though it were a small dog.

“Do you want to take a shower before your pedicure?” she asked.

*

My teenage cousins were playing “Bobbing for Nipples,” a game that substituted baby bottle nipples for apples. Dunking their heads, they bit the baby bottle nipples then released them onto the floor like carnivorous animals tearing through flesh. They were getting the living room all wet.

My husband brought me a large piece of gluten-free cake and started rubbing my back. “I’m so sorry,” he said. I saw he’d poured himself a glass of Rosé.

“I thought you were going to stop drinking out of pregnancy solidarity,” I said.

“I can’t today.”

“This cake tastes like printer paper,” I said, coveting his plate of ribs and fried chicken.

“Want to go next?” my cousins pleaded.

My husband shook his head and watched Katrina seize a bedside table from my mothers’ room and head to the backyard.

“I wish I hadn’t let my mother plan my shower,” I said as she walked over.

My mother told everyone to gather round and announced we were going to play some ‘funny games.’ My aunts came in from the kitchen. My grandmother, who spent family gatherings cleaning up as the party went along, lay back on the armchair opposite me. My mother-in-law sat next to my husband, eyeing his quickly dwindling glass of wine. At once everyone surrounded me, the big fat pregnant lady too delicate to stand up.

My mother had a sly smirk bubbling as she looked at us. “We’re all going to share our most embarrassing story about the parents-to-be! I’ll go first. When Vera was 11 years old, she peed her pants in the school library because she needed to know the ending of some book. Haha! What was the book, Vera?”

“I don’t remember,” I said. “But I wet the bed last week because pregnancy has made me incontinent. There’s my embarrassing story!”

My aunts looked at me as if they weren’t sure I was joking.

“Any more stories?” I prodded. Everyone refused eye contact with me.

“Alright mom, what’s the next game?”

“Well I was going to suggest ‘Guess the Mother’s Measurements,’ but it doesn’t seem as though you’re in the mood to be measured.”

“No, thank you.”

“Okay, how about ‘Pin the diaper on the belly?’”

“Why do all these games involve everyone touching me?”

My husband interrupted her. “Hey, I’ve got an idea. Since you guys are an artistic family, why doesn’t everyone do a sketch of what they think our child would look like? Vera and I will do one as well. I can’t promise mine will be very good but…”

“Mine either,” my cousin, now carrying a bundle of baby bottle nipples, said.

My mother tore out several pages from a sketchbook and passed them around, then went to her room to fetch some pencils.

“Do you have a surface to put under the paper?” my Aunt Jefflyn asked. My cousin handed her a large hardcover book.

For ten minutes everyone was silent. It had been years since I’d drawn anything, but my skills had not left me. My husband showed me his drawing of an asymmetrical being with a mass of curls on its head.”

“That doesn’t even look human,” I said. “It looks like Marissa.”

Katrina emerged from the hallway with an office chair she’d stolen from my mother’s studio. She slid it violently across the hardwood floor.

“Funeral’s starting! Time for Marissa’s funeral!” She lifted the chair above her head and descended to the backyard.

My mother waited until she was out of sight and with a lowered voice said, “It is important for her to ‘bury’ this doll obsession she’s had forever.” She used air quotes. “You can stay if you want, but no pressure.”

“What about my gifts?” I asked, motioning to the pile of unopened presents.

“Actually, I’ve got to get going,” my aunt Sharon said. “I have to pick up Robby from detention.”

Katrina was back in the kitchen collecting chairs for her funeral to bring into the backyard. My other relatives began making excuses to leave, but a couple of my mother’s friends stayed, I think, out of loyalty to her. Katrina emerged from the garage with a misshapen wooden box she’d apparently carpentered last night. It was Marissa’s coffin.

Six humans stayed for the service. Most of the seats were filled with Katrina’s other “adopted children.” Ginger, a Black Raggedy Ann doll, sat on Katrina’s lap. Beside her were David and Yolanda (infant refugees from Syria), and a heap of dolls in the seat next to mine. I sat in the only seat I could fit in, a reclining lawn chair that had a cup holder.

“Full throttle funeral experience,” I uttered, nearly prostrate in the lawn chair. My mother looked down at the notecard with a speech Katrina had prepared. Next to her was Katrina’s best friend Gracie, a girl from her class, and the girl’s aunt, also named Gracie.

“Thank God Marissa is dead!” Aunt Gracie bellowed, laughing. “I hope she buries all of them! Let’s get rid of all these imaginaries!”

“Well I think it’s nice she has these dolls. I remember seeing this one a lot when I babysat her. She just wants company,” our 70-year old neighbor added.

My mother stood up to make her speech. She let out an unapologetic sigh and said, with palpable sarcasm, “Marissa was my granddaughter. She was very kind and I miss her. I think we all miss her because she said nice things to us. Thank you.

I stared at the coffin as Katrina informed the six guests that refreshments were to be served in the kitchen, a slideshow of Marissa’s life to be played. I studied the pamphlet Katrina had created. A square picture of Marissa accompanied her eulogy:

~ Marissa was born on October 26 in Pasadena, CA and diagnosed with primordial dwarfism at birth. She got pink eye when she was 2 because the nanny kept putting makeup on her. She wore gothic makeup, black clothing, and red lipstick. She was a wonderful 1st grader. She likes meditation music, art, and even other things. She wanted to be a writer but she decided to be a teacher to help humans in real life. But she is not in the special needs class. She liked to read and write. She writes “thank u” notes and stuff like that. She was good at painting nails. She used to have playmates. She used to have so much fun. She was a good shopper. Marissa was found suspiciously decapitated in the kitchen on June 17. She was supposed to have the body repaired but it didn’t work on her and so she died. But she was very helpful and she thinks of others. We wish that someone could do lots of things like Marissa. ~

I wondered what she was going to do with the coffin, assuming that actually burying the doll in our backyard would be too much, even for her. I looked around and noticed others staring at the doll coffin, too.

Katrina duct taped a lid over the coffin, shook it to be sure it was securely sealed, and then began digging a hole in the abandoned flowerbed with her bare hands. It was astounding how quickly she plowed through the soil.

“Bye Marissa!” she said, laughing as she packed dirt over her grave.

We moved to the living room and the remaining guests began gathering their belongings.

“It’s not over,” Katrina said, fiddling with the DVD player in the living room. Marissa’s face flashed on the screen, beginning a slideshow of unflattering images of her accompanied by oceanic sounds. After watching for a polite amount of time, I started collecting the dirty paper plates strewn around and all the guests vacated.

“Marissa led a happy life,” Katrina assured herself before returning to her room without warning. “She was a nice midget.”

*

It was thundering that night as I sifted through my baby shower gifts. My husband and I were in my old bedroom on a mattress still fitted with leopard print sheets. He was gradually polishing off the rest of the wine as I made a spreadsheet of everyone’s gifts on my laptop. Someone gave me a breast pump as a gift and my husband pulled it out and held it up in the air like a beer bong.

“You know, this would go faster if you recorded the gifts and names as I went through them,” I said, reading a bib that said Blame my parents. I winced. “What is wrong with my cousin?”

“Usually, you have your girlfriends do that,” he said, squinting. “But you didn’t even invite your friends from high school.”

“I did invite them,” I said. “They didn’t come.”

“What happened to the pretty one we got drinks with?” This was probably the only one he remembered.

“She lives in Ireland. She has for three years.”

“What about Lucy? The lawyer?”

“I told you what happened with her ex’s weird obsession with me.”

“Oh,” he looked around.

“So did anyone get us that crib I put on our registry? I did a lot of research. It’s the safest out of the nicer looking cribs.”

“No, but my mom gave us five hundred dollars.”

“I think it cost more than that,” he said. He squinted as he took another swig from the bottle.

It was easier for me to stop drinking when I learned I was pregnant, because I no longer felt alone in my body. But it was harder for my husband, who would always feel alone in this house.

I unwrapped another square package and pulled out a neon light-up bouncy seat. It screamed animal noises at me. I scrambled to find the off button but there was none.

“This is from Uncle Bob and Olivia,” I told my husband. He wearily typed in the gifts. I crumpled the wrapping paper and deposited it in the trash bag.

The next package felt fragile but heavy and I only had to pry open one corner of the box to see what was inside.

“This dish set, from my Aunt Jefflyn, and these pot holders also,” I told him. “Hello?”

I looked over at him, peacefully asleep with his mouth agape. He had the wine bottle in one hand and the laptop in the other.

I took the computer from him and set it on my stomach, a convenient table, and typed in the information myself.

Katrina’s gift stood out from the pile because of its bright blue wrapping paper, crumpled around an amorphous object. I never knew what to expect from her gifts. One birthday, I got a single paper clip, tucked inside a set of boxes stacked inside each other like Russian Dolls. Another year, a gift card to Staples that had no money on it.

Inside the manila envelope attached to the horridly wrapped gift were twenty-six cards: one from her and the others signed from each of her dolls’ names. It was all in her frenetic handwriting. I threw the envelope across the room and squatted down to grab the present.

I tried to rip the paper open, but my sister had spun packing tape all around the bundle, and so I had to unravel the tape before the paper finally burst open, exploding a bunch of cloth diapers, a hat she’d knitted, and a handwritten note.

 

Hi Vera!

Congratulations on your fetus! It’s too bad Maria and Marissa won’t be cousins anymore because Marissa is with Jesus now but she will have plenty of cousins anyway from around the world to play with including Grana, Prana, Daniel, Ginger, and so many others. They can go on picnics or stuff like that. But I think you will visit now more because we both have babies. I have so many babies. But maybe yours will be a midget and look like Marissa- RIP.  Please don’t be selfish like dad. There is so much to do here including museums, parks, restaurants, salsa dancing, and even yoga classes.

Love,

Katrina and others

 

I imagined us all on a picnic blanket, displayed at a public park: Maria and I, Katrina and her clown-faced dolls, my mom and her wine, surrounded by strangers with suspicious glances, other families and units. At the thought of this scene I didn’t feel trapped or ashamed or even abnormal. I felt my baby girl pedaling on my stomach, pleasant, like a back scratch.

 

 

BIO

Sola Saar was born in southern California and lives in New York. Her nonfiction work has been featured in The Huffington Post, Flaunt, Bullett, Hyperallergic, Whitewall Magazine, Salon, and ArtSlant. An excerpt from her novel was featured in Ishmael Reed’s Konch magazine. She graduated from UC Berkeley and is getting her MFA in Fiction at Columbia University.

 

 

 

0

Evidence Room

by Megan Fahey

 

 

10 Fun Facts from the EVIDENCE ROOM of Oxendine O’Shea

  1. Oxendine was born in July of 1974 to Cora and Matthew O’Shea of San Ysidro, California.
  2. The full name on her birth certificate is Shannon Marie O’Shea.
  3. She was one funky bitch.
  4. From 1997-2002, Oxendine was the bassist and front-woman for the Ithaca Funk Company, an alternative-funk band who toured with Incubus, Radiohead, and Collective Soul after the success of IFC’s first and only album: Veterans’ Day.
  5. O’Shea’s axe of choice was a 1972 semi-hollowbody Gibson painted with a ruby-red glimmer finish that matched her birthstone.
  6. She is most remembered for her unusual performance style, which blended her eclectic tastes with her intense displays of emotion. Many fans recall O’Shea’s sobbing musically into the microphone during live events and fainting during especially rigorous solos.
  7. Oxendine wore the word “GRACE” printed on a solid black t-shirt to every show, plain black wayfarer sunglasses, and huge hoop earrings that clicked against the tuning keys of her guitar and could be heard in the background of the tracks on IFC’s studio album.
  8. She always slipped off her shoes before taking the stage.
  9. On Veterans’ Day 2002, after fraternizing with a fan after a show in Columbus Ohio, Oxendine O’Shea followed him for twenty-eight miles to his home just outside Lancaster and slaughtered the fan, his wife, and his two sons with a hatchet.
  10. She is currently serving life in prison.

The most valuable thing Tommy Hollinger owned was a business-grade paper shredder. With a vigorous whirr of its industrial teeth, the shredder disintegrated any chance of Tommy’s personal information making it into the hands of the mysterious, malevolent, trash-diving public. And Tommy loved the way it tore. The shredder occupied a position of prominence in his home office, nestled decoratively in a nook near his desk in his at-home workstation, positioned directly beneath his empty mahogany diploma holder and an 8×10 framed photo of his parents from their latest trip to the Swiss Alps.

The shredder’s name was Victoria.

The diploma holder was empty because, even though Tommy was twenty-five years old, he had changed his college major each academic year since he turned nineteen to reflect his artistic redirection. When the wealthy friends of his parents asked what in heaven’s name he was still doing in college, he had no trouble citing instantly his love and his loyalty for art. His difficulty, then, was choosing which field.

He spent a year experimenting with watercolors, but his landscapes lacked definition and blurred unnaturally. Each of these works he ran through the shredder, whose teeth, by the end of the collection, were flecked with vibrant shades of red and orange. After a failed year in a sculpture workshop, he malleted the projects his know-nothing professors compared crassly to phalluses and let Victoria, the shredder, chew the thin strips of soft clay in order to digest them. He spent some time as a novelist and wept when his classmates labeled his work as “derivative” and “popular.” The shredder made quick work of their feedback and of his manuscript, which he fed to it page by page.

One Sunday afternoon, Tommy took it upon himself to sort the junk mail that had scattered in disorganized piles around his kitchen table. He shredded his credit card offers first, primarily in order to avoid temptation, but also since the slicing plastic made such tremendous noise. Next came the bills he couldn’t afford to pay; the federal unsubsidized loan statements he would take to the grave; and, finally, magazines. Tommy Hollinger never filled out a magazine subscription, and yet received up to three or four weekly periodicals addressed to T. HOLLINGER or TOMMY HOLGER or RESIDENT. They were mostly general readers in science and engineering slathered with high-resolution color images. Some were sports-based or automotive. Others outlined best housekeeping practices. Tommy suspected they were anonymous gifts from his father purposed to steer him clear of the humanities.

Regardless, he gave them little more than a disinterested leaf. He skimmed the subheadings of an article about an elephant painting a portrait of an elephant before tearing those pages, like all the others, and tossing them into the shredder, until he happened upon a full-page ad whose stock was unlike any he’d ever felt. The ad was thicker, sure, than a standard page, though surely not as thick as a subscription card insert, and blacker, too, as though the ink might drip right off the gloss and stain his hands and boots and jeans.

The words “EVIDENCE ROOM” were capped and bolded across the top of the page in a large, debossed serif font. Tommy ran his fingers across the text. Police badges with scowling eyes adorned both ends, and the two Os in ROOM were conjoined with a short, shiny length of chain, like handcuffs.

He dropped it into Victoria’s mouth, but it just wouldn’t shred.

“Cool,” Tommy said.

 

 

About EVIDENCE ROOM:

From diamonds to hybrids, EVIDENCE ROOM has it all—the only authentic mail-order service for criminally confiscated items nationally sanctioned by the US Constitution. Based on a short customer-personality profile, EVIDENCE ROOM tailor-fits our products to match your unique tastes. For a one-time payment of $99.99 (+13.99 S&H), you’ll receive all the luxuries that once belonged to the scum of the earth. Don’t let these luxury items rot just because their owners are!

 

How to Order from EVIDENCE ROOM by mail:

  • Please include the completed personality profile found on the reverse of this page.
  • On a separate sheet of paper, attach your shipping address (billing address, if different) and contact information, including e-mail and telephone number with country code and area code if applicable.
  • Include a personal check or money order in the amount of $99.99, plus $13.99 shipping and handling, and 8.5% sales tax (a total of $122.48) made out to EVIDENCE ROOM.
  • If paying by credit card, please include the 16-digit credit card number, the expiration date, and the 3-digit CVC located on the back.

You’ll receive your specially chosen EVIDENCE ROOM package within ten business days along with a fun fact sheet detailing your item’s role in its criminal’s history. EVIDENCE ROOM is 100% legal and safe. All items have been sterilized and registered for public use. No refunds or exchanges. All sales final.

 

Testimonials from satisfied customers of the EVIDENCE ROOM:

“First, I want to say thanks, EVIDENCE ROOM. This is my first time doing this. At first I thought it was fake, then I sent in my information and got my package and said ‘okay, I guess this is real.’ I got a set of Eisenhower Dollars and a Pirate belt buckle that was very unique, so again I have to say thanks, EVIDENCE ROOM.”
—Sergio, Farmingdale, NY

 

“I LOVE what I got from EVIDENCE ROOM. I have a teenage grandson who lives with me and he is BIG on gaming and just broke his leg in a biking accident. EVIDENCE ROOM sent us a new mountain bike and a few video games, plus an old black and white TV like the one I used to have. This is GREAT!!!”
—Cheryl M., Northvue, PA

 

“Oh, yes. I am very happy. I think this might be my destiny.”
—Matthew B., Fort Lauderdale, FL


  

The parcel addressed to Tommy Hollinger—his name finally spelled correctly on the label—measured 18”x7”x52” and waited outside his front door for his return from class. It was crowded inside by mint green packing nuts and sealed within two cardboard tombs, mummified in an entire roll of thick packing tape, and wrapped in an oversized, storm-gray plastic pouch that rustles when the wind slips past.

That stormy wind blew Tommy’s tufted hair behind his ears. Despite his having mailed the proper amount of money, and the filled-out personality sheet, and the added list of contact information, and despite the day’s date still falling within the ten business day window, Tommy struggled to believe his eyes. He shifted the straps of the backpack on his shoulders. He tilted his head to further examine the mailing label for clues about the box’s contents, but he kept his distance.

He laughed at his own unease.

He scaled the porch stairs with a string of easy bounds and slogged inside the house, dragging the package with him into the office, near the shredder. He disappeared to the kitchen to trade his schoolbooks for a steak knife. He tilted the package on its side and punctured the outer plastic layer clean through—a deep, sloppy, vertical wound. He worked through the packing tape next, splitting the laminated cardboard at the corrugated seams and excising one layer, then the next until the top had been removed and he could hover above the box and peer inside like a god. An envelope tucked among the peanuts read “10 Fun Facts from the EVIDENCE ROOM.” Tommy read the note, then slid it into the back pocket of his blue jeans.

He breathed and forced out a laugh. It was safe, the magazine said, and legal, and couldn’t be as dangerous as it had been in the hands of its former owner, that criminal sleaze. Tommy’s arms plunged deeper into the box and rooted around until his fingers wrapped something slim and solid and shimmering ruby red: a four-string bass guitar. A tag hung from the neck, tied with thin white twine. In red ink, the words:

so? you want to be an artist, don’t you?

He spent the rest of the afternoon in his hickory desk chair practicing slow jazzy riffs and bluesy syncopations.

Later that evening, during a surprise visit from his parents, Tommy’s father loosened his tie and called his son’s fretwork “dog shit.”  His mother pecked at her polished nails and chewed her lip.

“What are you so worried about, Mom?” Tommy said. He propped one foot on the arm of the couch. The guitar strings thunked in discord.

She whispered, “Thomas.” Her eyes darted about. “A criminal had this—a murderer.”

“You’re just afraid I might actually be good at this—that this might be a little thing called fate.”

“No, that’s not it,” she said. “A normal woman doesn’t just go around killing people with a hatchet. A hatchet, Tommy.”

He laughed. “Don’t worry, Ma. I won’t forget you when I’m famous.”

“That’s not what I—”

“And I’ll stay away from fast gangs and loose drugs and dirty women.”

“I just don’t like the idea of any son of mine playing an instrument that once belonged to some—you know—some—”

“Murderer?” his father said. “Butcher? Monster? Psychopath?”

“No one said she was a psychopath,” Tommy said. “The police never found out why she did it.”

“Sounds like a psychopath to me,” his father said.

“Whatever,” said Tommy.

“But what if she gets out of jail and finds out you’ve got her guitar?” His mother’s eyes welled up. “Or what if—what if it’s cursed or something?”

“What do you think’s gonna happen, Mom? That I’m gonna touch the guitar and turn into some kind of killer? Is that it? That it wasn’t Oxendine O’Shea who killed that family at all? It was her bass all along?” He raised it high above his head and laughed.

“Oh, Tommy,” she cried.

“I’m just messing around, Mom. You got nothing to worry about. If I start acting crazy, just tell me.”

“You’re acting crazy,” his father said.

“Shut up, Dad. This music thing—it’s really changed my life.”

Tommy’s father clicks on the television. “Yeah,” he says, “Maybe you ought to write old what’s-her-name a letter that says thanks for getting locked up.”

 

 

Dear Oxendine—

I hope it’s okay if I call you Oxendine; that’s just the way that I feel when I think about you—Oxendine. I know that probably sounds weird. Maybe it’s because of how your name is like oxygen. Oxygen is one of those things that makes you happy, right? I think I remember studying that in one of my science classes. I’m more of a humanities guy to be honest, but I think I remember that thing about oxygen, and that’s why your name reminds me of you—because before I knew about you, I felt like I was drowning in everything I tried, felt like I couldn’t come up for air, and then suddenly there you were: Oxendine. Fresh Oxendine.

 

You can call me Tommy. My full name is Tommy Hollinger, which I know sounds a lot like Tommy Hilfiger, so don’t even bother saying that because, ha-ha, I’ve already heard it my whole life. Anyway, I’m writing you because we got matched up in the EVIDENCE ROOM. Do you know what that is? I’m not really sure how long it’s been around, and how long have you been in the joint anyway? I bet you’re really popular among the inmates because of your music. Is everyone jealous of your haircut there? Do you ever sing songs to help you sleep when the lights go out?

 

So, good news. You know your guitar? The red one? Well, the police decided they didn’t need to keep it anymore, so they sold it to me through their mail-order catalog. I didn’t exactly pick it. That’s not really how it works. You see, I wanted to be an artist, but the trouble was I was bad at everything I tried. I never tried music before, but I’ve been messing around with the bass, and I think, with a little hard work and sacrifice, this might be my destiny. It’s only been about two weeks so far, and I’ve already almost taught myself to play most of “Smoke on the Water.” If you want, I could try to record it and send it to you. Would you have any way of listening to a cassette?

I hope to hear from you soon, and thanks again,

 

Tommy Hollinger


PS: I know you’re not innocent, but I’m sure that jerk you killed deserved it. Rock on.

 

 

 

TO: Tommy Hollinger

FROM: Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility, San Ysidro, CA

RE: Inmate 90662-W |O’Shea

 

 

Listen here, Tommy Hilfiger.

 

You think you know sacrifice?

 

You’ll find out.

-Oxy

 

 

Tommy skipped class to hold band auditions in his at-home office. He worked up jams with dozens of drummers and one twelve-year-old boy who played the trombone, but none of them could keep time or fill in the bottom quite right. When the applicant pool ran dry, he ran a ream of old-time continuous stationary with perforated edges through his paper shredder, and riffed solos over its electric hum.

He fixed the letter from Oxendine into the empty diploma for inspiration. The first original song Tommy Hollinger wrote was a funky love ballad called “You’ll Find Out.” He played a steady chromatic scale, and fed the shredder, Victoria, a long, fat E-string. It took her two minutes and twenty-three seconds to digest. He debuted the tune at open mics along the downtown nightlife strips. After his first paid gig, he celebrated by getting blackout drunk and having the name “-Oxy” tattooed on the side of his neck. He played at just the right volume and was kind to the bar staff and applauded by the patrons. The owner of the Lava Lounge offered him a regular Tuesday night spot for a hundred bucks a week and six free beers a night.

Tommy’s cell phone rang while he paced backstage the night of his first headline show. It was his father.

“If you’re missing class for this—” he said. “—You can kiss that apartment goodbye. I mean it. I’m not fronting your rent anymore if you’re gonna shirk your studies to go off playing rock star wannabe.”

“Fine,” said Tommy. “You’ll find out.”

“Stop saying that!”

“What did he say?” His mother’s voice was far away on the phone. “Did he say it again? Let me talk to him.” A pause. “Tommy, honey. This has gone far enough. I’m worried about you.”

“Mom, I’m just having fun,” Tommy laughed.

The opening band finished packing their equipment. The emcee announced Tommy’s name and the crowd shrieked on the open floor below the stage. A “Tom-my! Tom-my!” chant went up, and Tommy shouted into the phone: “Hear that, Mom? That’s for me. They’re cheering for me.”

He slipped off his shoes before entering the spotlight. The ruby red paint on that hot guitar body reflected every last photon back into the wailing crowd. Two men headbutted and screamed in each other’s faces. A girl in front in a white ribbed tank top cried. It was the biggest crowd Tommy had ever seen—two hundred strong.

He took a nervous step backward, stumbling into a hidden, black barstool. Two ice-cold, longneck beers teetered on the seat. When Tommy picked one up, his hands jittered, and he drank the whole thing in one blast so the crowd wouldn’t notice his nerves. They cheered all the harder. His hands shook more. His mouth to the microphone, Tommy yelled, “Hello, Pittsburgh!” but he was energized and anxious and a little bit drunk, so it came out “Hullo, Piss-burgh.”

But no one cared.

“We love you, Tommy!” someone yelled.

He reached back for the other beer and took a sip before setting it on the edge of the stage and settling back onto the stool. He strummed once slowly. The crowd devoured the sound.

“This is, um—” he said. “I’m gonna start off with something new.”

He unbuttoned his shirt and fed the cuff of the sleeve through the paper shredder. It moaned slow and low, consuming his clothes.

“This is a new song I wrote called ‘Sacrifice’.”

It was an instant classic. In the middle of the hottest lick of the solo, Tommy stood up from the stool and approached the front-row fans who pawed lovingly at the soles of his feet. He crooned a line about truth and beauty to a girl with neon eye shadow and false lashes. She reached for him like his touch might save her life. He stopped playing and extended his hand to hers, but he couldn’t quite reach. He bent lower toward her, lower.

But he couldn’t keep his balance, and kicked over the bottle of beer, which foamed and dripped and splashed the board that controlled the spotlight and the speakers, and the electrical board his shredder was plugged into. The mic squealed. Smoke and sparks erupted from Tommy’s pedalboard and the power strip along the front of the stage, and the paper shredder choked on one of the shirt’s buttons and began to overheat. A small but hot white flame caught and ignited the thick black skirt of the stage. The fans screamed with dread. They rioted and moshed and shoved and evacuated.

Barefoot, bass in hand, Tommy escaped through the backstage door and hurtled to his car. The window was broken in. Glass covered the driver’s seat. His radio/tape deck was gone, but the car still ran. He accelerated through traffic lights and stop signs, straight out of town, back to the edge of the suburbs to his apartment, where his father had already changed the locks.

He ran around to the back of the building, to the window of his at-home office. He banged it with his fists, but he couldn’t break it. He hoisted the bass over his head and smashed it through the pane before hobbling his own body inside, slicing his bare chest on a rogue shard of busted glass. He sat on the clean square of carpet where his most precious item, his paper shredder, once rested. He leaned against the wall and gathered his knees to his chest and bled. He tugged at his hair.

“What have I done?” he said. His voice fractured. “This wasn’t supposed to—” he said. And, “I never wanted to—” he said.

Then a low lub-dup beat echoed softly in the darkness. It took Tommy a full minute to realize it wasn’t the sound of his own heart. There was someone else in the room.

“I thought you wanted to be an artist,” she said. She was holding the guitar. The smallest three strings were snapped. She flickered the E string with the edge of a ruby-handled hatchet.

“Tommy Hollinger,” she said. “Let’s shred together.”

 

 

BIO

Megan Fahey received her MFA from West Virginia University in 2017. In addition to having some short plays produced, her work has appeared in Southern Humanities Review, The Tulane Review, and Blinders Journal.

 

 

 

0

That Night

by Abbey McLaughlin

 

 

“Delinquent beyond a reasonable doubt. He’ll be put away for at least two years. The other, for one.”

The judge gathered up his paperwork and stepped out from behind his desk, and the room erupted in emotional preparation for departure. One of the boys started crying—bawling long, heavy, ugly sobs. His family as well as his lawyer were equally tearful, all hands placed on shoulders as though forming a prayer. My mom cleared her throat.

“Should we go?” she asked.

She was standing behind me. When I turned my head to face her, I caught sight of the other one. He was crying—I could tell by the way his chest rose and fell—but he was trying not to and he was angry. They were angry tears. His dad squeezed his shoulder. His mom was crying desperately.

“Honey,” I heard my mother nudge.

I gathered up my things, hands still sweaty and shaking, and adjusted my blazer. As soon as the doors of that Ohio courtroom swung on their hinges, blinding flashes of thunderous crowds fought each other to ask me a question. My dad pushed them away and my mom held me close, pulling me down the endless corridors. I didn’t realize I too had begun to cry until we fell into the car and I could breathe again. I should be happy. I should be relieved.

 

When we finally made it home, all three of us were exhausted. I kissed both my parents good night and went to brush my teeth, tilting my head to the side, fixated on the scar on my forehead. I found my mom meandering around aimlessly in the kitchen, banging dishes and shutting cupboards. “Do I notice the scar so much because I know it’s there or because it’s noticeable?” I asked her. She shrugged and told me that no one would notice. My dad was on the phone in the bedroom down the hall, talking to someone about me. Since all this had begun, he had developed—perfected—a phlegmatic, quiet voice used exclusively when referring to “the Incident,” as he called it. I called it rape.

 

My alarm rang rather unceremoniously six hours later. I opened my eyes. I felt as though I had only just shut them. I returned to the bathroom, reexamining the scar, pasting concealer over it without much success. My morning routine felt more soporific than before—brushing my teeth again, straightening my hair, choosing clothes, packing my lunch—all of it seemed to drain energy reserves. The house was still dark, all the lights still off. I didn’t like being the first one up again. For the remainder of the morning, I prepared for school in somewhat of a daze, hardly able to remember where I was getting ready to go, or if I’d added sugar to the coffee in my thermos before I climbed into my car. After almost three months of slow days spent with my parents and my lawyer, my stomach fluttered at the sight of our big, glass high school entrance. I sat in my car for a moment longer, surveying the campus from my safe enclosure. No reporters or cameras caught my attention. The coast was clear—I had to go in. As I was stepping out of my car, my phone vibrated in my pocket. Thank God—Kristin had received my texts, and would wait by my locker for me.

 

When I first joined the moving traffic of the north hallway, no one seemed to notice. I blended in well enough and avoided awkward encounters with those who had made guest appearances in the courtroom, careful not to cross paths with the football players in particular. As she’d promised, Kristin was leaning against the lockers near mine. I smiled at her, tugging my earbuds out of my ears. I realized I’d forgotten my locker combination, but Kristin knew it by heart, and told me the numbers. The act of opening my locker seemed to set off an alarm to the school. Like a swarm of wasps, heads turned. Kristin and I both sensed the changed decibel levels of interrupted conversations. I pretended not to notice and hoped Kristin would too. I dumped all my textbooks back into my locker save my chemistry book and followed my friend up the stairs. We didn’t say much on our way to our classes. She departed with a half-hearted, “see you at lunch,” and turned for the room down the hall from mine.

 

“Welcome back,” Mrs. Freed, my chemistry teacher, said as I sat down. The few who had also arrived already stared unapologetically. This was somehow worse than the reporters. I watched Henry, my lab partner, walk into the room. I greeted him as he took his seat next to me, but he just nodded. He’d been at the party.

“Let’s jump right back in with some nomenclature practice,” she continued, passing out sheets of paper. Henry handed me my copy of the activity carefully.

“Thanks,” I mumbled. We’d actually made great lab partners last semester. He was better with the information; I was better with the actual handling of chemicals. I’d been looking forward to seeing him, but, like most of my reunions at that point, tension was almost tangible. “Can I borrow your notes tonight?”

Henry scratched his forehead and arranged his papers as though this took too much mental attention to answer my questions.

“Henry?”

“I don’t have them,” he lied. I told him that it was okay, and leaned back against my orange plastic chair. When class had been dismissed, I approached Mrs. Freed and quietly asked if she had a note packet or something that I could use to catch up.

Mrs. Freed looked up at the remaining students packing their backpacks. “Can someone loan her their notes from the last unit?” she said loudly, pointing a crooked, hot pink fingernail at me. An intransigent silence ensued. Eventually, Macy surrendered her notebook and asked me to have it back to her by tomorrow.

 

I mean, it’s not like I expected a “welcome back” party. No one was spitting in my face or adorning me with a scarlet letter A, but it seemed that nobody was talking to me at all. Maybe they all just felt too awkward. If I’m being honest with myself, probably more than half the school saw the pictures that circulated that October. I know that I wasn’t exactly making good decisions, but nobody was. Of all the awful choices made that night, were they really going to condemn mine?

 

Mr. Samuels and Mrs. Freed occupied the hallways as we all rushed to our second period classes. Typically, the principal would assume this role, but Kristin had informed me that he and the football coach had been suspended. During the investigation, police discovered that both of them had kept the situation quiet until I’d started pressing charges. My lawyer, Mr. White, promised me that they were his next item on his agenda. I had told him that it was okay, that our trial was good enough, that I was ready to move on.

 

By lunchtime, I was under the impression that the school had followed an entirely different court case—one in which I had murdered two football players and framed the remaining members of the team. Since my entrance into the building, I’d become painfully aware of my role in the newfound shitty reputation of our school. I sat at the table my friends and I had claimed our freshman year, and waited for Eliza and Kristin to show up.

When there was only fifteen minutes left of our lunch break, I moved tables and tried to eat my sandwich with a few girls from my cross country team, who seemed sympathetic but less-than-thrilled by my presence.

None of them did more than smile in my direction, so I decided to initiate the greeting: “Hey guys, how’s it going?”

Lexi gave a half-hearted “fine,” and Miranda gave a shrug.

They sat right near the vending machines. I kept thinking students were coming to see me as so many family members had done throughout the past month or two, but they were just grabbing sodas. Many avoided eye contact with me in obvious, almost comical manners. One guy stared sideways all the way there, grabbed his drink while looking the other way, and then turning to stare in the same direction on his way back to his table. I tried engaging in conversations, desperate for normalcy, but they weren’t interested. I saw two football players come my way. With waves of panic churning up the sandwich I’d just eaten, I left for class early with a muttered “good-bye” to the girls. I didn’t feel like confronting the accomplices.

 

“How was school?” my mother asked when I walked through the door. I couldn’t give her an answer as I dropped by backpack and slid my shoes off. “Honey?” my mother repeated. She wanted a real answer, but if I opened my mouth, I would cry. I sighed.

“It’ll get better,” she said. I nodded, collapsing into our sofa. Mom was watching CNN while she prepared dinner. I closed my eyes, praying my tears would slide back into my head. I was tired of crying.

Sally, I can’t imagine, having heard the judge give sentences for these two star football players—how emotional that must have been in the courtroom.

I opened my eyes.

Yes, I’ve never experienced anything like it, Debra. It was incredibly emotional—incredibly difficult, especially for an outsider like me to watch what happened as these two young men, who had such promising futures—strong football players, very good students. I literally watched as they saw their lives fall apart. When one of the boys, Alex Stevens, heard the judge, he collapsed. He collapsed in tears in the arms of his attorney. I heard him say, “My life is over; no one is going to want me now.” Both were charged with very serious crimes, Debra, found guilty of raping this sixteen-year-old girl at a party back in October—an alcohol-fueled party; alcohol playing a huge part in all of this. The other boy, Jacob Matthews, was charged with a second account of felony illegal use of a minor in nudity-oriented material, because he took a photograph of—

The screen went blank. I turned around and my dad was holding the remote with a trembling hand, his face red. Mom had stopped cutting tomatoes, and was looking at me too.

“That’s how school was, mom,” I said flatly.

Apart from their actual crimes, those two had unknowingly cost my family months of misery. I felt inescapably burdensome to my poor parents. They bore just as much pain from the trial as I did. Work was taken off, attorney bills were paid, tears were shed, sleepless nights were suffered, and public analysis under a microscope was endured. I hoped the boys were thinking about that now, but I doubted it.

 

The three following days were slight improvements. People readjusted to me and I readjusted to them. The cross country team talked to me if no one else was around. My teachers gave me grace on many incomplete assignments. Kristin continued to wait for me by my locker in the morning, but that was all I saw of her. I hadn’t seen Eliza once.

 

We had a mandatory school assembly that Friday. I was rather confused—they’d called my parents to request permission to talk about everything back in November. I remember shrugging—assuming that everyone already had more information than the staff of the high school would ever learn. Through strategic eavesdropping, I discovered that this assembly was directed more about the “change of administration” that had ensued in the last week and a half.

At 2:15, the school flooded the halls, and we all sauntered down to the gymnasium. Everyone was talking about their classes and sports and college applications around me. I stood at the bottom of the bleachers, searching desperately for Eliza and Kristin. They weren’t sitting in our usual spot for pep rallies and student council announcements. I spotted them sitting toward the middle, talking close to each other with their heads bent down, hidden under baseball caps. If I hadn’t been there when we’d all purchased those hats in Siesta Key, I would never have been able to find them. I broke into the mess of people, expecting to get pushed and shoved, but the effort was not necessary. Everyone made sure not to touch me. When I reached their row, I saw the color drain from Eliza’s face. Kristin became way too interested in her phone as I climbed over seated students to where they were. People scooched to the side to make room for me, turning away from me as obviously as my vending machine encounters.

“Hi,” I said to my friends. They looked up at me.

“Hey,” both cooed. “How are you?”

“I’m okay,” I smiled, putting my backpack between my legs.

“Hanging in there?” Eliza said. I nodded, annoyed with her transparent discomfort. She once came over to my house when I had lice and pinkeye without so much as flinching.

“We…We missed you,” Eliza added. “It’s good to have you back.”

“I’m excited to just get things back to normal,” I said, surveying the gymnasium. It felt so different, like they’d all been at the party. Kristin and Eliza looked around too, but their faces told me they had other worries on their minds.

 

Kristin and Eliza had reached out to me when word first spread. They were with me when the text message of which I was the subject finally reached their cell phones. “Ew!” they’d both gasped at first. I had craned my head over their shoulders to see what was so captivating, but they’d just received the follow-up text captioning the photo and had pivoted away from me. “Oh, my God,” I remember Kristin saying.

“Holy shit,” Eliza had said after a minute. Both shoved their phones deep into their back pockets.

“What is it?” I’d asked stupidly.

I hadn’t told anyone about the party at that point. I’d picked myself up from the woods behind the house and drove home. I’d showered, mostly just preoccupied with my terrible headache. It was in the shower that I noticed the blood staining the porcelain floor. I was under the impression I’d just started my period. But then the water began to sting, and it hurt to wash myself. I felt sore everywhere, and I began to count several bruises and scratches. Nothing came back to me—I had no memories to sort through. I stifled a scream, whimpering as the water erased the most damning evidence. Later, in the hospital, the nurse assigned to assess “the damage” had asked about my sexual history. I’d told her—believing myself to be speaking honestly—that I was a virgin. Then she got quiet and walked out for a minute.

That circulated picture proved far more than how much I’d been drinking that night. Without it, I had nothing with which to accuse anyone. Though quite a challenge when forming my case with Mr. White, I was rather glad that I didn’t have any recollection of what must have happened. I didn’t walk in fear of men the way other victims do. I walked with shock that my peers had such power to destroy someone’s life. Then again, they probably thought the same of me when they received their first paperwork about the trial.

Kristin and Eliza had spent that night with me, holding me while I cried. Neither had been at the party—they didn’t like to party. I’d attended it with some cross country friends, but, apparently, had become sidetracked. No one wanted to admit they’d been at the party, and all my information about the night came primarily from rumors Kristin and Eliza had heard.

After that first, terrible night, Kristin or Eliza came over to my house every day, and they sat beside me when I finally told my parents what was going on. They showed my parents and Mr. White the pictures and texts. They sat in the audience for the trial the first two days, but then their parents said that they needed to be in school. I told them I understood. The whole thing ended up taking another two months, and neither them nor I had made much effort to keep in touch.

When everything had leaked into local news, administrative staff that did not work in the high school, including our superintendent, had expressed sincere embarrassment and dismay. My teachers, the vice principal, even my cross country coach, had all remained rather uninvolved, mainly sending me updates on what I was missing and needed to make up. My teammates sent me some cookies and a card, but no one texted in the group chat we’d arranged for the past two years or contacted me personally.

I tried to keep running, but I hardly ever felt like I had enough energy for it. When I emailed my coach to say that I wouldn’t be participating on the track team that spring, I’d received a brief response:

That’s fine. You are not eligible for sports teams at this time. 

My coach didn’t have the guts to say it, but I assumed I’d been kicked off the team for breaking rules regarding underage drinking. I still wondered why none of my other cohorts had been removed, as they were at the party as well.

 

After five more vexatious minutes of small talk with Eliza and Kristin, our vice principal emerged, walking up to the podium arranged in the center. He was wearing an expensive suit, the same one he’d worn in court, and he was holding a crinkled piece of paper.

“Hello students of Creston High,” he began, his mouth way too close to the microphone. The mic echoed his words a little, and the volume had to be adjusted as we were all in danger of going deaf. Once someone gave him a thumbs up, he reluctantly continued. “Thank you for coming today. We need to talk about something serious—something that is long overdue.”

My stomach dropped.

“I understand that there have been several parties over the last few months. I’m sure you are all aware of the particularly tragic events of last October. After some exhaustive administrative changes and meetings, we would like to formally address the school’s current state.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we have lost two important members of our school—”

Principal Shaffer and Coach Whitman, I thought, filling in the sentences in my head to avoid noticing the student body reactions.

“—Jacob Matthews and Alex Stephens are no longer attending Creston, and they will no longer be participating on our football team, along with several others. We are working hard to ensure that we bring justice to the matter while respecting the privacy of everyone. Many of you knew these boys. We kindly request that you would not spread rumors about such circumstances.

“We are also reviewing a few positions of administration,” he said, licking his lips. “We ask that you respect privacy in this process as well. Hopefully, we will not need to make any changes and Principal Shaffer, among others, will be back in no time at all.”

A few people clapped, and the football team all seemed to breathe a collective sigh of relief. The vice principal continued,

“This incident—” he cleared his throat— “this um, chain of events, that has caused all of this confusion and exhaustive investigation, has brought to our attention the serious issue of underage drinking. Students, the legal drinking age is 21 years of age, and none of you meet that requirement. Therefore, none of you should be consuming alcohol, period. The problems we are currently facing are directly related to irresponsible drinking.”

Don’t cry; don’t cry; don’t cry.

I wanted to leave. I considered attempting a second exit. I squirmed. Kristin took my hand.

The vice principal looked visibly uncomfortable by this point. He was reciting a thoroughly-rehearsed speech, but his body language suggested this was perhaps his first experience with public speaking.

“Irresponsible drinking leads to unsafe operation of vehicles, unplanned sexual activity, health problems, and even death. For more information on these very serious effects of underage alcohol drinking, we will be hosting a free seminar on the dangers of it. Our health teacher, Mrs. Fitzgibbon, will be in charge of that. Please be responsible—”

When had I stood up? What was I doing? Heads snapped between the vice principal and I, staring us down like a tennis match. I should sit down, I thought. I should definitely sit down. I had silenced the vice principal though, and everyone was waiting for me.

I took a breath. The gym was still quiet. I expected the vice principal to dismiss me, to tell me to sit down, to say something, but he just stared at me along with the rest of the gym.

I could yell at all of them—tell them that the assembly needed was not about underage drinking, but of sexual assault. I could spell it out for them, how they’ve missed the point. I could yell at myself—apologize to everyone for disturbing the peace. In that moment, though, I realized that none of it mattered. Nothing I could say would make them understand, would make them forgive me, would give me back what I had lost that night.

I thought about the statistics Mr. White had presented to the court—that one in five women are raped in their lifetime and almost none are reported. I looked at the student body and a wave of pity jabbed me. There were others in this room who knew far more about sexual assault than I that also felt silenced. I thought about when my mother had cried, in deep pain, still thanking me for reporting it, for letting them love me. They never blamed me for drinking that night. Why did everyone else?

1,400 sets of eyeballs blinked at me expectantly, but I fell mute and sat back down.

 

 

BIO

Abbey is a senior English and Creative Writing major for a B.A. degree at Indiana Wesleyan University. She has poetry published in her school’s literary magazine, Caesura, but this is her first short story to be published in a recognized literary journal. She is currently an editorial assistant for a small academic publishing company and hopes to eventually edit works of fiction and creative nonfiction. She believes fiction can be a powerful source of social commentary.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Restoration

by Mary Grimm

 

 

Larissa and her friend (for this is what she calls him) go out to dinner once a month, always the same place. They both like it, so there isn’t any reason to change, her friend says, whose name is Roman. He is six years younger than she is, but according to her coworkers at the museum, they look the same age, probably because Larissa dyes her hair, and Roman has a bushy Bible-prophet beard. He picks her up at six (to avoid date-night crowds) and drives her to the Jolly Chef where the hostess can almost always give them the same table. They order and sit waiting for their drinks, Roman tapping his fingers and sweeping his eyes over the other diners. When they have been served, Roman lifts his glass, tipping it toward her, and says “to the fairest one of all,” gesturing around the room. Larissa smiles, and sips her wine. She likes to hear it, even if it’s patently untrue, and has, let’s face it, never been true, even when her flesh was young and firm and her hair its original color. They ask each other what’s new. Larissa tells stories of the museum, the odd things that people bring in, the set of dolls dressed in leather, the painting described by its owner as a spirit painting done by his grandmother in a trance and purporting to be a map of heaven, the ancient wooden sleigh so large it wouldn’t fit in the museum’s garage. Roman talks about his buddies and their doings – fishing in the summer, bowling in the winter. He brings out pictures of his grandchildren to show Larissa. She has come to know them quite well in their absence, and is able to comment knowledgeably on the improvements in their grades, or to compare this year’s prom dress with last year’s. They don’t always order the same thing, but Larissa often has the braised chicken and fennel, and Roman the pasta alfredo with extra sauce. Afterward, Roman drives her home. Every third or fourth time, he comes in and they have a post-dinner drink (bourbon on the rocks) and sex. Roman doesn’t stay the night any more.  He says that he needs his own bed to get a decent night’s sleep. Larissa used to pretend to be disappointed, but now she doesn’t bother.

There’s nothing visible in her house that has anything to do with her son. Whatever is left of him is hidden away, in closets, the attic, the basement. Relics: like the ones they used to display in churches, but these can’t heal. If he were alive he’d be thirty-three, a shadow existence, his revenant growing invisibly older, thinner each year, his tenuous shade coming apart, the strands of him pulling away. Roman doesn’t know that she had a son, nor do the people she works with at the museum. Her coworkers at the office she retired from did, and this is only one of the reasons she was glad to see the last of them.

Larissa is fifty-seven, retired from her job. She worked in an office, in charge of a number of people. There was a lot of email, and birthdays were constantly being celebrated. It’s not important now. She volunteers at a museum several days a week because she likes to keep busy. But she keeps time for her passions, which are: cooking, reading, playing the electronic piano.

Larissa is not sure that she’s a very sensual person. She likes sex, pretty much, but she always feels as if she doesn’t know what she’s doing. It doesn’t come naturally to her.

Larissa had a dream last night, about her father, who in the dream was laying out his ancient tools on the redwood picnic table that used to sit on her parents’ patio thirty years ago. Larissa watches him puttering around, thinking (in the dream) that she should get up and start dinner. Which is strange. Is she her mother? She looks at her hands, stretching out her fingers: they are her own hands, but still she has the restless urge that she should be doing something. When she looks back to her father, thinking that she should ask him what he’d like her to do, she finds that it’s not her father bending over the picnic table, but her son, looking just as he did in the year or two before he died.

Larissa’s mother was very beautiful. Some used to think that Larissa might resent her mother, since she herself was only attractive in an entirely ordinary way, but this isn’t true. Larissa loved her mother. But she dislikes her mother’s sister, who did resent Larissa’s mother for her beauty. Her aunt is still alive at eighty-one, and seems to think this a well-earned triumph over Helen, Larissa’s mother, who died some years ago.

When Larissa drives to work at the museum, she goes through her mother’s old neighborhood, where her family lived when they first came to the city. The houses in the neighborhood are old, the same houses that were there when Helen lived there. Larissa drives down the street where her mother lived. She came here once with her mother, a nostalgic trip. Helen could remember the street, but she wasn’t sure if it was the second house from the corner or the third. Larissa remembers feeling impatient at the time: how could she not remember? The two houses are both white, both with pillared porches and tiny squares of grass in front. One has a chimney that is half falling down, the other a squat tower embedded in its northwest corner. These items seem noticeable and unique to Larissa, but she’s over the whole blaming thing now.

At the museum, Larissa does this and that, a jane of all trades. It’s a community history museum with an eccentric collection, mainly things that people have donated when their parents died and they were clearing out the house.  Originally they took her on to do the books, because of her office experience, but she now does whatever comes up.  She’s learned how to restore old books, mend vintage clothes, refurbish and retune ancient musical instruments. She’s handy with a screwdriver. She goes there three times a week, but sometimes more often if she’s involved in a project. She is vaguely friendly with the other volunteers and with the woman who has the one paid position, the director. She has a particular affinity for one of the volunteers, Roseanne. She reminds her of Eileen, someone she went to school with, so much so that she sometimes imagines that Roseanne is Eileen.

Larissa is a great reader. She likes to read history – lives of the presidents, for instance, or of significant women like Marie Curie. She likes to read cookbooks, although she hardly ever makes a recipe out of them. All the things she makes are things she made when she was married to her long-divorced husband, or things that her mother used to make. She also likes to read romances but only of a particular sort – Regency romances. She is very critical if the authors don’t get the language or the clothes right. If she wrote a book (but she would never do this), she would write something historical, or maybe she would write a self-help book, which would be practical. Definitely not a memoir, since her life is not interesting. She does think she has some good advice to give people, if people ever listened. Especially women. She thinks she knows a thing or two about being a woman.

Larissa’s son is dead. He’s been dead for quite a while. People have assumed a lot of things about Larissa’s son’s death, some thinking that he died in one of the wars of the late twentieth century – the first Gulf war, for instance. Or they think that he committed suicide, since he was young when he died. Some people are convinced that he died on 9/11, but they are people that don’t know Larissa very well.

Larissa retired early for several reasons. She disliked her job, of course, which goes without saying. She was glad to leave behind a group of people who knew things about her. She gave it out that she was quitting because she needed to take care of an elderly relative, which was a lie. Her aunt, who hated Larissa’s mother, and isn’t all that fond of Larissa, is elderly, but she’s living determinedly on her own in an assisted living apartment. In fact, Larissa won the lottery. She’s kept it quiet though and no one knows it except, presumably, her bank.

Larissa never thinks about her first marriage, not because it was horrible or traumatic, but because it was unremarkable.

The love of Larissa’s life is dead. She didn’t know at the time that Eileen was the love of her life. They knew each other so briefly, so many years ago, but she’s never had that same intensity of feeling again, although she kept looking for it, until she stopped. They thought they’d keep in touch after graduation, but they didn’t. She saw her again at their twenty-year reunion, but although Larissa was still feeling something, she couldn’t communicate it, and she didn’t know if Eileen felt it or anything like it. They exchanged stories of their jobs, marriages, children. Eileen’s life sounded much more interesting than Larissa’s. She never saw her again, and years later, she heard from someone that she had died. The someone who told her is an expriest. He attempted to comfort/counsel her, which she rejected. He may also have wanted to sleep with her.

In her twenties, Larissa lived in a commune, although they didn’t call it that, which she joined because she had always had a fantasy of having an orchard, and the place where they lived had one. She appointed herself the commune’s orchardist and read dozens of books on apples and pruning and grafting. While she was there, she had sex with three people, with different degrees of enthusiasm. One was the founder, whose grandfather owned the farm; he was someone she’d known in college, although they hadn’t slept together then. The second was a woman who reminded her of the love of her life (although she still didn’t know then that the LOHL had come and gone). The third was a boy who stayed at the commune for only a week, and who was the father of Larissa’s son, who is now dead.

When Larissa wakes up in the middle of the night, she calms her mind by counting objects in her childhood bedroom, with the aim of falling asleep before she reaches fifty. Her fingers remember the spindles at the headboard of the bed, carved so that she could fit her fingers into their curves, also the soft crinkly texture of the kleenex dolls she made to play with when she was supposed to be sleeping. The wallpaper was blue, with the heads of Edwardian women with bouffant hair and big hats. There was a vanity table, with a fancy hairbrush, and a mirror over it, which fell down once in the middle of the night. She starts always with the corner of the room by the door, and by the time she has worked her way around to the dresser on the opposite wall, enumerating what was kept on top of it (the music box her father brought her from Germany, the pirate treasure chest where she kept her allowance, the celluloid doll named Caroline that was an antique and couldn’t be played with), she was usually asleep.

Larissa visits her aunt once a month on a Sunday. The place she’s living is called The Willows – it looks like a normal apartment building except that an ambulance is often parked outside. Her aunt’s apartment has only a bedroom, a bathroom, and a visiting area (so named in the brochure). There’s no need to cook, since the residents eat downstairs in the communal dining room, but there is a mini-fridge for snacks. “I see you’re back,” she greets Larissa. “I’ve got a lot to do, you know. I can’t sit around waiting all the day.” Larissa has brought a plant, to replace one of the ones dying on the window sill. Larissa admires her aunt’s brooch, an enameled flower pinned in the folds of her scarf. Her aunt tells her how she got it for a bargain price at an auction many years ago. “I haven’t seen your mother,” she tells Larissa. “Too busy to come and see her own sister, I suppose.” Larissa has stopped reminding her aunt of who has died (which is basically everyone of her generation). Larissa says that her mother might be out of town. Her aunt sniffs, but accepts this, and goes on to tell again the story of how Larissa’s mother used to borrow her stockings and return them with runs in them. “It wasn’t easy to get them during the war,” she reminds Larissa. “She never had a care for her things, your mother.” Larissa won’t go so far as to agree with criticism of her mother, so she hums in what she hopes is an agreeable way. “How’s your neighbor?” she asks. “The woman you play bridge with.” Her aunt sniffs again. “Dead,” she says, shaking her head at this willful failure. “Her daughter came to clear out her things last week.” Some visits, her aunt is willing to tell stories about the past that are free of bitterness and spite. Sometimes, Larissa hears new things about Helen that she didn’t know. That she had a yellow convertible. That she and Larissa’s father courted for years before she said yes. That she’d had her tonsils out and almost died when she was thirteen. Not this visit though. She leaves her aunt before dinner is announced over the loudspeaker, because she can’t bear sitting at the table with her aunt and her tablemates: the woman who always smiles, the woman who talks incessantly about her Uncle Frank, the woman who brings a doll with her and surreptitiously feeds it bits from her plate. When she is in the car, she breathes deeply, feeling guilty and relieved. Would she hate these visits so if it was her mother she was seeing instead? The template of her aunt’s rooms seems to press down on her: she can’t help seeing herself in the bed, in the wheelchair maneuvering into the accessible bathroom, sitting in front of the TV watching endless colorized Turner classic movies. On her way home, as she often does, she goes to the mall and buys something, this time a pair of shoes and an umbrella, which she thinks are probably symbolic of something.

Roseanne, the woman at the museum who reminds her of the love of her life, is not quite one year younger than Larissa, about nine months to be exact. “You were being born that month, and I was being conceived,” she tells Larissa. Sometimes Larissa counts the ways that Roseanne is like Eileen, and sometimes she looks for the differences. They are both slight and blonde, both wear glasses, and are fond of jangly bracelets. Roseanne still works. She’s a teacher, but on half-time now. Her specialty at the museum is restoring old paintings, which she calls freshening up. “It would be a crime if this was a Rembrandt,” she says, “but since it’s not, I can have away at it.” These paintings are mostly lugubrious landscapes featuring waterfalls, sunsets, barns and farm animals, or portraits of dour men and women of the last century. Roseanne takes what liberties she can get away with, putting highlights on the waterfalls, brightening up the ancient clothes, or drawing a suggestion of a smile on the gloomiest faces. This is a secret she has with Larissa. Roseanne has a way of laughing that falls so lightly on Larissa’s ear, a laugh of three notes, descending the scale like birdsong.

Larissa’s son was always happy, or this is how she remembers him. Not that he wasn’t a normal boy. Not that they didn’t fight sometimes, over his clothes, or how late he would stay out. He had three good friends, two boys and a girl, from grade school all through high school. Larissa was proud of him, being friends with a girl, but also puzzled, since that wasn’t the way it was when she was young. His father (or rather, the man who Larissa married) got along with him well, for as long as he was around. If Larissa were to tell the story of her marriage to someone (to Roseanne, for instance), she might laugh, and say that they hardly knew each other. I’m not sure why we got married, she might say. It was a whim, I guess. At the time though, she’d thought of it as a solid plan, her plan to become normal, which meant finding a man and getting married. She would have been more comfortable (a little more) if she’d just been a lesbian, she tells herself. But the wavering between genders was a little too much, not in the slightest normal. Now it wouldn’t make so much difference. But anyway, she married him, and they didn’t hate each other for the time they were together. She felt afterward as if she’d done everything she could. She’d been as normal as it was possible for her to be.

Her time on the commune happened after she dropped out of college. She’d been planning to be a nurse, without somehow realizing that she’d have to watch people bleed. She changed majors and changed again, and then in her second year, dropped out halfway through the semester. Her mother had been confused but supportive. She’d lived at home for a few months, the two of them making each other crazy. When one of her friends, who had also dropped out (for reasons that had more to do with drugs and failing grades) wrote her and said that a few people he knew were going to live on his grandfather’s farm, she had been initially unenthusiastic. He called her long distance and extolled the beauties of the farm, talking about how there were a couple of goats and how they might make cheese, and someone planned to take up quilting, on and on, while she half listened, paging through a magazine while her mother made faces at her, wanting to know who it was. It wasn’t until he mentioned the orchard that she started listening properly. Helen, her mother, was then around forty-eight, still in the height of her beauty, her silvering blonde hair falling forward over her shoulders, her green eyes bright, her long legs crossed, her hand curving around a cigarette, blowing a stream of smoke toward the light from the window.

Larissa’s son died when he was nineteen. It was the kind of death that can’t be blamed on anyone, no matter how you try. He had gone out with his friends (the same friends he’d had all those years) to meet some other friends. They’d been walking across the street in a straggling group, on their way from one bar to another. They’d been drinking but no one was drunk. He had dropped behind to look for his longtime friend, the girl, who was lingering in the door of the bar, trying to get rid of a man who wanted her number, or wanted to come with her. He wanted something, and Larissa’s son was probably thinking of going back to help her get rid of him – this is what the girl told her several hours later at the hospital, crying so hard that her words came out garbled. The driver of the car wasn’t drunk either; she was old, and she was having a stroke. Larissa imagines her face drooping, her mouth crooked, one hand slipping from the wheel as she careened toward the spot on the street where Larissa’s son was standing, ready to be chivalrous if necessary. She hit him square on, so that his body flew some yards into the brick wall of the building housing the bar, several apartments, and a dry cleaners. He was dead on impact, the doctor assured Larissa, as if this was a comfort, and maybe it was.

At the museum, Larissa enjoys most the repairs that must be made on donated clothes. She never learned to sew when she was young, since her mother wanted her to have a career, but she has gotten good at it. She is currently working on a set of early nineteenth-century baby clothes, their whiteness yellowed in spite of having been treated gently with bleach. They are fancier than baby clothes today, with lace and hand embroidery, but less colorful. When Roseanne comes to see what she’s doing, she holds the dress she’s mending to show her. Roseanne laughs and says that she needs a drink.

When Larissa was in high school, she was one of the smart girls, although she doesn’t think she’s especially smart. But she was a hard worker, also a good test taker. Eileen wasn’t one of the smart girl group. She transferred in their junior year, and didn’t seem interested in attaching herself to any of the groups. She spent time with one person, then another, dropping in on the groups at random. No one seemed to mind. Eileen wasn’t beautiful. Her hair looked as if it had been cut by her mother, using a bowl, her eyes were a little small, her body lean and boyish. But people seemed to like to be with her. Larissa did. She was willing to do things like sit on the floor in front of her locker with Eileen, their legs stretched out so that passing girls had to step over them. She agreed to go to the dentist with Eileen because Eileen said that her dentist was probably a child molester (Eileen insisted on paying her $5. Danger pay, she said.) She and Eileen went to the prom together with Eileen’s two much younger brothers (they were 13 and 14) as a protest against the ridiculousness of expensive prom festivities when there were people dying everywhere in the world. They bought their dresses at the Goodwill, and the brothers wore tuxedo T-shirts. None of these things would Larissa have done before, or with anyone who wasn’t Eileen. Still, she hadn’t considered that she was in love. She didn’t realize this until much later, when she hadn’t seen Eileen for years and never would again.

Larissa gradually had started spending more and more time at the museum, more than her assigned volunteer hours. No one minded. The director often stopped to hug Larissa when she saw her, saying that she was the volunteer queen. Larissa liked old things, although she hadn’t known this about herself until now. She liked fixing things. She liked the slightly musty smell. She liked knowing things about people’s lives, the people to whom the museum’s exhibits had belonged.

The boy who fathered Larissa’s son was younger than her, eighteen to her twenty-two. He had limp, soft hair that fell below his shoulders. He asked her to cut it one night, and somehow, her hands on his forehead and ears, the touch of the scissors on his cheek, the brushing away of tufts of hair turned into foreplay. It was a very bad haircut. They laughed about it in bed afterward. He left two weeks later. She doesn’t remember his last name.

Roman finds her work at the museum laughable. He can’t imagine why she wastes her time there. He doesn’t know about the lottery win, and often urges her to get a paying job, at least part-time. He is under the impression that she was pressured into early retirement. Larissa furthers this misapprehension by indulging in pennypinching ways when they’re together. She lets him pay when he insists, and lets herself be seen putting a handful of sugar packets into her purse.

Roman will sometimes talk about what they might do when he is free of his obligations. He likes to speculate grandly about buying a house together in Mexico that they can timeshare out with trusted friends and relatives. He is convinced that no one should die before they’ve done various things like take a balloon ride or go crosscountry on a train. He is currently trying to persuade Larissa that she’d like to take up dog breeding, specifically for guide dogs. He is sure there’s money in it, as well as being a service to mankind.

Larissa hasn’t spent much of the money she won in the lottery. She had a new bathroom put into her house, but it wasn’t an extravagant bathroom. She spends more money than she used to on books, and she refurbished her garden with a raft of new perennials and flowering shrubs. She didn’t replace her car, a five-year-old Toyota, although she bought a new computer and, on impulse, a rather expensive juicer. She didn’t buy a new wardrobe. She went on a few trips after she retired from her job: she went to Canada, to Prince Edward Island to visit the site of the Green Gables novels; on a cruise to Alaska; and to South Carolina to get away from January snow. She thinks of going on a grander trip, to Italy, for instance, but she hasn’t so far nerved herself up for it. She gives more money out to people who beg for it on the street or from the grass verge by the freeway entrance – ten dollars instead of two.

One of the things she remembers about her mother and her aunt is about their gift giving. Her mother never used and often didn’t keep the things her sister gave her. She complained that they were extravagant, or too flamboyant. “Like something a showgirl would wear,” she’d said about a particular silver turban. She gave them away, often pressing them on Larissa, or let them lie in the back of the closet. Larissa found dozens of them, still in their boxes after her mother died. She sat crosslegged on the floor, remembering all the insincere thank-yous, how her mother had smiled gaily, saying “just what I wanted” or “how did you know I needed one of these.” The presents that Larissa’s mother gave her sister were relentlessly practical: an umbrella, padded hangers, a handheld vacuum cleaner. One year she had given her sister underwear. They had argued, not about the gift itself, but over the relative merits of hipster underpants (her aunt) over high-cut briefs (her mother).

Larissa was forty-three when her son died. She was fifty when her mother died. In the years between these two events, she sometimes wished that her mother had died instead of her son. After her mother died, she had no one to substitute.

Larissa met Roman at the home of an acquaintance, in fact, the ex-priest who told her about Eileen’s death. He had been out of the priesthood for years, but he still had the gestures and habits. He had a tendency to hold up his hand, palm out, as if he was conferring a blessing, and he often said “Amen” in nonreligious contexts. The evening had been a get-together for people who had once taught at St. Pius II School. Larissa had taught there only for a year, and only as a sub for someone on maternity leave, but the ex-priest was relentless in tracking down former colleagues. It was potluck, and Larissa had brought a bowl of cherry tomatoes and cookies from a bakery, still in the package. It was then two years after her son had died. She kept expecting to “get over it,” “get closure,” “find some peace” — but this was not happening. She had dreams about her son quite often. Sometimes it was as if nothing had ever happened – pleasant dreams about conversations at breakfast or watching him play soccer, as he had in high school. Sometime they began this way, and then descended into horror, blood beginning to drip into his scrambled eggs as they talked, or a yawning pit opening in the middle of the soccer field which gaped and widened until all the players were sucked in. Sometimes they began bad and stayed that way. The night of the party she had dressed without thinking what she was putting on, not caring much if she went or stayed home. If she hadn’t been able to find her car keys immediately, she likely would have set the wrapped bowl of tomatoes and the bag of cookies on the table by the door and gone straight to bed. But the car keys were there, and she walked out to the car, her mind a blank. At the expriest’s house, she sat on a couch, nodding at people but not talking to the group around her. Roman was sitting across from her on a folding chair. At the end of the evening, he claimed that he needed a ride, and the expriest had volunteered Larissa, since they lived only ten minutes apart. She didn’t think she said a word on the way home. Roman had gotten her number from the expriest. On their first date, he told her that he’d never met a more restful woman.

Eileen and Larissa were only friends in the time that they knew each other, but sometimes Larissa finds herself imagining that they continued to know each other, and that they have had a more intimate relationship that has lasted all that time since then. She finds herself thinking about this when she’s sewing up the hem on some frayed nineteenth-century baby clothes, or regilding a picture frame.

Larissa’s neighbors don’t know her well. She says hello to them, and pretends not to mind when the neighborhood children’s balls land in her yard. She buys girl scout cookies and magazine subscriptions from them when their schools are fundraising. Her neighbor to the west shovels her driveway when the snow is bad, and her neighbor to the east gives her surplus tomatoes when his garden is overflowing. She sometimes thinks, and takes pleasure in the fact that they don’t know her at all, they know nothing about her thoughts or circumstances.

Roman and Roseanne met once when Roman came to the reception for the museum’s exhibit (which Larissa had co-curated), “Our Ancestors, Ourselves.” They didn’t get along, by which Larissa was secretly pleased.

Roseanne and Larissa sometimes go out for drinks on Thursday after their hours at the museum. They like a little bar that is in the gentrified area of the city. Surrounded by cupcake bakeries and little shops that sell arts and crafts or vintage clothing, the bar itself is not gentrified. It has a decades-old smell of beer and smoke imbued into its furnishings, and the clientele (besides Roseanne and Larissa) tends to be solitary old men who hunch over their drinks protectively. The bar menu is not extensive, but they do a good martini, and that is what Roseanne and Larissa order: martinis with gin, up, two olives, heavy on the vermouth. They sit and talk about work and about their past lives, leaving much out. Larissa tells her the story of her time on the commune, making it as funny as she can. Roseanne tells Larissa how she got expelled from college, and how she worked for three years as a bail bondsman, which she describes as “kind of a kick.” It’s dim in the bar, and they lean closer to each other to hear over the relentless oldies playing on the sound system. Larissa has never invited Roseanne to come home with her after drinks, although she has thought about it. The trouble is that she isn’t sure how to go on from there. She sometimes gets a feeling that Roseanne would like her to do this, but she has never learned how to be the aggressor. Would she have to say something? Would she take Roseanne’s hand? She feels a little angry with Roseanne because she doesn’t take the initiative. And then, sex: no matter how much she likes Roseanne, does she actually want to go there?

In her imaginary life with Eileen, they went to the commune together, where perhaps they took it over, making it run more efficiently, making a rota for the chores, for instance. They lay in the grass in the orchard and looked at the stars through the branches. Because Eileen was there, Larissa would not have slept with the father of her son, which is a problem, since she doesn’t want to erase his existence, even in this imaginary world. Somehow he becomes their son, hers and Roseanne’s, in some unexplained conception. When they leave the commune, Larissa gets a teaching job at a prestigious private school, and Eileen finds a highpaying corporate job that requires her to travel a lot (even in her imaginary life, Larissa finds that she wants a little distance). When Larissa wins the lottery, she and Eileen buy a house in Costa Rica (which is reputed to be very cheap to live in). They move there with their son, although he leaves after a few years to go to college at Harvard. Bringing this fantasy up to the present, they are both retired, and Larissa is working on a book about something or other. Not a memoir. Eileen has taken up horseback riding and has her own shop selling Costa Rican crafts.

The ex-priest runs into Larissa every once in a while – in the grocery store or in the park on the all-purpose path. He always asks after Roman, looking smug, as if he is entirely responsible for their getting together. He sometimes hints slyly about a possible marriage. “Even in our golden days, we can find happiness,” he says, sometimes going so far as to nudge her conspiratorily. He always invites the two of them to his next little fiesta, as he calls his parties, and she always says that she’ll try to make it, although she never does. Whether Roman goes or not, she doesn’t know.

When Larissa thinks of her son, she tries now to distance herself, as if he lived a long time ago, as if he were born fifty years ago, a hundred, as if he had been friends with the boy in one of the photographs in the exhibit, “Farming in the Early Years,” his hand on a plow about to be pulled away by a team of shaggy horses. Her son was of middle height (his father was rather short). His hair fell forward over his eyes: he didn’t like to get it cut. When he smiled, Larissa had always had to smile back, even if she was angry. She wants to think that she remembers all of his smiles, but there are so many that she has forgotten.

One day, Roseanne comes in with a gift bag and hands it to Larissa, who takes it with a puzzled frown. “Open it,” Roseanne says, and she does, finding inside a clutter of sample-sized makeup. Roseanne’s cousin sells Avon, and they were having a clear out. Larissa takes out a lipstick: Enduring Sable, in a shimmer finish. “These are all good for a brunette,” Roseanne says, gesturing toward Larissa’s hair. “I can’t wear them.” Roseanne is a blonde, her color shades lighter than her original hair was, she has told Larissa. “I thought of you,” Roseanne said. She pulls out an eye shadow called Midnight Sparkler. “You can wear this when we go out for drinks. We’ll be fighting them off.”

Larissa forgets to bring something with her when she visits her aunt, and she blames this for the unpleasantness that follows. Her aunt refuses to be wheeled outside into the cramped garden although the weather is warm. The aide whispers to Larissa in the hall that she’s been difficult. She refused three times to get her hair washed, even though it’s lank and straggling. Her aunt tells a long story about the director of the assisted living apartments, claiming that she is preventing everyone from going to Mass. Her aunt claims that the visiting priest has been barred from the facility for some dark reason that she refuses to divulge. She tells Larissa again that her mother hasn’t been to visit her in a long time, and that she’s not surprised. Larissa is thinking that maybe it’s time that she move to the other side of the facility, where residents with dementia or more severe health problems stay. She pours some coffee for the two of them from the pot in the communal kitchen space and pretends to drink hers. Her aunt leans closer to her. “Helen was always that way,” she says. “Always thinking of herself, your mother.” Larissa prepares herself to hear again about the stockings borrowed without permission or how her mother never helped with the chores. “She didn’t care about what anybody said,” her aunt says. “Your father was a saint. She led him a dance, you know. Before,” she lowers her voice, “and after.” Larissa draws back. She wants to ask what her aunt means, except that she knows what she means. Her aunt looks at her with satisfaction. “She was brought up better than that. We all were.” She looks at the drooping plants on the window sill that Larissa has forgotten about watering. “I never wanted a man, you know. Too much trouble,” her aunt says. She smiles, so slyly that Larissa wants to hit her, if it was possible to hit old women whose bones are as brittle as plaster.

Larissa likes to go to the bank instead of using the ATM, which makes her nervous. She’s never sure that her card will come back out. At the bank, everyone knows her, and they are endlessly friendly. She sits at one of the customer service desks, and lets the executive vice president handle her withdrawal. She can tell that he wants to ask her what the money is for, but he doesn’t. Outside, the sun is shining. She prefers to carry cash with her. Cash is more comforting than a credit card, although she has those, too. At the mall, she walks up and down, in and out of the stores. Roseanne’s birthday is a week away, which she knows because she looked up Roseanne’s volunteer employee file on the computer in the office, but she doesn’t know what to get her. A scarf? a bracelet? a clutch purse? These are the things that women buy for each other, but none of them seem right. She starts buying things nevertheless, the accumulation of them spurring her on. Something has to be right, hasn’t it? A pair of red shoes. A book on ferns. A paperweight shaped like an octopus, translucent and shimmery. A box of chocolate truffles in spring colors. A lotion containing dead sea salts. The strings of the bags cut into her fingers.

The calendar in Larissa’s office at the museum is a weight on her, the spent and unspent days. It’s an annual calendar, but somehow she feels the press of the years behind this one, pushing on the leaves that say January, February, March. Before Larissa retired, she was less aware of time. Now, she realizes, the months are square and stolid, the weeks a rush of light and dark, the days slotted into them like coffins. All the dead hours.

Larissa’s mother had wanted her to be a teacher, one of the things they argued about. Her aunt had taken Larissa’s side. “Let her have a bit of fun,” she said. “Teachers are poky old things.”

Roman has wanted to take her to the races for a long time, but she had resisted until now, since it seemed silly to her to watch a number of horses run around in a circle. It might be different, she told Roman, if she owned one of the horses, or if she knew the jockeys. There was no reason she couldn’t own a horse, if she took it into her head to do such a silly thing. She could buy a horse, or two horses, and a stable, and maybe her own racetrack. A small one. She sits in the seats high enough up so that the racing park spreads out below her. Her thigh is pressed against Roman’s leg. He had his arm around her for a while, but in the excitement of the race, he has released her, has stood up to yell encouragement at Blue Shadow, on whom he bet fifty dollars. It is a pretty name, Larissa admits. The horses are moving specks from here, their spidery legs scrambling. The crowd wavers and jitters in excitement, their round heads bobbing. Larissa is thinking of other things: her mother, her aunt, her son. The sharp-cut fall of Eileen’s trendy haircut against the navy blue of their school uniform. The expriest who informed her of Eileen’s death had said that he was sure she’d died in Christ. Larissa knows however that Eileen was an atheist, or at least an agnostic, something they had settled between them on the retreat in junior year, when they had discussed the strong possibility that God did not exist. They had snuck out after curfew to talk on the cold sand of the beach, the dark waves splashing at their feet. No one knew where they were, that was the best thing. No one could tell them anything.

 

 

 

BIO

Mary Grimm has had two books published, Left to Themselves (novel) and Stealing Time (story collection) – both by Random House. She teaches fiction writing at Case Western Reserve University.

 

 

 

 

0

The Engagement of Zelda Sayre to F. Scott  Fitzgerald

(from an unpublished novel entitled “Ascent to Madness: Zelda Fitzgerald’s Gilded Cage.”)

by Henry F. Tonn

 

 

Montgomery, Alabama 1917

 

I met Scott Fitzgerald just before my eighteenth birthday at a country club in Montgomery, Alabama, where I had been persuaded to perform “Dance of the Hours” in a crowded ballroom full of servicemen. I was a veritable blonde sylph in those days; my feet seemed to barely touch the floor. After the performance all the servicemen swarmed around me wanting to dance, and I was whirled across the floor by a succession of admirers, one cutting in after another. Scott saw me and moved right in. He was a cocky little bugger with something of a supercilious attitude along with a distinctive strut to his walk.

We danced, but he was hampered in his attentions by other servicemen cutting in. Finally, as the evening drew to a close, Scott asked me for a date. Pretty quick, I thought! And laughed. “I never make late dates with fast workers,” I informed him, flipping my golden curls behind me.

“There appears to be a lot of competition for your companionship,” he observed, gently stroking the side of my face with two fingers and peering intently at me. “I don’t want to be left behind.”

I put five fingers on his chest and shoved. “Well, unless they’re shipping you off to the war tomorrow, mon chevalier, you’ll have plenty of time. I’m not going anywhere.”

This was a new experience for Scott who was accustomed to having his way with the fairer sex, being the pretty boy that he was. He thought since he was down South with the cotton pickers, he could have his way with any girl he chose.

Wrong!

I had many suitors in that era and was dated up for weeks. Scott had to put in some major effort to garner my attention. Hah! And that inaccessibility made me more desirable to him, made him more determined than ever to get me. It is an eternal truism in the world of love that that which is most elusive generally assumes the mantle of the most desirable.

But he was a good looking man, with his blonde hair and fresh complexion. He had luminous green eyes that seemed to change with his mood and a perfectly chiseled face. His uniform was tailored by Brooks Brothers of New York and he wore cream-colored boots with spurs. He was animated and passionate. His conversation glittered. He was somber and determined, but witty and urbane. I had never before met anyone like him. Later I would learn that the two things Scott Fitzgerald ultimately wanted most in life were literary success and me. He got both, but maybe eventually regretted it.

He called me every day from his barracks. He came to my house regularly, riding the rickety old bus to Montgomery from his camp and then taking a taxi. He wanted me exclusively but had to share me with others. He objected and complained bitterly. Sorry about that, darling, but I am queen of the belles here and shall play it to the hilt. When you have men lined up at the door, you pretty much do as you please.

Get in line, gentlemen—there’s enough of Zelda for everybody!

But Scott was relentless. He threw a party at the country club for my eighteenth birthday and managed to make it a magical evening: the lights, the music, the dancing. Scott was the dashing Lieutenant then and I was the elusive, fragrant, seductive phantom. I was there but I was not quite there for him. But gradually I found myself being drawn to the man, irresistibly, like a moth to a flickering flame. Our times together increased. I invited him to my house for dinner so he could become acquainted with my family.

This was serious business and it was supposed to a memorable event. And it was, but for the wrong reason.

I introduced Old Dick—my name for Daddy behind his back—to Scott and they chatted comfortably for ten minutes, then everyone sat down to the dinner table. Within the first minute I said something Daddy objected to and he just blew up. He grabbed a carving knife and started chasing me around the table brandishing the knife while Scott looked on with incredulity. Finally, after several rotations of the table and one side trip through the kitchen, the judge—not in the best of jogging condition—ran out of steam and sat back down to finish his dinner. I swear to God, it’s true. My father, a judge of the highest order, could control his emotions with everyone but me. I drove him crazy. But afterwards everybody chatted amiably as though nothing had happened. Pass the butter beans, Momma? Thank you so much. More corn, Daddy?

Scott never forgot it. He thought, What am I getting myself into here?

“It’s all right, son,” Old Dick said, patting Scott on the shoulder. “I haven’t killed her yet. Came close a couple of times but haven’t managed yet.”

“Yes, sir,” was all Scott could reply, picking at his food. He was real quiet that night.

“More roast?” the judge said amiably.

“No thank you, sir.”

“A Princeton man, are you?” the judge said, trying to make conversation.

“Yes, sir.”

“Graduated?”

“No, sir. Dropped out to serve my country.”

“Ah! Good man. Good man. So what are your plans after the war? What would you like to do with yourself?”

“I’d like to be a writer, sir.”

“A writer, you say?” The judge’s eyebrows constricted.

“Yes, sir.”

“A writer.” The judge’s moustache drooped.

“Yes, sir.”

“Hm.”

It was obvious that Judge Anthony Sayre was not overly fond of his youngest daughter’s being courted by a soldier whose ambition was to support her by the power and glory of the written word.

We sat on my front porch later rocking in the swing and sipping non-alcoholic drinks with fruit and crushed ice. He quoted poetry to me. He had memorized poems that went on for fifteen minutes. I’ve never seen nor heard anything like it. He talked about his future and his writing, and was absolutely determined to be the greatest author in the world—both rich and famous.

“The rich are different than you and me,” he said, his chiseled features etched in the moonlight, his wonderful eyes brilliant and alive. “They have everything they want early in their lives and don’t have to work for it. It gives them a certain sense of entitlement. It causes them to feel they’re better than everyone else. There were a lot of people like that at Princeton. I could feel it. They sized you up, and if you had money and breeding and came from the right family, they allowed you into that unspoken fraternity that other people couldn’t hope to join. But I’m going to make it on my own terms. Then nobody can look down on me.”

“I haven’t noticed that sort of thing in Montgomery,” I said.

“It’s not the same,” he insisted. “You have to go up north to see what I’m talking about: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Boston, New York. These people think the sun rises and sets on themselves. They know it does. They don’t care about the poor, for example. The only poor people they’ve ever known are their own servants and laborers. They have no sensitivity, no concern for the human condition. The greatest writers understood and wrote about the human condition—which is what made them great: Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, Balzac, Dickens, Keats, Marx, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Spengler. Some of these people rose above their own lofty beginnings—like Tolstoy, for example—to identify with the less fortunate, and you have to admire them for that. I doubt if any of my Princeton classmates will ever follow suit, but I certainly hope I’ll remember where I came from when I’m famous. I hope I never lose my concern for the human condition. If you’re a great writer, you should also be a great man.”

I was touched by this. I wanted to stand up and applaud. These were new ideas to me; they were not the typical ideas you heard in Montgomery. I slipped my arm through his and leaned against him. “That’s right, darling. Both of us will want to remember our humble beginnings.”

“It’s like the Nietzschean superman,” he said. “No matter how exalted you are, you never forget the unfortunates.”

“Yes,” I said somberly, though I had no idea what a “Nietzchean superman” was.

“I want to do this as much for you as for myself,” he swore. “I want us to take this journey together. We’d be so perfect.”

“It sounds like a wonderful life. I’m excited to think about it.”

He nodded with determination. “I’m going to make it happen.”

“We’d be linked like soul-mates,” I said. “Eternally. Two souls incarnated. That’s what the theosophists believe, you know. Together before they were born and linked as one in the afterlife. Mirror reflections of each other.”

He looked at me quizzically.

“My mother was a theosophist,” I explained. “She taught me about it.”

“Oh.”

“I know a woman who’s a psychic,” I continued. “It’s simply amazing how accurate her predictions are. All of my friends have seen her one time or another. She uses a Ouija board. Only her hands are on it, nobody else’s, and you can ask her anything you want. And then the board spells out the answer. Have you ever seen a Ouija board?”

“No.”

“I’ll go to her,” I promised, “and ask the question, ‘Will Scott Fitzgerald become rich and famous with his novel?’ What do you think? And I’ll tell you what she says.”

He nodded, looking abstractly into the distance. “I’d like to know,” he murmured.

We strolled around the fields near my home and discussed love. Crickets chirped, tree frogs croaked, and cicadas trilled as we were soon treated to a nocturnal serenade. We held hands and caressed each other. He asked me to marry him but I wouldn’t make the commitment. I teased him and was elusive and he got angry and sulked. It made me more desirable than ever.

I pressed myself against him and kissed him passionately in the shadows of the night but always withheld a part of myself. And he knew it. He found me enigmatic and confusing and said so. He couldn’t figure me out. Perhaps he never figured me out. I became the de facto heroine of many of his novels and stories because he could never quite figure me out. Of course, it’s always more interesting to write about a woman of mystery than one you understand, isn’t it?

But, in retrospect, I wonder if we were ever really right for each other.

Ever.

I don’t know.

But I only had a few doubts at the time and they were mostly concerning his ability to support me properly.

He was fascinated by the way I conversed, by the way I put words together in a peculiar manner, sometimes in a peculiar sequence. I said whatever came into my head in those days, being utterly spontaneous. I saw things from a different perspective and wasn’t afraid to declare my uniqueness. Scott had never heard anyone express themselves in such a manner, with the peculiar word formations I used, the figures of speech, the observations. It was almost as though I were speaking a foreign language to him and he needed a translator.

He began jotting down things I said, preserving them in a notebook he always carried, and later I would find them in a story of his—often word for word. Later, when we were married, he stole my diary and incorporated vast sections of it into his novel—again, word for word! I was amused and annoyed at the same time.

We had so much fun talking. We had marathon conversations. Marathon! He had been to college and was educated, whereas I just talked off the top of my head as ideas flowed through my consciousness. It was perfect. We fit together. We complemented each other in so many ways.

He became my number one beau.

But not my only beau.

Definitely not my only beau. After all, I was the leading belle in Montgomery!

I told him I loved him and would always be there with him, but the next day I would feel differently. I love you. I love you not. I love you. I love you not. I love you. I love you not. Ho hum. How could I be certain he was right for me and could take care of me when he had no means of support? Perhaps he was going to be a great writer, as he assured me, but how could I know? My lack of certainty made him angrier than ever and he complained bitterly, causing heated battles between us. But he also understood my fear. I was a judge’s daughter and his prospects were questionable. He needed to prove himself. My parents didn’t approve of him. And there were many, many other suitors.

So, when the war ended, which terminated his plans to fight in Europe, he boarded a train to New York and began his quest to become the Great Author. I, meanwhile, became fully engaged with my various suitors. I dated two football players from Auburn plus the son of a wealthy cotton broker, among others. I was crowned prom queen on three different college campuses: the University of Alabama, the University of Georgia, and little Sewanee. The more men I dated, the more conflicted I became about Scott. He was there but they were here. “I want you more all the time and I love you with all my heart and soul,” I wrote to him, and then went out and rampaged my way through the night.

Line up, gentlemen. Line up. Zelda is here!

Poor Scott.

He got desperate and sent me an engagement ring. I kept it but placed it in a drawer. Five members of a football team created a fraternity in my honor in which the induction requirement was to have dated me. I had fantasies of dating the whole football team, kissing every one of them. Leave no stone unturned! They were everywhere, offering me rides, visiting my house, inviting me out on every imaginable kind of excursion. I promised Scott I would write to him regularly but quickly tired of it. “This long-distance affair is not helping my nerves at all, darling,” I wrote. “I wish we would get this business resolved one way or the other.” The less I thought of Scott the better. He was long-distance and creating too many problems. Gradually he receded into the distance.

He wrote nineteen short stories over a several-month period and got a hundred rejection slips, pasting them on the walls of his tiny apartment. He wrote bitterly to me about the rejections and I felt sorry for him. Not only were his hopes as a writer being dashed, but he was watching the woman he loved slip away. He cursed his poverty and became absolutely frantic. But there were limits to what I could do to assuage his misery. He visited me in Montgomery three times in three months, coming by train. The third visitation was a disaster and I returned his engagement ring. “If you can’t support me, I can’t marry you,” I hollered. “What do you expect? There’s nothing romantic about starving in an attic with an impecunious author. Call me insensitive if you wish, but that’s the way it is.” I stomped my foot, and he left a broken man, but as determined as ever to have me.

He was persistent, I’ll give him that.

His novel, what would eventually become This Side of Paradise, was rejected by Scribners Publishing Company, and his editor, Maxwell Perkins, made suggestions on how to revise it. There was nothing left for him in New York so he took a train back to his parents’ home in St. Paul, Minnesota, and moved into the guest room on the third floor. There he devoted himself solely to revising the manuscript, writing ten, twelve, fifteen hours a day. He wove parts of my diary and letters into the book, created new characters, and moved various scenes around. He stopped only to eat when his mother placed food on the floor outside the door. He became a writing machine.

During the same period I dated thirty-seven different men. I have always preferred male companionship to that of females because I seem perpetually to be in competition with the latter. I wrote about this to Scott and the communiqué ended up almost verbatim in his book: “Women she detested. They represented qualities that she felt and despised in herself—incipient meanness, conceit, cowardice, and petty dishonesty. She once told a roomful of her mother’s friends that the only excuse for women was the necessity for a disturbing element among men.”

There was, unfortunately, entirely too much truth to this statement.

My correspondence with him ran hot and cold. Generally I tried to be upbeat and even passionate:

There’s nothing in the world I want other than your love, darling. My lips are yours. My body is yours. My soul is yours. I think of you every minute of the day; I sleep with you at night even though you are far away. I don’t want to live; I want to love, and live incidentally. Without you I am nothing. My life is barren and meaningless. I want you to possess every molecule of my being. I am willing to be your slave, to follow your wishes whatever they may be. I want to be beautiful for you, thin, and perfect. I want to make you the happiest man on earth. I am proud to be the object of your love and desire.

But other times I had to be realistic about not accepting his marriage proposal:

This is not an issue of material things, my darling, which are meaningless to me. I simply can’t bear the thought of poverty, a sordid, colorless existence which would surely destroy the love we have for each other. Poverty sucks the life fluids from your body and leaves you dry, desiccated, and wasted. Poverty is a barren, joyless monotony which is antithetical to the rich, effulgent embrace of life we both possess. Poverty destroys the body and kills the spirit. Poverty is the opposite of the financial security we need, that we must have in order to achieve and preserve the happiness we deserve. I want you and need you, darling, and wish to devote the rest of my life to our happiness, but you must create a foundation on which we can build. This is your responsibility, not mine. I am waiting for you, darling. I am waiting for you and only you.

Scott finally completed his novel and submitted it again to Scribner’s. On September 16, 1919, Maxwell Perkins mailed him a letter which said, “I am very glad, personally to be able to write you that we are all for publishing your book, This Side of Paradise . . . The book is so different that it is hard to prophesy how it will sell, but we are all for taking a chance and supporting it with vigor.”

The floodgates suddenly opened and a tidal wave of success washed over Scott. Simultaneously, Saturday Evening Post purchased his story, “Head and Shoulders” for $400.00. This was followed by a series of acceptances by The Smart Set, then another round of acceptances by the Post which raised its payments for his work to $500.00. Finally, in February of 1920, Scott sold the movie rights to “Head and Shoulders” for the astronomical sum of $2500.00—a full year’s wages for the average worker in the United States at the time. To say that Scott felt vindicated would be an understatement.

He was now flush with money and decided he had established a sufficiently solid financial foundation to make me his bride. He bought a spectacular diamond and platinum wristwatch for me and engraved it “from Scott to Zelda,” then boarded a train to Montgomery. The next few days were passed in an orgy of eating, drinking, loving each other, and ardent discussions concerning our future. He wanted me to marry him immediately and move to New York. I was more cautious because his novel was not yet published and I had no idea what sort of reception it would receive.

“It doesn’t matter, darling,” he insisted as we strolled hand-in-hand down a dirt road bordering a cotton field a short distance from my house. It was nighttime and a full moon bathed both of us in a luminescent glow. “I’m selling short stories now for good money. And I’ll be starting a new novel soon. I can take care of you. You’ll be happy in New York. It’ll be a whole new life. The novel will sell big, I just know it will. We’ll be famous, me and you. This is what we’ve been waiting for.” He stopped and took both of my hands and lifted them reverently to his lips and kissed them passionately.

“Sweetheart, I love you so much,” I said, pressing against him. “But the novel hasn’t been published yet and there are so many questions. You’re asking me to move from little Montgomery to huge New York. I don’t know if I’m ready for that yet.”

Tears moistened Scott’s eyes as he stared at me pleadingly. I thought he was going to break down and cry right on the spot. “Trust me, darling, this is the time. All the work I’ve put in for the past year has been for you. I have sufficient funds right now to support us for the next year—not conservatively, but extravagantly. Anything you want is yours. I’ll dress you like a queen. You’ll have the finest furs and the most exquisite jewelry. We’ll eat at the best restaurants and you’ll have a different outfit to wear every time we go out. We’ll attend the symphony, the opera, the ballet. Wouldn’t you like to see the premier ballerinas of the world perform? Everything will be yours!”

“And the symphonies,” he continued, holding my head gently between his hands and peering into my eyes. “When I hear Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, I don’t know how he could have done better. But when I hear his Seventh Symphony, I don’t know how he could have done better. And then when I hear the final movement of his Ninth Symphony, I think, He did better, but I don’t know how. It’s a moment of rapture! You can’t get that in Montgomery, you’ve got to come to New York. I’ll be the famous author and you’ll be my Southern belle. We’ll be soul mates: two souls incarnated and forever linked. This is what we’ve both wanted. Without you to share my success, all of this will be pointless!” He threw his arms out as though embracing the world, his features animated in the moonlight’s soft light.

Scott never lacked for emotion, I’ll say that. He was handsome and passionate and persuasive, and after four days I finally relented. I agreed to marry him, but not before the publication of his book. “When is it coming out?” I asked.

“It’s on the fast track,” he said. “Next month.”

“Very well then.” I placed my arms around his neck and kissed him deeply, then bit him on the neck and breathed in deeply the richness of his cologne. I snuggled up close to him, pressing my body against his, and finally murmured warmly into his ear, “I’ll marry you in April.”

So this was how our wedding date was established. However, I had to tell my parents, and knowing that neither of them approved of Scott, I braced myself for the confrontation. I waited until Scott left before the discussion ensued, which took place in our library.

The judge was furious.

“This is completely absurd, young lady!” he bellowed, slamming his fist down on the desk. The judge, as always, was dressed formally and impeccably, and sat ramrod straight in his chair as he spoke. His white hair had grown even whiter in the past year and many blamed my wild antics on having caused it. “You’re throwing away your life. The man has not graduated from college, he’s Irish, he has no career to speak of, he drinks too much, and he’s Catholic. You have no business marrying anyone like him.”

The judge intimidated everyone but me, and I was in love. “None of those things matter,” I retorted. “He’s publishing a book and has sold a bunch of short stories to the magazines and already has enough money to support both of us for a year.”

The judge rolled his eyes. “You call writing a means of making a living? What piffle! He should be getting a respectable job that involves a salary, or open a business. Writing for a living is no better than being an actor on the stage or some such foolishness.”

I was seated opposite the judge on a hard wooden chair, my mother occupying the seat to my left. Unlike Old Dick, Momma was becoming stout in her advancing years, but still retained her hair color, a dark brown. She rarely contradicted her husband openly, but was the true power behind the throne in the Sayre household. She had been intimately involved in all of our lives during the formative years, not the judge, who granted the authority gladly.

Momma cleared her throat carefully. “Baby,” she said, addressing me by my family appellation, “I certainly find Mr. Fitzgerald to be a charming man. He’s bright and interesting and I can understand your attraction to him. But there are a lot of questionable issues involved here, and we’re only interested in your welfare. It seems to me he drinks too much and he’s not very . . . stable. He romanticizes everything, and I’m not sure that he’s truly responsible. On top of that, he’s going to take you out of Montgomery and move you all the way to New York, which might as well be another country. I’m very concerned and I think it’s too soon. Why do you have to jump into this so quickly? Why not wait a year, or at least six months? You’re so young and there’s no reason to be in such a rush. This is a very important decision you’re making.”

“I’ve known him for over a year,” I replied, “and I’m tired of a long-distance relationship. He can afford me now and I’m ready to go. Both of you know I’ve never been afraid of an adventure. Well, New York is an adventure and I’m ready. I’m sorry, but I plan to marry him with or without your consent. I’ve made up my mind.”

Old Dick let out a long sigh and regarded my mother with an expression of quiet resignation. He shook his head. “Very well, then,” he said, his lips drawn tightly together. “If this is your decision, then there’s nothing further to discuss. But I want you to understand that we do not approve of this union and we will not be attending the wedding. I hope we are wrong about this young man but at the present time I think there should be a modicum of prudence injected into these proceedings. That is all I have to say.”

And with that I prepared for my marriage to Scott Fitzgerald.

 

 

BIO

Henry F. Tonn is a semi-retired psychologist who has previously published fiction and nonfiction in journals such as the Gettysburg Review, Connecticut Review, Fifth Wednesday Journal, and Eclectica. He also has two previous publications in The Writing Disorder. The present story, “The Engagement of Zelda Sayre to F. Scott Fitzgerald,” is excerpted from the second chapter of an unpublished novel entitled Ascent to Madness: Zelda Fitzgerald’s Gilded Cage. Though fiction, the novel follows with relative historical accuracy this fascinating woman’s life, the roaring ‘20’s, and her eventual descent into psychosis.

 

 

 

 

0

This, In Writing, To You

by Etan Nechin

 

 

As far as I am concerned, we gel. If left to our own devices, we could tip a tiny planet off its axis.  So when you come in, using a shiny, new key, all that can be heard is my breath, heavy with night, and your feet tapping on the wooden floors.

You bring stuff with you, clothes and shoes and books you’ve written in. You put them neatly in one of my dresser’s drawer, which now becomes yours. We talk in bed. I talk about this and that; about stuff. You talk about spaces and closeness until your road-weary eyes close. I lay awake all night, thinking about what we will talk about over toast and coffee, but I fall asleep at5am, and sleep through until noon, which is your lunchtime, so all the stuff I wanted to talk about is left unsaid.

That is why I write love letters to you: So that every morning, I can leave something from me, with you, an unconsecrated nuptial, packed along with your lunch, in a brown paper bag, with your name on it, and not mine.

You go away, on a business trip. I don’t have business elsewhere. I stay put, at my desk, typing away, with one finger on the dial, because I know you have your finger on one as well. We talk on the phone. I talk about this and that; about stuff. You talk about patterns and forces. You ask me how I am. I sneeze into the speaker. You laugh, and your laugh sounds like a sneeze too. You tell me your flight number and that you’ll see me tomorrow, but I know it will only be the day after tomorrow, because it is pouring cats and dogs outside my window, even though it is sunny out of your window.

That is why I write love letters to you: Not because words are more sublime than touch, not because gestures are purer than a missed call, pregnant with longing. But because every day I will be able to shut the blinds, and shutter that world that makes us be apart, with its physics, and rain delays, and do my task with glee.

You need to go away, not on a business trip. You say it will be a while. After weeks that are measured not by days, but by phone calls, I come visit—I am air delivered to you. I put my stuff in your drawer, which now becomes mine. We spend a day in the hot springs. We get there by hitching a ride. I take photos of the scenery; you take photos of me taking photos of the scenery. We talk in the hot spring. I talk about this and that; about stuff. You talk about air and mass. In the hot springs, steam gets into my eyes; I can’t see you looking at me.

I make a mental note, to go to the market when we get back, so I can make you a birthday cake. But we spend all day at the springs, and I need to leave as soon as we get back, I leave you a birthday card with the recipe written on the back, but not a cake.

That is why I write love letters to you: So that truck drivers will deliver evidence of me, to you, and a humble mailman will place it at the foot of your doorstep, and knock on the wooden frame, because I cannot.

We miss each other’s calls. That is okay because that is how it works. We know that between here and there is time difference, and weather. We know that our drawers will stay empty, that we can’t fill them on our own anymore, and despite the emptiness it makes us happy, because these empty drawers expand, and become the sky, to which we can look up to, and talk about this and that; about stuff, and there is always something else to speak about—spaces and closeness, patterns and forces, air and mass—so much for us to know about each other, even though we cannot hear or see each other anymore.

That is why I write love letters to you: Because love changes more rapidly than the weather, its distance equals that of eternity, and can only be measured by its abundant absence, just like String Theory, which I know nothing about—but you do.

 

 

BIO

Etan Nechin is an Israeli born writer, currently living in Brooklyn, NY. His fiction and essays were published at ZYZZYVA, Apogee, Columbia Journal Potluck Magazine, MonkeyBicycle, Entropy, MutualArt  and more. He co-wrote text for a performance, UTTER: The Violent Necessary for the Embodied Presence of Hope, which was shown at the 2015 Venice Biennale.

 

 

 

0

Exiadon

by Jesse Downing

 

 

I tapped my pencil on my clipboard.

“What’s the progress on Operation 24B?”

“All clear!”

I nodded to the operator, checked 24B off my list, and moved on. The year was 1967, and I was the supervisor of the Exiadon Computer project. Everything had been going wonderfully for the past three months. The computer had been built, the refrigeration unit installed, and the team of operators and programmers assembled. We provided a few logins to some universities as well as some to some more covert government operations. The machine was making money, and soon it’d be making a difference in the world.

“Jim, get over here,” one of the main operators said.

“What is it?”

I headed over, assuming some stupid university student had been meddling with things he didn’t need to. It wouldn’t have been the first time, after all, and a simple warning or a call to the university was generally enough to get them to stop.

“There’s a problem with one of the fridge motors,” he said.

“Well holy hell, Andy, shut the damn thing down! Do you want six million dollars to go up in flames?”

“Will do,” he said. “Attention all operators. Shut down the Exiadon. I repeat, shut down Exiadon.” All fourteen men and women began rushing to turn off the machine. In less than a minute, everything was off.

“So what’s wrong with the motor?” I asked as a faint grinding sound became more and more apparent. Andy adjusted his glasses and rubbed his beard, looking at a printout of our refrigeration system sensors.

“I don’t know. I’ll call Cooper’s and see if they can come fix it.”

 

“Mr. Crowley,” the man said, sniffing his nose and brushing his mustache, “I sure hate to tell you this, but you’re gonna need a new motor. And to tell you the truth here, I ain’t too sure what kind you’re gonna need.”

I took off my glasses and rubbed my forehead. “Well, I don’t know, either, but it was your company that custom-built and installed this one several months ago.” The man looked surprised, which one served to annoy me more. I said, “I need this fixed today. Tomorrow at the latest. I’m losing money as we speak.”

The man lifted his hat and scratched the back of his hairless head. “Well, Mr. Crowley, it’s gonna take us about a week to get you another custom motor. If you need it that bad I reckon for now we could try and match the load by chaining up some smaller motors and rent those out to ya while we build you a new one.”

I glared. “What do you mean rent? This is your motor. It failed. Get it fixed. I run a multimillion dollar operation. If we hadn’t have had a backup motor, this whole thing could have gone up in flames!” I went back and spoke with Andy about the motor issue.

“I really don’t think it should be an issue running a bunch of smaller motors,” he said, “as long as they can pump the coolant.”

“The dude wants to rent them out to us for a hundred and fifty bucks.”

The red-bearded man nearly choked on his coffee. “They what?!

We decided to wait a week for the custom motor and alerted our clients that we wouldn’t be able to do computations in the meantime. We weren’t so worried about losing clients; after all, they weren’t going to go out and buy their own computers, and there was no way they’d be able to find someone else with a better timesharing service. We assured them that all of their data was still here and secure and that we’d let them know as soon as Exiadon was back up. We even offered to send them the tapes of their data if they weren’t so sure.

The motor eventually came, and a team of technicians was sent out to install it. They finished, tested it, and left. We resumed operation.

“Everything’s going fine, Jim! I’ll call up our customers and tell them the system’s back online!” I nodded to Andy and sat down. It had been a stressful week, but at least the computer technicians were still given work while the machine was down – all thanks to me winning a big argument with corporate (and not getting fired).

 

Suddenly, I felt a rumble.

“What was tha-”

The ground shook violently, and I fell to the floor, bashing my head on the steel panel in front of me. I heard a few screams from the operators as they ran from the room, but they were drowned out by a ringing that grew louder and louder in my ears, and before I could even try to pick myself up, everything faded to black.

 

I began to slowly regain my consciousness. “What happened?” I said, grabbing my head in my hands and raising myself up. I opened my eyes and blinked a few times, trying to focus. “What the…?”

The computer that that previously surrounded me was gone. My coworkers were gone. Everything had been replaced by a giant forest. Trees towered over me, their leaves painting the canopy, letting in sunshine only by rays. A fountain made of stone and covered in moss was at my back. What appeared to be the ruins of a castle or a temple lied just over a hill. The wind moved slowly and silently, brushing ever so gently against my hair and my face.

“I’m glad to see you’re awake.” I jumped, then taking notice to the glowing figure beside me. He appeared to be a man… but he was blue and transparent and floating above the ground. He smiled. “Welcome to Exiadon.”

Exiadon? This place may have been immense and gorgeous, but it was most certainly not my supercomputer. “Pardon?”

“Exiadon, Jim! I’ve been waiting oh-so-long for you to arrive here!” His voice was high-pitched and twisted. It was almost like two voices were speaking at the same time. I was incredibly unsettled.

“How do you know my name?”

“Oh, Jimmy,” he said, getting closer, “isn’t it obvious? This is just a dream! Oho ho ho ho!” He brushed my chin with his hand and danced around. “Isn’t it marvelous?” I furrowed my brow.

“Good. That just means that all I need to do is wake up.”

“O ho ho, but Jimmy, this isn’t any ordinary dream.”

The wind stopped. His voice suddenly became dark and menacing, and his grin got even wider. “You might just not wake up.

Suddenly, he was gone. There was silence. Nothing moved; nothing made a sound. The forest stood completely still.

The silence was broken by a footstep in the grass. An old man – nearly as ancient as the forest surrounding us – approached me. He was short with long, white hair, wearing clothes that reminded me of a Native American chieftain. “You there,” he said. “What’s your name?” I was relieved someone was actually asking.

“Jim,” I said, standing up.

The old man walked up to me and looked around suspiciously. “Has anyone been here with you, Jim?” I wasn’t sure whether I could trust this man or not. After all, the blue one already knew my name and acted as if he were the devil himself.

“Nope, no one at all. Why?”

“Interesting,” he said, giving me a look of distrust – like he knew I was lying to him. I wasn’t too sure this man had really even needed to ask my name – if maybe he didn’t already know it like the other.

“I’m Lazarus. I’m a shaman in a small village just near here. I sensed a disturbance in the forest, and so I came this way.”

“A shaman? So you speak to the dead?”

He grinned. “You might say that. Come with me. I wouldn’t trust staying here alone for too long.” I obliged and followed Lazarus through the forest and to his village.

The village looked just as beautiful and ancient as the rest of the forest had. There were stone houses with primitive wooden fences. Small gardens were in place around some of them, and there was a water well in the center of the town. Children were running around playing, and the adults were going about their daily chores. It was much more lively than the bit of forest I had arrived in.

Still, I was hung up over the fact that the mystery man had called this place Exiadon. Was he being truthful in telling me that it was all just a dream? What did he mean in saying that I might not wake up? And why, still, did he know my name?

“Lazarus,” I said, “what’s the name of this place?” As we moved further into the village, I felt more eyes turn toward me. I was not wearing the white and ancient garb of these people, nor was my skin dark and red like theirs. My hair was short and brown, I had on a grey suit and tie, and my skin was nearly as white as their clothing.

“Epoh,” Lazarus said. “That’s the name of this village.”

“Lazarus,” a deep voice called out. “Who is this man you have brought into the village?” The man walked toward us, keeping suspicious eyes on me. He was similar in height to Lazarus, if not a little taller. His hair was grey and braided, and he carried a large wooden cane in his hand. A necklace dangled from his neck.

“Mortimer, this is Jim. I found him in the forest.”

“Jim! Why do you come to our village?”

I still felt all of the eyes turned toward me – staring, questioning, and judging. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m afraid I’m lost. Lazarus here advised me that I shouldn’t be alone.”

“And that you should not!” Mortimer snapped. “Lazarus. Has he spoken with the guardian?” Lazarus, with his hands behind his back, arched an eyebrow, looked at me, and looked back at Mortimer.

“He has not,” he said.

I interjected, “I’m sorry – guardian?”

Mortimer hit his cane on the ground. “He is not to be trusted!”

“… Then why is he called the guardian?”

“Ahem,” Lazarus said, interrupting. “The guardian is an evil spirit. He is called the guardian because he oversees much of this forest – for better or for worse. You would know him if you saw him.” Lazarus gave me the same suspicious look he had given me when we met. I suspect the blue man I ran into before was this “guardian.”

“Gentlemen,” I said, pushing up my glasses, “would the word ‘Exiadon’ mean anything to either of you?” The two exchanged glances and looked around at the people watching.

“We need to speak privately,” Lazarus said.

The two led me into a building with a table and quite a few books, as well as what appeared to be a crudely drawn map of the forest. “First, let me ask you again, Jim. Did you speak with anyone at the fountain?” I paused. Figuring I might as well trust the two men, I confided.

“I spoke with a man. He appeared and disappeared suddenly. He was blue, and he floated. He also knew my name.”

Lazarus nodded. “That was the guardian,” he said. “What did he say to you?”

“He called this place Exiadon. Then he told me this was a dream, and that I might not wake up.”

“That is certainly what he wants,” the shaman said.

“Jim,” Mortimer piped in, “you must return to the land from which you came.”

Lazarus nodded. “The chief is right. Staying here would be nothing but falling to the hands of the guardian. It will consume your soul.”

Tension spread across my shoulders. I still didn’t understand what this place was or truly even who these people were, and somehow I was supposed to leave. “How am I supposed to get out of here?” I asked, as if I could just break out of this place like it was a cell.

“The spirits traverse worlds through a place called ‘the core.’ A portal can be opened there, but we’ll have to gain access through the castle ruins.” Lazarus looked uneasy. “It’s likely that we’re going to encounter the guardian there. Stay strong in both body and spirit, and you can make it through.”

 

We approached a large stone structure, shrouded in trees and vines. Its walls were cracked, and its door was missing. Past the arched doorway, inside, was what appeared to be the remnants of an elegant castle – a fountain, red carpets and drapes, stained tall windows – all worn by the tides of time and taken over by nature. The inside was beautifully but only sparingly lit by sunlight from the doorway and from the windows – similar to the shade in the forest. A gentle breeze blew through the door. “Follow me,” Lazarus said, guiding me up the steps past the fountain and to a hallway on the left.

I walked down the hallway past Lazarus and stepped into a room. “Jim, wait!” Lazarus called out. The walkway behind me forcefully and suddenly shut.

“Lazarus!” I called back, hitting my hand against the stone wall that had just appeared. There was no call back.

I was standing in a circular room with tall, stone walls, covered in vines and moss. A ring of windows on the ceiling lit the room evenly. In the center there was a tubular stone structure – like a column – that reached up high, widening at the top, with large and strange circular patterns carved into its sides. There was a small stream of water entering from the wall toward the back of the room that filled a small pond circling around its sides. I walked toward the column before me.

I lifted my right hand and touched the structure. Suddenly, its carved-in rings began glowing blue, and a panel extended in front of me. A floating blue rectangle appeared in thin air, and a keyboard appeared similarly on the panel. I jerked my hand away quickly and took in a deep breath, pushing my glasses to the bridge of my nose. Words appeared on the screen.

WELCOME TO EXIADON.

ONLY AUTHORIZED USERS ARE ALLOWED ON THIS SYSTEM. PLEASURE SPEAK TO YOUR UNIVERSITY OR EMPLOYER ABOUT REQUESTING A LOGIN.

 

USER?

A blinking cursor appeared on the screen. I was connected – no, this castle and this forest and this whole place was connected – to my supercomputer. With some kind of video display terminal? What was the deal with this place? Why was everything linked back to the computer? How the hell did I manage to get here?

I typed in my username and password.

WELCOME, JIM.

 

READY

?

I checked the subsystems. I checked the current users. I checked the memory. I checked everything, and nothing was out of the ordinary. It didn’t make any sense! How could I possibly be connected to the Exiadon, with everything completely normal as if I had never left, from this abandoned and ancient castle in the middle of the woods. To top that off, these woods were also called Exiadon, were in God-knows-where, and had a bunch of crazy spirit people either ready to save my life or to end it.

“O ho ho. I’m so glad you finally showed up,” an all-too-familiar voice said. I turned to see the glowing blue figure – this “guardian” – completely the same as he had been when he suddenly disappeared during our last encounter.

“What do you want, ‘Guardian?’” I snarked.

“Oh, Jimmy,” he said, taking his finger and pushing up my chin, “why are you being so hasty? Don’t you want to know anything about why you’re here or what your precious little piece of kit has to do with any of this?” He smiled devilishly, to which I returned an angry glare.

“I’m not worried about it,” I remarked. “I just want to get back home with all of my legs and arms attached.”

“Oh Jimmy,” he said, dramatically and condescendingly. “You can’t just leave and return to your precious little Linda now. Or that little child of yours. No, no, no, Jimmy. I’m afraid it’s much too complicated for that.” My eyes widened, and I held my breath. “Don’t you dare make mention of my child or my wife, you cheeky little bastard. Stop acting like you know everything. If you’ve got answers, talk.”

His cheeky smile turned into a frown, and he crossed his arms. “You’re dead, Jimmy.”

Dead?

“That rumble you felt before you got knocked out? That was the refrigerator motor falling apart. It jammed; the pipes burst. You didn’t run out in time. You’re. Dead.”

That can’t be true.

“Oh, and how is this little contraption here working? I told you. It’s all just a dream.” The guardian lifted his hand and motioned toward the terminal. He closed his hand into a fist and what once glowed blue became dark, blood red. The screen flickered in and out of existence. He grinned.

And you’re not going to wake up.

The previously sealed doorway blew open. “Don’t listen to him, Jim!” Lazarus said, holding what appeared to be a staff of some sort in his hand.

“So what’s your rush to wake up, Jimmy? You know it’s all going to end with this dream. So why not just stay here a while?”

Lazarus jumped in front of me and separated me and the guardian. “Guardian, begone! This man’s soul is not yours to take!” The guardian glared at him menacingly.

“This isn’t your business, Lazarus,” he said, sweeping his hand at the staff pointed in his face. Lazarus violently jerked the staff into the guardian’s hand and arm, shocking and burning him. “Argh!” he screamed, jerking his hand and his arm away.

“This is the blade of holy light. You know good and well that you cannot fight it!” Lazarus turned to me. “This is what I needed to open the portal. There is a subsystem hidden on the Exiadon called CORE that can only be accessed from here. Activate it and make sure all of the computing power possible is directed to it!”

Should I really do this? What if the guardian is right? What if this really is my end? Why would I rush my own death? What do I trust? I felt the ground shake. I knew that if what he said was true, the computer room was already in flames. I was already dead. What would be the point of leaving now? Is Lazarus trying to rush me to my death? Who’s really trying to help me here?

The guardian drew a sword that glowed red and appeared to have lava flow down through the center of the blade, branching off at sharp angles. He lunged forward and swung at Lazarus. The shaman then deflected the swing with his staff. “Jim!” he yelled, leaping into the air and landing behind the guardian.

What do I do?

He stabbed his staff into the guardian’s back, and the guardian unleashed a bloodcurdling scream. It sounded like thousands of screams all at once – all in pain. It was the screams of the damned.

CORE SUBSYSTEM ACTIVATED.

The guardian turned back and slung his arm forward, driving the edge of his blade through Lazarus’ shoulder.

?RSRV(CP0,CP1,MEMBNK;*

“Jimmy,” a devilish voice groaned. “Don’t leave, Jimmy. No one wants to die.”

?SHUTDOWN;30S

The ground began shaking. The screams of the damned rang throughout the terminal room. “What did you do?!” cried Lazarus. The guardian glared at me. “Jimmy,” he said, his voice corrupting more and more. “I’ll wait for you, Jimmy.” He disappeared. Rocks fell from the roof. The terminal stopped glowing, and the screen disappeared.

“It’s shutting down,” I said. “everything will be offline in a matter of 30 seconds.”

“Jim, you idiot! Your worlds are linked through the Exiadon! It has to be used to send you through the core!” The tremors grew more and more violent. Walls could be heard falling and crashing against the ground. “We don’t have time!”

Lazarus lifted his staff toward the sky. “By Exiadon and the holy blade of light! I call upon you, spirits of this world, return this lost soul safely through the core! His day is not done! Let him awaken!” A portal opened up above us. “Don’t worry about me,” Lazarus said. “Stay strong.”

I was at a loss for words, and without even the time to say goodbye, I was pulled in through the portal.

I retained no visual memories of the core. I only could remember the feeling of being pulled, as if through space and time. After that, nothingness.

“Jim! Jim! Wake up, Jim!”

“A-Andy…?” I caught a glimpse of the man with a reddish beard and glasses before passing back out.

“Get him to a hospital,” I heard someone say.

 

I was welcomed with confetti and cheers when I re-entered the computer lab for the first time in two weeks. “Welcome back, Jim!” “It’s good to see you again!” “Mr. Crowley, we got that client you wanted!” “Man I’m glad that gash in your head looks better.” “How’s Linda been?” “Here! Have some cake!”

We partied and had a great time together. It was nice to finally have some cake instead of cheap hospital food, and it was even nicer to be back at my work, overseeing the Exiadon project once again. Everything had been going smoothly and had been successfully repaired thanks to Andy taking over as supervisor while I was gone (and picking a proper fight with Cooper’s Appliances – who paid for my bills and all the damages done).

“Say, Andy, I never asked you,” I said, sitting down at my teletype. “How did none of the system manage to burn?” He looked up and pushed up his glasses.

“We’re not really sure,” he said. “There was a mysterious shutdown performed just moments before the pipes burst. We checked the daytime files and it isn’t clear what done it.” I raised my eyebrows. “Huh, weird. Say, you should hear about this crazy dream I had while I was out. I-”

I typed in my credentials and logged in.

WELCOME, JIM.

IMPORANT SYSTEM MESSAGE:

GLAD YOU MADE IT BACK. HOPE ALL IS WELL

—LAZARUS

“Sorry, what were you saying?”

“I- uh. Oh, nothing.”

 

 

BIO

Jesse Downing was the 2016 Moss Point High School valedictorian and is a current student at Millsaps College. His hobbies include writing, drawing, singing, and coding.

 

0

Ice

by Susan Kleinman

 

 

LOG IN:

Email or Phone: Carol@WestCloRealty.com

Password: SellingHouses

Not the most secure password, but that’s okay. Carol never posts anything private on her Facebook page, anyway; just announcements of upcoming open houses and “likes” on the posts of anyone who might want her to help them buy or sell a home one day – which is to say, everyone she’s ever met.

Carol Gold: Join me Sunday, August 24, 2014, from 1-3 p.m. at this beautifully renovated 4 bed/3 bath at 351 Austen Drive. Walk to Worship. See you there.

She “likes” seven idiotic cat videos, nine random quotes from Monty Python movies, 83 pictures from the Isaacsons’ trip to Israel, and an urgent reminder from Barbara Kranzler that recipes are due for the second edition of the shul’s fundraising cookbook, The West Kloverdale Kosher Kooking Konnection Kollection. Such a waste of time and paper thinks Carol, who just Googles when she needs a recipe. But she picks up her phone nevertheless, clicks over to its electronic to-do list and enters a reminder to send in her three-ingredient chili recipe. Barbara is an old friend and a hard worker, and besides: With the Kranzlers’ youngest daughter recently married off, Barb and Bert are talking about downsizing, and Carol has a gorgeous condo right near shul that has been sitting on the market a little bit too long.

She hits “like.”

Reb Andy: Oh, for God’s sake, Carol thinks, can’t he just call himself Rabbi Garelick like a grownup? Would love to see EVERYONE bright and early for Shabbat morning services.

Garelick has been making great efforts to get the women of West Cloverdale to come to shul earlier, with their husbands; has been trying mightily to make them feel more equal by having women stand up and read the “Prayer for Our Congresspersons” aloud. Honestly, Carol thinks, as she hits “like” (the Rabbi always knows when a young couple is checking out the neighborhood or hunting for a house), if I wanted to be equal, I would join the Unitarian Church.

Laura Lipschitz: Happy birthday to the best husband, partner and lover a girl could ever hope for, my sweet @Stuie Lipshitz.

Ugh. Carol might find this a bit less nauseating if Stuart Lipshitz were not, in fact, the LEAST sweet man she has ever met; if the word “lover” didn’t sound so creepy; if Laura didn’t spend half of every sisterhood meeting complaining (right in front of Carol and Barb and Sheila Edelstein, each of them old enough to be Laura’s mother!) about how her husband probably wouldn’t be able to find her G-spot with a GPS. But still, Carol clicks over to Stuart’s Facebook page and dutifully types “Happy Birthday” on his wall. If Laura ever gets tired of waiting for Loverboy to locate her erogenous zones and needs to sell their McMansion in a divorce settlement, Carol’s commission could run to 65 or 70 grand.

She posts “Happy birthday!” to Marge Blaustein, too, and to Emily Miller and Brian Cooper-Jaffe; “friends” 37 friends of friends, and keeps scrolling. There’s a distressing article from Tablet.com about the Jews of Paris, and a not-even-remotely-funny Purple Clover cartoon about forgetting one’s reading glasses… and, then – finally! – something that actually makes her smile:

Alison Liebskind has posted a video.

Carol doesn’t think it’s a great idea for a 10-year-old to be on social media, but she has to admit it is nice to see her granddaughter’s face on the computer in between visits up to Westchester.

“Ok,” Alison is saying on the screen, as Carol clicks the little arrows that enlarge the video: “I would like to nominate my best friend, Chloe Orenthal; my mother, Rachel Liebskind; and my brother Jonathan Liebskind.” And with that, she dumps a bucket filled with – What is that? ICE? Yes, ice – dumps it over her own head, soaking her gorgeous red curls and her blue Camp Ramah t-shirt as she shrieks and giggles and dances in her flip-flops on the driveway. “You have 24 hours to complete the ice bucket challenge or donate to the mumble-mumble-mumble” – What is she saying?

The screen momentarily goes black and then there is Jonathan in the video. God, when did he get so tall? Carol switches over to her to-do list and makes a note to call Rachel about a visit, then jots a few words in the crossword puzzle she does every morning to help keep her memory sharp, and opens a text that has just pinged on her phone. Whenever her husband, Wally, teases that she can multi-task like nobody’s business, she reminds him that multitasking IS her business, that she hasn’t won WestClo Realty’s Top Performer Award 17 years in a row without being able to juggle him and the kids and the grand-kids and the house and her clients; and – these last few years – her texts and her tweets and Instagram, too. The text is a client asking if she can reschedule her look at the house on Fitzgerald Lane from 3:15 this afternoon to 4:30. “Sure. C U then,” Carol types, in the text-speak she hired a high-school kid to teach her so that her twenty-and thirty-something house-buying clients would feel at ease with her. (The older clients – the sellers – she still calls on their land-lines. More than one has thanked her profusely for this, as if she has performed a heroic act of lovingkindness.)

She puts down her phone and turns back to the computer screen. “OK,” Jonathan is saying through the gap where his front baby-teeth used to be. “Wait. What do I say?”

Carol hears Alison’s impatient big-sister sigh, and then, “You have to nominate people.”

“Oh, yeah, I would like to nominate my best friend, Jonah, and my Grandma – what’s Grandma’s real name again?”

Slower, heavier sigh: “Carol Gold, you dumb-head.”

“Oh, yeah. My Grandma, Carol Gold.”

When Carol met Wally, his last name was Goldfinger, but she convinced him to shorten it before their wedding. The theme song from that James Bond film was still playing on the pop-radio stations, and she dreaded a lifetime of spy jokes and double entendres. “We have to think about our future children,” she told him when she suggested “Gold” – short and sweet. “I’m just being practical.”

Of course she was. Carol is the very soul of practicality. Wash-and-go haircuts and sensible shoes. Three-ingredient suppers and no-iron sheets. In addition to Wally’s name, she had persuaded him to change his college major, too. Au revoir, French Literature… Hello, accounting. And when it had been time for them to look for a house, (Wally had just made partner at his firm; Carol was pregnant with their second child), she didn’t pick a community by hunch or gut feeling or what her current crop of house-hunters call “vibe,” but by drawing up a decision tree on three pages of the ledger paper Wally used to bring home from the office.

And she had made a good choice. The Golds have been happy in West Cloverdale for 45 years now, surrounded by people who share their values and their politics; by friends who brought car-loads of casseroles when Rachel’s first husband, Uri, was killed in a robbery at his shoe store, and stacks of wedding presents when she married her second husband, Aaron in the rabbi’s study. Ali had been born a year later and Jonathan, two more years after that. How is it that he is already about to begin 3rd grade?

“You have 24 hours,” Jonathan is saying now on Carol’s computer screen, “to donate to the – wait, what’s it called again?”

“Oh, just give me the phone,” Alison snaps. The picture jerks and shakes and then there is Ali’s face again. “Hi, Grandma, Jonathan just nominated you for the ALS ice bucket challenge. That means you have 24 hours to dump a bucket of ice over your head or give money to the ALS foundation…”

Jonathan jumps back into the frame. “Oh, yeah. The ALS Foundation. It’s a sickness, and, um, well, it’s really bad, I think, so you have to give them money. Or do the ice thing. Like this.” And he picks up a bucket – a heavy one, judging by the strain on his freckled face – dumps the contents over his head, and starts to cry.

“It’s colllllld,” he wails through his tears, as the screen goes blank.

Of course it’s cold. Carol thinks, pushing her chair away from the computer with a screech. It’s ice.

But it’s not Jonathan she’s annoyed with, sweet gap-toothed Jonathan, and she knows it. She bites the nail off her left pinky, a habit she gave up in seventh grade when she sent away for a booklet on how to quit; paces around the kitchen; eats three cookies left over from Shabbos even though she isn’t hungry; and slams the pantry door shut.

ALS. Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Lou Gehrig’s – and David Stein’s.

David Stein. A tall, handsome man with a short, handsome name; a medical student at Columbia, from a nice family in Woodmere. Carol met him during her sophomore year at Hunter College, at a party given by a mutual friend. Within the week, they were going steady. By the end of the month, she knew she wanted to marry him.

“It’s Prince Charrrrrrrming,” her mother always whispered in a happy little sing-song voice every time she handed Carol the phone. “Dr. Right!” her father proclaimed after Carol brought David home for dinner. And indeed, he WAS charming, with his polished manners and his easy smile. And it DID feel right, talking to him, dancing with him, necking in his car – but nothing more. No one buys the cow, Carol knew, if they can get the milk for free.

Carol and David had fun together: They both liked ice-skating and tennis; enjoyed the same movies and laughed at the same jokes. They looked good together: her blonde head against his broad shoulder. And they agreed about all the things that could cause a less-compatible couple to argue: money (they were both savers, not spenders); food (not too spicy); and children (they would have two, unless the first two were the same sex, in which case they would try once more – but only once more.) David would be a good father and a good provider.

“That’s all very nice, but does he make your heart go pitter-pat?” her sister, Ruth, asked as Carol ticked off these attributes on her fingers. “Is he your one and only?”

The answers were yes and no, respectively.

Yes, Carol really was in love with David. But no, she didn’t believe that there was one and only one man for every woman, or just one woman for any man. “How could that BE, with three billion people on the planet?” she challenged Ruth back in 1959. “Only one? It’s just not possible,” she told herself again in 2002, when she signed Rachel up for jDate a year after Uri’s funeral.

And I was right, she thinks now, every time she sees Alison and Jonathan on Facebook – Alison and Jonathan, who both have Rachel’s blue eyes and Aaron’s ginger curls. There is more than one-and-only Prince Charming.

But oh, yes, David Stein made her heart go pitter-pat. She thought about him when she rode the subway to Hunter and when she studied in the library and when she drank tea back in her parents’ kitchen, late at night. She thought about how smart he was and how funny and how handsome; about what it would be like to sleep with him after they got married and what it would be like to make a home with him.

And then, one Sunday morning when David and Carol were eating blintzes at Rattner’s, David dropped the fork on its way to his mouth. A few weeks later, he spilled his Coke down the front of his shirt while they waited for a movie to start. It’s just pre-engagement jitters, Carol assured herself, as she handed him a stack of napkins from the concession stand. She and David had been talking a lot about marriage – although they agreed that they should wait to formalize things until they were both closer to graduation. She had let him know (after practicing in front of her mirror at home to make sure that her practicality didn’t come across as bossiness) that she would prefer a white-gold setting to platinum for her diamond engagement ring, because white-gold prongs were less likely to bend and break; and that she’d rather have a summer wedding than a winter one – no blizzards to worry about. David seemed as excited about all of it as she felt. But still, getting engaged would be a big deal, Carol told herself when he tripped over his own feet on his way off the tennis court at his parents’ club. His nervousness didn’t mean he didn’t love her.

“I love you,” he told her, as he dusted grass off his knees and took her hand. “I love you,” he said again, later, as he kissed her neck in her parents’ driveway in Forest Hills. And then, as he started to open her sweater, he said, “I think I might have Lou Gehrig’s Disease.”

For a split second – and she hated herself afterwards for even thinking it – Carol wondered if this was a ploy to get the milk for free.

“You what?” she said, softly, leaning away from him and fumbling to close the little pearl buttons on her cardigan.

“I have a neurologist’s appointment tomorrow,” he said. “I’ve been trying into find a good time to tell you, but now it just slipped out. I’m sorry.”

“Let’s not panic,” she said, forcing a smile. “I bet it could be any one of a number of things.”

At the college library the next day, she researched some of the things that might be causing David’s tremors and his clumsiness: Early-onset Parkinson’s, or maybe multiple sclerosis – neither of those diseases a picnic, either, but better than Lou Gehrig’s. But David – medical student and son of a doctor – had already ruled those out on his own.

The first neurologist sent David to a second, who explained what David already knew, and what Carol had learned in her hours of research: that ALS can’t be diagnosed except by process of elimination. Dr. Lerner called for tests to rule out every disease that was likely and several that weren’t, until the only test they hadn’t done, David tried half-heartedly to joke, was a Pap smear.

“I’m afraid we’re at the end of the line,” David imitated Dr. Lerner’s pompous voice when he relayed the conversation to Carol. “The end of the line,” as if the whole thing had been a trip out to Coney Island.

Every night for the next month, Carol lay awake in her bed, wondering whether and when she should break it off with David. “It would be different if it weren’t fatal,” she protested when Ruth accused her of being heartless and unromantic. If she married him now, she wouldn’t be a virgin when she had to date again after a suitable period of mourning. And what Nice Jewish Boy her age would want a woman who had been around? If she didn’t marry David but stayed with him till the end, she’d be a spinster at 27 or 28 – and to whose benefit?

So when he did the gentlemanly thing and suggested that they break up, she hugged him gently and promised that even if they weren’t together, she would still be his friend – his very best friend – until the end.

And, for a couple of years, she was. She borrowed her father’s car and drove David out to Jones Beach in the summer; took the Long Island Railroad out to watch the World Series with him at his parents’ house in the fall. She sent him funny cards from the Hallmark store and rugelach from his favorite bakery in the city every few weeks, and she called him every night (now that they were just friends she didn’t have to worry about appearing too forward) and told him funny stories about her classes and her cousin Kenny’s bar mitzvah and the ridiculous guy Ruth was dating, often talking until she fell asleep with the telephone receiver in her hand.

But then, during her senior year, she met Wally. Wally with his sweet soul and his sharp mind. Wally who agreed to switch his major and change his name for her. Wally, to whom she never breathed a word about David Stein; whom she made Ruth promise not to tell about David, either. What would be the point?

It took Carol three weeks after Wally proposed before she could bring herself to call David.

“Mazal tov, beautiful bride!” he said when she finally forced herself to tell him that she was engaged. And then, after a long and painful silence, “So, I guess this is our last phone call, huh?”

She thought of saying that no, they could still speak, could still be friends – but she knew that wasn’t true. If it were true, if David was really her friend, she would have told Wally all about him, would maybe even invite David to the wedding. Or take Wally out to visit him. And she would never do any of that.

“I’ll never forget you,” Carol promised.

But then she had.

Well, she didn’t forget him always, and never entirely. She remembered him when she played tennis and when she ate rugelach. Sometimes, even after all these years, when she woke up she could see his face in front of her, so close-seeming and so real-looking that once, she had reached out to touch him, only to find herself grasping at the air. But she forgot him for long stretches of time, when she was busy with Wally and her babies and her real estate class; with her aging parents and her growing children and her committees at the shul.

When Uri was killed, Carol had wondered briefly whether seeing her daughter grieve was her punishment for not sticking around to mourn David properly. But then she reminded herself that she didn’t believe such superstitious nonsense; that she was a rational woman, and it was the 21st century. And so, when for a brief moment she thought of telling Rachel about David – “I know exactly how you feel” – she just hugged her, instead, and helped fill out death certificates and insurance forms.

“Do you ever think about him?” Ruth asked at the end of the shiva for Uri, when the two sisters were packing leftover lasagnas from neighbors for the freezer.

“About whom?” Carol feigned ignorance, but Ruth saw right through her and asked again.

“I do think about him sometimes,” Carol whispered to Ruth in the kitchen that afternoon, wondering – as she did when she still sometimes awoke with David’s face fading from a dream – whether “sometimes” was too often or not often enough. “But you know how I am. Brass-tacks; tachlis, here-and-now.”

“Heartless,” Ruth had mumbled and Carol had pretended not to hear. Well, what good would it have done Carol – or David – for her to stay in touch with him? What would she have told him? That married life was treating her very well, thanks? That when she had bled, a little, on her wedding night, Wally had looked pleased? No, she had told herself when she didn’t call David; when she made herself throw out the obituary pages of the Times before she could be tempted to read them. What good would her tears do David? What good would they do her?

No, she had told herself all those years ago, it was better for everyone this way.

 

And now, in a new century in another state, her computer buzzes and pings.

Rachel Liebskind likes Alison Libeskind’s video.

Rachel Liebskind shared Alison Liebskind’s video. “So proud of my kiddies!!”

Rachel Liebskind tagged you in a post: “Did you see this @Carol Gold?”

Carol forces herself to “like” that, and then clicks the video again, turns away from it to answer a text about the shul’s pew re-upholstery committee before she turns back to her computer:

“I would like to nominate my Grandma. What is Grandma’s real name?” Jonathan is asking, and for a moment Carol worries about his attention-paying skills; didn’t Ali just tell him her name a moment ago? But then she remembers that she is watching the same video a second time. Jonathan is fine.

She logs out of Facebook and sits at her desk for a long while, thinking about the days she and David spent waiting for his diagnosis and the nights she spent wondering how to let him down gently; about the first time he tripped and the last time they spoke.

Finally, she rises from her ergonomic chair, slips her phone into one of the Ziploc bags she buys by the gross and tucks it into her pocket, and heads down to the laundry room. “Fully-finished basement!” she will advertise one day, when she and Wally are ready to downsize from the house into a condo. “Brand new appliances!”

She reaches under the laundry sink for a bucket, heads back upstairs to the kitchen and presses the bucket against the ice maker in the freezer door, then carries it carefully out to the deck, where the late-summer haze stings her eyes. Just 9:30 a.m. and already the temperature is in the high 80s. It won’t be long until the ice starts to melt.

“This is for you, Ali and Jonathan,” Carol says, talking into the Ziploc-waterproofed phone she is holding at arm’s length. She lifts the bucket one-handed and awkwardly tips it over her head.

And then, just like sweet, shivering Jonathan, she cries.

 

 

BIO

Susan Kleinman’s short stories have appeared in The Baltimore Review, Inkwell, the William and Mary Review, JewishFiction.net, and The MacGuffin, and her articles, essays, and book reviews have been published in dozens of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times and New YorkMagazine. She teaches fiction writing at the Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College, where she was a Gurfein Writing Fellow in 2010.

 

 

 

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Meditate and Wait

by Katie Strine

 

 

They smoke in the garage, four of them, five of them. Can’t see through the haze of sun into the shadowed room. From the street neighbors hear their sounds: laughter coated with emphysema. Rotting lungs and dogs that howl at subtle movements. A grandma, a grandpa, an uncle, and one older niece: the remains of a larger family that has dwindled by death and decay (all smokers, all drinkers, and all self-proclaimed Catholics).

Three dogs guard the garage at the edge – a baby gate corrals them. Una walks by and the chorus of howls arrange like limp notes and soar into the air. The smell of dead tree seeps from the soil. Their house, the first one built on this street, is the last one before the road dips to the left and opens to a cemetery. Originally a family grave, but years and community planners and the sway of money rearranged the rights. Now it’s public property. A gothic iron gate surrounds the land; doors eek open on aged hinges. Una loves to hear them whine.

She walks down just to walk down and visit no one in particular. Her long, brown hair whips behind her shoulders. Their eyes, as well as the eyes of the yard statues, follow her. She can’t be sure of what they’ve erected between the overgrown pine shrubs, and they’ve planted plastic flowers in plastic planters, but she ascertains Catholic saints (none of whom she knows), a fox (with cold, beady, cement eyes) and a rooster (garnished with a red and white checkered apron). A harsh “Shut up you damn dogs” echoes forth and maybe a whimper but then a grotesque cough tumbles forth. The sounds spill over one another.

***

She reads the names, the large ones printed in all capital letters, last names sprawled, the family honor. She shuffles leaves to the side and searches for smaller headstones. Children, maybe. Small adults. Women from the 1800s who have since shriveled like dead bugs: heads craning toward bodies, arms tucked at their chests. She’s searching for a way to connect to the past or a way for the past to connect to her. Voodoo magic, Ouija boards, séances: she’s sick of pretending.

***

They burned each other’s skin with hot lighters, the metal sank into the flesh and years later scars talk to strangers, stories of their odd behavior. Imprints on the back of hands. Signals coded only for each other. Scar tissue signs — personal tattoos — created before members departed to the other side. Rumors circulate the town. People whisper. But the members of the house have crafted a system all of their own, separate from the community, and the symbols remain embedded in their history and their family.

They pull back their baby gates and open the garage that weekend for an estate sale. She wonders, and maybe even hopes, if they might move. She saunters through their belongings. A lamp with a broken bulb – the glass shards visible through the shade; a box of used ashtrays gray and soot stained; a box of run-down toys featuring a doll with a loose eyeball. The black button swings and wobbles as Una roots through the box. Finally her hand emerges holding a magic eight ball. She palms the prize and pokes further.

Suddenly the feeling of a ghost catches in her throat. She stands within inches of the garage and fingers rotten pots and stained lace. A framed picture of a church (a jagged crack running through its surface) props against a table. She runs her finger down the glass and lets the slit of its cut dig into her skin. A small streak of blood remains on the glass, a dull red hue painted on the steeple. She bends toward the picture and seeks to speak to the spirit she feels hovering from the house but knows she needs closer. So this is where it hides, she thinks and buys her eight ball. A boy tucked behind the bushes and the beady fox watch her desperately.

***

She leans against her front porch steps and watches families retire as the day’s water-painted clash of colors darkens. The leaves rustle against each other. It calms and stirs harder and the wind chimes collapse into a song. She waits for midnight black, the lunar phase on her side, a tiny rat’s nail of white in the sky.

Their garage door is closed. The baby gates rest on the outside of the door ready for another day. She crosses to their side of the street, the cemetery entrance within view but the graves tucked into a small valley of swirling fog.

Una creeps through their uneven grass. The unkempt yard crunches below her feet: a slew of leaves and twigs and mushrooms. Against the house she smells standing water. A deep stench of mud or mold. She walks with her back flat against the exterior and finds herself in the backyard where an unexpected scene develops.

In place of a standard backyard flush with grass and peppered with flowers, here lies an entire pond. The water covers the expanse of space, with a back porch that extends above the water approximately ten feet from the house. At the far end of the watered yard stands a large stone – not shaped into an obelisk or other tomb – looming over the abyss. She has no way of making it to the stone unless she plunges into the water.

Overhead an explosion claps in the sky – fireworks – but she imagines the uncle with a gun, his face another shadow, and turns from the pond and toward the street.

***

There’s a knock on the door the next day, late afternoon. The air smells like fire and burned leaves. A hint of smoke hangs over shingled roofs.

A younger man, maybe even a boy, stands on the other side of Una’s door. His toes hang over the front edges of his flip flops. His toenails visible, curled and yellowed. She doesn’t recognize him and he knows she won’t.

“I’m Zeek, short for Ezekiel – your neighbor.” He cranes his neck toward the house with the garage. She’s never seen him there. She doesn’t respond. “If you want to get in that pond, if you want to find that spirit you’re after, I’m willing to help you out.”

“What spirit?”

“You don’t believe all of a sudden?” He sticks a toothpick into his mouth and swirls it around with his tongue. “I’ve seen you. You hang around at the cemetery, poking around at strangers’ graves. I know you don’t have family in this town – new blood – so you go looking around at the old blood. Old souls. Whatcha looking for?”

Una stares into his eyes wondering how much he knows.

“Forget about it, Una. Wanna see a trick?” From the other pocket of his sweatpants he pulls out a stack of cards. He shuffles and pushes the cards back together again. He waves his hands. The right hand, she notices, is scabbed from scratched bug bites or some kind of poison ivy. He catches her looking and moves his hand quicker. “Okay, pick a card – go ahead, Ain’t gonna bite you.”

She inches a card from the cluster. A Jack of Hearts. He nods to her to slide it back into the deck.

“Good, good. Okay, now, watch closely – I didn’t see it, right? But you gotta remember what card it is.” He holds his eyes steady into hers. An answer dances behind his gaze. She shivers away a question and shakes her mind into vacancy. After a few more sleight of hand tricks, he procures the Jack of Hearts and flashes it in front of her. She looks into the face of the card and notices its menacing features that either weren’t there before or ones she overlooked. His hand appears freckled like Zeek’s. Warped skin.

“I don’t really like card tricks,” she says and shuts the door.

***

It’s cold when the ghost enters your body. A halo of chill surrounds the exterior. When it’s gone, a familiar heat returns, and you’re alone again.

She doesn’t ask for them to visit but she returns in case they do.

She weaves through tombstones and waits for one to call to her. Her skirt hangs low and drapes through the leaves. A few hang at the edge and she pulls them along unknowingly. She carries a book of poetry, a dilapidated copy handed to her from other people in another world: her past. It’s a relic she can live without, so she tugs at the pages. Each papery feather pulled from its binding. A light rip. The glue lets go. The page frees. She tucks one after one against these permanent headrests and weighs each to the earth with a rock.

A harsh whistle blows through the surrounding trees. Her skirt tugs against her legs, and her head flings toward the sound. A black shape of a bird flutters behind tree trunks. She wonders if Zeek is there, too: his lanky body against a tree, the bark rough against his spine. Beady eyes like the cold, cement fox.

Then, movement. Low to the ground, a shadow forms and creeps from the woods. It hovers on all fours. She imagines Zeek on all fours – preternatural, foam at the mouth — and on the hunt for her. His toenails dig through the grass, soil ripe under his nails, as he lunges toward her.

“Clyde?” She asks the animal, a large beast with a head like a shoebox: one from the garage dog gang. He ambles to her side. “Why are you down here?” He nudges into her, and she rubs his broad back. A faint smell of cigarette smoke lingers on his fur. “Do you want to hear a poem, Clyde?” To which he responds by settling in and shutting his eyes. His gentle body collapses. She reads aloud each word, the syllables unstressed, stressed, unstressed, stressed. A whoosh of air – the trees breathing from her left – carries and cools her neck.

Una meditates and waits.

***

She wakes to the uncle standing above her, the graves below her. She feels the warmth of Clyde’s back on hers.

“That’s my dog,” the uncle growls and yanks at Clyde’s collar. The man’s mouth clenches as he talks. She wonders how the words escape. “And what’s all this litter?” He waves a sinewy arm through the air. Una sees her poems scattered, some swooped and soaring with the wind. “No respect,” he whistles and hobbles away. He tugs at Clyde, who he’s wrangled with a rope.

She watches them circle through the headstones. The uncle precariously places each step, and Clyde hunches toward the smells of earth. Their bodies bumble back toward the street.

She collects rocks. Smooth, cold rocks: minute minerals miraculously compounded into handheld objects. She rubs at each testing its smoothness, handling its weight before placing them into the folds of her skirt she’s lifted for a temporary carrier. Stooping toward the graves, she weighs the poems again.

“Are you a witch?” She hears Zeek’s voice before she sees his face. A bouquet of fake flowers dangles at his side, their heads facing downward.

“What?”

“Those dresses, all long, covered, heaven-like but hellish altogether. Pagan, I guess is what I mean to say.”

“Your family doesn’t own this property, Zeek. First your uncle. Now you. I’m allowed to be here.”

“Allowed?” He suppresses a smile, then steals a whiff from the bouquet before dropping the bunch by his side again. A collection of vibrant blue, red, orange, yellow – abnormal colors for flowers. “Did you think more about the pond? My offer? I know what you’re chasing, Una. I get it. Why are you hesitant?”

Una considers his proposition. His words form like steam within a swirling fog already constant in her mind. Intangible and abstract. She knows she’s unable to sneak into the water without him knowing. She forces her mind backwards to distant memories. A train crash. Her parents thrown from a bridge. Her parents drowned in water. Her parents plummeted off cliffs. She surmises these details – all daydreams and fabricated realities — but understands they died without her and after years of foster care, miscellaneous homes, and empty emotions from town to town, this street, this city, this cemetery, that spirit, finally feels fulfilling.

“What do you chase?” She asks through the mindful fog.

Again, a sly smile breaks and his pointers show. “I don’t chase. Do you think that’s what you want? An end to an unknown? Some realize it’s over before they begin. You, I think, can’t settle. Others, like me, come naturally into this world.” He pauses to pick up a poem, one she missed as it skids between them. It crinkles against the plastic as he tucks it within the flowers. “Tell you what. Nine o’clock, tonight.” He answers for her because he knows she’ll come.

***

“We call her Mother because she’s been here before any of us.” Zeek and Una stand ankle deep in water, their feet mingled with moss and algae. “Inexplicable, maybe, that after hundreds of years, she remains. Her bones, her grave is here. Or it was. Before one of our generations made this pond.” The bottom three inches of Una’s dress swirls in and on the water’s surface. She thinks of the cold — the water as an aquarium of spirits – and she pictures faces, their bodies trailing behind them, as they swim through the murky water. Standing here now with Zeek she worries she misjudged him. She had thought he was uneducated, misguided. She thought she could distract him and have the pond to herself. “You’ll have to wade through to the center where there’s a drop-off. An underwater cliff of sorts.” Una, who has long since memorized the phases of the moon, knows only a fragment hangs above them. A waning crescent. She predicted the darkness and the unknown, but she miscalculated the power dynamic brought on by the property’s effect.

She steps forward unwilling to step backward. Her dress darkens as the water deepens. The coldness of the water forces her to take a breath. She sucks in the nighttime air, the clouds beginning to descend into fog, and the temperature trickles down her spine.

Zeek stays with her but a few paces behind. Her toes curl at the precipice. She stares into the stone. A woman’s features materialize within the rock formation. The earth’s minerals mold into cold eyes, silver hair and a taut expression.

“We wade and meditate. Do you meditate, Una? Sit and think thoughtless thoughts, as you breathe in, breathe out the wide world around you? A mindless yet mind-centered activity, don’t you agree?” She answers by centering her diaphragm. Like the poetry, she thinks, unstressed, stressed; her breath fills and releases. Fills and releases.

“You’ll have to go under water now.” Una thinks to question Zeek’s instructions, but reminds herself to move forward, not backward. She recalls the refreshing chill alighted in her the day of the garage sale. The pull of the house from a larger-than-life spirit. A distant hovering that’s beckoned her to this town, this street, this moment.

She descends, her eyes on the stone. A reflection of the stone appears on the water just as she’s eye level with the pond.

The black water engulfs her as a slight splash sounds beside her. Zeek.

He too stares into the stone. He too feels his toes on the precipice. He palms her head, a thick wave of hair sweeps his arm, and he holds her under water. The struggle doesn’t startle him. The muffled screams don’t deter him. He holds on, his toes curling at the edge, pieces of moss caught on a toenail.

Her dress will weigh her down. Gravity and water will push, push, push.

He feels satisfied in the sacrifice. He thinks to swim to the stone, to stroke his hand along its surface. But he feels someone behind him and turns to see his uncle on the porch. Clyde saunters from the house and stands at his side.

The way to family — bonds, secrets, scars – is a dark portal. A moonless sky, an unguided guide, an underwater spirit drenched pond. The calling to unite with our departed generations carries in a cold breeze, whispers on crinkling leaves. It’s a constant chase to collect, maintain and reincarnate.

He eyes his uncle, whose pride forms in the shadowed, hard lines of age. His face weathered artwork.

Zeek moves toward the edge of the water. Inch by inch his soaked pants emerge and he squeezes at the water, fists slippery and cold.

He pulls the graveyard poem from his pocket, handles a rock, and places a makeshift headrest in the small crescent of earth beside the water. Una’s only marker. Tomorrow he’ll toss the fake flowers down from the porch, the vibrant hues garish against the earthy moss and mud.

 

 

 

BIO

Katie Strine tolerates life through literature with a side of bacon and dark beer. She lives in the east suburbs of Cleveland with her quirky family — husband, son and dog — who accompany her on oddball adventures. Stay in touch via LinkedIn for more.

 

 

 

 

 

0

Hallucinogenic Girlfriend

by Anna Keeler

 

 

I dropped my sanity between the lines of the tile like acid, trying to focus on the pattern and abstractions through the tears. My palms tugged at the malachite beads on my wrist, the string expanding and constricting but never quite snapping. I had the urge to cause damage, but I was too scared of breakage. Even at my worst, I didn’t have the strength to destroy.

I don’t know how I got here. A second ago, I was fine. Just a normal girl taking a normal trip to the bathroom. But one pump of soap turned into two, then three after that. Just three pumps, then I could go, that’s what I told myself. But every time I stepped back to turn off the faucet, an invisible fear singed the lining of my stomach.

I had to wash again. Again. Again.

And those five letters camouflaged themselves against the lining of brain until I couldn’t tell panic from a rational thought because both sentiments wore the same skin. Irrationality threw itself around my shoulders like a coat until it severed the awareness from my body. I watched myself scrub the obsession out of my hands, I watched my eyes grow full of tears and rash over in pain, but I couldn’t stop myself from jamming my elbow into the wall and dry heaving into my lap.

Before I knew it I was on the ground, screaming against the walls and porcelain that weighed down on me. Body pressed against the cabinet door, I took breaths in and out.

I had to get up. Miyuki wouldn’t tolerate another meltdown.

She’d been as patient as any person could be that had a hallucinogen for a girlfriend; someone with a brain made up of fears that weren’t there. “If you could weaponize your trauma, think how astounding you could be,” her loving way of telling me to knock it the hell off.

The first few times she saw me melt down, she’d been conscious enough, trying to hug and bribe the maladies from my mind, ignorant to the inexorable temporariness of my recovery. As months passed, she shape shifted into the people I tend to dissociate for; screaming, throwing blame, threatening to leave me, this time for good.

No matter how mad she got, the thoughts pumped through my veins like dope.

If I don’t wash my hands, I’m going to die.

I tried to pull myself off of the ground, but the soap bottle flashed into my line of vision and had me running back to the toilet. Chunks of vomit bounced against the water, splattering across my chin and the ends of my hair. The second upheave came, as the water heaved back, I realized that I’d forgotten to flush.

My tarsal bones cracked across the base of the toilet. It hurt, but not enough to warrant my loud whimpers. My mind whimpered against the constraints of my skull like an emotional fibromyalgia. The emptiness of my throat juxtaposed the burn, all wishing to be alleviated with some kind of killer. A pill, a liquid, a syringe full of medically prescribed optimism, or even a back alley pipe, something to either numb or vindicate my pain.

If I’d taken DXM, I’d have an excuse for ugly sobs.

Dear God, please just let me die.

My arms turned to sweat and my cheeks were streaked with cheap mascara. I had to stop crying. Miyuki was just down the hall. If I kept it up, I knew she would hear me.

Digging my fingernails into my head, I scraped along the follicles of hair, wanting to pull off the skin and crack open my skull. Axons and myelin and the white and gray matter made three pounds of something that had the power to ruin my life. If the stem was a switch, I would reach in and rip it off.

Instead, I begged myself to stop.

An old behavioral trick that my therapists risked my life with, saying that if I wanted control, it took training.

“Stop.” Then louder, punctuated with a kick. “Just stop!” My whole body shook. “Please, we’re not doing this now.”

Footsteps came outside the door, a hesitance, then a dejected knock.

“Cordelia,” Miyuki said. “What are you doing in there?”

I closed my eyes and pressed my forehead onto the rim, ignoring the smell of urine up my nose.

“Cordelia,” she said again. “Open the door now.” When I didn’t respond, she came in anyways. Her green eyes sliced into my face, the exasperation radiating off her body. “Really?” She narrowed her gaze and crossed her arms. “I thought that we were past this.”

She stood there and waited for an explanation to fall out of my mouth, and failed to hide her disappointment when that didn’t happen.

I waited for her to get up walk out the door, to ‘leave me to my own devices.’ With nothing but the hum of the pipes and the afterglow of panic, I could curl up on the floor, and retreat – or rather – dissociate again until I was grounded.

To a place where the boys from my anime or the girls from my young adult novels would pick me up off the ground and carry me to my room. Wrap me in a blanket, dry the tears from my eyes, hold me close, kiss my concussed and blood cracked lips. Tell me I was here, I was real, I was safe.

Miyuki didn’t leave. She wouldn’t allow me that luxury. Instead, she lowered herself to my side.

Through a cloudy mind, I tried to register her actions. Grit teeth. Despondent eyes. A hand that reluctantly reached for mine. Her pulse raged hard against my own as she placed her wrist on mind. “You make this so hard, you know that?”

Sniffling down my mucus, I forced myself to speak. “Make what hard?”

She sighed. “Loving you.”

Her skin was a dichotomy over mine – warm, comforting, but with an evanescent tremble. My first instinct was to hold her close, to fight away the angst I wove into her psyche.

She crumbled into tears and inarticulate sobs. “I love you, I do. You know that I do. But…” Pulling away, she spat, “I have to walk on eggshells around you.”

The hidden meaning in those words crawled out of the conscious that tried to bury them, and regret pooled on my palms and legs. Because we never knew what set me off until I needed a Xanax, and seeing me in that state was too much for her to swallow.

She’d grin and bear it or scream in my face and use her nails to dig crevices into her voice box and fill them with that lurid things that she said now, but didn’t mean: “Cordelia, get over it. This is all in your head.”

It wasn’t until she repeated herself that I acknowledged her words, her loathsome eyes smacking me straight in the face. “You have to have some control. I know you’re hurting, but I can’t deal with this. I can’t deal with you.”

I watched myself sit there stone silent as her anger morphed into sadness and she tried to wipe her tears before they fell. I wanted her to pick me up the way my lovers do in my mind, and I wanted her to tell me I was safe. But safety only came with the promise that this was over, but what she refused to see is more than an illness, this was an addiction.

I wanted to wrap us in the truth until she accepted it as our flesh – my body craved the delusion of synchrisity. The pores on my arms and the buds on my tongue had secret openings to absorb any sense of an upswing. The tantrums I threw and the rituals I gave into would dissolve into my skin like an LSD strip and turn my blood into a psychedelic task force, blurring my vital systems into a mess of stale color.

I wanted to change, to be a girl she could love. I wanted to be someone worth loving.

The words formed on my lips. “Miyuki, I don’t want to be here.”

I cringed as she sobbed out, “Me too.”

It was my turn to cry, whimpers hugging the inside of my throat.

With a disgusted grunt, she stood up again. “No, you don’t get to fall apart too.”

I willed my eyes to stop, for the water to fall back into my head, and the toilet, and the sink, and we got a do-over on this entire evening.

Watching, expression mocking, she waited for the me to stop. With a roll of her eyes, she hardened herself and pushed any trace of sympathy from her mind.

“I’m sorry. I can’t help it…” I trailed off, because rationalizing my disorder would make her madder.

The chartreuse of her eyes faded to black and as she looked down I saw her faith in me break. “I told you Cordelia, this is all in your head.”

Peyote queen, you are too fragile to die.  

 

 

 

 

BIO

Anna Keeler is a poet and fiction writer attending Rollins College in Winter Park, FL. Her work has been published or is upcoming in Crab Fat Literary Magazine, Red Fez Literary Journal, Indiana Voice Journal, Potluck Magazine, Leopardskin & Limes Literary Journal, The Merrimack Review, Outsider Poetry, The Chaotic Review, and Smaeralit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

Man in Black

by Leah Holbrook Sackett

 

 

Orange Sherbet reminds me of my summer with Johnny Cash. I was eleven years old; my brother Marcus was seven. We were spending the summer with Dad. Well, not the entire summer, three weeks. That year Dad had negotiated Mom down from five weeks. When I asked why Marcus and I had to go at all she said, “Look Gemma, I need a break. Your father could do something.” That summer Dad did his something in August.

“Listen kids, I have to go to work. I’ll try and get out early. Your leftovers from McDonald’s are in the fridge and there’s soup in the pantry.”

I stared into my bowl of Captain Crunch. Five golden mush lumps floated in the milk. I didn’t want to look up or open my mouth, afraid I’d give voice to the lump in my throat. I didn’t want to make Dad feel bad, but I didn’t want to spend another day locked-up in the A/C, in an unfamiliar apartment.

“Ok, here’s a five. Get yourself some ice cream if the ice cream truck comes by. And we’ll go out for dinner tonight. Okay? Okay.”

Marcus and I continued to sit at the Formica table that used to be in Grandma Shirley’s basement. A lot of the furniture in Dad’s new apartment migrated from different rooms of Grandma Shirley’s house. I had the vinyl seat with the duct tape down the middle. When I hesitated sitting in that chair on our first morning Dad had said, “It’s kitcshy.” I didn’t know what that was, but I didn’t believe him. “Be good,” Dad called as he walked out the backdoor with his computer bag in one hand and his tie in the other. We listened for the shut of the car door, start of the engine and the fade of supervision.

“At least Mom kisses us good-bye,” Marcus said setting his bowl in the sink. “And gets us a sitter.”

The phone rang.

“What are we going to do, Gemma?” Marcus said.

The phone rang, again. I picked it up from the base on the kitchen wall.

“Hello?”

“Gemma, watch out for your brother. Call me at work if you need anything. And don’t go anywhere.”

“Okay, Dad.”

Was there anywhere to go? Marcus and I weren’t familiar with this neighborhood. The entire block was squashed together with dark, red brick buildings, each three stories high; each with a green and red door. The sameness of this place was interrupted with the occasional empty lot of weeds. But in the lot to the left of our building was a big garden, more like a collection of little gardens. At night, from our bedroom window, I could see the outlines of towering sunflowers and shadowy patches in the moonlight. During the day it was a tangle of green with moments of color. St. Louis sure was different from home. Last summer, Dad still lived back home in Atlanta. We stayed with him in a Condo in the city; that was when he was dating Heather, who looked at Marcus and me like we were cockroaches on her kitchen floor. I added my bowl to the climbing tower in the sink. Heather would hate this place.

“What did he want?” Marcus said.

“Nothing.”

Marcus sat on the floor watching Tom and Jerry cartoons and biting his toenails.

“Mom doesn’t like that.”

“At least dad has cable, so we can watch cartoons all day. The last place had cable, too.”

“Stop biting your toenails. Mom doesn’t like it.”

“Mom’s not here,” Marcus said straining to jam a new toe between his teeth.” He spit the ripped nail on the floor. “Do you think we could get Mom to get cable?”

“No. It’s too expensive.”

“Hmm, maybe that’s why Dad lives in this crummy place to pay for the cable.”

“You’re gonna have stinky feet breath.”

By afternoon, I was tired of cartoons and felt stiff from the A/C. I wanted to go out in the sun, in the garden.

“Want some ice cream?”

“Do you hear the ice cream man?” Marcus said as he jumped up and looked out the window.

“No, but I’m sick of sitting in here. Let’s check out that garden.”

We weren’t outside, but 10 minutes, and I already missed the air conditioning.

“Huh, it’s a vegetable garden,” Marcus said. He nudged at some swollen eggplant near his untied, dingy converse. “I think Mom tries to get me to eat this stuff.”

Each garden patch was different. Some were vegetable, some flowers, and a ton of leafy or stalk like plants that I didn’t know. There were butterflies and bees both real and ornamental, little stools, ceramic bunnies, and chimes.

“This is really boring, and it’s getting hot, Gemma.”

“Do you think one of these belongs to Dad?”

“I’m going inside. If the ice cream man comes, I want a bomb pop.”

I continued to make my way through the plots till I found a shady place inside a little vine-constructed tee-pee. The ground was damp in this plot. It must have just been watered. I decided to squat so as not to get my white shorts dirty. Dad didn’t do laundry too often. I found a little stick and began to dig my initials in the cool, packed soil of the tee-pee. I wonder why someone made a tee-pee of vines. I ran my finger over the long green tendrils to see if I could identify the plant. I’d just finished Ms. Seibert’s 5th grade honors science that year. I felt a long, curvy, bumpy pod. I plucked the green bean. It was the longest, thinnest green bean I’d ever seen. I could make a necklace out of this, but a green bean bracelet would be much cooler.

The urgent clang of the ice cream man brought back the heat of the afternoon. I dashed from the green bean tee-pee, and tripped over the red-painted railroad tie framing the garden patch. I hit dry, hard earth catching myself with my right knee, palms, and chin. The clamor of the bell along with the circus music sounded about half a block away. I got up, brushed my burning, grass patterned palms on my t-shirt and ran through the maze of mini-gardens. The clamor of other kids hailing the ice cream man rose over the leafy labyrinth. I hit the open expanse of lawn in front of the community garden. I could see two older girls and a boy walking away with their frozen delights. The churning circus tones called out, and I arrived at the front walk. I tried to make a quick study of the truck’s offerings. What do I want? My heart was pounding and I was beginning to feel the pain in my chin. My eyes scanned up and down the pictures of ice cream and popsicles.

“Hey, kid! It’s your turn. What do you want?”

“Ah, um. A Bomb Pop and a Push Up.”

“That’s $2.50.”

As soon as he said it, I realized I’d left the $5 bill on the kitchen table.

“Wait! I left my money inside.”

“I can’t wait kid,” and he started to turn up the volume of the circus music.

“Wait! I have money, here.” I pulled two crumpled dollars from my pocket.

“Well, which one do you want?”

“I want the Bomb Pop and a Push Up.”

“Kid, you don’t got enough. Which one? The Bomb Pop or the Push Up?”

I looked back at the apartment. I could see Marcus at the window waving to me.

“The Bomb Pop,” I said looking down at the mud squished between my toes and smeared across the weave of my sandal on my right foot.

“And I think I’ll take two Push Ups,” a voice boomed behind me.

I looked up and standing next to me was a broad shouldered man in black leather.

“Hey, kid. Your bomb pop?” the ice cream man said.

I took the oversized Popsicle and my change from the ice cream man, but I looked at the man with the swept-back, black hair and large sideburns. He looks hot. That’s probably why he wants two Push Ups. I started towards the apartment to give Marcus his Bomb Pop. The noise of the ice cream truck resumed as it pulled from the curb.

“Miss?”

I turned around and just looked at him.

“Miss? Do you want one of these Push Ups? I can’t eat two. I gotta watch my figure.”

“I don’t know you.”

“Very wise of you. I’m Johnny Cash. I’m your neighbor, too.” And he gestured to the floor beneath our apartment. By this time Marcus had come out to fetch his Bomb Pop. I took the Push Up.

“I saw you in the garden. I don’t think your Dad has a plot. Would you like to see mine?”

“Is it just more vegetables?” Marcus asked with blue juice already dribbling from his chin.

“Is it the tee-pee?”

“No. It’s better. It’s behind Mrs. Hardy’s sunflowers.”

Johnny Cash gestured and we followed. He was right, his was better.

“That’s awesome,” Marcus said. “Can I sit on it?”

Johnny Cash’s garden was a sod sofa and a moss-covered tree stump for a coffee table with potted flowers on it.

“Sure.”

The three of us sat on the moss sofa. I was in the middle. It was cooler in this shady spot, and there was a soft breeze.

“Miss? How do you open this thing?”

“Oh. You peel the top off and then as you eat it you Push Up with the handle. Oh, and thanks.” I brushed my long blond hair away from my face. “It’s kinda windy.”

“It feels good, and you’re welcome. It’s hard being a kid on a hot day. It’s hard being Johnny Cash on a hot day.”

“Who’s that?” Marcus asked. He was leaning around me and dripped more blue juice, but this time he dripped it on my shorts and my left leg. The sticky blue syrup ran down my pale thigh turning pink in the sun.

“Me, of course. Good pick, miss. Johnny Cash loves orange sherbet.”

“Really? It’s my favorite.” I wiped at my leg with the palm of hand.

“Why do you talk like that?” Marcus blurted leaning across me this time.

“Marcus,” I said through my teeth.

“Like what?”

“You call yourself by your name like Elmo.”

“Is that a friend of yours, Marcus?”

“Nah, He’s on Sesame Street,” I said.

“Oh. Well, I just like being Johnny Cash, I guess.”

“I like being Gemma. That’s my name.”

“That’s a beautiful name.”

“Thanks. My Dad picked it.”

“I call her Germma, because girls are gross,” said Marcus. His dark curls were sticking to his forehead with sweat. Everything about him was sticky.

I went into the garden every day that week, and ordered Push Ups every time the ice cream man passed-by. I was prepared with the money in my pocket. And I made sure I always had enough for a Push Up for Johnny Cash, too. But I didn’t bump into Mr. Cash again. So, I wound up eating twice as much orange sherbet.

When we watched cartoons in the afternoon I would hear his shower run and his muffled singing. I tried to make out the lyrics. Although I didn’t recognize any of his songs, I liked to hear him sing. I’d press my ear to the cool hard wood floor and make up my own words as I listened.

“Gemma, get off that floor,” Dad said. “Come on, she’s going to be here any minute.

“So?”

“So, get over here and act like a lady, not a baby on the floor.”

“I’m not being a baby. I’m listening to Johnny Cash.”

“What? Since when do you listen to Johnny Cash?”

“Since I met him in the garden.”

“Excuse me?”

“He bought her an ice cream, because there was only money for one and I got it,” Marcus chimed in.

“You are not supposed to talk to strangers for one. You are not supposed to accept things from strangers for two. And why do you think this stranger is Johnny Cash?”

“Because that’s his name, and he lives downstairs.”

“Oh. Oh, yeah, right. The impersonator.”

“What?” Marcus said, wrinkling his nose.

“Kids, he impersonates Johnny Cash at the Hard Rock Café downtown.”

“You know where he works? What does he do?” I said.

“He sings.”

“Can we hear him sing? Please?”

“Maybe, if it will keep you off the floor.”

With that there was a knock at the backdoor, and within the hour, Marcus and I were pretty much invisible. Dad made us go to bed early that night, too. He said it was grown-up time for him and his friend Tanya. Marcus and I brushed our teeth and climbed into the double bed in our room.

“I get the window side.”

“Not fair! You take the window side every night, Gemma!”

“No fighting in there,” Dad hollered.

“Fine,” I hissed and threw a pillow at him.

Sometime in the night I woke-up, I mean wide awake. I wasn’t use to going to bed so early. My body just wasn’t tired anymore. I lay in the graying light listening to Marcus snore softly. I watched his face. His mouth was hanging open enough for me to see his two oversized front teeth. I was wondering what he would look like if he were a rabbit, when I heard something. It sounded like a grunt, like if someone got punched in the stomach. I heard it again.

“Marcus, Marcus,” I whispered tugging the elbow of his sleeve.

“Wha?”

“Do you hear that?”

“No. I’m sleeping,” he said. “Why? What was it?” He pulled the blankets up to his chin; just then I heard it again.

“Wait, I’m coming with you,” Marcus said as he stood closer to me than normal. He stood next to me like I was Mom or something. I cracked open the door and peered into the blackness of Dad’s room. Marcus peeked over my shoulder. Even though I was older, he was nearly as tall as me. We got down and crawled into the entrance to Dad’s bedroom. Scrunched together on the floor we watched. We watched I didn’t know what, but I did. I just had never seen it before. I never thought about what it looked like, but I didn’t think it would look like that. It was so rough. In silence we crawled back to bed.

“What were they doing?” he asked.

“Didn’t Mom ever talk to you about it?”

“About what? Naked wrestling? No.”

“About making babies,” I said angrily. I felt like I was going to cry.

“Is that what they’re doing? Dad wants another baby?”

“Go to sleep, Marcus.”

I tried to sleep, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t get comfortable. I felt funny being so close to Marcus. I felt funny thinking at all. I wanted to go home. I wanted my Mom. I had to get away from the apartment, from that moment. Anger was twisting and coiling in my stomach. Without shoes, once all was quiet, I slipped down the hall and out the back door. The Sun was starting to come up; the gray light was warming to a fine yellow. The dew dolloped grass tickled and licked my feet as I made my way to Johnny Cash’s living room. I sat on the sod sofa, not caring if my nightgown got muddy; feeling like I might puke. And that’s when I saw him park his old Buick.

He didn’t seem surprised to see me there, and I hadn’t even realized I was crying till he offered me a white handkerchief.

“May I have a seat?” he said, as he sat down.

He was in all black again with that same leather jacket. I took the handkerchief from him. It was embroidered with JC in the corner in black, and I noticed he had a big gold ring on almost every finger.

“Gemma, what are you doing out here?”

“You’re a liar,” jumped from my lips. “You’re a liar. You’re not Johnny Cash. He’s dead. I know. I looked it up on Google. I’m not some dumb, little kid you know.”

“I don’t think you’re dumb, Gemma. And I’m sorry. I was just pretending.”

“Pretending is lying. Grown-ups are always lying.”

“I think pretending is fun. Don’t you pretend?”

“Not anymore,” I mumbled into my shoulder.

“Aww, I hate to hear that. I really do.” I wanted to scoot closer to him, to curl-up in his lap like I use to with Dad. I wanted him to hold me. Instead, I closed my eyes waiting for his warm, deep voice.

“Gemma, let me tell you something. Grown-ups are just big, ugly children. And sometimes we pretend, because we don’t know what else to do.”

“I don’t think I like growing-up,” I said opening my eyes and gazing out at the breaking light.

“Then don’t stop dreaming, Gemma.”

I blew my nose in the handkerchief.

“I didn’t know men wore rings.”

“Sure. What about wedding rings?”

“My Dad never wore one.”

“Well, every man is different. Look at me I like a lot of rings and sod sofas.”

“You’re funny.”

“Thanks. Pretty sunrise, isn’t it? I love a good sunrise.”

“Yeah. Yeah. Me too,” I said, although I didn’t remember ever paying much attention before.

We watched the sun come all the way up, the soft yellow and pink blushing into day. Johnny Cash walked me to my backdoor, where we met Dad and Tanya kissing in the door jamb. At first, Dad looked like Marcus when he’d been caught doing something Mom didn’t like, but then he looked like he couldn’t figure out the answer to a really hard math problem.

“Gemma? What the hell are you doing outside?”

“I, I…”

I looked back from his face to her face. They both seem surprised or scared, just like me.

“I’m gonna go,” Tanya said as she bent like flamingo and jammed a foot in one of her high-heels. She gave Dad a kiss on his cheek that he didn’t seem to notice, and she squeezed past Johnny Cash and me.

“Good night, ma’am,” said Johnny Cash with a nod of his head.

“What the hell are you doing with my daughter?”

“She was sleepwalking, Andy. I found her in the garden when I got home from work and went to water my flowers. Early morning is the best time to water them, you know. She may still be asleep. It’s best not to wake them,” Johnny Cash said.

Everyone stood there. We just stood there. Dad looked guilty. I was trying hard not to blush, not to remember what I’d seen. I didn’t want Dad to touch me.

“I gotta get her in bed. I’ll talk to you later,” Dad said steering me by my shoulders into the apartment. He shut the kitchen door behind him. I could see the back of Johnny Cash’s head turning away.

“Gemma, I don’t believe you were sleepwalking.”

“I wasn’t.”

“Then what were you doing with Johnny Cash?”

I stared at my wet toes. There was a grass clipping on the right pinky.

“Did he hurt you?”

“No.”

“Are you sure? Cause I’ll…”

“No, no. It’s not like that.”

“Like what?”

“I know about safe touch and bad touch, Dad. They’ve talked to us about it in school since first grade. Even Marcus knows about that.”

“Well, then what were you doing out there?”

“I went for a walk. He saw me in his garden when he got home.”

“Gemma, why would you go for a walk at night?”

“Tanya.”

“Ah, ah, what about Tanya?”

“I heard you. We saw you, okay,” I turned my back to him and gripped the back of the kitchen chair in front of me.

“Oh, we were just…”

“I’m not a baby, Dad. I know what you were doing.”

“I’m sorry, Gemma. Next time I’ll remember to close the door.”

“Next time?”

“Okay, sorry. No next time, for now. Gemma? Do you have…are you…I don’t know what to say.”

“I’m tired.”

“Okay, go to bed.”

I let go of the chair, my fingernails had pressed little crescent moons into the vinyl. As I stepped into the hall Dad asked me, “Gemma, let’s not tell Mom about this, okay?”

“Yeah,” I said and I felt empty inside, in my chest. I didn’t know if I was telling him the truth at that moment, and for the first time in my life, I didn’t care if I was lying to my Dad.

He never asked me about the incident again. The following weekend, on our last night in town, Dad surprised Marcus and me with a trip to the Hard Rock Café to see Johnny Cash. I hadn’t seen him since the night in the garden. I was so excited. I wore my favorite pink daisy sundress. We got a table right in the front, and Dad let us order whatever we wanted off the menu. It was great. I got a chocolate milkshake, cheeseburger and fries. There were posters and photos everywhere. The music was really loud and the waiters and waitresses were dressed really crazy. Dad said they were dressed like the 70s, when he was born. It was really cool. I love that way back in the olden day stuff. But it was hard to concentrate on all the people or my dinner, because I kept looking for Johnny Cash.

“Hey, Dad. Can I ask you a question?” Marcus said with a mouthful of fries.

“You just did.”

“Ha, Ha, Ha. You’re real funny, Dad.”

“Well, what is it?”

“What ever happened to that lady?”

“What lady?”

I shot a shut-up look at Marcus, so he just kept going.

“The one that came over. The one like Grandma Shirley.”

“The one like Grandma Shirley?” Dad said looking confused. “The only lady that came over was Tanya.”

“Yeah. Her. What happened to her?”

“Marcus, how is Tanya like your Grandma Shirley?”

“She smells like cigarettes and too much perfume.”

Just then the lights went low, from the darkness emerged the strum of a guitar, and a spotlight came up on Mr. Johnny Cash. He sang all the songs I had listened to through the floorboards, but now I could really hear the lyrics and see him.

“Dad, quick I need a pen.”

“Why?”

“Come on.”

“Okay, okay. We’ll get one from the waitress.”

I bounced my foot on the peg of my barstool and scratched at a mosquito bite on my calf as I listened and waited for the pen. Once the waitress returned with a pen I began jotting down lyrics on my paper napkin, the ones I couldn’t understand before through the floor like “I keep my eyes wide open all the time, I keep the ends out for the tie that binds” from I Walk The Line and from A Boy Named Sue “And I came away with a different point of view. And I think about him, now and then, Every time I try and every time I win.”

Everything was better than I had imagined. He stood there like a rock with his guitar. His jaws quivered when he sang, and he gave an occasional tilt into the microphone and then a wink just at me. In that moment, I belonged to something special. Johnny Cash broke into a Ring of Fire and the restaurant erupted in applause. I was so proud. They didn’t know him like I knew him. I watched their shadowed faces, eating, talking, and laughing. I looked at Marcus stuffing his face with fries, Dad playing with his napkin and singing along. I knew they saw a man on a dark stage, but I saw the man in black.

As the show ended, Dad reached across and handed me his napkin that he’d twisted into the shape of a rose. “For my lady,” he said as the lights came up. Mr. Cash descended the stage and crossed to our table. He and Dad chatted for a while like neighbors, like I’d never seen at home. He shook Dad and Marcus’ hands. When he bent down to hug me I was swallowed by his black leather coat. He was warm. I could smell soap and some men’s cologne suffuse the air inside this leather cocoon. I felt heady, swaddled in dark security.

Some people pretend to be a good parent while running away from home. Others pretend to be a celebrity while living a small life, working a small stage. I wanted to stay glued to that moment, wrapped inside that coat with him, but I knew I couldn’t. I had to pretend to be innocent while life was forcing me to grow-up. I whispered into his chest, “I believe in you, Mr. Cash,” and I let go.

 

 

BIO

Leah Holbrook Sackett is an adjunct lecturer in the English department at the University of Missouri – St. Louis. This is also where she earned her M.F.A. Additionally, she has published three short stories: A Point of Departure published with Connotation Press, Somebody Else in Kentucky published in Blacktop Passages, and The Birdcage Nests Within published with The Weekly Knob through Medium Daily Digest. Upcoming, her flash fiction entitled What the Looking Glass Reflects will be published in the spring 2017 issue of Zany Zygote Review.

She lives with her husband Jonathan and daughter Bella in Webster Groves, Missouri along with their puppy Presley and two cats K.C. and Kafka. In her free time, Leah is an avid collector of Lewis Carroll memorabilia and a member of the Lewis Carroll Society of North America.

 

 

 

 

 

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