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Ketchup Sandwich

by Shamar English

 

 

Growing up in poverty is phantom pain, it never goes away like hunger. It lingers for seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, decades and so on. You never forget because you always remember.

You have to devour whatever edible thing you can find. Food fluctuates in my home like the stock market. The one thing I can make and eat heavily are sandwiches. Particularly, special sandwiches since there isn’t always meat.

So, I make syrup sandwiches, sugar sandwiches, cheese sandwiches, wish sandwiches, and jelly sandwiches. Not too many peanut butter sandwiches. I tried a few times, but it wouldn’t stick to my stomach. It smelled like seaweed and paste and tasted like chalk.

But ketchup sandwiches are my satiety. I can eat more than one like a can of Pringles. They get me through the days pacifying my growling belly. It sounds gross, but not when you’re ravish by hunger.

Ketchup sandwiches subdued my impending starvation more times than I can ever recount. So, whenever the refrigerator and cabinets are full of food I go directly for the bread and ketchup.

 

 

BIO

Shamar English is a budding writer. He has a piece published in literallystories2014 magazine, and another piece that will appear in Better than Starbucks magazine. He’s originally from Santa Barbara, California, but lives in Douglasville, Georgia, with his family and attends Georgia State University pursuing his bachelor’s degree.

 

 

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Pink Lemonade

by Michael McCormick

 

 

Greg, Ricky, Joel, and Sean all left the basketball court and headed over to the parking lot. Three two-on-two games in a row and now everyone was exhausted (particularly Sean, who every one of his friends and family members agreed was a monster on the court). They were now ready for some lunch.

“Where we gonna’ go?” Ricky asked, wiping sweat off his face. “Can we do something other than Sonic?”

“I’m good with anything,” Sean said, dribbling one of the basketballs on the parking lot.

“I just want a drink,” Greg said. “I don’t really care what we eat.”

“How about Luby’s?” Joel suggested.

“I’m not in the mood for Luby’s,” Ricky replied.

“I need a drink,” Greg said. “What are places that I can get a drink?”

“There’s Jack and John’s,” Sean suggested.

“Blegh!” Ricky replied. “Forget that.”

“Why don’t we just get a pizza somewhere?” Joel asked. “Then we can get drinks somewhere else.”

“Can we not make a million stops?” Ricky replied.

“What about Sam’s?” Sean suggested.

“Yes, let’s go there,” Joel said, wiping a bead of sweat on his neck. “Can we get out of the sun already?”

“Yeah, let’s go to Sam’s,” Greg said. “I’m down for some Mountain Sunrise.”

“Ricky?” Sean asked.

“What’s Sam’s?” Ricky replied. “I’ve never heard of it.”

“It’s a steakhouse,” Joel said. “You’ll like it. Come on, let’s go! It’s freaking hot!”

“Alright, whatever,” Ricky said. “I’m okay with steak.”

With that, the four friends hopped in their cars and drove away from the park. Being the very middle of lunch hour, the roads were quite busy. It took nearly twenty minutes for the four to arrive in the parking lot of Sam’s Steak Shack.

Sam’s Steak Shack had been up and running in central Houston for nearly thirty years. While hardly known outside of Houston, the steakhouse was massively popular within the city. Top quality steaks, excellent service, and a clean and relaxing atmosphere made for the perfect spot to eat. In addition, the steakhouse was known for being home to the Mountain Sunrise, a drink that could not be found at any other restaurant. Popular among young males (particularly young males who had only recently become legally allowed to consume alcohol), the Mountain Sunrise had a unique flavor and delightful taste that was very difficult to forget. Most diners who experienced this delightful taste for the first time looked forward to paying several visits to Sam’s Steak Shack in the future for the sole purpose of having the drink again.

After a ten-minute wait, a woman led the four friends to their table in the back of the restaurant. Greg was frustrated that he had to wait so long just to get his drink, Ricky was so hungry that he was about to start gnawing on the table, Joel was just relieved to finally be out of the sun, and Sean had his mind set on taking a thirty-minute shower as soon as he arrived home.

“Next time we play ball, I’m bringing a pack of Budweiser,” Greg said as he sat down. “I hope that isn’t illegal.”

“If it is, I’m not bailing you out,” Sean said.

“It’s okay, his granny will probably take care of it,” Ricky said.

“Shut up,” Greg said with a grin. Ricky chuckled.

“Hey Sean, when’s your interview again?” Joel asked, taking a look at his menu.

“Monday,” Sean replied. “Wish me luck guys. It took me five freaking months to get this interview. If I don’t get the job, I’m probably going to smash a window.”

“Then you’d better stay away from my car,” Greg said.

“Ah, I’m sure you’ll get it, Sean,” Ricky said. “Who wouldn’t hire someone with your smoking hot body?”

“I think it’s going to be a guy,” Sean replied.

“And how do you know he won’t be interested in your hot body?”

“Oh, shut the hell up.”

Ricky chuckled.

Having never been to the restaurant before, Ricky looked around. It seemed like every other steakhouse he had been to before. Walls made of wood, pictures showing the restaurant in its earlier days, pictures of the food served at the restaurant, and several other pictures of the famous Mountain Sunrise. Ricky was quite curious to see what it tasted like.

Greg also looked around the restaurant. Every table was full. Mostly with young men, though there were a few families. Almost every young man in the restaurant had a glass of Mountain Sunrise to their side. Greg could hardly wait to get his own glass of the delicious beverage. He was sure that he was going to have drunk at least three glasses by the time he left the restaurant.

Greg also noticed at least two young men who had glasses of what appeared to be water. Greg was baffled why any man would come to Sam’s Steak Shack and not order the Mountain Sunrise. It was utterly bizarre to him. Water could be found at every other restaurant in existence. Could these men just not see the Mountain Sunrise advertisements all over the walls?

After another minute or two, their waitress returned to their table with a pen and notepad in her hand.

“What can I get y’all to drink?” the waitress asked.

Greg said: “Mountain Sunrise” without even blinking.

Sean, who also had been looking forward to a glass of Mountain Sunrise since Sam’s Steak Shack was decided on, also ordered the drink.

Ricky, although he didn’t know what Mountain Sunrise tasted like, was very curious as to why it was so popular. He also ordered a glass.

Joel looked at the beverage section of the menu. The menu heavily promoted Mountain Sunrise (there was a large picture of the famous drink at the top of the beverage section), but he was not interested. He had tasted Mountain Sunrise before and he wasn’t a fan of it. There was another beverage that he was hoping the restaurant served (he had only visited the restaurant once before). Sure enough, his favorite beverage was written in clear letters at the bottom of the page.

“Can I get some pink lemonade?” Joel asked.

“Sure,” the waitress replied, writing the order on her notepad. “Okay, I’ll be right back with your drinks.”

After the waitress left, Greg stared at Joel with a puzzled expression.

“Pink lemonade?” Greg asked. “What?”

“Umm…yeah,” Joel said, looking at the steak section of the menu. “I ordered pink lemonade.”

“Are you serious, Joel? Pink lemonade?”

“What’s wrong with pink lemonade?”

Greg smiled and chuckled. “Well now I’ve seen everything.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I don’t know. We come to Sam’s, the only place where you can get Mountain Sunrise, and you order freaking pink lemonade. I just can’t wrap my mind around that.”

“Well, what if I like pink lemonade?”

“Honestly, I would be a lot less weirded out if you got water. Freaking pink lemonade. Seriously.” Greg chuckled and looked at his menu.

“Dude, leave him alone,” Sean said to Greg. “Let him drink what he wants.”

“I’m not going to stop him from drinking it,” Greg replied. “I just find it kind of weird, that’s all.”

“How is it weird?” Joel asked. He was feeling incredibly irritated.

“Let me repeat what I said. We’re at Sam’s. The only place where you can get Mountain Sunrise, and you order pink lemonade. You don’t see anything weird about that?”

Joel breathed deeply in frustration. “No, I don’t.”

“It is pretty weird,” Ricky said. “Why would you even get pink lemonade?”

“Because I like pink lemonade,” Joel replied. “Why would you even ask me that?”

Greg and Ricky both snickered.

“He’s probably also gonna’ order a salad,” Ricky said.

“That’s what I was thinking,” Greg said.

The two laughed even harder. Joel was becoming more and more infuriated.

“Guys, knock it off,” Sean said. His tone of voice showed that he was incredibly frustrated. “If he likes pink lemonade, let him like pink lemonade.”

“He can like it all he wants,” Greg replied. “I won’t stop him. But it’s still weird.”

“No, it’s not,” Joel muttered. His face was turning red.

“Hey, let’s go to a bar later tonight,” Ricky said. “Forget beer, let’s get drunk on pink lemonade.”

Greg and Ricky laughed so hard that diners sitting nearby looked in the direction of their table. By that point, Joel was very close to blowing a fuse. Sean had half a mind to break Greg and Ricky’s noses.

“Come on, Joel,” Greg said. “Be a man and get some Mountain Sunrise like the rest of us.”

The “be a man” comment ended up being what completely set Joel off. Without even trying to control himself, Joel screamed: “I don’t like Mountain Sunrise!”

Joel’s scream was so loud that everyone in the restaurant heard him. To many, a negative statement about Mountain Sunrise was practically a crime inside the doors of Sam’s Steak Shack. The diners didn’t seem to approve of Joel’s remark.

“Who said they don’t like Mountain Sunrise?”

“Dude, what the hell is wrong with you?”

“Get the hell out of here!”

The other diners were clearly exaggerating, as a large amount of laughter began to fill the restaurant. Joel, however, was not the least bit amused. He now wanted to get out of the restaurant as soon as possible.

“Did you hear that, Joel?” Greg said with a grin. He pointed his thumb at the other tables. “I told you it was weird.”

Just as Sean was about to stand up to keep Joel from strangling Greg, the waitress returned to the table. She walked up to Joel.

“I’m sorry sir,” the waitress said. “We don’t have any pink lemonade at the moment. Can I get you something else?”

“Ohhhhh,” Greg and Ricky said together. They both started laughing.

Joel looked at the waitress for a moment. He took a deep breath and said: “No, nothing for me then. Thanks.”

“Are you sure?” the waitress replied.

“Yes. I’m fine.”

A confused expression appeared on the waitress’ face, but she just shrugged and said: “Okay then.” She then walked away.

Before he could hear any more negative remarks about his beverage preference, Joel stood up and began to walk away from the table.

“Where are you going?” Greg asked with a grin.

Without even looking at Greg, Joel replied: “Getting pink lemonade.” He then exited the restaurant without another word.

 

 

 

BIO

Michael McCormick is a graduate from the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, where he received his Bachelor of Arts in English. He is currently pursuing his Master’s Degree in Creative Writing. He is an aspiring author, having written stories since he was a child. His prose poem “Eight Minutes”, was published in the UTRGV journal Gallery in 2016. He currently resides in Edinburg, Texas.

 

 

 

 

 

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Finding Jesus

by J L Higgs

 

 

As was customary, Rabbi Zeitel arrived at his office at precisely 9:00 am.

“Good Morning, Mrs. Lieberman,” he said to his assistant, who was seated at her desk in the outer office.

She returned his greeting. Then handing him a note, said,“You have a message.”

Having removed his hat and winter overcoat, Rabbi Zeitel adjusted his yarmulke and scanned the pink slip of paper.

“An emergency meeting of the council?” he said, massaging his beard and furrowing his bushy eyebrows. “He said nothing else?”

“What else should he say to me?” she responded.  “The phone rings, I answer it.  He asks, is Rabbi Zeitel in?  I say no.  He asks I give you a message.” She pointed at the note.

“Thank you, Mrs. Lieberman.”

“You are very welcome Rabbi Zeitel.”  She smiled.  “Would you like some coffee?”

“No thank you, Mrs. Lieberman.”

“Perhaps a bagel or a danish.”

“No, I am fine, Mrs. Lieberman.  Thank you,” he said going into his office.

An emergency meeting of The Interfaith Community Council was unprecedented.  The council promoted respect and tolerance for differing religious views and practices and its next scheduled meeting was only two days away.  Its members were the ministers of the churches on the town’s aptly named Church Street.  On one side of the street, within a few blocks of each other, were a Temple, a Catholic Church, and a Christian Evangelical Church.  Across the street, splitting the distance between the Catholics and the Evangelicals were the Unitarian Universalists.  The Lutherans were separate, about a mile further down the street.

The council had been founded following an act of vandalism to Temple Beth Israel. In a show of community solidarity, the other church congregations had appeared unannounced and helped remove anti-semitic graffiti defacing one of the temple’s walls.

With his colleagues gathered in a circle in the basement of Church St. Christian, Reverend Johnson, a bald, stout, black man with a bull neck, began speaking.  “I’m sorry to call all of you here today,” he bellowed.  “A serious matter has arisen that requires the council’s attention.”

“What’s happened?” asked Reverend Robyn, the height sensitive UU minister, a wearer of always sensible black shoes, flats.

“Well, I’m sure as each of you arrived here this morning, you probably noticed it,” said Reverend Johnson.  “Our nativity scene?” he said to their blank expressions.  “Baby Jesus?  He’s gone from the manger?”

“That’s awful,” said Reverend Robyn, reaching out and touching Reverend Johnson’s hand.  “What can we do to help?”

“I don’t mean to sound insensitive,” said Rabbi Zeitel, “but this is a crisis?”

“It’s probably a prank by one of those teenage juvenile delinquents we see around town,” said Father Omyzanski of the Polish Catholic Church, Our Lady of the Assumption, not to be confused with the Irish or Italian Catholic Churches in other sections of the town.

“We don’t know that, Vincent,” said Reverend Robyn.

“When we were young, something like this would never have happened,” replied Father Omyzanski.  “And if it did?  Sister Mary George would’ve gotten a confession in less than two minutes.”

“Well, that may be true, Oz,” replied Pastor Brown of the Lutherans, steepling his stork-like patrician fingers while Father Omyzanski’s face reddened.  He hated the undignified image it conjured up of him amid a group of gaily attired munchkins.  “But, the facts are the Baby Jesus figurine is missing,” continued Pastor Brown.  “We need to focus on what can be done to find it.  Do you have any leads, Julius?”

“Just this.” Reverend Johnson held up a jaggedly torn yellow paper.  He slid his horn-rimmed glasses down from atop his head and read aloud, “My birthday is not for three more days.  I should not be here.  JC.”

“Well, he has a point.  The 25th is three days from now.”

“That’s irrelevant.  It’s a nativity display for God’s sake!”  shouted Father Omyzanski.  “Sorry,” he quickly added, seeing his colleagues shocked expressions.  “I didn’t mean to offend anyone.”

“Did you notify the police?” asked Reverend Robyn.

“Yes, but it didn’t sound like they considered Baby Jesus’ disappearance a priority,” said Reverend Johnson.

Rabbi Zeitel, who had been sitting quietly, leaned forward in his metal folding chair.  “If I may make a suggestion,” he said.  “The solution to this problem seems rather straight forward to me.  A plastic figurine molded in the image of an infant that has a light bulb above its tokus has disappeared.  We buy a new one.  Replace one tchotchke with another.  Problem solved.”

“Well, it’s not as simple as all that.”

“Please.  What is it I’m not understanding?” asked Rabbi Zeitel.

“We’re talking about something more than a piece of plastic.  The infant Jesus is an important symbol of Christianity,” said Father Omyzanski.

“And Christianity is somehow injured if we replace this symbol with another copy?”

“It’s difficult to explain, Herman, you’re not being a Christian,” said Pastor Brown.

What chutzpah, thought Rabbi Zeitel.  “Bob, Jesus was a Jew.  I am a Jew.  Please.  Explain how not being a Christian is relevant in this instance?”

“Please everyone,” said Reverend Johnson, holding up his hands.  “We need to work together.  Church St Christian has displayed this nativity set every year since its founding.”

“So, you are saying its significance has to do with tradition.  That I can understand.  Tradition is important,” said Rabbi Zeitel.  “Robyn, what do you propose we do?”

“Well, for starters, we could create posters and attach them to telephone poles.  And I’m sure the local supermarkets will let us place notices on their entryway bulletin boards.”

Pastor Brown sighed, thinking – Lost Dog.  Named Fido.  If found please call… “Sounds reasonable,” he said, smiling at Reverend Robyn.  “I suggest we email the members of our congregations and ask if anyone knows anything about the disappearance.”

“It wouldn’t hurt to search the neighborhood,” offered, Fr. Omyzanski.

“Herman?”  asked Reverend Johnson, looking at Rabbi Zeitel.

“I am happy to do whatever I can to help.”

“Thank you, everyone,” said Reverend Johnson.  “With all of us working together, I’m sure we’ll find Baby Jesus before our Sunday School’s Christmas pageant.  For as in Matthew 7:7, ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened to you.”

The following morning, Reverend Robyn, a skilled organizer of things ranging from protests against social injustice to delivering meals to shut-ins, was in her element.  The UU church basement was full of volunteers creating colorful posters.

At Oakgrove Lutheran, Pastor Brown and the Lutheran Church’s Secretary were reviewing membership lists and composing an email to be sent to the members of all the congregations.

In Our Lady’s parking lot, Reverend Johnson, Rabbi Zeitel, and Father Omyzanski were dividing the neighborhood search volunteers into groups.  Before beginning their mission, Reverend Johnson had everyone join hands.  Then he delivered a long prayer, ending with an emphatic Amen to rousing cheers.

On Thursday, when the council gathered for its scheduled meeting, all the attendees were feeling downcast.

“Are there any positive developments at all?” Reverend Robyn asked Reverend Johnson as he entered the basement meeting room.

“Here,” he said, taking a group of photos from his suit coat’s inside pocket and handing them to her.

Reverend Robyn, thumbed through the photos, confusion etched on her face.  Then she handed them to Father Omyzanski.

“Disgraceful,” he said, handing the entire lot to Pastor Brown after reaching the final one.

Pastor Brown flipped through the photos, his facial expression altering from surprise to amusement.  He then handed the photos to Rabbi Zeitel.

On top of the stack was a photo of the missing Baby Jesus figurine in front of the Eiffel Tower.  Rabbi Zeitel turned the photo over and on the reverse side it said, “Having a great time!”  Next was the Baby Jesus lying at the base of the Taj Mahal and on the back of that photo was the same message.

“Boy,” said Rabbi Zeitel, with a twinkle in his eyes, “that Baby Jesus, he sure gets around.”

Rabbi Zeitel continued through the stack.  Baby Jesus standing alongside a bear skin helmeted guard at the Tower of London.  Lying across the tips of the Pyramids in Giza.  Leaning against the Leaning Tower of Pisa.  And the last photo, Baby Jesus scaling the Empire State Building in New York City.

His head shaking, Rabbi Zeitel said, “Talk about a wandering Jew.”

Pastor Brown burst out laughing and Rabbi Zeitel joined in.  Reverend Robyn, trying to contain herself, covered her mouth with her hand. After a few minutes, Pastor Brown and Rabbi Zeitel regained their composure.  But, when their eyes made contact, they erupted in another round of tear producing laughter.

“Hunh,” grunted Reverend Johnson taking the photos from Rabbi Zeitel.

“C’mon guys,” said Reverend Robyn, her face deeply flushed.

“I am sorry,” said Rabbi Zeitel, wiping tears from his eyes and trying to catch his breath.  “Please.  My apologies.  Let’s continue.”

“You must admit, that’s a great job of PhotoShopping,” said Pastor Brown, stifling a smile.  “But seriously, does anyone have any thoughts on what we should do next?”

“Well,” said Father Oz.  “Perhaps we’ve been overlooking the obvious.”

“Which is?”

“Praying for the safe return of Baby Jesus.”

“That’s a fantastic idea, Vincent,” said Reverend Johnson.  “After all, doesn’t The Bible say we should call upon God in the hour of need?”

“But…”

“It couldn’t hurt,” said Reverend Robyn interrupting Rabbi Zeitel.  He shrugged his shoulders.

“Fine,” said Pastor Brown.  “We’re in agreement.”

Reverend Johnson immediately dropped to one knee and bowed his head.  “Heavenly Father,” he began, “we come before you, your humble servants, asking for your help in our time of need.  As you know Lord, Baby Jesus is missing.  We’ve done our best to find him and bring him safely home.  Psalm 55:22 says, cast your burden on the Lord, and he will sustain you. That’s why we’re asking for your help.  For The Bible says when the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears and delivers them out of all their troubles.  And whatever you ask in prayer you will receive if you have faith.  So, Lord, we’re asking you to please restore Baby Jesus back to our loving arms.  For this, we pray, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.”

As he got back to his feet with a big smile on his face, Reverend Johnson boomed, “I feel better already.  How ’bout you, Robyn?”

She nodded.

“Well,” said Pastor Brown, standing up. “I am sorry my friends, but I must leave.  I have promised to visit a member of my congregation who has been ill.”

“A good shepherd must attend to his flock,” said Reverend Johnson, patting Pastor Brown on the shoulder.  “I think we can call today’s meeting to a close.  We’ve done what we can.  Now, it’s up to God.”

The following morning, being Christmas Day, Rabbi Zeitel arrived at his office well before his customary 9:00 am.  He’d expected roadways clogged with holiday travelers.

“Good Morning, Rabbi Zeitel” called out Mrs. Lieberman as he unlocked the office door.

“Good Morning, Mrs. Lieberman,” he replied, bending down to remove his galoshes.  “And how are you on this beautiful morning?”

“Why kvetch.  I am wonderful.  Thank you for asking, Rabbi Zeitel.”

“Mazel Tov.”

“Would you like some coffee?  It will warm you up.”

“No thank you, Mrs. Lieberman.  I’m fine.”

“Perhaps a knish.  I made them myself.  A little nosh is always good to start the day.”

“Not right now, Mrs. Lieberman.  Perhaps later,” replied Rabbi Zeitel as he hung his coat and hat on the hooks outside his office door.

“Rabbi Zeitel,” said Mrs. Lieberman, following him into his office. “I should tell you, Reverend Johnson called just before you arrived.  He said something about a miracle.  God being good. And answering prayers.”

“A miracle?”

“Yes.  He said, when Rabbi Zeitel arrives, please tell him there has been a miracle.  So, now I have delivered his message.  There is a miracle.”

“And he said nothing about the nature of this miracle?”

“No, he did not.  The only other thing he said was that he would appreciate it if you would come see him this morning if that is at all possible.”

“Well,” said Rabbi Zeitel snatching his hat and coat off the hooks.  “We must go!”

“Go where?”

“To see Reverend Johnson of course.”

“But Rabbi Zeitel.  The goyim?” she said shaking her head no.  “I cannot do that.  Why… who will mind the office?”

“Mrs. Lieberman.  No one person or group has a monopoly on God.  Come.  We go now,” he said, holding her coat for her.  Mrs. Lieberman slipped into her coat while continuing to shake her head in bewilderment.

Rabbi Zeitel led the way, taking Mrs. Lieberman’s arm whenever they encountered a large pile of slush.

“Rabbi,” said Mrs. Lieberman.  “You forgot your galoshes!”

“Eh, no matter,” he said, grasping the handles of Church St Christian and pulling the doors open.

As the doors swung closed behind him with a muted thud, Rabbi Zeitel saw that Mrs. Lieberman was not beside him.  He pushed the doors open, took her by the arm, and steered Mrs. Lieberman inside.

“It’ll be fine, Mrs. Lieberman,” he whispered to her.  “They’re all God’s houses.”

On the dais at the front of the church, Reverend Johnson stepped from behind the lectern.  Spotting Rabbi Zeitel, he waved for him to come to the front of the church.  Rabbi Zeitel reassured Mrs. Lieberman that she was safe among the goyim and that he was not meshuggener.  Then he started down a side aisle.  As he reached the front pew, he saw Reverend Robyn, Pastor Brown, and Father Omyzanski seated there.  They each shook his hand as the congregation jumped to its feet,  hooting and hollering.

Leaning over, Reverend Robyn shouted in Rabbi Zeitel’s ear, “He’s back.  The Baby Jesus was back in the manger this morning!”

The congregation roared loudly, drawing Rabbi Zeitel’s attention back to the dais.  There, Reverend Johnson, his entire face a smile, held the Baby Jesus out toward the congregation.  Claps, cheers, and foot stomps erupted.  Baby Jesus was back!

 

 

 

BIO

J L Higgs’ short stories typically focus on life from the perspective of a black American.  The primary goal of his writings is to create a greater understanding between racial, ethnic, and religious groups in America.

He has been published in various magazines such as Indiana Voice Journal, Black Elephant, The Writing Disorder, Contrary Magazine, Literally Stories, and The Remembered Arts Journal.

He and his wife reside outside of Boston.

Drawings as well as URLs to published stories are located at:

https://www.facebook.com/JL-Higgs-ArtistWriter-1433711619998262/

 

 

 

 

 

0

The Ministry of Brooms
a Children’s Story

by Patrick Moser

 

 

Brad Totenberg will tell you that his title, Minister of Brooms, has no religious significance. His job is to administer. But somewhere along the line the ad dropped out, and now he’s just Minister. He’s fine with it. He has no religious convictions save the usual ones (the Ministry more or less expects them). Brad doesn’t pretend to be a devout man—there’s no special collar or hand signals or anything—but if people believe him to be some kind of religious figure, he doesn’t disabuse them. That’s their right. At any rate, the title makes his job easier.

He travels to areas where people have been swept. They call them “dust-ups.” He offers sincere condolences to the community and monitors reactions. The dust-ups are awful. People get lost. His job as Minister is to remind the people who are not lost that buying brooms is the best way to protect themselves from being swept.

Brad and I have settled into our seats on a commuter jet. We’re flying to Kansas City, an airline hub. From there Brad will take a connecting flight out to the desert where there’s been another dust-up. Fifty-eight people were swept. Our flight to KC is less than an hour, so I don’t have much time to interview him.

“Good morning, Mr. Totenberg,” says the flight attendant. “How’s business?”

“Business is broomin’,” Brad replies.

The flight attendant grins at the line and passes on. Brad takes this hop frequently, so the crew has gotten to know him well. Brad himself doesn’t smile when he uses the slogan. He understands the play on words, of course—he used to get quite a kick out of it when he first started at the Ministry. It’s not that the line has become so commonplace among people outside of the Ministry these days. It’s simply that Business is broomin’ is an accurate description of his job now.

No joke.

“You say you’re writing a children’s story?” Brad asks me.

“Yes, that’s right.”

“You mean it’s for children.”

I shake my head. “No, not really.”

“But there’s children in it, right? I mean, it’s about children.”

“Well, you might say they’re the inspiration.” I reflect a moment. “But there’s not any children in the story, at least not yet.”

Brad nods politely. My explanation makes no sense to him. I imagine his water-cooler conversation back at the Ministry: How the hell can it be a children’s story if it’s not for children and they’re not in it?

The flight attendant walks by again, and I make sure my seat belt is securely fastened. If we hit turbulence, I don’t want to bang my head off the overhead bin or fly into the lavatory. “It’s hard to explain,” I tell him. “I’m not quite sure I understand it myself. That’s why I wanted to talk with you.”

“As long as you’re not one of those broom-banners,” he says leaning toward me confidentially, pushing his shoulder into mine. He’s got the aisle, I’m the window. “We get a lot of crackpots chasing after us.”

I shrug with my right shoulder—he’s got my left pinned. “I can’t vouch for not being a crackpot.”

He laughs. We both settle in now as the crew and plane make final preparations for the flight. I’m not sitting next to an emergency exit so I don’t have to read the special instructions card located by the seat. I don’t have to ask the flight attendant to reseat me because I can’t or won’t perform the functions described on the card in the event of an emergency. I’ve made sure my portable electronic devices are set to “airplane” mode until an announcement is made upon arrival.

The flight attendant begins the safety demonstration. She doesn’t talk or make eye contact with the passengers. A recording provides information as she pulls out various props and goes through the motions of what to do in the event of an emergency. I can’t tell if anyone is paying attention to her. Her face is neutral as she demonstrates how to fasten a seat belt. Mine is already fastened. She indicates the emergency exits (behind me), the oxygen mask (above me), and the life vest (beneath me). I don’t think I’ll need a life vest on this flight since we’re flying over land, but there are some deep lakes between here and KC. In that scenario, I’d be glad to have a life vest and know how to deploy it. I would not inflate the vest before evacuating the plane. Once the emergencies are covered, I’m encouraged to sit back, relax, and enjoy the flight. Before we know it, we’re taxiing over to the runway. We’re at a small airport, so the whole process doesn’t take long.

“You sweep yourself?” Brad asks me.

I confessed that I didn’t. It’s silly, but I’m a little afraid of brooms. I’d probably brush myself first thing if I ever picked one up. I’m sure it’s me and not the broom. To ease Brad’s mind I say, “I got my broom safety training pretty young. At camp in the eighth grade.”

He wags his index finger at me. “You see there, that’s the key.”

We zoom up the runway and lift into the air. I ask over the rattle of my tray table, “How young?”

He raises his voice over the engines: “Teachers should be sporting brooms at Daycare. There should be broomories in every elementary school, middle school, high school, and college in the country.” He points his index finger straight up to emphasize his point: “If the first thing a preemie sees from his glass bunker in the ICU is broom bristles, then at least he knows he’s got a fighting chance of getting out alive should some nut job bust in.”

We reach altitude in a matter of minutes and level off. When the flight attendant starts the drink service, Brad orders a soda. I ask for water with no ice. I’ve taken out a notebook and written down “nut job.”

Brad glances down at my pad of paper. “Know what they call a crackpot who works in a big grocery store?”

I lift my head. “No.”

“A wal-nut.”

I smile. “Know what they call a nut job in California?”

Brad lifts his eyebrows. “What’s that?”

“Picking pecans.”

He wrinkles his brow a moment, then says, “Good one.” He’s being nice. I know my nut-job humor needs work. I wouldn’t have Brad’s facility, given his occupation and constant traveling. He takes me under his wing a bit and recites others he’s heard on his latest trips—to Florida, California, Oregon, South Carolina, Texas, Connecticut. Apparently the jokes are all well known. I’ll just give the punchlines: pea-nut, chest-nut, hazel-nut; and of course, the funniest one: donut.

“The nuts sure add up,” I say.

“A passel.”

There’s a pause in our conversation that tells me the chit-chat period has come to an end. Brad’s a patient man. He has to deal with dust-ups, after all. And crackpot broom-banners. He waits for me to begin the interview.

I dither with my pen. It feels too soon to ask him my real questions. We haven’t even gotten our snacks yet. I’m not a professional journalist. I don’t interview people for a living. I’m just a writer with an idea for a story that I’m not sure is going anywhere. When you write a story, the reader expects you to have a point and get to it quickly. If I bumble my question to Brad, offend him in some way, it could be a very long short flight. And we’re sitting so close together, as airline space goes these days. If a nut job broke from the galley with an electric broom, we’d all be swept in about five seconds.

I pick up the thread of our conversation before the jokes. “So you want to see brooms everywhere.”

“That’s the goal. A broom in every room. Normalize them.”

“On planes?”

“Planes, trains, automobiles, motorcycles, mopeds, tandem bikes, baby strollers.” He ducks his head slightly, looks down the aisle behind us. “I’d feel a lot less naked, believe me.”

As Brad straightens up to take his soda and bag of peanuts from the flight attendant, his coat pops opens and I see a dark handle sticking out of a shoulder holster.

I’m alarmed. My armpits suddenly feel like someone is pricking them with pins. I lower my tray table carefully, not making any sudden movements. I accept my own plastic cup of water and peanuts. When the flight attendant has left, I nod discreetly at Brad’s holster. In a low voice I say, “Is that what I think it is?” I don’t know what the rules are for Ministers—maybe they’re allowed pack-a-brooms on planes when the rest of us aren’t.

Brad half-grins, the way Harrison Ford does in some but not all of his movies. He slips his right hand inside his coat and whips out a pint-sized lint roller. “I wish,” he says. He runs the roller down his sleeve a couple of times. “Optics are everything. I can’t ever have people seeing dust on me, not even a spec. That’s not going to be easy with this latest deal in the desert.” He eyes his sleeve, scans the front of his coat. Satisfied, he returns the roller to its holster. “Whisk brooms are where the kids need to start. As they get older, you graduate to the mid-range jobs. With the upgrades and converters nowadays, they practically sweep themselves. But all of them, big or small, will protect kids from being swept.”

“Will they?” I ask.

“Absolutely. And they need to know it’s their right to sweep. At the appropriate age, of course. Until then”—he jabs his thumb toward his chest for emphasis—“we’ve got their back.” The gesture is very effective. It gives me confidence in what Brad is saying.

I write down notes, mostly for something to do. I decide there is no good time for me to ask him what I want to ask. I just have to jump in and feel it out as I go.

“The dust-up in Connecticut,” I begin.

Brad nods. “Now that was a real tragedy, pure and simple. My heart goes out to those folks.” He pulls on his bag of peanuts and it explodes. Whole nuts and tiny halves fly into the air. They land on our clothing and down in the seats. Some hit the floor in the aisle where they bounce and scatter.

“Goddamn it!” he gripes. He checks his coat and pants, assessing the damage. “That really chaps my hide. Why the hell can’t they make a bag of peanuts that opens without raining nuts all over the damn cabin. Jesus, is that possible? Just lower the broom on me right now.”

I set my bag of peanuts on his tray table to calm him. “I already ate lunch,” I say.

“Thanks.” He’s gruff, but it’s not directed at me. He flicks the nuts off his lap with his hands, then gives himself a quick once-over with the lint roller. When he’s satisfied there’s no peanut crumbs clinging to him, he returns the roller once again to its holster. The second bag of peanuts he opens more carefully. Once he’s got a couple of them in his mouth, with a swig of soda, he’s back to his friendly self.

A woman walks by, headed for the lavatory. Her heels grind the tiny peanuts into the carpet. The little jobbers look oily, so it won’t be easy to get the stains out. I imagine this happens frequently enough nowadays so the airlines take it into consideration when they design the carpet. It’s probably easier than changing our whole approach to bags of snacks. You never know when one’s going to explode on you, so you simply manage the fallout. If it were me, I’d go with a camouflage design: forest-floor, or maybe hoedown-bar.

I ask Brad, “Do you ever think that we might . . . I don’t know how to say this . . . .” I run my eyes over his jacket. It really is very clean. “That we might be over-brooming?”

Brad chomps a nut. “How’d you mean?”

I let out a breath. “Well, we have so many of them. You’d think the streets would be, I don’t know. Cleaner, I guess. Do more brooms really keep the dust down? Or do they stir it up more? I guess that’s part of my question.”

Brad nods. He points his index finger at his mouth. I give him a few seconds to finish chomping. “I see what you’re getting at,” he says finally. He brushes his hands together a couple of times to clean them. “You have to understand the basic principles.” His voice is calm and clear, a professor at the podium. “You’re mistaking brooms for what they stand for. That’s freedom, which you can never have enough of. Without brooms, there is no freedom. We’d all be swept. So that’s the first thing.”

I’m taking notes, trying to get his exact wording down so that I understand the basic principles.

“The second thing, don’t confuse sweeping with being swept. That’s absolutely the worst greenhorn maneuver there is. They’re two completely different planets. It’s like Venus and Timbuktu.”

I didn’t realize Timbuktu was a planet. Then again, we lost Pluto awhile back, so maybe there’s been a discovery.

Sweeping is for normal people,” Brad explains. “Guys like you and me. It’s our God-given right. Being swept is for the nut jobs. And since there’s always gonna be nut jobs in this world—What are you gonna do?—you have to protect yourself against them. Mr. G-man can’t help you. It’s swept or be sweeped.” Brad stops, shakes his head. “It’s sweep or be swept.” He nods to himself, getting it right. “I hate to say that, and I wish it were otherwise, but that’s the reality.”

I write silently for a minute. “You don’t sell brooms to people on your trips, do you?”

“Me?” Brad shakes his head. “Not me personally. That’s a different section of the Ministry. I just minister. Make sure, as I say, that everyone knows their rights.”

“How is that?” I ask. “I mean, whenever I hear about these dust-ups, I’m shocked. I’m horrified. Afterward I feel numb. I don’t know what to do. I think that’s why I’m writing this story. Somehow it makes me feel less helpless to put words down on paper. It helps me sort out my feelings.”

“Feelings about what?”

“I’m not sure. The people it happened to, I suppose. People sweeping, people swept. I imagine myself in their shoes, losing someone I love.” I turn to Brad. “But you, you actually go to all those places. You see the sites and speak with the people. How does that feel?”

“Feel?” Brad shakes his head. “I don’t meet with the actual people. I’m there post-op. For the clean-up.”

“Making sure people know their rights,” I say.

Brad cocks his wrist and pistols me with his thumb and forefinger. He also winks and makes a clicking sound out of the side of his mouth like he’s calling his favorite horse. The finger, the wink, and the clicking sound all pop simultaneously. Brad’s timing is perfect. The combination is impressive yet folksy, a reassuring gesture.

“Do you ever want to speak with them?” I ask.

The plane bounces roughly a couple of times, and the seat belt light blinks on. A voice over the intercom tells me to return to my seat and keep my seat belt fastened. I’m already in my seat. My seat belt is already securely fastened. I pull my cup of water off the indented circle on the tray table, which is a smart convenience. It’s a very effective use of space, which the airlines are tops at.

“That wouldn’t be appropriate,” Brad says.

I spell out appropriate on my pad of paper. I hope I remember to look the word up later in the dictionary to get all of the meanings. I don’t want to short-change Brad. I know one of the meanings is fitting, which is appropriate in itself given my last observation about the cup holder. Though I suppose there wouldn’t be a connection between Brad’s verbiage and how the airlines go about their business. That would be like two completely different planets.

I take time to formulate my next question, a work-in-progress. “Do you ever feel . . . I don’t know, soiled by it all? I mean, once the dust settles. Do you bring it back with you? Not actual dust, of course, since you have the lint roller. But maybe the cloud of it might be the best way to put it. Because you know there are going to be more dust-ups. More people swept away.”

“There’s always gonna be more dust-ups. That’s a given, God forbid. But you know what?” Brad leans against me again. “The dust-ups energize me. There’s no other way to say it. What your writing does for you? I tell you what, a good broom will do exactly the same thing for people. Makes them feel less helpless. When they grip that handle and know with one little sweep of the arm they can take out a dirtbag, that’s real security of mind. That’s something they can holster and take home with them. Or go shopping, or to the grocery store.” Brad snaps his fingers and points at me. “Your book clubs. People are afraid out there. They’ve got a right to be afraid. That’s what I tell them.”

I write for a minute after Brad finishes. I look over my notes, trying to get the rights sorted out. “People have a right to sweep,” I say slowly. “And they have a right to be afraid. Brooms help them feel less afraid. And you sell them brooms.”

Brad frowns a bit and looks up, like he’s doing math in his head. Only the numbers don’t seem to be adding up for him. He pops another nut in his mouth. “I just let them know their rights.”

It’s hard to argue with Brad’s logic. Brooms carry a lot of power, I admit. Certainly more than my pen. I can’t say I haven’t felt it myself. “You know, I dream of lowering the broom.”

He stops chomping. “On people?”

I nod.

“But bad ones, right?” He shifts in his seat. “You’re not talking about . . . .”

“Oh, no,” I say. “Of course not. Not me. They’re always bad people.”

Brad looks relieved. “Well, of course they are. And you know what? I hear that a lot. It’s perfectly normal.”

The plane is humming along now. No more bumps. The seat belt light blinks off. Simultaneously a voice tells me the Captain has turned off the Fasten Seat Belts Sign. I may now move around the cabin.

“They’re not really dreams,” I say. “I mean, I’m not asleep. It’s just before I fall asleep. Usually it helps put me to sleep. They’re more like . . . fantasies.” I say the word cautiously, like I’m ready to unsay it, depending on his reaction.

Brad nods. “You and me both, brother. There’s a lot of bad dudes out there. It’s not only normal, it’s your duty to lower the broom on them. You need to protect yourself, and your family.”

I sit a moment, trying to sort out my feelings. “I worry that the dreams make me numb,” I tell him. “Or that I am numb for having them. That I’m kind of a nut job myself.” I say these last words almost in a whisper. “I worry that the bad dudes are thinking exactly the same thoughts as I am. That we’re all numb to one another. That we don’t know how to listen to one another anymore.”

“But you don’t act on those thoughts,” Brad says. “That’s the difference. You understand what’s what between fantasy and reality. The nut job, he’s way out in left field.”

“Sometimes I feel like I could cross into left field pretty easily.”

Brad turns to face me now. “You know what’s going on here, don’t you? You’re preparing. That’s what that’s all about. Should you ever need to actually lower the broom on someone—‘cause the bad dudes are out there, sure as shootin’ and God forbid—you’d be ready. And you know what?” He points his finger at my chest. “You’d be a goddamn hero. Put that in your story.”

I stare at my note pad and recite the Ministry’s official slogan, which I’ve written down: “Our lives are better with brooms.”

“Course they are,” Brad says. “Mine is.”

“What about the people who are swept?”

“You can blame the nut jobs for that.”

“What about their lives?”

Who? The nut jobs?” Brad almost comes out of his seat. Then he leans back and laughs. “Now that was a good one,” he says, slapping my arm. “You had me going there for a second.”

Brad checks his bag, but all the peanuts are gone. I can feel us descending already. Following the landing announcement, I make sure my seat back and tray table are in their full upright position, my seat belt is still securely fastened, and that all carry-on luggage is stowed underneath the seat in front of me or in the overhead bin. I actually don’t check this last one since I’d have to climb over Brad to do that, and then my seat belt would not be securely fastened.

“How’s it gonna end?” Brad asks.

“That’s a good question.” I rest my pen. In a few minutes I’ll be using caution when opening the overhead bins as heavy articles may have shifted around during the flight. A bizarre image pops into my head of chubby A’s, An’s, and The’s rolling around up there, one of them tumbling out when I pop the hatch and hitting me in the face. I try not to be alarmed by my own brain. “Endings are tough,” I admit. “They say it’s supposed to make complete sense, and yet still be surprising.”

Brad finishes his soda. He uses the napkin to wipe off any last crumbs on his hands, then wads the paper up and sticks it in the cup. The flight attendant makes a last pass and collects our trash. If she notices the peanuts ground into the carpet, she doesn’t show it. I imagine there’s a crew coming aboard in KC. They’ll hoover up any stray nuts, or blow them so far into the corners that no one will even notice. The cabin will be all groomed for the next flight.

“What you could do,” Brad says, “if you wanted to work a kid into the story. Have a tyke bust out of the broom closet, as they do, pretending to sweep a bunch of his friends, who are play-acting bad guys. That makes sense. But it’d be surprising too, like a little Jack-in-the-Box. If you did it right, you’d scare people. It’d be like Stephen King.”

“That’s a possibility,” I say.

I press my notebook in my lap. The landing gear doors bang open beneath us. I hear the wheels lever down and lock into place.

It’s always hard for me to talk about my stories. They sound dumb when I try to explain them out loud to people. It’s like listening to someone yap about their dreams. Boring.

But Brad is a friendly ear, and I doubt I’ll get the chance to meet someone from the Ministry again. They’re so busy helping people. Even if my ending doesn’t turn out exactly this way, I try it on him for size. I’m interested in his reaction as a Minister.

“What if I had parents standing in a school parking lot,” I say, “waiting for their kids to come out. A siren suddenly blasts, and a mom sees a group of boys running from the building carrying her son’s body on their shoulders. He’s bloodied, but she recognizes his clothes—his red jacket, the jeans, his white tennis shoes with the rainbow laces. Then his hair and face. He’s on his back, lifeless, arms dangling down as they race him across the playground. He’s heavy. His head and neck jerk up and down as the boys run. They’ve never practiced this before. They’re all screaming, except for her son. Other kids are doing the same thing. Running from the building, carrying the limp bodies of their classmates. This mom has her hands to her face. Just as they reach the parking lot, and the mom is running toward her son—she’s supposed to stay behind the yellow tape with the TV cameras, but she can’t help herself—he suddenly springs off their shoulders with a shout of triumph and lands on his feet.”

“He’s alive?” Brad asks.

I nod. “The mom knows this is just a drill, but she breaks down crying anyway. They’ve scared her to death.”

Brad waits for more. When I stay silent, he says: “Doe she die?”

“No,” I say. “Not literally.”

“Oh.” He nods and rolls his bottom lip out. “Does anyone die?”

“Not in this version. They’re just practicing, but they have to act like it’s real. I don’t want anyone to die, not if I can help it.”

I’m saved by the plane bouncing hard on the runway. “I’ll probably change it,” I add. “Go more with the Stephen King idea.”

“No,” he says over the sound of scraping wheels. “It’s real good. I was surprised.”

We deplane and say our goodbyes in the terminal. Brad strides off. I wish him well in the desert and wherever else his travels take him. He waves back, tells me Good luck with the story.

I find my gate and take a seat. I have a couple of hours before my flight back home, time enough to work on my ending. I look up at a television news program. I’m too far away to hear anything. I just get the visuals, four or five separate shots that are repeated so they run together in a continuous loop. They’re at a small-town church somewhere. The newscasters continue moving their mouths, though there doesn’t appear to be any new information. The story is on-going. A woman’s voice, friendly yet insistent, asks for my attention, please. And not just me, all passengers. She tells me if any unknown person attempts to give me any item, including luggage, to transport on my flight, not to accept it, and to notify airport personnel immediately. The message is so important that she repeats it five minutes later.

I look around the terminal to see if I can spot an unknown person who might attempt to give me any item, including luggage, to transport on my flight. If I do spot one, I’d like to report them.

I wonder if anyone else is listening to the woman’s voice.

 

 

 

BIO

Patrick Moser has an MFA in fiction from the University of Arizona and teaches writing and French at Drury University (Springfield, Missouri). He writes mostly nonfiction about the history and culture of surfing, including essays in Gingko Tree Review, Kurungabaa, Sport Literate, and Bamboo Ridge. He is the editor of Pacific Passages: An Anthology of Surf Writing and has collaborated on two books with world surfing champion Shaun Tomson: Surfer’s Code, and The Code. He is a recipient of the Carol Houck Smith Scholarship at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. This is his first short story.

 

 

 

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Happy Home

by Jessica Bonder

 

There was John the Saint, rescued dollhouse on his shoulder, salvaging the damned from its curbside purgatory. The trash heap cross the street from 24 Cleveland, the punk house John the Saint calls Heaven, for what was a Tuesday, he’d been eying the lot. The amassed sinners—busted electronica, three-legged chair, neck-crooked lamp—spilled out into the street like drunks down an alleyway, unforgiven vagrants. Throwaways. Squatters loiterers deviants weirdos—to the forlorn rejected, John the Saint could relate. The family cross the street, apparently, was moving; or cleaning out their garage; or maybe they died. The dollhouse turned sideways, its insides exposed, gutted and empty. Abandoned memory, it needed saving. It needed a reason.

Love.

John the Saint’s legs like exclamation points, skinny and black, exact. Navigating a maelstrom of anarchist artists, girlfriends passed out, stepping over their bodies. A game of tic-tac-toe just to get to the door, the Saint’s paint-splattered Docs tap-dancing through chaos. In the front room, what was once a living room, before milk crates and fixies and a drum kit took over, knelt Tomás at his shrine, his sacred vinyl reliquary, spinning 7-inches. Rad. The latest Meat Sweats, limited edition LP, Do the Shit My Way, Side B. Oh the temptation! To abort the mission, pull up bucket overturned, pop a squat and flood heardrums. Talk shop. But no! John the Saint’s committed—after all, he’s a saint—committed to his calling, his ministry to the lost. Call it recovery. Of the dollhouse he spied, from his perch on the roof, dead leaves mildew cigarette butts pigeon poop. For Luz, he thought, it’ll be a gift for Luz. Mascara plastered procumbent Luz. Luz on the floor on vodka on vicodin. His almost-bride, his last-chance wife. Last night or this morning, they’d had a fight.

Hey John man, where you goin’, que pasó?

Be right back yo, gotta go get somethin’.

Luz had been a lot of places and had seen a lot of things. None had been nice—there’d been no nice things. Even on days blue sky and birds chirping, days standard beautiful, did Luz fascinate the ceiling. Did Luz lay wasted, did Luz lay waste, closed curtains on a sun so badly wanted in. John the Saint met Luz down at Veterans Park, she had been pepper-sprayed, there was a protest. Luz coiled on the ground, tight as a spitball; John a fallen angel, reluctant descendant, apostate apostolic. As it happened that day, Cupid copped the enemy—his bow riot shield, his arrow, baton. Upon John did her immolated eyes first fix, Luz the first thing saying: My name means light.

It was love instamatic, a Polaroid love.

John loved Luz because Luz knew his past. Knew the things he did, knew he wasn’t no saint. Luz had the goods on this stray of a man, his fleas, ticks and bruises. Took him anyway.

Luz coming-to is Dorothy out of Oz, from black-and-white to color, homecoming to night. What is that, she says, scrounging for a ciggy, spoon-banging Mr. Coffee to evict las cucarachas. The machine was infested again. Stuck it in the freezer, doused it with vinegar, Luz tested all remedies, swore nothing worked. God! She hated living here, really she did, this two-story infection, open-plan open wound. So what is that, plays Luz on repeat, fractured princess pointing her rusty spoon wand. Misfit bent permanent. Gone. It’s a dollhouse, says John, and lays it at her feet, her feet bare and dirty. Splintered toes. Scabby bug bites. Half-shell nailbeds coated obsidian, dagger rose ankle—she was no Venus. John says here, it’s a gift for you babe.

I got this for you.

Do you like it.

What sounds a dollhouse before it crashes, prior its defenestration, ruled not a suicide? What sounds a dollhouse launched out a window, when a tiny home humbly meets the sky once? What sounds the site before the asteroid hits, comet of pretend, implodes on the lawn? What sounds a mad girlfriend, storming up the stairs, hated gift piggybacked, she be little but she be strong? What sounds a bedroom door, kicked down and dreams flown, en route to the highest ledge in the joint? From the zenith of despond, does Luz pitch the offering, with a fuck you John, she wants a ring. A ring with a diamond. A ring that is gold. The dollhouse rots, grows dandelions in spring.

What sounds a question asked over and over.

Tell her John tell her.

Why can’t she have nice things?

 

 

BIO

Jessica Bonder is an American fiction writer. She has published short stories and prose poetry in The Stockholm Review, The Lonely Crowd, The Honest Ulsterman, STORGY Magazine, Split Lip Magazine, Black Heart Magazine, The Bohemyth, Vending Machine Press, The Fiction Pool, and Unbroken Journal. Honors include: Nominated for the 2017 Pushcart Prize by Black Heart Magazine; Longlisted for the 2017 Berlin Writing Prize; Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train’s Fiction Open (March/April 2017);  Longlisted for STORGY Magazine’s 2017 EXIT EARTH Short Story Competition; Finalist in Split Lip Magazine’s 2017 Summer Mix Tape Flash Fiction Contest; Shortlisted for Short Fiction Journal’s 2017 Short Fiction Prize; First Place in STORGY’s 2015 Short Story Contest.

 

 

 

 

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Sounds of the Alleyway

by Patrick Legay

 

 

 

With no rain for months, the sun bleached the city. But the pear tree got its water day after day, soaking up all of that sunshine and making it green, so now its pears weighed on their branches, and of course the squirrels were after them. One little glutton was there on the ground, eating a fallen pear, spinning it in his paws as he worked his teeth.

Greta had on her gardening gloves to protect her skin if the squirrel struggled. She crouched low to the soil, stepped carefully, looking ahead, focussing through her neon-framed sunglasses. She was old. Her long, gray-black coils of hair were all pulled together at the back by a string tied into a bow. The length of her hair was tucked into her cardigan, for practicality.

She kept on stopping, smiling, cocking her head to the side, clicking her gums, and laughing a little to herself, her eyes following a bug buzzing from to leaf to leaf, or the birds calling across the sky.

Her yard was closed in on either side by tall shrubs with fences running through them, as if the chain-link had grown up with the shrubs. At the top of the fences were jagged loops of barbed wire, connecting along the roof of the garage at the back. From the alleyway, over the garage, through the barbed-wire loops, was the squirrels’ path to the pear tree.

Greta snuck between the tomato plants and the herbs she had growing in her garden. The tomato plants grew well this year. They were as tall as a man.

Something was planted in every inch of the yard that caught the sun. There was a hose set to spurt on a timer to keep everything green. She had punctured a line of holes all along the rubber to the end, and capped it with a wine cork, then crisscrossed the length of it through the garden, and around the pear tree.  The tomato rows stretched just short of the tree. The herbs were on the other side of them. Corn along the shrub/fence. Kale, spinach, collard greens, lettuce, beans, beets, potatoes, carrots. Everything.

Rascal the Cat waddled along behind her. He was a rotund orange tabby. A skirt of fur-enveloped fat was thrown up from his belly as he trotted. He wasn’t crouching like a sneaking cat would. He wasn’t paying any attention to the squirrel. Rascal was watching Greta. He followed her as she crouched along. He waited, watched her move ahead a little, then trotted up to her, and waited again. The soil was moist, and he didn’t like the feel of it. Between trots he flicked his paws behind him. When he stopped, he stuck his nose in her direction, smelling, his whiskers moving, and his eyes closing as his cheeks puffed.

She wanted to show Rascal how to hunt like a cat. It was his job. She made low meowing and cooing noises to him. He meowed back now and again, but he was meowing about the treats in her cardigan pocket.

All the while the squirrel was under the pear tree with his back to them, happily munching.

She was a little girl when her parents lifted it out of the bed of her father’s truck like it was a Christmas tree. They set it down in the yard, and let her unwrap it from the twine and burlap. Mostly her father dug the hole. They only had one shovel. But they each held a branch, each uprighted the tree, and filled in some soil. They planted the pear tree together. She had a photo from that day up in the kitchen. There were pictures all over the house to help her keep her memory. Some they painted on the walls. Her mother guiding the brush in Greta’s hand to show her the strokes.

On this block, in this house, with this yard, Greta Washington had lived. Her parents brought her here when she was an infant, before she had memory, when the house was empty and rundown. Her parents spoke of it when she was older. How the doors were warped and wouldn’t close, the windows were warped and wouldn’t open, and the roof leaked in a different spot each time it rained. Before they fixed it up. When the old, European neighbors cursed them and moved away.

Now she was 76 years of age to be exact. Sure, she smoked the odd cigarette, and drank the odd spirit, but she ate clean, stayed fit, and kept busy around the house.  Yes, she was old, but she did not feel elderly. And she had her home, her place in the world. Being a Detroiter: that was her secret to living.

On her way to the squirrel, she reached up, and squeezed a low-hanging pear. The pears had come early this year. The tree’s flowers had been early too. The tree always bloomed white flowers in spring to tell her when the pears would come.

In his grand voice, her father had threatened to shoot the squirrels for their plundering. Her mother shook her head and called them poor creatures. But, he kept on saying it, that those squirrels should be shot. When he had said it too many times, her mother raised her righteous voice, and told him that there was no reason to be shooting at those poor squirrels.  It wasn’t the time for that. And he should hope that time never comes, “when food is hard to get, and when children don’t play in the alleyway behind our tree.”

After that her father would repeat the threat, but laugh to Greta as if it had always been a joke, and her mother would laugh too, shake her head, and call him a dangerous man.

Greta was in her first year of junior high, sitting in class one day, in one of the rooms with all the windows, watching the teacher write equations on the blackboard, when she heard a bunch of loud, deep pops. Bullets shattered the glass, flew invisibly over their heads, and snapped into the wall. All the kids were in shock. The teacher yelled at them, and they ducked under their desks like they had been taught to do for the bomb. Her seat was close to the window. Glass kept falling, and cut the back of her head.

Her father picked her up in his truck. Across his lap was his rifle — the gun he had brought home from the war. Greta’s head was all bandaged up. He asked if she had seen them. She hadn’t. He told her to sit on the floor of the truck, down on her bottom in the foot space. As he drove, he kept telling her it was alright, that he didn’t see anyone bad. They watched the white hoods marching on the news.

Her father went to a meeting in the church basement. Then he sat in a kitchen chair on the edge of the front lawn, with beer cans and cigarette buts on the grass around him, his rifle held up between his legs, and a newly bought extra-long phone cord stretched out of the house. The phone was sitting beside him on the stepping stool from the kitchen.

Greta’s mind was still as clear as ever, but she had lost her hearing. She had been ignoring it for years. Tens of years. Her ears were so dead now there were times when Rascal would have his claws out, ripping at the side of the couch, with Greta lying there reading, but all she heard was quiet. Eventually, she would catch the blur of orange limbs out of the corner of her eye, mark her page, and get up to spray him with the water gun.

The kettle whistling, her rattling pots and pans, slamming the door, bounding down the stairs two at a time — nothing roused her ears. Day and night, she saw things make noise, and heard nothing but quiet.

Back when she could hear well enough to tell a calamity coming, she boarded up the front of her house with plywood. She already had the fence with the barbed wire and gate, but figured an extra touch wouldn’t hurt. She painted one special board with white primer, let it dry, and then wrote in big letters with a fine brush:

Toxic Breathing Hazard

Dangerous!

DO NOT ENTER

She painted her best rendition of the biohazard symbol in red (she had practiced it on cardboard) and signed it “By Order of the Detroit City Police.”

Now she couldn’t sleep at night because it was so quiet. Someone could be busting down her door, and she would hear nothing but quiet.

So, before she was after the squirrel that day, Greta went out to the Wal-Mart to see about a pair of hearing aids. She asked the store attendant to lean in close, and repeat himself loudly and slowly. “But, say the same words. I’m no technopeasant,” she told him.

The hearing aids were tiny buds that had these fine little stems on them that you held between your fingers when you put them in your ears. The attendant wouldn’t let her try them out before she bought them. For sanitary reasons, he said. You can adjust all of the settings once you install the app on your tablet.

She bought them with some pension money.

She took her tablet out of its drawer as soon as she got home.

When the app was installed, she put in the buds. At first they only plugged her ears, and felt like they’d let nothing through. She swiped through on the touchscreen, following the prompts to set up the basic settings. She couldn’t quickly figure out what all the bars meant — some went up and down and some went diagonally — and she was impatient to try it, so she swiped each bar to the max, clicked that she was sure about the changes (even though she wasn’t), and put the tablet back in its drawer.

She went out to smoke in the backyard with Rascal following.

The buds let the sound in, and she could hear everything. The spring scraped the bolt in the door. Her sandals squeaked. The tobacco crunched when she pinched the cigarette. The flint scratched and clicked to light. She pulled in smoke, and the tobacco leaves crackled as they burned.

When she was first out there, she stood hearing, remembering, surveying her garden, and smoking in the sun, crossing her arms with one hand holding out the cigarette.

The day the boy next door was born, James, that was her earliest memory. Balloons tied to the mailbox. Everyone shouting “Itsa boy!” She had more memory of his parents than she should. She was still an infant, and she didn’t know them long, but she had seen photographs of them, heard stories, and thought about them a lot when she was older. They were walking on a crosswalk in front of a bus that had been rigged with a bomb. Greta remembered sitting in a scratchy dress on her mother’s lap on the seat of her father’s truck in a line of cars.

James’s Auntie came to take care of him. She was loud and silly. She let teenaged Greta borrow her clothes. She lived with him in the house next door until James was in his 20s, then she moved into an apartment with some younger man she had met when she worked at the grocery.

Greta looked at the pear tree, and the sky. She listened, and was struck by sound. She closed her eyes, and let the sun hit her face. She felt strange about what she heard. Like she heard everything that touched the air. Like she heard more than she remembered ever being able to hear before.

The breeze moved the leaves of the pear tree, but didn’t shift the pears.  Bees and dragonflies did flybys in her garden. There were so many bugs on the air. So much birdsong, from all around and far away, so many different types of birds calling and answering each other. She could hear creatures moving through the weeds, crackling, in the yards around her.

Someone down the alleyway was saying slurs. A bottle shattered, Greta flinched, the birds got quiet, and there were footsteps running off. After a moment, when the steps were gone, the birds got back to their song.

The garage with the barbed wire on the roof protected her yard from the alleyway. It had a little window onto the yard, and she could see her father’s old red pickup, still there inside, tires flat, the hood rusted through, and the innards all dried out.

Annabelle was out dancing with her friends. Demetrius boasted to her and bought her a drink. They dated, in the way that people dated back then. He was drafted, sent to Korea. Greta had found their letters stacked in her father’s dresser. Annabelle’s writing was worried and poetic. Demetrius’s writing was factual and obscene. He asked for pictures. She sent a department store portrait of her with her parents.

Annabelle never went to school but she read a lot. She taught Greta. She worked different jobs, cleaning houses in the suburbs, and when she was older, she worked as a secretary. Greta had brought home a portable typewriter from school, and taught her to type.

Annabelle wore patterned dresses all year round. It was only when she got old, and had trouble with her bladder, that she wore slacks.

Demetrius was first a cleaner in the factory, then did heavy work, and then put together auto-parts. When the parts plant closed, he got a job in another place piloting a machine that bolted the doors on the cars. Her mother said he came back from Korea thinner, quieter, with less of himself. All he brought home was his gun. He took it apart and cleaned it almost every weekend.

After Greta wore her mother down enough to allow it, he taught her how to shoot. He would take her out of town to shoot at garbage.

He wore denim. Polyester shirts. His breast pocket always had the imprint of his cigarette packs. After he got sick and was told not to smoke, he kept a pack of playing cards in that pocket, with half a deck, and a bunch of cigarettes crammed in. He and Greta would sneak a puff when the coast was clear of Annabelle.

He would spend most of his time in the bedroom, listening to the radio, reading sports magazines, smoking, and drinking beer. Her mother couldn’t take it anymore. All the beer cans, and the radio at all hours, all the smoking, the snoring, and the kicking and shouting in his sleep. She had a long list. She moved into the other room, but she still picked up his beer cans, vacuumed, stacked the magazines, emptied the ashtray, made his bed, and picked up his shirts. Greta asked why she bothered, and she said that was the arrangement. She was still his wife.

Demetrius died pretty quickly of throat cancer. Started coughing at work. They made him retire, full pension though. The plant closed not long after.

Then her mother’s health deteriorated sharply, and Greta took care of her. Annabelle lived on too long, bedridden, in that deteriorated state. She couldn’t do anything but eat and sleep, and otherwise she wasn’t herself.

Greta remembered being in the yard, on the grass, before she had the garden, hearing her mother in bed, through the window in the room above, saying something loudly that didn’t make sense, just a jumble of words. But, she was saying it as if someone was there listening. Then she would hiss and shriek as if she was being burned. Greta would check on her, and she’d just be in bed, asleep, nothing wrong.

Greta would read books to her, ones she used to like. For the short bursts that she was awake, Annabelle would repeat the same questions, asking what time it was, or whether the letters had come. Greta wanted to do something, but couldn’t decide if she should, so she didn’t, and then Annabelle passed on her own.

Now for the first time in a long time, the quiet cocoon had been broken.

Greta heard a squirrel jump onto the side of her garage from the alleyway, his sticky fingers gripping the wooden wall. He climbed to the top, went through the loops of barbed wire, and across the roof. She saw him jump into the tree. Rascal was lying in the sun. Greta was still smoking, hearing everything, remembering, and surveying the garden.

Soon the squirrel settled on a branch with a pear in his mouth. She walked towards the tree, and shouted, hissed and blew smoke at him. The squirrel looked ridiculous with his tiny grey head, and his yellow and brown buck-teeth clutching the heavy pear, bigger than him. He looked at Greta a little while, then held the pear in his teeth, and jumped back onto the roof.

But, somewhere in the air, the squirrel lost the pear. It fell to the ground between the garage and the tree. After the squirrel landed without the pear, his little head looked down over the edge of the roof. He jumped back onto a branch, and climbed down to the yard, passing by all of the pears in the tree to go after the one he had dropped.

When Greta was a teacher, it was at the same school with the windows. She’d start the first class every year by stepping outside of the mandated curriculum right away. The boys and girls would come in, some stone-faced and staring, and others hunched over, keeping their eyes down, shifting in their seats. Greta wanted to get them talking about real stuff, so she told them stories, her own stories: What happened to the Fosters next door. What it was like for her when she was in junior high. How there was a man on her street who played the electric guitar — ‘Pinky,’ they called him, because he wore rings on his pinkies. He would sit on his big copper amp and play, making it sound like ten guitars, not one, warping the sound by tapping his foot on something that looked like the pedal of a sewing machine. It was fun to watch his pinky rings wiggle and dance as he played. She could hear his guitar at night and on the weekend. The alleyway would bring the sound to her window. As she spoke, she would watch the faces, and sometimes some of the kids would smile, and say they too heard music on their street.

She would tell them how one day, every summer, her street would be blocked off with cars, and all the neighbors would have a big party. Pinky’s band would play. They would grill food right on the street. They would paint the pavement, Greta with her mother and the other children. Watercolor zoo animals, trucks, trees, flying saucers, an ocean with fish in it, along with some other depictions, very colorful, but hard to say what they represented. If she put enough glee in the telling, sometimes the stoned-faced kids would loosen up, look at each other, and smile sarcastically.

She would tell about the day when she was in grade school. She got let out of school early and told to go straight home, and on the way home, she could hear there was something wrong in the city. She saw smoke. Heard sirens. Shouting. Pops and bangs. Greta ran into her mother along the way, who was sweating and out of breath, saying she couldn’t find her father. They went to look for him. Buildings were on fire. People were running around. They gave up quickly, went back home, and saw him walking down their street with his rifle on his shoulder. He wouldn’t say where he had been. He claimed he had been looking for them. He took them to the church, and they all waited inside while he stayed out front with some others. As she spoke, the class would fall silent, mesmerized.

She would also tell them about the pear tree, what the squirrels looked like when they ate, and that Greta and her mother used to paint things on the walls in their house.  In the kitchen, they painted a mural of their tree, with the squirrels like gremlins gorging on the pears.

It wasn’t long until the students would start telling their own stories: About who their parents were. About snow forts in the winter, and baseball in the summer, and the pheasants, how they would startle and rush out of the bushes if you came upon them. How someone’s brother fell in the river, and another one’s dog jumped up on the kitchen table and their father punched the poor thing in the ribs. About sad things being said or done. Beatings and illnesses. People drinking too much. The stories of living.

Sometimes they told her about things happening, and Greta had to do more. She’d knock on doors, talk to whoever needed talking to, and she’d go to meetings in the church basement. Doing that was what had kept her going.

The squirrel was chomping under the tree. The sound grated her.

Rascal was curled up in the sun, half watching the squirrel. She whispered to him: “We could both afford to be a little more cat-like.” He looked up at her. She reached into her pocket, took out a treat, and let him smell it. He stood up. She returned the treat to her pocket, and put on the gardening gloves. He watched her. Then she snuck up on the squirrel, stepping carefully, in that crouched stance, through her garden towards the pear tree. Rascal followed, sniffing the air in her direction.

The squirrel was on the other side of the tree, sitting there on the ground, filling his mouth luxuriously with pear-flesh. From behind a tomato plant, she peaked around at the squirrel, then back at Rascal. The cat flicked the soil off his paws, and just looked at her. She meowed at him, and gestured towards the squirrel. He looked only at her hand.

The squirrel was aware of the approach of the slender old black lady, and the fat, slow orange cat. He chewed more rapidly, to fill himself — the pear was the most important thing.

Greta heard the squirrel chew, then pause, then go back to chewing, but faster. She looked around the tomato plant again, and watched him with one eye.

She shifted her weight, lunged around the tomato plant and pounced, grabbing at the squirrel with her two gloved hands. But the squirrel had heard her first step. Before she got there, he jumped into the shrub, and climbed onto the fence with what remained of the pear in his teeth. She hit the ground, hands first, in the spot the squirrel had vacated.

She stayed down, rolled onto her back, breathing, and laid there listening to the sound of the squirrel escaping. She took the gloves off, and watched from below as the squirrel climbed up the chain-link, jumped into the tree, and onto the garage. She relaxed.

When Annabelle finally did give in, and allowed Greta to go shoot at the dump with her father, it wasn’t unconditional. “Fine,” she said. “But, don’t kill anything I can’t cook.”

Her father was showing off his marksmanship, and asked, “Think I can hit that gull?” aiming the rifle at the birds swirling above the garbage.

“Can Momma cook it?”

“Nah. It’s just a gull.”

Greta shook her head. He re-aimed and smashed a glass jar.

The squirrel sat on the roof and finished the pear. She heard him, but couldn’t see him from her view lying on the ground.

Rascal waddled over and lied down beside her, sniffing her pocket. She gave him a treat.

She heard the squirrel stop chewing. The pear’s core rolled down off the roof, and bounced on the ground. It tumbled along in the direction of her head, but slowed and stopped just short. She stayed lying there, looking, hearing, but not moving. The squirrel landed on a branch above her, and looked down, sniffing at her. Greta, directly below, watched him, then she closed her eyes.

The wind changed. The leaves fell silent, letting in all of the sounds. Squatters coughing and spitting. Someone snoring. Somewhere a basketball. The sound of dishes clanking. Someone hammering. Drunken screaming. Children throwing rocks through windows as a game.

She heard things moving through the dried up yard next door, James’s old place, all rundown and grown in thick with years of weeds taking over, and new trees planted by the wind. Maybe it was mice or birds, more squirrels, or other little wild creatures.

She grew up beside James, not with him. They were never kindred spirits. He was a few years younger than her and that mattered most when they were growing up.

They went to school together, a couple grades apart. He was always bigger than her. When they were teens, he started paying more attention to her. He snuck up behind her in the school hallway and threw her on his shoulders, spun her around, and said he wouldn’t stop until she said his name. The way he picked her up, the way he held her, she knew he just wanted to touch her. She refused to say it. She would punch him and claw him, but not too hard. He would get tired, and put her down. She learned to steady herself, and not to fall from the dizziness. She would kick him in the groin if she saw him coming. She liked older boys.

She had enough boyfriends. She liked some things about some of them. But, they were never worth the arrangement. She hated the arrangement. It meant doing all the work and making none of the decisions. Getting scolded like a child. She couldn’t do or say certain things, but they could do or say whatever they wanted.

It was her senior year in college when she broke up with a boyfriend, and decided he was the last one. Not the last man. The last arrangement.

She saw James one autumn night. It was late and the band was in full swing. She danced with him. He had been working outside all summer, and his body was lean and hard. He was different. Older.

She made it clear to him there would be no arrangements. He was shocked by it, but agreed. She remembered how he was then. How he moved, how he smelled, how he felt. They went on like this for a while. Years. Living next door to one another. She would come to his place. For a long time neither of them spent time, that kind of time, with other people.

Until she met the new teacher at her school. He wore a jacket and tie, and they talked about teaching. James saw them out together. He didn’t like it, and he told her so the next time she came over. He lost his temper. Greta just went right back out the door, and shut it on him. She hadn’t even taken off her coat.

A week went by until she knocked on his door again. It was Friday. He let her in. She took her coat off, spent the night, and they didn’t talk about it. The next day she cooked him breakfast and told him her doing so was a one-time occurrence. They drank coffee spiked with whiskey, and then just the whiskey. In the afternoon, he took her to a burger joint.

He swallowed down his burger before Greta had hers out of the wrapping. Sitting in the booth, mustard on his lip, he fumbled, held out his mother’s ring, and stuttered through a proposal. She sat chewing, choking. She swallowed. She muffled a laugh into her napkin. But, it couldn’t be muffled. She looked at him, that dumb smiley look on his face, holding that ring out to her in the booth, as if she should throw up her hands and scream with girlish delight. She couldn’t stop laughing. Right from the belly. He shouted for her to stop. She still couldn’t. He slapped her. Heads turned and the place got quiet. She got quiet. Shocked. She swung a punch back at him. He dodged it, laughed at her, and called her a disgrace. He got up, spat, and left.

She walked home, and his car wasn’t there. After that, time went by, neither of them broke the silence, and they settled into never speaking.

A moving truck pulled up to James’s house one day, a small one, but it came full of boxes, mirrors, dressers, and the pieces to a big canopy bed. James’s car followed, and he got out, opened the door for a woman, and got her suitcase out of the trunk. Greta saw them together on the street. One night she heard them shouting next door. After a time, the moving truck pulled up again. The woman moved out.

Greta saw James coming and going, getting older. She heard him on the other side of the shrubs raking the leaves that had blown from the pear tree. She grit her teeth, sucked in air, and went inside. When she began to lose her hearing, she liked it a little. Without her putting any effort into it, a quiet cocoon was forming around her.

Now lying there, eyes closed, with the earbuds, she could hear the squirrel’s sticky fingers on the bark, and the thinner branches bend and creak as he walked along. She could hear exactly where he was in the tree.

The squirrel paused on a branch, then reached up, and pulled on a pear with all of his weight. The pear’s branch bent down, and rattled back when the pear snapped off. Other pears hit the ground near her head.

She opened her eyes, rolled over, moved up on all fours, and stood up.

She went to the house. There was a bucket holding a spade, rake, and other long-handled gardening tools beside the back door. She pulled a garden hoe slowly and quietly out of the bucket. She breathed carefully. The handle of that old garden hoe was heavy red hickory.  She looked over her shoulder at the squirrel, then back. The steel of that old garden hoe had a shine to it. She kept it sharp to cut through the roots of weeds.

Rascal was back in his dry spot in the sun. As she went by with the garden hoe, she touched him with the red hickory end to wake him up. He opened his eyes, and looked at her dazed. She gave him another treat, and whispered for him to “Watch and learn.” Then she moved towards the squirrel with the garden hoe held high, and angled in front of her.

The squirrel was on a branch at about the height of her shoulder. Maybe just above. He was bent over the pear, spinning it, gorging. She could see his neck.

She stopped, and raised up the blade very slowly.

The squirrel sat up. He didn’t run away. He just sat there on his branch, looking at her, shifting the pear in his grasp.

She watched him, and waited for him to go back to the pear and show his neck again. They stood there frozen, looking at each other, the squirrel with the stolen pear, Greta holding the blade of the garden hoe over him. She kept her eyes on the squirrel, but her ears were with the little creatures rustling on the other side of the fence.

When they got the fences and barbed wire, James wouldn’t pitch in. Greta assumed it was because of her. She had gotten a group of her neighbors to go in together so they could all get a better deal. Some of them might not have been able to afford it otherwise. James told the neighbor on the other side of him that he wanted nothing to do with it, and to stop asking. It made it more expensive for them all.

She hosted the party after the fences were installed. Her neighbors from both sides of the street were in her backyard, eating ice-cream cake on paper plates, lamenting the cutting of Greta’s shrubs. Saying nothing about James. They talked about how strange all their yards looked with the chain-link and barbed wire.

The shrubs grew back, but those neighbors were long gone. Moved away. Got sick and died. Or just disappeared. James’s car was gone and never came back. His place got all grown in, got condemned, and boarded up from the outside. That was before the city went bankrupt.

Greta was the lone holdout of the old neighborhood. But now the place around her was something else.

She held up the blade of the garden hoe. The squirrel still had his head up, listening. Squatters were shouting by one of the houses down the alleyway. Pounding on the door. The squirrel turned his head a little. A woman’s voice screamed hysterically from inside. “Don’t you dare,” or something like that. “Don’t” something. Another voice yelled back. Then someone hit the door with something big. And hit it and hit it. The door came down. A bunch of voices laughed and hooted. The woman screamed something back. There was a gunshot. Greta flinched, the garden hoe dipped slightly. The squirrel looked up at it, then looked away, and turned his ear back to the sounds. They heard the woman scream something more. Then some sort of scuffle. Another shot. Something fell. The woman laughed, spoke, and then it all fell quiet, peaceful. Just the bugs and the birds.

The garden hoe was getting heavy.

The squirrel went back to the pear, hunched down over it, eating and spinning it. She adjusted her grip. The squirrel ignored her. She turned her head for a moment, and looked at Rascal, who had darted back near the door of the house. He was sitting motionless, wide-eyed, watching her.

She shook her head at the cat, then turned back to the squirrel, lined up the blade, and chopped it down, hitting him on the neck, taking part of his head off. The blood, the body, the partly chewed pear, and some of the branch fell down onto the yard.

Rascal shrieked, jumped into the air with all fours, and puffed up to triple his size.  He clawed at the seams, trying to get in the back door, but it was closed.

Greta put down the garden hoe, and went after him. Rascal didn’t run from her. He waited facing the door, and she picked him up. He tried to get away but didn’t scratch her, then went limp in her arms. “I’m sorry my scaredy cat,” she told him. She pet him, hugged him, kissed his head, and laughed at him. He dangled in her arms, puffed up with his limbs sticking out like he was a balloon in the Thanksgiving Day Parade. She pet his neck and his ears, and he stretched up to her, rubbing his forehead on her chin.

She put him down, and gave him a treat from her cardigan. He ate it, still puffed up a little. She showed him another treat, and backed up with it. He followed. She gave him the treat. He ate it, then looked up at her. She showed him another treat, and moved back through the garden. He followed, pausing to flick dirt off his paws. She held the treat closer to him. He reached his mouth out. She led him a couple feet more to the pear tree, and he followed with his mouth open, trying to take the treat. She put the treat down near the squirrel’s partially beheaded body. He ate the treat, and sat down on the spot, sniffed at the body, then settled there with each ear sticking up and moving independently of the other. The cat was listening to the sounds of the alleyway.

Greta picked out a spot near him, and carefully sat down on the ground.  Both of them were listening, heads-tilted in the same direction.

They sat there well into the afternoon.

Then she was at the kitchen counter, putting some foil on the cutting board. She brought out the knife, and watched a YouTube video on how to skin and clean a squirrel. She went through the steps, wearing yellow rubber gloves, cutting under and pulling the skin, pinching and pulling out the bones. The squirrel’s cheeks and stomach were all full of mashed up pear.  Rascal meowed at her, and laid over her feet. She heated a pot of water on the stove, dropped the squirrel’s meat in the boiling water, cooked it, and rinsed it in cold water.

She put the meat in Rascal’s dish. He trotted over. On the side, his dish had a little painted depiction of the fat cat himself. He smelled the meat, licked it a little, and then gulped it down with only a few chews.  She ate a salad with kale, cubed beets, shredded carrots, and thinly sliced pear on top, unripened and bitter. It was all glazed in balsamic. Greta was a vegetarian, but Rascal was not.

 

 

 

BIO

Patrick has been writing since he was a child — his first work of fiction being a brief supernatural detective story that had something to do with voodoo in New Orleans. He was born and raised in Halifax, Nova Scotia. In most of the candid childhood photos, he is wearing a green Robin Hood costume, which he sewed using a pattern his mother ordered for him from a catalogue. Sometime after the costume no longer fit, he moved to Toronto for school, but stayed to do human rights and pay equity work with university unions. He now lives and writes by the far ocean in Victoria, B.C. pdlegay@gmail.com

 

 

 

0

Free as the Ocean

by Rae Monroe

 

 

The screen door slapped shut behind her as she crossed the porch. She stepped onto the sand and walked to the water’s edge.

The waves beat her backward and forward. She walked until her feet lost touch with the sand and she began to swim. Salty spray hit her lips as the current grew rougher.

Ahead of her she saw only the cloud-filled sky and undulating ocean. A tiny fish brushed by her foot; she giggled with appreciation. Her head sank back and her legs lifted until she floated. Her copper hair caught the light of the setting sun, flashing fire above the water.

“Maeve! Maeve!” her husband screamed from the shore.

She heard splashes as he ran into the water, but of course he wouldn’t catch her, she was far away, so far away, too far away. She was free…

————-

The Coast Guard looked grim as he pulled her up from the coal-black water. The ship’s spotlight had nearly blinded her, but now that her eyes adjusted, she could see her husband, standing by the railing with crossed arms. He shoved her into a hug as soon as her feet landed on the deck. He still wore his work clothes, and when she leaned back, his carefully ironed suit and tie were wet. He grabbed her cheeks with both hands, pulling her to him again. He pressed his forehead against hers like he was trying to keep her there.

She hadn’t realized she was cold until he touched her. But his fingertips seemed to have brought sensation back, and she started shivering. The Guard wrapped a heavy blanket around her and put her in the cabin, where a floor heater glowed red. Carson sat beside her and cradled her icy hands.

He didn’t speak. After the third incident, he never said a word at all.

The boat hummed as it sped through the water that she was just a part of.

—————

At home, she collapsed onto the couch and wrapped her fingers around the coffee the Guard had given her. A residual chill remained, and she fumbled for the blanket Carson’s mom had knit them last Christmas. The yarn felt like shackles, but it warmed her.

Carson got ready for bed after failing to persuade her to eat. She couldn’t eat. She didn’t know if she ever would again. She hated that she’d left her true home for this dry cage. Her body still drummed with the rhythms of the waves.

In baggy boxers and a stained T-shirt, Carson knelt in front of her and smiled limply.

“How are you?” he asked as he tucked a strand of damp hair behind her ear.

“Fine,” Maeve brought herself to answer. “How was work?”

“The usual,” he said, scanning her face worriedly.

“What did you eat for lunch?”

“Wendy’s.”

He wouldn’t stop staring at her like she was likely to disappear.

“Are you coming to bed?” he asked.

“In a bit.”

“Do you need anything?”

She shook her head and he nodded stiffly before sighing and standing.

Just before he left the room, she said, “I’m pregnant.”

He froze, his every atom seeming to still.

She wasn’t sure how she expected him to react. Maybe anger or horror, after her behavior today. Maybe disappointment, or worse, sorrow.

Finally, he faced her. She prepared herself.

“Pregnant?” he repeated, like he’d forgotten what the word meant.

She nodded.

His face struggled with emotions before lighting up with joy. The stress and confusion of the evening dissipated. She answered his avid questions: five weeks along—we won’t find out for a while—of course we’ll name it after your Uncle Ben if it’s a boy.

They talked until he fell asleep on the couch next to her. A cool breeze rustled past her from the open window and she turned to gaze at the churning ocean. She felt it calling her.

Carson’s hand was warm on her stomach, where her new anchor was growing.

—————

There wasn’t another incident. Carson hoped preparing for the baby would distract her and for a while, it seemed to. She started walking, stopped smoking, worked more. In fact, was more productive than he’d ever seen, finishing a painting nearly every week.

Despite the incident, Maeve seemed genuinely eager to learn as much as she could. Their end tables were overwhelmed with baby books: How to Name Baby, How to Feed Baby, How to Make Baby Sleep.

Yes, he thought things were better. But a couple of weeks after the incident, he found bits of paper in the sea oats by the back porch. They were covered with words written in Maeve’s handwriting, and they were all the same word, “free”.

He worried. He knew she had a difficult childhood—her mom was crazy and believed the whole of Ireland conspired against her, so she and Maeve lived alone, in a cottage, on some godforsaken corner of the country. Carson thought Maeve’s occasionally erratic behavior was due to the trauma she’d endured then. She refused any kind of treatment, though; therapy was laughable and she had no need for “crazy pills”. And nothing she had done was ever dangerous enough to justify his intervention.

And she wasn’t doing anything dangerous now. She was better, she had to be, because in the evenings, they sat in the sand, Maeve sipping tea, Carson sipping wine, and they would talk of the future. And Carson swore she was happy.

—————–

While Carson was at work, Maeve would sit before the ocean like a worshipper before a throne. She thought about how it was always changing, always shifting…Its restlessness was addictive.

“Salt water runs in our veins, baby,” she would whisper. “They say we can never leave the water. I could never leave it. And now, neither will you.”

“My mum would carry me to the top of the cliffs,” Maeve told her baby, “so high I couldn’t see the shore, just the water and grass. The wind was so loud, it hit the cliffs like the waves.” She whispered, “But home made me feel stuck. Nowhere to run, no room to breathe…”

Carson gave her room to breathe. Ever since he met her. He gave her everything, in fact. Everything except the ability to leave.

Her fingers caressed her ballooning stomach with love.

—————

A month after he found the bits of paper, Carson pulled into the driveway. He saw Maeve’s shadow on the living room curtains, moving about sporadically. As he got out of his car, he heard music.

He walked up to the house hesitantly. When he opened the door, the music amplified, and his head began to pulse with the beat.

His wife twirled in the middle of the living room. Her hair swung out and whipped her neck, and her fingers trilled in the air. She wore only a polka-dot bra and striped underwear, and her bare skin shone with sweat.

A battered record player stood on an end-table, spinning a record with dizzying speed. Speakers screamed an old rock song.

The end-table was the only piece of furniture left standing. The other end-tables, the coffee table and the bookshelves were smashed, both couches were overturned, and the lamp lay on the ground. Wood splinters littered the Oriental rug.

Carson!” Maeve cried. She hurried forward, hair and breasts bouncing. “Oh, Carson, it’s the Eagles! The Eagles!”

She was stupidly gleeful, her eyes and smile too wide. Mascara tear streaks ran down her face like claw marks.

“What happened?” he shouted, but Maeve laughed and tugged him toward the chaos. He tripped over a broken chair.

“The Eagles!” she cried again, throwing herself into a freewheeling turn that knocked her into a fractured bookshelf.

“Love, let’s—“

He shut off the record player. Ears still ringing, he grabbed Maeve’s hands and tried to pull her back to reality.

“What don’t you like ‘bout the Eagles?” she asked.

“What’s happening? What are you doing?”

“The dog dances to jump, Levy,” she said, suddenly serious. Her gaze shifted to the front door, her face as blank as a sheet of paper.

“Maeve?”

Her eyes focused on him and she grinned.

“Pizza’s for dinner, Carson, love. Are you deaf?”

She flounced out of the room, Eagles forgotten.

Carson fell onto the upside-down couch, shaking. Somewhere in the distance, the back door slammed shut.

Carson hadn’t experienced this kind of fear before. He didn’t know what was happening to his wife. And he didn’t know what he could do about it.

He stumbled to his feet and began to pick up the mess she had made.

————–

A few days later, Maeve wandered out onto the sand. A storm was about to hit, so the waves threw themselves onto the shore with renewed violence. She felt the ocean’s rage, its mounting fury.

Maeve climbed to the top of a dune, where the wind’s arms caressed her. She closed her eyes and the arms were her Mum’s.

“I counted out his money and it made a pretty penny…”

Her mum’s arms carried her home to the peeling wallpapered walls and the bitter tea when Mum forgot to buy sugar, and the sting of her fingers during one of her uncontrollable spells.

Maeve reached out her hands and lifted her voice to the heavens, singing:

“But I couldn’t shoot the water so a prisoner I was taken…”

Maeve screamed to the dunes, to the wind, to the ocean, to anyone who would listen:

“MUSHA RING DUM A DOO, DUM A DA

WHACK FOR MY DADDY, OH

WHACK FOR MY DADDY, OH

THERE’S WHISKEY IN THE JAR.”

The last word trembled in the air before finally extinguishing like an exhausted flame, and she collapsed onto the sand, musha ring dum a doo, dum a da.

—————-

“Where the hell are my fags?”

Carson woke up. He was nearly nose to nose with his wife, who leered over him like a vengeful god.

“What?” It took him a minute to remember to his Irish wife “fag” was “cigarette”.

“I said where in the actual hell are my fags?”

He pushed her away and sat up.

“You’re pregnant,” he said. “You can’t smoke.

“We discussed this, Maeve. You decided—“

“You don’t understand!”

She collapsed onto the carpet, her fingers tugging at her hair.

“Help me, then.”

“I can’t—I can’t even think. I could think before, I was okay…”

He rubbed at the sleep in his eyes and tried to concentrate through the haze of exhaustion.

“Smoking helps you think?”

“Smoking helps me live.”

“Love, I can’t let you smoke when you’re pregnant. It will hurt our baby.”

“One fag! Just one, so I can think!” She quickly stood and grasped his sleep-swollen cheeks.

“I’m not letting you,” said Carson, his lips squished and his words distorted, “because I love you and our baby.”

It took her a moment to switch tactics.

“I can’t believe you,” she said. She clenched his face harder, then tossed him aside. She crossed over to the dresser and dug through the drawers.

“Your cigarettes are gone, Maeve,” he said, rubbing his throbbing jaw. He had decided to take precautions after the night of the Eagles, since he couldn’t predict her behavior.

And why would she want to smoke? She had seemed intent on having the healthiest pregnancy.

“You think you can take my things? You think you control me?” Her voice broke, as if it couldn’t handle the injustice. “I’m my own person, I—I control what I do. Not you.”

He took a weary breath. A storm front loomed before him, and all he wanted to do was sleep.

“I’m your wife, not your—your slave,” she said. She yanked a drawer our and it fell to the carpet with a dull thud.

“I’m taking care of our baby—“

“How? By taking away my rights? I’ll call the cops. I’ll tell them you won’t let me think.”

“You can think without cig—“

I have my rights!

She tugged out another drawer and tossed it in his direction, clothes flying. He threw himself out of harm’s way. “I deserve to be free! Free.”

She stilled, suddenly lost in that idea.

“Free,” she whispered.

Carson looked up from where he cowered by the nightstand.

“…Maeve?”

“Free from you!”

She came to life again and tripped over her feet as she ran out.

He stood and followed her to the living room, where she was throwing couch cushions into the air. He eyed the furniture worriedly; it had taken hundreds of dollars to repair the damage she’d done last time.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“I’m getting the keys. I’m gonna buy me some fags.”

“The keys aren’t in the couch,” he said, aghast. The keys were on the dolphin hook by the front door, as always.

She started towards him.

“Taking away my rights is not enough? You want to take my car?”

She headed towards the back porch, fumbling with the door latch before stumbling outside. He followed her, the porch’s wooden slats cold and sandy under his feet.

“I want to help you, Maeve, I do,” he said. “But I won’t let you hurt our baby, don’t you see?”

They were among the dunes now, her hair twisting about her in the night wind. Her eyes burned at him in the darkness as he followed her farther and farther. She reached the surf, but kept going until the cold water was up to his waist.

“I thought you loved me,” she said, turning towards him.

“I do.”

“Then let me think. It’s all too much—too much—I can’t get away—”

“I know this is scary,” he said,  “but we’re meant to have this baby. We can do this. But we have to protect our baby. Together.”

Her gaze slipped from his. The water seemed to have captured her concentration. She smiled wistfully, and he ventured close enough to grasp her hand.

“Maybe the conch will hold the burger in,” she said. “You know?”

“Yes. Yes, love, I know.”

He led her back inside.

—————-

She began to draw up plans, in her head. Never on paper, where Carson would see and get upset. He wouldn’t understand her reasons. His love for her blinded him to truth. The baby was most important; the baby had to be saved.

She set a date. She prepared with all the care of a woman for her wedding day, rubbing on lotion, shaving her body, getting her hair styled.

She took the large cleaver they used for chopping meat and hid it under her pillow. During sleepless nights, she’d touch it longingly. She’d slice her fingertips, she stroked it so hard.

The pain made her smile.

—————–

Carson began to think his wife didn’t just have residual trauma.

He researched mental illnesses during lunch breaks and slow afternoons at work. One, schizophrenia, stuck out at him. Some of its symptoms were nothing like Maeve, but others were so exact that he grew a chill. One scientific article mentioned “word salad”—when someone with schizophrenia spoke in grammatically correct sentences, but with nonsense verbs and nouns. Maeve had done that more often than he liked to recall.

But Maeve always corrected herself. She was going through a lot with the baby; it was just stress.

Then Carson remembered the look in her eyes the night she approached him about her cigarettes and the ruined living room in which she danced as carefree as a child.

Carson didn’t want her to be sick, but something was wrong.

—————–

Maeve made a resolution: she was going to teach her baby all she could, while she could.

One day she dove into a wave, the current knocking her backwards and pushing against her striving muscles. When she emerged gasping, her feet finding the sand, she whispered, “And this, Baby? This is life.”

As she painted, sometimes she pressed her paintbrush against her stomach and whispered, “And this, Baby? This is escape.”

At night when Carson and Maeve were huddled on the couch watching TV, she whispered, “And this, Baby? This is love.”

—————–

Carson made an appointment with a psychiatrist. He described Maeve’s behavior, and admitted his fears. The psychiatrist wanted to see Maeve immediately, so Carson arranged an appointment for Monday. He’d tell her they were going out to lunch, baby clothes shopping, out for damn ice cream—anything but the truth.

On Saturday night, when Maeve was twenty-nine weeks along, they washed the dishes together. Maeve was quiet, ignoring his attempts at conversation. When they were done, he left for the bathroom, and as he turned to go, she gripped his arms.

“I love you, Carson,” she said. There was a desperate urgency he couldn’t understand in her words.

“I love you, too, Babe,” he said, but she didn’t seem comforted.

Later, as he washed his hands, he remembered the psychiatrist’s instructions: “If her behavior changes at all, call me. Cases like this are unpredictable.”

Carson dialed the psychiatrist’s number, but he wanted to check on Maeve before he called.

“Maeve?”

He searched the house futilely, then ventured onto the porch and scanned the shore. It was dark, but he didn’t see her. He stepped onto the sand.

“Maeve?”

He heard distant singing of an old Irish song. “Whack for my daddy, oh, whack for my daddy…” He followed her voice, praying to every god he knew that she was alright.

She was several houses down, almost to the pier, on a high sand dune. Her figure, silhouetted against the streetlamps, stood tall and alone. Her restless hair blew in the wind, and one hand occasionally reached up to wipe the strands away from her face. The other hand held an object that flashed with the light.

It was the knife that had been missing from the kitchen for weeks, and it was pressed to her chest.

Carson ran towards her until she screamed at him to stop.

“What are you doing?” he yelled. He was close enough now to see her features. Her eyes were hooded by knit eyebrows, and her lips shook with each breath she took. Her nostrils flared and the veins in her neck tensed.  Here was his love…his love turned monster…

“It’s too late for me.” Her voice drifted down to him lazily, like moonlight through half-open blinds.

He fumbled with his phone, erasing the psychiatrist’s number and dialing 911. He said it was an emergency and named the pier.

“Just—stay, okay?” he asked his wife as he hung up.

“No!”

The sudden shriek made him jump, and the very leaves of the surrounding trees stilled.

“No, don’t you understand?”

“Make me,” he pleaded. If he could just keep her talking until the police came…

“I’m not good. No matter what happens—I can’t be good. My mind…” She sobbed, and he watched her pride break as she confessed, “I’m sick.”

The waves were calm and constant behind them. Maeve’s eyes lifted to them and a glimmer of a smile lit up her features.

“There are people who can help you—us,” Carson said slowly, taking advantage of her change in mood. “You can get better.”

“It will never get better.” Maeve’s face closed and her gaze fell back to the knife in her hands.

“I love you.” Carson’s voice broke, his desperation choking him. He couldn’t risk running to her, but every fiber of his being longed to. “This sickness…we can get through it together. But right now, you need to put down the knife.

Police sirens blared nearby. They were going to make it. Everything would be okay—

“I can’t, Carson.” She said his name as if it pained her. “I love you, but I love our baby more.” She whispered, “And this, Baby? This is death.”

She plunged the knife.

—————–

Maeve opened her eyes. She was in a beige room, fluorescent lights flickering above her. There was an IV in her hand and a machine beeped beside her. Her head felt thick, her mouth dry.

A young woman came into the room, smiling at her condescendingly.

“Feeling better, Ms. Cole?”

She unlooped a stethoscope from his neck and pressed the cold end on her sweaty chest.

“Where’s my baby?”

Because only then did she realize the large bump on her stomach was gone. And no longer could she feel the fluttering kicks of her child inside her, the constant companionship of pregnancy.

“Your baby was successfully delivered while you were unconscious, Ms. Cole,” the doctor said.

“I was in-induced?”

Hope sprang. This was what she had wanted. It had all gone to plan…except waking up. That was unexpected.

“We had to save the baby.”

“Where’s my baby?” she asked again, floundering in the bed, like it was somewhere in the blankets.

“Your daughter is in NICU.”

Daughter.

“She was two pounds and two ounces, which is healthy for a baby that premature. You’re very fortunate.”

“And my husband?”

“He hasn’t left your baby’s side.”

Maeve leaned back in the bed, stiff hospital pillows against her back. Knowing her daughter was safe was good. Yes, she might be cursed, but if Maeve wasn’t in her life, she wouldn’t be stained by her like Maeve was by her own mother.

“Can we discuss what happened?” the doctor asked.

Before, her pain had always been internal. She’d envied the violence her mother unleashed; it seemed to relieve the pressure inside her. For the first time, Maeve had experienced that relief when she had stabbed herself, and she craved it again.

“Your symptoms resemble those of schizophrenia.”

Maeve eyed her stethoscope, limp around her neck.

“We have several psychiatrists available to advise you. We’ve filled a prescription for pills I feel you’ll benefit from.” She held out a bottle helpfully.

Maeve took a deep breath to prepare herself.

————–

(Seven years later)

Carson sat down on the sand. He set his coffee and her Coke beside him.

“Saoirse,” he called.

“Dad,” she said when she walked up, her tiny figure black against the setting sun. “You said you’d try out ‘Sarah’.”

“I’m sorry, love. But you’re not Sarah.” He reached out and tugged on one of her copper curls.

She shook him off, took a sip of Coke and said, “I’m not Saoirse, either, at school. I’m Sao-Shay or Sway-shay or soy sauce.” She glared at him over the edge of the can. “I want a normal name.”

“You should be proud of your name. It’s Irish, like you. And your mom chose it,” he said, “because it means ‘freedom’.”

She grew quiet, like she always did when they discussed her mom.

“How about you show me how many seashells you can find?” he asked.

As she left, he surveyed the horizon. The ocean was different here, in Maine: greyer, colder. He wondered if Maeve would have liked it, then remembered that he, like Saoirse, couldn’t think about her. It only reminded him of that hospital room, the strangled doctor on the floor, Maeve peaceful on the bed, purple half-moons under her closed eyes. She’d overdosed on the medication the doctor had filled for her schizophrenia while he’d been down the hall, baby Saoirse’s fingers wrapped around his thumb.

Now, his daughter’s hair flew as she spun in the sand. She dropped the seashells she was holding and spun faster.

“Look, Daddy!” she cried, the inadequacies of her name forgotten. She reminded him of Maeve, the way she did that—moved so fast past things, like they had never happened. “I’m the wind!” Waves crashed behind her, splashing her legs. This seemed to inspire her, and she laughed, “I’m the ocean, Dad. I’m as free as the ocean!”

“Yes, love, you are.” Carson smiled.

 

 

BIO

Rae Monroe is a short story writer and aspiring novelist. Born in the South, she has since lived all over the world. She has taken writing courses with Stanford University’s gifted youth program, and her short story “Marie” is pending publication with Banyan Literary and Arts Magazine.

 

 

 

 

 

0

How Not to Come Undone

by Richard Thomas

 

 

The family heard that the meteor shower would be visible from the cornfields of northern Illinois, just twenty minutes away from their sedentary suburban bliss, but Robert had been sleepless for weeks already, images flickering across his dreams—shadows and voices, a burning sensation running all the way to his core. They were mother and father, sister and brother—nothing special, rows of houses the same, but in blue, or yellow, or brick. But the boy—half of a set of twins, all the magic and wonder resting in his cells—the darkness and vengeance in his sister, Rebecca. So as they snuffed out the lights of the family sedan, hand in hand down a dirt path the boy had mapped out, trust so easy to come by in this family—the girl sparked danger in her squinting eyes, as the boy’s ever widened to the stars, and possibility. Fresh cut grass lingered under buzzing power lines that disappeared as they stretched out to the horizon, a moist smell ripe with cleanliness and godliness—a hint of something sour underneath. The girl grinned as the rest held their noses, so eager she was to embrace death.

There was little talking, words so often failing them—the father full of muscle and pride, a quick arm around them all, a comforting presence on most days. The mother overflowing with worry, her long black hair often charged with static, as if thought and trembling nerves bubbled up to the surface of her pulsating skull. They did their best. And as the dry grasses and weeds rose up around them they held hands again, as the twins parted, spying each other, mother and father taking a breath together, searching for peace. They had spoken of meteors, talked about aliens, listed off planets—space so wide and unforgiving. Such potential, still, and yet, so much that was unknown, unimaginable. In each of them a different static, signals from far away mumbling welcome, whispering promise, giggling failure.

At the top of a hill they stopped, a blanket unfurled, some of them sighing, others grimacing in pain. The questions they would ask themselves on nights like this, and were in fact contemplating at this very moment, ran the gamut from inspired to self-destructive. Why me? Why not me? What does it all matter? Why are we here? On the darker nights when children lay healing, or feverish, or sick with disease, the father might pray a little—ask for the burden all to himself, willing to eat such pain with hardly a hesitation. On the darker nights the mother asked for forgiveness—somehow feeling that it must surely be her fault. Both asking quiet gods to pass over their twins, to find their sacrifice elsewhere. The boy might lie staring at his sister, the room black around them but for a singular bulb in the closet, her eyes as dark as coal, yet shimmering all the same.

“Becca, don’t,” he’d say.

“What?” she might reply.

“Any of it,” he whispered, pausing. “All of it.”

But he knew what she was, what she would become, and no matter his hope, his spark, there was little he could really do.

Or so he thought.

In the grass, on the hill, they scanned the sky for falling stars, for meteors, bits of fire and light and danger. The father fell asleep first, one last deep breath, searching his mind for the answer to so many questions, unable to quite figure it out before he went silent. It was like this on most nights—but then again, some evenings he solved many a riddle. The mother felt her husband go, and let it happen, the weight of it all just too much to carry, letting worry run off of her like rain on a slicker, giving in to weakness, expecting only the worst. But it rarely came. The girl had been waiting for this, the parents to slip away into slumber, for the darkness was calling to her, from every corner of the field.

“No, don’t,” the boy said.

“What?” she laughed.

“Any of it,” he sighed. “All of it. Please. No. Let it be.”

She batted her eyes, as if confused, and then lowered her gaze, incantations slipping over her lips, as the wind picked up, fireflies dancing on the breeze, a faint brush of lavender from the bushes back by the car.

But the boy was curious, and so he propped himself up on his elbows, the night full of so much curiosity—why not her? Maybe he was wrong. He could be wrong.

She found a stick and broke it into pieces, quickly stacking the twigs on a flat rock that sat exposed to the moonlight, forming the wooden splinters into a triangle, and then a pyramid, crossing one over the other, pulling a clover with four leaves from the grass, running a sharp thumbnail over her scarred palm, drops of crimson falling to the stone.

“No,” Robert said, standing up, his parent oblivious, as if spellbound. “Not like that.”

“This is the moment you always get queasy, brother,” she whispered. “Not all that glitters is gold,” she said, staring at the moon, baring her long, white neck as the boy took a step toward her.

“Must it always be death?” he asked.

“No,” she said, bowing her head, as if that was the only trick she knew.

A flash of light overhead and his eyes shot toward the heavens, black felt dotted with pinpricks, slashes and sparks darting right to left, right to left, disappearing and fading over the hills and into the distance.

“So it begins,” he said, embracing what she’d set in motion.

“I don’t think that’s me, brother,” she laughed.

He spread his arms wide, as the stars fell around them, filling the sky, but so very far away. To the horizon it was as if they might land upon them, but no, that wouldn’t happen. Couldn’t happen.

If she had asked for death, then what had he asked for?

Evoking a crucifix he open his palms, and stardust fell upon them, as their eyes grew wide, a distant spark growing closer and closer until it lit up the field, the two of them trembling, his right hand catching something red.

He brought his hands together, the left hand over the right fist, a heat inside, bouncing and struggling, his hands glowing yellow beneath the flesh, orange seeping out, the girl coming closer, smiling wide, the boy trembling, skin gone pale, sick and uncertain.

What had he done?

“Open your hands,” she asked

“No, I can’t,” he said.

“You must.”

And so he did.

It glowed and pulsed, voices like underwater mumbling, a dark sphere spinning and rolling, spilling into itself, some sort of question being asked—forgiveness, perhaps, favor maybe, unable to breathe, his mouth open wide.

Without thinking he swallowed it down, hands to his mouth, as it burned and healed down this throat, burned and sealed as it descended, as it burrowed deeper, filling his body with light, rays pouring out of his mouth, his nostrils, his ears, leaking out of his eyes—arms wide, his sister stepping back in horror, his chest thrust out, neck bent back and then it was over.

Darkness again.

The boy collapsed.

The girl grinned.

And the parents woke up.

It was only the beginning.

 

#

 

After that, things were different.

The summer unspooled like a giant ball of twine, the boy glowing everywhere he went, his skin tan, eyes sparkling, his brown hair more blond every day. And the girl, just the opposite, pale to the point of translucence, her eyes two black orbs, her fingernails bitten to jagged daggers.

As long as they had been aware of each other, and possibly even before that, the twins had balanced each other out in so many different ways—yin and yang, dark and light, day and night. Things were more established now, nearly teens, the concrete nearly set, but it hadn’t always been that way. The balance, it had been fluid. When Robert was joyful, Rebecca became angry. When the boy fell ill, the girl danced around the house, trying to cheer him, full of life. The best they could wish for was a rare neutral state where neither was happy or sad, just present—equal. And that was no way to live a life. Was it?

The family didn’t talk about the meteors, the light show, what might have happened. It was a buried secret that no one ever brought up. Partly, the parents felt responsible, no surprise, and partly they didn’t believe. But the twins knew, and their eyes lingered on each other, opening their mouths to speak, like baby birds eager for a worm, only to snap shut. Quiet. Uncertain.

More and more the boy would find himself sitting on the front porch of their house, Chicago brick, split with wooden frames, windows facing out in all directions, enough of a yard to run around. Rebecca would find him sitting with his legs crisscrossed, applesauce, eyes closed, open palms resting on his knees, a smile filling his face. Oh how she hated him then. The stories he told now, about what he could do. Had done.

And the she saw it with her own eyes—the boy so still, for so long, that a gimpy squirrel approached him, sniffing out the acorns he had placed in each open hand, its hind leg crooked, fur missing, a scar running across the mottled flesh. The little creature took first one acorn, and then the other, chewing at the shell, getting to the meat, finally resting in the boy’s lap, against all odds—taking a well-deserved nap. The boy stroked the animal, gently, his hands resting on its hindquarters, his face rippling in pain as if he’d found a tack, and not soft fur. Her blood boiled. She opened the door, and shooed the creature away, its gait no longer hesitant or slow, bounding to the nearest tree, and up it in a flash.

When the boy opened his eyes and turned to her, she scowled.

“Did you see?” he asked.

“No,” she growled.

“You did. I know it.”

“There is nothing special about you,” she whispered, her dark side of the scale dipping lower, as his face shone brightly in the sun.

It had come to this.

The rest of the summer would find strange cars parked in the driveway, bikes tossed to the grass, neighbors wandering over to return borrowed power tools, each of them pausing to say hello to the boy. They made it a point to shake his hand, slowly, to grasp them both, to hold them a little bit longer than necessary. He knew. And he smiled. Sometimes they gave him a hug, and he would hug them back, fearless, hands on their shoulders, sometimes moving lower to where a kidney might reside. Eventually he set a basket on the edge of the porch, so the giving would be less awkward, the words needed to explain, to thank, to rejoice now left on quivering lips—this would be their secret as well. The basket filled with candy and toys, with crumpled up dollar bills, jars of fruit preserves and plates of homemade cookies—whatever they had to offer.

Robert was not blind to Becca’s descent, it had been up and down as long as he could remember, but there was so much darkness now, so much pain. He felt that he had driven her there with his joy, his love of life—and his gift.

He offered her a deal, but she refused. She hated him now. Perhaps it was too late. So he decided to trick her.

On the next full moon, when the parents were asleep, they went out to the back yard, behind the pile of wood for the winter, past the birdhouse swinging in the breeze from a rope tied to an ancient oak tree, past the pet cemetery down by the azaleas, to the makeshift altar the girl had built.

“What is it you want to see?” she’d said.

“Any of it,” he whispered. “All of it.”

She smiled in the darkness. She’d been building the shrine for days—the sticks, the feathers—the twine. There were acorn husks, a rotten apple, and a handful of writhing earthworms. There was paint in complicated hieroglyphics—stars, and circles, and lines. When she chewed at her ragged fingernail, pulling away a bit of keratin, blood blossomed to the surface, running down her finger, a single red coin landing on the rock below.

He acted quickly.

Robert took her hands, as she gasped and tried to escape, holding them tight, his own fingers now slick with her blood.

“You will not come undone,” he said, anger flushing to the surface, a truth that danced across his skin, his eyes fading, his skin dulling. He pulled her close and held her tight. She struggled at first, and then realizing how strong he was, gave in. Her pain and suffering, it quieted for a moment, the voices dissipating, her tension unwinding into his frame. They met somewhere in the middle, brother and sister. A single cough, and the last of the glow escaped from his mouth, now a dancing firefly, heading out across the yard. As one lost its shine, the other filled with light, and as the moon overhead sat witness to it all, a shooting star ran across the sky, a spark of hope to all that saw it.

 

 

 

BIO

Richard ThomasRichard Thomas is the award-winning author of seven books—Disintegration and Breaker (Penguin Random House Alibi), Transubstantiate, Staring into the Abyss, Herniated Roots, Tribulations, and The Soul Standard (Dzanc Books). His over 140 stories in print include Cemetery Dance (twice), PANK, storySouth, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Midwestern Gothic, Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories, Qualia Nous, Chiral Mad (numbers 2-4), and Shivers VI. He was also the editor of four anthologies: The New Black and Exigencies (Dark House Press), The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers (Black Lawrence Press) and Burnt Tongues (Medallion Press) with Chuck Palahniuk. He has been nominated for the Bram Stoker, Shirley Jackson, and Thriller awards. In his spare time he writes for Lit Reactor and is Editor-in-Chief at Gamut Magazine. For more information visit www.whatdoesnotkillme.com or contact Paula Munier at Talcott Notch.

 

 

 

 

0

The Wine Sniffer

by Alexander Carver

 

 

“Perhaps you would care for a table upstairs by the window,” the maître d’ said, blocking our pathway into the dining room after a few words of French had sputtered from our mouths.

“Upstairs?  Well…sure,” I said, a bit confused because all the tables on the first floor were available, save one.

“That sounds lovely.  By the window would be lovely,” my new bride said, injecting her usual enthusiasm into the moment.

It was the end of our first full day in Paris, and Eva and I were trying our very best to play the role of the good Americans.  Happily honeymooning, well-behaved, notably courteous and conforming, good Americans.  We had just enjoyed a bottle of wine on the patio at Les Deux Magots, and felt that the waiter had rewarded our polite behavior, and attempt at speaking French, with a small bowl of pretzels.  Sure, everyone else had been treated to the pretzels, too, but at least we hadn’t been denied them for being suspected disciples of Donald Trump.

Upstairs at Brasserie Lipp, we were escorted to a corner table next to a narrow, dirt-streaked window, which would have looked out onto the bustling Boulevard Saint Germain, if we could have seen through it.  About twenty minutes after the maître d’ handed us our menus, the waiter made his first appearance.  I’d never thought of France as being a nation of giants, but this man was a six and a half footer–almost as wide as he was long—with big, dark, hostile eyes like 8-balls, which caused me to drop mine towards the table when they fixed themselves on me.  I was already tense because I’d left my wallet back at our Airbnb and was being forced to live off my new wife for the evening.  Though I rationalized my dependency by reminding myself that only a few days earlier, Eva and I had vowed to share all our worldly possessions–which technically included the contents of her purse.

Taking our order, the waiter switched from exemplary French to stilted English when we came up lame in his native tongue.  I selected the second least expensive bottle of Bordeaux on the menu and the least expensive entrée, the pâté en croûte pistaché salade.  Eva ordered the filet de boeuf en sauce béarnaise, the most expensive item on the menu, winning her sole attention from our massive waiter, who ignored me and my friendly smiles throughout the rest of the meal.

Before departing to place our order, the waiter grabbed the half empty basket of bread from the deserted table next to us, set it down in front of me, turned on his heel, and pranced off towards the kitchen.  I examined Eva’s astonished expression, then peered into the depleted bread basket to find three remaining slices from a no longer fresh baguette.

“Did he just give us someone else’s used bread?” I said.

“Yes, he did,” she responded, leaning forward to get a closer look inside the tainted basket.

“Well, what was that about?”

“I don’t know.  I’m kind of in shock.”

“Do you think maybe that’s a thing here?  Everyone shares everyone else’s bread?” I said.

“No.  I don’t.”

“So, you think he was just being a dick?”

“I think he was just being a dick.”

“Unbelievable.”

I was starving, having only had a few pretzels at Deux Magots, so I reached into the basket and pulled out a slice of bread.

“Do you want a slice?” I asked Eva.

“I am not eating that bread,” she responded.

The anger and repulsion in her tone told me that I shouldn’t eat it either—so I dropped the chunk of bread, picked up the basket, and set it back down on its original table.  An action that changed Eva’s expression from someone who was etching a strike in her mind against the character of the man she had just married, back to neutral.

The Brasserie Lipp had been a big haunt of famous American expatriates in the 1920’s, and an even bigger haunt of American tourists ever since.  Wide-eyed, loud-mouthed state-siders, looking to lasso the spirit of Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and the rest of the once in a millennium gang.  A legacy that helped me understand, if not condone, the anti-American sentiment at such a celebrated restaurant, where the wait-staff was afflicted with unilingual American tourists at lunch and dinner every day of the week.  Another, and possibly even greater contributor, was the fact that waiters in Paris don’t work for tips.  Tips are factored into the bill.  So, there really is no incentive for them to pretend to like anyone, much less the dreaded American tourist.

Attempting to shake off the Lipp experience after dinner, Eva and I strolled down the cobblestoned alleyways of the 6th Arrondissement, and like good little tourists, sought out Pablo Picasso’s studio at 7 Rue des Grands Augustins.  We snapped iPhone pictures of each other hamming it up beside the commemorative plaque on the wall, and then continued down the exclusive street, peering into the gallery windows to find out what art was fashionable in Paris that spring.

Fearing our blood/alcohol level was dropping, we ducked into a trendy little watering hole a few blocks from Picasso’s pad called Prescription Bar.  Inside it was candlelit and dark, other than the abstract paintings hanging on the walls of an unnerving green subject matter, reminiscent of plasma, you wouldn’t want to contemplate twice before bedtime.

The alcohol count for the newlyweds at that point was two beers with lunch, a 4 o’clock bottle of wine at Deux Maggots, and a second bottle with our begrudgingly served dinner at Lipp.  Figuring we had already gone that far with our drinking, we decided to go the distance.  Like most weddings, ours had been stressful, and our frayed nerves required a slightly higher alcohol intake then they did during any other week.  At least that’s how we justified all the empty bottles we were leaving behind us.  Deciding to take it up a notch at Prescription Bar, we asked the young, smiley-faced bartender if they served absinthe.  He laughed for some reason, probably another American tourist thing, then told us they didn’t serve it straight, but that they made a cocktail with fruit juice that had absinthe as one of its ingredient.  We nodded eagerly when he asked if we’d like to try it, then drank it down quickly after it arrived in tall, narrow glasses, featuring wedges of pineapple, harpooned by tiny umbrellas.  The cocktail possessed an obscene amount of sugar, but otherwise tasted innocently enough, though we knew from what we’d read about absinthe, that it would creep up on us eventually.

“Is it me or do the bartenders in Paris pour a ton of sugar in their cocktails?” I asked Eva, whose eyes looked as dazed as mine felt after we’d downed our drinks.

“I was just thinking that.  There’s an inch of sugar at the bottom of my glass.  I need a spoon to finish my drink.”

I laughed.  “Not the worst thing in the world.”

“No.  And with all the walking we’re doing the calories will just drop right off.  Do you wanna get one more?” Eva said, as she used her tongue to scoop out the sugar she’d worked to the top of the glass in a method not lost on the bartender.

“No, let’s hit the streets again,” I said.  “We’re only in Paris a week and I don’t think we should repeat an experience when there are so many more experiences out there waiting for us.”

“That sounded very writery,” Eva said with a laugh.

“What did?”

“What you just said about experiences.  Is that a quote from something you wrote?”

“No, I just came up with it.  Why?  You think I should put it in something?  What was the quote again?”

“Something about repeating experiences.  Can’t remember.”

“Well, it couldn’t have been that good if you don’t remember it and I just said it two seconds ago.”

“I guess I just I don’t feel like trying to remember things right now,” Eva said.  “I feel like doing things.  You’re right, there are experiences out there waiting for us, and all we’re doing is sitting here with empty drinks talking about them.”

“Oh, now you remember what I said.  When it suits your argument.  Okay, let’s hit as many cool bars as we can…until we can’t anymore,” I said.

“I’m game,” Eva said, placing a handful of euros on the bar.  “We can always come back here another night if we want another one of these sugary absinthe drinks.”

“No, we can’t!  One and done, remember?”

“Oh, right.  I forgot.  One and done.”

We slid off our barstools and headed for the door.  Before stepping outside, Eva turned back towards the bar and said, “Goodbye, Prescription Bar.  Sorry, but we will never pass this way again.”

I laughed.  “Nice exit line,” I said, taking Eva’s hand and leading her up the art gallery lined street.

Eva and I don’t remember the name of the bar we entered next, probably because the absinthe had already kicked in, making us less aware of physical details and more aware of emotional ones.  But I do remember that the first thing I noticed was a red sign above the bartender’s head advertising bottles of wine for 20 euros.  The previous bottles we’d purchased that day were in the 30 to 40-euro range, and so I happily ordered a bottle with two glasses that Eva happily purchased.  I couldn’t recall ever buying a bottle of wine in a bar in America and I liked the novelty of it, along with the price.

With the open bottle in hand, Eva and I sat down on a pair of wood block chairs, at a wood block table, which made me feel like an actor in a low budget play back in Los Angeles.  The dim lighting, set design, and staging, all appropriate for the surreal scene we were about to act out with the young French couple that sat down next to us…

The wine glasses the bartender gave us were as small as they come, like shot glasses with stems, and after we drank our first glass, a tall, handsome Frenchman with a face as unshaven as mine, sat down at the wood block table next to us with his equally attractive blonde-haired date.  I say date, instead of girlfriend or wife, because unlike me, he wasn’t wearing a brand-new wedding band, and because there was a stiffness between them that implied a lack of familiarity and comfort, like two people on a first date.  Apart from those observations, it was soon apparent that he was trying to impress her by what he said to me after sitting down and eyeing our bottle of wine.

“You are American, no?” he said.

I laughed.  “Yes.  What gave me away?”

Ignoring my question, he pressed on with another one of his own… “Did you purchase bottle of wine here?”

“Uh…yes.  Right here at the bar.”

His questioning the obvious confused me and I wondered if it was due to his lack of familiarity with the English language.

“This is not the place to order bottle of wine,” he said, turning a bright white grin towards his blonde date.

“Oh, well…we’re not from around here,” I said.  “The wine’s actually not too bad.  Right, Eva?”

“Yeah, it’s pretty good.”

The Frenchman eyed Eva incredulously and then eyed his date again.  The date seemed bored by the topic and kept her eyes averted from us, looking out through the open doorway towards the street.

Attempting to extract myself and my new wife from the conversation, I pivoted my body away from the annoyingly handsome Frenchman and squared it with Eva’s.  I smiled at her and then moved my shoulders to the beat of “Pump up the Jam” the 80’s techno song playing in the bar—an action I hoped would convey to him that we wanted to be left alone.  Eva laughed tensely at my attempt at physical comedy, then tried to make me laugh at her own funny dance moves.  A few moments passed before the Frenchman inserted himself back into our evening.

“Do you mind if I look at it?” he said, reaching towards our wine bottle.

“Uh…no, go ahead,” I said, gesturing politely with my hand.

He grabbed the bottle by the neck, held it to his nose, and sniffed the contents.  Then, offended by its bouquet, he made a sour face, set the bottle down, and without another word to us, stood up, and ushered his blonde date over to the bar.

I turned and looked wide-eyed at Eva.  The anger over what the Frenchman had done having yet to seize me.  Disbelief is always my first reaction when cruel people treat me cruelly.

“What was that all about?” I said to Eva.

“He was just trying to impress that girl,” she said.

“So, he sniffs our wine and then scoffs at it?”

“I guess so.”

“What the hell?” I said, eyeing the wine sniffer, now leaning against the bar.

“Let it go, Andrew.  It doesn’t matter.”

“It doesn’t matter?  That guy just tried to make a fool out of me.”

“Okay, calm down.  He’s not worth getting upset about.”

“Of course he is.  I’ve had it with these French people.  They don’t like Americans?  Well, fine, I don’t like them either.  Screw it!  I’ve been defending these French pricks for years, saying they’re not as bad as they seem–and this is how I get paid back for it?  By some pretty boy sniffing my bottle of wine and then making a face at me?!”

“Lower your voice, Andrew.  We’re not in America.  People act differently here.”

“Do you know what Ernest Hemingway would’ve done if that wine sniffer had done that to him?  He would’ve taken him outside and kicked the shit out of him.”

By that point my anger had been fully realized.

“Well, thank God you’re not Ernest Hemingway.”

“Yeah, thank God for that asshole!” I said, gesturing at the Frenchman.

“Please lower your voice.  I don’t want to have to bail my new husband out of a French jail.”

I reached for the bottle the wine sniffer had so vehemently objected to and filled my little glass to the rim–all the while keeping my eyes trained on the bar.

“It almost feels morally wrong not to do something about this.  At the very least I should go over there and tell him he’s an asshole,” I said.

“Please don’t.”

“No!  I should go over there and grab his beer, take a sip, and make a sour face right back at him.”

“Please don’t do that either.”

“I’ll take a sip of his beer and then spit it in his face and tell him that the next time he sniffs someone’s wine and makes a face, I hope the guy’s in the Mafia and he ends up at the bottom of the Seine.”

“I don’t think they have the Mafia in this country.”

“Of course, they do.  The Mafia is everywhere.”

“Okay, I think it’s time we go to the next bar,” Eva said, reaching for her little black purse.

“Not until I’m finished drinking my bottle of shitty bar wine,” I said.

I chugged my little glass of wine, grabbed the bottle in question, and filled the glass back up to the rim.

“Well, I’m going downstairs to the bathroom.  Could you please try and cool off before I get back?”

“Eva, I don’t think you quite understand the lack of civility we just experienced.  It’s not the kind of offense someone just cools off over during the course of a two-minute bathroom stop.”

“I understand that, but you have to try and get over it.  Because I’m not sure you understand that you can’t get into a fight in a foreign country, where the judicial system will be heavily biased against a belligerent citizen of a country they unanimously despise.”

Belligerent?”

“Getting there…”

“Hey, you’re the one who’s getting belligerent.  This little incident is not going to end up in Federal court, so you can just calm down about that.”

“Look–I’m just saying that if you start a fight it’s going to be everyone against you.  And the French police will come in here and ask what happened and everyone will say you started a fight for no reason and you’ll get arrested…and, yes, probably end up having to defend yourself in court because you can’t afford legal representation because we’ve spent all our money on our honeymoon.”

“Okay, please go to the bathroom.  I want to be alone so I can finish my shitty wine in peace.”

When I’m good and angry and at war inside my head, I tend to turn on even those I value as my most beloved and trusted allies.  It’s an odd and inexplicable tendency.  A need to cast everyone aside with a few harsh words, so I can brood by myself in some sort of self-destructive, go-down-fighting-alone impulse.  It’s not rational.  It’s not healthy.  It’s not effective.

While Eva was downstairs, I sat at our cubed little table looking towards the brightly lit bar trying to will the wine sniffing Frenchman to look my way.  But he never turned his head.  I could tell he was aware of my psychotic stare by the way he was overacting his role of fascinated listener as his date regaled him with her words, but with impressive poise–which I envied–refused to acknowledge my attempt to reengage him.  Soon, Eva returned and took her seat next to me.  She, too, was angry by that point.  Angry at the Frenchman.  Angry at the interruption of our magical day in Paris.  And angry at me for not having the emotional self-discipline to shrug it off and go back to having a fun night.  Discovering the wine bottle was empty, Eva reached over, grabbed my full glass of wine, and drank it down in two gulps.  It was a dramatic move for which I was quietly impressed.

“Okay, let’s get out of here,” I said.

As we walked out of the bar, my eyes stayed fixed on the wine sniffer’s face, but he went right on enjoying his evening, more so now that he had ruined ours.

Heading back along the sidewalk towards Picasso’s, I recited aloud for Eva the litany of offenses we had incurred that day–from being treated like 2nd class citizens (or 2nd floor citizens) at Brasserie Lipp, where we were given another table’s used bread, to the unnecessary cruelty of the wine sniffing Frenchman ridiculing my choice to purchase a bottle of cheap wine at a dive bar.

“Andrew, I’m not going to let you turn our honeymoon into a war against the French Republic,” Eva said, after I’d finished the list and thoroughly psychoanalyzed the rude behavior of some of its contributors.

“Hey–you’re acting like I’m the one misbehaving here.  All I’ve done—all we’ve done–is smile and be friendly, while sitting there taking one slap across the face after another.  It’s obvious that whether it’s Trump’s fault for the way we’re being treated, or not–the majority of the French people hate Americans and are finding every opportunity to let us know just how much.”

“Well, let’s face it, Trump is a prick, and you can’t blame them for holding it against the Americans for electing him!” Eva said.

Immediately after she said it, she looked like she regretted it.  I spotted the look of regret, but like anyone who wants to win an argument, I pounced anyway.  The absinthe was now working together with the cheap wine and the French people to ensure that enough gas was thrown on the fire to produce a significant explosion right there in the 6th Arrondissement.

“Wait.  Are you taking sides with the French against me?!  Against your husband?!” I said.  “Okay, that’s it.  I need to be by myself.   I need to take a walk.  I need to take a walk by myself.”

“What?!  It’s midnight.  Where the hell are you going to go?”

“Don’t worry about it.  Grab an Uber and I’ll meet you back at the apartment later.  I need to be alone right now.  It’s my right as an individual human being to be alone if I want to be alone.  Marriage doesn’t change that!”

“FINE!  GO BE ALONE!”

Drunk and irrational, I started down the sidewalk at a quick pace, turning to give Picasso’s studio another glance as I passed by it.

“Do you even know how to get back to the apartment?!” Eva shouted at me, with a touch of irony in her voice.

“I know the address: 15 Rue Paul Delong!  2nd Arrondissement!

Lelong!  Not Delong!”

“Paul Lelong!  I know!”

“Andrew?  ANDREW?  Do you really know your way around this city?”

“Of course I do!  This is my 5th time in Paris, remember?!”

The truth was I knew all the tourist haunts on the Left Bank in the 5th and 6th Arrondissements where Hemingway had once lived, like the Dome, the Closerie des Lilas, Notre Dame, Shakespeare and Company, but we were staying in the 2nd Arrondissement, on the Right Bank across the Seine, far away from anything I remotely recognized, and it took me two and a half hours to find my way back to Eva.

Of course, there were other complications.  I had been too cheap to purchase an overseas cellphone plan, rendering my iPhone useless for navigational purposes.  Also, as I said, I had forgotten to bring my wallet, so even though I knew the address on the Right Bank where we were staying, the taxi option to transport me there was unavailable to me as well.

At first it was thrilling to be lost in the most charming and beautiful city in the world, in the middle of the night, drunk, and getting drunker, as the cheap wine continued to infiltrate my bloodstream.  It was like being in a giant labyrinth, where I couldn’t find the end, but thought I recognized several locational clues, which didn’t turn out to be clues at all.  After an hour of stubbornly thinking I could find my way back to the apartment without asking for help, I finally gave in and began asking other late-night carousers if they knew how to get to Rue Paul Lelong.  The darkness, my poor French, their drunkenness and mine, all working against me.

It worked like this… I’d step in front of someone and blurt out: “Rue Paul Lelong?  Rue Paul Lelong?”  And then, when they shook their heads uncomprehendingly, I’d mispronounce: “Rue Montmartre”.

To which they would inevitably respond: “No, no, I am sorry,” and quickly shuffle away.

Eventually, I resorted to yelling: “THE LOUVRE!  THE LOUVRE!”, which I knew was fairly close to our apartment, and someone would give me complicated directions in broken English, which I was too drunk and too navigationally challenged to follow.

It was the dead of night and there were only so many people who appeared in front of me, not one of them American.  Soon, I began to panic, thinking that Eva was back at our Airbnb worried out of her mind.  Thankfully, I had worn my red New Balance sneakers that day, so I decided to turn my nightmarish predicament into an opportunity to get some exercise, and began jogging down street after street, stopping to peer up at the little blue signs on the corners of the buildings revealing the name of the street and number of the arrondissement or district of the city.

My jog took me from the 9th Arrondissement to the 3rd to the 4th to the 2nd–where I must have been close to home–then back to the 3rd, and somehow all the way back to the 9th, where, when I saw that the little blue sign above read: 9 Arrondissement, I collapsed on the curb and broke down in tears.  Like many lost and helpless people, I then turned to religion and accepted God back into my life after a decade long hiatus, promising that if He got me out of this jam and safely back into the arms of my beloved wife on the 5th floor of an apartment building on the elusive Rue Paul Lelong, I would never drink again…at least not absinthe.

Finally, somewhere in the 3rd Arrondissement, I asked a young, dark-haired woman walking her dog, if she could direct me to Rue Montmartre, the main thoroughfare that ran perpendicularly to Rue Paul Lelong.  Like the others, she didn’t recognize the name of the street due to my horrendous pronunciation, but wisely handed me her cellphone, so I could type it into a Google search.  She then found a map and gave me directions for the half mile distance home.

“You see streetlight at end of the block where big statue is?” the woman said.

“Yes!  Yes!  I see it!  The big statue!”

“Go to light and then go left and then go for five minutes and then you will take another left and then you will find Montmartre,” she said.

I thanked her profusely and gave her a hug, and she seemed charmed by the plight of the desperately lost, cellphoneless American, and I thought: “Well, she certainly makes up for all the other French assholes that led me here tonight.”

When I arrived back at the apartment, I raced up the four flights of stairs, and opened the door, expecting to be greeted by my devastated wife, only to find a single light burning by the window and Eva upstairs in the loft, sleeping.  Apparently, the absinthe had been bad for some things and good for others, like putting Eva soundly to sleep, free of worry.  I stripped off my clothes, crawled into bed next to my bride, wrapped my arms around her, and slept until noon.

A few days later, when we were back to being best friends, Eva and I decided to make a return trip to Brasserie Lipp–one for which, this time, we, not the French, would set the terms.

“Let’s go back there and really American it up,” I said, as we sat on the rooftop patio of our Airbnb, drinking wine, and listening to the sentimental playlist from our wedding.

“But, I thought we weren’t going to repeat any experiences in Paris,” she said.

“That’s true.  But I think this experience needs to be repeated so we can both feel better about it years from now when we’re reminiscing about our honeymoon.”

“Okay,” Eva said.  “And maybe it’ll be good for me to try and be a little less nice for a change.”

“You could probably benefit from being a little less nice…yes,” I said.

To appear as American as we could, we both wore our bright red Phillies baseball caps, flannel button down shirts–rolled up to the elbows–blue jeans, and the his and hers cowboy boots (a wedding gift from my Colorado cousin) we had lugged all the way from L.A.

To the chagrin of the same Maître d’ we had experienced during our first visit to Lipp, this time I insisted on a table on the first floor, and vehemently pointed to an available one facing the entrance of the restaurant.  After our assorted cheese plate appetizer, Eva confessed to me that she had never eaten squid ink pasta before, one of the specials that night, and I insisted she try it.  I ordered the same, and when the mounds of pasta arrived on large oval plates, she was baffled to discover that squid ink meant actual ink.  Black, teeth-staining ink.  After I had twirled a length of pasta onto my fork and shoved it into my mouth, she looked across the table and saw that the ink had turned my front teeth black.  Realizing that her teeth were likely mirroring mine, she wiped at them with her napkin after each bite, and later swished water from her water glass as well.  As she wiped and swished, the uptight, middle-aged French couple seated next to us watching her performance, whispered back and forth to each other in exasperation.

After dinner, while we waited out on Boulevard Saint Germain for our Uber to arrive, I said to Eva:

“You were really working that napkin at dinner.  And all that water swishing, too.  Did the squid ink really bother you that much?”

I was legitimately worried about the newly introduced neurotic eating habits of the woman with whom I had agreed to spend the rest of my life.

“No,” she said.  “I just noticed that the French couple next to us were disgusted by it–so I kept doing it more and more to gross them out.”

“Wow.  I had no idea you were like that.”

“Well, I am,” Eva said with a grin, as the white Prius we were waiting for came into sight.

“That’s fantastic!” I said, grabbing her hand and leading her into the backseat.

“Take us to the Eifel Tower please,” Eva said to the driver.  “We’re Americans and it’s mandatory that we get a picture kissing in front of it at night.”

The driver laughed, completed a harrowing U-turn, and then drove the Americans off to get the money shot that would hang in their bedroom for the next 40 or 50 years.

 

 

BIO

Alexander Carver’s stories have appeared in ZYZZYVA, Foliate Oak, The Satirist, The Southern Pacific Review, and Dark Matter.  His story “Uber Trouble” was a prize winner in the Razor Literary Magazine short fiction contest. As well as being an author, he is also a produced playwright and screenwriter.

 

 

 

 

 

0

GLUE

by Briana Morgan

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did something happen to Pop?

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

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

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

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

Mom goes to her room and shuts the door.

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

I slide off the counter and tiptoe down the hall.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Was it something bad?” I ask.

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

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

“I’m not as brave as Pop,” I say.

Mom doesn’t say a word.

 

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

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

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

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

“When will Pop be back?” I ask.

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

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

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

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

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

“He will be,” Mom says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You miss Pop,” I ask, “don’t you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I want to go home,” I say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

“How was school?” Mom asks.

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

“Sit down, please,” Mom says.

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

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

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

“Use your manners,” Mom says.

I try again. “No, thank you.”

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

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

“I don’t want to answer,” I say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Make him go away.”

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

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

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

“I don’t want to come out.”

“Johnny.”

“No way.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Get out!

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

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

It hits Mom’s cheek. She freezes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, Johnny,” Mom says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

BIO

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

Alien Honor

by Richard C. Rutherford

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No.”

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

I liked those pants. They had big pockets.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Get a job.” She starts walking.

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

Someone walking past me says, “No shit.”

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

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

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

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

“You don’t have a gun.”

“Simple. I’ll build one.”

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

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

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

“Marge. I’m taking you with me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bathroom scale.”

“Not anymore. C’mon. I’ll show you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay, little man.”

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

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

We are about ten yards from the dumpster. Husband?

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

I look over, smile, and raise my eyebrows.

“Do that again.”

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

She nods. “Uh-huh, do it again.”

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

“Marge, we gotta go. Now.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Marge.”

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

“Marge, please.”

“What?”

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

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

“Marge!”

“Okay, okay.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The scale hangs loose in my hand.

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

 

 

 

BIO

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

 

 

 

 

0

Hail Mary

by Erin Smith

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This is Ray calling housekeeping . . .”

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

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

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

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

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

All was quiet on the set.

All is chaos at the Broadline Theatre.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks for helping,” Jodi says.

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

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

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

“Ray, can I ask you something?”

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

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

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

“Uh,” I manage to say.

“If you can’t it’s fine . . .”

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

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

I watch her leave and feel the lines slipping away.

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

I’m not sure what my excuse is now.

+

My agent calls.

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

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

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

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

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

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

ValleyCon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You ready for November?” she asks.

I shrug. “Rough schedule.”

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

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

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

“Where are the others?” I ask.

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

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

I was eight!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mr. Goodman, sir?”

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

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

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

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

Smile.

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

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

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

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

“Ain’t that what family’s for?”

The look on his face makes it all worth it.

+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAY

How many late seaters?

JODI

Three.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FIVE BANDS, ONE NIGHT!

SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 7!!

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

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

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

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

+

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

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

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

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

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

I glance around the studio.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, yeah?” he asks

So nice. He’s always been so nice.

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

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

What a shame.

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

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

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

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

Oliver looks confused.

“Alright, places everyone,” the director calls.

Oliver doesn’t move.

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

+

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

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

Jodi’s mom is dead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I just wanted to say I was sorry.”

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

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

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

But Jodi beats me to it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jodi sniffles.

I turn away from the stage.

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

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

 

 

BIO

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

Blindfolded

by James Mulhern

 

 

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

“Won’t God be mad?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My dear grandson has leukemia.”

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

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

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

I was confused.

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

“I have leukemia,” I said proudly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

“Who’s Toorow?”

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

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

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

“Yes, Grandpa,” I said.

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

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

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

“What do you mean, demonized?”

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

Tick?”

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

“What happened to her?”

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

“What’s a banshee?”

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

“Did they believe her then?”

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

“What I am I supposed to do?”

He told me a secret that might convince my grandmother.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

“Maybe we should return the chalice?”

“Hand me your plate.”

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

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

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

“Now why would we do that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s funny.”

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

“What’s a venial sin?”

“A minor sin. Like a white lie.”

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

She sighed. “Yes, Aiden.”

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, it’s me!” Nurse Nancy said.

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

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

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

“Oh, but it’s policy.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nancy beamed and left.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where is it?” Her eyebrows squished together.

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

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

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

“It’s gorgeous. Thank you.”

“I have to return it, Laura.”

“I figured that.”

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

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

As my mother sipped, Nurse Nancy came in.

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

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

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

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

 

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

“Do you think Mom’s cured?”

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

“Like just being alive?”

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

 

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

“Get out,” she said.

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

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

“About two inches.”

“Christ.”

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

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

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

“You smashed the bumper.”

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

I joined her and traced my fingers along the scratches.

“Don’t do that.”

“Why?”

“You’ll leave fingerprints.”

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

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

“Do you have the chalice?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where did you get that?”

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

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

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

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

The people repeated, “Thanks be to God.”

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

People clapped as we hurried down the aisle.

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

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

We ran out the door and across the street.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sometimes Grandpa visits me at night.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What does it mean?”

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ma, that’s not necessary.”

“My taking a pee is necessary.”

We all laughed.

“Enjoy your visit. I’ll be back.”

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

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

They entered the room.

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

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

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

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

My mother and I were already packing her suitcase.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

BIO

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

 

 

 

 

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My Green Card  

by Maria Lopez

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

BIO

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

 

 

 

 

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You Kill Me

by Emily Glossner Johnson

 

 

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

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

“Jimmy!” his mother yelled from downstairs.

Jimmy closed the magazine. “What, Ma?”

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

“What do you want me to do about it?”

“Get it out of here!”

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

“Jimmy!”

Jimmy sighed. “What is it?”

“Come down here.”

“Just a minute. Jesus.”

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

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

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

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

“For good.”

“I’ve heard that before.”

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

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

“He’s four, Jimmy.”

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

“Jimmy, I don’t want to do this.”

“Do what?”

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

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

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

“Just get a mousetrap.”

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

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

She sighed.

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

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

“Tommy and your sisters and the kids.”

“Angela?” he said.

“I just said your sisters. Why?”

“She doesn’t like me.”

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

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

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

“What’s the matter with St. Ambrose?”

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

“What woman?”

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

“How do you know about her clothes?”

She held up her hands. “Ah.”

“So go to St. Luke’s.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

“Not much,” Jimmy said.

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

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

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

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

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

Angela straightened her silk scarf and touched her bobbed hair.

“Jimmy will be fine,” his mother said.

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

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

“Sitting right here,” Jimmy said.

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

“I don’t need the money,” Jimmy said.

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

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

“I am,” Jimmy said.

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

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

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

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

So much for nine months.

* * *

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

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

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

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

“No,” he said. “A Scorpio.”

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

“Then why not Jimmy Scorpio?”

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

“I’m not twelve!” he had said.

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

“No. I’m writing music.”

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

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

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

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

“I’ll buy you a bigger house, Ma.”

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

“I am. I’m Jimmy Gemini!”

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

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

* * *

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

“Aw, shit,” Jimmy said.

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

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

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

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

 

 

BIO

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

 

 

 

 

0

Tunnel Vision

by Nancy Antle

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you a serial killer?” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do I know you?” she asked.

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

She gasped. “Oh, my God!”

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

“I can’t believe it,” she said

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

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

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

“I cannot believe this,” she said again.

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

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

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

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

“What’s that?” she asked.

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

“Sounds serious.”

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

“That’s awful.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And it will get worse?”

He nodded.

“What are you going to do?”

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

“Haha,” she said.

They reached the intersection and the four way stop sign.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is this all together?” the clerk asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Really?”

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m used to it.”

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

“Ditto.”

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

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

 

 

BIO

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

 

 

 

 

 

0

Leftover Mud Pie

by Mona Leigh Rose

 

 

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

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

“Only saying that to make me feel better.”

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

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

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

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

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

The overture goes something like this:

Her:  “Can you get the phone?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It isn’t you, it’s her.”

“Bullshit.”

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

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

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

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

“Wait, what?”

“Don’t bullshit me.”

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

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

“She’s scared–”

“Are you reading from a script?”

“Of– of course not.”

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

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

“What do you know about love?”

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

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

“I have connections with people, feel sparks.”

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

“What’s this got to do–”

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

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

“Of course it’s about you.”

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

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

“Don’t call her a bitch.”

“Why do you protect her?”

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

“You enable her vile narcissism–”

“Vile?”

“–and how does she repay you?”

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

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

“I’m not gay.”

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

“She’s my friend.”

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

“No, she . . .”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

BIO

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

Good Things for Jeannie Smith

by Josh Trapani 

 

  

 

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

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

“OK. Who is Harris Cooper?”

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

Mechler. That duplicitous son of a bitch.

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

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

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

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

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

“Leave me out of it,” I growled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

“Mechler is a lying sack of shit.”

Rachel gave no sign she disagreed with this assertion.

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

“I’m pretty busy.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’d show her.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barrone raised his eyebrows.

“Our approach is unorthodox,” said Cooger.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He makes bad things happen,” Billy explained.

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

Harris didn’t flinch. “Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t dream,” announced Mechler.

“I don’t sleep,” Barrone boasted.

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

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

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

“That’s the place I go,” said Cooger.

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Call me Brad.”

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

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

“What about those kids you were thinking about?”

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

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

“Then why mention it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mama?”

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

“Mama! Mama!” Her panic grew.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Brad!”

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

“I don’t care if it’s from God.”

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

“Comfort your daughter, maybe?” Barbara said.

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

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

“I can take her,” I offered.

“No! I want Mama!” Sarah exclaimed.

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

 

 

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

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

“He inside?” I asked, trying to peer in.

“He’s at lunch,” Billy told me. He scribbled strange symbols. Was he creating the proper aura for Cooger’s work? Inscribing an occult incantation to weaken the President? Preparing for his weekly Dungeons & Dragons group? Whatever it was, I noticed he was doing it on stationery from the Four Seasons, the most expensive hotel in town.

“Where?”

“He likes that place up a few blocks.” He gestured, his eye still on the pad. “The steak place.”

“The steak place.” This was supremely unhelpful in narrowing it down. But I had a hunch and headed up to K Street. Capitol Steak and Seafood was one of the priciest restaurants around, and I found Cooger alone at a table for four. A platter of surf and turf, largely consumed, rested before him. Various side dishes — mashed potatoes, mushrooms, asparagus — littered the table. A nearby chiller held a bottle of white wine, though there was red in his glass.

“Brad,” he greeted me cheerily. “Long time.” He winked in a creepy way that made me wonder whether my dream the previous night was truly the product of my own subconscious. But that was ridiculous.

“Just checking on things,” I stammered, standing next to his table like a supplicant.

“Doing your due diligence. Smart.” He put a forkful of steak into his mouth and chewed thoughtfully. “I must say: this place is good, but not quite up to the standard of the hotel restaurant.”

“You mean at the Four Seasons?”

Cooger nodded, then raised a mocking eyebrow. “Maybe I’m not the only one around here with special powers?”

“You are staying there,” I chided.

“We’ve got to stay somewhere.”

“I saw your assistant,” I told him. “He was writing in some kind of runic script.”

Cooger guffawed, displaying strands of expensive beef trapped between his teeth. “It’s not runic script, Brad. It’s math. Complex math. Billy may look like he flunked out of carny school, but he’s got a Ph.D. in astrophysics from Caltech.”

“Then why is he minding a tent for you?”

Cooger shrugged. “More lucrative and less taxing, I suppose.”

“How is it going?” I was unable to hide my sarcasm. “Working hard?”

“Sure am,” he responded. Eyes twinkling, he asked, “How is your work going, Brad? Enjoying your job?” He forked another bloody nugget of steak into his mouth.

“You know,” I said. “I recall that when Jesus faced down the Devil, he slept out in the desert and fasted for 40 days. He didn’t stay at the Four Seasons and go out for surf and turf and Bordeaux at 11:30 in the morning.”

“I’m not Jesus.”

“Clearly.”

A tuxedoed waiter approached the table. “More wine, Mr. Cooger?”

“Yes, please, Hector.” We watched him refill the glass in silence.

After Hector departed, Cooger sipped his wine and looked at me seriously. “Brad, I need my strength for facing down the dark, murky place. It all helps: rest, sustenance, even a little libation. Let me tell you what it’s like there.” He gestured with his fork. “It’s like a prison, but an alluring one. Full of tormented souls who can’t leave.”

I couldn’t help it. “The dark, murky place is the Hotel California?”

“No, Brad. It’s a dangerous place, and one that can wear you down until you’re nothing but an empty shell.” He nudged the remains of his lobster with his fork and pursed his lips. “Have you ever spent time in a place like that? Can you imagine how it saps your soul?”

I checked my watch. I needed to get back to the office. “No, not really.”

The waiter returned to the table, carrying another massive slab of meat.

“Thank you, Hector. Could you wrap that up, please?” Cooger caught my stare and explained, “Billy needs to eat, too.”

“Can’t he go to Cosi?”

“I think the Gun Owners of America can afford a steak. Anyhow, Brad, we’ve got things well in hand here.” Cooger smiled. “But look, all this food, and I didn’t offer you anything.” He scanned the table. “Want some mushrooms? I’m not going to finish them.”

“How about you bring them for Billy?” I quipped.

“Good idea. Thanks, Brad.”

 

 

One doesn’t become an Associate VP at a trade association without the requisite bullshitting skills. Which is to say I survived my status report on the project that afternoon. But I was uneasy.

I was right to be.

About a week later, Rachel appeared at my office door. “Harris Cooger is here to meet with Barrone.”

I jumped up.

“Did you know about this?” she demanded, though I was clearly shocked.

We rushed to Barrone’s office. Somehow, some way, Mechler was already there. God, I hated him.

Cooger was euphoric. “Gentlemen, I’m happy to report success.”

“What’s happening?” asked Mechler.

“You’ll know within 24 hours.”

What’s happening?” demanded Barrone.

Cooger chuckled. “I can’t tell you.”

“Why not?”

“Well, Billy would say that it’d disturb the space-time continuum. My explanation is it would be unwisely fucking with karma. Either way, you’ll find out soon enough.”

Barrone glowered. “Cute.” He pushed a button on his desk phone. “Get me public affairs. Wiggins, anything big happening now?”

“Like … like what?” came the voice of GOA’s public affairs director, nonplussed.

“Like anything big!” snarled Barrone.

“Biggest story today is the Instagram sex thing with that reality TV star. Slow news day …” Wiggins trailed off and I imagined him wincing, waiting for Barrone to chew him out for whatever he’d missed. Instead, Barrone buzzed off without another word and glared triumphantly.

Cooger laughed. “Just remember you heard from me first.” He proffered a thin white envelope. “I’ll expect payment by the first of next month.”

I grabbed the envelope. The total charges, including all those nights in a five-star hotel and all that steak and wine, must be off the charts. Barrone would blow a gasket. And who knows what nefarious uses Mechler would find for such an invoice.

After Cooger left, Barrone commanded, “Find out what he’s talking about.”

I spent the rest of the afternoon trying. I called my friends on the Hill, checked in with the reporters I knew, even utilized my weak connections at the Smith White House. There was nada. Mechler also turned up blank. Barrone fumed.

My sleep that night was abysmal. I kept checking my phone for news alerts. Barrone messaged me and Mechler hourly to see if we’d heard anything. On her side of the bed, Barbara tossed and turned, until at some ungodly hour she yanked off the blanket and said, “Maybe you should pick up a dozen roses and play some Barry White for your phone, since you’re planning to make sweet love to it all night long.” She grabbed her pillow and departed the bedroom.

The next day, midafternoon, Rachel sent an e-mail ordering staff to assemble in the conference room. The President had announced a press conference, and Barrone wanted us to watch live. Whatever Harris Cooger had done, this was it.

“Sit next to me,” Barrone said. He attempted a smile. It would have been a proud moment save that Mechler already sat on Barrone’s other side.

To our surprise, as we watched on the big screen, the President and First Lady trudged to the podium together. They looked grim.

One of my colleagues yelled, “Resign!” to general amusement.

“Ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon,” President Smith began. “Cindy and I come before you today with heavy hearts.”

Barrone muttered, “Whatever weighs down their hearts lightens mine.” I chuckled.

“Many of you know,” said the President, “that Jeannie, our daughter, has struggled with leukemia. We’ve just received news that the cancer has returned in an extremely aggressive form. It’s metastasized to her lungs, liver, and brain. Doctors have no suggested treatment, and we’re making arrangements for her last days to be as comfortable as possible.”

Our collective mirth vanished, we all looked at the floor. The First Lady began speaking about her memories of Jeannie as a small child. Barrone’s jaw clenched audibly. “Clear the room now,” he ordered. “Rachel, you stay, along with Mechler, Wiggins, and Coffman.”

When everyone was gone, he turned to us. “So this is what Harris Cooger has done for us. Coffman, do you know what you’ve accomplished here?”

Mechler began to interject. “Don’t forget, I also had s …”

“You have totally fucked up everything!” Barrone roared. I’d witnessed Barrone furious — at me, at others, at the world — many times, but never like this. “Do you know what this means?” he screamed. “He will be untouchable now. He’ll have the sympathy of the whole goddamned nation! I can picture it already. The Jeannie Smith Gun Control Bill. Honoring the legacy of the President’s poor deceased daughter.” He pounded the table with his fist. “Who can stand against that?”

Nobody dared speak, except Mechler, who offered, “I knew Coffman’s idea would never work.”

This was a step too far. I needed to let him have it. “Mechler, you f…”

“Shut up, Coffman,” Barrone said, with a look to wilt flowers, turn green grass to yellow husks, and transform butterflies to smoking black cinders falling from the sky. Then he dropped his voice to a chilling whisper.

“Let me tell you two things that will happen now. First, tomorrow morning, bright and early, we’ll meet with Harris Cooger again, and he’ll begin reversing this thing. Stat. Rachel, make it happen.” He paused for a breath. “Second, damage control.”

 

 

I sat in my home study that night, working on my Twitter account. Demonstrating I was still a team player by retweeting GOA’s stuff was like trying to fill the Pacific Ocean with a teaspoon. But it was something to do.

When Barbara peeked in the doorway, I didn’t wait for her to speak.

“I know,” I said, “it’s getting close to Sarah’s bedtime.”

“Read her a story, Brad. Play dolls with her.” Her voice surprised me with its softness. “She wants to spend time with you. And I bet it’ll take your mind off things.”

“Today was miserable.”

She saw the stricken expression on my face. “Is it Jeannie Smith?”

I nodded.

“Such a tragedy for that poor girl, and her parents.”

I looked at her, surprised, not by the sentiment she’d expressed but by her thinking the tragic aspect of it had anything to do with my shitty day. She met my look, then her eyes cut over to my screen. She shook her head.

“Oh, Brad. No.”

You’d think she’d caught me posting on Ashley Madison or looking for prostitutes. All I’d done was tweet GOA’s meme and hashtag.

Guns don’t kill people, cancer does. #RIPJeannie.

“What’s wrong with it?”

“Brad, if you don’t know …” Her voice was taut.

“We don’t want people to lose sight of the real issue,” I explained.

Barbara didn’t respond. She threw up her hands as she walked out of the room.

I yelled after her. “I’m amplifying our voice. Give me a break, Barbara. We’re in crisis mode. Our meme will go viral. Our hashtag will trend. Wait and see!”

 

 

“It’s simple, really,” Barrone said. “Undo it.”

It was 8:30 the next morning and Mechler, Barrone, and I were back in the conference room. Cooger and Billy’s luggage was piled against the wall. Job done, they were headed for the airport.

“It’s not that easy,” Billy responded.

“You made it happen, didn’t you?” Barrone challenged.

Cooger shrugged. He looked rather proud of himself.

“Our contract stipulates you accept that we did,” Billy answered, one eye focused on us while the other checked the corner for dust mites.

“So you can undo it.”

Cooger and Billy said nothing.

“We’ll pay you double,” Barrone offered. “Triple!”

He didn’t quite understand the financial commitment this would entail … most of it, if the previous contract was any guide, for high thread count sheets and sommelier service. “Um,” I ventured, “we might want to …”

“Shut up, Coffman.”

“I’d love to take more of your money,” said Cooger, “but I can’t reverse it.”

“Why not?”

“It’s complicated. Billy?”

“He only does the dark, murky place,” Billy explained. “He’s, like, a bad stuff specialist.”

Mechler snorted. “So put us in touch with a good stuff specialist.”

Cooger and Billy exchanged glances. “I suppose there’s someone we can recommend. But she’s on a three-month retreat in the Himalayas. It’ll take time to reach her.”

“We don’t have time,” Barrone hissed through gritted teeth.

“Honestly,” Cooger said, “you’re better off not going with a third-party vendor on this.” He looked at me. “From a karmic perspective, the best thing is for the person who desired the harm to seek to undo it himself.”

“That means one of you guys,” Billy added.

Barrone, Mechler, and I exchanged looks.

“Coffman,” said Mechler.

“Mechler,” I said.

Coffman,” barked Barrone.

“What about you, Mr. Barrone?” Billy suggested. “After all, you’re the b …” He stopped talking as his own boss laid a hand on his shoulder and shook his head.

“Coffman,” Cooger decreed.

They all looked at me, like a pack of drooling wolves who’d cornered a cute little bunny rabbit with a fluffy white tail.

“What does he need to do?” asked Barrone. “Is there some shiny, happy place he needs to go to?” He eyed me ominously. “Even shinier and happier than GOA?”

“Do I get all-you-can-eat surf and turf?” I asked. Everyone ignored me.

“The most important thing,” Cooger said, “is to find a peaceful spot and focus. You must eliminate all distraction and relax.”

“We can help him relax,” Barrone said, then yelled, “Rachel, get in here now! Take Coffman’s phone. Lock his office door.” Rachel shot me a sympathetic look as I meekly handed over my phone. “And move all meetings downstairs. Nothing in this conference room.”

“Think of it like prayer,” said Cooger. “Gather all your feelings of benevolence, goodwill, and lovingkindness, and send them to Jeannie Smith and her parents.”

“Ugh.” Barrone grimaced.

“Or meditation. Have you ever tried meditation, Mr. Coffman?” Cooger asked.

Even if I had tried that hippie BS, I’d never admit it in front of Barrone and Mechler. Though Barbara did yoga at the gym sometimes. At least I thought it was yoga. Maybe she’d said Zumba.

“This is like meditation,” Cooger explained, “except your point of focus isn’t your breath or a mantra, it’s the good things you want to happen. For instance, you can picture Jeannie’s sickness as dark clouds, and envision the sun burning them off. It’s important to imagine Jeannie and the President and First Lady as healthy, happy, smiling, laughing …”

“I think I’m going to be sick,” muttered Barrone.

Billy held his watch up close to his face and nudged Cooger.

“We’ll miss our flight if we don’t get going. Questions, Mr. Coffman?”

“Um.”

“Very good.” Cooger smiled, satisfied.

Everyone except me stood up. Cooger and Billy grabbed their bags.

“Make it happen, Coffman,” Barrone ordered, exiting after them.

“Good luck, Coffman,” Mechler gleefully called, following the boss.

I admit: flipping my middle finger at his retreating back wasn’t the best way to begin my quest for lovingkindness. But the bastard deserved it.

 

 

Not yet 9:00 am, and I considered the day I’d expected to have. There was a ton to do and I couldn’t do any of it. Deadlines would be missed. People would be angry. Barrone waltzed out without making any provision for my workload. Didn’t any of it matter?

Now my job was to “nudge circumstance.” Not a bad description for much of GOA’s work, honestly. This realization led to a moment of despair, but only a moment. Barrone considered what I was doing high-priority. He’d cleared the conference room for me, after all, which — given the volume of meetings around this place — would inconvenience practically everyone. If this work was indeed important, I ought to give it a try, as idiotic and — come to think of it — humiliating as it seemed.

I sat back in my chair and closed my eyes. Good things for Jeannie Smith, I thought. Good things for Jeannie Smith. I pictured the words running across the darkness behind my eyelids, like one of those stupid scrolling tickers every TV newscast has taken to using.

Repeating this phrase was like counting sheep, with the same effect. When I next opened my eyes, it was 10:30. I was embarrassed. I was also desperate for caffeine and needed to drain my main vein something fierce. But as I walked past Rachel’s desk, her head swiveled up in dismay.

“Brad,” she whispered, “you’re not supposed to leave the conference room.”

“I haven’t had any coffee.”

She glanced toward Barrone’s office. “He will flip his shit if he sees you.”

“And the bathroom’s not optional, either.”

“You need to get back in there now.”

This made me angry. “Do you want me to piss in the conference room coffee pot? My bodily functions don’t cease at Barrone’s command.”

In a huff, I went to the men’s room, relieved my bladder, and washed up. Then I headed to the kitchen, grabbed the largest cup I could find, and filled it with coffee. Rachel and I stared each other down as I walked back the other way.

In the conference room again, I hesitated over the coffee I’d so eagerly sought. My little catnap had been nice. Maybe I could arrange more. I sat back, closed my eyes, and tried again with the Good things for Jeannie Smith stuff. At first I was too irked by Rachel’s behavior and, now that I thought about it, by the way we all tiptoed around Barrone. I knew the guy was a superstar, and yeah, he was the boss. But did he have to be a complete asshole all the time?

Eventually I drifted off again, and when a soft knock at the door woke me, it was nearly 1:00 pm. I felt good. Sleep was underrated, especially when you took away the threat of being woken up by an automatic rifle fire ringtone. I went to the door. Outside, on the floor, was lunch from Sushi Bob’s in a plastic container.

Though ravenous, I ate slowly, savoring Rachel’s act of kindness along with the food. Why couldn’t there be more kindness around here, I wondered, instead of Mechler’s backstabbing and Barrone’s malevolence? Weren’t we all on the same side? I regretted my gruffness with Rachel. It occurred to me what an extraordinary job she did, tolerating Barrone’s moody browbeating and running interference for the rest of us. She was remarkable.

Maybe, I thought, I should take some of these warm fuzzies and aim them at the First Family.

Yeah, right. My mind wanted to go everywhere but there.

As I polished off my lunch, I thought about how I needed to lose weight. Sushi was kind of healthy, right? Maybe I’d already taken the first step.

I followed the motion of the second hand around the clock … four revolutions before I took my eyes away.

I mentally catalogued my retirement investments. Were they properly diversified? This was an issue worth revisiting once I escaped this room. Along with the weight thing.

I counted. Several times. Once almost to 1,000.

After an eternity, I tiptoed out of the conference room. Rachel was gone, Barrone’s office dark. I dumped my stale coffee in the kitchen, then rummaged through the fridge and wolfed down someone’s leftover pasta that they’d probably planned to have for lunch the next day. Well fuck ‘em, I thought, a guy’s gotta eat. But then I felt sorry — what happened to all those kindness vibes? — so I washed the container and put it back in the fridge with a $20 bill inside.

I hadn’t been aware of the hum of the building’s ventilation system, but I noticed its absence when it shut down at 9:00 pm. The silence grew profound when I flipped off the fluorescent lights and lay down on the conference room floor. In the dim quiet, I stared at the ceiling tiles and felt like a prisoner locked in his cell. Except nothing stopped me from leaving: to a restaurant for a real dinner, to a bar for a drink or ten, even home for a few hours’ rest in my own bed … or, given things with Barbara, on one of our many couches.

I didn’t move.

I awoke when the ventilation system kicked back on at 6:00 am, after the most solid, peaceful night of sleep I could remember. As I strode through the empty office, the physical exertion added to my wellbeing. It occurred to me that, at home, Barbara would already be awake and pounding away on the Stairmaster. Did she get a high from exercise? Surely it wasn’t solely fear of a few extra pounds that kept her motivated. Fear could only get a person up in the morning for so long. Soon Sarah would rise and … did she have daycare today? Or was it only afternoons? I couldn’t remember. Photos of the two of them hung in my office. I made casual small talk with coworkers about them. But they were there, and I was here, and that was that.

It would be different for President Smith. He lived and worked in the same place, and his wife and daughter were part of the endeavor. GOA endlessly made hay on social media with all the sordid stories about the First Family: the accusations, conspiracy theories, claims of corruption. It wasn’t enough for people to disagree with the President’s policy positions. They needed to hate him. Even better if they hated his whole family. That was how to mobilize action. It was also, I realized with the morning’s clarity, a good way to keep those of us who ought to know better motivated through an endless crisis.

I sat down in the conference room again and tried once more to do what Cooger had suggested. I imagined the corniest image ever: President and Mrs. Smith frolicking — I apologize for that word, but it’s the right one — through a green field, holding their daughter’s hand. The sun shone, wildflowers bloomed. Puffy white clouds drifted lazily overhead, stolid bumblebees and delicate butterflies flew hither and thither. Total cliché. A scene you’d see on TV only as dreamy irony or a Claritin commercial.

Then it happened: the First Couple transformed into Barbara and me. Jeannie shrank down to the size of a three-year old and became Sarah. She grinned up at us.

It was that image, equally heartbreaking and stupid, that sent me into the mental time warp. Days passed. I didn’t worry about my work, ponder what else to scavenge from the office kitchen, or watch the second-hand travel around the clock. Uninterrupted by the ding of e-mails, the constant Twitter refresh, or the dreaded gunfire ringtone, my mind settled into focused, concentrated thought.

I wished good things for Jeannie Smith. I wished them for her parents, and for the parents of all the imaginary kids I’d envisioned gunned down, whoever they were. And the kids themselves: what had I been thinking, more worried about poll numbers than actual lives? I wished good things for Sarah and Barbara. For Rachel. For Wiggins. My kindness, my magnanimity, seemed boundless.

But of course there was a limit. I hit it when my attention turned to Mechler. The gushing fountain of lovingkindness abruptly sputtered to impotence. I tried again. Total failure to launch.

Then I thought about Barrone, a man to whom I’d devoted more attention than to my own wife and daughter. A man who kept me, kept all of us, in constant fear and stress. Around whom we slavishly maintained a cult of personality. Like some tin pot dictator, the more absurd his ideology and outrageous his demands, the more we loved him. All so that he might bestow on us … what? In my case, a Deputy VP slot that meant more abuse at his hands.

How could a person live like he did? Constant work, continuous agitation … his physical condition must make my office pudge look like Olympic triathlete. I imagined his arteries, clogged and brittle. His heart, angry and swollen. Pounding through meetings where he growled and glared, phone calls where he screamed into the receiver, nights he spent firing off one angry message after another. How long could his heart hold out? It was miles away from kindness, but I began imagining that heart of his going kablooey.

Then I started to desire it.

This was much easier, and a hell of a lot more fun, than imagining good things for Jeannie Smith or anyone else. I was like Harris Cooger in that regard: a natural bad stuff specialist. Circumstance, or karma, or whatever, must have recognized it, because the wall I’d hit became real. It wavered and flashed and pulled me in: finally, I entered the dark, murky place.

Inside was cavernous: the illumination orange and shuddering, as if torchlit. It was like no place I’d ever been, yet somehow familiar. A distant chanting put me in mind of the movies. Was this the Mines of Moria? Some dungeon from Conan the Destroyer? Yogurt’s cave in Spaceballs?

Suddenly it dawned on me.

It was that scene from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom — you know the one — and I was the high priest. On the altar before me rested a giant stone god, hungry for sacrifice. Its eyes and mouth were lit by the glow of molten rock. In my hand, I held my victim’s still-beating heart. Cratered and rotten, just as I’d envisioned Barrone’s, it ejaculated black blood with each feeble throb. I was frozen in place, shocked and disgusted.

I looked up at the statue again. Its face was familiar: pockmarked cheeks, globular nose, crooked teeth. The chanting increased in volume and pitch, and the god’s voice rang in my head: Make it happen, Coffman.

Wait, I thought with dawning horror, if the god is Barrone, who is the victim?

The chanting reached a crescendo. I looked down and gasped as I saw who was in the cage, whose heart I held in my hand. Not Barrone. No, not at all. It was ….

“Coffman. Coffman!”

I opened my eyes. I was back in the conference room. Rachel stood at the door.

“It’s Barrone,” she said, eyes wide. “Brad, it’s bad. He’s …”

I stared at her, the reality of what I’d somehow done sinking in. There was both hope and trepidation in my voice as I asked, “You mean he’s …?”

“He’s incredibly pissed off. Like, beyond the pale, even for him.”

“Uh.”

“Go back to your office,” Rachel told me. “Close the door. Stay away from Barrone right now, OK?”

“What …?”

“Jeannie Smith died this morning,” she said. “Now go.”

 

 

Being in my office felt at once familiar and strange, like moving through your house after returning from a long trip. I checked Fox News: the top headline was Jeannie’s death. I didn’t know how much of it, if any, was my responsibility. But I was sorry.

2,472 unread messages sat in my e-mail inbox. My office phone flashed with 17 new voicemails. On my smartphone, which Rachel had placed next to my computer, were 30 new texts, including 13 from Barrone and 10 from Mechler. Yeah, those idiots kept texting me even after they’d taken the phone away.

There was also a text message from Barbara. Of all that junk, it was the only thing I looked at. She’d sent a silly little photo of herself and Sarah bundled up on a playground bench. Both were smiling. This time, I saw it for what it was: an invitation.

Beautiful, I texted back. I’ll be home soon.

 

 

I wasn’t as talented as Cooger. Barrone lasted 12 more years. It was a stroke that finally did him in, and it happened in the middle of staff meeting. The story I heard is that no one called 911 because they confused the shaking, inability to speak, and contorted face with his normal paroxysms of rage. Mechler, by then quite advanced in the Deputy VP slot we’d both coveted, ascended to Barrone’s position. I saw a photo of him online. He looked terrible, like a snaggle-toothed old fox who’d outrun one too many hounds. There but for the grace of God, I thought.

Sarah’s now about the age Jeannie was when she died and, though she lacks the First Daughter’s celebrity clout, in some ways reminds me of her. Her intelligence, curiosity, passion. I love the way she is, and at the same time can’t wait to see who she’ll become. For one thing, no one would have guessed that Barbara and Brad Coffman’s daughter would be an ardent environmentalist, but that’s where she seems headed as of now.

A few weekends ago, the three of us were on Capitol Hill, going to dinner. We came up from the Metro just as the sun was setting, and I spied a miniature backyard wedding tent outside the Rayburn Building. In front of the tent sat a skinny man who looked like he was sketching in a pad.

“Dad?” Sarah asked.

Though it wasn’t on our way, I approached. The sunlight near-blinded me. I couldn’t make out the man’s features. Then I noticed another man, this one stocky, walking toward us, carrying something. For a moment, I was sure it was Harris Cooger, bringing dinner in a doggie bag to Billy.

“Brad?” asked Barbara.

But when I got close enough, “Billy” turned out to be one of those pestilential Lyndon LaRouche supporters. “Cooger” was just some guy carrying a bag. He walked right by.

We went on to dinner.

Too bad. I would have liked to thank them.

 

 

BIO

Josh Trapani is a scientist turned policy wonk who lives just outside Washington, D.C. He helped start the Washington Independent Review of Books and served as its first managing editor. His fiction and humor have appeared in Parent CoThe Big JewelThe Del Sol ReviewNeutrons ProtonsBrick Moon Fiction, The Higgs Weldon, and others.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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