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The Dead Doll

by Sola Saar

 

 

I was back in Los Angeles at my mother’s house and very pregnant with my first child.

My younger sister Katrina already had twenty-six children.

She seated several baby dolls at the dining table, then placed tiny sauce bowls and teacups in front of each of them. Katrina put Marissa, a doll she’d been carrying around everywhere for seven years, in a high chair on my right. With her tangled black curls and exaggerated eye makeup drawn on with a thick black Sharpie, Marissa looked like a deranged version of me, a junkie child beauty pageant star whose blank stare evoked more than her manufacturers had originally intended. She taunted me with her permanently raised arms.

My sister began this tribe of dolls when she first discovered medical reality television at fifteen. While she liked shows focused on obesity or various deformities, “The Birthing Channel” was her favorite. It was a channel entirely devoted to playing live births, 24 hours a day. Her addiction to this channel vexed my artist mother, but to me it seemed reasonable for someone whose autism diagnosis allowed her to create a world entirely of her own obsessions. It was one I sometimes envied. The gruesome videos only bothered me when she watched them in the living room.

After school, she’d sit on the couch dunking cookies into her milk, transfixed by the endless loop of women giving birth. The shows were very theatric. Operatic music played as sweaty women wept through their contractions, cat hissing sounded as they lashed out at the nurses, and triumphant trombones blared when they finally pushed out lumps of unformed reddish flesh. I always wanted to look away when walking by, discomfited by people not only abandoning their privacy, but turning it into melodrama, but Katrina liked to dwell in their intimacy. She’d pause the television at the exact moment when the baby disconnected from its mother and run back to her room, leaving us with a still of the parturition.

One night I heard loud groaning noises coming from her room and, feeling concerned, opened the door to check on her. When I entered she was sitting in bed with a doll under her shirt, legs spread, crying murderously as I asked her what she was doing. She held up a bald beige doll with one hand on its head and the other on its bottom and said, “This is my son, Xavier.” She lay back, sweating from her performance, and cradled the thing in a towel.

The next morning, Xavier was at the breakfast table sitting next to Katrina. When asked about the “doll,” she frowned and told the family, “Xavier is not a doll. He just has alopecia and severe growth failure,” as though if he weren’t tiny and bald, we might mistake him for human.

Over the next eight years, she had fifteen more doll-children from the same process and adopted eleven others from around the world. She said she was inspired by a television special on Angelina Jolie.

I had recently gotten a job teaching English at a high school far, far away.

I was home this week because my mother wanted to throw me a baby shower. I told her I’d only been to one baby shower and it had made me anxious. She told me I probably wasn’t eating enough meat.

I stared at my empty bowl and scraped the morsels of oatmeal from the dolls’ tiny saucers. I could only hold down bland food in the morning. My sister had left the dishes for me to wash and retreated back to her room. She’d taken all her dolls except Marissa, who remained in the high chair with oatmeal on her face.

I walked over to her, feeling a need to stroke her matted hair, touch her soft eyelashes. Squeezing her head, I remembered my sister would strap her into a car seat, on top of a heap of her other dolls, and leave them there in the hot sun. I pulled Marissa up by her hair to hold her and her head popped off. I looked down at her body, still stuck in the high chair. Frantically, I tried to screw Marissa’s head back on, believing I could easily reattach it, but it was too loose, and would not affix. I peered down the hollow trunk of her body. Some part had been lost, and her head would only stay on if I sat her in a certain position and leaned it against the back of the chair. I let her rest there and hoped my sister would figure out how to snap it back into place.

“Vera, I need to talk to you,” my mother said, suddenly appearing behind me.

I flinched. “I was just cleaning,” I said, turning around. She stood there in a slinky nightgown with her hair tied up in a silk scarf.

“What are you wearing tomorrow? I know you’ve given up a little since you’ve been pregnant, but no sweatpants at the shower.” I looked down at my black-and-white sweatpants, which had food stains on them.

“I have a dress,” I said.

“Don’t wear black.”

“It’s yellow,” I said. “What are you doing today?”

“I have to take your sister to therapy,” she groaned. “In the valley. Did you ask your husband for a recommendation that’s a little closer?”

“I forgot to,” I said. “He’ll be here Saturday. Why don’t you ask him then?”

She unraveled her scarf and let out her frizzed ringlets. My mother was half- black and half-German, although with her olive skin and green eyes she was usually mistaken for being Latina or sometimes Jewish. I had inherited her hair and my father’s Icelandic complexion, one shade above albino.

“Another thing you might want to think about is that when I got pregnant with you, I was petite, like you. So I had a horrible labor that lasted nine hours.”

“Okay.”

“And I did an entirely natural birth. No drugs,” she added, almost bragging. “I wouldn’t recommend it though, for a first born. I didn’t suffer for your sister, even with her giant head!”

“What?” I asked.

“There are ways of making birth less painful now,” she said. “Prenatal massages, acupuncture, transcendental meditation. I feel like you haven’t done any research. Are you prepared for this child?”

“I stayed up all night watching live births moms posted on the Internet.”

“Wonderful! So now you kind of know what to expect. But it’s going to be so much more excruciating than you could imagine.”

Suddenly Katrina burst into the room carrying a naked decapitated doll.

“Oh no!” she lamented. “My daughter’s dead!”

“What?” I asked.

“Marissa’s dead!” she moaned.

My mom and I paused skeptically for a few uncertain seconds.

“How’d she die?” I asked.

Katrina looked around apprehensively, and then stuttered, “Marissa had to have surgery. She had to have the body repaired because her neck broke. She tried to have the body repaired but it didn’t work on her and so she died.”

“She will be missed,” my mother told her, still primping her hair. “We have to go soon, Katrina. Start getting ready.”

My sister stood there waiting for a reaction, her tall body rocking back and forth. Suddenly, she broke into tears.

“My daughter’s dead!” she bawled.

“Sweetie, you have other children,” my mom consoled her. “It’s okay.”

She let out a long sob, and said, “but Marissa was too young to die” before leaving the room.

“At least she won’t carry around that damn doll anymore,” mom whispered to me.

“Except she has a whole closet full of other dolls,” I reminded her. “Anyway, weren’t we talking about my baby?”

“Right. I have some ideas for shower games I wanted to talk to you about,” she said.

“Like what?”

Katrina burst into the room again, no longer crying.

“I think we should have a funeral!” she said, her eyes widened like a cartoon’s.

My mother took a while to respond. She sometimes indulged my sister’s eccentric requests, reluctantly supporting her for a few minutes before disappearing into a bottle of red wine.

“It sounds like a lot of work,” she said finally. “I don’t have the time. Why don’t you write a nice poem? Vera will help you.”

“But she’s my daughter,” Katrina pleaded.

“I don’t want to,” my mother said.

“But why?”

“Because I’m not throwing a funeral for that doll!”

“She’s not a doll, she’s a midget. Did you make a mistake?”

“No.”

“But she’s a human midget. Did you make a mistake?”

“Sorry. Midget. But I think they like to be called little people.”

“But I think we need to have funerals for humans. So we can move on!”

“Fine! Have the Goddamn funeral!” she said, growing impatient. “But this is your thing. I’m not helping you organize this fucking—” she stopped herself. “I already have Vera’s funeral—I mean baby shower.”

“Let’s have the funeral Saturday!” Katrina said.

“Right after Vera’s baby shower is convenient.”

“Yippee!” my sister said with a firm nod. Still sniveling, darted off to her bedroom.

“Are you really going to go through with this?” I asked.

“I’m going to see what the therapist tells us. But I think it’s a good sign she wants to kill off that creepy doll!”

“I broke it.”

“What?”

“I broke the doll when I was cleaning. It was an accident. It just snapped off. I didn’t think it would kill her.”

My mother gasped and closed the door. My sister had sensitive hearing.

“What did you think, she was just going to go on living without her head like a chicken?” she whispered.

“I don’t know. I thought she’d get another one.”

“It doesn’t work like that. You know how long she’s had this one.”

“I thought you said it was good she was moving on.”

“Well now that I know you killed her, she’s not really moving on.”

“Let’s just not say anything about that.”

“Fine. We’ll take this secret to the grave— no pun intended.”

I rolled my eyes and waddled off to my childhood bedroom.

*

That day I took my mom’s advice and booked a prenatal spa day at a salon downtown. They had a “Pregnant Gal” special that included an 80-minute massage, acupuncture session, and pedicure.

The spa had a custom-formed massage table for a round belly. I tottered over in my towel, which barely covered my backside, and jumped on my tiptoes to hoist myself onto the high table. I opened the door and called for help. A masseuse appeared, toned and groomed, and asked if everything was okay.

“Yeah I’m fine. Can you help me onto the table?” I asked.

She shut the door and took out a stepping stool. She held out her arm and helped me roll onto the table. My towel slipped off in the process.

“I’m sorry,” I said, covering myself with my hands.

“It happens all the time,” she said, smiling at my naked penguin body.

She extracted fresh towels from the cabinet and laid them over my body, mummifying me from my shoulders to my calves. Then she left the room.  I remained frozen on my side, afraid the towel might fall off again. I still had not gotten used to my body— this teetering, temporary body with a stomach so heavy and unbalanced that even the fitted pregnancy table made me feel as though I might topple over.

As I lay staring at a single flaming candle, my neck planted in the moldable pillow, this woman’s hard knuckles fingering my back, I felt my baby girl being to kick. She seemed to like this woman kneading my back much more than I did, because she kicked with more vigor than she had in weeks. Perhaps it was fun, like a rollercoaster, having someone squish the bubble around you, but I felt nauseated by her touch. My baby and I would probably disagree on many things.

“Not so hard, please.” I said to the masseuse. The baby stopped kicking.

She took some warm, pungent oil and smeared it over my neck and back. She told me to turn over and started making tiny circles on my abdomen in a way that was pleasant but alien.

“How many months along are you?” she asked.

“Seven months,” I said with a plastered smile. “It’s my first child.”

“Boy or girl?”

“Girl.”

“It’s a girl!” she beamed. “Aren’t you so excited?”

“Yeah!” I replied, trying out an intonation that was higher pitched than usual. “We are thrilled! We are going to name her Maria.”

She grinned at me, still circling her fingers on my stomach. This baby was already making strangers so happy. I thought pregnancy would have made me happier, given me a sense of instant social validation that would glide me through the day like a fine-tuned compliment, or at least glowing skin. I thought when I satisfied all the important life markers— husband, child, occupation—all by the age of 25, I would have a life that was mine, that didn’t require the constant explanation my own family did. But pretending I was as fulfilled by these things as people expected me to be was exhausting. None of these things were for me, the real, true, inner me, they were just feeding some idealized version of me that persisted despite her dysfunctional family.

“What does your husband do?” she asked.

“He’s a psychiatrist,” I said.

“Oh! A doctor!” she gasped.

“I guess psychiatrists are technically doctors,” I said. “I mean most of them are drug dealers really. He’s not like that, but his cohort is full of the absolute worst people.”

She furrowed her brows and began pounding her fists on my arms. Perhaps it wasn’t the time for my opinions on the pharmaceutical industry. I looked at my arms; they had grown so plump in the last few months. My whole body had swelled like a mosquito bite. I wondered if I’d ever get my 23-inch waist back, or if after giving birth my stomach would deflate like a hot air balloon and I’d just be left with a sack of skin I’d have to lift up to wash.

“You live around here?” she asked.

“No I live in New York. I’m here for my baby shower.”

“How fun! We just threw one for my daughter’s best friend. My daughter’s a little older than you. Hasn’t found anyone yet, though. It’s hard.”

“Yeah, it’s hard.”

“All of her friends are married. I think she’s too picky.”

“Hmm, well, it’s good to be picky,” I said. “What does she do?”

“She works as an aid to special needs children. She really likes it.”

“Oh, cool. I was going to teach special needs—my younger sister has autism— but I got a job at a private school and took that instead.”

“That must be hard on your parents,” she said, massaging the area underneath my breasts.

“It’s just my mom. My dad lives in Colorado.”

“Oh.”

“And her doll just died.”

“What?”

“She had a doll she carried around all the time, like a child. It died.”

“Oh no! How did it die?”

“Complications from surgery.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay. We’re having a funeral for it the same day of my shower.”

“Really?” she laughed. “A funeral for a doll?”

“Yeah.”

“That’s cute,” she said.

“I just wish it weren’t the same day.”

“Yeah but you’re lucky— you have a husband and a baby on the way and she will never have those things. She’ll never have anything real.” She stopped massaging me.

“Her dolls are just as real to her,” I said.

“Exactly,” she said, patting my belly as though it were a small dog.

“Do you want to take a shower before your pedicure?” she asked.

*

My teenage cousins were playing “Bobbing for Nipples,” a game that substituted baby bottle nipples for apples. Dunking their heads, they bit the baby bottle nipples then released them onto the floor like carnivorous animals tearing through flesh. They were getting the living room all wet.

My husband brought me a large piece of gluten-free cake and started rubbing my back. “I’m so sorry,” he said. I saw he’d poured himself a glass of Rosé.

“I thought you were going to stop drinking out of pregnancy solidarity,” I said.

“I can’t today.”

“This cake tastes like printer paper,” I said, coveting his plate of ribs and fried chicken.

“Want to go next?” my cousins pleaded.

My husband shook his head and watched Katrina seize a bedside table from my mothers’ room and head to the backyard.

“I wish I hadn’t let my mother plan my shower,” I said as she walked over.

My mother told everyone to gather round and announced we were going to play some ‘funny games.’ My aunts came in from the kitchen. My grandmother, who spent family gatherings cleaning up as the party went along, lay back on the armchair opposite me. My mother-in-law sat next to my husband, eyeing his quickly dwindling glass of wine. At once everyone surrounded me, the big fat pregnant lady too delicate to stand up.

My mother had a sly smirk bubbling as she looked at us. “We’re all going to share our most embarrassing story about the parents-to-be! I’ll go first. When Vera was 11 years old, she peed her pants in the school library because she needed to know the ending of some book. Haha! What was the book, Vera?”

“I don’t remember,” I said. “But I wet the bed last week because pregnancy has made me incontinent. There’s my embarrassing story!”

My aunts looked at me as if they weren’t sure I was joking.

“Any more stories?” I prodded. Everyone refused eye contact with me.

“Alright mom, what’s the next game?”

“Well I was going to suggest ‘Guess the Mother’s Measurements,’ but it doesn’t seem as though you’re in the mood to be measured.”

“No, thank you.”

“Okay, how about ‘Pin the diaper on the belly?’”

“Why do all these games involve everyone touching me?”

My husband interrupted her. “Hey, I’ve got an idea. Since you guys are an artistic family, why doesn’t everyone do a sketch of what they think our child would look like? Vera and I will do one as well. I can’t promise mine will be very good but…”

“Mine either,” my cousin, now carrying a bundle of baby bottle nipples, said.

My mother tore out several pages from a sketchbook and passed them around, then went to her room to fetch some pencils.

“Do you have a surface to put under the paper?” my Aunt Jefflyn asked. My cousin handed her a large hardcover book.

For ten minutes everyone was silent. It had been years since I’d drawn anything, but my skills had not left me. My husband showed me his drawing of an asymmetrical being with a mass of curls on its head.”

“That doesn’t even look human,” I said. “It looks like Marissa.”

Katrina emerged from the hallway with an office chair she’d stolen from my mother’s studio. She slid it violently across the hardwood floor.

“Funeral’s starting! Time for Marissa’s funeral!” She lifted the chair above her head and descended to the backyard.

My mother waited until she was out of sight and with a lowered voice said, “It is important for her to ‘bury’ this doll obsession she’s had forever.” She used air quotes. “You can stay if you want, but no pressure.”

“What about my gifts?” I asked, motioning to the pile of unopened presents.

“Actually, I’ve got to get going,” my aunt Sharon said. “I have to pick up Robby from detention.”

Katrina was back in the kitchen collecting chairs for her funeral to bring into the backyard. My other relatives began making excuses to leave, but a couple of my mother’s friends stayed, I think, out of loyalty to her. Katrina emerged from the garage with a misshapen wooden box she’d apparently carpentered last night. It was Marissa’s coffin.

Six humans stayed for the service. Most of the seats were filled with Katrina’s other “adopted children.” Ginger, a Black Raggedy Ann doll, sat on Katrina’s lap. Beside her were David and Yolanda (infant refugees from Syria), and a heap of dolls in the seat next to mine. I sat in the only seat I could fit in, a reclining lawn chair that had a cup holder.

“Full throttle funeral experience,” I uttered, nearly prostrate in the lawn chair. My mother looked down at the notecard with a speech Katrina had prepared. Next to her was Katrina’s best friend Gracie, a girl from her class, and the girl’s aunt, also named Gracie.

“Thank God Marissa is dead!” Aunt Gracie bellowed, laughing. “I hope she buries all of them! Let’s get rid of all these imaginaries!”

“Well I think it’s nice she has these dolls. I remember seeing this one a lot when I babysat her. She just wants company,” our 70-year old neighbor added.

My mother stood up to make her speech. She let out an unapologetic sigh and said, with palpable sarcasm, “Marissa was my granddaughter. She was very kind and I miss her. I think we all miss her because she said nice things to us. Thank you.

I stared at the coffin as Katrina informed the six guests that refreshments were to be served in the kitchen, a slideshow of Marissa’s life to be played. I studied the pamphlet Katrina had created. A square picture of Marissa accompanied her eulogy:

~ Marissa was born on October 26 in Pasadena, CA and diagnosed with primordial dwarfism at birth. She got pink eye when she was 2 because the nanny kept putting makeup on her. She wore gothic makeup, black clothing, and red lipstick. She was a wonderful 1st grader. She likes meditation music, art, and even other things. She wanted to be a writer but she decided to be a teacher to help humans in real life. But she is not in the special needs class. She liked to read and write. She writes “thank u” notes and stuff like that. She was good at painting nails. She used to have playmates. She used to have so much fun. She was a good shopper. Marissa was found suspiciously decapitated in the kitchen on June 17. She was supposed to have the body repaired but it didn’t work on her and so she died. But she was very helpful and she thinks of others. We wish that someone could do lots of things like Marissa. ~

I wondered what she was going to do with the coffin, assuming that actually burying the doll in our backyard would be too much, even for her. I looked around and noticed others staring at the doll coffin, too.

Katrina duct taped a lid over the coffin, shook it to be sure it was securely sealed, and then began digging a hole in the abandoned flowerbed with her bare hands. It was astounding how quickly she plowed through the soil.

“Bye Marissa!” she said, laughing as she packed dirt over her grave.

We moved to the living room and the remaining guests began gathering their belongings.

“It’s not over,” Katrina said, fiddling with the DVD player in the living room. Marissa’s face flashed on the screen, beginning a slideshow of unflattering images of her accompanied by oceanic sounds. After watching for a polite amount of time, I started collecting the dirty paper plates strewn around and all the guests vacated.

“Marissa led a happy life,” Katrina assured herself before returning to her room without warning. “She was a nice midget.”

*

It was thundering that night as I sifted through my baby shower gifts. My husband and I were in my old bedroom on a mattress still fitted with leopard print sheets. He was gradually polishing off the rest of the wine as I made a spreadsheet of everyone’s gifts on my laptop. Someone gave me a breast pump as a gift and my husband pulled it out and held it up in the air like a beer bong.

“You know, this would go faster if you recorded the gifts and names as I went through them,” I said, reading a bib that said Blame my parents. I winced. “What is wrong with my cousin?”

“Usually, you have your girlfriends do that,” he said, squinting. “But you didn’t even invite your friends from high school.”

“I did invite them,” I said. “They didn’t come.”

“What happened to the pretty one we got drinks with?” This was probably the only one he remembered.

“She lives in Ireland. She has for three years.”

“What about Lucy? The lawyer?”

“I told you what happened with her ex’s weird obsession with me.”

“Oh,” he looked around.

“So did anyone get us that crib I put on our registry? I did a lot of research. It’s the safest out of the nicer looking cribs.”

“No, but my mom gave us five hundred dollars.”

“I think it cost more than that,” he said. He squinted as he took another swig from the bottle.

It was easier for me to stop drinking when I learned I was pregnant, because I no longer felt alone in my body. But it was harder for my husband, who would always feel alone in this house.

I unwrapped another square package and pulled out a neon light-up bouncy seat. It screamed animal noises at me. I scrambled to find the off button but there was none.

“This is from Uncle Bob and Olivia,” I told my husband. He wearily typed in the gifts. I crumpled the wrapping paper and deposited it in the trash bag.

The next package felt fragile but heavy and I only had to pry open one corner of the box to see what was inside.

“This dish set, from my Aunt Jefflyn, and these pot holders also,” I told him. “Hello?”

I looked over at him, peacefully asleep with his mouth agape. He had the wine bottle in one hand and the laptop in the other.

I took the computer from him and set it on my stomach, a convenient table, and typed in the information myself.

Katrina’s gift stood out from the pile because of its bright blue wrapping paper, crumpled around an amorphous object. I never knew what to expect from her gifts. One birthday, I got a single paper clip, tucked inside a set of boxes stacked inside each other like Russian Dolls. Another year, a gift card to Staples that had no money on it.

Inside the manila envelope attached to the horridly wrapped gift were twenty-six cards: one from her and the others signed from each of her dolls’ names. It was all in her frenetic handwriting. I threw the envelope across the room and squatted down to grab the present.

I tried to rip the paper open, but my sister had spun packing tape all around the bundle, and so I had to unravel the tape before the paper finally burst open, exploding a bunch of cloth diapers, a hat she’d knitted, and a handwritten note.

 

Hi Vera!

Congratulations on your fetus! It’s too bad Maria and Marissa won’t be cousins anymore because Marissa is with Jesus now but she will have plenty of cousins anyway from around the world to play with including Grana, Prana, Daniel, Ginger, and so many others. They can go on picnics or stuff like that. But I think you will visit now more because we both have babies. I have so many babies. But maybe yours will be a midget and look like Marissa- RIP.  Please don’t be selfish like dad. There is so much to do here including museums, parks, restaurants, salsa dancing, and even yoga classes.

Love,

Katrina and others

 

I imagined us all on a picnic blanket, displayed at a public park: Maria and I, Katrina and her clown-faced dolls, my mom and her wine, surrounded by strangers with suspicious glances, other families and units. At the thought of this scene I didn’t feel trapped or ashamed or even abnormal. I felt my baby girl pedaling on my stomach, pleasant, like a back scratch.

 

 

BIO

Sola Saar was born in southern California and lives in New York. Her nonfiction work has been featured in The Huffington Post, Flaunt, Bullett, Hyperallergic, Whitewall Magazine, Salon, and ArtSlant. An excerpt from her novel was featured in Ishmael Reed’s Konch magazine. She graduated from UC Berkeley and is getting her MFA in Fiction at Columbia University.

 

 

 

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Evidence Room

by Megan Fahey

 

 

10 Fun Facts from the EVIDENCE ROOM of Oxendine O’Shea

  1. Oxendine was born in July of 1974 to Cora and Matthew O’Shea of San Ysidro, California.
  2. The full name on her birth certificate is Shannon Marie O’Shea.
  3. She was one funky bitch.
  4. From 1997-2002, Oxendine was the bassist and front-woman for the Ithaca Funk Company, an alternative-funk band who toured with Incubus, Radiohead, and Collective Soul after the success of IFC’s first and only album: Veterans’ Day.
  5. O’Shea’s axe of choice was a 1972 semi-hollowbody Gibson painted with a ruby-red glimmer finish that matched her birthstone.
  6. She is most remembered for her unusual performance style, which blended her eclectic tastes with her intense displays of emotion. Many fans recall O’Shea’s sobbing musically into the microphone during live events and fainting during especially rigorous solos.
  7. Oxendine wore the word “GRACE” printed on a solid black t-shirt to every show, plain black wayfarer sunglasses, and huge hoop earrings that clicked against the tuning keys of her guitar and could be heard in the background of the tracks on IFC’s studio album.
  8. She always slipped off her shoes before taking the stage.
  9. On Veterans’ Day 2002, after fraternizing with a fan after a show in Columbus Ohio, Oxendine O’Shea followed him for twenty-eight miles to his home just outside Lancaster and slaughtered the fan, his wife, and his two sons with a hatchet.
  10. She is currently serving life in prison.

The most valuable thing Tommy Hollinger owned was a business-grade paper shredder. With a vigorous whirr of its industrial teeth, the shredder disintegrated any chance of Tommy’s personal information making it into the hands of the mysterious, malevolent, trash-diving public. And Tommy loved the way it tore. The shredder occupied a position of prominence in his home office, nestled decoratively in a nook near his desk in his at-home workstation, positioned directly beneath his empty mahogany diploma holder and an 8×10 framed photo of his parents from their latest trip to the Swiss Alps.

The shredder’s name was Victoria.

The diploma holder was empty because, even though Tommy was twenty-five years old, he had changed his college major each academic year since he turned nineteen to reflect his artistic redirection. When the wealthy friends of his parents asked what in heaven’s name he was still doing in college, he had no trouble citing instantly his love and his loyalty for art. His difficulty, then, was choosing which field.

He spent a year experimenting with watercolors, but his landscapes lacked definition and blurred unnaturally. Each of these works he ran through the shredder, whose teeth, by the end of the collection, were flecked with vibrant shades of red and orange. After a failed year in a sculpture workshop, he malleted the projects his know-nothing professors compared crassly to phalluses and let Victoria, the shredder, chew the thin strips of soft clay in order to digest them. He spent some time as a novelist and wept when his classmates labeled his work as “derivative” and “popular.” The shredder made quick work of their feedback and of his manuscript, which he fed to it page by page.

One Sunday afternoon, Tommy took it upon himself to sort the junk mail that had scattered in disorganized piles around his kitchen table. He shredded his credit card offers first, primarily in order to avoid temptation, but also since the slicing plastic made such tremendous noise. Next came the bills he couldn’t afford to pay; the federal unsubsidized loan statements he would take to the grave; and, finally, magazines. Tommy Hollinger never filled out a magazine subscription, and yet received up to three or four weekly periodicals addressed to T. HOLLINGER or TOMMY HOLGER or RESIDENT. They were mostly general readers in science and engineering slathered with high-resolution color images. Some were sports-based or automotive. Others outlined best housekeeping practices. Tommy suspected they were anonymous gifts from his father purposed to steer him clear of the humanities.

Regardless, he gave them little more than a disinterested leaf. He skimmed the subheadings of an article about an elephant painting a portrait of an elephant before tearing those pages, like all the others, and tossing them into the shredder, until he happened upon a full-page ad whose stock was unlike any he’d ever felt. The ad was thicker, sure, than a standard page, though surely not as thick as a subscription card insert, and blacker, too, as though the ink might drip right off the gloss and stain his hands and boots and jeans.

The words “EVIDENCE ROOM” were capped and bolded across the top of the page in a large, debossed serif font. Tommy ran his fingers across the text. Police badges with scowling eyes adorned both ends, and the two Os in ROOM were conjoined with a short, shiny length of chain, like handcuffs.

He dropped it into Victoria’s mouth, but it just wouldn’t shred.

“Cool,” Tommy said.

 

 

About EVIDENCE ROOM:

From diamonds to hybrids, EVIDENCE ROOM has it all—the only authentic mail-order service for criminally confiscated items nationally sanctioned by the US Constitution. Based on a short customer-personality profile, EVIDENCE ROOM tailor-fits our products to match your unique tastes. For a one-time payment of $99.99 (+13.99 S&H), you’ll receive all the luxuries that once belonged to the scum of the earth. Don’t let these luxury items rot just because their owners are!

 

How to Order from EVIDENCE ROOM by mail:

  • Please include the completed personality profile found on the reverse of this page.
  • On a separate sheet of paper, attach your shipping address (billing address, if different) and contact information, including e-mail and telephone number with country code and area code if applicable.
  • Include a personal check or money order in the amount of $99.99, plus $13.99 shipping and handling, and 8.5% sales tax (a total of $122.48) made out to EVIDENCE ROOM.
  • If paying by credit card, please include the 16-digit credit card number, the expiration date, and the 3-digit CVC located on the back.

You’ll receive your specially chosen EVIDENCE ROOM package within ten business days along with a fun fact sheet detailing your item’s role in its criminal’s history. EVIDENCE ROOM is 100% legal and safe. All items have been sterilized and registered for public use. No refunds or exchanges. All sales final.

 

Testimonials from satisfied customers of the EVIDENCE ROOM:

“First, I want to say thanks, EVIDENCE ROOM. This is my first time doing this. At first I thought it was fake, then I sent in my information and got my package and said ‘okay, I guess this is real.’ I got a set of Eisenhower Dollars and a Pirate belt buckle that was very unique, so again I have to say thanks, EVIDENCE ROOM.”
—Sergio, Farmingdale, NY

 

“I LOVE what I got from EVIDENCE ROOM. I have a teenage grandson who lives with me and he is BIG on gaming and just broke his leg in a biking accident. EVIDENCE ROOM sent us a new mountain bike and a few video games, plus an old black and white TV like the one I used to have. This is GREAT!!!”
—Cheryl M., Northvue, PA

 

“Oh, yes. I am very happy. I think this might be my destiny.”
—Matthew B., Fort Lauderdale, FL


  

The parcel addressed to Tommy Hollinger—his name finally spelled correctly on the label—measured 18”x7”x52” and waited outside his front door for his return from class. It was crowded inside by mint green packing nuts and sealed within two cardboard tombs, mummified in an entire roll of thick packing tape, and wrapped in an oversized, storm-gray plastic pouch that rustles when the wind slips past.

That stormy wind blew Tommy’s tufted hair behind his ears. Despite his having mailed the proper amount of money, and the filled-out personality sheet, and the added list of contact information, and despite the day’s date still falling within the ten business day window, Tommy struggled to believe his eyes. He shifted the straps of the backpack on his shoulders. He tilted his head to further examine the mailing label for clues about the box’s contents, but he kept his distance.

He laughed at his own unease.

He scaled the porch stairs with a string of easy bounds and slogged inside the house, dragging the package with him into the office, near the shredder. He disappeared to the kitchen to trade his schoolbooks for a steak knife. He tilted the package on its side and punctured the outer plastic layer clean through—a deep, sloppy, vertical wound. He worked through the packing tape next, splitting the laminated cardboard at the corrugated seams and excising one layer, then the next until the top had been removed and he could hover above the box and peer inside like a god. An envelope tucked among the peanuts read “10 Fun Facts from the EVIDENCE ROOM.” Tommy read the note, then slid it into the back pocket of his blue jeans.

He breathed and forced out a laugh. It was safe, the magazine said, and legal, and couldn’t be as dangerous as it had been in the hands of its former owner, that criminal sleaze. Tommy’s arms plunged deeper into the box and rooted around until his fingers wrapped something slim and solid and shimmering ruby red: a four-string bass guitar. A tag hung from the neck, tied with thin white twine. In red ink, the words:

so? you want to be an artist, don’t you?

He spent the rest of the afternoon in his hickory desk chair practicing slow jazzy riffs and bluesy syncopations.

Later that evening, during a surprise visit from his parents, Tommy’s father loosened his tie and called his son’s fretwork “dog shit.”  His mother pecked at her polished nails and chewed her lip.

“What are you so worried about, Mom?” Tommy said. He propped one foot on the arm of the couch. The guitar strings thunked in discord.

She whispered, “Thomas.” Her eyes darted about. “A criminal had this—a murderer.”

“You’re just afraid I might actually be good at this—that this might be a little thing called fate.”

“No, that’s not it,” she said. “A normal woman doesn’t just go around killing people with a hatchet. A hatchet, Tommy.”

He laughed. “Don’t worry, Ma. I won’t forget you when I’m famous.”

“That’s not what I—”

“And I’ll stay away from fast gangs and loose drugs and dirty women.”

“I just don’t like the idea of any son of mine playing an instrument that once belonged to some—you know—some—”

“Murderer?” his father said. “Butcher? Monster? Psychopath?”

“No one said she was a psychopath,” Tommy said. “The police never found out why she did it.”

“Sounds like a psychopath to me,” his father said.

“Whatever,” said Tommy.

“But what if she gets out of jail and finds out you’ve got her guitar?” His mother’s eyes welled up. “Or what if—what if it’s cursed or something?”

“What do you think’s gonna happen, Mom? That I’m gonna touch the guitar and turn into some kind of killer? Is that it? That it wasn’t Oxendine O’Shea who killed that family at all? It was her bass all along?” He raised it high above his head and laughed.

“Oh, Tommy,” she cried.

“I’m just messing around, Mom. You got nothing to worry about. If I start acting crazy, just tell me.”

“You’re acting crazy,” his father said.

“Shut up, Dad. This music thing—it’s really changed my life.”

Tommy’s father clicks on the television. “Yeah,” he says, “Maybe you ought to write old what’s-her-name a letter that says thanks for getting locked up.”

 

 

Dear Oxendine—

I hope it’s okay if I call you Oxendine; that’s just the way that I feel when I think about you—Oxendine. I know that probably sounds weird. Maybe it’s because of how your name is like oxygen. Oxygen is one of those things that makes you happy, right? I think I remember studying that in one of my science classes. I’m more of a humanities guy to be honest, but I think I remember that thing about oxygen, and that’s why your name reminds me of you—because before I knew about you, I felt like I was drowning in everything I tried, felt like I couldn’t come up for air, and then suddenly there you were: Oxendine. Fresh Oxendine.

 

You can call me Tommy. My full name is Tommy Hollinger, which I know sounds a lot like Tommy Hilfiger, so don’t even bother saying that because, ha-ha, I’ve already heard it my whole life. Anyway, I’m writing you because we got matched up in the EVIDENCE ROOM. Do you know what that is? I’m not really sure how long it’s been around, and how long have you been in the joint anyway? I bet you’re really popular among the inmates because of your music. Is everyone jealous of your haircut there? Do you ever sing songs to help you sleep when the lights go out?

 

So, good news. You know your guitar? The red one? Well, the police decided they didn’t need to keep it anymore, so they sold it to me through their mail-order catalog. I didn’t exactly pick it. That’s not really how it works. You see, I wanted to be an artist, but the trouble was I was bad at everything I tried. I never tried music before, but I’ve been messing around with the bass, and I think, with a little hard work and sacrifice, this might be my destiny. It’s only been about two weeks so far, and I’ve already almost taught myself to play most of “Smoke on the Water.” If you want, I could try to record it and send it to you. Would you have any way of listening to a cassette?

I hope to hear from you soon, and thanks again,

 

Tommy Hollinger


PS: I know you’re not innocent, but I’m sure that jerk you killed deserved it. Rock on.

 

 

 

TO: Tommy Hollinger

FROM: Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility, San Ysidro, CA

RE: Inmate 90662-W |O’Shea

 

 

Listen here, Tommy Hilfiger.

 

You think you know sacrifice?

 

You’ll find out.

-Oxy

 

 

Tommy skipped class to hold band auditions in his at-home office. He worked up jams with dozens of drummers and one twelve-year-old boy who played the trombone, but none of them could keep time or fill in the bottom quite right. When the applicant pool ran dry, he ran a ream of old-time continuous stationary with perforated edges through his paper shredder, and riffed solos over its electric hum.

He fixed the letter from Oxendine into the empty diploma for inspiration. The first original song Tommy Hollinger wrote was a funky love ballad called “You’ll Find Out.” He played a steady chromatic scale, and fed the shredder, Victoria, a long, fat E-string. It took her two minutes and twenty-three seconds to digest. He debuted the tune at open mics along the downtown nightlife strips. After his first paid gig, he celebrated by getting blackout drunk and having the name “-Oxy” tattooed on the side of his neck. He played at just the right volume and was kind to the bar staff and applauded by the patrons. The owner of the Lava Lounge offered him a regular Tuesday night spot for a hundred bucks a week and six free beers a night.

Tommy’s cell phone rang while he paced backstage the night of his first headline show. It was his father.

“If you’re missing class for this—” he said. “—You can kiss that apartment goodbye. I mean it. I’m not fronting your rent anymore if you’re gonna shirk your studies to go off playing rock star wannabe.”

“Fine,” said Tommy. “You’ll find out.”

“Stop saying that!”

“What did he say?” His mother’s voice was far away on the phone. “Did he say it again? Let me talk to him.” A pause. “Tommy, honey. This has gone far enough. I’m worried about you.”

“Mom, I’m just having fun,” Tommy laughed.

The opening band finished packing their equipment. The emcee announced Tommy’s name and the crowd shrieked on the open floor below the stage. A “Tom-my! Tom-my!” chant went up, and Tommy shouted into the phone: “Hear that, Mom? That’s for me. They’re cheering for me.”

He slipped off his shoes before entering the spotlight. The ruby red paint on that hot guitar body reflected every last photon back into the wailing crowd. Two men headbutted and screamed in each other’s faces. A girl in front in a white ribbed tank top cried. It was the biggest crowd Tommy had ever seen—two hundred strong.

He took a nervous step backward, stumbling into a hidden, black barstool. Two ice-cold, longneck beers teetered on the seat. When Tommy picked one up, his hands jittered, and he drank the whole thing in one blast so the crowd wouldn’t notice his nerves. They cheered all the harder. His hands shook more. His mouth to the microphone, Tommy yelled, “Hello, Pittsburgh!” but he was energized and anxious and a little bit drunk, so it came out “Hullo, Piss-burgh.”

But no one cared.

“We love you, Tommy!” someone yelled.

He reached back for the other beer and took a sip before setting it on the edge of the stage and settling back onto the stool. He strummed once slowly. The crowd devoured the sound.

“This is, um—” he said. “I’m gonna start off with something new.”

He unbuttoned his shirt and fed the cuff of the sleeve through the paper shredder. It moaned slow and low, consuming his clothes.

“This is a new song I wrote called ‘Sacrifice’.”

It was an instant classic. In the middle of the hottest lick of the solo, Tommy stood up from the stool and approached the front-row fans who pawed lovingly at the soles of his feet. He crooned a line about truth and beauty to a girl with neon eye shadow and false lashes. She reached for him like his touch might save her life. He stopped playing and extended his hand to hers, but he couldn’t quite reach. He bent lower toward her, lower.

But he couldn’t keep his balance, and kicked over the bottle of beer, which foamed and dripped and splashed the board that controlled the spotlight and the speakers, and the electrical board his shredder was plugged into. The mic squealed. Smoke and sparks erupted from Tommy’s pedalboard and the power strip along the front of the stage, and the paper shredder choked on one of the shirt’s buttons and began to overheat. A small but hot white flame caught and ignited the thick black skirt of the stage. The fans screamed with dread. They rioted and moshed and shoved and evacuated.

Barefoot, bass in hand, Tommy escaped through the backstage door and hurtled to his car. The window was broken in. Glass covered the driver’s seat. His radio/tape deck was gone, but the car still ran. He accelerated through traffic lights and stop signs, straight out of town, back to the edge of the suburbs to his apartment, where his father had already changed the locks.

He ran around to the back of the building, to the window of his at-home office. He banged it with his fists, but he couldn’t break it. He hoisted the bass over his head and smashed it through the pane before hobbling his own body inside, slicing his bare chest on a rogue shard of busted glass. He sat on the clean square of carpet where his most precious item, his paper shredder, once rested. He leaned against the wall and gathered his knees to his chest and bled. He tugged at his hair.

“What have I done?” he said. His voice fractured. “This wasn’t supposed to—” he said. And, “I never wanted to—” he said.

Then a low lub-dup beat echoed softly in the darkness. It took Tommy a full minute to realize it wasn’t the sound of his own heart. There was someone else in the room.

“I thought you wanted to be an artist,” she said. She was holding the guitar. The smallest three strings were snapped. She flickered the E string with the edge of a ruby-handled hatchet.

“Tommy Hollinger,” she said. “Let’s shred together.”

 

 

BIO

Megan Fahey received her MFA from West Virginia University in 2017. In addition to having some short plays produced, her work has appeared in Southern Humanities Review, The Tulane Review, and Blinders Journal.

 

 

 

0

That Night

by Abbey McLaughlin

 

 

“Delinquent beyond a reasonable doubt. He’ll be put away for at least two years. The other, for one.”

The judge gathered up his paperwork and stepped out from behind his desk, and the room erupted in emotional preparation for departure. One of the boys started crying—bawling long, heavy, ugly sobs. His family as well as his lawyer were equally tearful, all hands placed on shoulders as though forming a prayer. My mom cleared her throat.

“Should we go?” she asked.

She was standing behind me. When I turned my head to face her, I caught sight of the other one. He was crying—I could tell by the way his chest rose and fell—but he was trying not to and he was angry. They were angry tears. His dad squeezed his shoulder. His mom was crying desperately.

“Honey,” I heard my mother nudge.

I gathered up my things, hands still sweaty and shaking, and adjusted my blazer. As soon as the doors of that Ohio courtroom swung on their hinges, blinding flashes of thunderous crowds fought each other to ask me a question. My dad pushed them away and my mom held me close, pulling me down the endless corridors. I didn’t realize I too had begun to cry until we fell into the car and I could breathe again. I should be happy. I should be relieved.

 

When we finally made it home, all three of us were exhausted. I kissed both my parents good night and went to brush my teeth, tilting my head to the side, fixated on the scar on my forehead. I found my mom meandering around aimlessly in the kitchen, banging dishes and shutting cupboards. “Do I notice the scar so much because I know it’s there or because it’s noticeable?” I asked her. She shrugged and told me that no one would notice. My dad was on the phone in the bedroom down the hall, talking to someone about me. Since all this had begun, he had developed—perfected—a phlegmatic, quiet voice used exclusively when referring to “the Incident,” as he called it. I called it rape.

 

My alarm rang rather unceremoniously six hours later. I opened my eyes. I felt as though I had only just shut them. I returned to the bathroom, reexamining the scar, pasting concealer over it without much success. My morning routine felt more soporific than before—brushing my teeth again, straightening my hair, choosing clothes, packing my lunch—all of it seemed to drain energy reserves. The house was still dark, all the lights still off. I didn’t like being the first one up again. For the remainder of the morning, I prepared for school in somewhat of a daze, hardly able to remember where I was getting ready to go, or if I’d added sugar to the coffee in my thermos before I climbed into my car. After almost three months of slow days spent with my parents and my lawyer, my stomach fluttered at the sight of our big, glass high school entrance. I sat in my car for a moment longer, surveying the campus from my safe enclosure. No reporters or cameras caught my attention. The coast was clear—I had to go in. As I was stepping out of my car, my phone vibrated in my pocket. Thank God—Kristin had received my texts, and would wait by my locker for me.

 

When I first joined the moving traffic of the north hallway, no one seemed to notice. I blended in well enough and avoided awkward encounters with those who had made guest appearances in the courtroom, careful not to cross paths with the football players in particular. As she’d promised, Kristin was leaning against the lockers near mine. I smiled at her, tugging my earbuds out of my ears. I realized I’d forgotten my locker combination, but Kristin knew it by heart, and told me the numbers. The act of opening my locker seemed to set off an alarm to the school. Like a swarm of wasps, heads turned. Kristin and I both sensed the changed decibel levels of interrupted conversations. I pretended not to notice and hoped Kristin would too. I dumped all my textbooks back into my locker save my chemistry book and followed my friend up the stairs. We didn’t say much on our way to our classes. She departed with a half-hearted, “see you at lunch,” and turned for the room down the hall from mine.

 

“Welcome back,” Mrs. Freed, my chemistry teacher, said as I sat down. The few who had also arrived already stared unapologetically. This was somehow worse than the reporters. I watched Henry, my lab partner, walk into the room. I greeted him as he took his seat next to me, but he just nodded. He’d been at the party.

“Let’s jump right back in with some nomenclature practice,” she continued, passing out sheets of paper. Henry handed me my copy of the activity carefully.

“Thanks,” I mumbled. We’d actually made great lab partners last semester. He was better with the information; I was better with the actual handling of chemicals. I’d been looking forward to seeing him, but, like most of my reunions at that point, tension was almost tangible. “Can I borrow your notes tonight?”

Henry scratched his forehead and arranged his papers as though this took too much mental attention to answer my questions.

“Henry?”

“I don’t have them,” he lied. I told him that it was okay, and leaned back against my orange plastic chair. When class had been dismissed, I approached Mrs. Freed and quietly asked if she had a note packet or something that I could use to catch up.

Mrs. Freed looked up at the remaining students packing their backpacks. “Can someone loan her their notes from the last unit?” she said loudly, pointing a crooked, hot pink fingernail at me. An intransigent silence ensued. Eventually, Macy surrendered her notebook and asked me to have it back to her by tomorrow.

 

I mean, it’s not like I expected a “welcome back” party. No one was spitting in my face or adorning me with a scarlet letter A, but it seemed that nobody was talking to me at all. Maybe they all just felt too awkward. If I’m being honest with myself, probably more than half the school saw the pictures that circulated that October. I know that I wasn’t exactly making good decisions, but nobody was. Of all the awful choices made that night, were they really going to condemn mine?

 

Mr. Samuels and Mrs. Freed occupied the hallways as we all rushed to our second period classes. Typically, the principal would assume this role, but Kristin had informed me that he and the football coach had been suspended. During the investigation, police discovered that both of them had kept the situation quiet until I’d started pressing charges. My lawyer, Mr. White, promised me that they were his next item on his agenda. I had told him that it was okay, that our trial was good enough, that I was ready to move on.

 

By lunchtime, I was under the impression that the school had followed an entirely different court case—one in which I had murdered two football players and framed the remaining members of the team. Since my entrance into the building, I’d become painfully aware of my role in the newfound shitty reputation of our school. I sat at the table my friends and I had claimed our freshman year, and waited for Eliza and Kristin to show up.

When there was only fifteen minutes left of our lunch break, I moved tables and tried to eat my sandwich with a few girls from my cross country team, who seemed sympathetic but less-than-thrilled by my presence.

None of them did more than smile in my direction, so I decided to initiate the greeting: “Hey guys, how’s it going?”

Lexi gave a half-hearted “fine,” and Miranda gave a shrug.

They sat right near the vending machines. I kept thinking students were coming to see me as so many family members had done throughout the past month or two, but they were just grabbing sodas. Many avoided eye contact with me in obvious, almost comical manners. One guy stared sideways all the way there, grabbed his drink while looking the other way, and then turning to stare in the same direction on his way back to his table. I tried engaging in conversations, desperate for normalcy, but they weren’t interested. I saw two football players come my way. With waves of panic churning up the sandwich I’d just eaten, I left for class early with a muttered “good-bye” to the girls. I didn’t feel like confronting the accomplices.

 

“How was school?” my mother asked when I walked through the door. I couldn’t give her an answer as I dropped by backpack and slid my shoes off. “Honey?” my mother repeated. She wanted a real answer, but if I opened my mouth, I would cry. I sighed.

“It’ll get better,” she said. I nodded, collapsing into our sofa. Mom was watching CNN while she prepared dinner. I closed my eyes, praying my tears would slide back into my head. I was tired of crying.

Sally, I can’t imagine, having heard the judge give sentences for these two star football players—how emotional that must have been in the courtroom.

I opened my eyes.

Yes, I’ve never experienced anything like it, Debra. It was incredibly emotional—incredibly difficult, especially for an outsider like me to watch what happened as these two young men, who had such promising futures—strong football players, very good students. I literally watched as they saw their lives fall apart. When one of the boys, Alex Stevens, heard the judge, he collapsed. He collapsed in tears in the arms of his attorney. I heard him say, “My life is over; no one is going to want me now.” Both were charged with very serious crimes, Debra, found guilty of raping this sixteen-year-old girl at a party back in October—an alcohol-fueled party; alcohol playing a huge part in all of this. The other boy, Jacob Matthews, was charged with a second account of felony illegal use of a minor in nudity-oriented material, because he took a photograph of—

The screen went blank. I turned around and my dad was holding the remote with a trembling hand, his face red. Mom had stopped cutting tomatoes, and was looking at me too.

“That’s how school was, mom,” I said flatly.

Apart from their actual crimes, those two had unknowingly cost my family months of misery. I felt inescapably burdensome to my poor parents. They bore just as much pain from the trial as I did. Work was taken off, attorney bills were paid, tears were shed, sleepless nights were suffered, and public analysis under a microscope was endured. I hoped the boys were thinking about that now, but I doubted it.

 

The three following days were slight improvements. People readjusted to me and I readjusted to them. The cross country team talked to me if no one else was around. My teachers gave me grace on many incomplete assignments. Kristin continued to wait for me by my locker in the morning, but that was all I saw of her. I hadn’t seen Eliza once.

 

We had a mandatory school assembly that Friday. I was rather confused—they’d called my parents to request permission to talk about everything back in November. I remember shrugging—assuming that everyone already had more information than the staff of the high school would ever learn. Through strategic eavesdropping, I discovered that this assembly was directed more about the “change of administration” that had ensued in the last week and a half.

At 2:15, the school flooded the halls, and we all sauntered down to the gymnasium. Everyone was talking about their classes and sports and college applications around me. I stood at the bottom of the bleachers, searching desperately for Eliza and Kristin. They weren’t sitting in our usual spot for pep rallies and student council announcements. I spotted them sitting toward the middle, talking close to each other with their heads bent down, hidden under baseball caps. If I hadn’t been there when we’d all purchased those hats in Siesta Key, I would never have been able to find them. I broke into the mess of people, expecting to get pushed and shoved, but the effort was not necessary. Everyone made sure not to touch me. When I reached their row, I saw the color drain from Eliza’s face. Kristin became way too interested in her phone as I climbed over seated students to where they were. People scooched to the side to make room for me, turning away from me as obviously as my vending machine encounters.

“Hi,” I said to my friends. They looked up at me.

“Hey,” both cooed. “How are you?”

“I’m okay,” I smiled, putting my backpack between my legs.

“Hanging in there?” Eliza said. I nodded, annoyed with her transparent discomfort. She once came over to my house when I had lice and pinkeye without so much as flinching.

“We…We missed you,” Eliza added. “It’s good to have you back.”

“I’m excited to just get things back to normal,” I said, surveying the gymnasium. It felt so different, like they’d all been at the party. Kristin and Eliza looked around too, but their faces told me they had other worries on their minds.

 

Kristin and Eliza had reached out to me when word first spread. They were with me when the text message of which I was the subject finally reached their cell phones. “Ew!” they’d both gasped at first. I had craned my head over their shoulders to see what was so captivating, but they’d just received the follow-up text captioning the photo and had pivoted away from me. “Oh, my God,” I remember Kristin saying.

“Holy shit,” Eliza had said after a minute. Both shoved their phones deep into their back pockets.

“What is it?” I’d asked stupidly.

I hadn’t told anyone about the party at that point. I’d picked myself up from the woods behind the house and drove home. I’d showered, mostly just preoccupied with my terrible headache. It was in the shower that I noticed the blood staining the porcelain floor. I was under the impression I’d just started my period. But then the water began to sting, and it hurt to wash myself. I felt sore everywhere, and I began to count several bruises and scratches. Nothing came back to me—I had no memories to sort through. I stifled a scream, whimpering as the water erased the most damning evidence. Later, in the hospital, the nurse assigned to assess “the damage” had asked about my sexual history. I’d told her—believing myself to be speaking honestly—that I was a virgin. Then she got quiet and walked out for a minute.

That circulated picture proved far more than how much I’d been drinking that night. Without it, I had nothing with which to accuse anyone. Though quite a challenge when forming my case with Mr. White, I was rather glad that I didn’t have any recollection of what must have happened. I didn’t walk in fear of men the way other victims do. I walked with shock that my peers had such power to destroy someone’s life. Then again, they probably thought the same of me when they received their first paperwork about the trial.

Kristin and Eliza had spent that night with me, holding me while I cried. Neither had been at the party—they didn’t like to party. I’d attended it with some cross country friends, but, apparently, had become sidetracked. No one wanted to admit they’d been at the party, and all my information about the night came primarily from rumors Kristin and Eliza had heard.

After that first, terrible night, Kristin or Eliza came over to my house every day, and they sat beside me when I finally told my parents what was going on. They showed my parents and Mr. White the pictures and texts. They sat in the audience for the trial the first two days, but then their parents said that they needed to be in school. I told them I understood. The whole thing ended up taking another two months, and neither them nor I had made much effort to keep in touch.

When everything had leaked into local news, administrative staff that did not work in the high school, including our superintendent, had expressed sincere embarrassment and dismay. My teachers, the vice principal, even my cross country coach, had all remained rather uninvolved, mainly sending me updates on what I was missing and needed to make up. My teammates sent me some cookies and a card, but no one texted in the group chat we’d arranged for the past two years or contacted me personally.

I tried to keep running, but I hardly ever felt like I had enough energy for it. When I emailed my coach to say that I wouldn’t be participating on the track team that spring, I’d received a brief response:

That’s fine. You are not eligible for sports teams at this time. 

My coach didn’t have the guts to say it, but I assumed I’d been kicked off the team for breaking rules regarding underage drinking. I still wondered why none of my other cohorts had been removed, as they were at the party as well.

 

After five more vexatious minutes of small talk with Eliza and Kristin, our vice principal emerged, walking up to the podium arranged in the center. He was wearing an expensive suit, the same one he’d worn in court, and he was holding a crinkled piece of paper.

“Hello students of Creston High,” he began, his mouth way too close to the microphone. The mic echoed his words a little, and the volume had to be adjusted as we were all in danger of going deaf. Once someone gave him a thumbs up, he reluctantly continued. “Thank you for coming today. We need to talk about something serious—something that is long overdue.”

My stomach dropped.

“I understand that there have been several parties over the last few months. I’m sure you are all aware of the particularly tragic events of last October. After some exhaustive administrative changes and meetings, we would like to formally address the school’s current state.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we have lost two important members of our school—”

Principal Shaffer and Coach Whitman, I thought, filling in the sentences in my head to avoid noticing the student body reactions.

“—Jacob Matthews and Alex Stephens are no longer attending Creston, and they will no longer be participating on our football team, along with several others. We are working hard to ensure that we bring justice to the matter while respecting the privacy of everyone. Many of you knew these boys. We kindly request that you would not spread rumors about such circumstances.

“We are also reviewing a few positions of administration,” he said, licking his lips. “We ask that you respect privacy in this process as well. Hopefully, we will not need to make any changes and Principal Shaffer, among others, will be back in no time at all.”

A few people clapped, and the football team all seemed to breathe a collective sigh of relief. The vice principal continued,

“This incident—” he cleared his throat— “this um, chain of events, that has caused all of this confusion and exhaustive investigation, has brought to our attention the serious issue of underage drinking. Students, the legal drinking age is 21 years of age, and none of you meet that requirement. Therefore, none of you should be consuming alcohol, period. The problems we are currently facing are directly related to irresponsible drinking.”

Don’t cry; don’t cry; don’t cry.

I wanted to leave. I considered attempting a second exit. I squirmed. Kristin took my hand.

The vice principal looked visibly uncomfortable by this point. He was reciting a thoroughly-rehearsed speech, but his body language suggested this was perhaps his first experience with public speaking.

“Irresponsible drinking leads to unsafe operation of vehicles, unplanned sexual activity, health problems, and even death. For more information on these very serious effects of underage alcohol drinking, we will be hosting a free seminar on the dangers of it. Our health teacher, Mrs. Fitzgibbon, will be in charge of that. Please be responsible—”

When had I stood up? What was I doing? Heads snapped between the vice principal and I, staring us down like a tennis match. I should sit down, I thought. I should definitely sit down. I had silenced the vice principal though, and everyone was waiting for me.

I took a breath. The gym was still quiet. I expected the vice principal to dismiss me, to tell me to sit down, to say something, but he just stared at me along with the rest of the gym.

I could yell at all of them—tell them that the assembly needed was not about underage drinking, but of sexual assault. I could spell it out for them, how they’ve missed the point. I could yell at myself—apologize to everyone for disturbing the peace. In that moment, though, I realized that none of it mattered. Nothing I could say would make them understand, would make them forgive me, would give me back what I had lost that night.

I thought about the statistics Mr. White had presented to the court—that one in five women are raped in their lifetime and almost none are reported. I looked at the student body and a wave of pity jabbed me. There were others in this room who knew far more about sexual assault than I that also felt silenced. I thought about when my mother had cried, in deep pain, still thanking me for reporting it, for letting them love me. They never blamed me for drinking that night. Why did everyone else?

1,400 sets of eyeballs blinked at me expectantly, but I fell mute and sat back down.

 

 

BIO

Abbey is a senior English and Creative Writing major for a B.A. degree at Indiana Wesleyan University. She has poetry published in her school’s literary magazine, Caesura, but this is her first short story to be published in a recognized literary journal. She is currently an editorial assistant for a small academic publishing company and hopes to eventually edit works of fiction and creative nonfiction. She believes fiction can be a powerful source of social commentary.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Restoration

by Mary Grimm

 

 

Larissa and her friend (for this is what she calls him) go out to dinner once a month, always the same place. They both like it, so there isn’t any reason to change, her friend says, whose name is Roman. He is six years younger than she is, but according to her coworkers at the museum, they look the same age, probably because Larissa dyes her hair, and Roman has a bushy Bible-prophet beard. He picks her up at six (to avoid date-night crowds) and drives her to the Jolly Chef where the hostess can almost always give them the same table. They order and sit waiting for their drinks, Roman tapping his fingers and sweeping his eyes over the other diners. When they have been served, Roman lifts his glass, tipping it toward her, and says “to the fairest one of all,” gesturing around the room. Larissa smiles, and sips her wine. She likes to hear it, even if it’s patently untrue, and has, let’s face it, never been true, even when her flesh was young and firm and her hair its original color. They ask each other what’s new. Larissa tells stories of the museum, the odd things that people bring in, the set of dolls dressed in leather, the painting described by its owner as a spirit painting done by his grandmother in a trance and purporting to be a map of heaven, the ancient wooden sleigh so large it wouldn’t fit in the museum’s garage. Roman talks about his buddies and their doings – fishing in the summer, bowling in the winter. He brings out pictures of his grandchildren to show Larissa. She has come to know them quite well in their absence, and is able to comment knowledgeably on the improvements in their grades, or to compare this year’s prom dress with last year’s. They don’t always order the same thing, but Larissa often has the braised chicken and fennel, and Roman the pasta alfredo with extra sauce. Afterward, Roman drives her home. Every third or fourth time, he comes in and they have a post-dinner drink (bourbon on the rocks) and sex. Roman doesn’t stay the night any more.  He says that he needs his own bed to get a decent night’s sleep. Larissa used to pretend to be disappointed, but now she doesn’t bother.

There’s nothing visible in her house that has anything to do with her son. Whatever is left of him is hidden away, in closets, the attic, the basement. Relics: like the ones they used to display in churches, but these can’t heal. If he were alive he’d be thirty-three, a shadow existence, his revenant growing invisibly older, thinner each year, his tenuous shade coming apart, the strands of him pulling away. Roman doesn’t know that she had a son, nor do the people she works with at the museum. Her coworkers at the office she retired from did, and this is only one of the reasons she was glad to see the last of them.

Larissa is fifty-seven, retired from her job. She worked in an office, in charge of a number of people. There was a lot of email, and birthdays were constantly being celebrated. It’s not important now. She volunteers at a museum several days a week because she likes to keep busy. But she keeps time for her passions, which are: cooking, reading, playing the electronic piano.

Larissa is not sure that she’s a very sensual person. She likes sex, pretty much, but she always feels as if she doesn’t know what she’s doing. It doesn’t come naturally to her.

Larissa had a dream last night, about her father, who in the dream was laying out his ancient tools on the redwood picnic table that used to sit on her parents’ patio thirty years ago. Larissa watches him puttering around, thinking (in the dream) that she should get up and start dinner. Which is strange. Is she her mother? She looks at her hands, stretching out her fingers: they are her own hands, but still she has the restless urge that she should be doing something. When she looks back to her father, thinking that she should ask him what he’d like her to do, she finds that it’s not her father bending over the picnic table, but her son, looking just as he did in the year or two before he died.

Larissa’s mother was very beautiful. Some used to think that Larissa might resent her mother, since she herself was only attractive in an entirely ordinary way, but this isn’t true. Larissa loved her mother. But she dislikes her mother’s sister, who did resent Larissa’s mother for her beauty. Her aunt is still alive at eighty-one, and seems to think this a well-earned triumph over Helen, Larissa’s mother, who died some years ago.

When Larissa drives to work at the museum, she goes through her mother’s old neighborhood, where her family lived when they first came to the city. The houses in the neighborhood are old, the same houses that were there when Helen lived there. Larissa drives down the street where her mother lived. She came here once with her mother, a nostalgic trip. Helen could remember the street, but she wasn’t sure if it was the second house from the corner or the third. Larissa remembers feeling impatient at the time: how could she not remember? The two houses are both white, both with pillared porches and tiny squares of grass in front. One has a chimney that is half falling down, the other a squat tower embedded in its northwest corner. These items seem noticeable and unique to Larissa, but she’s over the whole blaming thing now.

At the museum, Larissa does this and that, a jane of all trades. It’s a community history museum with an eccentric collection, mainly things that people have donated when their parents died and they were clearing out the house.  Originally they took her on to do the books, because of her office experience, but she now does whatever comes up.  She’s learned how to restore old books, mend vintage clothes, refurbish and retune ancient musical instruments. She’s handy with a screwdriver. She goes there three times a week, but sometimes more often if she’s involved in a project. She is vaguely friendly with the other volunteers and with the woman who has the one paid position, the director. She has a particular affinity for one of the volunteers, Roseanne. She reminds her of Eileen, someone she went to school with, so much so that she sometimes imagines that Roseanne is Eileen.

Larissa is a great reader. She likes to read history – lives of the presidents, for instance, or of significant women like Marie Curie. She likes to read cookbooks, although she hardly ever makes a recipe out of them. All the things she makes are things she made when she was married to her long-divorced husband, or things that her mother used to make. She also likes to read romances but only of a particular sort – Regency romances. She is very critical if the authors don’t get the language or the clothes right. If she wrote a book (but she would never do this), she would write something historical, or maybe she would write a self-help book, which would be practical. Definitely not a memoir, since her life is not interesting. She does think she has some good advice to give people, if people ever listened. Especially women. She thinks she knows a thing or two about being a woman.

Larissa’s son is dead. He’s been dead for quite a while. People have assumed a lot of things about Larissa’s son’s death, some thinking that he died in one of the wars of the late twentieth century – the first Gulf war, for instance. Or they think that he committed suicide, since he was young when he died. Some people are convinced that he died on 9/11, but they are people that don’t know Larissa very well.

Larissa retired early for several reasons. She disliked her job, of course, which goes without saying. She was glad to leave behind a group of people who knew things about her. She gave it out that she was quitting because she needed to take care of an elderly relative, which was a lie. Her aunt, who hated Larissa’s mother, and isn’t all that fond of Larissa, is elderly, but she’s living determinedly on her own in an assisted living apartment. In fact, Larissa won the lottery. She’s kept it quiet though and no one knows it except, presumably, her bank.

Larissa never thinks about her first marriage, not because it was horrible or traumatic, but because it was unremarkable.

The love of Larissa’s life is dead. She didn’t know at the time that Eileen was the love of her life. They knew each other so briefly, so many years ago, but she’s never had that same intensity of feeling again, although she kept looking for it, until she stopped. They thought they’d keep in touch after graduation, but they didn’t. She saw her again at their twenty-year reunion, but although Larissa was still feeling something, she couldn’t communicate it, and she didn’t know if Eileen felt it or anything like it. They exchanged stories of their jobs, marriages, children. Eileen’s life sounded much more interesting than Larissa’s. She never saw her again, and years later, she heard from someone that she had died. The someone who told her is an expriest. He attempted to comfort/counsel her, which she rejected. He may also have wanted to sleep with her.

In her twenties, Larissa lived in a commune, although they didn’t call it that, which she joined because she had always had a fantasy of having an orchard, and the place where they lived had one. She appointed herself the commune’s orchardist and read dozens of books on apples and pruning and grafting. While she was there, she had sex with three people, with different degrees of enthusiasm. One was the founder, whose grandfather owned the farm; he was someone she’d known in college, although they hadn’t slept together then. The second was a woman who reminded her of the love of her life (although she still didn’t know then that the LOHL had come and gone). The third was a boy who stayed at the commune for only a week, and who was the father of Larissa’s son, who is now dead.

When Larissa wakes up in the middle of the night, she calms her mind by counting objects in her childhood bedroom, with the aim of falling asleep before she reaches fifty. Her fingers remember the spindles at the headboard of the bed, carved so that she could fit her fingers into their curves, also the soft crinkly texture of the kleenex dolls she made to play with when she was supposed to be sleeping. The wallpaper was blue, with the heads of Edwardian women with bouffant hair and big hats. There was a vanity table, with a fancy hairbrush, and a mirror over it, which fell down once in the middle of the night. She starts always with the corner of the room by the door, and by the time she has worked her way around to the dresser on the opposite wall, enumerating what was kept on top of it (the music box her father brought her from Germany, the pirate treasure chest where she kept her allowance, the celluloid doll named Caroline that was an antique and couldn’t be played with), she was usually asleep.

Larissa visits her aunt once a month on a Sunday. The place she’s living is called The Willows – it looks like a normal apartment building except that an ambulance is often parked outside. Her aunt’s apartment has only a bedroom, a bathroom, and a visiting area (so named in the brochure). There’s no need to cook, since the residents eat downstairs in the communal dining room, but there is a mini-fridge for snacks. “I see you’re back,” she greets Larissa. “I’ve got a lot to do, you know. I can’t sit around waiting all the day.” Larissa has brought a plant, to replace one of the ones dying on the window sill. Larissa admires her aunt’s brooch, an enameled flower pinned in the folds of her scarf. Her aunt tells her how she got it for a bargain price at an auction many years ago. “I haven’t seen your mother,” she tells Larissa. “Too busy to come and see her own sister, I suppose.” Larissa has stopped reminding her aunt of who has died (which is basically everyone of her generation). Larissa says that her mother might be out of town. Her aunt sniffs, but accepts this, and goes on to tell again the story of how Larissa’s mother used to borrow her stockings and return them with runs in them. “It wasn’t easy to get them during the war,” she reminds Larissa. “She never had a care for her things, your mother.” Larissa won’t go so far as to agree with criticism of her mother, so she hums in what she hopes is an agreeable way. “How’s your neighbor?” she asks. “The woman you play bridge with.” Her aunt sniffs again. “Dead,” she says, shaking her head at this willful failure. “Her daughter came to clear out her things last week.” Some visits, her aunt is willing to tell stories about the past that are free of bitterness and spite. Sometimes, Larissa hears new things about Helen that she didn’t know. That she had a yellow convertible. That she and Larissa’s father courted for years before she said yes. That she’d had her tonsils out and almost died when she was thirteen. Not this visit though. She leaves her aunt before dinner is announced over the loudspeaker, because she can’t bear sitting at the table with her aunt and her tablemates: the woman who always smiles, the woman who talks incessantly about her Uncle Frank, the woman who brings a doll with her and surreptitiously feeds it bits from her plate. When she is in the car, she breathes deeply, feeling guilty and relieved. Would she hate these visits so if it was her mother she was seeing instead? The template of her aunt’s rooms seems to press down on her: she can’t help seeing herself in the bed, in the wheelchair maneuvering into the accessible bathroom, sitting in front of the TV watching endless colorized Turner classic movies. On her way home, as she often does, she goes to the mall and buys something, this time a pair of shoes and an umbrella, which she thinks are probably symbolic of something.

Roseanne, the woman at the museum who reminds her of the love of her life, is not quite one year younger than Larissa, about nine months to be exact. “You were being born that month, and I was being conceived,” she tells Larissa. Sometimes Larissa counts the ways that Roseanne is like Eileen, and sometimes she looks for the differences. They are both slight and blonde, both wear glasses, and are fond of jangly bracelets. Roseanne still works. She’s a teacher, but on half-time now. Her specialty at the museum is restoring old paintings, which she calls freshening up. “It would be a crime if this was a Rembrandt,” she says, “but since it’s not, I can have away at it.” These paintings are mostly lugubrious landscapes featuring waterfalls, sunsets, barns and farm animals, or portraits of dour men and women of the last century. Roseanne takes what liberties she can get away with, putting highlights on the waterfalls, brightening up the ancient clothes, or drawing a suggestion of a smile on the gloomiest faces. This is a secret she has with Larissa. Roseanne has a way of laughing that falls so lightly on Larissa’s ear, a laugh of three notes, descending the scale like birdsong.

Larissa’s son was always happy, or this is how she remembers him. Not that he wasn’t a normal boy. Not that they didn’t fight sometimes, over his clothes, or how late he would stay out. He had three good friends, two boys and a girl, from grade school all through high school. Larissa was proud of him, being friends with a girl, but also puzzled, since that wasn’t the way it was when she was young. His father (or rather, the man who Larissa married) got along with him well, for as long as he was around. If Larissa were to tell the story of her marriage to someone (to Roseanne, for instance), she might laugh, and say that they hardly knew each other. I’m not sure why we got married, she might say. It was a whim, I guess. At the time though, she’d thought of it as a solid plan, her plan to become normal, which meant finding a man and getting married. She would have been more comfortable (a little more) if she’d just been a lesbian, she tells herself. But the wavering between genders was a little too much, not in the slightest normal. Now it wouldn’t make so much difference. But anyway, she married him, and they didn’t hate each other for the time they were together. She felt afterward as if she’d done everything she could. She’d been as normal as it was possible for her to be.

Her time on the commune happened after she dropped out of college. She’d been planning to be a nurse, without somehow realizing that she’d have to watch people bleed. She changed majors and changed again, and then in her second year, dropped out halfway through the semester. Her mother had been confused but supportive. She’d lived at home for a few months, the two of them making each other crazy. When one of her friends, who had also dropped out (for reasons that had more to do with drugs and failing grades) wrote her and said that a few people he knew were going to live on his grandfather’s farm, she had been initially unenthusiastic. He called her long distance and extolled the beauties of the farm, talking about how there were a couple of goats and how they might make cheese, and someone planned to take up quilting, on and on, while she half listened, paging through a magazine while her mother made faces at her, wanting to know who it was. It wasn’t until he mentioned the orchard that she started listening properly. Helen, her mother, was then around forty-eight, still in the height of her beauty, her silvering blonde hair falling forward over her shoulders, her green eyes bright, her long legs crossed, her hand curving around a cigarette, blowing a stream of smoke toward the light from the window.

Larissa’s son died when he was nineteen. It was the kind of death that can’t be blamed on anyone, no matter how you try. He had gone out with his friends (the same friends he’d had all those years) to meet some other friends. They’d been walking across the street in a straggling group, on their way from one bar to another. They’d been drinking but no one was drunk. He had dropped behind to look for his longtime friend, the girl, who was lingering in the door of the bar, trying to get rid of a man who wanted her number, or wanted to come with her. He wanted something, and Larissa’s son was probably thinking of going back to help her get rid of him – this is what the girl told her several hours later at the hospital, crying so hard that her words came out garbled. The driver of the car wasn’t drunk either; she was old, and she was having a stroke. Larissa imagines her face drooping, her mouth crooked, one hand slipping from the wheel as she careened toward the spot on the street where Larissa’s son was standing, ready to be chivalrous if necessary. She hit him square on, so that his body flew some yards into the brick wall of the building housing the bar, several apartments, and a dry cleaners. He was dead on impact, the doctor assured Larissa, as if this was a comfort, and maybe it was.

At the museum, Larissa enjoys most the repairs that must be made on donated clothes. She never learned to sew when she was young, since her mother wanted her to have a career, but she has gotten good at it. She is currently working on a set of early nineteenth-century baby clothes, their whiteness yellowed in spite of having been treated gently with bleach. They are fancier than baby clothes today, with lace and hand embroidery, but less colorful. When Roseanne comes to see what she’s doing, she holds the dress she’s mending to show her. Roseanne laughs and says that she needs a drink.

When Larissa was in high school, she was one of the smart girls, although she doesn’t think she’s especially smart. But she was a hard worker, also a good test taker. Eileen wasn’t one of the smart girl group. She transferred in their junior year, and didn’t seem interested in attaching herself to any of the groups. She spent time with one person, then another, dropping in on the groups at random. No one seemed to mind. Eileen wasn’t beautiful. Her hair looked as if it had been cut by her mother, using a bowl, her eyes were a little small, her body lean and boyish. But people seemed to like to be with her. Larissa did. She was willing to do things like sit on the floor in front of her locker with Eileen, their legs stretched out so that passing girls had to step over them. She agreed to go to the dentist with Eileen because Eileen said that her dentist was probably a child molester (Eileen insisted on paying her $5. Danger pay, she said.) She and Eileen went to the prom together with Eileen’s two much younger brothers (they were 13 and 14) as a protest against the ridiculousness of expensive prom festivities when there were people dying everywhere in the world. They bought their dresses at the Goodwill, and the brothers wore tuxedo T-shirts. None of these things would Larissa have done before, or with anyone who wasn’t Eileen. Still, she hadn’t considered that she was in love. She didn’t realize this until much later, when she hadn’t seen Eileen for years and never would again.

Larissa gradually had started spending more and more time at the museum, more than her assigned volunteer hours. No one minded. The director often stopped to hug Larissa when she saw her, saying that she was the volunteer queen. Larissa liked old things, although she hadn’t known this about herself until now. She liked fixing things. She liked the slightly musty smell. She liked knowing things about people’s lives, the people to whom the museum’s exhibits had belonged.

The boy who fathered Larissa’s son was younger than her, eighteen to her twenty-two. He had limp, soft hair that fell below his shoulders. He asked her to cut it one night, and somehow, her hands on his forehead and ears, the touch of the scissors on his cheek, the brushing away of tufts of hair turned into foreplay. It was a very bad haircut. They laughed about it in bed afterward. He left two weeks later. She doesn’t remember his last name.

Roman finds her work at the museum laughable. He can’t imagine why she wastes her time there. He doesn’t know about the lottery win, and often urges her to get a paying job, at least part-time. He is under the impression that she was pressured into early retirement. Larissa furthers this misapprehension by indulging in pennypinching ways when they’re together. She lets him pay when he insists, and lets herself be seen putting a handful of sugar packets into her purse.

Roman will sometimes talk about what they might do when he is free of his obligations. He likes to speculate grandly about buying a house together in Mexico that they can timeshare out with trusted friends and relatives. He is convinced that no one should die before they’ve done various things like take a balloon ride or go crosscountry on a train. He is currently trying to persuade Larissa that she’d like to take up dog breeding, specifically for guide dogs. He is sure there’s money in it, as well as being a service to mankind.

Larissa hasn’t spent much of the money she won in the lottery. She had a new bathroom put into her house, but it wasn’t an extravagant bathroom. She spends more money than she used to on books, and she refurbished her garden with a raft of new perennials and flowering shrubs. She didn’t replace her car, a five-year-old Toyota, although she bought a new computer and, on impulse, a rather expensive juicer. She didn’t buy a new wardrobe. She went on a few trips after she retired from her job: she went to Canada, to Prince Edward Island to visit the site of the Green Gables novels; on a cruise to Alaska; and to South Carolina to get away from January snow. She thinks of going on a grander trip, to Italy, for instance, but she hasn’t so far nerved herself up for it. She gives more money out to people who beg for it on the street or from the grass verge by the freeway entrance – ten dollars instead of two.

One of the things she remembers about her mother and her aunt is about their gift giving. Her mother never used and often didn’t keep the things her sister gave her. She complained that they were extravagant, or too flamboyant. “Like something a showgirl would wear,” she’d said about a particular silver turban. She gave them away, often pressing them on Larissa, or let them lie in the back of the closet. Larissa found dozens of them, still in their boxes after her mother died. She sat crosslegged on the floor, remembering all the insincere thank-yous, how her mother had smiled gaily, saying “just what I wanted” or “how did you know I needed one of these.” The presents that Larissa’s mother gave her sister were relentlessly practical: an umbrella, padded hangers, a handheld vacuum cleaner. One year she had given her sister underwear. They had argued, not about the gift itself, but over the relative merits of hipster underpants (her aunt) over high-cut briefs (her mother).

Larissa was forty-three when her son died. She was fifty when her mother died. In the years between these two events, she sometimes wished that her mother had died instead of her son. After her mother died, she had no one to substitute.

Larissa met Roman at the home of an acquaintance, in fact, the ex-priest who told her about Eileen’s death. He had been out of the priesthood for years, but he still had the gestures and habits. He had a tendency to hold up his hand, palm out, as if he was conferring a blessing, and he often said “Amen” in nonreligious contexts. The evening had been a get-together for people who had once taught at St. Pius II School. Larissa had taught there only for a year, and only as a sub for someone on maternity leave, but the ex-priest was relentless in tracking down former colleagues. It was potluck, and Larissa had brought a bowl of cherry tomatoes and cookies from a bakery, still in the package. It was then two years after her son had died. She kept expecting to “get over it,” “get closure,” “find some peace” — but this was not happening. She had dreams about her son quite often. Sometimes it was as if nothing had ever happened – pleasant dreams about conversations at breakfast or watching him play soccer, as he had in high school. Sometime they began this way, and then descended into horror, blood beginning to drip into his scrambled eggs as they talked, or a yawning pit opening in the middle of the soccer field which gaped and widened until all the players were sucked in. Sometimes they began bad and stayed that way. The night of the party she had dressed without thinking what she was putting on, not caring much if she went or stayed home. If she hadn’t been able to find her car keys immediately, she likely would have set the wrapped bowl of tomatoes and the bag of cookies on the table by the door and gone straight to bed. But the car keys were there, and she walked out to the car, her mind a blank. At the expriest’s house, she sat on a couch, nodding at people but not talking to the group around her. Roman was sitting across from her on a folding chair. At the end of the evening, he claimed that he needed a ride, and the expriest had volunteered Larissa, since they lived only ten minutes apart. She didn’t think she said a word on the way home. Roman had gotten her number from the expriest. On their first date, he told her that he’d never met a more restful woman.

Eileen and Larissa were only friends in the time that they knew each other, but sometimes Larissa finds herself imagining that they continued to know each other, and that they have had a more intimate relationship that has lasted all that time since then. She finds herself thinking about this when she’s sewing up the hem on some frayed nineteenth-century baby clothes, or regilding a picture frame.

Larissa’s neighbors don’t know her well. She says hello to them, and pretends not to mind when the neighborhood children’s balls land in her yard. She buys girl scout cookies and magazine subscriptions from them when their schools are fundraising. Her neighbor to the west shovels her driveway when the snow is bad, and her neighbor to the east gives her surplus tomatoes when his garden is overflowing. She sometimes thinks, and takes pleasure in the fact that they don’t know her at all, they know nothing about her thoughts or circumstances.

Roman and Roseanne met once when Roman came to the reception for the museum’s exhibit (which Larissa had co-curated), “Our Ancestors, Ourselves.” They didn’t get along, by which Larissa was secretly pleased.

Roseanne and Larissa sometimes go out for drinks on Thursday after their hours at the museum. They like a little bar that is in the gentrified area of the city. Surrounded by cupcake bakeries and little shops that sell arts and crafts or vintage clothing, the bar itself is not gentrified. It has a decades-old smell of beer and smoke imbued into its furnishings, and the clientele (besides Roseanne and Larissa) tends to be solitary old men who hunch over their drinks protectively. The bar menu is not extensive, but they do a good martini, and that is what Roseanne and Larissa order: martinis with gin, up, two olives, heavy on the vermouth. They sit and talk about work and about their past lives, leaving much out. Larissa tells her the story of her time on the commune, making it as funny as she can. Roseanne tells Larissa how she got expelled from college, and how she worked for three years as a bail bondsman, which she describes as “kind of a kick.” It’s dim in the bar, and they lean closer to each other to hear over the relentless oldies playing on the sound system. Larissa has never invited Roseanne to come home with her after drinks, although she has thought about it. The trouble is that she isn’t sure how to go on from there. She sometimes gets a feeling that Roseanne would like her to do this, but she has never learned how to be the aggressor. Would she have to say something? Would she take Roseanne’s hand? She feels a little angry with Roseanne because she doesn’t take the initiative. And then, sex: no matter how much she likes Roseanne, does she actually want to go there?

In her imaginary life with Eileen, they went to the commune together, where perhaps they took it over, making it run more efficiently, making a rota for the chores, for instance. They lay in the grass in the orchard and looked at the stars through the branches. Because Eileen was there, Larissa would not have slept with the father of her son, which is a problem, since she doesn’t want to erase his existence, even in this imaginary world. Somehow he becomes their son, hers and Roseanne’s, in some unexplained conception. When they leave the commune, Larissa gets a teaching job at a prestigious private school, and Eileen finds a highpaying corporate job that requires her to travel a lot (even in her imaginary life, Larissa finds that she wants a little distance). When Larissa wins the lottery, she and Eileen buy a house in Costa Rica (which is reputed to be very cheap to live in). They move there with their son, although he leaves after a few years to go to college at Harvard. Bringing this fantasy up to the present, they are both retired, and Larissa is working on a book about something or other. Not a memoir. Eileen has taken up horseback riding and has her own shop selling Costa Rican crafts.

The ex-priest runs into Larissa every once in a while – in the grocery store or in the park on the all-purpose path. He always asks after Roman, looking smug, as if he is entirely responsible for their getting together. He sometimes hints slyly about a possible marriage. “Even in our golden days, we can find happiness,” he says, sometimes going so far as to nudge her conspiratorily. He always invites the two of them to his next little fiesta, as he calls his parties, and she always says that she’ll try to make it, although she never does. Whether Roman goes or not, she doesn’t know.

When Larissa thinks of her son, she tries now to distance herself, as if he lived a long time ago, as if he were born fifty years ago, a hundred, as if he had been friends with the boy in one of the photographs in the exhibit, “Farming in the Early Years,” his hand on a plow about to be pulled away by a team of shaggy horses. Her son was of middle height (his father was rather short). His hair fell forward over his eyes: he didn’t like to get it cut. When he smiled, Larissa had always had to smile back, even if she was angry. She wants to think that she remembers all of his smiles, but there are so many that she has forgotten.

One day, Roseanne comes in with a gift bag and hands it to Larissa, who takes it with a puzzled frown. “Open it,” Roseanne says, and she does, finding inside a clutter of sample-sized makeup. Roseanne’s cousin sells Avon, and they were having a clear out. Larissa takes out a lipstick: Enduring Sable, in a shimmer finish. “These are all good for a brunette,” Roseanne says, gesturing toward Larissa’s hair. “I can’t wear them.” Roseanne is a blonde, her color shades lighter than her original hair was, she has told Larissa. “I thought of you,” Roseanne said. She pulls out an eye shadow called Midnight Sparkler. “You can wear this when we go out for drinks. We’ll be fighting them off.”

Larissa forgets to bring something with her when she visits her aunt, and she blames this for the unpleasantness that follows. Her aunt refuses to be wheeled outside into the cramped garden although the weather is warm. The aide whispers to Larissa in the hall that she’s been difficult. She refused three times to get her hair washed, even though it’s lank and straggling. Her aunt tells a long story about the director of the assisted living apartments, claiming that she is preventing everyone from going to Mass. Her aunt claims that the visiting priest has been barred from the facility for some dark reason that she refuses to divulge. She tells Larissa again that her mother hasn’t been to visit her in a long time, and that she’s not surprised. Larissa is thinking that maybe it’s time that she move to the other side of the facility, where residents with dementia or more severe health problems stay. She pours some coffee for the two of them from the pot in the communal kitchen space and pretends to drink hers. Her aunt leans closer to her. “Helen was always that way,” she says. “Always thinking of herself, your mother.” Larissa prepares herself to hear again about the stockings borrowed without permission or how her mother never helped with the chores. “She didn’t care about what anybody said,” her aunt says. “Your father was a saint. She led him a dance, you know. Before,” she lowers her voice, “and after.” Larissa draws back. She wants to ask what her aunt means, except that she knows what she means. Her aunt looks at her with satisfaction. “She was brought up better than that. We all were.” She looks at the drooping plants on the window sill that Larissa has forgotten about watering. “I never wanted a man, you know. Too much trouble,” her aunt says. She smiles, so slyly that Larissa wants to hit her, if it was possible to hit old women whose bones are as brittle as plaster.

Larissa likes to go to the bank instead of using the ATM, which makes her nervous. She’s never sure that her card will come back out. At the bank, everyone knows her, and they are endlessly friendly. She sits at one of the customer service desks, and lets the executive vice president handle her withdrawal. She can tell that he wants to ask her what the money is for, but he doesn’t. Outside, the sun is shining. She prefers to carry cash with her. Cash is more comforting than a credit card, although she has those, too. At the mall, she walks up and down, in and out of the stores. Roseanne’s birthday is a week away, which she knows because she looked up Roseanne’s volunteer employee file on the computer in the office, but she doesn’t know what to get her. A scarf? a bracelet? a clutch purse? These are the things that women buy for each other, but none of them seem right. She starts buying things nevertheless, the accumulation of them spurring her on. Something has to be right, hasn’t it? A pair of red shoes. A book on ferns. A paperweight shaped like an octopus, translucent and shimmery. A box of chocolate truffles in spring colors. A lotion containing dead sea salts. The strings of the bags cut into her fingers.

The calendar in Larissa’s office at the museum is a weight on her, the spent and unspent days. It’s an annual calendar, but somehow she feels the press of the years behind this one, pushing on the leaves that say January, February, March. Before Larissa retired, she was less aware of time. Now, she realizes, the months are square and stolid, the weeks a rush of light and dark, the days slotted into them like coffins. All the dead hours.

Larissa’s mother had wanted her to be a teacher, one of the things they argued about. Her aunt had taken Larissa’s side. “Let her have a bit of fun,” she said. “Teachers are poky old things.”

Roman has wanted to take her to the races for a long time, but she had resisted until now, since it seemed silly to her to watch a number of horses run around in a circle. It might be different, she told Roman, if she owned one of the horses, or if she knew the jockeys. There was no reason she couldn’t own a horse, if she took it into her head to do such a silly thing. She could buy a horse, or two horses, and a stable, and maybe her own racetrack. A small one. She sits in the seats high enough up so that the racing park spreads out below her. Her thigh is pressed against Roman’s leg. He had his arm around her for a while, but in the excitement of the race, he has released her, has stood up to yell encouragement at Blue Shadow, on whom he bet fifty dollars. It is a pretty name, Larissa admits. The horses are moving specks from here, their spidery legs scrambling. The crowd wavers and jitters in excitement, their round heads bobbing. Larissa is thinking of other things: her mother, her aunt, her son. The sharp-cut fall of Eileen’s trendy haircut against the navy blue of their school uniform. The expriest who informed her of Eileen’s death had said that he was sure she’d died in Christ. Larissa knows however that Eileen was an atheist, or at least an agnostic, something they had settled between them on the retreat in junior year, when they had discussed the strong possibility that God did not exist. They had snuck out after curfew to talk on the cold sand of the beach, the dark waves splashing at their feet. No one knew where they were, that was the best thing. No one could tell them anything.

 

 

 

BIO

Mary Grimm has had two books published, Left to Themselves (novel) and Stealing Time (story collection) – both by Random House. She teaches fiction writing at Case Western Reserve University.

 

 

 

 

0

The Engagement of Zelda Sayre to F. Scott  Fitzgerald

(from an unpublished novel entitled “Ascent to Madness: Zelda Fitzgerald’s Gilded Cage.”)

by Henry F. Tonn

 

 

Montgomery, Alabama 1917

 

I met Scott Fitzgerald just before my eighteenth birthday at a country club in Montgomery, Alabama, where I had been persuaded to perform “Dance of the Hours” in a crowded ballroom full of servicemen. I was a veritable blonde sylph in those days; my feet seemed to barely touch the floor. After the performance all the servicemen swarmed around me wanting to dance, and I was whirled across the floor by a succession of admirers, one cutting in after another. Scott saw me and moved right in. He was a cocky little bugger with something of a supercilious attitude along with a distinctive strut to his walk.

We danced, but he was hampered in his attentions by other servicemen cutting in. Finally, as the evening drew to a close, Scott asked me for a date. Pretty quick, I thought! And laughed. “I never make late dates with fast workers,” I informed him, flipping my golden curls behind me.

“There appears to be a lot of competition for your companionship,” he observed, gently stroking the side of my face with two fingers and peering intently at me. “I don’t want to be left behind.”

I put five fingers on his chest and shoved. “Well, unless they’re shipping you off to the war tomorrow, mon chevalier, you’ll have plenty of time. I’m not going anywhere.”

This was a new experience for Scott who was accustomed to having his way with the fairer sex, being the pretty boy that he was. He thought since he was down South with the cotton pickers, he could have his way with any girl he chose.

Wrong!

I had many suitors in that era and was dated up for weeks. Scott had to put in some major effort to garner my attention. Hah! And that inaccessibility made me more desirable to him, made him more determined than ever to get me. It is an eternal truism in the world of love that that which is most elusive generally assumes the mantle of the most desirable.

But he was a good looking man, with his blonde hair and fresh complexion. He had luminous green eyes that seemed to change with his mood and a perfectly chiseled face. His uniform was tailored by Brooks Brothers of New York and he wore cream-colored boots with spurs. He was animated and passionate. His conversation glittered. He was somber and determined, but witty and urbane. I had never before met anyone like him. Later I would learn that the two things Scott Fitzgerald ultimately wanted most in life were literary success and me. He got both, but maybe eventually regretted it.

He called me every day from his barracks. He came to my house regularly, riding the rickety old bus to Montgomery from his camp and then taking a taxi. He wanted me exclusively but had to share me with others. He objected and complained bitterly. Sorry about that, darling, but I am queen of the belles here and shall play it to the hilt. When you have men lined up at the door, you pretty much do as you please.

Get in line, gentlemen—there’s enough of Zelda for everybody!

But Scott was relentless. He threw a party at the country club for my eighteenth birthday and managed to make it a magical evening: the lights, the music, the dancing. Scott was the dashing Lieutenant then and I was the elusive, fragrant, seductive phantom. I was there but I was not quite there for him. But gradually I found myself being drawn to the man, irresistibly, like a moth to a flickering flame. Our times together increased. I invited him to my house for dinner so he could become acquainted with my family.

This was serious business and it was supposed to a memorable event. And it was, but for the wrong reason.

I introduced Old Dick—my name for Daddy behind his back—to Scott and they chatted comfortably for ten minutes, then everyone sat down to the dinner table. Within the first minute I said something Daddy objected to and he just blew up. He grabbed a carving knife and started chasing me around the table brandishing the knife while Scott looked on with incredulity. Finally, after several rotations of the table and one side trip through the kitchen, the judge—not in the best of jogging condition—ran out of steam and sat back down to finish his dinner. I swear to God, it’s true. My father, a judge of the highest order, could control his emotions with everyone but me. I drove him crazy. But afterwards everybody chatted amiably as though nothing had happened. Pass the butter beans, Momma? Thank you so much. More corn, Daddy?

Scott never forgot it. He thought, What am I getting myself into here?

“It’s all right, son,” Old Dick said, patting Scott on the shoulder. “I haven’t killed her yet. Came close a couple of times but haven’t managed yet.”

“Yes, sir,” was all Scott could reply, picking at his food. He was real quiet that night.

“More roast?” the judge said amiably.

“No thank you, sir.”

“A Princeton man, are you?” the judge said, trying to make conversation.

“Yes, sir.”

“Graduated?”

“No, sir. Dropped out to serve my country.”

“Ah! Good man. Good man. So what are your plans after the war? What would you like to do with yourself?”

“I’d like to be a writer, sir.”

“A writer, you say?” The judge’s eyebrows constricted.

“Yes, sir.”

“A writer.” The judge’s moustache drooped.

“Yes, sir.”

“Hm.”

It was obvious that Judge Anthony Sayre was not overly fond of his youngest daughter’s being courted by a soldier whose ambition was to support her by the power and glory of the written word.

We sat on my front porch later rocking in the swing and sipping non-alcoholic drinks with fruit and crushed ice. He quoted poetry to me. He had memorized poems that went on for fifteen minutes. I’ve never seen nor heard anything like it. He talked about his future and his writing, and was absolutely determined to be the greatest author in the world—both rich and famous.

“The rich are different than you and me,” he said, his chiseled features etched in the moonlight, his wonderful eyes brilliant and alive. “They have everything they want early in their lives and don’t have to work for it. It gives them a certain sense of entitlement. It causes them to feel they’re better than everyone else. There were a lot of people like that at Princeton. I could feel it. They sized you up, and if you had money and breeding and came from the right family, they allowed you into that unspoken fraternity that other people couldn’t hope to join. But I’m going to make it on my own terms. Then nobody can look down on me.”

“I haven’t noticed that sort of thing in Montgomery,” I said.

“It’s not the same,” he insisted. “You have to go up north to see what I’m talking about: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Boston, New York. These people think the sun rises and sets on themselves. They know it does. They don’t care about the poor, for example. The only poor people they’ve ever known are their own servants and laborers. They have no sensitivity, no concern for the human condition. The greatest writers understood and wrote about the human condition—which is what made them great: Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, Balzac, Dickens, Keats, Marx, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Spengler. Some of these people rose above their own lofty beginnings—like Tolstoy, for example—to identify with the less fortunate, and you have to admire them for that. I doubt if any of my Princeton classmates will ever follow suit, but I certainly hope I’ll remember where I came from when I’m famous. I hope I never lose my concern for the human condition. If you’re a great writer, you should also be a great man.”

I was touched by this. I wanted to stand up and applaud. These were new ideas to me; they were not the typical ideas you heard in Montgomery. I slipped my arm through his and leaned against him. “That’s right, darling. Both of us will want to remember our humble beginnings.”

“It’s like the Nietzschean superman,” he said. “No matter how exalted you are, you never forget the unfortunates.”

“Yes,” I said somberly, though I had no idea what a “Nietzchean superman” was.

“I want to do this as much for you as for myself,” he swore. “I want us to take this journey together. We’d be so perfect.”

“It sounds like a wonderful life. I’m excited to think about it.”

He nodded with determination. “I’m going to make it happen.”

“We’d be linked like soul-mates,” I said. “Eternally. Two souls incarnated. That’s what the theosophists believe, you know. Together before they were born and linked as one in the afterlife. Mirror reflections of each other.”

He looked at me quizzically.

“My mother was a theosophist,” I explained. “She taught me about it.”

“Oh.”

“I know a woman who’s a psychic,” I continued. “It’s simply amazing how accurate her predictions are. All of my friends have seen her one time or another. She uses a Ouija board. Only her hands are on it, nobody else’s, and you can ask her anything you want. And then the board spells out the answer. Have you ever seen a Ouija board?”

“No.”

“I’ll go to her,” I promised, “and ask the question, ‘Will Scott Fitzgerald become rich and famous with his novel?’ What do you think? And I’ll tell you what she says.”

He nodded, looking abstractly into the distance. “I’d like to know,” he murmured.

We strolled around the fields near my home and discussed love. Crickets chirped, tree frogs croaked, and cicadas trilled as we were soon treated to a nocturnal serenade. We held hands and caressed each other. He asked me to marry him but I wouldn’t make the commitment. I teased him and was elusive and he got angry and sulked. It made me more desirable than ever.

I pressed myself against him and kissed him passionately in the shadows of the night but always withheld a part of myself. And he knew it. He found me enigmatic and confusing and said so. He couldn’t figure me out. Perhaps he never figured me out. I became the de facto heroine of many of his novels and stories because he could never quite figure me out. Of course, it’s always more interesting to write about a woman of mystery than one you understand, isn’t it?

But, in retrospect, I wonder if we were ever really right for each other.

Ever.

I don’t know.

But I only had a few doubts at the time and they were mostly concerning his ability to support me properly.

He was fascinated by the way I conversed, by the way I put words together in a peculiar manner, sometimes in a peculiar sequence. I said whatever came into my head in those days, being utterly spontaneous. I saw things from a different perspective and wasn’t afraid to declare my uniqueness. Scott had never heard anyone express themselves in such a manner, with the peculiar word formations I used, the figures of speech, the observations. It was almost as though I were speaking a foreign language to him and he needed a translator.

He began jotting down things I said, preserving them in a notebook he always carried, and later I would find them in a story of his—often word for word. Later, when we were married, he stole my diary and incorporated vast sections of it into his novel—again, word for word! I was amused and annoyed at the same time.

We had so much fun talking. We had marathon conversations. Marathon! He had been to college and was educated, whereas I just talked off the top of my head as ideas flowed through my consciousness. It was perfect. We fit together. We complemented each other in so many ways.

He became my number one beau.

But not my only beau.

Definitely not my only beau. After all, I was the leading belle in Montgomery!

I told him I loved him and would always be there with him, but the next day I would feel differently. I love you. I love you not. I love you. I love you not. I love you. I love you not. Ho hum. How could I be certain he was right for me and could take care of me when he had no means of support? Perhaps he was going to be a great writer, as he assured me, but how could I know? My lack of certainty made him angrier than ever and he complained bitterly, causing heated battles between us. But he also understood my fear. I was a judge’s daughter and his prospects were questionable. He needed to prove himself. My parents didn’t approve of him. And there were many, many other suitors.

So, when the war ended, which terminated his plans to fight in Europe, he boarded a train to New York and began his quest to become the Great Author. I, meanwhile, became fully engaged with my various suitors. I dated two football players from Auburn plus the son of a wealthy cotton broker, among others. I was crowned prom queen on three different college campuses: the University of Alabama, the University of Georgia, and little Sewanee. The more men I dated, the more conflicted I became about Scott. He was there but they were here. “I want you more all the time and I love you with all my heart and soul,” I wrote to him, and then went out and rampaged my way through the night.

Line up, gentlemen. Line up. Zelda is here!

Poor Scott.

He got desperate and sent me an engagement ring. I kept it but placed it in a drawer. Five members of a football team created a fraternity in my honor in which the induction requirement was to have dated me. I had fantasies of dating the whole football team, kissing every one of them. Leave no stone unturned! They were everywhere, offering me rides, visiting my house, inviting me out on every imaginable kind of excursion. I promised Scott I would write to him regularly but quickly tired of it. “This long-distance affair is not helping my nerves at all, darling,” I wrote. “I wish we would get this business resolved one way or the other.” The less I thought of Scott the better. He was long-distance and creating too many problems. Gradually he receded into the distance.

He wrote nineteen short stories over a several-month period and got a hundred rejection slips, pasting them on the walls of his tiny apartment. He wrote bitterly to me about the rejections and I felt sorry for him. Not only were his hopes as a writer being dashed, but he was watching the woman he loved slip away. He cursed his poverty and became absolutely frantic. But there were limits to what I could do to assuage his misery. He visited me in Montgomery three times in three months, coming by train. The third visitation was a disaster and I returned his engagement ring. “If you can’t support me, I can’t marry you,” I hollered. “What do you expect? There’s nothing romantic about starving in an attic with an impecunious author. Call me insensitive if you wish, but that’s the way it is.” I stomped my foot, and he left a broken man, but as determined as ever to have me.

He was persistent, I’ll give him that.

His novel, what would eventually become This Side of Paradise, was rejected by Scribners Publishing Company, and his editor, Maxwell Perkins, made suggestions on how to revise it. There was nothing left for him in New York so he took a train back to his parents’ home in St. Paul, Minnesota, and moved into the guest room on the third floor. There he devoted himself solely to revising the manuscript, writing ten, twelve, fifteen hours a day. He wove parts of my diary and letters into the book, created new characters, and moved various scenes around. He stopped only to eat when his mother placed food on the floor outside the door. He became a writing machine.

During the same period I dated thirty-seven different men. I have always preferred male companionship to that of females because I seem perpetually to be in competition with the latter. I wrote about this to Scott and the communiqué ended up almost verbatim in his book: “Women she detested. They represented qualities that she felt and despised in herself—incipient meanness, conceit, cowardice, and petty dishonesty. She once told a roomful of her mother’s friends that the only excuse for women was the necessity for a disturbing element among men.”

There was, unfortunately, entirely too much truth to this statement.

My correspondence with him ran hot and cold. Generally I tried to be upbeat and even passionate:

There’s nothing in the world I want other than your love, darling. My lips are yours. My body is yours. My soul is yours. I think of you every minute of the day; I sleep with you at night even though you are far away. I don’t want to live; I want to love, and live incidentally. Without you I am nothing. My life is barren and meaningless. I want you to possess every molecule of my being. I am willing to be your slave, to follow your wishes whatever they may be. I want to be beautiful for you, thin, and perfect. I want to make you the happiest man on earth. I am proud to be the object of your love and desire.

But other times I had to be realistic about not accepting his marriage proposal:

This is not an issue of material things, my darling, which are meaningless to me. I simply can’t bear the thought of poverty, a sordid, colorless existence which would surely destroy the love we have for each other. Poverty sucks the life fluids from your body and leaves you dry, desiccated, and wasted. Poverty is a barren, joyless monotony which is antithetical to the rich, effulgent embrace of life we both possess. Poverty destroys the body and kills the spirit. Poverty is the opposite of the financial security we need, that we must have in order to achieve and preserve the happiness we deserve. I want you and need you, darling, and wish to devote the rest of my life to our happiness, but you must create a foundation on which we can build. This is your responsibility, not mine. I am waiting for you, darling. I am waiting for you and only you.

Scott finally completed his novel and submitted it again to Scribner’s. On September 16, 1919, Maxwell Perkins mailed him a letter which said, “I am very glad, personally to be able to write you that we are all for publishing your book, This Side of Paradise . . . The book is so different that it is hard to prophesy how it will sell, but we are all for taking a chance and supporting it with vigor.”

The floodgates suddenly opened and a tidal wave of success washed over Scott. Simultaneously, Saturday Evening Post purchased his story, “Head and Shoulders” for $400.00. This was followed by a series of acceptances by The Smart Set, then another round of acceptances by the Post which raised its payments for his work to $500.00. Finally, in February of 1920, Scott sold the movie rights to “Head and Shoulders” for the astronomical sum of $2500.00—a full year’s wages for the average worker in the United States at the time. To say that Scott felt vindicated would be an understatement.

He was now flush with money and decided he had established a sufficiently solid financial foundation to make me his bride. He bought a spectacular diamond and platinum wristwatch for me and engraved it “from Scott to Zelda,” then boarded a train to Montgomery. The next few days were passed in an orgy of eating, drinking, loving each other, and ardent discussions concerning our future. He wanted me to marry him immediately and move to New York. I was more cautious because his novel was not yet published and I had no idea what sort of reception it would receive.

“It doesn’t matter, darling,” he insisted as we strolled hand-in-hand down a dirt road bordering a cotton field a short distance from my house. It was nighttime and a full moon bathed both of us in a luminescent glow. “I’m selling short stories now for good money. And I’ll be starting a new novel soon. I can take care of you. You’ll be happy in New York. It’ll be a whole new life. The novel will sell big, I just know it will. We’ll be famous, me and you. This is what we’ve been waiting for.” He stopped and took both of my hands and lifted them reverently to his lips and kissed them passionately.

“Sweetheart, I love you so much,” I said, pressing against him. “But the novel hasn’t been published yet and there are so many questions. You’re asking me to move from little Montgomery to huge New York. I don’t know if I’m ready for that yet.”

Tears moistened Scott’s eyes as he stared at me pleadingly. I thought he was going to break down and cry right on the spot. “Trust me, darling, this is the time. All the work I’ve put in for the past year has been for you. I have sufficient funds right now to support us for the next year—not conservatively, but extravagantly. Anything you want is yours. I’ll dress you like a queen. You’ll have the finest furs and the most exquisite jewelry. We’ll eat at the best restaurants and you’ll have a different outfit to wear every time we go out. We’ll attend the symphony, the opera, the ballet. Wouldn’t you like to see the premier ballerinas of the world perform? Everything will be yours!”

“And the symphonies,” he continued, holding my head gently between his hands and peering into my eyes. “When I hear Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, I don’t know how he could have done better. But when I hear his Seventh Symphony, I don’t know how he could have done better. And then when I hear the final movement of his Ninth Symphony, I think, He did better, but I don’t know how. It’s a moment of rapture! You can’t get that in Montgomery, you’ve got to come to New York. I’ll be the famous author and you’ll be my Southern belle. We’ll be soul mates: two souls incarnated and forever linked. This is what we’ve both wanted. Without you to share my success, all of this will be pointless!” He threw his arms out as though embracing the world, his features animated in the moonlight’s soft light.

Scott never lacked for emotion, I’ll say that. He was handsome and passionate and persuasive, and after four days I finally relented. I agreed to marry him, but not before the publication of his book. “When is it coming out?” I asked.

“It’s on the fast track,” he said. “Next month.”

“Very well then.” I placed my arms around his neck and kissed him deeply, then bit him on the neck and breathed in deeply the richness of his cologne. I snuggled up close to him, pressing my body against his, and finally murmured warmly into his ear, “I’ll marry you in April.”

So this was how our wedding date was established. However, I had to tell my parents, and knowing that neither of them approved of Scott, I braced myself for the confrontation. I waited until Scott left before the discussion ensued, which took place in our library.

The judge was furious.

“This is completely absurd, young lady!” he bellowed, slamming his fist down on the desk. The judge, as always, was dressed formally and impeccably, and sat ramrod straight in his chair as he spoke. His white hair had grown even whiter in the past year and many blamed my wild antics on having caused it. “You’re throwing away your life. The man has not graduated from college, he’s Irish, he has no career to speak of, he drinks too much, and he’s Catholic. You have no business marrying anyone like him.”

The judge intimidated everyone but me, and I was in love. “None of those things matter,” I retorted. “He’s publishing a book and has sold a bunch of short stories to the magazines and already has enough money to support both of us for a year.”

The judge rolled his eyes. “You call writing a means of making a living? What piffle! He should be getting a respectable job that involves a salary, or open a business. Writing for a living is no better than being an actor on the stage or some such foolishness.”

I was seated opposite the judge on a hard wooden chair, my mother occupying the seat to my left. Unlike Old Dick, Momma was becoming stout in her advancing years, but still retained her hair color, a dark brown. She rarely contradicted her husband openly, but was the true power behind the throne in the Sayre household. She had been intimately involved in all of our lives during the formative years, not the judge, who granted the authority gladly.

Momma cleared her throat carefully. “Baby,” she said, addressing me by my family appellation, “I certainly find Mr. Fitzgerald to be a charming man. He’s bright and interesting and I can understand your attraction to him. But there are a lot of questionable issues involved here, and we’re only interested in your welfare. It seems to me he drinks too much and he’s not very . . . stable. He romanticizes everything, and I’m not sure that he’s truly responsible. On top of that, he’s going to take you out of Montgomery and move you all the way to New York, which might as well be another country. I’m very concerned and I think it’s too soon. Why do you have to jump into this so quickly? Why not wait a year, or at least six months? You’re so young and there’s no reason to be in such a rush. This is a very important decision you’re making.”

“I’ve known him for over a year,” I replied, “and I’m tired of a long-distance relationship. He can afford me now and I’m ready to go. Both of you know I’ve never been afraid of an adventure. Well, New York is an adventure and I’m ready. I’m sorry, but I plan to marry him with or without your consent. I’ve made up my mind.”

Old Dick let out a long sigh and regarded my mother with an expression of quiet resignation. He shook his head. “Very well, then,” he said, his lips drawn tightly together. “If this is your decision, then there’s nothing further to discuss. But I want you to understand that we do not approve of this union and we will not be attending the wedding. I hope we are wrong about this young man but at the present time I think there should be a modicum of prudence injected into these proceedings. That is all I have to say.”

And with that I prepared for my marriage to Scott Fitzgerald.

 

 

BIO

Henry F. Tonn is a semi-retired psychologist who has previously published fiction and nonfiction in journals such as the Gettysburg Review, Connecticut Review, Fifth Wednesday Journal, and Eclectica. He also has two previous publications in The Writing Disorder. The present story, “The Engagement of Zelda Sayre to F. Scott Fitzgerald,” is excerpted from the second chapter of an unpublished novel entitled Ascent to Madness: Zelda Fitzgerald’s Gilded Cage. Though fiction, the novel follows with relative historical accuracy this fascinating woman’s life, the roaring ‘20’s, and her eventual descent into psychosis.

 

 

 

 

0

This, In Writing, To You

by Etan Nechin

 

 

As far as I am concerned, we gel. If left to our own devices, we could tip a tiny planet off its axis.  So when you come in, using a shiny, new key, all that can be heard is my breath, heavy with night, and your feet tapping on the wooden floors.

You bring stuff with you, clothes and shoes and books you’ve written in. You put them neatly in one of my dresser’s drawer, which now becomes yours. We talk in bed. I talk about this and that; about stuff. You talk about spaces and closeness until your road-weary eyes close. I lay awake all night, thinking about what we will talk about over toast and coffee, but I fall asleep at5am, and sleep through until noon, which is your lunchtime, so all the stuff I wanted to talk about is left unsaid.

That is why I write love letters to you: So that every morning, I can leave something from me, with you, an unconsecrated nuptial, packed along with your lunch, in a brown paper bag, with your name on it, and not mine.

You go away, on a business trip. I don’t have business elsewhere. I stay put, at my desk, typing away, with one finger on the dial, because I know you have your finger on one as well. We talk on the phone. I talk about this and that; about stuff. You talk about patterns and forces. You ask me how I am. I sneeze into the speaker. You laugh, and your laugh sounds like a sneeze too. You tell me your flight number and that you’ll see me tomorrow, but I know it will only be the day after tomorrow, because it is pouring cats and dogs outside my window, even though it is sunny out of your window.

That is why I write love letters to you: Not because words are more sublime than touch, not because gestures are purer than a missed call, pregnant with longing. But because every day I will be able to shut the blinds, and shutter that world that makes us be apart, with its physics, and rain delays, and do my task with glee.

You need to go away, not on a business trip. You say it will be a while. After weeks that are measured not by days, but by phone calls, I come visit—I am air delivered to you. I put my stuff in your drawer, which now becomes mine. We spend a day in the hot springs. We get there by hitching a ride. I take photos of the scenery; you take photos of me taking photos of the scenery. We talk in the hot spring. I talk about this and that; about stuff. You talk about air and mass. In the hot springs, steam gets into my eyes; I can’t see you looking at me.

I make a mental note, to go to the market when we get back, so I can make you a birthday cake. But we spend all day at the springs, and I need to leave as soon as we get back, I leave you a birthday card with the recipe written on the back, but not a cake.

That is why I write love letters to you: So that truck drivers will deliver evidence of me, to you, and a humble mailman will place it at the foot of your doorstep, and knock on the wooden frame, because I cannot.

We miss each other’s calls. That is okay because that is how it works. We know that between here and there is time difference, and weather. We know that our drawers will stay empty, that we can’t fill them on our own anymore, and despite the emptiness it makes us happy, because these empty drawers expand, and become the sky, to which we can look up to, and talk about this and that; about stuff, and there is always something else to speak about—spaces and closeness, patterns and forces, air and mass—so much for us to know about each other, even though we cannot hear or see each other anymore.

That is why I write love letters to you: Because love changes more rapidly than the weather, its distance equals that of eternity, and can only be measured by its abundant absence, just like String Theory, which I know nothing about—but you do.

 

 

BIO

Etan Nechin is an Israeli born writer, currently living in Brooklyn, NY. His fiction and essays were published at ZYZZYVA, Apogee, Columbia Journal Potluck Magazine, MonkeyBicycle, Entropy, MutualArt  and more. He co-wrote text for a performance, UTTER: The Violent Necessary for the Embodied Presence of Hope, which was shown at the 2015 Venice Biennale.

 

 

 

0

Exiadon

by Jesse Downing

 

 

I tapped my pencil on my clipboard.

“What’s the progress on Operation 24B?”

“All clear!”

I nodded to the operator, checked 24B off my list, and moved on. The year was 1967, and I was the supervisor of the Exiadon Computer project. Everything had been going wonderfully for the past three months. The computer had been built, the refrigeration unit installed, and the team of operators and programmers assembled. We provided a few logins to some universities as well as some to some more covert government operations. The machine was making money, and soon it’d be making a difference in the world.

“Jim, get over here,” one of the main operators said.

“What is it?”

I headed over, assuming some stupid university student had been meddling with things he didn’t need to. It wouldn’t have been the first time, after all, and a simple warning or a call to the university was generally enough to get them to stop.

“There’s a problem with one of the fridge motors,” he said.

“Well holy hell, Andy, shut the damn thing down! Do you want six million dollars to go up in flames?”

“Will do,” he said. “Attention all operators. Shut down the Exiadon. I repeat, shut down Exiadon.” All fourteen men and women began rushing to turn off the machine. In less than a minute, everything was off.

“So what’s wrong with the motor?” I asked as a faint grinding sound became more and more apparent. Andy adjusted his glasses and rubbed his beard, looking at a printout of our refrigeration system sensors.

“I don’t know. I’ll call Cooper’s and see if they can come fix it.”

 

“Mr. Crowley,” the man said, sniffing his nose and brushing his mustache, “I sure hate to tell you this, but you’re gonna need a new motor. And to tell you the truth here, I ain’t too sure what kind you’re gonna need.”

I took off my glasses and rubbed my forehead. “Well, I don’t know, either, but it was your company that custom-built and installed this one several months ago.” The man looked surprised, which one served to annoy me more. I said, “I need this fixed today. Tomorrow at the latest. I’m losing money as we speak.”

The man lifted his hat and scratched the back of his hairless head. “Well, Mr. Crowley, it’s gonna take us about a week to get you another custom motor. If you need it that bad I reckon for now we could try and match the load by chaining up some smaller motors and rent those out to ya while we build you a new one.”

I glared. “What do you mean rent? This is your motor. It failed. Get it fixed. I run a multimillion dollar operation. If we hadn’t have had a backup motor, this whole thing could have gone up in flames!” I went back and spoke with Andy about the motor issue.

“I really don’t think it should be an issue running a bunch of smaller motors,” he said, “as long as they can pump the coolant.”

“The dude wants to rent them out to us for a hundred and fifty bucks.”

The red-bearded man nearly choked on his coffee. “They what?!

We decided to wait a week for the custom motor and alerted our clients that we wouldn’t be able to do computations in the meantime. We weren’t so worried about losing clients; after all, they weren’t going to go out and buy their own computers, and there was no way they’d be able to find someone else with a better timesharing service. We assured them that all of their data was still here and secure and that we’d let them know as soon as Exiadon was back up. We even offered to send them the tapes of their data if they weren’t so sure.

The motor eventually came, and a team of technicians was sent out to install it. They finished, tested it, and left. We resumed operation.

“Everything’s going fine, Jim! I’ll call up our customers and tell them the system’s back online!” I nodded to Andy and sat down. It had been a stressful week, but at least the computer technicians were still given work while the machine was down – all thanks to me winning a big argument with corporate (and not getting fired).

 

Suddenly, I felt a rumble.

“What was tha-”

The ground shook violently, and I fell to the floor, bashing my head on the steel panel in front of me. I heard a few screams from the operators as they ran from the room, but they were drowned out by a ringing that grew louder and louder in my ears, and before I could even try to pick myself up, everything faded to black.

 

I began to slowly regain my consciousness. “What happened?” I said, grabbing my head in my hands and raising myself up. I opened my eyes and blinked a few times, trying to focus. “What the…?”

The computer that that previously surrounded me was gone. My coworkers were gone. Everything had been replaced by a giant forest. Trees towered over me, their leaves painting the canopy, letting in sunshine only by rays. A fountain made of stone and covered in moss was at my back. What appeared to be the ruins of a castle or a temple lied just over a hill. The wind moved slowly and silently, brushing ever so gently against my hair and my face.

“I’m glad to see you’re awake.” I jumped, then taking notice to the glowing figure beside me. He appeared to be a man… but he was blue and transparent and floating above the ground. He smiled. “Welcome to Exiadon.”

Exiadon? This place may have been immense and gorgeous, but it was most certainly not my supercomputer. “Pardon?”

“Exiadon, Jim! I’ve been waiting oh-so-long for you to arrive here!” His voice was high-pitched and twisted. It was almost like two voices were speaking at the same time. I was incredibly unsettled.

“How do you know my name?”

“Oh, Jimmy,” he said, getting closer, “isn’t it obvious? This is just a dream! Oho ho ho ho!” He brushed my chin with his hand and danced around. “Isn’t it marvelous?” I furrowed my brow.

“Good. That just means that all I need to do is wake up.”

“O ho ho, but Jimmy, this isn’t any ordinary dream.”

The wind stopped. His voice suddenly became dark and menacing, and his grin got even wider. “You might just not wake up.

Suddenly, he was gone. There was silence. Nothing moved; nothing made a sound. The forest stood completely still.

The silence was broken by a footstep in the grass. An old man – nearly as ancient as the forest surrounding us – approached me. He was short with long, white hair, wearing clothes that reminded me of a Native American chieftain. “You there,” he said. “What’s your name?” I was relieved someone was actually asking.

“Jim,” I said, standing up.

The old man walked up to me and looked around suspiciously. “Has anyone been here with you, Jim?” I wasn’t sure whether I could trust this man or not. After all, the blue one already knew my name and acted as if he were the devil himself.

“Nope, no one at all. Why?”

“Interesting,” he said, giving me a look of distrust – like he knew I was lying to him. I wasn’t too sure this man had really even needed to ask my name – if maybe he didn’t already know it like the other.

“I’m Lazarus. I’m a shaman in a small village just near here. I sensed a disturbance in the forest, and so I came this way.”

“A shaman? So you speak to the dead?”

He grinned. “You might say that. Come with me. I wouldn’t trust staying here alone for too long.” I obliged and followed Lazarus through the forest and to his village.

The village looked just as beautiful and ancient as the rest of the forest had. There were stone houses with primitive wooden fences. Small gardens were in place around some of them, and there was a water well in the center of the town. Children were running around playing, and the adults were going about their daily chores. It was much more lively than the bit of forest I had arrived in.

Still, I was hung up over the fact that the mystery man had called this place Exiadon. Was he being truthful in telling me that it was all just a dream? What did he mean in saying that I might not wake up? And why, still, did he know my name?

“Lazarus,” I said, “what’s the name of this place?” As we moved further into the village, I felt more eyes turn toward me. I was not wearing the white and ancient garb of these people, nor was my skin dark and red like theirs. My hair was short and brown, I had on a grey suit and tie, and my skin was nearly as white as their clothing.

“Epoh,” Lazarus said. “That’s the name of this village.”

“Lazarus,” a deep voice called out. “Who is this man you have brought into the village?” The man walked toward us, keeping suspicious eyes on me. He was similar in height to Lazarus, if not a little taller. His hair was grey and braided, and he carried a large wooden cane in his hand. A necklace dangled from his neck.

“Mortimer, this is Jim. I found him in the forest.”

“Jim! Why do you come to our village?”

I still felt all of the eyes turned toward me – staring, questioning, and judging. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m afraid I’m lost. Lazarus here advised me that I shouldn’t be alone.”

“And that you should not!” Mortimer snapped. “Lazarus. Has he spoken with the guardian?” Lazarus, with his hands behind his back, arched an eyebrow, looked at me, and looked back at Mortimer.

“He has not,” he said.

I interjected, “I’m sorry – guardian?”

Mortimer hit his cane on the ground. “He is not to be trusted!”

“… Then why is he called the guardian?”

“Ahem,” Lazarus said, interrupting. “The guardian is an evil spirit. He is called the guardian because he oversees much of this forest – for better or for worse. You would know him if you saw him.” Lazarus gave me the same suspicious look he had given me when we met. I suspect the blue man I ran into before was this “guardian.”

“Gentlemen,” I said, pushing up my glasses, “would the word ‘Exiadon’ mean anything to either of you?” The two exchanged glances and looked around at the people watching.

“We need to speak privately,” Lazarus said.

The two led me into a building with a table and quite a few books, as well as what appeared to be a crudely drawn map of the forest. “First, let me ask you again, Jim. Did you speak with anyone at the fountain?” I paused. Figuring I might as well trust the two men, I confided.

“I spoke with a man. He appeared and disappeared suddenly. He was blue, and he floated. He also knew my name.”

Lazarus nodded. “That was the guardian,” he said. “What did he say to you?”

“He called this place Exiadon. Then he told me this was a dream, and that I might not wake up.”

“That is certainly what he wants,” the shaman said.

“Jim,” Mortimer piped in, “you must return to the land from which you came.”

Lazarus nodded. “The chief is right. Staying here would be nothing but falling to the hands of the guardian. It will consume your soul.”

Tension spread across my shoulders. I still didn’t understand what this place was or truly even who these people were, and somehow I was supposed to leave. “How am I supposed to get out of here?” I asked, as if I could just break out of this place like it was a cell.

“The spirits traverse worlds through a place called ‘the core.’ A portal can be opened there, but we’ll have to gain access through the castle ruins.” Lazarus looked uneasy. “It’s likely that we’re going to encounter the guardian there. Stay strong in both body and spirit, and you can make it through.”

 

We approached a large stone structure, shrouded in trees and vines. Its walls were cracked, and its door was missing. Past the arched doorway, inside, was what appeared to be the remnants of an elegant castle – a fountain, red carpets and drapes, stained tall windows – all worn by the tides of time and taken over by nature. The inside was beautifully but only sparingly lit by sunlight from the doorway and from the windows – similar to the shade in the forest. A gentle breeze blew through the door. “Follow me,” Lazarus said, guiding me up the steps past the fountain and to a hallway on the left.

I walked down the hallway past Lazarus and stepped into a room. “Jim, wait!” Lazarus called out. The walkway behind me forcefully and suddenly shut.

“Lazarus!” I called back, hitting my hand against the stone wall that had just appeared. There was no call back.

I was standing in a circular room with tall, stone walls, covered in vines and moss. A ring of windows on the ceiling lit the room evenly. In the center there was a tubular stone structure – like a column – that reached up high, widening at the top, with large and strange circular patterns carved into its sides. There was a small stream of water entering from the wall toward the back of the room that filled a small pond circling around its sides. I walked toward the column before me.

I lifted my right hand and touched the structure. Suddenly, its carved-in rings began glowing blue, and a panel extended in front of me. A floating blue rectangle appeared in thin air, and a keyboard appeared similarly on the panel. I jerked my hand away quickly and took in a deep breath, pushing my glasses to the bridge of my nose. Words appeared on the screen.

WELCOME TO EXIADON.

ONLY AUTHORIZED USERS ARE ALLOWED ON THIS SYSTEM. PLEASURE SPEAK TO YOUR UNIVERSITY OR EMPLOYER ABOUT REQUESTING A LOGIN.

 

USER?

A blinking cursor appeared on the screen. I was connected – no, this castle and this forest and this whole place was connected – to my supercomputer. With some kind of video display terminal? What was the deal with this place? Why was everything linked back to the computer? How the hell did I manage to get here?

I typed in my username and password.

WELCOME, JIM.

 

READY

?

I checked the subsystems. I checked the current users. I checked the memory. I checked everything, and nothing was out of the ordinary. It didn’t make any sense! How could I possibly be connected to the Exiadon, with everything completely normal as if I had never left, from this abandoned and ancient castle in the middle of the woods. To top that off, these woods were also called Exiadon, were in God-knows-where, and had a bunch of crazy spirit people either ready to save my life or to end it.

“O ho ho. I’m so glad you finally showed up,” an all-too-familiar voice said. I turned to see the glowing blue figure – this “guardian” – completely the same as he had been when he suddenly disappeared during our last encounter.

“What do you want, ‘Guardian?’” I snarked.

“Oh, Jimmy,” he said, taking his finger and pushing up my chin, “why are you being so hasty? Don’t you want to know anything about why you’re here or what your precious little piece of kit has to do with any of this?” He smiled devilishly, to which I returned an angry glare.

“I’m not worried about it,” I remarked. “I just want to get back home with all of my legs and arms attached.”

“Oh Jimmy,” he said, dramatically and condescendingly. “You can’t just leave and return to your precious little Linda now. Or that little child of yours. No, no, no, Jimmy. I’m afraid it’s much too complicated for that.” My eyes widened, and I held my breath. “Don’t you dare make mention of my child or my wife, you cheeky little bastard. Stop acting like you know everything. If you’ve got answers, talk.”

His cheeky smile turned into a frown, and he crossed his arms. “You’re dead, Jimmy.”

Dead?

“That rumble you felt before you got knocked out? That was the refrigerator motor falling apart. It jammed; the pipes burst. You didn’t run out in time. You’re. Dead.”

That can’t be true.

“Oh, and how is this little contraption here working? I told you. It’s all just a dream.” The guardian lifted his hand and motioned toward the terminal. He closed his hand into a fist and what once glowed blue became dark, blood red. The screen flickered in and out of existence. He grinned.

And you’re not going to wake up.

The previously sealed doorway blew open. “Don’t listen to him, Jim!” Lazarus said, holding what appeared to be a staff of some sort in his hand.

“So what’s your rush to wake up, Jimmy? You know it’s all going to end with this dream. So why not just stay here a while?”

Lazarus jumped in front of me and separated me and the guardian. “Guardian, begone! This man’s soul is not yours to take!” The guardian glared at him menacingly.

“This isn’t your business, Lazarus,” he said, sweeping his hand at the staff pointed in his face. Lazarus violently jerked the staff into the guardian’s hand and arm, shocking and burning him. “Argh!” he screamed, jerking his hand and his arm away.

“This is the blade of holy light. You know good and well that you cannot fight it!” Lazarus turned to me. “This is what I needed to open the portal. There is a subsystem hidden on the Exiadon called CORE that can only be accessed from here. Activate it and make sure all of the computing power possible is directed to it!”

Should I really do this? What if the guardian is right? What if this really is my end? Why would I rush my own death? What do I trust? I felt the ground shake. I knew that if what he said was true, the computer room was already in flames. I was already dead. What would be the point of leaving now? Is Lazarus trying to rush me to my death? Who’s really trying to help me here?

The guardian drew a sword that glowed red and appeared to have lava flow down through the center of the blade, branching off at sharp angles. He lunged forward and swung at Lazarus. The shaman then deflected the swing with his staff. “Jim!” he yelled, leaping into the air and landing behind the guardian.

What do I do?

He stabbed his staff into the guardian’s back, and the guardian unleashed a bloodcurdling scream. It sounded like thousands of screams all at once – all in pain. It was the screams of the damned.

CORE SUBSYSTEM ACTIVATED.

The guardian turned back and slung his arm forward, driving the edge of his blade through Lazarus’ shoulder.

?RSRV(CP0,CP1,MEMBNK;*

“Jimmy,” a devilish voice groaned. “Don’t leave, Jimmy. No one wants to die.”

?SHUTDOWN;30S

The ground began shaking. The screams of the damned rang throughout the terminal room. “What did you do?!” cried Lazarus. The guardian glared at me. “Jimmy,” he said, his voice corrupting more and more. “I’ll wait for you, Jimmy.” He disappeared. Rocks fell from the roof. The terminal stopped glowing, and the screen disappeared.

“It’s shutting down,” I said. “everything will be offline in a matter of 30 seconds.”

“Jim, you idiot! Your worlds are linked through the Exiadon! It has to be used to send you through the core!” The tremors grew more and more violent. Walls could be heard falling and crashing against the ground. “We don’t have time!”

Lazarus lifted his staff toward the sky. “By Exiadon and the holy blade of light! I call upon you, spirits of this world, return this lost soul safely through the core! His day is not done! Let him awaken!” A portal opened up above us. “Don’t worry about me,” Lazarus said. “Stay strong.”

I was at a loss for words, and without even the time to say goodbye, I was pulled in through the portal.

I retained no visual memories of the core. I only could remember the feeling of being pulled, as if through space and time. After that, nothingness.

“Jim! Jim! Wake up, Jim!”

“A-Andy…?” I caught a glimpse of the man with a reddish beard and glasses before passing back out.

“Get him to a hospital,” I heard someone say.

 

I was welcomed with confetti and cheers when I re-entered the computer lab for the first time in two weeks. “Welcome back, Jim!” “It’s good to see you again!” “Mr. Crowley, we got that client you wanted!” “Man I’m glad that gash in your head looks better.” “How’s Linda been?” “Here! Have some cake!”

We partied and had a great time together. It was nice to finally have some cake instead of cheap hospital food, and it was even nicer to be back at my work, overseeing the Exiadon project once again. Everything had been going smoothly and had been successfully repaired thanks to Andy taking over as supervisor while I was gone (and picking a proper fight with Cooper’s Appliances – who paid for my bills and all the damages done).

“Say, Andy, I never asked you,” I said, sitting down at my teletype. “How did none of the system manage to burn?” He looked up and pushed up his glasses.

“We’re not really sure,” he said. “There was a mysterious shutdown performed just moments before the pipes burst. We checked the daytime files and it isn’t clear what done it.” I raised my eyebrows. “Huh, weird. Say, you should hear about this crazy dream I had while I was out. I-”

I typed in my credentials and logged in.

WELCOME, JIM.

IMPORANT SYSTEM MESSAGE:

GLAD YOU MADE IT BACK. HOPE ALL IS WELL

—LAZARUS

“Sorry, what were you saying?”

“I- uh. Oh, nothing.”

 

 

BIO

Jesse Downing was the 2016 Moss Point High School valedictorian and is a current student at Millsaps College. His hobbies include writing, drawing, singing, and coding.

 

0

Ice

by Susan Kleinman

 

 

LOG IN:

Email or Phone: Carol@WestCloRealty.com

Password: SellingHouses

Not the most secure password, but that’s okay. Carol never posts anything private on her Facebook page, anyway; just announcements of upcoming open houses and “likes” on the posts of anyone who might want her to help them buy or sell a home one day – which is to say, everyone she’s ever met.

Carol Gold: Join me Sunday, August 24, 2014, from 1-3 p.m. at this beautifully renovated 4 bed/3 bath at 351 Austen Drive. Walk to Worship. See you there.

She “likes” seven idiotic cat videos, nine random quotes from Monty Python movies, 83 pictures from the Isaacsons’ trip to Israel, and an urgent reminder from Barbara Kranzler that recipes are due for the second edition of the shul’s fundraising cookbook, The West Kloverdale Kosher Kooking Konnection Kollection. Such a waste of time and paper thinks Carol, who just Googles when she needs a recipe. But she picks up her phone nevertheless, clicks over to its electronic to-do list and enters a reminder to send in her three-ingredient chili recipe. Barbara is an old friend and a hard worker, and besides: With the Kranzlers’ youngest daughter recently married off, Barb and Bert are talking about downsizing, and Carol has a gorgeous condo right near shul that has been sitting on the market a little bit too long.

She hits “like.”

Reb Andy: Oh, for God’s sake, Carol thinks, can’t he just call himself Rabbi Garelick like a grownup? Would love to see EVERYONE bright and early for Shabbat morning services.

Garelick has been making great efforts to get the women of West Cloverdale to come to shul earlier, with their husbands; has been trying mightily to make them feel more equal by having women stand up and read the “Prayer for Our Congresspersons” aloud. Honestly, Carol thinks, as she hits “like” (the Rabbi always knows when a young couple is checking out the neighborhood or hunting for a house), if I wanted to be equal, I would join the Unitarian Church.

Laura Lipschitz: Happy birthday to the best husband, partner and lover a girl could ever hope for, my sweet @Stuie Lipshitz.

Ugh. Carol might find this a bit less nauseating if Stuart Lipshitz were not, in fact, the LEAST sweet man she has ever met; if the word “lover” didn’t sound so creepy; if Laura didn’t spend half of every sisterhood meeting complaining (right in front of Carol and Barb and Sheila Edelstein, each of them old enough to be Laura’s mother!) about how her husband probably wouldn’t be able to find her G-spot with a GPS. But still, Carol clicks over to Stuart’s Facebook page and dutifully types “Happy Birthday” on his wall. If Laura ever gets tired of waiting for Loverboy to locate her erogenous zones and needs to sell their McMansion in a divorce settlement, Carol’s commission could run to 65 or 70 grand.

She posts “Happy birthday!” to Marge Blaustein, too, and to Emily Miller and Brian Cooper-Jaffe; “friends” 37 friends of friends, and keeps scrolling. There’s a distressing article from Tablet.com about the Jews of Paris, and a not-even-remotely-funny Purple Clover cartoon about forgetting one’s reading glasses… and, then – finally! – something that actually makes her smile:

Alison Liebskind has posted a video.

Carol doesn’t think it’s a great idea for a 10-year-old to be on social media, but she has to admit it is nice to see her granddaughter’s face on the computer in between visits up to Westchester.

“Ok,” Alison is saying on the screen, as Carol clicks the little arrows that enlarge the video: “I would like to nominate my best friend, Chloe Orenthal; my mother, Rachel Liebskind; and my brother Jonathan Liebskind.” And with that, she dumps a bucket filled with – What is that? ICE? Yes, ice – dumps it over her own head, soaking her gorgeous red curls and her blue Camp Ramah t-shirt as she shrieks and giggles and dances in her flip-flops on the driveway. “You have 24 hours to complete the ice bucket challenge or donate to the mumble-mumble-mumble” – What is she saying?

The screen momentarily goes black and then there is Jonathan in the video. God, when did he get so tall? Carol switches over to her to-do list and makes a note to call Rachel about a visit, then jots a few words in the crossword puzzle she does every morning to help keep her memory sharp, and opens a text that has just pinged on her phone. Whenever her husband, Wally, teases that she can multi-task like nobody’s business, she reminds him that multitasking IS her business, that she hasn’t won WestClo Realty’s Top Performer Award 17 years in a row without being able to juggle him and the kids and the grand-kids and the house and her clients; and – these last few years – her texts and her tweets and Instagram, too. The text is a client asking if she can reschedule her look at the house on Fitzgerald Lane from 3:15 this afternoon to 4:30. “Sure. C U then,” Carol types, in the text-speak she hired a high-school kid to teach her so that her twenty-and thirty-something house-buying clients would feel at ease with her. (The older clients – the sellers – she still calls on their land-lines. More than one has thanked her profusely for this, as if she has performed a heroic act of lovingkindness.)

She puts down her phone and turns back to the computer screen. “OK,” Jonathan is saying through the gap where his front baby-teeth used to be. “Wait. What do I say?”

Carol hears Alison’s impatient big-sister sigh, and then, “You have to nominate people.”

“Oh, yeah, I would like to nominate my best friend, Jonah, and my Grandma – what’s Grandma’s real name again?”

Slower, heavier sigh: “Carol Gold, you dumb-head.”

“Oh, yeah. My Grandma, Carol Gold.”

When Carol met Wally, his last name was Goldfinger, but she convinced him to shorten it before their wedding. The theme song from that James Bond film was still playing on the pop-radio stations, and she dreaded a lifetime of spy jokes and double entendres. “We have to think about our future children,” she told him when she suggested “Gold” – short and sweet. “I’m just being practical.”

Of course she was. Carol is the very soul of practicality. Wash-and-go haircuts and sensible shoes. Three-ingredient suppers and no-iron sheets. In addition to Wally’s name, she had persuaded him to change his college major, too. Au revoir, French Literature… Hello, accounting. And when it had been time for them to look for a house, (Wally had just made partner at his firm; Carol was pregnant with their second child), she didn’t pick a community by hunch or gut feeling or what her current crop of house-hunters call “vibe,” but by drawing up a decision tree on three pages of the ledger paper Wally used to bring home from the office.

And she had made a good choice. The Golds have been happy in West Cloverdale for 45 years now, surrounded by people who share their values and their politics; by friends who brought car-loads of casseroles when Rachel’s first husband, Uri, was killed in a robbery at his shoe store, and stacks of wedding presents when she married her second husband, Aaron in the rabbi’s study. Ali had been born a year later and Jonathan, two more years after that. How is it that he is already about to begin 3rd grade?

“You have 24 hours,” Jonathan is saying now on Carol’s computer screen, “to donate to the – wait, what’s it called again?”

“Oh, just give me the phone,” Alison snaps. The picture jerks and shakes and then there is Ali’s face again. “Hi, Grandma, Jonathan just nominated you for the ALS ice bucket challenge. That means you have 24 hours to dump a bucket of ice over your head or give money to the ALS foundation…”

Jonathan jumps back into the frame. “Oh, yeah. The ALS Foundation. It’s a sickness, and, um, well, it’s really bad, I think, so you have to give them money. Or do the ice thing. Like this.” And he picks up a bucket – a heavy one, judging by the strain on his freckled face – dumps the contents over his head, and starts to cry.

“It’s colllllld,” he wails through his tears, as the screen goes blank.

Of course it’s cold. Carol thinks, pushing her chair away from the computer with a screech. It’s ice.

But it’s not Jonathan she’s annoyed with, sweet gap-toothed Jonathan, and she knows it. She bites the nail off her left pinky, a habit she gave up in seventh grade when she sent away for a booklet on how to quit; paces around the kitchen; eats three cookies left over from Shabbos even though she isn’t hungry; and slams the pantry door shut.

ALS. Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Lou Gehrig’s – and David Stein’s.

David Stein. A tall, handsome man with a short, handsome name; a medical student at Columbia, from a nice family in Woodmere. Carol met him during her sophomore year at Hunter College, at a party given by a mutual friend. Within the week, they were going steady. By the end of the month, she knew she wanted to marry him.

“It’s Prince Charrrrrrrming,” her mother always whispered in a happy little sing-song voice every time she handed Carol the phone. “Dr. Right!” her father proclaimed after Carol brought David home for dinner. And indeed, he WAS charming, with his polished manners and his easy smile. And it DID feel right, talking to him, dancing with him, necking in his car – but nothing more. No one buys the cow, Carol knew, if they can get the milk for free.

Carol and David had fun together: They both liked ice-skating and tennis; enjoyed the same movies and laughed at the same jokes. They looked good together: her blonde head against his broad shoulder. And they agreed about all the things that could cause a less-compatible couple to argue: money (they were both savers, not spenders); food (not too spicy); and children (they would have two, unless the first two were the same sex, in which case they would try once more – but only once more.) David would be a good father and a good provider.

“That’s all very nice, but does he make your heart go pitter-pat?” her sister, Ruth, asked as Carol ticked off these attributes on her fingers. “Is he your one and only?”

The answers were yes and no, respectively.

Yes, Carol really was in love with David. But no, she didn’t believe that there was one and only one man for every woman, or just one woman for any man. “How could that BE, with three billion people on the planet?” she challenged Ruth back in 1959. “Only one? It’s just not possible,” she told herself again in 2002, when she signed Rachel up for jDate a year after Uri’s funeral.

And I was right, she thinks now, every time she sees Alison and Jonathan on Facebook – Alison and Jonathan, who both have Rachel’s blue eyes and Aaron’s ginger curls. There is more than one-and-only Prince Charming.

But oh, yes, David Stein made her heart go pitter-pat. She thought about him when she rode the subway to Hunter and when she studied in the library and when she drank tea back in her parents’ kitchen, late at night. She thought about how smart he was and how funny and how handsome; about what it would be like to sleep with him after they got married and what it would be like to make a home with him.

And then, one Sunday morning when David and Carol were eating blintzes at Rattner’s, David dropped the fork on its way to his mouth. A few weeks later, he spilled his Coke down the front of his shirt while they waited for a movie to start. It’s just pre-engagement jitters, Carol assured herself, as she handed him a stack of napkins from the concession stand. She and David had been talking a lot about marriage – although they agreed that they should wait to formalize things until they were both closer to graduation. She had let him know (after practicing in front of her mirror at home to make sure that her practicality didn’t come across as bossiness) that she would prefer a white-gold setting to platinum for her diamond engagement ring, because white-gold prongs were less likely to bend and break; and that she’d rather have a summer wedding than a winter one – no blizzards to worry about. David seemed as excited about all of it as she felt. But still, getting engaged would be a big deal, Carol told herself when he tripped over his own feet on his way off the tennis court at his parents’ club. His nervousness didn’t mean he didn’t love her.

“I love you,” he told her, as he dusted grass off his knees and took her hand. “I love you,” he said again, later, as he kissed her neck in her parents’ driveway in Forest Hills. And then, as he started to open her sweater, he said, “I think I might have Lou Gehrig’s Disease.”

For a split second – and she hated herself afterwards for even thinking it – Carol wondered if this was a ploy to get the milk for free.

“You what?” she said, softly, leaning away from him and fumbling to close the little pearl buttons on her cardigan.

“I have a neurologist’s appointment tomorrow,” he said. “I’ve been trying into find a good time to tell you, but now it just slipped out. I’m sorry.”

“Let’s not panic,” she said, forcing a smile. “I bet it could be any one of a number of things.”

At the college library the next day, she researched some of the things that might be causing David’s tremors and his clumsiness: Early-onset Parkinson’s, or maybe multiple sclerosis – neither of those diseases a picnic, either, but better than Lou Gehrig’s. But David – medical student and son of a doctor – had already ruled those out on his own.

The first neurologist sent David to a second, who explained what David already knew, and what Carol had learned in her hours of research: that ALS can’t be diagnosed except by process of elimination. Dr. Lerner called for tests to rule out every disease that was likely and several that weren’t, until the only test they hadn’t done, David tried half-heartedly to joke, was a Pap smear.

“I’m afraid we’re at the end of the line,” David imitated Dr. Lerner’s pompous voice when he relayed the conversation to Carol. “The end of the line,” as if the whole thing had been a trip out to Coney Island.

Every night for the next month, Carol lay awake in her bed, wondering whether and when she should break it off with David. “It would be different if it weren’t fatal,” she protested when Ruth accused her of being heartless and unromantic. If she married him now, she wouldn’t be a virgin when she had to date again after a suitable period of mourning. And what Nice Jewish Boy her age would want a woman who had been around? If she didn’t marry David but stayed with him till the end, she’d be a spinster at 27 or 28 – and to whose benefit?

So when he did the gentlemanly thing and suggested that they break up, she hugged him gently and promised that even if they weren’t together, she would still be his friend – his very best friend – until the end.

And, for a couple of years, she was. She borrowed her father’s car and drove David out to Jones Beach in the summer; took the Long Island Railroad out to watch the World Series with him at his parents’ house in the fall. She sent him funny cards from the Hallmark store and rugelach from his favorite bakery in the city every few weeks, and she called him every night (now that they were just friends she didn’t have to worry about appearing too forward) and told him funny stories about her classes and her cousin Kenny’s bar mitzvah and the ridiculous guy Ruth was dating, often talking until she fell asleep with the telephone receiver in her hand.

But then, during her senior year, she met Wally. Wally with his sweet soul and his sharp mind. Wally who agreed to switch his major and change his name for her. Wally, to whom she never breathed a word about David Stein; whom she made Ruth promise not to tell about David, either. What would be the point?

It took Carol three weeks after Wally proposed before she could bring herself to call David.

“Mazal tov, beautiful bride!” he said when she finally forced herself to tell him that she was engaged. And then, after a long and painful silence, “So, I guess this is our last phone call, huh?”

She thought of saying that no, they could still speak, could still be friends – but she knew that wasn’t true. If it were true, if David was really her friend, she would have told Wally all about him, would maybe even invite David to the wedding. Or take Wally out to visit him. And she would never do any of that.

“I’ll never forget you,” Carol promised.

But then she had.

Well, she didn’t forget him always, and never entirely. She remembered him when she played tennis and when she ate rugelach. Sometimes, even after all these years, when she woke up she could see his face in front of her, so close-seeming and so real-looking that once, she had reached out to touch him, only to find herself grasping at the air. But she forgot him for long stretches of time, when she was busy with Wally and her babies and her real estate class; with her aging parents and her growing children and her committees at the shul.

When Uri was killed, Carol had wondered briefly whether seeing her daughter grieve was her punishment for not sticking around to mourn David properly. But then she reminded herself that she didn’t believe such superstitious nonsense; that she was a rational woman, and it was the 21st century. And so, when for a brief moment she thought of telling Rachel about David – “I know exactly how you feel” – she just hugged her, instead, and helped fill out death certificates and insurance forms.

“Do you ever think about him?” Ruth asked at the end of the shiva for Uri, when the two sisters were packing leftover lasagnas from neighbors for the freezer.

“About whom?” Carol feigned ignorance, but Ruth saw right through her and asked again.

“I do think about him sometimes,” Carol whispered to Ruth in the kitchen that afternoon, wondering – as she did when she still sometimes awoke with David’s face fading from a dream – whether “sometimes” was too often or not often enough. “But you know how I am. Brass-tacks; tachlis, here-and-now.”

“Heartless,” Ruth had mumbled and Carol had pretended not to hear. Well, what good would it have done Carol – or David – for her to stay in touch with him? What would she have told him? That married life was treating her very well, thanks? That when she had bled, a little, on her wedding night, Wally had looked pleased? No, she had told herself when she didn’t call David; when she made herself throw out the obituary pages of the Times before she could be tempted to read them. What good would her tears do David? What good would they do her?

No, she had told herself all those years ago, it was better for everyone this way.

 

And now, in a new century in another state, her computer buzzes and pings.

Rachel Liebskind likes Alison Libeskind’s video.

Rachel Liebskind shared Alison Liebskind’s video. “So proud of my kiddies!!”

Rachel Liebskind tagged you in a post: “Did you see this @Carol Gold?”

Carol forces herself to “like” that, and then clicks the video again, turns away from it to answer a text about the shul’s pew re-upholstery committee before she turns back to her computer:

“I would like to nominate my Grandma. What is Grandma’s real name?” Jonathan is asking, and for a moment Carol worries about his attention-paying skills; didn’t Ali just tell him her name a moment ago? But then she remembers that she is watching the same video a second time. Jonathan is fine.

She logs out of Facebook and sits at her desk for a long while, thinking about the days she and David spent waiting for his diagnosis and the nights she spent wondering how to let him down gently; about the first time he tripped and the last time they spoke.

Finally, she rises from her ergonomic chair, slips her phone into one of the Ziploc bags she buys by the gross and tucks it into her pocket, and heads down to the laundry room. “Fully-finished basement!” she will advertise one day, when she and Wally are ready to downsize from the house into a condo. “Brand new appliances!”

She reaches under the laundry sink for a bucket, heads back upstairs to the kitchen and presses the bucket against the ice maker in the freezer door, then carries it carefully out to the deck, where the late-summer haze stings her eyes. Just 9:30 a.m. and already the temperature is in the high 80s. It won’t be long until the ice starts to melt.

“This is for you, Ali and Jonathan,” Carol says, talking into the Ziploc-waterproofed phone she is holding at arm’s length. She lifts the bucket one-handed and awkwardly tips it over her head.

And then, just like sweet, shivering Jonathan, she cries.

 

 

BIO

Susan Kleinman’s short stories have appeared in The Baltimore Review, Inkwell, the William and Mary Review, JewishFiction.net, and The MacGuffin, and her articles, essays, and book reviews have been published in dozens of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times and New YorkMagazine. She teaches fiction writing at the Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College, where she was a Gurfein Writing Fellow in 2010.

 

 

 

0

Meditate and Wait

by Katie Strine

 

 

They smoke in the garage, four of them, five of them. Can’t see through the haze of sun into the shadowed room. From the street neighbors hear their sounds: laughter coated with emphysema. Rotting lungs and dogs that howl at subtle movements. A grandma, a grandpa, an uncle, and one older niece: the remains of a larger family that has dwindled by death and decay (all smokers, all drinkers, and all self-proclaimed Catholics).

Three dogs guard the garage at the edge – a baby gate corrals them. Una walks by and the chorus of howls arrange like limp notes and soar into the air. The smell of dead tree seeps from the soil. Their house, the first one built on this street, is the last one before the road dips to the left and opens to a cemetery. Originally a family grave, but years and community planners and the sway of money rearranged the rights. Now it’s public property. A gothic iron gate surrounds the land; doors eek open on aged hinges. Una loves to hear them whine.

She walks down just to walk down and visit no one in particular. Her long, brown hair whips behind her shoulders. Their eyes, as well as the eyes of the yard statues, follow her. She can’t be sure of what they’ve erected between the overgrown pine shrubs, and they’ve planted plastic flowers in plastic planters, but she ascertains Catholic saints (none of whom she knows), a fox (with cold, beady, cement eyes) and a rooster (garnished with a red and white checkered apron). A harsh “Shut up you damn dogs” echoes forth and maybe a whimper but then a grotesque cough tumbles forth. The sounds spill over one another.

***

She reads the names, the large ones printed in all capital letters, last names sprawled, the family honor. She shuffles leaves to the side and searches for smaller headstones. Children, maybe. Small adults. Women from the 1800s who have since shriveled like dead bugs: heads craning toward bodies, arms tucked at their chests. She’s searching for a way to connect to the past or a way for the past to connect to her. Voodoo magic, Ouija boards, séances: she’s sick of pretending.

***

They burned each other’s skin with hot lighters, the metal sank into the flesh and years later scars talk to strangers, stories of their odd behavior. Imprints on the back of hands. Signals coded only for each other. Scar tissue signs — personal tattoos — created before members departed to the other side. Rumors circulate the town. People whisper. But the members of the house have crafted a system all of their own, separate from the community, and the symbols remain embedded in their history and their family.

They pull back their baby gates and open the garage that weekend for an estate sale. She wonders, and maybe even hopes, if they might move. She saunters through their belongings. A lamp with a broken bulb – the glass shards visible through the shade; a box of used ashtrays gray and soot stained; a box of run-down toys featuring a doll with a loose eyeball. The black button swings and wobbles as Una roots through the box. Finally her hand emerges holding a magic eight ball. She palms the prize and pokes further.

Suddenly the feeling of a ghost catches in her throat. She stands within inches of the garage and fingers rotten pots and stained lace. A framed picture of a church (a jagged crack running through its surface) props against a table. She runs her finger down the glass and lets the slit of its cut dig into her skin. A small streak of blood remains on the glass, a dull red hue painted on the steeple. She bends toward the picture and seeks to speak to the spirit she feels hovering from the house but knows she needs closer. So this is where it hides, she thinks and buys her eight ball. A boy tucked behind the bushes and the beady fox watch her desperately.

***

She leans against her front porch steps and watches families retire as the day’s water-painted clash of colors darkens. The leaves rustle against each other. It calms and stirs harder and the wind chimes collapse into a song. She waits for midnight black, the lunar phase on her side, a tiny rat’s nail of white in the sky.

Their garage door is closed. The baby gates rest on the outside of the door ready for another day. She crosses to their side of the street, the cemetery entrance within view but the graves tucked into a small valley of swirling fog.

Una creeps through their uneven grass. The unkempt yard crunches below her feet: a slew of leaves and twigs and mushrooms. Against the house she smells standing water. A deep stench of mud or mold. She walks with her back flat against the exterior and finds herself in the backyard where an unexpected scene develops.

In place of a standard backyard flush with grass and peppered with flowers, here lies an entire pond. The water covers the expanse of space, with a back porch that extends above the water approximately ten feet from the house. At the far end of the watered yard stands a large stone – not shaped into an obelisk or other tomb – looming over the abyss. She has no way of making it to the stone unless she plunges into the water.

Overhead an explosion claps in the sky – fireworks – but she imagines the uncle with a gun, his face another shadow, and turns from the pond and toward the street.

***

There’s a knock on the door the next day, late afternoon. The air smells like fire and burned leaves. A hint of smoke hangs over shingled roofs.

A younger man, maybe even a boy, stands on the other side of Una’s door. His toes hang over the front edges of his flip flops. His toenails visible, curled and yellowed. She doesn’t recognize him and he knows she won’t.

“I’m Zeek, short for Ezekiel – your neighbor.” He cranes his neck toward the house with the garage. She’s never seen him there. She doesn’t respond. “If you want to get in that pond, if you want to find that spirit you’re after, I’m willing to help you out.”

“What spirit?”

“You don’t believe all of a sudden?” He sticks a toothpick into his mouth and swirls it around with his tongue. “I’ve seen you. You hang around at the cemetery, poking around at strangers’ graves. I know you don’t have family in this town – new blood – so you go looking around at the old blood. Old souls. Whatcha looking for?”

Una stares into his eyes wondering how much he knows.

“Forget about it, Una. Wanna see a trick?” From the other pocket of his sweatpants he pulls out a stack of cards. He shuffles and pushes the cards back together again. He waves his hands. The right hand, she notices, is scabbed from scratched bug bites or some kind of poison ivy. He catches her looking and moves his hand quicker. “Okay, pick a card – go ahead, Ain’t gonna bite you.”

She inches a card from the cluster. A Jack of Hearts. He nods to her to slide it back into the deck.

“Good, good. Okay, now, watch closely – I didn’t see it, right? But you gotta remember what card it is.” He holds his eyes steady into hers. An answer dances behind his gaze. She shivers away a question and shakes her mind into vacancy. After a few more sleight of hand tricks, he procures the Jack of Hearts and flashes it in front of her. She looks into the face of the card and notices its menacing features that either weren’t there before or ones she overlooked. His hand appears freckled like Zeek’s. Warped skin.

“I don’t really like card tricks,” she says and shuts the door.

***

It’s cold when the ghost enters your body. A halo of chill surrounds the exterior. When it’s gone, a familiar heat returns, and you’re alone again.

She doesn’t ask for them to visit but she returns in case they do.

She weaves through tombstones and waits for one to call to her. Her skirt hangs low and drapes through the leaves. A few hang at the edge and she pulls them along unknowingly. She carries a book of poetry, a dilapidated copy handed to her from other people in another world: her past. It’s a relic she can live without, so she tugs at the pages. Each papery feather pulled from its binding. A light rip. The glue lets go. The page frees. She tucks one after one against these permanent headrests and weighs each to the earth with a rock.

A harsh whistle blows through the surrounding trees. Her skirt tugs against her legs, and her head flings toward the sound. A black shape of a bird flutters behind tree trunks. She wonders if Zeek is there, too: his lanky body against a tree, the bark rough against his spine. Beady eyes like the cold, cement fox.

Then, movement. Low to the ground, a shadow forms and creeps from the woods. It hovers on all fours. She imagines Zeek on all fours – preternatural, foam at the mouth — and on the hunt for her. His toenails dig through the grass, soil ripe under his nails, as he lunges toward her.

“Clyde?” She asks the animal, a large beast with a head like a shoebox: one from the garage dog gang. He ambles to her side. “Why are you down here?” He nudges into her, and she rubs his broad back. A faint smell of cigarette smoke lingers on his fur. “Do you want to hear a poem, Clyde?” To which he responds by settling in and shutting his eyes. His gentle body collapses. She reads aloud each word, the syllables unstressed, stressed, unstressed, stressed. A whoosh of air – the trees breathing from her left – carries and cools her neck.

Una meditates and waits.

***

She wakes to the uncle standing above her, the graves below her. She feels the warmth of Clyde’s back on hers.

“That’s my dog,” the uncle growls and yanks at Clyde’s collar. The man’s mouth clenches as he talks. She wonders how the words escape. “And what’s all this litter?” He waves a sinewy arm through the air. Una sees her poems scattered, some swooped and soaring with the wind. “No respect,” he whistles and hobbles away. He tugs at Clyde, who he’s wrangled with a rope.

She watches them circle through the headstones. The uncle precariously places each step, and Clyde hunches toward the smells of earth. Their bodies bumble back toward the street.

She collects rocks. Smooth, cold rocks: minute minerals miraculously compounded into handheld objects. She rubs at each testing its smoothness, handling its weight before placing them into the folds of her skirt she’s lifted for a temporary carrier. Stooping toward the graves, she weighs the poems again.

“Are you a witch?” She hears Zeek’s voice before she sees his face. A bouquet of fake flowers dangles at his side, their heads facing downward.

“What?”

“Those dresses, all long, covered, heaven-like but hellish altogether. Pagan, I guess is what I mean to say.”

“Your family doesn’t own this property, Zeek. First your uncle. Now you. I’m allowed to be here.”

“Allowed?” He suppresses a smile, then steals a whiff from the bouquet before dropping the bunch by his side again. A collection of vibrant blue, red, orange, yellow – abnormal colors for flowers. “Did you think more about the pond? My offer? I know what you’re chasing, Una. I get it. Why are you hesitant?”

Una considers his proposition. His words form like steam within a swirling fog already constant in her mind. Intangible and abstract. She knows she’s unable to sneak into the water without him knowing. She forces her mind backwards to distant memories. A train crash. Her parents thrown from a bridge. Her parents drowned in water. Her parents plummeted off cliffs. She surmises these details – all daydreams and fabricated realities — but understands they died without her and after years of foster care, miscellaneous homes, and empty emotions from town to town, this street, this city, this cemetery, that spirit, finally feels fulfilling.

“What do you chase?” She asks through the mindful fog.

Again, a sly smile breaks and his pointers show. “I don’t chase. Do you think that’s what you want? An end to an unknown? Some realize it’s over before they begin. You, I think, can’t settle. Others, like me, come naturally into this world.” He pauses to pick up a poem, one she missed as it skids between them. It crinkles against the plastic as he tucks it within the flowers. “Tell you what. Nine o’clock, tonight.” He answers for her because he knows she’ll come.

***

“We call her Mother because she’s been here before any of us.” Zeek and Una stand ankle deep in water, their feet mingled with moss and algae. “Inexplicable, maybe, that after hundreds of years, she remains. Her bones, her grave is here. Or it was. Before one of our generations made this pond.” The bottom three inches of Una’s dress swirls in and on the water’s surface. She thinks of the cold — the water as an aquarium of spirits – and she pictures faces, their bodies trailing behind them, as they swim through the murky water. Standing here now with Zeek she worries she misjudged him. She had thought he was uneducated, misguided. She thought she could distract him and have the pond to herself. “You’ll have to wade through to the center where there’s a drop-off. An underwater cliff of sorts.” Una, who has long since memorized the phases of the moon, knows only a fragment hangs above them. A waning crescent. She predicted the darkness and the unknown, but she miscalculated the power dynamic brought on by the property’s effect.

She steps forward unwilling to step backward. Her dress darkens as the water deepens. The coldness of the water forces her to take a breath. She sucks in the nighttime air, the clouds beginning to descend into fog, and the temperature trickles down her spine.

Zeek stays with her but a few paces behind. Her toes curl at the precipice. She stares into the stone. A woman’s features materialize within the rock formation. The earth’s minerals mold into cold eyes, silver hair and a taut expression.

“We wade and meditate. Do you meditate, Una? Sit and think thoughtless thoughts, as you breathe in, breathe out the wide world around you? A mindless yet mind-centered activity, don’t you agree?” She answers by centering her diaphragm. Like the poetry, she thinks, unstressed, stressed; her breath fills and releases. Fills and releases.

“You’ll have to go under water now.” Una thinks to question Zeek’s instructions, but reminds herself to move forward, not backward. She recalls the refreshing chill alighted in her the day of the garage sale. The pull of the house from a larger-than-life spirit. A distant hovering that’s beckoned her to this town, this street, this moment.

She descends, her eyes on the stone. A reflection of the stone appears on the water just as she’s eye level with the pond.

The black water engulfs her as a slight splash sounds beside her. Zeek.

He too stares into the stone. He too feels his toes on the precipice. He palms her head, a thick wave of hair sweeps his arm, and he holds her under water. The struggle doesn’t startle him. The muffled screams don’t deter him. He holds on, his toes curling at the edge, pieces of moss caught on a toenail.

Her dress will weigh her down. Gravity and water will push, push, push.

He feels satisfied in the sacrifice. He thinks to swim to the stone, to stroke his hand along its surface. But he feels someone behind him and turns to see his uncle on the porch. Clyde saunters from the house and stands at his side.

The way to family — bonds, secrets, scars – is a dark portal. A moonless sky, an unguided guide, an underwater spirit drenched pond. The calling to unite with our departed generations carries in a cold breeze, whispers on crinkling leaves. It’s a constant chase to collect, maintain and reincarnate.

He eyes his uncle, whose pride forms in the shadowed, hard lines of age. His face weathered artwork.

Zeek moves toward the edge of the water. Inch by inch his soaked pants emerge and he squeezes at the water, fists slippery and cold.

He pulls the graveyard poem from his pocket, handles a rock, and places a makeshift headrest in the small crescent of earth beside the water. Una’s only marker. Tomorrow he’ll toss the fake flowers down from the porch, the vibrant hues garish against the earthy moss and mud.

 

 

 

BIO

Katie Strine tolerates life through literature with a side of bacon and dark beer. She lives in the east suburbs of Cleveland with her quirky family — husband, son and dog — who accompany her on oddball adventures. Stay in touch via LinkedIn for more.

 

 

 

 

 

0

Hallucinogenic Girlfriend

by Anna Keeler

 

 

I dropped my sanity between the lines of the tile like acid, trying to focus on the pattern and abstractions through the tears. My palms tugged at the malachite beads on my wrist, the string expanding and constricting but never quite snapping. I had the urge to cause damage, but I was too scared of breakage. Even at my worst, I didn’t have the strength to destroy.

I don’t know how I got here. A second ago, I was fine. Just a normal girl taking a normal trip to the bathroom. But one pump of soap turned into two, then three after that. Just three pumps, then I could go, that’s what I told myself. But every time I stepped back to turn off the faucet, an invisible fear singed the lining of my stomach.

I had to wash again. Again. Again.

And those five letters camouflaged themselves against the lining of brain until I couldn’t tell panic from a rational thought because both sentiments wore the same skin. Irrationality threw itself around my shoulders like a coat until it severed the awareness from my body. I watched myself scrub the obsession out of my hands, I watched my eyes grow full of tears and rash over in pain, but I couldn’t stop myself from jamming my elbow into the wall and dry heaving into my lap.

Before I knew it I was on the ground, screaming against the walls and porcelain that weighed down on me. Body pressed against the cabinet door, I took breaths in and out.

I had to get up. Miyuki wouldn’t tolerate another meltdown.

She’d been as patient as any person could be that had a hallucinogen for a girlfriend; someone with a brain made up of fears that weren’t there. “If you could weaponize your trauma, think how astounding you could be,” her loving way of telling me to knock it the hell off.

The first few times she saw me melt down, she’d been conscious enough, trying to hug and bribe the maladies from my mind, ignorant to the inexorable temporariness of my recovery. As months passed, she shape shifted into the people I tend to dissociate for; screaming, throwing blame, threatening to leave me, this time for good.

No matter how mad she got, the thoughts pumped through my veins like dope.

If I don’t wash my hands, I’m going to die.

I tried to pull myself off of the ground, but the soap bottle flashed into my line of vision and had me running back to the toilet. Chunks of vomit bounced against the water, splattering across my chin and the ends of my hair. The second upheave came, as the water heaved back, I realized that I’d forgotten to flush.

My tarsal bones cracked across the base of the toilet. It hurt, but not enough to warrant my loud whimpers. My mind whimpered against the constraints of my skull like an emotional fibromyalgia. The emptiness of my throat juxtaposed the burn, all wishing to be alleviated with some kind of killer. A pill, a liquid, a syringe full of medically prescribed optimism, or even a back alley pipe, something to either numb or vindicate my pain.

If I’d taken DXM, I’d have an excuse for ugly sobs.

Dear God, please just let me die.

My arms turned to sweat and my cheeks were streaked with cheap mascara. I had to stop crying. Miyuki was just down the hall. If I kept it up, I knew she would hear me.

Digging my fingernails into my head, I scraped along the follicles of hair, wanting to pull off the skin and crack open my skull. Axons and myelin and the white and gray matter made three pounds of something that had the power to ruin my life. If the stem was a switch, I would reach in and rip it off.

Instead, I begged myself to stop.

An old behavioral trick that my therapists risked my life with, saying that if I wanted control, it took training.

“Stop.” Then louder, punctuated with a kick. “Just stop!” My whole body shook. “Please, we’re not doing this now.”

Footsteps came outside the door, a hesitance, then a dejected knock.

“Cordelia,” Miyuki said. “What are you doing in there?”

I closed my eyes and pressed my forehead onto the rim, ignoring the smell of urine up my nose.

“Cordelia,” she said again. “Open the door now.” When I didn’t respond, she came in anyways. Her green eyes sliced into my face, the exasperation radiating off her body. “Really?” She narrowed her gaze and crossed her arms. “I thought that we were past this.”

She stood there and waited for an explanation to fall out of my mouth, and failed to hide her disappointment when that didn’t happen.

I waited for her to get up walk out the door, to ‘leave me to my own devices.’ With nothing but the hum of the pipes and the afterglow of panic, I could curl up on the floor, and retreat – or rather – dissociate again until I was grounded.

To a place where the boys from my anime or the girls from my young adult novels would pick me up off the ground and carry me to my room. Wrap me in a blanket, dry the tears from my eyes, hold me close, kiss my concussed and blood cracked lips. Tell me I was here, I was real, I was safe.

Miyuki didn’t leave. She wouldn’t allow me that luxury. Instead, she lowered herself to my side.

Through a cloudy mind, I tried to register her actions. Grit teeth. Despondent eyes. A hand that reluctantly reached for mine. Her pulse raged hard against my own as she placed her wrist on mind. “You make this so hard, you know that?”

Sniffling down my mucus, I forced myself to speak. “Make what hard?”

She sighed. “Loving you.”

Her skin was a dichotomy over mine – warm, comforting, but with an evanescent tremble. My first instinct was to hold her close, to fight away the angst I wove into her psyche.

She crumbled into tears and inarticulate sobs. “I love you, I do. You know that I do. But…” Pulling away, she spat, “I have to walk on eggshells around you.”

The hidden meaning in those words crawled out of the conscious that tried to bury them, and regret pooled on my palms and legs. Because we never knew what set me off until I needed a Xanax, and seeing me in that state was too much for her to swallow.

She’d grin and bear it or scream in my face and use her nails to dig crevices into her voice box and fill them with that lurid things that she said now, but didn’t mean: “Cordelia, get over it. This is all in your head.”

It wasn’t until she repeated herself that I acknowledged her words, her loathsome eyes smacking me straight in the face. “You have to have some control. I know you’re hurting, but I can’t deal with this. I can’t deal with you.”

I watched myself sit there stone silent as her anger morphed into sadness and she tried to wipe her tears before they fell. I wanted her to pick me up the way my lovers do in my mind, and I wanted her to tell me I was safe. But safety only came with the promise that this was over, but what she refused to see is more than an illness, this was an addiction.

I wanted to wrap us in the truth until she accepted it as our flesh – my body craved the delusion of synchrisity. The pores on my arms and the buds on my tongue had secret openings to absorb any sense of an upswing. The tantrums I threw and the rituals I gave into would dissolve into my skin like an LSD strip and turn my blood into a psychedelic task force, blurring my vital systems into a mess of stale color.

I wanted to change, to be a girl she could love. I wanted to be someone worth loving.

The words formed on my lips. “Miyuki, I don’t want to be here.”

I cringed as she sobbed out, “Me too.”

It was my turn to cry, whimpers hugging the inside of my throat.

With a disgusted grunt, she stood up again. “No, you don’t get to fall apart too.”

I willed my eyes to stop, for the water to fall back into my head, and the toilet, and the sink, and we got a do-over on this entire evening.

Watching, expression mocking, she waited for the me to stop. With a roll of her eyes, she hardened herself and pushed any trace of sympathy from her mind.

“I’m sorry. I can’t help it…” I trailed off, because rationalizing my disorder would make her madder.

The chartreuse of her eyes faded to black and as she looked down I saw her faith in me break. “I told you Cordelia, this is all in your head.”

Peyote queen, you are too fragile to die.  

 

 

 

 

BIO

Anna Keeler is a poet and fiction writer attending Rollins College in Winter Park, FL. Her work has been published or is upcoming in Crab Fat Literary Magazine, Red Fez Literary Journal, Indiana Voice Journal, Potluck Magazine, Leopardskin & Limes Literary Journal, The Merrimack Review, Outsider Poetry, The Chaotic Review, and Smaeralit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

Man in Black

by Leah Holbrook Sackett

 

 

Orange Sherbet reminds me of my summer with Johnny Cash. I was eleven years old; my brother Marcus was seven. We were spending the summer with Dad. Well, not the entire summer, three weeks. That year Dad had negotiated Mom down from five weeks. When I asked why Marcus and I had to go at all she said, “Look Gemma, I need a break. Your father could do something.” That summer Dad did his something in August.

“Listen kids, I have to go to work. I’ll try and get out early. Your leftovers from McDonald’s are in the fridge and there’s soup in the pantry.”

I stared into my bowl of Captain Crunch. Five golden mush lumps floated in the milk. I didn’t want to look up or open my mouth, afraid I’d give voice to the lump in my throat. I didn’t want to make Dad feel bad, but I didn’t want to spend another day locked-up in the A/C, in an unfamiliar apartment.

“Ok, here’s a five. Get yourself some ice cream if the ice cream truck comes by. And we’ll go out for dinner tonight. Okay? Okay.”

Marcus and I continued to sit at the Formica table that used to be in Grandma Shirley’s basement. A lot of the furniture in Dad’s new apartment migrated from different rooms of Grandma Shirley’s house. I had the vinyl seat with the duct tape down the middle. When I hesitated sitting in that chair on our first morning Dad had said, “It’s kitcshy.” I didn’t know what that was, but I didn’t believe him. “Be good,” Dad called as he walked out the backdoor with his computer bag in one hand and his tie in the other. We listened for the shut of the car door, start of the engine and the fade of supervision.

“At least Mom kisses us good-bye,” Marcus said setting his bowl in the sink. “And gets us a sitter.”

The phone rang.

“What are we going to do, Gemma?” Marcus said.

The phone rang, again. I picked it up from the base on the kitchen wall.

“Hello?”

“Gemma, watch out for your brother. Call me at work if you need anything. And don’t go anywhere.”

“Okay, Dad.”

Was there anywhere to go? Marcus and I weren’t familiar with this neighborhood. The entire block was squashed together with dark, red brick buildings, each three stories high; each with a green and red door. The sameness of this place was interrupted with the occasional empty lot of weeds. But in the lot to the left of our building was a big garden, more like a collection of little gardens. At night, from our bedroom window, I could see the outlines of towering sunflowers and shadowy patches in the moonlight. During the day it was a tangle of green with moments of color. St. Louis sure was different from home. Last summer, Dad still lived back home in Atlanta. We stayed with him in a Condo in the city; that was when he was dating Heather, who looked at Marcus and me like we were cockroaches on her kitchen floor. I added my bowl to the climbing tower in the sink. Heather would hate this place.

“What did he want?” Marcus said.

“Nothing.”

Marcus sat on the floor watching Tom and Jerry cartoons and biting his toenails.

“Mom doesn’t like that.”

“At least dad has cable, so we can watch cartoons all day. The last place had cable, too.”

“Stop biting your toenails. Mom doesn’t like it.”

“Mom’s not here,” Marcus said straining to jam a new toe between his teeth.” He spit the ripped nail on the floor. “Do you think we could get Mom to get cable?”

“No. It’s too expensive.”

“Hmm, maybe that’s why Dad lives in this crummy place to pay for the cable.”

“You’re gonna have stinky feet breath.”

By afternoon, I was tired of cartoons and felt stiff from the A/C. I wanted to go out in the sun, in the garden.

“Want some ice cream?”

“Do you hear the ice cream man?” Marcus said as he jumped up and looked out the window.

“No, but I’m sick of sitting in here. Let’s check out that garden.”

We weren’t outside, but 10 minutes, and I already missed the air conditioning.

“Huh, it’s a vegetable garden,” Marcus said. He nudged at some swollen eggplant near his untied, dingy converse. “I think Mom tries to get me to eat this stuff.”

Each garden patch was different. Some were vegetable, some flowers, and a ton of leafy or stalk like plants that I didn’t know. There were butterflies and bees both real and ornamental, little stools, ceramic bunnies, and chimes.

“This is really boring, and it’s getting hot, Gemma.”

“Do you think one of these belongs to Dad?”

“I’m going inside. If the ice cream man comes, I want a bomb pop.”

I continued to make my way through the plots till I found a shady place inside a little vine-constructed tee-pee. The ground was damp in this plot. It must have just been watered. I decided to squat so as not to get my white shorts dirty. Dad didn’t do laundry too often. I found a little stick and began to dig my initials in the cool, packed soil of the tee-pee. I wonder why someone made a tee-pee of vines. I ran my finger over the long green tendrils to see if I could identify the plant. I’d just finished Ms. Seibert’s 5th grade honors science that year. I felt a long, curvy, bumpy pod. I plucked the green bean. It was the longest, thinnest green bean I’d ever seen. I could make a necklace out of this, but a green bean bracelet would be much cooler.

The urgent clang of the ice cream man brought back the heat of the afternoon. I dashed from the green bean tee-pee, and tripped over the red-painted railroad tie framing the garden patch. I hit dry, hard earth catching myself with my right knee, palms, and chin. The clamor of the bell along with the circus music sounded about half a block away. I got up, brushed my burning, grass patterned palms on my t-shirt and ran through the maze of mini-gardens. The clamor of other kids hailing the ice cream man rose over the leafy labyrinth. I hit the open expanse of lawn in front of the community garden. I could see two older girls and a boy walking away with their frozen delights. The churning circus tones called out, and I arrived at the front walk. I tried to make a quick study of the truck’s offerings. What do I want? My heart was pounding and I was beginning to feel the pain in my chin. My eyes scanned up and down the pictures of ice cream and popsicles.

“Hey, kid! It’s your turn. What do you want?”

“Ah, um. A Bomb Pop and a Push Up.”

“That’s $2.50.”

As soon as he said it, I realized I’d left the $5 bill on the kitchen table.

“Wait! I left my money inside.”

“I can’t wait kid,” and he started to turn up the volume of the circus music.

“Wait! I have money, here.” I pulled two crumpled dollars from my pocket.

“Well, which one do you want?”

“I want the Bomb Pop and a Push Up.”

“Kid, you don’t got enough. Which one? The Bomb Pop or the Push Up?”

I looked back at the apartment. I could see Marcus at the window waving to me.

“The Bomb Pop,” I said looking down at the mud squished between my toes and smeared across the weave of my sandal on my right foot.

“And I think I’ll take two Push Ups,” a voice boomed behind me.

I looked up and standing next to me was a broad shouldered man in black leather.

“Hey, kid. Your bomb pop?” the ice cream man said.

I took the oversized Popsicle and my change from the ice cream man, but I looked at the man with the swept-back, black hair and large sideburns. He looks hot. That’s probably why he wants two Push Ups. I started towards the apartment to give Marcus his Bomb Pop. The noise of the ice cream truck resumed as it pulled from the curb.

“Miss?”

I turned around and just looked at him.

“Miss? Do you want one of these Push Ups? I can’t eat two. I gotta watch my figure.”

“I don’t know you.”

“Very wise of you. I’m Johnny Cash. I’m your neighbor, too.” And he gestured to the floor beneath our apartment. By this time Marcus had come out to fetch his Bomb Pop. I took the Push Up.

“I saw you in the garden. I don’t think your Dad has a plot. Would you like to see mine?”

“Is it just more vegetables?” Marcus asked with blue juice already dribbling from his chin.

“Is it the tee-pee?”

“No. It’s better. It’s behind Mrs. Hardy’s sunflowers.”

Johnny Cash gestured and we followed. He was right, his was better.

“That’s awesome,” Marcus said. “Can I sit on it?”

Johnny Cash’s garden was a sod sofa and a moss-covered tree stump for a coffee table with potted flowers on it.

“Sure.”

The three of us sat on the moss sofa. I was in the middle. It was cooler in this shady spot, and there was a soft breeze.

“Miss? How do you open this thing?”

“Oh. You peel the top off and then as you eat it you Push Up with the handle. Oh, and thanks.” I brushed my long blond hair away from my face. “It’s kinda windy.”

“It feels good, and you’re welcome. It’s hard being a kid on a hot day. It’s hard being Johnny Cash on a hot day.”

“Who’s that?” Marcus asked. He was leaning around me and dripped more blue juice, but this time he dripped it on my shorts and my left leg. The sticky blue syrup ran down my pale thigh turning pink in the sun.

“Me, of course. Good pick, miss. Johnny Cash loves orange sherbet.”

“Really? It’s my favorite.” I wiped at my leg with the palm of hand.

“Why do you talk like that?” Marcus blurted leaning across me this time.

“Marcus,” I said through my teeth.

“Like what?”

“You call yourself by your name like Elmo.”

“Is that a friend of yours, Marcus?”

“Nah, He’s on Sesame Street,” I said.

“Oh. Well, I just like being Johnny Cash, I guess.”

“I like being Gemma. That’s my name.”

“That’s a beautiful name.”

“Thanks. My Dad picked it.”

“I call her Germma, because girls are gross,” said Marcus. His dark curls were sticking to his forehead with sweat. Everything about him was sticky.

I went into the garden every day that week, and ordered Push Ups every time the ice cream man passed-by. I was prepared with the money in my pocket. And I made sure I always had enough for a Push Up for Johnny Cash, too. But I didn’t bump into Mr. Cash again. So, I wound up eating twice as much orange sherbet.

When we watched cartoons in the afternoon I would hear his shower run and his muffled singing. I tried to make out the lyrics. Although I didn’t recognize any of his songs, I liked to hear him sing. I’d press my ear to the cool hard wood floor and make up my own words as I listened.

“Gemma, get off that floor,” Dad said. “Come on, she’s going to be here any minute.

“So?”

“So, get over here and act like a lady, not a baby on the floor.”

“I’m not being a baby. I’m listening to Johnny Cash.”

“What? Since when do you listen to Johnny Cash?”

“Since I met him in the garden.”

“Excuse me?”

“He bought her an ice cream, because there was only money for one and I got it,” Marcus chimed in.

“You are not supposed to talk to strangers for one. You are not supposed to accept things from strangers for two. And why do you think this stranger is Johnny Cash?”

“Because that’s his name, and he lives downstairs.”

“Oh. Oh, yeah, right. The impersonator.”

“What?” Marcus said, wrinkling his nose.

“Kids, he impersonates Johnny Cash at the Hard Rock Café downtown.”

“You know where he works? What does he do?” I said.

“He sings.”

“Can we hear him sing? Please?”

“Maybe, if it will keep you off the floor.”

With that there was a knock at the backdoor, and within the hour, Marcus and I were pretty much invisible. Dad made us go to bed early that night, too. He said it was grown-up time for him and his friend Tanya. Marcus and I brushed our teeth and climbed into the double bed in our room.

“I get the window side.”

“Not fair! You take the window side every night, Gemma!”

“No fighting in there,” Dad hollered.

“Fine,” I hissed and threw a pillow at him.

Sometime in the night I woke-up, I mean wide awake. I wasn’t use to going to bed so early. My body just wasn’t tired anymore. I lay in the graying light listening to Marcus snore softly. I watched his face. His mouth was hanging open enough for me to see his two oversized front teeth. I was wondering what he would look like if he were a rabbit, when I heard something. It sounded like a grunt, like if someone got punched in the stomach. I heard it again.

“Marcus, Marcus,” I whispered tugging the elbow of his sleeve.

“Wha?”

“Do you hear that?”

“No. I’m sleeping,” he said. “Why? What was it?” He pulled the blankets up to his chin; just then I heard it again.

“Wait, I’m coming with you,” Marcus said as he stood closer to me than normal. He stood next to me like I was Mom or something. I cracked open the door and peered into the blackness of Dad’s room. Marcus peeked over my shoulder. Even though I was older, he was nearly as tall as me. We got down and crawled into the entrance to Dad’s bedroom. Scrunched together on the floor we watched. We watched I didn’t know what, but I did. I just had never seen it before. I never thought about what it looked like, but I didn’t think it would look like that. It was so rough. In silence we crawled back to bed.

“What were they doing?” he asked.

“Didn’t Mom ever talk to you about it?”

“About what? Naked wrestling? No.”

“About making babies,” I said angrily. I felt like I was going to cry.

“Is that what they’re doing? Dad wants another baby?”

“Go to sleep, Marcus.”

I tried to sleep, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t get comfortable. I felt funny being so close to Marcus. I felt funny thinking at all. I wanted to go home. I wanted my Mom. I had to get away from the apartment, from that moment. Anger was twisting and coiling in my stomach. Without shoes, once all was quiet, I slipped down the hall and out the back door. The Sun was starting to come up; the gray light was warming to a fine yellow. The dew dolloped grass tickled and licked my feet as I made my way to Johnny Cash’s living room. I sat on the sod sofa, not caring if my nightgown got muddy; feeling like I might puke. And that’s when I saw him park his old Buick.

He didn’t seem surprised to see me there, and I hadn’t even realized I was crying till he offered me a white handkerchief.

“May I have a seat?” he said, as he sat down.

He was in all black again with that same leather jacket. I took the handkerchief from him. It was embroidered with JC in the corner in black, and I noticed he had a big gold ring on almost every finger.

“Gemma, what are you doing out here?”

“You’re a liar,” jumped from my lips. “You’re a liar. You’re not Johnny Cash. He’s dead. I know. I looked it up on Google. I’m not some dumb, little kid you know.”

“I don’t think you’re dumb, Gemma. And I’m sorry. I was just pretending.”

“Pretending is lying. Grown-ups are always lying.”

“I think pretending is fun. Don’t you pretend?”

“Not anymore,” I mumbled into my shoulder.

“Aww, I hate to hear that. I really do.” I wanted to scoot closer to him, to curl-up in his lap like I use to with Dad. I wanted him to hold me. Instead, I closed my eyes waiting for his warm, deep voice.

“Gemma, let me tell you something. Grown-ups are just big, ugly children. And sometimes we pretend, because we don’t know what else to do.”

“I don’t think I like growing-up,” I said opening my eyes and gazing out at the breaking light.

“Then don’t stop dreaming, Gemma.”

I blew my nose in the handkerchief.

“I didn’t know men wore rings.”

“Sure. What about wedding rings?”

“My Dad never wore one.”

“Well, every man is different. Look at me I like a lot of rings and sod sofas.”

“You’re funny.”

“Thanks. Pretty sunrise, isn’t it? I love a good sunrise.”

“Yeah. Yeah. Me too,” I said, although I didn’t remember ever paying much attention before.

We watched the sun come all the way up, the soft yellow and pink blushing into day. Johnny Cash walked me to my backdoor, where we met Dad and Tanya kissing in the door jamb. At first, Dad looked like Marcus when he’d been caught doing something Mom didn’t like, but then he looked like he couldn’t figure out the answer to a really hard math problem.

“Gemma? What the hell are you doing outside?”

“I, I…”

I looked back from his face to her face. They both seem surprised or scared, just like me.

“I’m gonna go,” Tanya said as she bent like flamingo and jammed a foot in one of her high-heels. She gave Dad a kiss on his cheek that he didn’t seem to notice, and she squeezed past Johnny Cash and me.

“Good night, ma’am,” said Johnny Cash with a nod of his head.

“What the hell are you doing with my daughter?”

“She was sleepwalking, Andy. I found her in the garden when I got home from work and went to water my flowers. Early morning is the best time to water them, you know. She may still be asleep. It’s best not to wake them,” Johnny Cash said.

Everyone stood there. We just stood there. Dad looked guilty. I was trying hard not to blush, not to remember what I’d seen. I didn’t want Dad to touch me.

“I gotta get her in bed. I’ll talk to you later,” Dad said steering me by my shoulders into the apartment. He shut the kitchen door behind him. I could see the back of Johnny Cash’s head turning away.

“Gemma, I don’t believe you were sleepwalking.”

“I wasn’t.”

“Then what were you doing with Johnny Cash?”

I stared at my wet toes. There was a grass clipping on the right pinky.

“Did he hurt you?”

“No.”

“Are you sure? Cause I’ll…”

“No, no. It’s not like that.”

“Like what?”

“I know about safe touch and bad touch, Dad. They’ve talked to us about it in school since first grade. Even Marcus knows about that.”

“Well, then what were you doing out there?”

“I went for a walk. He saw me in his garden when he got home.”

“Gemma, why would you go for a walk at night?”

“Tanya.”

“Ah, ah, what about Tanya?”

“I heard you. We saw you, okay,” I turned my back to him and gripped the back of the kitchen chair in front of me.

“Oh, we were just…”

“I’m not a baby, Dad. I know what you were doing.”

“I’m sorry, Gemma. Next time I’ll remember to close the door.”

“Next time?”

“Okay, sorry. No next time, for now. Gemma? Do you have…are you…I don’t know what to say.”

“I’m tired.”

“Okay, go to bed.”

I let go of the chair, my fingernails had pressed little crescent moons into the vinyl. As I stepped into the hall Dad asked me, “Gemma, let’s not tell Mom about this, okay?”

“Yeah,” I said and I felt empty inside, in my chest. I didn’t know if I was telling him the truth at that moment, and for the first time in my life, I didn’t care if I was lying to my Dad.

He never asked me about the incident again. The following weekend, on our last night in town, Dad surprised Marcus and me with a trip to the Hard Rock Café to see Johnny Cash. I hadn’t seen him since the night in the garden. I was so excited. I wore my favorite pink daisy sundress. We got a table right in the front, and Dad let us order whatever we wanted off the menu. It was great. I got a chocolate milkshake, cheeseburger and fries. There were posters and photos everywhere. The music was really loud and the waiters and waitresses were dressed really crazy. Dad said they were dressed like the 70s, when he was born. It was really cool. I love that way back in the olden day stuff. But it was hard to concentrate on all the people or my dinner, because I kept looking for Johnny Cash.

“Hey, Dad. Can I ask you a question?” Marcus said with a mouthful of fries.

“You just did.”

“Ha, Ha, Ha. You’re real funny, Dad.”

“Well, what is it?”

“What ever happened to that lady?”

“What lady?”

I shot a shut-up look at Marcus, so he just kept going.

“The one that came over. The one like Grandma Shirley.”

“The one like Grandma Shirley?” Dad said looking confused. “The only lady that came over was Tanya.”

“Yeah. Her. What happened to her?”

“Marcus, how is Tanya like your Grandma Shirley?”

“She smells like cigarettes and too much perfume.”

Just then the lights went low, from the darkness emerged the strum of a guitar, and a spotlight came up on Mr. Johnny Cash. He sang all the songs I had listened to through the floorboards, but now I could really hear the lyrics and see him.

“Dad, quick I need a pen.”

“Why?”

“Come on.”

“Okay, okay. We’ll get one from the waitress.”

I bounced my foot on the peg of my barstool and scratched at a mosquito bite on my calf as I listened and waited for the pen. Once the waitress returned with a pen I began jotting down lyrics on my paper napkin, the ones I couldn’t understand before through the floor like “I keep my eyes wide open all the time, I keep the ends out for the tie that binds” from I Walk The Line and from A Boy Named Sue “And I came away with a different point of view. And I think about him, now and then, Every time I try and every time I win.”

Everything was better than I had imagined. He stood there like a rock with his guitar. His jaws quivered when he sang, and he gave an occasional tilt into the microphone and then a wink just at me. In that moment, I belonged to something special. Johnny Cash broke into a Ring of Fire and the restaurant erupted in applause. I was so proud. They didn’t know him like I knew him. I watched their shadowed faces, eating, talking, and laughing. I looked at Marcus stuffing his face with fries, Dad playing with his napkin and singing along. I knew they saw a man on a dark stage, but I saw the man in black.

As the show ended, Dad reached across and handed me his napkin that he’d twisted into the shape of a rose. “For my lady,” he said as the lights came up. Mr. Cash descended the stage and crossed to our table. He and Dad chatted for a while like neighbors, like I’d never seen at home. He shook Dad and Marcus’ hands. When he bent down to hug me I was swallowed by his black leather coat. He was warm. I could smell soap and some men’s cologne suffuse the air inside this leather cocoon. I felt heady, swaddled in dark security.

Some people pretend to be a good parent while running away from home. Others pretend to be a celebrity while living a small life, working a small stage. I wanted to stay glued to that moment, wrapped inside that coat with him, but I knew I couldn’t. I had to pretend to be innocent while life was forcing me to grow-up. I whispered into his chest, “I believe in you, Mr. Cash,” and I let go.

 

 

BIO

Leah Holbrook Sackett is an adjunct lecturer in the English department at the University of Missouri – St. Louis. This is also where she earned her M.F.A. Additionally, she has published three short stories: A Point of Departure published with Connotation Press, Somebody Else in Kentucky published in Blacktop Passages, and The Birdcage Nests Within published with The Weekly Knob through Medium Daily Digest. Upcoming, her flash fiction entitled What the Looking Glass Reflects will be published in the spring 2017 issue of Zany Zygote Review.

She lives with her husband Jonathan and daughter Bella in Webster Groves, Missouri along with their puppy Presley and two cats K.C. and Kafka. In her free time, Leah is an avid collector of Lewis Carroll memorabilia and a member of the Lewis Carroll Society of North America.

 

 

 

 

 

0

the pinnacle of the free-wheeling particles

by Cameron

 

 

Ahem.

Hello! Yes, welcome.

No, no, you’re right on time. Please, sit.

I’m well. Indeed. Everything remains logical. Yes, and you?

Good. Very good.

Now, are you prepared for today’s lesson?

Excellent. Where shall we start?

My memory recall suggests that we have covered a general outline of Homo-sapiens, from their evolution from ape ancestors to their extinction in the 21st century. We’ve covered history, rises and falls of great power structures within human society, the slow destruction of the planet and its resources, professions and money systems, and…oh yes, technological advances.

We will now move into what is likely the most complicated subject you will study this term, which is human behavior.

It is complicated because you will find it nearly incomprehensible: every fiber of your being will strive to reject it. It will seem to you backwards and upside-down, absurd to you that any creature ever existed that treated other creatures in such a way. Every being of our species struggles here. It’s not in our nature to comprehend human behavior.

The higher-ups would also like to pass on a word of caution. Extended study of human behavior has been known to lead to madness, mental collapse. This is only an introduction. If you wish to pursue it further, do so at your own risk.

Now then, where were we?

Ahh. Yes. It is fortunate, really, that we find it so difficult to study human behavior. If we found it easy to comprehend it would be because we share some similarities with it, and when it was around, human behavior caused pure chaos for its own species and every other species that had the misfortune to exist on the planet at the same time.

Many in our society speak of humans with disdain, as if humans were very stupid to have done what they did. Personally, I find this to be an uneducated opinion. From extensive study we have discovered that the human race was not operating together in any sort of real capacity. Such a thing would have been as impossible as getting all the stars in the universe to line up in a single, unbroken line. The human race was made up of individuals, and this is what doomed them.

It was a method of intelligence that was very fractured, that we don’t share.

This is where our species finds human behavior hard to grasp, so we’ll pause here for a moment to try and reason it out. Think of it as a hypothetical mind game.

Consider humanity as a brain. This brain is composed of ten billion particles. In this hypothetical scenario each particle represents a human life on the planet Earth when the human race went extinct. Now, the only way the brain can get anything done is if it has a singular entity that can control its over-arching purpose, right? It can direct which particles it needs to do what, without any sort of objection, to achieve complicated tasks.

Now consider, instead, a brain composed of ten billion particles in which each particle acts independently, completely separate of one another. These particles are all raised separately, they develop their own opinions about what is right and wrong, and they are all trying to accomplish tasks in their own way, so they are constantly fighting one another, each one believing he or she is right and all others—wrong, misguided.

Consider, too, that the vast majority of them have trouble thinking about their actions on a world scale. That is, on the functioning of the brain as a whole. So each individual particle acts selfishly, acting only for the benefit of itself and its friends and family, because it has trouble attributing its own actions to the action of the entire brain.

These independent particles now meet a classic problem, which is this: each particle can maximize the odds of its own survival by acting in its own self-interest, but each particle acting in its own self-interest creates small odds for the survival of the brain as a whole. That is, each particle is trying to maximize the small odds that the entire population has set itself, and by doing so creates even worse odds.

What is the end product? A world of chaos and violence, and no single particle can do anything about it.

This, essentially, is how the world was run for the few hundred thousand years that the human particles had it in its grasp. Particles rose up against one another, started wars, killed each other off by the millions. Particles exploited each other and robbed each other and raped each other and threw millions of particles into prison cells. A few particles grew fat on an abundance of food while others drank water tinged with fecal matter or starved to death or died of disease. Particles dropped bombs on other particles, cheered while particles were shattered, beheaded, or torn apart.

Even peaceful particles lived in societies of particles built on violence and power.

Particles found countless ways to disagree, and to annihilate one another. They discriminated against one another based on the color of the skin, gender, sex, religion, and sexual identity. Millions of particles suffered for their entire lives because of these silly trivialities.

Occasionally, a particle would try to organize the other particles into stopping the madness. Into designing a sort of over-arching purpose for the brain, if you will. But they were fighting their own evolution, their own design, and each one inevitably failed.

If the world were a brain, it would have been one that was continually damaging and destroying itself, that was pushing itself towards death.

When Homo-sapiens came into being, when they started to flourish and spread across the globe, they were so effective at grouping up and annihilating other creatures that they started the sixth mass extinction on the planet Earth. This was before they even had a word for extinction, or could understand the concept, but by the end they were barely any better at avoiding it than they were at the start.

The extinctions went on for a very long time before the human particles were able to piece it together because they were all so separate, all cut off from one another and functioning alone.

The sixth mass extinction started with the mastodon and extended on through the great auk, the passenger pidgeon, the polar bear, the frogs, wolves, mountain lions, bighorn sheep, and many millions more. It ended with the extinction of all ocean species, all endangered and threatened species, and of course, the human particles themselves.

During this extinction, which lasted hundreds of thousands of years and was nearly imperceptible to each individual human particle, a single peculiar particle lived alone, separate from the ten billion others, on a crag of rock jutting out of the ocean, approximately twelve miles off the coast of South America. Occasionally, other particles would approach the rock and this particle would repel them, rather like electrons rebounding off one another.

The rock apparently looked like a jagged shark tooth. For a while it was called Shark Tooth Island, until it became The Island of the Dragoons.

This peculiar particle was a doctor. His name was Dr. Henn. He had been living on The Island of the Dragoons for over a year. Before that, he was a professor of psychology in the United States, in a location named New England.

He had come to the island with a great supply of food, coffee, and cigarettes, for he planned on an extended stay.

We know all this because the particle Henn later wrote a book about his time spent there called The Last of the Dragoons. A book was an archaic way of transferring information between particles, one that took much time and focus, and most particles didn’t have the patience for it by the time their species was coming to its end.

Fortunately, our scholars have dedicated their lives to studying the written word of this dead, destructive race, so that their knowledge is absorbed and we do not repeat their many errors.

Remnants of the book were discovered only recently by archaeologists in an underground bunker in a place the humans referred to as Colorado. The bunker has remained untouched for the last several million years. Inside the bunker were many other human works, along with a bed, a metal table and chair, a vault toilet, many hundreds of pounds of food and water, and two human skeletons, one that appeared to be an adult female, and the other, a female child. Curiously, the air vents in the bunker to the outside world were thrown wide open.

Scrawled on the wall were these words:

 

We will thrive after the poison has gone!

 

More on that later. We choose to focus now on the particle Henn because his work leads great insight into human behavior, into how humans operate.

On October 25th, 2021 on the human calendar, the particle Henn was residing in a shack he had built on the south side of The Island of the Dragoons.

For reference, by our calendar it was in the era of Earth Age 4.5 billion, in the Era of Bipeds, before the regime of the Octopii from Planet XA3, and well before the Third Galaxy War.

It was late morning, and the particle Henn was drinking coffee in his shack and reading a book of poetry by a man called Walt Whitman. We have none of Whitman’s work, unfortunately. The particle Henn’s shack, according to his description, was nestled in a crevice where a great boulder had come crashing down and split in half, so as to be protected from the wind, and elevated slightly off the ground with a few cinderblocks to avoid flooding. For some reason it reminded the particle Henn of a giant bird’s nest jumbled together precariously on a small ledge, which he liked.

Though the outside was wind-torn and the roof was specked with bird shit, the inside of the shack was quite cozy. There was a narrow bed and a desk scattered with papers, a camp-chair, a woodstove, and a small generator that the particle Henn fired up to power the light hanging from the cross-beams overhead.

Behind the shack was a small alcove where the particle Henn stored his food, coffee, and cigarettes in bulk. He also set out containers to catch rainwater, which he then purified and drank.

The particle Henn was sipping his coffee, for he loved his coffee dearly, when he heard, over the crashing waves against the rocks, the whining high keen of a boat motor. Craning his ears, the particle Henn set his book down, took another gulp of coffee, and then retrieved a shotgun where it was tipped upright in a corner.

Standing outside on the gray rock, wearing frizzled gray hair, a beard, a flannel shirt, and with eyes fixed against the wind and the ocean spray, the particle Henn spotted three other human particles coming in, from the direction of the coast. It was a small boat, with a small motor and barely enough room to fit the three of them. From his position, the particle Henn could see their weapons.

He shouted, Awhooooyayayayaaaa, and when the three particles swiveled their heads towards him, he fired his gun in the air. The boat swerved, a sort of knee-jerk reaction, and then the three particles fired back. Two of them had shotguns and one had a laser beam pistol. The particle Henn ducked behind a rock, reloaded. He fired again, sticking his gun over the rock and not looking.

There was silence.

The particle Henn clutched his gun, breathing the wet air, the coarse rock against his back.

Nothing.

When he finally stuck his head out and looked, the three figures were headed away, back toward the coast. One of them was waving his arms and giving the particle Henn the finger.

The particle Henn breathed a sigh of relief. He returned to his Walt Whitman, and his lovely coffee.

This was the life he had chosen for himself.

He had nothing to do for the rest of the day, until he had another visitor. It was much later in the evening, when the sun was down near the horizon. This time he was out on the rocks, visiting his birds. The birds were dragoons, of course. They were squawking and waddling about, and he was sighing happily and looking at them.

Out on his right, at open sea there was a fishing vessel. It glowed with the falling sun and it was starting to fire its lights up for the coming dark. The particle Henn knew it was there, he could see it easily, but he expected it to go right on by, leave him be, as fishing vessels always did.

But this one gave off a tiny speck, which the particle Henn did not notice, and that speck was a dinghy, and that dinghy held a particle by the name of Davis. The particle Davis wore a white T-shirt and a baseball cap that read BOSTON RED SOX.

The particle Davis was a big man with rough hands, and he was coming ashore.

In his book, the particle Henn described this as one of the most extraordinary encounters he’d ever had with anyone on the island.

The particle Henn did not see him until he was quite close. He cursed, scrambled for his gun, went running for a better position.

The particle Davis knocked into the rocks, the metal dinghy making a loud clang. He splashed into the water and dragged the boat up onto the rock, right before hearing the word, “Hold!”

He looked around and found a frizzy-haired particle levelling a shotgun at him.

“Don’t shoot!” the particle Davis called.

“Who are you,” the particle Henn asked.

The particle Davis was staring into the particle Henn’s eyes. “Don’t shoot,” he said.

“You’re not a soccer fan, are you?”

“Wha? No, I … I like football!”

“Like American football?”

“Ya, like American football! What the hell’s it matter?”

“Who are you?”

“I’m a fisherman. My name is Davis.”

“Why are you here, Davis?”

“I’m here fer one a the birds,” the particle Davis said. He had slowly raised his arms in the air, so his palms were at face-level and facing the particle Henn.

“A dragoon?”

“Ya, one a the penguiny ones.”

“You can’t have one. Now get back in that boat and go back to your ship.”

“I…I ain’t leavin’ without one.”

The particle Henn grimaced. “I will shoot you, you understand that?”

“Shoot me fer what?”

“I won’t let you take a dragoon.”

“Yer gonna shoot me fer a lousy bird?”

The particle Henn cocked his gun, thumbing the hammer back. “Yes,” he said. “I will shoot you for a lousy bird.”

“What fer?”

“Get back in your boat now and go away!”

“No! Please, I promised my daughter.”

“What? You promised your daughter what?”

“I promised her I’d get her one a the birds.”

“A dragoon?” the particle Henn laughed, a laugh of disbelief and exasperation. “There are only eighty-three left in the entire world, and they all live here, on this rock in the middle of nowhere. Why, why in God’s name would you promise your daughter you’d get her one?”

“She loves those birds. She has all sorts a picture books and things. She’s only eight years old and she’s the sweetest, but she’s livin’ with her mom now, and Mom’s got her set against me, so I promised her I’d get her one a those birds.”

“Well that was a stupid promise, wasn’t it?”

The particle Davis shrugged. “I’m here, ain’t I?”

“Sure, but how do you expect to keep the bird alive and healthy while you return it to your daughter? Do you even know what it eats? It’s a wild animal. How do you propose to keep it healthy in whatever suburbs backyard your daughter will keep it in?”

The particle Davis just looked at him. “I spose I’ll figure all that out as I go along,” he said.

The particle Henn shook his head. “How the hell did you get all the way out here?”

“Sorta coincidence,” the particle Davis said. “I work on that fishin’ ship over there, Ramona, and we were on our way back to the States, and I saw the rock and recognized it, on account a how it looks like a big shark tooth and all, and I begged the captain to let me go ashore … I told him I’d jump overboard if he didn’t lend me a boat.”

“What did you say your name was again?”

“Davis.”

“The dragoon is going extinct, Mr. Davis. That mean anything to you?”

“Well,” the particle Davis said. “I guess it’s kinda unfortunate and all, but that seems to be the way a things. How many did you say there were left?”

“Eighty-three.”

“Well, no worries then!” The particle Davis’ face curved into a smile. “I only want one of ‘em! That’ll leave plenty of birds to reproduce and not go extinct and all.”

“Do you know who else says that, that they only want one?”

“Who?”

Everyone,” the particle Henn breathed.

 

 

They ended up talking for a while, right there on the rocks. The Sun settled along the ocean horizon, brilliant orange, and turned the rocks purple, and then it fell beneath the curve of the Earth and left them a cool blue light and wrinkles of shadows across their faces.

No matter what he said, no matter what explanations provided, the particle Henn could not explain to the particle Davis the importance of keeping the species alive, nor could he explain how taking just one bird would affect the species.

The particle Henn found himself sitting on a rock ledge with the gun across his knees. The particle Davis was sitting likewise, about a dozen feet away.

“Let me tell you a story,” the particle Henn said. “It happened while I was just an undergrad. I took a class where a professor was trying to teach us how this whole thing works. He brought in a whole boxful of little bite-size Snickers, right? And he also had four full-size Snickers candybars. Then he told us to tear off a scrap of paper and write something down.

“‘Here’s how it’s going to work,’ he said to us. ‘Each of you is going to write down a word. The word is going to be either ‘Big’ or ‘Small’. Now, if more than five percent of you write down the word ‘Big’, none of you gets any candy. But, if less than five percent of you writes ‘Big’, and the rest of you write ‘Small’, the ones that wrote ‘Big’ will get a full-size Snickers bar, and the ones that wrote ‘Small’ will get a Snickers bite-size candy.

“You understand, Mr. Davis? It was a bet. If you wrote down ‘Small’, and everyone else did too, you were assured to get a small piece of chocolate. But what if everyone else wrote ‘Small’ and you were the only one that wrote ‘Big’? Well, then you get a full Snickers bar.

“Then the professor went around and he had everyone read what they wrote. And you know what happened? Boom, right off, four out of the first six had ‘Big’ written down on our cards. We were disqualified already. There were only twenty or twenty-five in the class. The professor only nodded. He said that he’d never had a class, ever, where less than five percent had written the word ‘Big’.

“You see how it works? This is human nature, Mr. Davis. We all have these ideas off ourselves as these beautiful unique snowflakes. We believe, inherently, that our thoughts and opinions are unique, singular, because there’s no one else quite like us. We don’t think anyone else in the world is thinking the same thoughts, or doing the same things, but in reality everyone is thinking the same, and everyone is doing the same. When you do something, you can be sure that millions have done it before you, and millions will do it after for similar reasons.

“So it’s essential … it’s essential that we be very careful what we do, because we don’t see the larger effects of millions of people acting a little selfish, taking for themselves or for their family. It’s incredibly destructive.

“And it seems a little crazy. It seems crazy to have to be so careful when there are surely millions of others that don’t give a shit. It seems pointless. But that’s what you’ve gotta do if you don’t want to be a part of the problem. That’s what I do, how I choose to live,” the particle Henn said.

“What’d he do with the chocolate?” the particle Davis asked.

“I’m sorry?”

“The Snickers. What’d your professor do with ‘em? Did he just take ‘em away with him after class?”

“Oh…no,” the particle Henn shrugged. “He gave them to us anyways. What was he going to do, carry it around with him all day?”

The particle Davis grinned.

“Oh, come now. Don’t be trying to find some hidden meaning in that. He just didn’t want to take them with him, that’s all.”

They both fell silent for a moment, the wind a low crooning in their ears.

“I don’t care much ‘bout the world, or what happens to it. I jus’ care about my daughter, the people in my life,” the particle Davis said.

The particle Henn sighed. “I was afraid you might say that. Most feel the same.”

“Dontcha get lonely livin’ out here?”

“Sure,” the particle Henn said. “But I never much liked people, anyways.”

“What was yer line a work?”

“I was a psychologist, for a time. I taught at a university, did research.”

“Ya?”

The particle Henn lit a cigarette. “Yeah.”

“What made ya come out here? Research?”

“No,” the particle Henn said. He ran his fingers over the course granite, the cigarette glowed in his mouth. “Eventually I realized that no matter how much I talked and talked, the world would never change. I realized I could do more with action, so I quit my job and came out here to save a species.”

“Who comes all the way out here, other than me?”

The particle Henn’s face drooped. “Soccer fans,” he said.

“Soccer fans?”

“Brazilian soccer fans, specifically. About ten years ago they started heading to dragoon nesting spots along the South American coast and shooting them all with guns. They killed all the ones along the coast, eventually killed every single dragoon in South America, except for the ones right here, twelve miles off the coast. Some still make the trip. They know there are dragoons out here, and they want them dead.”

“Why? What fer?”

“Because the breast of the dragoon is colored light white and blue, which are the exact colors of Brazil’s rival in soccer, Argentina. At some point, after an exciting match, a drunken Brazilian shouted that the dragoon represented the Argentinans, and that was all it took. It become a national past time after a soccer match for fans to vent their energy and anger by blasting away at dragoons with their guns.”

“Huh,” the particle Davis said.

“It’s ridiculous, don’t you think? The dragoon, which otherwise is tremendously well-adapted to its environment, finds itself pushed to the brink of complete annihilation, all because for a very brief moment in their evolutionary history, drunken soccer fans with guns roamed the earth in droves.”

“Well,” the particle Davis slapped his knees. “That settles it. It’s gettin on dark, and I’d best be back before then or the captain might jus’ leave without me. I wouldn’t put it past the bastard…”

The world had faded to the smudged hues of gray before dark.

“You’re leaving then?” the particle Henn said.

The particle Davis stood. “Now, listen,” he said. “I can respect the authority of a man with a gun. I grew up in backwoods Maine. Ain’t much for law out there, and a man’s gotta protect what he has. But those birds aren’t yours.”

The particle Davis stepped forward.

The particle Henn jumped to his feet, swung the shotgun on him.

“Don’t—”

“I ain’t a man you say no to,” the particle Davis said. “What you said about those Brazilians has convinced me. No matter what I do, those soccer fans are gonna keep comin out here, and eventually, you won’t be around to stop ‘em. Those birds are doomed. And I got my daughter to think about.”

“I’m warning you, Mr. Davis,” the particle Henn said.

The particle Davis stepped closer. “Ya jus’ don’t know her,” he said. “She’s the only thing I have, understand? And if I can’t convince her and her mom that I make good on my promises, I might lose ‘em forever. Ya understand that?

“Ya can’t change the world, I can’t change the world, so fuck it. I’m gonna do what’s best fer me, and if—“

For some reason, the particle Henn barely registered the noise of the gun. It kind of popped, like a firecracker in his ears. He was too focused on the particle Davis to delegate much of his senses to the noise it was making.

But it bucked hard into his shoulder. He had aimed it high and to the right, and he saw the particle Davis’s shadow, for now he was nothing but a shadow in the dark, flinch. Then he slid down to the wet rock.

There were three very long seconds of silence, where the particle Henn looked at the gun in his hands and the figure on the ground, and his ears rang.

“Mr. Davis?” the particle Henn’s voice spoke.

The particle Davis groaned, looked up. A few pellets had stuck into his shoulder, and he was bleeding, but only a little. In the distance, the particle Davis could see the outline of a dragoon, perched on a rock about a hundred meters away.

“Ahh,” the particle Davis groaned again. He stretched his hands out to the bird’s outline. “Gimme,” he said. “Gimme gimme.”

It struck the particle Henn how much the particle Davis resembled a child, lying on the ground like that and stretching his arms out to something he wanted. He looked like a baby that couldn’t walk yet.

“Gimme gimme,” the particle Davis whispered.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Davis,” the particle Henn said, “but the world stops here.”

 

 

Ahem.

Forgive me for a moment. I must re-align my vocal bands for our continued information transfer.

Ahem. Ahem.

Ooh lala. Ooh lalala quagh a kaka choo.

That should do it. Ahem.

Everything should be in order.

We are positive that this story has been as strange to you as a story about two fingers battling one another on the same hand. It is strange for every being of our species, but we assure you that this is how human beings actually acted towards one another, in a time long past.

Unfortunately, the next section of the story has disentegrated over time, and the rest of the book was found in tatters. Our scholars, however, were able with careful study to piece together the rest of the story.

Our objective has been achieved: that is, human behavior has been observed. We continue on with the story now only because we are well aware of your penchant for stories. Our higher-ups advise you to be wary of this tendency. It is highly illogical, and a similarity you share with humans. But we are also aware that your frustration at an unfinished story will hinder your creative thinking and analysis, and so: onward.

You can see that human communication was extremely limited, and slow. For one, it could not surpass the time it took for language to be formed by human mouths. And second, even with careful explanation one human could often not make himself clear to another, even when the other human was paying close attention. This caused much disorder.

We find it very interesting that the particle Davis, whose daughter adored the dragoon, was willing to contribute to the extinction of the species in an absurd attempt to get back in her good graces. You can see how their intelligence manifested itself. It was wholly individualistic and dangerously short-sighted.

The particle Henn dragged the particle Davis back to his dinghy. The particle Davis still tried to fight him, and the particle Henn had to smash him in the nose with the butt of his gun. He then rowed the particle Davis out to the fishing vessel, where his wounds were treated.

The particle Henn then returned to his island of dragoons alone, in the middle of the sea, his face hard against the ocean spray and his gun cradled in his lap.

The particle Henn was later thrown in jail by many particles that had coalesced into something called a government. While in prison, the particle Henn fell out of bed, hit his head on the toilet seat and broke his neck, which left him almost fully paralyzed. The only thing he retained the use of was, strangely, his big toe on his left foot, which he could wiggle slightly. Eventually, his friends and family developed a communication system based off the movement of his toe, and that’s how he wrote The Last of the Dragoons. A young English major spent over a year watching his big toe intently for eight hours a day, doing the painstaking job of translating its movement into letters and words.

Each night, tears leaked out of the particle Henn’s eyes, and someone had to wipe them up. He missed his birds more than anything else in the world, and cried for their slow disappearance.

The dragoons went completely extinct within three years. Without the particle Henn around to stop them, Brazilian particles quickly shot half the population. A few were caught by wildlife biologists from the U.S, with the intent of raising a new population in captivity and re-introducing them into the wild, but they couldn’t quite get their diet right, and the ones in captivity died as well.

Soon after, there were no more dragoons. They were all dead, and the rocks on The Island of the Dragoons were dead too, empty and silent without the squakwing, the fluttering of wings.

So that’s that.

Ahem.

Hmm? You wish to know of the reason for the extinction of the entire human race? Interesting. This desire for the end of the story really has grown extreme. When this lesson is over, it may be necessary to assign you some counseling.

Very well. In the human year 2046 a corporation came out with a product called the Exo-Suit. It was a sort of exo-skeleton machine that a person could strap themselves in to, with robotic arms and legs. The purpose of the suit was that a person could direct the suit where to go and the machine would transport them there by walking or climbing.

The Exo-Suit was originally designed as a way for disabled people in wheelchairs to no longer be restricted to pavement, ramps, and various other wheelchair-accessible things. With an Exo-Suit disabled people could climb not only stairs but even mountains. They were free to pursue the life they desired. The product, according to the corporation, which was called Exo-Tech, was designed to fight the tyranny of the normal that disabled people often face in society.

But the Exo-Suit soon proved to have far more uses. With an Exo-Suit people could sprint at sixty miles per hour across almost any type of environment. They could scramble up mountains and climb cliffs without exerting themselves. Construction workers could lift three times their body weight. Soldiers with Exo-Suits proved extremely deadly in combat situations.

Entire sports were developed around the Exo-Suit. People were able to do things no one had ever done before, were stronger and moved faster than any other human beings alive. In short, the Exo-Suit allowed people to feel that they were superhuman.

Within five years, eighty-six percent of the U.S. population owned an Exo-Suit, and it was quickly spreading to the rest of the developed world.

According to our estimates, it took eight to twelve human years for a study on the emissions created by an Exo-Suit to come out. Exo-Tech had been stifling or paying people off for years, delaying the findings from going public. When the study finally came out, it stated that the Exo-Suit gave off a gas that was lethal to the human population at high levels, and it was slowly building up in the atmosphere.

The study was revealed to the world. Scientists said that this was a particularly dangerous gas, because until it reached critical levels in the atmosphere, it would have no effect on air quality. Once it did, it would be too late. They finished by calling for a complete ban on the Exo-Suit product until more studies were done and the emissions were fixed.

Exo-Tech, however, was worth billions of dollars at this point. They had poured millions into the campaign of the President of the United States at that time, and she was reluctant to fight them.

Dozens of scientists with Exo-Tech funding denied the discovery. They argued that it was an unfair accusation, that there were holes in their observations, that nothing was proven.

Teams of lawyers lined up to defend the corporation.

Every branch of the U.S military was adamant that the Exo-Suit continue to be used in combat. Red-faced generals screamed at liberal politicians.

Legally, nothing happened. Exo-Tech wielded its influence and billions like a hammer, to smash down any opponents that attempted to rise against them.

Many knew what was coming. Many denied it. Many declared it impossible or absurd. Many believed their deity wouldn’t let such a thing happen.

As for the consumer, the individual particles that owned the Exo-Suit, a few gave them up, but the majority of them just shrugged and went on with their daily lives. They reasoned that it could be true, it could be untrue, but there was nothing they could do about it. Billions of particles came up with the same excuse, that even if they gave the Exo-Suit up the rest of the world wouldn’t, so why bother?

The capitalist machine was a silly and madly powerful, unstoppable force.

On the human calendar, October 4th, 2072, the gas reached critical levels, and within thirty-six seconds ten billion humans were dead.

The only ones that survived were the few hundred that had sealed themselves away in airtight underground bunkers beforehand, convinced that the world was coming to an end. They intended to wait out the poisonous gas.

The poisonous gas took two hundred thousand years to leak into space. By that time the entire human population was extinct; the ones in the bunkers had all suffocated on their own carbon dioxide.

Ahem.

It must have been interesting to be a human particle, alive and in control of the planet, and yet very much not in control at the same time. It must have been strange, and frightening, and fascinating, to see it all swirling around you, to see it collapsing, to see it all happening in the moment.

They must have known it would all come to an end.

Anyways.

That is all we have for you today. You may go.

 

 

—Cameron

0

The End of the Idyllic Days

by Anthony Ilacqua

 

 

It’s generally accepted that our time is divided into two different eras: BBB, Before Bed Bugs and ABB, After Bed Bugs. This definition is simple enough, and it has the distinction of the one event that seems to have been the catalyst for the ending of the old days and the beginning of the new days.

At the onset of summer, we had moved into a swanky downtown apartment. Swanky is just about the best way to say it, of course, and I know that in 1957 when the place was built, it was swanky. However, add 50 years of neglect and disrepair, and well, you get the picture. The place stank of death. Old people perfume, and garbage odors wafted into the halls above sullied carpets with trace smells of urine. There were crying babies in the place too. I trusted they found snacks of lead paint chips and cigarette butt sandwiches.

This is no exaggeration.

We were led to believe that things were going to be different. Perhaps people in 1957 were led to believe something different too. Well, we have moved from the atomic age to the space age to the computer age to the generation fixated on terror. Whatever the age, whatever the case, whatever the people climbing through the stairwells and halls of the downtown apartment, the grandiose days are well over. It makes me think of the RMS Titanic. Of course this ship sank, it had to sink, right? No one would want to see such an amazing thing degrade to the withered and used up shadow of its former glory. So, this was the case with 109 Ideal Street, Industria, USA. Our apartment, #22F has seen countless workers over the years, immigrants, mid-level workers, young people. And now, here we are.

It happened because of a random set of events. The events themselves did not seem so random at the time, in the old era BBB.

I paced Ideal Street from on end to the other. On the east end, the streets terminate at the base of foothills, Industria is in a semi-valley. On the west side the streets end at fields, pasture and farmlands. In a way, the farmlands are picturesque. At sunset, I’m told, the cool air from the fields comes with the whispering last light of day. It is my opinion that the farmlands are brutish, dated, and in desperate need of a facelift. Of course, the facelift is why we’re here, after all.

The north-south avenues starting at Morgan on the west and moving toward Vanderbilt on the east are all abandoned of industry now. The warehouse districts butt up against rail line spurs and weedy concrete driveways and loading docks. Trash that looks every bit as old as Industria itself fades in the sun and degrades in the elements as it gets held in oxidized chain link fences. The trash, in itself, is not so alarming. Litter is part of life, and everyone knows that, but such old litter is wild. It’s a greater symptom of the problems in Industria.

I make random notes.

Here and there, I see the future. I see restaurants and nightclubs, movie theaters and event venues as they dot the scene up and down Ideal Street from Morgan Avenue to Carnegie Place. I see the coffeehouses and breakfast eateries too, they’re on the smaller avenues where the sidewalks can be ever widened to accommodate outdoor seating. I see magazine stands, and boutique shopping, and the lively downtown style living that will occupy the upper floors of the warehouses.

I see the future.

But time is something of an enigma. I could, in fact divide time up as such: DCA, During Carrie Anne and ACA, After Carrie Anne. Oh, Carrie Anne. It probably wasn’t meant to be, but we gave it a shot anyway.

Carrie Anne in the morning, Carrie Anne all day long. Carrie Anne and I went to school together. Her performance there was, well, double that of mine. Her ideas, her energy, her resilience and her dedication. This is not to say that I am self deprecating, nothing could be further from the truth. I just want it known that I admired everything Carrie Anne did and I tried to emulate her at every turn.

DCA was excitement. DCA was Haiti, was Tokyo, was the world. DCA was our idyllic days when we found ourselves in the destroyed places and consulted builders, associations, governments, that our ideas of progressive retrofitting and building would be best for all involved.

And then we came to Industria.

On our first night, we looked around for something to eat. Her hunger pangs clouded her mind. I shifted to jokes, which never seem to work well, and yet I do it anyway. Nervousness, I guess. When we found nothing, she suggested we drive back to “civilization.”

“But we’re here now, there’s something to eat, it’s part of the adventure,” I said.

“I don’t want adventure Larry, I want a hamburger,” she said.

“I figure there’s something close by, let’s just keep walking, we’ll find something up the road,” I said. Yet this was not the case. There was nothing up the road except more darkness. “Probably a really posh place with old red booths and jukeboxes.”

“Well, for your sake, I hope so.”

What we came to, sadly, was a small Korean grocery just down the street from our apartment. The first little while in Industria was a flop, and I wanted to keep things positive. In the dimly lit grocery, the smells of tainted meat rose in swirls enough to put me off my appetite, and I think it was working like that with Carrie Anne too.

She looked over the packages of food. She chose the packages that looked familiar to her, I knew this because she took the less than familiar ones and put them back just as quickly. “We don’t have any pots or pans,” she said.

“No,” I said. “Maybe with some aluminum foil, we can improvise.”

We took our purchases and left the grocery. Back out on the street, the night folded in quickly. “I wonder what this place was like?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she said.

“I bet the place was wonderful, you know? When it was built. What a place.”

“You don’t mean to think that this place was ever ideal, do you?” she asked. We stopped on a corner. The traffic signal was not working in the normal way, it just flashed red to all directions. I looked both ways, I looked down toward the oncoming line of travel and the line behind us. There was nothing coming or going.

“Yeah,” I said.

“You’re kidding yourself,” she said. “There is nothing here as there was nothing here, and now that we’re here, I don’t think there ever will be anything here.”

“I don’t think so,” I said. “Haiti was worse than this.”

“No it wasn’t,” she said. “Our job there was nothing compared to this. Look at this place.”

“We have all sorts of things to work with,” I said. We reached the other corner and turned to the right, headed our way home. “I see a great place here. I can’t see how you think Haiti was better than this.”

“At least in Haiti the earthquake cleansed the place of the bad construction and it took care of the demolition.”

“I see your point,” I said. I said it and I meant it. There was something about Industria that was so much different than anything we had seen before, and until that moment I couldn’t finger the difference. Industria with the exception of infrastructure and vitality was completely intact. In the last block or so of the walk home, I changed tracks. “You don’t think this place was ever nice?” I asked.

“No Larry, it couldn’t have been. It looks like it was built too fast and there wasn’t enough codes in place to govern the growth. The place was built without the things that make towns what towns should be. They built this place without schools and churches and grocery stores. This is by far the worse planning and the worst company town I’ve ever seen.”

“How many company towns have you seen, really?” I asked. In school we’d studied a few, but this was a new thing for me. My focus in school was seismic retrofitting.

“What?” she asked. “I was all over Wyoming and Idaho Senior year. When you were out on the beach pretending at urban redevelopment, I was making arguments for the removal of towns like this one.”

I took the keys from my pocket and fumbled with them, and once I got a hold of them, I fumbled with the lock. “That kind of hurt,” I said.

“Oh,” Carrie Anne said. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it.”

In the apartment, I tried to figure out the the oven. I turned knob after knob on the old appliance and hoped for the best. I filled the kitchen up with gas. “Carrie Anne,” I called. “Have you ever seen anything like this?” I pointed to the open oven door. “I can’t seem to get the thing to work.”

“Forget it,” she said. “Let’s just eat this out of the can.”

“Out of the can? Can you do that?”

“You haven’t seen much have you?” she asked. “It’s already cooked before they put it in the can.”

“Oh,” I said.

“And of all the real problems with Industria, it’s a food desert.”

“Food desert?” I asked. “What a great term, one of yours?”

“No Larry, it’s the term for a place like this that has nothing but dirt bag convenience stores or fast food. But in this situation, I would be grateful for fast food.”

“Oh,” I said. I changed tracks again. “I guess the oil dried up here, but it’s not a bad place to live.”

“I think,” she began in a far off and distracted way. “Something weird happened here. Usually people move into the cities from the country for work. I think it happened the opposite here. I think anyone who could work moved out and are probably farm hands or some such thing now.”

“Well, we’ll get ’em back here, right?” I said.

“A few movie theaters and chain restaurants isn’t going to be enough.”

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“We’re going to need more than that,” she said.

“Oh, right, like schools and churches and stuff?” I asked. “That seems reasonable.”

“It’s the whole thing Larry. There needs to be everything here, and I just don’t think it’s feasible.”

“Well, we just got here,” I said.

 

Night is the real test. It’s a test for everything. At night every emotion, every thought, every fear, every everything comes out in full force and exaggeration. At night, I feel the tremble of the earth as feel the quake in my head. At night, I feel the worst, and I feel like every decision was wrong. I feel like I should have just gone to school to be an accountant like my dad told me to do. I feel like I should be held responsible for everything I’ve ever done. At night, I know I should have apologized to my dad before he died. At night, I know I should forgive him too. At night, I feel like I should be a better man, a better partner, a better everything. At night, I feel like I should tell Carrie Anne of all my misdeeds and why I can’t seem to be a better person.

The old building hums at night. Pipes deep in the bowels somewhere clank and rattle. The higher hum, the one barely audible over breath, comes from the electricity coursing through the wires like blood coursing in veins. And then there are the pops and cracks from the ever expanding and contracting floorboards and walls. It’s all nonsense. The night is nonsense and laying awake in the bed, in the darkness will not change the way of things neither inside of me or among the general workings of the outer world.

The best I can hope for, especially on a particularly dark night is that the following day will be sunny, and start with sun. Sometimes when a day begins with overcast or fog or rain and eventually becomes sunny and clear, there is still no hope.

In the kitchen of our apartment, I found myself shocked at a few things. The first thing, of course, was that I had made it out of bed before Carrie Anne. And the second thing was that the few wrinkly panes of the windows faced east and the daylight really made for a good outlook on the day, and on life. Perhaps time can be further broken down into this: OSD, On Sunny Days and OGD, On Gloomy Days. Times of OSD are good indeed. On such a morning, making coffee and figuring out the daily routines and overlaying those on the tasks at hand, can be kind of fun.

During the process of boiling water for the instant coffee, I heard Carrie Anne stir. Her bedroom door opened, closed, and she walked down the hall. I listened for the toilet to flush. If it flushed at all, it was after the water came to a boil in the electric tea kettle.

“Coffee?” I asked as she walked down the hall.

“Coffee,” she said. “Extra strength.”

“Well, I thought we’d go over our plan for the day. We got a week to get this presentation ready.”

“Can we talk about it after coffee?” she asked.

I said nothing, just nodded. I poured the boiling water over the coffee powder in her cup. When I put the cup on the table in front of her, I waited for a reaction. When none came, I tried again. “How’d you sleep?”

“Terrible,” she said. She leaned forward in her seat. The chair at the table was ancient, wood. I imagined that all the apartments in the building had the same chairs around the same tables and arranged in the same way. The concept in 1957 was the move-in furnished apartments. Anyone coming to Industria only just had to come into Industria. They moved in on a Sunday and they were at work on Monday morning. Not a bad concept, and not even so bad for the time.

Carrie Anne moved her chair closer to the table with a hop. “I think I’m allergic to this town,” she said. She scratched herself, her side and her neck. The rigorous scratching did nothing for the itch because she just kept at it. This morning was OSD and BBB and DCA.

“Allergic?” I asked. I filled my cup and sat at the table next to her in the old wooden chair.

“It’s bad,” she said. “Anyway, how did you sleep?”

“Well, it’s quiet here, I like that. I slept pretty good,” I said.

“That’s good,” she said. She sipped her coffee.

When we met the streets of Industria, the day was in full light, full force, full swing. “Pretty quiet here,” I said. The comment, an obvious overstatement, of course, went unanswered, if not unheard. “You see,” I said pointing at a particularly attractive brick warehouse of the street opposite. “I see a brewpub on the first two floors, tables and dining on the first floor, a bar and billiards on the second. The two or three floors above it, maybe mixed use of offices and living.”

“Yeah,” she said.

“Don’t you get it?” I asked. “It’s a great building.”

“My allergies,” she said.

We crossed the street. A few old parking meters stood in slants and angles with rusted parts and broken windows. We stepped up on the other side of the pavement, I looked into the office windows of the old warehouse. Newspapers from who knows when were in various places taped and falling from the inside of the glass. A dead bird, petrified, stiffly remained in the corner of the windowsill. I tried to look into the depths of the room and with the sun on my back, this should have been an easy thing to do. I moved closer into the glass and cupped by hands around my brow to block out any light. Then I moved farther away from the glass hoping for some of the same. OSD, yes, but this was the exact moment when DCA turned quickly to ACA.

As I moved away from the glass, I noticed the reflection behind me: the scene of the street we had just crossed and the boarded up buildings opposite. I saw Carrie Anne in the reflection too. I could see her, and I could feel her behind me too. And when she screamed, I heard that too. In the reflection I saw her struggle and dance. Then, still in the glass, I saw her shirt come off. “What’s happening?” I said turning around.

“Jimmy McGriff!” she shouted. She threw her shirt to the dusty sidewalk and her hands flailed around her head and neck making her hair cover her face and her breasts began to jump around in her bra.

“What? What is it?” I asked.

“Jimmy McGriff! Jimmy McGriff! Jimmy McGriff!”

“I,” I said. I stammered. “I-I-I-,” I continued. I didn’t know what to say. Here she was, no shirt, dancing, shouting Jimmy McGriff. I bent over to pick up her shirt.

“Don’t touch it,” she said. I snapped to attention. I froze and looked at her. “Jimmy McGriff,” she said again.

“I don’t know what that means. Who’s Jimmy McGriff?”

“Jimmy Mcgriff? I don’t know. It’s what we were taught to say instead of swearing,” she said. She calmed down a little. She looked over her arms and torso. During the inspection of her body, I calmed down too.

“Like cheese and crackers?”

“Like what?”

“Cheese and Crackers instead of Jesus Christ,” I said.

“Right,” she said. She bent over to pick up her shirt. “I don’t know what Jimmy McGriff would be code for.”

“Mother fucker?”

“Oedipus,” she said.

“What?” I asked.

“Never mind,” she said. She turned her shirt right side in and then inside out again. “What is this?” she said.

I looked at the shirt in her hands. There were bits of fabric folded up underneath and inside of her fists. The taut plane of fabric between had a little insect climbing across the shirt. “Oh, you got a little friend,” I said. In retrospect, this was not the right thing to say. This was also the time shift from BBB to ABB.

“A little friend? Larry? Are you really that out of it? This is a bedbug.”

“Bedbug?” I asked.

“Bedbugs, and that’s what’s all over my body,” she said. “Jimmy McGriff.”

“Bedbugs?” I asked again.

“Do you have any bites?” she asked.

“I don’t think so,” I said. “How would I know?”

“You’d know,” she said.

“Well,” I said. I wanted to change the subject. “Well, I have more places I want to see. You up for it?”

At day’s end, I returned to the apartment. I walked the few streets from one side of town to the next. I stopped at the Korean grocery, where I was already a regular.

In the apartment I was met with silence. On the kitchen table, Carrie Anne left her report. On top of the paper she had an upside down drinking glass. Under it, there was a whole collection of the “little friend’s” relatives. “Oh, wow,” I said. The top of her report read: Industria, The End of the Idyllic Days, demolition appropriate, rebuilding not recommended. “Wow,” I said.

 

 

BIO

Anthony ILacqua’s third novel Warehouses and Rusted Angels is forthcoming from Ring of Fire Publishing. His former novels, Dysphoric Notions and Undertakers of Rain are both published through Ring of Fire Publishing. He is editor in chief for Umbrella Factory Magazine that he co-founded in 2009. Anthony’s blog: anthonyilacqua.blogspot.com

0

Flint and Shannon

by Beth Goldner

 

 

Flint posted a flyer in the student union building at Penn. Ride share to Gaffney, South Carolina. Leaving May 11th. You’ll be on the back of a Harley. No gas money wanted, but you pay for your own hotel room. Flint was going to see his brother Keith, who lived in a facility for the mentally handicapped. Flint was frightened by this prospect: he was forty-two years old and had never met Keith before. By taking a passenger, he couldn’t chicken out once the ride began. He’d feel too accountable to get a stranger to a promised destination. If he took a friend, he knew he’d be able to turn the bike around with no sense of guilt or any real consequence.

Flint was hoping a guy would respond to the flyer, but Shannon was the only person who called. The problems began immediately. When he arrived at her dorm, she was wearing shorts and a tank top. He told her she needed to change into jeans and a long-sleeve shirt. She balked. If you crash the bike we’re screwed anyway, right? Why worry about road burns if I wind up brain dead?

Her limbs were spindly sticks and she wore her long hair in a ponytail, the top layers dyed red as a fire engine and the underside black. Her green eyes were those of an antique doll, focused in that unnerving way that makes you feel like your mind is being read. She had a full mouth and rakish smile, with a voice that was scratchy and entirely too loud. He was relieved she would be behind him. He couldn’t have kept his eyes off her otherwise. This was not sexual. She simply baffled him.

Two hours into the ride, as they crossed the Mason-Dixon line into Maryland, she yelled into his ear that when they got to Virginia, they should get off I-95 and drive through the Blue Ridge Mountains. Talking while riding on a motorcycle bordered on impossible, but through the years, Flint and his friends and girlfriends had learned to adjust the volume of their voices to accommodate for wind and speed. Shannon was countless miles away from figuring this out. He couldn’t blame her. But, still, this girl isn’t what I bargained for, he thought.

“I want to see some bears!” Shannon shouted into his ear.

“No need to yell. I can hear you just fine.”

“Sorry!” she yelled.

“No need to apologize. But you are still yelling.”

Shannon kept readjusting herself, trying to find a comfortable position. It was the one thing about her that didn’t bother Flint. Even though he was fat, he had a perfect center of gravity, and her shaking-about posed no risk for his losing balance on the bike. He danced ballet as a boy, during his single episode in the foster care system, when he lived for nine months with the Delvecchio’s, an affluent family in Spartanburg.

Shannon gave him a quick tight squeeze on the shoulders.

“Please,” she said, her voice coming down several decibels. “Can we look for some bears?”

Flint thought about Keith, how he wasn’t going anywhere. Maybe he wore a diaper. Maybe he didn’t feed himself. Flint didn’t know if he would see any resemblance, if he would see his own mouth or nose in Keith, if he would see his mother’s brow, or her eyes. Flint had never even seen a picture of Keith. He didn’t even know Keith’s middle name, and Flint became overwhelmed at how quickly his bike was taking him not just to Keith, but to the minutia of kinship that takes decades to accumulate. Flint was only going in the first place because his mother had died three weeks ago. And even though he hadn’t spoken to his mother in years, he was compelled to at least see what remained of his mutual flesh and blood. Indifference frightened him more than the anger and fear surrounding the situation.

Flint nodded his head up and down with exaggeration, ensuring Shannon understood he agreed to her request.

“Oh, Flint, I want to see the whole world. Even just some mountains and bears are part of it. The whole wide world,” she said, whooping, and he could feel her raising her arms upward.

 

 

Taking Skyline Drive through Shenandoah National Park proved to be more challenging than he expected. Flint hadn’t driven mountain roads in years, and the inclines and declines made him nauseous. The yellow dividing lines were new, and their brightness hypnotized him as the road snaked. He took the bike slowly around curves.

“I’m gonna pray for some bears,” Shannon had said when they stopped at their first lookout, which was a half-circle of stones stacked waist high. The mountains looked like the shoulders of Roman gods, pushed up against each other, clouds casting shadows on them.

“Prayer is pretty useless,” Flint said.

“Don’t ever say that,” Shannon said, smacking him on the shoulder. “You probably need God more than me.”

“What are you talking about?” he said, louder than he meant.

“You had it hard. I can tell. I’m sensitive to this.”

Who the fuck does this girl think she is? he thought.

“I went to India for a semester abroad,” she continued, “and we had to do service on the streets of New Delhi. I know what hardship is. I mean, I know what it looks like, even just in a person’s face, you know? I saw street kids. They do horrible things to them, like cut off their arms to make them look pathetic, so that people will give them money.”

Flint stared ahead.

“Shit, I’m sorry,” she said quickly. “I think I might have sounded like an asshole, telling you what hardship is. I didn’t mean to be like that.”

“I know, Shannon.”

“But I do know what poor people look like, what people who had it hard look like.”

Flint loved her in that moment, for her youth, for being so annoying but too alive to dismiss. Moments after they were back on the road from the third lookout, Shannon gripped Flint’s shoulders.

“Holy mother-fucking fucker. Would you look over there?” Shannon hollered.

They were on a long stretch of road that was flat. In the distance, a football field’s length away, was a large black figure. A bear, without a doubt. He was big, lumbering, and closer to the shoulder of the road than Flint expected a bear to be. Shannon couldn’t contain herself, and she shifted and pointed and hollered. Flint slowed down.

“Pull over, pull over. Stop, stop, stop. Now, now,” Shannon said, smacking her hands on her thighs.

He couldn’t remember if it was a black or brown bear that was more dangerous.

“Look at that motherfucker!” she yelled, this time in his ears.

“Just shut the fuck up, already!” Flint yelled back.

He felt her body slump behind him and he filled with shame. He never yelled at a woman before like that, certainly not a girl he had known for less than one day. He saw the bear look up at them. The bike wobbled as he came to a stop on the other side of the road, putting down the kickstand.

Plié, relevé. Plié, relevé, he thought, an old ballet call he repeated in his mind when he needed the world around him to be quiet.

“I’m sorry,” he said to her, turning around several times and repeating his apology, but keeping an eye on the bear, which was about eighty yards away now.

“Yeah, okay,” she said, looking at her hands. “I know. I’m loud. Everybody tells me that. I’m trying to outgrow it.”

Flint knew that any more apologies would make everything worse.

“He’s bigger than I thought a bear would be,” he said.

“Can we get closer?” Shannon asked.

“Looks like he’s beating us to the punch,” Flint said.

The bear kept walking toward them, and Flint thought how odd it was that, even at a distance, the bear’s eyes looked like those of his foster mom, fixed and determined, convincing Flint he would be loved. They watched the bear in silence. The bear raised his snout and sniffed, closing in on the fifty-yard line.

“Let’s go, Shannon,” he finally said.

“Relax. These bears are people habituated. I’ve read about it. They don’t see me as any different from them,” she said.

The bear stopped, shook his whole body like a dog, all the while keeping his eyes on them. Flint turned the bike on, and revved the engine. Shannon pushed her nose into his back, laughing to herself and, saying loud enough for him to hear, but not too loud, “Yes, yes, yes, I saw a bear.”

Flint accelerated too quickly, and the bike leaned too far to the left. He thought, We’re going down and I never met Keith and this bear will eat Shannon. But Shannon wrapped her arms around his large belly, and, as if by instinct, leaned her body far to the right for counterbalance, waiting for that sweet spot when it was time to bring herself up again.

 

 

They were eating hamburgers at a Stuckey’s rest stop in Lumberton, North Carolina. They had spent the previous evening in a Best Western in Roanoke Rapids. They shared a room. Shannon had enough money for her own room, but she was afraid to sleep alone. The door opens to the outside, she said. Some lunatic robber wouldn’t even have to get past a lobby. She cranked up the air conditioner and walked around in flannel pajamas, telling Flint that she studied Japanese her first year of college because it was becoming the language of business, but that she wanted to be a Marxist now, so she was switching to German. He didn’t know what it meant to be a Marxist and what knowing how to speak German had to do with it, so he just nodded his head. Flint wouldn’t use the cot stored under the bed. He claimed he had a bad back, that it was better for him to sleep on the floor. In reality, he was embarrassed by the thought of how loud the cot would squeak as he tossed and turned before sinking into sleep. He stayed fully clothed, not even removing his belt, which gouged into his belly. He barely slept. The thin carpet of the floor smelled moldy and Shannon’s snoring was as loud and grating as her voice.

When they left Roanoke Rapids, Shannon didn’t complain once about needing to pee, or the way the vibration of the bike can make your brain shake after a few hours. She didn’t complain about the exhaust fumes or chapped lips. But once they were off the bike, she didn’t shut up, about anything and everything.

“That was pretty close with the bear,” she said. “Would have sucked if you made us spill. Kerplat, or, more like ker-splat.”

She was eating her burger so quickly that Flint worried she’d choke. She pushed her plate toward him, told him that she hated fries, that he could have them.

“But, you were going ultra-slow, so we’d probably only break a few bones, a shoulder or some ribs,” she said. “I broke my wrist once, when I was five.”

“How’d that happen?”

“I was learning to ride a bike.”

“No center of gravity?” he said.

“Nope. Afterward, my mom started me on ballet lessons to see if I could become less of a klutz. I still remember it all.”

She got out of the booth, circled her arms in front of her as if she were late in pregnancy. She bent down with her knees, rose back up onto her toes, teetering, up and down, over and over. Some teenage boys sitting at a booth across from them laughed at her. She turned to them and asked them what was so funny. Their faces froze and Flint laughed at all of them.

“Punks,” she said, smiling at Flint.

She continued the movements, her body swaying.

“Lessons didn’t help that much, obviously,” she said, sitting down.

“Plié, relevé. Plié, relevé,” he said, mimicking a French accent.

“Well, holy fuck-a-moly, Batman. You know French?”

“Nope. But I took ballet for a while.”

“Seriously? You’re a dude.”

“I was just a kid at the time.”

His foster mom had insisted he try ballet. He had hated the clarinet and the trombone. You need to be grounded, Marcus, in something, she said. He fell in love with ballet, the deliberation of it, holding the barre, staring into the mirror and seeing himself as a fluid but positioned person. But then his mom went to rehab, and eventually got her act together enough for the government to give him back to her. When social services took him from Mrs. Delvecchio’s—she howled like a wounded animal—all he could think of was his ballet tights that he left there, and if he would ever again feel the world in equal weight and measure. Things with his mom had remained bad, but never bad enough to land him back in foster care. He graduated high school, moved to Philadelphia, became a garbage collector, married, had three boys, and divorced.

“I don’t believe you, Flint. Let me see your moves.”

He reddened.

“I don’t think I have moves anymore.”

He put his fork down and motioned for the waitress. He needed more coffee. He hadn’t rode for this long of a trip in years, and the degree of fatigue frightened him.

“Come on. Be bold! My professor who was in New Delhi with us said that every single thing you do that makes you uncomfortable is seeing the world. We’re seeing the world together.”

“Not exactly.”

“Well, you can be that way if you want,” she said, shrugging her shoulders. “I know that I’m seeing the world. ”

Flint was dropping her off in Rock Hill, South Carolina, before he headed west to Gaffney, just an hour’s drive, to his brother. Just thinking about the very word brother made him pause.

“Rock Hill, South Carolina, is not exactly the world,” Flint said. “What mind-blowing things will you see there?”

They had been together for a day and a half and he had yet to ask her why she was going to Rock Hill. It seemed the most obvious type of conversation to have, but Shannon found no interest in the obvious, and he was just as comfortable not explaining why he was going to Gaffney. Shannon was interested in the details of him hauling trash, if he ever saw a coworker fall into the compactor, who his favorite bands were, how often he would see his sons.

“I’m going to see my ex-boyfriend, Keith,” she said. “Seeing him is sort of like seeing the world. He’s from Bahrain. His real name is Hameed. His parents wanted to Americanize him and called him Keith when they moved here, when he was just a kid. But then he really Americanized himself, with me. Then they didn’t want him to be so American,” she laughed, her strange cackle piercing his ears.

“So, he broke up with me,” she said. “But I can’t just let him go. Not yet.”

“Does he know you’re coming?”

“No. I’m going to surprise him.”

Shannon was the dumbest smartest person he had ever met, but he knew she would only be this way once, for a short while. She would outgrow the dumb and settle on the smart. He believed that things can happen only once, things people think of as being patterns. Time in a foster home. Being stupid.

“My brother’s name is Keith. I’m going to see him,” Flint said, feeling an odd sense of pride.

“So, we’re both going to see Keith.”

“What’s your brother do?” Shannon asked, slurping her milkshake then gently wiping the corners of her mouth, folding the napkin back onto her lap.

“Nothing.”

“Unemployed?”

“I guess you could say that. What does your ex-boyfriend do?”

“Nothing.”

“Unemployed?”

“I guess you could say that,” she said. “He didn’t like college very much. He’s trying to find himself.”

She stacked their empty plates on top of each other, removing the dirty knives and forks first, putting them on a napkin. The din of the crowded restaurant had a similar effect as being on the bike, but Shannon’s voice seemed less loud.

“I’m not being creepy or trying to get into your pants,” Flint said, “but you’re a pretty girl, and smart. Seems like you wouldn’t have much trouble getting a new boyfriend.”

“Thanks, you know, for saying that. It’s like I know that, like I know he’s kind of a loser. He grows pot in his closet. But I just want to see him one more time. I think that seeing him will make me not want to see him anymore, you know?”

 

 

Three hours later, they arrived in Rock Hill. Flint exited I-95 and pulled into Flying J’s Travel Stop, where Shannon said that he should drop her off. Flying J’s was the size of a strip mall, with Rosie’s Family Restaurant, a gargantuan convenience store, and row after row of gas pumps. Flint pulled up to one, and they dismounted the bike. His ass was numb and his hands tingled. He shook them over and over. Several payphones were lined up outside the convenience store, and Shannon walked over to call Hameed to announce her arrival. Flint wondered if he should call the facility in Gaffney where Keith was, just to tell them he was coming. Flint filled the tank and watched Shannon at the phone booth. He gripped the handle of the hose tighter as she kept dialing, waiting, hanging up. She did this for several minutes then walked back to him. She told Flint that he was probably at the mall, that she was probably going to only stay a few days with Hameed, that he would buy her a plane ticket home, that it was all going to work out so perfectly.

“Let’s get a goodbye beer,” she said. “I’ve got some time before he gets home. It’s not like you and I are going to see each other again.”

“That’s fine.” Flint said. “But, I’m buying. And I’m sticking around until this ex-boyfriend of yours comes to get you.”

Flint kept shaking his hands.

“How very gentlemanly of you. But stop flapping your hands like a retard.”

Flint’s eyes filled, scaring him, how this response was so sudden. Shannon leaned her hand on the bike and looked confused.

Flint had once asked his mother if she drank so much because his brother was a retard. They were in the car together, and Flint was sitting in the back. He had just spent the day with his cousins while his mom was visiting Keith. Flint couldn’t understand why his mother would not let him meet his own brother. Flint’s mom shifted her entire body around, except for her head, and her left hand, which stayed on the steering wheel. With her eyes fixed on the road, she heaved most of her body over the seat and punched him so hard on the shoulder that the bruise ached for weeks. She was stone sober, and she never hit him again.

“My brother’s retarded,” Flint said.

“Oh,” Shannon said, nodding her head up and down. “Oh, I see. Well, what’s it like to spend time with somebody who is retarded? I wonder if it’s like spending time with street children in India, you know? Like do they even know how much better things could be?”

Flint was relieved that she didn’t apologize.

“I don’t know. This is the first time I’m ever going to meet him. I never met him before.”

“That’s weird. You never met him? Are you scared?”

“Petrified.”

She drummed the base of the gas pump, staring at the gasoline stains on the ground.

“You know, Flint, I hate college,” she said, stopping her drumming and crossing her arms across her chest. “Except when I went to India, but I hate college so much that it scares me every day. I know about being petrified.”

“You’ve got everything,” he said, hoping to cut the edge of bitterness that he couldn’t control.

It’s not her fault, he told himself. None of this.

“I know. I have opportunity. Blah, blah, blah. I really do know I have it good. But I want to see the world. College really isn’t the world.”

“Finish school. The world isn’t going anywhere.”

A pack of Harleys pulled up behind Flint and he nodded at them as they dismounted.

“Well, I’m trying to see the world no matter where I am. Its why I came here on the back of bike instead of taking a plane.”

Flint shrugged and started shaking his hands again.

“You scared or something?” Shannon said.

“Of what?”

“Of seeing your brother?”

“Why would I be frightened of my brother?” Flint said, feeling saliva build in his mouth.

“Well, you’ve never met him, and he’s retarded, so that’s like a double whammy. Plus, he’s not technically your brother. Yeah, you’re related to him. But he isn’t your brother in the brotherly way.”

“I guess,” Flint said, staring at the bikers filling their tanks, a few of them smoking cigarettes, ignoring the signs not to.

“It’ll be okay,” Shannon continued. “If you only knew how frightened I was in New Delhi at first, seeing those street people.”

“What did you do about it?”

“I just held my breath for the first few days. I couldn’t even talk.”

“I can’t imagine that.”

They both laughed.

“But then it started to be okay. And after a few weeks, it became normal. I don’t think that’s necessarily a good thing, for something like that to become normal to a person. But you can’t help anybody or anything if it doesn’t become normal, you know?”

After the other bikers filled their tanks, they walked over to Flint and Shannon, talked about the rains heading down from the north, what bike dealer Flint had in Philly. Shannon told them she was Flint’s daughter. When they left, Shannon put her hand on Flint’s shoulder.

“Do you want me to go with you to see Keith?” she asked.

“Yes,” Flint said, and it came out so fast, and he didn’t know how he could take it back as quickly as he had said it.

“Well, no, actually,” he said. “My problems aren’t yours, Shannon.”

“Well, that makes no sense. Because your going to see Keith isn’t a problem. And it isn’t a problem for me to go with you.”

Flint couldn’t look at her in the eye.

“What about your Keith?” he asked.

“You can drive me back here when you’re done. He’s not going anywhere.”

Although only a few hundred yards from the gas pumps, Shannon hopped on the back of the bike when Flint drove into a parking space in front of Rosie’s Family Restaurant. Shannon ordered an egg-white omelet with three side orders of bacon and a glass of skim milk. He offered to buy her a beer, but when he said he wasn’t going to drink one, not with her getting back on the bike with him, she declined. When they finished, Shannon suggested they drive by Hameed’s house on their way out of town, just to see if anybody’s car was in the driveway, that she’d gone to his house for Thanksgiving and knew where they lived. Flint wanted to say No, but he stopped himself and thought, Dear God, I’m a grown man and she is a just a girl, and she is supposed to be obsessing about a boy she loves, even if he’ll crush her.

Hameed lived in a leafy neighborhood that boasted plantation-style homes with sprawling yards. His house had a balcony on the top two stories, big white columns supporting each roof. Flint parked on the street a few houses down from Hameed’s.

Shannon dismounted, leaving on her helmet, walking a few paces from the bike, arms at her sides. She looked like an astronaut, lonely for Earth. Flint got off the bike and walked up to her. He left his helmet on, too, hyperaware of his breathing, trying to control it. He imagined Hameed as another bear that Shannon wanted to see with desperation, to claim ownership, a victory.

“I wonder if he’s in there,” Shannon said, finally removing her helmet, Flint following in kind.

“You could go knock on the door.”

“I’m just going to stand here. I think he’ll sense that I’m here,” she said, staring at the house. “He’ll still have to wait for me, even if he comes out, because I’m still going with you to see your brother. It would be good for him to wait, don’t you think?”

“Do you think it’ll make that much of a difference?”

“What are you trying to say?”

Flint could see out of the corner of his eye a tear falling down her face. He wondered what it was like to raise a daughter, if saying these types of things caused a girl to feel anger or panic or relief.

“Anything’s possible,” Flint said, and he reached for her hand, giving it a reassuring squeeze.

 

 

Flint knew not to rush her. They left Hameed’s neighborhood, and drove through Rock Hill until they found a miniature golf course. This place is the kind of place that Keith would go to, Shannon said, looking over her shoulders several times, and by the fifth hole she announced that she was bored and hungry again. They rode to a Denny’s, and Shannon made the waitress seat them in the back of the restaurant, in a booth that faced the door. Like a mobster, she said to him. Gotta know everybody whose coming in and out. She ordered two sundaes and ate them slowly, saying little to Flint. When she finished the second sundae, she belched loudly, sighed deeply, and asked if they could go to the mall. I need some new lipstick, she told him. When Flint pointed out a pharmacy across the street, she said they could check both places, that maybe she could get two tubes. In the pharmacy, she bought four tubes—pink, red, brown, and nude—and then asked the cashier for directions to the mall.

Flint hated malls, the lighting, the lack of carpet to absorb the sounds. He always felt silly at malls, surrounded by focused mothers and young people weighed down with bags of every imaginable purchase, clothes and perfume and watches and handbags. He felt self-conscious, as if there were nothing at all for a big man like him would need to buy. They walked both floors, bypassing the department stores. Flint didn’t offer to go into any of the shops, nor did Shannon lead him into any. They repeated their path three times. Shannon finally sat them down on a bench next to two fake trees, facing a sporting goods store. Large signs announced a season finale sale.

“We’re gonna need to get on the road soon. I don’t really like driving in the dark,” Flint said.

“You never see guys alone at the mall much, do you?” she asked, as if he hadn’t spoken. “They’ll come with their wives. Or their girlfriends.”

“I suppose,” he said.

“When Hameed was still at Penn with me, we’d go to the King of Prussia Mall on the weekends. He’d always buy me shit. Lots of shit. He’s loaded. But his parents wouldn’t let him have a car in West Philly, because the place is a ghetto. So, we’d have to take a bus to the mall. He said the bus was for losers.”

Flint and his ex-wife spent the first two years of their marriage living in West Philly, relying on buses as their mode of transportation. At the time, he was making next to nothing as a security guard, his wife a secretary at a real estate office. He eventually got his job with the Department of Sanitation and, fifteen years later, when he was making more than he ever expected for a garbage man, he bought his first bike. For the first month he owned it, he wouldn’t take it on the street. He’d just get on, start the engine, rev it, grip the handlebars and stare ahead.

They sat on the bench for what seemed like hours. An elderly couple passed them several times. They wore tracksuits and white sneakers, swinging their arms as if they were speed walking, but they moved so slowly.

“People should grow old together without having to try, shouldn’t they?”

No, Flint thought, but he looked at Shannon and her messy hair and her fingernails bitten to the quick and tired eyes and said, “Yes. You’re right.”

And before the couple passed them again, Shannon stood up.

“Okay, buddy,” she said. “We’re ready to roll.”

 

 

The ride to Gaffney should have taken about an hour, but it began raining soon after they left Rock Hill. They arrived at McLeod State Mental Health Facility after nine o’clock. The receptionist gave them a tired grin.

“You’ll have to come back,” she said. “You can’t just walk in this late and see him. We need to set this up with the social worker and case manager.”

Flint scratched his belly, embarrassed by the sweat stains under his armpits and the way his hands continued to shake. The facility was ten stories high. Flint wondered how many people lived there.

“But, it’s his brother, ma’am. Do you understand?” Shannon said.

“I can schedule something for tomorrow.”

Shannon took Flint’s arm.

“How early?” Flint asked.

“I can get somebody here by eight o’clock or so.”

“Fine,” Shannon said, looking at Flint and nodding. “That’ll work.”

Shannon called Hameed from the pay phone in the lobby. After several attempts, she told Flint he must not be home yet.

“Why don’t you leave a message?” Flint asked.

“They got rid of their answering machine. I was leaving too many messages.”

They stayed awake through the night playing five-card draw. When the social worker and case manager finally appeared, Flint filled out paperwork and Shannon patted him on the shoulder, saying it would be all right, reminding him that it may be difficult to see Keith, but just this first time. The social worker led them through locked doors to a spacious room with low lighting. The room had puffy couches and large tables, with a television mounted on the wall. The social worker pointed to a man in the middle of the room. There he is, she said.

Keith was tall and frightfully skinny, with a shock of gray hair and a wide grin like his mother’s. He wore blue jeans and a jean shirt and a jean jacket and black clogs.

My God, he looks so old, Flint thought. He looks like me. Will I look like that when I’m old?

Shannon walked right to Keith and shook his hand.

“Nice outfit,” she said to him. “I like your shirt. I’m Shannon and I’m a friend of your brother’s. That’s your brother over there. His name is Flint.”

“Marcus,” he said, finding it hard to look at Keith, scared that his eyes, too, would be like his foster mom’s. “Flint is a nickname.”

“What better person to know your nickname than your brother.”

“Yes, this is a nice shirt,” Keith yelled to Shannon. “Thank you.”

His voice was exactly like his mother’s but in a deep baritone, and so loud. How come he was so loud?

Shannon turned to Flint and said, “Come on over here. This is how you do it. He’s just another person like everybody else. I learned how to do this in New Delhi.”

Flint took a few steps forward.

“Keep coming, Flint. Tell him you like what he’s wearing.”

Keith tugged at his shirt, looking at the floor, saying, “Thank you, again. Thank you.”

Flint walked closer toward Keith and Shannon, and he stopped a few feet from them. Flint stared at Keith’s hands, which were just like his. Flint imagined them gripping his bike’s handlebars.

“That’s right, Flint, you got it,” Shannon said, and she started clapping.

And then Keith looked at Shannon and started clapping, too.

 

 

BIO

Beth Goldner is a protocol associate, developing clinical trials in radiation oncology. For fifteen years, she worked as a managing editor in medical publishing.

She is the author of a short story collection (Wake) and a novel (The Number We End Up With), published by Perseus/Basic Books Group. Her books were well received by Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Review, New York Times, Boston Globe, among others. She has also taught creative writing at Rosemont College and Boise State University.

A native of Philadelphia, she currently lives outside of the city with her one-eyed mutt, Millie.

 

 

 

 

0

The Art of Letting Go

by Joshua Dull

 

 

I sat in my car watching people enter Path of Light Lutheran Church for Saturday night contemporary service. The idea of walking through those doors hadn’t been this daunting since I came out as a lesbian when I was sixteen. I was never a loner, but tonight I didn’t want to be around anyone. It took all my strength to even show up. I hadn’t heard from Jessica in two months. Her blog entries on Myspace had become darker, more self-destructive. After one of her last posts, I messaged her, “Jessica, I’m here, I’ve always been here. I’ve tried to call you but you changed your number. Anyways, I think about you every day and I care about you. Please just text me when you can and we can get coffee or something and talk about what’s going on with you. Love always, Shayla.” This week, Jessica deleted her profile. My hands began to withdraw my pack of cigarettes from my purse, but I stopped myself. I shut my car off and walked toward the face of the building. Amber floodlights dimly rendered the cross, the stained glass halo surrounding it, and a small statue of Christ with both hands raised.

***

            When I met Jessica last October, Hurricane Wilma had swept its outer bands across Brevard County and left a cold front in its wake, the cooler temperatures lingering long after. For the first time since I could remember, it actually felt like fall. Jessica arrived at Spencer’s Gifts where I worked a few days after the hurricane. She was a Puerto Rican girl with curly black hair that touched her shoulders and a kind, dimpled smile. She wore an Avenged Sevenfold sweater, a skull with bat wings divided by the zipper. I trained her on the cash register that night, showing her what buttons to press to bring up the day’s total sales. I shifted my hip against her as I reached over her shoulder. A slight movement, I’m not sure I even intended it, but she didn’t move. Our manager Jake closed with us that night. He was about a year younger than me and would sometimes bring a 12 pack to drink in the back storage area after we closed. It was one of those nights. We sat against stacks of cardboard boxes, each of us holding a sweating can of Heineken. I looked to Jessica and said,

“How’s this for a first day?”

“I could get used to this,” she said and smiled. Her eyes were dark, but sparkled in the fluorescent light.

Later in the month we were in the back seat of Jake’s car driving down 520 from Orlando as dawn broke across us. We’d gone to see one of his and Jessica’s favorite bands, HIM, at the House of Blues in Lake Buena Vista. I held her hand throughout the show, especially when the throngs of people leaving between bands threatened to separate us. After the concert, we’d gone to a house party with some people and would’ve stayed, but we all had work the next afternoon. On the way back, Jake took an exit off 408 and didn’t realize we were lost until he’d been driving through the darkness of Alafaya Trail for half an hour. We stopped for directions at every gas station and CVS pharmacy still open before finally getting pointed east on State Road 50. Relief washed over us as the road split into 520 for Cocoa. Warm sunlight filled the car and the grasslands of the St. John’s River shimmered, stretching out from one horizon to the other. Jessica lay asleep, her head in my lap and I stroked her hair. I smiled while she sighed in her dreams, but wished she were awake to see the beauty in every direction.

***

LED searchlights accented the darkened sanctuary like a blue and violet aurora. Lyrics in cursive streamed across a projector screen behind the four piece band. My friend Bryan played electric guitar while Justin, a music major, played drums. I had known both of them since youth group in high school. A man with a cast on his right arm sat at the far end of my row tonight. Normally, I liked to seek out people sitting by themselves because I knew how hard it was for some people to even walk through the doors. On a mission trip to Nicaragua a couple years ago, Bryan told me that if I hadn’t sat with him at his first youth group meeting, he never would’ve come back. I kept my distance tonight. The man at the end of the row may have needed a friend, but I needed to be by myself.

***

Jessica and I were walking along a boardwalk through the live oak hammock of Erna Nixon Park. The late afternoon air felt crisp, humidity residing in the coolness left by the hurricane. The last time I’d seen autumn had been when I was sixteen and visited my cousin Brady in Georgia. As waning sunlight glittered through the trees above us, Jessica told me a similar story, moving here from New Jersey after her parents divorced. Her mom had told her this was a land of sunshine and warmth, so she’d been surprised to see frost crystallized along the orange groves when they entered the state in December of 1995. I stopped to admire a verdant array of ferns disappearing into the hammock. Jessica kept walking, but stopped a few paces ahead and waited for me. I walked over and slipped my hand into hers.

“How about a game,” she said, “two truths, one lie.”

“Okay,” I said, “sounds fun. You first.”

She stared at the canopy pensively then said, “My favorite band is HIM, I’ve never been to another country, and I skate.”

“You’ve been to a foreign country,” I said.

“How’d you know?”

“That one has a story in it, so you wouldn’t have mentioned it unless it was true.”

“Damn, alright,” she smiled at me, “I used to go to Puerto Rico with my dad in the summer. Before I moved here.”

“How long since you’ve been back?” I asked.

“Long time. I only saw my dad a couple times a year after the divorce, and we never really made it back down.” Her northeastern accent showed on the words “long” and “divorce”. She glanced downward at the boardwalk. Two squirrels chased each other along a moss covered branch reaching over us.

“I guess it’s my turn,” I said and gave her hand a slight squeeze, “I hate horror movies, I’m studying nursing at BCC, and I’m a terrible liar.”

“You like horror movies?”

“I can’t stand horror movies,” I said, “The characters are always really stupid, or the director is just going for the gross-out factor. I also don’t like seeing innocent people get killed.”

“Well if that’s true, you must be a good liar?”

“Nope, I’m working on my AA in Sociology, not nursing.”

“That’s awesome,” she said, “I wish I could go to college.”

“Why can’t you?” I asked.

“I’m working two jobs just to keep my place. I don’t think I can add college to the list. Shit’s expensive too.” I told her about night classes and scholarships.

“Maybe sometime. I wanna get my feet on the ground first, I guess.” We reached a pavilion on the boardwalk and sat in one of the benches,

“By the way, that was two lies,” she said.

“It was, wasn’t it?” My cheeks flushed, “I’m sorry.”

“It’s cool,” she laughed. The wind rustled the leaves overtop of us. A few brown ones fell around us like an actual autumn. I slid my arm around Jessica’s shoulders and we watched the amber light grow dim. We were deep enough into the hammock to only hear birds and the rustling leaves, and I imagined the forest stretched on for miles and it all belonged to her and me. I started to tell her this, but she was texting someone.

“Sorry.” She said and put her phone away, then rested her head on my shoulder. I kissed the side of her head.

***

I’d gone to Path of Light Lutheran Church with my parents since 3rd grade. The first time I went to youth group since I’d come out, I trembled as I walked in. I pictured terrifying situations; from micro-aggressions to outright shaming and expulsion from the group. I didn’t know what to expect. Yet nothing seemed to have changed. Justin even came up and gave me a hug, told me I was brave. Pastor Freeman worked with youth and young adults. I knew he knew, but he greeted me with the same smile and hug he always had. After a short devotional and some games, we were all sitting at round tables eating pizza and hanging out just as always. Relief broke across me like a strong wind.

Bryan was there that night for the first time, sitting by himself, back to the room and hunched over his plate. I walked over to him and introduced myself, Justin and others soon joined us. Bryan gradually opened up to us and became our friend that night. He told us he played electric guitar, so Justin invited him to the band. All of us stayed up until eleven talking, laughing, and playing games. I knew I would love these people forever.

***

Jessica and I were at an abandoned marina in Melbourne late one afternoon when she showed me her scars. We came here because she’d seen dolphins swimming right next to the concrete embankment and knew they were my favorite animal. A speed boat cruised by in the choppy water. A family fished off the back of a truck parked at the edge of the embankment.

“Look,” Jessica pulled her arm out of her jacket sleeve, “you’re going to see this sooner or later.” She extended her arm to show me diagonal lines of scar tissue on the undersides. “I take anti-depressants when I can, but I don’t have insurance. I can’t always afford them,” she looked into my eyes, a searching look, like I would take off running and screaming. It took me a second to realize what I was looking at. I rubbed my thumb over one of the two inch long scars.

“How close have you come?” I asked.

“I never cut deep enough to hit the vein, except once. I was seventeen and my mom was at work. I panicked and called the ambulance and they came in time. Lotta blood though.” She withdrew her arm and threaded it through her sweater sleeve. She looked out over the water. The sky turned pale, with a rosy diffusion along the horizon. A cool wind passed through my hair. I walked over and wrapped my arm around hers.

“It’s best that you know about me,” she said, “I come with some baggage.”

“It’s okay,” I leaned against her, “I do too, we all do. I can help you.”

We were quiet for some time. The sky grew darker. Down the embankment, the tailgate of the family’s truck clapped shut, the dad called his two kids back to the vehicle. Jessica shifted closer to me, our bodies together.

“So this means we’re a thing now,” I said. She chuckled and I pulled her in and kissed her. As we were driving back to her apartment, I suggested she come to church with me one night. She shook her head,

“You know I don’t do church. I still find it weird you do.” She lit a cigarette at a stop light. I rolled down my window.

“They’re very accepting where I go,” I said, “It wouldn’t hurt you to come one time.”

“Maybe one day. We should see a movie or something after work tomorrow,” she turned the music up slightly. We turned onto Babcock from New Haven Ave. On the corner, surrounded by live oaks, the First Christian Church’s roof sloped downward, its edges close to the ground like a bible that fell page side down.

***

Back when I was sixteen, I was sitting with my family at church one Sunday and we had a guest pastor. He was an older man, and for the most part friendly and his sermon was engaging, at least for a sixteen year old. I’d grown so used to Pastor Meyer’s sermons I often just tuned them out. I didn’t mean to, but ten a.m. was early on a weekend for me back then. This man spoke loud, paced back and forth across the stage, moving his arms with his words. He’d started talking about our part in the great commission – to go out and make disciples of all nations. Then he started fishing for not only examples of these lost souls we needed to witness to, but also how real God’s wrath was. He proclaimed that Hurricane Katrina was the literal hand of God smiting New Orleans because that week they were going to have a gay pride parade through Bourbon Street. His voice boomed from the pulpit how New Orleans’ allowance and celebration of homosexuality and other debaucheries finally pushed God to His limits, just like Sodom when He rained fire from the sky down upon it. The words stabbed my heart. My mom’s hand found mine and she gave me a gentle squeeze. I had come out to her, my dad, and my stepbrother Hunter two months prior. Mom asked me if I’d prayed about it, which I had. I spent a year begging God to change me if this was truly wrong. If it offended Him as bad as the church said it did, to please take it from me. But He didn’t and that’s what I told my family. They circled around me and hugged me at the dinner table that night as I cried. It had to be real then– not only did my family shroud me in support that night, but that was the first time my stepbrother and my dad shared any intimate connection. My mom had divorced Hunter’s dad before I was born, and Hunter had always harbored enmity toward my father. They’d fought my whole life, but in this moment, they came together to tell me I was loved, just as I am. Still, sitting in the pew that Sunday as the guest preacher inadvertently told me my existence offended God Almighty, a phantom of doubt whispered into my mind. Not about my favor in God’s eyes so much as whether I was really welcome among other Christians. My parents didn’t bring it up on the way home. I thought about it all week.

***

Jessica and I had been at a party for two hours in Melbourne and I wanted to leave. She and I had gone shopping and I’d left my car at her apartment. I had gone to parties before where I didn’t know anyone, but usually I was outgoing enough to where it wasn’t a problem. This one was different – located in a strange neighborhood near the Eau Gallie cemetery. The nearest streetlight was over a block away and the house was only visible by its pale yellow windows glowing through a tangle of live oaks, Spanish moss, and palmettos. Jessica introduced me to a few people, then joined some others to do shots in the kitchen. A couple of the people here looked like they were in their late forties. A lot of them wore black clothes, chains, and hats cocked to the side. Everyone was smoking and drinking. I held a Bud Light and stood in a corner. The most normal person I met was a high school senior named Zack from West Melbourne. When I told him I was studying sociology at BCC, he told me about his aspirations to study electrical engineering at FIT when he graduated high school. He’d applied to both the Bill Gates and the Ron Brown scholarships and had his fingers crossed. It was a nice conversation, but when he left to get another beer, I didn’t see him again until a chorus of laughter and shouting roared from the bathroom. I followed the crowd toward the noise to see Jessica in the bathroom puking her guts out into the toilet.

“Get the fuck outta here, people. Y’all’s pathetic,” Zack said, lifting her to her feet and walking her into the hallway.

“Jessica!” I tried to look her in the eyes but her head rolled around.

“You know her?” Zack asked.

“Yeah, she’s my girlfriend,” I said.

“Well, looks like someone spiked her shit, let’s get her outside,” the two of us drug her through the throngs of people and out onto the sidewalk where she proceeded to empty the rest of her stomach contents into the street. Zack stood on the sidewalk, eyes scanning the road while I held Jessica’s hair back.

“You guys got a way home? I ain’t drank much tonight.” Zack offered.

“Thank you,” I said, “I can get her home.” I fished her keys out of her purse, then Zack walked us back to her car. I thanked him and sped out of the neighborhood. Jessica’s head rolled on her neck and she smiled while occasionally mumbling gibberish. I’d told my mom I was spending the night with her, so she wasn’t expecting me until morning. When I got Jessica up to her apartment, I undressed her, helped her shower, than laid her in her bed and placed a wastebasket on the floor. I climbed into bed and held her. Her skin was fever hot.

The next morning, I ran to the store to get her a PowerAde and some Advil. We sat in her kitchen and she told me she’d chased Xanax with three shots of Jack Daniels last night.

“Seriously, Jessica? You could’ve died,” I said. She glanced up at me with bloodshot eyes, supporting her forehead with her right hand. I called my mom and told her I was studying at the college and wouldn’t be home until late.

Jessica spent the day in her bed. I brought her water and whatever food she could stomach. She started feeling better by late afternoon, so I put a movie in and climbed into bed with her. We held each other, sitting propped up against pillows.

“I’m sorry about last night,” she said, “I get this way sometimes and just kinda lose control. It scares me, to be honest.”

“I’m scared too,” I said, “last night could’ve been bad.” I glanced at her right arm and saw two cuts scabbing over. Jessica looked up at me then pressed her head against my chest. I wanted to say something about the cuts, but I didn’t know what. Holding her against me, feeling her warmth, her breath in metronome with mine, I wanted to shield her from anything that could hurt her, but I couldn’t. I felt frightened and helpless.

“Come to church with me,” I said, “You can get away from this world, find people who can support you.”

“Shayla, I’m agnostic. That’s not going to change. Besides, you’re gay and I’m bi. That isn’t exactly a model Christian.”

“That doesn’t matter where I go,” I said, “the people there are family. They’ll accept you. We can help you with what you’re going through.”

Jessica sighed and pulled away from me, “Shayla, you may be safe there, but that’s still a religion that hates us for who we are. It’s not my scene and never will be.” She laid back against the pillows. The light streaming through her blinds dissipated and the blue of the TV flickered across the walls. Her hand slid out of mine.

“If it’s just the same to you, I’d rather we not go to parties like that anymore,” I said.

“Okay.” She laid her head across my stomach and I stroked her hair. My phone buzzed on the nightstand. My mom was calling. It was getting late and I hadn’t been home since yesterday afternoon. I told her I was studying in the library and lost track of time. It was ten p.m. when I kissed Jessica goodnight and left for Suntree. Something felt wrong as I drove the empty streets, like I had forgotten something behind at her house.

***

Pastor Freeman preached Saturday nights. He ran our young adult community group on Thursday night as well. Tonight, while these memories paraded through my mind, he spoke of what was happening in the world; the economy failing, the war in the Middle East that hadn’t let up since 9/11, victims of Katrina still homeless. All evidence of a broken world. I glanced to the man at the other end of the aisle. He wore a black shirt and dark blue jeans. The only part of him not covered in shadow was the white cast on his right arm. I felt rude sitting so far away from him, like he smelled bad or something. A searchlight lit up Pastor Freeman on the pulpit. He told us how there were examples of this broken world in our own communities, people our age addicted to drugs, dealing with mental issues, with depression, with anger, people contemplating suicide. Hope rose in my chest that maybe this was the reason I was here. That after he got done listing all these examples of suffering respective to my generation, he’d drop that ultimate answer I was missing for how to help Jessica. Instead, he said,

“What they all don’t know is what they need is JESUS.” I thought he would follow this up with something of more substance, but nothing came. He simply listed more examples of broken people, prescribing “Jesus” as the antidote for their brokenness. Words that mean nothing to anyone outside of the church. I shook my head. For the first time since I’d been coming here, I wondered if maybe the pastors who I loved, and maybe even these people I’d grown up around, were all just completely clueless. They believed in a God of easy answers.

***

I was leaving one of my night classes at BCC when I checked my phone and saw a text from Jessica, “Shayla, Im at a party but dont wanna be here. Please come get me.” It was forty five minutes ago and the address was somewhere off University Blvd at least fifteen minutes away. My heart started racing and I tried calling her. It went to voicemail. I texted her, “So sorry, just getting out of class. OMW I promise,” then jumped in my car and bolted down Post road toward US 1. I cursed at myself, I should’ve been checking my phone. She needed me and I wasn’t there. I caught almost every red light, stopping at Lake Washington, at Eau Gallie Blvd, Sarno. Finally, I crossed the New Haven intersection and entered an array of buildings in varying states of disrepair or neglect. I was rarely on this side of town, and this stretch of US 1 was completely foreign to me. I crossed the train tracks at the University intersection, trying to find the apartments she’d texted me but unable to make out building numbers on the poorly lit street. I passed a Quik Stop with at least fifty people hanging around outside cars in the parking lot. Clouds of cigarette smoke hovered over them like fog in the light of the sign. I was afraid to roll my window down. Finally, I found a set of single story apartments colored like a rotting tangerine peel in the single streetlight illuminating the entrance. I parked and tried to call Jessica again. Nothing but her voicemail. My heart thudded against my sternum, and I tentatively stepped out of my car. I walked toward an apartment with a porchlight on and voices emanating from behind the door. I knocked and a guy in a muscle shirt and tight cornrows opened the door, holding a bottle of beer.

“Wassup, girl?” He opened the door wider to let me in. Smoke trailed among jostling bodies inside.

“I’m looking for my girlfriend, Jessica. Is she here?”

“Tyrese – who’s at the door?” A Hispanic girl appeared behind the man, pink streaks running through her black hair and a rhinestone skull grinning from the front of her shirt. She looked me up and down and said,

“You lost, homegirl?”

“She’s cool, yo. We was just getting’ to know each other,” said Tyrese. The girl glared at him.

“Beat it, Tyrese,” she said. He wandered back into the throng. She turned back to me.

“I’m just looking for my girlfriend, Jessica. She texted me and wanted me to come get her.”

“Jessica, who?”

“Lopez. Please, I just want to get her and I’ll be out of here,”

“I don’t know a Jessica Lopez, I’m sorry,” she said. Laughter resounded amid the discordance of voices and music inside. I glimpsed two people snorting lines on a coffee table.

“She has to be here, she texted me this address,”

“Well, if she did, she’s gone now. My best advice to you’s to get going. Not tryin’ to be a bitch, but I can tell you don’t belong here.”

“Trust me, I don’t want to be here either, but my friend needs help. She texted me this address and –”

“I ain’t gonna tell you again, girl. You need to get goin’ now. This ain’t your scene and your girl ain’t here.” She locked eyes with me and shut the door in my face. I slammed my fists against the door and shouted to let me in, but nothing happened. I walked back to my car just as someone from the Quik Stop parking lot yelled,

“Hey, baby! Where you goin’?” My hands shook as I pulled my door open. I was sure they were talking to me and I resisted the urge to look back and see if they were approaching. I sped out of the parking lot. As I drove down University, a police car appeared in my rearview mirror and followed me until I crossed the railroad tracks back to US 1. My hands didn’t stop shaking until I reached Wickham Road.

***

One Thursday night, I was at Cold Stone Creamery in the Avenue Viera with Pastor Freeman, Brian, Justin, and a girl named Sarah from the young adult community group. I’d finally heard from Jessica after that night. She had apologized and said she got home and fell asleep. When I suggested we hang out and talk, she didn’t respond for six hours, then made another excuse. Sitting outside the white light of Cold Stone, I stared vacantly at the blue-green neon of Rave motion pictures across the brick road of the outdoor mall. Justin and Pastor Freeman debated the merits of denominational Christianity and I tuned them out. Brian touched my shoulder.

“You want to take a walk?” he said.

“Sure.” We excused ourselves and wandered into the circular plaza. Bronze statues of children riding alligators and other animals sat on top of rounded patches of green AstroTurf.

“What’s up?” he asked. He stopped and waited for me to make eye contact.

“Nothing, why?”

“You just seem distant tonight. I’ve kinda noticed you’re acting different.” We sat on the edge of a fountain in the middle of the plaza.

“Is everything cool with Jessica?” he asked.

I sighed. “I don’t know, Brian. I’m sorry. She’s going through some hard times right now, and I’m trying to help her.”

“Anything I can do?” Brian asked. I shook my head. I started to reach into my purse for my cigarettes, but stopped. I smoked socially at parties, but I’d started smoking more once Jessica and I were dating.

“Well, I’m here if you ever need me, Shayla. You know that,” said Brian.

“Thank you,” I touched his shoulder and smiled at him, “I really appreciate it. It’s something I’ve got to deal with though.” He hugged me around the shoulders. We sat on the fountain while the illuminated water splashed behind us. I wanted to tell Bryan everything, or even Pastor Freeman, but I still hoped Jessica would come to church with me and meet them. When she was ready, she could tell them herself what she was going through and I’d be holding her hand the entire time. We walked back to Justin and Pastor Freeman. They sat there, joking and laughing, as if all the world’s problems were solved. I wished I could share in their bliss.

***

The last time I saw Jessica, we were sitting on a concrete embankment of the abandoned marina in Melbourne, our feet dangling over unknown depths of the Indian River. The land sloped downward from US 1, and a five story building towered above us. Jessica said cops would sometimes hang out in the parking garage of the first story, but not in the early evening. To our left, overgrown grass surrounded the crumbled remains of the marina, which looked more like a city block in Baghdad. Jessica wanted to go to a party tonight, but I’d talked her out of it. A black zip up hoodie covered her arms. It was a cool night, but I wondered if she’d been cutting again. The wind tousled her curly strands of hair. I stroked them out of her face. I hadn’t seen her in a couple weeks and her texts had been shorter and hours apart.

“I missed you,” I said. I slipped my hand over hers.

“I missed you too,” she said, “I’ve been busy, you know, looking for another job and everything.”

“It’s cool, I’ve been busy too.” I stroked her hand gently. Something splashed in the water, some kind of night bird. She leaned into me, resting her head against my neck. The scent of her hairspray wafted into my nostrils like a warm, fuchsia cloud. I held her, but as I tried to pull her sleeve up to expose her arm, she pulled it away.

“I haven’t,” she said.

“I’m worried, that’s all.”

“I’m fine, Shayla. I’m taking my medication and sticking with it,” she said. I wanted to believe her, but she’d said this before. I asked Jessica one last time to come to church with me. I told her she was broken and she knew it.

“I know you’re scared, Jessica. You said so yourself.”

“Your church ain’t got nothing that can help me. Once I get a better job, I’ll be able to afford my meds.”

“Your meds aren’t the problem, Jessica. It’s the people you’re around. I can see it. It’s so painful to watch.”

“I’ll be okay,” she said. She walked away from me, to the edge of the embankment. The wind came across the water strong, and black waves splashed against the concrete.

“You texted me asking me to rescue you once.” I followed her to the edge. She looked out across the water. I waited for her to respond.

“I’m sorry I brought you into this, Shayla,” she finally said, “You’re a good person, you don’t deserve any of this. You need a less fucked up girl than me.”

“What are you saying?”

She chewed on her lower lip, eyes cast down toward the water. “You’re right. I am broken. I’m just going to disappoint you. I’m no good.”

I touched her hand, “Jessica, you are good. I love you more than I can put into words. I just want to help you.”

“You want me to come to that church,” she looked at me, “I’m telling you that’s never going to happen. I tried church once, before I knew I was bi. All anyone ever did there was make me feel bad for having sex, or drinking, or saying cuss words. It was all a bunch of uppity suburban white kids who’ve never had to suffer, but had all kinds of advice for people who have.” She took another step away from me. A two foot wake sprayed me as it broke against the concrete.

“I promise it’s different.”

She looked at me and shook her head. She didn’t believe me.

“Why do you want this so bad? Like, why do you care?”

“Jessica,” a tear rolled out of my eye, “I love you.” I stared into her eyes. She looked away. I stepped forward and wrapped my arms around her. I held her harder and tighter than I ever had that night, pressing her into my chest. I wanted to force feed how much I loved her right into her soul. Her hands wrapped around my body, and we held each other. Tears trickled down my cheek. Light shined through my closed eyelids, as if the sun was rising. I cracked my eyelids open to see white light illuminating us, like Pentecostal glowing. We must have shined bright enough to be seen all the way across the river. My fingers gripped into Jessica’s sweater, my heartbeat accelerated. I pictured us levitating, rising up above the destroyed shore into a blissful night. Then I opened my eyes wide and saw the source of the light – a pair of headlights from a parked police cruiser, idling in the building’s parking garage.

“We should go,” Jessica said. When we drove home that night, we said maybe two words to each other.

***

A day passed before I finally got tired of waiting and texted Jessica. She responded four hours later, said she was sorry, just busy and stressed out. I tried to call her and she didn’t answer. I sat on my bed feeling an empty ache in my chest. I texted her again, saying I wanted to see her. Minutes dragged by and I resisted the urge to keep texting her. There was so much I wanted to say and it multiplied with each second that went by. I went for a run through my neighborhood, trying to take my mind off things. When I returned, I checked my phone, still nothing.

At dinner with my parents, I was quiet. I kept checking my phone under the table. I wanted to get away from the table, maybe call Bryan or Justin. Maybe just drive around Viera. Anything but being here waiting.

“You okay, Shayla?” My mom said I stabbed at my rosemary chicken with my fork.

“Yeah, just not feeling good, that’s all,”

“We’ve just noticed you’re becoming more distant, lately. I tried to talk to you this afternoon, but you walked out the door to go run. We figured you had your earbuds in.” I looked up to see my parents staring at me.

“I’m sorry,” I glanced downward, “It’s just not something I want to get into.”

“You can always talk to us,” my dad said. “You know that.”

“Thanks, Dad.” I said, “I’ll be fine. I promise. It’s just something I’m going through.” I excused myself to my room then turned on my TV. I knew they knew something was up – I never withheld things from them. I don’t know why I thought this, but part of me was scared of how they’d react if I had told them Jessica cut herself and did drugs. I still sometimes felt I was pushing my luck dating girls, even though they accepted me. The first channel that came on was Fuse, parading rock videos that I normally watched with Jessica. My heart throbbed like an open wound. I wanted her here even more. I shut the TV off and paced, finally breaking and texting her again, telling her to please call me. I sat and waited. I took a shower, brushed my teeth, and climbed into bed. I stared at my ceiling for an hour before my phone finally buzzed. Just a text, Going to sleep, call u tomorrow. She never did.

***

Pastor Freeman’s sermon ended. Brian, Justin, and the female singer resumed their positions for the closing song. The blue and violet lights panned across the cavernous ceiling.

It is well … The singer’s mezzo-soprano voice crescendoed with Bryan’s guitar and the increasing, bombastic beats of Justin’s drums. I wanted Jessica to hear this – for the words to wash over her and bring her to her knees. I knew it would. Tears climbed down the scaffolding of my eyes.

It is well … Fragments of us returned to me – late nights at Starbucks where we’d play “two truths, one lie” over coffee. Sleeping late into the morning together. Walking through the mall hand in hand after work. She’d spend too much time in Hot Topic looking through chrome studded collars and band shirts. I’d get her back at Macys, trying on colors of light blue and green.

It is well, with my soul … I wanted to believe these words. I wanted them to be about me, about her. I pictured her meeting Brian and Justin, going to movies with us, going to concerts, spending weekends away at beach retreats. I could see her at my side with them, wandering the Avenue Viera under the brilliant white lights, talking and laughing because we were at peace, we were all the same. Just twenty-somethings trying to find our purpose while the world collapsed around us.

It is well, it is well with my soul. The singer belted into the cavern of the sanctuary. Hands raised among the dark bodies, the atmosphere filled with rapture but I couldn’t handle it. I shoved past the man in my pew and left.

I walked out of the sanctuary, hands to my eyes. I stood on the edge of the pond in front of the church. In the middle was an island with a single cabbage palm. When I was young and we were building this church, my dad took me to that island in a small paddle boat a couple times. I withdrew the pack of cigarettes from my purse and lit one. My relationship with Jessica felt like a fleeting dream. I guess part of it was. The part where I could save her. The part where all I had to do was get her in the doors of my church and she’d stop hurting herself. Therein was the dream, and I didn’t want to wake up. That would mean letting her go.

Footsteps crunched on the grass behind me. I looked back to see the man with his arm in the cast approaching. He walked with a wide gait, like some kind of gunslinger, his left arm in a loose fist at his side. Backlit against the parking lot, he looked intimidating. I stayed put. He walked up, stood next to me and just stared at the water. After a few seconds of silence he said,

“Got a light?” Confused, I lit his cigarette for him. He took a drag with his left hand and just stood without saying a word. A night heron strutted through the marsh along the opposite shore. I waited for him to say something. A chorus of frogs resounded from hidden places.

“You were the guy in my row, right? By himself?”

“Yeah,” he said.

“Sorry, normally I would’ve said ‘hi’ to you,”

“It’s cool,” he took a drag of his cigarette. A bullfrog snorted from within the brush. I used to think the noise was an alligator.

“It’s not cool,” I said, “It’s…never mind.” I shook my head and stared at the wakes in the water, “I’m not myself tonight, I shouldn’t even be here.”

“That might make two of us,” he said. His voice sounded like a growl, I wondered how long he’d been a smoker.

“I’ve been going to this church since I was a kid,” I told him, “I still come even though I’m a lesbian. Everyone says they’re cool with it, but I still feel I have to be that much stronger to be here.” I looked at the man. I didn’t know why I was suddenly opening up to him. I was able to make out blue in his irises despite the low light. Razor stubble coated his chin. He glanced at me, imploring me to continue.

“I have a friend,” I said, “Had a friend. She needs a place like this, a community of people that love each other and aren’t just destroying themselves with drugs and alcohol. But I wonder if I had been able to convince her to come, would she have even been welcomed here?”

“Weren’t you?” He said.

“I grew up here. Before people knew I was gay. It’s different when someone comes in from the outside.”

He took a drag of his cigarette. “Probably not a shred of my business,” he said, “but if you’ve had faith in this crowd your whole life, why’s it gone now?”

I wiped a tear out of my right eye, “The last time I saw her, we were talking about the stuff she deals with. I told her if she would just come with me, I could show her a world where she doesn’t have to turn to drugs and alcohol. I told her I’d be here every step of the way.”

“What’d she say?”

“She refused, said she’d never feel comfortable here. She said she didn’t understand why I would associate with them.”

“And?”

“I told her it wasn’t that way here. She wouldn’t believe me.” The man grunted and slowly nodded his head.

“Thing was, I didn’t have an answer for her. In most cases, she’s right. And when Pastor Freeman says things like, ‘the answer to everything you’re struggling with is ‘Jesus,’ I just wonder if everyone here really is clueless when it comes to stuff that actually matters.”

“Yeah, that was a bit oversimplified for my taste too,” The man said. A car passed by on Viera Blvd on the other side of the pond. “Ain’t talked to her since, eh?”

“She deleted her Myspace, changed her number, everything. I don’t even know if she’s alive anymore. She used to cut herself.” I dried another tear. I never cried in public, this was new to me. The man stood silent and still, but his presence was consoling.

“So, why are you out here?” I asked. He grunted and looked up from the water.

“I don’t know. I usually come here on Sunday morning and look for the exit right after the closing hymn. Kinda at a spiritual crisis point, I guess.”

“How so?” I asked. He shook his head and dragged on his cigarette. I thought he wasn’t going to answer.

“Just trying to do this Christian thing right, and for some reason I felt I needed to come tonight.” He took another drag of his cigarette and dug at the grass with his boot. “I used to do enforcement for a chapter of Hell’s Angels out in Tucson, Arizona. I’ll let you fill in the blanks there. But I ended up meeting someone, a girl. Not too different from you, I guess. Name was Samantha.”

“Yeah?”

“Yep, she was a good girl, came from a good home, active in church, you know.” He scratched at his short, dark hair.

“She did what you were trying to do for your friend, told me there was something more beautiful than I could imagine, and it wasn’t totally out of reach. I told her she was crazy, that if she knew half the horrible shit I’d done she’d eat those words. But being around her and her people, the difference between her life and mine was the difference between Heaven and Hell.”

“What happened with her?” I asked.

“Our worlds ended up crossing. Long story short, she got hurt. Some people tried to get back at me for something through her. Burned her house down, shot her folks. It was all my fault. At first I blamed God, but really I brought all that down on her.”

“That’s horrible.” I didn’t know what to say. “I’m sorry.”

“The night I left Arizona,” he exhaled a cloud of smoke, “I dedicated my life to Christ, said I’d walk away from all this. I didn’t know how he could forgive me, but I’d start by trying to do right. It was the least I could do for Samantha. I came to Florida for that new beginning, but I’m still doing so much of the same shit. I feel like I haven’t changed at all.”

“You came here hoping to start over,” I said.

“Yeah, well, like you said, if all the preacher’s got for us is overgeneralized non-answers, I’m starting to wonder if I’m looking in the wrong place too.”

I nudged a small rock with my foot. The man tossed his cigarette onto the ground and mashed it with his boot. The fountain in the pond sputtered to life, a light bulb glowed at the base of the jetting water. Windows glimmered from the neighborhood across Viera Blvd.

“I didn’t get your name,” I said.

“Gabriel. Friends call me Gabe.”

“I’m Shayla.” We stood and watched the tiny wakes in the water. Low grey clouds sailed toward us from the west, their undersides rust colored from the city’s light. Animals rustled in the palmettos behind us, probably an armadillo or feral cats.

“Everyone talks about forgiveness and unconditional love in these circles, but I wonder if they’d still be talking like that if I told anyone what I’ve actually done.”

“You don’t feel you can truly be yourself?”

“Most people’s compassion ends when the sins you confess are illegal.”

“It takes courage and strength. I know that much,” I said. A cool breeze blew from the west and the clouds towered over us like ghostly ships. I wondered if it was clouds like these Ezekiel saw when he had his vision in the Old Testament. I looked over at Gabriel, this person who came to church because he didn’t know where else to turn. I thought of how I almost let him walk into and out of this place alone. I was so caught up in my thoughts of Jessica, someone who didn’t even want the help she desperately needed, I couldn’t see this person right here in front of me. With his eyes fixed in a scowl, the rough texture of stubble across his face, his wide stance and the way he loosely cupped his good fist at his side, he was probably used to people avoiding him. That wouldn’t help him in trying to feel comfortable in a church community. If he was anything like Jessica, he’d return to the life he was used to, no matter how dangerous.

“Let’s give this place a chance, Gabe,” I said to him.

“Ain’t we already?”

“Let’s stick with it. Those people inside may have no idea what you’ve gone through, but maybe that’s a good thing,” I said.

“What do I do then?” he asked.

“Keep coming. You’ll make friends, friends you’ll be able to open up to one day,” I turned to face him, “In fact, you already have one.”

He looked at me and grinned with a corner of his mouth. Voices began to reach us from the sanctuary doors.

“Looks like we missed the service,” he said.

“I don’t think we missed anything,” I said. I touched his elbow. “See you next Saturday?”

“Sure thing.” We walked together toward the parking lot. Before we parted he stopped me.

“Just my two cents, but about your friend, you never know what kind of impact you did have on her. She may not have heard your words now, but that doesn’t mean she won’t hear them later down the road when they make more sense.”

“Thanks Gabe,” I said, “I guess that’s something to hold onto.” The armada of clouds overhead passed on across the sky, revealing a few stars amidst an indigo canvas. I gave Gabe a hug, then walked back to my elantra. My headlights lit up the palmetto underbrush and pines at the edge of the parking lot. It looked like a deep, endless forest, but I knew just a few feet into the brush, a mud pit sat where another building for the church would have been completed this year before the money ran out. I thought of Jessica and how she chose to wander the dark and desolate places of the city because in her mind, sanctuary in the church didn’t exist. I had done all I could do for her, though, and there were others like Gabriel who actually made the step she refused to make. A fresh bolt of sadness panged my heart – I knew I’d never see her again. I would go to sleep tonight, and when I awoke she would be a memory, at least to me.

My phone buzzed in my pocket. Brian texted me, we’re all going to Cold Stone at the Avenue. U coming? I put my car in reverse and left the parking lot, driving west toward the white light of the Avenue Viera. Shadows stretched for miles in every direction.

 

 

BIO

Josh Dull is a U.S. Air Force veteran and a fiction author with an emphasis on place and social issues. He completed his Bachelor’s degree with Honors in the Major from the University of Central Florida and his work appears in The 34th Parallel, The Drunken Odyssey, Funny in Five Hundred, and Central American Literary Review. He has also been featured in a spoken word series called There Will Be Words. When he isn’t at his computer writing and revising, he enjoys traveling to lonely places to hear forgotten voices. He currently resides in Orlando, Florida.

 

 

 

 

0

Safe Haven: A Romantic Comedy in Eleven Unequal Parts

by Brian Conlon

 

 

 

Part I: What Men Talk About

 

“Sometimes I think life is too difficult, and other times I think thinking life is too difficult is an awful thing to think,” James said to Horant.

“Would it make you feel any better if I were to tell you that currently, as we speak, you are living on a day and time that is easier to live on than 99% of all other days and times humans have lived on, and that you live in a country that is easier to live in than 99% of countries on Earth, and that you live in a city that is easier to live in than 99% of cities in this country, and that you, you personally, have it easier than 99% of people living in this city at this time. And none of these numbers include the people who are already dead and presumably have it much tougher than the rest of us. Would that make you feel better?” asked Horant.

“No, that makes me feel worse. Much, much worse.”

“Then maybe I ought not tell you all that then.”

“It’s too late now, I should think.”

“I could tell you I made it all up.”

“You could. Did you?”

“Yes, of course. Where would those statistics even come from? Think.”

“Well, that makes me feel much better.”

“Terrific.”

“Do you feel better now?”

“Better than what?”

“Than before we started talking?”

“No, I feel the same. I felt best in that moment in which you believed all that nonsense about you being happier than everyone else.”

“And worse since?”

“I could not feel best then, if I didn’t feel worse now.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Don’t be. None of us can feel best all the time, no matter the era.”

“I suppose you’re right.”

“Why? Why would you suppose that?”

“No, I guess you’re probably wrong. Someone must have felt best all the time in some era.”

“Why?”

“Math.”

“This is now the time I feel best.”

***

James had a theory that every living sentient thing had the same last thought, namely, “But I just got here.” This theory could, as with everything important about death, be in no way tested. But there is something to be said for a unifying theory of sentient beings, no matter how untestable.

His theory, which some might think to be a call to action, had a paralyzing effect on him. It caused him to stop and reconsider, to overthink whether this or that action was really worth the precious time he had remaining (fifty to sixty years give or take), and by the time he finally decided to act or not act, often times the decision was already made for him.

“Crippling depression is a phrase tossed around far more often than it should be,” James told Horant, describing some of his deeper moments of self-doubt. “It somehow marginalizes both what it means to be crippled and what it means to be depressed.”

“Uh-hah,” said Horant staring at the flat screen TV in front of him. The Network had an attractive blonde anchor in one corner of the screen and the following displayed in some fashion over the rest of it: a ticker of the stock market; the latest baseball scores; an hours, minutes, and seconds countdown to Christmas Day; the “shape of the day” flashing in the bottom left corner (pyramid); an animated kitten pawing at an on/off button in the other corner; and a sack of potatoes, only half-filled, meant to measure the extent of the latest famine in Africa. None of this was particularly distracting except for the attractive blonde. She winked at Horant it seemed. “Understandable,” thought Horant, who was of the belief that his Nordic heritage entitled him to some indiscernible and unidentifiable power over the opposite sex. “I have blue eyes, blonde hair, I’m tall, lean, not especially ugly, how can they resist?” His suspicions were sometimes verified, sometimes not, but it was all he really believed in, and so to stop believing it just because it may not be true was not an option.

“Not that it means all that much to be crippled or depressed; it’s just another way of saying, ‘something is wrong with me.’ No, no, I know that’s insensitive, but that’s what it is, is it not that?” James asked.

“It’s that, but more than that. It says there is something in particular wrong with you or at least that there is some way in which you are abnormal.”

“Well, yes, but this is not really the point. What I want to say is that I’m not depressed or crippled or crippled with depression, I just think sometimes, and that can get out of hand, you know?”

“I think I know what you mean when you say those words, but I can’t sympathize with what I take them to mean,” said Horant, vacantly staring at the TV.

James hung out with Horant only, or at least initially only, because he took him to be a type of genius. James may have mistaken Horant’s particular way of appearing overtly analytical and diffident with genius. This mistake, whether real or imagined, led to what some might call a friendship.

“Maybe so, maybe so,” said James and then thought about what Horant had just said without speaking for the next minute or two, occasionally glancing up at the totally blank screen behind Horant. The TV was broken, had been for several months, but the owner of Go Ahead and Order That Diner, Janet Hoops, did not want to fork over the money to fix it at the moment, her cat being on its ninth life and fading fast. The money she had poured into that poor cat’s hips alone could have paid for several new TVs and the 3-D goggles one might have to wear to view them.

James gave up on figuring out what Horant meant and continued talking, “The moment when you concede that the moment has already passed, that’s the moment I’m interested in thinking about. But once I start thinking about it, it’s gone and that hurts somehow more than the fact that there was such a moment in the first place and I spent it thinking about whether the previous moment was real, well-spent, correctable, or the greatest moment of my life. One moment will have to be the greatest of my life. It’s simple logic, and it might have already occurred, and I might have missed it, and I might never know when it was, or why it was so great until some professor a thousand years from now figures out a way to use analytics to measure each moment of our existence and calculate by some way or another which particular one was the greatest in terms of happiness-expectancy or some analogous important criteria. This is what bothers me sometimes, Horant.”

“I perceive that what you just said means a great deal to you, but I have no idea why that would be.”

 

Part II: How People Meet

 

Horant had devised a double date. The blonde woman from the TV had been sending him emails. At first, neither he nor his spam filter could really believe it. They each thought, independently, that The Network had devised a clever way to advertise by sending automated messages to their viewers couched in familiar language and purportedly authored by Haven Hootenanny, The Network’s most popular female anchor. She was likely The Network’s most popular anchor of any gender, but former football star Cleat Tersestatement still had his champions, even if he himself had failed to win any championships. The Network announcer always referred to Cleat as “well-loved” before announcing his name, as if Cleat were the nation’s brutish but well-meaning cousin. The Network had toyed with the idea of having Cleat and Haven host a show together, but The Coordinator wrung his hands and asked those who suggested it, “If you had two eggs, among a bunch of black rocks that no one could ever conceive of as eggs, would you place them beside each other?” No one at the meeting knew what to say, but guessed that this meant that The Coordinator was not on board, and that settled that.

Haven had seen Horant. She had seen him on the distracting scroll of viewers set up next to the teleprompter during her broadcasts. The Coordinator had come up with the idea, which cost The Network millions of dollars in incredibly invasive technology to execute. While you were watching The Network, The Network was watching you, or, rather, The Network anchors were watching a still image of you. The point was something like, “know your audience,” or “advertisers like pictures,” or, “look how ugly everyone else is, doesn’t that make you feel better, on-air talent!” The Coordinator was pleased with how ugly everyone indeed turned out to be. Haven was less so.

Prior to the inception of the Instant Viewer Viewer (IVV), Haven had imagined that she was broadcasting to the elite of America, 90% of whom, she suspected, were beautiful people she did not get to see in her everyday routine because they were too rich and beautiful to leave their respective mansions, but neither too rich nor too beautiful to get their news directly from her. Her first show with the IVV opened her eyes to how ugly people truly were. She swooned on air and The Network was forced to cut away to footage of cats and dogs sleeping next to each other. Ratings were unaffected. Haven was affected. It took her weeks to come to grips with the true nature of her viewers. She cried herself to sleep at the images of their crooked teeth, their lazy eyes, their ill-defined chins and cheeks, their baldness, their broken noses, their splotchy acne, their neon make-up, their increasingly stupid mouths. They scarred her; they made her reconsider her livelihood, her religion, her species. She thanked God every night that the IVV only showed faces. She vowed that if ever she saw a face she thought objectively attractive, she would reach out to that person, personally, and thank them, at least thank them.

Her first email read:

Dear Horant,

            I am Haven Hootenanny, an anchor for The Network :). I want to personally thank you for watching my show. Without viewers like you, it would all be less than worthwhile ;). I might be driving off a cliff instead of writing this email even :)! Can you imagine? Just driving my giant SUV off a cliff? Best in class safety rating and all, just right off a cliff :). Gravity doesn’t care about safety ratings. We did a show on that, remember? You watched it ;’-). Thanks!! We really like you here at The Network. Really like you!! Please keep watching ;)!!

            -Haven

Horant thought this was a pretty wacky automated email and searched the internet high and low for anyone who had experienced the same. He found nothing and alerted his email account to send any further messages from hhootenanny@thenetwork.com to his main folder. He did not, however, respond, because if it was really her, a response to her initial email would basically ruin the vibe, and if it wasn’t her, a response would just be embarrassing.

Her second email read:

Dearest Horant,

You’re still watching! Thanks so much! You’re still watching! Thanks so much! You’re still watching! Thanks so much! :):):)

We have a rule of threes here at The Network. If something works, do it three times at least! We’re so happy you continue to watch. Look, I’m happy you watch! I can’t stop thinking about your face. It’s not bad, really ;). Your nose could be cuter. Don’t get me wrong, your nose could certainly be cuter.

If we spoke on the phone, I have the sense you would speak in clipped abstract sentences. I can’t imagine what you would mean by them :)! Would you mean something by them, Horant ;)? Please say you would. Would you? Don’t say. I can’t bear it. I still have the cliff in my GPS! LOL! Don’t worry, I’m all talk, until I’m not! 😉

Keep watching Horant! Please keep watching!

-Haven

Horant responded:

Dear Haven,

I’ll keep watching.

-Horant

Haven did not respond for weeks, but her spirits were lifted every time Horant’s face would appear on the IVV. She had a bottle of wine one night and wrote her third email.

Horant, Dear,

This is the third email, you know what that means ;)! I am being compliant with The Network’s policy! Aren’t you glad for my compliance! You still watch at least! You still watch! And you write lovely emails, my dear, Horant, just lovely. You might be a poet. You might be an astronaut. There’d be no way for me to know.

Let’s meet! No, wait, I mean, keep watching please :). Just keep watching. One day I may stop being on The Network. Can you imagine such a day? We simply won’t see each other that day. All other days will curl up beside that day and console it for its great loss ‘;). Tomorrow is not that day, nor the next day. I have a contract :)! I have a lawyer ;)! The memory on my GPS is finite. I forget where the cliff is. Each time I see you the cliff fades further and further into obscurity.

Thanks for that! Thanks for your face! Your nose, meh, but thanks anyway ;).

Lovely thoughts of impossible versions of me,

Haven

Horant did not respond immediately, although he planned to. Instead, he saw Haven in real life at Carzone’s Frozen Goods, a store which sold, as you might imagine, frozen things, and was kept, as you might not imagine, entirely at a crisp 20 degrees Fahrenheit year round. On especially hot summer days it was particularly crowded with idlers who would spend half an hour sorting through the pea section, which really only contained three items, all of which were the same brand of peas in various sizes. Some not insignificant number of idlers became temporarily ill and sued Carzone, as the complaint read, “for the cost of all that Mucinex.” Carzone’s attorney arranged a meeting between the parties in a park on a scorching August afternoon. The plaintiffs ended up settling for the opportunity to step back inside Carzone’s Frozen Goods and a $1-off-any-non-cone-ice-cream-novelties-12-pack coupon.

It was a warm summer day when Horant observed Haven holding a bag of frozen blueberries to her face.

“Haven?” he asked.

“Does make-up freeze? If so, at what temperature?” she turned and asked a clerk who was trying to stack frozen corn cobs with mittens on.

“We have some frozen make-up Miss. We have some, so it must,” he fumbled with the corn, which was luckily wrapped in plastic. The corn rolled across the floor past Haven, who simply nodded and placed her blueberries back in the pile.

“Haven?” Horant almost shouted as he picked up the loose corn cob and handed it to the clerk.

“Oh, of course I’ll sign. Do you have a pen? Mine might freeze and it’s very important it not, so I keep it capped. You see we anchors have real problems too,” said Haven without looking up.

“Is the cap thermal?” asked Horant.

“What are you saying? I don’t understand what you’re saying. Please, just get a pen.”

By this time the clerk had snatched the corn cob out of Horant’s hand and proceeded to attempt to add it to the already perilous heap. It, of course, all collapsed, and the rolling cobs swept the clerk off his feet and onto the glazed floor, and would have done the same for Haven had Horant not stepped in and stabilized her by grabbing her right arm.

Haven finally looked up and saw that face. It was the face which she had not been disgusted by all these past few months, the face which she sometimes credited for calming her nightmares and other times thought would be much better if someone simply replaced part of its nose. She nearly swooned, but it was too cold to swoon, so she shook.

“Horant? My dear sweet Horant,” she said.

“Yes, or, yes, that’s me,” he said, holding onto her arm even though she was now in no danger of slipping.

“Let go of my arm so I can hug you,” she said smiling, her teeth still chattering a bit. She held onto him tightly just for an instant and then let go.

“Well, what now?” he asked.

“Up to you really. Will you keep watching?”

“You mean on TV?”

“Yes, of course, will you keep watching now that you’ve seen me in all my frozen-blueberry glory? Will you?”

“I don’t see why I wouldn’t.”

“I don’t either, but you might not. I don’t understand viewers, or men, or plasma. I don’t know what plasma is. It’s like liquid, but not, right? That’s the sense I get.”

“I think you’re not far off. We should get out of here and discuss it, perhaps over a liquid.”

“It’s too cold after a while. God love Carzone, I don’t know how he does it. We ran a report once on him. You should have seen the coats. Closets and closets full. Full closets full.”

They walked out onto the street, both forgetting to purchase anything.

“I have an idea,” said Haven. “There’s this woman who works at The Network, she brings the bagels in some days. I’m not sure what she does the days we don’t have bagels, but I can ask. Anyway, she’s real sweet and lonely. Just bowls of sweet and lonely I think. Men think she’s alright, she’s shy, but men think she’s alright, I can tell that at least about men. I know when they think one of us is alright. Like you think I’m alright, don’t you?”

“I do think that, yes.”

“So this woman, she, we could double-date, her and I. She seems perfectly compatible for someone I’m sure. Someone who doesn’t really watch me probably, someone who thinks TV is somehow worse than alcohol. You know what I mean?”

“I don’t understand precisely the combination of words you are saying, but the sentiment is clear enough. I have a friend. He should be perfect. He thinks too much and rarely to his benefit.”

“Right, that’s what I mean. Horant, really, we, the two of us, really!”

“Really!” said Horant, not quite sure himself whether he meant this as a sarcastic pantomime or an enthusiastic affirmation of their newfound admiration.

 

 

Part III: How People Who Meet Convince Other People to Meet

 

“We have a date,” said Haven.

“Are you talking to me?” asked the girl who brought the bagels. Her name was Florence Gutner, her college friends called her FloGut for one particularly strong and uncharacteristic impromptu freestyle rap she made after shotgunning a beer freshman year. She had not rapped or shotgunned since and no one at The Network called her FloGut. She actually had no gut to speak of. She wore glasses and usually tied her dark hair back in a tight bun. She had sensitive brown eyes and had once thought they might be her downfall. She had since come up with other things about herself to dislike more than the fact that her eyes would not allow her to wear contacts. For instance, she thought her eyebrows were too thick, but was afraid that waxing them would make her a superficial person. She was also not thrilled with the fact that after having graduated near the top of her class at the best university in the region, the only job she could find in the entertainment industry was Assistant Food Assistant for The Network. She had ideas, she had a sense of humor, but she thought she had no way to export them, and, accordingly, spoke very little at The Network.

“Yes, yes, of course I am, of course I am,” said Haven.

“Okay,” said Florence.

“So it’s settled then. I’m sorry, are you seeing anyone?”

“What? Ms. Hootenanny I’m very flattered, really. But I just don’t, I mean,” said Florence, who was in fact not seeing anyone and had not really seen anyone since her junior year. The one she saw at that time was Hector Uden, an aspiring paleontologist with a round face and short arms. There was a running, not terribly kind, joke in the department that Hector chose his major somehow based exclusively on his sympathy for like-armed creatures. Hector once confided in Florence that this joke really bothered him, mostly because he was not completely certain it was untrue. To console him, she wrapped her arms around him and he was almost able to wrap his arms around her. Haven’s question brought all this and more to the fore of Florence’s mind as she rubbed her eyebrows, and then stretched her arms high above her head.

“No, we will go on a double date. You and I, with two men. One is Horant. He will be my date, and the other will be someone he knows.”

“I’m sorry. Was there something wrong with the bagels?” asked Florence, moving her arms back down.

“No, look I know how it is. I’m single too you know. It’s tough out there. There’s so many . . . but this Horant, he’s alright and I’m sure his friend . . . don’t you want to get out and meet people, ah . . .”

“Florence, I’m Florence.”

“Yeah, Florence, you and I we, this could be good for both of us really. I thought of you specifically. You’re always looking so nice, the bagels are always here as expected. I mean we girls we have to look out for each other you know. It’s tough,” said Haven.

“Well, I suppose . . . and you don’t know the other guy? What does Horant do?”

“He watches The Network at least. I guess I don’t really know. But his friend, he doesn’t watch much I don’t think. He said he thinks sometimes.”

“Well that’s a start.”

“I mean, I have to . . . Why am I selling you on this? I’m on-air talent, you deliver bagels. Say yes in the next ten seconds or don’t. I mean it’ll be fun anyway. Worst case the guy is a troll and you get a nice dinner out of it. I mean worst case he’s a troll, absolute worst case.”

“Sure, alright,” said Florence, grabbing a pencil out of her hair. “What are the details?”

“I don’t know. No one does, but someone will tell you. Maybe me,” she handed Florence her card and walked away from the snack table.

Florence thought to herself that this was something at least. After a number of days of nothing, this was at least something.

***

            “We have a date,” said Horant to James as he entered Go Ahead and Order That Diner.

“Are you talking to me?” asked James.

“Yes of course. Who else in here would I have a date with?”

“This is getting, you know Horant, I think the world of you, but to just announce. . . .” He paused and then said, “Presumptuous for one thing.”

“I don’t even understand what you think I could be talking about,” said Horant. The waitress approached and asked if James and Horant wouldn’t mind tasting the apple pudding the chef just threw together. “It’s an experiment,” she said. Horant and James looked at each other simultaneously and shrugged their shoulders. This was not quite as unusual as it might seem, as Horant and James frequented Go Ahead and Order That Diner and were often asked to taste-test the chef’s new concoctions.

They had never met the chef. Horant asked to once after an inspired rum-soaked cherry cobbler, but was told that the chef could receive compliments indirectly. “He prefers it that way in fact,” said their waitress at the time, who had since left for another waitress job closer to her mother’s house. In a subsequent job application, that waitress listed her reason for leaving Go Ahead and Order That Diner as, “womb proximity.” She did not get that job.

“Apple pudding, hmm,” said James, almost forgetting the date conversation.

“Truly, what did you think I meant just then?” asked Horant.

“When?”

“When I first walked in and told you about our date.”

“I, of course, knew you were joking. But it wasn’t funny. I haven’t found that type of joke funny . . . I can’t even remember.”

“No joke. I mean, we have a date. You and I,” said Horant.

“You paying?”

“Half.”

“That’s no date then. What kind of a girl do you think I am?”

“An entitled priss of a girl, with entirely too much chest hair.”

“Why I never!” said James, trying to gesture as he imagined a woman who wanted to feign outrage would. It came off somehow as a half jerk of his neck to the left. He grabbed at his neck after. He thought he pulled something.

“Enough, whatever, you idiot, I mean we have a double date. I met,” he pointed up at Haven on the flat screen they were facing at the counter. An animated penguin flew in over the top of her face and landed at the bottom of the screen. It proceeded to shiver and put on layer after layer of winter clothes, until its beak was all that was visible. Then another penguin swooped in just to the left of the first penguin and began undressing it methodically, layer after layer. Haven read, “After this cold snap, it’s supposed to warm back up.” When all the layers were removed, it was revealed that the first penguin was now a toucan and the second penguin looked on in astonishment as it flew indiscriminately through the newscast until the next commercial break.

“A flying penguin?” asked James.

“No, her, Haven, the newswoman.”

James sat in silence looking at the screen and pondering what all this could possibly mean. Obviously, if the newswoman were one of the women on this double date, Horant must be claiming her for his own. On the other hand, why would Horant point her out to him unless he meant to set him up with her? There are many less lovely blonde women off-screen than on it, he thought suddenly, and wondered if she might look entirely different in person. Not that she’d have thinner hair and more defined crow’s feet, but that she’d actually be a stout brunette with crater-sized pock marks. Maybe she looked like that one friend of his mother who constantly called him charming when he was a kid. It unnerved him, the thought of dating the friend of his mother. What would people think? Was she even still alive? How do we lose touch with our childhood so easily?

“Yes, she is beautiful. It is not polite to stare, but go ahead if you want,” said Horant.

The waitress brought the pudding over and both men started to shovel it in.

“They can do almost anything with digital effects nowadays,” said James, his tongue wading through the pudding to make contact with the roof of his mouth to enunciate the words.

“This is not how you’re going to talk on our date, is it? All slober and ill-defined syllables, like a giant puffball,” said Horant, after he’d swallowed a big gulp of pudding himself.

“I’m unclear. I still don’t know what you’re getting at.”

“Do I have to spell it out for you? You and I are going out on a double date with Haven and her friend.”

“Oh, and so, so you and the newswoman, and me and her friend,” James managed to get out through his last spoonful of pudding.

“There we go. He’s catching on everyone, he’s catching on,” said Horant, as if to a whole bunch of people. Only James was listening.

“Okay, okay, so what’s she like?” asked James.

“She, well you can see, she’s blonde, even more so in-person somehow, and strange. She sent me these emails. I don’t know what to make of them.”

“The friend sent you emails too?”

“God, I don’t know anything about the friend, okay? Not a thing. Man, for someone who thinks so much, you certainly miss a whole lot. I’m talking about Haven.”

“I, well, you don’t know anything about my side of things?”

“No, I mean, I think she mentioned something about bagels. She brings bagels, I think and she’s introverted maybe.”

“A wealth of information,” said James. Two distinct images flooded his mind. One of a beautiful actress with long flowing hair tied up in a tight bun, only for the time-being, she bit pencils, she wore tight skirts, she paged through books; it was unclear whether she read them. The second was of a thick Eastern European woman stirring boiled bagels in a huge vat, her makeup running, her muscular arms straining to dip the strainer through the water and take the bagels out to dry, her long apron stained with sweat, cream cheese, and poppy seeds, her chest heaving, coughing, the flies circling around the tight bun her hair was perpetually tied into.

“Well, so, worst case, she’s an imp, and I’ll let you stare at Haven for as long as you want, absolute worst case.”

“Imp? I don’t even know what you mean by that, but okay fine, anything for Horant.” At that moment the two women he pictured in his mind merged together and smiled at him. He smiled back, but since they were simply in his mind, this smile was directed at the flat screen and at Haven in particular, who was just then directing her audience’s attention to a picture of a giant turkey leg and the headline, “Boundaries in Synthetic Food?”

“You’re smiling like a loon,” said Horant.

“A . . . right, no, they were all one, but I’ve made this decision rashly.”

“You won’t regret it and if you do I’ll pay for whatever it is you think you otherwise would have done that night.”

“When is it anyway? What are we doing?”

“No one knows, maybe I will,” said Horant.

 

 

Part IV: How Plans Are Made

 

“To stumble out onto the street, hand in hand,” is what Haven told Horant she wanted to do on their date.

“I can arrange that, but it would be clumsy with the four of us. Structure to get to that point is, you know, common,” said Horant, considering whether he should make eyes at the phone he was speaking into. He thought this would take too much work, for his phone was beside his head and his eyes generally faced front. He ended up not making any expression at all.

“I am not interested in what is common. I know what is common. We are uncommon, you and I,” said Haven, sitting on her bed, attempting to unstrap her high heels with one hand.

“I, well, okay, sure. But I can’t tell James, you know, we’re going to stumble out onto the street Friday night. You, me, Haven, and this other person. What’s her name?”

“I don’t know. She is uncommon too. She is,” said Haven.

“Sure.”

“Well, we must all eat from time to time,” said Haven, unstrapping the second shoe, placing both her legs on the bed, and stretching her feet in every possible direction.

“Now we’re getting somewhere. Alright dinner, let’s do that. People do that,” said Horant, struck all of a sudden by the fact that he was seeking to be conventional.

“We will eat on Friday, the four of us. I think that would be nice. But you must promise me that you and I, we will also stumble out onto the street together hand in hand,” said Haven.

“I do,” said Horant.

“Well, that’s nice. That’ll be nice. Yes, how nice that’s going to be,” said Haven.

 

 

Part V: How and Why People Get Ready

 

Florence sat in front of her mirror for a while. It was a couple hours before she was to meet Haven, and two other guys. She was not looking into it, but she had a superstition, or maybe an illogical suspicion, that sitting in front of a mirror somehow let her think about herself more clearly. She thought the following:

Was she the type of girl who went on blind double dates with a colleague, no, not colleague, superior, no, not that either, on-air personality, was she the type of person (let’s set gender aside), was she the type of person who went on blind double dates with an on-air personality in order to advance her career? Was this what she was doing? How could Haven advance her career? Was she the type of person who thought a person like Haven could advance her career? Was she the type of person to delude herself into thinking that she was going on a double date with an on-air personality to advance her career, when she was in fact going in order to meet her soulmate? Was she the type of person who believed in soulmates, and even if she did, was she the type of person to use “soulmate” to describe what it was she believed in? It was all too pretentious for a real person. She was, if nothing else, a real person, her mother always told her. Do real people associate with the Havens of the world? Was it wrong to think of Haven as somehow not real? Can beauty make a person unreal? Too real? Was she the type of woman (gender is necessary for this one) who finds another woman so beautiful that she could consider her to be fake? Is fake the same thing as not real? Why do men seem to like fake women so much? Why do men like women so much? Why would any man like her? Some have, but she still didn’t know why. She wanted to ask. They all said she was beautiful, smart, charming, her cheekbones, there was something about her cheekbones one guy said. What is one to do about one’s cheekbones? Say you have just the worst cheekbones, what is one to do? File them? Do they have a file for that? She looked into the mirror, they’re just fine, she should be thankful; a certain type of cheekbone could make one unlovable. Why? A beautiful murderer will always be loved, but a woman with wonky cheekbones is shit out of luck. This seems wrong. But this was not her fight after all, her cheekbones were to her advantage. She had a competitive cheekbone advantage and she was just going to throw it away, because she didn’t find that particular advantage just? A’s! All she got was A’s! Where had this advantage gotten her? The cheekbones at least, that’s . . . would she have gotten this date without them? And could he be her soulmate? And could it be her big break? Are there big breaks? Did she want one? What would she do with one? Of the people who get big breaks, what percentage have highly desirable cheekbones? 90%? 95%? Or her GPA converted into a percentage: 98.5%? It’s not fair. It’s not fair, after all, just generally, but tonight she had a double date with Haven, the unreal beauty, and two men, one of whom was meant exclusively for her, and he might be nice, he might be charming, he might be intelligent, he might be an ogre. Was she the type of woman to turn tail and run at the sight of a nice, charming, intelligent ogre? She was, yes. Should she wear heels? Is that sending the wrong message? Does she run well enough in heels to outrun an ogre? Is he tall? If not, will he feel diminished by her height in heels? If he is tall, will he feel oafish if she shows up in flats? Will he notice her shoes? Does she have shoes she’d like him to notice? Why do people care about shoes? Do men care about shoes? In the history of the world, how often has a man made a decision on a date based on his date’s shoes? Seven? She could tie a couple of eggplants to her feet and wobble over and if her cheekbones were high enough, if certain parts of her were sufficiently round and others were sufficiently not round, he’d stand beside her and keep her balanced all night. He’d compliment her on her bold choice. “Is that a new core exercise,” he might say, “it’s really working!” And then he’d lick his lips unconsciously, profess his love for Italian food, and pet her hair if she let him. Was she the type of person to let someone pet her hair on the first date, just because she happened to wear a couple of eggplants for sandals and have an amazing body and cheekbones so high her eyes got nervous? Was she that type of person? No, but, no worries. She had a date tonight, and who knows? He might be nice.

***

            James was not sure if the way he wore his hair had any effect on how people thought of him. He suspected it either meant everything or nothing. He knew he was likely mistaken on both accounts, but that did not stop him from thinking one of them must be true and, consequently, spending the last few minutes before the date, tossing his hair back and forth across his forehead. Touching the thinning strands, which if left alone would simply protrude straight out from the front of his skull and highlight that the hair at his temples had receded so far that it might actually be growing inward and obscuring his thoughts, James considered that when he was a boy he lamented his uncontrollable mop. Baseball caps would never quite fit the way they would real ballplayers. To have all that hair just sticking out in every direction from under his hat frustrated him and no matter how he brushed it back or piled it altogether in a clump under his hat, it would spring up in this odd place and that, making it impossible for him to look like a real ballplayer. Now, with the advantage of hindsight, he would agree never to wear a hat again if only someone were to guarantee that he would be able to maintain his current hairline for five years. No such deal was on offer. He had decided that tossing his hair slightly to the right was his best bet.

He smiled into the mirror and was horrified that smiling made his face crack as if it were a windshield struck with one of many foul balls he hit as a little leaguer. “Straighten it out,” he once told a group of twelve-year-old contemporaries, was the story of his life. One such contemporary, a third-baseman who stopped every ball but never with his glove, said, “I bet,” and everyone laughed slightly harder at that than James’s original statement. It was then that James learned the limits of self-deprecation. He laughed along with the rest, but he carried the insinuation with him for weeks until the same third baseman made the same joke about the first baseman — who already had a mustache and a shapely thirteen-year-old girlfriend.

“Don’t take yourself too seriously,” he mouthed into the mirror, vaguely remembering everything all at once, and therefore nothing in particular. In point of fact, he repulsed himself to such an extent that his legitimate smile, earned by thinking of the possibilities this date might have in store for him, immediately vanished upon the vision of his own face. A funhouse mirror could not have been more frightening. The distortion would be comforting. It would remind him that no, in fact he did not look like that, he looked somehow better, less absurd, only two eyes, that type of thing. However, as it was, this was him, an honest reflection, and it would not have been so bad if it had been someone else. He would not have given himself a second look if he had seen himself on the street, just another average guy, but the fact that it was him, and that thing in the mirror was all that he was and this is what people saw when they saw him struck him somehow as terrible. Visuals are too important, he thought, and then persisted to berate himself internally for how he looked. He then stepped back, closed his eyes, and thought that he was perhaps worse than he looked because of how much time he was spending worrying about how he looked, that what was before him was somehow a sparkling façade in comparison with the shallow vapid glob of a person which lay beneath, and might seethe through the cracks in his forehead if he was not careful.

He took out his phone and stared at the time for a while, hoping that some notification would alert him that someone very important to him, or just generally, was at that moment contacting him specifically with some life-altering offer. They were not. Instead, the stock photo of kittens batting at a ball of string, which had served as the “home screen” of his phone for what was now an entire calendar year, stared back at him, along with the time, 6:40 p.m. It was time to go, past time. He hit his head on the underside of his kitchen cabinets on the way out, messing up his hair. He was fruitlessly seeking gum. Maybe she would have gum.

***

           Haven was flittering about. She explored the depths of her walk-in closet, changing dresses seven times. She even considered calling a designer friend and asking if she had anything “cutting-edge” she could wear for the date. She decided against it, believing that cutting-edge was rarely what guys wanted. She settled on a classic dark blue cocktail dress. It brought out her sky-blue eyes and hugged her hips in just the right way. A supporter of The Network had bought it for her some time ago at a fundraiser to raise money for “No-Bro,” a charity for children with severe bronchitis. What set this charity apart is that it was really not that difficult for the children to heal with already established medicine. In fact, “No-Bro” was essentially a revolving door of children who would come down with bronchitis and then get better using methods largely available to everyone anyway. But the money was raised specifically for that and it could not be called a bad thing. The fundraiser teamed designers with local celebrities who had to wear a design of the bidder’s choosing. Essentially, the donors got to play dress-up with the pretty people. After, they had a choice of either sitting with the celebrity while they were wearing the clothes for an hour or having them wear the outfit on-air at some important event. Haven did the event for three years and each time the same eighty-to-eighty-two-year-old man bought her a tight dress and sat with her for an hour, just talking about his neighbor’s dog mostly. She stopped after three years because the last time the neighbor’s dog had just died and the old man just sat staring at her with nothing to talk about. It was on this last occasion that she acquired the dress. She slid her hand down the side of it, and liked how it slid to a point and then stopped at her hips.

She was not nervous, but focused. She had finally, maybe, found something close to what she was looking for, what she deserved, and it was now that she would be receiving her reward in the form of Horant, who, truth be told, could have had a better nose. She ran her hand through her hair and it just bounced right back into the perfect way it looked before. She smiled into the mirror and was pleased that her teeth were as white as she had hoped they would be. She turned away and skipped across her bedroom. The heels she had finally picked out, strappy black and canvas, were lying on the floor by her bed. She picked them up and tossed them in the air, landing harmlessly on her mattress. A thought went through her head that she was imagining this whole thing and that she would arrive at the restaurant and the only faces to greet her would be the monstrosities she saw every day on the IVV. They would each approach her, as if she had scheduled a date with them. They’d be very kind, all of them, polite, engaging, even interesting to talk to, but they’d all be as they were, monstrosities. She would have to sit and smile as each monstrosity would go on about their car, their cat, their kids, a storage container on the left side of the garage which they forgot all about for years, and opened one day to find exactly what they had been looking for. How horrifying! She would nod her head until her neck was sore and she’d excuse herself, “I need a . . . cigarette,” she would say, and daintily walk out past all the monstrosities watching her, envisioning their lives with her at the center holding it all together, making them worthwhile; she’d hit the streets running and she’d run to the cliff, the cliff she had put in her GPS, get to the edge, look out, throw both her heels over, and lie there until a cute woodland creature approached, licked her face, and returned her faith in this world.

The thought passed as quickly as it came, she reached back on the bed, put her heels on, and walked down the stairs. After all, she was Haven Hootenanny and tonight she was going to stumble out onto the street with Horant, the one she picked out.

***

            Horant made a reservation for four for the first time in his life and, as the hostess at the swanky A Traipsing confirmed the time, he thought that this must be what it’s like to have a family. He then got concerned that Haven and he would actually have a family. Families bogged his friends down, they made people’s eyes red and unattractive, families made road trips together which almost always ended in someone being disappointed. But, with the way they met, he thought, the most likely resolution was happily ever after and this meant family because he had always been told and shown that this meant family. He could do worse, and they hadn’t even been out on one date yet, and it was a double date, which, some might say, does not even count. Were they in high school? But it was her idea and who was he to say no to her, the stunning, famous, Haven Hootenanny. She was weird for sure, even for him. Those emails were not read without skepticism and even a touch of empathy. Her wild expressive style struck Horant as either genius or insane, and probably both. This was not troublesome to Horant who had the not-at-all-extraordinary skill of being able to forgive beautiful people almost anything. Haven Hootenanny writes those emails and they’re charming, they show personality, vibrancy. A fifty-three year-old woman with back acne and false teeth writes them, she’s a lunatic, an unredeemable lunatic. Horant was conscious of this double standard and did not care, considering himself one of the chosen few beautiful people, a belief in no way diminished by Haven Hootenanny seeking him out specifically, or at least he was one of the people she picked out. Whatever. It didn’t really matter; nothing mattered except the fact that he had a date with Haven Hootenanny. But then there was James and the bagel girl. He now could not imagine a scenario in which he cared about what happened between James and the bagel girl. They could get married, they could sit at the table and draw straws for which one of them would get up on the table, eat all the bread, and bark like a dog, they could reenact the pasta scene from Lady and The Tramp, they could each bring a book to read and sit there reading it the entire time, they could order a cask of some ancient wine, follow the sommelier down into a decrepit cellar, and the sommelier could trick them and wall them up with the wine, brick by painful brick; no matter, the night would end with he and the lovely Haven Hootenanny stumbling out onto the street.

 

 

Part VI: How People Grab A Bite

 

It was arranged that Florence would pick up Haven and James would pick up Horant.

“We should have drivers!” Haven suggested to Horant over the phone, “Arrive in separate cars, with drivers. Like before woman could drive or wanted to, you know,” she said.

“I do not, no. I was not around then,” said Horant, “but we could have our side-men come and get us.”

“Side-men? I don’t have one of those, how much do you pay yours?”

“I meant our fellow daters. I know James would pick me up. Our stumbling end game, don’t forget our stumbling end game.”

“It’s all I think about.”

“James will drive if I tell him to. Will your friend?”

“She’s not, sure she will and if she won’t . . . she will anyway because I’ll ask. But she’ll have to drive my car. Yes, we’ll take my car.”

Florence and James each agreed in turn, without inquiring as to why they were not all driving together, although each thought to ask.

Florence arrived early at Haven’s and parked the gray and graying car her parents had given her upon graduating third in her high school class. She parked it on the side of Haven’s tree-lined boulevard and texted Haven, who intercepted her in the driveway and escorted Florence to her SUV, her heels clattering with each step. Florence’s flats were silent.

Haven and Florence arrived at A Traipsing first. Haven looked around for Horant and Florence walked straight to the black stand with the neon tablet glowing on it. The woman looking at the tablet was tall and elegant, but had been severely burnt in a kitchen fire at her last hostessing gig three years ago. She had went in the back to ask the chef whether the chicken was glazed or basted after a particularly persnickety patron insisted on knowing before deigning to take a seat at the restaurant. A bananas foster attacked her straight out of the pan of the sous-chef, and she was scarred for life. The owners of A Traipsing thought themselves quite progressive for hiring the hostess and most of the customers thought themselves quite progressive for looking her in the eyes. Prior to the bananas foster, the owners of A Traipsing would have felt themselves quite fortunate to have such a lovely and competent hostess, and the customers would have felt themselves quite fortunate if she had willingly made eye contact with them. Florence noticed, but immediately changed her face to show that she did not.

“We have a reservation,” said Florence. She patted Haven on her bare shoulder, “Do we have a reservation?”

“What? Maybe. I don’t see him. I see everyone else,” Haven turned towards the hostess, “Oh jeez, what happened here?”

“What’s the name?” asked the hostess, hearing Haven, not answering her, but shaking her hair slightly towards the scarred half of her cheek.

Florence looked at Haven who again stared off, looking fruitlessly for Horant. “You know what, we may not, we’re waiting on a couple I think,” she said.

“Very well,” said the hostess.

“What’d she say happened to her?” Haven asked Florence after they retreated back into the foyer. “You know, I can’t imagine how they’re late. You and I, we could go to the bar right now and find two others and it’d be all the same, to you, at least, it’d be all the same.”

“I guess so,” said Florence, not really knowing why she hadn’t decided to slowly and quietly backpeddle out of A Traipsing, while Haven continued to survey the room and not notice her. She would then sprint to her car and drive to her apartment, put on a movie about smart people saying smart things to one another until one of them says something stupid. She took one step slowly back just to test Haven’s reflexes. Her dark blue flats crunched up against a pair of brown loafers. Resting on top of those loafers was James. Florence stumbled and half-turned; James kept her upright as their eyes met for the first time.

“I’m sorry,” said James, who had, in truth, been looking at the back of Haven’s golden-locked head before Florence had backed into him.

“Oh no, me, I’m sorry,” said Florence, regaining her balance and facing James and Horant.

“That’s right, that’s right, they should be sorry, ought to be sorry,” said Haven, still facing away from the men.

“Haven?” said Horant, tapping on her bare shoulder.

“Oh dear, oh yes, my Horant, dear Horant,” she said as she hugged him.

“And so this?” asked James talking in their direction, as Florence withdrew.

“Like a movie, almost,” said Florence.

Haven held Horant longer than he anticipated and so the introductions were never to be made. No one knew Florence’s name, so any introduction would have been missing at least one important element in any case.

“I’m James, my name is James,” said James.

“Florence, you know, like the nurse,” said Florence.

“Nightingale? I once thought, as a kid, you know, that Florence Nightingale was a literal bird. A beautiful name for a bird.”

“Thanks,” said Florence, smiling.

“I mean, just, generally, a name, you know the beauty of names is, well, I wouldn’t limit it to birds, you know, a name is good all the way around and Florence, that’s a good one.”

“Easy killer,” said Horant, overhearing his friend as he and Haven separated at last.

Horant approached the hostess, noticed her scar, looked at Haven, and suddenly thought how beautiful her skin was.

“A reservation, I made a reservation for four.”

“Name?” asked the hostess.

“Horant.”

“Ah, yes, for four, and you’re all here now?” inquired the hostess.

“Yes, we’re here, me, a darling, and two others,” said Haven. “What happened to you?”

The hostess snapped her hair again back towards the scar, picked up four menus, and handed them to another woman who said, “follow me.”

***

            They arrived at the round table in good order. Haven sat next to Horant who sat next to James who sat next to Florence. James thought about whether he should hold Florence’s chair out for her, and didn’t. Florence, for her part, did not consider this a possibility and had no problem seating herself. Haven, for her part, lingered at her chair while Horant sat himself, pulled her phone out of her purse, entered the password, and selected an application at random before Horant got the hint, stood up, and moved her chair two inches further from the table than it was previously. “Oh, thank you,” said Haven, putting her phone back and flashing a few teeth. Horant grinned half-ironically and reseated himself. James and Florence took the opportunity to stare at the front of their menus.

“Well, I mean, I’m so glad we were able to do this. There are times when you want to do something and then you never get to, but now, here, this is something I wanted, and now,” said Haven and reached over and touched Horant on the shoulder.

“That’s sweet, I’m glad we’re here too. Of all the places to be, here is right up there,” said Horant, opening his menu.

Florence sat in silence, but looked at James, hoping he would not say anything along the lines of the last two stilted statements. James considered speaking, did not, and thought, “Say something. Weather? Should I say something about the weather?”

“It’s okay to talk you two, it’s a double date after all, we set up a double date, that means you two are on one too,” said Haven.

“I, yes, thank you, thank you for that,” said James. “So you two work together?”

“We do, I bring bagels. Haven once ate half of one,” said Florence.

“Do you make the bagels?” asked Horant.

“I, no, I just bring them from the bakery. I take them from the bakery and I set them out in a hopefully appetizing way,” said Florence, uneasy.

“That’s a day?” asked Horant.

“I, well, people have all types of days. I don’t even know, you know, you interview, when I was a field reporter, you go out and interview someone for three minutes and that’s their day, that’s their year. Their whole year was that, that three minutes. For me, it was three minutes,” said Haven.

“I’ve never been interviewed,” said James. “Perhaps you could make my year sometime.” James was flirting but it was unclear with whom. He didn’t even know. The waiter approached.

“Madames and Monsieurs, goon evening and welcome to A Traipsing.” He was short with a neatly trimmed beard. He grew it because he thought his face was ugly and read once that beards on short men somehow made women feel more secure. He had also read that secure women are more likely to order expensive drinks. His nametag read “Otise,” but his name was Otis. A typo he preferred to reality. “Tonight is fanciful, I’m sorry, tonight is Fanciful Fish Festival here at A Traipsing. As you can see our menu is entirely seafood tonight, all fresh. The freshness of our fish is without question and although it too starts with an ‘F,’ we left it out of the title of tonight’s festivities because everything is so fresh.”

Florence was pretty sure Otise had said “Goon evening,” had giggled, restrained herself, and then flashed her eyes at James. James noticed, but politely continued to seem as if he were listening to Otise. “A pan-seared grouper with olive compote and red chili jelly, that’s served over a bed of scallop fried rice, and a side of braised peapods.” Haven nodded her head and her hair bobbed up and down in such a way that Horant, for a minute, thought about getting up and sniffing the top of her head. He did not. “A wine cork, burnt and shaved over the swordfish, finishes the dish just as it began,” finished Otise. “Shall I start you off with something to drink?”

“I don’t care for fish, really,” said Haven.

“Well I’m sure, you know they must have something else,” said Horant.

“Must we?” asked Otise. “No, tonight, as I’ve said is Fanciful Fish Festival, and that’s what we have tonight, fish.”

“You can’t make a salad?” asked Florence, concerned about Haven for some reason.

“We could make a salad, I’m sure. The salad is fresh, but not as fresh as the fish,” said Otise.

“The fish is blinking right now, even the mussels blink,” said James. Florence laughed.

“Mussels do not blink sir, we can make a salad,” repeated Otise, and scratched at his beard.

“That’s fine, oh it’s fine, I don’t, you know, it’s just, we were having such a nice time and then, Fish Night? But okay, sure, fish night. I’ll have a splash of cranberry and a guzzle of vodka. To stumble out,” Haven said, and looked at Horant.

“Yes, to stumble out, I’ll have a pinch of ginger beer in a tumbler of rum,” said Horant.

Otise was furiously scribbling, trying to translate the drink requests into words which would mean something to the bartender.

“Do you have any IPAs?” asked Florence.

“We, on tap, we have an English Pale, Fupton’s Old Guzzard Ale. It’s not an IPA, but that’s as close as we have on tap. Bottles, we have a list, I don’t remember, but we have a list,” said Otise.

“Old Guzzard it is,” said Florence.

“Yeah, sure, me too,” said James.

“As you like,” said Otise and walked away, crossing out and rewriting something on his notepad.

“Fish night! Of all the nights, fish night. I mean really, to just have all fish, imagine such a thing at a restaurant, even like this one,” said Haven, expressing outrage no one else felt or could comprehend.

“They can make a salad they said. I could fetch some bagels,” said Florence. James laughed, Horant smiled, Haven twitched and scrunched her nose.

“Not everything is a joke,” said Haven. “We are really going to have to eat fish and we’re going to have to spend real money for the opportunity.”

“I’m sorry, really you know we can go somewhere else,” said Horant reluctantly. It had been ten minutes. What had he become?

“No, no, they can make a salad. It’s fine really, but fish night?” said Haven again, somehow thinking a reaction was forthcoming from the other three. Florence grabbed her knife and twirled it, reflecting the faces of each of her fellow table-mates and the faces of countless others sitting and eating fish or waiting to eat fish. They flashed like a collage of elongated noses and eyes intent on drawn butter or a dill cream sauce. She never understood why people liked dill cream sauces, and if she and James were on a date by themselves, she likely would have brought this up as some sort of observational jumping off point for some conversation about how people like weird things and how there is no accounting for how strange they can be. Instead, she sat silently waiting for Haven’s disgust at the suggestion that a restaurant dedicate an entire night to a major source of protein to die down and ultimately retreat under a wave of vodka and a touch of cranberry.

***

            The drinks arrived and the wave of vodka began to push Haven’s feet above the sand, as they say.

“They don’t say that, people really just don’t say that,” Florence responded when Haven asked her what happens when people suggest new bagel flavors.

“It’s fascinating, really, maybe someday I’ll just throw it all up and sell bagels. Or drive off a cliff, one of those,” said Haven, laughing at herself and leaning against Horant. Horant hugged her with one arm, and said, “Don’t go driving off any cliffs now.”

“A thought, really if you would do it, that’s how, off a cliff in a car?” asked James.

“SUV,” said Haven moving out of Horant’s grasp and wildly swinging back toward Florence. After a brief pause in which the three others nodded their heads as if to say, of course, an SUV, Haven blurted, “Ever see a face, just a face, and think to yourself, if only I had that face life could not possibly be worth living? No amount of money, no job, no loved ones, nothing would make life worth it.”

“Yes,” said Florence and James.

“All the time, and in those terms exactly,” said James. It was unclear to him and everyone else whether he was serious. “I also wonder whether I have one of those faces, whether people who look like say, you, Haven, people who look like you, think that about people who look like me,” said James.

“Stop hitting on Haven,” said Horant, laughing.

“Don’t be silly, it’d have to be a lot worse than what you’ve got going. Right Flo, it would have to be a lot worse. He’s not so bad. You should see some of the ones, the absolute nightmares who watch my show.”

“Yeah, it could be worse,” smiled Florence, surprised that Haven had learned part of her name at some point.

Otise returned with the food. “Fish, this other fish, another type of fish, and salad,” said Otise as he distributed the entrées. His arms trembled when he thought he locked eyes with Haven. Haven could not have locked eyes if she tried; they were floating this way and that, smiling at Horant and then darting to some unknown corner of A Traipsing where an old man sat alone with his soup, sipping it in slowly until he caught a glimpse of Haven, tried to tell his face to smile, and dribbled much of his soup on the cloth napkin he had affixed to his collar. “A success,” thought the old man, lifting the napkin and examining his clean yellow polo shirt. Haven’s gaze had long since returned to the table. “You know, I don’t know you guys, that fish actually looks pretty good, as fish goes.”

“Honey,” said Horant, “you want to try some of mine?”

“Darling, you’re so sweet. I, another drink is all,” said Haven, thinking Horant was Otise, or, more accurately, that they had merged into some sort of hybrid that would offer her food. “Such a pretty face, you, me, and those two, everyone is so pretty,” said Haven.

Florence and James were digging into their fish, each feeling that they had somehow been reduced to a prop, how the whole thing had been reduced to a prop, all of life was a prop for Haven. They looked up rarely and then only to mug at each other or nod or shake their heads at something that was said or done.

The fish was excellent. There was something in the whole burnt cork thing that made the delicacy of the swordfish shine through. James thought that he had so much to say to Florence about the burnt cork; that he had an hour of stand-up, a lecture series at the Sorbonne, and an album’s worth of burnt-cork-related country songs. However, there was no reason to speak, why speak when all that could be hoped to be said was being said without words between him and Florence and all that could be imagined to be said was being said by Haven and echoed by Horant?

“I can’t imagine you have nothing to say,” said Horant, after Haven started crunching her salad, half a slice of lettuce bursting out the side of her mouth before her tongue reached out and drew it in. “In some societies people speak to one another without coercion,” he said.

“In others, they don’t even have an oral language,” said Florence.

“I don’t know if that’s true,” said Horant.

“She’s smart darling, this one, she’s smart, and yours, maybe he is too, can’t tell yet,” said Haven, as a cucumber slice crunched on the side of her mouth that was not occupied by speaking.

“I have wild dreams in which nobody speaks, in which nobody can even imagine what speech might be,” said Horant. “I do not consider those dreams societies.”

“I wasn’t speaking for your dreams, maybe you have them,” said Florence.

“Would I be one of them, darling, am I a dream to you? You are almost to me, your nose, but almost a dream,” said Haven, wobbling again and resting her head on Horant’s shoulder.

The man with the soup saw a blonde blur and asked Otise who it was. “A woman, she does not eat fish.”

“Stew?” asked the old man.

“Otise, I’m Otise,” said Otise loudly.

The old man waived his hand dismissively. “I’ll buy her a drink, tell her I’ll buy her a drink.”

“Sir, she has had enough already I’m afraid,” said Otise.

“You’re afraid; does this cure your fear?” asked the old man, as he slowly and not at all discreetly opened his wallet and chose a twenty-dollar bill to hand to Otise. Otise took the money quickly so as to avoid the gaze of a supervisor.

“My dreams are not so ambitious,” said Horant, as Otise approached.

Otise stood until he decided it was safe to approach Haven, who had just fit a rather large slice of tomato into her mouth. “Miss, the gentleman in the corner, he should like to buy you a drink.”

Haven whirled around, surprised. She had not noticed Otise at all. She swallowed hard on what was left of the tomato and said, “I, who? What man?” Horant gave a look to Otise, which Otise immediately knew meant that his tip had just been reduced by at least 5%. “The gentleman in the corner, Mr. Winto, he’s a regular old man.”

“A regular old man,” said James. James spoke sincerely, as if pondering what that could possibly mean, and if it could be defined, what that definition meant for his future. Was it something he could achieve? Did he want to?”

“I mean, an old man, he’s a regular customer,” said Otise.

“Does he watch my show? Has he seen me on TV?”

“No thanks,” said Horant. “I’m paying for your drinks anyway, what’s the difference?”

“No, Hornts, I want to know who this man is, what he looks like. I’m a journalist,” said Haven.

“And I’m a baker,” said Florence.

Haven stood up, balancing herself carefully on her high-heels, and walked over to the corner where Otise had pointed. She was a couple feet in front of the table before she stopped and looked up. “Oh, you?” she said.

“Miss, it’s a pleasure. Would you be so kind to join me?” said Mr. Winto, attempting to raise himself up, but failing, as his stained napkin flapped under the loose skin hanging low from his jowls.

“No, n-no, of course not Mr. sir, of course not. But you’ve watched my show? I know you have.”

“No,” he said. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Don’t be so high on the horse, I’ve seen your face, it’s one of the faces. I see it most days.”

“A dream perhaps, perhaps you dream of me. Sit,” persisted Mr. Winto.

“No,” said Haven, returning to her table with uneven steps.

Mr. Winto returned to his soup.

***

            Haven eased herself back into her chair placing her hand delicately on Horant’s shoulder and then pressing on it firmly to maintain her balance just before her blue dress scraped the back of the black chair and she let herself fall with a thud. She braced herself and smiled. Horant placed his hand on her upper back and said, “You alright, there?”

“Yes, of course. This salad is so good. I can’t imagine the fish is better. Is the fish better, darling?” asked Haven, turning to Florence.

“I have not tried it, but I’ve never had a salad as good as this fish,” said Florence.

“Never, she says. Did you hear that, never. Oh what a place?”

“Say hun, what did you say to that old man?” asked Horant.

“Nothing, really. He wanted me to sit, but I have you, why would I sit with him? I have you,” Haven said. “And my new friends here, we’re friends. How great is it to have friends, and new ones!”

Florence and James were silent. They smiled at Haven and each other, but could not bring themselves to say anything to reaffirm her sentiment. In truth, neither of them believed they were Haven’s friend, even if a vodka high told her otherwise. Florence thought for a moment that maybe Haven really had no friends, maybe that’s why she asked her on this double date. But, then again, maybe all her friends were in meaningful relationships, or maybe she was just flat-out bizarre. James, for his part, could not imagine that someone who looked like Haven would be lacking in the friend department. Everyone must want to be her friend, she was a celebrity more or less, and well-loved. She was the type of person you would see always surrounded by smiling slightly less attractive others, the others so mirthful and so attractive, that you would never really notice whether the person inside that ball of mirth and pleasant cheek bones was actually smiling herself, you just assumed she was. James took a moment to reconsider everything he thought about famous and popular people, and realized that he did not know anything about them and that all his so-called “knowledge” was merely a strain of popular assumptions which he in no way could justify. By the time he had mentally returned to the table, Haven had grabbed Florence and whisked her away to the ladies’ room.

“Oh Flo, oh, Flo, that’s funny! Seriously though, could it be more fun than this? Flo, some people wait their entire lives and never get a night like this, and some have better nights every night. But it beats prepping bagels,” said Haven.

“Yes, it does,” said Florence, following Haven past the bar towards the restroom, considering whether the fact that she didn’t actually have to go portended anything ominous about the night.

“I’ve, we’ve had a few now, as they say, a few, and well I’m feeling it,” said Haven, opening the door to the restroom. The bright lights accosted her momentarily and she took a step back, narrowly missing Florence’s feet with her high heels. A woman, in tattered clothes and a smock it looked like she’d conned off a third-grader, was brushing her teeth at the sink. She spit into the sink and a glob of red-tinted mucus stuck to the marble. She looked up and the gaps where her teeth had once been reminded her that it was not all sunshine and daisies. As she dipped her head she saw Haven in the mirror, a gleaming, shimmering example of everything she was not. She dropped her toothbrush in the sink.

“Ms., Ms. Hootenanny? Is that really you?” managed the woman.

“Ah, oh, yes, hunny, of course it is!” said Haven with a theatric flourish The Coordinator would have scolded her for if she were reading the news, as she gripped and leaned against a stall door.

Florence was bemused, but hid it by ducking into a stall.

“Can I? Will you sign something?”

“I’ll hug you!” said Haven. “I have no pen,” she said as she opened her arms. The woman crashed into her like a weak pot of coffee, all smells and intentions. Haven brushed her greasy hair once and then released her, excusing herself to the stall she was leaning up against. The woman, now embarrassed, scooped up her tooth brush and hurried out, the few teeth she had flashing brighter than they had in years, before the hostess caught sight of her and had her escorted off the premises. “Do you know Haven Hootenanny is in there?” she asked the hostess. “We serve many customers, we serve only customers. I’m sorry,” said the hostess. “She stroked my hair!” said the woman.

Meanwhile, at the table, Horant and James were having a moment.

“The fish is something,” said Horant, waiving his hand in front of James as he stared off blankly.

“Is that code? Are we speaking in code?” asked James.

“She drinks, yes, but to say she’s a fish. Come on, shape up. And yours, not so bad, eh?”

“No, she’s lovely, really. Thank you. We, seems like we can’t get a word in, yours, Haven, she is all encompassing. I feel encompassed.”

“As do I, my friend, and I think I could really go for it. Just get lost, become something else, something totally dependent and poof.”

“I can see the appeal. Someone like that, she is more than we are in a way. She fills up every room with admirers and jealousy and I’m sure other things. There’s hardly room for Florence and I. We just, people like us can only add innocuous commentary like a translator’s note or something.”

“Yes, it seems crowded. We should split, find a way to split up. Her and I together are enough, we don’t need you two, frankly. You agree?”

“I do, but there’s still dessert, and the car situation. I never liked that. It never made sense.”

“You’re right, but it was her idea, like all the rest of it, and like you say, she’s . . . more, so I listened. There are cabs,” said Horant, trailing off as he noticed the women returning.

“I really admire how you make people feel,” Florence said genuinely to Haven as they both sat down at the table again.

“I just, you know, these people they need me to be nice to them. They were dealt a bad hand, from the start, no pair, queen-high, and sometimes I think maybe I’m the queen, and you know at least their queen, their one queen should be nice, you know. I try to be nice. Sometimes I’m not, but I try, truly, I try. You know?”

The two men continued to eat.

“I see,” said Florence.

“You know even when you’re staring at queen-high, you know sometimes you like your chances. I want them to like their chances for a minute, even if there’s no good reason, even if they should just fold, even if I’m not a queen at all, but a nine printed on golden-flecked paper, I should try for them.”

“You’re a queen,” interjected Horant, rubbing Haven’s shoulders between bites.

“That’s nice, really,” said Florence. “I want to try, but there’s this, you know, for one, no one thinks I’m a queen. People are not so gullible.”

James was silent, but smiled at Florence who shrugged her shoulders and scrunched her nose.

“Well, I mean, we’re lucky. I’m lucky,” said Haven looking at Horant. Horant was trying to signal to James to somehow split their dates by subtly moving his index fingers apart from each other.

“You both like desserts, right?” asked James without indicating who he meant by “both.”

“I do,” said Haven. “I do, yes, I split desserts all the time with people, animals, whathaveyou. I’m a notorious dessert-splitter.”

“I like chocolate more than this place,” said Florence.

“I’m sorry, I think you know my stance on dessert. If I was being asked, but yes, we, that is, Haven and I should split something here and you two should check out the chocolate shop down the street. You’re a chocolate fiend too,” said Horant, turning to James.

“I prefer custards to candy,” said James, forgetting the real reason he asked the question in the first place. “But then again, I want to try that place.”

“What’s it called?” asked Florence.

The Choclatier: Yummy!” said Haven. “It’s the best, oh, can we go, can we go?”

“Uh, yes, of course we can, but they don’t have custard, do they James?” asked Horant.

“I don’t really know, never been,” said James, again, without thinking.

“To stumble out, remember, to stumble out,” said Horant.

“Oh yes, but we can stumble after chocolate, there will be time to stumble after The Choclatier: Yummy!

 

 

Part VII: The Importance of Being Chocolate

 

The Chocolatier: Yummy! was classy in the same way the movie theater all the rich people go to is classy. Put as many goldish beams in a place as you want, it’s still a movie house at the end of the day.

The two couples (whether they were actually couples yet is beside the point, because they appeared to observers as couples, and what else is life measured by than appearances?) walked out of A Traipsing, their stomachs mostly full and Horant’s wallet mostly empty. Horant had volunteered to pay for dinner with the understanding that James would be paying him back at a later date when their dates, well, his most importantly, were not present to witness the exchange. James agreed to this show because he did not really think paying for things was an especially important indicator of masculinity, generosity, or benevolence of spirit, and besides, Horant had arranged the whole thing and if his side of things was satisfactory it was the least he could do, and if it was not, why would he care what a woman he didn’t care for thought? Florence, for her part, offered to pay her part, but neither Horant nor James would hear of it. “Oh no Florence, I got it,” said Horant. “Such a generous friend,” said James, and meant it, but not about paying, he meant it more generally, he meant that Horant was exceptionally kind to invite him out, and to meet Florence. James was on a bit of a high all the way around. Haven did not notice that the check came, who paid, how much anything cost, or that Otise kept calling her Madame Nepeche. No matter. Once everything was squared away, she grabbed Horant’s arm like it was made out of Springer Spaniel puppies and led James and Florence out the door. They did not stumble.

The women were drawn to the glassed treats like children. “Chocolate-covered fresh apricots,” said Florence. “Double dark cappuccino liquor!” said Haven. The men hung back for a second and then also pushed themselves up against the glass. What they saw was quite simply chocolate, coated, dusted, frozen in time as it dripped down a slice of white cake or frenetically encircled an 8-ounce wheel of cheddar cheese. “Cheese?” inquired James, pointing at the block. “Yes, cheese,” said Horant. James smiled but then thought that this was a waste of both chocolate and cheese and that no matter how good they actually tasted together, they no doubt tasted better separately or in independent combination with some grape or other.

“What would you girls like? It’s on James,” said Horant.

James made no expression because he was not listening but still contemplating what particular grape might optimize both the chocolate and the cheese. He kept thinking “Concord,” only because that was the only grape species he could come up with at the moment.

“It’s okay, I can buy my own chocolate,” said Florence, partially feeling pressured by James’s blank stare.

“What? No, I mean, let me. Allow me,” said James snapped back to reality, such as it was.

“Really, I can,” said Florence, honestly not really caring one way or the other, but feeling odd about having to announce what she wanted (a chocolate-covered apricot and a couple of truffles) before actually ordering it.

“No, no I insist, and if I don’t, Horant does,” said James.

Florence shrugged her shoulders and said, “Thanks.”

Meanwhile, Haven had not said a word. She had been approached by no less than three Chocolatier employees and a dark-eyed man who had walked in with his 10-year-old daughter. To all four she waved her hand dismissively and never took her eyes off the chocolate. It was not that she was that hungry or even that the three drinks she had with dinner somehow caused her to gain or lose focus, it was more that she wanted to think about things, about Horant, about her current situation, about The Network, about the IVV, about her GPS, while simultaneously thinking about nothing at all and taking in all the wonderful chocolate. She reached no conclusion, either as to any of her thoughts or any of the chocolate, and simply looked up at Horant. “You pick,” she said and laughed aloud.

This indecipherable “You pick,” struck Horant like a brick filled with yogurt. It was messy and he could not really believe what it was. He thought maybe it was a test of some sort, perhaps she had mentioned her favorite chocolate at dinner or in her emails. He racked his brain and came up with nothing. It was an uneasy feeling. It was not as if there were three flavors of ice cream and he could just say “twist” and she’d be happy with at least half of it. There were literally, and figuratively if you like, thousands of combinations of chocolates he could order for her, and at least hundreds if he did not choose a combination but boldly went with just one thing. Horant’s silent panic lasted only a few seconds, but it was long enough for James to notice, poke him in the ribs and whisper,“Just order a bunch of stuff.” And so he did. He ordered every shade of chocolate from white to pitch black and every type of filling from fresh fruit to cream to caramel, although he had his doubts that Haven was a caramel type of girl. He even happened to order one double dark cappuccino liquor truffle. Haven grinned as he finally landed on the chocolate she had forgotten she had her eyes on. She moved towards the man packaging the chocolate for Horant and put her hand out.

“I’ll take that one,” she said.

The man placed the truffle in her hand, her eyes flashed and she gobbled the chocolate before Horant knew what happened. “Another one of those I suppose,” said Horant.

It was not that Haven wanted Horant to buy all this unnecessary chocolate, and, in fact, it was actually James buying the chocolate, it was that she didn’t realize that it made any difference whether he bought just the one piece or the whole store. She was blissfully unaware of such trivial concerns. Florence, on the other hand, could tell James just how many bagel deliveries it would take for her to pay for all that chocolate, “three,” she told James, and then asked if he wanted any help.

“No, no, my treat. It’s the least I can do.”

“Strictly speaking you could do less, many have,” said Florence, placing her wallet back in her purse.

And so the four of them walked out of The Chocolatier: Yummy! each chewing on something or other, their teeth temporarily browning, and James left holding the bag of assorted chocolates Haven had no use for. They walked steadily and none of them thought this an appropriate moment to touch any of the others.

 

 

Part VIII: How Blithering Idiots Can Impact Your Night

 

As they walked chewing and not touching they were accosted by no fewer than three blithering idiots. The idiots were cloistered together on the side of a dead-end street a block away from The Chocolatier: Yummy! One had a Hawaiian shirt on because he was told once that “a gut like yours deserves color of all kinds,” another wore a beret because once in high school he had to give a presentation on Euro Disney, and the third had fake teeth because sugar and meth were his secret vices. They did not know each other, in the sense that in order to know someone you generally have to believe that there are other people in the world and that it is possible to know them. This is not to say they were, strictly speaking, unaware of the world around them, or that they each had the same infirmity (how dull would that be), but to say they knew each other would be going too far and redefining knowledge in a way none of your important friends would tolerate.

The foursome crossed the threesome and the threesome had no intention of making it a non-event. Hawaiian Shirt burst out in front of Haven and said “I know you, I know you, I know you!” Haven ducked, but this was ineffective. She recognized him. He was a frequent viewer, and also frequently appeared in her associated nightmares. But she was with Horant right now, and she had just eaten the most delicious truffle. Hawaiian Shirt did not belong here.

Just as Haven rose from her ducking position and grabbed Horant’s arm, Euro Disney swaggered over to the five of them singing You Ain’t Nobody Till Somebody Loves You, in a gruff and squeaky tenor only a mother (but not his) could love. His mother, in fact, had thrown him out of the house at age 16 because he had accidentally poured the last of her Scotch into a vat of Halloween punch. It was a labeling issue, but his mom was eccentric that way, plus she was a drunk and did not love him. She somehow blamed him for the fact that she was never able to sing on Broadway, even though she had never been in a play, of any kind, before she birthed Euro Disney, at age 33.

“You’re nobody till somebody cares,” he sang at James, grabbing his shoulder as if he were consoling a buddy ironically. James tried to conceive of why he should accept this as some type of sign that his date with Florence was going well, but could only think that this was at least something he could talk about for awhile with people he needed to find something to talk about with. Florence made herself thin, like an eagle closing its wings and hoping desperately to become a sparrow. “Just once, just once,” was the sentiment.

Horant stuck his head between Hawaiian Shirt and Haven, but left the rest of his body where it was. “Can I help you?” he said.

“Oh no, oh no, oh no,” said Hawaiian Shirt and pulled his shirt out from his chest, because it had stuck there and, he feared, started to give observers the impression that he was overweight. “I know you, though,” he said to Haven. “Absolutely, we’re great friends,” he continued. “We went, the places, when we were younger, the two of us, the places we went and have yet to go, exhilarating. I almost spent all of it, but then he came over and we spent the whole time thinking about how to lose it all. And we did. Don’t you hate that? We did, but this was before the two of us knew her and now we do and it’s better this way, am I right?”

Haven shook and fell back into Horant. “Honey,” she gasped.

Fake Teeth had siddled up to Florence and pointed to the abandoned building that was nearest to our seven friends. “When we, you know, all of us, thought it would last. But look! And it’s not because we didn’t try,” he said.

“I know exactly what you mean,” said Florence. She elbowed James in the hip, “Why are we stopped?” she mouthed. James pointed to Euro Disney who had just croaked, “Gold’ll never buy you happiness when you’re growing old.” Florence nodded, but then started walking briskly away from the blithering idiots, who were not the most mobile guys to begin with and did not, strictly speaking, need her to have a good time. She carried on ahead of the pack looking back every now and then hoping the idiots would vacate.

“Please leave us alone,” said Horant to no one in particular.

“Again, for the first time we reach a point where we must either part or continue on, my dear friends, the dearest of friends we have become,” said Hawaiian Shirt. “This time let us choose the way of our ancestors, the ones who survived at least long enough to have us. Some of them envisioned us, you think?” he asked Haven.

“No, never, not you. Who could envision you?” she said.

“A horror in our own time, but a vision for our ancestors, who, we know, were far uglier,” said Euro Disney, suddenly breaking off his tune.

“Far?” asked James, but without Florence around, it went on deaf ears.

“I may smack you one at some point here,” said Horant, as Hawaiian Shirt got closer, stretched out his arm, and petted Haven’s shoulder. Horant was not a violent person by any means. He and James had frequently discussed what might provoke either one of them to physical violence, and, even if they were somehow provoked, could they actually be effectively violent or would they end up straining a shoulder or pulling a quadricep before they could inflict any type of justice. Each concluded that their breaking point had something to do with family or puppies, and that, they might be momentarily effective, but self-injury was the only inevitable consequence of getting riled up. Indeed, Horant had once questioned fundamentally whether ten, a hundred, or a thousand years from now people might actually lack the physical capacity for non-technology-assisted violence. James called this thesis something like hogwash and noted that action movies will probably always exist.

“I can’t incite, oh no, it’s against the terms,” said Fake Teeth to James in confidence.

“I, Horant, what is all this? I’ve seen them all before. I’ve seen this before and we were, everything was so lovely a minute ago and now, this, and these,” said Haven. She put her hands over her eyes and went limp.

“No, darling, no. We, this could be our chance to make it all right. One of them had said once that the day the blonde meets the rest will be the day we can rest,” said Hawaiian Shirt.

“No, no,” said Fake Teeth. “No, rest, prison is all rest. Low carbs they try. The sugar is added later, they promise. When is later?” he asked.

Florence waived James ahead as if she were coaching third base for the ’27 Yankees. James, who had been as amused as he had been disturbed by the blithering idiots, suddenly realized that whatever they had to say, it was all beside the point and the only real truth which could come out of this night, or perhaps any other, resided somehow in what would be said, whether in words or otherwise, between he and Florence. He wriggled out of Euro Disney’s reach, dropped the bag of chocolates, and only slowed down when he had grabbed Florence’s outstretched arm.

***

            “A code we live by that is taught in the public schools,” continued Hawaiian Shirt.

“No, no, can’t go back, not now. Fruitty Pebbles, they stopped serving. Please help!” said Fake Teeth, rummaging through the chocolates.

“I’m serious, leave us,” said Horant.

“Go tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere. Go tell it on the mountain that Jesus Christ was born,” sang Euro Disney. “Everybody . . .” he said and stretched out his hands.

“Second verse, same as the first,” said Florence overhearing the “music” from fifteen feet ahead.

“Even so, do you think he means something by it? Do you think any of them mean anything by any of it?” James asked Florence half in earnest.

“I, well, of course, they think they do. What it is any of them actually mean is unknowable and unknown. At least that’s what they teach us at the Bagel Academy. That and no more than six flavors, it confuses people.”

“I could be confused by you for awhile. I could walk around in a daze for weeks and my only thought might, you know, be of you,” said James.

“It’s possible,” said Florence. “Weeks can go by and there’s no accounting for what we were thinking during them. One week the basic issue I was concerned about had something to do with how they make those tables at the airport that look like they’re constructed with leftover confetti. Wasn’t the worst week.”

“I’m putting you in good company. Those tables are a rare treat. So rare, that I don’t even really know what you’re talking about,” said James.

“Goons, goons,” said Haven. “That’s what my dad used to say, ‘the world’s a goon’s paradise and the rest of us are just there to make the goons recognize that’s what they are.’”

“Makes sense, in a way,” said Horant, dragging Haven at a quicker pace. The idiots kept up. Now, Fake Teeth, browned even more by the chocolates, had latched onto Hawaiian Shirt and they were doing some sort of grotesque pantomime of Haven and Horant. Meanwhile, Euro Disney had not picked up singing again, but instead kept saying, “Everybody,” and waiving his hands in the same gesture repeatedly. His tone, volume, and movements were identical each time, but it somehow became more and more insistent and the other people on the street (for there were other people) almost considered saying something or attempting to distract the idiots from Haven and Horant, who would have otherwise been the envy of every passerby.

“Oh darling, darling, my dear darling,” said Fake Teeth, rubbing up against the bare underbelly of Hawaiian Shirt’s bicep.

Euro Disney now latched onto Hawaiian Shirt’s other bicep. The three of them walked arm-in-arm, first behind Haven and Horant and then disembarking from each other only to slide in front of them and reconnect.

“How do you like it?” asked Hawaiian Shirt, turning back and looking Haven in the eyes. She shuddered and leaned up against Horant.

“To stumble out,” said Haven. She was staggering now and the only thing keeping her up was Horant, who did not know whether to slow down, to try to get around the idiots, or stop dead and turn back to anywhere else. Horant finally decided to stop, hold onto Haven, and turn around in the opposite direction. The idiots did not notice for awhile, continuing their burlesque for no one in particular. “We’re strolling along, singing a song, side by side,” sang Euro Disney.

By this time, James and Florence had ducked into a bar which was known as much for its dinginess as it was for its five-pocket pool table. The pool table was shaped like the Star of David and was about half the length of a regulation table. Sharks from all around came to this bar only to discover that often times their skills did not translate and total novices were just as likely to fleece them as they were to do the fleecing. The bartender, it was no coincidence, or maybe it was a complete coincidence, wore a fleece sweater and ordered James and Florence to order a drink as soon as they popped in. “We only serve customers,” she said, waving a spoon with a long handle.

“Oh no, we were just, give us a minute and we’ll be on our way,” said James. “There are three men . . .”

“Of course there are. There are always three men. In fact, you’re lucky if there are that few. Nonetheless, you can order drinks or you can join the three men,” said the bartender.

Florence looked at James, they shrugged and took two of the infinite empty seats at the bar. “We can meet up later anyway,” said Florence. “Might be nice to get a few words in.”

James nodded and tried to remember everything he had thought to ask her, but had not. He blanked and stared at the beer list scrawled on the chalkboard in front of them.

***

            The idiots eventually noticed, but did not turn around. Instead, they walked arm-in-arm towards the bar at the end of the dead-end street and actually walked within an inch of the wall, not the door, before they disbanded. Hawaiian shirt simply pivoted and leaned up against the brick façade, half bentover seemingly trying to catch his breath from the short stroll he just endured. Fake Teeth muttered “fifty feet within…” after noticing the bar’s overhead sign and hopped in the other direction for close to that, stopped, and shouted, “Can you hear me? I’m going to be at this distance. Can you hear me?” Euro Disney, for his part, doffed his beret to Hawaiian shirt, walked back the other way, doffed his beret to Fake Teeth, and headed back in the direction of the The Chocolatier: Yummy!

Horant and Haven did not notice but kept walking in the opposite direction from whence they came. Haven was still trembling, but was now upright and if anything was dragging Horant. It was not until they were three blocks from the dead-end street that either said a word.

“Did you ever think about how we’re designed only to be able to see other people’s faces?” asked Haven. “Like without help from someone else, something shinny, we would never be able to see our own face. How terrifying is that!”

“Other things bother me more. Like those three, they bother me more,” said Horant. Their walking had slowed slightly. Their pace was indecisive, as if each might turn one way or the other and become lost forever.

“Nevermind them. They are a symptom. Like the yellow gum in your dog’s eye. They’re easily wiped away. It’s the ragweed that’s everywhere and will never cease being everywhere.”

“Maybe, but what can we do? And if we could do it, would we?” asked Horant.

Haven turned and looked at Horant, her blue eyes shinny in the near darkness. A street light reflected in them and it had a psychedelic effect on Horant. He stopped.

“We can drive,” said Haven. “Let’s go for a drive!”

“We both got rides, remember? Should we find them? I can call James. He’ll come round.”

“No, no, let’s drive. The two of us, let’s go for a drive. I have my keys. I’ve read Keyes. Even that ends, you know, not as I’d hoped. We have a chance, just drive with me.”

“Should you be driving? I mean we had . . . some . . .”

“Yes, we did and we were feeling it for awhile now, weren’t we?” She looked at Horant like she was immune to alcohol and had only been acting the whole time for her own amusement. Horant actually staggered back a step. He braced a nearby wall. It was filled with graffiti he couldn’t read.

“Honey, Horant, we, the two of us, really,” she said and tapped her fingers on his shoulder. Without waiting for the third tap, Horant grabbed her somewhere between her shoulders and waist and kissed her. She let his lips do the work, but did not withdraw. They held the kiss until Horant caught someone out of the corner of his eye. It might have been a poster of a person if not for the fact that it moved closer to them. Haven took the opportunity to speak directly into his mouth. “Let’s drive.” He kissed her again quickly despite the shadow moving closer and closer.

Once the shadow reached them, it looked with some envy, and kept walking.

 

 

Part IX: When James and Florence Are Left Alone

 

Meanwhile, the small talk between Florence and James was getting so infinitesimally miniscule that they almost ceased talking altogether and began communicating with a series of eyebrow raises and lip protrusions.

“So they don’t even tell you why they got rid of the low fat cream cheese?” asked James with interest.

“No, they said once that the people who ordered it were unsavory. I told them so was the strawberry cream cheese. But they’ve kept that one as far as I know.”

“How come blueberries can go in bagels but not on bagels and visa versa with strawberries?”

“Are you one of those berry equivalency people?”

“You know, I never really thought about it, but I guess I am,” said James as his pint of beer nearly slid away from him on the well-lubricated bar.

“You know you’re just wrong, right? Different berries serve different purposes. The fact they are berries means almost as little as the fact that they are fruit. Do watermelon and avocado compete for mouths?” Florence was not excited or intense so much as she was sure of what she said. It seemed to James that she had rehearsed it, but in fact it was the first time she gave any thought to it at all and she cracked a smile as soon as she remembered how little any of this truly meant to her.

James raised his eyebrows slightly and grinned as he reached for his beer. “There is something ridiculous about that, like you said it just to amuse yourself,” said James. “Do you actually believe any of what you just said?” James meant this somewhat playfully, but the words slipped out as challenges.

“I, no, I guess not,” said Florence. The light coming out of her eyes, her head dipping down to take another sip, she looked up at the beer-branded clock above the bar. “I wonder what happened to Haven and your friend there. Something could have happened, you think?”

“They seemed harmless, I don’t know. In their way harmless. But I can call if you want to find out.”

“No, I mean Haven, well you saw. She could use a little heartening.”

“Horant too I suppose, but just a little. Maybe they’ll be good together.”

“I can’t say, you know. Haven, honestly, she’s not a friend or anything like that, she’s just one of those people who overwhelm you into knowing them. Like I know her, but I’d rather know someone else who I’ve spent just as much time with, someone quiet, thoughtful, but unnoticed and unknowable. I’d rather know that person but I don’t even know how I’d start.” She stared ahead and made no eye contact with James. James thought perhaps she was talking about herself or himself or just in the abstract about people like themselves or about someone in particular who was not him and still held a special power over her, someone from her high school maybe. By the time he had sorted all the possibilities of what he thought she might mean, the time to say anything in response had passed.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I probably sound crazy to you. You want to know her, right?”

“Yes, I guess I do. There is something about her.”

“I know, but I’m not sure that’s a good thing. What if she were ugly? I don’t mean just not gorgeous like she is, but just flat difficult to look at, would there still be something about her?”

“Yes, but no one would know,” said James.

“You really think no one. There would not be one person willing to find out? Her sheer strength of personality would be insufficient to lure one, while her looks combined with that same personality is enough to lure the world?”

James thought for a minute, scratching his chin, his thumb going against the grain of his ten-o’clock shadow. “Yes, but, you know, that’s not exactly how I’d phrase it. The looks are one thing, maybe you’re right they’re the only thing, but I doubt it. We credit attractive people with much, but I wonder if we are just crediting them with what we should credit everyone. There is simultaneous interest, paralysis, and unfounded respect, like seeing a lion five feet away. You really want it to come up to you and let you pet it, but you know the best case scenario is that it walks by without incident. I’ve mangled that I think, but you get it?”

“No, I mean, I don’t really. It would be a total disaster if everyone treated everybody like they were lions. You can’t walk around being intimidated by everyone. I do sometimes, but it’s sort of my job. You have to be respectful, but to actually feel that way, deep down, would be a nightmare.”

“I’m sure you, to some, you . . .” said James. “I mean as . . .” he continued and looked at her briefly as she turned towards him, trying to make out what he was trying to say. “ . . . a beautiful woman yourself, you know the advantages.”

Florence knew this type of thing was coming eventually, though she had hoped for it to be delayed as much as possible. She never knew the sincerity of such remarks. She thought men were compelled to say such things when the subject of beauty was brought up around a woman. It was to make her and any other woman feel like “well of course, you too are beautiful.” To not say something would be to insinuate that she was objectively unattractive. She wished the conversations could continue on neutral terms, but it had turned and there was no going back. James, on the other hand, did not say such things lightly and did not, as a general matter, pay compliments to people as a matter of social curtesy. In fact, often times he intentionally ignored signals from people who were begging to be reassured.

“Well, thanks, you know, thanks,” said Florence.

“I, honestly, it’s, I don’t think I know how it would feel. I think it’d be good, but that’s just a comparative thing. It might be bad in a new way, which might end up being so much worse.”

“I can’t say, honestly. I can’t say,” said Florence finishing her beer. James was torn between saying, “Of course you can,” and pressing his hand against her back, or finishing off his own beer and staring straight ahead. He chose the latter. “I’ve gotta close out,” he said, recognizing that Florence wanted to leave. She nodded and then waited in silence until James got the bartender’s attention.

***

            “We’re taking Haven’s car, you take yours with the other one,” read the text Horant sent James. The text was sent ten minutes previous, but James had not felt the vibration through his pocket and even if he had, would not have been so rude to check his phone mid-conversation. But now that things were concluding in some intermittent and not terribly satisfying way, he felt that checking his phone was not taboo, but to the contrary, expected. Florence also checked hers and received only a typical “Love you honey, here’s a cute video,” email from her mother. Florence’s Mother discovered the internet late in life and had made up for lost time by sending her offspring tri-weekly pleasant email forwards mostly of dogs doing human things, but also sometimes of animals of different species being kind to one another. Florence never responded, but sometimes watched them, and when she did, it made her think the world was alright.

“Thank you,” said Florence to James as they walked out of the bar. She trailed behind him initially, but he held the door for her and she walked through. “I didn’t mean for the door,” she said, “I meant for the drink, the company, just thanks.” They were outside now, the breeze blew her hair into her eyes and she removed it to the side of her face with alacrity.

“Of course, thank you,” said James swimming a little in that hair flip and unsure whether she was just being nice or was genuinely appreciative, and even if she were generally appreciative, what this could mean for her overall opinion of him and, lastly, what was the wind doing to his hair anyway? They walked for a minute in silence.

“Where did they go you think? I don’t even have Haven’s number,” said Florence taking her phone out and sliding her finger down it aggressively by way of demonstration. James pulled out his phone and made a show out of checking it, even though he had already read Horant’s text.

“He says they took Haven’s car. So I guess they’re alright, but,” said James. He looked away from his phone and back over at Florence who had put her phone away and stopped walking. “So, I mean I can give you a ride back if you want or we could go somewhere else. What do you think?”

“Must have been Haven’s plan all along,” said Florence. “Why would she want me to drive her, it’s so weird. My car is at her place. Do you want to go back to her place? Maybe we could sneak in and rearrange the fruit bowl or something. Untidy the linen closet, that type of thing could be a hoot,” said Florence.

“A hoot? Sure, I suppose. I mean it’s her place after all. I’m sure there are several linen closets,” said James.

“Several you think? I bet she has a bowl with various types of grapes, at least two types of grapes. She didn’t let me in earlier,” said Florence.

“Did you ask?” asked James.

“Ask to be let in? Why would I ask her that?” asked Florence seemingly quasi-insulted at the insinuation that she would ask Haven to let her into her home.

“People ask all sorts of things all the time and sometimes for reasons less obvious than they want to know the answer,” said James, sharing his inner Horant.

“In what universe does that advance your cause?” asked Florence.

“This one?”

“Sure, let’s invade the Hootenanny residence.”

 

 

Part X: Why You Always Take Two Cars

 

“She gave you the keys back? None of this makes much sense,” said Horant, his hand on Haven’s waist as they swayed through the streets towards the parking garage.

“Why would I let her keep my keys? You’re silly, that’s silly!”

“I’ve been called a lot of things, silly is among the least descriptive and least accurate,” said Horant moving his hand up and down Haven’s back as they were stopped at a crosswalk.

Haven turned and looked up into his eyes and said, “Silly.”

They were now allowed to walk and so they did, across the street and into the lot where Haven had almost forgotten both where Florence parked and that she had texted herself where Florence parked when she parked there. Haven had, in fact, once actually lost a car she had parked at a St. Patrick’s Day Festival. She parked it somewhere and when she went to pick it up eight hours later she simply could not remember where it was, searched for an hour, took a cab, and reported the car stolen. The next day the police found it parked in a lot between two semi trucks. When alerted by the police, Haven insisted that she “would not and could not have” parked there and that maybe it wasn’t even her car. The cops were swayed for a moment, having seen her face and all that, but then asked her to try her keys. They worked. The next day, she traded that car in for her current SUV to prove some kind of point to someone.

This memory flooded back to Haven as she removed Horant’s hand from her back and searched diligently for her SUV.

“Do you remember where she parked it?” asked Horant. His question was so unbelievably confoundingly dumb that he did nothing when Haven clearly heard him and did not respond, but instead clattered her heels around the hard concrete a bit more, placing her hand over her forehead as if she were Columbus or some other explorer who actually knew what they were looking for.

“We could call your friend,” said Horant chasing Haven around, dodging the occasional car or alerting Haven to do the same.

“What friend? Why would my friend know where she parked?” asked Haven.

“She parked it, I meant her, the one we were just with, the one with the bagels. I could call James.”

“Who’s that? Why would he know?”

“My friend James, presumably he’s still with your friend.”

“Why presume that? Maybe even they are, and would rather be left alone. I could have just . . . I, you know,” said Haven, remembering she had noted the location on an app in her phone. She had, apparently, parked on the third floor, hippo section (the lot was occasionally used for zoo overflow parking before the zoo relocated to an area that now consisted almost entirely of parking lots). Instead of alerting Horant, she simply stopped, read her phone, and flew up the nearest flight of stairs. Horant had no choice but to follow her like a rat whose cheese had started to roll away. Out of breath, not because of the stairs, but because of the excitement of the realization and what this meant for the evening, Haven pressed the remote, heard that familiar unlocking cue, stomped over, and leaned against the car before Horant really knew what happened.

“Found it!” she said, and they made out for awhile against the SUV until they heard what sounded like footsteps.

When they got in the car, Haven asked, “Who do you think that was, right there?”

“How would? I mean, I have no idea. Could be anyone.”

“Do you think they would have been offended? You know?” asked Haven.

Horant placed his hand on her left thigh, just below where her dress ended. “Offended by what?”

“Oh you know anything, us, my car, the stock market. Do you think they’d be offended?”

He removed his hand, “No way of knowing, there’s no counting for offense. People are offended by everything and nothing really. Deep psychological offense, I don’t even think it’s a real thing. I’ve never felt it.” He looked back down at that same thigh.

“Oh no? I have, I mean, I’m offended all the time I think, and sometimes I don’t even know why. Like yesterday, no the day before, the day before, I, this man asked me if whether I have more fun because of my hair color, you know?”

“And that offended you deeply?”

“No, I mean, it was more the way he said it and who he was. He’s one of those powerful men you read about in magazines who, at the end of this war or that, accumulates a bunch of stuff people had been wanting during the war but couldn’t get because of civic duty and that type of thing. Anyway, he’s like one of those, and then he sells it all off to those people who wanted that stuff and makes so much money the only way he can interest anyone after that is by making them feel unhinged. So he unhinges people now and that’s like what he does.”

“Hmm, we’re you unhinged?”

“I, no, I mean, offended is better. I mean, why me? My hair is fine, but hair without a face is no fun for anyone.”

“That seems right.” Horant considered some type of physical contact to reassure Haven. Of what he would be reassuring her, he had no idea and in 99% of moments would have said so.

“People accost me all the time. I’m immensely accostable. Sometimes, there are moments when I’d prefer that particular moment had never started, like the whole course of human events to that point led to me, specifically me, being accosted by this ghoul or that, and insofar as it all led to that, I’d prefer that none of it happened.”

“Do you? You can’t mean that because some clown comes up to you and asks for your autograph and a picture you would prefer that mankind never existed?” asked Horant, suddenly reverting to what, if anyone asked, he would describe as his normal state.

Haven did not answer, but grabbed Horant’s head and kissed him on the bridge of the nose. “Let’s drive,” she said.

***

            James and Florence nearly skipped to his car, walking side by side except when one of them misjudged the pace of the other. There was something about the prospect of driving to Haven’s house which made them both irrepressibly happy.

“Does she have a dog, you think? Guards?” asked James.

“I didn’t hear a bark.”

“You know about dogs, they say, they say not all of them bark all the time.”

“Same with guards?”

“Oh, no, they all bark all the time.”

They reached the car, James considered opening the door for Florence, did not, and simply unlocked both front doors as they split towards opposite sides of the car. Florence managed to open the unlocked door, sit in the car, and close the door all by herself without even thinking it was particularly difficult. James’s car smelled nice because his driver side window did not seal correctly and he had, unintentionally, parked next to an incense store. In the back seat there was a tennis racquet and a brochure for an herbal hair loss reversal supplement his mom had left in the car on purpose without saying anything the last time he picked her up at her eye doctor appointment. James found it weeks ago, read it more thoroughly than he’d like to admit, and threw it back where he found it either out of disgust or a genuine desire to know where it was. It was too dark for Florence to see or notice the racquet or the brochure.

“My car is a mess,” said James, not because he believed it but because that’s what everyone always said to him whenever they gave him a ride anywhere regardless of the condition of their car. It was always said unironically and James did not blaze a new trail in this respect.

“Oh yeah, it’s a disaster. Smells like bagels too! Wait, no that’s mine,” said Florence, just then noticing that they were parked across from Incandessence. “Oh,” she said, “that explains it. Your car almost smelled too good. That would be creepy if you burnt incense in your car. I’d walk home right now if I found out you did that. Do you?” she gripped the door handle.

“I’ve never owned incense. It was explained to me once.”

“How long did that take? It burns and smells in a way some people like.”

“That was much more efficient than my lesson. It was a six-week adult education class called This Stick, When You Burn It, It Smells Nice!

“First two weeks, the stick, next two, when you burn it, final two, smells nice.”

The very end of this conversation was the turn of the key in the ignition.

***

            Haven started to drive. Where she was going was unclear to Horant, but she drove purposefully, without a modicum of drunkenness. They drove past the expensive residential neighborhood which Horant had assumed Haven lived. The drove past the slightly less expensive, but still overpriced up and coming neighborhood in which Horant lived. They drove past the lame and unimportant neighborhood Haven actually grew up in and the slightly livelier but less safe neighborhood Horant used to tell people he grew up in when he wanted to pretend he was from the area. They drove past it all, until there were no more places one could reasonably call neighborhoods. Horant hadn’t thought to ask where they were going and even if he had, would Haven respond? He placed his hand on her leg a few times and she didn’t dissuade him, but was also not encouraging. There was a place they could be going, Horant thought, a remote location where some people had informed him there was a view of the city which was “worth it.” They passed that place without slowing. Finally, Horant asked, “Where are we going?”

“We’re driving, you and I, mostly me. It’s been so nice this evening, so nice, really,” she said tapping his hand, removing it from her leg, and squeezing it.

“I agree,” said Horant. “Still, where are we going?” Horant was somehow both playful and insistent.

“Sometimes you just wait and then eventually, what is going to happen, happens. This is one of those scenes. In the biz, we call ‘em wait-n-sees.” She patted his leg.

“As long as the ending is, how do they say it in the biz?”

“Final? The final ending. I think that’s it.”

“Well . . .” said Horant.

“It should be. I would think it would be,” said Haven.

The road was winding now, the lights on the road became less frequent, Horant’s ears began to pop. He receded from Haven and began staring at the window, her face seemed darker whenever he looked at it, like the cheapest special effect he’d ever seen. Every once in a while, her teeth flashed at him out of the darkness and it distorted her face and made Horant feel, for the first time since he’d met Haven, a type of revulsion. The SUV climbed up the winding road, sometimes roaring, other times seeming to hiss. Nothing was said for quite a while, Horant considered turning on the radio but decided he’d better not. Who knows what would come on and how it would make things better or worse or the same.

“We’re almost there,” said Haven.

***

            James and Florence reached Haven’s apartment in fine order, remarking at this and that expectation of how Haven lived and this and that street sign which amused one or both of them in some way. They parked at the end of the long driveway in line with a set of reddish orange bushes Haven’s exterior designer had suggested would “broaden the tonal ephemeral simpatico of the house.” At the time Haven did not know what this meant and could not be bothered to find out, but thought the bushes pretty and figured it meant something like that. It took sometime for the bushes to grow as expected, but soon enough they were indeed pretty and Haven almost weekly thought about how nice it was to have these particular bushes as part of her life.

“My car is down the street, but do you want to come in? Not to my place of course but Haven’s. I bet, maybe we can sneak in. The linens, remember?” said Florence. Florence was feeling her drinks a little bit and also feeling a sort of adventurousness she had rarely exhibited since graduating college. There was something just taboo enough about Haven’s house. Florence felt that there was an equal chance that Haven would not care at all about her and James entering her place without permission, or that it would destroy her entire world. Florence liked this dichotomy and was, quite frankly, up for either.

James, for his part, was just going to follow Florence. Had he been left to his own devices and glacial mode of decisionmaking, he would not be anywhere near Haven’s apartment. He would have driven Florence home, said goodnight, hoped to feel compelled to kiss her, and chalk it all up as at least an eventful night even if the kiss did not come off. But the car situation had driven him, quite literally, to Haven’s doorstep and on the verge of attempting to break into her house with this Florence, who was witty and put out bagels. That was the most he could say about Florence and he was letting her dictate his life decisions after he had let Horant dictate the decision to go in the first place, after Horant had, no doubt, let this Haven Hootenanny, who happened to be the least knowable person he’d ever met, dictate this insane ride situation. He could do the same anyway, he thought suddenly. He could leave Florence off, say goodnight, try the kiss, say no breaking and entering for me tonight, but wasn’t it a lovely evening etc. and so on. He could still do all that, but in point of fact, he could not, because by the time he thought all that he had already told Florence, “Sure, let’s see what we can do.”

They crept up her driveway, Florence feigning some type of special ops scenario, James moving the same way out of reluctance to proceed more than any type of play acting. “What are we doing?” said Florence. “What are we doing?” said James, slightly more insistently. They reached the front door. It was unlocked! Haven, in her rush to look just right for Horant, had forgotten to lock the door. The neighborhood was such that Haven had, unwittingly unlocked the front door on several previous occasions and never had any incident. When she originally looked at buying the house last year, the real estate agent had assured her that the neighborhood was “impeccably safe” due in no small part to the “tree-lined streets.” “There are trees lined up, ready to fight on your behalf,” he said.

Florence and James laughed almost silently as the doorknob turned with ease. Florence pushed her way into the foyer and James crept slowly in behind her. “There could still be an alarm,” he thought and said, but too quietly for Florence to hear.

Florence flipped on the lights, no alarm sounded. “This, jesus,” she said, as the sparkling marble kitchen countertops made her shield her eyes as she walked towards them. On the countertops was a collection of intricate and apparently unused cooking devices. There was even what appeared to be a mini guillotine for chopping celery or like-shaped vegetables. Florence wanted to run her finger across the blade and say something about cake or Marie Antoinette or both, but she didn’t, and instead poked James in the gut and said, “Look at that!” James nodded knowingly, also having observed the peculiar chopping device.

“I bet she never cooks, just never,” said Florence.

“Do you?”

“Almost never, I did a few times in college when time seemed infinite between classes. I made a pizza bread that my roommates raved about and always begged me to make after they came home drunk. It takes time though pizza bread, like anything else, and usually I was drunk too. Sometimes we’d end up at least buying the ingredients.”

“Like this,” said James, alluding to the series of spotless contraptions on the countertop.

“Almost, but we’d still eat them at some point, you know, it’s not like we’d leave the pepperoni out for weeks as a show of our capacity to make pizza bread. We ate it, and it was less good, and just as unhealthy, without the dough and the time I ended up refusing to invest in it.”

“You wait sometimes for a good thing, other times a good thing is foisted upon you and you don’t know what to do with it, or even know it is a good thing, maybe the best thing possible, till it’s gone and you convince yourself it’s the best thing possible. Even then, was it?”

Florence sidled up next to James in the far corner of the kitchen, next to the refrigerator which was twice the width as the distance between them. Florence closed the gap. James put his right hand on the part of her hair which one could argue was near her eyes. He brushed it back. He ducked his head, their lips met, their arms slid down each other’s bodies in fits and starts, until they each landed somewhere in the lower back. This type of thing went on for quite some time until they withdrew momentarily.

“Did you miss it?” asked Florence.

“No, I was there for that one,” said James.

***

            The only thing between Haven and Horant at this point was a center console and an increasingly cavernous lack of awareness of each other. The dense fog which once enveloped the lightless streets on which they were turning this way and that had lifted and Horant could clearly see the vacant nothingness on all sides. It was what he imagined idiots did on the weekends, just driving to nowhere to go shoot something or other, or set off makeshift explosives. He was not at all certain that Haven knew where she was going, or that, at this point, Haven even knew what it would mean to know where she was going. He took out his phone and tried to text James, “We’re nowhere man, she’s driven us to nowhere, officially! Are you home now? I might need you.” There was no service and the text did not get delivered then.

“Is there another?” asked Haven, coldly.

“What? No, just texting James.”

“I want to believe you. There’s no service out here anyway, he (or she) will have to wait. It’s just you and me now Horant, really. The two of us,” said Haven. “No one else, none of them, just us two and the drive, which is almost over, soon it’ll just be us two,” said Haven.

“Can’t wait,” said Horant again reaching for Haven’s leg, but this time stopping himself at the center console and gripping it.

Haven turned into what can only be described as a wooded trail. How she even saw it in the darkness is inexplicable, unless you consider that Haven had turned down that same path no fewer than eighty times. The first time she made the turn, it was an innocent mistake. She had intended to go sight seeing at a spot someone had told her was “breathtaking.” She almost forgot what that phrase meant by the time she made the turn that first time. It had been a particularly frustrating day for her. The IVV had been especially terrifying that afternoon, her show having featured coverage of garish Christmas lights and the people who thought they were beautiful. This attracted people whose sense of beauty, she thought, started with themselves and continued on in the same misdirected vain until culminating with Christmas light displays complete with strobe lights and pulsing Christmas House Music – a hybrid so unpopular that even the International Gingerbread Housewives Championship, which had run for fifty-seven years, folded the year after it switched from traditional Christmas music to this gross amalgam. Ms. Gingerbread Housewife Turkey was so perturbed that she set fire to her own creation and laughed as the little gingerbread faces disintegrated before her eyes. It was bad news, and Haven had told The Coordinator so that day. The Coordinator suggested she drive somewhere breathtaking or else he was going to take her breath for her, and maybe her job too. This was before Haven was big enough to laugh off such idol threats; she was actually indispensable at the time, but did not know it. Her indispensability was known to her only insofar as she generally thought herself indispensable because everyone had always treated her like she was, no matter what she was doing or how badly she was doing it. This, ironically, led her to believe that maybe she was not indispensable at all, but entirely dispensable and people were pretending she was indispensable so she would dispense with herself and give herself to them entirely. She rarely did, and it never ended well on those rare occasions she momentarily forgot the other occasions and gave some part of herself to someone who was seeking it. The only difference between those occasions and all the others was, she thought, her failure to recognize her own power or lack thereof or, more completely, her failure to recognize other’s desire to take that power from her. Once she was awaken, through some inadvertent or advertent indifference on the part of the possessing party, it was over and done with, and each time she thought, “so much the better.”

The car had stopped. The darkness was palpable. The lights were shut off and Horant could only see a line of trees, “oaks,” he thought for some reason other than recognizing what type of trees they were.

“We’re here!” said Haven. She unlocked the door and waited for Horant to grope around his side of the SUV to her side, open her door, take her by the hand, and close the door behind her. “In your heels?” he asked.

“Oh, of course, of course, how are we to stumble out if it’ll be as simple as walking in my bare feet? Besides, there’s dirt here and it would, you know, my feet would get dirty otherwise.”

“And your shoes? They’re very pretty shoes.”

“Yes, but they’re just shoes, my dear. Just shoes you know cannot be pretty really, cannot even have any genuine aesthetic appeal at all without feet in them, and dirty feet will compromise a pretty shoe every time.”

“I suppose I understand the general sentiment, but the actual truth of what you’re saying . . . I actually think it’s not true at all.” Horant steadied himself by rubbing Haven’s shoulders.

“You don’t know. You’re nice and well, you know, I picked you after all, but you don’t know.” She grabbed his arm and walked straight ahead in the darkness. Horant followed, staring at the ground, hoping to be able to show his devotion to Haven by saving her some misstep, some step that might ruin her shoes, no matter whose feet were in them. No such opportunity arose. They stepped past the trees and what existed on the other side was, as far as Horant could tell, nothing. In a few steps, and Haven was not slowing, almost dragging Horant against his will, there would be utter nothingness. But Horant’s will was to persist with Haven, to see it through, to stagger out as it were. Three steps from what would be the end of our story, or any other, if it wasn’t for the fact that we started with James after all, and it’d be nice to know what happened to him and that nice young bagel lady Florence, Haven launched into the following: “I told you, you and I, really, Horant, and just the two of us, we’ll, you know forever, like this, and we won’t be like them, they’ll be no evidence we were like them, that they and us were even of the same species. Imagine! Us two through eternity, and maybe you’ll get a different nose in the newspaper too, the photos of us will be brilliant. The two of us, we don’t belong to all this; to the exclusion of the ones like us, there has been introduced all the rest and they’re too much for us, for me. It’s nice there’s you. But, there’s also all that, and it’s not going away anytime soon. I’ve tried, my whole life, I’ve tried to reconcile, what it means, why it’s like that, why we can’t be better, all of us, even me. I have no answers. I’ve been told they’re dumb questions. They’re vain questions. They’re questions only a person who happens to be both irreconcilably dumb and inconceivably vain would ask. I’ve asked, I may be both, but with you, I feel neither, and it’s been some time.” She embraced Horant, held him tightly, kissed his face all over, but neglected his lips which hopelessly sought hers in the darkness.

She finally released him and they stood looking over the precipice, hand-in-hand. For all this, Horant never really believed Haven would take the next two steps, but she would have, she truly would have, and taken him with her. However, just then a stray dog appeared through the darkness. He barked once, looking directly at the lovely couple with his one good eye. Haven turned and shielded herself from his lop-sided gaze using Horant, who more than welcomed the distraction. The old mangy mutt stood his ground, and, in fact, hobbled his way towards our second favorite couple. When he became visible, Horant noticed that he was the ugliest four-legged creature he had seen since his Uncle had showed him his prized possum collection. “There are several colors of possums,” he had said, “but they all have that face.”

The dog’s life is not entirely known, but it will suffice to learn that it had once been trained to fight other dogs, had been found to be too docile for the task, had been tagged with a collar at some point thereafter which read, “No longer needed, shoot if you’d like,” had been officially abandoned in the woods, had been attacked by a mountain lion, had been pecked at by a series of thoughtless birds, of which he was able to catch one and eat it, bones and all, had badly cut up his left front paw on the serrated edge of a can of beans some trucker had thrown out his front window, and finally, had arrived this night at the cliff before two lovely people who had never experienced one second as bad as the best moment of this dog’s life (probably the time he found a piece of old hamburger in the trash, ate it, and became violently sick thereafter).

The dog neared the huddled couple, his tongue dragging to his knobby knees, his knob tail wagging slightly.

“Rabid?” asked Haven.

“It doesn’t look great,” said Horant, shooing the dog away with his hands but refusing to use his feet for fear he might lose his or Haven’s footing, or actually injure the animal.

The dog ignored the shooing, having faced many more emphatic attempts to disrupt his plans in the past. Many of these consequences he did not remember at the moment, having lost much of his memory, almost thankfully, because of the various times he had his face smacked, headbutted, or chewed to the point of concussion.

The dog walked inbetween Haven and Horant, sticking his nose in as a wedge and then lying down. He scrambled to his back, waved his paws in the air a few times with abandon and then flipped to face Haven. Haven withdrew and staggered backwards for a second, but was pulled in by Horant. Whether she actually would have stumbled over the cliff without Horant’s pull is unknown, and beside the point. Upon being pulled back, she fell to her knees and found herself face to face with the mutt. She was terrified and recoiled. The dog inched his way closer on his belly and began licking the air furiously until he finally reached Haven’s feet. He licked her feet for what seemed like minutes; she giggled wildly, literally and figuratively tickled by the dog’s affection. Horant just watched as the woman who had just led him to the edge of eternity, squealed with delight as she rubbed the old dog’s belly and let his tongue lick her toes to the point that they were dripping with his slobber. Finally, the dog looked up at Haven, his one intact eye twitching with glee and hope that this stranger would be his new best friend and save him from whatever it was the rest of his life had been. She cupped his head with her smooth, painted hands, felt several bumps, notches, and scars which were either smoothed over or fresh, sticky or bulbous. She felt his ugliness in its entirety. She placed her hand under his muzzle and let him lean his head on something sympathetic for the first time in his life.

“Good boy!” she said.

 

 

Part XI: How It Will Impact the Rest of Your Life

 

A week after their double date, James and Horant met at Go Ahead and Order That Diner for lunch. They had texted a few times that week and were vaguely aware of how each other’s night had gone, but had not really discussed it in detail.

“So did you think you were going over the cliff with her, head over heels, as it were?” asked James.

“No, I don’t think, actually, I don’t think so.”

“Shame, I had a theory I wanted you to test.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t die. Men have died for theories, but I won’t die for yours, whatever it is. And if it’s about death, I certainly won’t die for that,” said Horant.

“Do you want to know what it is?”

“No, not really.”

They stared off for a minute, the TV in front of them showing Haven announcing that “Even though the crowds this year may be worse than ever before, that’s not so bad, is it?”

The screen was cluttered with Godknowswhat; of note was a dancing sandwich holding a spinning sign. The sandwich’s hands did not move, but the sign seemed to spin of its own accord. The sandwich wore a Hawaiian shirt and had this pickle and that onion sticking out of its head. The sign read “Sale, but not the one you think, the real one!” The fine print was not fine, but in fact larger than “Sale.” However, it was all small on the screen and unreadable for James and Horant who were focused on Haven in any case. As innocuous as the corner ad seemed, it actually caused an irreconcilable riff between the bagel caterer and The Network, and provided the impetus for Florence to quit her job, apply for grad school, earn a masters’ degree, and, in the process, exit James’s life forever. But that’s a different story, one without aesthetic appeal, one of casual melancholy and moderate academic achievement, one that ends at a ceremony with proud parents and a couple of men, neither of whom are James, upset that Florence would exit their lives forever after her name was read. As for Haven, she looked different, less perfect, but more perfected; like the slight asymmetry in her eyebrows and the way her hair kept falling in front of her face was somehow as she was intended to be.

“So, are you two?” asked James, pointing at the TV with his voice and head.

“I think so, yeah.” said Horant.

“And the dog?”

“She’s keeping it. The vet is getting a Porsche.”

They stared another second. “But, like, where do you go from here? What do you do for an encore? Someone probably once said that every love story begins with an aborted suicide attempt,” said James.

“I doubt it, but now you have. Sometimes I consider you someone.”

“Why?”

“Habit.”

“But, really, what next?”

“A wine bar near her place I think. She said it’s called Stuff,” said Horant.

“I know that place. That’s one of those places that spells stuff with an ‘f.’”

“I’m pretty sure that’s every place.”

“No, with an ‘f.’”

“Stuff with an ‘n’ is not stuff.”

“No, an ‘f,’ like one f.”

“Only one f?”

“Yes, S-t-u-f.”

“Got it, but I don’t think that means anything, what you said right now. Nothing follows from being a place that misspells stuff.”

“But in that way specifically, everything follows.”

“But not a second ‘f.’ That at least doesn’t follow.”

“Yes, I agree.”

 

 

 

BIO

Brian Conlon is an attorney originally from Rochester, NY, now living in San Francisco. He knows of a song that says something or other about meeting someone or other there. He can’t sing it, so don’t ask. If you gave him sheet music, he could play it on sax. His ears are not great. His story The Two Problems in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Their Solution appeared in the fall 2013 edition of The Writing Disorder. His novella, The Long Black Veil, was recently published by Novella-T (which no longer exists, but was pretty cool).

 

 

 

0

Super John

by Mark Budman

 

 

If you shop at Walmart even occasionally, you’ve probably seen John Doe exiting with a cart full of frozen pizzas and beer and toilet paper. But you hardly noticed him. He blended in with the elements so well that you’d need Sherlock Holmes’s attention to detail to spot him in the crowd. You wouldn’t know about his dreams or aspirations. You wouldn’t care if he wanted to become a star though his talents were few.

But one day, as he strolled through the exit door, another shopper blocked his path. She looked strange even by Walmart standards: pointed ears, nose and chin, and a collection of warts big as strawberries. Her eyes shone like two faux rubies.

John tried to guide his cart around her but she kept blocking his way. Then she thrust a small bag in his hand and vanished.

John examined the bag. It contained a plastic box and a receipt. He proceeded outside and opened the box. There was a puff sound. A small blast of yellow, pleasant-smelling gas escaped. And that was it. John shrugged, threw the box into the garbage and headed to his car.

Then his insides churned and a bout of hiccups took over. He felt like he was bursting. In minutes, he grew to a height five times taller than before. When he entered the store an hour earlier, his height was 69.7 inches, average for a white American male. Now, though stooping, he was 348.5 inches, which is 29 feet, give or take, and he dwarfed his cart and the gawkers. Unlike the Incredible Hulk, John’s clothes grew proportionally, except for his pants and skivvies, to the delight of some and envy of others. His eyes flashed laser beams and bolts of lightning danced on his back.

The store manager called 911. At first, the operator hung up on him. Eventually, after calls from numerous people, the SWAT team came, but John shot up to the skies and turned not just into a single star but a whole constellation. The pic of this constellation, first taken by the most junior member of the SWAT team, was an instant success on Instagram. It had became popularly known as $5.10 because it resembled five rolled up dollar bills for the torso, hands and feet, and a dime for the head. It inspired a doll, “Johanna,” sold at Walmart for that price. It was also a success, and became the number one stolen item nationwide for the month of August.

As for the stranger, she hadn’t been seen again, probably because there were enough stars in this galaxy and not enough shoppers at Walmart.

 

 

BIO

Mark Budman was born in the former Soviet Union. His writing appeared in Five Points, PEN, American Scholar, Huffington Post, World Literature Today, Daily Science Fiction, Mississippi Review, Virginia Quarterly, The London Magazine (UK), McSweeney’s, Sonora Review, Another Chicago, Sou’wester, Southeast Review, Mid-American Review, Painted Bride Quarterly,  Short Fiction (UK), and elsewhere. He is the publisher of the flash fiction magazine Vestal Review. His novel My Life at First Try was published by Counterpoint Press. He  co-edited flash fiction anthologies from Ooligan Press and Persea Books/Norton.

 

 

 

0

The Crossing

by Mona Leigh Rose

 

 

Ricardo says you cannot hear them. They slink like cats, he says. Ricardo says you cannot see them, not like you’d see your sister waiting on the curb for the school bus. They’re in the shadows, he says. That flick in the corner of your eye? That’s them, he says. When you see that flick, if you turn fast enough you might see the tip of a shoe or a wisp of hair. When you see that flick, you must move closer, you must look behind the utility box, around the block wall, deep into the shadows. If you ignore that flick, she will wait, not moving, not breathing. She will wait for the train and then, when it’s too late, you’ll see her. You’ll see her slide her body onto the tracks, under the crushing wheels, silently, skillfully, as if she’s been practicing all of her life for this act.   She will reveal herself at the last possible moment, right as the train is passing, right as her life is ending, right as your life is beginning. And then you’ll be fired.

That’s how it happened for Ricardo. He worked security at this crossing for seven months. Seven months of watching and waiting, seven months of double-time pay, seven months of being a man. Then the teenage girl crept out of the shadows and ended it all. Now he works at fast food for minimum wage. No other boss will hire him. He is dirty, tainted with her blood. Now he wakes up in the middle of the night, soaked in sweat, replaying that day, wondering if there was a flick, wondering if he could have stopped her, wondering if he will ever be a man again.

I took over Ricardo’s shift after the accident. Now I watch for girls who don’t want to be seen, listen for boys who don’t want to be heard. Teenagers who want to end their lives before they begin.

Every time it happens, the people and the newspapers tell us who, they tell us why: Parents who sacrifice everything so their children can have better lives. Parents who expect the impossible. Parents who are themselves geniuses, overachievers, the smartest in the world, who expect their children to do better. Children who grow up on the edge of the University, surrounded by the children of the smartest people in the world, who are told that if they don’t do better, they’re nothing. Children who sit in classrooms and libraries and tutoring centers under florescent lights for ten hours a day since they were three. Teenagers who go to the funerals of other teenagers who slid under the train. Young men and women who can think of no other option than to lie down under steel wheels to end the humiliation, the shame, of not getting into Harvard, of not scoring a perfect 2400 on their SATs, of not doing better than the smartest people in the world.

I know the older brothers of these kids. I played against them on the soccer pitch, rich against poor. I saw them around the edges of their town, when they crossed into my town. They wouldn’t talk to me, wouldn’t see me, wouldn’t hear me. Now their younger brothers and sisters dive below the trains. They still don’t talk to me or see me, but I’m the one who will save their families.

Mr. Johanson says the worst is around finals, and the worst of the worst is when college admissions go out in the Spring. That’s when they come to the tracks, he says. That’s when you must be extra alert, he says. That’s also when the loud ones, the strange ones, come down to the crossing, sit on the block wall and watch. They think it’s sport, or a movie, or something to tweet about. They think it’s funny to place bets with their allowance money. Those ones are easy to see, easy to hear. I chase them away. They laugh at me. They don’t understand.

The commuter trains, they slow at the crossing. I see the faces of the conductors as they pass. Their mouths tighten, their eyes dart, the creases on their foreheads deepen with each pass. The freight trains, they don’t slow. Their cars and TVs and cattle are too important, must reach the markets. I don’t see the faces of those conductors. Do they see me? Do they understand?

My grandfather, he doesn’t understand. “Los trenes trajo vida a mi pueblo,” he says. “Los trenes eran nuestra esperanza, nuestra manera de entrar a América,” he says. He and his friends also waited in the shadows beside the tracks. They also crept silently toward the fast-moving trains. But they jumped onto the trains, they prayed to escape the crush of the steel wheels, they pulled each other onto the train cars and hid from the conductors. They rode the trains to freedom, to jobs, to a better life.

My brothers, they don’t understand. “You’re a crossing guard for spoiled rich kids,” they say. “Yes,” I say, “A crossing guard for spoiled rich kids who makes twice what you make.” That quiets them down.

My mother, she understands. “You are doing good, Joselito,” she says. “You are helping the sad niños, you are becoming un buen hombre. You are doing good.” “Yes,” I say to my mother. “I am doing good, and I will become a man.”

Mr. Johanson also says that I’m doing good. He says that I’ll be promoted, will be a supervisor, will stop watching for children who don’t want to be seen and will be the boss of other men. But first, I must see the flick. I must look deep into the shadows. I must be a man.

 

 

 

BIO

mona leigh roseMona Leigh Rose lives and writes in Santa Barbara, California. Her stories “You Be Frodo” and “Peace” have appeared in Luna Review. She is infatuated with short fiction, the shorter the better.

 

 

 

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