Home Fiction

0

Pushing Michaelmas

by Patrick Burr

 

 

Bartibus Primshaw walked to the butcher’s each Friday morning at ten o’clock. The silver chimes tittered when he entered. He’d smile at the butcher’s daughter, who helped her father around the shop as a way of paying for her studies at the seminary, wait his turn in line, and once at the front would order three pounds of flank steak — a week’s lunch and dinner. He’d nod to the butcher upon taking his meat, then leave a tip in the polka-dotted jar on the counter marked “for school, for God.”

Bartibus’s philosophy — one he’d found to work well for him, so well that never had a reason arisen to question its verity — was this: A smile is as good as a payday; a wink, as a sunrise — so they say. Always keep moving; you’re nothing if not doing.

No one had taught him to think this way — not with the explicit aim of doing so, at least. His parents had been kind, but they guarded flaws of their own. Rather, he’d acquired the disposition by observing the Now.

All was defined and definable in this Now. Bartibus never spoke its name — not from fear, but to preserve an economy of words so as not to muddle its perfection. All of life was thus labeled, and all humanity and societal interaction were in turn stamped by the Moment in exactly the form in which it appeared. This manifested itself in Bartibus, and he maintained himself within the idea via a strict code of objective honesty. But there’s more to the story of Mister Primshaw than our inane attempts to explain his guarded silence can capture.

It was on one such Friday that Bartibus entered the butcher’s shop to find it empty. The lights were off. He called first the daughter’s name, then the butcher’s. No one answered. He found a note scotch-taped to the glass refrigerator left of the cash register.

“Gone to church,” it read. “If you must take, leave money here. RIP Tom.”

It was normal for the butcher to leave the shop unattended — he was a trusting man, especially when it came to his fellow townsfolk. But who was Tom? Tom Richards, the middle-aged barkeep at the Finn Stern Brewery? Perhaps. Other than that, he could think of no one who went by the name. Deciding the anonymous man to be a close acquaintance of the butcher’s, Bartibus thought to go up to the church to comfort a grieving friend.

A brisk October wind whistled through the dogwoods and oaks lining Main Street. It was the sort of day, Bartibus thought, which hinted at impending winter while clinging fast to the sinews of a bygone summer of heat and requited eternity. The wind chilled him as he ascended Colton Hill, but any discomfort which would have otherwise befallen him was countered in equal measure by the sultry rays of a midmorning sun.

He hummed as he climbed, as was habit — nothing in particular, and everything in particular. Of the hazy half-truths which commingled in his mind and spurted from his mouth as a singular line of notes, he knew nothing — but that it was he who conjured them and spread them through the air about him was incontrovertible. Today the tune whirled from him in a quick staccato, as if impatient to fold itself into a finished product.

Soon the old, wooden church loomed, its white paint chipping, its roof half-devoid of tiles. Those remaining were tinged a sickly moss-green. The door creaked softly as he entered. The butcher and his daughter stood among a group of ten huddled around a short, mahogany casket.

The butcher, who was leaning on his hands at the casket’s foot, looked up when he heard Bartibus’ footsteps. Bartibus smiled and nodded to him.

“Hey there, Bart,” the butcher muttered, turning back to the coffin and wiping his eyes with the cuff of his beige wool sport coat. Bartibus joined the knot of mourners, sliding in next to the butcher and putting an arm around his shoulder. He peered into the coffin. A black-haired boy no older than seven or eight lay supine. His skin shone a pallid gray. His eyes were open, and his blank stare bore a hard hole in the patchwork roof. The butcher shuddered and shook off Bartibus’ hand.

“Don’t need comforting,” he mumbled through repressed sniffs. “Please.”

“Who was he?” asked Bartibus.

“My nephew. He was in town visiting with his mother. My sister. We were going to pick pumpkins this afternoon.” His voice was airy, a departure from his trademark growl. He paused to wipe a streak of clear snot from his upper lip before continuing. “Tuesday night, he slipped on some loose hay in the goat paddock. The animals got startled, and….” He trembled harder. Bartibus resisted the urge to hug him. “I saw it happen,” the butcher said. “I can’t believe he’s gone. I saw it happen.” He buried his face in one sausage-fingered hand and shuffled two steps to his right to hug his daughter, who wept silently.

“But he’s in God’s hands, now, brother,” said a stout, bearded man standing at the boy’s midriff. “In Him, purpose is bestowed upon both the living and the dead. He’s in a better place.” The butcher raised his head and nodded in assent.

Bartibus observed the other men and women gathered around the boy. A beefy woman stood at the coffin’s head. A scrawny man with black hair the same shade as the boy’s reached his arm as far as he could around her broad shoulders. Bartibus turned to the body. He ran his eyes over its length, from shoes to head. The child looked peaceful, he thought, in his Sunday finery, his face jaded by neither fear nor excitement, neither contempt nor Earthly love.

Bartibus found himself shaking with a kinetic, frenetic energy, as if he were a bolt of lightning which had been struck by a second, equally powerful bolt.

“But doesn’t death open new doors, doors we cannot even dream of for their majesty?!” Bartibus exclaimed, turning towards the butcher. “You said you can’t believe he’s gone — but where has he gone to? Do you not entertain thoughts of him now in the same way you would if he were alive?”

The butcher frowned at him. Bartibus, breathing as if he had just run in the town’s annual Turkey Trot, continued, his voice rising and trembling.

“The most you can know of anyone is the idea you form of them in your head. Are those ideas not still etched on the tablets of your minds? All of you?”

“But he’ll never walk among us again,” cried the broad-shouldered woman. “My son … he was my son! And now there will be no new memories, no fresh carvings on his totem for us to celebrate.”

“And this is a bad thing?” Bartibus asked. “Annul your marriage of convenience to bodily biases! Break your minds from the habit of acknowledging the familiar dogma as unimpeachable! Then you shall come to see universal Truth. Then you shall recognize eternity.”

All ten of the mourners glared at him in haughty curiosity. Then the butcher huffed, “So you’re saying it’s better he’s dead? At seven years old? Here I thought you were a man, Bartibus. An honest man. You’re no better than, than….” He allowed the thought to peter out, instead clenching his fists and biting his tongue.

“Honest I am,” replied Bartibus. “All I’m saying is, what is a body but uncertainty incarnate? That the boy was spared of ups and downs and left the world behind him before it could engrave upon him the broken half-ideas of pain and the twisted norm of feigned empathy is beautiful. Do you not agree?”

“Feigned?” sobbed the butcher’s daughter. “So we don’t care for our blood, now?”

Bartibus signed. “You miss my point. In willing yourself to befriend sorrow, you have clouded your balance.”

She glared at him. He returned her gaze with a steady, unblinking tenacity, smiling softly before again rolling into speech.

“Look,” he continued, “look how peaceful he is, how unaffected. How ideal. Death, my friends, is the ultimate beauty, far more than music or laughter or sensuality or supposed kinship. In its depth it is paramount, incontrovertible, true.”

Bartibus felt ten sets of bloodshot eyes training as rifle scopes to his forehead.

“You’d best leave,” said the butcher, who had stopped sniffling and now massaged his snot-streaked knuckles. Bartibus almost laughed at the contrast of their sorrowful disposition and his unwavering knowledge of life and the irreducibility the ox-yoke holding it and death in tandem.

“Can you not see?!” he cried. “Do you not know? Death is neither good nor bad, it simply is, and because of this it is All Good!”

“You’re talking circles,” said the butcher, turning towards him and rolling up his sleeves. “Circles and circles and bullshit. I said leave, you hear?” The broad woman sobbed harder.

“Just go,” she choked. “Let him leave, please. He wouldn’t want us to fight over him. Not here. Not like this.”

One final glance at the boy’s body forced the passion of realization from Bartibus’ chest. He skipped from the church, laughing in naive bliss.

He flung the doors open. They creaked on their rusted hinges. The breeze met his face before the sun’s warmth hit him. For a moment, the grin on his face wavered. Then, balance was restored. With a click of his heels against the rotting wood, he hopped down the steps, taking two at a time, and bounced onto the yellow grass of the churchyard.

What would be best now, he thought, would be a walk. A walk, followed by a fine steak. The butcher’s was unlocked. He’d take the usual, and make sure to leave a 20 in his daughter’s tip jar. For a person her age, there was no substitute for education.

 

 

BIO

Patrick BurrPatrick Burr studied philosophy at Vanderbilt University and University College London. This is his first published piece of fiction.

 

 

0

prophecy

by john sweet

 

 

woke up naked and blind
and wanted to call you
but didn’t

felt the warmth of
someone next to me

the need for executions

for the deaths of innocent
mothers and children

something to pass the time
until my vision returned

 


The Myth of St. Maria

 

You and I, cowards like Picasso, like
fists on doors in the empty hours
of the night, soldiers acting on orders,
boots through sleeping skulls, and when
victory is declared the words all sound like
screams. The men who speak them have
the heads of birds, with smiles all
blood and gore.

You ask for flight, you receive paper
airplanes. You receive the gift of loss, the
secrecy of houses, the killer running across
the back yard but his lover left behind.

Don’t call it a war.

Don’t ask about the children.

They were raised to believe in Jesus,
and then they were abandoned. Were left at
the edges of highways, at the borders of
anonymous states and unnamed countries,
and when strangers approached, they fled
into the wilderness.

When the helicopters came in low,
the forests exploded in flames.

It was the belief that all truth could be
measured by money. It was the hands of
priests turned into grasping claws, and the
paintings were all slashed and the
curtains ripped down, and what was left at
the end of the day was a nation of
broken windows

The knowledge that we were all
descended from whores.

That Christ was only spoiled meat
left out by an indifferent hand.

That everything is sacred.

 

 

the arrogance of light

 

said this is my gift to you and
gave me a book of blank pages, gave me
a coward’s smile
which mirrored my own

it was the war,
the one just before you were born,
and we stumbled through piles of corpses
with stretchers and whiskey

with pistols, because certain questions
can only ever have one answer

because the pages were blank and
we needed blood
and the girl said she was waiting for
                                    her father

said he’d be there soon, but of course he
was dead, and then so was she

we couldn’t take any chances,
you see

we’d been given gifts

beautiful new poisons which were
no good without victims

bombs,
which the scientists warned us were
                                    only theories,
but god they worked so well

and we were given clean white walls,
and so we burned the shadows of women,
of children, of sleeping babies
into them, and we called it a victory

we asked the doctor to keep the
prisoners alive until they’d
answered all of our questions

we improved upon the crucifixion

took turns raping the girl before
we killed her, and she never
made a sound

was just another statistic by the time we
got to her younger sister, and in
the papers we were being called heroes

in the villages, we were having
the men dig their own shallow graves
and it was just a precaution,
you see

we were just protecting the future

we were making sure the
truths would survive

we had this book,
and we were writing them down

 


explanation

 

all of my poems in
the past tense

all of my reasons

any number of excuses

four days of rain & the
truck wouldn’t start and
there was nothing i could say
to make my son stop
crying

there was nothing i could
do but hold him

both of us very quiet
there in the dark

 


slaying the angel

 

mother says it was easy,
was like falling in love, says
they beat the girl together,
then just beat her to death

says they left her in the shed
for two months,
then dumped her in the bay

says it just happened,
like a poem or a war

was just the inevitability of
small bones breaking
beneath the weight of joy

 

 

BIO

john sweetjohn sweet, b. 1968, still numbered among the living. a believer in writing as catharsis. an optimistic pessimist. opposed to all organized religion and political parties. avoids zealots and social media whenever possible. latest collections include THE CENTURY OF DREAMING MONSTERS (2014 Lummox Press) and A NATION OF ASSHOLES W/ GUNS (2015 Scars Publications).

 

 

 

0
Jennifer Porter

Army Mom

by Jennifer Porter

 

 

Thelma was trying to brush the sand out of her big hair before her husband Larry came home for the Last Supper she’d planned, when her fifteen-year-old daughter Eunice began shouting. Now since Neecy did a lot of shouting (about her teachers, her frenemies, the Internet being down, her mother’s absent-mindedness) Thelma went on yanking the brush, grimacing at herself in the mirror and realizing she’d yet again applied sunscreen inconsistently and was now wearing a white mask where her sunglasses had been during their family day at the beach. Not that the whole family had gone to the beach; Larry, his typical fun-sucker self, had gone to work instead.

Eunice barged through the bathroom door.

“What is it, Eunice? You scared me to death!” Thelma turned, and with her eyes wide, looked something like the Hamburglar.

Eunice was momentarily shocked before erupting in laughter. It seemed to Thelma that lately Neecy either mocked her or yelled about her motherly incompetence. With her thickly-lashed, large, bedazzled-green eyes and disconcerting stare, Neecy was in high-demand as a plus-sized model. “You forgot …,” she said, pointing and smirking.

Thanks to Neecy, she knew every last one of her beauty flaws. And what she should do about them—immediately! Thelma liked her big hair. It had snagged Larry back in the 90s. Change, to Thelma, felt like panties riding up her crack. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I was using the bathroom.”

Scooter, Thelma’s oldest child and the guest of honor at the Last Supper (or the Judas if you wanted to look at it that way and Thelma did look at it that way), popped his head in the door. “Anybody seen Lucky?”

“That’s what I was trying to tell you,” said Eunice, “when you frightened me with your new sunburn. Look, Scooter, look at Mom’s face. She did it again.”

“My name is Lawrence,” said Scooter.

Eunice rolled her eyes.

“Can’t you find Lucky?” Thelma asked. Lucky was Larry’s dog: a Chihuahua he’d adopted at a last chance pre-execution guilt trip in front of the Petco as he was going into Michael’s for more scrapbooking supplies. “He’s lucky I happened by,” is what Larry told everyone when they met the dog. “He’s lucky I’m the kind of guy that looks past the scabs. He’s lucky I have a tender spot for the abandoned. He’s lucky …,” and at this point Thelma would chime in and tell Larry to can it. There was nothing Larry liked more than talking about himself in the guise of talking about something else.

“No, and come to think of it, I can’t remember him being in the van on the ride home,” said Scooter. “It was quiet instead.”

“Or getting him out of the van,” said Neecy, “when we got home.”

Thelma shook her head, trying to remember. It had been a wonderful day; the hot sun had made her so sleepy. She’d not slept well the night before, thinking about Scooter’s betrayal. “Come to think of it,” she said, “I can’t even remember him being on the blanket when we packed up and left.”

Eunice shook her head, her large eyes growing larger, a terrible realization spreading across her pale pink cheeks.

“Can you?” Thelma asked Scooter.

“No, Mom, I can’t. I think we left him at the beach,” he said, matter-of-factly, all grown up.

“What? No way!” Thelma burst through her children and began yelling for the dog. “He’s got to be here somewhere.” She frantically raced around, looking under beds, inside closets, down in the basement, calling and whistling for Lucky. Scooter searched the fenced back yard and Larry’s tool shed, and Neecy searched the van.

Larry and Thelma’s café au lait colored ranch house had been erected on a grubby spot of land in a rue-burban development, as Thelma called it. Rural as in twenty minutes to the nearest grocery store and suburban as in a bona fide subdivision built upon formerly-farmed acres. It was as if the lower middle-class development had been plunked down into the middle of a stubbled cornfield from the sky.

Thelma and the kids re-grouped on the front concrete porch. “Oh my God,” said Thelma. “I left your father’s dog at the beach.”

“Yep,” said Scooter. “I think you forgot him.”

“Me? It’s my fault? I’m the old person. Where were you guys when this was happening? Your brains are fresh and young and not filled with cryptic memories. Why couldn’t you have remembered Lucky?”

“Uh, maybe because tomorrow I go to boot camp and maybe, I, uh, have something more important on my mind,” said Scooter. “Like the United States Army!”

Thelma gave Lawrence her don’t-you-dare glare, and he averted his eyes. But before she could say anything, Neecy started.

“Yeah, and like, Alexa isn’t talking to Junie because Junie broke up with Nicole to date some stupid boy from another school and so, Nicole is like, completely crushed. She loves Junie. I had to stay up all night on the phone to keep Nicole from cutting,” said Neecy. “I’m tired!”

“Okay, okay. Let’s think about this,” said Thelma and she raised her left hand against the onslaught. “Not Nicole. I mean, not Nicole right now. Cutting is a terrible thing. Don’t you ever cut yourself, Eunice. You know you can talk to me about anything, anything at all. Right? Did you tell Nicole to talk to a trusted adult?”

“Yes, Mom.”

Thelma nodded. “Good. Okay. Lucky! Let’s think about Lucky and oh my God, what am I going to do? What time is it?” Thelma waited for Scooter to check his cell. It was 5:30 p.m. and Larry was due home in fifteen minutes. Thelma collapsed on the porch. “Your father is going to freak out if anything happens to that damn dog.”

* * *

Thelma had wanted to do something special for Scooter’s last day as a civilian. He was due at the bus station at six the following morning. Someone needed to do something to mark the momentous occasion as Larry acted like it was just a regular work day. But it wasn’t: Scooter was soon to become a brain-washed drone of the over-reaching war machine at the hands of the United States Military.

Scooter was already incessantly nagging Thelma to call him Lawrence, rather than the nickname he’d gotten at the age of seven, when he spent an entire summer riding around the neighborhood on his silver scooter with three other boys on their scooters. A natural born leader, Lawrence was quickly in command of the gang and the moniker stuck.

Thelma corralled Scooter, Eunice, and Lucky into her purple mini-van and they headed to the Metamora State Recreation Area, where Thelma had always taken the children to experience the “beach.” 80-acre Lake Minnewanna had a decent strip of sand and was, otherwise, largely wooded. The kids could walk away from the swimmers and cast a line into one of the coves, maybe catch and release a bluegill, a pumpkinseed, or a largemouth bass.

Thelma sat on an old quilt under a tree, near a picnic table but a distance from the beach. Lucky was a barker and a sorry mess, with bulging bloodshot eyes and a skin disorder that resulted in the shedding of large patches of oozing pink skin. He smelled like the bottom of the refrigerator crisper drawer filled with vegetables but never emptied. The dog was on more pills than Thelma’s Nana. And on a special diet. And he had to wear a sun-blocking outfit whenever he went outside. Plus sit beneath a beachside umbrella. When she complained to Larry about how much work his dog was, he said, “What do you want me to do about it? I have to work!”

Thelma’s secret theory was that Larry didn’t love Lucky as much as he said he did. The kudos he raked in for taking care of such a sick pet fed his emaciated ego. The middle child of a family of eight, Larry had been either ignored or berated and was spending his entire adulthood making up for it.

After she hooked Lucky to the tie-out and arranged his umbrella, she put on her bucket hat and slathered her exposed skin with sunscreen, and watched her boy fish for what could be the last time. What if ISIS kidnapped him and one of those God-awful videos was produced? She’d never survive it. If Thelma had her way, her son would be off to art school or poet’s school or even, training to be a lineman for DTE Energy, like Larry.

Now, Thelma realized she’d had to pull herself together every time one of the kids came over to the cooler for a drink. Even Lucky had been unusually quiet after scarfing down the hotdog Scooter tossed him. But he’s never quiet. Had she fallen asleep after lunch? Maybe Lucky had slipped out of his collar and wandered away. He loved to rub his body in wild animal waste. He could be sitting there at the edge of the woods right now, wondering where they were, smelling like a used diaper in the bottom crisper drawer.

“Tell your father I had to run to the store,” Thelma said to the kids.

“Aren’t you going back to the beach to look for Lucky?” said Eunice.

“Yes, of course I am! But please don’t tell your dad. I’m sure Lucky’s sitting right there, waiting for us to come back and get him.”

“Oh, I hope so,” said Eunice. “Poor Lucky! We just left him.”

Thelma took a deep breath.

“This is just great,” said Scooter. “My last day here and Mom forgets the dog. Just great.”

“It’s going to be okay, Scooter—”

“Lawrence!”

“Yes, Lawrence, everything’s going to be fine. I’ll just run up there and get Lucky and dinner will be a little late. Go play the Xbox. I’ll be right back. And promise me something.”

“Don’t tell Dad!” they said in unison.

* * *

After Thelma dropped Scooter off at the bus station and said her goodbyes without embarrassing him in front of the other new recruits (she even remembered to call him Lawrence), she sat in her van and cried, using up three travel packs of Kleenex. She’d rolled out of bed at three in the morning unable to pretend to sleep, worried sick about Scooter and Lucky and ISIS and global warming and the new Enbridge natural gas pipeline they were running through her township and Nicole cutting herself. She desperately wanted to take a handful of melatonin capsules but knew she’d eventually crash and be unable to drive to the bus station.

She’d turned on the desktop PC and started placing Missing Dog ads at every site she could find until she heard Scooter come down the stairs. Then she made him his last good breakfast for a very long time. His favorite: french toast with a dash of nutmeg and real maple syrup, thick-sliced bacon from the local farmer, and hash browns. Everything organic and whole and pure. Scooter had joined the Army in secret, only telling her after, and all she’d managed to say was, “I hope you like eating powdered fake food that comes out of poop brown bags.”

Larry, on the other hand, had sucked in his gut and puffed out his chest and said, “I’m proud of you, son. I considered the military when I was your age and just never had the balls to do it. Your Grandpa fought in Korea …”

“He was a cook on a Navy ship,” Thelma said. “He never even saw Korea.”

Larry sideways eyeballed her. “As I was saying …,” he said in his weird radio-announcer voice that he reserved for special occasions. He held in his paunch, so Thelma knew he’d wrap it up in a tag line before he ran out of breath. “Serving your, I mean, our,” (and here he glared at Thelma as if she didn’t know a damn thing about patriotism) “country is the finest sacrifice anyone can make. Thank you, Lawrence.”

Now she just sat there in the parking lot watching the bus get further and further away and seriously considered crawling into the far back seat and taking a three-year nap.

But, she couldn’t. Lucky was missing and she’d lied to Larry about it—the kids reluctant accomplices. She’d had every intention after returning from the beach to tell him the truth, but he’d gotten the Last Supper under way (much to her surprise), putting the steaks on the grill, and was doing his best to help her create a memory. The kids went along with it, doing their best to fake-it through, while Larry hoped Lucky could come home from the animal hospital tomorrow.

Later that night, after Scooter had gone to a good-bye party with his friends and Neecy had disappeared to play Xbox, Thelma took a deep breath and approached Larry. He was sitting at the dining table, his scrapbook supplies spread all around his thick, hairy arms as they rested on the table top. Colored stock paper, scissors that cut squiggles and zigzags, inked stamps of Chihuahuas, the Stars and Stripes, a boy fishing, and stickers that said things like: scooter, sundaes, son. Larry had his head down and tears dripped onto his scrapbook. There were shudders in his shoulders.

“He’ll be all right, Larry” Thelma said, and she held him from behind. “He’s a smart boy, a strong boy.”

“I’m sorry. I just couldn’t go to the beach with you today. I just … couldn’t do it.” He let out a deep sigh. “I never saw this one coming. You know? You spend so much time keeping them safe, mending boo-boos, teaching them how to be good and decent and then they go and want to be something and somebody you never imagined. A soldier, Thelma!” He shook his head. “He never even had a BB gun.”

Thelma rubbed Larry’s neck; his neck was sore after years of working as an electrical lineman. He didn’t have to be up on the poles so much anymore, he was mainly a recruiter now, convincing young people to learn the trade, but his neck stayed sore. Larry grabbed a napkin from the basket on the table and started to carefully wipe the scrapbook page he’d been working on. Larry had taken up scrapbooking on the advice of his union rep for its meditative qualities. Working with electricity had its inherent dangers.

“I like the font you used to write Lawrence,” she said.

Her husband brushed over the word he’d created with letter stickers along the top of the page with the tips of his fingers. “Yeah? I thought it fit him. Has some edge to it. He’s tough, like you, Thelma.”

“Like me?” she said. She didn’t really think of herself this way: on the inside she felt more like a fruit smoothie, everything a whipped mess.

“You’re the one that birthed him at home, and Eunice too! I almost passed out, couldn’t even cut the umbilical cord. Remember? The midwife had to sit me down on the bed.”

What she remembered was seeing Lawrence for the first time, his curly fair hair all wet and plastered against his scalp, his mewing mouth searching for her as she held him close. How his presence made the world a place she wanted to be in rather than a place she always wanted to escape. Having a baby had grounded Thelma.

He’d learned to nurse right away, unlike Neecy, and had taken his first steps at eight months. He’d spoken in complete paragraphs at eighteen months. She thought about all the ankle rubs she’d given him after he’d sprained an ankle skateboarding. How he always got right back up after wiping out; how he never gave up on learning a new trick, no matter how difficult or painful the learning process.

“He is tough,” she said. And she was grateful to Larry for making her realize this in a new way. “Okay, I’ve got to get to bed, Larry. Early day tomorrow. Give me a kiss.”

Thelma knew that if she didn’t find Lucky, she’d let down her family. She was the one that always made everything better. They were counting on her.

* * *

The afternoon of the first day of Scooter-No-More, Thelma plastered Metamora State Recreation Area with flyers of Lucky in his special sun-blocking outfit, with a construction grade stapler. Missing Diseased Chihuahua, the flyer read. Needs his medicine and cannot be exposed to sun. Obsessive barker. Stinks. Last seen in sky blue jammies with matching studded collar. Sometimes answers to Lucky, mostly ignores and does whatever he wants. Please help!

Every six feet, she stapled a flyer to whatever she could: trees, buildings, poles, edges of picnic tables. She hopped in her van and drove over the wooden bridge and then stapled the hell out of the campground that sat on the opposite side of Lake Minnewanna.

And then something dawned on her; she hadn’t even found Lucky’s leash when she’d returned (expecting him to be waiting, tail wagging) had she? Where was his diaper bag, as she called it, with all of his medicines, skin wipes, and allergen-free treats? She thought she remembered packing his umbrella, but it all seemed like a hazy dream with Scooter’s face enlarged and encompassing the center of her field of vision—a shitty grin on his face like one of those cartoons from when she was a kid. She wanted to smack that face and ask him what the hell? The Army! Jesus!

She drove back over to the scene of the disappearance and scoured the picnic area then she searched the nearby brush, garbage cans, even the barbecue grills, like Lucky on the scent of groundhog piss. No collar or leash. No diaper bag. Maybe the bag was at home and Lucky had gotten the leash untied from the tie-out. But where was the tie-out? Had Scooter pulled it out of the ground and set it somewhere at home? She couldn’t even ask him! She had to just wait for him to contact her. It felt like the United States Army had sliced off her right ventricle! Those bastards, seducing her son into being another rusty cog in the military-industrial complex Thelma hated. Why, your son scored so high on the aptitude test, Sergeant Cooper told her, in his boots in Thelma’s kitchen, he could be a Ranger.

“If you’re telling me that to make me feel any better,” she’d said, “forget it. There should be a law against you people talking to our children without our consent.”

“Lawrence is eighteen, Mrs. Spears. He’s an adult and can make his own decisions.”

“Yeah, that’s what happened. He made this decision entirely on his own without you pressuring him. Sure, Sergeant Cooper, and there were WMD’s in Iraq.”

Thelma had to stop obsessing about her son. She had to let the Universe take care of him. She hopped in her van and drove home. What was she going to tell Larry?

***

It had not gone well with Larry. He’d thrown his big hairy arms up in the air like an exasperated Sasquatch. He couldn’t believe she couldn’t keep her eye on his poor little suffering dog—who never asked to be brought into this world and abandoned inside a deserted meth lab. The poison still oozing out of his little body. He didn’t believe her that she’d done all she could under the extreme circumstances with which she’d been faced, what with Scooter turning his back on all she’d taught him to get his Rambo on. She hadn’t meant to, but she threw a dagger when she reminded her husband of his inability to accompany them to the beach that day.

“So, you’re saying it’s all my fault?”

“Yes,” Thelma said. “I think that it’s fair if I say that. You can’t always faint away from the gnarlies of life, Larry. Being married means we’re on the same team, but if one of the team is always going solo on the obstacle course, then, then, it’s like not being married at all.”

She instantly regretted her words yet felt much better. Why did she always have to be the tough one? If anything happened to Thelma, who would take care of everyone? Larry? Ha. He couldn’t take care of himself. He was like a big baby.

No, what Larry really did was always turn the spotlight back to him. When Thelma was first pregnant with Lawrence and so nauseated she lost weight, Larry somehow hurt his back and couldn’t walk for a month. While Thelma was giving birth to Eunice, Larry suddenly got sick and left to buy cold medicine. When Thelma needed progressive lenses, Larry needed two pairs of stronger progressive lenses, one for inside and one for outside. Whenever Thelma scheduled a dental cleaning appointment, Larry claimed he needed an aching tooth pulled.

Now poor Larry was on the phone about his missing dog, basking in the glow of his family’s attention while she once again perused through “Found Dog” ads, called the local vet clinics, and posted flyers in grocery stores. Larry took mental health days, laid on the couch “worried sick” about Lucky, while Thelma manned the Lucky Rescue Mission Team. It didn’t matter that she’d lost her son, what mattered was Larry’s beloved Chihuahua was gone.

She hadn’t found the tie-out or the diaper bag and no one called about the flyer.

***

Oh my God! There were so many missing pets. Thelma couldn’t stand searching through the Craigslist ads. There were even ads about the dead pets people saw on the sides of roads. She got calls from people who were just trying to help, who thought maybe they’d seen Lucky here or there, or had seen a found ad that sounded like it might be Lucky and Thelma started taking down their names and numbers and then she started doing it too—trying to help people find their pets. Heck, she had to read both the lost and the found ads anyway and sometimes they seemed to match up. Missing beagle in Clarkston, found beagle in Ortonville. She’d call and they’d talk and she’d ask them to let her know and they’d call her back and sometimes just to talk and soon, Thelma found herself forgetting about Lucky. She began avoiding Larry out of fear he’d be able to see it on her face.

***

The Complex allowed Scooter to call when he arrived at Fort Benning. He called Thelma’s cell, not Larry’s, and she wanted to point this out when Larry jumped up off the couch after she said, “Scooter!” Instead, she put her cell on speaker phone.

“Hi, Mom,” her son said.

“Hi, honey.”

“Lawrence, Dad’s here too.”

Thelma rolled her eyes at her husband wasting precious phone seconds.

“Oh. Hi, Dad.”

“Hi, son. Didn’t expect me home, did you?”

“Mom, I’ve arrived safely at Fort Benning.”

“That’s good. I wish I could say the same for Lucky,” said Larry.

Thelma poked and shushed him.

“Mom!”

“Yes, Scooter, I’m listening,” she said, glaring at Larry.

“Please do not send any food or bulky items. I will contact you in 7 to 10 days to give you my mailing address.”

Larry grabbed the cell. “I took a few days off to look for Lucky. We can’t find him anywhere. He’s out there somewhere, but where, only God knows. Poor dog.”

Thelma yanked her cell out of his hands and stepped away. “Go on, Lawrence.”

“Thank you for your support, Mom. Good-bye for now. I love you guys.”

Larry and Thelma both said, “I love you too,” their voices competing.

“Mom?”

Thelma knew Scooter was deviating from the script and a lump rose in her throat. “Yes?”

“Don’t forget to write me.”

Thelma rushed the words, “I won’t.” She was certain they’d made her boy hang up before he heard her.

Would her non-conformist son be able to obey all those rules and procedures? The Army was going to try and break her boy’s indomitable spirit, maybe in physically cruel ways. “What the hell was that about, Larry? Jesus! He was calling me! His mother! You’re not even supposed to be here. All you can think about is that stinking dog! You couldn’t even shut up about it. It’s no wonder Scooter ran off!” Then she stormed away, slamming the door to her craft room.

***

During the summer, Thelma sold her handmade, sometimes holiday-themed, wreaths at outdoor arts and crafts fairs. When the children were little, they’d gone with her as Larry worked countless hours, especially after damaging storms. This arrangement allowed her to earn enough income to stay home with the children but have something to do during the alone hours of the school year. She gathered the wreath material in the nearby woods, her hands callused from bending and shaping the vinca, grape, and wisteria vines. Some of her most treasured memories were of taking the children to gather decorative elements, such as cattails, pheasant feathers, pine cones, abandoned bird nests, and if they were lucky, never-hatched lifeless, colored bird eggs.

But this summer, instead of crafting wreaths, Thelma used her workspace to write Scooter every day. He’d sent her a postcard with his mailing address and a couple of words about a possible phone call a few weeks later. She knew he’d have to “be good” to get his cell phone back and then she started imagining him wearing an orange jumpsuit. She’d have to shake her head and put him in his fatigues instead. Either way, he was a prisoner of his own accord. She’d give half her leg to have one more day with her boy in his Ninja Turtles slippers, his fat little belly sticking out over his drooping jammy pants, asking her for peanut butter crackers. At the age of four his hair had been the color of lightning.

Her heart just wasn’t in crafting anymore. She turned her hands palms up, palms down, startled at how used they appeared. Her knuckles bulged and the calluses had fossilized. Maybe she should do something different. What with Eunice going to college in three years. Plus, Larry was eligible for early retirement. It was time for Thelma to get out of the house.

Dearest Lawrence,

I’m thinking of going to college. When I was your age, the aptitude test said that I was good with numbers. I’ve been ignoring them since.

How is the Complex treating you?

Enclosed is a picture of your favorite Ninja Turtle Raphael and the angels painting by Raphael that makes me think of you when you were snuggly. I’m thinking of renting a small child, aged four, for about a week to get some snuggling.

Did the aptitude test tell you to be a soldier?

Love Always,

Mom

That night Thelma signed up for summer classes at the local community college: Beginning Russian 1 and Introduction to Homeland Security.

***

Thelma was studying her Russian when she got an alert that an email came in to LuckyRescueMissionTeam@gmail.com. Lucky had been missing for a month, but it had only really weighed on Thelma this past week after Scooter scolded her for not looking harder in his first phone call home. “It’s like you don’t care, Mom,” he’d said.

She’d wanted to tell him that maybe she didn’t. She’d wanted to tell him that for the first week of Scooter-No-More she checked to see if it was him when someone came home, her steps light and quick. And when it wasn’t him and she had to remember that it wasn’t going to be him because he’d joined the Army of all goddamn things, it was like a bucket of cold water over her head. Neecy started calling out when she walked in the door, “Mom, it’s me Neecy.” Then Thelma could be privately disappointed, her heart contracting enough that she sat down a moment or two before she went and said hello to her daughter.

She wanted to tell her boy that the house was different now that he was gone. There was a big empty space that followed her around like a haunting, and even when Neecy was there, all she could think about was that Scooter was not. Her job as Scooter’s mother was pretty much finished. And soon, Eunice would be gone too.

Besides, Lucky had made it apparent at every possible opportunity that he felt nothing but disdain for Thelma. Even though it was Thelma who wiped his oozing patches day in and day out and it was Thelma who took him fun places like the beach. Without the dog, Thelma’s day opened in unexpected ways. She could hang out at the Burton Historical Collection at the Detroit Public Library reading the letters of Civil War soldiers or walk across Woodward Avenue to the Detroit Institute of Arts and stare at the Rivera murals. It didn’t matter that it was 10 a.m. and time for Lucky’s pills. Or noon and time for Lucky’s raw foods lunch. Or 2 p.m. and time for Lucky’s wipes again.

Thelma began truly enjoying her Post-Scooter Period. It was as if she’d embarked upon a third life. First she was a child then she was a mother and now she was … she didn’t know. Thelma would look in the mirror and ask, “And who might you be?”

But every day, Neecy asked if there was any news on the little creature and every day she shed a tear or two that there wasn’t and when Scooter had scolded her, well, Thelma realized she was being hard-hearted. It was her kids really that had gotten to her because Larry’s “depression” over the whole thing had only chafed like polyester pants. Especially after he yelled that she’d always hated Lucky and had probably lost him “accidentally on purpose.” It just wasn’t fair that the mother was the crux of the emotional well-being of the entire family. Sometimes Thelma felt as if she’d been buried alive. But, she renewed her efforts to get the word out and she upped the reward for the safe return of Lucky.

The email came from RedChief@gmail.com:

—How bad you want your dog back?

Thelma answered right away.

—What’s up with the Red Chief? I hope you’re not being disrespectful to Native Americans. I don’t watch the Tigers play Cleveland because I cannot stand Cleveland’s offensive mascot.

She only had to wait a few minutes. Red Chief was sitting at his computer somewhere.

—Like I said, lady, you want your dog back or not?

—How did you know I was a lady? This isn’t my personal email.

Thelma didn’t hear from RedChief@gmail.com again. Then she received an email from PrettyinPunk@gmail.com.

—We have your disgusting dog. Put 1,000$ in a paper sack and text me when you are in your van.

—I have my own grocery totes. I don’t do paper or plastic. This isn’t the twentieth century anymore.

Sometimes Pretty in Punk answered the emails right away and sometimes Thelma had to study her Russian while waiting.

—Fine. Use a grocery tote.

—The reward is 100$ not 1,000$. And I need proof Lucky is still alive.

—1,000$ or no dog. I have student loans to pay.

—What did you get your degree in? You sound unemployed. I just started college for the first time in my life. Did I tell you my son joined the Army? I don’t want a degree in anything that doesn’t immediately translate into a job.

—Steer clear of any major that starts with Medieval then. Sorry about your son.

—Thank you! I’m sorry also, but nobody seems to get that. It’s always, “You should be so proud” blah blah blah. But, I wanted so much more for him. Plus I miss him. It’s like driving into the rising sun of early spring without sunglasses.

—My mother died when I was twelve.

—OMG! I’m so sorry.

And then Thelma didn’t get another email.

She tossed and turned that night, afraid she’d wake Larry. Then he’d want to know what was wrong and she’d have to tell him Lucky was dognapped (though she wanted to tell him since he blamed her) and then he’d be calling the Oakland County Sheriff. She wanted to keep the police out of it. Anytime anyone can keep the police out of it they ought to, she thought, especially since you could get shot just for being a certain color. You didn’t have to have a weapon or be a serial killer or have committed a violent crime; no, you just had to come into contact with a police officer and maybe, like, run away from them. Thelma rolled out of bed and quietly made her way to her craft room.

Dear Lawrence,

Lucky was dognapped. It wasn’t my fault, after all. I am in the midst of intense negotiations to secure his release for the least possible amount of money. I’ve always been frugal, as you know.

I wish I could call you.

In my Department of Homeland Security class the instructor wants us to believe that the continuing erosion of our civil liberties is the reason our country has not experienced another attack like the one on 9-11.

Our ancestors who fought in the American Revolution are going to rise up from their graves and haunt us in perpetuity if we continue to avoid facing the fact that our leaders failed us that day and it had nothing to do with enjoying too many civil liberties. The whole thing still stinks to high heaven, like Lucky.

Not that I’m a conspiracy theorist, Lawrence. But still, a B-25 Mitchell bomber crashed into the Empire State Building in 1945 and all its fuel burned and guess what? The building is still standing.

How’s the Complex?

Love Always,

Mom

 

The next day, Thelma sent an email to PrettyinPunk@gmail.com.

—Here’s my cell number in case you want to talk.

Not long after, Thelma got a hang up call from an unidentified caller. She raced to her computer.

—Did you just try to call? It’s okay if you did.

Again, sometimes the emails were answered quickly and sometimes she had to study her Russian.

—Don’t you want your dog back? You never ask about him.

—He’s not my dog, really. He’s my husband Larry’s.

—The downstairs tenants called the landlord because he barks all the time.

—Oh no! What are you going to do? You might have to move!

—WTF!

—I have to go. Bye.

Thelma got off the Internet. Even though it was only one in the afternoon, she poured herself a glass of Chardonnay. Everything in her life felt different now. Instead of feeling shackled, she felt like she was slipping out of dried-up old skin, slowly but surely, and soon the old Thelma would be a discarded pile in the corner of the living room. A relic of the past: The Thelma who came in last while everyone else got what they needed, while everyone else became who they needed to be while she cleaned and cooked and care-taked and existed in a domestic fog. She hadn’t felt this alive in twenty years.

The next evening PrettyinPunk@gmail com wrote her:

—100$ would work for me.

—100$ ?????????

—For the dog.

That is a lot of money for a sick Chihuahua. He hasn’t been on his meds for weeks!

—You said the reward was 100$!

—Gotta go! I have to see what my husband and daughter are fighting about. Bye. (:

When Thelma walked into the kitchen, her husband and daughter stopped fighting, turned toward her, and asked practically simultaneously, “Any news on Lucky?” Not: How are you, Thelma/Mom? How are your classes going? How was your day? No. She was the last planet in their solar systems—Pluto the used-to-be-a-planet but is no longer a planet. Always the distant rock.

“No,” said Thelma and they both pulled their heads back like shocked chickens.

“Bite our heads off ‘bout it!” said Eunice.

***

Dear Lawrence,

Negotiations are not going well with the orphaned dognapper. I will continue trying, but am not hopeful in securing a positive outcome. I’m holding off on telling your father and Neecy until I know for sure one way or the other. Talk to you soon! Tell the Complex I said Hello.

Love you,

Mom

***

“Hello?” Thelma answered her cell.

“Hi. This is Amber. I … uh … is this Lucky’s mom?”

“Yes, it is. What can I do for you? I took the Craigslist ad down.”

“I know. I … uh … I’m the one that’s been emailing you. About Lucky.”

“Oh,” said Thelma, her heart sinking. “How are you today?”

“I think Lucky should go home.” In the background, Thelma could hear the dog yipping and yapping and Amber trying to get him to shush up. “It’s okay about the money. I don’t need the money that bad.”

“But he must be such a mess!”

“I can prove to you that he’s all better. Incoming.” Amber ended the call.

Twenty minutes later, Thelma got a video of Lucky growling and baring his fangs then biting a multi-ringed hand with bandaged delicate fingers and pink-painted fingernails that held onto his studded collar so that he’d be in the video. There was soft crying for three seconds. Amber turned the camera on herself. Thelma was very surprised to see her and watched as Amber wiped her face with a Kleenex. Amber’s short dark hair was parted on the side and the bleached-blond long bangs lay flat against her forehead, just over her left eye. She had a nose ring and wide cheeks and a small mouth dabbed with cherry red lipstick. Her eyes were red as if she’d not only just been crying but had been crying earlier, before the call.

“He looks good, doesn’t he?” Amber said to the camera before she turned it on Lucky again for a few seconds.

Lucky’s skin had a few patches but not like before and the patches that were there seemed dry, as if they were healing. Plus his fur had grown out. He’d always been so furless before.

Thelma and Amber texted.

—How did that happen?

—I don’t know. It just started clearing up.

—Do you feed him something special?

—Just regular dog food.

—Like holistic, grain-free, buffalo meat only?

—No, like dog chow. Comes in a huge bag for 5 bucks. I told you already I’m broke.

—Did you use the wipes?

—What wipes?

—The ones in his diaper bag.

—Not really. Too much of a hassle. He likes popcorn. But he won’t watch Netflix with me.

—Dogs can’t have popcorn! Or grapes. Or chocolate.

—Well, he likes it. Popcorn, that is. I know about the grapes and chocolate. He likes lying in the sun, too.

—In his special sun-blocking suit? Under his umbrella?

—Oh, I thought that was a dress-up outfit. No, just in the sun like a real dog. I didn’t take the umbrella, just the dog and the bag. I’m sorry I said he was disgusting before. He’s not really.

And then the texts from Amber stopped.

***

“Lucky was dognapped! I can’t frickin’ believe it. Who would want him? Ha!” Was the first thing Scooter said in the long-awaited-for second call. The three at home were sitting around the breakfast table hunched over the cell phone, their shoulders touching and jostling to be closest.

“What?” Larry looked at Thelma.

As did Neecy.

“That’s what Mom said in her letter. Right, Mom?”

“You weren’t supposed to tell your father just yet, Scooter. I’m still in negotiations,” she said.

“Negotiations? With a dognapper? What do they want? Why didn’t you tell me? We should call the police!” said Larry.

“Oh my God, Larry. Don’t get your panties in a bunch. Lucky’s fine.”

“How do you know?” her family asked.

“Amber sent me a video.”

“You have a video and didn’t tell us?” Neecy said.

A pang pinged in Thelma’s heart from the look on her daughter’s face.

“Who’s Amber?” she asked.

Thelma sighed. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you guys. But, he looks good. His skin is all better. He has fur again. Amber’s taking care of him, exceptionally well I might add.”

“It’s because you’re studying Russian isn’t it?” asked Larry. “You’re studying Russian and Homeland Security whatever and you’re changing. You used to be happy at home, Thelma, and now look at you. I don’t even know what you do all day anymore.” Larry stood up so fast his gut bumped the table causing a minor earthquake then he went charging out the front door. After a few seconds, his truck door slammed and the engine revved.

“I have to go, Mom,” said Lawrence. “You better get Lucky back.”

“Yeah, Mom. Lucky’s our dog. I don’t know how you can just go and give him to some chic named Amber,” said Neecy.

“He was dognapped, I didn’t give him away! And I didn’t lose him either. And he’s not even sick anymore. Amber healed him.”

“Gotta go,” said Scooter.

“Love you, Lawrence.”

“Love you too. Don’t forget to write me.” As if Thelma could forget.

“I can’t believe you did this,” Neecy said then stood up, her bedazzled eyes glimmering in tears. “You better get him back, Mom. Or, I’ll … I’ll never—”

“What?”

“Speak to you ever again.” She stormed off.

The way Neecy said that, Thelma knew her daughter meant what she said. They were ganging up on her! She was nothing but a maid. There to serve their every command. “Screw that,” Thelma said aloud, and she too, stood up and stormed out.

***

Why did Thelma have to get Lucky back just to make her family happy? Lucky was mean to Thelma, just like he was mean to Amber. Thelma had little thin strips of scars all over her fingers and it wasn’t because she made wreaths, as Larry always exclaimed when she’d shown him. What about what Thelma wanted? What about what made Thelma happy? Not taking care of that stinkin’ dog, that’s what made her happy!

 

Dearest Scooter,

I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. Isn’t that funny? Because I’ve been grown up for thirty years. I did very much like being your mother. Remember when we used to visit the bats at Cranbrook? Did you know a mother bat will do just about whatever it takes to return to her pup if, for instance, someone has sealed the entrance to the colony? She will work and work her way back into wherever the colony is to be reunited with her pup. Someday, you will understand this and why I’m so angry at the Complex.

Love you,

Mom

 

That night, Thelma had a dream in which she was a little brown bat and her two pups were in the attic of her Nana’s old farmhouse and the bat busters had sealed off the hole where she flew in and out to hunt mosquitoes. She kept smashing her funny bat nose against the house trying to find a new way in until she collapsed from exhaustion and fell. Her Nana found her on the porch, picked her up by a wing, and while Thelma dangled there, told her to stop foolin’ around with the Russians.

***

“Larry, you can’t refuse to speak to me for the rest of our lives. Especially, since you can never remember where you put anything,” Thelma said, pouring herself a cup of coffee.

He snorted and turned his face away, standing over his bacon sizzling in the pan with a fork in his hand. “Don’t you need to study Russian or something? Next thing, you’ll be moving to Moscow.”

“I’m not moving to Moscow.” She was emptying the dishwasher. “But I’m going to change my life, Larry, whether you like it or not.”

“Because you don’t like the life you have now? Huh? Is that it?”

“Because it needs to change. Scooter’s gone. Eunice is leaving soon. I’m sick of making wreaths. I want to be able to say that I have a college education. Is that so bad? Huh? Is it?” And she mocked the baby face he put on when he asked stupid questions.

“What’s bad, Thelma, is lying to me about Lucky. I would never have done that to you.”

Larry was right about that. But she was still irritated, so she rolled her eyes, drank down the last of her coffee, slammed the mug on the counter, grabbed her backpack and left for class.

***

Thelma always found herself crying in the van. She never wanted to cry in front of the children and Nana had taught her proper stoicism. She cried so often in the van that she was good at it and didn’t have to pull over. She hadn’t remembered to re-stock the travel packs of Kleenex, so she wiped her nose with antiseptic towelettes from out of the glovebox. They smelled of 1974.

In 1974, her mother had called her in from after-supper dodgeball with the kids on her block to watch Richard Nixon resign on the color television. Her mother explained how the President had wanted to become president again so badly, he’d resorted to theft and deception. The spring before, Thelma and her family had toured the White House. Thelma looked everywhere for President Nixon: down every hall, in every doorway, around every corner. What she wanted most of all was to meet President Nixon. She wrote him a letter and asked him why he hadn’t been home that day. He wrote her back, much to her parent’s surprise, and was very sorry to have missed Thelma. Thelma loved President Nixon. She was deeply troubled that he’d decided to be so bad.

She thought about how Watergate had changed her perception of those in power and how it affected her to this day. She didn’t trust a single one of them. And even though she loved President Obama, she didn’t really trust him, either. She didn’t trust the bankers, the lawyers, the cops. But it was different for her children.

Lawrence was four years old when the planes crashed into the buildings. Thelma was getting him ready to go to Montessori preschool and she had the television on, for some reason that she regretted later. Eunice was in her highchair, trying to pick up Cheerios. She never let the children watch the news. Not that the news was on, but the Today show was. Nana had always watched the Today Show in the morning. Lawrence and Thelma watched the second plane crash into the World Trade Center and the buildings collapse. Thelma cried out and rushed to call Larry on the phone. They stayed home that day and the next day from preschool. Thelma was very distracted and distraught and Lawrence had done his best to comfort her. He whispered “Sssshhh,” and smoothed away the tears on her cheek with his small soft hand. But for months if planes went overhead while Lawrence was outside playing, he’d run inside and hide under the dining table.

And Thelma the pacifist had been very angry. She supported the troops. She wished she could help protect America. She put a flag on her car and a flag picture on her front door and she made a lot of red, white and blue wreaths. And when they had conversations about 9-11 when Lawrence was older and that maybe the official version wasn’t the whole truth, that didn’t matter to him. What mattered was making sure it never happened again.

Of course, Lawrence joined the Army.

And what had Thelma done to act upon her convictions? Nothing. She complained about Larry making her take care of Lucky, she complained about the US House of Representatives keeping her country in a grid-lock, she complained about the military-industrial complex swallowing up her son, she complained about the erosion of civil liberties but she did nothing about it. Lawrence was living his life based upon his convictions, his beliefs, what was important to him. She was so proud of her son at that moment that it traveled throughout her and a shitty grin spread upon her face.

***

Thelma sat in her Department of Homeland Security class, jiggling her left knee and bouncing her pencil tip against her fold-over mini-desktop. It was like she needed to get up and go. Go and do this and go and do that, start making things happen.

The old professor was trying to justify racial profiling. She nudged the young woman next to her and pointed at the instructor and whispered, “You say something. You’re the future.” The young woman shirked away.

Thelma knew a different America, one her children’s generation had a right to know also. It seemed sometimes as if America had gone to New Zealand to be an ex-pat—her red, white and blue ribbons trailing behind her through the mud. She wanted to yell at her, “Wait. Wait for us!”

Thelma stood up, trembling, and made her way down the auditorium stairs. She stopped at the door, turned, and faced the old professor. He’d stopped speaking and stared at her. He looked used-up and worn out, like a filthy rug. She felt sorry for him. He willingly gave up all that made America great for a false peace of mind, he bent over for the establishment, he forgot that America was destined to always move forward.

Her mother had called her in from hide-n-seek to watch the astronauts land on the moon and Thelma felt that brilliant. Ready to face the unknown. Ready to take one small step.

She walked out of class and went home.

***

“Larry,” Thelma called his cell, “we need to talk.”

“About what?”

“Me.”

“You’re leaving me, aren’t you?”

“This isn’t about you. You can’t make everything about you.”

“What is it about then?”

“My life has been about either taking care of you or taking care of the kids or taking care of your dog. It needs to be about me now and what I want to do.”

Larry didn’t answer.

“Hello, hello, can you hear me?”

“Yes, Thelma, I can hear you.”

“Good that settles it then.”

“I guess.”

“Yes, Larry, that’s the deal. Take it or leave it.”

“I have to get back to work,” he said.

“I’m not stopping you.”

“Okay. Anything else?”

“Oh, yes,” she said.

“What?”

“If you want Lucky back you have to get him yourself.”

“Okay.” He sounded a bit like a child.

“See you later,” she said.

“Not moving to Moscow?”

“No, Larry, but I am going to get a bachelor’s degree.”

***

To PrettyinPunk@gmail.com:

Hi Amber- Did I tell you Larry rescued Lucky from a last chance event? Last chance means they’re gassed if not adopted that day. Lucky was left inside a rental house turned into a meth lab and no one found him for a couple of weeks. Toxic fumes had killed the meth heads. Lucky chewed through a plastic water bottle and drank the leaking dribbles. I think that’s where he learned to roll around in rotting carcasses and fecal matter. No one wanted Lucky because he stank. Except for Larry. I gave Larry your cell number. He’ll be calling you soon. Take care, Thelma.

***

Dear Lawrence,

I have good news! Lucky’s home and he’s all better. He doesn’t even smell anymore. I understand why you joined the Army now. We are all a product of the times we grew up in. I want you to know that I support you, that it’s important to be the person you need to be to live in this world and make sense of it, in your own way. I put an Army Mom sticker on the van. I wear my Army Mom sweatshirt to class. I know that you are going to be a good soldier and I’m proud of you.

Love you always,

Mom

 

 

 

BIO

Jennifer PorterJennifer Porter grew up in the Motor City as a GM Brat and rock ‘n’ roll enthusiast. Her work has appeared in over a dozen fabulous literary journals. She tortures fine writers with ruthless editing over at The Tishman Review while hiding in her imaginary conservatory.

 

 

 

0
Chris Vanjonack

After You

by Chris Vanjonack

 

 

When Jenny first approached me in the coffee shop, she was attracted to me primarily due to the eye patch strapped across my left eye that had been issued in the wake of a car accident. The accident left me scarred and averse to highways, pitched blood across my shirt and scratched an abrasion on my left cornea. It hurt like hell; the doctors couldn’t have prescribed enough painkillers. But the accident—which, by the way, killed the man that hit us and totaled my friend’s car—also left me emboldened, standing out like a beacon in a sea of nondescript, middle class, middle-income white boys, of which I am usually just another faceless member.

And so at Holly’s Coffee House that day—I think it was around noon, I think it was a Monday—Jenny stopped and sat at my table and asked, apropos of nothing, “So are you a punk now?” I’d seen her around before. She’d never seen me with the eye patch. Through the shearing pain in my left eye, the only response I could muster was, “Yes.” And that one word, one syllable, one second reply was how we became friends. Good friends. The kind of spontaneous friendship that threatened to eclipse all else in the shadow of its urgency. Even before it got physical we couldn’t get enough of each other—smoking weed in the other’s bedroom, going to all-ages matinee shows, and giving overly-dramatic readings of young adult novels at the local library to the chagrin of anxious librarians. We spent so much time sipping McFlurries and talking about who knows what at the McDonalds with the broken arches that soon it was hard to remember I had ever even known anybody else.

But of course I knew other people. Guys from around town. Girls from Denver. Before Jenny, I had been trying to get by with around ten friends, a tape recorder, a fake set of flowers and around a hundred or so in savings to get me through the trials and tribulations of laser-tag sessions, rewritten Blink-182 anthems, U-Haul trucks, movie nights, garden gnomes, weeklong strings of all night overnights, three ex-girlfriends, two unreturned security deposits and a book with kaleidoscope binding that took way too long to answer the question of what is good in life.

Looking back, I guess I shouldn’t have been so surprised when it happened. It was after the going away party for Jenny’s ambitious, intelligent, going-somewhere younger sister. A fight almost broke out next to Shelter D with some punk kids talking shit and dropping N-bombs, but Jenny just laughed because she has always had the foresight to know when something would make for a good story. She didn’t cry during the party. She cried afterwards when it was just us and the bed sheets. Because her mom was dead and her sister was leaving, and so it was only going to be her and her sad dad for a while, but she had me, and we felt positive, and so she decided it should happen. And I always knew it would happen, but it was in the same way that I have always known that I will die one day. It was just that it had already happened (repeatedly, excessively, riotously) to so many people in my life that I had started to worry that by the time it did, I’d be too old to get it up. And so when she led me up the stairs to her bedroom, sat me on her bed, told me she’d never be happy, Christ, and started crying when I presented her with a wrapped copy of this god-awful YA book we’d been making fun of –the plot of which concerned a love triangle between a werewolf and a vampire and a horribly disfigured Chernobyl survivor—I was just as surprised as anyone that she took me.

By now, by the way, I feel as though I know everyone (or at least everyone who will matter), but still I try not to cap the friends list on Facebook at X number of people, because I know that each of them can hardly wait to tell me about how they are going off to get married and have babies and live out the passive-aggressive American dream of growing resentful of each other and never forgetting that one shitty thing the other one said during a Jets game twenty years ago, or shaking the lingering feeling that they should just say, “Fuck it,” and run away to Europe where they might still be miserable but at least the people have class.

Of course, we Americans have culture: I got this burning recollection of a cardboard cutout of Homer Simpson carried around by two kids on the last day of classes. The kids had cherry bombs too, and matches and fireworks, real sketch, doused in kerosene. I dunno, I dunno. They’re emotional fireworks? Poorly disguised euphemisms for ejaculation? We’ll get it on. We’ll take it off. I’ll get her off—off to turn her towards a urinal while her chest opens up and a bag of confetti comes shooting out, clearly on something, fucked up like her father at that incredibly sketchy birthday party they threw for her recently deceased mother where he and Jenny and her sister all put on party hats and cried watching home movies, and tried to pretend what a fun day they would be having if only she were still alive.

But yeah, yes—American culture. Second semester sophomore year, I went camping, joined a band, got really into The Pixies and made a list of all the things that Salinger never said about Cloverfield. I wish I had known Jenny then so that we could have talked about all the things that people never said about all the things we ever loved, and we could have held hands together, the Human Centipede being very disappointed that we were not discovering our sexualities through creatively phrased GOOGLE image searches with the safe-search functionality turned off and our underpants wrapped around our ankles.

I pop pop-culture like Claritin in the springtime and Vicodin after a car wreck. Video killed the radio star, and the Kardashians killed the hipster, AV Club, cooler-than-thou commentariat, who decreed in a post on the internet that in a post-modern, post-consumerism, post-apocalyptic cultural landscape we might as well all go marry gold diggers—old-timey pan handler types who trudge knee-deep in the Colorado River and boast a similar materialist ethos to the sexy cliches who die first in horror movies. There are Nazis at the center of the Earth, according to that SYFY channel original special that starred an improvisational actress from the Groundlings who I might have fallen in love with and jerked it to endlessly had it not been for Jenny. Her wallet was found by the kind cashier at the movie theater, and I am returning the interabang that accompanied the epiphany that I was in love with her in order to express my deepest surprise that anybody would ever let me get so close to them.

For so long it’s just been about this new thing and that new thing, but lately it’s become obvious that the largest congregation of all the coolest shit was only ever there to make me think I’m not so lonely. I am surrounded on all sides by the pulsating beat of punk-rock music, the enthusiastic blasts of Edgar Wright direction, and a hyped-up feeling that I know all the cool books to claim I’ve read, each of them written by beatnik, weirdos who enjoyed anal fingering. But through the sound of that silence that surrounds me, as I got so close to Jenny that night, I was not thinking about the screech of bagpipes and accordions at old fashioned funerals—even though, as my legs extended in a fit of ecstasy, I knocked over the framed photograph of her mother that she keeps on her bedside table—but rather about that moment just beforehand when she put her hand on my cheek and intertwined her limbs with my ventricles, enough caffeine coursing through my veins to make me really believe all of that grand romantic love shit that I watched in high concept romantic comedies that I said I only screened to be ironic. Her body was against mine and her skin was cold, I was hard, she was crying, and this shit was formative, because in that moment she seemed intimate and I felt infinite because there are perks to reading all these shitty young adult books.

 

 

BIO

Chris VanjonackChris Vanjonack is an English teacher living in Fort Collins, Colorado, where he helps run Slamogadro, a monthly poetry slam that is fast approaching its second anniversary. His fiction has appeared previously in New Haven Review and Buffalo Almanack.

0

Coyotes Don’t Litter

by Tera Joy Cole

 

 

“Let’s talk about the accident. Wasn’t that what brought you here in the first place?”

“No, it’s the litter.” I sigh while glancing around the office at all of the framed degrees hanging behind Dr. Howard.

But, maybe it had been the stretched-out cat, on the side of the road, covered in that snow. Trigger. It wasn’t the obvious kind of litter: white, crumpled fast food bags; forty-ounce mostly empty bottles of “Hurricane;” a busted chair.

We’ve been discussing a time, many years ago, when my dad and I were driving back home from my grandparent’s house. An afternoon lunch on their deck, overlooking the hillside and downtown Glendale, had been tension-filled, and I remembered being pissed that my sister had gotten out of coming along. After my dad downed three scotch-on-the-rocks at an alarming rate, I insisted on driving us back home. Behind the wheel of his Mercedes, I navigated the tight freeway pass by Dodgers Stadium.

My dad was leaning back in the leather passenger seat. When he let out an exasperated sigh, I knew he was about to impart some wisdom. Apparently, he was concerned about the guy I was dating and, although I hadn’t asked for his advice, he was going to launch into one of his speeches anyway.

“You can’t marry a poet. He won’t be able to take care of you.” My dad knew a lot about marriage; after all, he was on his third. And, since I was heading off to graduate school in Idaho, the last thing on my mind was finding a man to take care of me. I saw a dead cat on the side of the freeway, and as a means of changing the subject, I quoted one of our long standing jokes: “It’s only sleeping.”

“Well, how did this make you feel?”

I want to answer Dr. Howard’s question, but instead I close my eyes. All I can see are dead animals. My mind skips to a camping trip I took about ten years back. I was riding in the car with some friends on our way to Preston, Idaho. I counted fourteen dead deer on a fifteen mile stretch of highway. I also saw a bumper sticker that read: “Smoke a Pack a Day” with a picture of four wolves caught in a crosshair. At the time, I had no idea what it meant. Neither of these things seemed to bother anyone else but me. Dr. Howard wants to talk about the accident, but I am unable to put anything into words. He sends me home with a prescription for something that will help me sleep.

That night, instead of sleeping, I obsess over some album cover I may have once owned: a bubble gum-pink nightmare of the 1980s fading into a hazy Los Angeles sunset. Looping in the background, I keep hearing that girl’s mocking voice saying to one of my co-workers, “She’s certified loony bin crazy.” I think she is talking about me, but I can’t be sure. That same day, I heard a story about my friend’s dad who got cancer. His cancer was removed, and I all I can say is “what did they do with it?” My friend asks, “What?” And I answer, “The cancer.”

It’s not safe to drink the water. It’s not safe to breathe the air.

*****

On my way home from work, I count seventeen incidences of litter: a broken beer bottle, a dirty diaper, a discarded car seat (which I actually scanned, half-way hoping that a baby might still be latched inside), a discarded sweatshirt, etc. I don’t want to count like this, so I stop by the grocery store and purchase a little red spiral-bound notebook. I will use this to catalogue the litter. Dr. Howard will see this as progress. After all, he’s always trying to get me to write things down.

I finally sleep for a few hours, but when I awake the next morning, I can’t stop thinking of a story someone once told me about the yearly rabbit hunts which were held in the rural Idaho town where he was raised. He described how as a young boy, five or so, he’d been given a baseball bat and was told to walk through the fields as the rabbits were being flushed out. He was supposed to whack as many of these as he could over the head. I guess each person kept track of how many rabbits they’d whacked. Most kills=big prize.

This story haunts me the next day and makes it nearly impossible for me to concentrate on work. All I have to do is answer a phone and then transfer the call to the right attorney. However, images of crushed in rabbit skulls appear before my eyes each time one of the red lights blinks. The voices on the phone make no sense to me. I keep sending the wrong call to the wrong attorney. Eventually, they send me home for the day.

Home is no better. I keep searching for my copy of Watership Down. I am convinced that I have it somewhere, so I tear through boxes in the closet. After about four hours of searching, it dawns on me that I’ve never even read it. My mother took me to see the movie when I was about seven years old. I cried so hard and so loudly that she had to remove me from the theatre before the movie ended. I remember her embarrassment and feel ashamed. I get online and order a copy. I will finally find out what happened to those rabbits that were driven out of their homes by greedy farmers who want to plow the land.

By the time I go see Dr. Howard the following Tuesday, the little red notebook is almost full. I am proud of my record keeping.

“So, last week, we were discussing your father and the accident.”

Hadn’t we been talking about the sunsets in Los Angeles and the unsafe air and drinking water? In what strikes me as a mocking tone, he says: “You were last telling me about a car ride on the freeways in Los Angeles. You’d been leaving your grandparent’s house. Your father was not a huge fan of you marrying a poet. I think this is worth further exploration.”

I hand Dr. Howard the red notebook. “What’s this?” He asks, leafing through it. His forehead wrinkles as he makes a note in my chart.

“I was sure you’d like this.” I never cry in therapy. I do, however, grab the throw pillow on the couch next to me and dig my nails into it. I imagine that it’s Dr. Howard’s face I am digging into. My fingertips get closer and closer to his eyes. I can almost see myself gouging out his eyeballs. He sees me grabbing the pillow and feels good about therapeutic tactics. He learned this somewhere in college, at some point in a clinical, grab the pillow and tear at it, scream into it if you must.

“I am not sure how this notebook is going to help you.” He switches tactics, “I mean, how do you see this as being helpful?”

When I don’t respond, he tries again, “Why don’t we talk about what brought you here in the first place? The accident?

“It’s the litter.” I respond again, but this time when I close my eyes I can see the twisted metal and smell the burning rubber and spilled gasoline. I see myself driving my Dad and sister home from somewhere near downtown. I’d taken my eyes off the road for just a minute when I saw the spilt box of discarded kittens. I needed to know if they had survived being thrown from a vehicle at high speeds. That’s all it took.

*****

In my possession are a collection of pictures in which I stand on the fringe of the group. These are my families. Sometimes when I try to make sense of my family dynamics to people they joke, “Maybe we should draw a family tree.” However, trees require roots. Some trees, such as the Giant Sequoias in California, have such a shallow root system that they are often vulnerable to all kinds of destruction: wind, severe weather, fires. Sometimes, huge tunnels are built into these trees big enough to fit a moving car. The ones that still remain are over two hundred feet tall and have survived thousands of years of storms, fires, and humans. I want to be like that.

*****

Today, Dr. Howard wants to talk about my sister. Apparently he’s found something in his notes that interests him. Instead, I tell him about an insignificant dream I had the night before. The funny thing is, I don’t dream about my sister. I close my eyes and try to recall a single dream with her. My mind is blank.

As soon as I get home from my appointment with Dr. Howard, I give into my impulse to grab my notebook and start cataloguing the stuff in my closet: a cardboard box of wrapping paper and gift bags, a wooden crate wine box that now contains the pictures from some wedding, a hacky-sack like bag that holds crystals and gem rocks, a book cover from Curious George, a large number of paper clips and thumb tacks, and the love verses from the unmarriable poet. I also come across the wrinkled newspaper article about the accident: “Local Man and Daughter Killed in Tragic Wreck.” For a second, I consider cataloguing these items separately into “useful” and “non-useful,” but I am unsure where to place the article.

As I am climbing into bed, I find what appears to be a curled up spider ready for spooning. I think about calling someone, but there’s no one to call. I gather up enough courage to poke at it with an unraveled metal coat hanger. It moves. I run from the room and end up sleeping on the dining room table because I figure it is the least insect friendly of all my furniture. When I awake the next morning, I realize that I’ve slept through the whole night, and I feel great. For the first time, since the accident, my back isn’t hurting me and I feel safer sleeping above it all. I head straight towards my bedroom determined to confront the creature. In the unreal light of early morning, I discover that the enigma is only a piece of rolled up string-a castoff from an Old Navy T-shirt. The “spider” was then catalogued as “useful.”

*****

Dr. Howard sips on a cup of coffee and twirls his pencil between his thumb and pointer finger. He seems to be waiting for me to say something, but I just stare at him. Finally, he can’t stand the silence, “Did you and your sister get along well?”

“I hated her.” I say as my head presses against the scratchy wool of the pillows that Dr. Howard’s wife probably made for him. I used to imagine her pulling on nude colored, run-resistant pantyhose in the mornings before she headed down to the kitchen to make him three fried eggs, a piece of half-burnt sourdough toast with marmalade and a cup of black coffee. I was later surprised to discover that she is also a doctor who works in the pediatrics unit at the hospital. I was mad at myself for my sexist vision of Dr. Howard’s better half.

Hate is a pretty strong word.

Before Dr. Howard can launch into any more questions about my dad or my sister, I tell him about my new sleeping arrangements, “I’ve been sleeping on the kitchen table for the past week.” Now this, this interests him.

He leans forward so far that his rear end is nearly slipping off his leather chair. “What? What’s this?” As if he hasn’t really heard me. “Wasn’t it uncomfortable?”

“It’s the best sleep I’ve had in months. I am thinking about sleeping there from now on.”

“Does this have something to do with the accident?”

Laughter escapes through my nose with a snorting sound, “No, it was because of the spider that wasn’t really a spider.”

He is perplexed now. “Spider?”

*****

Over the weekend, I set to work on the move, but it takes a lot of effort to turn the dining area into a bedroom. I am ill prepared for the difference in the elements of place that I encounter. In the dining room, I have an antique hutch that I acquired through some divorce. It was previously filled with my grandmother’s china, knick-knacks, and crystal stem wear. This all had to be moved up to the bedroom and placed in the dresser drawers.

Side note: the hutch works really well as a wardrobe. I use the drawers (reserved for silver which I don’t have) for socks, underwear, bras, etc. In the large bottom area, (reserved for crystal dishes, soup tureens, platters, etc. which I also don’t have) I place my neatly folded shirts, jeans, skirts and sweaters. I have to get a little more creative with the two upper cabinets that used to hold the glasses and knick-knacks. In this area, I place my shoes.

Then, all of the stuff from the dining room has to be moved to the bedroom. This is where the real challenge began. Although, the hutch could easily serve a dual function for dishes and clothes, the dresser was not as cooperative in its design for the china and glasses. In one drawer, I place six of my grandmother’s china cups. I use another drawer for the six plates, and in the last one, I put the remaining five bowls (one broke in the move). I end up having to place all of the crystal stemware on top of the dresser. If we ever have an earthquake, I’ll be screwed. But, this isn’t California.

In the middle of my move, I get a phone call from an old friend, and I let it go to voicemail. She leaves a message asking me to meet her at a bar near my neighborhood. Her voice sounds so artificial, and that is one of my new rules: avoid anything artificial. I’d spent a few hours the other night throwing away everything in the kitchen that had any artificial ingredients, but I had to Google so many of the ingredients because I didn’t know which ones were real or not, so eventually I ended up throwing away everything that came in a package or a box. It’s a little harder to throw away people, but I’d been forced to do it before.

At my last session with Dr. Howard he had given me a challenge to get out of the house more and possibly reconnect with people I used to know, so I figure this is my best chance. But, it has been so long since I’ve done anything social that I’m not even sure what to do. When I turn on the light in the bathroom, and stare into the mirror, I can literally see right through my image into the medicine cabinet. I see all of the products lined up in there, but no matter how hard I try I can’t see my face. This starts to concern me, and I consider calling Dr. Howard. He’ll probably answer, but he will be filled with resentment at being forced to come to my rescue on a weekend.

So instead I dig up an old photo album from college to remind myself of what I looked like when I’d been normal. If I hold the image in my mind for long enough, and meditate with enough intention, maybe my face will morph back into this image. But these photos were taken before the accident, so my meditation technique can not break the barrier.

I am late to the bar after all, so I have to make my way through a maze of smoke and drunk people. The music is loud and someone is horribly singing a karaoke version of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” There’s still time to turn around and get the hell out before anyone notices me.

Diane and her date are sitting at a corner table off to the right of the stage. They see me just as I am about to turn around and walk out. With the jangling of a thousand arm bracelets, she waves me over.

“Hey you!” she exclaims too loudly over the sounds of “…show them what’s funky; show them what’s right. It doesn’t matter who spoke up right. Just beat it!”

She pats the seat between her and some guy I’ve never met before. He is kind of my type which is definitely not her type, at least not that I remember. He has dark, wavy hair which hangs just over his ears, dark eyes (I can’t tell what color), and he is wearing a beat up Joy Division T-shirt. Justin.

“Grab a drink, or get a pitcher to share!” Diane shouts at me.

Getting to the bar is like walking the gauntlet. I have to push past half-drunk girls standing in the aisle yelling over each other, and then maneuver around a fat guy who is sitting in a barstool two sizes too small for him. “Excuse me,” I half shout although no one seems to hear me. I imagine myself as thin as a sheet of tin foil and then feel as if I have been crumpled into a ball. The guy behind the bar is shirtless and both his nipples are pierced. He won’t even look my way as he mumbles, “What do you want?”

I want to be home. I want to be home arranging my collections. “Two pitchers of Killian’s and three glasses, please.” The “please” sounds superfluous after his rude greeting and his complete inability to make eye contact. As he slams down the two pitchers, beer froths over the sides, and he says “Eighteen bucks.” I handed him a twenty.

The walk back to the table is easier because most of the people who had been blocking the aisle are now on the dance floor, shaking it to some Lady Gaga song. Justin and Diane are engaged in a kiss as I approach the table. I have to stand there for several seconds before they realize there is another human being in the room.

“Oh, sorry,” Diane apologizes, “we get so carried away sometimes. But don’t worry, Justin’s buddy Nate should be here any minute.” Great a double date with Nate. It isn’t even funny.

Justin is in the middle of filling up our beer glasses when I feel his leg brush against mine. It has been way too long. Maybe this guy Nate will be cute and half-way intelligent. But, then I remember my place. There’s no way I can take anyone back there. How can I possibly explain all of the bedroom stuff occupying the dining room area?

I don’t have to worry after all. Nate is sporting a “Smoke a Pack a Day” T-shirt. He is loud and obnoxious, too. He does, however, buy the next few rounds of beers and shots. I get drunk pretty quickly because I am not really in partying shape, and before I know it I am on the dance floor sandwiched between Justin and Nate. Nate keeps grabbing at me and trying to kiss me. I’ve been out of this game so long that I’ve forgotten the rules. Am I supposed to just let him grope me?

I have no clue where Diane had gone off to, and a vague feeling of concern quickly passes through me. Apparently, there’s nothing to worry about. I look over towards our table in time to see her taking body shots off some girl. At least, I am pretty sure it is a girl. We are all swept up in the lights and the bass, grinding against one another, and then the next thing I know we are back up at the bar. The bartender seems much friendlier now, and he has a shirt on. Maybe it’s a different guy. I can’t tell. Nate orders copper camels-a shot I’ve had a few times before. I am not really fond of it. He keeps calling it a bitch shot. I’m not sure who the bitch is supposed to be. I catch a blurry glance at the digital clock above the cash register, and it looks as if it reads 1:32. This sets off a panic in my mind. There is no way I can drive home, and it is getting pretty late to call a cab.

I manage to slur out the words, “I gotta go….”

“What’s your rush,” answers Nate, grabbing my arm, “the bar doesn’t close for another twenty minutes. Justin will give you a ride home. He’s hasn’t had that much to drink.” I am not too convinced, but I also lack the energy to fight it. I head towards the table to see about Diane. She’s out on the dance floor again and appears to be in no hurry to go home.

“Diane!” I call out. “Let’s go!” The room starts to spin, and I see Justin heading towards me with a blaster. Drink up…

I awake to my head bumping against a cold window in the backseat of someone’s car. The floor is littered with trash of all sorts: crushed beer cans, empty Rockstar cans, and food wrappers from any number of fast food places. I’m sitting on something hard. I reach under my butt and feel a wrench of some sort. Through a drunken blur, I see Diane next to me, messing around on her phone. “Ha, ha! That’s a great picture of you.” Please, not Facebook!

Nate is driving the car. I guess he’s the most sober of all of us. Or the most drunk. “Where are we going?” I ask cautiously. Something has happened between the time we left the bar and the time I woke up amongst the garbage. I just can’t remember what. I’d been dreaming of the dirty cement waterways that connect the Los Angeles River to the ocean. Someone had painted colorful cartoon pictures of cats on the giant metal drain covers. Filthy water flowed through their wrenched-open mouth holes.

“We’re hunting coyotes! Don’t you remember? It was your idea.” Nate boomed from the front seat. I try to protest because it really doesn’t sound like an idea that I would come up with, but something tells me to keep my mouth shut. If only I’d stayed home where I would be safe from all of this consumption and rejection.

Diane quickly comes to my defense with a challenge to Nate, “Ahhh…no one said anything about shooting coyotes. You guys were bragging about guns, and she suggested we go out and shoot at cans.” I don’t remember any of this.

I pull my phone out of my purse, but it’s dead. “What time is it?” I ask Diane.

“3:17.”

The darkness outside of my window is impossible to penetrate. Nate takes a sharp left and suddenly we are traveling at high speeds down a very bumpy, dirt road. “Those little fuckers always hang around my uncle’s farm. We’ll find some out here.”

Justin cries out, “Slow down, dude! You’re going to get us all killed.”

“Don’t be such a puss!”

The car swerves into another left turn and then Nate slams on the brakes. We nearly run into a barbed wire fence, and I see clouds of dust through the high beams. Nate kills the engine and gets out of the car. I hear him open the trunk and begin rummaging for something. I am guessing the trunk is filled with more garbage. I think about getting out of the vehicle and running, but I have no clue where we were.

“Son of a bitch!” Nate yells out as he slams the trunk shut.

Diane opens up her door and slurs, “Wassa matter, Nate?”

“Just about busted my goddamn knuckle on a tire iron is all.”

By now, we are all out of the car. Justin leans against the front end and Diane is trying to mount the hood of the car like she’s eighteen, but she’s not, and I’m not either. We’re too far past the point of hiking up skirts. I can see a dark bruise on Diane’s left thigh. “C’mon, guys. Let’s go.” I protest. “Some of us need to get some sleep.” No one is listening. Justin and Diane are back to making out again, and I work to steady myself against the car. Then, I hear a coyote howl.

Nate is barely able to control his enthusiasm, “I told you those bastards were out here. They’re all over this farm land. When I was a kid my uncle used to take me out here in the summer to shoot the little shits. In a good night, we might get five or six of them.”

I am feeling a little sick to my stomach. I try to run an inventory in my head of all the drinks and shots I’ve had, but I lose count. I wish that I’d written them down in my notebook. Nate walks out across the field; Diane and Justin follow. The moon is almost full, so once my eyes adjust to the darkness I can just barely make out their shapes. What choice do I have but to follow? I’m about 50 yards behind them when I hear the sound of a gun and then a yelp. “Hey, I got one!” Nate calls out excitedly.

Diane and Justin run over to see the damage. I can’t bring myself not to look. The little brownish colored coyote looks more like someone’s pet dog than a wild animal. The tongue hangs out of the mouth and is covered in blood and gravel. It’s still alive. “You gotta kill it…” whispers Justin, “You just can’t let it suffer.”

“Oh, look who all of a sudden works for PETA. Diane’s made you soft, huh?”

“Yeah,” Diane chimes in, “It’s not right. You can’t just let it lay there in pain.”

“If you assholes are so hooked on this thing dying, you shoot it.”

Diane leans in closer to Justin and loops her arm through his. None of them are making any moves towards putting this creature out of its misery. It’s only sleeping.

“How ‘bout you, sweetie? After all, this was your idea to begin with.” Nate is looking right at me and offering me the gun. He is practically forcing it into my right hand.

The handle is warm, and I feel my whole palm close tightly around it. Suddenly, I am ten years old again, at a family reunion in Montana. We’d spent a week there at a one of those dude ranches that was popular in the early 80s. At first, I’d been resistant, but after a few days, I was shooting guns with the rest of my cousins. We started out shooting beer cans, but then someone got the bright idea to shoot feral cats. I never really took pleasure in that game, but my sister sure had seemed to enjoy it. By the end of the week she’d tallied up how many cats she’d shot: eight. She was proud.

In this moment, the gun feels right in my hand. My body is electrified. Blurred images of trash, bloodied road kill, filthy water, smog stained skies, and twisted metal fill my mind. I turn the gun towards Nate and aim at his chest.

“Coyotes don’t litter,” my words echo through the blast of the gun.

 

 

BIO

Tera Joy Cole is the author of the short story,Tera Joy Cole “Where Things Are Made” which was published by in Blunderbuss Magazine (April 2015). Additionally, her article “Occupy,” which chronicled her visit to Zuccotti Park, New York City, during the Occupy Wall Street Movement, appeared in the magazine The Bannock Alternative (December 2011). She holds an M.A. degree in English and teaches composition and literature at Idaho State University.

 

 

 

 

0

Midnight Mass

by Thomas Elson

 

It was on December 28, three days after Christmas, and unbeknownst to David while he rushed through the hospital garage at 5:15 in the morning, his wife, Nicole, had called him at home. In the days before cell phones and voice mail, their recording machine took her message. When he returned home the next day, he would hear his wife’s voice, “Where are you?”

He heard other messages, each from a different person, but each the same, “David, no need to call back. Just wondering how Nicole is?” Repeated multiple times on that single tape. Only one asked, “How are you?”

#

Three days earlier, during the best part of his week in the best part of their house, David sat at the table next to the bay window – in an area so deep it created another room between the kitchen and family room.

Early in their marriage, he and Nicole had crammed the table and four chairs into their small Chevy. The tabletop, with its legs detached, fit in the trunk; they stuffed two of the chairs in the back seat. The other two chairs Nicole stacked on the passenger’s side of the front seat on David’s lap – the backs of the chairs dangled onto the floor.

 

Near midnight that Christmas Eve, they had driven over icy roads and squinted against the glare of the oncoming headlights, left their warm car and walked through the dark night toward the vestibule of the church, then waited outside as others blocked the front doors and stomped snow from their feet. David and Nicole kept their heavy coats on until their upper bodies overheated even though their feet remained frigid.

Inside the church, the multitude of candles complimented the hanging electric lights designed to echo the stalactite glow of beeswax candle chandeliers in medieval churches. Mid-way through the services, David heard the military sounds of tramping as parishioners rose from their pews, genuflected, stood erect, and formed near-perfect communion lines with a precision learned in the first grade from nuns well-trained to channel unfocused youth into disciplined adults.

David recalled how he had stood ramrod straight during the services that night – proud of how he felt in his bespoke 42-long diplomat striped suit, proud that people guessed his age twenty years younger that it was; proud of his wife – beautiful in her one-of-a-kind dress; proud that people would believe him if he said Nicole was twenty-two years younger– her enthusiasm and laughter supplied all the facts they needed; proud that he continued to feel the desire to hug her in public, proud that he had survived three cancer scares thanks to skillful surgeons, and relieved that Nicole had not fainted during this three-and-one-half hour service.

Before their Christmas lunch later that day, David completed his ritual. He touched and kissed the inscription, “Forever”, on his mother’s marble urn, which he referred to as a vase – because life grows from vases. He whispered a few words, then returned the urn to the walnut bookcase his mother had given him on his seventeenth birthday. Afterward, David stayed close to Nicole – alone with hours of uninterrupted time. Tomorrow the world would begin again.

 

Late on the morning of December 26th, while he and Nicole sat in Dr. Keegan’s waiting room, it struck David that these rooms were all the same – no matter where located, or how festively decorated. No one wanted to be there, but all were eager to hear the test results, and receive relief. His emotions hung under a compound cloud of fearful anger and fearful stoicism. He knew that they waited alone no matter how many others tried to comfort them. They talked with forced smiles, in turns silent; then, with a start, they would look for a nurse, or doctor, someone to enter, see them, and tell them something hopeful.

Behind the receptionist’s glass curtain, the medical staff’s movements ranged from languid to hyperactive and separated them from the patients. David hugged Nicole’s hips, then held her hand as they waited. She cupped his hand within hers, then squeezed. The same movement she did three years ago when David was diagnosed.

#

On a July afternoon, three years earlier, as David and Nicole arrived at the medical clinic’s parking lot, Nicole saw yet another someone on yet another corner with yet another hand-written cardboard sign. She reached into a dedicated compartment of her purse to rifle out yet another five-dollar bill.

David sat in the exam chair in the ophthalmologist’s office that July morning for a routine visit. He felt the smooth plastic forehead rest of the retinoscopy machine – the alcohol rub still cold against it. He placed his chin in the alcohol coldness of the lower bar, then felt a sting as the intense light hit the surface of his left eye.

David heard the ophthalmologist gasp, “Oh God.” David felt the machine move to his left as the doctor’s eyes met his, “You have a rare form of-” Then the doctor said the one word that freezes families; makes them unable to move, think or speak. “I’ll have to call someone. Wait here.” He rushed into the office next to the exam room. In his panic, the doctor had left both doors open.

Within moments, from the next room, David heard, “Doctor Hollis, I have a patient here with a form of eye cancer I’m unfamiliar with. I don’t know how I should proceed.” There was silence followed by a few inaudible murmurs, then David heard, “Should I take a biopsy?” Of my eye? A biopsy? Now? Remove a portion of my eye? Then what?

“You have an appointment tomorrow at 3:30 with Dr. Hollis,” the ophthalmologist said.

The doctor walked out to the waiting room with David, and said, “I hope I see you soon. Good luck.” David felt as if he were heading for the arctic region with only a light jacket and a ham sandwich.

#

On that late December 26th morning, three years after David’s eye operation his bouts with chemotherapy, he waited with Nicole in the exam room. Their family practitioner, Dr. Keegan, a man who usually displayed a distinct Celtic sense of humor, entered with his head down. He landed mechanically on a round exam chair, clutched the papers in his hand as if they were fifty-pound weights, cast his eyes down, stuttered, coughed, then read without looking up, “The lab results came in, and you were diagnosed with-” Again David and Nicole heard the one word that freezes families.

Dr. Keegan finished, inhaled, coughed, wiped his face, then outlined the specialists he had arranged for them to see. Nicole remained motionless. David, four feet away from her, was rigid. That would haunt him later. He looked at his wife and felt his eyes pool.

 

In the afternoon of that same day, Nicole lay on the doctor’s exam table. The young and meticulous surgeon, lab report in hand, looked directly at her, “Here’s where the mammogram showed the growth.” David saw a mass as dark as midnight on the screen. Then, the surgeon drew interrelated circles with a permanent marker on Nicole’s upper body. After he detailed the hospital admissions process for the next day, he said, “I’ll leave the two of you alone for awhile to discuss the options,” then he left the exam room.

Nicole rose from the exam table, balanced herself , then lifted her eyes filled with the familiar look of determination toward David. “If I’m going to lose something, I’m going to get something out of it”. She opted for reconstructive surgery, including liposuction, to be performed immediately after the surgeon removed the mass.

 

Two days later, and the hospital admissions office was as bleak and airless as the hospital parking garage – despite elaborately wrapped, albeit empty, gift boxes, peppermint sticks, and toy soldiers.

Huddled in clothes too flimsy for winter, a rail-thin woman, her gaze frozen on the linoleum, sat near David and Nicole. He watched as the woman nodded “no” when an admissions nurse asked, “Do you have insurance?” “Is there any family in the area?” “Do you have a mailing address?” “Do you think you can walk?” “Do you have someone to call?”

David and Nicole were lucky. Both employed, both with insurance to cover all costs and co-pays, the admission officer ushered them into her office. Nicole was admitted by 7:15 p.m. Within minutes, a medical assistant escorted them to her private room.

Seated on the bed inside her hospital room, Nicole reached for school papers to grade, but her hand shook so much the papers slipped away. Gone was her laughter. Gone was her sense of humor. She reached for David. This time he reached back. They sat there, her unpacked overnight suitcase still at the side table.

 

That night, as David drove home alone and on autopilot, he turned right instead of left from the parking garage, and found himself lost four miles north of the hospital and across the street from the football stadium. He stopped the car, leaned his head against the steering wheel, and shook.

Three turns plus a driveway later, at a time unremembered, he arrived at their home eight miles south of the hospital. His call to Nicole was answered at the shift nurse’s desk, “She’s resting now – asleep. We gave her something mild.”

 

On the morning of her surgery, after David’s rush through the parking garage, he sat next to Nicole in the cramped prep room, amid the curtains, tubes, needles, and watched the surgeon apply his purple ink initials to Nicole’s surgical site. Afterwards Nicole received an unanticipated, but much welcomed, injection of liquid valium, David heard his wife exhale seventy-two hours of tension.

When she was rolled away, she waved at David with the abandon of a happy child. He returned her wave, watched the attendants turn her surgical bed toward the surgery hallway, and waved once more. David, short of breath with the sensation of liquid motion in the corners of his eyes, steadied himself against the wall.

Without notice, he was thrown back into another room of another hospital twenty-eight years earlier. His mother lay as rigid as a corpse, her eyes alternating between bitterness and panic. An anesthesiologist entered, and within seconds, her liquid valium was working. When they wheeled his mother to surgery, she shot David a carefree wave, her face looked as young as a schoolgirl, and said, “They’re taking me away.”

 

David fretted in the surgical waiting room for hours. A young doctor entered and every head in the waiting room turned toward him. “Dr. Hollis asked me to tell you that it may become a bit more complicated,” the doctor said as he placed his hand on David’s right shoulder, “He called in a second surgeon.”

Later that morning, Nicole’s first surgeon returned, looked around, recognized David, motioned him into the hallway.

They stood in the glass-walled hospital hallway filled with sunshine reflected from the newly waxed floors. David leaned against the telephone bank around the corner while the surgeon talked, “I completed my part, but we found a second mass.” The surgeon looked away for a moment; then continued, “This second one was not on the mammogram your wife had. My colleague will need to remove that mass along with a few lymph nodes for testing. It may be some time yet.” With a wet palm, he shook David’s hand and walked away.

 

Around six that evening, amid the piped-in Christmas music just above the din of the television, a second surgeon with near flawless bearing, walked through the waiting room doors. She looked at David, nodded to the hallway.

Once again, David was in the hallway by the phone bank. He leaned against the same phone bank that had supported him hours earlier. This time there was no sun through the windows. “We found two additional masses.” She rubbed her right hand against her spotless scrubs. “We removed them, but will have to wait on the results from the lymph nodes to see if it spread.”

The second surgeon continued to talk while a feeling swept over David that he was afraid to touch. Relief? Resignation? From that point on, he heard only white noise.

#

David sat at their table nestled in front of a bay window for the first time since Nicole’s surgery one year ago. Through the window, David was transfixed by the lush pasture protected by the parallel two-pronged barbed wire fence. In that room, he could see life forever; the endless land attached safely to the blue-gray sky.

He reached across the table for the telephone answering machine, listened to his saved messages. Once again, he heard his wife’s voice, “Where are you?” This time he felt her fear surge through the phone. Then he wiped wet spots from the table and his eyes.

As David began his ritual, he touched his mother’s urn, kissed the inscription, “Forever”, then whispered a few words.

He felt as if Nicole touched his hand. He reached for her, and, as he does almost daily, apologized for not moving toward her the day she received her diagnosis. Her response seemed comforting and understanding.

His ritual these days takes him a little longer – for now there are two urns.

 

 

BIO

Thomas ElsonThomas Elson lives in Northern California. He writes of lives that fall with no safety net to catch them. His short stories have appeared in Cacti Fur, Clackamas Literary Review, Conceit Magazine, Cybertoad, Dual Coast, FTB Press Anthology, Literary Commune, Pennsylvania Literary Journal, Perceptions Magazine, Potluck, and Walk Write Up.

 

 

 

 

0

Gin Fizz

by Eric Brittingham

 

 

When Alexander Quillen’s grandmother told him she expected him to get up first thing in the morning on the first Monday of his summer vacation to help her paint her backyard fence and three-car garage, he couldn’t believe she was serious. Alex had made other plans. Or more truthfully, he’d planned to have no plans. He’d spent the final weeks of the sixth grade imagining that his summer reward for high grades and hard work would be a hot and humid haze of irresponsible sameness, with no discernable distinction between any given weekday and a typical weekend. If planning were necessary, he would say he planned to sleep and eat and perhaps to read (but only comic books and newspaper funny pages) and perhaps to watch television (cartoons and old sit-coms). Of course, he should have known that his grandmother was quite serious and would have no sympathy for such unproductive indulgence. After all, even the self-discipline his mother exhibited during the school year to rise before dawn each weekday morning failed to earn her a weekend reprieve in the eyes of his grandmother, who instead despaired that “laying abed clear to eight or nine o’clock of a morning” revealed in her daughter a dreadful moral failing.

And he should have remembered that he’d promised long ago to help repaint the fence and garage that bisected his grandmother’s backyard. This was no minor chore. The fifty-foot-long fence extended from the neighbor’s property line to join the back of the open-bay garage, which was turned around backwards so the bays opened away from the house and toward the soybean field at the edge of the yard. The sun shone year-round on both the fence and the garage walls, and as a result they required repainting about every five years. It was a job that Alex’s grandmother insisted on doing herself because the painters in the area had been former associates of the late Mr. Charles Quillen and so were persona non grata to his grandmother.

She did require assistance, however, and this supporting role had always been played by Alex’s mother. Although she never expressed any particular excitement about the prospect of a multi-day painting project, neither did his mother ever express an unkind thought about it within Alex’s hearing, and Alex had grown up thinking of the periodic fence-painting operation as something like a holiday. When the fence and back garage had last been painted five summers earlier in 1975, a younger Alex had tried his best to take part, helping with things like fetching water to drink and cleaning up drips, and he’d made his grandmother promise to let him help the next time the fence would need painting. She had in fact promised, with his mother adding dryly that she would be quite willing to hand over this grave responsibility to her son.

When his grandmother reminded him of this commitment, the now twelve-year-old Alex had to admit he’d forgotten all about it, but rather than argue the point, he’d instead put her off, saying he wanted at least a week of rest after what he proclaimed to have been a most strenuous academic year. After that, however, he didn’t even bother with excuses. Each time she would bring it up, he’d shrug and suggest they do it later. At first, she fussed a bit and complained about his laziness, but with his mother busy for several weeks teaching summer school, his grandmother was loath to start the project without some assurance of help. As the summer heat settled in that July, she set the project aside, but when August arrived, the act of turning the calendar seemed to rile her. She put her foot down—not metaphorically but in a literal, foot-stamping demonstration of her frustration—and she decreed a starting date for the project that following week. She wanted to get it done that summer, dag-nab-it, and she was done hearing his excuses.

“We’ll start the scraping and peeling early morning so we can get it done by noon. It ain’t no chore to be started with the mid-day sun beating down on you the whole time.” Alex demurred, noting the misfortune that, now that he was old enough to be helpful, he’d reached the age of requiring double-digit hours of sleep. She was unmoved by his protests. She repeated her schedule and left it at that.

The morning in question dawned, lightened, and began to burn more brightly with no Alex in sight, and she began without him, which he discovered at eleven-thirty as he sauntered through his neighbors’ backyards—his mother’s house was on the same side of the road as his grandmother’s and separated by only two neighbors—and he could see as he approached that she’d already worked her way down the fence line more than half-way. She’d scraped away the loose and flaking paint from its entire length on the side that faced the house, the easy side with the outward facing boards, and on the other side with the difficult angles of attached board she’d worked nearly to the gate-break that swung out from the section that met the garage. He was impressed with her determination and the quality of what she’d done, and the weight of shame and disappointment made his arms feel heavy pulling on his shoulders. He thought he would volunteer to do the garage in the afternoon, but his paper-thin level of maturity burned away when he came to stand across from her on the other side of the fence and she locked eyes with him through the slats just under the fence header. “Just sit yourself inside, boy, and I’ll be in directly to make your dinner.” Despite her anger—the sweat rolling down her reddened face revealed the effort she’d expended—she spoke to him the way she’d spoken to him when he was a little boy, when she would set him up in front of his cartoons with his TV tray in air-conditioned comfort. “I wonder if I could trouble you to mix up your own chocolate milk. And draw me out a glass of water with three ice cubes. If you would.” Alex didn’t say anything. He merely nodded, which she didn’t usually accept as an answer, but to extend his humiliation, she ignored his juvenile response, dropping her eyes and resuming her scraping.

After a quiet lunch, she said she was done for the day, that it was too hot to work anymore, and that he should “just go on home.” He didn’t even look at the fence as he ran from the yard. His mother had gotten home by then, and when he came in through the back door she was coming up from the basement with an empty laundry basket and said, “You’re back awful early.”

He didn’t want to talk about it. He sat down in the kitchen while his mother moved around the house, and he tried to understand why he was so angry. He knew he was in the wrong, more or less—as long you discount the notion that he was, after all, a kid on summer vacation. He figured he had every right to relax and not to have to do chores, to appreciate the freedom of being young, or so all the grown-ups would say when they got nostalgic and depressing and envious of his so-called freedom. He was only doing what they wanted him to do, he reasoned. He grew indignant. When his mother came back though the kitchen on her way somewhere else, he said, “What do we have to paint this stupid fence and garage for, anyway? Don’t they have people who do that? What do we have to do it for?”

She stopped and stared at him for a few long seconds. “So what happened?”

“She started without me. And then she’s all like, ‘It’s too late now, go home, it’s too hot anyway.’”

“I do wish she’d hire that job out.” His mother pulled out a chair at the kitchen table and settled in. “But I don’t think she ever will.”

She seemed to be validating his bitterness, so he asked indignantly, “Why not?”

“Because your Grampa was a painter, and she judges all of them by his standard. You know he had a little trouble with his drinking.” There was no humor in her eyes, no wistfulness, only her normal flat stare. “He was friends with all of them. All the painters and builders. He was 4-F during the war—you know what that means, right? He had a bad back, and the Army didn’t want him—so he got a lot of work in the war years and got to know all the other painters and builders around here. Your Gramma thinks to this day they all drink and carouse like your Grampa used to, and she won’t hire any of them. It doesn’t make much sense because none of those men work anymore. But it doesn’t matter. She’s set in her ways.”

He was pouting, building up a grievance against his grandmother, as well as the fence. Alex had a love-hate relationship with the fence. He loved it as a pretend outfield wall when he played baseball in her backyard, but he hated that it was in the way for just about any other kind of play. It was an obstacle, an eye-sore that cut her yard in half for no obvious reason. “I wish we could just tear it all down. Her and her stupid fence. How about if we just get rid of it?”

His mother frowned, and her eyes hardened. He was surprised. She usually supported or at least was amused by these little frustrated outbursts about his grandmother’s obsessions and interests. “You don’t know the story of that fence and garage. Do you?”

He shrugged, then shook his head. His grandmother had never told him anything about the history of the house, except for occasionally saying, “I wish they’d built it a little better, but anyway, the roof don’t leak.”

His mother said the house had been his grandparents’ first home together, built from a standard plan offered by a local builder back in 1943. Dee had wanted a garage that was bigger than the single-car building in the plan, but the builder wouldn’t compromise, and he asked too much for the customization. So, as a surprise, Charlie called in all his debts and favors and arranged to have a big new open-ended three-slot garage with an attached fence built in the back, with a new extension to the driveway dug out and stone put down—all of it done by his buddies in the week while they were away on their honeymoon in Atlantic City.

“That was back when things were still okay with the two of them.” His mother was staring off at something, nothing, just looking into her memories. “Daddy was drinking then. He always drank, but not like later.”

Alex didn’t know much about his grandfather. Neither woman wanted to talk about him, and they didn’t seem to miss him all that much, as if he’d been something they’d had to live with for many years that had simply been removed one day, like the food and fuel rations during the war years or a long spell of foul weather that had passed. “Was Grampa that bad?”

“He wasn’t easy.” She took a breath and looked at him again, a smile lifting her mouth as if remembering it was Alex she was talking to. “Your Gramma, she’d fuss and fume at him about his drinking. It didn’t help. Might have made it worse.” She dropped her eyes for a moment and shook her head. “For your Grampa, life was just too much to handle. I think he thought maybe your Gramma was strong enough to handle it for both of them.” Her eyes were smiling again. “So, the fence and the garage, they were a gift—really a wedding present from your Grampa to your Gramma. So that’s part of the reason they might be special to her. It may be just about the only thing he ever gave her that she really wanted.” On saying this, she frowned for a moment, and her eyes darkened. She looked at Alex, as if to see if he was still paying attention. He was, but he hadn’t heard what she’d said. That is, he’d heard her words, but he’d not understood her accidental meaning. She rose from her chair. “Anyway, it means more to her than just a fence and a garage. That’s the point,” she said, rubbing his shoulder on her way back to the basement.

#

That evening, after supper, when the orange sun had dropped behind the houses across the road, Alex got permission from his mother to play in the yard while she watched television in the living room. He knew his grandmother would be doing the same thing in her living room, and so he snuck out of his mother’s yard and along the edge of the soybean field to his grandmother’s backyard figuring he’d be sure to have the back garage all to himself. There were several relics of his grandfather’s life in there. Hung on the south wall was his wooden ladder, splotched and spackled with spilled paint. Several slats of leftover press-board paneling lay across the rafters. Folded against the back wall were a pair of metal-framed canvas-seated lawn chairs. He pulled one of these down and unfolded it and sat in the mouth of the middle bay of the open garage, looking eastward over untold acres of soybean field and beyond that to the forest of elm and oak trees that lined a distant road. The night was coming on, and from where Alex sat it wasn’t a sunset, but instead it looked as if the darkness was rising in the east, the emptiness of deep space at the tops of the trees deepening and pushing the bruised border of the daytime sky over and behind the garage. Stars were flickering awake by degrees, no moon was out, and no safety lights had yet turned on as Alex sat in the gloom with the things his grandfather had left behind after he drank himself to death years before, back when his mother had been much younger than he was then, only eight or nine, still a little girl.

Until that day he’d not given much thought to what it meant to be a man named Quillen in this family, but as he reflected on the history lesson his mother had given him that day, he found there was little to recommend them. It was no wonder his grandmother hadn’t bothered to remarry, and he guessed this bad history must also be the reason his mother would never allow his own father to be a part of Alex’s life. Whoever that man had been. She would never say.

He considered for a squeamish moment what his grandmother might be thinking of him as she watched him growing lazier in the summer heat. Did she think it was typical? Just like a Quillen man? Or was it all men? Is that why his mother hadn’t said anything about it? Is that why she never let him have a father? Maybe she thought all men were just as useless as her father had been, all of them useless and lazy. But Alex didn’t feel like that. He wasn’t intending to be lazy his whole life. He wanted to be lazy that summer. He figured he had his whole life to be a grown-up. So why hurry? Why not enjoy it while he could? But what if that’s the way all bad men think? What if you just keep thinking that way, all the time, forever?

Alex’s departure had not gone undetected. His mother’s footsteps crunched the gravel in the turn-around in front of the bays. The light was so weak that she had to get within a few yards to be able to see him. “I thought you might come here,” she said. She pulled the other chair off the wall and sat beside him in the growing darkness. “You know, your grandfather used to sit out here like this, too.”

Alex didn’t exactly like hearing this might be an exclusive behavior of Quillen males. “Did you sit with him, too?”

“Sometimes. And sometimes I’d sit here by myself, after he was gone.” She paused, and he thought he heard her snort, like she did when she smiled at something kind of funny or kind of naughty. “Sometimes it’s good to get away from your mother for a little while, isn’t it?”

That wasn’t what he was doing, though. “I guess it’s good. Maybe not always.”

“That’s true. I’m trying to focus on the good part, though.” It was getting difficult to see her in the fading light, but she was turned to face him. “It’s hard to recall only the good parts out here in this place, but it’s nice that you’re here, now, Alex. I can’t tell you what it means to me right now to see you sitting next to me in that chair.” She put a hand on Alex’s shoulder and then ran her fingers through his hair, just past and over his left ear. It was a touch she often used to soothe him when he was younger, and it usually made him feel safe and comfortable. This time, though, he couldn’t help but feel that somehow it wasn’t meant so much to comfort him but instead to comfort her.

Now he didn’t want to sit out here in the dark anymore. “I guess maybe we should go inside, though. I guess I need to get up early if I want to help Gramma.”

It was too dark to see his mother’s eyes, but he heard her take a breath and let it out. “Yep. That sounds good.” They put the chairs away and started the walk back home. He’d begun to feel too old for it lately, but she wanted to hold his hand, and he let her this time. It was dark, after all, so no one could see it. And it was kind of comforting.

#

The next morning at seven, he sprinted over to his grandmother’s backyard, meeting her as she was beginning to pull out the equipment to finish the fence and start stripping the garage. She frowned at him, but he’d decided not to rise to any of her baiting. While she finished the fence, he took the ladder and started scraping and peeling the old paint off the west side of the garage, the side with the most weather damage that would be blistering hot in a few hours, saving the north and south sides for the afternoon when there would be shade. He worked until lunch and then afterwards went out alone and finished the rest of the building on his own.

While he was scraping and scraping and scraping, many times his arms and shoulders and legs would tire, and he’d take a break and think about what he was doing. As he watched the yellow chips flying off the boards and fluttering and twirling and diving onto the grass around the garage, he wondered how deep he’d have to scrape to get all his grandfather’s paint off this building. And how many of those flakes belonged to his mother, when it was just her and her own mother left to do the whole job themselves? He wondered if that was why his grandmother had been scraping so hard when she went at the boards herself the day before. He wondered if she did this every five years just to freshen up the paint or because she wanted to get rid of every last vestige of that man if she could. Or maybe he wasn’t in her mind at all. She’d kept the ladder and chairs and plywood, after all. She was nothing if not a practical woman.

He and his grandmother hadn’t said much to each other all day, but in the late afternoon when Alex was done and putting the ladder back into the garage, she came out to survey his work. She squinted in the brightness, shielding her eyes with her hand as the sun beat down on the scraping he’d done that morning on the west side. “You do good work, boy,” was all she would say about it. “There’s storms coming on, so make sure you get everything inside.”

The next morning, they started the painting, but they both stopped at lunchtime because the sun was too hot. When they resumed the following morning, his grandmother stopped them after they finished the western side. “I don’t know if we’re laying it on too think, or if the boards are soaking it up more than normal, but we’re about out of paint. I’m going to have to send your mother to the store to get another gallon, I reckon. Maybe two, just to be safe.” She had a few marks of cream-yellow paint on her checks and nose. “About time to quit for the day anyhow. You think you can get your mother to go to the store this afternoon?”

He was committed to the project now. He told her he’d see to it. After helping her put away their tools, he ran to tell his mother about their chore.

He never wondered why his mother had to be the one to go buy the paint. He just assumed it was one of the things that his grandmother was set in her ways about, and sometimes she delegated tasks to his mother. He went along to the hardware store, feeling as though he wanted to see out this aspect of the project, too, and when she asked the service man to mix up two more gallons of Gin Fizz, he didn’t even notice, really, what she’d said. But as they were riding home, his mother asked him, “Did you overhear what the paint color was?”

He repeated it for her.

“Now, this might seem a little strange, but do you think you can keep that to yourself?”

“Sure, I guess.” He shrugged it off, and then, when they got home and they carried the paint inside and he watched his mother popping the lid off one of the cans and smearing paint over the words “Gin Fizz” that the paint-mixer had helpfully written in grease pen, he understood what was going on. “You mean, Gramma doesn’t know that the fence and all is painted in Gin Fizz?”

He didn’t know what the “fizz” part meant exactly, but he knew about gin. He started to laugh at the thought of his grandmother surrounding herself with this color of paint named after booze—so much righteous indignation over liquor, like when she insisted that she would disown them both, him and his mother, if he was allowed to go on a school-sponsored trip for all the year-long honor roll students to a theme park because the park was sponsored by a beer company. He started to guffaw dramatically, but when his mother turned to look at him as if he’d just interrupted a funeral, he stopped himself. “I know it seems funny to you,” she said with her teacher’s gravity and self-possession, something he rarely saw at home, “but this is serious, Alex.” She secured the lid with some well-placed hammer blows, set the can on a porch step, and invited him to sit beside her.

He was already feeling repressed. “Why? I don’t even know what ‘gin fizz’ is.”

“It’s a cocktail. An alcoholic drink with gin and lemon juice. And I don’t know why your Grampa chose this color. Of all the colors to choose. I don’t know if he meant it as a joke, or if it was just a coincidence. But she’s always loved this color, ever since the day she saw it. That’s what she told me. She had Daddy paint the whole house this color, even the little garage and some of the lawn chairs we had when I was little. You know she likes cream-colored things.” She did have a number of yellow or cream-colored objects in or around her house, including wall paint, curtains, bed linens and coverings, dresses, shoes, hats, and the interior of the car she drove. “He knew she liked things that are lemony and citrus colors. I like to think that he just picked a color she liked regardless of the name and then tried to hide it from her for her own good. So she wouldn’t have a fit and reject it for the silliest of reasons.”

“What’s her deal with that anyway? I thought she was just like that because of Grampa. She was like that before, too?”

“I believe so. Her daddy’d been a bit of a drinker, too, and when her mother died kind of young, she had to care for her daddy and sisters, and it made her kind of bitter.”

Alex had never before considered his grandmother being any age other than as old as she was then. Even when he’d been imagining her as this newly-wed with a new house and husband, he saw her as wrinkly-faced and gray-haired. But she’d been a little girl once, and her mother had died, and she’d had to move into her aunt’s house, and she’d had to deal with a drunk father and two younger sisters who weren’t responsible to the mistress of the house like she was—he’d heard this history before in bits and pieces. Now he saw it. He saw that girl. He saw them trying to get away with all manner of foolishness, and how she would straighten them out, make them be a respectable family, make them mend their ways—or she’d have her foot up their asses.

“So, your Grampa had me go along with him the last time he picked up the paint for her. He let me in on the joke then. He was tickled by it. I was little, but I remembered. We had to keep it a secret. We had a lot of secrets.” He looked at her then, but she got up and moved to stand in front of him. She grabbed the handles of the two cans. “Let’s go drop these off and let her know it’s done so she won’t fret over it.” Before they left the yard, she stopped. “And we’ll keep the name to ourselves?”

He was suddenly uncomfortable with secrets. Keeping secrets was maybe another male Quillen characteristic he didn’t want to inherit. Still, he nodded. He didn’t want to make trouble.

#

The paint went up, across each board and down the posts and around the windows. In one way or another, he’d touched nearly every board of the garage, and a lot of the fence, and it was all covered now, all of it, with his own layer of paint, and he knew it was all Gin Fizz.

His grandmother was unquestionably pleased when they were finished. “It sure looks a darn-sight better now, don’t it?”

“Yep.”

“Sure does. A darn-sight better.”

They went into the house, and although the air-conditioning made the ninety-degree weather feel even stickier by contrast, they decided to take their celebratory glasses of lemonade out into the yard and sit in the shade behind the house and look on the sunbrightened results of their week-long efforts. They’d both downed a full glass and were settling into their second when a sick feeling took Alex’s stomach. He thought it might have been too much lemonade too fast, but when he closed his eyes, what he saw was a dark garage filled with secrets.

He held his tongue for as long as he could, but he saw no end to this discomfort. He had to make it stop, and he felt it wouldn’t stop until he’d gotten out from under the shadow of at least the one secret he knew about. “I heard about something the other day,” he said, believing he was being delicate and discrete. If he’d had a beard to stroke or a pipe to hold in front of his nonchalantly squinting eyes, he would have effected these poses. Instead, he plowed ahead with a quavering voice. “Have you ever heard of a drink called a Gin Fizz?”

His grandmother made no move at all for several moments. She didn’t even appear to be breathing. She looked straight ahead at the fence, same as she had been before he uttered those contemptible words. Finally, she took a sip of her lemonade and continued to look out into the yard. “I take it you did in fact accompany your mother to the paint store.”

He nodded, but she wasn’t looking at him, so he said, “Yes.”

She took another sip. “I know all about that. Yes, yes, yes. I know all about Gin Fizz.”

The truth had emerged from the darkness, but it hadn’t lightened his stomach. Now what had he done? Had he betrayed his mother? He hadn’t meant to do that.

“Your mother thinks I don’t know. Is that what she told you?”

“Yes.”

“Her daddy probably told her that. But he’s the one who told me. Never trust the memory of a drunkard.” She looked at him now, and he saw the color of her eyes was a lighter brown than his or his mother’s. He’d never noticed that before. He may have never really looked until then. “Told me a few times. Trying to hurt me. Your mother was too little to know anything about any of it. He’d do a lot things and not remember. Or claim not to.”

They were quiet for a while, and Alex felt calmer in the silence. So she knew. She’d known all along. “You’re okay with Gin Fizz?”

She pursed her lips, like she was about to spit. “That don’t mean nothing to me. It’s just a dang color name. And look at it.” She pointed her glass at the fence. “Your granddaddy weren’t good for much, but he knew his paint.”

“Why didn’t you ever tell Mom then?” He was growing upset again, this time because it was like she was keeping a secret from them. “So you could make her keep buying the paint?”

“No, boy. She buys the paint because she thinks she’s keeping a secret for her daddy. It ain’t got nothing to do with me. But I never have told your mother because she never has asked me about it.”

“Shouldn’t we tell her?”

“What for, boy?”

“Because.” The truth was self-evident. He didn’t know how to explain it. But she didn’t respond to him and didn’t seem likely to. His stomach was no less sour, and he didn’t like the idea of these secrets at all. There were too many secrets. He hated them. It was too much to hold in. “Because secrets are lies. You’re just lying to her. You’re not telling her the truth.”

His grandmother took a sip from her lemonade, ruminating on the matter. “Boy, sometimes things just ain’t that simple.”

“Yes they are,” he said. But after he thought about it, he asked, “What do you mean?”

“They ain’t that simple. It ain’t just about lying and such. I can’t explain it to you. You’re too young to understand. It ain’t your fault that you’re too young, so don’t go on belly-aching about it. But there’s some things that are best left dead and buried. They ain’t secrets so much as they’re just dead history, and just like you don’t go digging up dead things to prove they’re still dead, you don’t go bringing up old dead history just because you want to feel good about yourself. Am I making myself clear, boy? It ain’t a secret not bringing up stuff nobody wants to talk about. It ain’t lying.” She took a breath. “It’s just common decency.”

He knew now he’d been right all along about the garage, no matter what his mother had told him, no matter what his grandmother might think of it. They’d be better off without that man’s garage, just like they were better off without the man himself. But they wouldn’t rid themselves of it. They’d live with it, and every five years or so when its ugliness threatened to reveal itself, they’d scrape the ugly away and paint over it, cover it up, and make it look like they loved it. Even invent excuses for it. Make you feel bad for even suggesting there’s anything wrong—oh, no, there’s nothing wrong here, nothing dark or ugly to see here. Look how pretty it is now, shimmering in the sunlight. No one’s ever going to know what darkness is inside it. As long you don’t say anything about it and embarrass everybody.

“I don’t understand,” Alex said into his sour glass of lemonade. But it wasn’t true. He was beginning to put it all together, beginning to understand exactly how it works in a family with secrets to keep. In fact, he was already playing his part, trying to fool himself and his grandmother, saying what he wished was true. “I just don’t get it.”

“I thank the Lord for that.” His grandmother leaned back in her chair, a rare contented smile warming her face, and closed her eyes against the brightening reflection of the lowering sun. “The Lord knows if it were up to me, boy, you never would understand.”

 

 

BIO

Eric BrittinghamEric B. Brittingham was born and raised among the soybean fields of downstate Delaware, and now lives and works as a technical communicator in northern Alabama. He is currently working on a novel that further explores the lives of the characters in this story. This is his first published work of fiction.

 

 

 

0

The Last of the Cowboys

by Jude Roy

 

 

When Joe Archer threatened to kill me, I took it up with the head of university security.

“There’s very little we can do unless he physically assaults you.” Paul Richelieu was a burly man with a grayish buzz that covered his head like a swath of mowed grass. A slick handlebar moustache dangled from the corners of his mouth. His nervous brown eyes kept dancing from me to the door and back to me.

“What?” I asked. “You mean he has to kill me before you can do anything about it?”

Richelieu studied his fingernails for a second of two before glancing up at me. He had large hands with stubby sausage fingers.

“It’s your word against his. Was anyone privileged to the alleged threat?”

“Excuse me? ‘Alleged threat’?” I wanted to say more—to remind him that I was the professor and Archer was the student—to remind him that I had been teaching at Immanuel University for five years and Archer was a first-year student—but I knew that none of that would help my case. Richelieu had a reputation for being tough on faculty.

He shifted his bulk in the office chair, and it creaked in protest.

“You know he’s going to deny it. Then it’ll be your word against his.” His eyes darted to the door and back at me. “You did say that there was no witness to the alleged threat?”

“Not that I know of. He came to me after class. “Richelieu held his hands out and shrugged his shoulders in a gesture of helplessness.

“I am the professor,” I said, despite myself. “Doesn’t that count for something?”

A grin slowly spread across Richelieu’s face. He was going to enjoy his response.

“Diddily shit,” he said through yellow teeth.

I nodded, stood, and made to leave.

“Do you want me to talk to him?” He asked, reluctantly.

“And piss him off more than he is?” It was my turn to smile. “I’ll deal with the situation since security seems incapable.” I turned my back on him and walked out.

***

“He did nothing?” Gayla yelled when I told her the events of the day.

“Nothing,” I said shrugging my shoulders. “Apparently it’s my word against Archer’s and neither one of us holds the edge.”

“But you are the professor, the authority figure in this case. Aren’t you?”

“According to Richelieu, that means diddily shit—his words, not mine.”

Gayla paced a few times before the stove. She cooked chicken curry stew, my favorite meal, and the aroma stimulated my appetite. I reached into the refrigerator and pulled out a beer, one of those dark Spanish types that I liked.

“Don’t go to class,” she said. “It isn’t worth it.”

“I can’t just shirk my responsibility,” I said. “What about all the other students who paid good money to be taught English? I owe them something.”

“You don’t owe them your life.”

My six-year-old son walked into the kitchen, hugged my leg, poured himself a glass of lemonade, and disappeared again out the back door.

My wife waited until the screen door slammed shut before continuing.

“This is ludicrous. Someone threatens to pop a cap in your head and you don’t take it seriously.”

Coming from my wife it sounded farcical, but it hadn’t sounded funny when earlier that afternoon Joe Archer said almost the same words. My three o’clock developmental class was the last of the day for me. It ended at three fifty and I was usually at home by four fifteen if no students stayed after class with questions. I waited respectfully as the students filed out. Then I started to file out with them. As I was just about to go past Joe’s desk, he stood up and blocked my path. He was a non-traditional student—older than the others were—a tall sinewy man with dark, severe eyes.

“Just a minute,” he said. “I want to talk to you.”

“Okay.” I returned to the front of the room and placed my stack of books on my desk. Joe Archer threw his backpack next to my books and leaned across the desk.

‘I don’t like English,” he said. There was not a trace of humor or sarcasm in his voice.

I laughed, suspecting a joke. I looked over his shoulder expecting someone to pop in and say, “Got you.”

“You see something funny out there?” He indicated the door with a nod of his head. His eyes never left mine.

“Listen,” I said, trying to disguise the sudden fear rising in my chest. “You don’t have to like English. It’s a class. You take it. You pass it. You go on.”

“You’re going to pass me. Right?”

“If you make the grade, I’ll definitely pass you.”

“Let’s get something straight, Mr. Professor. Either you pass me, or…” He held his arm out, his hand shaped like a pistol and aimed at my forehead. “Or bang.”

“Are you threatening me?”

He glanced over his shoulder at the empty room.

“I been to Vietnam, Mr. Professor. I killed more gooks than I’d care to count. I even killed a snotty-nosed lieutenant that tried to send me down one of those rat holes out there. You think I’m going to have any problems popping a cap in an English professor’s head?”

I didn’t answer. I picked up my books and marched out of the room on shaky legs. When I arrived in my office, I called my wife and relayed what had occurred.

“Go see security,” she said. “He needs to be removed from campus.”

That hadn’t worked.

I tried not let on to Gayla just how frightened I was. I took a spoon from the silverware drawer and dipped it into the curry chicken. I blew on it for a few seconds and sipped it.

“Man, I’m so glad I married you and didn’t let that skinny biology dude grab you. If he had known how well you cook curry chicken, he would have put up much more of a fight.”

My wife scowled at me.

“Don’t think I don’t know what you’re doing. You’re not going to get out of this that easy.”

‘What can I do, Gayla? I need the job. I can’t just quit because some psycho asshole decides to intimidate his English teacher.” I chuckled and reached in the refrigerator for a beer. It was just too bizarre—an English teacher of all things.

“Call your department head.”

“Oh, come on Gay. I’m on tenure track. I can’t go around stirring up the waters.”

My son popped his head in the doorway.

“Are you two fighting?”

“No,” we both exclaimed and he quickly withdrew.

“Call him,” Gayla said and handed me the phone. I sighed and took a long sip from my beer.

Paul Washburn’s specialty was John Donne. He was a small pale man usually dressed impeccably in a suit and a skinny tie. He had a whinny voice that sounded like it was coming from the bottom of a tin drum. I was hoping he would not be in his office or would not be answering his phone at 6:00 o’clock in the evening, but I knew he would be.

“Washburn,” he whined.

“Dr. Washburn, this is Gary Soileau.”

“Yes, Gary. How are you?”

“Fine, sir. Uh, I’m afraid there’s been a sort of incident during my developmental class today.”

“Oh? Nothing serious, I hope.”

I looked at Gayla and rolled my eyes. She shook a stirring spoon at me, threatening me forward.

“Serious enough that I took it to Richelieu.”

“That does sound serious. What happened?”

“One of my students, Joseph W. Archer, threatened me. He threatened to pop a cap in my head if I didn’t pass him.”

“Pop a cap?”

“Yes, sir, that’s the vernacular for put a bullet in my head.”

“Are you sure there was no misunderstanding?”

“Absolutely sure.”

“What did Richelieu say?”

“That he couldn’t do anything until the student actually carried out his threat.”

“He actually said that?”

“Perhaps not in those words, but that was his meaning.”

“You probably should have come to me first with this, Gary. It usually is best to keep these kinds of problems within the department if we can.”

“Sir, this was very serious. The man looked capable of carrying out his threat. At the time, I thought security was the right choice.”

“Water through the dam. What do you want me to do? Reassign you?”

“No, sir. It doesn’t matter who takes over the class. He is going to have to deal with Archer.”

“What then?”

“I wasn’t asking you to do anything, Dr. Washburn. I simply was informing you of the situation, in case something untoward did happen.”

Gayla glared at me. I shrugged my helplessness.

“I tell you what I’ll do, Gary. I’ll have Security place extra people around that area Wednesday. What is your classroom number?”

“25B, sir. But I don’t think Archer would attempt anything at school. Extra security may just complicate matters.”

‘Tell me what you want me to do, Gary.”

“Nothing, Dr. Washburn. I can handle Joe Archer. If it gets any messier, I will contact you.”

“That sounds like a good plan, Gary. Keep me posted. Okay?”

“Yes, sir. I will. Goodbye, Dr. Washburn.”

“Goodbye, Gary.” He hung up.

I handed the phone to Gayla, and she slammed it on the cradle. I chugged my beer and reached inside the refrigerator for another.

“Damn,” I said and faced an angry Gayla.

“You should have been more assertive.”

“Alright Gayla, You tell me. What would you have done?”

She stepped away from the stove and stood in front of me. Her action reminded me of Archer.

“I would have told Washburn to do something. It is his responsibility to make sure his people have a secure place to work in, Gary. You wimped out and took on the responsibility on your shoulders. You always do that. Sometimes you’re so damn macho.”

“You can’t have it both ways, Gayla. Either I’m wimpy or I’m macho. I can’t be both.”

She raised her hand. I thought she was going to slap me, but she didn’t. With a cry of exasperation, she stomped out of the room.

***

I prepared myself as best I could for the next meeting with Joe Archer. I bought a pepper spray canister and convinced myself that I could handle him if he tried anything in my classroom. He entered with the other students, dropped his book bag, with the skull and cross bone patch stenciled on it, on the floor, and glared at me. I taught my class as usual, keeping a hand close to the pepper spray and a wary eye on Joe.

Actually, the only real problem I had with Joe during the course of the semester was the time I took the class to the computer lab to introduce them to word processing. He waited until all the students had filed out. Then he stood and confronted me.

“I’m not going,” he said crossing his arms over his chest. He wore a black sleeveless shirt and his biceps bulged intimidatingly.

“What?” I rested my hand on the pepper spray.

“I’m not going. I don’t know a damn thing about computers and I don’t want to either. I’m not going.”

‘Do you know how to type? That’s basically all I’m going to ask the students to do.”

‘I don’t type either.”

I decided that I had two choices. I could cite my syllabus, pointing out to him that it explicitly stated that all papers written out of class needed to be typed, or I could try a different approach.

“How’s your handwriting?”

He looked at me at me in surprise, his eyes widening, his arms dropping to his side.

“Decent, I suppose.”

“Good,” I said. “All I’m going to do is have the rest of the students type up a rough draft of their essays. Why don’t you stay in the classroom and write yours out. When you’re done you can bring it to me in the comp lab. Okay?”

“Yeah, sure, I guess.” He started to turn around—then stopped. “What else?”

“Nothing. Don’t forget to double space.”

He sat down and I joined the other students in the computer lab. Thirty-five minutes later he handed me his paper, printed in a careful hand.

“You’ll let me know how I did on that?”

“Next meeting,” I said.

Joe’s paper was a three-paragraph proposal to use ex-servicemen as supervisors of youth boot camps. His idea was well thought out—the execution was weak; however. I saw the potential of the work and kept him after class.

“That’s a good essay,” I said, placing it face up on his desk. He looked down and lifted it with two hands.

“It can’t be that good. You bled all over it.”

I smiled. It was the first time I’d ever heard him joke about something in the class.

“Sure, it’s got a few problems with execution, but the idea is solid as a rock. I believe it’s an idea worth pursuing, Joe.”

“I’ve been thinking about this a lot, Professor. I can’t think of anybody who would be more qualified to run them than ex-jarheads like me.”

“Were you in the marines?”

“Yeah, man. Spent two years in Nam. Took a shrapnel in my arm.” He lifted his arm and showed me an ugly red scar. “Damn thing entered just above the elbow and came out just behind my shoulder there.” He pulled his shirtsleeve back and showed me the exit scar. “I was damn lucky it didn’t hit a bone. I spent a few weeks stateside healing up, turned right around again, and volunteered to go back to Nam. I was there at the fall of Saigon. I felt the humiliation.” He paused a moment, and I watched as he consciously pulled himself together. “Yeah, man. I was in the marines.”

“Tell me about those boot camps, Joe.”

He talked for a good while and I was impressed with how knowledgeable he was on the topic. He invited me to go have a beer with him at the local VFW Post. I agreed and I called Gayla, who was horrified that I was even considering it.

“He’ll take you somewhere and shoot you,” she argued.

“No, honey. I got a glimpse of him today. I don’t think he would do that.”

“You don’t think? Gary, you’re not a psychologist.”

“Listen, he’s an interesting person. He’s invited me to have a beer and talk. I think I should take him up on it.”

There was a long pause over the phone.

“Damn it, Gary, you’re doing that macho stuff again.” She paused waiting for me to say something, but there was no way I was going to take the bait. She broke the silence with a sigh. “Where are you going?”

“The VFW Post.”

“Oh, god. With all his homicidal, fanatical, ex-army friends.”

“Marine.”

“What?”

“Marines, he was in the marines, Gay.”

“Damn you, Gary.”

“It’ll be alright, Gayla.”

“It damn well better be, or I’ll never talk to you again.”

“Listen to you.”

“Be careful, Gary.”

“I will.”

***

I met Gayla in Lafayette, Louisiana where I was student teaching and working on my Masters of English degree. It was a beautiful spring day, and I had a break, so I took the Evelyn Waugh book I was reading for one of my classes and made my way to Garrard Park just a few blocks from campus. I chose a picnic table shaded by a live oak and cracked open the book. The table sat next to a walking path and Gayla jogged past. I couldn’t believe how beautiful she was. When she jogged past me again, the book lay closed on the picnic table—forgotten. The only thing on my mind was Gayla. She wore skimpy jogging shorts and a sleeveless tee shirt. She had tied her hair, almost as long as it was now, into a ponytail, and it bounced in rhythm with her running. When she came around the third time, I made my move.

“Aren’t you tired yet?” I called out.

She stopped running, faced me, and jogged in place.

“No,” she said simply and took off again.

The fourth time she came around, I didn’t say anything, as well as the fifth. The sixth time she came around, I decided to say something.

“Now, I’m tired.”

She stopped again and jogged in place. She was breathing hard.

“Are you watching me?”

“Uh, huh. That’s how I get my exercise.”

She smiled. Probably because that was either the most unusual pickup line or the stupidest, she’d ever heard.

“Who are you?” She was still jogging in place.

“I teach at the college.”

“You’re a professor?”

“That’s in my future. Right now, I’m a student teacher.”

“What do you teach?”

“Writing, mostly developmental writing. I struggled with writing all my life, and now that I’ve seen the light, I want to share it with others.”

“Really,” she said and took a seat at the table with me. “And just what is the secret?”

“Exercise. Now, it’s my turn to ask a question.”

“Wait a minute,” she interrupted. “What do you mean by ‘exercise’?”

“Writing is a physical memory like shooting a free throw or hitting a tennis ball. The more you do it the better you get.”

“What if you start off doing it wrong?”

“Then you miss and figure out why. My turn to ask questions.”

“Okay, that’s fair.”

“What do you do?”

“I’m a student at the college?”

“Really? I’ve never seen you in my classes. I would remember.”

“I know how to write, apparently.”

“Touché.”

“I’m working on a BS in mathematics.”

“Oh, God, my Achilles’ Hell.”

“Shouldn’t that be Achilles’ Heel?”

“No. Hell as in H E double L.”

She laughed. She had a nice laugh uninhibited as a child might laugh. “Do you ever go out?”

“Sometimes.”

“Where do you like to go?”

“Now, who’s asking all the questions?”

“One more, okay?” She nodded. “Would you consider going out with me?”

She looked at the book sitting on the table.

“What book is that?”

“You’re avoiding the question.”

“Yes, I am. I don’t know you.”

“What’s there to know? My name is Gary Soileau. I teach writing. I’m kind to animals. I like to help people better themselves, and I earn enough to afford to take a beautiful woman to a decent restaurant.”

She laughed again.

“Okay, but I’m a tough nut to crack.”

“Believe me, my intentions are honorable.”

The rest was history. The chemistry between us was incredible. We married the day after I received my diploma.

***

The VFW Post was just out of town, down a narrow tree-lined blacktop road. The building was a low-slung brick rectangle with a glass door and no windows. A dusty graveled driveway circled the flagpole in front of the building and a sad-looking Sherman tank in need of paint sat alone in a circle of gravel to the side. Someone had planted lilies around the edge of the circle.

Joe met me at the door with two bottles of Budweiser. He handed me one and then led me through a lobby and down a short hallway to a bar. A Johnny Cash tune blared from the speakers hanging from the four corners of the room. Several men smoked and drank at the bar while another group sat at a table in the corner playing cards. The room was thick with smoke and smelled like beer.

“Hey, everybody,” Joe yelled out over the music. ‘This is my English professor.”

“Big fucking deal,” someone at the table said. A couple of men from the bar nodded. One of them slid off his stool and shook my hand.

“Any friend of Joe’s is a friend of mine,” he said and returned to his drink after a nervous glance at Joe.

“These are the regulars,” Joe said, indicating the bar with his beer bottle. “They come in every day and this is what they do—drink, play cards, and relive the wars.” He offered me a stool and sat on the one next to it.

“How about you?” I asked.

He nodded, slowly.

“Yeah, me too.” He turned and picked at the label on his beer bottle for a while. “Can I tell you something, Professor?”

“Go ahead.”

“I can’t talk to them about some things. You know what I mean?” I shook my head. “I can talk to them about wars and killing and shit like that, but I can’t talk to them about other things.”

“Such as, Joe?”

He glanced over his shoulder at the card table.

“Ideas, you know. Oh shit, man. I write poetry.”

I almost laughed. He was so serious.

“Oh,” I said, stroking my moustache. “What kind of poetry?”

“Just stuff, man. About the war. About John Wayne. About my woman. You know, stuff.”

“About John Wayne?”

“He’s my hero.”

He fell silent again, picking at the beer label. I listened to a Waylon Jennings tune, and surveyed the room. It wasn’t a big room. The bar ran along one wall, the shelves behind it filled with bottles of whiskey and liquor. The music came from a small cassette deck. The bartender was a short man with a hard face and thick arms and legs—probably an ex-serviceman, too. The walls were covered with posters—of servicemen, scantily clad women, and weapons. Three small round tables lined the wall opposite the bar. A ceiling fan twirled on low, the light from it joined the two beer sign lights hanging from the entrance wall and the back wall to illuminate the dark room. A floor lamp provided the card players with light enough to read their cards.

“I know me and you got off to a rough start,” Joe said. “That was before I understood about you.”

“What do you understand about me, Joe?” I was curious.

He glanced at me, and then returned to his beer label.

“That you care about whether we learn this shit or not. It’s important to you.”

“You’re very observant.”

“I know about caring, Professor.” He looked at me. “Can I ask you a favor—a big favor?”

“Sure,” I said. “Ask away.” I wanted another beer, so I signaled the bartender to bring over two more.

“Would you mind reading over some of my poetry? Letting me know if it’s any good?”

“Not at all, Joe. I would love to.”

I had two more beers before I left there and drove home. Gayla was furious. Why hadn’t I called? Didn’t I know that she was worried sick about me? I leaned over and kissed her on the forehead.

“Don’t ever worry about Joe Archer, honey. He and I are buds. He’s letting me read his poetry.”

She looked at me as if I was crazy.

***

At first, married life with Gayla was fantastic. I got a job teaching at Clemson University in South Carolina, but it was one of those four years and you’re out kind of jobs.

“Without a PhD,” the department head told me. “We can’t put you on tenure track.” That’s when I knew that I would have trouble finding a tenured job. I had three choices: find another career, get a PhD, or publish. I had taken a few creative writing courses, so I wrote this satire about a black man elected mayor of a small Louisiana town and sent it to the Atlantic. To my complete surprise, the magazine decided to publish it. When my four years at Clemson ended, I applied for a tenured position at Emanuel University and they accepted me. Washburn wanted me to teach creative writing. I said I would if he allowed me to teach developmental writing also. He jumped on it. Apparently, most tenured teachers didn’t like teaching developmental. I gathered my wife and my five-year-old son and moved to Springfield.

At first, life was good. The department liked me fine. They had me teaching two creative writing classes and two developmental classes. Where life was getting complicated was at home. Gayla was becoming officious. She started monitoring my career telling me how to act in front of the senior faculty, and whom I needed to impress. She told me that I wasn’t aggressive enough—I needed to sway the right people—make demands. I felt as if she was entering a part of my life I didn’t want her in. I felt as if my home life should be separate from my work life. I wanted her to let me handle my own career. Her meddling was irritating.

***

The semester was a good one. Joe passed my developmental class with an A+. In fact, I recommended the department give him credit for Writing I. He had improved that much. About a week after finals, I received a phone call from him inviting me to come to his apartment for a drink. I suspected he wanted me to read his poetry, so I accepted.

His apartment was about a block from campus in one of those neighborhoods that catered to students. I climbed the iron stairs to the second floor and knocked on the door. Joe opened it holding a bottle of Corona in his fist.

“Here,” he said and pushed the bottle at me. I took it and followed him into the place. He led me to a cloth couch across from a television. The first thing I noticed was the John Wayne posters. There must have been five or six in that one room—John Wayne as a green beret. John Wayne as a World War II soldier. John Wayne as a Seabee. John Wayne as an oilman. John Wayne as a cavalryman. John Wayne as a cowboy. And my favorite, John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn, the cantankerous old cowboy in True Grit. A stack of VCR tapes sat on the television. All the titles I could read were John Wayne movies. In fact, The Green Berets played on the television with the sound turned down.

“You like John Wayne, huh?”

“I told you. He’s my hero. Nobody did more for our country than John Wayne. I try to live my life following his example.”

“I see.”

Joe disappeared for a few minutes and reappeared holding a bottle of tequila and a black folder. He held out the bottle to me; I shook my head. He shrugged and raised it to his lips. I watched his adam’s apple bob up and down as he swallowed several good drinks. He pulled the bottle from his lips with a satisfying sigh, recorked it, and placed it on the floor between us. He handed me the black folder.

“These represent my life,” he said, his voice stony serious.

The folder contained about twenty or thirty poems, carefully hand printed in blue ink. Each poem was numbered and dated. Each one rhymed. Poem number one beseeched Emily to “fill his heart and empty his head”—begged Emily “to lose her innocence and climb into his bed.” Poem two rejoiced in his love for her. Poem number five was a tribute to John Wayne. “He walks across the screen like he walks across my heart. With everything he does, he asks me to do my part.” The poem ends with, “And now that he’s dead and gone to his maker/his memory a mere cocktail shaker/of scenes and lines, I can only drink to who he was/and offer him my drunken applause.” Poem nine was about Vietnam—a friend “spread around the gook countryside like chopped up manure.” In poems ten through fifteen, he begs Emily to come back to him. In fifteen, he threatens to commit suicide if she doesn’t: “I will blow my fucking brains out on this clean white ceiling. /Understand what I’m saying—listen to my feelings.” The rest of the poems, sixteen through twenty-one, were about Vietnam or people he knew in Vietnam. Number nineteen was about a friend’s ashes “sitting on the altar of life. /Free from all worries—free of all strife.” Number twenty-one, dated the day before, expressed the futility of making sense of life after Vietnam. “Once you’ve held a bleeding heart in your hand—/Once you’ve heard the music of God’s big band,/Then you can never go back to living as normal people do./You can only mix in with the living stew/Drink yourself to death—drink yourself to death/And breath your last breath—breath your last breath.”

When I had read all twenty-one, I reached down and took a swig of tequila.

Joe took the bottle from me and swallowed some more.

“What’d you think?” He asked after capping the bottle.

“There are some very powerful poems in here, Joe.”

He took the folder from me and scanned the pages.

“It’s like I told you, Professor. This is my life. This is me.” He shook the folder at me and tossed it on the coffee table where it came to rest next to a John Wayne comic book. “Can I tell you something, Professor?” I nodded. “It’s personal.” I nodded again. “Come with me,” he said, and I followed him into his small kitchen. He pulled open the refrigerator and pulled out two Coronas. He gave me one and pointed the other to a row of pill bottles neatly lined up on the counter. “A couple of years ago I visited a VA psychiatrist. I was depressed—couldn’t seem to stop myself from crying. I’d watch a John Wayne movie and boohoo like a baby. Hell, I’d be sitting in a restaurant eating a Burger King or something and start boohooing. The doctor prescribed me TCA’s, uh, Tricyclic Antidepressants. I started shaking like a tree in a windstorm. I couldn’t even hold a phone to my ear without pounding myself to death. Then I started throwing up. I’d go to piss and it was worse than an old man—I’d stand at the urinal with my thingy in my hand and wait and wait and wait for a teeny little drizzle. It was pathetic. So the doctor prescribed Phenelzine and when that didn’t work, he prescribed tranylcypromine.”

I shook my head. I had never heard of any of those medications.

“Yeah, I know what you’re thinking; ‘He sounds like a fucking pharmacist.’ Well, I do. It’s a necessary side-effect of what I have.” He took a swig from the tequila and chased it down with a swig of Corona. “I ballooned to twice my size and nearly killed myself when I gorged on a hunk of blue cheese. How the hell was I supposed to know that you weren’t supposed to eat aged cheese with that crap? That’s when the doctor put me on fluoxetine, Prozac. Life is near perfect for me now.” He picked up a bottle of pills and shook one out. He placed it on his tongue and chased it down with a swallow of tequila. I tend to be a little more aggressive, but not nearly as aggressive as I was in Vietnam, so it’s a matter of degree, I guess. I don’t sleep as much, which is okay because when I do sleep, I have these violent dreams. The last time I slept, I dreamed that I killed a man by shoving a mop handle up his butt. Can you imagine? A mop handle?” He shook his head and laughed. Then he took a long swallow from his beer. “Come here,” he said. “I want to show you something.” We walked down a short hallway until we came to a door on the right. He pulled out a key and unlocked the deadbolt installed in the door. “This is no everyday flimsy interior door, Professor. This is a steel reinforced exterior door. If you’re going to break into this room, you’ll have to have a battering ram or the key.” He swung the door opened with fanfare. “Welcome to my special room,” he said.

The room was a standard apartment bedroom, approximately ten feet square, but what was amazing was the color. The ceiling was a glossy white, the walls were a glossy red, and bright blue tile covered the floors. The two windows in the room were painted red and barred. The wall opposite the door held a map of Vietnam about five feet by five feet. Little black and white pins covered the map. The wall to my right was an arsenal. Several rifles and pistols rested on racks and in rectangular cases. I recognized an AR15 and a .45 caliber pistol. Another weapon looked like a grenade launcher, but I didn’t know enough about military weapons to say for sure. One rectangular case held four grenades, the pins still in them. An American flag covered the wall to my left. Behind me, the wall held several road maps: Arkansas, Louisiana, Michigan, California, Montana, and Missouri. Pins dotted their surfaces, too. In the middle of the room, directly under the light, a flag-draped altar stood. On top of it sat an urn.

‘How do you like it?” Joe asked.

I was speechless. The room frightened me—perhaps it was due to the bars on the windows, or the weapons, or maybe the care with which he had arranged everything, or the garishness of it all.

‘What is it, Joe?”

‘It’s my special room. You’re only the third person to ever see it, not including me.” He grabbed my arm at the elbow and led me to the Vietnam map. “The white pins are engagements I’ve been in—the black ones indicate the death of someone I knew.”

“Wow.” There were at least twenty-five black pins, and too many white ones to count. I nodded toward the urn. “What’s this?” I asked.

Joe walked over to the altar and gently placed a hand on the urn.

“This is ConnieMac. The sweetest son-of-a-bitch to ever share a foxhole with me.”

“You served with him in Vietnam?”

“Uh huh. CM and I were at Khe Sanh together. We separated when I got wounded in the Lam Son 719 operation. I got a ticket home. He and I joined forces again just before the Fall of Saigon. You know what’s crazy—CM never received even a scratch in Vietnam. He dodged bullets, grenades, mortar fire—you name it. He never even received a scratch. Comes back to the U.S. and the next thing I know, I get a telegram from some rinky-dink town in Louisiana saying they got the ashes of one ConnieMac Beauregard and that they found a paper on him requesting that they send his ashes to me. Would I send them the postage money?” Joe took a long drink from the bottle of tequila. “CM was a hero, man. A fucking hero and they don’t have the courtesy to pay for mailing his ashes.” He shook his head. His eyes watered, and he wiped the tears away with his forearm, the tequila sloshing in the bottle. “I sent them the money. I wouldn’t want those SOB’s to dirty his memory with their cheapness.”

I tried to think of something, but I had the distinct impression that I did not know the whole story, nor was Joe going to tell it to me. Instead, I nodded, indicating to him that I shared his sense of outrage.

Joe walked to the wall, which held the weapons and pulled down a .45 caliber pistol.

“This was my favorite,” he said, charging the weapon. “I couldn’t hit the side of a barn with it, but when I did hit, man, it would knock those gooks back. I shot one at twenty-five feet once. Right here.” He pointed to his forehead with the gun. “Went in clean—a tiny little hole like a third eye—but the back of his head was missing. I mean it was totally missing. Killed that mother instantly. Never knew what hit him.” Joe examined the gun in his hand, then raised it and pointed it at my forehead. “If I was to shoot you, Professor, it would go in smooth as a hot knife through butter, but it would come out like a brick through glass.”

“Joe, would you point that thing somewhere else?”

“You are a trusting individual, Professor. What’s makes you think that I didn’t lure you here to pop a .45 in your brainy head?”

I had trouble standing, and I developed an uncontrollable urge to urinate. I forced myself to stand taller.

“Take your best shot, Joe, but don’t you dare miss.” My hand went automatically to the pepper spray canister that I still carried in my pocket. Joe’s eyes followed my movement. He laughed.

“You got balls, Professor. I’ll give you that.” He lowered the pistol, and I was able to breathe again.

I turned and walked out of Joe’s apartment and never saw him again.

***

“You fool,” Gayla yelled at me when I told her what happened. Will sat at the table eating cookies and milk. Gayla was visibly shaken. “You stupid, stupid fool. Didn’t you even think about your family? What about our son? What about me having to raise a child without his father? How do I explain to him just how stupid you were?”

I glanced at Will, but he looked down at the table.

“I didn’t know he was going to do that, Gayla.”

“What is it with men that they have to court danger—that they need danger to feel more alive? Fucking cowboys, all of you. That’s it, isn’t it? You’ve been flirting with this guy all semester—playing Russian roulette with a mentally unstable person just so you can feel macho.”

“Oh come on, Gayla. I had no idea the man was so unstable.” She hit me—slapped me on the arm, over and over again until I grabbed her wrists.

“What the hell is the matter with you?”

She cried, the tears flooding from her eyes.

“You are an intelligent man, Gary Soileau. Who in the hell do you think you’re deceiving?”

I released her, and she turned away from me.

“I’m sorry, Gay. Maybe there was some of that macho, John Wayne stuff in what I did, but I never thought…”

“You never thought, Gary. That’s it exactly. You never thought about your family.” I reached over and placed a hand on her shoulder, but she shrugged it off. “Don’t touch me, Gary. You don’t care about Will and me.”

“Come on, Gay. I love you.”

“No you don’t, Gary.” She faced me. Her dark eyes pierced mine. “Look at him.” She nodded at Will, who sat quietly at the table, tears leaking down his cheek. “Look at what you’re doing to him.”

I went to him, but he stood and ran to his mother, who encircled him protectively with her arms. I wanted to yell, “Joe is the dangerous one. Not me,” but I didn’t because I knew she would not understand.

***

That night Gayla and I attended a small get-together at Dr. Franks’, a professor of psychology, house. There were several other people there, academic types. The conversation turned to the differences between men and women. Dr. Franks said that men were much more aggressive than women were, and I countered that women were just as aggressive but in more subtle ways.

He nodded.

“In what ways, Gary?”

“Their aggressiveness is more verbal than it is physical.”

“Interesting. Give me an example.”

The only example I could give was between Gayla and me. I’d had a couple of beers, so I figured, what the hell. I glanced at Gayla, and her eyes pleaded me not to go on.

“Here is a hypothetical situation. Suppose a woman is not happy with her husband, so she demeans his manhood.”

“Demeans, Gary?”

“She calls him a wimp—spineless and cowardly.”

“And how does this make him feel?”

“To be crass, deballed. He does everything in his power to support his wife and child, and when he does show signs of aggression, she calls him a cowboy, another derogatory word in her vocabulary.”

“He has a child.”

That’s when I realized everybody was aware that I was talking about myself and Gayla.

“The point I was trying to convey is that women are just as aggressive as men except their aggressiveness is more verbal,” I said feebly.

Afterwards, once we were home, Gayla tore into me.

“How could you embarrass me like you did?”

“I didn’t mean to, Gay.”

“You didn’t mean to?”

“No, I didn’t.”

“Tell me something. Do you love me?”

“Of course, I do.”

“Then how could you embarrass me in front of those people the way you did?”

“You weren’t the only one I embarrassed, Gay.”

“Who else?”

“Me. I embarrassed myself too.”

“Yes, you did,” she said and stomped off.

***

When I said I never saw Joe Archer again, I was only partially correct. In the middle of the spring semester, I received a phone call from the Bohemian National Crematorium to pick up the ashes of Joseph Wayne Archer. The urn was ceramic with the American flag depicted on one side and a marine at parade rest on the other. A trip to the police department told me how he died. Apparently, Joe stared into the muzzle of a gun for the last time.

“You shoulda seen the room they found him in,” the detective in charge of the case told me. “Painted red, white, and blue with maps of Vietnam and all sorts of guns hanging up on the wall. There was a busted up plastic urn on the floor and ashes spread out all over the place mixed in with the guy’s blood. It was a real mess. The guy musta been watching a John Wayne movie when he decided to do it, ‘cause there was one playing on the television in the living room—the one where John Wayne has cancer or something—The Shootists, isn’t it.”

“Did he leave a note?”

“Nope, not a word. Just did the deed.”

“Then how did the crematorium know to send me his ashes.”

The policeman shrugged.

“Guess he arranged it ahead of time.”

***

A couple of days later, I received an envelope from Joe, dated the day he died. He had stuffed a pile of paper ashes in it—his poems, I assumed. I dumped the ashes in the wastepaper basket.

One day, a few weeks later, a brother with the same severe dark eyes picked up the urn from me, and Joe Archer disappeared from my life forever, except for the recurring dream. In it, he is sitting in my class at a desk much too small for him. He pulls out a revolver from his book bag and points it at me. I want to run but my feet won’t cooperate. Joe pulls the trigger, and I brace for the impact, but nothing happens except a loud click. With a crooked grin, he places the muzzle against his temple and pulls the trigger—another loud click and Joe flinches. He laughs, revealing coffee and tobacco-stained teeth. He points the pistol at me and pulls the trigger again. Click. Joe’s lips move, but I can’t make out the words. He places the muzzle against his temple again and pulls the trigger without hesitation. When nothing happens, he points it at me again. I watch his lips move. Two more, they say, but I can’t hear anything. I realize that I can’t hear what he is saying because of the music playing. It is the score from The Cowboys—a masculine sound as big as the outdoors. I watch his finger depress the trigger—the hammer rears back and slams forward. Nothing happens. Then I see the certainty of death in Joe’s dark eyes. He brings the muzzle to his temple. Don’t do it, I yell, but he can’t hear me over the violins and the orchestra. Fire flies from the revolver, entering Joe’s temple. The music ends abruptly. The report echoes from wall to wall. The left side of Joe’s head explodes like a volcano. I smell the acrid smell of gunpowder and blood. Joe Archer slumps over the desk, his misshapen head leaking onto the floor.

***

I awoke with Gayla shaking me awake. My son stood at my feet between the television and me. In the background, the boys have buried the dead body of Will Anderson and are standing around the grave. “It’s okay,” I told my son’s worried face. “Just a bad dream. That’s all.” He nodded his face as solemn as the boys on the television screen were.

“Come on, Will,” Gayla said. She took his hand and walked out, slamming the door behind her.

It sounded like a gunshot.

 

 

BIO

Jude RoyJude stories have appeared in The Southern Review, American Short Fiction, National Public Radio’s The Sound of Writing, The Fiction Writer, Mysteries and Manners Quarterly, Journal of Kentucky Studies, Mysterical-E, The Riverbend Review, and many others. Jude is originally from Chataignier, LA and currently, teaches writing at Madisonville Community College in Madisonville, KY.

 

 

 

0
Vincent Mannings

Not Always Easy

by Vincent Mannings

 

In blesséd paradise, here on Earth,
Peaceful now, and free –
My every breath and all my spark
I’d give for her to be.
(Anon., c. 1825, England)

 

“Got it, Dad.” Sam emerged from the garage into the light with the bike in his hands. His father had showered, and his mother had gone out to town. Dad was wearing slacks and a shirt and tie. He sat a few yards from the garage door, at a wicker patio table beneath the kitchen window. He’d just opened the newspaper. There was some iced tea in a glass before him and he was about to eat a good breakfast. “Wonderful,” he replied to his son, folding the paper again and picking up his knife and fork. “I assume you know what you’re doing. I’ve no idea why you’d need two bicycles but the truck’s keys are here whenever you want them.” They were beside the paper and he tapped at them.

“Thanks,” said Sam. He was distracted, gazing at the old bike. He’d propped it on its stand in front of the garage and he was walking around it. He squeezed both grips and tried to push. The brakes were good. Next he pumped the tires and he spent the best part of an hour cleaning off the dust and the spider webs. That bike was kind of rusty. And, it was a guy’s bike. He ran his fingers through his hair, remembering. Mary: she had been wearing overalls a couple of days before, when he’d met her at her garden gate.

By the time he’d driven the six short blocks to Carmelo Street and Lopez he’d decided for sure that he’d be the one who’d be riding his brother’s old bike. He’d be lending his own bike to Mary. She had just now seen him arriving from part-way down her front yard. She’d not been doing much, just touching at her flowers, fussing with them; that and some light watering with a can. She’d been enjoying the morning fog and listening to a digest of the day’s news; a white iPod wire was dangling from her left ear. She’d put the watering-can down when she’d noticed Sam and she’d begun to walk up a gravel path toward the garden gate. Sam had parked the truck at the curb, a black Toyota pickup that his Dad had owned for thirty years. He’d stepped around to the back of the truck and he was beginning to unload the bikes as Mary reached the gate.

She waved, grinning, calling to him, the iPod bud now in her hand: “I do have my own bicycle, you know.”

“I figured,” he replied, turning to face her. He’d felt strong, energized by his busy morning. But when he looked at Mary she surprised him. He almost lost track of what he’d been about to say. “I guessed you’d have your own bike,” he continued, “but I didn’t know for sure and I don’t yet have your number.”

He stopped, and she smiled. She’d opened the gate and had stepped out onto the sidewalk; she seemed tentative and she’d not yet closed the gate behind her. She had on a pair of white shorts and a loose red cotton blouse. No overalls this morning. She was barefoot and she clutched a straw summer hat in her hands; her hair was up, all tamed and pinned. Two days ago, when they’d sat together on a fountain wall, Sam had decided that Mary could not be more beautiful, but she was more beautiful today. He could see the bone structure in her face, the long and graceful neck, the lovely shoulders.

“How is your mother?” he asked.

She turned and glanced behind. She looked down into the mist, across the sloping yard, through the flowers and the shrubs, toward the big front door and quickly at a downstairs window. Her house was on a cliff that overlooked the sea and the pair of them could hear the fog-muffled thumps of waves crashing on the whitesand beach below. Turning back to Sam, she shrugged. “She’s fine. Just a little tired. Like I told you on Wednesday it’s not always easy being descended from writers hoisted by everyone upon such lofty pedestals; it can be difficult and it sure doesn’t always help my mother.”

“Come on, Ms. Mary Shelley,” he said, smiling, “let’s go for a ride.”

The fog had been stubborn but the sun had started to clear it away as he stared at her; patches of blue sky were appearing overhead and the trees near the gate were suddenly a vivid green. He held his bike with his left hand and gestured with his right.

Mary turned her head. She closed the gate and glanced at the house for just a couple seconds more before looking back at Sam. He continued holding the bike for her.

“And I thought maybe we’d get some breakfast,” he added, “if you like: at the Brown Pelican.”

She grinned a second time and walked toward him in her bare feet. She lifted the straw hat above her head and let it dangle behind from a cord around her neck. She was close to him. He could smell perfume and he looked again at the hair.

“I’ll see you at the Pelican,” she said, laughing. She slapped him on the shoulder, threw her left leg around the seat and over the crossbar and set off down Carmelo, changing gear right away to third, and fourth.

“Wait!” yelled Sam. He grabbed his brother’s bike, knocked the stand back with his foot; Mary was already half a block away, still laughing; she shrieked and her hat bounced up and down. “Wait!” he called again, bumping the old bike off the curb. He caught up with her near to Eleventh and rode alongside; she slowed, turning her head to smile. “Hey,” he said, returning the smile and catching his breath. They rode another four blocks south through a tunnel of cherry blossom trees, then swept on past Thirteenth and on to Santa Lucia; there, they turned right and continued a block west; this was steep; it took them down to the beach-road where they turned and headed north for half a block before continuing west toward the sea; a narrow footpath quickly opened up and surrendered to freshly-blown white sand. The tide was out. They stopped, got off their bikes, and listened.

The wind was strong; it whipped about their ears. The waves were distant but they were big and very loud. The fog had gone and the sun was bright. The sea was too loud for talking. Sam glanced at Mary, who closed her eyes with her face toward the waves, enjoying the winds, smiling as she tightened the strap of her straw hat. Her hair began to unravel. She opened her eyes again and looked at him.

“Come on,” she yelled. They walked the bikes up and over the dunes and made straight for the wet sand where they climbed back on and cycled along the edge of the sea. Mary led the way, and the Brown Pelican soon came into view. The place was an old snack-shack, basically a large hexagonal shed. It was Carmel’s take on a Martello fort, perched on the grassy dunes between the beach proper and the beach road, right about where Eleventh Street would have ended if a mansion and a quarter mile of tended rolling lawns had not been in the way. The Pelican had been on those dunes like a sentinel since the early nineteen fifties. It had weathered its share of Pacific storms and, though dilapidated, it possessed some character, honed well by the decades of salt and sand.

They propped the bikes against a low brick wall at the edge of the shack’s parking lot, and Sam bought two coffees and a couple of hot muffins. They were handed to him by a teenaged girl, through a hatch. “Thanks,” he said. He put the change into his wallet, stuffed a dollar bill into a plastic cup, picked up some napkins and sat down with Mary on a small bench at a tiled concrete table. The table was behind a short breeze-wall. They were facing toward the waves.

“So,” Mary announced. She’d shaken down her long black hair and had completed what the wind had started. She’d then lifted the straw hat up from behind her neck and had patted it down hard on her head. She seemed annoyed. “Two days ago you said there’s something you want to tell me.”

Sam hadn’t expected annoyance. He took a sip of his coffee, stalling, and put it back down on the table.

“There is something I want to tell you,” he began. “On my last day in New Mexico, I met with a Professor Ray Wasserman at the Taos Research Institute’s school of medical sciences.”

Mary cut in: “And I suppose he told you everything about my mother.” She’d said it with a casual air, picked up a piece of muffin, popped it in her mouth and washed it down with a gulp of coffee.

“Wasserman told me almost nothing,” said Sam. “That man is rather imperious, Mary. He’s not the chatty type. I was quitting, leaving graduate school after just one year. He’d seemed bored with me, barely listening until I mentioned my parents’ place here in Carmel and that sure got his attention. It jogged his memory. He simply said that he’d known your mother; that she’d been a professor and that she’d resigned from the Institute a long time ago and returned to her family’s old home in Carmel.”

Mary drank some more of her coffee. Now she was the one who was stalling. She put the cup down, reached out and put a hand on Sam’s knee, leaning in a few inches. The brim of her hat came close to his face. “Is that all Wasserman said?” she asked.

“Mary,” replied Sam, peeking beneath the hat. He surprised himself by placing his hand on hers, the one still on his knee. “That old guy gave no details, none at all, but he did suggest your mother had no choice but to leave the Institute. And that’s pretty much all he said to me.”

She slipped the hand away and sat up straight, folding her arms. Sam watched. She seemed to be taking in the information, absorbing it, processing it. The breeze tested her hat. She reached up, absent-mindedly, and pushed it back on. “Sam,” she said. It startled him. “You’ve been very straightforward so it’s my turn to be likewise and I am being straightforward when I tell you that now we both know about as much as each other when it comes to my mother’s career in New Mexico.”

She smiled. He’d no clue why she’d be doing that. In fact she was remembering the book she’d caught him reading a couple of days before, at his Aunt’s bookstore, just a few hours after she’d first met him at her garden gate. “Oh,” she said, “I’ve always known that my mother worked for some time at the Institute, but that was before I was born, and she never says much to me about those years.” She grinned and laughed out loud and touched Sam’s forehead, pretending to read his mind. She dropped her hand and folded her arms again. “Don’t worry,” she said, still laughing, “I never knew my father, and the Shelleys are on my mother’s side, but I have no unexplained stitches. There are no strange wounds and there are definitely no old scars.”

Sam patted her hand.

“Eat your muffin,” she said, “before it gets too cold.” She nodded in the direction of his plate. She’d more on her mind and a few more things to say. “These days, my mother’s just a writer, Sam. That’s pretty much all she does. She leads a quiet life but there’s an obsessiveness about her, and I’m worried.”

Sam had already filled his mouth with food. He held a napkin in one hand and his coffee in the other, about to take a gulp, and he felt silly. Mary saw his concern and she smiled: “Go on, eat,” she said. I’m talking enough for the both of us.” She glanced at the beach, giving him some time, and looked back. He was drinking. “Sam, I think my mother’s sick. I know this isn’t your problem; it’s for me to deal with but there’s something wrong with her. Whatever burden my mother carried when she was a professor, she sure as hell brought with her to Carmel. Something’s changed since then. It’s evolved, I suppose.” She smiled suddenly, trying to lighten things again. “I’ll figure it out.”

Sam drank the rest of his coffee. He remained quiet for several minutes. Mary had stopped talking. Sam already liked her. How could he not? All of his instincts told him to dive right in, to tell her how much he wanted to help. But his head told him the opposite and, being Sam, he settled for something in between.

“I’m going up the road to Santa Cruz,” he said, “this afternoon, to the campus: I’ve arranged to meet with a couple of English professors; someone called Seth Morton, and another named Wintour; Professor Jonathan Wintour.”

Mary flinched. He saw it. She recovered quickly.

“If you’re talking with Wintour, that’s good.” She’d said it with her mouth close to his ear, almost a whisper. “You’re your own man.” She sat back again. He looked at her. A teardrop was making its way down her right cheek. At last he heeded the smart voice that’d been lodged somewhere deep inside his head. He shut his mouth and he said nothing. He touched her hand and shuffled in closer before putting his arm around her. She leaned her head on his shoulder and he felt her hair brush against his face.

Suddenly, she got up. She collected their cups and went to the Pelican’s hatch. “Two refills, please,” she said to the girl, “and may I borrow a pen?”

Sitting down with new coffees she scribbled something on the receipt she’d been given and passed it to Sam: her phone number. Her eyes were still watery but she felt better. She’d put the iPod bud back into her ear and she flashed a smile that almost stopped Sam’s heart.

“Okay,” he said, as coolly as he could muster before storing the receipt in his wallet. He took the pen from her hand, wrote his own number on their sole remaining napkin and gave that back to her. “Hey,” he said, smiling: “Mom and Dad are having a garden party tomorrow. My brother and his family are settling back in town. You want to join us?”

 

* * *

 

By noon he’d showered a second time. He’d also brushed back his wet hair and had changed into some brown loafers, a pair of khaki slacks, a white button shirt and a beige linen jacket. The jacket was on the passenger seat beside him as he drove his Dad’s truck forty miles north around the bay to Santa Cruz.

Seth Morton turned out to be Dean of the School of Letters. Sam found himself being ushered from a reception desk to a wood-paneled waiting room by a tall and very direct executive assistant. “Professor Morton will be with you presently.” She’d said it just before turning on her heels. The door closed and Sam sat alone for ten minutes on a leather chair, gripping a saucer and a white china cup. That cup contained a pale herbal tea that he never once touched. He’d said “yes” when asked but it’d been from politeness only and he felt ridiculous, holding onto the cup and saucer. But he also worried he’d seem ungrateful if he just set them down on the table in front of him. He crossed his legs, the cup rattling. Slowly, he began to relax. A grandfather clock stood in one corner of the room. The tick was loud. He could see the pendulum swinging, hypnotic, soothing after the busy morning, and it lured him to a peaceful place before shattering his calm with a single great chime. One o’clock: the doors to an office suite swung open and Morton burst in.

Hello!”

The big voice flash-flooded the room. Morton was stocky, energetic, every bit the square-jawed man that Sam had seen on his website’s picture. He strode across the carpet. Sam put the cup down at last, too quickly. He’d done it as he rose from his chair, and he slopped tea into the saucer and onto his pants; it also got onto his hands and he wiped them on his jacket as Morton got up close.

“So you’re Sam Robertson! A pleasure to meet you. We’ll have you with our Romantics aficionado very soon!” Morton chuckled. He’d seen the mishap and, the chuckles done, shot out his right hand. The arm was firm and steady. Sam shook the strong hand. Already the blushing began. He’d expected to be led next into Morton’s suite but was instead rotated one hundred and eighty degrees by the professor’s left hand; together, they left the waiting room and stepped into the hall.

“This way,” said Morton. His right forefinger pointed at the corridor. They hurried along a tiled floor. Morton glanced at a wall clock, turned a corner and passed another secretary.

“Jonathan here?” The tone seemed sharp. Before the lady could begin to answer, Sam was being led into Wintour’s office where a middle-aged professor stood behind a desk.

“Jonathan: please meet the young man I mentioned.”

With that, Morton nodded at the both of them, made eye contact with Sam for a final time and left.

Wintour continued to stand behind his desk. He watched Sam. His expression seemed kind. He said nothing, so Sam tried first:

“Robertson, sir. Sam Robertson.” Sam took a deep breath and tried to calm himself, looking all around the room. The entire building was old and this room’s ceiling was very high. The office was large though rather cramped, and it was dark. In addition to the desk there were several tables laden with books and papers; heavy bookcases were against each of the walls and, a good six feet up the wall behind Wintour, a single small window. Sam touched at the collar of his shirt and held out his hand. He held it firm and steady, just like he’d seen Morton do it. But Wintour was no Morton. He removed the jacket he’d been wearing and came around the desk to greet Sam with a two-handed shake and a warm smile. A genial man; the eyes were bright and enthusiastic. His hair was gray and his face was pale from too much time in that gloomy room. Sam saw engagement but no trace of arrogance: the man seemed secure, happy in his own skin, with nothing to prove. Wintour scratched his head. He was trying to remember. He closed the office door and showed Sam to a seat across from his desk before settling with a contented sigh back into his leather swivel chair.

“Seth told me you’d inquired about Mary Shelley.” He clapped his hands, swung around in his seat and pointed to a coffeemaker.

Sam really did not want coffee but again for the sake of being polite he nodded.

Wintour snatched a couple of pods from a basket. He set about the brewing with his back to Sam, lifting his head and calling over his shoulder. “Seth also told me you’re from Carmel. Now!” – and he clapped his hands a second time – “would your being here today have anything to do with the Carmel Shelleys?”

Sam felt blindsided. He’d lived most of his life in Carmel without knowing anything at all about the residents of a house on Carmelo Street just six blocks from his home, and here he sat today with a professor who knew about both Mary and her mother.

Wintour continued, still calling across his shoulder: “I had the privilege of meeting those two fine ladies. Met them five years ago, not long after I began my tenure here.”

Sam leaned forward in his chair. “As a matter of fact, sir, I am here today because of them; because of one of them, at least: I’ve come to know the daughter.”

Wintour stopped fiddling with the coffee machine and turned back to Sam. “And now you want to know if those two are for real?” he asked with a mischievous smile. “Initially, as far as I could tell, that seemed to be the reason the mother wanted to see me. A fascinating woman. Extremely intelligent and very serious. Looked the part too, I can tell you. She was somewhat vague as to why she needed my help with her ancestry; she referred to a ‘disappointment’ but she never elaborated. She visited twice, the first time alone, the second time with her daughter. The younger Mary: well, she was just a teenager when I saw her and she was quiet, rather uncomfortable I thought.”

The coffee machine clicked and hissed. Wintour removed the first cup, swapped the pod and began the second brew. He got up and opened a small fridge below the high window and took out a carton of skimmed milk.

“I don’t have very long today, Sam, but I do have time to tell you what I know. It’s not particularly confidential; public record, really.”

Within a couple of minutes they were both relaxing in their chairs. Sam took a few sociable sips from his cup, and listened. Like Sam, the professor had drawn a blank when he’d searched online. “After that,” he said, “I enlisted the help of a former colleague, a chap I’d known during my previous position, at New York University. That colleague is married to a professional genealogist, a delightful and very sharp young woman named Annabel Stark. If you’re casting about for a career, Sam, do consider genealogy. I found it can be a most lucrative profession. Her clients tend to be the wealthy and the established; the Hamptons set; patrician types who are keen to prove that their blood is blue. Annabel took a third of my research account that year but I was of course intrigued. Absolutely astonished. Shelleys! Just forty miles from this office! Could it really be? You know exactly what I mean, huh?” He glanced at a clock on his desk and looked back at Sam. “Young man, I can tell you that my rather expensive genealogist did a very thorough job. The Carmel Shelleys are indeed descended from Mary Shelley: the Mary Shelley, that is. In fact there are three different lines they could have come along and still been her fourth- and fifth-generation descendants. And, it turns out, that’s exactly who they are. That’s all good of course but when the mother came back to discover what I’d learned, this time with her daughter, I realized that I’d wasted my money. Completely wasted it.”

Sam was confused. “Sir, but you said -”

Wintour broke in. “First, it became obvious the older Shelley was already quite sure of her ancestry. I’d merely affirmed it for her and I could sense that she’d not really been listening. My words seemed intended more for the ears of the young lady accompanying her. Second, well, here, take a look at this.”

He got up and walked over to the bookcase against the wall to the right of his desk. He reached, grunting, and pulled out a very large hardcover. Next he came round to Sam and slapped the book down on the desk in front of them. Sam looked at Wintour, took off his jacket and opened the huge book. He turned the pages slowly. Between long sections of dense text he saw photographs of birth certificates; they were for Byron, for Percy Shelley, and for Mary; he also saw facsimiles of the title pages from anthologies of poetry; there were maps of London, of Venice and of the shoreline of Lake Geneva; he saw gravestones in England and on the Continent; there were pictures of locks of hair; a funeral pyre in Italy; he saw museums and he gazed at portraits of Byron’s mistresses and, oval and tiny, portraits of the Shelley children. Sam lost himself in the pages as he turned from one to the next, first near to the front of the book, then at the back, then in the middle.

Wintour became impatient. “Page thirty-six, Sam. Please look at page thirty-six.”

Sam, slipping back into the role of the student, looked up again at the professor, who seemed fatherly, almost concerned. He turned again to the book in front of him and he followed Wintour’s instruction. The entirety of page thirty-six was a large color-plate reproduction of an oil painting from the archives of the National Portrait Gallery in London. Sam was looking at Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. She was eighteen years old, one year before she married Percy Shelley in 1816, and she would have been pregnant by him for a second time. The painting was all dark tones. Mary was seated on a plum-colored couch, the wall behind her unlit. She was visible only from the chest up. She wore a black dress. Her shoulders were bare and her long dark hair framed a sad and serious face. This beautiful lady didn’t just resemble the young woman with whom Sam had shared breakfast at the beach shack that morning; she looked precisely like her. Sam forgot all about Wintour now and he stared at the picture. His heart raced, but gradually he became calm again. He reached out with his hand. His movements were slow and he touched the color plate, running his finger across it; in his mind he changed the mournful clothes into something bright; he brushed the soft and lovely hair back from the young lady’s face; gently, he slipped an iPod bud into her ear; and he saw her smile.

 

 

BIO

Vincent ManningsAlthough Vincent Mannings is American, he was born in Liverpool, England, and was raised in Cheshire by Irish parents. Twenty years ago, he moved from London to Pasadena, where he’s lucky enough to live with his wife, Helene. He has a Ph.D. in an arcane discipline, and he works at the California Institute of Technology.

Vincent has edited a textbook, published by the University of Arizona Press. He’s also recently completed a couple of novels and is about to brace himself and try to get them published.

 

 

 

 

 

 

0
Mary Taugher

Crow on the Cradle

by Mary Taugher

 

Whenever someone enters the tiny curtained space where they’ve wheeled my gurney, I ask if Mr. Ramsey is alive. Is he in surgery, in a coma, dead? Either the ER nurses don’t know or they won’t give me an answer. They’ve dimmed the overhead lights, plugged an IV in the crook of my arm, and clamped a sensor on my finger. The jagged lines of my heartbeat zigzag across the monitor’s screen, and its bleeps overlay the noises of the emergency room. A nurse or doctor, I don’t remember which, told me I’m in shock and that I might have suffered a concussion. But I know I haven’t. I didn’t hit my head, the airbag didn’t even inflate when I hit Mr. Ramsey.

On the other side of a curtain a man calls out to the nurses to find him an electric shaver. Shave me smooth before I die, he moans. I try to tune him out. I curl into a fetal position, worrying about why my husband is taking so long to get here and whether he knows the pedestrian I hit is Mr. Ramsey.

It happened so fast. I remember the glare of the late afternoon sun. A man jogging toward me in the bicycle lane. Wisps of fog, jazz on the car radio. Then my vertigo returns so violently that I spin like a ragdoll in a washing machine, and I realize the jogger is Mr. Ramsey, whom I’ve seen a half dozen times in the past running this same path.

My dashboard, the pavement, the canopy of red flowering trees – it all swirls. Then everything collides into a nauseous blur until I see him inches from my front end. Mr. Ramsey, the man I loathe. I stomp on the brakes, yank the steering wheel. Which way? I can’t remember. The SUV lurches. Impact. God, the sound. A terrible thud reverberating through my body. My front right tire bumping over the curb.

It was an accident, a bizarre coincidence. I remember telling myself this as I sat trembling in my SUV. I don’t remember calling 911. I don’t remember climbing out of it. Next thing I know Mr. Ramsey’s head is in my lap. He’s unconscious. Sirens echo in my head, still spinning from the vertigo. My heart thumps wildly. And Mr. Ramsey’s legs, they’re twisted at unnatural angles, his shirt torn, a gash above his hip oozing blood. It’s the last thing I see before blacking out.

 

I was working at home from the third floor of our condo this morning, putting the finishing touches on a landscaping design before handing it off to the gardening company, when the vertigo first started. A loud cry, a hoarse gronk-gronk, startled me and I looked out my window to see a raven the size of a shoebox swooping down toward me. Tracking the raven, I felt a pull, a yanking really, in my forehead, and the room began to spin.

I squeezed my eyes shut. The sunlight from the window caused a blotchy afterimage of the bird and a fragment of a song about a crow on a cradle tumbled into my mind. I could hear the Irish folksinger’s voice, wistful and ethereal, as clearly as I had heard it so often at my friend Eileen’s house when our girls were young. The verse was about a baby’s birth, and the prophecy that if it were a girl, she would have rings on her fingers and bells on her toes, but that a shadow would trail her wherever she goes.

Spells of vertigo, from ear infections and high altitude, have hit me in the past so I wasn’t too alarmed. The verse, looping and insistent in my head, worried me more. I knew I needed to distract myself, so I used a cognitive-behavioral technique I’d picked up years ago. I got up from my desk and walked to my bathroom to count the shower floor tiles. After I’d counted to seventy-three, the song vanished.

Not long after, I took a break to walk down to the corner deli for lunch with my daughter. But as soon as we stepped outside I became woozy again. Christ, I said, grabbing her arm, I’m so dizzy it feels like the ground’s vibrating.

Earthquake’s in your head, Mom, she said, giving me a look of irritation.

The vertigo stopped seconds after I grabbed her, maybe because I was happy to be holding her arm, happy for any excuse to touch her. For nearly two years, my daughter had been depressed and sullen, in and out of therapy, off and on meds. In part, I blamed myself. My genes.

Earlier in the morning, I’d found her on the living room couch. It was six o’clock, way too early to be awake for someone her age, sixteen, and she told me she’d barely slept, couldn’t get back to sleep when she woke before dawn, couldn’t remember what it was like to sleep through an entire night or even three or fours hours at a stretch. She looked so sad telling me this. Her cheeks were flushed, and I flashed back to a day long ago, her cheeks glowing, her smile irrepressible as she accepted a gold medallion attached to a green ribbon for first place in the reel competition at an Irish feis.

I bit the inside of my lower lip, hard, until it hurt, then asked the question I knew I had to ask. Honey, you wouldn’t do anything to hurt yourself would you? You would tell me, right, wouldn’t you?

She shook her head yes and said, I’m okay, Mom, don’t worry about me.

I wondered if I’d ever stop worrying that she might harm herself. But what mother wouldn’t worry about a depressed teenage daughter, especially one who had skipped third grade and was young for her class, who had spent three and half years immersed in the culture of a high school where every year for the past six years a student had committed suicide, and who had left that school seven weeks ago, distraught and humiliated, to finish up her senior year at home in independent study.

When we entered the deli, I nearly fainted. I grabbed my daughter’s waist.

What is your problem? she snapped.

I’m dizzy again, I said.

Well then sit, she said, as if talking to a dog.

The deli owner, a Lebanese man named Sam, with coal black eyes and teeth so white and perfect they must have been capped, came from around the counter to ask if I was okay. Touching his forearm, I thanked him for his concern. I gave my daughter a twenty to buy lunch and by time she came back to the table with our salads, I was feeling better.

An hour later we went to family therapy. While we waited in the office, my husband scrolled through his phone, I flicked through trashy magazines, and my daughter stared as if hypnotized at a potted plant. And then, the damn song about the crow on the cradle snuck back into my head.

Stop, I told myself, wishing for the millionth time that I could overcome my anxieties. To calm myself, I employed another cognitive-behavioral trick that involves replacing an obsessive thought with a sensation that overpowers it.

I keep Altoids, the spearmint flavor, in my purse for just this purpose. I found a single one left in the tin box and popped it in my mouth. The taste at the core, stringent, almost medicinal, makes my mouth water with distaste and longing, opposing sensations that I suppose stretch back to my childhood when my beloved father gave me spearmint flavored mints, once after he’d disciplined me with a belt that left a row of welts on the back of my legs. You could argue that I was replacing one negative thought with another, but the overpowering effect of those mints was the handiest thing I could keep in my purse and certainly less harmful than a cigarette or a finger-pricking pin.

Dr. Mueller, a transplanted New Yorker with a mustache, barrel of a stomach and diamond stud in his right ear, didn’t keep us waiting long, and the four of us settled into his deep-cushioned, black pleather chairs and footstools.

We started family therapy because of what happened to my daughter. Nothing in her daughter’s history prepared us, but I suppose life unfolds like that, unexpectedly you round a corner of your life and bang: your mother dies or you lose your life savings. Or your daughter has sex with her teacher, Mr. Ramsey.

And not just once but multiple times, in multiple places, in classrooms and supply closets, in motels, in his Volvo wagon. Perhaps even in his home. Mr. Ramsey lives less than a mile from us.

A charismatic teacher, he taught at the high school for twenty years, right up until he was arrested, charged and released on bail. He’s my age, forty-six, with three children. It makes me nauseous if I pause too long to think about it. I mean the fact that this father, this teacher, sexually abused my daughter — and the fact, too, that his children may now be fatherless.

Family therapy didn’t start well that day. Dr. Mueller seemed distracted and my daughter refused to answer any questions with anything other than “I don’t know” or “maybe.”

My husband admitted that he’d wanted to do “bodily harm” to Mr. Ramsey, but had mastered the “ugliness” of the situation. The women in his life needed help, he said, and he was here for us, to help us deal with “our” guilt and sorrow, “our” anger and humiliation.

Ticked off by his above-it-all attitude, I scolded my husband, told him he’d bailed out on us, that all he ever did lately was immerse himself in his busy, busy work, that he might as well have a leash around his neck for all the time he spent attached to his computer.

Why are you yelling at me? he asked.

I turned to my daughter to gauge her reaction or to look for her solidarity, I’m not sure which, and was stricken by her expression.

A twisted smile. It might have been a nervous smile but, God help me, what flicked through my mind was sadistic smile. She was gloating.

Christ, I cried. Why are you smiling like that? Do you think this conversation is funny?

Maybe, I don’t know, she said.

I squeezed the arms of the chair, clenched my jaw. My daughter crossed her arms, still smiling. My husband cleared his throat. Dr. Mueller pulled on his ear and twisted the diamond stud, waiting like therapists do for the dynamics to play themselves out.

Babe, calm down, my husband said. I admit I’ve been a detached. It’s hard. Hard for all of us. We’ll get through it.

Say something, I said to my daughter.

She shrugged her shoulders, poked the tip of her tongue between her lips and licked her upper lip. A wave, no, a tsunami of vertigo washed over me. I leaned forward, put my head between my knees. I could hear my daughter fidgeting, the sound of her bare legs rubbing against the pleather chair.

Vertigo again? my husband asked.

He turned to Dr. Mueller and said, She’s had several episodes today.

It could be stress, Dr. Mueller said. But see a doctor if it doesn’t go away by tomorrow. I’ll get a glass of water.

I righted myself. The room gyrated. The back of my shirt was wet with sweat. My husband reached over to rub my back. Just as Dr. Mueller re-entered the room with the water, my daughter started laughing. She covered her mouth with both hands, but couldn’t stop.

You’re laughing because you’re uncomfortable, Dr. Mueller said. He handed me the glass of water and sat down. Perhaps you’re angry too, as angry as your mother. Tell us what you’re angry about.

No, no, my daughter said. I’m not upset. I’m relieved.

I took a sip of water. The vertigo had receded but I felt faint. My daughter curled her lips into a sneer again and locked her eyes on mine.

Get that snide smile off your face, I snapped at her.

She clamped her lips shut, and I could tell she was biting the insides of her cheeks as I sometimes do. Then she relaxed her jaw and slumped in her seat. With contempt embedded in her voice, she said, I’ll never be like you. That’s why I fucked Mr. Ramsey. I never want to be like you. I will kill myself if I ever become like you. I hate you.

Her words knocked my breath away. I couldn’t, wouldn’t believe what she was saying. I saw her little-girl self sitting on my lap, twisting the cloth carrot I’d sewn back on her blue-jacketed bunny, her face nuzzling the space just beneath my breastbone as she described why I was the best Mommy in the world.

My husband looked stunned. Dr. Mueller waited for one of us to speak. The silence hung over us like a dark holographic presence until my daughter broke it.

Your turn to say something, she said to me. But you’re probably afraid. You’re always afraid, always worrying about something. Afraid of heights, of flying. Dr. Mueller, do you know she has to down a scotch and a couple of Xanax before we leave for the airport?

Dr. Mueller looked at his watch and said, I want to talk about the comment you made earlier, about having intercourse with your teacher because you didn’t want to be like your mother.

I didn’t say intercourse, my daughter said. I said, fucked.

And you said you hated your mother.

This is stupid.

What do you mean?

What do you think? This. Family therapy. All we ever do is talk about me. I try to talk about my mom and her wacko problems, and you bring it back to me. Fuck it.

With that my daughter jumped out of her chair and stormed out of the room. We’d already gone beyond our time, and Dr. Mueller had another patient waiting, so we agreed to revisit her disturbing disclosure at our next session.

 

On the drive back, we were quiet, polite, distant. On the bridge, I counted sailboats to shove my daughter’s ugly words from my mind. When got home, my daughter ran up to her room. I told my husband I needed to unwind, that I was going to go to the YMCA for a yoga class. He offered to drive me, a conciliatory gesture I appreciated but didn’t accept.

What about your vertigo?

I’ll pull over if it happens again, I assured him.

Yoga relaxed me. Lying there on my mat under the gently whirring fans in the waning light of the afternoon, the eucalyptus trees swaying in the high windows of the studio as the instructor’s melodious voice guided us, I felt my limbs loosening, my legs twitching, as if I were about to drift off to sleep. My breathing was slow and expansive.

Afterwards, as I rolled up my mat, a woman I knew came up to me. Our children had been in the same class in grade school, but I saw her these days only at the Y or grocery store. She couldn’t wait to tell me which college her daughter had been accepted to, ranked seventh in the latest U.S. News and World report. She barely paused for my response before asking in a hushed tone about my daughter.

How is she coping? It must be so difficult for you. If there is anything, anything at all I can do, please call.

Please call, I repeated.

I meant to voice my disbelief that she would under any circumstance expect that I might call her to lean on, but my voice came out like a mimicking parrot. I felt my face flush. Slapping her crossed my mind, but instead I ran out of the yoga studio.

Walking across the parking lot, I felt pressure clamp my head like a vise being screwed tighter and tighter. Within seconds I was woozy. The parking lot’s black-topped surface bounced like a trampoline. I stopped to lean on the bumper of a car, and started when someone spoke my name. The yoga instructor was standing beside me, asking me if I felt ill.

Vertigo, I told her. I’ll be okay in a minute.

The instructor suggested that I return to the gym and call someone for a ride home. But the dizziness seemed to be subsiding, so I told her I’d wait in the car for ten minutes. I thanked her and promised to call someone if the vertigo didn’t go away.

 

My memory is fuzzy. I must have arrived here in an ambulance. I cannot remember much until the detective came into my curtained cubicle. My adrenaline kicked in. She wasn’t wearing a uniform, but I knew right away who she was. She had an air of authority twinned with weariness. She’d heard it all. All the versions people conjure of their own reality.

We didn’t talk long. A nurse shooed her away. I wish now I’d feigned a concussion. Except for the vertigo, I’m not sure exactly what I told her, how I worded things. You need to be precise, cautious in a situation like this.

 

My husband leans over me. I reach up to touch his face. His hair is graying near his ears and at his temple. I squeeze his hand.

It was an accident, I tell my husband.

Quiet. Don’t say another word. The doctor says you’re in shock. It was the vertigo, wasn’t it? I should have driven you, damn it. You’re going to be fine. I’ve called an attorney.

Is Mr. Ramsey —

Shhh, it wasn’t your fault, my husband says, and I can tell by his hesitant tone that Mr. Ramsey is dead. An arrow of fear flits through me, but that’s all, just a single dart, and I wonder idly why I’m not more frightened by the idea that I’ve killed a man.

Don’t talk, my husband says. Just rest now. What are they giving you? Do you need more painkillers? Have they given you a sedative?

No, where is -–

She’s in the waiting room.

How is she? Is she all right? You shouldn’t leave her.

Babe, calm down, my husband says, your sister is with her.

He strokes my forehead.

I ask him if my purse is in the room. I need an Altoid. He finds my purse and rifles through it, but the tin box is empty. Please, please find me an Altoid, I tell him.

Alone, it comes back to me, like a missing link I didn’t know I was searching for. I remember now what I felt when I saw Mr. Ramsey and became dizzy. I can only describe it as a controlled rage. I didn’t mean to kill him.

My heart rate judders rapidly across the monitor, and I watch it as if from a great distance. I feel as though my years of practicing coping strategies has culminated in this moment, in this decision: I put my terrible revelation in a small box and seal it with packing tape, winding the tape around and around the box until I’m satisfied that it will never come undone, and then I shove that box into the furthest corner of our attic. All these years of therapy I’ve been told that denial doesn’t work, but I know with every deep breath I take, watching the monitor as my heart rate calms, that I will never open this box again.

I prop myself up on the gurney and wait for my husband to return. But when the curtains part it’s my daughter. She’s been crying.

Mom, are you okay? she asks. Have you heard anything about Mr. Ramsey? I can’t believe it was him that you hit. Mom, I –

My daughter pauses. Stares open mouthed at me.

Why are you looking at me like that?

Everything is going to be okay, I say.

I want to tell her that she’ll never have to worry about that damn crow, but I know she’ll think I’m crazy, so I give her a wider, reassuring grin.

She takes a step back from me. Stop it, she says. Stop smiling at me like that.

I clamp my lips together, curling them inside and over my teeth. Then I close my eyes, concentrate on my counting. I count the people who can attest to my vertigo. One … Sam, the deli owner. Two … Dr. Mueller. Three … the yoga instructor. Four … my husband. Five … my daughter. She didn’t mean what she said in Dr. Mueller’s office. She loves me, and someday, maybe when she’s a mother, she’ll realize how fiercely I love her.

 

 

BIO

Mary TaugherMary Taugher is a graduate of the MFA creative writing program at San Francisco State University. Her work has appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Transfer, Instant City, 580 Split, Prick of the Spindle. She was a finalist in Glimmer Train’s 2009 Short-Story Award for New Writers contest.

0

My Grandfather is a Pilot

by Tommy Dean

 

He only flies on the weekends and since my girlfriend left me, my grandfather and I have been flying around the world. He always calls me on Thursday, and asks me, “Are you ready for your lesson?” to which I usually reply, “Just until I find something better to do.” He laughs and I can usually hear the tinkling sound of ice against his glass as he stirs another Bloody Mary. Chelsea didn’t break up with me to go out with a football player, because I used to be that guy. No, she broke up with me to start dating the trombone player. A senior, with a promising career and a scholarship to Notre Dame. Whenever I say Chelsea’s name around my grandfather he takes a long drink of his Bloody Mary and says, “Women,” as if that’s all there is to say about the subject. Both of his wives died, he reminds me, so he’s never felt that kind of heartache. Then he smacks his lips and winks. The pictures, both black and white and color in dusty frames tell me otherwise. I spot them all over the small house: the back of the toilet, the end table next to the recliner reserved for guests, and several next to the computer.

Saturday night, I pull into my grandfather’s driveway. My parents’ only let me drive in a forty mile radius and I have to call or text them when I get to my destination. I’m here, I type, close the app, and then open it back up to add a smiley face. I don’t feel all that happy, but it’s part of the illusion I’ve quietly agreed to continue with my family. I could sit here and listen to the engine settle and cool, but my grandfather gets anxious when cars pull in and no one gets out in like the first five minutes. Once, I sat there fighting with Chelsea on the phone and he came out with a pistol in his hand. When he confirmed it was me, he put it in the waistband of his jeans and waited for me to get out of the car.

“Jesus, Gramps.”

“I was just confirming it was you,” he said, a wrinkled smile breaking across his face.

“What if it wasn’t me?”

“Depends on who it was.”

There was more to his life, moments in his youth he never talked about, though I never asked either. Over the years, I’d heard mention, from the distracted and broken off conversations of my parents, of pool halls and bars. My father, an accountant, who had no sense of adventure, even in movies, shook his head when I told him about the gun. “That man’s always been a fighter. You get a chance, Joel, take a look at his knuckles.” “Oh, and don’t tell your mother.”

It feels like there is a lot we’re not telling my mother right now. My father thinks it’ll be easier if she finds out later. “When the dirt settles?” I ask more and more. All he can do is nod and grip my shoulder.

I walk up the sidewalk, concentrating on each step, willing my feet to do as they’re told, marveling at the condition of the concrete. The house was built in the late 40s, but you wouldn’t know it from all of the maintenance my grandfather does every year. The porch light is on, and though it’s a summer night the wind through the breezeway is cold and if I had any hair left, I’d surely have been wiping it out of my face. They say it won’t grow back this time.

I knock and wait for him to answer. From inside, the floorboards creak under his weight and there is the rustle of locks being undone. Light spills from the kitchen around the broad shape of my grandfather as he peers through the screen in the storm door.

“I guess the raccoons have learned how to knock.”

“You’d probably treat them better than your grandkids,” I say.

“Hell, it’d be a lot easier. Throw them a few scraps and they’d be on their way. I suppose you want to come in?”

The house is small; a three bedroom with less than twelve hundred square feet. How my father lived here with three other siblings I’ll never know. Except somehow they all survived the closeness that small houses bring. The kind of closeness that develops into fights and the sharing of colds and accusations, the kind of hurts that bond a family together though they never tend to see each other except for the holidays.

The linoleum in the kitchen has yellowed and is peeling underneath the table, which in a larger house would have fit nicely in a dining room. Here it sags underneath the weight of mail and old Coca-Cola bottles that my grandfather collects. When he’s not flying the plane, he sits at the table and rubs away the dust and grime that comes from years of neglect. I often wonder if we all couldn’t use a gentle twist or flap of a rag, something to shine us up before we go out into the world. Though I’m sure some of us wouldn’t prefer it. Our bodies chipped and stained, the ugliness of light reflected through glass, vulnerable to another crack when we’ve been mishandled or thrown against the pavement.

My grandpa leads us through the kitchen into a short open space offset between the kitchen and the living room. He walks slower than normal, his hands, usually in his pockets, are out at his sides poised to catch himself should he suddenly lose his balance. His hair too, seems to have thinned since I’ve last seen him. He falls more than sits in the desk chair.

“Getting old isn’t for sissies,” he says.

I stand there looking down at him. His hands gripping the armrests as though he’s afraid he’ll fall right through the seat.

“What the hell are you looking at?” he asks, his voice weak at first, but filled with piss and vinegar at the end. A phrase he taught me when I was four, at a Fourth of July parade. I remember the look of horror on my mom’s face while I ran around in circles, shouting “piss and vinegar, piss and vinegar.”

“You need a hat. A pilot’s with the wings stitched into the middle.”

“What for?”

“You know, to make it official.”

“Nah, that’d make it too real. Then I’d feel bad flying with one of these.” He picked up the sweating highball (another word he taught me) and took a swallow of the red juice. The vodka concealed by the color, but no one that knew my grandfather was ever fooled.

I take a seat in the creaky, wooden dining room chair that sits to the left of the office chair. When we first started our routine, I carry the chair back at the end of each visit, but now I’m too weak to protest, so it sits there every weekday night waiting for my return. I’m sure it bothers him to snake around the damn thing every night when goes to check his email, but he’s never said a word.

My grandpa pecks at the keyboard and images of his first wife vanish from the screen. Other pictures take her place, and I’m surprised by the chronology: second wife (my grandmother crocheting prior to the MS), their children (my dad with long hair and buck teeth), and then shots of my two sisters and I aging from infants to teenagers and all of the awkwardness in between. His life flashes onto and off the screen in seconds. The computer fan whirs and a life that’s just about out of gas passes away back into a binary plasma until they’re called back to the screen again.

Against the wall, next to the computer is an old roll-top desk covered in picture frames. I had attributed these remnants of the past to my grandmother’s sense of decorating, but she’s been gone for several years and still the frames remain. They make the house feel smaller as if it’s full of life, while my parents home seems devoid of pictures as if they would take up too much space. I’ve overheard my mother comment to my father that she likes clean, sharp lines.

I grab one of the frames and wipe my finger around the corners. When I look at my finger I expect to see a smudge of dust, but there’s nothing there but the whorls of my fingerprint. It reminds me of a time when I was younger when I was active in Cub Scouts and our group leader took us down to the local police station to have all of us fingerprinted. It satisfied the requirements of one of the badges, though I no longer had the stoll they were collected on. The cop was fat with smelly breath that leaked out of a mouth covered by the wisps of a half-grown mustache. His face was so round, his hair buzzed tight to his scalp, it could have used the extra hair to give his features some kind of definition. His head looked like a watermelon perched atop human shoulders. I wondered if he got punched a lot. A face like that was just asking to be pummeled. He took my wrist roughly and pushed my thumb into the ink pad, rolling it right and left as if I didn’t have any motor control, as if I were a doll, a thing he could fling around as he chose. He made a big deal about telling us, six boys under the age of thirteen, that the fingerprints would help the police find us if we were ever taken. Alive? I wanted to ask, but didn’t because I didn’t want him to remember me. I kept thinking about the record they now had of my prints, how they’d now be a part of the national database, where if I should ever commit a crime they’d be able to link me to the crime scene. Now I didn’t plan on committing any crimes not then, and not now, but I didn’t like the thought of them having everything they needed. And I’d given it to them willingly.

My grandpa sighs as he repositions himself in the leather office chair. He tabs at the keyboard and the flight simulator comes onto the screen. The rattle of a large engine blares from the speakers that sit next to the bulky rear-projection monitor.

“I know it’s your turn to pick the destination, but I’d like to have another turn. You don’t mind, do you?” he asks, his eyebrows raised, as if this is an honest question, when we both know that I don’t care where we go. Even when I do pick a place, it’s only to make him happy and through his gentle suggestions.

“Like Hell,” I say, because that’s how we talk to each other. A couple of old men, who should have seen better days, but they never really materialized.

“”Good, because there’s a flight I’ve always wanted to pilot and I think today is the day.”

“Just tell me that we’re not going to Europe again, because that took forever. And you were definitely over your limit that night.

“That’s why I’ve got my copilot.” he squeezes my neck, but the pressure seems weaker than usual.

“My captain, my captain, where are we headed?”

“Boston to California, my good lad.”

“And our mood tonight? Cherished memory or shameful regret?”

He takes a long drink of his Bloody Mary–his father’s drink. “Oh a little of both, I’m afraid. It’s the measure of life.”

“Just as long as we can land the thing this time. That airport in Fiji was unreal. Who plops an airport down between the ocean and a mountain? I can’t believe people really fly there.”

“I don’t think we’ll have to worry about the landing this time.”

“Fine. Then move over old man and pass me that keyboard. I’ll take her up to cruising altitude.”

He rocked his chair to the right and slid the keyboard closer toward my waiting hands. I moved my fingers expectantly like a Jazz pianist. Tap, Tap. The keys responded to my poking and the plane on the screen rattled to life. The pilot avatar, with only his hands showing, since the camera in the game was slotted for first person point of view, pushed the speed lever forward and the camera switched to the outside of the plane where it taxied faster down the runway. The number on the tail of the plane was 73. I tapped a key and the camera focused back on the cockpit. The simulator was actually pretty easy to play in that it only took a few taps of the keys to get the plane up into the air and cruising along. Like most kids my age, I enjoyed more complex and violent games, but the one time that I tried one of these games with my grandfather he almost broke my controller by throwing it at the ground. He had stomped out of the room and refused to return until I had got the goddamn thing off the screen.

I pivot the camera from cockpit, to the engines, to the tail, and then to the interior where usually there were pixelated people stretched out across the seats. In this flight, there were two lone avatars sitting in the front close to the cockpit door. The graphics aren’t up-to-date, so the two figures look too much like cartoons compared to the newer games that were made for the latest gaming consoles. I flip through row after row until I get to the front and I notice that the figures match our likenesses. A few months back, as a joke, we had made ourselves using the limited character building options. I looked more like a kindergartener than a sophomore in high school and my Grandfather had really large biceps, which he assured me he used to have in his own youth. I didn’t remember ever actually adding them to the passenger list before tonight though.

“Where’s the rest of the passengers?”

“Check the Flight List, Co-pilot.”

A few clicks of the mouse takes me away from the interior of the plane and to a screen with a list of the passengers. My grandfather and I are the only names on the list.

“Where are all the other fake people? Donny, the accountant with the drinking problem, and Celeste, who is thinking about running away from her family?” Sometimes we make up fake backstories for the other avatar passengers. It’s our way of living different lives I guess, though sometimes I wonder if I’ve lived enough of my own to know that someone’s else’s life might be better. I’m just starting, I want to tell God or the universe, whoever is control.

“We’re flying solo, bud. I didn’t want anyone else on this flight.”

Why, I almost ask him, but there’s something in his voice that stops me from asking. Even when I was a child, it wasn’t a question he ever liked to answer. Ask your mom, he’d tell me over and over.

“I guess we’d better get this over with,” he says, as if he’s suddenly exhausted. “Would you get me another one of these while I get us back on track?” He hands me his glass, the smell of tomato and vodka drifts between us and I can’t tell if it’s coming only from the cup or if he’s getting closer to that moment where the smell of his body is more vodka and tomato than his normal smell of cigarettes and western aftershave.

In the kitchen, I rinse out the red residue from the bottom of the glass. He hides the vodka in the cabinet next to the sink. He told me once that a man shouldn’t be ashamed of the things in his home, but he didn’t need to invite gossip either, so the vodka stayed hidden and guests were offered Pepsi. The bottle is large, with a round bottom and a long neck. There isn’t much in there, maybe enough for two or three drinks so I pour about half into the glass. I don’t have much experience in this, so I don’t know if it would be considered the normal amount or not, but I’ll have to warn him that’s he’s almost out. I grab the tomato juice from the ancient and yellowing fridge. It’s so old that the seal in the door doesn’t work all that well and the door opens easier than a swinging gate. As I pour the juice, I try to imagine again what it tastes like and why it’s so appealing to my grandfather. How could he stand to drink one or six every night? My mother had outlawed alcohol in our home except for the rare bottle of wine around the holidays. It’s not something my father or her ever talked about with us, but I’d never seen either of them drunk. It wasn’t how they dealt with the minor dramas of their lives. My mother, especially, attacked everything head on and she relied on her ability to be ever present if a problem should arise. Alcohol would have diminished her ability to concentrate on the solution, a solution she might suffer over for weeks.

“Ty, why don’t you make yourself one too,” my Grandfather shouted.

I walked into the next room carrying the glass, my legs already stiffening up from standing long enough to make the drink. I wish I could tell him about the pain, how I know that it might be coming back.

“You sure?” I ask, handing him the cup. “I don’t want anyone to get in trouble.”

“Go, go.” He shoos me away with his free hand. “We won’t tell your mother. Besides what good is flying first class if you can’t enjoy the free drinks?” He smiles over the brim of his glass, takes a long drink, and motions for me to hurry up.

Though it feels like I’m dragging my left leg, I hurry into the kitchen. I open the cabinet with the cups and I hesitate. At home, we only use plastic cups, but that seems so childish when I’m going to have my first drink, so I grab a glass like my grandfather’s and I go to work making another drink.

My mother didn’t like these visits. Not because of my grandfather’s language or references about the seedier things he had done in his life, though these things were usually included in her arguments with my father; arguments that I wasn’t supposed to hear, but inevitably heard, because my mother’s vehemence didn’t allow her to whisper. No her real problem with the way that I spent my Saturday nights was that she thought that I was wasting my time. Time that had become even more precious as I got older and the chances of remission twindled. She’d casually mention dances or movies, things I could do with my friends. Normal things, she never said, but her eyes often pleaded in those few minutes we spent passing each other in the darkened hallway outside of my bedroom before I went off to bed. My friend options had narrowed through the years as my cancer became normal, boring, and a thing they could avoid without much guilt. It was no longer cool to hang out with the kid with cancer. And I too had realized that it was no longer worth trying to fit in. I never would. So I helped my grandfather fly his simulation missions and waited. This, I wanted to tell my mother, is when I owned time.

When I sit back down I notice two things: the first is that my grandfather’s drink is about gone already and that there is something wrong with the plane. The plane takes a wide arc and the engine starts to whine with the increase in speed. We’re traveling at 500 miles per hour and the pixelated clouds look like marching marshmallows as they glide over the windshield. A bell dings warning us that we’ve drifted well off of our original course. Another warning sounds goes off, reminding us that we may run out of gas or stall at these speeds. My grandfather hits the spacebar twice and the alarms are silenced leaving only the synthetic sound of rushing wind outside the simulated cockpit. We’ve never went off course before, nor have we ever cranked the plane up to these speeds. The game, with its weak graphics and lousy processor hitches and threatens to crash.

“Are you trying to give your fake self a heart-attack?”

“I wish it were that easy, Ty.” He shakes his head and holds up his glass. “Let’s drink, son.”

He gestures at my glass and I hold mine up like his as if we’re about to toast.

“Normally, for a first drink I’d tell you to take it slow, but tonight’s a little different and we don’t have the time for all of that namby-pamby stuff. We’ll drink together, alright? Don’t stop until I do. Can you do that for me, Ty?”

The tone of his voice–sad, angry, a bit hostile–makes me look him in the eye and I can see why my dad is so scared of him, but also why he loves him so much. I’m surprised that he’s not crying, but finally I nod and put the glass up to my lips. The smell of tomato is strong and the glass is cold against my lips. We tip our glasses and at first it tastes only like soup, but then as the liquid slides down my throat I think of eating hot food, campfires, and the time I had bronchitis. I tip the glass until it feels as though I’m drowning. I catch, from the corner of my eye, my grandfather lowering his glass and finally I take the cup away and suck in air.

“Jesus, How do you drink that stuff?” I wipe my mouth the back of my hand.

“It’s an acquired taste,” he says, laughing. I laugh too and I think of that scene in Beauty and the Beast where Gaston sings about his triumphs. I don’t mention this thought, because it’s another reminder of just how young I must seem to him.

“Grandpa, why are we doing all of this?” I wave my hands and arms around as if I’m a conductor who is fed up with his orchestra, indicating God knows what, because my head feels as though it’s trying to float away from my neck. The edges of my vision have gone a bit sparkly as the liquid settles in my stomach.

“Just watch the screen. A few more minutes and we’ll have our answer.”

“Answer? What? What are we doing?”

Tap, tap at the keys and my grandfather drops the plane several thousand feet. The camera tilts and I know that we’re nosing down toward the ground. The Earth comes into focus and I’m amazed again at how it looks like a patchwork quilt with it’s tidy squares of farmland and suburbs.

“Ty, We don’t have much time.”

“Time for what? This is getting a bit creepy Grandpa. Even for you.” Nervous, I take another sip of the drink.

“I wanted to see what it felt like. You know, to make those calls.”

“What calls? Look, the plane is going to crash,” I said, pointing at the screen. I killed thousands of soldiers in my own games, but I didn’t want this plane to crash.

I reached for the keyboard and he smacked my hand. It didn’t hurt at first, just stung like I was a child, the one I’d been trying to hide all night.

“What the hell was that for?” I sat back in my chair, a little afraid of where this was all going.

“You remember the movie we watched a couple of weeks ago? The one about Flight 73?”

“9/11? That was over ten years ago. What does that have to do with anything?”

“What doesn’t it have to do with? I’ve got some news. Bad news, actually. And I wanted to tell you when we were watching that movie, but I saw you crying…” I start to protest, and he waves me down. “I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with it, but I thought we had heard enough about death that night, so I’ve been trying to figure how to tell you ever since.”

The bells and alarms are back, forcing their way out of the speakers. I glance at the screen and the plane looks as though it’s been flung like an arrow toward the earth. A field comes closer, the individual details coming into focus. The field is surrounded by several small groups of trees, their branches fanned out like a huddle of school children waiting for the bus in winter.

“We’ve got to pretend here like I’m on that flight. I know I’m headed for a crash that you don’t walk away from. They’ve got these phones on the plane, you see, that can call anywhere in the world from the air. I’m up there with those other people, and I’m crying, and praying and cussing and I’m only thinking about you, Ty. You’ve been dealt a shitty hand. Christ. At your age, but I call you, son, because I know that you’ll understand. You might not remember it, but you’ve stared down that coward Death before and I need your strength, because he’s coming for me now. My plane is going down and I thought I was ready, but I’m not so sure now. So I thought I’d see what it was like to die. And I’ve been thinking about it for weeks, and this is the only thing I could think of and I’m sorry you have to come along, but I need a co-pilot for this last flight.”

He looks at me and the anger is gone, replaced by the same emotion I often find in my own eyes when I look in the mirror: fear.

I pull my chair closer and I take his hand. If I ignore the calluses and the gnarled knuckles, the skin is clammy and weightless, his grip loose, as if he’s waiting me for me to lead the way. We brace ourselves for the impact, holding onto each other, knowing full well that neither can really save the other, but in this simulated moment of panic, we take solace in knowing that somebody else is there. It won’t protect our bodies, as the plane hurtles toward the Earth, but for these last seconds, we free-fall into the place where our bodies, finally, cannot harm us.

No one died that day, at least not anybody real. We never flew again. We had, finally, one less mystery. Death, we agreed, could wait.

 

 

BIO

Tommy DeanTommy Dean is the author of a flash fiction chapbook entitled Special Like the People on TV from Redbird Chapbooks. A graduate of the Queens University of Charlotte MFA program, he has been previously published in the Watershed Review, Wilderness House Literary Review, r.kv.r.y, Boston Literary Magazine, Foliate Oak, and Gravel. Find him @TommyDeanWriter on Twitter.

 

 

 

0
Jackie Bridges

J is for Jammy

by Jacqueline Bridges

 

 

To My Beautiful Wife, my lover,

This is not a suicide letter.

I am not planning to kill myself, you, or my neighbor (my contempt for Mr. Sherry’s lavish spending is of no consequence in this matter).

The opportunity to read this letter should arise after my untimely death, but should not coincide with my funeral. This should be addressed afterward.

I know how these things go.

Modest, black garb and white, gaunt faces will crowd around at my wake, and the occasional muffled sob will echo in the foyer at my service. I am not worried about that day, for it will take care of itself. This is about what will soon follow.

As a keen observer, I can predict what will come next: day-to-day life, which can be summed up by a famous cliché, “time heals all wounds.” Eventually, you will move on. At first, you will feel my breath on the back of your neck. The guilt will hover around your shoulders, like my corrective criticism that enabled you to recognize your faults during our arguments. In this case, please turn to another famous cliché, “this too shall pass.” I have other plans for you. Before long, you will return to our favorite independent theater and join the discussions on the use of light to portray cinematic themes.

Those were some of our best times, I think.

I encourage you to remain seated in the theater until all of the credits have scrolled off the screen. It will be difficult to sit alone, without me at your side, but it is the right thing to do. On this we both agree.

It will be like it was before, enjoying a glass of red wine by the fireside of the Bistro that shares a wall with our little theater. I can imagine the long, clear stem snuggling between your fingers as the balloon glass rests upon your delicate palm. Do not let the wait staff intimidate you. If needed, use my tasting notes as a reference guide, and remember two simple rules when ordering: One, always order red wine, and two, if you must order a white, the drier the better. Now I will present my first gift to you, Jammy.

I hope you cherish both syllables. Jam∙my.

I thought you might like to use it when describing your wine. The adjective should not die with me. The word will earn you respect in many circles, albeit, not with your mother or sister, but definitely amongst a more educated crowd. Word of caution—use it sparingly, that’s my trick. I hope you picked up on my foreshadowing when granting you your first gift. Of course you did. Your persistence to increase your observation skills has paid off. You have always been an astute pupil. Yes, there are two other gifts I will be adding to the collection. I was known for my generous spirit in life, and it is something that should be remembered in my passing as well. I would like to bequeath my anthology of first editions to you.

Many of our relatives will insist on owning one, claiming they want a piece of me. Do not listen to them. They are merely scavengers. Only you will honor my love of literature. Anyone else will sell them to the highest bidder at the first sign of financial crisis, but you would never consider it. I trust you will hold them dear to your heart, as they were to mine.

And for my final act, I have some advice you will want to heed. It is obvious that you rely on me for certain things in our marriage. I have no qualms with that. Each person should put their energy to the tasks they perform best. Numbers have always been my strength, but it is something you can develop.

Some people think they are better than others, that finance is an art few individuals have the eye for.

I disagree.

It can be taught, and it can be learned. On my bedside table, you will find the three most influential money management books of the current year. Feel free to read them. I recommend a highlighter and small notebook when scouring the pages. As for my gift, I am leaving you with a sizable nest egg. However, it is important you do not squander it. Grief can be a terrible thing that clouds our judgment. Remember Ms. Pendleton? I should hate to think that some salesman will try to take advantage of a lonely widow like you.

For your protection, I have locked your nest egg into a three-step ladder, high-yield CD. You will learn all about CDs in your new evening reading. I have arranged a small allotment to see to the funeral expenses, but our accountant will release the first of three CDs, 12 months after my passing. This will keep you from splurging on frivolous trips or fancy cars to fill the initial void, but once the year has passed, I will relinquish control because you will be ready to create your own portfolio. I know you can do it.

That is all I have to offer at this time. I wish I had more to give; more time and more love. If we are privileged to marry in our next life, I will choose you. My wish is to make you happy, or at the very least comfortable. If you happen to find true love again, falling twice in this lifetime, I will not keep you from it. In fact, I will be happy for you, but if that is the case, please pay a visit to Harold Andrews. I had him draft a pre-nuptial agreement.

Sincerely,

Your Husband, your lover

 

My thoughts are interrupted, “Lover?” It’s my wife’s voice.

I cover my paper as best I can, trying to exude indifference. It would have worked, had my hands not flailed in the air before coming to rest squarely on the letter.

“Who’s that for?” Her voice raises in anticipation, and I can tell she believes it to be a love letter, for her. She’s about to be disappointed.

“It’s nothing.” My voice cracks.

“Nonsense!” Carly pushes my hand away and reaches for the letter. “Let me read it.”

There’s nothing I can do, but wait, with outstretched arms, ready to dry her tears. At first, Carly smiles. I know my terms of endearment must be the cause. Right after, her smile falls flat. She must be past the first paragraph by now—she’s a speed reader of sorts. I expected this. She’s quiet for the length of the letter. Not a frown, no smiles, no scrunched brow. Finally, she lowers the letter and tilts her head sideways, the same way our lab does when we’re talking to him.

“Who’s this for,” she demands.

I’m quick to jump in, “You, of course.”

“You don’t call me lover.”

“I might,” I defend. When I see that she doesn’t buy it, I shrug, “I might start.”

She returns her attention to the letter, ignoring my last comment. I can see that she’s in shock, so I offer my condolences, “There’s a chance I’ll pass away before you.”

Carly’s smile returns, this one a bit wicked, “A good chance.”

I push past her joke, then ask, “So, what do you think?”

Now her eyebrows scrunch, “It’s cute.”

I jump up, “It’s cute?!” My voice is strained, “It’s my last wishes—you can’t call it cute.”

She purses her lips, and I know she’s holding back.

“What? Is there something on my list you can’t honor?” I place my hand on my heart, “I need to know if you can do the things I ask?”

“Seriously?” she’s practically laughing.

“Seriously!”

“Okay, then.” She traces the lines of my letter, then stops, “First of all, I don’t like that artsy theater. It smells like mold. I go there for you—so I won’t be going there once you’re dead.”

I hold a hand up, “Please, once I pass away.

“What do you care what I call it if you’re dead.”

I wince.

“Fine,” she rolls her eyes. “Once you pass away, I’ll be seeing movies at the new theater in that strip mall of 6th avenue, you know, the one with the reclining seats.”

“Fine.” I look for a pen so I can strike the theater reference in my letter. “Anything else? It’s best to clarify it now.”

“Yeah,” she jumps right in, “I’m not using that word.” She’s pointing at my Jammy reference.

“What?”

“I’m not using it. It sounds ridiculous.” She pauses, “Even when you say it.”

I place my hand on my heart once more, “It’s very descriptive, in a classic way.”

“And what’s this about your first editions?” She turns, holding the paper out for me to see. She’s like a cat, swift, sneaky, and in full attack mode before I’ve even registered her last move. “Do you mean your comic books?” she asks, a furtive brow in place.

“They’re first editions!” I defend.

She purses her lips again, “So it’s safe to say you took a few liberties with this, aye?”

“Aye?” I taunt, “It depends on your circle. For the record, I don’t include Cananda in my circle, nor your sister.”

Mentioning her sister triggers the let’s not go to bed angry glare, but she moves past it sooner than I expect. “Okay.” She says. Her tone is even, lacking the placating tone I’ve come to listen for, “I can go with that—among your friends,” she clears her throat, “and perhaps many other Americans, your collection may be an asset.”

It bothers me that she placed quotations around my collection, but I’ve escaped an argument at this point, so I just nod.

“But in what circle is 5000 dollars a sizable nest egg? American or not.”

I snatch the letter from her hands, “Obviously I’m not going to die for a long time.” I fold the paper up and slip it into an envelope, “Just wait, that nest egg is going to be huge. It’s called compounding interest, but of course you don’t know about that yet.” I lick the envelope and seal it. “I can see you’re not ready for this just yet. I’ll find nice spot for it, someplace safe. Don’t worry,” I add, “When you’re truly ready, you’ll find it.”

She smiles, “I’ll never be ready for Jammy.”

 

 

BIO

Jackie BridgesJacqueline Bridges works as a guidance counselor to junior high students, where she puts her Masters degree to work, and then some. She is new to flash fiction and reads it daily (even in the counseling office). Her students join her weekly for a writing club, where they impress her with stories about fairies, dragons, and golden retrievers. She has three publications to-date, with 365 Tomorrows, Touch Poetry, The Fable Online, and Short Fiction Break. She’s currently working on a young adult, science fiction novel, mostly void of fairies, dragons, and golden retrievers.

 

 

 

0

Space Ex

by Sara Regezi

 

 

Dear Mr. Musk and the Mars Colony Selection Committee:

My name is Trudy McCormick, and I am ready to be a Martian. I eagerly read your announcement regarding your proposed colonization of Mars and now, just moments later, I have retrieved this stationery and am writing to you forthwith of my qualifications for Martian space travel.

I know you will seek a broad swath of sturdy Earthlings for the journey and I’d like to count myself among those brave souls. I have worked as a homemaker, and formerly as a Girl Scout leader in these United States, for more than 20 years. I know you will have plenty of engineers and scientists among your chosen crew, but can any of them create a satisfying casserole from last night’s picked-over meatloaf?

My husband Frank will attest to my creativity in the kitchen, as referenced above, as well as my overall innovative mind. He will, in fact, tell you that I should be put in a padded room for some of my ideas, but I ask you, Mr. Musk, as a true futurist, isn’t that the attitude that innovators have so often faced?

I just re-read the above paragraph: let me be clear, this letter is in support of my Martian mission, not my husband’s. Yes, he is somewhat handy on Earth, but he would only muck up the works on the Red Planet. Frank does not dream like you or I, Mr. Musk. His two feet are firmly planted in the U S of A. When they’re not elevated in the La-Z-Boy, that is. Frank took early retirement at our local GM parts factory two years ago and he is, frankly (pardon the pun, his name is Frank), driving me nuts. I believe that my becoming a Martian colonist would help our relationship, in that he might actually learn some survival skills on this third planet from the Sun, while I’m busy colonizing the fourth.

Anyway, in addition to creativity, your chosen few will also need the ability to withstand incredible hardship during the difficult journey just to get to Mars. When I think back on our 1989 trip from Grand Rapids, Michigan, where we live, to Ft. Lauderdale in a mini-van (this is me, Frank, and FOUR children), I believe that a nine-month trip in a spaceship with actual grown-ups would be a relative picnic. Now, as then, I can easily entertain a pod-full of people with song and story, while also breaking up arguments that arise—though this time I promise not to reach back and pull anyone’s hair!

And once we land on Mars, the hardship will have only begun, I realize. As I read on your website, Mars is currently not a terribly hospitable place, but I believe I can help make it welcoming to humans. You see, having raised four children from scratch, I understand the challenge of sustaining life, at least on Earth. The job is never finished.

In fact, our oldest, April, now 33, has just moved back in with Frank and me, along with her three kids, Lonnie, Lori and Lynn, 12, 8, and 5 respectively. April has “checked out” and prefers to spend her evenings at the Red Lamp Tavern rather than with her children, so I am in the unique position lately of entertaining three of my nine grandchildren on a nightly basis. Lonnie’s homework he proclaims “total B.S.” and stomps off to play with his phone most evenings. Lori, the eight-year-old, is disturbingly enamored of rap music, reciting the most foul lyrics you can imagine at the top of her lungs. Poor Lynn has taken to carrying around one of my pink slippers in her arms, calling it her “lost little lamb.” Meanwhile, Frank just turns up the volume on ESPN.

But I digress. In summary, Mr. Musk and honorable Selection Committee, I believe I have the qualifications for life on Mars, given my ample Life Experience on Earth. In fact, I believe my talents are desperately in need of a new interplanetary outlet, rather than being wasted within the ever-shrinking confines of our house here on East Hazel Street.

One question I have for you: what is the time frame for your mission? Please note: I am ready as soon as the ship is space-worthy. I eagerly await your orders.

Sincerely,

Trudy McCormick,
Grand Rapids, MI
(Future Proud Martian)

 

 

BIO

Sara RegeziSara Regezi is a former copywriter, former comic, former musician, and current nurse practitioner in Silver Spring, Maryland. She wants to marry Jess Walter except that she’s already married (and so is he, probably). Her previous work has appeared on girlcomic.net and live onstage with Monalog Cabin. She is thrilled to be published in Writing Disorder.

 

0
Charles Lowe

Dear Mrs. Wei Wei

by Charles Lowe

 

I am a graduate student in my mid thirties living in the U.S. with a dining common worker from a district shaped like a dumpling in the north of China and have, for some time, been worried – even before she told me her ex wanted an interview with me before the two of us could get married, an announcement greatly troubling as I was unaware that I was both a candidate for marriage and a candidate to marry a woman who was still seeking advice from her ex.

“You afraid to meet?” Mrs. Wei Wei asked.

“Of course not, I’m busy correcting the first batch of papers,” I said, “on the most significant event in a student’s life.”

“Don’t worry,” Mrs. Wei Wei smiled.

“I’m not,” I smiled. “I know who Mrs. Wei Wei is,” which was true. Mrs. Wei Wei was the pen name my possibly soon-to-be wife took when she wrote an advice column for The Tianjin Daily. Her readers also called her the Good or Wise Auntie or the Queen of Dumplings on account of the culinary references spicing up her column.

The first I saw of the Good or Wise Auntie of Tianjin was inside an album Mrs. Wei Wei showed me on our second date. The album was moldy from having been stored beneath a bed she and her sister had shared. It had a bent corner either from its journey from the Machang District to graduate housing in UMASS or from a smaller yet less well insulated travel cross town from campus housing to a sublet, which she shared with a Born Again couple until she moved in with me.

Each plastic envelope held a photo. The first showed Mrs. Wei Wei with her mother next to a Ferris wheel near the Hai River. Mrs. Wei Wei’s mother had broad shoulders and a face touched by sunlight mixed with gravelly soot. An inky swirl overlapped the thin eyelids of the Good or Wise Auntie enough so that I didn’t recognize the Queen of Dumplings until I spotted a smile surfacing on the edges of her lips. The second flap was empty. The third showed Mrs. Wei Wei in a gray factory uniform. A line looking like a thread was stuck to the edge of one sleeve. Mrs. Wei Wei’s roommate at college was in a fourth posing in front of a mirror, but flipping through the other pages I did not find evidence of the man I was to replace, assuming Mrs. Wei Wei’s choice met with the first Mr. Wei Wei’s approval.

Of course, my possible future wife had not always been Mrs. Wei Wei. Her preparation for the role started one Friday evening when at age six she was entrusted with pinching together the ends of the rice dumpling wrappers: a task which afforded her the chance to listen in on the advice ladled out in equal portions to her relatives in Tianjin, Shenzhen, as well as a few in a beach suburb of LA. While slicing the pork and scallions as well as preparing the vinegar and soy sauce, her Auntie espoused on the medical efficacy of ginger to heal a romantic wound. Her mother, sister, and uncle took turns molding the dough from scratch while each furnished a point on the significance of good planning: the principle applied in equal measure to the use of yeast in helping the rice dough rise and to the employment of favors, guanxi, to facilitate a deal with a municipal government official.

But while her mom, sis, and uncle as well as auntie all had a significant impact on her columns, her elder cousin was the most profound influence. The cousin had risen to be the Assistant Loan Office at HSBC, a noted criminal enterprise in the district, and had acquired over a steady climb a well-measured understanding over how to prepare advice that could burn off a tongue. Her favorite piece was THE TALLEST BLADE OF GRASS HAS ONLY ONE DESTINY. The cousin made a slicing motion down her right breast so as to complete the thought before adding extra ginger for mom’s but not uncle’s dipping sauce.

Mrs. Wei Wei recalled the heaps of ginger that scorched her cousin’s sauce when she was biking in late March during the windstorm season when a curtain of soot and dust descended onto Tianjin. Mrs. Wei Wei was a cub reporter and was weaving out of traffic: one hand on the loose handlebar of her used Schwinn. The other hand she used to push aside a curtain blanketing her eyelids when a truck, carrying used tires, hit a motorized cycle to Mrs. Wei Wei’s right, crushing one spoke but leaving the cyclist undamaged. Mrs. Wei Wei considered then asking the chief editor for a post that did not involve chasing down factory managers on a used Schwinn with loosely attached handlebars throughout the Nankai and Machang Districts.  But she remembered the destiny of a tall grass blade and pedaled through a few more storms none so severe as the first. After swerving one time around an accident committed by a cute Lada, Mrs. Wei Wei returned to a washroom where as the sole woman on staff, she felt entitled to a bit of privacy.

The news she heard, while dislodging the mix of soot, dust, and gravel from her right pant leg, was not especially memorable.  The present Mrs. Wei Wei was toasting the chief editor for his generosity in agreeing to let the advice columnist transfer to the business page. The six preceding Mrs. Wei Wei’s had all managed in the course of six months to transition out of the Health & Science page to departments as varied as travel and hygiene. None of these gentlemen wanted to remain a good or wise auntie, apportioning out common or uncommon sense to the teenage and twenty something women who composed Mrs. Wei Wei’s primary audience. “But I am thinking,” Mrs. Wei Wei added in a voice soft enough not to wake her Born Again housemates, “maybe my elder cousin is wrong. I know that sounds ridiculous. A Junior Loan Officer from HSBC wrong, but anyway to be the taller blade may be worth the chance. I am taller than the average girl in the Machang and Nankai Districts and am tired of pedaling through a thick mix of soot and gravel.

“Without much preparation, I rush out the washroom to offer the services of a family of Mrs. Wei Wei’s. The Chief Editor pretends not to see the toilet paper, which I later find clings to my black corduroys, and declares ‘you can be Mrs. Wei Wei for now.’

“Okay, the edges of my dry lips tighten. I am still a reporter. So I still have to drive through a mix of soot and gravel to discover a factory that through its workers’ collective efforts has overtaken a counterpart in Liverpool, England. I clutch onto the handlebars that have loosened again on Race Course Avenue and arrive at mommy’s where I take over the mixing duties while Miss HSBC (my cus’ nickname) offers help on how to inflate travel receipts, the critical attribute of a junior loan officer, so I cannot be Mrs. Wei Wei until 10 when I return to our apartment. The husband isn’t back from the library—and can start the advice. The girl wants a hukou.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“A residence permit, they’re impossible for a country girl from Henan to get unless she bonds with a fellow with legal status. So that’s what I tell her. Find a legal boy. Better if he’s a blade of grass that’s slightly confused. Fix yourself on him. Don’t let go. After signing off for the first time as Mrs. Wei Wei, I feel reasonably satisfied resting on my first husband’s leathery skin, his breathing as if through blades of evenly sliced grass, when I see I may be Mrs. Wei Wei only for a short time. What I will be after? A letter arrives. The note is on a slender sheaf of rice paper.”

Mrs. Wei Wei showed me the rice paper, which was slight enough to crumple up in my palms.

Dear Mrs. Wei Wei, for the past 6 ms, my husband reads to me the dream of the red mansions until I want to get big just to close his thick lower lip. Still my belly is a wide-open valley. We’re living with his Mom who complains she’s had to give up her bed, no reason. Mom tests the mattress. The blanket does have firm corners. Still I haven’t blown up. Am joyless. Mom claims I’m defective and wants to return me to my real mom, but my real mom claims it’s the dumplings my husband’s elder sis’s fed me and has taken to bringing over stinky tofu until my nose blocks up. I’m dead. Mom wants best bed back. What should do?

                                                Lost and Possibly Less a Bed

Mrs. Wei Wei was beaming at me, the ink from the rice paper bleeding into her fingers. “I’m confused,” I said.

“Simple,” Mrs. Wei Wei kept beaming. “The girl is living with her husband’s parents. They’ve given her their bed and hope she can produce a grandson for them as soon as possible.”

“And,” I added, “despite heavy doses of classical literature and traditional cuisine, Ms. Lost and Possibly Less a Bed hasn’t become pregnant, and her in-laws are blaming her.”

“Exactly,” Mrs. Wei Wei tightened the corners of her lips.

“What solution did the Queen of Dumplings serve up?” I smiled.

“Break the skin,” she said, completing her advice with the same slicing motion as her elder cousin had perfected.

“Really,” I took the letter from Mrs. Wei Wei’s hand.

“She’s not been…you know, penetrated.”

“That can happen?”

“Sure. Chinese boys are idiots. We’re all been married to one. The mom is the true problem. She’s going to require physical evidence.”

Mrs. Wei Wei took the letter from my hand.

Dear Lost and Possibly Less a Bed,

            Do not worry. Your problem calls for a simple recipe. Be sure to have the right grip. Put too much inside the wrapper. The dumpling falls apart. Too little mix. It looks like a dead roach. Here’s what you do. Find the fold of skin. If you need help, ask a local auntie. Gently nudge the fold of skin with the tip of a broom handle. If there’s blood, you know the answer. Here’s the answer. Kindly keep a sample hidden in a folded corner of the sheet on your side. Shut the lights off. Second rule. Men want to believe they are in control. Keep the lights off. Mrs. Wei Wei has learnt that destiny through her many experiences, preparing dumplings and salted river fish. After your Mr. Wei Wei starts on top of you, grip his shoulders like you’re holding onto the blade of a butcher’s knife. Guide him over you. Let him believe he is in control, that you are following him, not the other way around. Never scream. He’ll hear his own screams anyhow. When your Mr. Wei Wei is asleep, pour a few droplets of blood near the bottom corner of the bed. Left or right, doesn’t matter? If your mom’s got a maid, let that small potato remove the sheet. If she doesn’t, you do. Make sure to leave the sheet out. Your mom will see the answer. She’ll let you rest comfortably on the best bed. She may fold the top sheet. Soon you’ll be throwing up in a squat down like any other woman. You will be happy.

                                                Yours Mrs. Wei Wei

Mrs. Wei Wei took out a photo. The baby appeared to be a blurry dumpling except the eyes, which were directed at my stomach. “Lost and Possibly Less a Bed has a beautiful baby,” I said.

“That’s Sunny Smile’s,” Mrs. Wei Wei said. “I get about one snap a week. It seems like every countryside girl with a proper hukou in the Machang and Nankai Districts is applying the end of a broom handle.”

“You’re sure that happened?” I asked.

“Truly,” Mrs. Wei Wei beamed. “When these countryside girls arrive in Tianjin, no aunties or moms are around to give them advice. They only have Mrs. Wei Wei. Some of them can’t read, but there’s always a crowd in front of the bulletin board. I use to watch them huddled up, reading me in the park. I really love it and would’ve stayed Mrs. Wei Wei if my husband hadn’t caught me with the Assistant Editor. That doesn’t end it, but it does start the end.”

“Mrs. Wei Wei had an affair,” I asked.

“Doesn’t matter,” Mrs. Wei Wei shook her head. “My first husband believes I have an affair, and I do let the frog-eyed assistant call me to his office every 3 on Friday afternoon.. His nickname is Frog Eyes, but I’m not a Junior Loan Officer at HSBC! I’m the good or wise auntie and patiently listen to Frog Eyes complain about his wife. She’s from Szechuan and very small in size, so understandably, the short girl floods the skin of a river fish with bits of hot peppercorns while everybody knows you use a little salt, which you can hide with snowflake beer. ‘True enough,’ Frog Eyes says with a high squeak, ‘you want some real Tianjinese fish flavored with a mild dash of ginger.’

“His office lacks an open window, so I go along: what else can a Queen of Dumplings do? He doesn’t order fish. We have fried dumplings: the edges burnt. With green tea, lots of the brown leaves getting caught between my teeth, so I tell him quick. I say, my husband is waiting for me (he’s not). Frog Eyes says he understands and starts following me to my apartment even if our fifth floor faces a post office that is on three concrete columns that are chipped like the wok my mom gave to me as a wedding present.

“Frog Eyes tears up, explaining how his short wife once adds salt instead of spicy peppercorn but way over so even the delightful taste of snowflake can’t hide the grains. I rush up the stairs, two at a time, in the shoes Miss HSBC lends me. They’re one size too small, my feet shaking so that though the guy reaches below my flat chest, he strides ahead of me, slowing down enough to relay the time his mother-in-law visits. His short wife truly burns off the old bitch’s tongue with some vinegar wine when we reach the door of my apartment, which I open a little: figuring to keep Frog Eyes out and me in when Frog Eyes falls against the door, his right shoulder scuffing up the thin wood I have scrubbed that morning—and am surprised then to see my first husband turn partway from a bookcase we keep standing with two slender metal poles.

“My first lets his black-framed glasses slope down the bridge of his nose. He has thin wrinkles which deepen along his brow. His eyes are sunk into his skull, his eyebrows look about to vanish.

“I try explaining the exact circumstances starting with the wrestling match with my immediate superior but stop at the point when my feet shake against the wooden stair. No one’s listening. Frog Eyes I guess decides spicy peppercorns aren’t a bad way to scorch a tongue. My first has also fled towards his mother’s villa on Race Course Avenue, though unlike Frog Eye’s wife, the fish his Red Mom serves is heavily salted.

“In any case, I was thinking his Red Mom must be slicing me up like I was a piece of ginger. His Red Mom, coming from a pure Red family and treats me like I am from the black class: which I am, my great-grandfather growing a li of rice in Suzhou, though that fellow loses the small plot in a mahjong game. Anyways, our family owns property three generations back. Hers doesn’t, so whenever Red Mom speaks to her Black Class Daughter, Red Mom makes the mix like an interview, the questions stiff enough so a black class daughter can dust them in midair.

“I make the half hour travel in five, weaving through a wave of bikes, but my first is already behind Red Mom’s custom made door. It has two iron sheets and a turtle cut into its bronze skin. I try shouting the name of her red son into the turtle’s downturned mouth, Shen! No answer. I say, Red Mom, please forgive. This time I look at the door handle which is shaped like a dislocated thumb. Still no answer, and put my fist through the part of the door just below the turtle’s shell until my fist bleeds into the part between the dislocated thumb and the turtle’s downward smile. No answer again. I try all over, figuring I only have to press some more like I’m peddling down Race Course Avenue: one hand gripping the handlebar, the other pushing through a mix of soot and gravelly dust. No answer, I put my head down on the walkway leading to my Red Mom’s four-floor house. The cobblestones feel cold and smooth—when my black class mom digs her fingernails into her younger daughter’s shoulder.   After, drags that daughter back to the daughter and her husband’s fifth-floor apartment next to the three-legged post office. The first Mr. Wei Wei doesn’t return for another week.”

Dear Mrs. Wei Wei,

I received a note once. The note was signed G.B., the initials of my about-to-become ex. The envelope lacked sufficient postage but was meticulously packed with the collection of letters I posted to G.B. over the five years we were together.

“It’s over,” my now ex-girlfriend put down, the ‘o’ and ‘e’ curved in a precise manner, though the ‘t’ had a ridge squiggling onto the blue lines of the perfumed paper.

I am still hurt even though I’m about to be marry another, assuming I can gain her ex’s approval. But I was starting graduate school, and, as you know, when you’re beginning a new phase, it’s natural to put off painful questions such as why did G.B. affix insufficient postage to an envelope containing all my love letters? Was it a standard passive aggressive maneuver? Or was she careless?

“Are you curious?” a co-worker asked at the beginning of an overnight shift at a group home serving catatonic adults including the staff.

“I have a friend from my home. She’s tall like you,” she added, “and reads books—like you. She’s a writer: only she’s been paid. Are you interested?”

The co-worker looked at me.

I didn’t answer and showed up on time at Bonducci’s, a café facing the Amherst Commons. The first thing I noticed. Your face was tilted at an awkward angle. Your hair was dotted with gray sparks. Please don’t take this wrong, but I didn’t find you attractive. I found you pleasant enough. You had a nice smile, the corners of your lips tightening ever so much, but you didn’t say much. I thought your English wasn’t very good and wondered what we’d have to talk about if we ever were alone.

I went back to work an overnight shift at the group home. I hadn’t been on a date for seven years and was bored and overlooked my fears. I called you. “Do I want jiaozi, fried dumplings?” You asked.

“I’m a vegetarian,” I said.  

“Some Taoist monks in my district have the same problem.”

“You have an understanding nature,” I said and showed up on your doorstep with a bottle of juicy juice.

The door was open. I walked in. You were stir-frying bits of pork in a chipped wok. I put down the orangey tangerine beverage and watched you prepare the pork and the tofu mixes while applying the bottom of your palm to flatten a hunk of rice flour dough. I picked up an Advocate and started skimming the classifieds for a used Schwinn. We were both quiet like we’d been married for some time and had run out of things to say. You put a bowl of dumplings in front of me and told me to go ahead, but we weren’t that married, and I waited for you to finish off the string bean and onion stir-fry before I tried to balance an underfed dumpling on a chopstick. The dumpling fell apart. You asked me if I wanted a spoon. I said I could do without but couldn’t.

You took the chopsticks from my hands, lifting the rice flour wrapper to my lips. My head was tilted forward. My mouth was open. I was hungry. You put the wrapper closer. I swallowed and felt the shreds of tofu catch the back of my throat. The shards of ginger burned my tongue. My eyes filled with tears, but after a while, I did grow used to balancing the mix of ginger and tofu on the tip of my tongue. I didn’t say another word, and when you got up, I followed you down a narrow hallway past the door of your bedroom. On the edge of your night table was a matted photo showing a couple. The man smiled, appearing to offer a hunk of ginger. You put the frame down before turning off the lights and digging your fingernails into my shoulder blade.  

You moved into my apartment a few weeks later and after several months more, I decided to stalk your ex. That seemed the reasonable course. He knew I was a candidate for marriage before I did, so I wanted to know more about him. Besides I was curious, and you did tell me he lived on the 12th floor of the library where the comp lit collection was stored. There was a line of cubicles, but none of them had any windows facing out onto the floor, so he could have been there. I didn’t know and went to the grad lounge where a few students were chatting across the front counter. None matched your description, so I had the time to write down some notes, but when it came to finishing the letter, I realized I didn’t have a penname. All your authors had names, summing up their circumstance in a painful yet amusing manner.

I waited for Mr. Wei Wei to assign me one.

* * *

Mr. Wei Wei did not return from the villa on Race Course until a week after Mrs. Wei Wei tried to put her fist through a custom made door and discovered her fist could bleed. After that, the good or wise auntie stopped coming to The Tianjin Daily. Frog Eyes might have felt a twinge of guilt and had the security guard carry over the sheaves of letters, which Mrs. Wei Wei used for a second tablecloth. Mr. Wei Wei became interested in one piece. It had a charcoal mark obscuring one corner and was from A Daughter Pining for Foreign Schooling. The Daughter had wanted to go to graduate school in the States, but her mom and dad had divorced, and the mom had wanted her only child close to home.

“He told the daughter to grab the opportunity?” I said.

Mrs. Wei Wei took out his note from behind a photo of her ex-roommate sitting in front of a mirror. The rice paper contained finely curved characters, which Mrs. Wei Wei put into enough words so that I could understand.

Dear Daughter Pining for Foreign Schools,

        Mrs. Wei Wei has learnt through hard experience the cost of disobeying your mom. Forget the offer letter.

                                                            Yours truly, M.W.W.

“A few months later he gets a fellowship in the States,” Mrs. Wei Wei added. “I don’t know he’s applied.”

“You could have stayed Mrs. Wei Wei?” I said, unfolding an edge of her blanket.

“I think about it for a few months. He goes over first. I know he doesn’t want me. He pens his notes on the back of postcards. Each note is briefer than the last. Finally, he puts one on the back a snapshot of a night table. The table is cheap like a black class girl I’m thinking, but Miss HSBC is advising me on how a wife can maintain a bookworm husband, so I’m thinking the cheap wood might provide a nice resting place for my album.

“I send a card: Am coming over.

Sure, he writes back, and when I arrive, he does try to make me feel comfortable, taking me to the Park where he gets me real ice cream from Herrell’s. I’m happy for a time, not Mrs. Wei Wei at all, but he goes back to being buried in the library. I start biking. It’s early March, and silly black class girl, I expect a storm to blow up the gravel from a partially paved road, but there is no storm, and I’m crossing the Connecticut River, the sky like a mirror whose glass has been shaven thin. When I get back, he’s stuck a note on the chipped wok. Put half our bank account, including the loose change on top of the album. I don’t put my fist through a bronze door. I’m in America and move out.”

I looked up. Mr. Wei Wei was holding the campus newspaper or at least someone with a remarkable resemblance to Mr. Wei Wei was holding a campus newspaper in front of a still life of a vegetable hanging from a wall of the graduate lounge. He had thin wrinkles creasing his brow. His eyes were sunk into his skull. His eyebrows looked like they were going to vanish. He’s on a cushioned stool next to another grad student who was leaning over a counter while flirting with the cashier.

He ate for five minutes. I kept track on my watch. Five minutes exactly. Then, he disposed of the plastic, downed the drink without burning his tongue. Walked out the front exit and turned towards the library. I might’ve been following the wrong ghost, but in case I was chasing the correct shadow, I decided to leave before he could spot me and took a longer route behind the Campus Center before riding an elevator to the comp lit section and sitting down at a desk on the opposite wall from a line of cubicles. I assumed if Mr. Wei Wei left the elevator Mr. Wei Wei would go straight to his cubicle, which, as I predicted, he did, taking a right perpendicular turn and walking towards a cubicle which by the scraping of his tennis shoelaces, sounded to be the second over; I edged to the next aisle when I heard his door lock. I stared at the slender grains of wood for the next nine hours.

At 11:40, the first bell at the library went off though its sound didn’t disturb Mrs. Wei Wei. He was trying to finish up his last bit of note taking inside his cubicle. At ten of, he emptied the contents of some Tupperware into a garbage pail outside. I left before him, so we’ll leave a mystery as to what he dined on that night, only please note, Mrs. Wei Wei, I forgot to be hungry that night and went to the elevator, figuring it was his turn to follow me. I waited then at the circulation desk behind a line of students waiting to check out their books.

Mr. Wei Wei came down empty handed. My guess was that he used his cubicle to store the unchecked out items, a practice in clear violation of library protocol. I didn’t turn him in. I would’ve had to explain my practice of standing guard over a thin sheet of wood guarding his cubicle for under ten hours to the Head Librarian who wore thick spectacles attached to a rubber band ensnaring the back of his skull. Still, having uncovered the possible violation of library rules and regulations, I felt comfortable trailing Mr. Wei Wei more closely when at last I grew too confident and was only a footstep away. Mr. Wei Wei turned on me then, though more likely he was looking through me at a red searchlight at the top of the library tower, which was flickering far brighter than the nearest street lamp.

Mr. Wei Wei crossed the visitor’s parking lot where a line of graduate housing subsisted behind a steel meshed fence. Mr. Wei Wei shut a chipped wooden door before closing a feathery curtain. I went home.

The interview with Mr. Wei Wei took place one week later.

I arrived fifteen minutes ahead of schedule, hoping to get the drop, but the first Mr. Wei Wei was already perched beneath a yellow and black remake of a Campbell’s Soda Can that, unlike the original, was laminated so the metal lines sloped into the yellow backdrop. Mr. Wei Wei pointed me out to some friends who were arrayed on cushioned bar stools, and who, it occurred to me, might also have been informed of my possible marriage before I was. “Do you want something?” Mr. Wei Wei asked.

Mr. Wei Wei waited.

“Cappuccino,” I added.

He took out a few bucks. “My treat,” he said.

“The next is mine,” I said returning my wallet to my side pocket while Mr. Wei Wei wiped a coffee stain from my lips, “How did you guy meet?”

“Through a friend of hers,” I answered. “The friend did overnights with me at a group home serving catatonic patients and staff.”

“Interesting,” Mr. Wei Wei smiled. His hair was cropped. “Do you mind if I’m direct?”

I didn’t answer. He continued, “Have you dated a Chinese girl before?”

“My other girlfriend was Chinese,” I said. “She was from Malaysia though, not China.”

Mr. Wei Wei sipped on his latte. “You like Chinese,” he said.

“She dumped me,” I answered.

Mr. Wei Wei shrugged his shoulders, “Mrs. Wei Wei is very strong.”

“She is,” I agreed. “I’ve felt her fingernails. That’s why you left?

“If that’s not too personal,” I added.

“You’re marrying my first,” Mr. Wei Wei smiled. “We’re almost old friends.”

He stirred the foam in his coffee mug, “It seemed the only way. We stopped talking to one another. I remember I had begun to sleep on the couch when one day, I realized we weren’t the right mix and took out our savings, placing it on our table: then, left her a note explaining to leave enough for the rent.”

“That was more than fair,” I said, wondering whether it was proper etiquette for a candidate to agree with his potential wife’s ex’s account of their breakup.

“Was there a reason?” I asked.

“For what?”

“Why you stopped talking.”

“We never were good at talking. It became more obvious once we got away from home,” he smiled. “How’s the good or wise auntie’s English?”

“Not perfect but good enough,” I smiled. “I understand her stories.”

“That’s a start.”

“How long have you been in graduate school?”

“Seven years,” I said. “She tells me you’ve finished the Ph.D. in less than two years and have a job lined up in the Midwest.”

“I’m moving there with my new wife.”

“Congratulations.”

He shrugged, “Looks like we both have good luck.”

Mr. Wei Wei waved for his friend at the counter to bring over dessert. The two of us spent the next half hour teasing apart a cheesecake until the slice was in crumbs. I looked up a few times, trying to imagine his slender eyebrows behind a thin curtain while Mrs. Wei Wei was resting her head on the stone steps leading to a four-story villa, her fingers bleeding and her palms very red and dry.

Mr. Wei Wei said he had to prepare for his defense in two weeks and got up, leaving before I could ask him for my new name. It didn’t matter. Mr. Wei Wei must have called in a positive report right away because while stir-frying the pork and scallions that evening, Mrs. Wei Wei started to hash out long distance the plans for our wedding with her elder sis, elder cousin and her mom.

I saw the first Mr. Wei Wei once more a few months later when Mrs. Wei Wei asked if we could visit Pulaski Park. She was serving dumplings with pork and bok choy (no scallions), and NoHo was a half hour away, so I was about to ask if we could postpone the journey when she turned off the stove and put away the flowered apron.

When we reached the Park, it was empty, which wasn’t a surprise on a weekday night. I asked Mrs. Wei Wei what she wanted. Mrs. Wei Wei wanted to wait. “In the cold,” I asked.

She shook her head. We waited. I was fidgeting despite my extensive experience as a stalker in front of windowless cubicles. I wanted to tell her I didn’t care. I knew she hadn’t gotten over her first marriage, but that didn’t matter. Mr. Wei Wei and I were almost old friends, and I would have believed what I said was true, but before I could say it, my predecessor slipped out the old Academy of Music with his new Mrs. Wei Wei, and I got up to greet her. Mrs. Wei Wei dug her fingernails into my shoulder blades.

I stay down.

 

 

BIO

Charles LoweCharles Lowe’s work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and has been published or is forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, Fiction International, Guernica, the Pacific Review, Hanging Loose, and elsewhere. His fiction has also been included in the recently published anthology, Friend. Follow. Text. #storiesFromLivingOnline. He lives with his wife and daughter in Zhuhai, China, He is the Programme Director of the Contemporary English Language and Literature programme and the Director of the Cross-Cultural Studies at United International College. He lives with his wife and daughter in Zhuhai, China.

 

 

 

 

0

Dylan’s Roost

by Susan Lloy

 

The man burst into the shop like he was running for his life. Causing the bell on the door to jingle erratically as if it had been jolted from a deep slumber. He brushed himself off from the rain that had settled on his jacket and water dropped to the floor like big tears from a sad tale. He proceeded to the fiction section to examine titles.

I recognized him by his photograph, Penvro Davis, a well-known author. He comes in sporadically, but never engages in conversation. I suspect he’s aware that I know who he is. Though, each time he approaches the counter to pay for a book, he silently hands over the money or bankcard without a single word except, ‘thank you’, before exiting.

I like Penvro’s books. They are cerebral and edgy with characters on the brink with unusual habits and uncommon dreams. But, he hasn’t published for some time now. I often think about him while sitting behind this counter surrounded by second hand books. This is my shop. I’ve been here fifteen years. It isn’t a good living, but I only answer to myself and that pretty much seals it for me.

There is a tiny bell that jingles each time the door opens or closes and I can hear it from every crevice in my shop. Sometimes it barely jingles at all. The space is open and square with a large antique leaded glass window all the way to the back and a glass front that faces the street. Bookshelves run along each wall, divided by author. I always wanted to be a writer and have attempted a novel and a short story collection, but have never completed anything. I roll in a constant state of perpetual planning, jotting down notes for this and plots for that. Putting them in my folder under the counter. Beginning a Word document, rendering words that have no conclusions. Eating a sandwich. Waiting for the door to jingle.

Penvro studies sleeves. Finally, he slides over a collection of three plays by Eugene O’Neill. I’m surprised. He hands over a twenty-dollar bill without words or gestures. As I give him back his change, I flirt with the idea of asking him to look at my work. Yet, this doesn’t seem likely. He leaves briskly – like he entered. The door shuts and the bell jangles enthusiastically.

I decide to make tea. It soothes my nerves. I prefer strong, black tea with a bit of milk. Sipping away, encased by books with the smell of paper lingering. It is a cozy space with atmospheric lighting and a few comfortable reading chairs next to the paned window at the back. Folks are welcome to hang about and sample a book. See if the words touch or penetrate, humor or shock. It probably isn’t good for business permitting customers a taste beforehand, nevertheless I think it’s nice and that’s what counts. However, I know the other merchants talk about me.

“I don’t know how that Dylan doesn’t go broke. Mind you now, he’s a good fella and all, but he has no head for making a buck.”

I’m not bothered. Everyone has something to say. But I must admit – it isn’t easy to be a bookseller when so many are reading online. My psychiatrist called today and informed me he must reschedule. An emergency. Doesn’t upset me. Most sessions there isn’t anything exciting to discuss. My life has been rather dull for some time now. In fact, I can’t remember when it wasn’t dull. No, that’s not true. My youth had been fairly wild. There were lots of parties, women and many illicit goings-on. Though, now that middle age has straddled me, these memories seem far away. Perhaps, three incarnations ago.

There’s always books to put away. People often come in to sell books. Most of the time there isn’t anything compelling, but these books waiting to be shelved aren’t too bad. I pick up each book with care, catalogue it and dust the cover before slotting it according to genre and author. I don’t live far away and the rent has been stable. The landlord is an old guy with a good heart. A rare commodity. But, he is getting on and I worry what will happen when he dies and the property is sold. How will I manage? There’s always something to fret about and my thoughts are diverted by the jingle of the door.

The woman nods when I look in her direction. She comes in often, though we never talk. Sometimes when I sit here and the door remains silent, I think about my customers’ lives and secrets. I write notes about them. Inserting them in my folder that sleeps under the counter.

She’s looking in the self-help section. I find that women prefer these type of books. They don’t much interest me. This particular woman’s weight fluctuates. Often she buys a book about dieting or weight loss recipes. Today she has one about getting rid of guilt and accepting the ‘real you’. I wonder what is real about her. She never says anything either. Only a mutter, perhaps a thank you, as I slide her change across the counter. After she leaves the shop I see a folded paper lying on the floor. It must have slipped out of her pocket. I walk over, pick it up and return to my counter to read the words.

It’s a grocery list containing various processed cakes and ready-to-go prepared dishes: macaroni, lasagna, Pad Thai, butter chicken, prunes and a laxative product – Senokot. Normally I’d throw it in the garbage, however, there are several phone numbers at the end and I ponder whether to return the paper if and when she comes again. I put it in another drawer under the counter. I open a Word document. The wind had picked up scattering litter throughout the city streets. Rain began to fall heavy from the sky. I wondered what to do with my afternoon, for I was out of money and without plans….

I heard the door jingle again and it is the same woman who was just here. She scans the floor. Probably for her lost paper.

“Miss, are you looking for this?’

“Yes. I believe so.”

“I found it on the floor after you left.”

“Thank you very much.”

She took the folded paper and put it in her pocket and left immediately. I looked out the window and watched her walking vigorously down the street. Wind lifts her skirt as she walks away. She’ll wonder if I’ve read it. It will play on her. I now know her secret, or at least something more about her.

 

The rain has stopped and the sun edges itself through the front windows. It highlights all the defects on these old wooden hardwood floors. Scratches and wear marks from thousands of shoes that have scuttled about. This shop has had many tenants, first a tailor, followed by an accountant and then a comic bookshop owner. I took it over in 2001. I had just moved back from Amsterdam. Amsterdam had been my home for several years. But, a relationship faltered and my visa became problematic. I had a small amount of money put aside and secured this lease within one month of my return. Not at all convinced of my decision. But I’m still here. And the door jingles.

It’s Lee. He has his own apartment, which his family pays for, but enjoys the streets and comes in frequently. At times he rambles, yet is often lucid. Sometimes I let him rest in one of the reading chairs or let him wash up in the bathroom behind my counter. He stands in front of the cash register and tells me about the aliens and predators that are after him. Today he is far away…

“Dylan. Dylan. How are ya man? There are ships all around us. Those cunts have been tracking me for days. I’ve seen them in the sky, between the clouds and stars. They’re in the sewers. When I’m on the streets I hear their beacons signaling far below the earth. I know they’ve put something in my ear. It buzzes all the time and if it doesn’t stop I’m heading for Chow Mien right after this and jabbing a chopstick in my ear. I know the guy who washes the dishes and feeds the stray cats. One, two, three, many, many man… He’ll give me food and I’ll ask for the sticks. I’ll plan my revolt. But, here I know I’m safe. This shop is a force field and the books are my shields. Hey, got tea? I know your tea short circuits the stray trackers. Fucks their coordinates.”

“You’ll be safe here. Don’t worry, Lee. I’ve got an extra sandwich. Are you hungry?”

“No, No. I just ate with the cats at Pizza Joe’s. Cats know. Yup. Yup. Cats are cleaver, man. Hiss – purr, don’t matter. Yes. Yes. The cats are with me, Dylan. They’re with me.”

I brought him tea and the wrapped sandwich.

“Here, take this for later on.”

He drank the tea and put the sandwich in his pocket.

Lee had fallen asleep. Two hours had passed and the door had barely jingled. But, I’m closing up and must wake him.

“Lee. You got to get going now.”

He opened his eyes widely, as if in the midst of some horrible thought. He blinked several times and stood up like he had just been zapped by a cattle prod.

“No worry. No worry. I’m energized and ready. Ready. Ready. I think the nap fucked their trackers. The buzzing is gone from my ear.”

“That’s great, Lee. Shall we walk out together?”

“OK. OK.”

I gave him five bucks and wished him luck from the creatures beyond the sun. Locked the door.

-2-

I walk towards my flat. The rain has stopped, but the sidewalks remain wet and glisten from the streetlights shining above. It’s about a twenty-minute walk from the shop and the air smells fresh and the sea close. Halifax is surrounded by water. I’ve tried living in other places, but I need to be close to an ocean.

A ferry’s horn drones in the distance. I think about Lee and wonder where he’ll sleep tonight to avoid the damp and cool air that will settle in from the harbor, or if he’ll bunk at home. Sometimes he disappears for a while, but he always comes back and I sort of miss him when he’s gone. My flat is on the top floor of an old building and I can see the lights of the city fuse into each other.

I’m single and have been for years now. That’s one of the reasons I’m seeing a psychiatrist. I can’t seem to initiate anything in my life other than opening the door of my shop and waiting for the bell to jingle. He has me on an antidepressant. Dysrel. It’s an older generation pill and helps me sleep. I pop one after brushing my teeth. Fall into bed. Reach for my groin before falling off.

I wake up to a foggy morning. Make coffee and have a slice of toast with rhubarb jam. I don’t open my shop until ten so I have time to leaf through the pages of the New Yorker to see what I’m missing. Today, I’ll open later because of an appointment with my shrink. The fog hangs making the morning appear Film noir.

His office isn’t too far and I reach it within fifteen minutes. There are a few patients in the waiting room as I pick up a magazine and drink my takeout latte. The psychiatrist’s door opens and I see Penvro exiting. He looks directly at me, but doesn’t smile or nod and leaves rapidly as if late for another appointment. My doctor motions me to come inside his office.

“Hello Dylan.”

“Hi.”

“So? Have you thought anymore about what we discussed at our last session?”

“A little.”

“And?”

“ I just don’t see myself going online to meet a woman. It’s just not me. I know that’s what people do these days. But, like I said, it’s not me.”

“Well, what about joining a group. You enjoy writing. How about a writers’ workshop or a course at one of the universities in creative writing? There’s always the chance of meeting some new people there.”

“Maybe.”

I look around the calm and uncluttered office. Medical degrees hang on the walls with framed photographs of nondescript geographical locations. The furniture has a modern feel. I have another twenty-five minutes to go without anything to say.

“How are you sleeping?”

“Not too bad. You know. Not great every night, but most are OK. Better with the medication.”

“You know, we can always up your dosage. The maximum is three hundred milligrams, however, it may make you groggy in the morning.

“I’m all right with the present prescription. Let’s leave it at that.”

The remaining time passes and I leave feeling that these visits are a complete waste of time. Still, it’s something to do and someone to talk with and that keeps me coming back.

 

Penvro

Whiskey and scotch line the table and smoke washes the room reminiscent of noctilucent clouds at polar twilight. It’s a bright room with windows that face east and west, but they’re covered by drawn blinds that block the sun like great warriors of a past world. His head is heavy and listless, without thoughts or words. Powerless to express or dream. He doesn’t attribute these afflictions to the booze, for this is the reason why he drinks.

This slump has sucked him up like a starved pilgrim refusing to spit him out. His last novel, ‘Treaty of Thought’, was published in 2011. Several new novel drafts were attempted, but his ideas were transient and the characters moved about without accomplishing anything of much interest, unable to stir any emotion. Although, he has published three books to date, the royalties aren’t sufficient to sustain him. He must produce. Therapy was initiated with the hope that it might dislodge his lettered constipation.

 

Arial

Arial kicks open the door of her apartment with a high-heeled shoe, struggling from the burden of grocery bags. She gently drops them on the kitchen floor enjoying the new weightlessness like a freed paratropper.

Her clothes and hair are disheveled from the wind and rain that falls relentlessly. Before removing her jacket, she reaches in her pocket and gently removes the wrinkled paper examining the phone numbers that are smudged, yet, still legible transcribing them in a little red book that she keeps in the kitchen drawer. She doesn’t own a cellphone and is proud of it, something that separates her from the others. Though, others think her odd.

Arial stands before the hallway mirror and lets out a disapproving sigh. Her stomach is extended inhibiting her skirt zipper from completing its course. After changing her wet attire, she checks for telephone messages; “You have no new messages” and returns to the kitchen. She cuts a large section of ice cream Oreo cake. Plunks herself on the sofa, turns on the television and furiously eats the cool desert. Following the cake she chooses lime taco chips and onion cream cheese spread. She turns up the volume on the screen as her crunching is drowning the sound.

 

She stares at her name on the unopened mail. Arial. It’s ethereal, though she is far from light. Eating is merely something to do. Breaking up the monotony of her days and nights. Following the taco chips and spread she swallows two Senekots. This is her ritual.

She sits before the computer and checks for emails. Little red dots are absent from her mail icon. She remembers discussing funny names of places that pepper the Nova Scotian shoreline with a guy from an online dating site.

Shag Harbor, for example, probably some sailors got laid there…. Sober Island, perhaps someone moved there to straighten out…. Bush Island and Beaver Harbor, well what can be said about them?

Arial thought these trivias comical and interesting, but he stopped chatting without reason. Now, her emails were mostly advertisers and the occasional far-away friend. She reopens the drawer and takes out the red book. Examines the phone numbers and closes the book again. Recently she had gone on a speed dating session and asked for a couple of contact numbers.  No man requested hers.

-3-

I open the shop following the appointment with my psychiatrist. The sun has broken through the fog and light scatters throughout, igniting the space with rich warmth. I sit at the counter and wonder whether when Penvro comes again if he will he give me some kind of wink, wink, nudge, nudge, say no more kind of look. I expect the day to pass sluggishly.

The outside mailbox rattles from a drop and I immediately gravitate towards it. There are a few advertisements and a legal-looking envelope squeezed in between. Steward Taylor & Wexler is on the top left hand corner of the envelope in a dark blue font. It is an end of lease notice for this shop, stating that Mr. Riley has died and the property is now the under the proprietorship of his son, Randall. It says that I have six months to vacate. The door jingles. It’s Lee.

“Dylan, my man. Dylan. You’re late today. I’ve been waiting the long, damp night and morning. I hung out with the cats at Pizza Joe’s. Been doing smooth journeys through my starry nights and bright days. It’s been awhile since we took in each other’s eyes. Eyes of brown and blue. Colors of the sky and earth. That’s what they want – our sky and earth. The salt of the seven seas. But, it’s been quiet for days now I must say.”

“That’s good, Lee.”

I put the letter on the counter. Dread boils. I head to the small alcove next to the bathroom and plug in the kettle. Grab two mugs.

“Hey, Lee. Feel for tea?”

“Yup. Yup. Yup. Thanks man.”

Tea won’t help me much today. My fear has bloomed. It always seems if we worry about something enough, it eventually becomes a reality. At least now there is something tangible to discuss with my shrink.

The door jingles and a young woman enters. Her hair is a brassy blond with dark roots. Her clothes are tight fitting and worn.

“I bet her pussy stinks.”

“Shush, Lee. That’s not nice.”

“Sorry, sorry Dylan.”

“Ya know my girl Hazel is as perfect as a girl ever could be.”

“Oh yeah. How come you never bring her around Lee?”

“She’s not social. She’s shy. She’s….”

The girl approaches the counter with a collection of poems by Allen Ginsburg.

“Now that’s a good choice,” I say as she approaches the counter.

She smiles, hands over the money and exits. Lee quietly sips his tea in the corner.

 

Lee has left the shop and I’m filled with fearful thoughts. I have to get a hold of Randall and discuss the possibility of extending the lease. He’ll want more money. But where will I get it? I’m barely managing now. I sit for a long time in the shop. The door doesn’t jingle.

 

Penvro opens a bottle of scotch, pours a drink and stares at the blank page on his screen. He begins with a dialogue between two characters he overheard at the tavern. They discuss buried treasure and possible extraction sites along the Nova Scotian shoreline. After about fifteen minutes he stops. He has maps and costs, equipment and Nova Scotian history wandering his thoughts. Maybe this is something to play with? He recalls Captain Kidd’s words, “After my death, you may find treasure I have buried in a place where two tides meet.” He becomes enthusiastic and pulls the blind up; daylight enters, bathing him in white heat.

 

Arial is at work. She’s an assistant to a lawyer. Let’s say a bit more than a secretary and less of an assistant, but a space between these two worlds. She has more to do than just secretarial tasks. She must arrange dinners and procure tickets, book hotels and sometimes purchase a gift for the wife or children. It makes her feel superior to the other ladies, yet she’s bored and feels stuck.

Arial goes for lunch and has a light salad. She must make more of an effort. Her bowels haven’t been too happy either and her stomach is bloated and full of gas from overeating and purging. She’s finding it difficult today, glued to the chair at her desk. Her belly in revolt. She flirts with the idea of calling one of the men she met at speed dating in her little red book.

Upon arriving home Arial lets out great expulsions of gas. She’s certain there’s enough to take her to Saturn and back. Her behavior towards her body, a temple besieged by famine and plenty, is delinquent and requires scrutiny. She feels shame wash over her. Her agitated belly is swollen and round. She looks at least seven months gone.

She retrieves the little red book from the kitchen drawer. There are two names with contact numbers from her speed-date soirée. Kevin and Eric are written in a careful pen. She remembers their faces – Kevin, kind of rugged with a graying beard and Eric more artsy, tall and thin sporting black attire.

Arial asked for their numbers because they had been curious and seemed to exhibit some degree of concentration when she spilled her precious five minutes sitting opposite them with a cocktail in hand at a bar called ‘The Cranky Duck’.

 

Stretching herself flat on the sofa she picks up the telephone and dials the first number. It rings four times.

“Hello.”

“Kevin?”

“Yes. Kevin here.”

“This is Arial.”

“Who?”

“Arial, we met at speed-dating.”

“Oh, OK. Sorry, but I’m not sure I remember you.”

“I wore a midnight-blue dress. My hair leans a little to the auburn shade. I work for a lawyer. More curvy than thin.”

“Yeah, I think I know who you are.”

“Listen Kevin. I was wondering if you’d like to hookup? Have a drink, or a meal, a movie or whatever?”

“I can’t Arial, sorry. I’ve been seeing someone since that evening. I’m, how can I put it, on lockdown you might say.”

Disappointment spreads like spilt ink.

“OK, then Kevin, well it was nice talking to you. Bye.”

“See ya.”

She puts the phone on the coffee table and rubs her stomach with the palm of her hand.

 

I’ve been ringing Randall all morning, but it continuously goes to voicemail. Maybe he’s avoiding me, even though we’ve never met. I look around my shop envisioning empty shelves and a space where voices echo. A door that opens, yet doesn’t jingle.

I divert my worries by turning the radio to the chamber music channel. A string quartet encircles the room. Penvro enters and comes towards me, which is unusual taking me by surprise.

“Hi.” He says with a clear toned voice. A voice that can send words across auditoriums and digital platforms.

“Listen, I’m not sure how to approach this, but I’d really appreciate it if

you’d keep my psychiatric visits to yourself and away from your customers.   Let’s face it – this is a small town. I don’t want people knowing my business.

“No problem. It’s nobody’s news.”

“What’s your name anyway?”

“Dylan.”

He offered his hand.

“Penvro. Thanks Dylan. And by the way I enjoy your shop.”

He tapped his hand on the counter and left abruptly. The door jangled. I try to reach Randall. I’ve left several messages, but he never returns my call. I search the white pages to see if I can find his father’s address. Perhaps he’s staying there. If the house is in the vicinity I intend to walk there after I close. At the very least, put a note in the mailbox asking him to give me a call. The day passes slowly and I feel swallowed by dread. I make an appointment with my shrink.

 

“I have no solutions for my life if lose the shop. There aren’t any reserves. A little put away, but certainly not enough to start something new. I really don’t know what I’m going to do.”

“Yes. Change is always challenging. Dylan if you didn’t have money issues and you could do anything you wanted, what would that be?”

“That’s just it, I don’t have a clue. I’m in a total rut.”

“Well when we’re under stress, decisions and life changes can seem ominous, but we have to sort out what is possible. Don’t you agree?”

“I suppose so. But, let’s be frank. I initiated these visits because I can’t start anything. What makes you think I’ll be able to accomplish that now?”

“We’re at a junction where these issues must be accelerated. How has your sleep been since you’ve received your lease termination notice?”

“Not great.”

“Shall we up the medication during this transition period? It only adds more anxiety to the pot if we’re sleep deprived.”

“OK. Whatever. I don’t care.”

We continue without any resolve. I take my new prescription and make a new appointment before exiting the empty waiting room.

-4-

I made my journey to the Riley residence. It was in darkness when I rang the bell, leaving my letter in the mailbox with the hope of hearing from Randall soon. Limbo isn’t a great spot to linger.

The next day Lee is waiting for me when I approach the shop.

“Dylan. Dylan, my man. I’ve been waiting for ya.”

“Yes. I can see that Lee. What’s up?”

“Me Dylan. Me. I feel good today. Energized and ready. Ready for whatever comes my way.”

“That’s good, Lee.”

I turn the key and the door jingles. Lee follows me inside.

“Want tea?”

“You bet.”

“You don’t seem yourself, Dylan. I see all things. Anything and everything. See. See. See. Tell me what’s on your troubled mind.”

“Oh Lee, I don’t want to bother you with my troubles.”

The door opens and Arial enters the shop. She doesn’t look in our direction, but heads to the books.

“She’s nice. Maybe I should ask her on a date?”

“Thought you had a girl Lee? Isn’t her name Hazel?”

“Hazel’s no more. No. No. No more.”

“What happened Lee?”

“They got her.”

“Who’s they, Lee?”

“Them.”

He points his finger towards the ceiling.

“She doesn’t contact me anymore.”

“That’s too bad, Lee.”

“Yeah. Too bad. Got to find another girl now.”

And he looks towards Arial.

“Maybe her?”

Arial observes books. Not taking any notice of our discussion and Lee’s sudden interest. She chooses a romantic novel and brings it to the counter.

“That looks good!” proclaims Lee.

“We’ll see.”

Arial continues smiling at him as she slides seven dollars towards me.

“Thanks again.”

She saunters slowly out the shop and down the street. Lee records her direction of walking from the bookstore window and says without a doubt…

“She’s the one.”

Lee’s a handsome dude. He’s tall and thin with dusty, blonde hair loosely haloing his head. He has striking blue eyes and a good nose. Sensual lips. If he didn’t speak there’d be a buzz of ladies around him. I tell him if he’s serious about getting a new girlfriend, then he must adhere to his medication. Otherwise, he’ll scare them off.

“Right, right, right, Dylan my advisor and confidant of all internal workings. I shall heed your wise instruction.”

I sit gloomily looking out the storefront window waiting for the rain to fall. Sometimes it’s good for business when it pours. People come in to escape the weather and look at books while waiting for a break in the downpour.

Lee is hanging around. I don’t mind. I often hijack his fractured thoughts, travelling to other galaxies, forging the unknown. It disrupts the tedium of my day.

Arial takes her book purchase to the office. She puts it in the drawer of her desk with the image of Lee’s face in her head. His beautiful smile and interest in her book or her, perhaps. As the day lingers he becomes fixed in her thoughts, like a favourite sweet or new pasta dish, something that she can’t get enough of.

 

After multiple phone messages and the letter drop-off, Randall finally responds. He left me a message stating it wasn’t merely a question of more rent, but that he intends to sell. Now that his father has gone, he has no intention of maintaining the family home and buildings. He’s selling up. I feel the bottom of my stomach fall to the ground. That’s that. Now what?

Penvro comes into the store and for the first time says,

“Hello Dylan.”

Not another word was uttered. He went to the historical section, grabbed a couple of books and slumped in one of the reading chairs by the paned window. I had bought a bag of clementines on the way here and began to peel one. The aroma of orange laced the air. I saw Penvro’s head look in my direction.

“Want one?”

“Sure. They smell awfully good. You have a long face today. Therapy not working?”

“That too, but I’m going to lose my shop. The landlord is selling.”

“I’m truly sorry. A lot of people will miss this place, including me. Are you going to look for another space?”

“I don’t know.”

I forgot that Lee was still here and he came darting around the corner knocking a book or two off the shelf as he frantically raced to the counter.

“Dylan. Tell me it’s not true. What will we do? This is the center of all things.”

 

I sit before the counter in a daze, my thoughts moving about sluggishly and without intent. The door jingles and Penvro walks in.

“I’ve got an idea that may shift your mood. How about coming with me to scout possible buried treasure sites? I could use an assistant.”

“Oh yeah! Why me?”

“Maybe it’ll cheer you up. There are several sites; I’ve done some research already.

“If you’re referring to Oak Island, there’s been enough said about that.”

“I know, but maybe there’s a twist.”

“Penvro, I’m not even sure that we can access the site.”

“That’s why I need you. To alert me if someone comes. You’ll call me on my cell. So how about it… you in?”

“Sure, I guess. When?”

“As you know I’m flexible. When is your next day off?”

“Sunday, Monday.”

“Well, think about it. Sometimes an adventure is good. Clears the head.”

“OK then, it’s a date.”

“Sunday it is.”

Penvro left and I stood there wondering why he had invited me along. For all one knows he may want to discuss our shrink. That must be it.

 

It’s a small city with streets brushing each other north and south,

east and west. The weather was warm and the Atlantic breeze softly blew throughout, licking the faces of the citizens and twirling weathervanes of sailing ships on building tops. Arial left the office, her stomach growling. She took an outside sidewalk table and ordered lunch. Lee was present in her head. He was something she wanted to sample, finish and enjoy every piece. It had been some years since she’d been with a man and although she wasn’t thrilled by the state of her current physical condition the contemplation of his touch and what appeared enthusiastic gesture, would hopefully prompt her to get it together. Roadblock this gorge and purge act. She went back to work, though her thoughts were not on her afternoon duties, but of Lee and how she might approach him. She envisioned him in motion, dancing before her as if he were a Twirling Dervish, handing over a rose, a piece of jewellery or chocolate with each whirligig.

I stand in front of my shop waiting on Penvro. He arrives on time, pulls in fast, and is hard on the breaks.

“Ready?”

“Well, I’m here right?”

I got in and looked around his vehicle, which was on old Volvo. It was cluttered with papers, empty Styrofoam cups and a full ashtray.

“Don’t mind the mess. I’m not much of a housekeeper.”

He asks me if I want the music on and I tell him I don’t care either way.  Penvro turns on a seventies music station and my thoughts are returned to youth, long hair and reefers. Hallucinogens. Fun times.

“So, what’s your angle gonna be on this story?”

“I don’t know yet. That’s why I want to explore the site. See if it can ignite vision. Are you still going to our shrink?”

“Yeah, for now. But I won’t be able to afford it for much longer. Anyways, I find it a waste of time.”

“I know what you mean. Most of the time I feel the same.”

We take the old road instead of the highway, which sweeps along the coast past little villages, wharfs, boats and fishing gear. The sun burnishes the dark blue ocean and the whitecaps dance tangos.

 

We cross the narrow causeway, which leads to Oak Island. All is still, save for the birds in the sky and the surf that washes against its irregular shores.

There were a couple of buildings facing us when our wheels first touched the island’s soil, but there nary a vehicle in site and the place looked deserted and silent. We take the road that travels the east side of the island and then head west where the road divides the island in half. We drive towards the Money Pit that was first discovered in 1795 where six people have lost their lives and others squandered entire fortunes attempting to locate the suspected treasure that lies deep within, protected by booby traps and flood tunnels.

When we arrive at the pit there isn’t much to see, only a wire fence with a dilapidated shaft in the middle. Penvro asks me to wait at the road. There has been much speculation as to what lies down there: from Captain Kidd’s treasure to Shakespeare’s original works to Naval treasure. Maybe even the Holy Grail or Ark of the Covenant. I wait for a bit then head towards the Pit to join Penvro. Although, after jumping the fence and standing before the opening looking for any hint of something undiscovered, there were only weeds and brush to greet us and the occasional deerfly nipping at our exposed skin.

There is a large sign outside the fence. It chronologically outlines the first discovery in 1795 and the original elevation of thirty-two feet to present at one hundred-seventy feet and where it has since been gridlocked. We take a look around listening for sounds for this is a privately owned island and trespassing will be met with fines or possible prosecution.

-5-

I head to my shop where Lee is waiting for me. His hands are theatrical as he looks up and down left and right

“Lee. What’s up?”

“Dylan. Dylan. Dylan. What are we going to do about this shop?”

“Lee, we aren’t going to anything. There isn’t anything to be done. The owner wants to sell. That’s it. Can’t control that.”

“Control. Control. Control. He’s part of them man. He’s with those cunts that place the trackers in our heads. Mine has been acting up since you’ve told me about the shop. I want to find him. Make him answer to this unforgiving buzzing. And I’ll make him answer. Yup. Yup. Yup.”

“Calm down Lee. Have you been taking your medication? I thought you were interested in finding a new girlfriend? You seemed quite taken with the lady who you were chatting up last week.”

“Who?”

“Substantial. You said she’s the one.”

“Yes. Yes. Yes. I do want to ask her on a date”

“Then you best clam yourself. You’ll have no chance if you’re wound up like this. Have you seen your doctor lately?”

“No. He’s a cunt too.”

It’s lunchtime. A few customers linger about browsing through the titles, reviewing the backs of book covers. Lee has left and I worry about him. He’s seems more off-kilter than is customary for him. I call and cancel my appointment with my shrink.

 

Arial leaves the office for lunch in the park facing the harbor. She spots Lee sitting on a park bench as she makes her way up the steep hill. Her stomach begins to flutter and she feels more alive than is customary. She is undecided whether to say hello, walk by, or maybe drop her purse before his feet. Arial decides to take action and approaches Lee.

“Hello.”

Lee lifts his head in the direction of her voice and looks directly at her.

“Hello too.”

“Have you been to the shop recently?”

“I just left. Neither one of us can go there for much longer. The owner is going to sell the shop. My man Dylan will be no more.”

“Oh, I didn’t know that. I have a fondness for that bookshop myself. In fact, that’s were we met. I’m on my lunch. Do you want to go for a coffee and discuss it?”

“OK. You lead the way. I shall follow. Maybe to the ends of the earth.”

They walk a couple of blocks towards a small restaurant and choose a table with a red-checkered cloth facing the street. A busker plays a guitar and sings on the sidewalk, while blowing a harmonica between lyrics.

“You know, we haven’t formally met. I’m Arial.”

“Lee, who rides with glee. Said, he, he, he.”

She looks at him, thinking his remark was rather odd, but instead takes in all of his beauty. Tossing his words to another hamlet, to a place that won’t be troubled or questioned. She wonders what he makes of her. Does he find her desirable and interesting? She envisions herself as a ripe maid needing to be feasted on without delay. Though, he appears somewhat nervous and his eyes never settle on her entirety.

 

“What do you do Lee?”

“Do? I do everything and anything. Do. Do. Do.”

“What I mean is, what is your line of work?”

“I don’t work. Not in a conventional way at least. I’m the sentinel of the city. Alerting the citizens of predators who lurk below and fly above.”

“I see, sounds like fascinating work.”

“It is, most definitely.”

“Who are these predators you speak of?”

“The ones who place the trackers in our heads. The ones who create the intolerable buzzing. The ones who want our earth. The ones who want us.”

“I must say they sound extremely menacing.”

“Oh, we must be diligent. You bet. You never know when they’ll appear. They’re sneaky and calculating and must be stopped.”

“Lee can I ask you something?”

“Ask away.”

“Do you suffer from a mental illness?”

“Suffer. No. Mental illness, yes. I’m schizophrenic so they tell me. Does this information alarm you?”

“No, not at all. I find you charming and eccentric at best.”

He was quirky, to say the least, yet a lot more engaging than most of those dull lawyers in her office. Overhearing the events of their boring weekends and family holidays. Trying to squeeze by their polished shoes and their beer bellies hidden by three-piece suits. As a result, she chooses to find him unique, rather than ill.

“Lee, would you like to have dinner with me sometime?”

“That sounds good. Good. Good. Good.”

“How about Thursday? We could go out, or I could cook for you. Which do you prefer?”

“Home cooking. Then I know it’s safe. They haven’t gotten to it.”

“Are you always so suspicious?”

“Yes. As should you be, my fair Arial.”

They exchange numbers and part ways. She follows his footsteps as he heads towards the bookshop Dylan’s Roost – where she had initially spotted him.

Lee comes into the shop and tells me about his coffee date with Arial.

“That’s great Lee. But don’t skip on your meds. Don’t want to scare her off. Right?”

“Right. Right.”

 

Penvro enters and walks directly to me.

“Dylan. How are ya?”

“OK. Same old.”

“Did you know that there are three hundred and fifty islands off Mahone Bay and Oak Island? The treasure could be on any one of them.”

“Is that your angle?”

“Not sure yet.”

“Now tell me, why would anyone go to all the trouble of building that pit with its hosts of booby traps and oak castings every ten feet?”

“Perhaps that’s the key. To throw folks off. Keep people busy.”

“I dunno Penvro, sounds stupid to me.”

Penvro looks at me and I think that even though I’m surrounded by books I haven’t read most of them, nearly none of them. I feel like a total fraud. It’s not that I don’t like books. On the contrary I love books, but my concentration level has been disabled for a long time. At least ninety-six full moons, one eclipse, three direct-hit hurricanes and countless sub-tropical storms.

When someone approaches me and inquires about words I usually wing it. I have a visual memory for book covers and can usually recall some hint of content by remembering bits of the back flap pitch. So who am I to question Penvro’s ideas?

“Sorry Penvro. I didn’t mean stupid. What do I know?

“That’s OK, Dylan. I haven’t sorted it out myself yet, but I value your opinion.”

 

Arial thinks about her upcoming date. Should she be wary? Naugh. He seems spirited and sweet. She went for a Brazilian bikini wax; had her hair done and a pedicure, for she wanted to be prepared. And ready she was. She had rehearsed the evening over in her head, first a cocktail, dinner and then Lee for dessert.

In fact, she had thought about him so much she had fallen behind with her work had been questioned by her boss, Mr. Stewart. He had inquired with concern, not malice. Arial had been at this office for thirteen years and she and Mr. Stewart, who was the head partner in the firm and a highly respected criminal defense lawyer, had formed a close working relationship. She was highly efficient, but he felt sorry for her, jammed in her snug attire and never a new story about a man, trip or anything to speak of.

Arial assures Mr. Stewart that all is well, but that she had just received news about an old friend who lived an ocean away and was saddened from the sudden death. She had always been a good fibber and she willed her nose to keep its small, thick position as Mr. Stewart voiced his concern for her. Telling her to take the rest of the week off and sort herself out. She sheds a false tear and thanks him. He rubs Arial’s shoulder like a loving father instructing her not to think about work. She gathers her purse, leaving a desk absent of personal touches. Not one photograph or any indication that she spends most of her hours behind it.

She goes directly home and begins preparing dinner, roast-beef and potatoes, Yorkshire pudding and vegetables. She figures any man would like this standard meal. As Arial checks the slow cooking roast she worries that he may be a vegetarian. She forgot to ask.

Lee was to arrive at seven o’clock. She checks the time and sure enough, five minutes before, the doorbell rings. It is Stella her next-door neighbor wanting to borrow a light bulb.

“Smells awfully good in here Arial.”

“I’m cooking roast.”

“I wish I could muster a dinner like that, but it’s hard to do the all the work just for oneself, as we are. I should take a cue from you.”

Arial brings the light bulb and feels like Stella is waiting for an invitation, or at the very least, a dinner plate sent over when it’s done.

“Sorry Stella, I’ve got a date. Got to get back to the kitchen.”

“Oh lucky you, Arial.”

Just as Stella turns, she comes face to face with Lee.

“Hello.”

“Hello. Hello.”

“Lee, how nice to see you. Come in.”

Stella looks behind trying to get a better glimpse as Arial closes the door behind him. Lee is casually dressed, appears calm and less fixity than she recalls.

“How are you, Lee? Care for a glass of wine? I hope you eat meat. I’ve prepared a roast beef dinner.”

“No for wine. And yes for meat.”

“Can I offer you something else instead? A port perhaps, or a cocktail?”

“Just water, please.”

“Sparkling or uncarbonated?”

“Sparkling, like a clear night sky or a sun-kissed sea, topaz and tears.”

Arial brings the water gesturing Lee to sit, staring into his light blue eyes wanting to know every detail about him.

 

Lee is hungry, wants to eat right away and doesn’t feel like making small talk. He thinks, ‘I won’t stay long’. It’s not that he’s uninterested in Arial, but, there is something of greater importance pending. When Dylan was chatting with Penvro, Lee spotted the eviction letter in Dylan’s drawer and memorized both the address and name of Randall Riley. He plans to visit old Randall and ask him outright, why he wants to take away the place of refuge and ideas, dreams and escapes.

“Your dinner smells delightful, Miss Arial, I must say.”

“Miss? Don’t be so formal.”

“I’m rather famished as I’ve been skulking the beasts all day. Their bastard captain has sicked the sleuthhounds on me.”

“What captain?”

Lee points towards the ceiling light.

“Oh come on Lee, you don’t really believe that do you?”

“Yes. Yes. Yes. I certainly do. Often I see and hear them. One could say we schizophrenics are either cursed or blessed. I choose the second.”

Arial gestures Lee to take a seat at the dining room table. She brings the steaming roast with gravy and side dishes and invites Lee to help himself.

“Can these ‘sleuthhounds’ see us now? What about our privacy?”

“No. No. I ditched them at Dylan’s Roost. That’s the only place they can’t control. And do you know that Dylan will lose his shop? The landlord is selling the building. Lee eagerly eats. All the while saying …“Yum. Yum. Yum. Arial you are a gifted cook.”

-6-

When Dylan arrives at his shop he sees the ‘For Sale’ sign standing erect and determined in front of his store by an established real estate company. His stomach feels nauseous and he is filled with shuddersome thoughts. Thoughts that take him to dark places without exits or armour. He opens the door; the bell jingles and he decides that once this shop is gone, he never wants to hear a bell jingle again. But, the door does jingle and a few customers saunter in listlessly pulling the odd book from its shelf.

He looks at the empty chair in front of the lead-paned window and wonders how Lee’s date went, or if he even showed up. He can’t imagine Lee on a date and Dylan runs scenarios in his head. He sees Lee excited rambling on about predators and preventative measures. He sees Lee looking wide-eyed saying, “You’re the one.” He sees the disenchanted woman exploring his handsome face thinking,

‘Why do you have to be like this?” as Lee repeats his words, solidly cementing them in the ears of his listener.

Lee heads to the Riley residence passing streetlamps dimmed by the incoming fog that hangs low smacking the cool sidewalk with lusty moisture. Arial wasn’t at all pleased when he gulped down his coffee after the last mouthful of tart apple crumble, repeating, “Why so soon? Do you have to go? Can’t this wait?” As he tried to explain the calibre of the situation. Blurting out, “No time to waste. No leniency for Riley. No to invasion. No to control. No to spending the night.” Her sad face trailed his quick footsteps.

 

The Riley house is majestic, standing proudly at the end of a quiet cul-de-sac and set a fair distance from the road by a well-groomed lawn. There are a few lights burning as he begins his approach, not sure what steps his plan should follow.

Lee slowly cases the place peeking in the ground floor windows. The house appears empty and lifeless. He tries the double-hung wooden window frames, then struggles with a set of French doors facing a terrace hosting a swing chair and dining area, which is stuffed with olive-colored cushions and potted ferns of varied growth.

Tonight the sky is bursting with stars and Lee feels panicked swinging in the squeaky chair fully exposed to danger, viruses, beams and radiation, horrible strange creatures, noise and torturers. His head boils with electricity and uncontrollable buzzing. He’s convinced the cunning cunts above and below shall launch their crafts and come not only for him, but others as well.

He runs for cover under a willow tree letting the soft branches dust over him as he becomes highly agitated and frenzied. Lee has a direct view to the house interior and spots a man drying his hair with a bath towel while pouring a drink at the same time. He scurries to the house and peers in, but the figure has his back to him and is unaware of his presence.

Lee begins to knock on the door gesturing the man towards him. Randall takes a swig of whiskey squinting his eyes exerting to see who is the shadow before the glass. He grabs a fireplace poker, finishes his drink with one swift gulp and walks towards the doors and tapping the poker on the highly polished floorboards.

“Yeah. What do you want out there?”

“Are you Mr. Riley?”

“Yes, who’s this?”

“My name is Lee, may I come in?”

“Lee? What do you mean banging on my door at this late hour?”

The knocking becomes harder and hurried.

“Please open!”

Randall lifts the poker while turning the knob of the door. Before he has a chance to question him, Lee rushes through, pushes him aside, locks the door and pulls the blue velvet curtains tightly together.

It’s been several weeks since I’ve seen Penvro, whom I imagine is preoccupied with pirates, treasure, shipwrecks, canons, gangplanks, swords, mutiny, eye patches, taverns, parrots and ship rats, plus the random damsel here and there. But, that isn’t so. Penvro sits in an old sailors’ pub down on the waterfront hearing yarns about sea travels, disasters and triumphs.

Arial hasn’t heard from Lee for several days and strolls the streets hoping to catch a sign of him. But, Randall knocked him on the head with the fire poker and rang for help. Now Lee lies sedated in the Psychiatry ward. She calls his cellphone but he never picks up. She lets several weeks pass before heading to the bookstore unsure of what she’ll do if she runs into him. She climbs the hill to the familiar street, but Dylan’s Roost is vacant, absent of any forwarding address. She looks in the window and examines the cleared-out store void of books or any sign that it was once a haven from wind and rain and comforter of words. She turns away missing a postcard stuck in the doorframe from a foreign land.

“Dearest Dylan,

   Sorry I didn’t stop to say good-bye, I left quite unexpectedly, jumping a freighter to parts unknown. You might say to clear my head…Take care, my friend and guardian of thoughts. Penvro.”

   Dylan sits before his psychiatrist, his head empty of words.

 

 

BIO

Susan LloySusan Lloy has honed her perceptual skills working in diverse environments; from handling nitro and explosives in the Canadian North to slinging drinks in Halifax, she now coordinates a Cardiac Surgery Unit in Montreal. A graduate of the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design, Susan has published twice with Revolution House, Production Gray Editions, Penduline Press, PARAGRAPHITI, Beecher’s, The Prague Revue, The Round Up Writer’s Zine and this September with The Writing Disorder based in Los Angeles and the Amsterdam Quarterly. She will be published again in late October with Blue Crow Magazine out of Australia. She has just finished a short story collection.

 

 

 

0

The Vigil

by Pat Hart

 

My friend Patrick was on a family vacation, the perennial week at the beach, an American rite. His two sons, young teenagers, raced into the surf and then were suddenly screaming, calling to him and his wife as the current dragged them out into the deep ocean. He plunged in after them and into the riptide. A local man, a shore fisherman, dove in and swam to them. The fisherman stayed out of the pulling tide and called to my friend to throw the boys to him. Patrick shoved first one boy and then the next towards fisherman, and they swam like mad into his arms. The fisherman dragged them back to shore, delivered them to their hysterical mother.

And then Patrick slipped beneath water and disappeared.

Sitting in the sand, waiting for a body to roll up onto the beach is a lonely, grim business. I was the single somber note amid the sounds, sights, and smells of a summer’s day at the beach. Radios played, children, lathered in coconut oil, screamed with delight or cried with misery, and a pedestrian parade passed by.

Four young men, probably military, hair shorn, muscled arms tattooed with eagles, snakes, and women, shoved each other and showed off for any girl who might be watching. An older couple with sagging profiles under big hats, strolled slowly just out of reach of the lapping waves. Two moms sat side by side in low chairs, oily and tan, as their small children rolled in the surf. Ten year-olds, boys and girls, tirelessly rode the waves on boogie boards; they were savvy and experienced and not yet bored with gliding in, dolphin-like on the crest of waves, sliding onto the apron of sand.

Patrick and I had been like those 10-year-olds, back when I being a girl and his being a boy didn’t mean anything more than different bathing suits. We nicknamed ourselves Dinny and Patch, Diane and Patrick were just too serious, too school year, too back home in our Pennsylvania steel town for the salty, sunburned, freewheeling beach rats we became for two weeks each July.

Our moms sat in the surf, not worried about us, but watching just the same. We’d ride in and paddle out, exclaiming about good rides, sharing theories about the best, absolute foolproof way to position ourselves for the ultimate, most daring and thrilling rides.

“Feel it, Patch? Feel it?” I yelled, holding my board steady, the suck of the undertow dragging at my legs. “That means the wave’s about to crest.”

“Dinny! Dinny, put your board here,” Patch said, tucking the back edge of the board just below his ribs. “And keep your arms stiff.”

“Yay!” we shouted in triumph after each successful ride.

We’d both lost our fathers; we had that in common. We had in common that moment as other kids said My Dad this and My Dad that, and we’d sit with our throats stopped as the awkward silence fell until some kid would mumble Sorry and we’d have to say gamely like the knight in Monty Python’s Holy Grail looking down on a severed limb; “It’s just a flesh wound.” Between us we made peace with elephant in the room. The elephant that upset the chairs, crushed the coffee table and whose trumpeting at night disturbed our dreams.

Our mothers found each other in their shared, young widowhood, and brought our families together. Patch’s family came for Thanksgiving and we went to their house late in the day on Christmas. And every summer our families spent two weeks at the beach in a rented cottage, two rows back from the ocean. We were best friends, even if only for those two weeks.

He was an easy kid to be with. Always looking for fun, but never for trouble. He was smart; he liked reading books, not just storybooks, but history too, biographies of great men who did great deeds. He was a fount of arcane information, especially about World War II and often recounted details of the bigger battles, the Battle of Britain, the Battle of the Bulge, the Battle of Midway.

His father had been a paratrooper.

Patch showed me a hand drawn map on a piece of parachute silk. His father had been dropped, behind enemy lines, into an obscure region in France. The map’s squiggly India ink lines in black, red, and blue, still crisp on the parachute silk, represented the area’s roads, towns, and rivers. The map was framed, trapped behind a piece of glass and hung in the staircase of their home.

“This is the map they gave him to help find his way,” Patch whispered as we stood gazing up at the map on the gloomy staircase one Christmas day.

We also talked about TV shows, retelling Flip Wilson jokes and re-enacting action scenes from Mission Impossible, anything that required diving to the ground and rolling to the nearest bit of cover. But most often we worked silently, side-by-side on a sandy beach, building, digging, dripping wet sand on our castle, lost in thought about turrets and tunnels. While we worked, the castle seemed magnificent; our progress astounding, the structure a marvel of sandy architecture. I remember once running down to the surf to fetch a bucket of water and returning to the site of our grand creation and stopping short.

Where was it? While I was gone the magic, the delight in our work had seeped away, disappearing like water in the bottom of a sandy hole. Instead of our grand castle, I saw a small, messy pile of sand. The tiny reeds that I had carefully inserted into the front wall were no longer glorious pikes, perfect for posting our enemies’ heads, but crooked little bits of debris. The tall gothic spires were really just dried out lumps of sand with toppling sticks stuck in the top, not soaring turrets, be-flagged with the king’s colors. I knelt down next to the castle while Patch lay flat on his belly, his hand snaking under the outer wall to dig yet another secret passage into the fortress.

“Quick! We need to fill the moat and reinforce the eastern wall,” he said. He took the bucket of water, poured it into the trench, and scooped wet sand up the side of the castle.

When I didn’t move, he stopped and looked up at me.

“What?” he said, squinting with one eye shut against the glaring sun. Freckles were splashed on his face from our long days on the beach, sand clung to his dark hair. He would not be shaken awake; he would not give up the dream.

“We can’t give up!” he said. “Never surrender.”

His earnestness recast the spell and we restored the castle to its former glory. The scales fell back over my eyesI happily descended back into the vaporous cloud of fantasy that drifted around our Camelot.

One summer, as it was getting dark, Patch and I ran out to the beach to check on our castle. We promised our mothers we would not to get in the water, or go near the ocean at all. We swore!

We found the castle on the darkening beach. A few waves had already pulled at the walls and as we stood there a big wave came up, scooted around the outer wall, and flooded the moat. We yelled as a chunk of the front wall cleaved and fell into the moat. We scrambled to fix the damage, without tools, and with just our hands, it was hopeless, but still we tried.

“Never, never, never surrender,” Patch said, standing with his feet wide, a pretend cigar clamped in his fingers. A skinny boy in faded madras shorts, chest puffed out, pretending to be the British Bulldog. I laughed.

“We shall fight them on the beaches, we shall fight them on the landing ground!” I said and together we yelled: “Never, never surrender!”

The water rushed up again, and Patch laid down in the sand, using his body as breaker while I scrambled to dig canals to drain the water away. Another big wave pounded us; the water washed over him and when it receded it rolled him toward the surf. He jumped up and joined me at the castle walls; they were crumbling. When the next big wave hit we were both kneeling in front of the castle and the water rushed up our back and we were waist deep in water. Only the top turrets of the castle remained and then they quickly collapsed.

When the water receded, the castle was reduced to smooth lumps, decoration and embellishments melted away by the briny water; we were soaked.

I looked down at our clothes and remembered our mothers’ admonishments.

“Uh oh,” I said and we both laughed and headed for the beach house.

As we approached the dunes we heard a woman’s voice, singing:

“The Lord’s our Rock, in Him we hide,
A Shelter in the time of storm;

She sat high on the dunes staring out at the ocean, swaying back and forth as she sang. She was a big, black woman dressed in a brightly striped long skirt. Her head was wrapped in red scarf. She paused her song and considered us.

“Hello,” Patch said.

“Hallo, chile,” she said, her accent thick and southern. “May the Lawd protect and keep you awl of your days.”

“Thank you,” he said and we rushed passed her, heads down, arms stiff at our sides. We waited until we were well out of earshot then laughed, repeating “May the Lawd” and calling each other “chile.”

At home we told our mothers about the woman, distracting them from our wet clothes by imitating her accent. But they remained quiet and grew somber.

“She must be one of the vigil people,” my mother said and then explained that a man had drowned, way down where the black people swam. His body wasn’t recovered yet and his family had asked that they be allowed to sit on the white beaches and watch for it, all night if need be. All along the miles of shore, every 300 hundred feet or so, people who loved this man, who loved his family, were stationed, waiting for the ocean to send him back to them.

The next morning the woman was gone, the body had been found.

As I sat on the beach, in the dark, I thought about that woman watching the same ocean but at different beach, in different decade. Was it her son? Her nephew? Her childhood friend? Did she too hope and yet dread that she would see in the shiny, inky, moving blackness of the ocean the body rolling in the waves? Did she play out the scene over and over in her mind, too?

Did she imagine as I did, running towards the surf, calling his name but knowing he’s dead, gone far beyond my calls? I thought about the cold waves crashing against my legs as I try to catch his arm, and falling from the awkward weight of his body, gulping salt water. I would deliver him to the flat, wet sand, and lay next to him exhausted. I’d fret that the ocean would reclaim him as I ran to my car to call from the parking lot where there is at least scant cell phone reception. Then I’d pace back toward the beach, a phone, a thin thread to help, to the living, clenched to my ear, as I waited for someone to answer.

“Come, come,” I’d plead into my phone. “I’ve found him.

Strung out along the beach were twenty or so of Patrick’s friends and family and some strangers, too. Strangers, who were moved by the sad tableau of the weeping mother and two shocked boys, who had volunteered to sit the vigil with us. The coast guard advised us to position ourselves along this particular mile of beach and, based on tide charts, they estimated the body would come to shore around 2:00 am.

We met at the Coast Guard station and were assigned our spots. I was honored to get one. Expecting the body come ashore on the first night was considered overly hopeful, the second night was the most likely, and this night, the third night was probably the last chance before the body went out to sea forever. After passing out bottles of water, the Coast Guard captain raised both his hands and said: “Whatever you do, don’t go into the water. Call us for help. Okay? You all got that?”

The hot day had turned into a cool night, the wind blew a wet mist of ocean spray that settled on my clothes and soaked through my jacket. Shivering in the dark, I ran the numbers on the situation.

Numbers I knew. I worked in finance and though it was, in essence, just a parlor trick, my strength was quick analysis. The formula was simple, like the function boxes from grade school math. I would scan a spreadsheet and pluck the numbers I needed for my ‘function box,’ do a quick calculation and voila! An answer: Yea or Nay. The trick was to plug the right numbers in the right spots.

Here’s how I ran the numbers on Patrick. Say everyone gets eighty years, some get a lot less and some lucky, or depending on how you feel about being truly aged, some unlucky bastards get a lot more. Patrick’s boys were twelve and thirteen, which meant there were 135 years to go in their life banks. The riptide that was pulling them out to sea had all those years in its grasp until Patrick at forty-five traded in his remaining thirty-five years in exchange for theirs. A solid bottom line win, one hundred years, a century.

I sighed at my callousness and wondered if I deserved this spot on the beach. Grieving has a hierarchy and I suspected I’d overstepped the bounds, pushed myself forward.

Back at the shore patrol hut, Patrick’s brother George broke away from a group of men, fellow volunteers for the vigil. Some of them I knew were lawyers from Patrick’s practice in Pittsburgh, one I recognized as a cousin of theirs.

“Diane, thank you for coming,” George said formally and nodded.

I hadn’t seen Patrick in four years.

I hadn’t attended his wedding.

I didn’t really even know his children.

The last time I’d seen him had been at a park. His boys were playing baseball and I saw him standing on the sidelines. A handsome man, with short salt and pepper hair, he had his hands in his pockets and stood with his back to me, but I knew him instantly as my old friend. We talked for a minute and then he said: “Wait, my Mike is up.”

We both watched as a boy, his pants a little too long, went up to the plate. The boy took a lurching swing at the ball.

“Good cut, Mike!” Patrick yelled.

On the next pitch Mike swung and hit a weak grounder down the first baseline and was easily tagged out.

“You see my son has inherited all of my athleticism,” Patrick laughed, and he walked toward the dugout to meet his boy returning to the bench.

He put his hand on his son’s shoulder as they walked together; Patrick stooped a bit to listen to the boy. He glanced up at me and waved goodbye. It was a small distracted wave, just a lift of his right hand.

On the beach, the moon rose and threw a bright white light on the ocean and sand. It was easy to see the breaking surf, like a flouncing white ruff on a black velvet dress.

Two figures, entwined, walked slowly up the deserted beach.

They paused and kissed, then moved on.

A family came along, four little kids, each with a flashlight. The beams, like yellow wands whipped around, on the sand, on the waves, and into the sky. One wand dawdled behind, the light shining on some creature, pinning it down in the bright beam. One of the adults paused and called back, and the kid ran, the light jangling along beside him, a frantic bouncing yellow ball with sudden flashes of a child’s knee, a calf, a foot.

And then it was quiet; the beach was empty for the night. I buried my cold feet in the sand, pulled my knees up to my chest and waited.

I must have dozed because suddenly it was much later, the water had receded, and the surf was very far away. The tide was out.

In the waves I saw a dark mass, a blackness among the churning white.

Sea weed? No, it was solid, floating and rolling in the waves.

I stood up, my left knee buckled and I almost fell. The sand was icy cold; I shivered.

As I walked across the sand, my steps slipped back in the softness. It seemed to take a long time and lot of effort to cross the sand. A strip of dried twigs jabbed sharply at my bare feet but finally I reached the hard packed, smooth apron of wet sand. With the tide out, the steep slope of the very edge of the shore was exposed.

The black mass was drifting up the coast; it was not coming in but staying twenty feet out. I peered at it, it was big, big enough but shapeless. I caught a flash of blue, a shirt?

I waded in, the cold was shocking and I stopped at knee depth and squinted. Making the plunge into the dark, cold sea was harder than I had imagined it would be; I hesitated. I trudged through the water, keeping the object in sight. It was as if I was tethered to it and the current was pulling us both down the beach.

The mass rolled over and I saw his face lit by moonlight. Eyes closed, jaw slack.

I ran to him. I fell as the sea floor dropped away and I was suddenly swimming in the freezing water. I stopped and looked for him, the body had floated further out. I swam hard towards him, head down, ten strong strokes. I stopped, looked around. He was close, just ten10 feet away. Head down, ten more strong strokes. I stopped; still he was ten feet away. Ten more strokes, hard and straight at him. I stopped this time gasping, with the cold and now fatigue. My elbows and knees ached. I looked back to shore, it was a long way off, much farther than I could have swum in so short a time. Then I saw, across the surface of the ocean, the ripples. Tiny waves no bigger than a half inch, uniform ripples driving across the glossy surface away from the shore. Together, the body and I were being pulled out to sea on a riptide.

My back spasmed and I called out in pain. The shore was rapidly receding; it became just a thin gray line between the blackness of the water and the dark dunes. The current dragged me along as though there was a rope around my waist, my arms and legs reached for the shore, and yet I drifted backwards like rag doll.

I could swim out of the riptide, swim parallel to the shore, and make my way back in, leave Patrick’s body to the sea. Or, could I drag him with me, out of the current and back to shore, without becoming exhausted, drowning?

I couldn’t make the numbers work on this, it seemed to be loss upon loss, but I couldn’t swim away either.

“Patch, Patch,” I yelled. “Help me!”

The current pushed his body closer to me and I decided, Never surrender. I reached for his shirt just as the body rolled; he lifted his face out of the water, and opened his eyes. He reached for me.

“Dinny, Dinny.”

My childhood name.

A warm hand grabbed my shoulder and shook.

We were suddenly on the shore. Kneeling beside me was Patch, but not as the man he was but as the boy he’d been. In the dim light he had no color, just the soft grays of a black and white photo. His hair was a long again, deep black, the salt and pepper gray washed away, a thick hank of hair fell over one eye as he leaned toward me. His face was boyish and smooth.

“Patch,” I said, my voice was hoarse, a whisper.

Patch frowned and shook his head sadly.

“No, I’m Mike, Patch’s son,” he said. “It’s over. They found him.”

Mike waited politely as I came fully awake.

“Are you okay?” he asked, he was anxious to be off, to run up the beach and tell the others on the vigil that the wait was over; they could go home.

As Mike ran off, I looked down by the shore. I saw a man with a boy by his side. The man lifted his hand in a wave and turned to walk with the boy up the beach.

Wide-awake logic tells me it was most likely Patrick’s brother and his other son, but I never asked.

I wanted the spell to be recast, for the scales to fall over my eyes, even for just a one more moment and to believe that Patrick the man and Patch the boy, were both alive and walking side by side up the beach.

I slept the rest of the night in my car and in the early morning built a castle on the beach. By mid morning, it was a towering three-foot mound covered in spires made of sandy drips that pointed like gnarled fingers at the blue sky. I could hear the surf coming in, the bubbles in the sea foam popped and crackled as it crept up behind my back.

Three little kids and their mother joined me on the beach. The mother spread a blanket and set up an umbrella and her chair. I could feel the kids eyeing me, and my castle. They were too shy to approach but were drawn to what to them must have seemed a massive citadel.

The sun was growing hot and I was thirsty and tired. I walked out a bit into the ocean, rinsed the sand off my hands and knees in the salty water, and stood for a moment to feel the swirl of the undertow on my ankles. When I returned to shore, I walked past the castle without a glance. At the dunes, I turned to see that the three kids had fallen upon my castle, taken possession, and were scrambling to save it from the incoming tide.

 

 

BIO

Pat HartPat Hart graduated from University of Pittsburgh with a BA in Creative Writing and lives in Pittsburgh where she writes plays, monologues, short stories, novels and a blog. Hart’s playwriting credits include acceptance, production and performance of her one-act play, Book Wench, in the Strawberry One-Act Festival, Summer 2015, New York, New York. The play was selected for the semi-finals and is under consideration for publication in “The Best of the Strawberry One-Act Festival Anthology.” Additionally, Hart’s 10-minute monologue, Murderous was selected by Carlow University’s Drama department and will be performed during “Practice Monologamy” in September 2015.

Hart’s published short stories include New Wife vs. Old Wife, a love story to be published in “Voices in the Attic” (Fall 2015), a literary anthology published by Carlow University and Spider Ball, published May 2015 in Rune, Robert Morris University’s literary magazine. Spider Ball was also selected as one of the pieces from the magazine to be read by the author at the launch party.

In addition to two novels in progress, Paddy, the Yank and Don’t Touch the Dragon Boogers, Hart also writes a weekly blog Calamity Jane, World-Wide Warnings, which is a humorous exploration of warnings signs from around the world (pathartblog.com)

 

 

 

0
Franklin Klavon

Darling Weapons

by Franklin Klavon

 

Labor Day weekend, the air was cool, boat traffic busy. “Classes start Tuesday, and I was wondering if I can borrow two hundred dollars for the kid’s school clothes?” asked Liza. “Money’s tight since Russell lost his job.”

I looked across the picnic table beyond Liza’s yellow hair at the sparkling water of the lake. A pontoon boat motored past. Ducks descend to a reedy cove. I saw a crow picking at a dead fish on the shoreline, but couldn’t look at my own daughter and reply to her question. Her mother broke the uncomfortable silence.

“Of course we can lend you the money,” said Shelly. “Aaron, tell Liza we don’t mind.”

But we do mind, I thought. We mind very much. I got up from the table and went to the sandy shore, where my granddaughter played in the lake. “Poppa, watch me swim.” She splashed on top of the water, kicking and paddling, but made no forward progress. She stood waist deep in the cloudy waves, wiped water from her face, and smiled.

“You’re getting better,” I said.

The two grandsons came toward me, their feet covered with wet sand. They both held toy shovels and pails. “You gonna swim with us, Pop?”

“Too chilly,” I said.

They pulled off their shirts (their ribs rippled on their skinny bodies), waded into the lake, and dove under. The boys had dug holes in the beach sand and filled them with murky water. A gull hovered overhead, expecting a handout. Tied to the dock, our pontoon boat bobbed up and down with the waves.

I looked back toward the picnic table, where Shelly and Liza drank iced tea mixed with lemonade. Liza was smoking a cigarette. She always had cigarettes but couldn’t afford school clothes for her children.

Later, I grilled bratwurst in the driveway. The boys’ teeth chattered as they lingered in the garage looking at my fishing poles. “Pop, you should take us fishing,” said Wendell.

“Too many boats on the water. Maybe after a while.”

“All right!” They ran off to play.

Shelly came up to me as I tended the grill. “You hurt Liza’s feelings.”

“How?” I said.

“She can tell you don’t want to loan her the money.”

“It’s true, I don’t.”

“Do you mind telling me why not?”

“When are her and Russell ever going to pay back those thousands of dollars they borrow from us every year?”

She shook her head. “It’s not for them. It’s for our grandchildren.” We both looked toward the dock, where the kids sat on the edge, their feet overhanging the water. Liza was talking on her cell phone in the yard, twirling her hair with her finger. Russell, Liza’s husband, the kids’ dad, had gone out of town that morning with a buddy to pick up a car Russell had inherited from his recently departed father: a 1969 Mustang.

“Fine, I’ll give her the money.”

Shelly kissed me. “You’re a good man.”

After dinner, I baited the fishing rods with night crawlers, and the kids caught bluegills off the dock. Shelly took their pictures holding the fish. Danny’s fish was the size of my thumb. Liza sat on the docked pontoon boat sending text messages. “Mom, look at my fish,” Danny called out.

She barely glanced up from the cell phone. “Uh-huh.”

Mosquitos buzzed in the air, attacking our arms and legs. We went inside and had peach pie with ice cream for dessert. I wrote out a two hundred dollar check to Liza, and in the ledger I noted that the money was for school clothes.

“Thank you, dad,” she said. “Russ and I will put it to good use.”

“You’re welcome. Tell Russ to drive safe in that hotrod you guys are getting. I don’t want to hear that he wrapped it around a tree.”

“Oh, he’ll drive safe, or I’ll kill him.”

At dusk, Liza and the kids took off for home, waving and shouting goodbye out the car windows. Shelly and I stood in the driveway holding hands. We gathered up the beach toys and cleared the picnic table. I put the fishing poles away and rolled the gas grill into the garage. It looked like rain.

* * *

September 30th, Russell, Liza, and the grandchildren, stopped by unexpectedly and stayed for dinner. We ate largemouth bass I had caught off the dock. Russell had long hair and gaged ears, his arms covered with tattoos. Liza had died her hair auburn red. They drove Russ’s father’s black Mach-I, and Russ happily popped the hood and showed me the Cobra Jet engine. “Four hundred and twenty eight cubic inches,” he said. “Three hundred and fifty horsepower. My father loved this car.”

“Lotsa chrome.” I inspected the busy engine compartment.

“I’m thinking about getting headers and new mags, and I want to buy a house with a garage, so I can store it in the winter time.”

“You might want to get a canvas car cover, for now,” I suggested.

“I already put one on order.”

“How’s the job hunt going?”

“Slow.”

“Any chance of getting back in at Imperial Forge?”

“None whatsoever. I walked out on my shift after the foreman got in my face. He was being a dick. I should’ve punched him.”

“Where have you been looking?”

“Haven’t yet. I’m enjoying the time off. Things will pick up after the holidays.”

“Poppa, let’s fish,” said Wendell, running up from the shoreline.

“Son, you have a one track mind.” I ruffled his hair.

We went to the dock, and I rigged the kids’ fishing poles. Wendell caught a catfish ten inches long, and it swallowed the hook. I cut the line and threw the fish back into the lake. The water was choppy. A flock of Canadian geese flew overhead, and Karen squinted, looking toward the sky. Shelly asked her, “Where’s your glasses, honey?”

Karen swiped her long bangs away from her eyes. “They’re broken. Our mom says I’m going to get new ones next month. I didn’t get them this month, so she could get her hair colored.”

“She broke them on the first day of school at the playground,” Liza explained. “Clumsy kid. Now look at her. She’s so blind I hope she don’t walk out in traffic.”

“Guess what, Grandma,” said Wendell. “I’m the tallest boy in fourth grade, and Danny’s the tallest in second.”

“And Karen’s the fattest in third,” Russ teased.

“Hey, that wasn’t very nice.” Liza smacked Russ’s shoulder.

“I meant smartest,” he retracted.

Karen started crying. She dropped her fishing pole and ran off the dock. We tried to coax her back, but she disappeared into the house.

After dinner, I took the family out on the pontoon boat. We circled the perimeter of Loon Lake and viewed the lakefront houses and hilly forests beyond. The maple trees were blazing red, the oaks dull brown. Karen squinted, but couldn’t make out the scenery. Everybody wore jackets in the chilly weather.

When we got back to the dock, the women and children went into the house, and Russell stayed outside with me and helped moor the boat. “When are you planning on taking this raft out of the water and pulling the dock out for winter?” he asked.

“Couple weeks, I guess. I usually keep her handy for when the fall colors peak.”

“Well, I’d like to come out and give you a hand, Aaron, so give me a call.”

“Okay, thanks. I’ll call.”

“What about raking leaves in the yard this fall?” he said. “I’d like to help with that too.”

“We have a leaf vacuum on the mower.”

“I can drive the mower for you.”

“That won’t be necessary, thanks anyway.” We finished tying up the boat, and Russ helped carry the fishing tackle from the dock up to the garage.

“I need to ask you a favor, Aaron.”

“What’s that?”

“Tomorrow’s the first of the month, and I need to borrow two hundred and twenty dollars for the last two-and-a-half months’ power bill.”

I didn’t say anything.

“I’m good for it. I’ve been hanging sheet rock with my brother on the side and he’s got a big job lined up for the middle of the month. It’s a sure thing.” Russ showed me the cutoff notice from the power company.

I leaned the fishing poles in the corner.

“I know I still owe you for the brake job on Liza’s car, and I haven’t forgot you, buddy.”

Inside, I took Russ to the den and broke out the check book. “What’s your account number at the power company?”

“Just make it out to me.”

“I’d rather not.”

“Okay.” He showed me the bill with the account number.

I wrote the check and handed it over.

“Thanks a lot, Aaron. I might be able to pay you back in a few weeks if my brother lands that sheet rock job.”

In the kitchen, we ate lemon cake with chocolate frosting for dessert. Shelly poured glasses of milk for everybody, and Danny accidently elbowed his glass off the table. Liza sopped up the mess with paper towels. “I swear I have the clumsiest kids in town.”

“Tell grandma and grandpa you’re sorry.” Russell held Danny on his lap.

“I’m sorry,” Danny said barely above a whisper. Tears streamed down his cheeks.

“All is forgiven, son.” Russell hugged the boy. “All is forgiven.”

* * *

Halloween, Liza and the kids came over for trick-or-treats, and Shelly and I tagged along. Wendell was dressed up as a cowboy, Karen a bumblebee, and Danny as Superman. Liza wore Russell’s high school football jersey over her shirt with a helmet Russ had no doubt permanently borrowed from the athletic department. We followed along Lake Drive on the east shore, where the houses are close together, then returned on the opposite side of the street. Adults shined flashlights up and down the crowded sidewalks, and kids in costumes carried candy in bags and plastic pumpkins.

Back at our house, the kids dumped their candy onto the kitchen counter, and we inspected the haul. Wendell ate too many sweets, and he got sick in the bathroom. I helped him out of his costume and washed his face. “Poppa, you can have the rest of my candy corn,” he said. “I don’t want it anymore.”

At the table, we drank apple cider and had donuts. Liza pulled a receipt out of her purse. “Here’s the sales slip for the kid’s Halloween costumes, mom. You owe me sixty nine dollars.” Shelly looked at the slip.

“Also, can I borrow your debit card? I need to put gas in the car, so I can make it back home.”

“Of course, honey.” Shelly went into the den and came back with her debit card and the checkbook. She wrote a check for the kid’s costumes and gave Liza the debit.

“Tell grandma and grandpa thank you for your costumes,” Liza told the kids.

“Thank you, grandma and grandpa,” they all spoke up.

“I’m going to run up to the corner and get gas. I’ll be back in a minute.” Liza carried the football helmet out the door.

I played cards with the kids and ate Wendell’s candy corn. Wendell held his head up with his elbow on the table, chomping on licorice sticks. Karen’s mouth had turned blue from a jaw breaker, and Danny was eating a Moon Pie. “Poppa, look at my tongue,” said Karen, sticking her blue tongue out at me.

“I think you kids have had enough candy,” said Shelly.

When Liza returned, she washed off the eye-black smudges from under her eyes and took off the football jersey. Her shirt came up while pulling the jersey over her head, revealing a tattoo of a rose trellis covering her back.

Shelly looked surprised. “Since when do you have a tattoo?”

“Since a few weeks ago.” She lifted the back of her shirt to show us. “You like it, mom?”

“It’s nice, but it must’ve been quite expensive.”

“Only six hundred. A friend of Russell’s did it.” Liza put her shirt back down. “We need to take off, kids. Tomorrow’s a school day.”

Wendell and Karen moaned as Liza gathered up the candy from the counter. Danny had fallen asleep in my lap. We helped her put the kids in the car, and she quickly backed out the driveway.

“Oh, wait!” Shelly called out. “You forgot to give back my debit card.”

Liza locked the brakes, pulled the car back up the drive, and turned on the dome light. She made a big show of digging through her purse. “I can’t find it. It’s too dark, and I need to get these kids in bed.”

“Well, come in the house where it’s light and look for it.” I held open her door.

“You people!” she huffed, shaking her head. She climbed out and followed me inside, while Shelly stayed with the kids. Liza dumped her purse out on the kitchen counter. She had cosmetics, chewing gum, a cell phone, a bag of marijuana, and five brand new packs of cigarettes. She quickly stuffed the marijuana and cigarettes back into the purse. “It’s not in here.”

“Find it!” I hollered.

She pulled the card out of her back pocket and slammed it on the counter. “Here! Choke on it.”

Anger swelled up inside me. I grabbed her arm. “Don’t get cute with me, girly. We bought costumes for the kids, filled your tank with gas, and now you try to steal your mother’s bank card.”

“You’re the one who wanted the kids here for Halloween,” she shot back. “It’s forty miles round trip, and I needed gas. And I don’t make enough money waiting tables to afford Halloween costumes!”

“But you always have a bag of weed, don’t you.”

She pulled her arm free, scraped the contents back into her purse, and hurried out the door. “Bye, mom.” She gave a cursory wave to Shelly, slammed the car door, and screeched rubber down the street.

* * *

Thanksgiving, Liza and the kids arrived midmorning for late breakfast. After ham and eggs, the boys and I went outside and gathered sticks in the yard which had fallen from the trees. The wind blew in gusts, and the lake was wavy with whitecaps. The boys wore spring jackets, their hands and cheeks red. We could see our breath. We piled up the sticks and lit a fire in the fire pit. The girls stayed inside and prepared Thanksgiving dinner.

Russell drove up in his red pickup truck about noon time. He’d been deer hunting. He joined us by the fire, still wearing his orange hat and camouflage hunting pants. Mud caked his boots. “Hi, daddy,” Wendell and Danny greeted their father.

Russ kissed the boys, wiped Danny’s nose, and held him in his arms. “How you doing, Aaron?”

“Happy to be with the kids,” I said. “What’d you see hunting?”

“Mostly sparrows.”

“Did you catch a deer?” Wendell asked his father.

Shoot a deer,” Russell corrected the boy. “You don’t catch deer, you shoot them.” He put Danny down and said, “You’re getting too heavy, boy.” Danny picked up a stick and poked the fire. The wind kept shifting, and we frequently moved to avoid the smoke. Shelly came out with Liza and Karen.

Liza shivered, her arms folded across her breasts. She kissed Russell. “Keep me warm, honey.”

He wrapped his arms around her.

“How was the hunt?” she asked.

“Cold.”

“I hope you didn’t shoot Bambi.”

“Nope. Bambi’s father.”

“You did not!” Liza pulled away, a tinge of excitement in her voice.

“Go take a look.” Russ put a cigarette in his mouth.

“Did you really?”

“Go look.”

Liza went across the yard and looked in the pickup truck. “You got a buck!” she shrieked. We all ran to the truck. Russell came over, dropped the tailgate, and pulled the deer halfway out so the kids could see.

“How many points is it?” asked Wendell.

“Eight.” Russell held up eight fingers, his nails stained blood red. Dry blood and deer hair covered the bed of the truck. The deer’s tongue was poking out of its mouth. I grabbed an antler, turned the animal’s head, and gazed into the empty, brown eyes. Russ opened a warm beer from under the front seat, slugged it, belched, and gave us the play by play. He pulled out a camera from the cab, and everybody posed with the buck.

“What’re you going to do with it?” Shelly asked Russ about the deer.

“This evening after dinner I’m taking it to Bob Finch’s, and we’re going to skin it and cut it up in his barn.” Russ sipped his beer. “I’ll save some steaks for you guys.”

“I’d like that.” I nodded.

“Is it okay if I take a hot shower in the house, Aaron?” I need to get cleaned up. Plus, I got a touch of hypothermia.” Russ glanced across the yard as if longing for the warmth in the fire pit.

“Sure, do you need clothes?”

Russ looked at Liza, and she said to me, “I brought his clothes.”

Inside, we watched football on television, and I played cards on the floor with the kids. But Karen couldn’t see the cards, and she got frustrated and quit. The Lions lost the football game. “When are you going to get this girl glasses?” I asked Liza when she came into the living room.

“I’m not made of money,” she shot back. “Are you offering to pay?”

I kept my mouth shut.

At dinner time, we gathered in the dining room and prayed. We had turkey, mashed potatoes, acorn squash, cranberries, green beans, and stuffing. We drank red wine. Liza sent text messages as we ate.

“Put the phone away at the table,” I told her, but she ignored me.

“Liza! Did you hear your father?” said Shelly. Liza put the phone in her lap, looked down, and kept tapping the keypad.

“Daddy’s buying a puppy,” Wendell told Shelly and me. Excited, Liza and the kids gave us more details.

“We’re getting a boy dog,” said Karen.

“Well, not just yet.” Russell spoke with a mouth full of dinner role. “We’ll have to wait until I sell the car.”

“What kind of dog is it?” asked Shelly.

“A Pharaoh Hound,” said Liza.

Russ filled his wine glass. “The bass player in the band I’m jamming with, his brother-in-law breeds them for dog shows. But he said most litters only have one or two show-quality pups and the rest are sold for pets. The show dogs are two grand. The pets are twelve-hundred.”

“They allow dogs at your apartment?” I asked.

“Yeah, but it costs a hundred more for rent. But it’s worth it. Kip, that’s my bass player, he said they’re great dogs. Good with kids. I got the Mach-I up for sale. Hell, you can’t drive a muscle car in wintertime anyway. And I’ll pay back some of the money we owe you guys.”

“Also,” said Liza, “if he sells the Mustang, we’re taking a vacation with the kids on a cruise liner.” She looked into Russell’s eyes, and they kissed.

“That’s exciting,” said Shelly. “When would that be?”

“As soon as he sells it. They have good ticket deals before the holidays.”

I said, “You wouldn’t take the kids out of school, I hope.”

“They can make it up after new years,” said Liza. “And I’m quitting cigarettes.”

“Well good for you,” Shelly and I told her.

“Every time you want to smoke,” I said, “eat a red licorice stick instead. That’s how I quit.”

“I know, Dad, you’ve told me a hundred times.”

After dinner, we watched more football as the kids played on the floor. Danny fell asleep on Liza’s lap, and I dozed on the recliner. The Cowboys lost a close game, and Russell got up to leave. “I need to go cut up that deer.”

Liza stood and hugged him. “Sorry about the game, honey.”

“Aren’t you going to stay for pumpkin pie?” asked Shelly.

“Not after that football game,” he said. “I lost my appetite.”

I went outside and walked Russ to his truck.

“Thanks for having us, Aaron.” Russ shook my hand. He slammed the truck door and drove away. The scent of smoldering wood from the fire pit wisped in the wind.

Inside, we had pie and coffee, and the kids had cupcakes. I drenched my pie with whipped cream. Liza said, “Mom, I need money to buy winter coats, hats, and mittens for the kids.”

“I didn’t forget, honey.” Shelly went to the den for the checkbook. Liza pulled a fresh pack of cigarettes from her purse, tamped the end on the table, and tore off the cellophane.

“Why don’t you and Russell buy the kids coats?” I said.

She put an unlit cigarette in her mouth. “Mom always gives me money for coats this time of year.”

Shelly came back, wrote a check for two hundred dollars, and gave it to Liza. Liza looked at the check and said, “Can I have fifty more for boots?”

Shelly glanced at me and opened the checkbook again, but I stopped her. “Liza, I think you can buy boots for your own kids. We’re not made of money.”

“Oh, but you sure had enough money to put in a new boat dock this summer,” she quickly pointed out. “You have two boats, you dine at Steak & Pub every Friday, and you vacation in Florida every winter.” Liza pulled a cigarette lighter from her purse. “When are you getting your Christmas bonus at work, mom? You can give me some of that money for boots.”

“When’s Russell getting a job?” I raised my voice.

“None of your damn business. Russell’s got a job playing in the band.”

“Then make him buy the boots.” I slammed my fist on the table.

“He can’t afford boots. He just lost a hundred on that lousy football game.” She lit the cigarette. “What kind of people are you? Won’t even buy snow boots for your own grandchildren.”

“Go outside and smoke that!” I stood and towered over her. “I thought you were quitting.”

“This is my last pack, if it’s all right with you.” Liza pushed her chair back and headed for the door. She turned toward us and screamed, “Sorry, kids, your feet will be froze all fucking winter.” The kids ate cupcakes, drank chocolate milk, and didn’t breathe a word.

* * *

Eight days before Christmas, we stopped by Liza’s apartment on our way to the Christmas tree farm. The sun shined deceptively bright on a cold Saturday morning. Russ’s pickup and Liza’s car were parked at the curb, and the kid’s bicycles lay in the yard. “It doesn’t look like anybody’s out of bed yet.” Shelly looked toward the balcony of their second floor apartment.

I glanced at my wristwatch. It was almost nine o’clock. “Then we’ll wake them up.”

We climbed the outer steps and knocked. Inside we could hear the kids scamper across the floor. The door swung open, and Shelly stepped into the foyer and hugged the kids.

“Hi, grandma. Hi, grandpa,” they greeted us.

I hoisted Danny. “Poppa, that’s our new dog.” He pointed at the dog. The excited brown puppy with big ears and long legs jumped around at our feet.

“His name is Devil,” said Karen. Devil hopped up on my leg, and I petted his head.

“Poppa, we’re watching cartoons.” Wendell led us into the living room. The kids wanted us to sit down and watch the big screen television, but Shelly and I were too horrorstruck by the condition of the apartment.

Liquor bottles, pizza boxes, empty beers lay everywhere. The ashtrays overflowed. You couldn’t see daylight on the tables and counter tops. Pretzels and popcorn covered the furniture. The dog had pooped on the carpet, and a puddle of pee glistened on the kitchen linoleum. A torn open garbage bag emitted a foul stink. And a pair of red panties dangled on a Christmas tree branch.

“Where’s your mom and dad?” I asked.

“Sleeping.”

“Does your mom always keep the house this clean?” Shelly picked a lamp up off the floor.

Wendell and Karen laughed. “We had a Christmas party last night.”

“And the police came,” said Danny.

“Yeah, the fuckin’ cops shut us down.” Wendell threw the dog off the couch.

“Watch your mouth, boy,” I said.

“Sorry, Poppa.”

“Grandma, guess what,” said Karen, “we went on two airplanes and rode a big boat on the ocean for a week. And we didn’t have to go to school.”

“Cruise ship,” corrected Wendell.

“Yeah, and they had a swimming pool and a water slide.” Karen mimed swimming, stroking her arms.

“And golfing!” said Danny.

“And a exercise room,” said Wendell. “And daddy lost five hundred dollars playing black jack.”

“See,” said Danny, showing us his baseball hat with a cruise ship emblem on the front. Just then, gunfire erupted on the television, and the kids turned to watch the cartoon.

“We’re going to a farm to chop down a Christmas tree,” I said. “We thought you kids might want to go.”

“All right!” shouted Wendell. They hopped off the couch.

“First you need to ask your mom and dad,” I told them.

All three ran down the hallway and peeked into the master bedroom. I could hear hushed tones as the kids talked to Liza. The kids came back, excited. “Mom said we can go, but she needs to ask our dad, and he’s still sleeping,” said Karen.

“You kids need to eat breakfast first,” said Shelly.

“Okay.” Wendell hurried to the kitchen and came back with a big bag of caramel corn. They all dipped in and took handfuls.

Shelly frowned. “Let me find something better than that for you to eat.” Her and I went into the kitchen. An empty box of Captain Crunch lay on the counter, and the refrigerator was nearly full of long neck beers. Venison packed the freezer.

I looked through the mostly bare cupboards. “We’ll take the kids out for breakfast.”

Liza came out of the bedroom, wearing a flannel nightgown. “Hi.” She scratched her head. “Sorry about the mess. We had a few people over last night.”

“Do you mind if we take the kids for a couple hours to the Christmas tree farm?” I asked.

“It’s fine with me, but I need to ask Russell.” Liza picked up the dog. “Did you meet Devil?” She rubbed his ears. “Russ wants to have him professionally trained to compete in dog shows. First prize at the big shows is fifty thousand dollars.”

“Well, if you’re going to put him in competition, you might want to give him a better name,” I suggested.

“Like what?”

“Hell, I don’t know, Clifford, Skip, Rudy.”

“Russell wanted to call him Ozzie, but everybody voted on Devil.”

“How was your vacation?” asked Shelly.

Liza yawned. “It was nice.” She looked over at the kids eating caramel corn and watching television. “Turn that TV down, and put that popcorn away! I need to make you kids breakfast.” She lit a cigarette then pulled a box of pancake mix from the cupboard.

I went into the living room to where Russell’s black Les Paul leaned in the corner. At least he didn’t sell his guitar for a puppy, I thought, taking up the instrument. I sat cross-legged on the floor, fingered a D-chord, and strummed the strings with the back of my index finger. As a young man, I always carried a guitar pick in my wallet, I remembered. I also recalled selling my own Les Paul in college to pay overdue tuition. That was a sad day at the pawn shop, but a tough choice had to be made.

After the kids had pancakes and orange juice (Liza tasted the juice to make sure it wasn’t spiked with alcohol before serving it), the women took them to the bedrooms to get dressed. The deer horns from Russell’s eight point lay on the floor as Devil chewed on a tine. I sat on the couch, and the dog tried climbing up on my lap. I cupped my hand over his nose, and he chuffed and turned away, and then we played tug of war with a sock I picked up off the floor.

The kids came out of the bedroom, and Liza pulled their new coats and hats from a closet by the front entrance. She knelt down and helped Danny with his zipper. She put mittens on his hands and said to Shelly, “I’m sure it’s okay, mom, but I better ask Russell if the kids can go.”

“I’ll go tell daddy.” Wendell ran off to the back bedroom.

Shelly and I took our coats from the coat tree and bundled up. “We’ll only be gone a couple hours,” I told Liza. “We’ll ride on the horse drawn wagon back to where the trees are planted, find a nice one, and cut it down just like when you were a little girl.”

“I remember. That’ll be fun.”

The bedroom door opened and closed. Wendell clomped into the living room, crying. “Daddy won’t let us go because we don’t…”

“What, honey?” Liza knelt down and hugged the boy. “I can’t understand what you’re saying.”

“Daddy won’t let us go because we don’t have b-boots.”

“Oh—” Liza kissed Wendell’s forehead. “I’m so sorry.”

Karen and Danny started to cry.

“But, honey,” Shelly said to Wendell, “there’s no snow on the ground. You don’t need boots.”

I took Shelly’s hand. “Let’s go.” We hugged the kids, and Liza followed us to the front door.

“Sorry, mom and dad.” She hugged us.

“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “We should’ve called first.”

Shelly agreed. “But we’ll see you Christmas day, right?”

“Uh-huh.” Liza sniffed and wiped tears with the back of her hand. We went outside into the frozen morning.

* * *

December 21st, I hung the bicycles in the garage on hooks suspended from the ceiling. I wanted to clear out floor space for a canoe I’d bought at the boatyard for Shelly’s Christmas present. Russell, Liza, and the kids drove up the driveway, unexpected, in Liza’s white Impala. I greeted them at the car.

“Just dropping off that venison I promised,” said Russell. Liza went into the house. Russ opened the trunk and pulled out a grocery sack, nearly full of frozen steaks, chops, and a roast.

I put the meat into the freezer chest in the garage. “Thanks, Russ. I’ll ask Shelly to make that roast for Christmas dinner.”

“Why are you hanging the bikes on hooks?” asked Wendell.

“I bought grandma a canoe for Christmas, and I’m going to store it in the garage.”

“Poppa, our bikes got stolen,” said Karen.

“Well, you kids need to take better care of your belongings.” I put my arm around her. “I saw that you’d left your bike in the yard by the street the other day.”

Danny said, “My bike got stolen too.”

I said to Russell, “You didn’t need to make a special trip out here just to bring the meat. You could’ve brought it Christmas morning.”

“Oh, no problem,” he said. “Glad to do it.”

“What’s your plan for the rest of the evening? Have you had supper?”

“We can’t stay. I got band practice with those guys I’ve been jamming with. We’re starting to sound pretty good, too. It’ll be fun to get back on stage.”

We went down the sloped yard to the lake. The water had frozen over, and the kids ran and slid on the ice in their shoes. Me and Russ walked around on the smooth surface as the wind blew gusts of powdered snow. I slipped then caught myself. “We’ll have to get you guys out here ice skating pretty soon.”

“I know it,” said Russ. “Wendell’s been begging to go.”

“Too bad he didn’t bring his skates. This ice is like glass.”

Shelly came out of the house and called down to the lake, “Aaron, will you come inside for a minute.”

“I’ll be back, Russ.” I trudged up the slope to the house. My glasses steamed up as I opened the door.

Shelly stood waiting. “Liza has something she wants to ask you.”

In the kitchen, Liza sat at the table with a plate of cookies and a glass of milk. I had a flashback of her as a little girl. “What is it, honey?” I asked, taking my hat off. Shelly sat down next to her.

Liza spoke barely above a whisper. “Dad, Russell and I have fallen two months behind on our rent. If we don’t give the landlord eleven hundred and eighty dollars tomorrow, he said he’s going to throw all our stuff in the yard and change the locks.” She slid an eviction notice across the table.

I sat down and scanned the document. “Can’t you pay part of it now and the balance next month?”

“We tried, but he wants us out.” She struggled not to cry.

I pushed my chair back. “You should’ve thought of that before you went on vacation and bought that dog.”

“Sorry,” she said.

“You’re gonna be.”

Shelly went to the den, came back, and sat down with the checkbook.

Liza said, “Can you make it out for twelve hundred, so I have money for the kids’ lunches?”

I looked at Liza our little girl, almost thirty, a nice looking woman like her mother. A suede leather coat with fur collar and cuffs was hanging on the back of her chair. She wore a braided gold necklace, her brown hair in a long bob. Her pearl earrings no doubt cost more than a pair of eyeglasses would for Karen.

Through the window, I could see the sun setting across the lake. Red and yellow highlights streaked through the clouds above the barren tree line. Soon it would be nightfall, and Liza and her family would be driving home, in turmoil. “Nope, we’re not paying for it,” I said abruptly. I grabbed the checkbook from under Shelly’s pen. Shelly looked surprised as did Liza. “We’re not paying any of it.” I glared at the two flabbergasted women.

Shelly protested, “Aaron, it’s almost Christmas, and we can’t have homeless grand—”

“Never again!” I stood and slammed my open hand on the table. “Let them figure it out.”

Liza narrowed her eyes. “It’s because of Russell, isn’t it? You’ve never liked him from day one.”

“Not true.” I paced the floor. “I liked him well enough until you two dropped out of high school and ran away from home.”

“Liza grabbed her coat and headed across the kitchen. She turned and screamed at me, “We gave you deer meat!”

“Take it back!”

She stomped her high heels, and slammed the door. Outside, Russell and the kids waited in the running car. She climbed in, and they backed out the driveway, snow flurries in the headlights. We watched out the window as they disappeared over the hill.

* * *

Christmas morning, a light snow had fallen overnight and blanketed the pines in the yard. Rabbit tracks circled the birdfeeder, where the cardinals had dropped seed to the ground. Shelly and I ate cinnamon rolls and drank coffee by the wood stove. I stood and stretched. “I need to bring in more firewood before the kids get here.”

Shelly kissed me and took my empty cup. “I’m going to get the family breakfast started.”

I put on my boots and coat as she dug potatoes from a bin below the kitchen counter. Outside, a frigid wind blew across the lake, and I covered my ears with a stocking hat and pulled on a pair of gloves from my pocket. Deer tracks crossed the yard to the weeping crabapple tree by the wood pile. The Christmas tree in the house sparkled through the picture window.

I hope Russell remembers ice skates, I thought, and I debated clearing a skating rink on the lake with a snow shovel. But the stiff wind made me think it was too cold. Maybe the sun would come out in the afternoon, and if not, Russ and I could go ice fishing toward evening.

I picked an armload of wood and hauled it into the garage. Snow squeaked beneath my boots. Shelley’s canoe, a red fiberglass sixteen-footer, sat on the floor. I was looking forward to paddling into reedy coves and slaying largemouth bass in the lily pads next summer. After several armloads of wood, I took the bundles inside and filled the log rack. The kitchen smelled like fried potatoes. In the living room, gifts waited to be opened beneath the Christmas tree.

Shelly checked the kitchen clock. “I wonder what’s keeping Liza and Russell?”

“You’re sure they’re coming?” I took off my coat and hung it on a hook.

“I talked to Liza yesterday. She said they’d be here for breakfast. They plan on spending the whole day.”

“Maybe the roads are slippery.”

She turned the gas down on the stove and let the potatoes simmer.

“Did they get everything settled with their landlord?” I asked.

“I haven’t heard. I was afraid to bring it up.”

I poured a glass of eggnog from the fridge and ate a peppermint pinwheel from a platter of sweets (starting new years I was panning on losing fifty pounds). I made another pot of coffee and watched the snow fall out the picture window. Shelly pulled a baking sheet from the oven and transferred sugar cookies to a wire rack. Liza’s Impala turned up the driveway. “Russ and Liza are here,” I announced.

“Oh good.” Shelly came out of the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron.

I put on my coat and went through the garage to the driveway. But when the car drove up, Russell was all alone. He climbed out, avoiding my eyes, the engine running. I extended my hand. “Merry Christmas, Russ. Where’s Liza and the kids?”

Russ kept his hands in his coat. “Sorry, Aaron, it’s not happening this year. I just came to get the kids’ Christmas gifts.”

Silence, like I’d been shot with an arrow. “What’s the matter?”

He didn’t answer, turning his back on me. He opened the trunk of the car. “The kids are home waiting for their presents, grandpa. Don’t fuck up their Christmas.”

More arrows. I hesitated then walked slowly through the garage past the red canoe.

Shelly waited eagerly inside. “Are you okay, Aaron? You look ill.”

“They’re not coming,” I said.

“What?”

“They’re not coming. It’s only Russ. He came to pick up the kids’ gifts.”

“What!” She turned quickly toward the door. “I’m going to give him an earful.”

“No, you’re not.” I grabbed her arm. “This family will not fight on Christmas. Now pull the kid’s gifts out from under the tree.”

At first she didn’t budge, her eyes red with anger and hurt.

I hauled the presents outside, while she cried on the floor, sorting through the giftwrapped boxes. I put them in the trunk of Liza’s car. Russell watched by the wood pile, smoking a cigarette. The last gift barely fit. “That’s all we got.” I closed the trunk lid.

Russ flicked his smoke in the snow, came to the car, and opened the door.

I offered to shake hands. “Tell everybody Merry Christmas.”

Russ hedged, then grasped my hand. “Merry Christmas, Aaron.” He climbed in and backed out the driveway. I quaked to the depth of my bones as the white car disappeared over the hill.

 

 

BIO

Franklin KlavonFranklin Klavon has written a novel, Bubba Grey Action Figure, and a collection of short stories, Lemon Wine. His fiction has appeared in Brain, Child Magazine, at storychord.com, verdadmagazine.org, schlock.co.uk, and aphelion-webzine.com. In a previous life he played lead guitar for Bubba Grey and has produced five alternative rock compact discs. Mr. Klavon is an avid chess player and has a Master’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Michigan. For more, visit franklinklavon.com.

 

 

 

0
hyena

hyena salvation

by robert paul cesaretti

 

 

the hyena looked up at him from the small, bare condominium yard. it always sat next to the rusted bar-b-cue grill, his little altar perhaps. the hyena was ugly, not beautiful in the least but he loved it just the same. he was dying and as he was dying he was coming to believe the hyena understood death, his death in particular. this was mysterious.

he had stolen the hyena from the zoo where he had once worked, when it was very small, when it was cute. they figured an owl probably got it, which is what he had suggested. then he retired from the zoo. he thought it a good idea to have the hyena as a reminder of his good times at the zoo, which he had enjoyed very much. they used to play cards amongst the elephants, him and the guys he worked with, and dash through the lion pit on a dare. what fun it was. the camaraderie of it all. and he had a girlfriend at the hotdog stand. the time of his life.

he had come to like africa very much while he was there, at the zoo, because of the animals that had come from there, from africa. feeding them and cleaning them so well like he did. he would imagine the great beauty of africa while he did so. zebras, ostriches, gorillas. he thought of africa as a sort of place where life poured itself out. and now he had let to go of the things he had done in his life, work play love, as he was facing his death, as it was coming his way. work play love, those things were working themselves out ok, but his thieving, not so much so. the many things he had stolen, from the many people he had stolen them from. precious things. thieving had been so very close to his heart, he had come to cherish it. this was bothering him now because death was showing itself as a thief, they had come to know each other it could be said. but he did not want death to have a hold on him, he wanted to go right on through to heaven. that would be best.

he would take the hyena to africa he decided, where there would be a life for it to live with other hyenas and where it could eat animals and fight lions like a hyena should. and when he set the hyena free he would let go of his death, into the heart of africa, freeing himself up for more life to come. he went down to face his hyena with a steak and he bar-b-cued the steak. they ate it together. and then he held the hyena gently and spoke softly to it, speaking to it of the savannahs and jungles and deserts they would see in africa. the innocence that carries us away.

 

 

 

BIO

Robert CesarettiRobert Paul Cesaretti has published in Plain Brown Wrapper, The Atherton Review, Gambling the Aisle, SN Review, Dark Matter Magazine, Mad Hatters‘ Review, Commonline Journal,  Avatar Review, The Zodiac Review. He is the founding editor of Ginosko Literary Journal, http://GinoskoLiteraryJournal.com and a native of the San Francisco Bay Area.

 

 

0
dan darling

I Found a Heart

by Dan Darling

 

 

I found a heart under one of those freeway overpasses in the bad part of town. It was a place where the bums bunked during the winter and the bats shat their guano in drifts during the summer. It was a place where the small-time drug dealers and the prostitutes and the existentially destitute outcasts like me went to have our shame rumbled over and over and over by the cycles of endless interstate traffic. It was a place with cement gray pillars that held up thousands of tons of cement and asphalt amidst colorless urban blight. I found the heart at the base of one of those pillars. The heart was gray. It lay coated in desert grit. A dead leaf stuck to the underneath of it. I picked it up and flicked the leaf away. The heart was cold and clammy and hollow.

I was a 23-year-old girl out wandering the summer streets. I was single and lonesome. I was hobbling around on one crutch, and my face was bashed up from a hit and run. I was drunk as a hyena during apple season.

I interpreted the heart as a sign, so I took it to David’s house, of course.

He opened the door and tried not to look blown away by my mangled body. He wore maroon bell-bottoms and a tan shirt with pearl buttons. A green scarf twined around his long, slender neck. He’d grown his mustache out a little since I’d seen him a couple weeks before. He had high cheekbones and when he saw me they turned red.

“Amy,” he said. “What the hell did you do to yourself?”

I hadn’t been returning his calls. I didn’t return much of anybody’s calls, but I’d been ignoring his for a special reason. I didn’t want to talk about getting hit by the judge’s son in the red convertible, so I showed him the heart.

“That’s a lamb heart,” he said, “isn’t it?”

“It’s a human heart,” I said.

He tilted his head back and a delicate smile curled his lips. “It’s an animal heart. You bought it at a butcher’s shop.”

“I found it in the street,” I said. “Human cast off. Evidence of a dying culture. Torn from the chest of a pregnant mother as her body and the body of her unborn were shredded in a terrible wreck. A life-saving organ donated by a terminal patient in a moment of ultimate generosity, only to be thrown from a moving ambulance by some misanthropic hospital tech.”

“They transport donor organs in planes or helicopters,” he said. “I saw it on ER, Chicago Hope, Grey’s Anatomy, and Scrubs.”

I pushed the heart toward his face and he yelped. He was skittish like that.

He was on his way to a party, but I made him stay. We looked the heart up in the encyclopedia. It was a World Book with a blue cover from 1989. He had a whole set of them, volumes for every letter except for X, Y, and Z, which had to share. He was retro. He didn’t believe in the internet. He had plush chairs that he’d upholstered himself with glossy velvet. They were lost in time. He hung his walls with gold-framed mirrors and sewed his own bell-bottoms. He was a tall, olive skinned man with a wiry mustache and when he wore sunglasses he looked like he had a terrible wasting disease. He was the skinniest man I’d ever known and he was hiding in the past. He wasn’t even current enough to read Marx or Nietzsche; instead he read Fourier, who believed that all social ills could be handled by carefully orchestrated orgies. In Fourier’s utopian socialism everyone would attend orgies where they would bind every part of their body up with black cloth except for their most beautiful part so people would value them for their best attribute. I had a vision of myself clad from head to toe in black, like a planet in eclipse.

According to a picture in the World Book, the human heart was dull red like a brick that had been left out in the sun. My heart was grayer than that, but it looked like it had the same ventricles and general shape as the one in the book.

“Pigs’ hearts, lambs’ hearts,” he told me, “they look just like human hearts to the untrained eye. Doctors transplant pig valves into human hearts.”

“They should start doing the opposite,” I said. “Pigs are nobler than human scum. I’m going to donate my body to the pigs when I die.”

“I want them to throw my body in the desert,” he said. “It’ll be put to good use. It’ll be gone in a day, just like people’s memories of me.”

He was always saying self-pitying bullshit.

“Do you have anything to drink?” I asked.

He did. We sucked mouthfuls of wine straight from the bottle. We passed it back and forth while we leaned on his kitchen counter and read about hearts. They were essentially just big, hollow muscles with a bunch of tubes attached. They didn’t keep you alive. They kept the stuff keeping you alive flowing. The heart propelled blood around in an endless depressing circle. That’s all.

I took the bottle and threw myself on his couch. His studio apartment was a landslide of ukuleles, retro button-up shirts, pants with impossibly long legs, argyle socks, sewing thread, pincushions, and the kind of ancient books printed with titles in plain font and nothing else on their wooden covers. His TV’s rabbit ears protruded through a cap of melted candles. A body-shaped cavity imprinted the pile of books, newspapers, and clothes on his couch, which was also his bed, which was also the place where we’d spent June together. I hadn’t been calling him back since the incident at the Fourth of July party.

We’d done a lot of TV that June. He was on classics: I Love Lucy, All in the Family, The Andy Griffith Show—programs where the -isms sprung from the screen in naked hyperbole. We were hipsters, and over-the-top racism, sexism, and nerdism pleased us in that ironic way hipsters feel pleased. Real pain and oppression were so distant that they were kind of snark-worthy—that’s what we told ourselves. The truth is, every hipster’s a traumatized person. We’re a bunch of unpopular, ugly, fat nerds. Only we’re no longer unpopular, fat, nerdy, or ugly. We get rid of those things, but we keep the shame. It’s part of us, like a dark organ we hide away among our wicked inner recesses.

That summer I was neck deep in my own ugliness. David’s favorite show was Leave it to Beaver, a show that I hated because every beautiful person in it was good, and all ugly people were evil. As an ugly girl with hair in all the wrong places and a strange face and small breasts and legs like a caber tosser.. I also hated almost every visual print medium. I’d been hooked on Holocaust movies. The ones where the most terrible shit you can ever imagine takes place in moving life and sound. It’s a movie, documenting a reality. Movies feel realer than real life, so I was drenching myself in hyper-hell until I met David and switched to classic TV.

He shut the encyclopedia and carefully inserted it back between G and I.

“You’re going to a party,” I said from the couch. “Take me with you.”

His brow furrowed up into a point over his nose. His purple lips puckered up a little and he had trouble looking me in the eye. I could tell that he wanted to bring me to the party but he didn’t want to. That was the conundrum of the human heart.

I got up and held the bottle in one hand and the heart in the other, with my crutch in my armpit. “Tally-ho!” I said.

“Leave the heart in the fridge,” he sighed, “and be nice.”

“Get better friends and I’ll be nice all night long.” I opened the fridge and slammed it. I brushed past him, letting my skirt whisk against his leg.

We took dirt alleys and cut through parking lots. That was the terrain of our city: asphalt, strips malls, dumpsters, chain link, and endless huddling concrete. Every now and then a tumbleweed rolled in from the desert to see the sights and died in a ditch or pressed up against a fence. We drank the wine on the way. I yelled at passing cars about how much I hated screw-off wine caps. We walked by the grease trap of a MacDonald’s where it smelled like someone had died. I cursed fast food and chucked the wine bottle at the drive-through speaker. Glossy wine spun from the neck, painting the starlight with blood. The bottle missed the speaker and tumbled harmlessly into a pile of trash bags. David strode beside me, swinging his legs in the long way he had, a nervous grin on his face.

 

I’d met him in the early days of summer, when the sun beat the hell out of the city during the day and the desert winds took over at night. It was a season of tank tops and jackets. I first saw him at a release party hosted by a literary magazine that published only experimental writing that blurred the line between prose poetry and flash fiction. ProseFlash—it was awesomely irrelevant. I’d had my first pieces published in their most recent cyber issue and instead of an honorarium they gave the contributors shots of Patrón. We tossed them back and swore nothing could ever corrupt us.

David juggled at that party, which was held at the house that all of the editors rented together. They had a compost heap, several rotting couches, and a kiddie pool in the all-dirt back yard. The air swirled with flies and bumblebees. David stood in the blue and pink plastic pool. The grimy water lapped at his slender hairy ankles and he wove three apples between his long-fingered hands. His pants were folded up to the knee. His skeleton looked like it had traveled back in time from a dystopic future where food was scarce. I took off my own shoes and mismatched socks and folded up my corduroys. My legs were hairy. I stood face to face with him and he tried to teach me. I dropped apples. We got wet. We splashed. I bit an apple and he took it and turned the shape of my mouth into a carousel between his hands.

I was called away to read aloud the prose poems I’d written about a time-traveler named Dr. Cone who could never find love because he was lost among the many dimensions. They were a hit. Later in the night I found David sitting in a circle of chairs around the fire-pit. He strummed a guitar and taught everyone to sing “The Internationale.”

I stood close to him and with my hip against his bicep and my arm draped around his frail shoulders. He looked up at me. His eyes were brown.

“We’re pals now,” I told him.

He smiled like a shy boy, without showing any teeth. His mouth was wide. His face was made of pits and mountains.

“Get my number from somebody,” I said.

“Give it to him now!” someone yelled. Their face was a tangle of smoke and orange firelight.

“I can’t remember what it is!” I yelled back.

People hollered out digits. They suggested 1-900 numbers and vulgar websites. Someone said, “Recite us a poem!” and I tried to step into the fire pit to prove I was divine. I spilled words into the panic. Someone took me in a fireman’s carry and David hung in an inverted world. His mouth was an O and the hole of his guitar was an O and his eyes were Os where the primordial red gathered in pools. I told him how I saw circles in everything as they carried me away and put me to bed.

We met for coffee the next day and spent 30 hours or so together, dovetailing TV shows one into the other, drinking cans of beer, talking about every last piece of nonsense, passing out on his couch at dawn, waking up at noon to order pizza. We had to order it cheese-less and meatless because I was lactose intolerant and he was a veggie. After that we became inseparable. We sashayed from drunk to sober in diurnal cycles. Every day after work I’d walk to his tiny apartment and we’d mock TV all night, or play revolutionary Scrabble where the only proper nouns allowed were the names of revolutionaries and they counted triple, or we’d take each other to parties where writers and musicians and socialists gathered to partake in the joyless fuck of life.

 

The party we went to the night I found the heart was a pretty amiable, dignified affair when I hobbled up with David in tow. It was at a house mid-way through the process of falling apart at the seams. Peeling stucco and vigas split by decades of sun and storm. A yard of dirt, weeds, cigarette butts, and skittering cockroaches. A front patio with a cracked brick floor peopled by sensitive guys with thick-framed glasses wearing sandals and skinny or chubby chicks with hair dyed primary colors and names like Monet or Lenore. Plenty of silk scarves, awkward noses, and inscrutable tattoos on necks, feet, and forearms. A skinny white boy with dreads spun in hippy-inspired bliss. I made sure to crunch one of his bare feet with my crutch. I elbowed a very sweet-looking girl with a flower behind her ear and cursed someone’s bandana-wearing dog. I trailed impending disaster behind me like a cape.

I blundered my way through the rooms of peeling white paint and into the back yard. They had a keg. I put the tap in my mouth, but David pulled it away and filled a couple of those red plastic glasses they have at all bad parties. I took a sloppy drink and let myself enjoy a foam mustache over my real one. David’s eyes couldn’t keep still. They rolled around in his head as if he’d lost his mom and expected her to show up at a lame post-college pre-life party.

Some guy with a blond beard and glasses came around with a jar of suspicious-smelling honey. I let him put a spoonful on my tongue and found out a few minutes later that the colors of the night were more splendid than I’d ever realized. I got myself a perch on a dead washing machine by the fence and talked to a teenaged kid about space-time travel. He had a theory that every dream had a tiny dose of warp capability and that if you got enough enlightened people dreaming hard enough in the same place, a worm-hole would open and suck everyone’s consciousness to a more harmonious dimension. David hovered at my elbow with his gaze everywhere but on us.

The first hour blurred by and I found myself part of a ring of people standing around listening to some gorgeous moron. He was a libertarian or a communist or a more generic sort of idealist, and he was too handsome to look at. I wanted to smash his face because I wanted to kiss his face. He was speechifying all sorts of crap and being generally worshipped because of his chin and his eyes and his shoulders, and eventually he said something absurd and offensive like, “Wouldn’t the world be a better place if people just listened to each other?”

So, I pulled out the heart. I’d faked putting it in the fridge, of course, and then slipped it into the tote bag I used as a purse. I wound up like a starting pitcher and hurled it at him. The heart hit him in the mouth. It made a tennis ball sound and rebounded surprisingly far. The handsome guy flicked his tongue in and out like a snake. He rubbed his palm across his lips and inspected the slime that lay spread across it. He stretched his tongue far out of his mouth and wiped it on the sleeve of his ironic t-shirt.

I picked up the heart and brandished it in the air like a talisman warding off dumbness. I gave each and every person in the circle a dose of my terrible yellow stare. Then David slipped his hands under my armpits and dragged me off toward a more remote part of the party where I wouldn’t bother any of the decent company.

 

I’d ruined a lot of parties. I was good at it. One of them was the 4th of July party, where David and I had begun to disintegrate.

That was the summer when I worked for the city. They’d hired me to research all the terrible things that could happen to you if you became a meth head. You could lose your teeth, for example. Your fingernails could shrivel up until they looked like Triscuits. Your teeth could fall out and you could age thirty years overnight until your skin looked as wrinkly as genitals all over. Your hair could thin and straighten and turn orange until you looked like a scarecrow from hell. Then one day as you, desperate for a fix, were shooting liquid drain-o into your neck, you’d accidentally start yourself and your meth-baby on fire and burn out like a dying star.

That was the kind of stuff I’d write up so that my boss could wince at it.

The party was split into living room and backyard factions. Through the living room window, I spied gorgeous Patrick, a boy I had a crush on, who’d looked at me as if I were a leper when I walked through the front door of the party. He had curly black hair, green eyes, and freckles. He stood in the backyard kissing a girl with smooth brown hair and smooth brown skin. She had boobs and all that other stuff that guys like. I stared at them touching each other and kissing in the curtains of twinkling and flashing light showered down on them from the bombs that we throw to celebrate America. They kissed and the sky thundered with joy. I wanted to burn the picture into my retinas. I wanted it to hang over everything I looked at for the rest of my life, like a ghost of just another moment that proved I was the worst thing the world had ever seen.

Around me, everyone in the living room was listening to someone tell a funny story. Everybody was guffawing and having a grand time. I busted into the middle of it and grabbed a shot of tequila out of some meathead’s paw. I held the shot glass of clear tequila up to the bare light bulb in the ceiling and thought I could see pure nihilism on the other side, shimmering in white light. I yelled “Down with penises!” and threw the shot back. People cheered and hooted and booed. Someone handed me another shot and I toasted to “True Hate!” and drank liquid that tasted like fire.

The next thing I knew David and I were lying head to heels on a hammock strung between a weeping willow and a lone fence post. My tongue lay numb and alien in my mouth, swaddled in the acrid paste of recent vomit. As we swung gently in the night breeze, David’s arm strayed across his chest and his fingers began to toy with my ankles. They brushed down along my calf and twined in my leg hair. His other hand, lying between our bodies, probed around, trying to find mine in the dark.

I fell out of the hammock. I rose to my hands and knees and then by some miracle stood on my feet. David sat up. He lay his soft fingers against my cheek. His dark eyes hung a few inches from mine. His breath gusted from his nostrils and fanned my clavicles with chilly air. “You’re the moon, Amy,” he whispered. “You’re the moon.” He tilted his head and closed his eyes and pushed his face gently toward mine.

I managed not to pull back so hard that I fell. His hand stayed suspended between us where my cheek had been and his face showed such naked emotion that I couldn’t look at it.

“We’re pals,” I croaked. I walked away without saying anything else. I did it because I was a closed-off person and because I thought that if I fell for someone like David—a skinny boy, whose face didn’t look quite right and whose shoulders were narrow and sloped and whose chest caved in instead of jutted out—I thought, if I get with this boy everybody will say, look at the ugly people in love. We guess they had no other choice. So, I turned away from his soft lips and velvety whiskers and blundered off into the night.

The next day, on my walk home from work, I was hit by a car. That was a Tuesday.

I was crossing the street with a walk signal and everything when the dashing judge’s son in his red convertible made a right on red. He wasn’t expecting a pedestrian, because in America you’re supposed to drive. He knocked me into the intersection and sped away. I lay with my cheek on the asphalt and watched his license plate grow quickly smaller, then disappear around a corner. I had no insurance and no lawyer would take my case. I didn’t have a dime to spend on one, nor enough beauty or charm to barter, and everyone knows if you’re broke there is no justice. My leg never healed right. It still hurts when I go down stairs and on the damp winter days. During my overnight stay at the hospital no one came to check on me. When they released me with torn ligaments and fifteen stitches in my face, I had to ask the welcome desk to call a cab to take me back to my apartment.

 

David hauled me away from the man I’d hit in the face with a human heart and installed me in a lazy boy in a back corner of the yard. It stank of rust and mildew. The cushions, once green, had been tortured and scorched by wind, rain, and sun into a dismal hue. I cranked the handle on the side and the foot rest lurched up crookedly. I let my sandals fall on the ground, lifted my legs onto the rest one at a time, and tilted my crutch against the arm.

David sat on a stool at my feet. A security light shone from the alley directly behind me. It turned David’s glasses into mirrors that held twin images of a girl splayed on a derelict recliner framed by weeds and junk. She had thick copper and gold curls on her head, legs, and forearms. She had amber eyes and downy gold fuzz on her upper lip; her right cheek was a hill above a sunken plain of acne scars, and her left was a purple and yellow rumple of swelling and stitches. A black bruise the size and shape of Texas creeped down her left thigh below the hem of her skirt like something evil that was trying to escape and corrupt mankind.

David wrapped his long fingers around the girl’s feet. My feet. His face was tender and miserable.

Maybe the heart was a revelation. Maybe hope existed and every now and then the world delivered you up a symbol that could renew and rekindle that hope. Maybe the heart was saying, hey Amy, you’re not getting it. Life is good and possible and all that crap you never believed in. You didn’t believe it, so I’m this really obvious symbol to tell you. Believe. Try. Have hope.

I let my legs fall to each side of the leg rest and leaned forward. I fell into David’s chest. I caught his shoulders in my palms and kissed him. His lips were soft between the wire of his facial hair. His breath was like butterscotch. The tips of his eyelashes brushed mine and that minute twining was the most intimate thing I’d ever felt.

David pulled his face back until our lips separated. He took my wrists in his hands, lifted them from his shoulders, and eased me back into the rotten embrace of the lazy boy whose owner had hated it too much to even throw it out properly. He picked up my hurt leg and lay it again on the leg rest.

The party was picking up steam. Behind David, the house spewed more and more revelers who huddled around the keg and clustered across the barren landscape of deceased lawn, skeletal bush, and wizened tree. David rose from the stool, turned, and shrunk into that tableau of wasted life until he was just an obscure figure with long legs and curly hair. His figure mingled with others tall and short, stocky and skinny, until it met with a particular silhouette that stood beneath the awning’s shadow and in front of the light streaming through the window. It was a girl’s figure. She was on the petite side and a nimbus of red stood around her head from where the light hit her, like a lunar eclipse. I watched until the two figures stepped from the shadows into the moonlight, and I saw David leading a ginger girl with skin like a glass of milk toward the gate around the side of the house. They left together and I knew who he’d been looking for all night.

I awoke in the same chair in the morning and no one had spread a blanket over me. The sun hovered just above the horizon. Its rays sliced between the houses and cut across my eyes. I levered my stiffened body up with my crutch and fished my tote bag from where it lay in the dust. The bulk of the heart pressed outward against the cloth. I teetered through the side yard and banged around at the gate until I got it open and then I let my misery loose on the early morning streets. I limped home across the desolate city, beneath the overpasses and across the black parking lot wastelands. I cried out my laments at the emptiest bluest sky you’d ever see about how the judge’s son had maimed me with his rich person car, and how a whole houseful of festive people had left me in a dark corner to die, and how the most beautiful and gentle boy would now never be mine.

 

 

BIO

dan darlingDan Darling has worked as a juggler, bartender, IRS agent, cafe manager, and magician. He earned his MFA at the University of New Mexico and now serves as a professor of writing and literature at Normandale College. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

Little Red Wagon

by Richard Thomas

 

 

Rebecca hated her father for what he’d done, refusing to help him dig the grave, arms crossed, tears running down her face, the body under the tarp no longer Grandpa, no more secret conversations when they were alone, just the two of them now—her father the killer, her father and his constant worries, her father convinced that the old man had finally fallen sick. They’d been alone for a long time now, the three of them living off the land, the radio antenna built up tall in the back yard, stretching up into the sky. Nobody ever answered, but she sat in the kitchen, turning the knobs, trying to find a sign of life, anyway. The black box sat on the table, static and interference crackling from the device, the puddle of blood on the floor where her grandfather had fallen, the hammer that killed him still lying there like a sleeping snake. Sitting next to her, the thick, black lab nuzzled her hand, whimpering. Sadie was upset, she didn’t know what to do, and neither did Rebecca. She was a teenager now, but inside, she was still a child, a baby—and she felt helpless.

One percent, that’s what Grandpa had said—only one percent had survived. This had been several years ago, when one percent meant something. He’d tug on his long, gray beard and stare at the television set as the man on the news rattled on, updates so infrequent, most of the population dead and gone now. Around them, the world had simply disappeared—no cars driving by, no planes overhead, with the farm still functioning, but just barely. Their pantry was filled with canned goods—it had been easy to drive around their small town and fill up the bed of their pickup truck with more. In the beginning the stench had been unbearable, meat going bad, bodies lying everywhere, but over time the animals and elements picked at the bones, leaving little behind but broken, white skeletons. One percent had turned into another one percent, and that’s when it all went quiet, went dark. The second wave erupted, the mutation—airborne or dormant, nobody knew—and then no more frantic man on the television set, hair sticking out in all directions, shouting at the camera. No, there was nothing more after that.

Grandfather talked about keeping the race alive, that they had to find a female, a woman—that was why they had the radio going, why he’d built the tower, why they constantly scrolled up and down the dial, looking for any survivors. He was a handy man, Grandpa, able to build most anything out in the barn with his tools and charts—his years of engineering so helpful now that the world had moved on. A stack of books sat by his leather recliner—biomechanics, computer programming, artificial intelligence, and bionics.

“What’s your earliest memory?” Grandpa asked her.

“What do you mean?”

“Think back,” he said, easing into the recliner. “What do you remember, the very first thing you can think of?”

Rebecca sat on the couch, and pulled her long, brown hair behind her head and into a ponytail, something she did when she was concentrating.

“Anything?” he nudged, his hands together in a steeple, pressed to his lips.

“I remember a little red wagon,” Rebecca said, and he nodded. “And inside it are a bunch of puppies—little black bundles of fur. Was that here on the farm?” she asked.

Grandpa didn’t answer, merely raised his eyebrows and grinned.

“They’d been born on the farm and I was taking them down to the end of the driveway, there were six of them, and we were going to give them away. You told me I could keep the last one, but only the last one. That must have been Sadie.”

“What’s two times two, Rebecca?”

“Four, silly.”

“What’s four times four?”

“16.”

“12 times 12?”

“144.”

Grandpa paused, looking at her, as Rebecca focused in on him, her eyes shifting, the pupils getting smaller, then larger, then smaller again.

“144 times 144?”

“20,736.”

“Good girl,” he said.

Rebecca stood in the kitchen, watching her father dig the grave, out beyond the apple trees, the shovel piercing the dirt, over and over again. She loved her grandfather, and didn’t mind the private examinations. He said it was important, their little secret, and this is what her father had yelled at her about as he stood over her grandfather’s body—but he was wrong, so very wrong. After the world went silent, after they’d filled the pantry with canned goods and planted a new harvest, made sure the pigs still had their slop, the chickens clucking at their feed—all they had was each other. The well wouldn’t run dry, Grandpa assured them, they had water and food, and solar panels lining the roof, as well as the barn, the windmills spinning, always spinning, at the back of their twenty acres, down by the creek—Grandpa said he saw it coming, it was only a matter of time. He said a lot of things when she was lying on the cold metal table, out in the faded red barn.

In the beginning, she thought it was just part of her education. No school anymore, so Grandpa would toss out math questions, give her writing assignments, talk to her about history, and even human anatomy. It used to be exams at the kitchen table—stethoscope on her bony chest where breasts refused to grow—seemed she’d always been twelve years old. He’d look in her eyes and make noises, humming to himself, muttering okay and yes and just fine as he looked in her nose, checked out her sinuses, made her stick out her tongue.

He didn’t start taking her out to the barn until her incident with the fingers. She came to him as he sat in the recliner, a book in his lap. Father was nowhere to be found. And if Rebecca had probed her memories, she’d find that to be very accurate—at first. She was pale as a sheet, sweat running down her face, the fingers on her right hand bent back and sideways at strange angles—no blood, merely broken bones, bent fingers.

“Grandpa?” she said, “Grandpa, help me, help me…something’s wrong.

He leaped out of his seat, the book falling to the floor, Sadie sitting up, always the same weight, always black, her muzzle never getting gray, barking at the sudden movement and Rebecca’s panicked voice.

“It’s okay, sweetie,” he said, rushing to her, as she stared down at her mangled hand, holding it gingerly but feeling no pain, sick to her stomach, and yet, no blood gushed forth. He put his hands on her shoulders.

“It’s okay, I can fix it, I can splint it,” he said.

She felt his hands on her neck, her shoulders, pressing down, as if searching for something, and then she fainted.

When she woke up her right hand was in a cast.

“It’s okay, honey,” her grandfather said. “It wasn’t nearly as bad as you thought. A few fingers were merely jammed, two fractured, but I set them right. You should be okay. Any pain?” he asked.

Rebecca shook her head. There was no pain, none at all. She sat up on the cold metal table and looked around the barn. Sadie jumped up and placed her front paws on the steel table, licking Rebecca’s bare leg.

And then, her father was around more. Suddenly he was a dominant presence on the farm—always keeping an eye on her, chopping wood, feeding the chickens, no longer the ghost or rumor that he used to be. Used to be, she’d think. She searched her memory for her father—she saw him driving away in a beige sedan, a salesman she thought, the letters popping up in her head like a neon sign. Then she saw him with a briefcase, walking in the front door. She saw him place airline tickets on the kitchen table and pour himself a cup of coffee. Yes, she saw her father well.

After the accident, she would meet Grandpa in the barn on a monthly basis, but only when her father was out cutting the grass or running the thresher. Her grandfather said it was because he had to run tests, diagnostics he called them, make sure everything was working right, and that it was okay for a doctor, for him now, but not in front of her father—he wouldn’t understand. It always made her sleepy, lying on the table. He poked and prodded, mostly by her head, always studying her eyes, what he called optics, when he muttered to himself. He was gentle, always gentle, and by the time his hands were on her shoulders, her head, she’d fallen asleep.

The questions certainly didn’t make Rebecca’s father feel included, the way she and Grandpa would talk in the living room, math and science, complex equations and theorems, always going quiet when her father came into the room. They would laugh, and say that he had plenty of education already, go milk the cows, they’d chuckle, go toss some hay around, and they’d both make muscles, flex them, and her father would scowl, and leave the room. He never had a good sense of humor.

Her father was a quiet man, a big guy, strong and silent, a bit of a worker bee, she used to think to herself. Grandpa would say that he was so grateful her father was around more—now that he was getting old, and she could see it in his eyes, his hair and beard sprouting more white every day, the way his skin wrinkled, and the spots by his wrists. She worried about him. But it gave Rebecca comfort to see her father outside in the yard, splitting timber, lugging buckets of water or slop, bales of hay tossed around as if they were nothing, a downed tree cut and cut and split, only the trunk left, a chain attached, a tractor pulling it, and then his massive arms wrapping around the roots, pulling it out and lifting it up, as if it were made of paper.

All it took was one time, one instance of her walking out of the barn buttoning up her blouse, and her father’s scowl turned into rage. She heard them yelling, Grandpa assuring him it was science, there were no doctors now, he was the only mind they had, that he was just making sure Rebecca was healthy. Her father wasn’t very trusting—almost simple at times. She’d seen him cry over a dead rabbit that had been gutted by a fox, holding the creature in his lap, rocking back and forth, so distraught. It had upset Rebecca—not the dead rabbit, it was just nature after all, but him, he had upset her, his reaction. No emotion, never laughing, never joking, never singing or dancing when Grandpa put on some music, but this—crying over the rabbit. It made no sense to her.

So she stood in the kitchen, and watched her father bury the old man, Sadie licking her hand. She was suddenly tired, her batteries run down, and so she went to her bedroom, and lay down on the floral sheets, staring out the window at the setting sun, orange turning to red, so tired, so sad. Maybe Grandpa had been sick after all, one percent of one percent of one percent.

She closed her eyes and replayed the scene at the kitchen table, her Grandpa holding her hand, trying to explain something to her, what was out in the barn, frozen and kept for a reason. He spoke about her as if she were two entirely separate people—and he spoke of her father the same way. He talked about her mother, and when he said the word mother a jolt went through Rebecca, a wave of confusion crashing in her head—and where there should have been memories, nothing. He said he’d fix everything, in time. But he was getting old, he needed help, the work he’d done wouldn’t last forever—the radio signal must be stronger. He spoke of amplifiers and how they might have to travel, all the while holding her hand, and yet, all she could do was stare at him—mother. It didn’t add up, didn’t compute. Why had she never asked about her mother, why was there nothing to cling to, no memory? Her father had walked in and stood by the door, his face an eternal frown.

The day after her grandfather had talked to her in earnest, trying to explain that they were running out of time, she lay in bed, not wanting to get up, a candle burning on her desk, vanilla and sandalwood drifting to the ceiling. Images of her mother came rushing back to her—hanging laundry on a clothesline outside, her auburn tresses flowing in the wind, her mother with an apron full of eggs, coming from the chicken coop, her mother singing a lullaby as she poured water over Rebecca’s head in the bath, smiling as she did it.

“In time,” her grandfather had said, standing in the doorway. “Give me time. I’ll make it all whole again, I promise.”

But now he was gone. Rebecca felt weak and unable to rise. On the floor by her bed, Sadie slept, hardly moving at all. Rebecca could feel the great shadow of her father in the doorway—standing there, silent.

“Dad?” Rebecca asked, tears in her eyes. “Dad, come here.”

The big man lumbered over, Sadie not even raising her head.

“Tell me about my mother. I can hardly picture her. What happened, where did she go?”

He sighed and placed his hand over hers.

‘I don’t know, honey.”

“What do you mean?” she said.

“I don’t remember.”

Rebecca stared at him, as she felt the energy draining out of her body.

“What do you remember?” she asked.

Her father sat there, arms heavy, his head hanging low, a soft whirring sound filling the air, his frame suddenly growing weak, the room dark and quiet.

“What’s the first thing you remember? Go back as far as you can, what’s your first memory?” Rebecca asked.

Her father stared at the floor, the gears turning, trying to think back, to remember, something from his childhood. He held her hand, no longer warm, cool to the touch.

“I remember a little red wagon,” he said, and she nodded. “And inside it are a bunch of puppies—little black bundles of fur.”

Rebecca closed her eyes, two tears slipping out, as her chest moved up and down, slowly, and then, not at all.

“They’d been born on the farm and I was taking them down to the end of the driveway, there were six of them, and we were going to give them away. Somebody told me I could keep the last one, but only the last one. Who was that?” he asked the room. But there was no response—it remained silent.

He held his daughter’s hand, now cold, the black lab at his feet not stirring, the house around him closing in, the silence deafening.

“What have I done?” he asked.

 

 

BIO

Richard ThomasRichard Thomas is the award-winning author of seven books—Disintegration and The Breaker (Random House Alibi), and Transubstantiate (Otherworld Publications); three short story collections, Staring Into the Abyss (Kraken Press), Herniated Roots (Snubnose Press), and Tribulations (TBA); as well as one novella in The Soul Standard (Dzanc Books). With over 100 stories published, his credits include Cemetery Dance, PANK, storySouth, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Midwestern Gothic, Arcadia, Qualia Nous, Chiral Mad 2, and Shivers VI (with Stephen King and Peter Straub). He has won contests at ChiZine, One Buck Horror, and Jotspeak and has received five Pushcart Prize nominations to date. He is also the editor of four anthologies: The New Black and Exigencies (Dark House Press), The Lineup (Black Lawrence Press) and the Bram Stoker-nominated Burnt Tongues (Medallion Press) with Chuck Palahniuk. In his spare time he is a columnist at LitReactor and Editor-in-Chief at Dark House Press. His agent is Paula Munier at Talcott Notch. For more information visit www.whatdoesnotkillme.com.

 

 

 

STAY IN TOUCH

IN THIS ISSUE