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Where the Street Learns Its Curve

by Donna D. Vitucci

 

 

As a child, there is a period when you do not leave your yard, a world drawn with a grade schooler’s compass. When you finally walk down the street and spy others, it’s amazing to step outside the known pecking order, to present you, only you, with no family attached. By the time you meet Connie Marlowe, her dead mother’s name was not spoke. None of you’d known this family existed, suffering and crying and being winnowed.

As a child, when you’re driven down streets, and especially with regularity your own street, your world begins to fan out. Your sponge-mind sees, accepts, files and your base expands concentric. Your core is the core of your one tree, and you are its pith.

Soon you can skip down the road in your mind and identify Donovan’s blue ranch, Bender’s new modern black-roofed house, a peach colored brick ranch with a mystery owner; Mrs. Overbeck’s shady porch attached to white clapboard; and then Marlowe’s blond brick ranch with pink trim, where Mr. Marlowe’s red truck anchors the gravel of the far right drive. Cars park on a second driveway of blacktop to the left of the front yard, partly blocking out a net-less basketball hoop.

Mr. Marlowe has a temper. With a swarthy complexion, prominent nose, dark eyes and hair that falls insistently front from slicked-back-ness, he’s the handsomest dad next to yours. Inside his house you learn to watch your mouth. He is “in sod,” and he can mow you down.

You’re lucky he doesn’t remember your name; he might tease you to the hilt or tell you to clear out of his headache. You can’t rest easy around this moody man. You, your little sister Karen, and Shellie, the girl next door — you’re just a locus of gnats circling Connie and her younger brothers Colt and Petey. Connie’s skin tone, and the boys’ too, make you guess their mom had been of the tropics, their mom a vacant color now cold in the ground. Her being dead polishes up the Marlowes. You want inside that family.

Winter shrinks the circle to you and Karen, the school back-and-forth, sledding the backyard where Mommy can watch you from the kitchen window as she irons. Tag-along Shellie from next door might join, since she never fails to horn in on your sled hill. She calls it her hill. You all climb it and sled it and use it and claim it. You learn to share, otherwise Shellie’s brother will bean you with an ice ball. The snow is deep, winter long, and homework incessant. The Marlowes ride your school bus, but Connie’s not assigned to your classes. Whenever you see her, she’s bundled in a blue coat with a hood, she goes hatless, her brown eyes wide in her dusky face. Her laughing with the boys in the back seat intimidates and needles you. In school’s realm you don’t even act friendly. Her bus-wiles and cutting up make her smarter than you by leaps.

Neighbors learn Mr. Marlowe has married Sadie Henfair over the winter.  How? When? Where?  This was no white dress church occasion, or people would have known. Talkers easily deduce the why– to help corral his five children. Alone he sure couldn’t do it all, or do it right, not even a little bit. Children sixteen down to six, with Petey the wobbly first grader.  Sadie adds her three colts to the barn—Jeannie, Sophie and Monique—12, 15 and 8. Too many names, but names are mostly place holders. Concentrate instead on the constellations, their creep across heaven, how the seasons suck and shed light, as your legs lengthen and strengthen and you lose your baby fat.

The Marlowe-Henfairs are the one blended family on your street, in your neighborhood, in your parish. Connie acquires a same-age step-sister. Jeannie’s in Connie’s and your seventh grade.  Call neither of them Cinderella.

Jeannie rubs her fingers absentmindedly across her forehead as she watches Connie push a white leather belt through the loops of her hip-hugger jeans. Boys just won’t leave Jeannie alone. Boys glom to Jeannie like bobby pins to a fridge magnet. Her forehead’s bumpy as sandpaper while Connie’s free of blemish, but the phone ringing constantly for Jeannie’s got handsome Mr. Marlowe in one of his black moods. All three of you bolt downstairs because he makes Jeannie take it in the kitchen where he sits at the large trestle table with his new wife. None of the girls are allowed phone privacy–one reason why they each, eventually, will run away.

For now it’s much lesser crime– junior high’s worst boys calling and asking for Jeannie, and while she talks with her back turned and her shoulders hunched to guard what she can, Mr. Marlowe says, “Bees to the new hive.”

Sadie says, “Shush,” puts the hand she’s smoking with on his wind-worn hand. Dark-skinned all summer and winter, for the moment he even glows.

You’re the smartest in the room but also the most naïve. You sense something shameful in Mr. Marlowe’s simple words. You swear you won’t be caught up with Jeannie, you’ll never be named alongside her, and you’re out the door in a flash.

 

A long alcove beside where the stairs cut into the second floor serves as the Marlowe children’s closet. Their clothes hang on long garment racks like those in a department store’s back room—boys’ to the left and girls’ to the right.  Minus any electric light there, the shadowy space inspires a confessional mood. Funny how no light fosters light. Your Catechism-coated childhood is starting to crack, and why? Because  amped-up wattage in the back seat on the school bus. Because Connie’s new half-family. Because Education Night the school required junior high parents to attend, where they divided boys from girls and ran gender-specific filmstrips about your changing bodies and God’s intentions. How can a “unique woman” emerge from your squirming? You look like puberty sounds—puny, half-formed, and eyeless.

 

In the Marlowes’ finished attic all six children sleep. Four beds whose head boards meet the wall along the closet exterior sketch out the girls’ section. Beds are arranged in a line a giant rabbit could bounce across one-two-three-four, if anyone could get away with jumping on the beds. A dresser with a mirror and a chest of drawers hold underwear, folded clothes, makeup, and jewelry you can buy up the street at Chinatown.

When Sophie turns sixteen she’ll drop out of school to work there, will be promoted from cashier to service desk to front end manager. Chinatown will be her realm. Sophie sits and rats her hair before the dresser mirror. She adds two inches to her height and three years to her age, after the liquid eyeliner.  Round the attic’s corner to the top of the stairs and that dead-on area holds one bed that Colt and Petey share.  Colt’s skinny ranginess doesn’t handicap him when he’s pounding his little brother. He’s elusive and slippery, you’ll learn. Sophie may be new to the house but she’s got vibrancy. Maybe she’ll teach you how to be taller, hotter. Sophie erupts from the bench, breaking the boys apart, whopping Colt with her rat-tail brush: “Leave. Him. The hell. Alone!”

Jeannie has been seated cross-legged on the floor, in a corner of the attic closest to the window, out of any fray.

“Who’s the smart one now?” she says. She winks at you. She’s got this whole new family of hers sussed out, and you’re not related but she includes you in the sussing.

She’s been penciling darker her rather light-brown eyebrows, and as in Sophie’s case, eyeliner also makes Jeannie Eqyptian-eyed. All the girls in the Marlowe house wear eyeliner. They are sister raccoons while you are of an entirely other species; you pace, hunted, through attics and basements. You haven’t got the goods these sisters have. They see you as furniture. Among them you might as well be hairless or blind. You are the bench where they rest their backs, the step-around in the kitchen while they’re intent on the door, and still they’re careful not to knock you over.

 

 

  

BIO

Donna Vitucci’s stories, poems, and creative non-fiction have been published in print and online since 1990. Her novels IN EUPHORIA, SALT OF PATRIOTS and AT BOBBY TRIVETTE’S GRAVE are 5-star-reviewed. Her most recent novel, ALL SOULS, along with the others, is available through Magic Masterminds Press. A Midwestern girl, she has relocated to the North Carolina piedmont, where she enjoys gardening, reading, walking and yoga.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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My GWOT, Annotated

by Paul D. Mooney

(GWOT: “Global War On Terror,” pronounced Gee-Wot. It sounds dumber every time you say it out loud. Trust me)

 

Ours was (“Is” would be more appropriate. Nearly two decades long and the fat lady ain’t warming up yet) a peculiar war. At least, the part of it I played a role in. It was not, like some people might expect, a heart-pumping cacophony of action, explosions, and movie-style badassery. That shit never happened, at least not to anybody I knew. Most of our experiences involved large swaths of boredom with random moments of strangeness and tragedy in a series of locations equal parts bland and bizarre. Big, crowded ones like the sprawl of our gravel-paved FOB (Forward Operating Base). Big, empty ones like the vast swaths of desert between the tiny strips of green tightly bracketing the Helmand River and the distant horizon of the Hindu Kush. Small, crowded ones like the tiny Hesco barrier (Large, collapsible containers made out of chicken wire and overpriced fabric that are filled with sand and dirt to create fortifications and buildings. Think big, fancy sandbags) shed we worked out of crammed with outdated government laptops and dented filing cabinets. Small, empty ones like the sun-baked port-a-shitters that provided us the closest thing to privacy we enjoyed for seven months.

Of course, I didn’t know any of that at the start. Most of us didn’t. And the ones who did, the ones who’d deployed to a combat theater before, weren’t really thinking about such esoteric hogwash. Not while our whole detachment (a military unit formed for temporary and/or non-standard purposes) sat sweating on an ugly, beat-up, run-down bus pumping out exhaust as it idled on the sun-baked street in Camp Pendleton’s (Primary base for the 1st Marine Division, located north of San Diego, California. Prone to bouts of wildfires, flooding, and ill-advised tattoos) Las Pulgas Area.

That bus was one of those small, crowded, and decidedly dull spaces. The first small space of our generation’s war-proper for those of us who’d only been through non-combat zone pumps (filthy sounding slang for deployment) or, Christ help them, recently graduated from MOS (Military Occupational Specialty. A person’s job in the armed forces. Like on a GI Joe action figure’s file card) School. And it was definitely the first one of this particular deployment for all of us. A full-sized school bus painted the same rotten white color as all buses utilized by the military and jammed to the gills with Marines, Corpsmen (US Navy Sailors who serve as medical personnel for Marine units), packs, seabags, body armor, a smattering of guitars, an unknowable quantity of well-stashed pornography (Possession of porn is illegal in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the law extends to US troops and only US troops deployed there. Same goes for alcohol. Because war isn’t shitty enough), and everybody’s personal weapons.

Las Pulgas was one of the big spaces; a wide-open patch of uneven land ringed by high, grassy hills and filled with ugly, red-roofed buildings and vast concrete lots housing the personnel, trucks, gear, and guns of the 1st, 2nd, and 5th Battalions as well as the Headquarters of the 11th Marine Regiment (The artillery unit of the 1st Marine Division. The 3rd Battalion is stationed at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center 29 Palms in the middle of the Mojave Desert, roughly halfway between Satan’s butthole and ballsack. The 4th Battalion was disbanded shortly after Vietnam). Suffice to say, there’s a lot of big machinery housed in Las Pulgas, which always struck me as a funny function for a place that’s name translates to “The Fleas” in English.

Even over the hum of the engine and the rumble of nervous chitchat echoing throughout the shitty bus I heard First Lieutenant Doggett’s girlfriend sobbing out on the sidewalk. I could see her, even from my seat near the aft of the vehicle, in the midst of the crowd out front of the trailer that served as the HQ for the Regiment’s rotating civil affairs detachments (This is a complicated one, so deep breath and bear with me: Civil Affairs [CA] is the term for units and operations focused on relations between the military, local governments and civilians, aid organizations operating in the region, and the like. The Marine Corps has several reserve units that fill this role but during the busier years of the GWOT it stood up temporary activity duty units under the commands of the artillery regiments. Personnel were assigned for periods of roughly a year; the first half focused on both specialty training in civil affairs and standard pre-deployment combat training and the second half consisting of the deployment itself. These Marines mostly came from the artillery regiments, like myself, but not all. Since the position guarantees going to a combat theater about half of us were handpicked from slews of eager volunteers. But since it’s a job with a low chance of participating in actual combat, the other half was forced into it as punishment for fucking up in some way. It made for a fun mix. Whew! I’m proud of you for reading all that. Have a cookie or something).

She had buried her mascara-smeared face into the shoulder of Gunnery Sergeant Aquino’s statuesque and stone-faced wife. One of the latter’s firm hands patted the former on her heaving shoulder with mechanical affection like some sort of hi-tech comfort robot. Something I would never describe her as to Gunny Aquino, but I filed it away in my brain as an apt description for the cold, beautiful woman currently comforting the Lieutenant’s buxom bucket of tears.

The rest of the significant others, friends, and family lining the sidewalk expressed varying degrees of emotional states running the gamut from bawling with despair to calm acceptance, the two aforementioned women representing the extremes of the spectrum. Nobody looked particularly happy, understandably. Even if some of them would no longer be significant to their current others by the time we returned from OEF (Operation Enduring Freedom, which is the one in Afghanistan). Some would be downright insignificant others (rimshot!).

Hell, Doggett’s girlfriend ended up dumping his lanky ass less than halfway through the deployment, right around ten weeks in. All those tears and weeping and ballyhoo added up to a whole lot of nothing the moment her Bikram Yoga instructor offered up a private chakra realignment session (wink-wink). Such is the risk of leaving someone you love all by his or her lonesome in sunny, sexy San Luis Obispo for a long period of time. Rumor had it that he was the very same longhaired, douchebag of a Jody (nickname for any civilian who bones a service member’s loved one while they’re deployed) who broke up the second marriage of Team 3’s CO (Commanding Officer. A unit’s first in command), Major Mercer, while he boated around with the 11th MEU (Marine Expeditionary Unit. Pronounced like the sound a kitten makes. Rotating combined Navy and Marine units on semi-constant nautical patrol throughout the more troublesome/newsworthy parts of the world) two years prior.

Doggett, our team’s XO (Executive Officer. A unit’s second in command. Why not EO, you ask? Because, as energy drinks and ESPN2 taught us, X is a way cooler letter), took it well insomuch as he didn’t end up dying from it despite his best efforts. Months three through five of the deployment for the young officer were marked by a constant string of semi-passive attempts to get outside the wire where something might shoot at, explode near, or possibly even stab into him. The XO of the civil affairs team assigned to the same district two deployment prior lost two fingers to a Taliban sympathizer armed with a hatchet and a significant percentage of his blood replaced by heroin, so rest assured that kind of thing happens in modern warfare.

Sergeant Popovich and I fretted over these developments at first, particularly given that Doggett had previously been the kind of happy-go-lucky fella who freely shared smokes, called enlisted guys “bro,” and offered hyper-critical teardowns of the homemade cards countless school kids regularly shipped over in bulk to us “Marnines” and “Amerracan Heros” overseas. And to think, some folks wonder what use an art history degree could be to a fighting man.

Our team’s CO, on the other hand, didn’t give the whole emotional mess much thought. I initially took it as a sign of heartlessness, or maybe dislike towards the diametrically chummy goofball of an executive officer she’d been saddled with, but in reality it was a case of her knowing the score. After all, it was her sixth deployment, the third to a combat theater, and she’d spent enough time in a front row seat overlooking breakups, long-distance divorces, and Dear John/Jane emails. Doggett’s fruitless and woeful hunt for a Combat Action Ribbon (Award given to US Marines and Sailors who have engaged in direct combat with or received indirect fire, to include IED detonations, from an enemy. Typically abbreviated as CAR and pronounced exactly how it’s spelled) or a posthumous Purple Heart (medal awarded to US military personnel killed or wounded in action) was nothing new to a salty campaigner like Major Carol Butterfield, callsign Gold Digger.

“Was that particular sobriquet your idea, ma’am?” Popovich asked with an eyebrow raised nearly to the Neanderthal-esque hairline that topped his pudgy face one evening after Doggett tramped off on one of his woulda-coulda-shoulda-suicide patrols.

We’d grown accustomed to them by that point. And I learned to take a little selfish relief from the fact that his patrolling kept me from having to share the burden of being the CA representative regularly outside the wire. Popovich was too vital to risk, being the only one who knew the overly complex computerized requisition system, and the Battalion didn’t allow field grade officers (majors, lieutenant colonels, and colonels) like Butterfield beyond the FOB walls unless necessary due to their being choice targets for the bad guys.

She guffawed in that biting, staccato way of hers; a throaty burst from a Ma-Deuce (Affectionate nickname for the M2 .50-caliber heavy machine gun. It’s huge, armor piercing, and a ridiculous amount of fun to fire) made human and awarded naval aviator wings (that description give anyone else an erection?), “Yeah, not so much. Nobody picks their own and they’re all pretty much on the stupid side. But that’s the whole point of call signs for us Air Wingers (personnel who serve in the aviation units of the Marine Corps).”

“Sexism?” I theorized.

“References to popular rap songs white people can’t justifiably pick for karaoke no matter how badly they want to (“Gold Digger” by Kanye West, featuring Jamie Foxx, Def Jam Records 2005)?” Popovich speculated.

“Both wrong. It’s mockery plain and simple,” she corrected us. “Though I suppose Uunaia (My last name. It’s Samoan) guessed closest, so he wins.”

“Ha! Suck it, Sergeant!” I gloated. Turning to Butterfield, “What do I win, ma’am?”

“You win attending tonight’s BUB (Battle Update Brief. A semi-weekly or daily staff meeting where the key members of a unit brief each other on the tactical, administrative, and strategic goings on of said unit. They’re very important and totally suck balls) in twenty minutes instead of me,” smirked the Major.

“Fuck.”

“Rumor is this one’s 214 slides long. New battalion record.”

“Fuuuuuuuck.”

“What do you have to do tonight that precludes you from such suffering, Skipper (traditionally a nautical term for boss or captain, but we Marines use it to refer to a commanding officer whenever we want to picture them as a flustered fat guy smacking Bob Denver with a hat)?” Popovich asked Butterfield with a sideways grin aimed at my misery.

“Nothing. But they never listen to me and it’s 214 slides so they can fuck right the hell off.”

“As can I, apparently,” I grumbled in defeat.

“Rank has its privileges, Lance Corporal. I’ll be in the MWR (Morale, Welfare, and Readiness) tent. Let me know how it goes. And somebody come get me if my XO ever gets back. Or dies,” and, on that cheery note, she sauntered off to Skype her husband alongside all the other Marines and Sailors quietly weeping/engaging in phone sex in that sandy, tent-shaped conduit to home.

“Look on the bright side,” Popovich suggested my way.

“Which is?”

“Damned if I know. Better hurry up and grab grub. By the time you get out of that briefing the chow hall will be closed. Shit, the war might be over,” he chuckled and redirected his attention to typing away on his SIPR (Secure Internet Protocol Router. Government Internet for stuff classified as secret or higher) laptop, meaning he was either hard at work answering Gunny Aquino’s request for permission to order more school supplies or firing off dirty emails to his wife while she floated somewhere near Catalina with the rest of the USS Stockdale’s crew. In which case he was also “hard at work” (wink-wink). Privileges of rank indeed.

“By the time I get out of there, the goddamn sun will have exploded and wiped our solar system from existence.”

“Then you won’t have to worry about going to the next BUB. Hop to it, dicknuts.”

“Aye aye, sergeant. By which I mean: fuck.”

“Fuck’re you doing here, dicknuts?” the infantry Battalion’s CO, Lieutenant Colonel Llewellyn Hebog, politely queried of me through the tight lips of his wrinkled, angry, trailer-park-Dracula face. He sat at the apex of the giant, U-shaped plywood desk that nearly filled the whole briefing room of the command bunker.

Arcing out to both sides of the old fucker sat the rest of the Battalion brass (Slang for high-ranking personnel. Comes from back in the day when their shiny insignia was made of brass. I think) along with representatives from each section of the unit and it’s supporting elements: our team, the FET (Female Engagement Team. Small units comprised entirely of women formed to gather intelligence from other women firsthand in countries where the local men don’t allow their wives/daughters/sisters to speak with the opposite gender. Sound vaguely sexist? It sure is. Because that’s how shit often works in the third world), the HumInt (Human Intelligence. People who gather intelligence directly from other humans) guys, a hatchet-faced woman who always wore Oakley sunglasses and black polo shirts and “absolutely did not work for the CIA so don’t even bring it up,” a team of Army PsyOps (Psychological Operations. They fight the enemy’s brains with science! And sometimes leaflets) drunks who somehow maintained a steady supply of illegal hooch, et al.

In addition to the true bigshots a crowd of underlings and note takers lined three walls, shoulder to shoulder. And all of their eyes peered at me as I stood off to the side of the projection screen upon which the accursed slideshow glowed. Well, the eyes that weren’t distracted and/or bored as shit. Or hidden behind sunglasses and definitely not CIA.

“Sir?” my quizzical response was the first thing I said in the BUB. Hadn’t even gotten to my spiel.

“Where’s your boss? Why the fuck I got a lance corp’l gawking at me instead of your Major?”

“Major Butterfield has a pressing personal matter to attend to, sir. But I am fully prepared to answer any and all questions that may arise from the CA update.”

The Colonel grunted and waved at me to proceed in a fashion his ancestors likely used when they required another mint julep fetched by someone they owned.

“Well, ladies and gentlemen, the construction of the main irrigation weir is ahead of schedule, despite the initial use of sub-standard concrete in the spillway. Coordination for distribution of food to the poorer families in the southern end of the district has begun with USAID (United States Agency for International Development. Government agency that helps people in impoverished countries. I’d mock them but they’re pretty all right) and the governor. Latter’s promised to lend us some ANP (Afghan National Police) support to get that done.”

I’d lost the attention of pretty much everybody in the room, though I didn’t hold it against any of them except the PsyOps Staff Sergeant snoring loudly into his threadbare maroon beret. Not because of the snoring, but because I smelled the whiskey on it and those greedy doggies (adorably PG-rated, insulting nickname US Army Soldiers) refused to share. That aside, I felt everyone’s pain. Not like I wanted to be stuck in this PowerPoint purgatory, let alone forced to participate in and prolong it.

War is hell. Which I guess makes PowerPoint some kind of double hell. I pressed on.

“The big hurdle coming up for us is the girls’ school we’re looking to build outside Shamblatan, about ten miles downriver from here on the west bank of . . .”

“Hang on,” Hebog slammed a flat palm on the desk and leaned in. “Girls’ school? Ain’t that gonna piss off some a them more hard-line locals? Like that ah . . . err . . . help me out, Charlie. The bearded feller.”

The downright aggressively likeable and absurdly muscular Battalion XO, Major Charlie Blank, shot me a sympathetic shrug before turning to his boss, “I have no idea, sir.”

“Fine, whatever. That Elder Hajji Whatever. He ain’t gonna like folk coming in here teaching their gals to read and math n’ shit. Ain’t he?”

“I suppose he won’t at that, sir,” Major Blank concurred.

“Ain’t asking you. I’m asking Lance Corp’l . . .” he trailed off and leaned forward in an attempt to read my nametape from across the room.

“Uunaia, sir,” I assisted.

“Sure, why the hell not. Well?”

“Well? Oh, still my turn to talk? Hajji Whatever. Thing is, sir, we’re working on that now and have a potential solution. We offered to pay for a bridge to go up over the Helmand right next to his compound. He’s so stoked about the prospect that he promised to publicly endorse the school if it’s made official. It’s a pretty sweet deal. A crossing there would cut the travel time for most of the wheat farmers from further south to the big market in town to boot, so it’ s a win-win.”

Hebog rolled his eyes towards the ceiling in contemplation, stealing further irretrievable seconds from my life.

“Bridge, huh?” he muttered at last. “Gonna have to think about it.”

“If I may, sir, we need to get the project approved and started ASAP if we want to continue the school construction uninterrupted.”

“Think about it, Lance Corp’l. That’s all. Who’s next?”

Somebody nudged the inebriated Army PsyOps Staff Sergeant, who indeed happened to be next, into relative consciousness and I returned to my seat at the table.

I reentered the CA office a few dozen eons later, my mood having failed to improve in the meantime. There I found a distracted Popovich and a cheerful Butterfield both typing away at their laptops in addition to a surprisingly present Doggett cleaning his disassembled M4 (carbine model of the M16 rifle you see in war movies, carbine being a fancy word for “shorter version of a gun”).

“Intermission over at the Bijou, Uunaia?” Doggett hummed without looking up from his task.

“Uh . . . sir?”

“The BUB, dude. Popovich said you’d be over there at least another twelve hours. New Battalion record and all.”

“No, it’s over. Thank Christ. At least I think it’s over. I kind of blacked out during the weather portion and now I’m back here. Unless I actually died of boredom, which would make this purgatory. Yeah, that adds up.”

“Wouldn’t this be hell?” Butterfield smirked crookedly.

“No, that would be another BUB.”

The others all muttered and nodded in consensus.

“Anything of note to report?” Butterfield asked while snapping her blocky computer closed.

I listed the highlights, “The PsyOps team has switched from vodka to whiskey, that guy with Bravo Company whose buddy accidentally shot him in the ass is gonna be okay, and the Taliban cut off another police captain’s head in front of his family outside Jarham. Also the Colonel says he’s gonna think about the bridge/girls school exchange proposal.”

“Goddamnit,” Popovich rapped his knuckles against his laptop.

“At least he didn’t say no,” I pointed out.

“No, not that hillbilly and his bullshit.”

“Hey,” Butterfield cautioned semi-seriously.

“Sorry, not that glorious and shining example of the finest tenets of our Corps who truly deserves to command over a thousand of our brethren. And his bullshit.”

“That’s the spirit.”

“Trouble on the home front is all.”

“Your wife accidentally forward another one of your erotic emails to the rest of the Chiefs’ Mess (Separate mess hall aboard US Navy vessels for enlisted personnel ranked E-7 and higher. Because they’re usually pompous dicks who can’t get along with personnel of other ranks) again?” I asked.

“Nah, she bribed one of the comm (short for communications) sailors to smash the boat’s server with a fire axe in case she does that again. Our daughter got in a fight at school is what happened. Some shitheel picking on her.”

“She win?” I asked

“The trans one?” Butterfield asked simultaneously. Popovich, long having considered himself the father of two boys and a girl, learned on pre-deployment leave that his eldest was a transgender teenage girl. As if falling into each of those categories individually doesn’t make attending middle school on a Marine base difficult enough.

“Oh yeah, kicked the shit out of the little butthole.”

“Nice. But I still think he’s looking to get some shooting started,” Doggett muttered absentmindedly.

“The other kid?” I asked.

“No, dumbass. Colonel Hebog.”

“Ah, of course. Wait, what?”

“I believe my currently-scatterbrained XO is jumping back to the first half of this conversation,” Butterfield surmised.

“Right. That. Stuff. What were we talking about?” Popovich sighed.

“The Colonel is holding out on giving the thumbs up to the bridge deal and the Lieutenant thinks it’s because he wants to provoke some gunfights with the local Taliban,” I recapped.

“Come on, this is an infantry battalion. They want to fight,” Doggett pointed out. “Why do you think they’ve conducted, like, three raids a week since we got here? In a district with eight Taliban left alive?”

“There’s eight now? Did they recruit two more since the last BUB I attended?” Popovich harrumphed. “Please, that hillbi . . . beacon of great officership or whatever I called him before wants to prove he’s the boss and demonstrate that building schools and handing out cash isn’t as important in a war as shooting people in the face.”

“If wars could still be won solely by shooting people in the face, this whole clusterfuck would have ended in a tickertape parade down 5th Avenue a decade ago,” Butterfield noted.

“They didn’t shoot Bin Laden in the face until 2011, ma’am,” I pointed out.

“Well they would have held the parade then. Shit, I’m not a ‘what if’ kind of person. My point is I agree with Popovich. Hebog’s flexing his muscles. He’ll give us the bridge after he gets some blood flowing back to his wrinkly, old pecker. Which is a sentiment that does not leave this office my young, gossipy Devil Dogs (One of the many, many nicknames for Marines. One of the least insulting ones).”

“Aye aye, ma’am,” we three subordinates chorused.

“He’s wants to get the shooting started in our district, mark my words,” Doggett added in a defiant singsong.

“Sir, with all due respect . . .” Popovich began.

“Oof, that’s never a good start,” Butterfield guffawed, her eyes and Doggett’s both rolling almost in unison. Privileges of rank indeed.

“. . . Isn’t that what you’re doing?” Popovich finished.

“Hey, I’m trying to get myself shot. Or at least shot at. Lightly shrapneled, perhaps. But myself and only myself. I don’t want anybody else getting hurt,” Doggett protested.

“Fair,” Popovich conceded.

“This may be the weirdest goddamn conversation of the deployment,” I pointed out.

“So far,” Doggett crooned as he slapped the upper and lower receivers (hey, what did I tell you about the diagram?) of his weapon back together with bemused finality.

“Hey there, Major,” Hebog’s inescapably ear-stinging drawl echoed across the FOB four BUB’s worth of evenings later, catching Butterfield halfway between our office and the COC (Command Operations Center) a few minutes after the latest PowerPoint purgatory’s conclusion.

From under the ramshackle gazebo that served as a smoke pit (designated area for the smoking of tobacco on any US military installation), with a Marlboro Light in mouth, I watched and heard as she made no attempt to hide her annoyed sigh. God love her.

“Word is your Sar’nt Poppinfresh raised his self a queer son,” Hebog chuckled like a corrupt sheriff in a cheap western. “Must have caught that from you feel-good, pussy-ass civil affairs fuckers, huh? Just kidding. Hear the little weirdo knocked out Staff Sar’nt Bucket’s kid.”

“Well sir,” my Skipper didn’t so much trail off as allow her attempt at a polite, appropriately subservient answer evaporate before it could condense. “If by ‘queer’ you’re referring to the Q in LGBTQ which stands for those who identify specifically as queer, or ‘questioning,’ regarding their sexuality, then I’m afraid you are incorrect. Sir.”

The squinty hillbilly’s eyes narrowed further.

“Matter of fact, Sergeant Popovich’s eldest is a transgender woman. Which would be the T for any weak spellers overhearing this exchange,” Butterfield ignored but definitely saw the double thumbs-ups that I and the two members of the FET smoking with me that evening flashed behind the Battalion CO’s back. “Her choice of new name is pending. But as I understand it, the modern Marine Corps is an all-inclusive, all-American fighting force where tolerance is extended to all but our enemies. Sir.”

“Point taken. But ain’t sure I appreciate your confrontational tone, Butterfield,” At least the old prick pronounced her name correctly.

Butterfield shrugged.

“Mm-hmm. Officers can get can Ninja Punched (Deceptively goofy term for a Non-Judicial Punishment or NJP. What happens when you get caught fucking up in a serious way but not serious enough to warrant a full-blown court martial like you see in the moving pictures. A Few Good Men and such) too, you know,” he finally cast an irked eye toward us enlisted types.

Butterfields shoulders sank a teeny tiny bit, succumbing to the difference in metaphorical weight between the brown oak leaves on her collar and the black ones (The rank insignias of majors and lieutenant colonels are both oak leaves, colored gold and silver respectively. Officer insignia worn in the field and combat theaters trades those shiny hues for matte brown and black so it’s harder for snipers to spot them and blow their brains out because that’s what snipers do) on Hebog’s.

“Apologies for my tone, sir. Been a long . . . decade. Give or take. But I’d appreciate you not disparaging the families of my Marines. Stick to insulting my idiots and me directly. Like good, old Lance Corporal Unpronounceable over there.”

I clicked my boot heels (though heavy duty rubber makes more of a thud than a click) and dramatically doffed my cigarette in deference to my Skipper.

Hebog snorted victoriously, though the exchange struck me as a more of a draw. Until the next part.

“Since I have your undivided attention for the moment, might I follow you to your office and further discuss the subject of the girls school/bridge project, sir?” Butterfield’s reserves of feigned subservience ran low.

“No.”

“O . . . kay. Perhaps tomorrow?”

“No. Full no.”

“Sir, I . . .”

“Ain’t approving’ it.”

The cigarette nearly dropped from my mouth. Motherfucker.

“Beg pardon?”

“Ain’t approving’ it. It’s a bullshit deal and I ain’t gonna allow it. Not in my district.”

“It’s not your district, sir. It’s the Afghans’ district,” the cigarette actually did fall from my lips, either from opening them to speak or out of shock that I’d spoken.

“Shut up, Unpronounceable!” snapped Hebog without looking at me.

“Not now, Uunaia!” snapped Butterfield in the same manner. “Why is it a no to the bridge? Elder . . . Whatever will not be happy if we nix that end of the deal and go ahead with the school construction.”

“And he can eat shit because I don’t want every fuckstick Islamic Fundamentalist in a hundred mile radius knocking at our front gate demanding concessions over every project he claims pisses him off.”

What a shockingly good point made in a relatively comprehensible manner.

“Fair enough. But we’re not giving up the girls school project, so . . .”

“Good, you shouldn’t. Deserves being built.”

“And if the Elder vows reprisals against the school like we suspect he might?”

“This is fucking Afghanistan, Major. And it ain’t your first rodeo. Every-goddamn-body and their mama vows reprisals every time a sheep shits on the wrong side the Helmand. Hajji Whatever’s pissing in the wind.”

“And if he ends up telling his people to start winging grenades, rockets, and those ever popular rocket propelled grenades at us in response?”

Hebog chuckled in the fashion of a born killer you at long last realize you’re glad is on your side, “Then we shoot ‘him in the fucking face.”

Doggett presented a sanitized and summarized version of the information exchanged in the above conversation during the fifth hour of his next eleven hour patrol, throughout which nobody shot at or exploded him to any degree to his continuing dismay.

Two days later Elder Hajji Whatever ended up throwing us a curveball and opting for the middle ground between Butterfield and Hebog’s predictions: paying one of the impoverished locals working construction on the expansion of the ANA (Afghan National Army) compound connected to our FOB to convey his displeasure in a most unsubtle fashion. While the Afghan troops prepped for their weekly Thursday night orgy (Real thing. Seriously. Just Google image search . . . no, wait . . . eh, do what you want) this enterprising young lad laid down his sledgehammer, snatched a stray Pakistani knockoff Tokarev (Old Soviet pistol model. Ever see one of those WWII movies where the Russian commissars start shooting their own troops for retreating in the face of the Germans? These are usually what they’re doing that with. Yay for fun facts!), tucked it into his robes, and furtively flip-flopped over to the gym. Even when cheaply made, a pistol’s firing pin striking primers sends rounds downrange. This semi-pro assassin managed to get off five before a quick-thinking, mid-CrossFit scout sniper with no neck crushed his skull with a precisely hurled 16kg kettlebell.

Of those five rounds one nicked a dumbbell, another put a hole clean through the padding of the bench press, the third shattered the cheap elliptical machine’s console, and the last two took Popovich smack dab in the heart as he cranked out a set of lat pulldowns. Our hirsute sergeant died before his killer’s twitching corpse hit the deck. It happened so fast he didn’t have time to look shocked.

Popovich, that is. Nobody could tell what the Afghan’s final mien might have been before the avenging CrossFitter grabbed an even heavier kettlebell and made sure the motherfucker was dead. Hard to read the expression on a concave face.

So for all their supposed hootin’ and hollerin’ and raidin’ for a big, brassy fight with the enemy, the only Marine the Battalion sent home in a flag-draped steel box was Sergeant Alexander Popovich. Slightly pudgy, extremely hairy, idealistic, directly supporting (term for when an individual or a unit is operating in a role alongside a specific unit but not fully tied into its chain of command), never patrolling Sergeant Alexander Popovich.

Before Colonel Hebog could arrange for a bullet to pass through Hajji Whatever’s skull, the Elder piled his favorite wife, favorite son, second favorite chai boy (Tweenaged house servant/sex toy that many middle class and wealthy Pashtu Afghans own at least one of. Let that sink in and then tell me how despicable America was for trying to instill some of its values on the locals. Eat a dick, moral relativism), three AK’s (general term for all weapons in the Kalashnikov family, the most famous being that classic staple of generic bad guys in both movies and real life: the AK-47), and twenty pounds of opium into a pickup truck and escaped across the border to Pakistan where he eluded authorities for several months before being captured and garroted by a Taliban officer who refused to forgive the guy for working with us infidels in the first place. So the whole affair turned out pretty disappointing for all parties across the board.

Somebody from S-1 (administrative section, or “shop,” of a unit) plugged a pair of travel speakers into an iPod and blasted a tinny rendition of “Taps” as six grunts (nickname for infantry personnel) carried Popovich’s coffin out the open flaps of BAS (Battalion Aid Station. Central medical facility of a . . . wait for it . . . battalion) two days after his death. Butterfield, Doggett, and I stood at attention in a row along the path of packed dirt the pallbearers took to the waiting Osprey (The V-22 Osprey is a Vertical Takeoff and Landing, or VTOL, transport aircraft that looks like the deformed baby of an inbred propeller plane and a helicopter with fetal alcohol syndrome. They’re great in theory, but in reality they’re terrifying death traps that have killed 39 people in crashes. Lowest bidder and all) while a dozen or so members of the Battalion staff assembled similarly to our left.

“That’s what they almost called me, you know. For my callsign,” Butterfield half-whispered in a sad, dreamy tone that broke my goddamn heart all over again as our shipmate’s body passed by.

“Ma’am?”

“‘Taps.’ They almost made that my callsign Taps. Because of Dan Butterfield.”

“Dan . . . Wait, the Civil War general? The bugle call guy?” Doggett queried from the corner of his mouth closest to the Skipper.

“There was both a Civil War general and a bugle call writer named Butterfield?” my grief-stricken brain played catch-up.

“One guy. Same person. My great-great-great uncle or whoever. Wrote ‘Taps,’ though I think they called it ‘Butterfield’s Lullaby’ at the time,” Butterfield explained.

“That’s a way creepier name it,” I opined.

“Right? Given its use,” Doggett agreed.

“So true. Which is why I’m glad they passed on calling me ‘Lullaby’ as well.”

“Also creepy. And somehow a little condescending,” I mused.

“Ah-ah-ah-ahem!” Hebog cleared his throat, thereby drawing attention to how loud our whispering had grown and the fact that none of the other assembled Battalion staff gave a shit that we conversed. We responded by not giving a shit about the Colonel in turn. Popovich was our Marine, after all.

“So, ma’am, they didn’t call you Lullaby because it’s too creepy even for the air wing. And they didn’t go with Taps because . . .” I prodded.

“Too depressing. And foreboding.”

The recorded trumpet notes ended. Then started over. That whole tune is barely a minute and a slow walk from the aid station to the LZ (Landing Zone) takes that long even without a coffin to carry.

Very fucking depressing.

The grunts reached the open ramp of the bird (Slang for aircraft. Because flying) and carried the coffin up into it, disappearing into its shady bowels with Popovich’s mortal coil.

“So why Gold Digger?” I pressed on, hoping new knowledge might temporarily edge out the melancholy.

“After the war Butterfield, apparently, went into government and got busted for some gold related scam. Think he was Undersecretary of the Treasury (He was actually Assistant Treasurer of the United States. Totally different thing) at the time.”

“Man, they really took your historical footnote of an ancestor and ran with it, huh ma’am?” Doggett ventured.

“Yeah, well, everybody gets pretty wasted at the get-together were the callsigns get handed out.”

Doggett and I nodded to each other. Of course.

“And, frankly, it could have been worse. They usually are. One guy in my first squadron wound up as ‘Shit Stain,’ for example.”

“Yeesh,” I breathed.

“Rough. Not as creepy as ‘Lullaby,’ at least,” Doggett pointed out.

“And not as depressing as ‘Taps,'” sighed the Skipper.

The Osprey’s rotors began their slow starting spins as the six grunts filed back out, unencumbered and blinking at the kicked-up dust.

“All right,” Butterfield sighed louder this time, her boots rustling the gritty ground as she turned away. “We’ve got work to do.”

“Like what, ma’am?” I asked earnestly.

“Damned if I know, but we gotta do it.”

That we did. Nearly two months of deployment remained ahead at that point but little of it turned out worth telling. Things stayed sad until rolling into predominantly boring and then, when we started turnover with the advance party (members of a unit who deploy ahead of their shipmates in order to liaise and coordinate with the unit they’re replacing) for our replacement team (who thanked us profusely and repeatedly for all our great work and then blamed us for every single fuckup they made over the first half of their deployment as is standard procedure), life got too busy to be much of anything else. Then we packed up our gear, chucked it into a series of aircraft across the world over a period of two weeks, and landed at last on the ugly, weed-lined tarmac of March Air Force Reserve Base (Riverside, California) one humid midnight.

From there another ugly, beat-up, run-down, rotten white bus drove us back to Las Pulgas to greet the dawn, a bedazzled  “Welcome Home” banner, and those others who remained significant. And so ended our madcap participation in OEF: twitching with impatience as we clambered off another rumbling, cramped, crummy vehicle surrounded by the big guns (M777A2 155mm howitzers) and rockets (M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems or HIMARS) in the heart of The Fleas.

 

 

 

BIO

Paul D. Mooney is an NYC born writer with pieces published in American Writers Review, The Big Jewel, three minute plastic, Task & Purpose, and more. You can see more of his work on his website, thewritepaulmooney.com, so long as he remembers to update it. He received a BS from BU, an MFA from SLC, and served four years in the USMC. He currently works as a copy editor at a marketing company and loves tacos, sailing, eating tacos while sailing, and his two cats (the dumb one and the fat one).

 

 

 

 

0

The Garden

by Leslie Boudreaux Tidwell

 

Thoris lay in his favorite tree and tried to remember his home as it had once been. He closed his eyes. Memories came and went as they pleased lately. On the days when thoughts could be summoned at will, Thoris tried to live slowly, letting each breath be its own morning, noon, and night.

There it was. Now he saw it. His forked tongue flickered on its own, already hunting for supper without him. But for now, his mind was still his mind, and the image of his old, perfect garden washed over him.

__

Everything in the garden–alive or not–had been special. It was how the Master worked. Thoris’ home tree was his favorite thing in the garden. In the morning, bark was green, soft, and new. At midday it was dark, rough, and brittle. Each night its dry branches leaned over and waited to be born again. It had lived hundreds of lives, each one a little different. Sometimes the leaves were greener, or more branches sprouted, or the fruit changed from small and red to fat and orange. Thoris memorized the detail of each life. It was the only thing in the garden that had to die, and he wanted to honor it.

At night, the Master spoke through the pores of every living thing. An instant before the sun disappeared, the garden would erupt with joyful humming. Every piece of creation served as an amplifier for his love. This love never translated to speech–at least not the tongue of the garden creatures. He remembered it as a dissonant, yet sweet song paired with the chattering of birds and the sigh of the woman when she felt sleepy. Sometimes the grass and leaves shivered, but he wasn’t sure if this meant the plants were being spoken through or were answering back.

After that chorus of heavenly noise, Thoris’ tree would die, and he would curl up to sleep, looking forward to its rebirth. He always chose the thickest branch as his resting place. It was the perfect spot to watch the sunrise. In the afternoon, after its leaves had come in fully, it provided plenty of shade for his afternoon nap. Somehow, the wood felt as soft as sheep’s wool.

It had felt that soft.

__

Snapping back to his current life, new corner of Thoris’ mind took hold. Eat. Hunt. Eat. He ignored the command to hunt–while he still could–and plucked a puny piece of fruit from a branch. He nibbled on it slowly, as mindfully as he could, and watched the sky. It was a clear day, but the sun felt hotter than usual.  Mice and lizards below him crept through the grass.  An urge seized him, and a chunk of fruit came rolling from his mouth. It painted his teeth like bloody flesh.

How effortless it would be with his speed and stealth to creep over and swallow them whole.

His eyes flashed from their normal yellow to black.  He shook his head and took another bite of fruit. Drops of dew leapt off the skin as he tore out large pieces to chew.  Not only did the fruit taste bitter this morning, but he could only bring the very edge of the surface to his mouth.  Most of it would have to be thrown away for the ants, or else he could place it on the ground and roll it around with his nose to reach the middle parts.  Thoris could no longer see his shriveling limbs. It would not be long.  Within a week, his legs would be completely gone.

Not only would he lose his legs, but he would completely lose the power to communicate with man.  That didn’t matter, though, for he had not seen the man in days.  He gazed off in the distance, and there stood the mighty creature appointed by their Master as a guard for all eternity.  It looked sort of like the man who had been born here; he had once been cloaked in that same light.  Unlike the man, this guardian’s eyes were not welcoming; nor were they cruel.  They seemed to be made of stone.  No newcomers were allowed, and the garden’s old tenants were slowly retreating to the new, frightening world.  It didn’t matter anymore where they lived now. The Master’s protection was gone.

Thoris could no longer stand the taste of the fruit. He rolled it off the branch with his nose and watched as one fly after another landed on it. His hunger gone, he waited for clarity to return to him. He tried again to remember the past, ignoring the raspy, cold thoughts that were creeping closer to the center of his being.

He thought about the day the announcement was made. It hissed out of the pores of every being like steam. Thoris remembered freezing in place as that heavenly noise came softly, sorrowfully, from him and every other creature and plant. The leaves of his tree rustled with the sound. The Master had spoken to them plainly. Thoris squeezed his eyes shut so tight that tears came out. Words were hard to remember. He focused on them. Cherished them. He begged them to come to his mind.

“We will try another way.  You beasts may stay or go, but you will not hear me for a while.”

“Where are you going, Master?”

“Ask the serpent.  The changes to come give me no pleasure, but something must be done.  This offense must be remembered.” 

“Serpent? Master, how have I offended?”

“It was not you, child. It was your neighbor.”
Thoris’ eyes flew open and flashed black again. His mouth opened in a twisted grin, and another word came to him. It felt similar to the word hunt. Kill. Kill. Kill him.

No. He shook himself so violently that he nearly fell from his branch. He steadied himself and spoke aloud. It hurt his throat.

“Olfrid. Cannot. Kill. Olfrid.”

The withering away of all serpents’ legs, the exile from their home, the fading away of music and thought… this was Olfrid’s doing. Those words, your neighbor, has blossomed into a vision from the Master. A final act of kindness. Thoris concentrated as hard as he could and asked for the vision again.

“If I see it again, perhaps it will stay with me when I am gone. Perhaps I won’t be completely lost.”

__

“The mornings come so quickly,” Olfrid grumbled as he crawled out of his hole. He hadn’t considered the inconvenience of an opening facing the east.

“The morning comes exactly when it must.” The answer came from the tree above him.

“Then why do I still feel sleepy, Thoris?”

“Because it’s time to eat. You’ll feel better after you’ve had breakfast. I was about

to go and pick fruit. Come with me.”

“I’ve eaten fruit with you so many times my teeth are stained red.”

“Such vanity, Olfrid,” Thoris teased. “Come on, the company will improve your mood.”

“If it’s all the same to you, neighbor, I’ll go for a little walk to wake up … get used to the light. Is it hotter than usual?” Thoris looked around and shook his head. Then he  descended from his branch and crept away.

‘I suppose I could cover the entrance at night,’ Olfrid thought as he walked away, eyeing the ground for fallen leaves.

The morning was damp and breezy. The grass sparkled and shook as he walked. It was almost too thick to move through. He spread the blades apart with his claws and lifted rocks with his pointed snout in search of leaves. The ground was perfectly clean–not even a speck of dirt out of place. He walked on, moving closer and closer to the end of the garden, to the place where trees got shorter and grass felt drier under his feet. Still no leaves.

Olfrid frowned. He had watched Thoris’ tree shed leaves in the late afternoon. Where did they go after they fell? Did they disappear into the ground? Were they carried away by the ants? Anyway, couldn’t he always climb a tree for leaves? But that doesn’t answer where the fallen ones go… He frowned and lowered his head to think.

The garden was home—a beautiful place. He enjoyed plentiful food, courteous neighbors, and a warm place to live. After a hard rain, he could count on the Master to open up the clouds and blanket him with warmth. The river provided him with cool water but also a place to admire himself. All creatures were proud of their looks, but Olfrid had a feeling that a little extra effort went into the serpents. Their scales were smooth and caught the sun’s light so nicely. He loved to look at himself in the water. His scales were large–much larger than Thoris’. They were a greenish brown with darker stripes wrapped around his body, with the occasional spot of white. His head looked noble, wide and pointed at the jaw narrowing to an upturned snout. His narrow eyes looked serious–the eyes of an intelligent creature. Many lazy afternoons were spent reflecting on these facts.

Olfrid also admired the beauty of his home and the grandeur of the evening song. It made him feel important. ‘Whoever made all of these things wants to speak with me,’ he would think. But the Master never waited to hear his words. As soon as the song was over, so was that feeling. That soft little squeeze near his heart and the buzzing of his mind returned to stillness. Peace. Absolute silence. Was it a satisfying silence? He could not say.

Olfrid’s body twitched again. New thoughts were making him feel uncomfortable, like the itch that came before shedding. But it wasn’t that familiar discomfort. When was the last time he had felt uncertain? Olfrid could not recall. When was the last time a question went beyond ‘where will I bathe today’ or ‘when will I have supper?’

Creatures for miles around might have heard Olfrid’s stomach rumbling, but he could no longer think of finding food. Instead, he spent a good part of the morning watching the treetops. He waited for the wind to pick up and make the branches whip wildly from side to side. Surely just one leaf would fall. Nothing. For some reason, this harmless leaf mystery had birthed questions that would never leave his mind as long as it was working.

‘Why have I never wondered before? About this or anything?’

He wanted to think about it more, to try and remember more about himself. Where had he begun? When had the garden begun? His heart squeezed. Then he felt another new discomfort. His stomach cramped painfully in a way he had never experienced.

‘Better to think about this later,’ he thought.

Berry bushes and fruit trees surrounded him, and a variety of tasty root vegetables were hidden underground. He only needed to scrape the earth gently, and one would appear. But none of these things sounded good to him at the moment. After half-heartedly prodding at the dirt, Olfrid decided to wander closer to the border. Maybe there would be something new to try there. He would put up with this growing discomfort and observe how it made him feel. The urgency was a little frightening but exciting at the same time.

‘I need to find food. Need?’

 It was a word he’d never used. The Master used it when he lay down rules. They needed to share with one another. They needed to sleep at night and give the garden time to rest and revive. They needed to stay away from… he could not remember.

Stay away from what?

Olfrid met the stranger at the garden’s edge. He was sitting on a large rock just inches away from the grass, and a violet robe was draped over his gaunt form. Beyond the stranger lay an expanse of orange and brown earth with a few scrub bushes poking out of the ground. Though Olfrid felt a breeze on his skin, it did not reach the land beyond the garden. None of the sick plants moved, nor did the stranger’s long hair. It was like looking at the pictures that the man drew for his woman in the dirt.

The stranger’s head was in his hands, and his shoulders were bobbing up and down. Olfrid recognized this. The man had done this on the nights before his woman was created. The noise was never heard in the garden after that, but he remembered what the Master had named it.

“Why are you crying?” Olfrid asked.

The figure startled. Then, after a pause:

“I am crying because I have no home.”

“How terrible. Would you like to live in the garden?”

“That garden is not mine,” he said.

“But it could be yours as well. There are creatures like you here.”

“They are not like me,” muttered the stranger.

“But they are.  They walk on thick legs.  They have fur on top of their heads.  They talk loudly and have long fingers,” Olfrid wiggled his own stubby fingers to demonstrate.

“Can they fly?”

“Why, I’ve never seen them fly.” Olfrid reared back on his hind feet, staring at the man with interest. “Can you fly?”

“I could once,” said the stranger, touching his shoulder tenderly.

“What happened?”

The man turned away from the serpent, refusing to speak.  Two holes in his robe revealed the parallel scars on his back.  Olfrid cringed at the shapes which did not seem to belong.  The wounds gave off a foreign stench, and the edges were moist and sticky.  At that moment, Olfrid realized the stone he had been sitting upon was also red. This substance looked like berry juice, but it smelled like something else. It smelled like Thoris’ tree at the end of the day, like the end of life.

“Those marks are not good,” Olfrid said, though he could not say why.

“No. I had wings there once. They were ripped from by body and torn to pieces.” The stranger returned to softly sobbing.

“Who did this to you?”  he asked, taking a single step forward.

At this, the man snarled and stared greedily at the garden. “The Master of your home did this to me. The tyrant. He saw my power and ripped it from me.”

Olfrid stepped away from the man and his venomous words.  He had heard from the Master that lies were a like a disease.  The stranger in violet scoffed at this reaction and looked down upon the animal.

“So he’s fooled you as well.”

“Quiet!” said Olfrid.  Don’t you know he can hear everything?”

“I do know.  Doesn’t that frighten you? How can you abide someone rattling around in your brain?”

“I’ve done nothing wrong and have nothing to fear. But if he hears you lying—”

“He tolerates lies,” the stranger leaned closer, clenching the parched earth.  “What he hates is the truth.”

“The master only wants us to tell the truth,” Olfrid recited.

“We can only tell what we think is the truth.  If the real truth is never given, we can claim innocence, even if what we say is a lie.”

Olfrid fell back on all four legs and lowered his head to the ground.  He frowned.  It was a strange feeling when words made sense in his mind but felt bad to hear.  Stranger still, the words reminded him of his own worries. His stomach churned.

“Don’t be afraid, now.  I have learned many secrets,” he crept closer now, inching toward the grass but never touching it.  “I could tell you the truth about your Master—about many things.”

“You—You’re a bad creature!  That’s why you’ve been punished!”  And with that dismissal, he ran away as quickly as he could.

__

Thoris felt ashamed.  He had stumbled upon this conversation during his morning walk.  He could have stopped his neighbor.  I didn’t know it was my responsibility, he said, knowing that the Master would hear but would not answer. He had gone home with a resolve to speak up if he saw the stranger again–to protect his friend Olfrid from the dangerous words of this intruder. But the pleasing sights and sounds of the garden had distracted him. That evening had been so lovely. He thought of that time while his memory still functioned.

__

A flock of white cranes made elegant shadows against the canvas of dusk. A black female serpent crossed his path–one with whom he had hoped to mate. She chose a smaller male with shiny yellow scales that rivaled the sun. They still smiled at one another and behaved cordially. There was no need for jealousy in this land filled with gifts. If he was meant to have offspring, the Master would also provide a companion for him. Perhaps the black serpent didn’t enjoy berries and the evening music as much as he. Perhaps the Master would mold a sweet and friendly creature from his own claw or one of his scales, much like the human’s mate.

Thoris loved the woman. Some days were veiled in vague feelings of contentment, but her birth was as clear to him as the first day he felt breath rushing into his lungs. He recalled her immediate affection and curiosity for everything around her. Her first question to the man was about his favorite place in the garden. The man obliged, taking her hand and walking her to a brook filled with silvery fish and swaying reeds. She scooped up her first mouthful of water and laughed her first laugh, unable to contain the fullness of those first moments. Then they walked together, reviewing the names of things. Unsatisfied with calling every serpent ‘serpent,’ and every deer ‘deer,’ the woman moved her mouth around to get accustomed to her language. Then she named them–she gave every creature a second name so they could be more like her and the man. Thoris cherished his name and the love he received from the woman.

There was so much to be grateful for and so much to do, Thoris thought as he climbed the dry, peeling wood of his dying tree. The leaves fell and curled themselves tighter and tighter until they were nothing. But he did not notice this. He was too busy reveling in the song and smacking down the last of his berries. Tomorrow would come just at the right moment, and he would go about his normal day. And there was something else that he would do. Something very important. What was it? Well, no matter. He would remember, precisely when he was meant to.

 

The following morning, Olfrid and his new companion were debating again. Thoris had forgotten his task and was far away, making the woman laugh with a song about beetles.

__

Again you call me a bad creature,” the stranger rolled a stone between his thumb and forefinger, sounding very bored. “It is not bad to oppose slavery.”

Slavery.  It wasn’t a word that anyone in the garden knew.  The part of Olfrid that loved the Master begged him to run away, to find a branch in the cool shade and never think of the stranger again.  But instead he allowed a trance to take him.  Slavery.  The word made his head ache a little.  The sound left a foul incense around him.  It sounded as wicked as a lie.

“What is that?”

“Slavery?” The stranger flicked the stone away and spread his arms wide.

“Slavery is this garden.  Slavery is what keeps his voice in your head.   I know, because I lived by his side.  I have seen what you’ve never seen.”

“You’ve seen the Master?”

“I have.  Even when I could not see him, I felt him.  There was no rest.  When I tried to drive his voice from my mind for one moment—when I tried to remove him from my heart just for an instant, he devoured my strength and cast me out.  My old friends chased me from home.  Some followed me, but they are even more mutilated and powerless than I.”

“And… their wings are gone, too?”

“No one here may have wings.”

Olfrid didn’t speak for a long time. “You think you’ve been wronged. You think you’ve been punished unfairly. You seem to be truthful. But this is more than I’ve ever had to think of in my life.”

He’s seen to that.”

“But all he wants is to be near us. Why try and be apart from someone who loves you and provides for you?”

“To know which thoughts are mine!” When the stranger’s voice raised, it sounded like a crackling fire. The air felt warmer around him. “To have one moment’s peace! Don’t you ever wonder?  Don’t you ever wish to know which decisions are truly yours?”

“I … don’t think of that.”

“Because he won’t let you.” For the first time, the stranger reached out for his companion. He gripped the serpent’s limb, and Olfrid thought he felt a searing pain upon his scales. When he pulled back, there were no scars, but the sensation remained.

“I can’t listen to you anymore.  These are all lies.  They’re lies!”

“Talk to the master tonight,” he called as the serpent made his escape.  “Don’t depend on my words! Find out for yourself!”

Olfrid crept away, almost free.  That night, he could not feel the Master singing through him. Instead, whispers of doubt circled him and kept him from sleeping.  By morning, his mind was neither his nor the master’s.  The garden’s little pleasures failed to satisfy him as they did when something small troubled his mind.  These new worries were so much greater than anything else in the garden—so much greater than a splinter in his foot or a cloud of dirt in his drinking water.  It felt like prickles in his chest.  Olfrid shifted from side to side until there was nothing to do but sit, and that didn’t help either.

The stars and moon were all pointed at him, staring, asking him questions.  What troubles you?  Why are you afraid? Whom do you seek?

“Is it true?” he asked aloud.

The lights of the night sky gazed back, unmoved.  Olfrid could not remember what the master’s song sounded like.

Every sunset ritual felt as distant as the birth of the world.

“I just want to hear you say it,” he pleaded many nights after. “Just once.  Say he’s lying.  I’ll believe you.  I’ll believe whatever you tell me. Just once. Aloud.”

Olfrid returned to the edge of the garden after days of waiting.  The stranger was not there.  He stared at the desolation, gently moving one toe towards the wasteland beyond his home.  He searched for green in the distance, but there was none.  The serpent could not imagine surviving there.  Moreover, he could not imagine an offense terrible enough for such a prison.  He had nearly disappeared into the brush when a voice emerged from the dead world.  There stood the stranger. His robes looked cleaner than before. His shoulders, straight and strong.

“Did he speak to you?”

Olfrid had many questions, but the sick feeling in his stomach told him to run.

“Leave me alone.  Stay away.”

“I am away,” he said, sitting down on the same rock where Olfrid had found him. It was also cleaner, the blood washed away.  “I thought I made it clear before that I won’t harm you. Now … Did. He. Speak. To. You?

“He … he didn’t,” Olfrid wanted to cry. “It was so strange.”

“And how did you feel?” He clasped his hands together and cocked his head. Listening.

“I felt … covered in mud. Buried.”

“And free,” the stranger clenched his fist, claiming a victory that Olfrid was not sure of.

“I feel sick.” The serpent lowered his head.

The stranger made a soothing, clicking sound with his tongue. Olfrid thought he’d heard an ape make this sound when its baby was chattering and fussing late at night. He drew back but could not turn away from this man who was not quite a man. The words the followed kept him in place.

“It’s odd at first,” he admitted, “but what you experienced was not a bad thing.  You challenged him, and he surrendered.” The stranger lifted his arms towards the sky.  “You … bested him.”

“He didn’t speak to me because he knows I was talking to you.” It was the first time Olfrid could truly admit his guilt. He stared at the grass–the grass that was still his if he wanted to walk upon it.

“Do not fear him, my little friend. Now that you know what I know, I’ve come to share another secret with you.”

“What can you tell me? I know what you are.  You doubted him and so have I, and now he’s sent you to live in a world with no life.” Olfrid panicked, stricken with a new realization.  ”It’s what he’s going to do to me. It’s why I can’t hear him!” He threw himself to the ground. If he begged, could he be forgiven?

“No life?” The stranger laughed for the first time. It wasn’t the quiet scoffing sound that Olfrid was used to. His voice was full of excitement.  “My friend, you haven’t seen all the corners of my home. I’ve explored it myself.”  He pointed out past the dusty hills. “Believe me, there is life. There is food. There is water. There is music sweeter than the Master’s. And best of all…”

Olfrid felt another pull. “What’s the best of all?”

“Everyone there has the Master’s eyes … the Master’s voice … the Master’s mind. Everyone is his own king.” The stranger’s lean arms and long fingers painted an idyllic picture in the air.

“How do I know you’re telling the truth?”

“Unlike the Master, I am happy to show you.” He was leaning towards Olfrid now, his voice small and secretive. “I only need you to help me first.”

Olfrid thought for a long time. He sniffed the air, looked back at the greenery, and waited for a breeze to hit his face. Any sign. In those moments, he gave the Master one more chance. If he is bad, tell me. I’ll believe you. When no answer came, he walked forward, lengthened his neck, and spoke:

“What do you want me to do for you?”

“I am afraid for the man and woman who live here. You can help free them. You

can go where I cannot,” he whispered.

“How can we free them?” Olfrid asked, matching the stranger’s voice.

“I remember when your home was created. The Master warned his children of a place they should never go. Do you know this place?”

“The tree,” Olfrid pointed at the garden, stretching his arm as far as it would go to suggest a long distance. “The one in the center of the garden.”

The Master often sang images of that tree into his creations’ heads. With it came woeful melodies and dark colors. Thoris had nearly chosen it as his home, but its trunk could not be climbed. Though its bark appeared coarse and covered in knots, to an animal it felt as slippery as the slime-covered stones in the water.

“That’s it. I’m sure he never told you why it was forbidden,” said the stranger.

“He only said it would harm us.”

“Why would he put something harmful in your home?” Another question to turn Olfrid’s stomach and make his feet feel restless.

“I never thought about it.” How many times had he said or thought those words recently?

“Think about it now,” the stranger pressed. “Think hard.” Now he was inches away from the serpent’s face. Without realizing, Olfrid had inched closer and closer to the garden’s boundaries. One claw had crossed that line and rested on the stone.

“I don’t know. I can’t. I just… I don’t feel well,” Olfrid said, his head swimming. Suddenly hot and thirsty, he gasped and drew back on his hind legs. The one traitorous claw backed away. The heat of the outside land left him feverish after barely one touch.

“Stay with me!” He reached out to Olfrid. The impatience in his voice might have betrayed the gentleness in his eyes of the serpent hadn’t felt so ill. “Stay strong. I have felt what you are feeling. It will pass.”

“My chest,” Olfrid gasped, a tear rolling down his scales. “Something is squeezing inside me.”

“Yes. It hurts,” the stranger purred, inching closer.

“Why does it hurt?” His legs bent and twisted from the pain. He curled up, his tail close to his snout. He closed his eyes tightly. Does the hurt come in through the eyes? The discomfort of hunger could not compare; it would have felt like a shallow splinter now. Tell me the truth and I’ll listen,” Olfrid begged. Tell me to run and I’ll run. I’ll never return to this place. The stranger watched the serpent’s eyes searching past the clouds, past the sky, past infinity.

“You’re dying,” said the stranger. His words were like a lullaby now.

“What is dying?” The word tasted like that other word. Slavery. Olfrid wanted to rub his tongue in the dirt after speaking it.

“Dying… is what’s inside of the fruit,” he said, stroking Olfrid’s back. The stranger’s hands looked smooth like the man’s but felt like the old bark of Thoris’ tree in the evening, and cold as the morning stream. “You were able to bring yourself to this moment without the magic of the fruit. Few can. Dying is good. It is the end of powerlessness. Your body and soul stops, and then you awaken a king. Like me.”

“I don’t like it,” Olfrid squirmed at the stranger’s touch. He pulled away.  “I don’t like it!”

“Take my hand. Now I will tell you. The Master thought for a long time about it—about whether his creatures should have his powers. It was fear that stopped him. If he shared his power, he would no longer be needed. Do you see? Do you see what your Master is now?” The stranger stretched out his hands towards the serpent.

“I don’t like this,” Olfrid repeated, breathing more heavily. “I don’t want this!”

Olfrid had known the stranger for only a few days. In the garden, that was enough time to love someone. This creature was more confusing. He seemed to know when Olfrid felt fearful or uncertain. Was that not like the Master? Didn’t he also know the minds of his creations? But what good was that knowledge if he ignored Olfrid’s pleas? Would the Master ever answer his children’s call? Would more of the Master’s children wake up wondering why they had never wondered before? Or would he be lonely in the garden forever, yawning through conversations of fruit and weather?

What happened next shocked the serpent, because it was so unlike his new companion. The stranger took Olfrid in his arms and cradled him. He suddenly felt as warm as the Master’s song. The roughness of his skin disappeared, or at least it no longer mattered. This was the answer Olfrid had craved. Every caress was an answer to his call for love, for attention, for acknowledgment. I am a living being. I have begun to wonder. Show me that you hear me. Show me that you understand. Answer me. In one motion, the dying creature’s doubt washed away.

“I am with you,” whispered the stranger. “Let the death come. It will soon be over. Then you and I will save the world from slavery.”

“Slavery.” The word made him die faster. “Death… will save me from slavery?”

Now a sweet taste filled his mouth.

“It is the only solution.” Gently spoken, simple answers. Olfrid accepted them hungrily. He relaxed his body and nestled in the soft robes of his master.

Olfrid felt a final spasm in his chest. It spread to his limbs, tail, and head. He felt something like spiders crawling around in his skull. A song rose up from his heart, a terrible song made of shattering and screeching. The noises scraped at his ears and eyelids. Flashes of coherence exploded amid the madness. Words. Lost. Death. Never. Betrayed. Soon, the noise and pain retreated like a wave, and Olfrid opened his newborn eyes.

The garden was as red as his new master’s back. He looked out to the lifeless world and saw a halo beyond the hills that had once been invisible. For a moment Olfrid was sure he could hear music. Different music. Vibrant, straightforward music with rhythm and words. He turned back to the redness and saw Thoris’ head poking out of a bush, but his neighbor looked different. There was a vibrating silver chain around his neck that had never been there–or that he had never noticed.

“What is that thing he wears, master?” Olfrid asked.

“What you see is a shackled beast,” the stranger hissed. Shall we free him as well?” The stranger’s voice sent Thoris running.

“This is slavery? This is what I did not see?”

“This is it, my friend,” he said, petting Olfrid’s head. “You finally see. You will free the man and woman, and then we will claim our kingdom. Go. Go into the garden while you still can.”

Olfrid hopped out of the stranger’s arms and into the tall grass. The ground felt hot, and a dusty wind pushed him in the direction of the dry world. Still, he was able to struggle against the unseen current. Thoris found him bounding out of the brush moments later and spoke to him frantically.

“Olfrid!  Olfrid! What did he say? What did he do? What’s the matter with your eyes?”

“My eyes? My eyes and everything else are new. I have been reborn by dying.”

“Re–” Thoris did not know the word. There is only birth. How could anyone be born again? Like my tree?… best not to think about it. “You look the same except… there is something missing when I look at you. I can’t find… something.” Thoris struggled as Olfrid once had, and Olfrid felt pity. “Please. Tell me exactly what he told you.”

“I cannot explain to a beast who has never wondered,” said the newly awakened Olfrid.

The reborn serpent looked into the face of his old friend and saw a stupid animal. Thoris’ words were like the single-minded babble of a stream running towards the open water. The shackle around his old friend’s neck made him want to cry, but then pity turned into disgust.  How could anyone be this blind? How had he ever lived like that? He pushed past the beast and ran towards the center of the garden.

__

The time had come. Something like a breeze was pushing all of the creatures out of the garden and into the barren world of punishment. Thoris marched along in rhythm with another serpent beside him, a female. They usually said good morning to one another, but today, he could not find that word. And anyway, her eyes were completely blackened. She is still a good female, he thought. I should find her whenever we settle. I will take her as my mate. Before he could move closer, another, larger serpent came from behind and nudged her forward. For a moment, his anger flared, and the word kill rose up in him.

“I am here. I’m still here. Forgive me,” Thoris said to the sky as he shook the thoughts away. “Forgive me.” He moved obediently with the current with his eyes on the ground. After days of uncertainty, the Master’s wishes were finally being set into motion. Birds flew toward the gray horizon. Trails of insects filed out onto the sand. The wails of the man and woman rang out as their bare feet touched the hot ground. Thoris could have fought the wind that pushed him away. It was more of a whisper than a shout, but he felt he should display obedience. Perhaps there was a chance for forgiveness. And if not…   A thought came to him.

“Master, just one more night in my beloved tree. Please.”

The wind pressed on a moment longer, then it stopped, and then it changed direction.

He bowed his head and crept home, plucking a berry here and there. They were bitter and made him feel sick. He could not get to sleep until he vomited them up again.

Other creatures were with him in the night. A wolf paced beneath him as the sun rolled away. It hoped that he would fall from his branch. Thoris had never been hunted before, but somehow he recognized the look of a hunter immediately.  I am like you, he wanted to say to the wolf. We hunt. We kill. The part of himself that was disappearing fought back. He listened for the music, for a voice, for the any pleasing residue that could sustain his mind.  There was no music, only the rustling of sleepless living things.

When the wolf gave up and prowled away, there came the serpent and a female. They had also decided to sleep in the garden. His female. He had not taken her as a mate, but she knew. She knew that she was his.  She knew and he knew, and she is using him to anger you. Show her you are strong enough for this new life.

Thoris woke up with the lifeless body of his rival under his foot. A red river cut its path in the dirt. His female had fled. He licked his lips and felt a quick pain. Slowly and carefully, he ran his tongue around the inside of his mouth and felt something small and sharp. He poked around with his finger, felt a sting, and then curled up his little body.

I cannot stop this? Your desire is for me to kill?  Master, I’ll venture to any corner of the world if you’ll save me from these desires. Master, can you hear me?

The mist thickened. He couldn’t breathe without coughing. While words were still with him, he thought of all the ways he could make amends. When an idea came to him, it immediately dissolved into nonsense.

In the morning, Thoris couldn’t wait to open his eyes and watch his tree come to life. He stared at the shriveled leaves and black bark. The sun kept rising, a handful of leftover birds chirped, but the tree would not awaken. In fact, as the sun climbed, the branches bowed even lower. Leaves turned to dust when touched by the wind. The wind. Thoris could not recognize the word, but he could feel it on his back, pointing him towards his new home. His new home filled with hunters, blood, and no words.

Olfrid and Thoris crossed paths many times after the garden’s end, though they didn’t always know. Most days, they reared back and struck at one another with their dripping fangs filled with a death less potent than the stranger’s. On rare days, Thoris could remember flashes of the old times, and he wished he could not. On these mornings, he could only remember his and Olfrid’s last meeting as thinking, speaking creatures:

__

“Where is your friend now?” Thoris asked as he stumbled toward his neighbor.

He was still adjusting to his new body.  Olfrid said nothing.  “Where are your songs as sweet as the Master’s? Where are your all-seeing eyes?” he demanded.

Thoris trembled at the dead, black marbles inside the slowly emptying head of his old friend. Olfrid slinked away, fixated on something else. He coiled up and watched a nearby mouse who sat bobbing upon a stone, as if thinking of a song.  “Olfrid, don’t—” But before he could finish the plea, Olfrid had stricken and swallowed it. Then, with a flicker of his fiery tongue, he slithered away.

 

 

 

 

BIO

Leslie Boudreaux Tidwell is a native of Lafayette, LA and lives there with her husband, Jake. When she is not teaching third graders or performing in one of her improv troupes, Leslie spends her private time writing and submitting short stories. In the 2019 NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge, she was awarded Honorable Mention for her crime caper, “Jane the Brain.” In her classroom, Leslie prioritizes writing instruction and aims to mold a new generation of authors who are excited to share their work with the world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

 

Hung from a Mitzvah Cross

by Mark Tulin

 

April 6, 1968, was the day they tried to make me into a man.  I remember the menagerie of Jewish images that filled the synagogue that morning:  The Star of David shining through a big circular window on the ceiling, a man with curly sidelocks blowing the shofar, the Torah’s ancient scroll being unfurled by a young boy in a suit, worshipers rocking back and forth in prayer, and a white horse flying through the sky engraved in Hebrew lettering.

Despite this surreal moment, the day was not pleasurable. I wasn’t prepared to become a man.  I just wanted to be a goofy kid in short pants, a T-shirt, and Hi-Top PF Flyers.

I didn’t understand the custom nor liked the fact that I would have to get up in front of a room full of people and read an ancient language.

The barrel-chested rabbi with his thick black book called me to the podium.     “Marvin Hopper,” he said. “The only son of Mr. and Mrs. Hopper, please come forth.”

Maybe I should have practiced my Hebrew more. The tutor, Mr. Hershey, came over Grandma Edna’s house every Tuesday night, six-sharp. I spent an agonizing hour with a man I’d rather not know. While learning about my Jewish heritage was interesting, trying to pronounce Hebrew words was not.  I’d much rather be outside with my friends, swinging a baseball bat than being cooped up in the living room with a man who smelled of garlic.

I blamed the whole bar mitzvah debacle on Grandma Edna.  She wanted me to become a man in the worst way. She kept telling me that this is what Jewish people have done for centuries, and I was not going to “screw up” such a beautiful tradition.

Mr. Hershey, with his duct-taped bifocals and sparse hair, stood over me during our Hebrew lessons. He wore a white sleeveless shirt, revealing his ape-like arms. The bushy arm hair traveled all the way from his neck to the middle of his fingers.  All I could think about was how hairy his arms were and not the Hebrew lesson I was supposed to be doing.

Grandma was in the kitchen boiling eggs and chopping onions for tuna fish salad. The grinding sound of the electric can opener signaled to me that she was prying open a can of Star-Kist White Albacore.

Although I was grateful for Mr. Hershey’s help, I was hungry for a tuna fish sandwich on toast with a slice of tomato.

“Chhhah,” Mr. Hershey said, making a guttural sound with his mouth wide open.  “Like Challah.”

“Chhalah,” I said.

“Now close the back of your throat as if you were going to cough up some phlegm.”

“Chhalah,” I said more forcefully.

“Good boy,” he smiled and handed me a tissue to wipe the phlegm from my lips.

Eventually, I was able to say, Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha ‘olam without too much struggle.

I repeated the words over and over, hoping that some noble truth would click. I’d go to sleep reciting these words and dreaming about them as if they were people.

The longer I sat with Mr. Hershey, the more he perspired a garlicky odor.  It wasn’t the worst smell I ever encountered, but bad enough. I kept watching the cuckoo clock on top of the television console, hoping that the mechanical bird would pop out to notify me that I could unloosen my hands from the mitzvah cross and run for freedom.

On the day of the big event, I sat near the podium, scanning the crowd, watching my aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends nervously crumple the napkins with my name printed on it.  They waited in quiet anticipation for me to give them something to cheer about.  I hoped that they would be forgiving when I embarrassed myself.  My leather tefillin, silk prayer shawl, and plush yarmulke could not hide the fact that I was a bar mitzvah boy fraud and had no idea what I was doing.

An old man wearing a black trench coat with a long, flowing beard caught my eye at the buffet table. He stuffed his deep coat pockets with prune hamantasch, rye bread, and assorted meats.  He took a bottle of Manischewitz Concord and promptly put that into his pocket as well. I wrote him off as nothing more than an employee of the synagogue who was just doing his job.

The rabbi spoke a few words to open the service.  I secretly prayed that he’d forget that I was to his left and proceed with a regular Shabbat service without me.  But then he mentioned my name and the bar mitzvah in the same sentence, and I knew that I was doomed.

Once at the podium, I looked out into the crowd of staring faces and froze.

Seeing my wide-eyed stupor, the rabbi sneaked behind me and whispered, “Read these three lines in Hebrew. I’ll take over from there.”

I took a gulp of air, and this time I was all right.

I uttered the three lines of Hebrew, not worrying if I pronounced them correctly.  Most of my family members didn’t know a lick of Hebrew, so they wouldn’t know the difference between a good reading and a bad one.

When I finished my three lines, the crowd applauded like I just gave the Gettysburg Address.

The rabbi led a song in Hebrew, and everyone in the place was bobbing back and forth in their seats trying to repeat the words.

After the ceremony, my father stepped to the podium in his Florsheim boots and polyester suit and gave me and a giant hug.

“My little bar mitzvah boy,” he said, and gave my neck a squeeze for good measure.

Rich Uncle Sy didn’t say a word as he handed me a white envelope. He just winked.

My cousins, Hermie and Jacob, congratulated me with awkward handshakes, then nudged by Aunt Joanie to hand me their envelopes.

Grandma Edna, with her head full of hairspray, planted a sloppy kiss on my cheek while she stuck a lime-green envelope in my hand.

My alcoholic, Uncle Leo, was sleeping in the back of the synagogue with one hand in his pants and the other holding a card with a check inside.

My mother snatched all the envelopes out of my hand and put them in an old cigar box that she saved from elementary school.

As the rest of the family and friends congratulated me, I felt like I had truly accomplished something, even though it was only three lines of Hebrew.  For the next hour, we ate sandwiches, potato salad, and drank Pepsi. Uncle Dave from Shamokin played the accordion, and his son Louis played the snare drum. I was happy that everyone was having fun even though I didn’t like Polka music. In another few hours, I could remove my suit and tie and act like none of this ever happened.

“Where’s the box?!”  Where’s the box?!” my mother screamed, breaking up the festivity.

“I put all the envelopes in the cigar box—now it’s gone!” she cried.

“Where did you have it last?” my father asked.

“Right here, on the chair for Christ sakes!”

“Please, honey, you can’t say Christ in a synagogue. Are you sure you didn’t leave it in the lady’s room?”

“No, it was right on this chair—now it’s gone!”

My mother was very organized, especially when it came to money.  She would never misplace something so important.

The rabbi went to console my mother, who, by now, had worked herself into a full-blown panic attack.

I stood near the podium, looking at everyone in their suits and fancy dresses searching for the cigar box. Rays of light shone down from the big circular Star of David in the ceiling window. The mosaic of the white horse on the wall seemed to glimmer from the sun. Then I remembered the old man with the long, flowing beard.

“Rabbi!” I said, tugging the back of his sport jacket.  “There was a strange old man with a long white beard who hung around the buffet table, shoveling food and wine into his coat pockets.”

“Old man?”

“Yes, he wore a long black overcoat, a big dark hat covering his eyes, and had a white beard that came to his chest.  I thought he worked for the synagogue.”

The rabbi scratched his neatly-cropped goatee, trying to think who I was talking about.

“I don’t know anyone by that description, Marvin.  He certainly didn’t work here.”

After thirty-minutes or so everyone calmed down.  My family figured out that most of the money was in the form of a check.  And all they had to do was cancel the checks and write me out new ones.

Uncle Leo finally woke up and took his hand out of his pants.  “What’s all the commotion?” he asked.

Everyone laughed because they knew that my Uncle Leo was a hopeless drunk and out of the loop. The rabbi motioned people to get back to their seats because he wanted to make an announcement.

“I’m so sorry that this happened.  The thief will be reported, I can assure you.  Let us not concern ourselves with him any longer.  What has happened on the podium today far outweighs what one individual might have done to dampen our celebration.  There’s a young man to my left who needs all of our love and support as he continues his journey into adulthood.  It is all our jobs to see that he becomes a moral and responsible person in society—to harness his intellect, emotions, and actions in the service of God.  It is he that is our priority. Today he took the first step.”

“Such a young man!”  “So handsome and mature!”  I heard people shout out.

Everyone was so proud of me, but the only thing I thought about was that in another few hours I could take off my Glenn plaid bar mitzvah suit and cordovan wing-tips and go back to being a regular kid.

 

 

BIO

Mark Tulin is a former family therapist who lives in Santa Barbara, California. He has a poetry chapbook, Magical Yogis, published by Prolific Press (2017), and he has an upcoming book of short stories entitled, The Asthmatic Kid and Other Stories. His stories and poetry have appeared in Fiction on the Web, smokebox, Friday Flash Fiction, Amethyst Magazine, Leaves of Ink, Vita Brevis, among others. His website is Crow On The Wire <http://www.crowonthewire.com/ >

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

A Semblance

by Mateusz Tobola

 

 

Prologue

She was a creature of instinct, a being of distilled focus and unbridled appetite. She was determination personified, and she was a seething storm of desire. She was many conflicting things, but above all, she was whole.

Perched atop a low-hanging spruce twig – her favourite spot, she waited, seemingly idly. Hours went by, and with them came an unrelenting downpour, before she finally took notice of something worthy of her attention. Or perhaps it was just the hunger and weather that finally got to her. In the grand scheme of this particular late-autumn day, the trigger didn’t really matter.

Her body twitched, ever so slightly, as her focus eagerly shifted from the dead surroundings of her realm to the lone, chaotic movement in the air. The traveler was clearly weary, and looking for shelter, but in her mind – the prey was marked, and blissfully unaware of her presence. She enjoyed that part. The moth circled around the branches of an adjacent pine, frantically dodging the last of the subsiding rain, before it finally settled down against the mossy side of the trunk in exhaustion, a faint glow of fluorescent mushroom below. There, it would safely rest before further journey.

Plenty of that would be granted, soon.

It was a short trek, and one she was anxious to take. She retracted along the shaky sprig, and swiftly disappeared into the thick of needles, faint rustle of leaves the only proof of her existence as she made her way down her outpost. The wet mulch between the trees did little to hinder her silent approach, and before long she was scaling the opposite side of the pine. The climb up was a test of patience. She could easily discern the moth’s seductive movements coming from the other side.

Amateurish. Careless. Sweet.

She quickly reached well above her mark and coiled along a thick, curvy branch. There was little tactical advantage to be gained, she was well aware, but she was still a slave to her whim – and watch she must. The moth had spread itself flat against the tree and continued to remain stubbornly oblivious. Its dusty, scale wings were in full display, naked, and she could not help but admire them, if only for a bit. It was a tapestry of shape and dim colours, a flowing image she could not hope to imitate, only enhanced by the ever-present moisture in the air. Before she would take the moth’s life – the spider tilted its head rapaciously to the side – yes, she would take it all in, too.

She followed further up, around the trunk, and directly above her inattentive guest, before she even started closing in. Each step she took from this point on was graceful and calculated. She was soon barely inches away, blending into the moist bark just above her meal with astounding ease, when she suddenly broke her advance. The moth was well within reach, yet she remained motionless, each limb perfectly still – a fleshy extension of the unswerving focus she bestowed upon her target. In that moment alone, the moth was special. And from that moment on, it was all part of a dance. What she really yearned for, however, was a participating partner.

She tapped her heel just once against the damp of the bark, and bared her fangs raw in budding anticipation – a smile, really. It didn’t take long for her unwitting partner to take the cue, and the grisly festivities to commence. The moth finally realized the peril it was in, but it was a realization hatched far too late. Within half a flick of its wings as it desperately tried to break free, the moth was no more, cuddled oh-so lovingly in the spider’s embrace.

Day 1

A sweet, sickly scent brought her out of a long, cold slumber. An unfamiliar element had taken root in her domain during her absence and now shamelessly teased her senses. She was well sated and comfortable, curled up deep in the safety of her nest, but a familiar blend of anger and curiosity washed over her. She started for the surface.

She cleared the entrance to her mound of the remnants of season past, and confidently peered out, as she did countless times before. In an instant, a barrage of threatening sounds assaulted her. And what followed shortly was a shattering earthquake, one her fragile frame could barely handle. Somewhere in the distance, a tree fell under heavy onslaught of steel and muscle.

Her poise broken, she took a step back. But her curious nature would not be easily swayed. She emerged again, with unprecedented caution this time, and took a quick survey of her surroundings. No immediate threat was spotted, and she quickly realized she needed to get higher. The neighbouring pine served the purpose well, and high up the tree, she understood – her realm had changed. The sea of foliage she remembered so vividly was unmistakably thinner, and the towering, almighty trees, far fewer in number. There was a growing commotion coming in from a glade not far up ahead, filled with growls of hungry steel and animated by a stir of rising voices.

Her mind was racing.

She dropped to the ground and darted across the slowly waking plains, quickly closing in to the edge of the clearing. A small rock formation provided a temporary shelter, but for the first time in her adult life she found herself hesitant to advance. She pushed through the uncomfortable sensation with mounting disregard, and forced herself atop a flat slab of stone overlooking the site. What she saw gave her a pause.

The camp was bustling with life. Gargantuan figures going on about their business, yelling and pointing at each other as they carved the glade a bit wider with each command. Their loud tools did not know rest, it seemed, and the recognizable sickly-sweet scent of labour filled the air. There was a purpose to all of that, she quickly picked up, and the seeming disarray of movement and noise hid something far more sinister under the surface – a working structure. Chunks of the forest were ripped from their rightful places, dismantled on the spot with startling efficiency, and their carcasses hastily dragged in pieces back into the heart of the camp, only to be thrown next to a similar pile. Then, the process would repeat until another area was cleared. The more she observed, the more evident it became – her kingdom had a new master. And she watched for hours.

As the sun started setting down, a sharp, piercing sound cut the air – a herald of a day coming to a close. One by one, the woodsmen abandoned their posts for a promise of rest. And as she watched the titans retire for the night, and their tools grow silent, her calm renewed, as did her desire to return home.

Day 4

The earth trembled a bit more today. Like greedy fingers, the vibrations reached deep into the ground, and shook the foundations of her lair. But she was already awake. Ever since she had scouted the glade, rest eluded her, and thoughts of relocation intensified. The past few days saw the felling advance in all directions from the clearing. The tremors became more frequent, and the hours at which they occured bolder, stretching well into late night now. She had her extremities pressed tightly against the soft soil of one of the tunnels leading to the surface, and dared to miss nothing from above. Least of all the slowly growing, unnerving hum at ground level she just picked up.

Perhaps she should as the next thundering wave came in with a force unmatched. The tunnel contorted and the earth above her gave way to an avalanche of soil and gravel. Panic struck her as the weight of the world came crashing down upon her. Half-buried, she gasped for air.

Nature gave up another inch today. The spruce tree she liked to frequent – the one she was so strangely fond of, has just been unceremoniously ripped from where it belonged, its deeply seated foundations tearing deep at the ground in a hollow scream of protest. She knew, there was no going back.

She worked hard to get herself loose, her free limbs clawing with abandon at the ground, and finally, after what seemed like hours of debilitating labour, she managed to build enough leverage to pull herself out from under the rubble. Still dazed, she dashed deeper into the labyrinth, bouncing off the walls until she regained full composure. She went straight for the pantry. It was an expansive chamber, advisedly hidden deep, and by far the largest in her nest, built that way only to match the host’s appetite. High up the uneven ceiling, strung tightly side by side, wisely preserved, hung the sweets. Her mind was made up, and she would need all the energy for the journey ahead.

Day 5

She spent the waking hours of the next day relentlessly digging an exit. And when she finally emerged among moss and flowers, the surface greeted her with eerie silence. She picked up a wing flutter not far up, a bluebird spring-nesting, no doubt, but nothing else of substance made its way into the crosshairs of her acute senses. Confusion quickly settled in, and with it – as it happens, curiosity forced its ugly head into the conscious, taking over the steering wheel almost immediately. The camp was not that far away, after all, she started to muse, and she did not plan on coming back.

The journey to the glade was a brisk one, almost automatic, marked only by a passing realization of just how much thinner the usually lush, surrounding area had become in the recent days. On the spot, she found herself met with stillness. A carcass of the once thriving centre of giants’ activity stretched far wider now than she had anticipated. The stone slab she had visited previously was no longer at the edge of the clearing. Now, it was sitting uncomfortably close to two sets of brown-stained tents, serving quietly and with humility as a base for someone’s neglected fireplace. Mountains of logs, piled up as high as she could see in the glow of the rising sun, were spread strategically in between the lodgings – a lingering proof of atrocities past. But other than that, the place felt dead. Or just on the verge of dying, because right about that moment she spotted him.

A giant silhouette, appearing and disappearing between the shabby dwellings – a single man was walking around the corpse of the camp, whistling, undisturbed, as if he owned the place. He made his own pace, a twig playfully dancing in his right hand, and was soon reaching dangerously close to her position. This would not do, the thought crossed her mind with a lightning speed – barely split-second before she scurried between the safety of the tall grass around her. And from within the safety of the only allies she had left in this strange place, she continued to observe.

The giant sat down near the fireplace, and with the stick still firmly in his hand, he started poking at the fading embers. He let out a loud yawn as he did that, arching his back against the side of the tent behind him, and stretched his legs along the revived hearth. He seemed restless. His eyes wandered all around, undoubtedly looking for a cure for his boredom, before finally setting down, in defeat, on the freshly resuscitated flame once again, and then a bit higher up – upon a steaming, metal container atop the makeshift stove. He was clearly waiting for something. And as the sluggish passage of time could not be defied, he apathetically began to run the tip of his stick in the ground where he was sitting. The dirt under the titan’s feet must have proven a suitable canvas for someone of his talent, because before long he managed a satisfied nod, and a grin appeared on his round face as he inspected his handiwork. And what a marvel of art it must have been that it had distracted him enough not to notice the edge of his pants catch a stray spark from the hearth.

The fire took eagerly to the linen, like an overzealous lover, consuming as much as it was allowed to before it would be inevitably put out. With time, the spreading heat became too much to ignore, and the man finally became aware that a part of him was in fact on fire. She never heard a pitch that high. He jumped up in the air and started beating furiously at one of his legs, desperately trying to keep the hungry element at bay. And as he did that, the sizzling stove had the audacity to get in the way. A blur of motion and noise followed his fall.

First, a hollow thud of the massive body hitting the ground, joined shortly after by a clang of the stove falling over, and then another shrill scream as the boiling contents of the metal container emptied itself all over the man’s already panic-struck face. During all of this, to his credit, he never stopped wrestling with the burning piece of clothing. He finally rolled to the side and got the last of it off himself. He threw it away, with all his might, over his head. Right atop the tent behind him. She never imagined flames could shoot up this high.

Fascinated, she followed him all day.

Day 11

Watching the man had become a habit by now. He was a kind, if not a bit daft, creature. The empty camp already bore several scars from his shenanigans, the most recent one – a crushed storage shed, the result of an ambitious attempt to single handedly re-organize one of the largest log piles on the site. He almost died that day. To her surprize, she was even beginning to grow fond of the sketches he left all around the place. He draw in ground and carved in wood whenever tedium and inspiration happened to struck simultaneously. She understood none of the etchings, of course, but some of them did begin to feel familiar somehow. Mostly, though, she was attracted to the process behind it. If she learnt anything from her time spent shadowing the man, it was that his sort and too much free time didn’t mix well.

When the trips back and forth between her lair and the abandoned glade had become too much of a hassle, she dug up a temporary nest much closer to the vicinity of the camp. The past few days quickly blended all her actions into a singular focus – observation, and little else. She barely hunted, and she did not take to repairing the damage done to her nest at all. The man provided a degree of entertainment, true, but there were increasingly frequent moments when she found herself wishing she could approach him in a more direct way. For whatever reason, she knew not.

On that particular day, she hardly realized it was close to midnight before she decided to head back. The deep of the night caught her out in the open again, perched atop a tent and watching her subject under a full moon for the first time. She could not help it. He was fast asleep, and his resting, emotionless face finally started making sense to her in the glow of the withering flame he was cuddled by. His body turned, unexpectedly, and she saw burns running the length of his arm, a distant memory of a fire. And then, a sliver of something shiny on his wrist caught her attention before she could even begin to resist, instantly mesmerizing all eight of her usually vigilant eyes. It called out to her, with an undescribed intensity – begging her to draw just a step closer. Just. One. More. Step.

She slipped.

The fall was short and far from fatal, but still embarrassing. She rolled down the texture of the tent, much like a clueless child down a slide, and the momentum threw her between two soft layers of fabric, right atop the chest of the resting man. She froze immediately, but he did not wake up.

She was equally terrified and excited. They were never this close. From where she was sitting, she could feel an enormous power pumping life into the body under her. Up and down his chest went, not skipping a single beat. Suddenly, she felt like a sailor, in a scrappy, little boat, lost in uncharted waters, just barely hanging on against the raging storm under her. She clung tightly to a button on his shirt, with a desperate hope of getting used to the unyielding rhythm. Soon enough, she managed to find her balance. Encouraged, she crept in closer towards his face, a shy length of a button at first, and after a brief, hesitant pause, up the length of another one, nearer still. And she was getting ready to close the distance even more, until she sensed it.

There was an unseen presence lurking just outside the edge of the light’s reach. A low, hungry growl soon confirmed what she already knew – a different breed of predator was nearby. Not long after, a pair of mercury-liquid, silver discs came slowly into existence against the pitch-black background of the camp. Her body tensed immediately, and she promptly began backing up. She was ready to run, too, but in that decisive instant, she felt the warmth of the man’s breath brushing off against her body. Without thinking, she addressed her initial instincts with an aggressive jump instead, landing flat on the man’s face. The giant woke up instantly, and just before she was surprisingly gently slapped aside, she did find a peculiar comfort in the fact that she probably bought him a precious few seconds to react.

She was right. The man noticed the encroaching danger just in time. He jumped in front of the fireplace and kicked hard at the pool of embers. Neglected for far too long, the flames replied with indifference, sizzling out in the air way too fast to serve as an efficient deterrent against the feral cat. The cougar responded in kind with a vicious snarl and lashed out, barely missing its mark as it gracefully landed on the other side of the fire. The man ducked to the right and almost lost his balance in the process, the bottom part of him still half-asleep. A brief pause followed, with the two adversaries circling slowly around the flicking hearth, their eyes locked in an uninterruptible exchange.

During all of that, she managed to put a healthy distance between herself and the two combatants. She found a shelter under a thick layer of canvas, right at the entrance to one of the tents. She could not take part in this struggle, that much was obvious, but if there was a way to tip the scales even a bit, she thought. Backing up deeper into the safety, she stumbled upon the answer. Inside the tent, half-covered under a stained pillow, lay a tool she saw the man use repeatedly before with brutal efficiency. If only he could have access to it now. She mustered all her strength and pushed against the heavy object. It budged.

Outside, the encounter was beginning to reach a boiling point. Somehow, the man managed to get a hold of a thick branch and put the tip of it on fire, but the hungry animal was having none of it. If anything, its attacks grew more vicious by the minute, and it quickly became clear that its patience, as well as its fear of fire, were growing thin. At this point, even armed, the man was barely capable of holding his own. He was clutching at his burned arm all this time, a thick streak of red running fast down his elbow and onto the ground. There was precious little time left before the curtain call of this grisly play, and both participants seemed well aware of that. The stage was thirsty, and demanding more.

Soon, the loss of blood started to overwhelm his conscious, and dizziness began washing over the edge of his mind with ruthless ferocity. His vision blurred, and his perception became a slideshow of the events taking place before him. He registered a fall, then, a slowly rising growl started ringing in his ears as he struggled to command his senses back into order. He also felt an immense weight bearing down on his chest with tremendous force, but, surprisingly, it was the sharp, piercing sensation at the tip of his index finger that dared to demand the most of his attention. The supporting actor in this drama had finally entered the stage.

When the man collapsed, she knew it was the moment to act. And she did make sure she was noticed. She made a dash towards him and bit hard into the flesh of his hand, plunging her seasoned fangs deep into the soft tissue of one of his fingers, almost reaching bone. When he turned to her, she run, just slow enough to make sure his wobbly vision could follow the path she took, right towards the tool she had worked so laboriously to recover. He spotted it – a gentle flicker in the grass just outside the tent, and a faint spark crossed his eyes. Using what little remained of his strength, he desperately reached out, his hand shaking as he did, and greedily grabbed at the blade of the hunting knife. He let out a powerful howl, and even though the strength behind the scream quickly died, turning it into a pitiful yelp mid-breath, he still managed to execute the swing, driving the razor sharp head of the tool deep into the beast’s eye socket. The cougar howled and winced, his paws dancing on the man’s chest as if he were a plush toy, and soon enough its massive, muscled frame dropped to the ground, lifeless.

The man was breathing hard, weaving in a heavy wheeze every now and then. He was safe, finally, and all he needed was a little bit of rest.

Day 12

She did not sleep at all that night. She found a spot up a tree, near the edge of the camp, from where she could watch over the man as he rested through the night and well into the next morning. As the dawn was setting in, she decided to make her presence known. She dropped from the branch she was sitting on, slowly spinning down her thread with growing anticipation of their second encounter – lower and lower, until she finally reached the cool of the ground. She approached the man openly this time, wading through a pool of sticky, scarlet liquid before she gracefully climbed atop of him. He didn’t even notice. Why should he, she was little more than a breeze, and all his senses were occupied fighting off his condition. His breath came in labouring gasps, each next one audibly more shallow than the one preceding it, until all that was left of it was an unsteady rhythm of a drying up puddle. Perched atop his chest, she felt it all, and how wildly different it seemed to her from the ferocious ocean she fought against once before.

He was still drawing breath, but barely. His eyes were bulging out, unfocused, lips parched, smacking at some illusionary salve, and his hands, no longer at his sides, spread wide, hungrily grabbing at the blades of grass around him. She knew he was ready, and she was there to witness it. A life was coming to its fragile conclusion, but to her surprise, this time, she was not involved, merely an intimate observer.

She gently tapped at his cheek once. Then, she did it again. And when no response followed, the spider tilted its head curiously to the side and paused. A movement in the air has caught its attention.

 

 

BIO

Mateusz found out very early on that there’s a boundless amount of ideas floating just above his head at any given moment. The tricky part was always to pluck one at the right time and gift it with a form it truly deserved. Mateusz works in creative fields as a designer out of Central Europe, and revisits the writing outlet whenever he gets restless.

 

 

 

 

 

0

Gray Yogurt

by Cecilia Kennedy

 

 

The lotus flower on my laptop will devour me.  Its creator chose the most desirable qualities, magnified them ten times, and set the whole thing afloat, drifting through an eerily dark void on my screen.  The petals reach for my chin. I take the bait, click the mouse, and check my status:  unread, pending . . .

People once crossed networks of roads and took sidewalks lined with green grass and tulips to enter office buildings and drop off resumes on creamy, weighted paper. If they were lucky—and sometimes they were—they might meet the CEO and get a tour, shake a hand, and leave behind a trail of perfume or cologne—a hint of an impression that lingered.  That’s how I got my first job— and the last one I held for ten years before moving and discovering that the rules have changed: “No potential candidates allowed on the premises in physical form.  Send links instead to portfolio websites. Include a bio in X amount of characters or less. Use key words.”

For practice, I invented stories of 66 words or less:  Armed with a cursed pen, Cliff writes a memoir that haunts the Internet forever; To save her life, Ann drowns in the pages of a book. She lives on; A tragedy takes Lyn’s memory, so she writes the future on fortune cookie slips; Sparks fly as a mad scientist kisses her lab rat, turning it into a zombie.  I didn’t send any of these in. Instead, I spliced them together for my own social media pages in an attempt to attract jobs as a “content writer.” My Professional Summary link now reads:  Uses cursed pens to haunt the Internet and write the future zombie apocalypse on fortune cookie slips.

I check my status and hit “refresh:” unread, pending.

Minimizing the page, I start a new search and discover the elevator pitch, which answers questions that people may want to know about me: Who am I?  What do I do? How do I do it?  What do I do it for?  Who do I do it for?  The answers don’t form readily in my head, so I drive to the grocery store and stand under the fluorescent lights for a while.  Who am I? At the moment, I’m a consumer. What do I do?  I make lists and shop for the items on the lists, but sometimes, clever displays and non-food items distract me.  How do I do it? Quickly. The lights hurt my eyes and the man who beats me to the frozen food section every Saturday strangles me with a scent that penetrates my skin. What do I do it for?  I think that’s obvious. I can throw that question out.  Who do I do it for?  Again, an obvious question, I think . . .

–My side feels as though it’s splitting. I have to double over the shopping cart, until the pain passes–

When I return home, I put the groceries away and let the lotus flower on the screen lure me in again. Closing my eyes, I imagine that the petals are stroking my chin.  I click the mouse and check my status and hit refresh three more times. Pending, pending, unread . . .

There’s my profile picture.  It makes me look like something is suddenly funny and I’m tossing my head back with laughter. I’m just so struck by some secret punch line that I have to share the joke with the viewer, who will never understand and who will perpetually ask, “What could be so funny?”   This picture, which took over five hours to take and edit, makes the hysterically laughing woman, with the creased forehead look too old.  The light perhaps makes her hair slightly gray, though it’s not.  She’d never admit to that.

I minimize the window.

One of those social media surveys pops up:  The color of the outfit I’m wearing and what I just ate is my gangster name.  I’m gray yogurt. Who am I? I’m gray yogurt.  It doesn’t sound gangster enough, so I shout it out loud and listen for the echo.  I’m convinced I’ve convinced myself I’m gray yogurt. Now, I just need to figure out what I do.  I search for ideas through job postings and decide that I could tailor my qualifications to fit those for an administrative assistant in a medical arts building, but the pain returns to my side—as if hot needles were piercing into my flesh, over and over again—stitching something up inside me—or attaching something to me, but I’m ignoring the pain— typing furiously now because the deadline is approaching and I need to create a Twitter account with a very clever handle.  When I’m finished, I realize I won’t be able to get into an elevator with the hiring team for this position because actual physical candidates are never allowed “in person.”  So, I call the number listed on the job posting and leave my elevator pitch message, shouting loudly and clearly:

I’m gray yogurt—ready to deliver stellar customer service with my hardcore humanities degree! I’m all about hardcore customer service—able to write effective, meaningful, 25-character Tweets that will rock the Westside Medical Arts Building staff and potential patients—and existing patients—with a 100% zombie prevention rate.

When I’m finished, I cry. Of course I sound ridiculous—and I just sent my resume without including the key words. The pain in my side intensifies and my sobs echo off the pale walls of my windowless apartment. The burning, knitting together of needles in my side won’t stop.  Minimizing the window on the computer screen, I watch the lotus flower open its petals wide, to eat me I suppose.  The pain grips me—rips into me—and I have to pull my chair back from my desk, so I can bend over.  I believe that if I just hold my middle together, I can soothe away the agony, but the crease in the center makes the burning sensation stronger and I notice a leak—a trickle of thick, puss and liquid, angry and red, seeping out onto my shirt.  A round, lumpy mass bulges from the gray cotton fabric, as nausea pours over me in waves of hot and cold.

On the screen, the lotus seems to pulse and bloom in steady staccato rhythms. It grows a head with teeth, yet I’m more frightened by the lump beneath my shirt.  My body twists, convulses, and expels the contents of my stomach onto the carpet.  The air is ripe. Stepping outside seems to be the only relief. So, I stand up and gather the courage I need to look at the lump that’s seeping and oozing. My trembling hand pulls away the fabric, and I take in the sight of some kind of fluid-filled sac that’s purple, blue, and riddled with veins.  It too pulses in time with the lotus on the screen and I can see the stitches.  They are thick and black, holding this thing together.

The fowl stench in the air grows unbearable, and I remember to go outside. If I can manage to get outside, I can at least overcome the impulse to retch, which only prolongs the burning.

Outside, it’s raining.  The heavy drops cool my skin. I let the rain fall on the sac that’s stitched to my side.  The fluid mixes with the water and sloughs off into the muddy soil below. The whole thing simply detaches, and I’m left with just the stitches, which I begin to pull, carefully from my skin, letting them untangle and fall onto the shapeless sac in the mud.  The driving rain forces the gel-like material and the black stitches into the ground, making them into a form that’s much larger than it ever was before—and something about it looks familiar.  The blues and reds mix together with the outline of the stitches to hold them in place, if only temporarily. I recognize the beckoning petals unfurling.  A new lotus floats on pools of water in the mud.  It occurs to me to snap a picture and post to my social media page—to capture it for likes and comments—to attach it to my Professional Summary, but I don’t. I let it dissolve, and I walk away.

 

 

 

BIO

Cecilia Kennedy earned a doctorate in Spanish literature and taught English and Spanish for 20 years in Ohio before moving to the Greater Seattle area with her husband, teenage son, and cat. In 2017, she began writing fiction for the first time. Since then, about sixteen of her short stories have appeared in eleven different literary journals/magazines online and in print.  She also has a blog called “Fixin’ Leaks and Leeks,” where she chronicles her humorous attempts at cooking and home repair. (https://fixinleaksnleeksdiy.blog/)

 

 

 

 

 

0

The Two Potters

by Norbert Kovacs

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But what if this new cup is good?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She lowered her head. “I have.”

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

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

“Work?”

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

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

“Yes.”

“You would choose to go on making them?”

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You know what I mean.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But you do it so strangely.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

BIO

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

Offing Buck

by Victoria Forester

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

“He’s in the car, Kris.”

“In the driveway?”

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

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

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

“What am I going to do?” I groan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What like a hitman?”

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

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

“You can find anything on the Internet.”

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you want this job or not?”

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

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

“Well, uh—”

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

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

“I’ll get somebody else.”

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

I start to put my wallet away.

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

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

“Fine. You got it.”

“What exactly am I getting?” I ask.

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

I sigh and hand him ten crisp one hundreds.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

BIO

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

 

 

 

 

0

Recovery

by Paul C. Rosenblatt

 

 

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

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

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

“Mr. Cohen?”

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

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

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

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

“What’s this about?”

“I would rather tell you in person.”

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

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

*  *  *  *  *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*  *  *  *  *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

BIO

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

 

 

 

0

Thick Skin, Locked Jaw, Yes Ma’am

by Rina Sclove

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

BIO

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

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

by Douglas J. Ogurek

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I know. Just like Epoxyna.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I laughed. “Yes, you are very funny.”

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

I said, “That’s not a real laugh.”

Dink Nose said, “Was your laugh real?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

Nachovember 4, 20peepee

Dear Epy and Glucy addicts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ehehkahily,

Heli Wonup, TSC SAA AVP FTDC MOP

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay,” I said. “It was no gwood.”

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

Epy stomped. “Gwood,  gwood.”

“Oh, no grood?”

Epy started screaming.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t get its blood on the carpet.”

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

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

“That explains it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I said, “What about Glucy?”

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

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

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

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

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

***

Janpoohairy 13, 21peepee

Dear Epy and Glucy addicts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Glihly and yeeffly,

Heli Wonup, TSC SAA AVP FTDC MOP

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Proof of prodigy.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That explains her dark glasses.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“More than skills.”

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

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

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

“She eats Cocoa Virtuosos.”

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

“Prodigy. My next prodigy.”

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

***

Apepillow 3, 21peepee

Dear Epy and Glucy addicts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

BIO

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

A Clean Break

by Vincent Barry

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I never meant that!” I protest.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Ah Wilderness!…Unbelievable!”

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

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

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

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

“By chance.”

“—exactly—!”

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

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

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

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

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

“‘Richard,

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

‘The particulars of funeral . . . .’”

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

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

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

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

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

Imagine!

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

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

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

“And if I did?”

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

We sit quietly for a while with Etta:
You smile

And then the spell was cast

And here we are in heaven

For you are mine—

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

BIO

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

 

 

 

 

 

0

Sore Throat

By Carolyn Geduld

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All three were guffawing loudly and staggering.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How terrified she had been of Mr. Bull.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

BIO

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

Georgey-Dear

by Tetman Callis

 

 

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

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

Not often so silenced.

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

“Hi!” he says.

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

“You showed up,” she says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Was?” says Isabel.

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

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

“Yeah,” George says, “Oh well.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Very clever,” Isabel says.

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

“Did she have the baby?” Isabel says.

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

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

“Look,” she says.

“Spring soon,” George says.

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t let my mom see that,” he says.

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

She confesses deep hatred of her father.

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

George says, “That’s too bad.”

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

George smokes on his long filtered cigarette.

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

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

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

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

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

George says nothing, knowing naught to say.

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

George lights another cigarette.

“I don’t understand,” he says.

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

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

“No, I don’t,” Isabel says,

“No, I don’t mean you.”

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

#

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

George approaches.

“Hey, Ernie,” he says.

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

“What’s up?” Ernie says.

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

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

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

Ernie smokes and he gestures at parts at his feet.

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

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

“I been around, Squidge,” Ernie says.

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

George tells. It takes another cigarette apiece.

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

“How can you tell?” says George.

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

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

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

“It’s kind of scary,” George says.

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

George says nothing and looks at the floor.

“Do you hear me?” says his mother.

“Yes ma’am,” he says.

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

George mumbles, “Yes ma’am.”

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

“Yes ma’am,” George says.

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

George says, “Yes ma’am.”

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well?” says his mom as she rocks.

“May I?” George says.

“What friend,” says his mom.

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

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

“Yes ma’am,” he says.

“They better be,” she says.

“They are,” he says.

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

“I’m not,” he says.

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

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

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

“Thank you,” says the teensy George.

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

“Why?” says Isabel.

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

“Oh, don’t quit,” says Isabel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why,” says Isabel evenly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

“You think so?” says George.

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

#

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

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

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

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

“Isabel, hi!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course!” he says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Game?” says George, “A game?”

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

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

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

#

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

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

“Squidge, hey,” he says.

They smoke, Ernie talking bikes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A Communist?” Ernie says.

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

“A Communist?” says Ernie.

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

“Maybe,” Ernie says, “She’s schizo.”

“You think so?” says George.

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

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

“Maybe,” Ernie says, “Kiss her yet?”

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

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

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

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

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

Ernie says, “Gimme a cigarette, man.”

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

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

“Gimme a light,” says Ernie.

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

“Believe it,” she says, “It’s true.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

George takes them.

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

“I’d like to be closer,” says George.

“Close enough for marriage?” says Isabel.

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

“Yes ma’am,” he says.

Hours pass. George becomes a smidgen smaller.

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

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

“Yes ma’am,” says George.

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

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

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

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

Isabel takes the notebooks.

“I love you,” George says.

“Don’t say that,” says Isabel.

George sits beside her on the car.

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

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

“Good,” she says, “Don’t tickle me.”

George pulls broken cigarettes out of the pack.

“Six,” he says, “You got six.”

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

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

“You just blew your chance,” says Isabel.

“What do you mean?” says George.

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

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

“What’s Choir Camp?” says Isabel.

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

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

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

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

“I’ll be back,” he says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t talk like that,” says Isabel.

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

“How?” says Isabel.

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

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

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

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

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

Isabel says nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

“Ernie!” George calls as he walks up.

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

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

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

“Penny?” says George.

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

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

“Believe it,” says Ernie.

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

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

George lights Ernie’s cigarette.

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

“The G.I.?” says George.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s the report,” says Ernie.

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

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

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

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

“We’ve talked about it,” George says.

“I bet you have,” says Ernie.

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

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

George says nothing.

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

“All right,” says downcast George.

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

“The Jesus Nuts?” says George.

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

#

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

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

“Oh,” says George.

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

“What is it, then,” George says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is silence.

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

“No,” says Isabel.

“Why not?” says George.

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

George lights a cigarette.

#

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

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

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

“I suppose we will,” says George.

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

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

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

“Yes, I am,” says George.

“What’s her name?” Penny says.

#

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

“Isabel,” he says, “Can we talk?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Sure,” George says without enthusiasm.

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

“Go ahead,” says George.

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

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

“No,” she says.

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

Isabel smiles.

#

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

“There’s Ernie,” George quietly says.

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

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

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

“Yes ma’am,” George says.

#

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

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

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

“You are?” says George.

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

“Concert’s tomorrow,” George says.

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

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

“And did you?” says Ernie.

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

“Could happen,” says Ernie.

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

“She does that,” Ernie says.

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

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

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

“She your major hang-up?” Ernie says.

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

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

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

“Not yet, mom!” Ernie replies.

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is that it?” says Isabel.

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

“Is that it?” says Isabel.

“Yeah,” George says, “That’s it.”

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

“Really?” says George.

“It’s real simple,” Isabel says.

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

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

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

“Oh George, stop it,” Isabel says.

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

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

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

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

“Yes, you’ve told me,” George says.

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

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

“Yes,” George says with a discernable strain of petulance in his voice, “It’s not like I’m going to try to rape you! I don’t know whether you know it or not,” he says, anger curling the edges of his words, “But I respect you a lot more than those five guys and anybody else you’ve messed around with since then did!”

Right away George knows he has said The Wrong Thing. There is a long pause.

“Isabel?” he says, his voice smaller now.

“Yes?” Isabel says.

There is another pause, not so long this time.

“I’m sorry,” he says, “I shouldn’t have said all that.”

“That’s okay,” says Isabel, her voice smaller too, “I shouldn’t talk so much about that, I’m sorry too.”

“Well, I guess I should go,” he says, “I gotta go to rehearsal.”

“Okay,” she says.

“See you at school tomorrow,” he says.

“See you at school,” says Isabel.

#

That night at the final dress rehearsal for the Green Meadow Larks before their big spring show, Penny waylays George before rehearsal begins, backstage near one of the storage rooms where when no one else is about she takes him by the arm and says, “Did you brush your teeth tonight?”

“Well of course,” he says, the very idea.

“Then come with me,” she says, the fair young “maiden” with pleasure in her e’e, taking George by his belt buckle to pull him into the storage room, “I have something I want to show you,” she says and closes the door behind them.

She shows him what she has to show him for a few minutes until they hear through the door the muffled sound of Mrs. Busoni saying, “Is everyone here? Where are George and Penny?”

When they appear from the wings a few moments later it seems to Mrs. Busoni that George has just tucked his shirt-tail in.

#

The day of the night of the big show and George has reached a decision. He waits for Isabel outside Chemistry class. She arrives almost late.

“Isabel,” he says, “I have to talk with you.”

“What is—” she says but the tardy bell rings.

In class a few minutes later she sends him a note, passed from her desk by allied or at least neutral hand to hand across the room to where he sits.

What do you want? she writes.

He writes back, I want to break up. I won’t give you all that shit about not wanting to hurt you. We’re too different for each other.

The note is relayed back to Isabel with the teacher-evading subterfuge mastered by almost all children before they hit puberty. Back and forth the notes go.

I agree with you, Isabel responds, I don’t care if you believe me or not, but I love you. Can we still be friends?

To which George replies, I think we can still be friends.

To which Isabel replies with unerring aim for the chink of guilty conscience in George’s armor, Can I keep the ring?

Yes, George writes back, You already asked and I already told you.

#

Ernie gets the Harley together at last, just in time to take it for its test spin on the way to the Green Meadow Larks Spring Choir Concert that evening in the Green Meadow High Gymnatorium. He starts her up, straddles her saddle, revs her with a twist of his throttle wrist. She sounds good. He takes her down the drive of his parents’ house and into the street, sprinting up to speed and beyond, fudging a bit on the limit. The sun is still up and he rides along through the hood, showing off himself and the Harley-Davidson, a good bike when it’s put together right.

He hits a bump in the road, hears the metallic rattling sproing of small dense object against fender and spokes, sees in an instant the flash of setting sunlight reflected from a Jesus nut falling off what he thinks is probably but he doesn’t have but an instant to wonder before he knows he won’t be laying this hog down on its side and “Fuck!” he says as he loses steering and pitches over the handlebars at a speed of somewhere between fifty and sixty feet per second.

#

George’s dad can’t make it to the show tonight, he’s not real clear on why, but George’s mom is certainly going to be there, she’s got George all buffed and scrubbed and shined and pressed and is driving him there herself, she doesn’t mind being a little early, she can chat with the other mothers. As they drive through the hood on the way to the school, they pass a cross-street where there’s been some kind of accident. They pass too fast for George to see much of what’s going on but he does see Isabel sitting on a curb near the ambulance, making a sketch on the pad in her lap. He’s sure it’s her and he’s sure he sees what looks like a silver ring on her marriage finger, reflecting for a glinting moment the setting sun’s light.

All is abuzz with typical pre-show excitement at the Green Meadow Gymnatorium. Backstage in the makeshift green room, smiling Penny closes in on George and to him quietly says, “Did you brush your teeth?”

“Of course!” he says and smiles.

“Well, good,” purrs Penny, putting an arm around George’s shoulder, pulling him closer to her, hip to hip.

He gives her a kiss.

“Places, everyone,” Mrs. Busoni says.

 

 

 

 

BIO

Tetman Callis is a writer living in Chicago. His short fictions have been published in various magazines, including NOON, New York Tyrant, Wigleaf, Atticus Review, The Gravity of the Thing, Queen Mob’s Tea House, and Neon Literary Magazine. His short fiction, “Grilled Cheese Sandwich with Pickles and Fries,” appeared in the Winter 2010 issue of The Writing Disorder. He is the author of the memoir, High Street: Lawyers, Guns & Money in a Stoner’s New Mexico (Outpost 19, 2012), and the children’s book, Franny & Toby (Silky Oak Press, 2015). His website is www.tetmancallis.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

Not a Seamless Lunch

by Anna Linetskaya

 

Edgar was looking at the screen, but none of it made sense. What he had worked for, what he returned to day after day, was no longer there. The sense of deep unease took over him as the realization settled in: somewhere, someone had changed the meal preferences on his Seamless page.

He looked around the office to see whether any of his colleagues were facing the same problem. Unfortunately, the cubicle divider in front of his desk obscured most of his workmates. Meggie, the only person he could see without lifting from his ergonomic chair, was standing by the receptionist’s desk, her face as serene as that of a seasoned yogi. No wonder. Not only did she make it to Hot Vinyasa class every morning before showing up at the office at precisely 7:15AM, she also found time to make and actually bring her own lunches to work. That Meggie, she did not have anything to worry about. She did not depend on Seamless. Although usually it meant chewing on a wilted spinach leaf from used Tupperware, today, her independence finally paid off.

Meggie was no good; Edgar needed a more reliable source to estimate the seriousness of the  lunch predicament. He could Bloomberg-chat Kenny, his work buddy from Compliance. It would not be the first time they used the terminal for personal communication. Strictly speaking, such communication was against corporate policy, and it was Kenny’s job to preclude it. Yet, it was not the ethical implications of technology misuse, but rather Kenny’s complete uselessness when it came to food choices that stopped Edgar from going down that route.

Kenny, who called himself an omnivore, was, in Edgar’s opinion, simply a person deprived of taste buds, let alone a palette. Kenny would eat everything and anything, so long as there was enough of it. Rice and beans? Yes, please. Cheese nachos? Pack two. You say, “Kosher pizza?” Kenny says, “How high can I pile it on the plate?” In other words, Kenny was happy as long as there was Seamless, regardless of what it actually offered.

No, Kenny was no good either. Edgar needed to find someone of his own caliber, someone who could relate to his quandary. A person who, although aware of the calorie count and the circumference of their waist, was passionate about food. A person who saw lunch as a personal getaway from the humdrum of the office life. Someone who appreciated the fact that you get only one try when it comes to placing your Seamless order. There was no Redo button on that page, after all.

If there was indeed a firm-wide Seamless crisis (and not just a glitch on Edgar’s page), Sander the Foodie and Tim the Golf Guy would be the ones to show visible signs. Edgar made a decision: he would stand up and personally survey the field. But he would have to do so discreetly, so not to alter the natural state of his colleagues’ distress. For that he needed a believable disguise. Water cooler trips were painfully passé; the way to the men’s restroom lay through the corridor and did not allow for much observation. One last option remained: he would make his way to the Health Station.

The Heath Station was a rather new development, a by-product of the HR’s preoccupation with employees’ health and wellbeing. In a rare burst of creativity, the HR team had decided that the obvious solution to the problem of obesity—fewer calories in and more calories out—was utterly obsolete. What the office workers needed was more food but, this time, of the nonperishable and prepackaged kind. Granola bars, protein bars and shakes, fiber cookies, and fat-free crackers: anything that had the word healthy on its shiny packaging had already made or was quickly making its way to that magic cabinet, strategically positioned in the middle of the office floor.

The trip to the Health Station was ideal. It provided both a long, winding path and a perfect lookout spot. It also provided a much-needed pick-me-up snack. Edgar almost reached the coveted cupboard when a sudden “Later, all!” distracted him from the task at hand. To his surprise, the number of people from whom he was to choose his confidant was diminishing right before his eyes. Tim the Golf Guy (responsible for the awakening “Later, all!”) and five other colleagues from his group were exiting the office one by one. Only Meggie and Laura, a timid, middle-aged woman whom Edgar did not know well and had no interest in knowing better, remained.

The field trip. Of course. Of all days, today had to be Tuesday the 15th. The day that six out of nine people on Edgar’s team were scheduled to work at their new client’s office. Edgar recalled how happy he had been when they elected him to stay behind in the office with Meggie and Laura. With most people from his team gone, it felt almost like a vacation. He had his food, he had his Internet, and he had very few people around to bother him.

Little did he know that Tuesday the 15th would also be the day his trusted food deliveries, with their luscious but calorie-conscious offerings, disappeared from his Seamless account. Who in the world had decided to change the list? Who needed to fix what was not broken? But most importantly, why did it have to happen on the day Edgar got to get not one but two lunches delivered?

One of the reasons Edgar was so excited to stay behind on the field trip day was that he got to use the absent colleagues’ lunch allowance as he pleased. Of course, they would have to play fair and share the six extra lunch funds between the remaining people from the team. But out of the three remaining people, Edgar was one; Meggie did not use the lunch allowance lest she lost her “Homemade Lunch Queen” title; and Laura, who knew? With a little bit of nudging and a comment or two about the upcoming bikini season, she would surely give her extra lunch money to Edgar. And he would know how to use it wisely. He had his Favorite Seamless tags sorted exactly for such an occasion.

Edgar’s perfect plan was now ruined by events outside of his control. He had all the lunch credit in the world, but his trusted purveyors of sustenance were no longer there to supply him with their goods. Edgar found himself in a predicament right out of a children’s fable: he had everything he needed, but he didn’t know what to do with it. That was the only thing he could focus on as he sat back down on his ergonomic chair and stared at his Seamless page, still in total disarray.

For the second time in the last five minutes, an unexpected sound interrupted Edgar’s musings. The annoying bing was trying to attract Edgar’s attention to a new incoming email. In it, a faceless but very caring HR person was encouraging Edgar to please finalize his lunch choice so it could be placed promptly and delivered to his desk on time.

It was not that Edgar was afraid of choice. To the contrary, he appreciated the power that came with conscious decision-making. He grew up in a family of Jewish academics who evaluated every life occurrence in terms of a cause and effect (or, if not that, then at least a correlation). From an early age, Edgar’s parents had instilled in him the desire to choose correctly and the belief that such a choice was actually possible. You only needed to collect all the relevant information to make it.

So this is what he had to do now. Since he had been deprived of his preferred lunch options, he needed to collect all the information necessary to make a well-informed and, more importantly, correct choice of his upcoming unfamiliar meal. The first call of duty was the culprit itself: his Seamless account. Here, Edgar had to be careful not to misplace his anger; it was not actually Seamless the Company who had mixed up his options, but rather the omnipresent, conniving HR.

It was the HR, who, in the best tradition of Big Brother, oversaw from which six restaurants Edgar was to eat his lunch on any given day. Of course, such power could not have been delegated to a single department without the proper checks and bounds set in place. Although on paper it looked like the HR made the calls, in reality it was the result of the monthly employee survey which determined the lucky six. Edgar, ever an active corporate citizen, made sure to advocate for his favorites, which almost always made it on the list. Apparently, on Tuesday the 15th, the HR blatantly overstepped its power by changing delivery options sans referendum.

Now, Edgar needed to get to know the new players. He carefully studied the six unfamiliar names that appeared on his Seamless account. None of the descriptions that accompanied the names spoke to him; none of the wording enticed Edgar to sample the goods. How on earth, after being spoiled with his favorite restaurants’ follow-up surveys and having his ego massaged by their social media’s targeted campaigns, was he to choose from this unappealing mound of impersonal information?

The actual websites of the six contenders did not prove to be any better. Yelp pages did provide some nice visuals, but Edgar, a seasoned customer, knew that all the niceties of the presentation would be gone the moment the food was placed in the delivery box. Edgar saw the delivery box as the ultimate equalizing device: it stripped the food of all visual appeal, allowing the essence of the dish—its ingredients—to take center stage.

The ingredients. Here is where Edgar faced a real challenge. Only four out of six restaurants listed the ingredients of each dish on their respective menus, and not a single one provided the actual ingredient amounts used. It was simply impossible to say whether a chicken salad was a true chicken salad or a bunch of greens sprinkled with morsels of canned chicken meat. And what about all the sausages? Were they 100% beef or were there remnants of fatty pork added to the mixture for taste and texture? Although not observant, Edgar’s Jewish heritage rebelled at this purposeful omission.

Edgar decided to act. Instead of wasting his time on soulless descriptions, he would call up the restaurants to get all the information he thought was material for his decision. He hoped that the restaurant owners were at least savvy enough to provide a phone number and a sufficiently competent person to answer Edgar’s pressing questions.

Edgar picked up the phone and dialed the first number on the list. The handset was heavy and felt alien in his hand. It had been a while since he had actually used it. To Edgar, the concept of a phone conversation was a thing of the past, a feature of a society where people had not yet discovered the beauty of instant messaging. With it, you could take time to deliberate, to think the answer through, and to embellish it with visual content if needed. With a phone conversation, you had no such opportunity. By picking up the phone, you were entering the terrain of real-time debate and were foolishly subjecting yourself to the possibility of a verbal attack.

Edgar took a deep breath and suppressed his desire to hang up after the second ring. Luckily, an abrupt “Yes?” put an end to Edgar’s suspense. Although it was a rather unfriendly way to initiate a conversation with a potential customer, Edgar made a conscious effort to evoke the sense of appreciation and gratitude that he was trying to foster towards others, rude service people included. He had read somewhere that those who deliberately practice gratitude experience lower levels of stress and are on average happier and more resilient than their ungrateful compatriots. Despite his growing irritation, Edgar reminded himself that he should not take it personally and should not make assumptions about the person at the other end of the line. According to the little cheat-sheet of happy life principles Edgar had pinned above his desk, he also was supposed to “remain impeccable with your word,” even more so during the upcoming conversation.

The first order of business was to make sure that the person on the other end was qualified to provide the information Edgar needed. After confirming that it was indeed the correct restaurant and that they did deliver lunches on a regular basis, Edgar inquired about the person’s first name and dietary preferences. It was important to establish rapport so Edgar’s new phone acquaintance, Thang, could feel comfortable enough to share his honest opinion. It was equally important to establish whether or not Thang was affected  by any of the restrictive food fads, such as veganism, and to adjust the weight of his honest opinion accordingly.

Thang proved to be solid. Not only did he eat fish, meat, and poultry, he also happened to receive part of his reimbursement as lunch credit to be spent in the restaurant, so he had vast firsthand experience with the menu. Thang’s brief lament about being “short on cash to buy food for the family” did not dissuade Edgar; it was obviously meant as an ice-breaker and not as a real complaint. Surely, Thang could get a doggy bag ‘to-go’ to take lunch leftovers back home.

Edgar felt like he was onto something. Maybe the damages caused by the Seamless disaster  could be reduced to a minimum, after all. Although Thang could not name the exact amount of beef used in the Wild Meatloaf Wrap, he assured Edgar that, where Thang came from, “It would be enough to feed a family of four.” There was just one thing left to clarify, and it was not Thang’s country of origin. It was gluten.

What followed caused Edgar to temporarily loose his state of equanimity. He was prepared to face Thang’s potential ignorance on the topic and had his brief three-minute lecture on the dangers of gluten ready. He was prepared to discuss which modifications could be made to the wrap to make it gluten-free, and was ready to sacrifice some of the nutrients. He was even prepared to face the “Yes, it contains gluten” defeat. That he could handle.

What he could not handle was the blatant “So, you are Jewish and celiac?” remark. Who was Thang to box Edgar in like that? To put this label on him? No, Edgar did not have celiac disease or wheat sensitivity. But Edgar did have a right not to be labeled “celiac” every time he wished to avoid gluten. He was much more than his dietary preferences, and he felt it was his civic duty to nip any such attempt at objectification in the bud. Feeling that he no longer could remain impeccable with his word, Edgar hung up.

He stared at his phone, trying to process what was happening to him. Thang’s words touched a rough spot deep inside Edgar. It always came down to that with food, to the need to explain that it was not a matter of religion of allergies. Edgar simply liked to know what exactly he put into his body. The careful process of selection was time consuming and, on occasion, stressful, yet he accepted those small discomfort as the price he had to pay to stay in control. To stay in control in a world where the produce was manufactured, not grown; where a carton of milk could be spiked with arsenic; where a calf may not see the light of day before becoming a steak. How was that his prudence and responsible attitude towards food always managed to turn into a cause of conflict and mockery?

Edgar looked at his computer screen. The onerous message from the HR was still there, staring back at him. He needed to make a choice, and he needed to make it quick: it was by now 11:05AM, which meant he had less than five minutes before the 11:10AM order submission cutoff.

Overcome with emotion, Edgar took a deep breath and resolved to switch to cold logic. He thought he needed to make a choice, but did he really? Granted, the whole system was set up to foster this belief: the Seamless account was his; the HR prompted Edgar to finalize his choice. But there was a loophole in the system, and Edgar had seen it being used before. For some reason, his brain chose to suppress this knowledge, but now that Edgar had a complete recollection of it, his mind was set. He looked at the email, clicked Reply button and typed in the words that were sure to put an end to this lunch debacle: “In the meeting. Please, spend today’s lunch credit (mine, Tim’s, Sander’s) as you see fit. Best, Edgar.”

Edgar took another deep breath, clicked Send, and sat back in his chair. His gaze rested on the mood-enhancing lamp, which the HR strongly encouraged to position against the cubicle divider wall behind the computer screen. The deep indigo colors of the cubicle wall were supposed to bring a sense of calm, while the pale yellow and bright orange of the lamp encouraged one to rise to one’s potential like a rising sun. Edgar realized he hated those colors.

Edgar stood up. Suddenly, he realized he hated not only the colors but the very idea of the mood-enhancing lamp. He hated the cubicle wall. He hated Meggie, who was standing right behind it with her bright, toothy smile and her stinky collection of Tupperware containers. He hated Laura, who was munching on another carb-free, sugar-free, fat-free, fiber-rich protein bar she had just gotten from the Heath Station. Most of all, he hated the fact that he had just given away his right to choose to the very people who made all of this happen.

Did they really care about Edgar when they made those choices? Did they ever stop to consider his well-being or the fact that his bad cholesterol had gone through the roof since he had joined this workplace? Did they know that what he really needed was someone who could care for him without any hidden agenda?

Edgar stormed out of the office. He needed to clear his mind, and this time deep breathing exercises were not up to the task. Edgar needed a good old walk in the park, needed to feel the sun on his face and the wind against his skin. A walk like the ones he used to take as a child with his Grandpa. Back when he still could run and play and laugh, all under the watchful eye of his guardian, who pretended to read his Sunday newspaper in the shade of a poplar tree.

* * *

Edgar walked through the park entrance across from his office building. Most of the benches along the main path were occupied by people who looked very much like him. Those people, dressed in different shades of gray with occasional splotches of white and light pink, were the happy few who were actually allowed to step away from their desks during the day. Many of them were holding Styrofoam containers and paper bags covered with grease stains of different shapes and sizes. The aroma emanating from those receptacles overpowered all other smells in the park: the lunch hour had finally arrived.

Edgar’s stomach responded to the smell with a predictable rumble of hunger, but his mind refused to budge. He wanted none of this. He did not want to stuff his face with a dripping sandwich while checking his email on his phone. He did not want to gulp liters of flavorless coffee from a Venti cup to get thought the afternoon low. He did not want to eat from a doggy bag, even if it came from the most coveted food truck in the area.

What he wanted was to eat with abandon, just like he used to as a child. To eat without thinking that he should be eating something else, to eat without thinking that he should be doing something else. To eat food that had been prepared with love.

Edgar found an empty bench in a remote corner of the park and sat down in the shade. He closed his eyes. Like when they were all still living together and when the smell of his mother’s kotletu would force everyone to drop whatever they were doing and gather around the table. Like on a cold winter night, when his grandmother would heat up the oven, and while the rugelach were baking, they would all play cards and steal spoonfuls of warm custard from the jar. His mind was overcome with those pleasant memories; the stress of the lunch debacle slowly started to subside.

“Do you mind if I sit here, sir?” said a voice out of nowhere. Edgar opened his eyes and saw a little boy about ten yeas old standing next to him. The boy was holding a carefully wrapped foil parcel in his hands. Edgar shifted and gestured the boy to sit down next to him.

“My mom is over there, at the kiddies’ playground with my little sister. It is not often that I get to take my lunch to the park with them. I’m usually at school, you know. But when I do get to come here, I really like it.” The boy smiled at Edgar and started to unwrap his parcel.

“I hope it’s a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. My mom makes them the best! She knows that I like them, and she puts these little heart-shaped jelly beans on top. I’m all grown up now, but I still like it very, very much.”

As the boy unwrapped the foil, Edgar could see a huge smile lighting up on his face. Inside, the boy found what he was hoping for. His joy was pure, his satisfaction almost complete. Almost. Edgar could sense that something was amiss; something was stopping the boy from taking that coveted first bite.

The boy lifted up his head and stared Edgar straight in the eye. Then, without saying a word, the boy broke the sandwich in half, tore off a piece of foil, carefully wrapped one half, and extended it to Edgar.

Humbled, Edgar accepted the offering. He took a bite, chewed, swallowed, and looked back at the boy.

Seamlessly, all of it made sense.

 

 

BIO

Anna Linetskaya is an emerging writer who, after years of academic work and legal practice, finally finds herself writing pieces she truly enjoys. She is currently working on her first novel while completing her MFA in Creative Writing at the City College of New York. When not working on her book, Anna is sure to be found reading books of others. She is unapologetic about her reading locations and is particularly proud of her reading-while-walking skill. Her most recent publication, “myLife: a Story,” appeared as a series of installments in Visitant.

https://www.linetskaya.com/

 

 

 

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Day Hike

by Priscilla Mainardi

 

 

“What did you think of her?” I said to my brother. We had just started up the trail, wide enough here at the beginning so we could walk side by side.

“Nice,” Jake pronounced. “A little nervous, but who wouldn’t be?” He stopped and turned to me. “You should have seen the look on your face.”

“I hope I didn’t laugh. I thought Mom was kidding at first. I thought she meant Becca was like a daughter to her, not an actual daughter.” I stepped around a rock that stuck up in the middle of the trail. “Amazing that we never knew, or even suspected.”

“Mom didn’t even know anything about her.  Until recently, that is,” Jake said.

Becca had gotten in touch with our mother in late February, and they met for the first time a few days later at a halfway point in New Hampshire. My mother didn’t tell me any of this when she called me last week to confirm Sunday brunch with Jake, something we had done every few weeks since I moved back from California.   She just said, “I have something important to tell you and your brother.”

Becca, our new-found sister, was the important thing she had to tell us.

 

Jake and I began to ascend a steeper part of the trail. Afternoon sunlight slanted through the trees. I unzipped my jacket, loosened my scarf. Becca had complimented the scarf when I arrived at brunch this morning. My college friend Elvira always compliments people when she first meets them, to get them to like her. Was that what Becca was doing? I wished I’d thought of it myself.

“What happens now?” I asked Jake. “Is she going to be, like, part of the family?”

“If she wants to be. And if Mom wants her to be. I don’t think it’s so much about us.”

But it is about us, I wanted to say. Jake’s calm made my natural reaction — surprise, confusion, resentment at just learning about Becca now — seem somehow irrational. “I wonder if Dad knows about her,” I said. Our father left when I was in third grade. “And what do we know about her father?”

Jake held up a hand. “Wait, Lydia.  Are you forgetting we have a nephew now too?”

I laughed. “Right,” I said. “Andrew. How could we have made it this far without knowing anything about them?”

“Think how it must be for Becca to find out about us, after all these years,” Jake said. “Or how it was for Mom, having the baby taken away from her. Imagine how she feels.”

“Okay, Mr. Empathy.” Sometimes Jake was a little too nice. He lumped everyone together and acted like they were all the same, when they clearly weren’t.

We hiked in single file until we came to a fork. I described the route I’d taken once before, to the top of the ridge, then down along the stream that ran through the gorge. We’d end up a quarter mile down the road from the parking lot.

“Sure we won’t need crampons?” Jake said.

More snow appeared in the woods as we climbed but the trail was dry. “I doubt it,” I said.

Jake checked the time on his phone. “Just think,” he said, “two hours ago, we were sitting down meeting Becca.”

“Three hours ago, I didn’t even know I had a sister.”

 

“How did you find us?” I asked Becca. “I mean, find out my mother was . . . find out who your mother was?” I stopped, took a breath. I was trying to play it cool, a cool I didn’t really feel. Mangling my sentences wasn’t helping.

Becca gave a wide smile. She had her answer ready. But then she’d known about us, whereas we’d just learned about her. Maybe this explained her calm. Or maybe she came by it naturally. “Andrew fainted on the basketball court,” she said, “and when I took him to the doctor, they were worried that he might have a heart condition, and wanted me to check with his closest relatives.” We must have look alarmed at this, because she held up a hand, smooth and pale, with pink nails. “I asked my parents, and they gave me the name of the adoption agency. My lawyer wrote to the agency and told them the situation, and they gave me your mother’s name.”

“But Andrew — is he okay?” I said.

“Oh, yes, he’s fine. They decided he was probably just dehydrated.”

“Well,” said my mother, at her cheeriest, “we’re glad he’s okay, and so glad you found us.”

We were in her dining room, eating quiche and sausages and out of season strawberries. Sunlight poured in through the tall windows. My mother seemed a little too happy, her cheeks flushed an unusual pink color, her eyes bright. She kept jumping up for things she’d forgotten in the kitchen, a pitcher of orange juice, bread and butter. We usually ate bagels and cream cheese or French toast at the kitchen table, watching the birds come and go from the bird feeder outside the window. Brunch wasn’t usually this varied and complex.

Becca told us she’d grown up in Portsmouth, where she still lived and worked as a florist. She was forty-four and divorced, and Andrew was in eighth grade. She was tall and blond with little resemblance to either Jake, who was stocky and strong and dark, or me, of average height with medium-brown hair. She looked like she’d never done the things I’d done: put white powder up my nose, slept in a park wrapped in all my clothes, snuck out of a restaurant without paying, taken off my clothes in front of a camera.

I took a bite of quiche and gazed out the window. Most of the snow had melted from the grass, though there was still a little patch on the north side of every tree. Jake was describing his programming job, his girlfriend who worked as a physical therapist, the apartment they’d moved into together in Burlington. I had met his girlfriend, but hadn’t seen their new apartment yet. When did people stop seeing the places where their siblings lived? Twenty-six seemed too young. You think you’ll always be as close as when your rooms are next door to each other, and you kick each other every night for space on the family room couch.

We hadn’t even talked since the last brunch.  And Jake hadn’t seen my place either. I told Becca about the tiny cabin I lived in, that I chopped my own wood and worked at the general store. This sounded homey, like the store carried maple syrup and maybe bolts of calico, but I mostly sold hotdogs and lottery tickets. Becca didn’t need to know every little thing about me, and I broad-stroked it, hoping “I spent a few years on the West Coast” sounded intriguing rather than secretive. And who knew what Becca wasn’t telling us? It was our first meeting after all.

 

“Slow down,” Jake said. “I can hardly keep up with you.”

I slowed my pace and glanced down the valley where the sun lit up the tops of the bare trees. “You know, Mom used to say that to me all the time. Talk smaller steps. She was always criticizing me for something. Remember how she used to move my hair out from behind my ears all the time?” Becca’s hair was a perfect blond coif that curled in to cover her ears. “After awhile I started to think I might as well go ahead and actually do something wrong.”

Jake laughed. “Maybe she wasn’t criticizing, maybe she just couldn’t keep up with you. And maybe your hair did look better covering your ears.”

“You sound just like her.”

I meant it as a mild putdown but Jake just laughed again.

“What about my job?” I said. “She’s always after me to get a better job.”

“We all know you could be doing more with yourself than selling scratch-offs.”

“Can’t she just be happy I moved home?”

“She’s glad you’re rid of what’s-his-name,” he said.

He means Jimmy, my old boyfriend, who I followed to California so he could make movies.

“Still, maybe this explains a few things,” I said. “Maybe Mom was always measuring me up against some invisible ideal daughter.”

“I think you’ll have to let that one go, Lydia. Becca’s just another flawed human being like the rest of us.”

Later we would go to one of Andrew’s basketball games and I would see that this was true. She wore jeans and a sweatshirt, went without makeup, chewed her nails in the stands, joined in when the other parents booed the referee to protest a foul call.

“Was Mom upset about it all her life, do you think,” I said, “or did she just forget about the baby and move on?”

“I’m sure she never forgot,” Jake said.

“So she got pregnant and gave the baby away. Couldn’t she have had an abortion?”

“Not back then.”

“But still,” I persisted, “she kept it a secret all these years. Even though she knew this day might come.”

“Give her a break, will ya? This has been hard on her too. Hardest.”

He sounded like Elvira, who used to say to always err on the side of kindness and generosity. Or was it forgiveness and generosity? I could never remember. “Okay, sure, a break,” I said.

We’d been climbing steadily and stopped to catch our breath and take a drink of water. Jake seemed pretty calm about the whole thing. Maybe this was because he hadn’t spent the whole brunch comparing himself to Becca in every little detail — hairstyle, make-up, clothes, the way she spoke, held herself, had a worthwhile career.

But now that I thought about it, Jake hadn’t even looked all that surprised when Mom told us who Becca was. Maybe there was another reason he was so calm. I turned to him. “How long have you known?”

Jake held up a hand. “Hear that, Lydia?” he said. “That sort of rushing sound?”

I stood still and listened. All I heard was the rustle and creak of tree branches. “The wind?”

“More like water. Is there a stream?”

“I think we cross a creek soon,” I said.

We resumed walking.  Soon we came to the source of the sound. The creek had widened and gouged out a new course down the side of the mountain, carrying away rocks, uprooting trees.

“Last time I was here this was a trickle,” I said.

“Think we can get across?”

We were almost to the top of the ridge, so it didn’t make sense to turn around and go back the way we had come. I climbed up on a rock and looked for a place to cross. “How about there?” I said, pointing downstream where some fallen trees formed a makeshift bridge.

We moved down the rocky creek bank. There was more snow here, a thin coating with deeper patches here and there. The rocks on the hillside were unstable, and shifted uneasily when I stepped on them. I told myself that it didn’t matter who had learned about Becca first, now that we had both met her. Or that it shouldn’t matter. But still I was curious. “So how long?” I said.

“Only a little while,” Jake said. “I heard Mom on the phone one day when I was over there. It was soon after Becca had gotten in touch with her. She seemed upset when she hung up. I asked her what was wrong and she told me the whole thing.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“It wasn’t mine to tell. But I know Mom wanted to. She just wanted to find the right time. Not have you learn accidentally, like I did.”

“Why didn’t she just tell me sometime when we were alone, like she did with you? Why spring Becca on me at a brunch?  She hardly ever even calls me.”

“She’s just trying to give you some space.”

We skirted a massive fallen tree, then angled upward to get back to the log bridge and the trail. Here the terrain was so steep there was no underbrush, no thorny bushes to impede us, and we climbed steadily. Finally we got back to the creek, and crossed it on the fallen logs.

We stopped to take another drink, then we were climbing again. Clouds moved past the sun. A chilly breeze blew and the tree branches scraped and rubbed against each other. We plunged into a pine forest. Tall trees darkened the trail, filling me a feeling of gloom.

Jake stopped. “Whoa,” he said. “What happened here?”

A section of the hillside had collapsed, leaving a steep cone of dirt and pebbles with old tree roots sticking up from it. A foot wide path was all that was left of the trail.

“Now I wish I did have my crampons,” Jake said, sizing up the narrow path. Then he shrugged and started across. I hesitated for a moment, looking for a safe place to step.

“You coming?” Jake said, and when he turned to look at me, his foot slipped off the edge. He reached for a handhold, but there was nothing to grasp on the rock wall, and he started sliding down the steep hillside. He grabbed one of the roots to stop his fall but it snapped.  He bent his knees and went down, sliding on his back to the bottom.

He landed in a tangle of rocks and fallen branches.  “Jake,” I called. “Jacob.”

His voice rose up to me. “Damn. Fuck. Son of a. . . ”

“Anything broken?” I shouted. “Are you bleeding?”

“No blood. But I wrenched my ankle. I don’t think I can climb back up.”

“Don’t move. I’m on my way.”

I went down the trail a few yards and looked for a way to climb down to him. “Don’t,” Jake called. “It’s too dangerous.”

I had only gone a few feet when I dislodged a good-sized rock, which clattered down the hillside.

There was a deathly silence after it fell. Heart racing, I called out, “Still there?”

“Yo,” came Jake’s reply. “You should probably go get some help.”

I climbed back up to stabler ground. “Can you call someone?”

“No service,” he called back up after a moment.

“I’ll be back,” I said. “Don’t get hypothermia while I’m gone.”

I went back along the trail a few yards, then climbed the steep hill and picked my way through the underbrush until I reached the top of the ridge. Here the trail descended through the gorge. It was the shortest way back.

The woods were clasped in dim light, and the temperature was dropping. I half-walked, half-ran down the trail, wishing I hadn’t left my phone in the car. But who would I call, even if I did have service? Mom? But I wouldn’t want to worry her. Becca had given me her number, but I didn’t think a forest rescue was what she had in mind.

The trail leveled off and narrowed to a thin ledge. To the left was the rocky drop-off into the stream, to the right the steep side of the mountain. A little creek splashed down the mountain, and the water had dripped onto the ledge and coated it with a thick layer of ice. Crossing it looked very risky. I could end up dashed on the rocks below. Instead I could go back up to the top of the ridge, and hike down the way we had come. But then I thought of the fallen tree I would have to get around, the make-shift log bridge to cross in the dark. Even if I could find the trail, it would be hours before I returned to Jake.

I had only taken two small steps across the ice when my feet started to slide. I held my breath, fighting for balance. Everything will be okay, I told myself, retreating. I just have to find a way to get across. Everything will be okay.  It was the same thing Jimmy told me when we were running out of money in Oakland, the same thing my mother told me when she came to visit me in the hospital when I got back to New York. I left Jimmy after we made the porno, with just enough money for the bus ride east. I felt nauseous and dizzy on the bus and blamed it on the diesel fumes and the stress of moving back home broke. But my period was late too and I thought I might be pregnant. I planned to borrow money from Elvira for an abortion.

The bleeding started in the middle of Pennsylvania. Elvira met me at Port Authority and instead of taking me to her place on Rivington Street, we took a cab to Bellevue.

It was an ectopic pregnancy, and I had to have surgery and stay in the hospital for three days. I wasn’t on the maternity ward, but on a wing with other would-be moms who had had some kind of trouble. My mother came, Jake came, Elvira. I was out of it for a day or two right after the surgery and when I came back to myself, I could hear a girl down the hall crying for her daughter. She called her name, Rosie, Rosie, Rosie, over and over all day long.

Was it like that for my mother? Did she feel that desperate and bereft when they took Becca away from her? At the time, while I was recovering, I just wanted the girl to shut up.

Kindness and generosity. And forgiveness too. I repeated the words like a mantra, the way I did when I thought about my father, who’d left us so long ago. I thought of him dropping to the ground to crawl on his belly to retrieve Jake’s baseball when it rolled under the back fence. I must have been six or seven. The army crawl, he called it, for tight places.  It was from his Vietnam days.

I lay down on my stomach and inched across the ice. When I no longer felt ice under my hands, I crawled a few more feet, then stood and walked. The trail blended in with the forest floor, disappearing and reappearing in the fading light. I forced myself to keep going.

The darkness was nearly complete now. I never even saw the second icy ledge.

 

I landed in a snowbank. I stood up carefully, and moved my arms and legs.  Nothing hurt. I brushed snow and ice and old leaves from my clothes and looked around to see where I was. I called Jake’s name, waited, called again. All I heard was the rushing of the stream. I made my way to the bank. Here there was less underbrush, and what little light was left in the sky came through the break in the trees above the stream bed.

It was too much to hope that Jake and I were at the bottom of the same ravine. I tried to picture the geography, but though I knew the trails, the map in my head was pretty fuzzy. I headed downstream for a few minutes, through a level wooded area, then back to the stream. I wandered toward the whitish glow of another snowbank. But when I came to it, I saw that it was the same one, the shape of my body still imprinted on it.

I sat down on a rock. The woods were eerily silent and black and I tried not to think about what other living things might be lurking out there in the trees.  I was starting to feel hungry, and went through my jacket pockets. Old ticket stubs, matches from a Brattleboro restaurant, tissues. I thought of brunch, of eggs beaten and baked into a crust, of warm sausages and bread and butter and strawberries.

This morning I had followed into the kitchen my mother when she returned for the bread she had forgotten. “Any other siblings out there I should know about?” I said, only half kidding. I unwrapped the stick of butter she’d set out on the counter.

She turned, holding out the bread knife. “I’m sure there are things in your life you’d like to forget. That you’re happy we’re not bringing up today.”

But you’ve always known,” I said, “and never said anything. That’s what I don’t get.”

My mother took her time arranging the slices of bread on a plate. I could tell I had wounded her though I hadn’t meant too. Finally she held the plate out to me.  It was the plate with the pinecone design that she used to serve cookies on when I was little. “Look, I’m sorry,” she said. “Can we just take it from here?”

I looked at her hand holding the plate, the familiar long fingers, the trim nails. Even the veins in her hand were familiar to me. My mother had a life before me, before Jake, before our father came and went. My mother had a Jimmy.

 

It was too cold to sit still. I had find Jake, get us out of here, call my mother, tell her I was going to look for a new job. Then I would drive up and see Jake’s new place, and together we’d go visit Becca.  And Andrew, too. Meet our new nephew.

It couldn’t have been much past six o’clock, and I could only hope that we were close to the road or the main trail that led up the gorge and that somebody, anybody, would happen by, close enough to hear us, or see us even, if we could manage to light a fire. I walked back to the stream. The moon appeared over the edge of the ravine, round and bright and so low in the sky it appeared extra large.

“Jake,” I called.

I heard a sound, a faint reply from far away that carried above the sound of the water, that might have been a squirrel or the wind moving through the trees. I went a little further along the stream and called again, then a little further.

“Lydia?” I heard my name again a few minutes later, more distinctly this time but still far away.  Jake was on the other side of the stream. I found a narrow place and tried to jump across but landed with both feet in the shallow water. I moved along the bank, water squelching from my boots, calling his name and hearing my own in reply, over and over again, until I found him.

 

 

 

 

BIO

Priscilla Mainardi attended the University of Pennsylvania and Rutgers University, where she earned an MFA in creative writing. Her work appears in numerous journals, including Pulse – Voices from the Heart of Medicine, the Examined Life Journal, and BioStories. She teaches writing at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey and serves on the editorial board of the online journal, The Intima.

 

 

 

 

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