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john oliver hodges author

Ethel’s Mountain

by John Oliver Hodges

 

Ethel taught me guitar when I was like nine. I wrote one on trying to kill Maria, my mother, with rat poison. Woman wouldn’t die so I dropped a brick in her face. Nowadays I’m a forgiver. Don’t obsess over stupid shit. I look around, sure, and say see, I’m not the only sad tit with a slit. That’s quoting a boy I knew. A prince! A creative genius! There’s tons of them out there. I was hit by rocks—that’s what made me strong. Only when Ethel picked me up from Malaprops, this cool bookstore in downtown Asheville, I hoped she wouldn’t know me. On my bench I wanted to be nobody, a eyeball in the air, but my posture, Ethel said, told it. I felt my strength trickle out my ears. If that wasn’t injurious enough, Ethel said, “You look like Maria.”

Ethel stopped at a roadside market for tofu and cauliflower. Her treat, she said, but for future meals we’d split shit fifty-fifty. I bought McIntosh apples special for me, plus a bag of salted peanuts, roasted, in their shells.

Ethel drove, turned in at a dirt road that steepened ridiculously. Those ridiculous hills what like I see featured in my dreams, nightmares more like. In those dreams my life is like held together by a hair. Snap, that’s it. I had broken up with another asswipe. Another creative genius. A prince! The thought of living with Maria horrified me so bad. I emailed Ethel. Ethel said live with me in Asheville.

Before I say another word, gotta say: once upon a time Ethel was to receive her doctorate in psychology. From Harvard. During those last weeks of school she quit the deal and traveled to Africa’s Ivory Coast with a religious group called The Brotherhood of Light. For two years Ethel lived in a grass hut on the beach and made love to two hundred black guys. She had a monkey that she loved very much. It slept on her mat with her and screamed like a baby. In Africa Ethel played cello on the beach. She “breathed light,” purifying herself so that she could positively influence others when she returned to the United States, where she picked up as a “Creative Consultant” and suffered from insomnia that she fought by counting, instead of sheep, the faces of her black lovers. I know this detail from overhearing Maria, or, “my mother” gossiping with a friend about Ethel. But also, it was right after Ethel returned from Africa that she babysat me for the eight months that Maria and my dad toured Europe. My dad is a history professor. He was writing a book on the architectural consequences of ancient Rome—that’s why they went there, to gather clues overlooked by writers of the same topic. While they were gone, Ethel spoke often of her monkey, and of the “negroes” that she considered family. She spent a lot of time in our backyard, naked, playing cello.

Ethel pulled into her place on the side of the mountain, a half acre carved from the rock, her trailer laid out under the sun like a Wonder Bread loaf. Fucking loaf sat lonely in the center of a rectangular field of high weeds and grass. Somebody threw it out, looked to me like. Whoever would’ve thought the thing was hollow, that a woman or two could live in it?

In Ethel’s living room an upside down machine greeted me, and a bunch of ad hoc musical instruments. Ethel shelved the groceries, then escorted me down the hall to the room where she kept her books and unsold artwork, a gazillion swirly colorful paintings of moons and stars and angels and clovers and shit. The colors were just like major fucking colors with little variation—she had a psychedelic theme going on. Some of Ethel’s paintings looked like botched tie-dye shirts. Together we carted the stuff down to the backmost room, what had been Ethel’s painting studio before she switched over to doing collages in Adobe Photoshop. Back in the room I was to sleep in, Ethel pulled a blow-up mattress from the accordion closet, and brought out her vacuum cleaner which had a blowing function. Halfway through blowing up the mattress, using her hand to form a tunnel for the air to pass through, she realized it wasn’t the best way to inflate a mattress. I took over. I blew with my mouth. I blew and was blowing up the fucking mattress, really blowing up a sweat with my mouth, but Ethel said, “You probably shouldn’t do that, Nix. I used the vacuum cleaner on the wasps and roaches.” The white dust issuing from the valve between blows, what I had been sucking deep into my lungs, I realized, was boric acid. The black specks in there were dried ant bits and wasp legs and stuff.

I did not stop blowing. I just blew the mother up and capped her. The mattress took up eighty percent of the room.

Then Ethel said, “Let me show you how I do things, Nix.” I followed her to the bathroom where, forgive me but, uhm, it smelled really bad. I wanted to split. Turds wallowed in the commode like bloated tadpoles! “This is how I flush,” Ethel said. She lifted a bucket from the floor, poured the water into the basin where the stored-up turds broke apart in the bubbling turmoil before zooming through the pipes. In my mind I was like GET ME OUTTA HERE, so you can imagine my happiness when Ethel took me outside to see the barrel that collected rain water off the roof. This water I was to flush with. After “dropping a load” as the princes say, I was to go outside, fill the bucket with rain, return, then flush unless I wanted to “maximize flushes,” in which case I should save the turds for later. “Why don’t you just do it outside?” I asked.

“Outside?”

“I can dig you a hole,” I said.

“Are you serious?”

“Wouldn’t you rather do it outside?”

“I don’t want you shitting in my yard, Nix.”

“I would never do that in your yard, Ethel,” I said. “I’ll make you a compost toilet, it’s one of the more useful things I’ve learned in life.”

“That doesn’t sound right.”

“I can walk up high on the mountain,” I said.

Ethel eyed me, not just eyed-me-eyed-me, but busted straight through my eyes with her eyes. She scanned me head to foot, eyes lingering on my unshaved shins and sockless ankles. My shoes were like ratty pink Converse with duct tape wrapped around one. Ethel brought her eyes back to my face. She said, “You really do look so much like your mother, Nix.” She’d found my weak spot, was trying to exploit it, jab me, push my buttons, make me scream. To her ugly-ass comment I made zilch-o expression-o. “The blue hair is a cute distraction,” she said, “but it’s no smokescreen. I see straight through you.”

“How’s my liver? Nice and healthy?”

“Why did you change your name? Sarah’s a lovely name. I don’t know why you changed it.”

“I’m a woman of the new world.”

“The world is neither old nor new,” Ethel said, us the arguers. After thirteen years you’d think we’d be peachy, but Ethel was bitter. When she picked me up from the bookstore she went on about how Asheville was a spiritual wasteland, Ethel an expert on spirituality. Hadn’t she spent two years on the Ivory Fucking Coast living in a grass hut while making love to black guys? She was proud of her spiritual knowledge, took comfort in the poems of Rumi. Her bumper sticker read ONE WORLD, but as she drove she boiled over the guy behind us. She’d look in the rearview, go, “Slow down you creep!” and jam the brake pedal then let go, looking back and forth from the mirror to the road, sweat dripping all down her forehead. She’s big, Ethel, you’d have to call her fat. Not fat but huge. All over the place. The word is obese.

“The world is a pain in my ass,” I said. I said, “I see no problem with a hole in the ground way out here in the middle of nowhere. I never liked sitting on a thing like that, doing it like that, but that’s what they teach you when you’re little, right? If you think about it it’s a little funny.”

“Funny?”

“Don’t listen to me,” I said.

“Are you condescending to me, Nix?”

“What? No. I’m just saying that nothing I ever say is worth a shit.”

“That’s no way to talk about yourself,” Ethel said. We were quiet then. It was weird. We had all this time ahead of us. It was like three in the afternoon, only, so I asked Ethel could I mow her yard. Her yard was a mess of really tall weeds and grass.

The shed was behind the trailer. Ethel walked around with me. An enormous wasp nest hung above the entrance. I amazed Ethel by crawling up there and using the key to unlock the thing. On my knees I slid open the doors, yanked the mower out and pulled it into the yard. I amazed Ethel again by crawling back into the shed to retrieve the gas can. I filled the tank, primed the engine, yanked the cord a half dozen times until the engine kicked to life. The grass was way too high for a normal mow. I had to always be like fucking starting the mower again each time it died. The only way to mow really was to lift the front end of the mower, doing wheelies, and then let the mower blade down slow. Lift it, let it down, like a Pac Man mouth, lift, let it down, chomp chomp chomp. I chomped along all beautifully, knocking down the homes of lady bugs and really destroying that miniature ecosystem unique to Ethel’s trailerside terrain. I loved the smell and the sound the mower made. I was in motion. I was a powerful, happy, active entity of the world, only brushing up against the trailer a wasp dropped down from a nest concealed below the rain gutter. It fell upon my nose like a shred of leaf and curled up and stung. I felt another sting my neck. Then my belly. A wasp flew up my skirt. All over I was getting it, so ran, slapping myself as I took the steps on into the trailer. I shot down the hall and burst into Ethel’s room. When I saw her on the bed, I screamed.

It was like this huge white body down there that shifted, its network of dangly fat pockets jiggling all over. The large body raised its head, peeling its gaze from the TV where Coleman Barks did Rumi.

“They bit you?” Ethel said.

I crouched, trying to hold back the pain, but it kept needling into me. I whimpered and slapped my side, further squashing a wasp that I had already killed. I pulled my shirt away from my skin and Ethel and I watched the gross thing plop dead into her rug, its legs still twitching.

“You are all physical desire and greed,” Ethel said. “You have an imbalance. You feed your body but not your soul.”

The massive body seeped from the bed and pressed against me and sort of folded around me, the milkyness drooping over my arm.

“No,” I said. I pulled away and fell backwards, kicking. “Don’t!” I cried, and Ethel stood, her extremities taking up so much space in the world, in many ways beautiful. If I was a pair of eyeballs perched like flies in some corner of the room, I would have been impressed, and would have held Ethel in high regard, my second cousin so very very fat, a woman whose pride fed itself on the flakes of skin raining down from the Great World Spirit.

“It hurts,” I said.

“I know.”

“They attacked me. I was just—”

“You invaded their world.” Ethel helped me back into the crouched position, the smell of her sweat all gushing around me in bitter waves. Ethel put her hand on my spine.

“Careful,” I said.

“The sting of a wasp is a minor catastrophe, Nix, that’s what Uncle Stanley always said about the hole in his tongue.”

“I remember Uncle Stanley.”

“Uncle Stanley would pull his tongue out for me to see the hole in it that was shot out by the Nazis.”

“He didn’t show me that,” I said. It hurt to talk, Jesus.

“I know it hurts, Nix, but you really shouldn’t barge in on me. I like to be naked.”

“I don’t mind.”

“Yes, but I do. I mind.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“You should be ashamed,” Ethel said, and was looking down at me with her furrowed brow. I felt as if I needed to be punished. Ethel said, “Get undressed. I will be back in a minute but it may take a while to find the calamine lotion. I don’t normally have these little emergencies.”

Ethel left the room in a huff. I stayed crouched, holding the pain to myself as Coleman Barks continued to read Rumi on the TV. His face was all bearded and sly with horned eyebrows and a huge enraptured forehead. He was filled to the brim with himself, the fucking asswipe. “The worried wife reaches the door and opens it,” he said, and I really wanted to cry. I was remembering how, back in the old days when Ethel was my babysitter, she often made me act like her monkey.

Ethel returned with a pink bottle. She wore a purple dress now. She looked mad.

“What?” I said.

“I told you to undress. I don’t understand it, Nix. Here I am taking time out of my day to help you and all you seem able to do is fight me.”

“Oh gosh, Ethel, it’s not that bad. Give me the lotion. I can do it myself.”

“Don’t be stupid,” Ethel said, “you can’t get your back,” and she leaned over, grabbed the hem of my top and pulled it. The material scraped over my stings. I wanted to scream. “Goddamnit Nix, lift your arms!”

I should have knocked. I wasn’t thinking is all. I was real sorry about it now. It was easiest not to fight her. She threw my top onto her mattress and told me to stand so I stood and she applied Calamine lotion to my stings. There were two on my back. One of my breasts had been stung down low on the side. She was very gentle with her administrations, but then she said I had lovely breasts, “symmetrical” she called them. I was supposed to say thank you, which I did say even though it made me feel like the stupidest asshole. I just wanted to get this over with. “Your nipples have grown out nice and long,” Ethel continued. “That will be good for when you have children. They’re unusually dark in color. That means you are smarter than the average woman.”

I was not going to stand here having a conversation about my nipples, but when I didn’t say anything, Ethel sighed, clearly disgruntled. “Thank you,” I said. Ethel smiled, eyeing me enviously, or so it looked to me like. What I was beginning to fear, that she would now ask me to remove my skirt and underwear, didn’t happen. She shoved the bottle into my hand and said she guessed I could do the rest. She left the room to cook dinner, closing the door behind her so as not to let out the cool air issuing from her dumbass wall unit.

Ethel prepared our plates and we sat cross-legged on her living room shag, her upside down machine hovering over us like a black ironing board used as a torture device. The ankle straps really bugged me, but across the ironing board, in pink cursive, was the cheerful slogan: Get Your Life In Shape. Ethel promised to show me how the thing worked once I was nice and settled in, a demonstration I looked real forward to, as you can imagine.

Our dinner was steamed cauliflower, tofu and rice, very white, which we pointed out to each other with some amusement. What kind of diet was that? Not a good one, you could be sure. Ethel tried asking a few questions about my mother, but I evaded the topic. I simply had had it with Maria. I thought of her as that woman. She was all taken up with her image of herself as a matronly do-gooder sort, a woman of infinite longsuffering patience and understanding. She drove around Atlanta in her expensive hybrid automobile, stopping in at the lower-class elementary schools where she had implemented programs for kids to learn how to play music. When I was little, she played the guitar, but was it her who taught me to play? It was Ethel during those eight months that she and my dad romped Europe, checking out the cathedrals and public stadiums and castles and chalets. When that woman returned with her fattened ego and heard the song I wrote about her, the one where I drop a brick on her face while she lays out by the pool, trying to get a tan, she slapped me, even as I sang, and snatched away the guitar Ethel gave me. I don’t know what she did with my guitar. I asked Dad for a new one. He said if I wanted to express intense emotions I should learn ballet and offered to buy me lessons. I should have done it but I wasn’t feeling very creatively inclined at that point. Looking back, I see what a stupid little pouting bitch I was. Did I mention that I’m a forgiver these days?

Ethel and I talked music throughout dinner. Ethel hoped we would play tons of great stuff together, and said I would fall in love with her Dobrograph, this instrument she designed and was seeking a patent for. The Dobrograph was a regular dobra rigged up with a few extra low-end guitar strings to give it a bassy sound. The main special feature of the Dobrograph, Ethel said, was that you could plug it into the computer. When you played the instrument, a digital painting was made. You could control the color settings to match your artistic vision, and Ethel was working on other settings, too. A friend helped her with the software and technicalities, she admitted, but the concept was all hers. She would show me her Dobrographic images later, but what she really wanted to know, right this minute, was how I saw myself in five years.

“Can’t say.”

“You have to imagine yourself surrounded by the circumstances you want to create.”

“Is that Rumi?”

Ethel laughed heartily. “No dear, it’s not Rumi, it’s Wayne Dyer, probably the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century.”

“Okay,” I said. I said, “I want circumstances where everybody doesn’t want to be liked by everybody. That makes them unlikeable. I want circumstances where everybody wants to be hated.”

Ethel didn’t like my answer, so I elaborated. I said, “I don’t like that everybody wants to be kings and queens.”

“Nix?”

“Yes?”

“Why don’t you try telling the truth for a change? What kind of woman do you want to be in five years? I think that’s a pretty simple question. Will you please try to answer it? I don’t ask questions for no reason, I mean, wouldn’t you like to be a famous musician like Jewel? I’m telling you that I can help you achieve your goals.”

“I hate my voice,” I said. “I gave up singing when I was nine.”

“So what would you like to do with your life?”

“Race cars in the Daytona Five Hundred.”

“You’re just like your mother.”

“No, really,” I said.

“The spitting image,” she said. “Ever since you arrived you’ve kept me at a distance. You’ve condescended to me, and acted like art is a thing that people who can’t live a normal life do as a second choice.”

“I don’t want to talk about her,” I said.

“When I visited her last year, I met her new husband. He was all right, I guess, but I had been thinking that we would bond and that I could help her achieve her goals, but she let me know, through her behavior, that I was crowding her style. I had to pick up and leave a week early. She wasn’t like that at all when we were little. I don’t know what happened to her.”

“She wants to be a queen,” I said.

“You’re just like her,” Ethel said. “You contradict everything I say.”

The stings were beginning to itch. I hadn’t smoked since Ethel picked me up outside of the bookstore earlier. I wanted to go out and be alone in the new night under the stars. Ethel just talked on and on about her art projects. I sort of interrupted her to see if she wanted me to wash the dishes, thinking that would get her to shutup. She surprised me by saying, “Why yes, Nix, I’d love it if you washed the dishes.”

We took the dishes into the bathroom where it still smelled like consolidated shit, and she pulled aside the shower curtain to reveal a bucket filled with dark water. She told me to throw the forks into the bucket, and then instructed me on the exact method she used to wash her dishes. I just wanted a fucking smoke, you know, but I knew it would break her heart if I told her I wanted to be alone. She was saying that in the morning we would do toning together. “What’s toning?” I asked, and she smiled in the same sort of Coleman Barksian way where you felt like a heap of raw crap was being splashed in your face. She gave me a long explanation, and said that she wanted to make my Personality Wheel on the computer. I said, “Can we do it another time? I really am tired, Ethel.”

“Well, okay, but there’s something pressing I need to tell you. You know, you ought to know better than to leave peanuts out.”

“What?”

“Those peanuts. I ate them while you were out there mowing the yard.”

“That’s okay,” I said.

“No, I don’t think it is. You really shouldn’t do that.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“You should be,” Ethel said, and I felt as if she wanted to slap me.

What a bitch I’d been. I’d gone and messed up Ethel’s system. Sometimes all I’m ever good for is messing shit up for people.

“Forget it,” Ethel said, and I tried to picture myself living here another day. The weird toilet and the wasps and the roiling folds of white flesh sort of hovered all around me, giving me a sticky cramped feeling. Ethel had the same bulging-out cheeks that my mother had, and the Jewish curve to the nose. I didn’t like it, or the eyes pushed down into the sockets, Jewish brown, you’re so full of shit that your eyes are brown, that was us. Ethel wanted me to be a staple in her weird-ass mess of a place where to release your bodily fluids you had to enter a room of atrocious odor.

I said, “Do you mind if I go outside, Ethel?”

“You’re not planning to shit in my yard, are you?”

“No, no, nothing like that.”

“Well, I guess so, but don’t be long.”

Finally! Once outside I lit up and stepped barefoot through the freshly mowed grass. I sat on a cinderblock discarded near where the driveway met with the steep mountain road. When we’d first arrived, Ethel, in her usual complaining way, pointed out how the culvert below her driveway was clogged with bone dry orange dirt. Ethel was afraid that if it didn’t get cleaned out soon, the pipe and a good part of her driveway would wash down the mountain like what happened to a neighbor. She’d asked would I dig the ditch out and clear the pipe. I said sure. I love doing work to help a place out, but I pictured myself tomorrow chopping the dirt with a shovel, sweating away at the whole thing and maybe Ethel coming down from the trailer with a glass of lemonade. I pictured myself hanging upside down in her upside down machine, which was a thing I would also surely have to do tomorrow, and eating more meals with her. This fresh breath of freedom entered my lungs like a warning. I did not want to go back inside, but still it was far better than living with Maria.

My mother was in the clouds, so corroded by arrogance and vanity that if you ever tried to reach her, to make any kind of contact with her on a down-to-earth human level, her only response could be to change the subject, feign ignorance, or bury over your sincerity with new news about some great thing she had done. She’d donated money to some Chinese girl trying to get a degree in chemistry; she’d helped produce a CD by some under-recognized “African-American” musician. She played violin pretty good in a quartet, Maria, but she could not improvise to save the world. Bitch needed a book to read from—that was a sign of higher breeding. She would die believing that all she’d done in life was make the world a better place. The last time I tried to forgive her, because I think I would feel better all around if I forgave her, even if I can’t have a decent relationship with her, she started in on the German artist staying at her house, how he’d recently lost his mother, boo hoo hoo, and hint hint. She didn’t want to be forgiven for anything. The last thing she wanted was to be acquainted with her own daughter. She knew absolutely nothing about me, had absolutely zero interest in the troubles of my brain, or what happened to me while she toured Europe with my dad. Eight months is a long time when you’re little. A lot can happen to your child in eight months. It has always been this way. I wasn’t cruel about it, but she would not listen.

As I sat out there smoking, twice Ethel opened her door and peered out. She felt antsy about me being outside by myself, I could tell, so I headed back towards the Wonder Loaf. I needed to take a dump. I knew that this was breaking the rules of Ethel’s mountain, but I cut into the patch of chest-tall weeds that I hadn’t yet mowed, found a good spot and lifted my skirt and squatted. I wiped my ass with grass and dirt and cleaned my hand on the dry earth and weeds and returned to the trailer.

“There you are,” Ethel said.

“The one and only.”

“Will you be going to sleep now, Nix?”

“Sleep sounds good.”

“Wait a second,” Ethel said.

“What, what is it?”

“I didn’t realize that you smoked, but that’s not what I’m talking about. What’s that other smell? Did you shit in my yard, Nix?”

“No, uh uh.”

Ethel grabbed my hand and smelled my fingers. “You did!” she cried, looking at me aghast, her mouth hanging wide open and red and trembling wet with spittle. “And then you lied to me about it!”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

Ethel slapped me. It did not feel strange. I was not horrified. I felt that I deserved it, but in my mind I knew I should say something and that I should not stand for this ever from anybody. It was not no teensie slap neither. It was a solid clap across the face. I like to think I would have said something had I more time to react, but Ethel was quick to the draw—she said, “Why why why, that’s all I want to know. Why is it that the nicer I am to people the crueler they are to me? It never stops, I get it from everybody, so why, Nix, why did you make me do that?”

“I said I was sorry!” I shouted.

“Stop that, stop it, stop crying, look at you! Didn’t I ask you please to stop this? We’re supposed to make each other feel good, not bad like you keep doing. I can’t believe you would lie to me, straight to my face, Nix. It’s against everything about us, who we are! I think we should go into my bedroom right this minute and listen to the poems of Rumi on the TV.”

“No,” I cried, and my jacked-up crackling voice disgusted me. I wished Ethel would slap me again, I just felt so awful, and like such a horrible piece of shit. I had backed myself against the faux cedar panel wall. I was trying to smear my tears away with my palms, careful to avoid rubbing the wasp sting that had caused my nose to swell up. Apparently Ethel didn’t like this either. She grabbed my wrist and yanked me down the hall to my room and shoved me onto the blow-up mattress. She said, “You’re gonna have to do a lot more than change your name if you want to become a decent person. It’s coming back to me now, what a thankless unruly child you were.”

I was afraid. I did not want to hurt Ethel’s feelings anymore. She might retaliate if I gave her lip, but hadn’t I promised myself that I would be courageous from now on? No more princes! I had told myself, and this thing about Ethel should have been just as true. She was so huge. She loomed over me all dangerous-looking in her sinister red headscarf, her pale jowls fractured with delicate aquamarine veins shaped like family trees. She looked like she might fall on me if I said the wrong thing, and I remembered myself as her monkey back then, how I screamed out howlingly for her and scratched myself and rolled in the grass and ate bananas. I was too old for that sort of thing, I mean I was fucking nine, but she wouldn’t stop, and then she’d get angry when I didn’t wanna play. One time she even pushed me into the swimming pool. “Don’t think I don’t remember, either,” I said. “You sure you want to go there, Ethel?”

I was looking her dead on. She knew I wasn’t bluffing. I don’t remember a quieter moment. Some seconds passed. Ethel smiled. She said, “We’ve both been through a lot of stress today, seeing each other again after all these years. What matters is I’m so glad you’ve come. You’re still the little girl from before. My monkey,” she said, and winked, and she said, “It’s wonderful how we are everything we have been, how nothing we have been can ever be erased. You are the same as you were, full of music and filled with light, but very stubborn if I do say so myself.”

“That’s quite the romantic revision of history,” I said, and watched the hopefulness that had started to suffuse her face drain. “No, no, forget I said that,” I said. “I’m happy to be here. I’m sorry I was a bitch to you.”

“Oh really?” Ethel said, her face coming back to life.

“Yes, I’m really sorry,” I said, and I was. I should have said this before, but somebody ate Ethel’s monkey. Ethel had loved that thing more than anything. It was her baby, but one of the villagers came and got it while she was at prayer. That’s when she began to distance herself from the Brotherhood of Light. If not for the monkey incident Ethel might still be in Africa.

Ethel sat down beside me. We hugged and made up. Then she stood up. She was going to lock me in for the night, she said, and went to the kitchen and returned with a glass of water and clay casserole bowl. She said, “In case your bladder cries out for mercy,” and giggled. She stooped and set the items on the floor between the mattress and accordion closet. I thanked her, but didn’t mean it, which made me an asshole and a liar, but fuck it. I was just like remembering some extra stuff here and everything, like how she’d wanted me to wear a makeshift diaper to be more like the monkey she’d lost. She said, “I’m here for you, Sarah. In the morning I’ll get you up for our toning session. We can eat breakfast. It’ll be like old times.”

Ethel locked me in. I heard the padlock click to. I heard Ethel walk the hall and close her door. I waited, then fucking unlatched the window and slid the lower panel up to check the screen. It was tight. When I pushed on it, the screen along with its frame didn’t pop off like I’d hoped, so I cut through it with my Swiss Army Knife. I wasn’t thinking. I’m a dumbass. I fucking spilled from the slit without first throwing out my knapsack. Plus I was barefoot. Tough titty, bitch! I went out to the road and walked down the mountain and made it to the paved country road that would lead me, if I walked all night, to downtown Asheville.

But like, what kind of person would leave without word? Talk of cowardly! That’s not the picture I wanted of myself, but a car driving along stopped—it was a fancy, shiny black Saab—and I climbed in. The guy taught Experimental Narrative Theory at Warren Wilson College, he said. “Cool,” I said, and he said, “The night’s clear and full of stars and promise.” I was like, is he a poet in his free time? Another creative genius? I was going to ask but he said, “I’m very shy. Normally I would not ask this. . . ”

“Yes, ask what? Go ahead and ask me. I don’t care.”

“I’d like to give you money.”

I thought about it.

“To talk,” he clarified.

“I see.”

“You look dead broke,” he said.

“You wanna talk about what?”

“I just need voices in my life is all.”

“My voice is ugly and cruel,” I said, but he told me his name. He was Abner Gibson Grierson. His friends called him Abby. He went on as if trying to convince me that he was respectable. He said he was mildly famous in his field of study. He said his father had been personal friends with John F. Kennedy, and that his mother’s paintings were currently on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

By my eye he was handsome. Thin, looked about forty. His hair was the color of dark tobacco, about shoulder-length and parted neatly to the side. His face was the type that might be described in an old book as gaunt or febrile. I liked the dark circles under his eyes. His button-up shirt was crisp around his neck, and tucked in. I felt that if his style of dress varied, it was to the smallest degree. It was sweet of him to break through his shyness to make his offer. I felt sorry for him, especially when like out of nowhere he told me his wife dumped him for a champion long distance bicyclist.

“Ouch,” I said.

He sighed. He looked at me dreamily.

“I’ll check us into a hotel,” he said. “We can talk all night.” When I didn’t say anything after that, he said, “I want to hear your story, Nix. I want to hear what’s missing from your life,” and he started in on what he called “erasures,” saying that what appeared to be missing from a thing was what interested him most. He went into detail about it and I began to see that maybe that’s why his wife left. He probably needled her to death. “You have problems,” Abner said to me, “I can tell,” and he said, “I want to know every little detail about you. That’s where the mystery is. Together we can work things out for the both of us. The trick is to begin to start sharing and see where it takes us.”

Abner was vulnerable, an open bucket into which I could spew my bile. I had gotten his hopes up, which was shameful, but that’s what happens when you’re a stupid fucking bitch like me.

“For all we know,” Abner said, “the beautiful stars have conspired in our favor. Do you believe in the stars, Nix? For all we know we have been chosen by the stars. Do you like to drink?”

“I like you, Abby,” I said, and was flattered, he was so clean. I knew I smelled bad, and was a eyesore with my swollen nose. I wondered if he’d prefer that I showered first, once we got to the motel. How long would it take before we started touching? Would Abner, or Abby as his friends called him, shower me with kisses? I saw us talking, getting heart-to-heart on the bed. I saw the clothes coming off, saw him banging me as the TV light flashed against our bodies. I would be doing some good in the world. Abby would be left feeling wanted and renewed in the morning, but the whole thing would’ve been a patch is all. I was old and wise enough to at least know that.

I told Abby I wasn’t going to any motel with him, but if he wanted I would blow him in the car because I felt bad about his situation. Abby looked at me then as if I’d broken our unspoken contract. Because I’m such a stupid selfish bitch, I’m often confused when it comes to unspoken contracts, that’s how I am, I don’t seem able to help it. Abby’s look made me panic. I grabbed his forearm. I said, “Please. I can make you feel real good.”

Abby sorta snorted and shook his head but he pulled into the Big Star parking lot. He parked and I leaned over so nobody could see, and tugged his shirttails out, did his buttons and made for myself a decent playing field. I’ve been told by princes that I’m good at this. Most women are cocksucker-cripples they say. Abby wasn’t circumcised. That was new for me, and he was extremely sensitive. Thirty seconds in he said, “Oh my God!” and squeezed my shoulders. I froze, didn’t move, but he started coming. It was only a little, like they sometimes do, a small release, I guess, what the last creative genius I was with called a halfgam, a really attractive word. I had sort of thrown myself on Abby. But then I started back up and his hand reached in through my shirt. I said, “Abby, not that one,” and felt bad for not telling him why. It was ungraceful to speak. Abby took up with the other and it turned him on, but he kept saying, “No, stop it!” and he’d squeeze and we’d freeze. Each time he released me, that was my queue to start back. We went on like this until he couldn’t stand it. His stuff tasted like watery melted Philadelphia Cream Cheese mixed with habanera jelly.

“Pain,” Abby said.

I sat up. “What?”

Abby put it away quickly. “Pain,” he said, not looking at me, and I heard him say, almost in a whisper, “You are such a wonderful sex bunny.”

“For a minute I wasn’t sure you even liked any of this,” I said. “I mean, I know you did, but you made sounds.”

“Look at you,” he said, and was looking at me.

“You know you don’t believe that,” I said. I didn’t like where this seemed to be going. That stuff he’d told me before, about wanting to know everything about me, was garbage apparently. I held out my hand. I said, “Nice meeting you, thanks for the ride.”

Abby grabbed my wrist. He wrote some numbers on the inside of my forearm. “I want you to call me,” he said. “Will you call me? Say you will.”

“Sure,” I said.

“Promise.”

“I’ll call,” I said, and heard in my voice that I’d sounded annoyed. I hadn’t meant it that way, so when Abby released me I felt really horrible, as if I’d insulted him. I deserved to be smashed in the face is what I was thinking. “I promise,” I said.

Abby just looked at me. He thought I was lying, I could tell, but I was free to go. I was going to go, but Abby said, “Nix?”

“Yeah, hey?” I said, tossing my head back glamorously and free and easy. Wasn’t I a rough and tumble chick, a carefree tumbleweed blowing through the cities of our awesome country?

“Do you know what a scumbag is?”

Please don’t do this, I thought.

“A lot of people think it’s a vile person, but that’s not true. A scumbag is a used condom, which I mention because you didn’t have to swallow.”

“Oh,” I said, relieved, and almost said, “Thanks for reminding me,” but that would have sounded horribly sarcastic, which went against my quest to become a better person.

Abby smiled. He had a nice smile. I opened the door and stepped into an oily puddle.

The walk back to Ethel’s was like seven miles, and the whole way I’m like feeling like a complete shithead. Abby was going through rough times. He’d talked confidently, sure, but it wasn’t a smokescreen. I saw through him. He might’ve been suicidal. That was the vibe I got a little bit here and there, but I dissed him. I just hated the fuck out of me. Walking along the old highway I felt hunched over and drippy. By the time I arrived at Ethel’s mountain my feet were pretty raw.

My first business was to destroy the evidence of my selfish nature. In the moonlight I found my stupid excrement. I carried it down the mountain and threw it into the woods where nobody would find it. I scraped my hands back and forth over the orange dirt road, then smelled them. I smelled cream cheese. I went back to the trailer, propped a cinderblock up longwise beside my window. The maneuver was tricky, but I got up there and jumped, sort of dived through the split screen so that my upper half was in my room, my lower half dangling outside in the moonlight. As I hung there, the sill cut into a wasp sting. I wanted to cry out so bad, but if I woke Ethel she would stomp down the hallway. In my mind I saw my face lift to see her squeeze naked through the doorway. As I imagined it, so it happened. She grabbed my head with both hands and yanked, and my legs disappeared from the night.

 

 

BIO

john oliver hodgesJohn Oliver Hodges has published two books of fiction: The Love Box and War of the Crazies. He lives in Brooklyn, and teaches writing at Montclair State University in New Jersey. “Ethel’s Mountain” is his second story to appear in The Writing Disorder.

 

 

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Venus Awaits

Venus Awaits!

by Charlie Brown

 

When I heard the news that Gerhard de Shannon had died, it threw me into a time warp. News being a medium of the now, as opposed to history as a medium of the then, imparts feelings ranging along the whole spectrum of available time. That report made the seventeen-year-old inside of me ready to cry.

But let me back up, for you probably don’t know who de Shannon was. You aren’t alone, because very few people knew his name.

He was a science fiction writer, author of many novels. I can’t put an exact number on it because De Shannon’s name graced no hardcovers. His purpose in the literary scene was to be the hand crank on the pulp machine. It didn’t matter what subject he chose, his publishers would plunge into his work to feel up the curvy breast of the least common denominator. His rumination on humanity’s isolation “One Stands Still In Time” came out as “She-Pirate of the Nazi Space Cruiser,” the cover featuring a leather bikini clad woman who did not appear in the book. And since Black Out Press’ main distribution point was pornography shops, it didn’t matter.

Hopefully, few of the self-love aficionados were driven to existential despair when they actually read the book.

 

Now, in 2010, my favorite childhood author is as anonymous as the person who coined the phrase that’s the point of this story: “The golden age of science fiction is 13.”

 

But now I’m not telling the whole truth. Yes, he was my favorite writer, but I didn’t find him first. That would be Joey Greenbaum.

Joey found a collection of de Shannon’s novels at the bottom of his father’s underwear drawer, each missing the cover. So he actually read them and was inspired by the prose. The books’ illustrations were later found between his parents’ mattress and box spring. They didn’t excite him as much.

But that was true for most things. Joey only had two passions in life: sci-fi and computers. Back in Cleveland in 1976, when we met de Shannon, you would have said they were the same thing.

Joey would become one of the first programmers at Atari, working on those blocky video games that, when we saw them in the 1980s, felt like an “Amazing Stories” cover come to life. He’s a millionaire many times over, but whenever I see him, he wears a clip-on tie, insisting the common hand knot “does not compute.” And, yes, he says things like that.

 

But in the year of the United States’ Bicentennial, people like Joey didn’t have regular access to programming terminals. So, when he had to leave the high school computer lab for home, he spent his free time breaking the spines of paperbacks.

His eyesight teetered on blindness, so he had to get extra close to make out the words on those pulpy pages. This didn’t diminish the speed of his reading, usually passing along the book in under three days.

Joey and I, as well as our small group of friends, read the classics first. Asimov, Bradbury, Heinlein and Clarke hooked us, but soon any book with a robot or spaceship on the cover sang its siren song, the 75 cent price tag falling within our allowance’s borders.

 

I was the only one not in the computer club. I was in the band. Being the geek within the geek group led to loneliness, especially when your best friends would sometimes only speak FORTRAN (Jesus, Esperanto would have been easier for me), but it worked out alright.

I would go on to be a drummer in one of those New York post-punk groups who’ve come back into fashion. We were never big, as we crammed too much jazz into our guitar-drum duo, but I got to see some of the greatest music ever made while few people were watching.

Once Joey told me he was disappointed I wasn’t Devo’s drummer. I said I would have rather been in Pere Ubu. He said he didn’t know what that meant.

 

But back to de Shannon and why he was in Cleveland. Because we read so much sci-fi, Joey decided we should also create it. After all, with a few weird ideas, some faster-than-light travel and a couple of laser gun battles, the story would just write itself.

We incorporated the Shaker Heights Galactic Writers’ Group, the meeting hall Joey’s basement. It was incumbent upon each of the members to help decorate, so I went to the used record store and bought Yes albums strictly for their covers. Tony Maselli, who ushered at a grindhouse downtown, had some old horror movie posters. And, after Joey worked out the design grid on graph paper, Dave Pulaski glued them to the wall, then painted a space scene around the paper. We weren’t cool enough to splash out for a black light.

 

It occurs to me that you may not know who Pere Ubu is. Just listen to “Songs of the Bailing Man.” You’ll either love it or hate it. It makes no difference to me.

 

Three months after forming the club and two months after the basement’s nerd psychedelia was finished, Joey found the de Shannon books. They didn’t just excite us; they ripped open the fabric of time and space, revealing a hidden universe way cooler than anything we envisioned.

All of the issues kept to the side in the Golden Age, like sex and drugs, came front and center in de Shannon’s work. But beyond that, there was an overarching darkness, the main theme being an inevitable, doomed future for the human race because of interstellar forces beyond our control. Pure ambrosia to the high school sophomore who can’t get laid.

Each of the back covers featured this endorsement: “From the author of ‘Venus Awaits!’” But when we asked for it at the Walden Books in Russel Park Mall, we got blank stares. Asking them to order it, we found it was out of print.

As spring turned to summer and the heat of the coming Bicentennial celebration ratcheted up to simmer, Pulaski provided the breakthrough. Dave wanted to go to art school, convincing his father to take him to New York to scope out campuses. He knew he didn’t have a prayer of attending, as five minutes in the city would have his union-dues dad screaming about animals free in the streets, but he wanted a shot at seeing the city and some of the museums.

 

Pulaski never came to visit me the whole time I lived in New York. He settled into a job illustrating ads for local newspaper and TV. He told me one Christmas when I visited one trip was more than enough.

“Christ, how can you live with those freaks? They’re just being weird for weird’s sake.” I told him most of those cats were my friends because they liked the music I played. He told me he started listening to Yes because of those albums I bought and he preferred Styx and Kansas to my band. The blue collar never fades.

 

Pulaski came to the Galactic Writers’ Club giggling after his Manhattan run. When we asked him about the big city, he said nothing, unfolding a wispy paper. Greater New York City phonebook, Desplas to Devigne. There, misspelled with a capital D, was Gerhard de Shannon and his Lower East Side address.

I thought we should call him, but that seemed too immediate to Joey. As club president, he decided upon a plan: a writing workshop lead by de Shannon. We would pay for his train fare, plus an honorarium. A phone call to Amtrak priced the ticket at 50 bucks. We would offer him another $150 for his time, also requesting one copy of “Venus Awaits!” It took another three weeks, but he sent a letter of acceptance.

He would come in mid-June for a weekend and stay in the meeting hall, because Joey’s basement was the only one that could house a guest.

 

I don’t have to imagine what went through de Shannon’s head when he got the letter. When I moved to NYC, I looked him up at the old address. He had been committed to Bellevue and, after a few days of working up the nerve, I went to visit him. He recognized me right away and we talked once a month for a few years, until I started touring and didn’t have the time anymore. When I got back from one road haul, he had checked out of the hospital, but hadn’t returned to his apartment. I never saw him again.

When I first visited, I asked him about that weekend and his amber teeth spread into a smile. Here’s the thing about young writers: de Shannon hated them. Obviously, you’re thinking his lack of success made him frustrated at the boundless energy and high self-delusion of the initiate scribe. But you’d be wrong.

Yes, writers bothered him. The company of his peers left him breathless as they consumed all the oxygen in a room. The hard blowing wind of self-importance made him seasick.

But it was the young part that bothered him most. While true that de Shannon could barely tolerate a room populated by more than five people, twenty bottles and a jazz-filled jukebox, the under-25 set triggered the rusty fishhooks of regret stuck in his back. Youth was wasted; it was his only real philosophy.

But the money we offered would cover the rent, assuring him one month free from hustling the netherworlds of the publishing industry. And he had never been to Cleveland.

 

He obviously meant the last part as a joke. When I tell people where I’m from, they always say some version of “that’s too bad.” I mean, how can you explain the inside joke of the USA was actually a great place to live? It wasn’t, but I have to defend the city. I need to pretend I’m making my parents proud.

 

The initial rush of a guaranteed paycheck was replaced by fear of not being able to locate “Venus Awaits!” He called the used book places, The Strand and all that, to see if there was a copy floating about. He gave them the alternative titles: “The Raft to Pleasure,” “Of Alien Bondage,” even “Venus’ Hairy Delta.” Nothing.

That meant a trip to Times Square, the old 1970s “Taxi Driver” Square before Rudy Giuliani washed his cultural bleach over the streets and stores. He decided to go during the day, mostly so solicitation from prostitutes and pimps would be a trickle, not a spurting hose. The bustling hub wrapped its sleazy neon in the red, white and blue bunting of patriotism, vendors hawking cheap polyester flags next to spank mags and dildos. Some of these silicon johnsons were star spangled for the holiday.

“Made me goddamn proud to be an American,” de Shannon told me between puffs of a cig.

He crapped out on the first two stores, but Friendly’s, one of the back alley joints, proved to be a virtual archive of Gerhard de Shannon’s oeuvre. But he had to keep within the budget, so the 35-cent copy with the cover title “The Voyage Between Her Legs” (a translation of the German title) would come to Cleveland.

 

In Bellevue, he reminisced about that edition of the book. He had sold it to Black Out as a value-added reprint so they would also publish “Ozone Nights.” They would retitle the new book “Steamy Moon Stories.”

He remembered what Black Out’s publisher, Martin Blandiss, who de Shannon described as a thin, balding man who always wore a vest but never a jacket, told him that day. “Gerhard, if you could write a sex scene, I’d triple your pay.”

“I responded, ‘Martin, I’m touched. I didn’t know you actually read my books.’ We laughed for years over that one.”

 

De Shannon pulled the novel down, noting the address of the store in case he ever needed more of his work. But, as he started towards the counter, his inner voice started yelling at him, wanting him out of that shop pronto.

Tucking the book into the back pocket of his jeans, de Shannon sprinted out the front door. The guy behind the counter, a piggy 23-year-old with stringy blonde hair, chased de Shannon to the street, running full-on into a vice squad phalanx about to raid the place. The cops didn’t stop de Shannon and the author had his prize for the Shaker Heights boys.

 

The voice in his head is not a metaphor. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

**

Joey went with his father to the train station to pick up de Shannon. I look back now and can only imagine what this man saw when he descended into the basement that Saturday. It may be hard for you to remember, but the teenager feels grown up, that adults should treat him with the respect of a peer, when all the elders see is a bubble of youthful gas.

So this man who had lived a half-century walked into a room with nine kids sitting on the floor. Fashions of the time meant we were wearing ringed t-shirts with blocky letters, candy-striped jeans belled at the bottom and thick, black plastic glasses. Yes, each and every one of us had the same frames. Only the prescription varied. Worst of all, seven of ten had hair cascading over our foreheads.

When I asked de Shannon how he saw us, the writer’s instinct took over: “I looked upon da Vinci’s ‘Last Supper’ and it smelled like Clearasil.”

 

Maybe there is something to biology determining our lot in life. How many self-described nerds fall into that visual? I don’t understand the haircut thing, but I was blessed with back-flowing locks. I could have had the perfect feathered middle-part cut when the ‘80s turned, but by then I was too punk for that.

But the glasses? In the Middle Ages, Joey would have been considered blind and would have had to beg for food. But his eyesight, which prevented any sports acumen, led to his intense studies. Remove Michael Jordan’s eyesight and he could’ve been a prize-winning scientist.

But what amazes me is the people who look like this now made it cool. When my old band mate and I went on a reunion tour, we saw all sorts of women sporting this look who, bodily, were more attractive than our original fans. I preferred the first set, as both them and me were pleased as hell someone actually found the other desirable.

 

When de Shannon joined us in the basement, I immediately felt his presence. His hair was ghostly silver and hung to his collar, sideburns and goatee still flecked with black. He wore a patterned polyester long-sleeved shirt despite the season and his bell-bottomed jeans covered thin, Italian leather zip-up boots. Whatever he was, he was different from our parents and I wanted to be him.

I saw my friends felt the same awe. Except Joey. He had the whole car ride for the aura of hip to envelope him. He stood in the doorway, arms crossed and head bobbing, a stance that hip-hoppers would eventually make iconic. Joey told me in the ‘90s “it was the coolest I ever felt.” And he knew Steve Jobs.

The only seat was a hot pink beanbag chair which was offered to the guest of honor. De Shannon sank into it, assuming a half-lotus position. He held out his hands, open-palmed. “What’s on the agenda, cats?”

We delved into our writings. It was rough going for most of the guys. I had no delusions what I was writing approached readable, much less would soon be featured behind a four-color cover on a dime store rack, but the rest of the guys thought they were creating decent prose. De Shannon destroyed these thoughts.

But he said it in an encouraging way. He used a red pen to scratch out wide swaths of unnecessary exposition, tired dialogue and bad ideas. But a few of us got hand-drawn five-pointed stars indicating de Shannon liked a phrase or idea.

Morty Sherrod got three such stars and, when de Shannon handed him back his typed pages, he cried with joy. De Shannon told us, “Don’t think you’re all doing badly. I threw away five novels before I sent one out. You just have to learn at what point you stop being mediocre and begin actually writing.”

 

Morty was the only one of us who went on to be a writer. He went to the University of Southern California, studying screenwriting. Coming out of college, he got hired by Roger Corman to write and direct sci-fi and fantasy exploitation films. He once told me that de Shannon’s words kept him going when he was looking for work. “I knew eventually I would begin writing, just like Gerhard said. I guess Roger didn’t care if I was mediocre.”

When I saw him in 1987, he looked like an extra from “Miami Vice,” wearing a white sport coat and mirrored sunglasses, although he still had a pudgy waistline. He summed up his life this way: “I still have all those perverted thoughts of a fifteen-year-old geek. I just get to turn them into movies.”

He would marry three C-list actresses, dumping each wife when they turned thirty.

 

When the carnage of the workshop ended, de Shannon looked drained. It was closing in on seven o’clock and he rubbed his face with both hands, then shook out his arms and fingers. “Let’s get a beer.”

Teenaged heads darted from side to side. Nine sets of eyes eventually landed on me, as I once went to a bar to see The Ramones. I cleared my throat as de Shannon stared me down.

“There’s a liquor store close by. My dad always goes there.” I had no idea if my dad went there or not, but I did to buy Utz’s chips.

“Perfect. Who’s driving?”

The heads swiveled to Joey, who had to drive his kid sister to ballet. He slunk upstairs, returning with keys to the Chevelle station wagon, chin tucked in his neck. “We also have to pick up the pizza?” He ended on that questioning note soon to be how every young girl would speak.

De Shannon opened his arms. “Groovy. It shall be a feast.”

The pizza place and the liquor store were within a block of each other, so we split into two groups. Joey flew solo to grab the three pies and I brought de Shannon into The Cork’N’Crate for the liquid portion.

This was long before Americans cared about the quality of their booze, so the store was four aisles of bottles and a buzzing fridge unit. The best wine was Gallo. Beef jerky on a clip rack by the register was probably the best-tasting thing in the whole store

De Shannon went straight to the refrigerator, stopping in front of the Genesee. I saw him counting on his fingers, then he turned to me.

“Guess we’ll need a case.” He grabbed the suitcase of beer by the cardboard handle and walked up to the counter. The pudgy counterman, close to sixty and grey flat top standing at attention, swiveled his head to look at me.

“You ain’t buying this for him, are you?” He had that scratchy, high-pitched whine of the Ohio native. “Cause we got plenty of pop is he’s thirsty.”

“No, sir. My nephew’s just giving me a ride down the road. Got a card game in a few and needed something to lubricate the night, if you get my drift?” Here, de Shannon put his arm around my shoulder. I felt this weird pride, as if we were actually related. “He’s a good kid. You ain’t gotta worry about him.” De Shannon mimicked the counterman’s voice, but the guy didn’t notice.

“Okay, then.” He accepted a ten dollar bill from de Shannon and watched us walk out the door.

Joey sat in the driver’s seat as de Shannon slipped into shotgun. I rode next to three cardboard cartons wafting tomato- and pepperoni-scented air.   Joey’s eyes narrowed behind his thick glasses. “That’s a lot of beer.”

In five minutes, we were back in Joey’s driveway. Mr. Greenbaum was watering the lawn and the stream of water ceased as he released the metal pistol grip screwed to the top of the hose.

“What is that, now?” Joey tried to block the case of beer from his dad’s sight, but Mr. Greenbaum cut us off from the front door. “That’s a whole lot of beer, son.”

Joey looked like a flower trying to close its petals, while de Shannon maintained a blasé demeanor. I looked at Mr. Greenbaum staring down his nose through his own thick glasses. It took a few seconds, but de Shannon broke the stalemate.

“Well, there are ten of us, Eugene.” De Shannon lifted his eyebrows. Mr. Greenbaum’s face erupted with a toothy grin.

“Aw, hell, Joey. I didn’t know you even liked beer.”

“I don’t!” Joey’s head popped out of his collar now.

“Now I know why the six pack doesn’t seem to go as far as it used to.”

“Dad, I don’t know what you’re talking about!”

Mr. Greenbaum elbowed de Shannon in the ribs. “When I was their age, jeez. We would do anything to get our hands on some of these. The hard part was finding an opener. With these pop tops, it’s just too easy, right?”

“Better get these in fridge, boys. Also, let’s eat before the pizza cools off.” De Shannon walked through the front door and Mr. Greenbaum went back to the hose. Joey grabbed my arm as we walked inside.

“You know I don’t drink beer. I don’t want to get in trouble.”

“Joey, jeez, cool it. It’s okay.” I opened the door to the basement. “Your dad wants you to drink.”

Joey shook his head, but he accepted it as we set up for dinner.

 

I had never drank beer before either. There was no reason behind it. We just didn’t think about it. I know the teenage years are supposed to be a rebellious time, but I didn’t feel that way until I got to New York. There I pulled a 180 and tried everything put in front of me. I’m not proud, but it’s true.

I laughed in Ian MacKaye’s face when he told me about his whole straight edge punk thing. I said, “No sex, no drugs, no booze, huh? I did that at fifteen, just not by choice.”

I like Minor Threat’s music, but come on. Most punks were nerds anyway. Let them have some fun.

 

After the pizza was gone, de Shannon loosened up. He had drunk three beers, telling us about meeting Isaac Asimov. De Shannon introduced himself at the Hugo Awards and Asimov refused to shake his hand.

“He told me, ‘You cheapen our art, Mr. de Shannon.’ I told him ‘Nightfall’ was the worst story ever written and he responded that it had been reprinted many time. ‘Now who’s cheap?’ I said and walked away.”

“But I love ‘Nightfall,’” Pulaski said.

“In five years, you’ll see it for the hack work it is.” He finished his fourth beer in a big gulp and laid out that old chestnut. “Remember, guys, the golden age of science fiction is 13.”

“Wait, you mean the stuff we’re reading is bad?” Joey looked angry because he hated wasting time. He thought he was investing in something by reading so many books and now one of his heroes had told him otherwise. But de Shannon softened.

“Not all of it. The thing is those older sci-fi guys have great ideas, but they don’t write very well. They see their stories as a way to get across a vision of the future, not as an exercise in literary excellence.” He popped the top on a fifth can. “When you get older, you’ll want to read something at a higher level. Maybe it will be the New Wave guys like Ballard or Morcock. Hopefully, you might read some Joyce or Faulkner. Or Hemingway. Whatever. It doesn’t matter. But you will outgrow the boom-pow stuff, because it’s for kids.”

“Are we wasting our time reading your books?” Joey’s face was boiling red.

“I don’t know.” He pulled on the beer, receding into the bean bag. The room quieted for a whole minute and some of the guys looked ready to leave. I opened a second beer, facing de Shannon directly.

“You said sci-fi guys have great ideas. Where do they come from?” This focused all my friends. Even Joey looked curious again. We had been struggling with finding stories to tell and now, maybe, this guy could give us some insight.

 

Of course I know this is a standard question to any writer and one no professional wants to answer. I have been asked a million times how to write a song. I usually say put words on paper and your hands on an instrument and see how they go together. Nobody ever likes this.

 

But this hoary question caused a metamorphosis in de Shannon. His lips slumped into a frown and his eyes bagged. Maybe it was the beer, but he was upset.

“How many times I’ve wanted to answer that question. They always ask it and I never say anything. Well, fuck it. Right here and now, I’m telling you the truth.” He went to the wall where Pulaski had drawn our solar system and de Shannon pointed to Venus. “After World War II, I was stationed at Okinawa. In the middle of nighttime guard duty, a great light blinded me and I awoke in an alien spaceship.

“They said they were from Venus and I was chosen to be their herald. In 2010, they would take over Earth and I was to prepare the human race for their eventual slavery. They implanted something in my brain, I think it must be like one of those computer tapes, and I should transcribe their messages for broadcast.

“From that night on, I heard the voice in my head prompting me to write. It also looks out for me, like when I was buying this.” He went to his overnight bag and handed me the book he stole from Times Square.

“What’s it saying now?” Joey sounded afraid. De Shannon turned and faced the corner like a misbehaving fourth grader.

“To kill all of you because you know too much.” His voice caught on his words and he sobbed.

The meeting ended quickly after that. De Shannon slumped in the corner weeping was too much raw emotion for kids who fought to keep theirs tamped down. I was the last to leave, as Mr. Greenbaum came to take de Shannon to the train station. Joey said later he was too scared to have that crazy person staying in his house overnight.

The writer looked at me, his face like an off-kilter Comedy mask as Mr. Greenbaum pointed him upstairs.

“Kid, it’s a good thing those Venus guys are terrible writers. Nobody could believe the shit I wrote. And, most importantly, nobody wants to read it.” He yelled out, “Venus awaits!” He laughed finally, but it was cold and froze my insides.

 

When I saw de Shannon in Bellevue, the first thing he told me was the voice was gone.

“I don’t know if the tape broke or if they gave up. But the messages have stopped and I don’t have to write them down anymore.”

“Then why are you still in here?”

“You think that was the only thing wrong with me?” His smile made me laugh and I promised to sneak in some beer. I could never get it past the front desk.

**

What bothers me is that de Shannon’s death came in the year the Venusians said they would cause the end of Earth. My brain knows this is a coincidence, but my heart wants to scan the sky. Should I look for the bright lights? Or should I just go on living without worrying about impending doom?

I re-read that tattered old pulp book he gave me about once a year. Now, I’ll have to look at it again and search through it carefully, just in case Venus awaits us all.

 

 

BIO

Charles BrownCharlie Brown is a writer and filmmaker from New Orleans. He currently lives in Los Angeles, recently receiving his Masters in Professional Writing from the University of Southern California, where he runs Lucky Mojo Press and Mojotooth Productions.  He has made two feature films: “Angels Die Slowly” (to be released by Ytinifni Films in June 2015) and “Never A Dull Moment: 20 Years of the Rebirth Brass Band.” His fiction has appeared in Jersey Devil Press, The Menacing Hedge, Aethlon, and what?? Magazine as well as the anthology “The Portal In My Kitchen,” due in 2015.  He teaches journalism and composition at various community colleges.

 

 

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The Waiting Game

by Lou Gaglia

 

We had trouble at the golf course right away because Tommy didn’t wear a collar shirt. The tee-time man behind the desk gave him a look and pointed in the direction of shirts for sale, but Tommy said from the rack, “Twenty bucks? For a shirt?” My dad frowned to himself and eased over to the racks and picked out two shirts. He held the maroon one up against Tommy’s chest and said, “This looks pretty sharp.” Tommy dug into his pocket but Dad held him off and bought both shirts. “First beers are on you,” he said while Tommy gave a sour look to the miniature man hitting a golf ball on his shirt pocket.

Jesse already had a collar shirt on, and so did Dad and me, because we knew the subtleties of golf etiquette, but Tommy didn’t know a thing about golf customs and changed right there in front of the tee-time guy, who gave Tommy a from-under stare. When he stopped minding Tommy’s business, he filled in his oversized tee-time book with our names, and then we were free to walk sideways out of the wee office door where our clubs waited. Dad had lent Tommy his old set and Jesse had borrowed his father’s, and we strapped them to our rented hand carts and hoofed it up the long hill to the first tee.

Two days before, after I had met Tommy’s friend Jesse, Tommy explained to me that Jesse was really quiet, and not to take personally that his only two words to me on first meeting had both been, “Okay”—first after I told him I was going to ask Tommy to play golf, and then after I asked him if he wanted to come along. The next day, when Jesse passed me in front of my building, he muttered, “Tomorrow will be my second golf game in the history of my life.” He continued down the block without breaking his stride, and left it at that.

While waiting in front of Jesse’s building in the morning, Tommy warned me offhand that Jesse was a shy guy and to just leave him alone about the talking thing, that Jesse talked when he felt like talking and no more. He had been traumatized at an early age at a ventriloquist show or something, Tommy said, and if Jesse spoke two words in one day it meant he liked you, and if he said three words then he wanted to marry you. “I think I’m in trouble, then,” I said, and we laughed, but Tommy added that even when Jesse wasn’t talking at all he was still a fun guy to be around. He could sing exactly like Elvis or Bing Crosby whenever he wanted—he chose one voice or the other, depending on his mood—and he sang at some strange times, too. He was super shy, though, especially around women, and hardly ever talked—let alone sang—if there was a woman in sight. I told Tommy I could relate to that one, since I was already pushing thirty—at a whopping twenty-seven and a half years old—and that my happiness clock was ticking away, so to speak. Tommy told me he didn’t even have a happiness clock and that he was already thirty and to stop reminding him how much life stank.

At the top of the hill Dad warmed up by swinging his driver over and over again. He was trying to swing without accidentally dragging his back foot around to join the front one, but he had a hard time of it. Jesse stood there leaning against his driver like a pro and looking off at the field while four guys in front of us were busy teeing off. Tommy had an iron of some kind, maybe a three, and he was off to the side whacking at the clover. My father asked him what the hell he was doing.

“I hate bees,” Tommy said.

“You’re gonna piss them off,” said Dad.

The starter sat in his cart looking holier than thou, all official-like, with his little pad and pencil and his watch. He held up his palms to us, like the Pope, after the last of the foursome had finally teed off and walked toward their beloved balls, which were all scattered everywhere on both sides of the rough. His holy palms indicated that we had to stand off to the side, not on the tee box, and wait. Tommy rolled his eyes at me. “This is already bullshit,” he mumbled. “Too many of these Long Island rules…”

Dad came over and said to Tommy out of the side of his mouth, “You got to wait for them to take their second shot before you tee off. Otherwise you’re going to plunk them in the head.”

“I’m already teed off,” said Tommy. “This is a hell of a lot of waiting.”

“This game’s all about waiting,” Dad philosophized, and Tommy smirked. He edged his way onto the tee box as the last holdout from the group ahead of us set up his fairway shot by swiveling his hips and then backing off his ball and then going near it again to swivel his hips some more. The starter eagle-eyed Tommy who had gotten too close to the tee area, and then, out of the blue, Jesse began singing, sounding almost exactly like Elvis.

“Hey, don’t, don’t do that,” the starter warned Jesse.

“What’s the name of that song, Jess?” said Tommy with a laugh.

“Uh…‘Don’t’.”

“I coulda guessed that.”

“Well, why’d you ask, then,” my father put in from behind and then turned to the starter. “Isn’t this guy ever going to hit? He looks like he’s going to take a shit out there.”

The starter looked down at his little book and then at the group coming up behind us in fancy riding carts. It was a foursome of two men and two ladies, maybe in their forties. The ladies wore white shorts and white sneakers or golf shoes. The men were all decked out in golf shirts that they hadn’t bought from the office. They gave me and Tommy a look as if to wonder what was holding us up.

“Some fun, Frank,” Tommy said to me but loud enough for everyone else to hear. “One guy’s wiggling his ass at us out there, and these four are on the pro tour.”

I almost kept myself from laughing, and the wiggler had finally hit his ball about fifteen feet to the right, so it was time for us to tee off. Tommy stepped up first, about to hit his first golf ball, but he acted like it was going to be no big deal.

On the train he’d told me that maybe golf would be a good way for him to get his mind off that Karen woman. He was crazy about her, he told me—no, he loved her, he corrected himself—and it was all so much like riding a roller coaster because he couldn’t control what was going to happen or not happen, that he just had to wait. I didn’t tell him my own story, partly because my story was short—that I had no one at all—and partly because Jesse sat across from us reading the newspaper. He’d given no hint that he heard or cared about anything Tommy had told me, or maybe he’d heard it all before, but I didn’t want to talk in front of him, and probably couldn’t have talked to Tommy about it anyway. Tommy was crazy for Karen, but I was crazy on a roller coaster for different reasons, the main one being that I couldn’t talk in the first place, which sank in at the end of my Jeannette era during our last ditch disaster of a pizza lunch. I’d given her up for real, for good and all, and I was free of her at last and pretty happy about it when I got back to Brooklyn that night. I slept like a baby (waking up crying every few hours), and for the next day and the next week I missed her like mad, even though I couldn’t stand her. Then, to chase her out of my mind, I made the mistake of deciding to ask out every woman I liked and some that I saw on sight, just to force myself to talk.

First, I marched into the library and asked Kelly out for a simple coffee, but she smiled and said no thank you like she was doing me the biggest favor of my life to tell me to take a hike. I knew I shouldn’t have started with her again, because I’d already written to her and was embarrassed enough. I felt like a schlep—whatever that is—even worse than when I’d read the letter back from her that asked God to bless and keep me. But after her no, I couldn’t stop. I asked out the girl at the nail place, but spotted the ring on her finger too late. Then I took off work, over the heated objections of Rob, and went out to the Thursday afternoon Mets game, just to watch baseball and look for strange women to ask out, figuring it might be easier to ask them if I knew I didn’t have to face them again around my neighborhood. I had a book of Rilke poems with me, and glanced between innings at the poems and the women, but every nice-seeming woman in the seats around me was occupied with a boyfriend or a husband or whatever they were. I was pretty down after the game, walking among hundreds of women up the stairs on the way to the El train. Ready to forget my stupid idea, I held the pole and tried to read Rilke. But in between lines, I caught sight of a woman alone, reading a book too. She sat on a seat closest to one of the doors, reading Dostoyevski, and she looked up at me for just a second, so I went over to her, and amongst the crowd of other Mets fans frowning their way home, I said, “Dostoevski’s pretty good,” but she didn’t say a word, just kept her eyes on the book, and I wound up turning around and holding onto the pole, my face burning up. Some of the riders standing around me and sitting next to her glanced at me. And at the next stop she got off, raced ahead along the platform, and went into the next car.

In the morning on the way to work, I usually stopped on Market Street for breakfast after crossing the bridge, and talked a little with this girl Tracy, who was maybe a few years younger than me. She was nice, but was probably just being friendly because it was her job to sell coffee and buns to slobs like me who were on their way to stack books all day. Anyway, her mother owned the place, and she looked like a neighborhood toughie, like nothing scared her, and Tracy acted the same way, but only when she talked to her mother and some of the regular neighborhood customers. I tried not to look at her much, unless she was walking away with her back to me completely and no one else was looking. My asking days were over, I brooded.

So all of that—from God’s pipeline, Kelly, to the nail girl, to the train woman, to Tracy and her tough mother, to being twenty-seven and a half, to not being able to talk about any of it to Tommy—left me in a sour mood, on top of which I still had to testify at that trial not long after my rejection spree. In the waiting area outside the courtroom, I got a nose bleed right before I was called in. I had a tissue up one nostril while I answered questions, and then I had to get up and point my shaky finger at a diagram board of East Broadway and show everyone where I was and where the shooter was. There were two Chinese guys sitting at the defense table, and I glanced over once. They looked like lost little kids in their brown suits, and I couldn’t tell which one was the guy who shot the little girl because his back had been to me. Then when their defending lawyer, from the back of the room, asked me questions, she wondered why I’d told the police the shooter was five foot eleven when he was only five foot seven. “Well…” I said, “a guy with a gun looks pretty big to me.” Everyone got a laugh out of that, even the judge, and I took the opportunity to unplug the tissue from my nose.

Anyway, after I was all done, I had to leave the room without knowing what happened, guilty or innocent, and I headed straight out and into the street. I cut through Columbus Park but didn’t stick around, because every teenage kid or guy in his twenties looked like gang members to me. At home I expected to be shot every time I left my building, kind of wincing as I came out. I felt better off on Chinatown streets, because there were so many people around that I could be anonymous, like a speck, and I always walked different routes to work, and sometimes took the bus. It helped to pretend I was Richard Kimble, turning my face away from those who looked my way. Tracy’s coffee shop was the one regular place I went to besides work and home, and I got to talk a little bit to Tracy, even though it was only about how much butter I wanted on my toast or ask where the cream was. I liked to sit there and sip coffee and take half-second-glances at her shoulders when she went by and her mother was occupied or talking tough with some customer. It felt like the only place in the world where no one could shoot me.

But Tommy didn’t know any of that either. When he hooked his tee shot along the ground all the way to the fence through the woods, Dad told him he’d just killed some more bees. Tommy smirked and motioned for me to go next but I motioned to Dad and stepped behind Jesse. I wanted to wait and go last.

Our balls were spread all over the course for our second shots, so we walked in pairs on either side and then branched off for the ball hunt. Alone, I had a chance to wonder about the future possibilities that had been racing through my mind since my last pizza meeting with Jeannette. One after another, images of my future raced by. I tried and failed to slow them down and think about each one, starting with my working for Uncle Eddie at the race track as a hot walker or as a groom. I’d be around horses and horse men and sniff manure all day, so I didn’t like that idea. Then I pictured myself sitting in a classroom at the community college, doodling in the back while a professor type droned on from his notes. I saw myself living back on Long Island and married to Jeannette, my face in my hands and shaking my head over having forgotten her two-timing ways. Then I imagined staying in Brooklyn after all, saying no thank you to Jeannette for good, and then coming out of some Chinese take-out place and being shot by a thousand bullets and eventually going down in a dying heap near some garbage bags. Finally, I dreamed of forgetting all of that and escaping back to Italy and staying there this time, where I’d meet some nice Italian girl and bake bread all day or lay bricks or have my own pizza and ice cream stand. I’d write poems, my precious poems, on the side. The baker or brick layer or pizza vendor job would be enough for me, because I’d be living with her big family of uncles and cousins and parents, and eventually I’d learn to speak some Italian. I’d play with our seven or eight kids and otherwise roam the countryside with my notebook in hand.

A whining cart rolled up beside me. It was the golf course Pope. “Come on, come on,” he said. “You have to play faster.”

“Oh.” I looked at him. “Okay, thanks.”

He turned around in his cart and peeled out just as I smacked the ball in a hurry, slicing it wildly and just missing the back of his head. My heart jumped and I covered my eyes, but luckily he was too busy hurrying off in a huff to notice that he’d just escaped being killed.

Later we were all on the green together. The foursome behind us waited in the middle of the fairway while we putted our balls everywhere but near the hole. I was still thinking of my future, but even though I smiled at Tommy’s comments and at Dad’s jokes and laughed when Jesse sang something, each foggy future that stretched out in front of me was a lonely one, because none of those guys would be there. That moment—of laughing on the green together—would be gone, and so it felt lonely there too because my thoughts were inside myself.

On the second hole, Dad stuck his tee into the ground just as Jesse sang again, this time from Bing Crosby’s “My Buddy”. I swore he was Bing himself for a second.

At that point Dad hit a perfect shot dead center of the fairway. He picked up his tee and laughed. “Keep singing there, Jesse.”

Tommy stepped up. “Sing for me too, Jess,” he said, but Jesse got shy about it and clammed up.

The starter rolled up in his cart just after Tommy teed off into the woods. The people behind us, he said, complained (he counted on his fingers) about our slowness and our singing. “Who’s singing?” he wanted to know.

“What is this, Catholic school?” Tommy burst out. “Can’t a guy sing?”

Dad shushed Tommy, but Tommy and the starter still scowled at each other for a while. “You have to keep things moving along here,” the starter said, slowly, like maybe Tommy couldn’t understand. Tommy smirked at him and Jesse winced and said he was sorry and it wouldn’t happen again. The starter still glared at Tommy and then raced off like a bat out of hell.

“Jesse,” Tommy said, as I stepped up to the tee box, “you keep singing, whenever you want.”

“No,” Dad said. “Just play. We’re gonna get tossed if we keep this up.”

“He can’t throw us out. We paid.”

“Oh, yes he can. They got rules.”

“Too many,” Tommy said, looking steamed, and I stuck my tee into the ground.

Meanwhile the group behind us had caught all the way up and parked their driving carts right alongside our walking carts. They were waiting to tee off already, and I hadn’t even gone yet, or Jesse either.

Along the fairway I watched Dad help Tommy search for his ball, then talk to him while waiting for Jesse and me to find ours on the fairway. Pretty soon Dad had Tommy doing all the listening. Whatever he was saying wasn’t about golf, because they both leaned on their clubs and didn’t move while waiting for Jesse and me to swing. The people behind us were right up our backs waiting to try their own fairway shots, having already teed off. One of the balls rolled right near my feet, so I kicked it a little. Another landed near Tommy and Dad, and Tommy tossed it backwards. Then one of the men in the group must have said something because Tommy turned all the way around, but Dad held Tommy back and stepped in front of him. He talked to the guy himself and then waved for me and Jesse to move off to the side and then wildly to the group to go on ahead. After they all took a whack each, we gathered together, and Dad told us we had to let them play through. “Fair is fair,” he said. “The heck with it.”

There was another group farther behind us, but they were still finishing the first hole.

“Look, they got a kid with them,” Dad said, “so now we can play without people up our asses…at our own leisure,” he added.

At around the fifth or sixth hole, Tommy walked with me because our balls had both landed out of bounds in the same area, and he told me I was lucky to have a dad like my dad.

“He’s a gentleman,” Tommy said. “I wish I could be like him.”

We searched in the high grass for Tommy’s ball first. “My dad,” he said, “he didn’t play golf with me, but he hit me with a golf club once, right in the back of my legs.”

I stopped chopping through the high grass with my club and looked up. “What for?”

“I didn’t move fast enough, something like that. Anyway, your dad is all right. My dad, I love the guy, you know, because—out of respect, I don’t know—but he hated me. Maybe he doesn’t now. My mother keeps calling me lately. Our old dog died, so…” Tommy found his ball and threw it out onto the fairway, and we started looking for mine.

“Your dog died, huh?” I said, to keep the conversation going.

“More than one dog. Another one when I was a kid. Anyway, he’s all broken up, I guess, so I’m supposed to go see him.”

“Maybe bring that girl, that girl Karen.”

“Not a chance. Not in a million years.”

“Maybe later then,” I laughed, and found my ball and threw it onto the fairway too.

“Maybe never. Anyway, me and her, we’re just friends, just friends. I don’t even want to think what’s going on. I told you that on the train, it’s like riding a roller coaster, so I’m just waiting. Anyway…” He took a hard swing at his ball but it went straight up and down about fifty feet away. “Anyway, you know, she’s a nice girl, and she thinks I’m good, for some reason. But after one meeting with my father…geez, forget it.”

“Friendship over,” I said.

“Right, gone. And he’s prejudiced against the Chinese. You think I’m letting her near him? Every word out of his mouth is about the blacks and the Chinese and whoever else. When I was a kid—go ahead and hit your ball first. That kid and his parents are catching up to us.” I hit my ball and he went on. “When I was a kid, I saw my father and his friends beat the crap out of this guy outside an apartment building. I don’t even know where. I was pretty young. Anyway, they kicked the crap out of him and threw all his stuff out of his apartment window—a mattress, a bunch of clothes, a table, everything. He was a black guy. I don’t know if that had anything to do with it, but I just sat in my father’s car watching the whole thing. They were kicking him in the back.”

“Wow,” I said.

“I’m not letting him near her. I don’t know, Frank. I want to be different, and she’s the first nice thing—” Tommy caught himself and stopped talking. “All right,” he said, “let’s catch up.” We were quiet while we hit our balls and then walked after them. When we got within sight of Jesse and my father, we heard Jesse singing like Bing Crosby and saw my dad twirling his club with a smirk on his face.

“There he is, your dad,” said Tommy. “He’s a wise guy but he’s a good guy. I’ll bet you a hundred bucks he makes some wise-ass remark when we get to him.”

“I don’t want to bet that,” I said.

“What are you two trying to do, let the little kid play through too?” Dad said when we reached him, and me and Tommy just smiled to ourselves.

The starter came around on the 7th hole because he said someone complained about Jesse singing again. “Yes, sir, sorry sir,” said Tommy, and after the starter left, Jesse sang from, “Don’t Be Cruel,” but not too loud, while Dad smiled and Tommy cracked up, hands on knees.

I watched Jesse. He played quiet, and walked quiet, and looked out at the field quiet and hunted for his ball quiet. He was quiet and shy, just like Tommy said, and just like me, except at least he could sing and get people to laugh. I was feeling down just being around him, and even though he was a good guy, I began to hate him, especially when we reached the 8th hole next to four women who were teeing off on the 5th, and without seeing them yet, Jesse sang the first half of Elvis’ “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You…” The girls looked back at him and laughed and Jesse got all red. I stood off to the side, quiet and mad, while Dad and Tommy and the girls laughed at the red-faced Jesse, who immediately clammed up. Not one of those women looked or smiled back at me once during the entire hole, only at shy Elvis.

On the 9th and last hole for us, I popped my tee shot into the air toward the woods and it hit a lady on the head or shoulder, I don’t know which. Her husband took up the ball and whipped it underhanded at me along the ground before I could explain that I didn’t have time to yell fore. I fielded the ball, though, and with all my madness and aloneness and quietness steaming inside me, I threw it overhand right back at him. It sailed over his head. “Don’t you throw the ball at me!”

I fumed my way along the fairway, and didn’t even play the rest of the hole, just watched Jesse and Dad and Tommy play it out. Tommy looked over at me sideways a few times.

After the last putt was sunk, Dad sidled over to me. “Let’s see,” he observed, “you hit a guy’s wife, and then you throw the ball at her husband.” I didn’t say anything.

Near the clubhouse, the guy himself appeared, right in front of me, and he said sorry and held his hand out. “I didn’t mean to throw the ball at you, I’m really sorry,” he said. I shook his hand back.

“No, no, it was all my fault,” I told him, and when he’d gone, before we headed inside for our beers—Tommy’s treat—Dad added, “And then the guy apologizes…”

Tommy laughed and swatted my shoulder with the back of his hand. “What a tough guy you are,” he said in a low voice, and I winced without a word.

 

 

BIO

Lou GagliaLou Gaglia’s work has appeared in The Cortland Review, The Oklahoma Review, The Brooklyner, Prick of the Spindle, Waccamaw, Eclectica, Amsterdam Quarterly, The Hawai’i Review, and elsewhere. His collection of short stories, Poor Advice, will be available from Aqueous Books in 2015, and his story, “Hands” was runner-up for storySouth’s 2013 Million Writers Award. He teaches in upstate New York after many years as a teacher in New York City.

 

 

 

 

 

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Clarissa Nemeth writer

The Claiborne Refuge Workbook

by Clarissa Nemeth

 

What to Expect at Claiborne Refuge

God brought you to the refuge to save your life from alcohol and/or drugs, through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. You are not here by chance, but by God’s plan. Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).

Throughout your program at the Refuge, you will be pointed to Jesus Christ as the Bible describes and presents him. He alone can give you victory over substance abuse. “If therefore the Son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed” (John 8:36).

You will learn to pray, to share your burdens with Christ, and to experience the peace and comfort of his care for you. “Cast all your anxieties on Him, for He cares about you” (1 Peter 5:7).

You will learn of your need to trust and depend on Jesus Christ, not only for victory over abusive substances, but for literally everything in your life. “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you, unless you abide in Me” (John 15:4).

 

THE PRINCIPLES OF LIVING

You admit your are powerless over your addiction, that your life has become unmanageable.

Q. Why is it so liberating to know that you are powerless over your addiction?

Your cousin went to prison a few years back for stealing the Hamblen County Sheriff’s car. He got liquored up and took it right out of the sheriff’s driveway on a joyride, then ran it into a ravine down by Ratliff Road. After his picture got in the paper your grandma said there was something wrong with the men in your family, some bad line in the blood that just kept passing down. You already knew that. Everybody in the county knew that.

Your grandfather once shot a man in the face just because he thought he was ugly. One uncle beat his wife so hard he gave her epilepsy. Last time you saw your daddy, he had warrants out in three different states. Your older brother got so high once he ran half-naked through a plate-glass window, trailing blood down the road and screaming about the end times. A cousin out in Jefferson County raped a little girl in Dandridge. He said he didn’t even know why he did it, just seemed like a good idea at the time.

You wanted to be different. You wanted to be better. Look how far that got you. You were – you are – just like the rest of them. You tried all you could, and it wasn’t enough.

Here they tell you over and over again that nothing you can do will fix your life. They tell you it’s time to surrender to God, that he wants you to come to him, that they are all praying you will let him embrace you. Why not let God try and fix you, if he wants to so much? After all – and they will remind you of this – you don’t have much left to lose, do you?

Paul explains the struggle between good and evil in Romans 7:13-24. Put that same struggle in terms of your addiction.

Paul says that he wants to do good, that he wishes for it, but that the evil within him longs for nothing but sin.

You know about that longing. Remember the first time you got drunk, the first time you got high, the first time you stole, the first time you snorted a line of Oxy. The sixth time. The fortieth time. The seventy-seventh time. No one made you do all of that. There was always a choice. How many times were you convinced that it would be better just to die? But that burning, clattering wanting coursed through you, and always you took the next swallow, the next pill, the next snort, the next drink. There was a little hollow voice inside of you mouthing no and it always got drowned out by that howling need for more, more now, again. It got to where that wanting grew into a creature all its own just carrying you along with it. Even now you feel the wanting. In your skin, your teeth, your very bones. The wanting wants everything; it will want until there is nothing left of you.

But if they split you open right now and that wanting poured out, there would still be a tiny sliver of you left in there, scrabbling for a little more purchase on this life you almost threw away.

Paul says it isn’t easy. You could tell him, no shit.

 

You make a conscious decision to turn your life over to the care of God; you open your heart and mind to the power which is Jesus Christ, your Lord and Savior.

Q. How do you have access to God’s power?

Remember what happened when you killed your first deer? Your uncle made you run your knife down the animal’s gut and look at what spilled out. He made take off your glove and reach down into that steaming pool of blood with your bare fingers. He made you wipe that hot blood in two broad streaks below your eyes. You’re a man now. You’ve been blooded. Trouble runs in your blood. Blood alcohol. Bloodshot eyes. Bloody footprints tracking on your wife’s carpet. Blood smeared on tissues, dripping out your nose in red droplets to stain the pillowcase, on your toothbrush from bleeding gums. Blood pounding in your ears. Blood on her face when you split her lip; blood on yours when she spat it back at you. Blood in your blue veins, beading when you pull out the needle. Got to get it in your bloodstream so it feels good.

Blood on the cross. Christ bled, too. Just like you.

Q. How do you know that God will not just get tired of you and throw you out of His kingdom?

You don’t have too many good memories of times when you weren’t high or drunk, but one of them is the day your daughter was born. You got drunk to the gills that night, sure, but the moment she came into the world, you were there. You and your wife maybe never should have had a kid in the first place, but the two of you made that little person, and the first time you held her, you remembered thinking it was impossible that you’d had any part to play in creating something so tiny and perfect.

Of course, later you learned that tiny perfect creature could scream about as loud as her mother, could cry until you wanted to tear down the walls. She could shit more than a horse and puke all over the place and throw her food everywhere. When she got to be a toddler she started throwing tantrums, and once she gave you a black eye – you had to lie to the guys at the bar and tell them you got into a brawl out in Jeff City. Sometimes you’d imagine shaking her until she shut up; sometimes you wished she didn’t exist. But you never forgot that you made her. You’d never say you did a real good job as her father so far, but still – you never forgot that you made her.

Supposedly, God feels the same way about you. You have trouble imagining that. But you can’t ever imagine being as small and as new as your daughter on the day she was born, either. Another impossible thought – but true. Why not the other?

 

You admit to God and to yourself the exact nature of your wrongs and ask Him to enable you to turn from them.

Q. Why is God so insistent that you confess your particular sin particularly?

The first time you got arrested, they caught you stealing money from unlocked cars in the high school parking lot. The cop who found you brought you home to your grandma and she slapped you so hard your ears started ringing. You said your friends put you up to it.

She slapped you again and said, you lie like a pig in the mud.

No, you insisted. They made me do it. I didn’t even want to. I’m sorry.

You’re the sorriest goddamn fool I ever saw, she agreed, but you ain’t sorry for stealing. You tell me now what you’re sorry for. Go on. Tell me the truth.

Back and forth you went like that, slapping and cussing until you finally said, Fine! It was me. It was all me. And I’m just sorry I got caught.

There you are, she said. Don’t you lie to yourself about what you done or why you done it. You own what you’re sorry for. Only way to go about it.

She came to court with you later, made you shave and put on nice pants, stood beside you in front of the judge, and made you tell him all that. What you did and why you did it. The judge said at least you were honest.

That time, you got community service. That time.

Q. It is not enough to confess your sins…what else must you willfully do?

Your daddy knew what a rat he was, knew it better than anyone. He’d tell you all the time, when you were real little, how sorry he was. Sorry for hitting you, sorry for spending the grocery money, for smashing the window, for letting the electricity go out again. Your daddy was just about the sorriest man you ever knew.

See how far those sorries got you. Sorry didn’t make the bruises go away. Sorry didn’t fill your belly. Sorry didn’t clean up the glass in the carpet. Sorry didn’t pay the electric bill. You can’t heat up sorry on a hot plate. Can’t give sorry to the repo man. Can’t crawl under sorry to sleep at night.

The Lord didn’t say to the cheating woman, I’m real glad you’re so sorry, honey.

He said, Go, and sin no more.

 

You make direct amends to people you might have harmed except when to do so might injure them or others.

Q. So often in your life, you have betrayed the trust of loved ones. Is it possible to make amends?

If you made a list of everyone you ever hurt, you could fill pages and pages. If you could crawl on your hands and knees to everyone you’d ever hurt, you’d scrape your shins and palms to the bone and still have people left to crawl to.

It should be getting easier now, as the days pass, as the fog lifts from your brain, to remember in excruciating detail every wrong. You remember your daughter’s face, for instance, on the day you came home high and ran over her dog in the driveway. A small note on your ledger of debts, but not one that you will ever forget. You will know every way you failed, every way you hurt, every way you disappointed. Tally them; tattoo them on your skin; carry them in your mouth like bitter candies.

You remember your wife, soft and tart the way she was in high school, her face unlined, her laugh like a tinkling bell. She could drink you under the table back when you first met her; that, of course, was some years before you started living on the table. You remember the way her nose felt when you slammed your fist into it, how easily it gave to your strength, the pop of the breaking bone. It didn’t even leave a bruise on your knuckle, but what it did to her —

Sometimes it will feel as if everything and everyone you ever touched fell apart. No one who knows you trusts you. No one who knows you believes you love them more than a ziplock baggie of Oxy or a bottle of Early Times. It’s easy to believe that God can forgive you; that’s his job, it’s what he promised to do. He wrote a whole book on the subject. But your grandma, your wife, your daughter – they never made any such promise.

You cannot make them forgive you. You cannot make them trust you. You can’t make them love you. All you can do is put on your dress pants, your nice shirt, your shined shoes, and wait for them each Sunday afternoon. Hope they will come. Hope they will see you there, just once, waiting. Trying. Putting them first, for once.

The rest – it’s up to them.

Q. The carrying of grudges and bitterness takes you away from the blessings of God. Can you be free from such mind control?

If you made a list of everyone who ever hurt you, you’d fill pages and pages. You know about grudges. You know about settling scores.

You can’t quite remember how old you were when your grandma told you your mama’s relations in Harrogate didn’t want anything to do with you after she died. It was after your daddy left, which they held up as proof that you came from trash. You told your grandma you didn’t care, that you didn’t want anything to do with them, either. But the first time you did crank in high school, you drove out to the cemetery in Harrogate with the idea of taking a baseball bat to your mama’s headstone. You swung that thing till your arms ached, bashing it against the granite again and again. When you were done the bat was all dinged up but that headstone didn’t look too different. You settled for smashing the little vases of flowers her relations put up beside it. A few weeks later you drove by again and saw those vases had been replaced. It was like you hadn’t even been there. All that anger, searing you, burning up inside, came to nothing.

If you expect God to forgive you, if you hope that others will forgive you, you have to forgive in turn. Sometimes your anger feels like the mountains you see from your window: massive, solid, insurmountable. But mountains can be climbed. Step by step. They say the view up top is something to see indeed.

 

You seek through the power of prayer and meditation a conscious contact with God, praying only for knowledge of His will for you and the power to carry that out.

Q. Does God actually hear prayer?

When you were in the Claiborne County Correctional Facility, just a skip down the street from where you are now, you were coming off the Oxy and were sure you were going to die. They put you in a cell with a guy they called Brother Keith. Brother Keith talked to God all the time. You were curled up in a ball, shivering and trying not to shit yourself, gnawing on that nasty prison blanket just to keep from moaning, and there’s Brother Keith, praying. Peering out the tiny slit of a window that looked out onto the parking lot and saying, Another beautiful day, Lord, thank you very much. Eating breakfast and saying, Lord, you know how much I love when they have them hot biscuits, thank you very much. Tidying up his bunk and saying, Lord, if it’s your will I sure could use some healing on these old knees of mine.

Finally you screamed at Brother Keith to just shut up, shut the hell up for five fucking minutes. God didn’t give two shits about his knees, God wasn’t in this place, God wasn’t anywhere, and if he was he would surely have killed you by now like you’d been asking him to.

Brother Keith let you holler at him for a while, then came over and knelt down next to you, even though you must have smelled like roadkill. Brother Keith put his cool hands on your sweaty forehead and said, Lord, I pray here for my brother who is in pain. I pray that you will comfort him. I pray that you will give him just a few moments of peace.

Maybe it was the prayer; maybe the touch of his hands; maybe it was hearing, for the first time, someone pray for you instead of at you. Angels didn’t come down from the ceiling. Your pain didn’t even go away, but while Brother Keith was praying for you, you didn’t feel like dying anymore.

You didn’t quite believe that God would ever listen to you. You were not even sure, then, that you believed in God. But you did start to believe in Brother Keith, that a trickle of his faith might flow through his hands and into you.

Eventually you found out that Brother Keith was in the Claiborne County Correctional Facility because he’d been driving down Lipcott Road in Tazewell on an expired driver’s license and hit a little boy on a bike, a little boy who would never walk again.

Brother Keith called himself an instrument of God.

Sure, you quipped. Jesus healed all the cripples, so you had to go make him a new one.

But Brother Keith showed you a letter he’d gotten from that boy’s mother. Pretty simple letter. She said that she was praying for him just as she prayed for her own son; that she forgave him.

That surprised you. If someone broke your daughter’s back, you’d never write a letter like that, not in a million years.

But Brother Keith said that was living in God’s image. That God loved you no matter what you did, that he would forgive you no matter what, and that he felt your pain as keenly as he felt that boy’s, and that mother’s, and his own.

Brother Keith is the reason you’re here. Before you left for the refuge, you made him promise to pray for you. You still aren’t sure that God hears you when you pray, but it makes you feel better to know that Brother Keith is out there praying for you.

You’re pretty sure God listens to him.

Q. What is the “power” that God gives you?

Your whole life you’ve been told you weren’t good enough. Not smart enough, not tall enough, not handsome enough, not rich enough. You’ve been a disappointing son, grandson, brother, boyfriend, father, and friend. There have always been people who’ve had more than you, did better than you, felt happier than you. It always felt impossible to catch up; it always felt like all the nice things in life were for other people.

But if you believe in God, you have to believe that God himself made you, and that he didn’t make you wrong. That’s the hardest thing for you to accept: He didn’t make you wrong. You are God-made and God-breathed as much as Adam, as much as the Pope, as much as the Queen of England. And as much as your father, your mother, and your pedophile cousin out in Dandridge.

You are no worse than anyone, no better than anyone. There are no magic words, no combination to unlock the possibility of good within you, no pill to take that can change you forever. All the power God can give to you, he already has. All you have to do for God to love you is be.

You are good enough. That knowledge frees you and it scares you. It redeems you and it humbles you. It makes you grieve and it gives you hope. You are good enough. You are good enough. You are good enough.

 

You have come to accept the priority of your life as: God, family, church, work, and self.

Q.What’s the big deal about “family”?

Think about your family. Your mama and your grandfather are resting deep in the Claiborne County earth. You wonder if the warrants caught up with your daddy before the drugs did. You may never know. Your brother is in Memphis, doing his third year of six for meth manufacturing. Your grandma, so old now she’s half-deaf and her hair is falling out, still kills her own chickens and bakes her own bread. You have a wide constellation of cousins and aunts and uncles in Jefferson, Hamblen, and Claiborne counties. Throw a rock around here and like as not you’ll hit someone you’re kin to. Sometimes you feel like all these people who know you are a web to catch you if you fall. Sometimes they feel like your destiny, binding you to a fate you never wanted. How much easier would it be to just start again, in a new place, where no one knows you? To make a new family full of people you haven’t already disappointed?

Remember the bonfires with your cousins; remember running through the woods with your brother; remember your grandma feeding you chicken broth when you were sick. Remember your uncle teaching you to shoot. Remember your daddy, tossing you up into the air when you were little. He never let you hit the ground. You were never as alone as you thought you were.

Think about your daughter. She’s seven now, with long blonde hair she won’t let her mama cut. Think about the last time you saw her happy, blowing dandelions in the front yard. Think of her laugh like the prettiest music you ever heard. Your wife will not come to see you on Sundays, but she sends you your daughter’s drawings in the mail. You hang them up on the drab particleboard walls. It looks like her favorite color is green.

Your wife will not come to see you, not yet, but she sends you those drawings and some shirts of yours that she’s mended. The packs of cigarettes that get you through the day. The butterfinger candies she knows are your favorite. Maybe she shouldn’t be, but she’s still your wife. She’s still the mother of your child.

They are yours. You are theirs. Your family made you and unmade you, as you made and unmade them. They gave you all the pain and love you’ve ever known. They are the tether to a past you’d like to forget, but also the bridge to a future you might make. You can’t take one without the other.

Q. Why should God be the number one in your life?

From your window at the refuge you can see the mountains on the Tennessee/Kentucky border. As long as you can remember, they’ve been there. You can remember taking field trips up there when you were still in school. You remember learning about how fragile they really are, how each one is made up of so many different parts; each flower and root and stem and log have a role to play. The tallest pine tree and the biggest bear are just as important as the smallest salamander and the tiniest ant.

It is hard for you to believe in God from inside a little room with an altar and some stained glass windows. Harder still to believe in God from the plywood benches of the refuge, surrounded by men who stink of sweat and tobacco and unwashed bodies. God doesn’t seem beside you in the lukewarm showers, the smell of someone else’s shit fogging the air in the tiny bathroom; he doesn’t walk with you to the sterile dining room where you recite your daily Bible verse to the Pastor’s assistant each morning at breakfast.

But looking out at those mountains, it’s easier to believe in God and his power. Each morning when you look out there, you try to meditate on God’s creation. Just one of those mountains is more complex than anything you’ve ever known, and there are endless ridges of them rolling off into the distance, farther than your eyes can see. Those mountains are so much bigger than you, and they have no wants, no needs. They are not eaten up with longing and sorrow. They do not know desertion or loneliness. They just are.

That is where you want to get. You want to trust that no matter how loud and angry and burning your need is, it is nothing compared to the wide world. You want to believe that God will provide for you, to temper your desire with the promise of peace. Surely, if God can take care of those mountains, he can take care of you. You have to let him. You have to tell him that you’re ready to let him.

 

You, having had a spiritual awakening through Jesus Christ, will try to carry this message to all those who suffer from addiction.

Q. Can dwelling in the word of God in thought and deed truly prevent you from succumbing to your addiction?

The truth is, you hate this place. The refuge isn’t much more than a reeking warehouse. You hate lining up for the meals like a child at school, hate standing in a corner while the staff look under your mattress and in the pockets of the shirts your wife sends you, hate sharing a room with an illiterate and toothless meth addict who needs you to read him his daily Bible verse over and over again until he can memorize it.

They tell you that this is what it means to dwell in the Lord, to devote every waking minute to learning his word and divining his will and praising his goodness. It’s hard work. Maybe the hardest of your life, and there’s nothing pleasurable about it.

Sometimes you think of giving into the longing. One smuggled can of beer from your rare trips to town would be enough. You’d be free. You hate the regiment of it all, the predictability. You have always preferred standing on the edge of the cliff, playing the daredevil, leaning out farther and farther over the abyss.

Across the street from the refuge, on a hillside in view from dining room’s big picture window, is a cemetery. When the craving is at its worst, when the tedium sets your teeth on edge and your head to pounding, you look up there. You know what’s waiting for you at the bottom. You know how close you came to falling.

You wouldn’t say it to the Pastor – he prefers positive thinking – but you have a feeling they built that picture window with that view in mind.

Q. How can you practice Jesus’s commands when they are so different from what you are used to?

What scares you most is the thought of life outside this place again. There are no drugs here, no open bars, few choices. The rules are very clear. The ways you can fail are spelled out for you, and all you have to do to make it each day is exactly what you are told to do.

But when you’re done here, when they hand you your certificate of graduation and they bless you and pray for your future in a circle of brotherhood, you’ll go out and you’ll have to start again. And you are afraid, not so much of how you might fail but of why.

You’re afraid of just how boring life really is. When you were using and drinking, when you were teetering on the edge of oblivion all the time, when everyone you loved was afraid for your life, it was terrible, yes; but it was also exhilarating. You were the star of your own show, the center of attention, the instigator of constant prime-time drama.

Each day you think of something else that’s waiting for you out there. Job applications, rude customers, worn-out brake pads, headaches, lost keys, colds, lines at the bank, termites, dog shit on your shoes. Before, you chose not to handle those things. You got high instead. Now you will have to learn to deal with all of it, and at the end of the day no one will congratulate you for patiently waiting to use the ATM or remembering to turn down the heat at night to save on the gas bill.

Each day you’ll have to make a thousand choices, over and over again. To serve God and not yourself. To honor your family and not your addiction. To turn the other cheek instead of striking with a raised fist.

Even Saint Thomas had his doubts.

Once you leave, they will not let you back into the refuge unless you stay clean. There are no second chances here, no allowances for relapse. But they do expect you to come back to testify to your new brothers in Christ about life after salvation and recovery. You will have to stare into the thin, wrecked faces of men struggling to make it through each minute. You will have to pray over them as if you can speak with God’s authority.

You know that they will look up at you, the survivor, and ask you if what you have is worth it.

And how will you answer?

What will you say?

Q. If you are born a sinner, and even your “good” deeds are born of sin, and it’s sin you love anyway, and God hates and condemns sin – what hope is there for you?

A.

 

AFTER COMPLETING THE WORKBOOK AND YOUR BIBLE STUDY, BUT BEFORE YOU GRADUATE FROM THE REFUGE, PLEDGE THE FOLLOWING FOR YOUR SALVATION, SOBRIETY, AND SECURITY:

I realize that I am a lost sinner who needs forgiveness and salvation. I believe Jesus wants to forgive me as the Bible promises, so here and now I give him my life. I pledge to follow him in Word, Thought, and Deed; I confess to my addiction, my sins, and my weakness, and will overcome them through the Blood of Christ.

 

Signature

Date

 

 

 

BIO

Clarissa NemethClarissa Nemeth is originally from Gatlinburg, Tennessee. She has a Bachelor of Music degree from Boston University, an M.F.A. from North Carolina State University, and is currently a doctoral candidate in creative writing at the University of Kansas. She primarily writes about individuals and communities in Appalachia and the New South and is working on a novel about the tourist towns of Sevier County, Tennessee. She lives in Lawrence, Kansas with her husband Greg and their pit bull, Boogie. This is her first publication.

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The Tale of Mrs. Yetzik and Mr. Burt

by Norman Waksler

 

Many years ago, Mrs. Yetzik lived alone in a rundown, pale yellow, five room house near the top of one of Carbury’s three hills. She was tiny, old, withered. In the shapeless housedresses she wore to insure that everyone knew she was very poor, she looked barely capable of climbing the hill from the grocery store on the corner with her two shopping bags, so that time and again neighbors, and strangers as well, would offer a ride which she almost always accepted.

As a young girl she’d emigrated from a Northern European country that had changed overlords every half century for millennia, but it was impossible to place her accent which came and went in strength depending on how well she wanted to be understood at any point of a conversation.

It was difficult to imagine that Mrs. Yetzik had ever engaged in sex, but she’d had a husband for many years, and had borne two sons, now middle aged, who lived in distant cities with their families. It was also hard to know where Mrs. Yetzik got the money she lived on. Probably her husband, a die cutter still employed at his demise, had earned enough for frugal Mrs. Yetzik to have saved a useful amount. No doubt she had his social security, perhaps the sons contributed. It wasn’t inconceivable that she had successfully invested in bonds, or had a quantity of high yield CD’s. It was a fact that her shopping bags were always full, though she never spent two cents without complaining that it was a penny more than she could afford.

Mrs. Yetzik had outlived most of the neighbors who remembered her husband, and the younger couples with children who had moved in simply saw her as the old woman who kept to herself and was hard to understand if they gave her a ride up the hill. Though now and again a couple did try to adopt her — the way a young pair might appropriate a senior as a good deed — but with no more success than when they solicited contributions for a medical or political cause.

In truth, Mrs. Yetzik and her husband never had much to do with their neighbors, socializing exclusively with immigrants of their generation from their home country, and even now an elderly survivor or another would come by and spend an afternoon eating her dense apple-raisin cake and drinking tea while deprecating how the world had changed.

The only person Mrs. Yetzik saw and spoke to regularly was Mr. Burt, who lived in the plank walled, backyard shed that had been her husband’s workshop and hideaway.

A burly man in his mid fifties with a large round face and little hair, Mr. Burt was extremely handy. The shed had already contained an old two burner propane stove with a built in space heater, also a toilet and tiny sink, and after he cleared the cobwebs, swept up the dirt, disinfected twice, he just had to move in a camp bed, a little refrigerator, and his belongings and he was ready to live there while he dry-walled over the planking, laid linoleum on the plywood floor, hung shelves on brackets, built a small closet, and sealed the roof where the shingles had slipped or blown away. Projects that took him the better part of a year.

Mr. Burt could also fix anything automotive —this was in the days before cars were computerized — and never had trouble finding work, except that every project he started took so long that, scream, beg, or threaten, no employer could speed him up, and each eventually let him go, only bringing him back when there was an impossible job to be done. Consequently, Mr. Burt often lived on unemployment, and sometimes on disability.

His way of working explained why Mr. Burt was living in a one room shed. For some time he’d had a three room apartment in a multi-unit, wood framed building, but the all-consuming effort of keeping it clean and orderly room by room, working by day, then sometimes staying up all night until the kitchen was spotless or the bedroom shone, had worn him out.

Then, fortuitously, he was walking down the hill past the driveway which allowed a view of the shed in back, at the same time Mrs. Yetzik was sweeping her front stairs, and seeing the old woman, who seemed the size of a garden gnome, Mr. Burt enjoyed a rare moment of inspiration and impulse, calling out, “Hey! Is anyone living in that shed?”

He had a high thin voice that tended to squeak at the end of sentences when he got excited, and Mrs. Yetzik was as taken aback as if she’d heard human speech from a creaky tree branch. Though she’d sold her husband’s tools after he died, she’d never thought of renting out the shed. Yet she recovered in a breath. “You want?” she said, and named a rent the exact equivalent of her monthly gas and electric bills.

“OK,” said Mr. Burt.

“You fix,” said Mrs. Yetzik.

Over the years they never became intimates. He never told her his first name, so he was always Mr. Burt, but he would have been anyway because there was a woodenness about him that deflected familiarity. And, because the uncomfortable Tz sound and the hard K made her name not feel like a real name, to him she was always Mrs. Y.

Yet they weren’t just accidental landlady and unlikely tenant either, she who collected the rent and he who paid it. For one thing, Mr. Burt was often in Mrs. Yetzik’s house — fixing a window, re-hanging a cabinet door, changing the float valve in her toilet — any number of little jobs that Mrs. Yetzik had no compunction asking him to do because she always gave him something in exchange for his labor: the last, solidified, piece of apple-raisin cake, a small unneeded mirror from her sons’ bedroom, her husband’s next-to-last, unsellable winter coat with the fur collar and the rip at the shoulder. “A piece of duct tape fix that nice.”

Mr. Burt always had something of his own to do, so he preferred to avoid any additional outside task, which he knew would require at least a half a day or more of his most careful attention.

“I’m really very busy right now, Mrs. Y.”

“What doing?”

“I’m cleaning.”

“How long you cleaning?”

“I don’t know. Probably all day. You know how it is when you start cleaning.”

“That OK. I wait here till you done.”

‘Here’ was outside Mr. Burt’s door, because Mr. Burt never let Mrs. Yetzik into the shed. In fact, the first thing Mr. Burt had done after paying the first month’s rent, was to install a lock with a deadbolt to replace the old padlock on a hasp that had secured the empty shed again intruders.

Mrs. Yetzik had asked for a duplicate key to the new lock. “Landlady should have key.”

“I’ll get one made up, Mrs. Y.”

“About key, Mr. Burt.”

“I made one up, but I lost it.”

“When I get key, Mr. Burt?”

“Soon, Mrs. Y.”

“After next week, Mrs. Y.”

“Oh. I forgot, Mrs. Y.”

Not being able to see inside Mr. Burt’s quarters was a perpetual aggravation to Mrs. Yetzik, not because she suspected him of anything weird or untoward, but simply out of frustrated curiosity, and frequently over the years when she knew he was gone for the day, she tried to find a way in, or at least manage a peek though one of the two windows. But Mr. Burt’s shades were always tight, the door was impenetrable, and the small cracks between the planks had been sealed by the wall board.

But in truth, every need, change, or wish became an impasse or a crisis for the two of them.

The yard behind the shed, maybe 600 square feet, was overgrown with whatever ugly grasses and tall flowering weeds were likely to find a home in untended urban earth. One mid-spring Mr. Burt began pulling up weeds in a patch, perhaps — no, precisely 8’ x 6’. He’d been working two hours and had cleared about four square feet when Mrs. Yetzik appeared. In her flowered housedress she was the height some of the taller weeds, and could have been a piece of fantastic garden statuary. “What doing, Mr. Burt?”

Mr. Burt looked up at her from his squared over position, sweat dripping down his big round face. “I’m making a tomato bed.”

“How big this bed?”

Mr. Burt creaked to a stand, brushed dirt off his blue work pants. “From here,” he pointed. “Across to there. I really like fresh tomatoes right from the garden.”

Mrs. Yetzik said, “I have to charge for use of land.”

“Mrs. Y!”

“Only a few dollars. Use of land not included in rent for shed.”

“I’ll have to move.”

“Why you move? Where you find place as nice as this?” Gesturing toward the shed. “With a nice garden.”

“I’ve got to start packing.” He turned toward the shed and his moving boxes which were still flattened under the camp bed.

“No. No. You don’t want to do that. Maybe instead of rent for land, you take out trash every week.” Suddenly looking very tiny and helpless. “It so hard for me.”

“I guess.”

“Wednesday morning on sidewalk.”

One year Mr. Burt said, “Mrs. Y., the pipe from the propane tank into the stove is rusting through. We need to get a plumber right away.” His voice rose to its characteristic squeak indicating his belief that the problem was an emergency.

“You fix.”

“No. No. I can’t do that. It’s gas. It’s dangerous. You need a professional.”

“Put duct tape. I give you.”

“Mrs. Y. Duct tape’s not for this job. It’s not safe. If the pipe rusts all the way through and gas escapes, there could be an explosion.” Mr. Burt didn’t know if this was true. “Maybe both houses could burn down.”

“How much it cost?”

Mr. Burt named a figure based on hourly wages at a garage, though he also didn’t know if this was true.

“I won’t be able to eat whole week.”

“You could use some of the money you hide under your mattress, Mrs. Y.”

This was Mr. Burt’s standard joke, repeated mechanically each time he paid rent, that she kept her riches hidden in her bed, to which she always responded as she did then, “It not nice make fun of poor old woman.”

Mr. Burt drove a black, 1947, four door Pontiac sedan, with a high roof and three bar grille that looked like a yawning mouth. Under his endless, minutial care, the black shone like military shoes and the engine was a quiet as any 1966 model. But though Mrs. Yetzik accepted rides up the hill from an passing neighbor, she always refused a lift from Mr. Burt. “It look like hearse.”

“A hearse is a long box and has doors at the back.”

“It bad luck.” And she would make an automatic gesture with two fingers meant to ward off evil, which she also did each time she had to pass the car in the driveway.

“Well, let me take your grocery bags,” he would say leaning toward the rolled down window.

“Then food unlucky.”

“It’s just a car, Mrs. Y., like all the cars I fix.”

“Can’t fix bad luck.”

And Mrs. Yetzik would resume trudging up the hill as Mr. Burt accelerated with a whoosh as if to demonstrate that a car moving at such speed could have no relation to a hearse. Mrs. Yetzik, however, would never look up.

And then there was always the key.

“What if you sick? I can’t help.”

“I never get sick.”

“Everybody get sick.”

“If I start to feel sick, I’ll give you a key.”

“Then too late.”

“I’ll think about it.”

This repeated head-butting never affected how they got on; to a large extent, it was how they got on. But the visit by the building inspector from the city was a different matter entirely.

Though Mr. Burt had lived there forever, someone, possibly new to the neighborhood, had called the city and reported that the shed seemed to be permanently occupied.

The inspector, a gray haired man with a stomach that outweighed the rest of his body, was a lifelong city employee who’d seen every oddity of construction and every attempt to get around city codes.

He rang Mrs. Yetzik’s doorbell, but Mrs. Yetzik, always one eye on what she was doing and the other out the window, was already aware of his approach, and she peeked out from behind the partially open door, prepared to refuse contribution to all charities and political parties.

The inspector pointed a finger at his badge, identified himself by name, and city department. “Are you the owner?”

“Yaaas?”

“I’m sorry, ma’m, what’s your name please?”

“I Mrs. Yetzik.”

“Well, Mrs. Yetzik, I need to get a look at that shed out back.” He raised the clipboard in his other hand. “Somebody called and said there’s somebody living there.”

“Is tool shed,” in her thickest accent.

“I’m sorry. What?”

Mrs. Yetzik repeated.

“Ah. Well, that’s fine, I just need to have a look inside and I’ll be on my way.”

“Is locked.”

“In that case, I need it to be unlocked.”

“Key lost.”

“I see.” This was hardly the first time the inspector had been stonewalled by an uncooperative householder, and the security of his position along with his sense of the job as an endless variation on similar themes had given him a good humored tolerance for almost any evasions. “Tell you what, ma’m, in that case, why don’t I just wander back anyway and see what I can see. Whose car is that in the driveway?”

“Is old car.”

“I can see that,” the inspector said. He touched a finger to his forehead and departed the porch.

At the shed he noted the drawn shade on the front window, so when he knocked at the door he was unsurprised to see it open, and Mr. Burt’s large head floating around the edge.

“Who are you?” Mr. Burt asked. In all the years he’d lived there, no-one except Mrs. Yetzik had ever knocked on that door.

The inspector identified himself by name and department. “Do you live here?”

Mr. Burt nodded, speechless.

“How long?”

Mr. Burt shook his head. “I don’t know. Forever, maybe. What’s the matter?” he squeaked.

“Well…” The inspector, seeing his fear, immediately understood the kind of individual he had to deal with. “Look. What’s your name?”

“Burt. Errol Burt.”

“Look, Mr. Burt. I’m not here to make trouble for you. But I have to make sure your place is safe and up to code. You know what I mean?”

“Sure. Electrical. Plumbing. Heating.”

“Right. Right. Exactly. So can I come in?”

“Do you have to?”

“I’m afraid I do.”

“Why did you come?”

“Tell you the truth, somebody called, reported somebody living here.”

“Who? Who called?”

“I really can’t tell you. So can I come in?”

The interior of the shed reminded the inspector of a summer cabin in the woods where men went to drink and tell stories between bouts of fishing: a single bulb fixture, a couple of lamps, open shelves and a camp bed, the old green linoleum, a small square table and an easy chair that looked like it had been rescued from curbside on trash day. No TV, no phone, a small brown radio on the table, and an inescapable sense of permanent temporariness.

Mr. Burt stood in the middle of the room swiveling his head wide-eyed watching the inspector xing the checklist on his clipboard as he went from the fuse box, over the wiring, to the little bathroom, to the stove with its built in space heater, to the vent which he examined carefully. “I’ll have to take a look at this outside. Check the pipes too. Is it warm enough for you in the winter?”

“Yes. Yes. I’m very warm.”

The inspector lowered his clip board, tucked his ball point pen into his shirt pocket. “Well, OK then, Mr. Burt. To tell you the truth I wouldn’t want to camp here myself, but if you’re happy, everything’s in order.”

“It’s OK?”

“Yup, it’s OK. Only thing, though. I’ll bet your landlady never got an occupancy permit before you moved in. But you’ve been here so long, it’d just make trouble…. Anyway, nothing to worry about, you’re all set. Thanks for letting me in.”

“Oh sure.”

When the inspector finally went down the driveway past the house, he saw Mrs. Yetzik on the front stoop with a broom in her hands that she wasn’t using, turned toward the street as though she wasn’t waiting to hear the results of the inspection. He stopped, she twisted slightly as if surprised to hear anyone near. The inspector said, “Now why’d you want to tell me that fairy tale about a tool shed?”

“I old woman,” said Mrs. Yetzik in her feeblest voice. “I forget. Everything good?”

The inspector smiled. “Yes, everything’s good. You have a good day now, ma’m.”

Possibly with two other individuals there would have been no consequences to the inspector’s visit. Unfortunately, since they never had conversations, it never occurred to either to talk about it, leaving both with suspicions whose only basis was what they pulled from their trunk-full of fears and fancies, each supposing that the other had called the city for some underhanded reason.

Mr. Burt figured that since Mrs. Yetzik couldn’t get into the shed, she wanted to hear from the inspector how nicely it had been fixed up so she could use that as a reason to raise his rent. He also figured that she was hoping it wasn’t up to code so she could throw him out, fix it up, and rent to someone else for more money. As well he assumed that this way she could claim that she really had to have a key because another inspector might come along when he was out. In addition, the inspector’s arrival had alarmed him and he could only blame his lingering anxiety on her.

Mrs. Yetzik thought Mr. Burt wanted an inspector so he would find problems which she would be legally obliged to fix. And that he just wanted an excuse to move out without paying any more rent. And that he’d been looking for an excuse to stay without paying rent until she fixed everything. And since everything was OK like the inspector said, he could have a reason to continue not giving her a key since there was nothing for her to see to. Plus he just wanted to scare her, which was a mean thing to do to a old woman like her.

Mr. Burt stopped joking about the money under Mrs. Yetzik’s mattress, and decided that if she told him to move out, he would refuse. He also decided to move out before she told him to, and went so far as to pack two boxes before deciding to unpack them again. He didn’t want to have to say hello to her, so when he was without work, he would be sure to stay up all night cleaning, or polishing his shoes, then sleep all day.

Mrs. Yetzik decided that she needed to raise Mr. Burt’s rent, and that she had to evict him before he asked to be paid for fixing up the shed. That she had to find someone else to live there, and that she had to make Mr. Burt give her a key once and for all. She also avoided speaking to him, but when she was forced to, it was in her thickest accent, sometimes also dropping in words from her native language.

However, as the year progressed into autumn, Mrs. Yetzik ran into a problem. It was all well and good to be mad at Mr. Burt, but for years now, every spring and fall, he had taken down and put up her wood framed storm windows — the old, old fashioned kind that were held in place by brass turn buttons and weighed half as much as Mrs. Yetzik herself.

She muttered to herself for two days in two languages, resenting the thought of having to be nice to Mr. Burt and dreading the cold which she had hated even as a little girl in whichever Northern European country she’d come from.

In the end, pragmatism won out. She caught Mr. Burt passing her front stoop on the way down the hill. “Mr. Burt,” she said in her weakest old lady voice. “You put up storm windows now, yes?”

Since Mr. Burt had been avoiding Mrs. Yetzik, he hadn’t noticed that she was avoiding him, so he was unsurprised at her request, and after so long, unaffected by her little old lady voice, but he surprised himself and Mrs. Yetzik by saying, ‘What’ll you pay me?”

“No worry. I give you something nice.”

“No. Money. Pay me for the work, or take something off the rent.”

“I can’t pay. I poor woman. Have many expenses.”

“I can’t do it then.”

“What I do?”

“Turn the heat up.”

“You not very nice, Mr. Burt, and I always so good to you.”

Mr. Burt shrugged, but it worried him. He’d never done anything like that to Mrs. Yetzik and he felt strange. He always dealt with the storm windows; it was part of the spring and summer routine filling a week each time, and not doing it left a hole in his regular pattern. He knew Mrs. Yetzik would let herself freeze before she turned up the heat, and that wouldn’t be good. Yet having taken a stand, he didn’t know how to move off it, and wasn’t even sure he should because it was her own fault, even if he didn’t know if he cared that much at this point.

Mrs. Yetzik never expected such treatment from Mr. Burt, so unlike him, and she was offended and dismayed. The fall temperature hadn’t dropped significantly, but she imagined arctic cold seeping in around the shrunken window frames and wrapping around her vulnerable old body. She began piling on sweaters, tied a babushka around her ears and chin, all the while blaming Mr. Burt and counting the cost of what heat she allowed herself as it slipped out the same cracks through which the cold entered.

A week went by, another, and a third, both of them brooding about the storm windows as the temperature gradually fell. How much longer this might have gone on if the woman from social services hadn’t showed up, it’s impossible to say.

She seemed very young despite her sober gray suit and dark coat and brown leather briefcase. But she rang Mrs. Yetzik’s doorbell with the self–confidence of one practiced in approaching unknown individuals and dealing with their problems.

“Hello,” she said to the small face wrapped in a kerchief and peering around the door. “You must be Mrs. Kati Yetzik.”

Mrs. Yetzik was so amazed to hear her given name from someone other than one of her ancient acquaintances that it shocked her beyond suspicion into an immediate barely accented ,”Yes. I am Mrs. Yetzik.”

“Very nice to meet you,” the clear, enthusiastic, genuinely kind voice of a young believer in doing good. Perceiving that Mrs. Yetzik wasn’t the type of person to whom you offered a handshake, the young woman introduced herself by name, then, “I’m from social services for the city. I’m looking for Mr. Burt. Mr. Errol Burt?”

“What you want Mr. Burt for?”

“The neighbors are very concerned about Mr. Burt’s living conditions; they called the city and the city has sent me to look into it.”

“Neighbors called? What do neighbors know? Nothing wrong with Mr. Burt’s conditions. What neighbors say that?”

“I really can’t tell you, but I do need to talk to Mr. Burt. I’d hoped to make an appointment, but he doesn’t seem to have a phone. Do you know if he’s home?”

“Maybe yes. Maybe no. You go down driveway past ugly old car.”

“Thank you.”

As the young social worker turned, Mrs. Yetzik said, “I come too.”

“Of course. We can all talk together.”

“I get coat. It very cold.”

If Mr. Burt had been surprised by the inspector, the appearance of a slender, formally dressed young woman with Mrs. Yetzik behind her was so incomprehensible as to cause a hiatus in his mental functioning, not at its peak in any case since he’d been dozing on the camp bed a minute before.

The social worker introduced herself, indicated her official position, said, “So how are you today Mr. Burt?”

She spoke gently, soothingly, as if his sleepy eyed lack of focus had convinced her that he was mentally delicate.

“I’m OK. What do you want?”

“Well, Mr. Burt, it seems that some of your neighbors are worried about you. And they called the city and the city called me …”

“Neighbors called?

“That’s right. They’re concerned that your living conditions don’t conduce to your greatest welfare.”

“There was an inspector here. He said everything was OK.”

“Certainly. But that was from the point of view of safety. This is about your general welfare. You understand what I mean by general welfare?”

“I’ve got no problems with my welfare. I take care of myself, and Mrs. Y is very good to me. She gives me things, and doesn’t charge too much rent. I’ve got everything I need.”

“That right,” said Mrs. Yetzik. “Mr. Burt help me. Even share tomatoes he grow. I help him. He has very nice house, everything good. Small house, but nice. Mr. Burt like small, no, Mr. Burt?”

Mr. Burt nodded.

“I’m so glad to hear that,” said the young social worker, “But why don’t we take a look inside and see if there’s anything we could improve that would make Mr. Burt more comfortable. Maybe there are groceries you need, or furnishings. The city can help.”

“No, no,” said Mrs. Yetzik. “Nobody allowed in Mr. Burt’s house. Is only his business. Even I not allowed. Is so, Mr. Burt?”

“That’s right. I don’t like visitors.”

Never losing her enthusiasm or kindness, asking specifics about food, clothing, and heat, the social worker tried to convince him that she and the city should be allowed to help, but the non-specific answers woven by Mr. Burt and Mrs. Yetzik made an impenetrable bramble, so that finally she said, “Mrs. Yetzik, would you mind if I spoke to Mr. Burt alone for a little while?”

Before Mrs. Yetzik could comply or refuse to comply. Mr. Burt said, “No. No. I don’t want to talk anymore,” his voice rising to a squeak.

The young social worker knew very well that when she’d alarmed a potential client it was time to back off. “That’s all right, Mr. Burt. But here, here’s my card. If you ever want to talk, for any reason, just call me. OK?”

Mr. Burt took the card, but didn’t look at it, and nothing in his attitude suggested intention to profit by her offer.

Once the social worker had gone along the driveway and they heard her car door slam, the engine rev and move off down the hill, Mrs. Yetzik said, “So you put up storm windows now? I have big cake.”

“That will be nice,” said Mr. Burt.

Then one year the rescue squad arrives, EMT’s rushing out with all their equipment. Has Mrs. Yetzik’s tough little heart finally given out, or has Mr. Burt, always so slow and precise, finally made a mistake, been smacked by his car slipping sideways off a jack?     The ill or the injured are carried off to the hospital.

Mr. Burt nervous, upset, scared. What will happen to Mrs. Y? What will happen to him? To the shed? To the house?

 

Mrs. Yetzik flustered, put upon, worried. Will Mr. Burt ever return? Who help her? Why he so foolish? Should know better, Mr. Burt.

 

But it’s just a hard old sausage too tough for her aged system causing horrible indigestion.

 

But it’s just a glancing blow to the head causing a mild, dizzying concussion.

 

Mrs. Yetzik is so relieved that Mr. Burt is all right, that she waits two days before asking him to fix the shaky leg of a kitchen chair.

 

Mr. Burt is so pleased Mrs. Y is back, that he gives her a key, but it doesn’t fit.

 

And they lived happily, that way, ever after.

 

 

BIO

Norman WakslerNorman Waksler has published fiction in a number of journals, most recently The Tidal Basin Review, The Valparaiso Fiction Review, Prick of the Spindle, Thickjam. Scholars and Rogues and The Yalobusha Review. His most recent story collection, Signs of Life is published by the Black Lawrence Press. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His website is NormanWakslerFiction.com

 

 

 

 

 

0

Date Night

by Bobby O’Rourke

 

 

“I’m really glad you came out with me tonight,” Tommy said as we exited the crowded movie theater, shouldering our way through the throng waiting outside to buy tickets for the late showing. The rain outside had stopped, but a dull mist now hung in the air. The tiny sprinkles of water were only visible when seen in the light of a streetlamp, but I could feel the gentle coolness whipping against my face. Tommy put his arm around me, and I let him keep it there.

We made a left outside the movie theatre and walked down Oak Street, talking about the best parts of the movie and giggling at the jokes we made about the actors. It was past eleven, and my parents were very insistent on my being home no later than midnight.

“I don’t know this boy,” Dad had said before I left. “I don’t want you out into all hours of the night. Midnight—that’s all.” Mom had nodded in agreement. Tommy had come to pick me up shortly after that. I think he eased some of Dad’s fears when he asked permission to come inside.

“Hello, sir,” Tommy had said, holding his hand out. “I’m Tommy Ulster.” Dad took it and told us to have a good time. Then Tommy shook hands with Mom and we left.

As we walked further down Oak, we were moving farther and farther from his car. I had had a great time, and I didn’t want the night ruined by Dad throwing a fit.

“Hey,” I said to Tommy, taking his hand. “I don’t want my Dad yelling at either of us. I think I’ve got to head home. I’m sorry.”

He smiled and tightened his grip on my hand. “Just a sec. I want to see if a coffee place I like is open.” I was going to tell him everything was closing up now, but he was already pulling me along. Another fifteen minutes wouldn’t make much difference.

We had left the movie crowd far behind us. Up ahead was the section of Oak Street filled with designer clothing stores and restaurants specializing either in muffins or bread and soup. The streetlights still illuminated the droplets of mist. We passed underneath one and I … I couldn’t tell what it was, but something happened to Tommy’s face. As the light overhead shone on us, a little rainbow from the vapor crossed Tommy’s face. Something happened to Tommy. It only lasted a second, but I thought his face became gray, and more angular, like a child’s first attempt at cutting construction paper with scissors. And his eyes—I thought I saw them glow red. But then we passed the light and he was back to normal. He tilted his head to me and asked, “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” I said. “I saw a rainbow in the lamplight. What coffee place are we going to? They’ll never be open.”

“I think they are,” Tommy assured me. “We’re almost there. It’s on Jefferson Street.”

I had never heard of Jefferson Street. “Where is that?”

“We go up to Dunn and make a left, then another left. It’s one of those little side streets you don’t notice until something you want is there.” I think he sensed my hesitation, because then he asked, “Hey, do you think Scarlett Johannson could have done a better job as the girl in that movie?”

Talking about the movie calmed me, and I proceeded to tell him why Scarlett Johansen’s breasts would not have made a better heroine, since that was what he was really asking. Our banter took us around Dunn and onto Stanley Avenue. “It’s up here on the left,” Tommy said. We walked on. There were no streetlights on this small, one-way avenue. “Right here,” Tommy said, and pointed into what I thought was an alleyway.

I stopped, not wanting to go any further.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“There’s nothing in there,” I said, trying to let go of his hand. His grip became tighter.

“Maybe not,” Tommy said, and as he said it his voice became deeper. Then it sounded like his voice split, as if there were two people using his mouth. “But there is something I want.” He ran into the alleyway, dragging me behind him. I fell, but without losing any speed he lifted me up and continued into the darkness.

“Let go of me!” I yelled. He slammed me into the wall of the alley. Mom said if I ever got into trouble to shout “Fire” instead of “Help.”

I yelled. “Fire! Fi–”

Tommy covered my mouth with his right hand, muffling my cries. His two-voice was speaking again. “This will be quick if you cooperate.” He brought his left hand into view. I watched as the wrist jutted out from the end of the sleeve, making a horrible stretching noise. A webbing developed between the fingers. The webbing contracted until the fingers formed a single stump at the end of his arm. The skin was turning the gray color I had seen before. A small opening appeared at the top of the stump, and a sickening, thick yellow liquid oozed out, dripping down onto his arm and the ground.

“There must be incubators,” he said, pinning me against the wall with his body. His right hand slid off my mouth and choked me. “You are an incubator.” He raised the stump over my head and lowered it towards my face. I struggled and kicked, tried to hold the arm back, unable to scream. One of my kicks knocked over a trash can. My foot touched the ground again, and I felt something squish under my shoe. I looked down. I needed to scream, but all that came out was a strangled whine. I had stepped in the yellow ooze, but the liquid had formed into giant, wriggling worms. No, not worms, but like worms. One end of the things ended in a gaping maw. It made a sound. I thought of a bat laughing and squeaking and laughing. Little buboes on the body of the worms convulsed. One of the worms was on my shoe, buboes like twitching, slimy thumbs.

I felt like I would vomit, but I wasn’t getting any oxygen. I tried my hardest to keep my mouth closed. Tommy’s eyes were red as he brought his stump closer to my face. His breath rasped. Drips of the liquid fell into my hair. It ran down my head, down my neck. It was gluey and warm. Spots broke out in my vision. I tried to take in air. Tommy pressed the seeping stump downward. It was touching my nose. I sucked in as much oxygen as I could and gritted my teeth. It wouldn’t go into my mouth. The thought of biting the stump

spilling the ooze

revolted me, but I would if I had to. The stump got under my lips and rubbed against my teeth, searching for an entrance. Pulpy and moist. The taste and the smell

acid backwash sour milk

and Tommy’s rattling breath.

A light from behind us. Tommy shielded his eyes with the stump. A voice called out from a doorway in the alley. “Who’s there?!” Tommy shrieked as the flashlight beam crossed his face. The face of the boy I had been to the movies with was gone. His skin was ashen gray, and stretched over his skull like wax paper. His lips no longer covered his teeth, which were only gums with black protrusions. The eyebrows had hardened into ridges that dragged the eyelids up until it was impossible for the red eyes to blink. The nose had been pressed flat against the face, and the nostrils had been turned upward.

I kicked the Thing-That-Was-Tommy in the stomach. It bellowed and staggered backward. I ran out of the alleyway, coughing and telling myself not to look back or slow down. I didn’t know where to go. I was running across the street towards Hannigan Park. I couldn’t yell. Tommy was running after me, gaining on me. He would catch me if I changed direction.

the stump on my teeth

acid and sour milk

I couldn’t think of that. I couldn’t think of that. I ran into the park,

ooze on my neck

across the encircling walkway and onto the grassy field surrounding the lake. Lights and mist. Tommy’s grunts sounded more distant, weaker. I had to stop or I was going to collapse. I turned around. Tommy was running toward me, but he was moving slowly. He kept swatting himself, like a hundred mosquitoes were attacking him. Steam was coming off his body. He was growling, still watching me, coming for me.

I ran. My sides ached. I had overextended my leg. I couldn’t breathe.

I could think only of the mist. It burned him. Before it only ruined his disguise. Now it burned the real thing, the Thing-That-Was-Tommy.

I ran along a path lit by lampposts that ended in a T-split at the foot of the lake. I had to stop and see where Tommy was. I saw him running down the asphalt path, shielding his eyes from the light of the lampposts. He veered off of the walk, and disappeared into the shadows of the trees.

I was breathing hard, listening for his footsteps as the blood pounded in my head. I tried to follow his dark form as it made its way closer to me. I heard the hissing of the steam coming off of his body.

He charged at me. He was at full-run as he barreled into me. I had to let myself be taken off of my feet and slammed down, into the lake. I swallowed water and choked. Tommy thrashed above me, his body pinning me. Smoke and steam filled my vision. Gasping and howling sounds, then the thick modulations of underwater struggle. I grabbed his jacket and shoved him off of me. Some of Tommy came off in the jacket. It felt like it was filled with unbaked dough. The sleeves got tangled around me as I pulled my head above water. I scrambled out of the lake, clawing at the jacket that was clinging to me. I tore it off me and threw it into the water. I saw what was left of Tommy.

The water was boiling. All that remained identifiable of the mass in the water was the horrible face, melting and dissolving. Where his stomach would have been, a swarm of larvae bubbled and squealed. The stump popped open and yellow liquid oozed out and spread across the surface of the water like oil.

Police sirens screeched. I heard voices calling. My clothes were wet and I was cold.

the ooze the taste of acid it dripped down my hair

I scraped my fingers through my hair, certain I would touch something squirming or the ooze or a slick nest of worms. I felt crusty flakes fall out of my hair. That was all. I put my fingers on my teeth. I didn’t feel anything on them.

I stood at the edge of the lake, thinking about everything but taking in nothing. I began to doubt if something happened to me. I expected to wake up now, sweating and with my hair matted down onto my pillow. The voices were closer. Could I tell them what happened? I checked the time on my cell phone. It read 12:31 a.m., and I had missed two calls from home.

 

 

BIO

Robert O'RourkeBobby O’Rourke is a native of New Jersey, as well as a graduate of both Rutgers University and Union County College. He is currently enrolled in a Master’s program at Fairleigh Dickinson University. He has had poetry published in Spires, and is ecstatic to have his first fiction credit associated with The Writing Disorder. He dabbles in singing, standup comedy, and still checks his closet every night for monsters.

 

 

 

 

 

0
Suzanne Hyman author

Ginger in the Soup

by Suzanne Hyman

 

Grace stood, counting out loud the number of places her maid, Charlene, had set on the dining room table. Eight sets of porcelain plates and bowls stared back at her as if they were determined to remind her of something. She tried her best but could not recall what it was that brought her to the dining room in the first place. Again she counted eight plates, bowls, salad forks, dinner forks, soup spoons, and meat knives. Not one was missing, though Grace made a mental note to talk to Charlene about her silver polishing skills. The silverware had been a gift from her mother on Grace’s wedding day, and after 55 years of magnificent service, they were beginning to show their wear. Grace was not willing to let them retire. An hour or so more of polishing a week would certainly do the trick.

The doorbell rang, startling Grace for the smallest of moments.

“Don’t worry, Mom, I’ve got it,” Lauren called down from the upstairs balcony. There was a slight strain in her voice, which was meant to calm her mother down but it unintentionally sent a cold shiver down Grace’s back.

“I should turn up the heat,” Grace said.

“No you shouldn’t,” Lauren called back to her as she approached the front door.

Grace noticed Lauren’s hand clutched tight around the spare key as she unlocked the door. So much stress in that hand and her whole body, Grace thought. Such a shame, she had not found anyone for her little angel, who was now far too old at 50 years of age to be referred to as a little anything. If only she had a husband. It was too late for children, even too late for adoption, a concept, which Grace had never warmed to, but she suspected she would have made an exception in her heart for Lauren if that had been her desire. She made a lot of exceptions for her angel.

Grace was convinced a husband could still be found for Lauren as long as she kept in shape and at the moment Lauren was slightly out of shape, just a little extra weight, but enough that it would not be able to distract any possible suitors from picking much younger, fitter companions. No reason to worry though, she was certain she could carefully and tactfully suggest to her daughter a little less here and there without upsetting her. Tact was of course one of her specialties and she prided herself greatly on her ability to avoid any unnecessary drama. “No reason to make a scene,” Grace’s mother had instructed her and she had always listened to her mother.

Grace made sure to smile wide before turning to greet her guest. She planted a dutiful kiss on the cheek of her son’s mother-in-law, Helen. Lauren had already offered her own friendly greeting when she opened the door but now she was forced to retreat back to the kitchen to check on the turkey or at least that was her excuse to leave the room.

The truth was that Lauren found it difficult watching her mother attempt conversation with her brother’s mother-in-law. She respected Helen, of course, as anyone would respect a Holocaust survivor, but she was still a very bitter and angry woman who liked to start arguments and Lauren had worked very hard with her Life Coach to create a beautiful balance between the energies. Unfortunately being around Helen threated to tip that balance and Lauren would do anything to avoid the nightly binges of her past, which were usually brought on by dealing with unnatural stress and if that meant being slightly rude, she would take her chances.

“What a lovely surprise it is to see you, Helen.”

“So lovely, Grace,” Helen said without the slightest hint of cheer. After 33 years it still took every bit of concentration Grace had to decipher Helen’s words through her thick Hungarian accent.

“And how are you doing, dear?” Grace gave a soft squeeze to Helen’s hand. “I heard about your fall.” Grace eyed Helen’s bandaged forearm. “How’s the arm?”

Helen glared at Grace with her tiny hazel eyes. “Oh it’s wonderful. I play tennis with my physical therapist three times a week.”

Grace giggled anxiously. “Oh Helen, it’s so good to see you haven’t lost your sense of humor.”

Even though Grace had prepared a place setting for her, she was still shocked that Helen had shown up, especially since her son and his wife, Ann, were nowhere to be seen. She was even more surprised considering Helen hadn’t set foot in her home since the unfortunate incident the previous year when Helen had walked out during their grandson’s graduation party. At the time Grace had been in the kitchen preparing a feast as usual, when she heard the screaming, first from Helen and then Alan, her eldest grandson. Grace ran in the living room, just in time to see Helen hobbling unsteadily towards the door, trying to escape faster than her cane would let her. She almost completely lost balance when she pointed her cane in the air at Jessica, Alan’s then-wife, exclaiming, “She’s a bitch, that one you married,” before continuing to hobble towards Ann’s car, where Ann was waiting gleefully to escape her mother-in-law’s house. Afterwards Grace found out that the whole incident started because Helen thought Jessica didn’t say hello to her as she entered the house, but Jessica swore it wasn’t true. Seeing as Grace now considered Jessica “a bonafide hussy” for cheating on and leaving her eldest grandson for a goy, Grace was happy enough to believe Helen’s side of the story or she would have been if she were not all too familiar with Helen’s lack of hearing. The whole family had been begging Helen to get a hearing aid for years, but she adamantly refused.

Grace felt bad for Helen every time she saw her. She couldn’t help but glance a little at Helen’s worn, wrinkled face, covered in sunspots. She often forgot that she and Helen were the same age. The Old World must age much faster than the New World, she thought. But Grace was on the verge of being rude by staring at Helen, an act, which her mother would have never accepted. If her mother were there, she would have gently touched Grace’s shoulder, while whispering in her ear, “Remember, dear, you are a lady, and a lady never stares.” Grace, craving for her mother’s soft touch, caressed her own shoulder for a moment before leaving Helen and turning towards the door, where her grandsons, Alan and David, and her granddaughter, Sally, stood waiting.

Meanwhile, Helen grunted and hobbled towards the living room couch. She was happy to be able to sit down for a moment since her joints ached horribly. She was even happier to have an extra moment to herself before Grace hijacked the rest of the day. Helen wondered why she even bothered coming down to Baltimore anymore, especially when she had such an acrimonious relationship with her son-in-law and even with her only child, her daughter, Ann, who she had such high hopes for but had turned out just as bitter and unhappy as her mother. But as Helen looked at her grandchildren standing in the doorway next to their other grandmother, she smiled and remembered why she came down to visit so much. Sure she had been displeased with Alan for quite awhile but he apologized profusely to her ever since the incident with his ex-wife. She wasn’t going to let him off the hook so easily but he was still one of her three grandchildren, whom she loved dearly. She did still hate Baltimore though, and many of its esteemed residents. She glared at Grace’s back and hoped her gaze might be able to burn a small hole through Grace’s perfect cream-colored cashmere sweater. She giggled at the thought.

“Good Yontif,” Grace greeted her grandchildren with kisses on each cheek.

“Hi Savta.” Alan returned the kiss. “How’re you doing? Everything fine. Looking pretty spry. Good for you, old girl.”

Sally playfully slapped Alan’s arm. “Stop that,” she whispered. “Savta, you look wonderful.”

Grace hugged her tight. “What I wouldn’t do without you.” Grace looked affectionately at her granddaughter. “And you.” She pointed to her oldest grandson, “You’re looking pretty spry yourself. How’s that diet going?” She patted his stomach. Grace was now forced to worry about his future love life as well, considering the recent divorce, which she could never bring up to Alan for fear of him throwing a fit.

“No diet today.” Alan smiled and they stood silently for a moment. “It’s Thanksgiving.”

“Well you all came just in time.” Even if it was half an hour later than what I told you, Grace continued in her head. Alan and Sally made excuses for the late arrival before heading towards the living room.

“No time for TV,” Grace called after them.

“But Savta, what about the parade?” Sally whined back.

“Go right to the table, both of you. Unless you like eating cold food?” She smiled at them before turning towards their brother, David, who still lingered by the door.

“How are you, Savta?” He sneered as he kissed her cheek. Grace replied with her usual cheerful smile. She couldn’t help but cringe a little when she noticed David’s yellow teeth, rotting in his mouth. It must be the drugs, she thought.

“I’m fine, dear. Is your father coming?”

“No, he’s stuck at the office. Some big case or something.”

“Well that’s too bad. What about your mother?”

“She’s at some coupon clippers convention in Catonsville.”

“Oh how fascinating.”

“Yup.”

“But couldn’t she have waited until after Thanksgiving?”

David shrugged his shoulders. “She says she needs to be at her best for Black Friday.”

Grace was barely surprised that her daughter-in-law would miss Thanksgiving in order to “prep for shopping.” She was more disappointed in her son for choosing work over his family. It was not the way that she and her late husband raised him and she was certain that Ann was responsible.

David walked towards the table. Grace shuddered as she watched his muddy sneakers stain her gray rug with each dragging step.

“David, honey, why don’t you sit near me tonight?” Grace placed a cold hand on the wooden chair next to hers. At least she could keep a better eye on him if he sat closer, not that that would help her trust him again. She had not been able to think of David the same way, ever since he and half a dozen friends had nearly destroyed her home, pouring bleach over the doors, ransacking the house for jewelry, driving her brand new Lexus before she even had the chance to, harassing the security guards of the gated community, and causing over $20,000 worth of damage the year before when she was in her beloved homeland, Jerusalem, a month-long trip she took annually for the past 30-odd years.

“But Savta, I’d rather sit over here.” David pointed to a seat in the corner as far away from Grace as possible.

If only she had put place cards, she thought. Place cards! That was what she could not remember earlier. She could have kicked herself for not writing them. “Oh but honey, it would mean the world to me if you could sit right here.” Grace smiled and David grit his teeth.

“Sure Savta, whatever you say,” David said and Grace made a mental note to get the locks changed again soon.

“All right, who wants to say the blessing?” Her eyes looked past Lauren, Helen, and her grandsons until they reached…“Sally?”

Savta wasn’t asking, and Sally was smart enough to know it. Her grandmother never asked, she demanded, but always in a pleasant tone. She would use interrogatives, and her tone was always sweet, but there was a strong strangling force that crept into her voice. Everyone in the family could recognize it. It was that subtle addition that rang, informing whomever she was talking to that she controlled their comfortable little lives, but of course her grandmother would never admit that, even though it was true. Her late husband, Norm, had left her a lot of money, millions in fact. It was enough to take care of her and anyone else she wanted to, and she did. Savta still helped pay both of her sons’ bills, Sally’s father’s and his brother’s, and even her grandchildren’s, paying Sally’s full tuition at Amherst. And for this, all her grandmother wanted was what she believed she deserved, their respect.

“It’s not a Jewish holiday, you know, but sure Savta, I’d love to say the bracha.” Sally smiled at Grace and began to say the blessing over the bread using the very little Hebrew she knew. “Baruch ata hashem elochanu melech haolom hamotzi lechem min haaretz.”

David stared at both his grandmothers. He smiled at the noticeable increase in wrinkles on Grace’s face. From the time he was young, Helen always had visible wrinkles, lines deeply etched into her skin. He respected her, for having those lines, for having the tragic life that she had during the Holocaust and after as a new immigrant without any education, family or language necessary to prosper in a new world. His bubbe was the only one who believed he wasn’t using drugs, the only one who actually worried about him and his well-being, and the only one who gave him a monthly allowance so he had enough money to buy—the things he needed to buy. David clenched his jaw as he watched Grace, who was beaming proudly at Sally’s mispronounced Hebrew.

David’s older brother, Alan, glanced at him from across the dining room table. He was amazed that David had actually decided to brush his hair today. He almost looked like a human being. Even his ears lacked their normal ring of yellow wax. And he barely smelled of body odor, which wasn’t the norm, considering David often forgot to shower for days at a time.

“So David, how’s it going?” Alan asked, taking a piece of bread and passing it to his sister.

Poor Alan, Sally thought. He is always trying to be nice to David. Alan had already apologized to David for everything from when they were young; every bruise, every tiny scratch, all of the emotional pain of being tied to a tree naked, the physical burns from being shot at with a Super Soaker filled with boiling water, and any broken bones from wrestling. They were all products of brothers playing with each other and growing up together and beating the crap out of each other except that Alan was three times the size of David, who had always been a scrawny little thing. Over a decade had passed since then, though David wasn’t the type to ever forgive or forget. Sally knew Alan was wasting his time, but he would never give up.

“So Alan, how’s your ex-wife’s new fiancé?” David shot back, shifting his glare towards his older brother’s wet eyes. Lauren, gently patted her nephew’s back before Alan excused himself to the bathroom for a moment.

“David.” Grace gave her grandson a warning look, while noticing the smudge marks he was leaving on her antique silverware. Next time, she planned to serve everything on plastic plates with plastic silverware. At least then she wouldn’t have to count the silverware at the end of the night, worrying that her own flesh and blood was stealing from her.

Helen shook her head but not at David. She would never say anything to that poor boy. He had enough troubles, what with his sickness and all. She had wished Alan had heeded her advice on his wedding day, begging him not to marry that trash, but no, it was too late, that girl had her claws into him too deep by then. Helen cringed from the memory of them happily walking down the aisle together that day. She knew it would only end in misery. And she was right, she thought as she smiled to herself.

“You’re an asshole,” Sally said to David amongst gasps and shocked expressions from both her grandmothers.

“Sally, I’m sure you didn’t mean that. Did you honey?” Lauren nodded at her niece, encouraging an apology and hoping to keep the peace in some manner for the night. She felt bad for David, she really did, but he was always lashing out as if the whole world was against him. And Sally, well, Lauren knew that she was just defending her older brother Alan, but the inappropriate language that was certainly from their mother. She could only admit it to herself but Lauren was glad that Ann didn’t show up. After all misery only loves company.

“Sally!” Helen scolded her granddaughter but turned quiet as soon as Alan returned to the table. Alan reached for the breadbasket but Grace quickly grabbed it and placed it next to her plate.

“We’ve got plenty of food coming,” Grace sang in a semi-sweet tone. “You don’t want to spoil your appetite,” she warned.

“I’m 30 years old, Savta. I think I can figure out how much I can eat,” Alan said through clenched teeth.
“All I’m saying is that we have soup and salad and turkey and stuffing and vegetables and sweet potatoes and pie.” Grace could hear her mother’s sweet voice in her head, saying, “A moment on your lips and forever on your hips.” Alan’s hips were already wide enough. They came from his mother’s side of the family.

Savta, I’m not stupid.” Alan said. “If I want more bread, that’s my decision and mine alone.”

“How about we have some soup?” she offered, trying to change the subject. “You all have a choice between sauerkraut with my homemade mashed potatoes or chicken noodle with a matzah ball.” She made sure to emphasize “a” in case Alan was getting ideas about eating multiple balls.

Alan stood up and quickly snatched the breadbasket away from his grandmother’s side. Grace looked appalled, Helen smiled, and David laughed. “I’ll have sauerkraut,” Alan said as he stuffed a giant piece of bread in his mouth. Grace sighed heavily as she was reminded again of the necessity of place cards. She made a note to place Alan as far away from the breadbasket as possible next time.

“I suppose everyone else wants chicken soup?” she asked and Lauren stood up to help her bring the soup dishes in from the kitchen.

Lauren turned to Sally, “Don’t you want to help serve the soup, sweetie?”

“Is that a trick question?” Sally smiled and then got up to follow her aunt into the kitchen.

Helen always scrunched her nose when Grace talked about her famous sauerkraut soup or anything else that she claimed was “homemade.” She glared at Grace again when her back was turned. Wherever her eyes focused, she would imagine new holes in that cashmere sweater. She giggled to herself again.

Bubbe, what’s so funny?” Sally asked her grandmother.

“Oh nothing.” Helen smiled.

“Here you go.” Grace handed Helen the hot bowl of chicken soup, accidentally spilling a little on Helen’s blouse. “Oops, I’m sorry, dear.” She did feel awful, but truthfully Helen could do with a new shirt. The one she was wearing must have been bought while that Israel-hating, anti-Semite, was still in office. “My hands are so clumsy these days.”

“Of course, Grace.” Helen sneered. “Women of our age have these problems.”

Lauren quickly ran to the kitchen to get a wet washcloth for Helen. She grasped onto the kitchen counter for a moment. “Breathe, just breathe,” she told herself. She could feel the tension between Helen and her mom so intense that her arms were covered in goose bumps. She knew tonight would be a difficult night especially with all the leftovers from Thanksgiving sitting in the fridge, yelling at her to eat them while her mother would be asleep. She reminded herself that she was only visiting for a couple days before she would return to her stress-free, feng shui house in Philadelphia. Lauren walked back into the dining room and handed Helen the washcloth.

Sally, sensing the growing anxiety in the room, tried her best to distract her grandmothers. “Oh Savta, the soup is so good. Did you make it yourself?”

“Of course, honey.” Grace smiled sweetly at her granddaughter. “How could you expect anything else?”

Sally prayed that the true answer to that question wouldn’t spit out of her mouth or even worse, Bubbe’s. She stared at the bowl of soup, which looked remarkably like the one made from Suburban House, the kosher-style restaurant in town. Of course Savta made some changes, adding a lot of spices, and always a small piece of ginger that somehow mysteriously found its way into Sally’s bowl every time. Sally lifted her spoon to her mouth, hoping for a miracle that her soup could be ginger-free for once, but she wasn’t so lucky.

“Oh gee, I guess I got the ginger.” Sally said.

Grace laughed. “That’s wonderful.”

“I’m not exactly the biggest fan of it.” Sally didn’t want to sound bitter, but she couldn’t help it. It was always hard for her to hide her emotions about anything.

“Oh but it’s so healthy for you, Sally.” Grace said. “Just ask your aunt. She’s a doctor after all.” She nodded towards her Lauren.

“I have a PhD, Mom,” Lauren said.

“You’re still a doctor,” Grace pointed out.

“In 17th Century Feminist British Literature.”

“Do people call you Doctor?”

“They usually call me Professor, but yes, sometimes they call me Doctor.”

“There you go, you’re a doctor. Now everyone stop talking and enjoy the meal.”

 

By the time the pumpkin pie was served and devoured in two seconds as if by vultures, everyone except for Lauren had made their hasty goodbyes to Grace.

“They flew out of here like a bunch of bats outta hell,” Grace said to herself. “Bye Savta,” Alan and David said with two meaningless kisses on her cheeks. Sally was a bit friendlier when she said goodbye, stopping for a second and giving Grace a sincere hug and a kiss. Helen didn’t even bother saying goodbye. She could already imagine Helen’s bitter complaints to Ann later, and she was right. As soon as Helen walked out of the house she was on the phone leaving a message for her daughter, saying, “Who does that woman think she is, pretending to make a home-cooked meal when everyone knows she bought that soup from Suburban House, and that turkey already prepared from the kosher butcher? Do you remember how I used to make all your meals from scratch with my bare hands?”

No one appreciates me, Grace thought. She looked at the dirty dishes sitting in the sink. She thought about leaving them for Charlene when she comes the next morning, but she couldn’t. She knew her mother would have been aghast if she saw a sink full of dirty dishes left for the maid. “Maids are for tidying and polishing, not for cleaning,” her words rang in her head. Grace added soap to the sponge before plunging her hands deep into the muck.

“Let me help you with that,” Lauren said as she walked into the kitchen and gave her mom’s shoulder an affectionate squeeze. “I told you the dinner would be fine.”

Grace wiped off leftover cranberry sauce from one of her silver-rimmed porcelain plates. “It was more than fine.” She looked up at her daughter. “Considering the company.”

 

 

 

BIO

Suzanne HymanOriginally from Baltimore, Suzanne hopped on a plane to Israel for a yearlong volunteer program after graduating from Emory University in 2008. Six years later, she’s still there, living and working in Tel Aviv. Over the years, she’s worked as an English teacher, copywriter, content writer and editor. She recently finished a Masters in Creative Writing at Bar Ilan University, and is currently working on her first novel and a pretty weird collection of short stories. This is her first publication. You can follow her @SuzanneHyman or read her blog at www.anamericangirlinisrael.wordpress.com.

 

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Anna Isaacson Author

The Transition Plan

by Anna Isaacson


So what’s the best way to successfully drive adoption of your technology deployments, specifically SharePoint, in the workplace? At Microsoft, we want you to make the most of your investment. We have designed the new SharePoint by putting people at the center of the experience.   ­–SharePoint Adoption Guide, Microsoft Corporation, August 2013

 

OK everybody let’s get started.

If you don’t know me already, and I think most of you do, my name is Katie Mervin and I am the project manager for the firmwide SharePoint transition. This end-user employee training is the fifth step in the seven-step SharePoint rollout and adoption plan that we have crafted—we being myself, our CEO Mary Heinz, and our IT Director Jeff Leighton. We have designed this plan by putting people at the center of the experience. Please save your questions for the end.

Have I been to Mary Heinz’s house? Yes, in fact, I have. On Christmas, actually. She lives, as you might expect, in the suburbs with her husband and her two kids. Haven’t you seen the pictures of her kids on her desk? Or maybe you haven’t had the opportunity to enter her office. I’ll tell you. The son’s hair is spiked in front like a boy band singer, and the daughter is smiling with a bit of lower-teeth showing like she learned to smile from the orthodontist. Very blond. Those are suburban kids. Our CEO screamed and squeezed their sticky bloody baby-bodies out of her vagina. Or, are babies even bloody when they come out, or just sort of messy and purple? Regardless, it is not astonishing.

Who can tell me what SharePoint is. SharePoint is a cloud-based intranet document and content management system. SharePoint is closely integrated with the Microsoft Office suite, so the interface should be familiar to you. But SharePoint is more than just a platform. It fundamentally changes the way work gets done. The goals of this firmwide transition to SharePoint, if I may quote Mary Heinz, are to promote teamwork and the sharing of ideas and knowledge. It is a fundamental restructuring of our business based on ESC principles. I’m sorry, Enterprise Social Collaboration.

I did get a little lost driving to Mary Heinz’s house. The streets are all cul-de-sacs and the houses all look the same. I felt like a creepo driving slowly down the street and peering at the numbers on the houses. Half the houses were empty and dark for Christmas, and the other half were rosy-lit, hearths warm. What exactly is a hearth? I remember I had the radio on, and the guy on the radio was astonished by Freshman Senator Ted Cruz’s lack of remorse for his role in the government shutdown. I was not astonished.

Now, Mary Heinz, Jeff Leighton, and I do anticipate an array of concerns, fears, doubts, and uncertainties in association with this transition to SharePoint, but we have a support strategy in place to address these. We will not be astonished by anything you will have to say about SharePoint.

That reminds me. Were you all here for last year’s holiday party? I was talking with Mary Heinz, just chatting a bit with Mary Heinz, and I remember she said something interesting. She said, “My kids are astonished by organizational inefficiency. They say, ‘Mom, how can this be, people repeating work, reinventing the wheel over and over?’” That is how I learned not to be astonished by anything, ever. Reporters are astonished; children are astonished; project managers are not astonished. I was not astonished when Mary Heinz asked me, not Jeff, to be the project manager for the SharePoint transition, even though I am under thirty years old and chubby and single and a girl and possibly a lesbian. I was not astonished when the government shut down. And I was not astonished when Mary Heinz asked me to come to her house on Christmas day to finalize the SharePoint transition plan.

Her house is what you would expect. Both of the neighboring houses had opted for the candle-in-each-window move, while Mary Heinz’s house had a wreath on the door but no other decorations. Mary Heinz is likely too busy to decorate. The second floor was all dormers. That is the word for it, yes, a dormer?

Per Mary Heniz’s instructions, I parked a few houses up and walked along the side of the house to let myself in the back door. She had emphasized that I should shut the door without a sound and then take the back stairs up to the master bedroom. I did accordingly.

Her kids were opening their Christmas presents downstairs. “Thank you!” I heard the daughter say. Her voice was high-pitched, prim, enunciating. “What did you get, Judy?” said the son to the daughter. Then, having been shown, he actually said, “Neato!”

I sat on the tightly-made bed and mentally rehearsed some things to say about SharePoint, about current events, about my made-up boyfriend, about her children—whatever would be required.

Eventually Mary Heinz came in. She was wearing big fluffy slippers, tight black lyrca pants, and a tight black lyrca turtleneck. Her knees and elbows looked extra pointy in the get-up, but it left nothing to the imagination, shall we say. Let’s admit it, she’s not altogether unattractive, our CEO. Who here has fantasized about fucking Mary Heinz?

She paused at the door, nodded once, blinked, and smiled, like, ah yes. The she walked towards me and sat next to me on the bed. The tight springs made us both bounce a little when she sat down. Then she tilted her head, showing me her neck. I was not astonished. I leaned in and kissed her on the collarbone. My cheeks felt chubby like a baby’s up against her wiry neck. She pushed me down on the bed, climbed on top of me, and kissed me on the lips. The inside of our boss’s mouth is slobbery, and her tongue is a muscle. Kissing is associated with an array of concerns, doubts, fears, and uncertainties, but Mary Heinz no doubt had a strategy in place to address these. She pulled back briefly for air. I reached uncertainly for her ass, but she grabbed my hand and put it back down on the bed. In her elegant, cold hand, my fingers felt stumpy and my skin felt rough and dry. Her watch had peeked out of her sleeve as she was moving my hand, and she flicked her wrist to check the time.

“Ah,” she said. “You were a tad late, weren’t you.”

“I got a little lost,” I said.

She reached out and held her palm to my cheek. “You can leave the back door unlocked. Jeff will be here soon.”

Then she climbed off of me and stood up. Unsure if I was supposed to get up, I felt my chin fold into several little chins as I tucked my head to look at her from lying down.

“Where did Mom go?” I heard the son say downstairs.

“One moment, please,” Mary Heinz called in a we’ve-been-through-this voice.

Mary Heinz gave me a little pat-pat on the knee, and then she turned and walked out.

I snuck back downstairs, crept around the side of the house, and pressed the unlock button on the car key. The radio came back on when I started the car. A Texas accent drawled People all over the country, they’re losing their jobs, they’re being forced into part-time work, and they’re losing their health insurance. In my retreat, I didn’t get lost once in the cul-de-sacs, and soon I was out on the main artery.

I slowed to a stop at a blinking red light. I looked left, right, ahead, behind—the roads were utterly empty in all directions. The light beat like a heart. Congress is flailing in the dark, the radio said. Beat, beat. We’re nearing the edge of a cliff, the radio said. Beat, beat. I gripped the wheel white-knuckle tight until I could feel my own pulse in my fingers. Aimless, the radio said. Self-destructive. With each beat of blood into my fingers, somewhere in the back of my mind I found that I was silently chanting, What—the—fuck—what—the—fuck— It was as though I had been chanting this for who knows how long—my whole life, even—and had only just noticed it.

Then, coming to a stop from the other direction, I saw Jeff Leighton. He had one hand on the wheel, the other hand around a Starbucks cup, and a cell phone in the crook of his neck. He waved by splaying his fingers off the steering wheel at me, and he sort of rolled his eyes in commiseration, as if to say, On Christmas day? I lifted my palm and shook it at him, and I felt the flesh of my underarm jiggle—a goofy, childish wave. But the chanting seemed to have subsided, or at least shushed for the time being. I thought of the significant potential for enterprise efficiency. I thought of our plan to handle concerns, doubts, fears, and uncertainties. I thought of the spiced eggnog recipe I had found online. Yes, it did, it came out really well. I can send you the recipe.

So as you can see, we’ve put people at the center of the experience. And I think you’ll find that with ESC, we’re looking at a tremendous opportunity to gain that competitive edge. SharePoint will increase efficiency by reducing employee redundancy, streamlining basic tasks, and improving collaborative techniques. You will discover, share, and organize information and ideas predictably within this system.

 

 

Anna Isaacson Author PhotoBIO

Anna Isaacson has a publication forthcoming in the The Saint Ann’s Review, and she attended the Summer 2014 Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Anna currently lives in Boston.

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Amita Murray

Marmite and Mango Chutney

by Amita Murray

 

Auntie’s stroke didn’t seem to have any lasting effect, except for a slight droop in her left cheek and the tendency to talk in aphorisms.

“Such is life,” she would say. She would puff out her cheeks like a hoary toad fighting against the march of cynicism. “People only look out for themselves. It has to be said.” In her more positive moments, her favourite was, “You can only grow old if your heart ages.” And then there was the cryptic and all-encompassing, “Young people.”

The last was a flexible one, and could be adapted to many situations. “Black people,” or, “Chinese men,” or “Accountants,” or “Those homeless,” were all versions she used regularly. It was difficult to know where her sayings came from. If they were a product of experience, or if they defied encounters and conversations, and emerged triumphant, despite all evidence to the contrary.

When Auntie’s daughter, my cousin Veronica, announced that she was going to marry Gary, a mixed-race, half-black, half-white “mongrel” – as Auntie labelled him – the after-effects of the stroke became more pronounced than ever.

“The West is full of divorce,” Auntie said, her face drooping to one side, elongating the speck of Marmite that lingered on her cheek after lunch. Marmite and Amed’s Mango Chutney were Auntie’s two favourite foods in the world, and everyday at lunch, she ate two slices of bread, each with a layer first of Marmite, then mango chutney, the kind with bits of sweetened, gloopy mango in it. “He will leave you within two years,” she continued, as if she had performed a risk analysis of the time it would take for a mixed-race accountant to leave a second-generation part-time blogger. “And then where will you be?” As she asked the question, she combed her hair with a thin comb, over and over, slowly, rhythmically, like she was stroking a cat, stopping only to pull out coils of oily hair from the comb and rolling them into a tight and ever-expanding ball that she would hand over to whoever had the bad luck to be sitting next to her when she was done combing.

 * * *

Veronica works as a relationship blogger, under the pen-name Dadi Ma (or Grandmother), for a successful e-magazine for the under-forties Londoner, the female professional looking for love, shoes and weight loss on her morning commute. “Love, shoes and weight loss – that’s all they ever want. I’m not very good at this advice stuff, am I? Am I?” Veronica would ask me. “I’m not very good at anything. Why am I so pathetic?” Dadi Ma is supposed to be perennially sixty-five-years-old, her birthday, for no particular reason, on Halloween, and she gives funny and old-fashioned advice to women who write in. She is very popular. Veronica has worked in this role for five years, ever since she was twenty-seven. Ironically, for most of those five years, she was miserably single.

It was a thing with her, this lack of a significant relationship. At the time, it didn’t matter to her that she was a successful writer. As I was crooning my way through the pub circuit on the dodgier outskirts of London, mournful, soft-boiled tunes to go with my cello, that I penned feverishly in the middle of the night, and that no one wanted to buy, Veronica was already working for a lifestyle magazine. She lived in a studio flat near Holborn. While I lived in this six-bedroom gig with Australians and South Africans and Kiwis, and a pet iguana with uncertain antecedents, but knowing eyes and an uncanny ability to be in the Now. No one even had a bedroom to their name, and no one knew with any accuracy how many of us were living there at any given time. If you found a bed to sleep in at night, it was taken as enough. If it was empty of foul-smelling, travelling strangers, it was practically a Christmas present.

Whenever we met up, I was determined not to let Veronica’s lack of relationship become the main topic of conversation. I came with lots to talk about, my shoulders squared and my eyes fierce with resolve. My flatmates. My “voluntary” work as a singer and cellist. My various pointless dates with married men, unavailable men, stupid men. I talked fast and furiously, in a rush to make the silence stop. My words spilled out like people who worked in office jobs, at five o’clock, anxious to get out of the door, paranoid of staying a minute later. But Veronica’s “thing” hung over us. It was the thing That Must Not Be Named. It was the body in the library. It was like nothing else existed. We could never talk of anything else in those days. If I talked of anything else, Veronica sat there looking sad and accusing. It was like her eyes were telling me I was selfish to talk about anything other than her love life, or lack of it. In the end, I would always give in, and ask her how it was going. She would tell me in great detail, great globular words that would rise and rise till they exploded all around me, spilling their hunger for love, so I was drowning in them, flailing like a fly stuck in honey. She would tell me how it was all hopeless. How she was doomed to be one of those women. How she would never find love, and love would never find her. “It must come from not knowing who my father is, you know? You will always have that,” she would say, as if this was my chief fault.

What was wrong with her, she would wail. What was it stopping her from having what everyone else had? But it was not a rhetorical question. She wanted answers from me. When would she meet someone? Could she improve her chances by losing weight, getting a haircut, reading the Hitchhiker books, sitting in the Tate, looking cool and hip? Was it that she came across as too independent, or was she too clingy and needy? “It’ll be alright, there’s nothing wrong with you,” I would say. “You’ll definitely meet someone. Definitely.” I smiled reassuringly, I gave her hugs as she left, I gave her all my optimism, and returned home sapped and dry. Veronica read horoscopes obsessively and took them personally. She read between the lines, she read them over and over for some hint that today would be the day she would meet someone. At times when I was in a relationship, she would hate me. I just knew it. “I could have been a singer,” she would say. “It just never attracted me so much. I need a challenge, you know?”

  * * *

When Veronica brings Gary home for lunch for the first time, Auntie sits hunched in her wheelchair, a frown etched on her forehead, a drab brown sari wrapped unresponsively around her. She is usually the master of organizing dinner parties, making sure that she makes her numerous relatives feel culpable if they don’t make an appearance, by saying things like, “People forget their family,” or “You’re so busy all the time, I thought I’ll only have to make an effort, no?” or “I’m too old for you now, is that it?” But today, relatives are conspicuous by their absence. She does not think the occasion demands a dinner party. It ranks somewhere beneath contracting chicken pox in her estimation.

Gary reaches out and touches her hand – a courageous but fool-hardy move. Veronica and I hold our breath. What will Auntie do? More importantly, what will she say? Her hand is unmoving, as if the stroke has wiped out the feeling in her right hand, or she wishes it had. She stares at him for a long time. But Gary stands his ground, and just stares back. She reaches out slowly to the teacup set in front of her on the coffee table. It takes her five minutes to pick it up with a shaking hand that is roughly the look and size of a dehydrated prune. She finally brings it to her lips. The stroke has had no effect on her arms or hands, but this doesn’t stop Auntie from making the most of the situation. But in any case, Gary doesn’t flinch, doesn’t even look away, doesn’t try to rush her or help her.

“What do you see in her?” she says in the end, after she’s taken a slurping sip and let a drop of overcooked Red Label tea trail all the way down her chin.

Veronica and I let out a collective breath. Of all the things she could have said, this is not the worst. Not by far.

“She’s feisty,” Gary says.

Auntie snorts. “I know your kind. Men have their fun, then leave.”

“Not all men,” Gary says.

“Men of your kind,” she says. “You have no family values, you here in the West.”

“We must find a man for Aisha,” Veronica says, intervening, nudging me in the ribs. “Since only an emotionally-stunted married man with six children will do for her, that’s where we should look.”

I turn away, smiling through the stifling rage.

“You be nice to her,” Auntie says to her. “Young people,” she adds, shaking her head. It is not clear who she is speaking to, since she doesn’t approve of any of us this precise minute.

I turn back to see Auntie playing with the ring of her finger, round and round, staring at nothing. My mother left her the ring, with the understanding that Auntie would leave it to me. Gary has moved out of earshot, as has Veronica. They are huddled over a cup of tea, in that intimate way people have. “You mustn’t mind her,” she says to me, as I stare at them. “She didn’t have a father growing up, like you did.”

“I know. I don’t mind,” I say. “Of course I don’t.”

She is staring at me. “You mustn’t. You mustn’t mind. Okay?”

I do, of course I do. I hate Veronica. I hate how I have to make her feel okay about herself. I hate how it’s my job.

Lunch is a scary business, and Veronica and I are barely breathing. Auntie has given Seema (who she persists in calling her servant, though we try to tell her Seema is an employee, a cook even, but not a servant or a maid) instructions to make the biryani as hot and spicy as she possibly can. Seema has outdone herself. There are hard little pepper pods hiding under the chicken like landmines, the rice is boiled in cayenne, and skinny green chillies are chopped up into bits that are precisely the same size as the green beans, so you can’t tell the difference. Gary is sweating within minutes, wiping his upper lip and his forehead. I see a tear escape all the way down his cheek. But he perseveres. In fact, he keeps on serving himself more and says how he’s never eaten biryani half as good. Auntie’s eyes glitter. She mumbles something about how it is surprising that a mixed-race man like Gary can handle Indian chilli. She watches and waits. She is waiting for him to do something stupid. So far, he is managing not to. But it can’t last forever.

“Maybe if you’re so good for her, you can help her get a proper job,” Auntie says to Gary, as she nibbles on a mini Mars bar after lunch. It is her favourite dessert. She uses her index finger – now surprisingly sure and stable – to blot the little crumbs of chocolate that fall on her sari. She blots them, then licks the finger, leaving melted streaks of chocolate on her fingers. She sucks on these as she talks. “What is it with Westerners? Freelance, freelance, we’re going freelance. Going mad is what. Going up Chowringhee Lane.”

“It is a proper job,” I say. “Veronica’s a successful writer. Not like me, singing half-heartedly in pubs that no one goes to.” I don’t know why I feel like I have to say that. It’s hardly as if Veronica’s life needs embellishing. It seems kind of perfect to me. A creative career that pays. A flat. Gary.

“You have a beautiful voice,” Gary says, turning to me.

I am not sure if he is making fun of me. He and Veronica have seen me play at a pub. They were the only two people there that night, except for an ageing gentleman with no teeth and leather elbow patches, who follows me on my ‘tours’ and always kisses my hand afterwards and tells me he loves me. I always thank him. He is about ninety years old.

“If it didn’t sound quite so sad,” I say.

“It has heart,” he says. “It makes you long.”

I am startled. I turn to Auntie, to make a joke, to make the moment disappear. But her eyes are full of something I have never seen in them before as she watches me. Fear. I have always thought she is beyond fear.

  * * *

When things broke down with Gary after a year of marriage, Veronica disappeared for a while. She was still in London, we knew that much. But she never appeared at family dos. Or met up with any of our numerous cousins that were spread like linseed all over London. She couldn’t bear to be confronted by what she, of all people, must believe was a colossal failure.

When we meet at Auntie’s funeral, I have not seen her for over a year. Not her, and not Auntie who refused to see me after Veronica disappeared. I try to catch her eye through the service, but she refuses to look at me. She is wearing a black skirt, tights with snowdrops on them, a jacket that is tailored for her. Despite the bad couple of years she’s had, she is as successful as ever, and is now writing for other blogs and magazines. I see her name everywhere. Even when I am not looking for it.

Over lunch, I walk over to her. I stop at the table, laid with Auntie’s favourite food, that no one else likes. “I am sorry, Veronica,” I say.

She shrugs. “It was a matter of time. After the stroke.” She bites into a roulade, then spits it out into a paper napkin. She looks thin. “How’s Gary?” she asks.

“He’s fine,” I say. “He wanted to come, but I thought it would be better if he didn’t.”

“She knew, you know,” Veronica says. “Mummy knew.”

My heart beats painfully. “How do you know?”

“She stopped inviting you to things. Even before it happened with you and Gary. She knew before you knew. She watched you like a hawk.”

It’s hard to hear. But yet the last year I have been free of Veronica and the familiar guilt. I have not had to take care of her. That is something.

The will is read later on. Auntie has left me my mother’s ring. This is not something I expected. I roll it round and round on my finger. I thought she would leave it to Veronica. There is a note with it. “Take care of her,” she says. “She only has you. She didn’t have a father growing up. Family is all we have.”

And I am not free. “It will be alright, Veronica,” I say as I leave. “It really will. Definitely.” I give her a hug.

 

 

 

BIO:

Amita Murray is a writer, based in London. She has published stories in Brand, Inkspill, Front View and others. She often writes about the comedy and tragedy of clashing personalities and cultures. Short story magazines tell her that her writing is talented – publishing houses regretfully add that it continues to defy a clear market. So her writing life is an on-going see-saw between agony and ecstasy. Her novels Confessions of a Reluctant Embalmer and The Pre-Raphaelite Seamstress are available on Amazon. Get in touch @AmitaMurray and amitamurray.com

0
David Hicks

The Romantic Traveler™ presents
Your Customized Guide to Narcissa

by David Hicks

 

Preface

Narcissa, California, is an idyllic place. Its location, well over an hour from either Sacramento or San Francisco, is a deterrent for most tourists, but for its residents, this is precisely the appeal. Off the beaten path, largely unaffected by the economic downturn, natives of this quiet burg live in peaceful obscurity—to the east, the majestic Sierra Nevadas; to west, the grand Pacific.

Native Narcissans — or Narcissists, as they playfully call themselves — live a life of comfort and self-reflection. For most, having flourished in the dot-com boom of the late ’90s or the housing-speculation market of the early 2000s (or in some cases, both), Narcissa is their Shangri-La, a reward for their hard work. They reside in stately homes well-stocked with original art[1] and surrounded by verdant pastures and vineyards, content to linger in the privacy of their backyards, luxuriating in their swimming pools[2], ensconced in floating lounge chairs with cold drinks at the ready, gazing idly at their reflections in the well-filtered water.

 

Personal Background

You met the Narcissist at a book signing in Indianapolis. You had recently left your wife, and you were perhaps “a bit needy” and “more than a little desperate for female attention.” (We at the Romantic Traveler do not judge our clients. We are simply quoting from your profile.) Afterwards, you approached her, and told her that you found her talk riveting. You told her that as a reporter for the Indianapolis Star, you envy her the richness and excitement of her life — for she doesn’t simply write the news or report the news, she becomes the news; she immerses herself in significant global events. You realized you were gushing like a schoolgirl, but no matter; you were smitten.

Upon her departure, you wrote to her. Emailed her. Texted her. Skyped her. No matter the medium, the message was the same: She was captivating. She had it all, beauty and brains. When she told you she wasn’t feeling very beautiful, that lately she’d put on some weight, you told her god no, she was curvaceous and sexy, was she kidding? You’d consider yourself fortunate just to get a date with her.

When she told you the same stories she told everyone when she wanted them to fall in love with her (the time she flipped in a Class-6 rapid on the Zambezi because of her river guide’s bravado; the time a Swiss mountaineer first made her cry and then made her fall thirty feet off a cliff, dangling from a rope; the time she talked her way out of a potential gang rape while covering the uprising in Syria), you fell in love with her. Instantly. And you told her so. Far too soon. But you’d been trapped in a loveless marriage for years and you were absolutely ready for this. (Actually, according to our records you are still legally married, but it seems you neglected to inform her of this important fact.) In other words, you went for it, because to this point you had never gone for anything. And she invited you to Narcissa for a visit.

Which brings us to your trip, and this customized interactive e-guide.[3]

How to Talk to a Narcissist

Echo her.

When she picks you up at the airport, drives along the coast, gestures out the window and says, “Isn’t this so beautiful?” look around in awe and say, So beautiful!

When she cooks you dinner and says, “Oh, this is delicious.” Nod your head with your mouth full—Delicious!

When you have sex and she says, “I’m going to come, I’m going to come!” say I’m going to come! I’m going to come!

Alternatively (because, let’s face it, echoing can grow tiresome), you may simply say, “You’re kidding.” For example, on that first visit, when you accompany her to a speaking engagement in Sacramento and she says, “Can you believe they misspelled my name on the hotel marquee?” don’t remind her that her name, which is Middle-Eastern, is hard for Americans to spell. Instead say, “You’re kidding.”

“Did you see the program cover? That is not the photo I told them to use!”

You’re kidding!

If you tire of either strategy, feel free to alternate or combine them. For instance, when she says, “Did you hear that guy introduce me as a reporter!” you can say, “A reporter? You’re kidding!”

If you have the opportunity to speak for yourself, be sure to focus your comments on her. She certainly deserves it. She’s strong and curvaceous and looks like a lioness, whereas you have a concave chest and view yourself as something akin to an emu. She’s a special correspondent for an international news agency, whereas you are a features writer for the Indianapolis Star. She is the author of seven books, including three best-sellers, whereas you have had an idea for a book, about the failed administration of Benjamin Harrison, the only U.S. president from Indiana. She walks into a room like Mussolini; you walk in like Jimmy Stewart. She flips back her hair and holds her hands out expressively, as if her every move is being photographed by Life Magazine; you smooth back your hair to cover your bald spot, and are constantly finding poppy seeds between your teeth.

So: tell her what a superstar she is. Tell her how much you admire her. And above all, tell her how beautiful she is. Tell her this several times a day, remembering to use different words each time. (“Beautiful” certainly works well, but you’d be pleasantly surprised at how she reacts to “sexy,” “gorgeous,” or the aforementioned “captivating.”) Avoid using words like “cute,” “pretty,” and “adorable,” or phrases like “You look so nice!” because to a woman like her, such terms are insulting—indeed, pejorative.

On the occasion of your second visit, you may feel free to communicate some specific information about yourself. But be aware that she will be listening only for details that apply to her, and for signs that you will or will not be a suitable partner. So tell her what she wants to hear, while remaining somewhat evasive. Tell her, for example, that you are absolutely ready to commit to this new relationship, even though you are absolutely not. Tell her you recently left your wife, but leave out the word “recently.” Tell her you lost custody of your kids, but don’t tell her you’re still not legally divorced. Tell her you love your children, but don’t tell her how much you miss them, how you ache for them, how you cry every night you’re not with them because your (soon-to-be) ex-wife is preventing you from seeing them.

However, when you talk about her, do be specific—as well as complimentary. Tell her the white streak in her otherwise dark hair makes her look simultaneously dignified and sexy. Tell her that her report on the Syrian children victimized by a chemical bomb was so moving that you posted it on Facebook and showed the video to your friends at the newspaper. And her exposé on the latest U.S. drone attack gone awry? The very model of hard-hitting Western journalism so lacking in the mainstream media these days.

During your third visit, when she cuddles with you after sex and wonders aloud why you don’t just quit your job and move out to California to live with her, tell her you were just mulling over the same possibility, but the only matters giving you pause—and these of course are minor considerations—are that you like your job, you like where you live, and her quaint little hamlet is almost two hours from any major airport, which would make visiting your children rather arduous. But when she says something about your industry being a dying animal you’re fastened to, your state being smack-dab in the middle of the Dead Part of the Country, and how you’re already being prevented from seeing your children and in any case they will eventually perceive your ex-wife’s live-in boyfriend as their new father and your desperate attempts to see them are only giving your ex-wife more power, think it over for a while and tell her she’s probably right; in reality nobody will be reading newspapers in five years, and now that she mentions it, Indiana is really boring (it actually ispossible, you suppose, for people to be too friendly), and to be honest, your soon-to-be-ex-wife’s boyfriend is a good guy, probably a better role model for the kids than you are. Thank her for helping you to see all that. Then excuse yourself to go to the bathroom, where you can sit on the edge of the tub, put your head in your hands, and imagine your daughter calling another man “Daddy.”

A few weeks later, when the Narcissist calls in tears to tell you she is pregnant, quit your job. And move to California.

 

Travel Tip: Indiana is Well Worth Leaving
When traveling to a beautiful place to visit a potential soulmate, you will inevitably fantasize about living there. In most cases, this is a bad idea—your experience as a visitor is vastly different from that of a resident. But if you are from Indiana, then the reverse is true. Because anywhere is better than Indiana.

 

Local Accommodations

When you arrive at the Narcissist’s ranch and she informs you there’s not much room for your belongings but she has cleared three dresser drawers for you, tell her you appreciate the accommodations, you’ll do your best not to disrupt her life or in any way impede her success, and yes, you totally understand why you can’t just put your stuff in the spare room, after all, she needs that room for the house-sitter when she’s away (which is quite often, given the demands of her job and the frequency of her speaking engagements), and in any case she will soon be re-purposing the room as a nursery. Just set up an old desk in the basement,and start looking for a job. Be glad you’ve gotten out of Indianapolis, and don’t worry about missing your kids, because your ex-wife is so pissed at you for leaving your marriage she’s decided you will see them again only over her dead body. Instead, start worrying about the new kid you’re about to have.

While looking for a job, you may find a shortage of positions at the county weekly (staffed by four people). The newspaper industry is going down the tubes, remember? Find some other part-time work so you can stay home and care for her dogs and horses while she’s overseas filing reports, or while she’s off making another appearance, or while she’s doing another book signing. How about waiting tables at one of the quaint restaurants in town? There’d be nothing wrong with that, would there? She’s friends with the manager and will give him a call.

After you get that job, which you quickly realize will bring in about $800 a month, pick up some freelance editing work and tell her you’re doing so to have some spending money with which to buy her presents or take her out to dinner or help pay for the new baby—even though in fact you’re swimming in debt from your ongoing divorce proceedings and you will soon need to file for bankruptcy. Do this work, along with some freelance writing, from the living-room couch whenever she is working at the kitchen table. (When she is not working, don’t do anything. Be present and available, perpetually ready to do house repairs, chores, or some outdoor recreational activity, depending on her mood. And when she is working, don’t sit at the kitchen table with her. She needs that space, and having you at the same table might distract her. It’s how she’s always worked and you don’t mind, do you?) When she shuts her Macbook, comes to the couch, plops down on the opposite end, takes off her boots and socks, puts her feet on your lap and asks you to rub them, remember your priorities. Immediately put aside your Dell laptop, say “Of course!” and rub her feet. Do not blurt out, “Jesus Christ, again?” since it’s the second time that day and the sixth time that week she’s asked you to rub her feet. If you do happen to blurt out, “Jesus Christ, again?” then retract that statement over and over while earnestly rubbing her feet, which by this time in the day are pretty sweaty. Don’t say you were only kidding, because she knows you weren’t. Instead, admit you were feeling selfish, and yes, she’s right, you do tend to build up resentment instead of telling the truth about your feelings and it’s just that you’ve been working hard on this article that the Sacramento Bee has expressed interest in but it’s hard to get your work done when she makes constant demands on your time like rubbing her feet and drawing her bath and making her coffee and filling the water trough for the horses and pitchforking the shit from their stalls and fixing the porch roof and skimming the swimming pool and taking the dogs to the vet and  . . . Oh boy, now you’ve done it. There’s no way you’re getting out of this one. There’s nothing left to do now but watch her lift her feet from your lap, stand up, and stomp into the bathroom, where she will take a one-hour bath.

 

Deferring to Local Customs

When in Narcissa, always remember that you are a visitor in another culture and you should respect the way things are done there rather than imposing your Midwestern values on them. For example, when the Narcissist is away on assignment and you call her to let her know you were thinking of asking Daryl and Mark, two of your favorite guys in town, to come over for a beer, maybe play cards, and watch a ballgame, and she says, “But Daryl is my friend; Mark is my friend,” do not say, “Wow, you’re kidding me, you mean they can’t be my friends too?” Instead, quickly change the topic. And don’t invite Daryl or Mark over. Just understand that in Narcissa, one’s friends are just that, one’s friends, and there is no such thing as sharing. Instead, pop open a cold one and watch the game by yourself.

When she comes home a week later and informs you that while she was away she had an abortion, take a breath and count to ten before you react. Tell yourself this must have been a very, very difficult thing for her to do. Don’t ask why, don’t ask where, and don’t ask how. Just give her a hug and suppress your own emotions, whatever they may be. And when she tells you that she’s going to tell her friends she had a miscarriage and that you need to back her up on that story, reassure her that of course you will; you’ll tell everyone she miscarried your child.

And don’t even think about asking her if this means you can move back to Indiana.

 

Nightlife in Narcissa

While lying in bed with her one night after living there for a few months, it will dawn on you that she had sex with you with great frequency before you moved in with her, but ever since then she has not wanted to, not even once. Do not bring this up. That’s just the way things are in her world. Sex happens when she decides it will happen. Keep especially quiet about this when she’s in Crimea and she calls you at three in the morning, even though that’s what you had been thinking about before you wound up masturbating again (first shutting the door on her dogs so they wouldn’t stare at you). In fact, that would be the absolute worst time to bring up anything related to your selfish needs. She’s in Crimea, for crying out loud.At a five-star hotel, yes, but still, in Crimea. So keep your bodily urges to yourself. Feel free to speculate, though. Hypothesize. There’s nothing wrong with that. For example, in theory, a woman might have sex with a man just to gain control of him, and then withhold sex as a way of keeping control. In theory, being in a relationship with a minor celebrity may be less about physical companionship than it is about taking care of her dogs while she’s away. In theory, it’s possible that when she met you, she was not, as she said she was, feeling “all swoony” from your blue eyes, but instead taking your measure as a potential replacement for her alcoholic boyfriend, who, you heard from a shopkeeper, moved out the morning of the day you moved in. But keep these speculations to yourself.

Remember: talking to a Narcissist often means not talking to a Narcissist.

Don’t say anything even when, months later, you give up trying to initiate sex because being put off tends to make you feel unattractive. Did you know she had an abusive father? Sex is a very sensitive issue for her and she’s working all that out with her therapist, who actually recommended she abstain for a while—a year, two years, whatever it takes. Sex is an intimate, vulnerable thing, and it has to feel right. So be patient. Besides, the less you say, the more relaxed she will feel, and the better your chances will be of actually having sex.

 

Travel Tip: Silence is Golden
To sum up: If you find that you cannot echo her or compliment her, the best thing to say to a Narcissist is nothing at all. You know how to do this, right? You’re from Indiana.

 

Pet Care

Same principle, different application: When she decides to buy an Irish wolfhound because she has learned that they are bred to sit dutifully at the feet of royalty, don’t say a word — just love that dog for the big goofy animal he is. And when that 110-pound wolfhound sleeps in bed between the two of you, again, not a word, even when you wake up with dog hair in your mouth.

And when the Narcissist’s friend gives her a Tarot reading and the Queen of Wands comes out on top, don’t point out, as the Narcissist claps her hands and regally tosses back her hair, that the queen is all alone, with only her wolfhounds to adore her. And when she jokes to her Tarot-card-flipping friend that she prefers sleeping with dogs to sleeping with men, again, say nothing; it’s just a cute joke she’s told many times. And when she pays almost a thousand dollars for a second wolfhound, again: bite your tongue. That’s right, just bite your tongue. And head on out to the feed store for another economy-sized bag of organic dog food.

Keeping quiet like this—stifling your natural impulse to say something in defense of yourself and your needs—will be a very, very difficult thing to do. Especially when she buys a new horse for $11,000 (a stable and reliable quarter-horse, as opposed to the two skittish Arabians she already has in the stables) and tells you a month later that according to her therapist, her relationship with this new horse may serve as a model for her relationships with men. At that point, you will naturally feel quite compelled to say something. You will feel quite compelled to say that for her therapist to compare a relationship with a horse to a relationship with a man — and let’s face it, that means you — is ludicrous, if not downright irresponsible and unprofessional. And when her therapist tells her that the relationship between the two of them (that is, between her and the therapist) is also a good model for her, at that point you may almost lose it. At that point you may at the very least feel compelled to make the (glaringly obvious, right?) point that the therapist is being paid to listen to her and that every hour they spend together is all about her. “The kinds of relationships he’s holding up as models,” you’ll want to say, and here your voice may crack like a pre-pubescent’s, “are completely one-sided! That’s the ideal?” But you shouldn’t say that. In fact, you shouldn’t say anything. Because if you do, she’ll look at you sadly, as if taking mental notes, and say, “He didn’t mean it like that.” And for days, you will see the back of her more than you’ll see the front of her.

So, remember: Silence. Golden.

 

Dining In

During dinner preparations, keep in mind that your role is that of the sous chef. Never presume to suggest improvements to the meal, and never begin a meal without her. Simply chop what you are told to chop, when she wants you to chop it. Be sure to get specific instructions. If you don’t, you may be setting yourself up for embarrassment. Remember what happened when she asked you to cut up some garlic and you asked how much and she said, “Whatever you think‖” so you chopped up a lot (because you love garlic), only to have her apologize to the dinner guests later (Daryl and Mark among them) for the excessive garlic in the sauce?

While dining, keep in mind our mantra: assimilation is everything. You might, for example, philosophically object to hunting, and therefore object to taking meat from a friend of hers who shot a moose in Alaska. Or you might, on principle, object to eating lamb or veal, because they’re baby animals. But remember the one and only time you said something about this? Remember the crinkly nose, the involuntary glance at your crotch to make sure you had testicles? You don’t want to see that look again, do you?

Keep your objections to yourself, then, and eat. Remind yourself that you’re a hypocrite. You eat meat all the time; just because it’s shot or young makes no difference. Would you rather eat meat from those disgusting cattle factories? Or are you still under the spell of your ex-wife, who doesn’t eat animals or animal byproducts, who refuses to wear leather shoes or eat cheese, for crying out loud?

 

Travel Tip: On Being a Man
Being a man requires the ingestion of meat. Red meat. Preferably with potatoes of some kind (fried, mashed, or baked, or better still, twice-baked with Cheez Wiz and bacon bits). When the waiter asks how you like it, don’t worry about e-coli—what are you, a college girl? Grow a pair. Be like your father and order it rare.

 

Out and About with a Narcissist

When the Narcissist asks that you accompany her for part of her book tour—she’s already told the restaurant you’ll be gone for a week and made arrangements with the house sitter—don’t tell her you’d rather not. Don’t explain that even though you love visiting different cities and ordering room service without having to pay for it, you’d find it unbearable to be so invisible for so many days on end, and for that matter sleeping in a hotel bed while nothaving sex with the one you’re in the hotel bed with; moreover you need to keep working double shifts at the restaurant and continue to edit the horrifically bad manuscript you’ve been working on (the first volume of a young-adult fantasy trilogy sent to you by a woman in Cleveland who saw your ad in Poets & Writers magazine) because your lawyer bills are piling up, collection agencies keep calling you, you have no spending money, and you’re tired of having her pay for everything and giving you that look that means you’re a cling-on, a mooch, a parasite, she should claim you as a dependent on her taxes. But whatever you do, don’t tell her the real reason, which is how much you relish being at her ranch all by yourself, alone with the horses (there are four now) and dogs (five, including three wolfhounds), with the beauty of the Sierras in one direction, the Pacific in the other. Because you know how she’ll take that.

So just go already.

In Portland, when she assumes you’ll be attending her reading at Powell’s, don’t tell her you’ve heard her read the same chapter six times already, you’ll just explore the city for a while and meet her back in the room. If you do accidentally tell her that, listen attentively (stop looking at the floor—eyes up!) as she reminds you how much it has cost her to take you on this part of the tour and how important your support is to her. When you are sure she’s finished speaking, clear your throat and apologize. Tell her you didn’t mean to neglect her needs; you were just thinking of yourself again. Come to think of it, you really would love to be there in the audience; you’d be delighted to serve as her focal point in the back of the room.

Then go with her.

At the reading, remember your place. You are the celebrity’s boyfriend. Therefore you should not smile wryly when the woman sitting in front of you turns to her friend and says, “Journalism Lite,” nor should you guffaw when a man next to you looks first at the Narcissist, then at the photo on the book jacket, and mumbles “When was this picture taken, during the Carter administration?” Do notraise your hand during the Q&A and ask the author how she’s been able to write a best-selling book about international relations when it’s becoming clearer and clearer to you that she can’t even manage domestic relations. No one will think that’s funny. And do not even consider flirting with the cute bookstore employee who introduced the Narcissist to a packed house. Because if you do end up flirting with her, you can’t imagine the look you’ll get. You can’t imagine how long your night will be.

In Seattle, the next stop on the tour, you may be surprised when you meet one of her friends at Elliot Bay and the Narcissist invites her to stay in your hotel room with both of you. (She has driven all the way from Spokane; you don’t mind, do you?) When you remind the Narcissist there is only one bed in the room, and she says yes, she is aware of that, and then asks sweetly if you wouldn’t mind sleeping on the floor so her girlfriend can get a good night’s rest after that long drive, tell her that would be fine, you wouldn’t mind at all.

While you are lying on the floor, wrapped in the spare blanket and seething with resentment, beware: who you are, what you are doing with your life, and how you are living it, may suddenly become clear to you, and your resentment towards the Narcissist may unexpectedly perform a perfect backflip into self-loathing. You may realize that nothing, not a single part of this, is her fault; the problem is you. You’re the one who put yourself in this situation; you’re the one who has no control over your life. You’re the one who has clearly lost his balls. You’re the one who lacks the courage to fight your soon-to-be-ex-wife for visitation rights. You’re the one who is constantly feeling sorry for yourself, constantly putting yourself in situations where you can feel sorry for yourself, constantly feeling wounded and put-upon, constantly thinking of your own pathetic needs. So guess what that makes you?

 

Travel Tip: Rollaway Cots
Did you know that most hotels have rollaway cots available for a nominal fee? They’re perfect for unexpected visitors. That way, you wouldn’t have to lie on the floor like some pathetic, self-sacrificing martyr.

 

Travel Tip: On Being a Man II
Being a man means getting into bed with the two chicks, telling them to make out with each other, and then taking over from there. Not sleeping on the floor.

 

Checking Out

Upon your return to Narcissa, pack your bags. It’s check-out time. It’s time to accept that this whole experiment has been an “epic fail.” Granted, it seems like you just got there, but to be honest, visitors to Narcissa never last too long. In fact, let’s face it, you have clearly overstayed your welcome. But how to check out after six months when you’ve booked a lifetime stay? We offer the following instructions.

First, don’t be nice. Do not “feel out her mood” or “wait for the right time” before approaching her with the utmost contrition and saying that if she’d be “okay with it” you’d “sort of like to break things off” or “maybe take a break for a while?” If you do, get ready for some Old-School hysteria: screams, sobs, then more screams, in the middle of which it may occur to you that you need to change the way you exit (and enter!) relationships. When all of this happens, just walk away, knowing that nothing you can say will fix this problem.

What’s that? You can’t walk away? You feel too strong a sense of obligation?

 

Travel Tip: Breaking Up is Hard to Do.
Nobody in the world can break up with someone nicely. Nobody can simultaneously break up with someone and make it feel okay. How old do you have to be before you understand that? Is this an Indiana problem? Do you not remember what happened when you told your wife you were leaving? Do you not see that scar on your shoulder from where she stabbed you with the kitchen knife?

 

Take some time, a day or two perhaps, to regroup. Then, try again. We recommend the tried-and-true method: Tell her it’s not her; it’s you. (Which in this case is actually true. She is who she is. It’s you who has become a sniveling sycophant. It’s you who likes yourself more when you’re not with her, who recognizes you have unresolved issues from your failed marriage, and who needs to become a stronger person on your own.) When she agrees that yes, you’re right, it is you and not her, but she still doesn’t want to break up, primarily because the timing would be terrible for her (the European leg of her book tour is coming up and she needs you to care for the animals), you may be tempted to say okay, fine, let’s wait until you get back—because you realize you’d have the ranch all to yourself for a month, and you could take the dogs to the ocean, you could hike the mountains, you could ride the horses, and in all that solitude maybe you could get your shit together. Maybe you could call the divorce lawyer to set up a payment plan and get him back on your side, so that when you do return to Indiana, he could help you to take your soon-to-be-ex-wife to court for the right to see your kids.

But don’t.

It won’t work.

You really, seriously do need to go. Now.

So try again. And this time, be firm. Say, “Listen. I don’t love you anymore. I was probably just drawn to you because you are this super-self-confident person and I have zero self-confidence, but ultimately that’s not a good reason to be in a relationship. So I’m leaving.” And when she unexpectedly collapses, admits she’s terrified of being alone, and looks suddenly frail and vulnerable, resist. It’s a trap.

Who will take care of the horses and dogs?

I don’t know.

Who will watch the house?

No clue.

These are not your problems. She’s the one who bought the house. She’s the one who collected all those horses and dogs, knowing her job takes her overseas all the time. But. . . oh, now she’s crying.

And look, you’re totally caving.

Quick. Pay attention. Lift your head. No, don’t touch her on the shoulder, what are you doing? Step away from the Narcissist. Back up, man. Stand your ground. Look at me.

Now then. Listen.

You need to stop explaining yourself. A Narcissist will never, ever understand your point of view. Instead—again—try silence.

I don’t understand. What have I done that’s so wrong? What can I do to keep you?

Shhhh. (Remember: Silence. Golden.)

Is there any way I can change? What can I do differently?

Don’t do it. Don’t say, “Well, for starters, you can try thinking of someone else’s feelings, even for just thirty seconds,” or “Have you ever realized that you begin almost every sentence with the word ‘I’?” or “I have never in my life met someone who is biologically incapable of empathy, so I don’t know, maybe you could take a class?”

Just keep quiet. Nobody in Narcissa is capable of change.

After a while, if you find this impossible, if you can’t just shut up and resist responding to her questions and entreaties, then return to our original strategy:

Echo her.

When she says, “You’ve betrayed me!” say, “Me? You’ve betrayed me.”

When she says, “I’ll never forgive you!” say, “I’ll never forgive you.”

When she says, “This is so sad!” nod and say, “This is so sad.”

Or — remember? — just say, “You’re kidding.” Like when she says, “I can’t live without you!”

You’re kidding.

“Is sex the problem? That’s it, isn’t it, you just want to have sex. Well let’s have sex right now!”

You’re kidding.

“You’re so selfish! You’re the most selfish person I ever met!”

You’re kidding-kidding!

Then, turn on your heels and leave. Leave, and don’t look back. When she cries out, “I don’t even get a hug goodbye?” say “Hug goodbye? You’re kidding.”

And don’t believe her when she screams (when you’re getting into your car) that she is going to kill herself if you leave her. (She would never kill what she loves most.) As she runs up to the car, starts pounding on it, and curses you out, don’t defend yourself against her insults. (After all, most of them are true. You’ve got a lot of work ahead of you.) Just keep the windows shut, start it up, pull out of her circular driveway, ignore the clatter and cracks of the rocks she throws at you (it’s not a great car anyway; the back windshield will cost only a hundred or so to replace, and some touch-up paint will hide the scratches), and drive away. Drive away from the ocean, drive over the mountains, drive away from the pretty trees, and head back to Indiana where you belong—and where your children are waiting for you.

And when you get there, for heaven’s sake call a therapist.

 

[1] A little-known fact: the homes of Narcissa house some of the most impressive portrait collections in the country. Indeed, one may find more portraits there per capita than in any other U.S. city.

[2] Another little-known fact: Narcissa also has the highest percentage of swimming pools per capita in the United States (104%).

[3] At the Romantic Traveler™ our mission is to design and deliver customized, on-line, interactive travel guides, real-time narratives, and relationship advice for lovers visiting their potential soulmates. In these emotionally and economically volatile times, with people divorcing on a whim, defining and redefining their sexual preferences, and moving from place to place, our international staff delivers reliable updates and advice directly to your smartphone, 24/7, with ongoing camera and microphone activation to more immediately and efficaciously narrate your activities, advise you on appropriate strategies, and attend to your needs.

 

 

BIO

david hicksDavid Hicks’ work has appeared in Glimmer Train, Colorado Review, Saranac Review, South Dakota Review, and other publications. He lives in Wheat Ridge, CO.

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Bruno Barbosa

The Almond Trees

by Bruno Barbosa

 

1

I knew Tyler was coming because of the almond trees.

Everyone was on the edge of their seats as soon as Tia Lu introduced him to our 3rd grade class. No one knew what to make of him—he was thin, extremely tall and pale. His eyes were dark like roasted almonds and his hair black like the mountains at night. He looked like nothing we had ever seen.

He didn’t speak any Portuguese, so everyone in our class asked him silly questions like if he was gay or a woman. He answered yes because he didn’t know what we were saying and didn’t know what else to say, and everyone laughed. But we all followed him around at recess and liked him because he was an American, so I guess it was okay.

The night before he came to our school, the almond trees were shaking their leaves like dogs shaking off water, and that’s how I knew he was coming. They were shouting: He’s here! He’s here!

I opened my window, which looked down at the beach where the almond trees lived, put a finger to my lips and shushed them as loudly as I could.
They must’ve heard me, because they stopped their shouting, and I went back to sleep.

But when I got up the next morning and left for school, they were still shivering with excitement.

2

Vó told me about the almond trees long before I could hear them. One hot day when we were sitting out on the sand, she said through two straws coming out of her big green coconut, “One day you will be old enough to understand what they say.” She laughed, the funny way she did when she said something wrong or she thought of something unrelated to what we were speaking. “And then one day you will be too old and you won’t listen to them anymore.”

“Who?”

“The almond trees.”

I gathered that one day I would be old enough to make sense of anything my grandma said, and then one day I would be too old to listen to any of it.

“They talk?”

“Of coooourse—you can hear it, no?”

I listened. I didn’t hear anything worth hearing, but it may have been because my senses were overcome with the smell of cigarettes that followed Vó around. She didn’t smoke anymore, but she always had a cigarette hidden somewhere on her body.

“It sounds like leaves.”

“That’s a good start.”

“To what?”

“To understanding them.” I grimaced. “Don’t worry, bonequinho, you will understand all of it one day. At first it won’t all make any sense. But they hold on to your memories and talk about your dreams; and then they guide you to them—maybe to a beautiful girl who you will spend the rest of your life with.” She laughed.

“Vó, you’re crazy.”

She shrugged, pursing her lips. “Yes. But I am never wrong.”

It turns out she was wrong about a few things…

3

I first heard an almond tree speak the day of Vó’s funeral. When we came back home, my mother went to her room and my father lay on the couch reading a botany book. I walked across the dusty cobbled street where the almond trees stood, waiting for me, on the beach.

The salty breeze was cool and calm that day. The big green and red leaves were barely moving, barely whispering. I figured the almond trees were sad for Vó, too. She spent so much time with them.

My body felt empty, as if the breeze could lift me up to the branches, and the only thing I could think to do was talk to the almond tree closest to my house.

“Where is she?” I whispered, my voice trembling.

Nothing. Just the sound of the waves washing out the shore. Everything around me felt empty without Vó, and the silence was unbearable.

“Where is she?” I shouted up to the trees, tears blurring my vision, as salty as the sea. “Vó?”

And then a little wind blew, stronger than a breeze. The almond tree began to sway gently, waving its paddle-like leaves.

She is well, it whispered. She is here. She is us.

My body shook, that way it does when you see something really painful happen to someone else.

The other trees joined with the coming of the wind: We’re here—she is here. She is us.

I pressed my face to the trunk of the tree and wrapped my arms around it as tightly as I could.

I cried so much I forgot to breathe for a while. But the more I started breathing again, the more I could smell Vó’s cigarettes, wherever she hid them now, and that helped calm me.

4

When I came home from school the day I met Tyler, I ran across the street to the almond trees before even thinking about home. I stepped firmly on the sand and looked up to the leaves, where the little almonds were hiding.

I had that feeling in my stomach, like when your father slams on the brakes so suddenly you fly into the back of your mom’s seat, so I knew what the almond tree’s answer would be. But still, I had to ask.

“Him?” I asked. I took a deep breath, my eyes condemning the almond tree. “Why him? Of all the weird boys at school why do I have to be the one to like a boy?”

A breeze came; the tree shrugged. It said nothing, as if to tell me this was just the way it was. I looked at it hard and long, and it just stood there not saying anything. It wanted me to just get over it, I guess.

I looked around at all the other almond trees lining my street. Nothing from them, as well.

I took a deep breath, exasperated with the trees, and turned around to cross back to my house. I had nothing left to say to them, and they had nothing that I wanted to hear.

Before I crossed back to my house, I waited for a car passing by. From one of its windows I saw Tyler’s face, looking out onto the water as his parents drove to the end of the street, where they lived.

It gave me a start, and I turned to the almond tree behind me as if it too had seen him.

Now of course trees can’t smile, and I don’t want you to think I am crazy, but I could feel it smiling at me.

5

Tyler and I became best friends. I was the only one in my class who spoke pretty decent English, which my father taught me, so I was the only real option he had at first.
We would play on the beach every day before and after school. We ran about the sand pretending we were brothers, ghosts and ninjas and vampires and all kinds of things. We even pretended we had a dog once.

“You know what I was thinking?” he said one day after school.

“What?”

“It would be cool if we could make a huge sandcastle here, and live in it. Just us two. No parents, no bedtime, no school. We could get one of those big car batteries and plug in our video games and a TV somehow, and play as much as we want.”

“And what would we eat?”

“I don’t know. We could learn how to fish…get a stove, and buy a nutcracker for the almonds. We would be set. We could grow old, fishing and playing video games. We would be the coolest old people ever.”

I could feel a warm breeze fill my lungs. “How did you come up with that?”

He shrugged his bony shoulders.

“Can I tell you something—a secret?” he said after a moment.

It took me a few seconds to realize a huge smile had bloomed on my face. “What?”

He took a deep breath. “I really hate going to school in Brazil. I miss The States. I am trying to convince my parents to move back. It sucks not being able to understand half the stuff anyone says.”

“But…” I started. “So you don’t like it here?”

“I like you. And the beach. That’s how I came up with the sandcastle idea.”

I laughed. “It will get better once you learn Portuguese better.”

“Yeah, I guess.” He smiled again. “Now you have to tell me a secret—it’s only fair.”

The wind blew.

I didn’t want to tell him what the almond trees had told me. I could hear them, every single almond tree on the beach, telling me I should do it, every time we played outside. But I was too afraid—it was too weird. I hadn’t told anyone.

So I decided I would let the almond trees tell him themselves. It was all their idea anyhow.

I signaled him to follow. The very tip of the sun still lingered behind the mountains as if it too wanted to see this, leaving the sky red and pink and gray.

We sat down under the almond tree closest to my house. “Listen.”

Tyler froze as if something awful was about to happen. “What?”

“The trees. Can you hear them? They are talking.”

He laughed. “What?!”
“Just listen! You can hear them talking amongst themselves. This one has something it wants to tell you.”

He looked up at the leaves, where I was looking.

A cool wind blew in from the water. It blew through the branches of the almond tree, but the leaves didn’t move. It was as if they were frozen.

I stared at the almond tree with pleading eyes.

I guess the tree was afraid to tell Tyler I liked him, just like I was. My heart sank, and I glared at the leaves.

I looked around at all the other trees, helpless.

Nothing.

Tyler turned to me, knitting his brows. “You’re crazy.” He jumped up. “Let’s pretend we’re turtles!”

And he ran off to the shore.

6

Vó did leave me with more than just the smell of cigarettes that lingered with the almond trees.

When my parents were digging through all of her dusty junk a few days after the funeral, they found a letter addressed to me.

On the envelope, printed in my grandma’s gnarled handwriting that looked like branches, was written: “To my Bonequinho, to open only when you don’t listen to them anymore.”

My parents laughed when they handed it to me, said my grandma was crazy and that I should just open it now.

But I said she wasn’t crazy, and rarely wrong, so I would wait.

I knew I was going to need it if for some reason I stopped listening to the almond trees. They would have to do something really terrible for that to happen, and I was going to need something when that time came.

I hid the letter in my underwear drawer, hoping I would never need it.

7

Tyler came running to my house one Saturday morning. It wasn’t very early, but I was extremely tired. The almond trees had been very agitated the night before, whimpering all night, and they didn’t let me sleep. I was still a little angry with them, so I just ignored them.

Tyler barged into my room as if he had found a giant squid stranded on the beach and he wanted me to come see it before it was gone.

I sat up, torn away from my dreams. “What?”

His usual half-moon smile was gone from his face.

“What?”

“I’m leaving.”

“Leaving what?”

“Here.”

I froze as if a giant squid had made its way to my room. “You’re going back to the States?”

“Yeah, my parents said so.”

“Why?”

He shrugged his bony shoulders. “I don’t know. My parents said so.”

I sat back on my bed. I suddenly felt nervous, and I didn’t know why.

“Are you excited? You always talk about how much you miss it.”

“Yeah … I do. But there I won’t have the beach to play on every day, and you to play with. And school there starts very early in the morning, so I won’t be doing much of anything before school.”

“But you have snow.”

“Snow’s not the same.”

I shrugged. “I guess, yeah. It sounds fun, though.”

“Will you come visit? Your parents have to come now that they have friends there. You can come in spring; it won’t be too cold for them.”

“Yeah, sounds fun.”

“Maybe we can go to New York, and we can look around for one of those cool little apartments like we see on TV. We always talk about how cool that would be—to just live there and do whatever we want. Let’s make it a plan: when we are done with school, that’s where we’ll be. Together. It’s no sandcastle, but still. Promise?”

“Yeah. Promise.”

“Why are you so quiet?”

I thought about it. “I am still sleepy. That’s all.”

“Spring,” he repeated. “Tell your parents. We will see each other in spring again after I leave.”

I forced a nod. “Okay. Spring sounds fun. When do you leave, anyway?”

“Tuesday.”

“Next Tuesday?”

“No, this one. So we have to play as much as possible before then.”

My throat closed up, but at least I managed to smile.

8

The night before Tyler left, our street had a going-away barbecue for his family out on the beach in front of our houses. The wind was cold and strong that night, but the trees were saying very little. I hadn’t talked to them since Tyler said he was leaving, so I didn’t know why they were so silent. I was too angry with them for letting him go. I thought maybe they couldn’t speak now that their leaves had turned brown, but eventually they spoke.

Tell him, they kept urging me feebly, as if their voices were weak.

I had already decided I would, so my stomach felt like I had swallowed three whole fish that were still cold and alive in my belly as we played outside.

We were only alone when we went back to my house to make some hot chocolate while our parents drank and laughed and talked loudly outside.

“Can I tell you a secret?” I said, once we were in my kitchen.

“Yeah?”
I wanted to just blurt it out, but the fish in my stomach were thrashing about, and I couldn’t say anything at all. “Can you close your eyes?”

He laughed, squeezing his eyes shut very tightly. “They’re shut!”

Still, nothing came out.

“Hello?” he called out to me.

I put both my hands on his face, just like they did on TV, and I pressed my lips to his. It felt weird and warm, but he pushed me away very quickly.

“What was that for?” he yelled.

I stood there paralyzed, my eyes fixed on his, and I still couldn’t say anything.

He wiped his mouth with the sleeve of his shirt. “What is wrong with you? Why’d you do that?”

I opened my mouth to speak, and still nothing came out. My eyes started burning. “I love you.”

He looked at me as if the fish had crawled up my throat and fallen out of my mouth.

He ran out of the kitchen.

I couldn’t move. I couldn’t go after him.

Eventually I came to my senses and went upstairs to my room. I lay in bed, still unable to piece together anything that had happened.

What I had done played over and over in my head as I listened to the laughter outside on the beach, and I regretted it more and more.

Never had the almond trees been so silent, but still I couldn’t sleep.

9

I was still awake when everyone had gone back to their homes. I was still awake when the sun came up, finding its way through the slats on my window. I opened the window to let it in, as if it could keep me company. I looked down at the almond trees.

I guessed all their leaves had died, because they weren’t saying a thing. And then again, I didn’t want to hear it if they did. They made all of this happen—I would never forgive them, or myself for listening to them.

I lost my best friend because the almond trees made me hope for something that could never happen. It’s a good thing I didn’t go talk to them before Tyler left, or who knows what they would’ve had me do. What I had done was stupid enough.

I was old enough now, I thought, just like Vó warned me. I didn’t need the almond trees putting silly thoughts in my head. I walked over to my underwear drawer and dug out Vó’s envelope.

I held it for a few seconds, as if it could slip away from my grip and fly out the window into the horizon.

I opened it and unfolded the paper inside of it.

Never stop listening, I read.

I looked down at the tree branches that made up my grandma’s handwriting. The words, as if they too were covered with dead, silent leaves, left me feeling more empty and alone than before.

10

He left the next morning after I had closed my window, and though my parents knocked on my door so I could come out and say good-by, I pretended to be asleep.

And once he was gone, I did fall asleep.

My parents didn’t bother me for the rest of the day, and by the time I woke up the faint moonlight found its way into my room.

I was turning in bed, not wanting to get up yet, and I saw a note on the floor that had been pushed under my door. I got up slowly, confused, and walked over to it. It didn’t say who it was from, but I knew Tyler’s handwriting too well.

Come visit.

I slowly remembered everything as if it had been a distant dream: what I did, what Tyler did, what Vó said in the letter.

I thought about it more and more.

I left my house and crossed the street to apologize to the almond trees.

The leaves had fallen from the almond trees, leaving only a few red leaves on their branches. The brown ones were all crunching underneath my feet as I walked on the sand.

I looked up at the naked branches above my head, waiting for a breeze. They had nothing left to say for now; they couldn’t if they tried. It was all dead, everything they had said. I couldn’t even smell Vó’s cigarettes anymore, and I couldn’t help feel I did this to them.

But Vó’s words were still here, alive, as if the little waves carried them on their moonlit tips as I looked out at the horizon, at the dark water, the burnt mountains and the moon.

I was all alone.

I sat down on the sand and covered my legs with the dead leaves so they could keep me warm. I leaned over and rested my head against the trunk of the almond tree, and placed my hand on one of its roots, caressing it with my thumb.

I fell back asleep, waiting for spring.

 

 

bruno barbosaBIO

Bruno Barbosa grew up in São Pedro d’Aldeia, Brazil, and moved to the U.S. when he was 10 years old. He survived the move and the many moves that followed, and now is a student at The University of Texas at Austin, where he is working towards a BA in English and a BM in Vocal Performance.

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Scott Stambach

Mr. Bertrand Avery, Owner of Todos Tempos

By Scott Stambach

 

Set and Setting

Untangling the folklore from the fact—and trust this narrator—there is no paucity of either—is precisely what makes this story so impossible and, presumably, why it’s taken so long for it to have been rambled off by anyone at all after all these years.

Then again it had to be me–the only hotel contemporary gutsy, esteemed, formidable, and, of course, varonil, robusto, y fundido enough to tell its story. I mean, the reasons are plentiful, too many for this exposition, but to name a few: 1) most of us are dead, 2) most of us just wanted to forget the whole damn thing like a dream that takes away something precious, 3) the Universe swoons to poetry.

First, some facts: The hotel was in Rio. The Rio. The river of January. The only metrô-pole with the selfdom and bolas for this particular hoteland this particular storyto fit inside of it. Another fact: The hotel was sticky. Does sticky not work for you? Any synonym will do: gummy, gluey, glutinous, tacky, tenacious, agglutinative. Yes, things stuck to it: stories, myths, souls, ghosts, dreams, fantasies, personas, chimeras, phantoms, nightmares, and, consequently, it grew as wide as it was tall. Which brings us to fact three: The hotel was the tallest physical structure on the planet during its time. And, if you could pardon me prematurely—a dose of myth: no one, not even Rio’s mayor (at the time Marilia João Carolina), its city council, or the most revered urban planners or architects knew exactly the height. Again, for an onslaught of reasons: 1) the origins, and concomitantly the records and blueprints for the hotel remain obscured in a mixture of bureaucratic entanglements and pseudo-psycho-spiritual mythology, 2) perspective has its limitations (just as horizons do), and 3) the top floors were always off limits (speculation suggests even to Mr. Avery himself).

Another fact: Mr. Avery’s full birth name was Bertrand Solis Avery-Higgins (the Higgins was legally removed from his name when he was nineteen for unknown reasons). Fact six: City documents reveal the official legal name of the Hotel to be Hotel de Todos Tempos, or just Todos Tempos, or for the true regulars, just Tempos or Todos, but rarely both.

Those inclined to portuguese might ride the foreshadow straight to fact seven: there was no Hotel like Todos Tempos before, and there never will be another like it. But, before I explain, a warning: as I break this story, you will likely refuse it, send it back wrapped, refuse to swallow—choose your idiom, makes no difference here. Just be reminded: we are still, in fact, in the fact section of the story and I would not have gone through the pain and effort to filter fact and fiction just to tangle the two up again. Transitively, it follows that you can trust the following: Todos Tempos held all time. Each floor sat inside a different year, consecutive floors rendering consecutive years.

 

Q & A

And now to take a few questions:

            Do you expect me to believe this twaddle?

Yes. Next.

            How many years (floors, I guess?) did the hotel have?

As suggested above, and please listen carefully, not one damn Tom, Dick, or Harry knows. But, here are facts eight, nine, and ten: Any time of interest to a human being could be visited by a guest (conversations with regulars suggest a span of at least 10,001 years had been visited by clientele during the Hotel’s tenure), the Hotel went at least as deep (into the past) as it did high (into the future), and as hinted earlier, the top floors were were accessible but off limits, on directive from Mr. Avery himself, after the Hotel’s only accident resulting from the fact (eleven?) that these floors correspond with post-apocalyptic time.

            How is it possible for a Hotel to contain all of time?

This is a contentious matter. Several theories had been floated by various cliques, extending into both the circles of regulars and casuals. Leading theories include: 1) a reasonably large constituency believes the Hotel simply always was, much like God or death, however, to expend with asinine explanations first, these assertions cannot be seriously entertained, 2) Portuguese explorer, Guillermo Vasquez, returned to the Guanabara Bay settlement after exploring an island off the Kathiawar peninsula, or some such place, with stone and timber exhibiting alchemistic tendencies, which was then activated by Tupi shamans, and later found and exploited by Mr. Avery himself, who built the Hotel using labor from early African slave trade, 3) the site of the hotel was proposed by Lucifer in the fourth millennia BC to be the original setting for Gehenna, but these plans were later forsaken for a site with greater human access.

Deep nights in the Hotel cafe were made out of debating these positions—participants including several sizable existentialist names like Sartre and Heidegger—but who the hell knows if any progress was actually made. We rate this question: unresolved.

            Can you tell us a bit about the architecture of the Hotel?

Simply put: A Neus Bauen Art Deco Masterpiece. Un-gothic: as much so could be conceived at the time. Sleak, linear, practical. Later renovations were designed and executed by van der Rohe, at the direction and discretion of Avery, of course. Post renovation, the concrete facade (and this may fall into the category of myth) had been mixed with gold flakes, creating a metallic shimmer that could be seen as far as Buenos Aires. This made it the most expensive engineering and structural undertaking of the time. Several contemporary architectural critics provided laudatory commendations for the design: 1) Huxtable once commented that the Hotel “exhibited the bravura and grit of the Flat Iron and the divine mandate of the Eiffel,” 2) several years later Mariana Van Rensselaer noted that it was “the only physical structure ever to render her speechless,” 3) Hawthorne goes so far as to suggest that “without the prescient influence of Todos Tempos, North America might never have known Chrysler or The Empire State.” (note bene: even this narrator finds that calculation to be flawed and hyperbolic).

            We’re all quite impressed. Now about Avery: How old was he?

The owner of Todos Tempos was ageless.

            Did he have any secrets?

Rumors flooded the Hotel community that Avery never once stayed at his own hotel. When asked why by O Globo reporter, Nina Otero, he simply responded, For what? I’m happier right now than I’ve ever been.

            What did he look like?

Sleek black hair (as if fashioned in a mold), cerulean ultramarine eyes (as if tattooed with southeast asian dyes), a modest concave scar under his left jaw (firm and angular) and an unflappable charisma—all wrapped in a Brookes three piece and bowtie. And could it have been any other way? Todos Tempos, as a business, could not have percolated under anything less than a hypnotic leader—any hint of the contrary is absurd. The Hotel required, no: requested, no: demanded, perfection.

            How do you mean?

Well, couldn’t you just imagine?—it was a bubbly boiling pot (bubble, bubble, bubble) of viscous autoschediastic energy, a tick’n time bomb (boom, boom, boom) if left to its own design. If you still don’t understand, another analogy: Todos was bigger than itself, camel back ready to snap any second, with its own saga and the personalities brimming out of it. The task of the man that managed the affair was bigger than itself too; it was a job of psychological precision, requiring not merely awareness off, but mastery over, human instinct, business savvy, interpersonal ego manipulation, group theory, leadership, salesmanship, posture (Alexander Technique especially), economics, etc.

            Could we have an example of Mr. Avery’s particular skill set?

Fair enough: an anecdote. Smack-dab Todos heyday: Rio attorney general, Sylvester Pissara-Alvito, decides he would like to spend a night on floor P34, the year of his extravagant marriage to twenty-two-year-old Mostarda Capitão® heiress and former Miss Porto Alegre (not to mention Senorita Brasil seventh-placer), Iliana Silvério, and relive some of their tenderer moments. As lore goes, Miss Silvério died three weeks earlier when her scarf became caught in the wheel axle of the car that was transporting her to a factory inspection. Well, instead of entering room 3471a (the accommodation containing his wedding night), Pissara-Alvito mistakenly entered 3417a where, in the same hotel room, six weeks prior to the wedding, he found Miss Silvério in passionate throes with a young married man, later identified as Tito Tomé, who thirty-two years later would become governor of São Paulo—and Mr. Pissara-Alvito’s brother-in-law. Pissara-Alvito landed seven good shots before security escorted him out the back door coughing on sobs. Just in case the gravity of the situation doesn’t add up for you this is what we have: Angry widower (and prominent public official) ready to reveal extramarital affair (concerning even more prominent public official) and—to add to the fiasco—rattling off about assassination plans right in Todos back parking lot. Seven minutes.

            Seven minutes?

That’s all it took. Seven minutes for Avery to talk Pissara-Alvito down. In seven days the trio was gambling on a boat to St. Kitts, laughing over liters of cachaça 61. This narrator would, personally, be flabbergasted if there was another man alive, or dead for that matter, during the Todos tenure who was privy to the same set of skills. Which explains, dearest jury, why it all imploded like a waterbed with a bullet wound when Avery himself became a casualty.

 

Testimonials

The hotel was a socio-cultural phenom. I cannot overstate this. Leaving the reader unconvinced would mean the failure of its story: Lives were changed. Citizens made whole. Souls healed. A few illustrations:

Fábio Gavino-Gàsio’s mother, Patrícia, died in childbirth. His poppa, Fábio Gavino Sr. popped his bubble, most pop-psychologists might say a bit early, at the fragile age of eight. By nine, Fábio Jr. managed to convince himself absolutely that he caused the red river that happened when he squeezed his slightly large, but certainly not dangerously so, head out of the birth canal (glancing comments from Fábio Sr. might have played a part). In all actuality, it was just your standard placental abruption mixed with some ineptities (word?) on the part of the hospital staff. Fábio, broken to pieces on the inside, created the cliche but impenetrable persona: Fábio Fresco, the she-dallying, powder-sniffing, silver screen sensation. Twelve years later, in possession of three million Real, and at least as many addictions, Fábio Fresco met with Bertrand Avery, who set him up for the night in room P2537f. There he found fresh sheets, 24 channels, and his 18-year-old mother Patrícia Gàsio at the end of a pier in Maranhão. Fábio Jr. never publicly commented on his stay at Todos but two weeks later he announced his departure from acting, jettisoned Fábio Fresco, and moved to the beaches of Maranhão.

Cláudia Cládio led Brasil in Samba in both style and technique (no pé and pagoda for the curious), idolized by fourteen-year-old girls and fawned by forty-year-old men. On her twenty-fifth birthday her back was broken when estranged boyfriend and Jogo do Pau champion, Claude Carrão, went at her with his Pau. For the next seven years, Cládiotaught dance in São Paulo from her wheelchair. Outside of the studio, she was sullen and reclusive. Two years later, an Os Tempos de Rio arts reporter ran a story describing Ms. Cládio’s transformationas unprecedented and postured her Rio’s garota-propaganda de resiliência. The story, however, failed to mention the weekend visits to room P1277v, where she relived her first radio broadcasted national championship over and over until her death at age eighty-eight.

Nuno Ardérius, affectionately dubbed the “seer of São Paulo”, could read the Brazilian stock exchange like Cleopatra read powerbent men. At one point, Mr. Ardérius alone owned ten percent of the South American market. CEOs, industrialists, and government bureaucrats levied every insider trading charge they could rally, none of which stuck. Eventually, the secretary of treasury, Rita Verão, simply remarked: He’s just that good. By thirty-five he met philanthropist and socialite, Tatiana Felix-Ferrão, and in one short breath he cashed in his investments and syphoned all his energy into funding various NGOs including, but not limited to, Estudantes Contra uma Europa Fascista, A Tuberculose Gratuito Nigéria, and Onde as Mulheres Dormem Fácil. One year later, Nuno received two pieces of news on the same day: Tatiana was expecting, and Nuno had a guava-sized growth butting up against his occipital nerve. Even with his unlimited resources, Brasil’s Best gave the seer of São Paulo a month before he was completely blind, and three months before he was dead. Forlorn and bitter, Nuno bought an opium plantation in Rondonia and smoked himself stupefied. Tatiana filed for divorce, but later dropped proceedings after Nuno visited rooms F188k and F723dd, the former containing a hospital room where little Hugo Ardérius-Felix wasbeing delivered via Caesarian, the latter accommodation holding a random day in the life of little Hugo.

The is the iceberg tip, as it were. Todos’ reach went well beyond Brazillian borders. The fever trickled into Europe where Heisenberg and Bohr came to pay homage to Newton as he carved out the Principia Mathematica; India, where fakirs came to be taught Vipassana by Siddhartha himself; Celestine monks came to watch the crucifixion; two American presidents attended the first Continental Congress; Egyptologists watched the pyramids assemble; Sufis sat with Mohammed in his cave; Jews witnessed Abraham put his knife away; lovers reunited; lonely outcasts found soulmates who died before they were born or were born after they died; dying men cheated death.

All one needed was a dream and a few thousand Real. Todos did the rest.

(cash only, Avery’s policy).

The Summer

An entomologist, a Todos regular named Dr. Alberto Albartino, was the first to attribute the early sounds of that summer to Cicadas (locustas to the simpler of our readers, cicadoideas to the more sophistrotic). Os dezessete anos tempestade!, he called it—the seventeen-year tempest: a black storm of infinito-circo haunting cello hum, a fuzz-blur of flapping saran wings with gratuitously conspicuous veins, bulging eyes, and pitch black wire-haired legs. The first admonitions kicked off in the last week of September. By the first week of October, any passerby could find a dozen to fifteen of them lining skewers on food carts, glazed in some Pimenta Caseira, or thoroughly deep-fried; why?, I never understood—the exoskeletal crunch was already unbearable, at least to me. By the second week of October the city was swallowed, entirely whole (no hyperbole here) by a cloud sixty miles long, and forty miles wide. The metropolis itself, as many of you know, is only thirty miles edge to edge. Midday felt like dusk with all the flutter-wings boxing out the sun. Streets were clogged with glassy swarms. Those without cover? Well no umbrella could hold back the skin pelting.

Bertrand Avery was the only man to benefit from the plague of locusts. Even food cart vendors’ sales plummeted when six inches of exo-carcass-massacre amassed on the streets and sidewalks. But the hotel was different. That summer, stars aligned for a cash haul that occasionally made Avery overdrag from his Doña Flor and cough out the excess. Beaches—a grizzled wasteland of anthropod parts (what sand?)—were off-limits. Clogged streets kiboshed long distance travel. Carnaval: a bust. Samba, Bossa, Choro, Zouk: amphitheaters closed until further notice. This left O Hotel de Todos Tempos: The perfect excusefor the Rio citizenry, at least those of bourgeois coterie, to bring any dead dream, fantasy, or curiosity back to life.

 

O Hotel de Todos Tempos: Summer Advertisements

It seems proper to present a few of the marketing slogans that could be found that summer in newspapers and flyers collaged with job opportunities and missing puppy pleas:

 

O Globo

Fuja dessa Locust Pocus e desfrutar o Tabu de Todos!

(marketing: every great leader has one weak heal)

 

 

Os Tempos de Rio

As únicas coisas que rola em Todos Tempos são os

condicionadores de ar

 

[generic flyer]

‘Era uma vez’ não é mais reservado para os contos de fadas.

 

 

A Fly on the Wall in the Lobby

            On any given night:

Ultra-luminal neon facade, adhesive coating of Rio humidity, two revolving doors, two impeccably dry-cleaned bellhops manning, red-carpeted lobby, to the left a bar, every brand of every spirit of every nation, to the right a pianist (accompanied by reputable samba rhythm section) floor shimmers with names and personalities and repartee, million-armed chandelier floating over (cost disputed), Oh and there is Avery in the center of a circle of ten to twelve, martini glass in his left, right saved for shaking, always a quip ready (never anything too funny, just funny enough). Inside heads: You can almost hear all the internal monologues strategizing; how to leave this circle, and join that one (in reality it’s all predetermined before the night even begins). Avery pays more attention to the ones on their way out. Another great stay, Mr. Avery, is room [x] available next week, say the [n]th of [y]? And always the same response: para você, sempre.

As shrewd a businessman as he was, Avery was a romantic, a humanist, and most definitely a narcissist (though as likable as a narcissist comes); he enjoyed knowing that Todos had value in itself—value separate from the piles of Real notes meticulously arranged in the ballroom safe at the end of the night (as evidenced by the occasional complimentary stays offered to particularly needy rural corn farmers and factory workers).

 

The Hotel and I

It was me; I spoiled everything, ruined the party, brought it all back up for the poor chump like last nights dinner. And could it have been any different?

Of course not.

The Universe swoons to poetry.

I suppose you’d like to know the shit storm that tore through my brain when I swiped away some locust limbs from a littered copy of Os Tempos de Rio (out of pure boredom to boot) and found my very first advertisement for Os Hotel de Todos Tempos. The tagline Retornar ao Seu Momento mais Feliz! is what caught the eye. My twig hadn’t twitched in two decades and suddenly there it was (as it is now I confess) a concrete cairn (Gaelic blood). That’s when I pulled a thoroughly used tissue from the pocket and helter-skelter wrote down the address given at the bottom of the page.

At first, I just swooped by, giving a casual glance, careening the scene, before returning to my room at the O Velho Brasil (in those days I was just a visitor in Rio with more money than God). There, on my overpillowed (word?) undulating bed I dreamt of each of their beautiful faces. I only knew the names of a quiet few—not even my favorites, they were accidents (I never wanted to know the names)—but their candied sacchariferous (word?) faces I remembered perfectly, every bitty detail, from the drugged drooped lip drip to the way they sequestered behind their eyes as I got close.

            You sick fuck, why?

            I asked myself this question a thousand times and every time I came to the same answer: It was the retreat, the ebb; the shrinking, the vacating; the folding, the departing; but the inability to do so in a physical way, leaving them no place to withdraw but behind their eyes where they were trapped and I could have everything.

That is why.

The next night, after a lovely day of watching every gear palpitate to every next second on my watch, I confidently walked into the lobby in my own Brookes three-piece. O sangue fresco! A beaming Avery’s right hand outstretched to me in less than sixty. E onde gostaria de ficar esta noite, senhor? Vinte e sete anos atrás, por favor. Seemed as good a place to start as any. P27 imediatamente, senhor. Aqui é a chave. E boa noite!

There really is no substitute for one part feverish obsession and two parts process of elimination. I endured nights of stale board meetings, rehearsed dinner conversations with old casuals (a few were nice to re-bullshit with), and mostly sleepless nights of sweaty self-loathing, as defined my twenty-seven-years-ago. In spite of the thrill of the hunt, it all sent me deep and dark, touching all the places that made me who I am to begin with (not to dispense with the responsibility—there’s no doubt I’m a sicklittlefuck, irrespective of intervening environmental factors, for example: on two of those nights I watched myself carving Wilde quotes into my inner thigh).

In six weeks or so the gamble paid off—I found the proverbial needle in my haystack. It was a Friday, maybe a Thursday, or a Saturday, whatever, doesn’t matter. I opened the door and there he (who? not the faintest.) was tied to the bedposts all sweet and lamb-like, prone and peeled of his clothing. He may have been my third, possibly fourth, but this night he was my first. As I moved in, heart and cock all rampant, hand sliding down the inside of his leg, I thought about how he’d just been here, waiting so patiently, in this room (P2792g), for the last twenty-seven years, just for this moment.

In twenty minutes it was over.

Back in the lobby I was. A mixture of guilt and glow I suppose. Avery approached. I don’t remember (how could I?) what we talked about, but I do know something transpired: at the time I liked to call it a symmetry, possibly a resonance. He ditched the circle of gosling courting him and settled on a couch with me, where he fanned bellhops for Mango Martinis, and correctly guessed the details of my life (birthplace: Belfast, occupation: business, etc.) The lobby dwellers fired eye-arrows with trailing banners that read: Quem diabos é esse cara?

Not the faintest, gentlemen. Really.

In the next weeks, I lived at Todos. New room, new lamb, every night.

(As it was, as it will always be).

After and always, stumbling sedate down the thirty or so red stairs leading from the elevator to the lobby the same ritual ensued: At roughly 12:10 am, Avery would appear from behind a wall of less important residents and find me at the bar (complimentary drinks all night). The attention was baffling, but I was charmed. Topics included: global economics, the futility of birthing children, South American literature, the rising tide of the circus, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, karma, the Yukon, and the pros and cons of unimaginable celebrity. Topics not-included: why I suddenly lived at Todos, or the events that transpired after a door clicked closed behind me (I respected the restraint), antarctic penguins, and Avery pre-hotel—the boy played his cards close.

Eventually, I understood: I was being seduced—the man was my dearest (perhaps my only) friend, Mr. Enigmatic himself. And, yet, at the same time it was all a pure mind fuck.There was something so divergent about our wooing. In a way, I feel like I never knew him. Regardless of how many hours we spent inebriated and swapping gooey-eyed stories there was a side of him that was untouchable, unknowable. So much so that I would catch myself wondering if he was an invention of himself. But, just as intensely, I felt an intimacy. So deep it was like we shared the same blood.

The conflict between these superimposed states haunted me.

But, hey, at least I made a friend.

 

The Night Everything Changed

I thought I’d re-lived them all.

Truly, I thought there were no more.

But the Universe swoons to poetry.

There was another. One more. I found him, like most things, out of boredom. The others, beautiful as they were, were getting stale (three months deep now). So I spent a week or two exploring every nook and cranny of that floor, in the hopes, dim as they were, that there was another, someone I’d forgotten about, someone trying particularly hard not to be found.

It was New Years Eve. The lobby was cacophonic with noise and celebration and every flavor of inanity. Avery was a ghost. I was seething (tongue tied, cock curious). So I left. Took the elevator to P26. Picked a random room. The room: P2689r.

New Year’s jackpot.

I opened the door to a slim one, olive-skinned, bound and gagged, eyes blue but firm, soul not yet sequestered behind them (but so ready for it). There’s something so exciting in that second when it all comes together: when what you’ve been looking for is laying right there for the taking.

I mounted him. Kissed his neck on the right. He craned left. Kissed his neck on the left. He craned right. Skin is so blurry-fuzz up close. So maybe it was the subtle change in the contour of that soft neck velvet (as experienced by my upper lip) that first notified me. The boy had a scar. A familiar one. An unhealed piece of concave tissue that I’d spent much of the last three months careening carefully with my eyes and fabricating stories about.

I think I sequestered behind my eyes.

That’s when the boy, whose hands were only disingenuously tied together, wiggled free from the ropes, and grabbed my Bolas with brutal-tight little vice-fingers teaming with twenty-six years of pent up acrimony. Before I could fully soak in the nausea that jumped from the sac to the stomach to the brain, I noticed an acute pressure on my throat, which as it turned out, was a metal wire (piano string maybe?) being swept around my neck from behind.

My head was jerked back like a cotton doll, eyes to the ceiling, counting the beads on the Charleston lamp shade to soothe (1, 2, … ) before I get too far I’m interrupted by Bertrand himself from above (have you noticed how strange eyes look when viewed upside…). He pulls the two ends of the wire to jolt me out of any more distracting thoughts. Can you guess what he said?

            O Universo adora poesia.

Then he motions to the boy, and, as if every detail had been priorly rehearsed, the boy begins to pull off my Brookes, piece by piece, jacket first, onto the pants, with a knife he cuts open my undershirt, does the same to my white briefs, slowly, as if savoring (you’d think he’d been waiting twenty-six years). Young Avery opens up a drawer in the night stand and pulls out an anonymous black canister, which he opens, sniffs (I can smell the bathtub pine needles), and pours generously over my genitals. Old Avery tightens up a bit on the piano string. I can see the sweat building on his palm, but looking at his solid eyes, it’s only a form of liquid anticipation. With my tassle thoroughly soaked, the little one pulls a matchbox (from the same drawer), and strikes one. I couldn’t help but note the perverse look (frolic, revelry, solace?) in his eyes as he drops it in all the gin. (I always sort of wondered what torture…)

Old Avery tugs up on his wire.

            Voltar, puto!, he tells me.

Okay then.

I’m back. Long enough to start screaming bloodyfuckingmurder. Beating the bed with both hands, then clawing at Old Avery’s hands, then back to beating the bed again.

I may also have thanked them.

            Obrigado. Minha doença é fixada.

Young Avery (speaking for the first time): ainda não.

Eerie-like.

He then pours the liquid pine needles over my stomach, extending the trail of fire from my genitals to my chest. He stops for a moment (presumably to give me some time to appreciate this next level). I try (again) to escape into my head, but more tactfully so Old Avery doesn’t notice.

(If I can tell when they fell behind their eyes, so can…)

            Aqui!, Old Avery yanks.

Young Avery continues his masterpiece, extending the trail of fire up onto my neck, and then onto my lips. I open my mouth and try to syphon as much as I can into my stomach (anesthesia) before the little one slaps it all out of my mouth.

Now my face is on fire. And the two just watch intently, while I listen to my skin bubble behind my howling.

The most unsettling part: Their eyes never once question the plan.

Old Avery breaks the silence: diga-me quando você está prestes a morrer.

Now.

            Agora mesmo.

            What did you feel right then?

Relief. SweetSimpleNothing. I just wanted everything to turn black. Of course that would have been too easy for me.

Old Avery must have seen the New Year’s wish in my eyes, because:

            Não é fácil, puta, he said.

I had to admit, in the chaos of the moment, even as the skin was melting off my face, that their planning was impeccable. Old Avery and his piano wire dragging me by the throat from the luxury of the two thousand count Egyptian sheets, Young Avery hanging onto my thrashing feet. Into the bathroom we go where they’ve prepared an elegant ice bath (and look: rose petals). Seconds from my SweetSweetNothing: splash. And I’m extinguished.

Blurred and fuzzed, the duo exits.

I’m just floating in hypothermic water. Movement a luxury I can’t conjure. I can only see a few things. Examples of those things: 1) The buoyant remains of my cockerel, charred and useless, undulating in the ice water, 2) a few globs of skin bobbing and weaving through cubes and rose petals, and 3) my new, posh, novotextured (word?) face in a mirror generously left at the foot of the tub by the Avery boys.

Last thought before things turned black:

            Had Mr. Bertrand Avery only ever built the hotel for me?

 

Aftermath:

The Hotel and I (Part II)

Someone (let’s just say Avery) must have alerted Hotel security that there was a fire on the twenty-sixth floor, because I only had a couple of minutes to explore my fresh new face before the front door imploded and a possy of uniformed men flooded the bathroom, lifting me out of cozy bath, and into an ambulance en route to Hospital Petrópolis. As the doors closed I noticed a single cicada slip in and buzz away its vile hum—mixing with sirens, chaotic português directives, blood pressure machines, stethoscopes; my brain spewed spontaneous cartoons, taking me to all the hidden places Avery blocked as I was being burned alive.

(I, at least, had the decency to let my boys escape leagues-deep in their heads)

I was jostled back to present time when I felt my locust friend get knotted up inside the gauze that was being wrapped around my charred neck.

(The puto squirmed for days).

I woke up two days later with fourth degree burns on ninety-two percent of my face, the fingers of my right hand fused together (a humbling writing experience this has been), and a crater where my manhood used to be (good riddance). I left the hospital with a three-thousand Real bill and a complimentary white mask.

But enough about me, you’re dying to ask:

What happened to Avery?

Witnesses saw him and a young boy, allegedly dressed in some black slacks and a handsome cardigan, walk right out the front door. Everyone just expected he would be back with a bottle of Vermouth, puffing on a cigar, wondering what all the fuss was about. That never happened.

And the Hotel?

The body lives for a bit before the head dies.

I watched the whole thing from behind my mask, sitting on a park bench across the street. Things started tranquilo; business as usual for the first few weeks. No one stepped up to fill the vacuum (no one expected him to stay gone (and who could’ve?)). Then the regularswaned. The first to go was a man from Manhattan; then a boy from the San Francisco bay.

            Where did they go?

Would you believe me if I told you?

            Yes.

They walked into rooms and never came out.

            Why?

There is no agreement on this point but here are a few theories: 1) Some believe that people return to Todos when the world is done with them, 2) Others believe that patrons began to settle into the only moment of bliss they ever found, and 3) I, personally, believe we all came from Todos and just started coming home.

The next year Os Hotel de Todos Tempos was boarded and condemned. Six months later it was leveled to build a mall outside of Copacabana.

            And could it have been any different?

Of course not.

            The Universe swoons to poetry.

 

 

 

Scott stambachBIO

A physicist, turned activist, turned educator, turned raconteur. Scott plays with words every night to neutralize his left-brain, which overflows all hours of his mathematical day. When he sleeps, the different personalities throw parties and commingle over cocktails, though the details are always murky in the morning. This cycle has left him with dozens of short stories, several of which have been published in both online and print journals, including Wild Violet, IdeaGems, and Blood Moon Rising.

 

 

 

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Joshua Sidley

Finished

by Joshua Sidley

 

 

Abruptly one day my ex-wife stopped speaking to me in any recognizable way. What came out instead in our weekly discussions, which were centered mostly on our eight year-old son Charlie, were breathless musings about his unique style of speech toward adults, mindless philosophy regarding his silence toward other children, and a claim that something special was waiting for them both. Just when I started to grow attuned to it all, a new voice emerged, an articulation of a secret unhappiness that felt every bit as false as my wish that she remarry.

My son had warned me, or tried to. “I think Mom needs help, or something. It’s because she’s lonely. She misses us.”

I nodded and sighed. “Did she tell you that?” I asked, hating the sound of my (father’s) voice in that instant.

“No—I mean yeah. In that way she has. I told you.” And he had, he had.

Unfortunately, I had been half asleep—dreaming—at the time.

 

In the dream Kathryn stood folding a bed sheet and staring at her swollen belly. She signed and clamped her teeth as an unborn Charlie, a week overdue, spoke to her, inside her. Asked her questions, all kinds. His voice in her mind was perfectly clear but if she did not reply immediately she would forget what he had said, his words dissolving in her bloodstream. Blinking tears, she claimed that Charlie was making it happen. He was not giving her enough time to answer him, causing her to unremember his most recent inquiry, and yet she always knew he had said something. Sometimes she called him spiteful and a hypocrite. If the little brat’s that impatient, what the hell is he doing still backstroking in there? she asked me eventually. What does he expect me to do?

I pretended to think about it. Catch up, I said.

 

Before the divorce, when Charlie warned me about Kathryn I barely heard him. And after, when his warnings persisted I thought he was merely getting back at me, making me think what happened was my fault. I told him it wasn’t and he responded coolly, “She knows that. Everybody knows that.”

How strange, that I hadn’t known that.

 

What I did know: the difference between a panic attack and a nervous breakdown. Before the divorce, during our very worst arguments my wife had experienced intense panic attacks, acute rushes of adrenaline when it became clear her side of the argument was lost. And one week after, in another state, she had a nervous breakdown in a barricaded room somewhere, alone.

 

The first thing I ever noticed about Kathryn was her fingers, tapping absently against the side of her head, just above her cheekbone. She saw me and her fingers stopped tapping and her lipsticked mouth formed a grin. Months after we were married I had a dream about this initial encounter; except in the dream, when her fingers stopped tapping, one of them came away bloody.

 

Life is a beautiful and hideous thing, she had told my father once, and from what I knew of her childhood, I’d thought her declaration entirely reasonable. It irked him the way most things had when he wasn’t soaked in alcohol. “What is that even supposed to mean?” he challenged.

“It means that every flower has its mound of shit from which it sprang,” she said, looking directly at me.

My father was stunned into silence, and I into the profoundest love I had known; until then at least.

 

Her arms around my neck, pulling. Always in the oddest places, a smile of mockery, of premeditated impulsiveness. Daring me to object, knowing it would only encourage her more; and knowing that, I’d object strongly.

 

Eighteen months of marriage. Then seeing Charlie for the first time, Kathryn in an epidural-induced fog and myself more awake than I’d ever been in my life, wanting to speak, knowing it would only reveal how unprepared, how truly uncomfortable we both were. Knowing that, I said nothing at all.

 

Charlie was an uneasy child, his sleep ravaged by every sort of nightmare. Sometimes he would run from his room and out of the house before either of us could stop him (though it seemed like each time Kathryn tried less and less). The reason for these nightmares was not something Charlie was ever willing to discuss. No one who knew him could understand or help him, he said. When I asked him why, he replied, exasperated, “Because. That’s how nightmares work.”

 

Soon there was always a day in the week that each time the doorbell rang, it was him. A stranger, recommended to us by neighbors who’d heard Charlie in the night. A stranger hired to observe, speak, listen closely to what our son said (and would not say). For a while the stranger’s day was Tuesday. Since there was no choice but to open the door, one of us did while the other stared tensely at the floor. Feeling emptied out, inadequate. Trying not to think of ourselves as failures, of Charlie as victim.

 

Three months later Kathryn told me the stranger wasn’t coming back. “Why not?” I asked, halfway knowing what she was going to say.

“Asshole wasn’t helping,” she muttered. “So I fired him.”

I nodded, shrugged. “Okay. Now what?”

“Now what what?” she spat out, then softened after a moment. “Honey, Charlie is not the problem. Never has been and everyone knows it.”

How odd, that I hadn’t known that.

 

But it was Kathryn that had led me to take a closer look at Charlie, calling him a highly peculiar boy not long after his fourth birthday. “Did you know he actually asked me if I was his mother once? He wasn’t sure!”

I bit my lip, anger welling up in me toward Charlie.“When was this?”

“I can’t remember,” she said and made a dismissive gesture. “Ask him.” And when I did, Charlie couldn’t remember either. But he assured me whatever doubts he’d had were gone. “Don’t worry, she’s definitely Mom.

I wanted to force him to say more, what he had meant by doubting his mother’s identity at all.

Fuck it, I thought instead.

 

“I’m not responsible for what he says or does! Why must anyone look at me?”

I told her that she was not responsible—we both were. That more and more she was withdrawing from Charlie and from me, and that if she wanted to be freed of all culpability concerning our son’s odd conduct (on that day he’d asked several teachers if hate actually existed or was it merely the absence of love, and was outraged at all their answers) then she knew what to do. “Just as your mother did right in front of you. Or have you forgotten?”

Stricken, hiding her face in her hands, she rushed to the bathroom and vomited.

 

Some days Kathryn would arrive home later than others, some explanations were better, more likely, than others. I was slightly suspicious perhaps, but I hid it well. Even when she finally admitted to a brief affair with another man whom she barely knew, I hid my hatred for her surprisingly well.

 

A hospital administrator two states away called nearly a month after the divorce (of course Kathryn’s medical records still had me listed as her emergency contact). In a lowered, urgent voice the administrator politely informed me that she had caused a disturbance in a local motel, had barricaded the door to her room after the manager tried to gain access. The poor man, in his early seventies, was simply responding to complaints from other guests. Screams, they said. Objects thrown against the walls, broken. The police came and arrested her. They were accompanied by an emergency services team which included a physician who, after failing to calm her, had her committed to an area hospital.

“So what exactly do you want me to do about this?” I asked in disbelief.

Catch up, a voice inside me said.

 

In three months Kathryn’s treatment team determined that she no longer needed inpatient care and handling. She had suffered an acute psychological collapse following a long period of stress which had not been adequately dealt with, according to the doctor who’d admitted her. Through psychotropic medications, therapeutic interventions and rest, she was restored to her previous level of functioning; though I wondered how exactly could they know that. Yet after speaking with her about why our marriage ended and where we could both go from there, I had to agree—so did Charlie. Kathryn was herself again.

This was the dangerous time.

 

Because Charlie began to feel threatened in Kathryn’s company. Because during his bimonthly weekend visits to her new apartment—less than a mile away from us, her idea—she would become drenched in perspiration if he asked a question she could not answer instantly. Because she followed him everywhere, into the kitchen, the bedroom, even the bathroom—almost. Because she refused to answer her cell phone in his presence, as though he would object to the distraction, talk that may or may not include him. Because she questioned him closely if he had left her sight for more than a minute without warning. Because she recoiled if Charlie expressed any irritation with anything at all.

One day Charlie called me to ask if I could come and get him a day early, saying he was not feeling well, saying Kathryn’s behavior was making his head spin and his stomach hurt.

“Why are you acting like this, making him so uncomfortable, making him sick?” I confronted her at the door, “What the hell are you thinking?”

“I’m not thinking anything!” she cried. “He won’t let me!”

I looked over her shoulder and saw Charlie waiting for me in the car, his head in his hands.

 

A week later, a handwritten letter from Kathryn arrived in the mail. It read:

 

I’m sorry for what I am.

I love you so much.

K

 

I carefully folded the letter and looked up. Through a teary haze the face of Charlie stared.

 

The telephone rang the next day, near midnight.

They—she and Charlie—had come to a decision, Kathryn was telling me.

“Okay. When?” I asked, and stepped lightly into Charlie’s room. He was sprawled across the bed, sleeping soundly on his stomach. “When?” I asked again.

“Now. Just now,” she said.

I wanted to embrace her. “All right. Why don’t you wait until the morning and we’ll talk about it then?”

“I can’t. I’d like to but Charlie says it has to be right now. This second.”

Goddammit, I thought, holding back tears. “Well, wh-what is this decision?”

“It’s my best option. Charlie will tell you,” she answered, sounding hopeful and sad. “I love you so much.” Then she hung up.

I stood very still, listening. And somehow I was absolutely sure that I would not see or speak to Kathryn ever again. Moments later Charlie woke up, wiping the sleep from his eyes. He yawned and looked at me and blinked.

“Don’t be mad,” he pleaded.

“Why?” I asked him.

He smiled thinly. “I finished,” he said.

 

 

 

BIO

Joshua SidleyA graduate of the Dramatic Writing Program at Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, Joshua Sidley has published short stories in the online journals Fear and Trembling, Kaleidotrope and Bewildering Stories, and the print journal Down In The Dirt Magazine, as well as the online publisher bookstogonow.com. He is currently at work on his first novel.

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Cheryl Diane Kidder

Objects in Limbo

by Cheryl Diane Kidder

 

 

George and Doris were in the backyard having coffee at the picnic table. The weather had just warmed up enough for them to take their breakfast outside before George headed out to work.

“What was that?” George heard it first.

Doris looked up from her English muffin and sniffed the air a bit. “I didn’t hear anything.” She looked at the back fence, expecting another sound, maybe those coyotes trying to get in the yard. Good thing they didn’t have a small dog. “If it’s those coyotes again, I say we get the shotgun.”

“Wasn’t coyotes,” George said.

They sat very still on the two opposing redwood benches, the morning warming up around them. It was too early for Mrs. Betts next door to be out and about yet and the young couple on the other side were late risers as well. The sound had either come from directly behind their house, or where?

“Sounds like somebody threw a TV out the window,” George suggested, pushing the bench aside.

“Oh, you’re not going out there are you? We don’t need to get involved, whatever the hell it is.” Doris tried to keep her seat but she was up on her feet and right behind George.

The two of them tiptoed through their own house, both silently making their way to the living room. Luckily, Doris hadn’t opened the blinds yet so they were both able to walk right up to the window then carefully fold back one vertical blind, Doris on one side of the window and George at the other. They had to experiment a minute before each found a blind that gave them good access to the drama unfolding across the street.

“Good God, what have they done over there?” Doris said.

“Maybe I should call the police?” George suggested but made no move away from the blinds.

“Yes, I think you should. Someone could be hurt over there.”

“It looks like he drove straight through the garage door,” George said, still not believing it.

“Yeah it does. But where is she? Can you see him? Is that a body slumped over the wheel?”

“Ok, I’m calling the police.” George still didn’t move.

All the drapes were open across the street. Doris could see directly into the house, but she saw no movement at all.

“Do you think the children are still in there?” Doris said.

George didn’t answer. He found the cord to the blinds and yanked it hard. Doris let out a little scream. “What are you doing?” she whispered.

“I can’t see properly. If I’m going to call the police, I want to be sure what I’m reporting.”

They stood in their robes and pajamas in the picture window staring across the street. The garage door was certainly in pieces and the little navy blue Saturn Mr. Mulligan drove to work every day was sitting in the middle of the pile of wrecked lumber. She just couldn’t tell if anybody was in the car.

“Can you see in the car?” Doris asked.

“No, can you see anything?”

“Nothing at all. But now we know what that sound was.”

They stood at their window. Doris pulled her robe tighter around her body.

“Well, are you going to call the police, or what?” she asked George.

He shrugged his shoulders. “Maybe it’s none of our business.”

“If it was me, I’d want somebody to call the police for me.”

“Well that’s fine but it would never be you. I’d never drive through the garage door.”

“Yes, but that’s not the point.”

They looked back across the street. Two people had just walked through the front room very fast. Then their front door opened and Mr. Mulligan appeared.

“Quick, close the blinds, George. For heaven’s sake.” And she jumped back behind the drape.

“They’re not looking over here. Let’s just see what happens.”

Doris peeked out from behind the drape. Mrs. Mulligan appeared at the front door, hands on her hips. She was in her nightgown and her hair was fuzzy and ratted out.

“She’s yelling at him,” George said.

“Can you hear anything?”

“No. But I think he’s just going to get in the car and drive off.”

“How can he do that? He just wrecked his house. His wife is standing in the front door yelling at him.”

They watched as Mr. Mulligan got into his blue Saturn and pulled fast out of the driveway. Planks and pieces of board fell off the car as he backed out. Mrs. Mullligan started running down the front walkway.

“She’s going to try to stop him.”

“I can see that, Doris.”

They watched Mrs. Mulligan run down the sidewalk after the disappearing Saturn. She didn’t get much past her own driveway though and stopped. She hung her head, turned around and walked back to her front door, stepped in and closed it behind her. George and Doris waited a moment and then kept watching as, very slowly, the drapes were pulled shut.

“Well, that’s that.” Doris said.

“I’m glad I didn’t call the police.”

“You might have to one day. I still didn’t see the children.”

“Doris,” George had grabbed the rope pulleys of the blinds and let the blinds fall back into place, “you’re just too nosey. It’s none of our business.”

And now George was back pretending to prune her apricot tree. Doris walked out onto the front porch. She could tell George was watching the Mulligan house again, just like before.

“Just come in now, George. Nothing’s happening anyway.”

George pulled the sheers back from the apricot tree and let them hang at his side. He looked down at the cut limbs on his lawn and regretted that he’d now have to pull the garbage can around to the front and break up the wood.

Doris was at his side. She took the sheers out of his hands. He let her. He was late for work anyway.

“I know what you were doing out there, George.” Doris gave him a bad look as he headed for the car. He took the sack lunch she held out to him.

“Yeah, well, you never know what goes on in another person’s house, do you?” He was a little sad. He probably should have called the police before the Mulligans had the garage door repaired. Now he’s most likely missed his chance.

“You better jump, mister. Coming in late every day isn’t going to get the bills paid.” She put her hand on his back as he turned away.

“I should have retired last year. Then I could prune the trees anytime I like. What’s for lunch,” he asked, opening the door to the garage.

“Tuna sandwich and strawberries.” She closed the door behind him. Sometimes she found it hard to believe he was a civil engineer. She imagined he was a good enough civil engineer, but when he’d brought up retiring last year she had to set him straight.

“We are in no position to retire from anything, George,” she told him. He made her promise that they could discuss retiring next year. They were both past retirement age but every time George tried to bring it up, Doris poo-pooed him.

“What would you do with yourself all day? Might as well keep bringing a paycheck home if we’re still able to.”

George scrunched up his face at her and walked away. He could think of a few things he’d like to be doing.

That night they watched an old movie on TV instead of the usual talk shows. Doris loved the old movies. They reminded her of when she was a kid, rather of when her mother was a kid. Her mother was always telling her about movies she’d seen. Doris had grown up watching Shirley Temple movies and then musicals. Her mother would buy the entire score of her favorite musicals and learn how to play them on their old Steinway. She wasn’t a great piano player but she could read music and once you got the melody line you could sing the words. Doris knew the words to more songs than anybody she’d ever met.

Every night when she turned the bedside lamp off she looked down at the framed picture of her mother on the bedside table. The picture was taken when her parents were courting. Her mother is young and slim, her head is thrown back and she’s laughing wildly. Doris thinks if she looks at the picture long enough she can conjure up a memory of her mother like this, but it hadn’t happened yet. She remembers her mother very differently, but loves the picture just the same.

George seemed tired and not thrilled with a movie, and once he laid down and shut his eyes, he was out. Sometimes Doris saw this as a betrayal or an abandonment. She hates not being the first one asleep, but more and more George falls asleep first and Doris must make do with the company of the TV. On this night, she stayed up late after watching an old Ethel Merman musical with Jimmy Durante and then watched The Thin Man. Mostly she loved watching Asta, their little dog. She had always wanted a little dog but George would always nix the idea so she became a connoisseur of film dogs.

Halfway through The Thin Man, George started snoring like crazy. She pushed his shoulder, he turned over and stopped. Her last thought was, “I should turn off the TV.”

Next thing she knew her eyes were open, the TV was still on, some guy trying to sell exercise equipment. She reached over for the remote and saw the other side of the bed was empty. She patted the empty space just to make sure she wasn’t seeing things.

“George?” she called out, then got out of bed, put on her slippers and tiptoed out into the hall. She looked in the bathroom, nothing. She walked into the kitchen, no lights on. She flipped on the light switch. The refrigerator was humming as usual, but no George. She flipped the light off and walked into the front room. She turned on the little lamp at the side of the couch, just enough light to see by. Nope, no George. Then she heard it. The snipping again, just like this morning. She went to the blinds. There was George, out in the light of the moon, snipping at her apricot tree again. She went to the front door, yanked it open and walked right out onto the front lawn, “George Johanson, what in god’s name are you doing out here? Do you have any idea what time it is?”

She put her hand on his arm to stop the snipping and looked into his face. He turned his face to her. His eyes were wide open but he wasn’t there. She took the sheers out of his hands and threw them on the ground a few feet away.

“George?” She shook him a little. “George, are you awake?”

George looked at her and said, “Mali con nomey, burn a bunny.”

“What?” she shook him again. “Wake up. Wake up.” She pushed the hair off his forehead.

“I’m awake.” He said simply.

“Well, what are you doing out here?”

“Money come happy, cars. Doors.” He said sincerely to her and looked across the street.

“Oh, no you don’t. No more cars or doors. You have to come into the house right now.” She took his arm and pulled him a little at first. Then he followed her until they got to the front door. He tripped over the front step.

“There you go.” Doris pulled his legs back up onto the bed and then pulled the covers over him. He put his head on his pillow and smiled up at her.

“Vinnie con tuo.” He nodded at her and closed his eyes.

She got back into her side of the bed and stared at him, afraid at first to not sit up and watch him, afraid he might do that again. He could have been hurt, anything could have happened. She sat there watching George, the light of the TV illuminating the room. She picked up the remote and turned the sound up a little bit. It wouldn’t hurt her to make sure he got back to sleep soundly. She surfed around until she found My Man Godfrey, another William Powell movie,then sat back against her pillows. George hadn’t sleepwalked in years. The doings over at the Mulligans must have upset him more than she realized.

* * *

That night George dreamed about when he was a boy and had wanted to get away from his parents and seven brothers and sisters. He’d gone down to the lake, not the end of the lake where all the boats were tied up and where all the tourists go every summer, but the complete opposite end of the lake. It wasn’t easy to get to either. He happened upon it by chance one summer when the whole family had driven down for a short weekend vacation.

The cabin his parents had rented was only two rooms, parents in one room, his three sisters in the other bedroom and George and his brothers sacked out in the living room in sleeping bags. The price difference between the two-bedroom and the three-bedroom probably would have put his father too much in the hole so instead of not going at all, the boys agreed to rough it by sleeping on the floor.

Well, George had about had it with roughing it after the first Friday night. Mikey kept rolling over and kicking him in the face and he wasn’t asleep at the time either. George was the second youngest so Kevin and Patrick were always picking on him and Mikey could only pick on George when they weren’t at home and he knew George wouldn’t hit him back or cuss him. George did his best to keep the peace. It wasn’t always easy.

So, since he was wide awake anyway, he got up in the pitch black, put on his jeans and grabbed an apple and his pack with his fishing gear and took off in the complete opposite direction of all the people and all the family and everything that had any mark of civilization on it.

For a couple hours he really thought he’d gotten lost. He’d lost all sight of the lake but could still smell it. The dawn came up early which was good. He tried to get his bearings by the sun, but the trees were so high and so dense that it was tough to do. He cussed himself out for leaving the compass behind. He knew it was right there in Kevin’s pack too. But soon he came upon a small trail that led him straight to the water’s edge.

Once he got back to the water he followed it along until he couldn’t go any further. A sandy beach opened up and he set his pack down. The sun was at his back. The campsite and cabins were directly across the lake. All he could hear was an owl sometimes, far off. Even the birds had quieted down. The clear lake water lapped gently on the sand and then retreated. It had its own business and wanted nothing from him. It wouldn’t kick him in the head or punch him in the arm. He lay back and set his head on his pack and looked up at the sky. There were clouds whisping about, nothing much and a little breeze. He closed his eyes.

When he woke up the sun was directly in his eyes, heading fast down the opposite end of the lake, behind the tall pines. It looked like he’d slept all day. He sat up and looked around. There weren’t any boats on the lake, none that he could see or hear. The water was just as clear and calm as when he’d fallen asleep. After his initial panic he started wondering what his hurry was. He was pretty sure his parents might not even notice he was gone so he headed back, but he headed back slow.

He hadn’t been back to his beach in probably more than twenty years. Although he visited it every time he took a family trip there and a couple times when he was in college he took a drive by himself and hiked out to his beach and sat there watching the sun set. He never wanted to take anybody else there. It wasn’t a large beach, really only enough room for one person to comfortably sit or lie down anyway. He never saw any footprints on the sand. And there were always the most beautifully colored, sand-polished stones just at the edge of the beach, just under the water. He never picked one up. He tried to memorize their position once to see if anyone had moved them the next time he visited. If he had a paper and pencil right now he could still map them out just as they were then: two round blue stones, six multi-colored in a rectangular formation and one flat stone with a red hue to it. If he concentrated on the colors of the stones and the sound of the water breaking over them, even now, he could hear the water falling between the stones, onto the beach, almost up to his bare feet.

* * *

“George, get away from that window, I’m serious.”

“Shut off the light, would you?”

“I will not shut off the light. You get away from that window and put down those binoculars. I swear. You’d think you were eight years old.”

“There’s nothing wrong with a little healthy curiosity.”

“Your curiosity has been the death of my apricot tree.”

“That tree was on its last legs.”

“It was in better shape before you took the pruning sheers to it.”

“Every tree needs a little pruning now and then.”

“George, you’ve pruned that tree every day for a month. There’s nothing left but a stump. It’ll never grow back. You know I got a book out of the library that says you’re not supposed to trim fruit trees down to the stump. You just do that for roses.”

“Maybe I’ll buy you some rose bushes tomorrow.”

“What, so you can prune those for me? No thanks. Why don’t you buy a nice evergreen that we don’t have to do anything to but water.”

“Too boring, too predictable. I want something that might die immediately but for the care I give it.”

“We could always get a dog, George.”

“Dog’s are messy and they die on you. No, a dog’s no good.”

“Ok, then a cat? A parakeet, a hamster, anything. I’d love to have another living thing in the house.”

“No, no rodents. I refuse to share my house with rodents. Hell, we pay people to come get rid of pests like that.”

“Cats aren’t pests, George.”

“They are to me.”

“Now give me those binoculars.”

“No, wait, I think I see a light on.”

“There’s nothing to see there George. Let’s go to bed.”

“You go on ahead, I’ll be there in a minute.”

“I’ve heard that same thing for a month George and every morning I wake up and another bush or tree has been pruned to the point that I’m going to have to take them out.”

“Well, we need some new landscaping anyway.”

“Come to bed, George.”

“In a minute.”

“I’m not going in without you this time. I’m waiting right here so you might as well finish up. There’ll be no pruning tonight.”

“God, you won’t let me have any fun at all. You know at my age, fun becomes very difficult.”

“Spying on the neighbors isn’t fun, George. It’s probably criminal. You could go to jail if they reported you.”

“The only person going to jail is you for forcing me to give up the only pleasurable thing I have.”

“I can wait all night, George.”

“I’m almost done.”

“Hand over the binoculars.”

“In a minute.”

“Hand them over, George.”

“All right fine. Here.”

“That’s better. Now let’s go to bed.”

George followed Doris reluctantly out of the living room. Never want anything you just can’t do without, he reminded himself.

* * *

Doris refused to go to Wal-Mart. At first it was a political thing, the way they would always build them right on the outskirts of poor communities, forcing all the downtown mom-and-pop stores out of business. She read in the paper about how Wal-Mart was the biggest employer in the US and she just figured that was wrong.

But more than that was that awful smell of old popcorn. George loved it. They’d hand out miniature bags of popcorn, red and white striped bags with ruffled edges, overflowing with yellow popcorn. Yellow from all the fake butter and George would munch on it as he walked down all the hardware aisles. First Doris would go with him and just wander off by herself into kitchenwares and usually pick up a few different size Tupperware containers. But then she put her foot down.

“I’m not going to Wal-Mart any more,” she told George as he dangled the keys in front of her.

“Why not?”

“I just don’t like the way they do business.”

“Since when?”

“Since forever. I always felt this way but I just didn’t think about making a big deal out of it but now, now I think I found my principles after all.”

George thought it over for a minute. “Well, will you go to K-mart then?”

Doris thought back to the last time she was in K-mart. No popcorn smell. The aisles were wider, not so many poor families with snotty nose kids hanging off of the shopping carts.

“Yeah, K-mart’s OK. Target would be better.”

“You just like Target because it’s in that ritzy neighborhood.”

“Nothing wrong with that. I like looking at the big houses.”

George grumbled to himself all the way out to the car, his face all creased up like he was thinking about some math problem but what he was thinking was that Doris was wanting a bigger house, a bigger yard, a different neighborhood. He wasn’t going to bring it up, but every time Doris even got close to suggesting that some other house was so nice, or maybe they could spend Sunday morning some time driving around looking at model homes, George crinkled up his face and Doris immediately dropped the idea.

“What’s so bad about dreaming big, George?” she’d asked him once after he’d nixed a Sunday outing.

“I got all I need right here. There’s no reason for a bigger house. Bigger house just means bigger mortgage and more cleaning and more lawn to mow. More work.”

“But wouldn’t it be fun to move, to experience a different place, maybe meet new neighbors who were more, you know, like us?”

George crinkled up his face. He liked the neighbors just fine. They stayed in their houses and he and Doris stayed in their house. No uncomfortable social sessions out on the sidewalk, no potlucks on weeknights, and no kids riding bikes and skateboards up and down the street. That was a plus.

“I like it fine right where we are. I thought you did too?” He looked over at Doris, with the most agreeable look he could manage and was surprised when she dropped the subject entirely.

K-mart wasn’t like Doris remembered. They walked in together through the automatic doors, the a/c hitting them square in the face. Doris looked up at the mirror and watched George’s bald spot walk away from her toward the hardware section. She stopped for a minute to get her bearings. No popcorn smell. That’s good. Off to her left the cash registers rang. Every sales station had a big line of people in it, their shopping carts bulging with purchases. It made Doris want to go right back outside, maybe drive to a park, take a walk, anything but spend money.

Sighing heavily, she headed off toward housewares, as usual. She got to the head of the aisle with the Tupperware and stopped. She thought back to her cupboards at home that were already chock-full of Tupperware and fake Tupperware. She had Tupperware containers and Tupperware in the shape of Jell-O molds and popsicle molds she’d never even used before. She turned around and headed instead to the lingerie department. It was the one place she was certain she would never spend any money.

When they got back home, George went out to the garage to hang up the new tools he’d bought. Doris took her bag, which she purchased without George’s knowledge, into the bathroom and locked the door. She turned the bag upside down dumping the contents out on the counter then picked up each piece separately and laid it out so she could get a good look at it all.

She’d decided to go all red. A red thong, red push up bra (she guessed at the size, it’d been years since she bought a new bra), a short red nightie and something the sales lady said was the piece de resistance, whatever that meant: a garter belt and of course the red stockings to go with it. She’d never seen so much red lace and polyester before in one place and just looking at it all laid out on the counter made her laugh.

She avoided looking at the garter belt and left the stockings in their package. She held the thong up and could not figure out which end went where even though the sales lady had practically drawn her a map. She hiked up her dress and stepped out of her normal white cotton undies. She laid the thong on the ground trying to get a better look at it but she still couldn’t figure which way it went so she just picked up one side and the other and stepped into it and pulled it up.

She looked in the mirror. “Oh, this just can’t be right.” She said to her reflection.

* * *

The first time George got a look at the red lingerie he’d just turned the TV off and had stood up from the Barcalounger after several hours. Doris walked in all in red and he had to sit right back down.

“What the hell is that?” he asked her, his voice a little loud though he tried not to sound too scared.

“What do you think?” she was smiling. She held out the lacey edges of the red nightie and slowly turned around giving George the full three-sixty.

“That’s a lot of red.” He stretched back into the Barcalounger, not sure he was ever going to get out of it now.

“I thought I’d pick up a little something different,” Doris giggled then caught herself.

“They run out of Tupperware?” George asked hesitantly.

Doris put the sides of her nightie down and stood in her kitten-heeled red silk-like slippers in the middle of the living room, TV off, the lamp over in the corner the only light.

“Is that all you have to say?” she asked him.

“Well, it’s different all right.” He put his hand over his mouth. He just realized what she reminded him of. One Halloween when he was ten or so, Millie Bates down the street had dressed up all in red, from head to toe and put a green felt hat on her head. She claimed her mother had made the outfit and that it was supposed to be an apple and certainly her chubbiness aided the illusion, but now all George could think of was fat Millie Bates in her apple costume carrying a pillowcase asking for candy up and down the street. For a second he forgot himself and laughed out loud. Once he heard the laugh he clamped his hand back over his face hoping Doris hadn’t heard.

“Really, there’s no need to laugh,” Doris hung her head. Her arms hung at her sides.

George leaned forward and squinted. “What’s that you’ve got on underneath there?”

Doris looked up at him. “It’s called a thong and this other contraption’s a garter belt. See?” She lifted her nightie up to reveal the complex web of undergarments, all still red.

George sat back in his chair. “Is it comfortable? Are you going to sleep in all that?”

Doris stepped over to the couch and sat down. The nightie blossomed around her like a little red cloud. She kept her knees together and her toes forced into a point due to the shape of the slippers.

“I don’t think this is for sleeping actually,” she said.

“I thought you liked those cotton nightgowns I’ve been buying you all these years.”

“I do like them. This was just something, you know, different, something new.”

“New is not always a good thing.”

“You don’t like it.”

“I like it fine, but do you like it?”

“I kind of like it.” Doris managed a little smile. “Makes me feel, different.”

“Different how?” George’s brow crinkled. This was not like Doris, not like Doris at all.

“Just different. I don’t know how yet. I guess I have to wear it around a little more to see.”

George got up. “Well, I’m going to bed. You coming?” He paused by the lamp, ready to turn it out, not wanting to leave her in the dark.

“I think I’ll just sit here for a while.”

“Now, Doris, come to bed. You know I can’t get to sleep until you come in.”

“I’ll be in. I just want to sit here for a while in my new things.”

“All right then.”

George walked into the bedroom and sat on the edge of the bed. It was no use even putting on his pajamas, he’d be wide awake until she got into bed and if she got into bed in that contraption he might never get to sleep. What was she thinking? All these years, he’d never seen that much red lace in his own house. What was he going to do? Maybe he could make her take it back. But she seemed to really like it.

George remembered the time he’d bought the fishing waders from that Angler’s catalog. They’d taken six months to arrive and when they did he pulled them right out of the box and stepped into them. Granted, they didn’t exactly feel natural but he could totally imagine standing in the middle of some great trout stream in Montana in those babies, cool, dry and comfortable. When Doris had walked in on him and started laughing he had to wait for the explanation.

“You look like you’re about to go get on a motorcycle or something.”

“What do you mean? They’re waders. Aren’t they great?”

“Your butt’s hanging out of the back just like those guys who ride motorcycles.”

“It’s not the same at all,” he’d argued at first.

“And why the camouflage? Are you planning on going to war?” Doris had laughed all the way into the kitchen.

George had thought the camouflage was cool, made it all seem more serious somehow. But he couldn’t stand to be made fun of. He’d gone into the bathroom and stood on top of the toilet seat trying to see what they looked like in the mirror over the sink. He still didn’t think they looked so bad but he’d put them away that night, back into their box and stuffed the box under the bed and had never gotten it back out even though he’d gone fishing just last summer.

Doris sat at the kitchen table idly flipping the pages of the morning paper, trying not to pout. She wriggled her bottom in the plastic seat, trying to get comfortable with the thong. She needed something to take her mind away from her failure to impress George. She never used to read the science section but then the headline “Faded Star Defies Description” grabbed her attention. She unsnapped her garter belt, adjusted the thong again, leaned closer to the table and read further.

“Some stars take, some give. Then there is the tortured relationship in EF Eridanus, where the smaller of two stars gave so much to its larger companion that it reached a dead end, scientists reported. Doomed to orbit its more energetic partner for millions of years, the burned-out star has lost so much mass that it can no longer sustain nuclear fusion at its core and has become a new, indeterminate stellar object.”

 

“A new, indeterminate stellar object,” Doris repeated. Could it be there was something up there that hadn’t been defined, named, labeled? This interested her.

“Now the donor star has reached a dead end – it is far too massive to be considered a super-planet, its composition does not match known brown dwarfs, and it is far too low in mass to be a star. There’s no true category for an object in such limbo.”

 

She had to remember that one, no longer a star, but something new, undefined. In that moment a world opened up to her she hadn’t thought of in a long time. Sure, she took astronomy in high school and she used to study the stars as a kid, but she barely remembered the names of the ones that were labeled, and now this.

She imagined herself all new again and got up from the table. She stretched her legs out in front of her like a ballerina and did a couple of twirls as she walked over to the light switch on the wall. Her red nightie flew around her like an encircling moon or Saturn’s rings. She just might keep this nightie after all.

* * *

The next morning George stepped outside to pick up the morning paper. He left the front door open to let in the breeze and sat on the couch, spreading the paper out in front of him. He flipped the edges until he found the sports page and wriggled it out, sat back into the deep cushions, licked his thumb and opened the pages directly to the fishing section, sounds of Doris in the kitchen slapping pans around for breakfast.

“Hello?”

He heard the voice and looked up, the paper shielding his face from the front door.

“Hello?” he answered back.

“It’s me, Sara Mulligan from across the street.”

George dropped the paper. So it was. The very woman he’d had framed in his binoculars day after day. He sat up straight, aware he was in his pajamas, his hair mussed, his teeth unbrushed.

“Ah, please come in?” He had to pause before he stood up. Was he decent? Would he be exposing too much by standing up and stretching out a welcoming hand?

“I don’t want to bother you,” she paused as well just inside the front door.

“No bother at all. We’re just getting up. I mean, we’re just here, reading, early morning, no bother.”

She stared at him. He was sure she was about to cry. Good God, not tears, anything but tears. He jumped up and moved the papers away from the couch, forgetting all thoughts of decorum.

“Please, sit here.” He waved his hand to include the entire couch and backed off a little while she decided what to do.

“I really don’t want to bother you.” She dropped down onto the corner of the couch at the same time dissolving into a mask of tears, her head hung down, hair obscuring her face.

Now is your chance, George. Comfort her, say something, be a friend, a father figure, a brother, a potential lover. No, scratch that. Sit down, say something, touch her hand.

“You have some trouble?” He sat down on the couch next to her, an arm’s length away, and reached out his hand, but he was too far away to touch her.

Her crying had quieted. She nodded her head and looked up at him.

She had the clearest blue eyes he had ever seen, her tears coloring them almost sea green and when she blinked, back to blue. He tried concentrating on her mouth.

“How can I help?” He reached his hand out again and touched the couch near where her knee crooked over the edge. He was aware of how her jeans fit and the soft leather of her boots.

“Do you have any Kleenex?” she asked.

George laughed. “Kleenex? Of course, Kleenex, yes I can get you Kleenex.” He jumped up to run into the half bath off the front hallway and tripped over the coffee table, bashing his knee directly into the corner. He hardly noticed it.

Back, he handed her the box of Kleenex with the crocheted cover. It was pink with a black poodle on it. The poodle had a rhinestone collar. He was instantly embarrassed.

“My wife’s aunt makes those things for Christmas. Have to have them out, you know, if they come over.”

“My husband’s gone,” she said.

George nodded. It didn’t surprise him. Her husband had been leaving for months. He’d watched him leave for days at a time before. How could she be sure this time he was gone for good?

“You think he’s gone for good then?”

She nodded and blew her nose, a dainty and delicate maneuver in her hands. She tucked the used Kleenex under her leg.

“The children?” he asked her. His mind was racing. Why was she here? What did she want him to do about it? Maybe she should be speaking with Doris.

“They’re at his mother’s in Oklahoma.”

“I see,” he told her, though he saw no such thing.

“I think,” she started and then the tears began to flow again. “I think he’s gone there to take them away from me.” She lowered her head, buried her face in her sobs.

George moved closer to her, took a Kleenex out of the crocheted box and touched her chin. She looked up at him. He smoothed her hair back and wiped the tears off her cheeks. He saw how young she was, no long held grief or disappointments showed on her face. He knew just by looking at her that she was someone who dared to ask for things and that things would be given to her. He couldn’t tell her no, he would never tell her no.

She sniffed and looked into his eyes. “You’re very kind.”

He could smell her breath. She’d had some sugary cereal for breakfast, maybe Lucky Charms or Captain Crunch. He caught the sweet smell as she opened her mouth to speak. He leaned closer to her.

At that moment the kitchen door opened and a red nightie-clad Doris came through the door, plate of eggs in one hand, glass of orange juice in the other.

“George?” She stopped midway between the door and the couch when she saw George leaning over the young woman from across the street.

George immediately stood up and faced her. “Doris, this is Sara.” He stood in between the two women, crumpling the wet Kleenex in his hand, surreptitiously pulling his pajama bottoms closer around him. “Sara from across the street.” He looked expectantly to Doris and then really looked at her and saw that she hadn’t changed out of her red ensemble.

“Oh, oh dear.” He turned his back on Doris and stood directly in front of Sara to shield her from seeing Doris in her nightie.

Sara stood up and leaned around George. “I’m so sorry to invade your home like this.” She stepped away from the couch.

Doris stepped over to the coffee table and set the eggs down. “Your eggs, George.” Then she took a couple of swigs of the orange juice herself.

“It’s quite all right,” Doris sank down onto the opposite end of the couch. “I always knew it would come down to this.”

“What?” George was jumbled by the vision of Doris all in red and the woman he had so long watched being in the same room, the one on his left hand the other on his right, only a couch separating them.

“I knew I couldn’t hold onto him any longer. I’ve known it for a long time.” She looked sadly out the front window. “Look at what lengths,” she held out the corner of her red nightie, “I’ve gone to. Made a clown of myself and for what?” She laughed. “It happened any way.”

“George?” Sara Mulligan looked to George for guidance.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about, Doris.” George said.

“That’s all right.” She got up and ran her hands through her hair to straighten it. “I’ll pack my bags and be out by lunch time.”

“What?” George fell back onto the couch, both hands on his head.

Sara stood immediately and took a step toward the front door. “I’m afraid you’ve misunderstood,” she said.

“Doris, Sara’s husband’s left her.”

Doris turned around, a wise smile on her face. “Well, that will make it all the easier for you two.”

“Doris, Sara’s afraid her husband has taken their children and she came over here for advice.”

Doris stopped walking to the bedroom and turned around again. “But he’s left you many times in the past.”

Sara shook her head vehemently. “No, he’s never left us. Never. We’ve had some quarrels, some disagreements, but this is different.” She teared up again.

“You’re not here to run away with George then?” Doris asked her.

“Doris,” George said, trying to stop the words before she said them.

Sara looked over at George. “George has been kind enough to listen to my troubles. You see, I don’t have any family here and you two always seemed so perfect in your perfectly kept up house, perfectly manicured yard.”

George looked over at Doris and raised his eyebrows. Doris frowned at him.

“So you’re not here to take George away?” Doris repeated, unclear how an over-pruned yard could be mistaken for a perfectly manicured one.

“No, no of course not,” Sara answered her. “I’m here for help. Any help. I don’t know what to do. Can you help me?”

Doris walked back over to the couch and sat down next to George taking his hand. She took a big breath, looked at Sara, looked at George. George smiled at her sheepishly.

“Well, I guess we could give her the name of our lawyer?” She looked at George, willing herself not to cry.

George looked at his wife, at her soft brown eyes, the face he knew so well, and pushed back her hair letting his hand brush her cheek for a moment. Doris smiled up at him.

* * *

Later that day they drove out to the Garden Center just beyond the interstate and walked down the rows of star jasmine, pyracantha and fruit trees until Doris found a medium sized elm she liked the looks of. George bought it for her and they planted it just outside their big front picture window.

The light filtered through the leaves and hit their front curtains that they generally kept closed at all times except of course when the new family moved in across the street. Then George had to hunt through the hall closet to find his old set of binoculars as well as Doris’s new set. Doris moved the two armchairs next to the window and pulled the curtains open just enough for the two of them.

“Flat screen TV,” George was the first to notice.

“Two dogs,” Doris yelled.

“Oh god, not dogs, anything but dogs.”

 

BIO

Cheryl Diane Kidder has a B.A. in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. Her work, nominated five times for the Pushcart Prize, has appeared or is forthcoming in: Able Muse, CutThroat Journal of the Arts, Weber – The Contemporary West, Pembroke Magazine, decomP Magazine, Tinge Magazine, Brevity Magazine, Brain,Child, Identity Theory, In Posse Review, and elsewhere.

For a full listing see: Truewest – http://cheryldkidder.blogspot.com.

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Jessie Aufiery

Diabolo Menthe

by Jessie Aufiery

 

He took the metro to the Place de l’Etoile, and walked from there to the Centre de Yoga Iyengar. Today an old man was in the back corner sweating through Trikonasana and Downward Facing Dog, his knobby limbs creaking and straining through the postures, a miracle of determination, however futile. A dark-haired girl with smooth thighs and yellow shorts looked to be in her mid twenties: at least a decade younger than Ludo. Acrid fingers of cigarette smoke floated through the open window along with traffic’s beeps and quick accelerations and the steady chug of diesel engines. Sweat poured from his brow. As usual he had to marshal the sum of his physical and mental forces just to keep up with Jean-Luc’s barked commands. The slight man was a barefoot Napoleon, dark eyes flashing as they scanned the room. “Lift the kneecaps!” he shouted. “Kneecaps in!”

Ludo contracted the fronts of his thighs and wondered what his wife would make of the teacher. Compact and sleek as soap, the little man oozed sexuality even as he recalibrated sweating students with nudges of his fingers and toes. He and Jen made love only a couple of times a week, and for that she had to be cajoled, but every day he felt his body’s demand for release. Sometimes he suspected her of pleasuring herself on the sly while he dealt with traffic and ball-busting clients, keeping the leaky ship that was their family afloat.

After class he pulled on his street clothes. People changed quickly and didn’t linger in the Center’s one changing room. The girl in yellow shorts, her small breasts barely concealed under a sports bra, was trying to untangle a barrette from her dark curls.

“Shit,” she said, looking up at him. “I can’t get this out.”

His hands trembled as they freed the trapped strands from the thick silver hinge. A scent of apricots clung to his fingers.

“You could keep things in there,” he said, gesturing at her thick spiraling hair. “Your wallet, keys…”

“Oh my God,” the girl said, eyes wide. “I blow it dry, iron it. It does what it wants.”

“Think of it as an advantage,” he said. “This way if you get kidnapped you just pull out a screw driver out and jimmy the trunk.”

“Or a pillow,” the girl said. “For a little nap.”

“A cigarette to smoke before your execution.”

The girl smiled, a blush creeping up her neck.

“You have beautiful eyes,” she said.

“They come from a rare eyes dealer,” he said, feeling a jolt at his groin. “He’s at the flea market behind the carpets and copper pots…”

She put a hand in front of her mouth and laughed. He grinned and slung his backpack over one shoulder. Halfway to the door, he turned and said:

“I should get your number.”

Her eyes, surprised, flickered over his left hand. He thought she would pretend she hadn’t seen the gold band but she smirked and asked: “What about your wife?”

“I don’t think so,” he said with a grin. “My wife doesn’t give her number to strangers.”

Outside he found the metro, jumped on a train, and waited for his connection at Champs Elysees. The train thundered up, brakes whining. A dark skinned black teenager wearing headphones, sweat beaded on his forehead, stood on the other side of the car. The train rumbled on. Ludo felt a tugging of eyes, an oppressive sensation of being observed. He glanced to the side and was startled by his reflection in the glass. Not bad for forty. He hadn’t flirted in ages and the great feeling was only a little marred by the fact that he was riding on public transportation. As the train eased into Varenne station Rodin’s The Thinker, a ragged hole in its hollow right thigh, glided into the window like a snapshot. The hydraulic brake-release hissed and the train rolled forward again. At the next station a group of fifteen or so high school students crowded into the wagon. A tall boy with a Catholic medal, one of the newcomers, said loudly in French: “Whoever’s doing that, you’d better stop pinching my bum.”

A few beats of silence and everyone laughed. The boy’s shirt was open to the third button and he wore a silk scarf loosely knotted over his bare chest. Amazing how people continued to accessorize, even in this heat. Ludo noticed a crucifix dangling alongside the medal and he briefly loathed the handsome, dark-haired kid though he couldn’t think why.

He arrived home to find his wife’s portable easel set up in the living room next to the French windows, a portion of floor covered in newspaper and tubes of paint. The easel had that just out of the box look, all unblemished pine. Boris must be at one of his activities. Monday was Judo, or perhaps Drama. The living room reeked of stale coffee and turpentine rags, and his wife’s canvas was heavy with slabs of saturated color. Looking at the thick globs, he thought of the money she spent chasing fantasies. She’d started hesitantly introducing herself to new acquaintances as an artist. The first step in making something happen, she tentatively said, was in believing it couldhappen. He wanted to hold her from behind, work her pants down with one hand while unclasping her bra with the other and playing with her breasts. Where was she?

The drapes were yanked to the side and the windows open. Across the street the neighbor’s curtains ballooned against his wrought-iron balcony. The man often appeared with disheveled hair, a kimono knotted at his waist, sniffing the air with his large Roman nose. Ludo had noticed him on the town square in a velvet jacket reading a paperback. Waiting, he supposed, for salvation to appear out of the ether: a girlfriend, a job, a spaceship to the moon. Now through the gauzy curtains he recognized the man’s gray-streaked mane and discerned a familiar figure sitting on the couch beside him. Putain de merde. Fucking shit. Last time it was a grungy Scotsman with a six-pack. She had introduced herself in the grocery store just because the guy and his girlfriend were speaking English. This absurd reaching out to strangers was unbearable! Why did she do it? He pictured the scene: his wife at her window, the neighbor at his, each trying to catch a breeze in this stifling heat, it was natural to exchange a few words of neighborly greeting, and then, very casual, Oh—do you paint? Did you catch that marvelous Lucien Freud retrospective at the Pompidou? I bought the book. If you like you can come over and have a look…

He squinted through the window, grimacing, and saw two wine glasses and a bottle, heads bobbing in animated conversation. His wife complained about the difficulty of adapting, the emptiness of her days when he was at work and their son at school. She dropped her painting class despite the non-refundable fee because she said the other students were all doing boutique art and she wanted to do something real, maybe even start making installations. It was boredom, he knew that, a lack of purpose. She was too proud to try to get in with the other mothers as they gathered at the café each morning, never inviting her, and there was no one else to talk to. If they had stayed in New York, she said, she would have a job and friends. Her parents would be within driving distance. She could shop at the co-op.

He thought with pleasure of the girl in the yellow shorts, young and smiling. Through the window he saw his wife waving her arm, the neighbor’s vigorous head nodding. The fraud! As if he gave a damn about what combination of words came out of her mouth. Ludo did a quick run-through of his options. He could call to his wife through the window, or ring up her cell phone, or pound on the fraud’s door… All of which would make him look like a jealous fool. He couldn’t let his wife find him here seething: couldn’t confront her until he’d settled on his revenge.

He slammed out of the apartment and stormed down the street to the Café des Sports. In three gulps he downed a 1664 lager, releasing a hissing belch behind his hand, and then signaled the waiter for another. He finished that and ordered a third, which he sipped while looking at photos of Carla Bruni and le president de la république in the pages of an abandoned Paris Match. As dusk settled he felt a pinching in his heart. He’d drunk the beers too fast and was now a little drunk, but at least the alcohol had numbed the pain in his shoulder. Beside him the window winked its cool eye. He thumped his chest and looked at the dour silhouette of the town’s city hall, a concrete slab wedged against a darkening cobalt sky. A yellow clock illuminated the building’s façade and, several yards in front of this, the grim trickle of a fountain, a cement rectangle whose only whimsy was its spray of municipal water misting the heat-flushed faces of passerby.

Ah, familiar faces! Mothers in fur vests and dark denim bending towards children who prattled relentlessly about the latest trombone lesson or judo slam across the dojo floor. Bureaucrats trailing the ghost of their thirty-five hours. A blue-suited city worker manning the wheel of a small truck while his partner, high above on a wobbly mechanical ladder, screwed light bulbs into street lamps. A drunk with his pants at half-mast struggling with the door to the public toilet. Children kicking balls and jumping rope. All these frenetic silhouettes—actors in a shadow play—reminded Ludo of his wife laughing it up with the bachelor across the street, of his bank account filling and emptying in a cyclical tide. Outside, friends and neighbors plodded forward as if this shadow life was real, buying houses, businesses, investing their lives…

He took out his cell phone and dialed. Upon hearing his voice she said a happy Oh, hello! and he felt a wonderful galloping like horses over roses. Her name was Natasha, and she agreed to meet him tomorrow…

 

He arrived early and ordered an espresso. The café, a few steps from her apartment, she’d explained, was of Natasha’s choosing. Two young men, kids really—from his wizened four-decade perch he could call them that—sat at a nearby table. The bearded one with elbow patches stood up and attempted a chiropractic manipulation that involved pumping his friend’s arm. Next to Ludo a man in a leather porkpie hat kissed his tattooed girlfriend. The soul of pretension! Ludo writhed in inner discomfort. Everywhere he looked, he saw stupidity, ugliness.

Conscious of his suit and tie he drank his espresso and manipulated the keys of his Blackberry. Last night he’d lain awake horny and sweating in the terrible heat while she refused to come to bed. And still not so much as an SMS! As if his display of anger when she returned flushed with wine and accomplishment made him the bad one.

“But I invited him to dinner Saturday,” she said.

“Well, uninvite him.”

He remembered coming to this very café with his son, Boris, after they sailed a rented toy boat around the fountain at Luxembourg Park.

Looking like a small man in his black pea coat and scarf, Boris had stridden in and announced to the girl with the nose-stud behind the bar:

“I’m having a diabolo menthe!”

The girl had laughed and brought over a glass with two-inches of green syrup, and a bottle of Sprite.

“At last!” she said as she set it in front of Boris, who was sitting as straight-backed as a miniature Mao Tse-Tung. “Enfin! A man who knows what he wants!”

Ludo had loved this generalissimo moment, and guarded the memory of it like a jewel. His son—the bright child of a spoiled, overeducated, but endlessly encouraging American mother, and unblemished by the filthy trailing weight of Europe and France—would know how to command. When he recounted the story at a dinner party no one seemed impressed so he added another detail. He told everyone that as they left the café he, Ludo, spotted twenty Euros in the gutter. He picked the money up and put it into Boris’s pocket. It felt like a benediction, a sign of good things to come. “Spend it any way you want,” he told everyone he had said to his son. “Buy a giant bag of candy!”

The café door opened and his heart flew.

No. This person was in her forties, a woman trying too hard in stilettos and a tulle skirt. Her friends leaned toward her admiringly, exclaiming: “Wo-ow.” The place was crawling with artist types. His wife could bring the neighbor and look deep into his fraudulent, Neanderthal eyes.

A head of dark curls was moving toward him. Natasha. Wearing a tight sweater and Converse high tops. Away from the yoga studio, she looked different. She dropped a textbook onto his table and grinned. He felt an icy sliver of disappointment.

She’s a student.

Her thick brows slanted in a way that reminded him of Renoir, of Renoir’s soft-faced Michelin nudes, and he briefly visualized a thick muff of dark hair between her legs.

“Coucou!” she said, tapping the table with the big ring she wore on her forefinger.

“Sorry,” he smiled, standing to kiss her cheeks. “Seeing you makes me think I might do something I’ll regret.”

“Regret?” she said with a laugh, raising her hand for the waiter. “Coming from you, that sounds funny. Come on, let’s order some drinks…”

 

Walking to the metro he stopped to gaze at a lumpy bronze statue of a soldier, Capitaine Dreyfus. Dreyfus stood with a broken-off sword was in one hand, and a pigeon fluffed on his brimmed cap. At the statue’s base a plaque in French said: ‘If you wish me to live, have them give me back my honor.’

Ludo picked a bottle cap off the ground and chucked it at the pigeon, his shoulder igniting with a burst of pain. The pigeon flapped to a nearby branch, dust motes spinning in the silvery light.

A jogger thudded past.

American, he estimated, as her firm buttocks and pink thighs wobbled past, a baseball cap tucked low over her eyes. Who else would run down the middle of the street?

Massaging the painful shoulder, he descended into the metro. In California everyone wore baseball caps and jogged. His own memories of a childhood trip to the Golden State were foggy, though he retained the image of waitress setting a miraculous stack of fluffy pancakes topped with maple syrup and a cloud of whipped cream in front of him. Ludo felt that if he returned to California—now, today—the state’s sunshine would wrap itself around him like a long-awaited homecoming embrace.

His train arrived and he hurried on. As it lurched forward he lost his balance and stumbled over a girl’s white sneaker. The girl—a sallow, lank-haired Parisian—glared at him like he was an assassin. He smiled, thinking of Natasha, who, in hindsight, seemed almost more American than his wife. In California he and Natasha could wear baseball caps and go jogging. They could politely ignore the movie stars who were also jogging, and when they had jogged their requisite five miles, they could stop at International House of Pancakes and order a tall stack with bacon, after which they could sit on a beach and watch the golden afternoon roll in…

The train slid into Varenne station. Ludo noted that a too-small metal patch had been soldered over the hole in The Thinker’s thigh, leaving a thin uncovered strip: an entrance for a family of cockroaches. Even people repairing master art works in this country were incompetent! As he stood there swaying in the overcrowded wagon, his mood plunged. All he wanted was a feeling of fulfillment, a relaxed body and mind, yet his wife, instead of helping him reach this goal, chatted up the neighbor and pushed him, her husband, away! She was a good one for complaining about a lack of marital solidarity, but wouldn’t lift a finger for the benefit of their team!

At home he swung open the door, his keys jangling in the lock. His wife was perched in front of her easel, and did not greet him as he came in. Her sharp little profile made him want to slam the door over and over until it fell off its hinges. But this was his home and not a monkey house, even if his wife insisted on acting like an ignorant ape. He pulled the door to until it gave a soft click. He dropped his briefcase, shed his clothes and showered, the hot water drumming his tight, painful shoulder. The pain was now radiating up into his neck. Afterwards he slicked back his hair, poured a tumbler of Bailey’s on ice, and walked towel-waisted into the living room. Jen was still working away, and it occurred to him, dim hope igniting in his chest, that she might be inspired to strip away his towel. He dropped onto the couch and pointed the remote at the television, his body radiating a moist heat.

“Do you mind?”

“No,” he said, flicking past CNN and the 24-hour airport channel.

She sighed and squeezed out some white paint. Through his peripheral vision he noted that the curtain was closed, and that she looked pinched and pale. This was deeply satisfying: perhaps, for once, she felt chastened. He found a UFC match, turned up the volume, and took a long swallow of his drink. Two guys beating each other bloody. His wife smeared a gob of paint onto her canvas. The sweet icy liquid flowed down his throat, and he propped a cushion on the coffee table and positioned his feet, adjusting for maximal comfort. He noticed that the nails of his big toes had been molded into claw-like points by his lace up work shoes. He retrieved the nail clippers from the bathroom, returned to the couch, trimmed the nails and gathered the slivers into a mound next to his drink. It felt good to be clean. It felt good to begin to relax.

His wife stared at him, her mouth hanging open.

“You’re a pig—do you know that?”

He held her gaze for a long moment, chuckling and watching her face redden as it became apparent he wouldn’t dignify her attack with a response. Finally he broke eye contact, gathered the clippings into his palm, and dumped them into the ficus. Amidst the hoots and applause of the UFC crowd, the boom of the American announcer’s voice, he dressed and walked outside into the heat.

 

The sky drooped. Three workers with grit clinging to their bare arms were installing maroon awnings above the Monte Carlo pizzeria, tools scattered across the sidewalk. Massaging his burning shoulder he walked to the metro, imagining the relief of a cold beer flowing down his parched throat.

On the train an old man suddenly grabbed at the air and tumbled at Ludo’s feet. Ludo stared down in bewilderment while a woman leapt forward and crouched at the man’s side. His white-headed wife gaped from several feet away, her hands clutching shopping bags. The old man convulsed briefly and opened his eyes, very blue, looking confused.

“It’s the heat,” someone said, and the man was ushered out at the next station, I’m all right, I’m okay, flanked by his wife and the female Good Samaritan. As the metro pulled away the two old people were sitting on molded orange station chairs staring straight ahead, white-faced, backs erect. Ludo looked at his shoes, the ridged floor where the man had fallen. I should have done something, he thought. Shown initiative, taken control… He wanted a drink, to lie down, to feel the coolness of fingers in his hair…

Outside it looked like rain. He found the blue door and the name: N. Bontemps. She rang him up on the third buzz, he climbed the stairs, and a wave of apricot incense rushed his nose as she opened the door.

“Were you standing there long?” she said, touching his arm. “I had the stereo on.”

“I wanted to see you.”

“Oh.” Her cheeks turned pink.

She led him in and locked the deadbolt. His eyes began to itch: somewhere in this stifling studio was a cat. The couch beneath the loft bed was scattered with fur-coated cushions. They sat amongst them.

“I’m boiling,” he said, tugging at his shirt collar. “Do you have anything to drink?”

“Sure,” she said with a smile. “Tap water okay?”

“Anything wet,” he said, disappointed, picturing the gently sweating bottles his wife stocked for him in the fridge.

The water was filled with tiny bubbles and tasted tinny. He drank deeply. Her brows jumped as he drained the glass, his throat clicking.

“Excuse me,” he said.

She laughed behind her fingers. He wiped his mouth and set down the glass. Outside the window a sparrow chirped, and a motorbike could be heard bombing at top speed around a corner, its tires squealing. A tremor flickered across one of her eyelids, her gaze steady on his face. Quiet descended. He leaned in and kissed her. She curled into him, climbing his calves with her toes. He was suddenly charged up, light and strong. He pulled her close, tilting his head to change the angle of the kiss, and his neck made a soft ominous click and blasted him with pain. Damn it. He jerked forward, a gesture she seemed to misinterpret.

“Come,” she said, slithering up the ladder to the loft.

He followed, his shoulder and neck electrified: stage-one of a searing discomfort he knew from experience would last for days. The sheets were rumpled, a large white cat luxuriating across the pillows. Staring at him, Natasha removed her shirt. He moved toward her on his knees, head bumping the ceiling, and reached for her small firm breasts.

“Lie down,” she commanded.

He did and she removed his pants, caressing him through his shorts. He lay back and tried to concentrate on her fingers’ light touch, her lips moving down his belly. His eyes and throat itched and pain radiated from his shoulder up through his neck.

She took him into her mouth and he stared at the greasy marks on the ceiling, feeling himself shrinking, lifting his gaze to catch a glimpse of a glistening pale mushroom poking out of his black pubic mound. He felt a flash of anger and pushed himself into a sitting position, his neck leaping in agony.

“Stop,” he said, her mouth a crumpled O. “My neck—”

“Relax,” she said, tousling his hair. “We’ll get it to go up…”

“Wait a minute,” he said. “What?

The cat stood and stretched the length of its back, rattling its fluffy tail. Natasha gazed at Ludo in silence, her legs folded neatly beneath her. An unpleasant feeling squatted on his chest. He felt the tedious necessity of justifying himself, explaining… Suddenly her hand flew to her mouth and she gave a mighty yawn. This must be very dull for you, he wanted to say. Forgive me for boring you. Heat shimmered from his torso and limbs, hovering, trapped, at the ceiling.

“Unfortunately, I really have to go,” he said, with an unpleasant tightness in his throat. “I only stopped in to say hello, but now—”

She gave a nervous little laugh: “Oh, come on. You have to stay!”

But he was already halfway down the ladder.

 

He sweated through Trikonasana, and his shoulder, better after a week of ice packs and gentle stretching, sang with joyous release. Jean-Luc walked the room, tapping his slender toes against students’ feet to nudge them into alignment. Ludo examined the teacher’s slightly bowed shins as the man lingered, eyeing him for fault.

“This shows an understanding of the posture,” Jean-Luc finally said, and Ludo’s blood surged with vindication.

In the changing room, Natasha’s yellow shorts showed half-moons of sweat beneath each buttock. She glanced over as he walked in, and then quickly averted her eyes and made a show of rummaging around in her bag. Relieved, he pretended not to notice her.

At home he found his wife working on a watercolor. The carnival-like beeping of a video game drifted in from their son’s bedroom. The watercolor—pastel clouds on creamy paper—was weirdly soothing.

Ludo crouched and placed his head on Jen’s lap. He felt a slight shift in her posture and the weight of her hand, tentative, on the top of his head.

 

 

Jessie AufieryBIO

Jessie Vail Aufiery has lived in Miami for the past year and a half after more than a decade in Paris. She is World Literature Editor for The Literary Review, and lives with her husband and twin daughters.

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The Room

The Room

by Aurora Brackett

 

There was a treacly smell in the room, something on the way to rot. The walls were yellowing. There were no windows. There was only the door that I had long since stopped hoping would open and the chair where I sat, riffling through children’s books, memorizing the texture of fluff on the down of an ugly duckling. The metallic spines holding together thick cardboard pages. Why children’s books? I wondered. The room wasn’t so much silent as it was stuffed, like cotton balls in the ears. Plugged up with nothing. I was waiting. I had been waiting. I waited. I came here to complain and now I am waiting, but I have forgotten my complaints.

Once, there was a front room – a small office with wood paneled walls that ended abruptly a foot from the ceiling, giving way to visible joists and crumbling sheet rock. There was a brown carpet that did not reach the walls, around it the cold tile floor where I stood and cleared my throat. A woman sat behind a desk in the middle of the room. She held a calculator in her thick hand and poked at its buttons with the top of her thumb. A wide face, a smudge of dirt across the forehead, fine wrinkles at the corners of her eyes. A farmer-secretary. She didn’t look up.

I have combed over this moment hundreds of times. I took the bus. I walked from the corner (A bus stop bench. An empty cup on its side rolling back and forth.) to this building – a brick building, a state building, a school or a business office or a department of something or other under the undersecretary of someone dash someone, someone. I stood on the cold white tile and waited for the woman to notice me. I looked for a chair. There was nowhere to sit. I cleared my throat. “I want to complain,” I said. She looked up and said nothing, stared like she was still waiting for me to speak, her eyes saying, Yes may I help you? but without much interest. I had spoken. I heard myself. “I want to complain,” I said again. Again those dull eyes, the color of dirt. I know that I spoke. She looked at her calculator. I took a step closer. “They told me to come here,” I said. The woman stared. Her face was too round for that metal desk, those sharp bright edges. Swollen feet in pinched heels swung toward my legs. “They told me to come,” I shouted. “On the phone. They gave me this address.”

The farmer stood up and gathered her crops: her clipboards and stacks of paper. She walked to a door behind her desk, pulled a key from under her sleeve and gestured for me to follow. A long white hallway: no pictures, no marks on the walls. A white paneled ceiling, a dull gray floor. At the end of the hall, another door opened and the stack of clipboards were pushed into my chest. “Wait here,” she said. A voice that I heard just inside my head and then it was gone and the door closed.

But what kind of voice? Bored would be too easy. A misplaced voice: wadded up closed fisted politeness barely hiding a solid squawk.

It isn’t metal, but a thin gold paper that covers the spines of these books. Pictures of barnyard animals stamped on both sides float down the length of the spines. I’ve been peeling off the paper. Sometimes I can get a good long strip in one solid piece: a cat in shoes, a cow on the moon. I spent some time yelling. The yelling makes me thirsty, and though I hear my voice fine, I can feel it being swallowed by the stale air as soon as it leaves my throat.

I had an apartment. A refrigerator and a sink on one side of the room, a bed on the other. I had a window that looked out onto a supermarket parking lot. During the day, I sat in my chair at the window and took guesses at what people had in their bags. I watched vagrants steal shopping carts. An old woman in a stained green quilted coat pushed a cart away from the store, ducked beneath my window, and thinking she was alone, began to empty her pockets. Every few minutes she stopped her work to push the palm of her right hand at her face, first one cheek and then the next, a light slap, grinning as she did it. Nearly half of what she poured into that cart – pennies, stones, scraps of paper – fell through the metal bars onto the pavement below. The woman wheeled her cart away leaving half of herself behind. I had an apartment. The telephone rang and I answered it. Often there was a pause, static over the line as I said hello, hello? A high-pitched nasal voice, a language I couldn’t understand came through the static and I listened to the voice worrying for me, worrying with furrowed brows, a clicking tongue. A question followed by a pause in which I cleared my throat, prompting another question. I’m sorry, I whispered, I don’t know.

I could see from my window, the old woman, a bald spot and heavy gray hair matted at the forehead, yellowing fingers gripping the cart handle as she pushed it away. Wait, I yelled. Paper folded in the front child seat. The old woman paused and moved a front page to the back. She touched the page now revealed, shocking white against gray sky. It was about to rain. There was an old woman who lived in a… Wait! I say. You forgot!

 

The ceiling panels are pinpricked. I don’t look for patterns. Nothing can be done with the ceiling, the floor. I don’t touch the walls but already the smell has seeped into my clothes. I can’t imagine the room into anything other than what it is. I can’t leave, not even in sleep. If I close my eyes I see walls; my thoughts hit against them. I form words to curse but the moment my anger begins to build, it flattens. Sometimes I stand up and think I could climb up onto this chair and leap from it. At least a bruise, a scrape might give me a temporary break from stillness. I think if I fell to the floor I would be making use of the room. But in the next instant, I exhale and sit down. I open a book. I only want to remember.

I had an apartment. An old woman walked towards my window wearing a cape, carrying a basket. She hummed as she wheeled away, turning pages. And when I couldn’t hear her anymore, I looked down at what she’d left behind. The small things that no one can hold onto anyway. Pennies and thread, blotches of color. An alphabet swam in newly formed puddles; letters sank under the weight of rain. The phone rang and I answered it.

The phone rang. It was some kind of bureaucrat, a Mr. So and So. I could hear his frowning and grimacing over the line, a fat-choked voice. “Just calling to ask you a few questions,” he said. But there never were any questions. “We’re terribly sorry,” he said, “we’re backed up. Overwhelmed. Please call if you need anything.”

He called and on the days he didn’t call, his secretary called. “How is your little boy doing?” she’d ask and when I told her I had no boy, she’d laugh and ask about the weather and hang up the phone. Or she’d tell me about her children, how they kept her awake. “Hard to manage everything,” she’d say. Her ceiling fan was broken. She was busy too. So many phone calls, she didn’t know what to do.   The fat man changed his tone from day to day. I liked it best when he shouted. I could always hear him sneering through his niceties, but when he shouted, then I knew we were in business. “I have six hundred and fifty-seven files on my desk,” he’d growl. “Who in the hell are you? Why did I call this number?” If I interrupted him to tell him my name, he’d yell, “No more names! Fuck you and the fucking mother that named you!” This always made me laugh and hearing me laugh the fat man would chuckle, sensing that we had something in common. He would then clear his throat and mumble apologetically about a hernia that had been giving him trouble, paperwork moving through improper channels. And then caught somewhere between choking, laughing and telling the truth, he would hang up.

If I ever found out what they were calling about, I don’t remember. He never got to his questions and so perhaps it does not matter. I believe they were the only people I talked to, and so I looked forward to their calls, especially to the fat man’s angry days. “Fucking mother,” I’d laugh, and I could hear him slapping his thigh in some tiny, hollow office. “My mother didn’t fuck a day in her life.”

“Your mother lived in a clock and sang cuckoo,” the fat man would shout.

“Your mother was a walrus,” I’d sing.

“You’re an idiot,” he’d say, and clear his throat and quietly belch, apologizing for his ulcers, his bad breath, his tumors. “Just calling to ask you a few questions,” he’d say.

 

I have spread the contents of my wallet across the floor. The woman left me with forms but no pen. I fixate on the image of her face: the lips swollen and overpainted, the forehead wide and smudged, a sneer, blotched skin, a drinker’s nose. A sour taste forms at the back of my mouth. Good, I can use this. I draw it backwards: see myself climbing the steps of this building, my thin shoes on wet pavement, a lame pigeon teetering on the sidewalk’s edge. I see myself sitting on the bus. My knees shake against rumbling floorboards.

One moment serves as backdrop for the other. I stitch them together clumsily. I hear the slow indifference of her feet, click-clacking against the tiles as I sit on the bus and wait to arrive. In both places, and now in this room, heat rises to my jaw.

She leads me down the hall. Keys clatter on her wrists.

I look out the window as the bus passes through an industrial landscape: an open warehouse door, a metal gate making diamonds of empty space. Behind the gate, a man works a blowtorch. The bus rocks at a stop and the brakes hiss, letting out thick rasping breath. I look for street signs. Across the aisle a teenage girl is kicking her feet against the seat back, drawing stars on her legs with a black fingernail. Her shirt is loose across her chest and when she bends over I can see etched patterns filling the space between her breasts. Her chest is green lines. She looks up as I’m staring, gives me the finger and throws a pencil which hits me in the neck.

The sound of high heels on a tile floor.

The girl on the bus is a bird. She’s all bones and matted hair, her clothes torn and feathery. The pencil lodges in my jacket pocket. I let her laugh. The brakes release a burst of air, a sigh, and with it my jaw slackens and again I’m losing the thread.

The secretary locks the door behind her. I can hate her for this.

On the bus I don’t recognize street names and the driver’s announcements are two blocks off. I don’t know this part of the city. There are alleys every other block, men lurking in doorways alone, standing as if about to move, staring at the facing walls as if contemplating crossing a river. Their eyes see a world of danger. Worry floods the corridors. I touch the edge of my wallet. The young girl laughs at me again and throws a penny. What is the world coming to? I’d like to ask her. The secretary locks the door, the keys clatter against her wrists, but those hands, they give me pause. I have sympathy for the hands – thick fingers and dirt beneath the nails giving lie to another kind of life. The girl on the bus is singing (rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief). Rain hits the window sideways. Raindrops pick up dirt and turn the glass to mud. And I remember the windows of my room when I was a boy, a basement apartment – quick moving feet kicking the city against the panes, walls so thin I wanted to push through them. The girl turns her head. “There used to be more,” I say. There were photographs on the walls of our living room. Pictures of a house built from the ground in flat planes of mud. A few new trees on the horizon. There was an old woman, holding her shoes and skirts in her hands to cross a stream, her eyes wide from the shock of water. Someone outside the frame holds her arm. The bus comes to a stop. The girl is already gone. The woman closes the door behind her and I don’t hear anything after she goes.

In the middle of the night, or what I imagine to be night, I open my eyes to find a man sitting on a low stool in the corner against the door. The stool was not here before. This is my first thought. The man perks up when I open my eyes. I notice my position, slumped against the wall, and quickly stand. He is immaculately dressed – a smooth blue suit, not a trace of lint. He rises and extends a hand, which I take, the palm warm and damp. “Excuse me,” I say.

“Not a problem,” the man smiles. His voice has been polished, organized to reflect a hint of sympathy. He meets my gaze without wavering, ready for anything.

“You locked me in,” I say. The man tilts his head to the side. The smile makes me uneasy. “The lady gave me forms and no pen. I’ve tried to yell.” He nods. There’s no break in the smiling. My throat is swollen. “How do you explain this?” The man tilts his head to the other side, like he’s examining a rare flower. He sits down and takes from his pocket a small notebook and an equally small pen, both red. He has the face of a superhero: glossy, with perfect angles.

“We’re sorry about the wait,” he says. He smoothes his eyebrows with an index finger. I look down at my wrinkled pants and sit, ironing my pant legs with my hands. I notice my smell, the smell of the room mixed with sour sweat, against his cologne. When I look up again his brows are knitted, a paternal frown of concern. “I’d like to ask you a few questions,” he says.

“I’ve been locked in here for days,” I say.

He looks at his watch. His face grows even more serious. It’s a careful deliberation. “Two hours at most,” he concludes.

I shake my head. “Much longer,” I say. I don’t own a watch. My eyes are red and stinging. I haven’t slept. My clothes stink. “I have proof,” I say.

“Now,” the man says again, “a few questions.” I look at the stool he is sitting on, strong wood, oak or maple, no nails visible. I think: This is the stool that carries the man…

            “I need you to answer everything honestly, of course.” He smiles again, as if we have an understanding. “While at the same time, taking into consideration that every question I ask is of some import. Consider your answers carefully.”

“I don’t understand,” I say.

“Shall we begin?” He touches the bridge of his nose, pushing up invisible spectacles. The seriousness of the gesture frightens me. The man glances at the contents of my wallet, spread across the floor like a game of solitaire. As he bends to write, his tie swings back and forth across his lap. “Understand?” he smiles. The walls behind his head are unchanged, yellowing, peeling in places. The man seems out of place here. He’s much too healthy. “Understand?” he says again. I nod.

“Do you have parents?” he asks.

“No,” I say, “They’ve passed.” A scratch on the pad.

“Are they living?”

“I just said they’re dead.” Another scratch. This is the man who buried the cat who chased the mouse who lives in the house…

“Siblings?”

“No.”

“Are you employed?”

“No.”

I think of the bus again, the windows washed clean by rain. I’m looking out at the city. Two young men stand half on, half off the curb; one holds his hand to the other’s shoulder. They’re staring up at the skyscrapers, their necks craning. It is raining into their eyes. The tops of the buildings sway close together, closing in the sky. There must be a gate for the rain to enter through. When the light changes, the men open their umbrellas. Sewing machines on desks line the sidewalk, women and men hunched over needles, the cloth growing wet. The umbrellas pass them, sheltering each for seconds at a time. The girl on the bus has gone back to scribbling on herself, now with a pen. She hums.

The man makes a note. “What is your family history?”

“History?”

At the front of the bus, a woman stands up and grips the metal pole, wobbling in her shoes. As she bends to lift her child, the bus lurches and she stumbles. The little boy laughs. The driver apologizes. The woman sighs heavily through her teeth, brakes releasing air. She walks off the bus, each step loud, the boy slung at her hip.

“Family history. Where you come from. Medical history. That sort of thing,” the man says.

“I’m trying to remember,” I say.

“Good, good.” The man’s lips are a line. He nods his head.

“We came here in order to build something,” I say.

“Of course,” the man says.

A foundation of mud and bricks. Pine split and shaved for beams. “My grandfather made his own house,” I say.

The man scribbles in his book.

My grandfather rode a horse, his feet were caked in dust.   “He and his brothers raised up the sides, carved the supports.”

“Staked a claim too, I imagine.” The man smiles wistfully.

“Yes,” I say. “A claim for the land. You remember?” I have a photograph in a drawer. A house half-finished. Unmade beds under an open roof. Ohio? Idaho? Where was it?

“Do you mind if I continue?” he asks, writing as he speaks.

I look at the contents of my wallet on the floor. The man taps his pen against his thigh. “Now,” he says. “What do you want?”

“Excuse me?”

“As I said before, be certain your answers are clear,”

Why did I come here?

Out the window, buildings blurred together in my peripheral vision, whites and greys and metallic lines. At the bus stop, blood rose to my cheeks. The rain overflowed in puddles at my feet, buoying the smallest things to the surface: scraps of paper, splinters and nails, a letter or two. But the old woman was long gone. She had marched off into the rain, victorious, her cart spilling scraps for me to follow.

“Sir?”

“Yes?” I say.

“Your answer.”

“I came here to tell you something.”

I remember standing at the bus stop, looking down at the puddles. I remember leaving my apartment, my mind full of words. I was building an argument. I was readying my attack. Perhaps then it was concise, but now it has overtaken me, spread out in every direction. Standing on the bus, the open door letting in grey light, the odor of exhaust, an empty paper cup rolling back and forth across a bus stop bench. The slick granite steps. The woman who touched my hand accidentally as she opened the door to this room, history under her fingernails, rough hands built for work, a back that rises from its bent position at the end of the day in a wide muddy field. She stands and looks out at the horizon, blues and grays in fading light. The air smells of horses, sweet manure, rain in the dirt. Her boots sink in the mud. She holds a hand to her head to shield her eyes, though the sun has fallen. It is an old habit. She looks out into the distance; the fields stretch for miles. She turns and glances at me and then through me, to the house where her children are waiting. So many children. The future, she calls them. She doesn’t know what to do. Her hand has left a streak of dirt across her forehead. We walk carefully around the furrows. The old woman holds her skirts in her hands and I hold her arm to steady her.   The house is almost two-dimensional in the distance; our feet are heavy with mud. She sings a song to pass the time, a thin lullaby. The tune is familiar.

 

BIO

Aurora Brackett lives in Las Vegas, Nevada where she is a PhD fellow in fiction at University of Nevada, Las Vegas’ Black Mountain Institute. She is a recipient of the 2013 Thomas Morton Memorial Prize in Literary Excellence,  the San Francisco Browning Society’s Dramatic Monologue Award, the Wilner Award for Short Fiction, a nominee for The Pushcart Prize and a 2013 Sozopol Fiction Seminar Fellow.  Her work has appeared in Nimrod Quarterly, Eleven Eleven, The Portland Review, Fourteen Hills and other magazines.  She is currently fiction editor of Witness Magazine and was an associate editor of Hope Deferred: Narratives of Zimbabwean Lives published by Voice of Witness/McSweeney’s in 2010.

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Ellen Mulholland

Clothed in Flames

by Ellen Mulholland

 

Publication permission granted from the author, Ellen Plotkin Mulholland

 

 

What if you could change a moment in your past before the future catches up with it? Kathryn Clark believes anything is possible. The voices in her head tell her so. After a mysterious letter inside an old “Back to the Future” lunchbox links Michael J. Fox to her birth father, she begins a secret hunt for the actor and a time-travelling car. When the actor comes to town for a fundraiser, Kathryn learns the real message in the letter. 

 

When Jenna returned to her family home fourteen years ago, just a few weeks before she’d shift from being a single gal to a single mom, she asked for one thing. She wanted to live in the downstairs basement so that they’d all have some privacy. She didn’t want to feel like she never left home. Didn’t want to be seen as some teenage failure, the girl who slept her way through high school only to end up a single mom before she turned 19. Her parents never saw it that way. Fred didn’t. Hard to say what Irene really thought. Still, Fred and Irene respected their daughter’s wishes. They agreed that physical boundaries would help them all get along. During the next two weeks (13 days to be exact), Fred and two fellas he hired from the local hardware store set to work sanding, painting walls, laying carpet, and finishing bits of plumbing.

It’d be two months before the bathroom was completed with a shower and proper sink. In the meantime, Jenna would fill a bowl with water and leave it on the table for small wash-ups for herself and baby Kathryn.

It wasn’t until fall that Fred and the boys finalized everything for the small kitchenette and hooked up gas for the heater. By Christmas, Jenna and her little girl had everything they needed to live. “I’ve got the basics, Pop,” she told her dad the Saturday he showed her how to operate the thermostat. “I’ve got my shelter, warmth, food, a way to stay clean, and most importantly, I’ve got my family, my love. What would I do without you and Mom?” She wiped a tear.

Fred pulled her close, nestling her small frame into the crook of his underarm. Brushing back her soft ginger strands with his other hand, he told her in so many words that there wasn’t anything he wouldn’t do for his family. He paused and added one condition.

“You know, baby girl, now that you’re a momma, you need to pay attention to that Watson family bug.”

Jenna pulled away. “The what bug?”

“You know. Momma. She’s been battling those demons upstairs for years. It started with her mom, and, well, it doesn’t seem to want to skip any generations.” He pushed his hands into his front pockets.

Jenna watched as the sun’s invading rays painted jagged stripes across the low-pile carpet, poking its warmth over baby Kathryn who lay dreamily in her white wicker bassinette. “You mean her depression? You think I’m gonna get that, too?”

Fred smiled. “Baby girl, you already got it. You know that, right? Why do you think you ran off right after graduation and came home a few months later with this little doll.” He motioned over toward the tiny baby. Her belly rising and falling. The sun and shade playing games across her face and blanket as a quiet fall breeze pushed through the raised window and rustled the lace curtain.

Jenna turned from her father to adjust the baby’s blanket, protecting her delicate skin from the afternoon sun. “Well, hmm, I mean, I guess, maybe. I mean, well, sometimes, yeah, sometimes I kinda feel, I dunno, blue. Course now with this little gal, I feel so blessed, Pop. Really. She’s just the best thing.” Jenna raised her hands toward her chest and clasped them together as if taking hold of the girl’s own precious little heart and placing it next to her own.

 

That was 14 years ago, and in that time, Jenna has wallowed in the blueness, never fully lingering for too long. Until recently.

She’s never forgotten her father’s warning that day in the basement apartment while the sun finger-painted her floors. She considered her mother. Yes, Irene carried the family curse, the Watson family gene of sadness, sorrow, a sort of angst, an existential shoestring that winds its way around your soul, gripping the interior of your heart, puffing and whooshing a gray fog inside your mind.

Jenna watched her baby girl grow bigger, crawl, walk, run; talk, yell, cry. But she never saw her smile. Never. Not until that summer morning at the yard sale when Kathryn was 10. She’s seen a few more smiles since, and she can recall the day and time of day of each. She can count them on her fingers.

So as Kathryn grew, Jenna couldn’t help but feel the tug at her heart, the yearn, the pull for that infant warmth, that baby smell, that needful gaze. Kathryn’s father has never been in the picture (not since he created it). Jenna never expected anything from him after that night. Never asked, pleaded or begged. She didn’t want money, didn’t want help. It was a moment of passion. When the yearn for another baby bubbled like indigestion in the deep hollow of her gut, Jenna found a new man to plant a seed. She and these babies were all the family she needed. The babies and her Pops.

Finding another dad wasn’t going to be a problem. This has never been a problem for Jenna Clark. Men are drawn to her like bees to a flower. And like a bee that gathers what it needs, it moves on to the next flower, never lingering beyond the time necessary. This doesn’t bother Jenna. So she says. She only craves the warmth, the temporary distraction, the energetic release. The buzz.

Alex arrived in their lives just a few years later. Again, the father unknown to the family, only to Jenna. Gone. Unaware of his creation.

Jenna does not desire a long-term relationship. She realizes that it’s struggle enough to maintain her own life. To find the courage each day to rise from bed, tend to her family, smile at work, eat, bathe and manage good health before the sun sets deep beyond the sea, so she can climb back inside the comfort of her soft, springy bed, beneath the warming cotton layers.

Once back within this cocoon, Jenna prays. She prays nightly that her own little girl will skip that matrilineal gene, will make it through this life without the dark ooze that can encase one’s being like jelly, keeping the joy at bay, placing one’s whole self in a sort of static state, unfeeling, uncaring, neutral to all that happens around, apathetic to all that is to come.

The pills help Jenna, but she wants more than a pill to deaden what is already numb. Her. Jenna wants a life normal. She wants what she has pushed away. She wants love, a whole family, a future, a purpose. As night grips her, and the darkness encases her, Jenna observes the internal movie of anger, fear, and self-loathing rise up along the interior workings of her body, adhering to the mucousy membranes, tissues, and cell walls. She waits, anticipates that crossing, that bridge that connects the bad to the good, the conscious to the unconscious. Ether fills her awareness like a rich fog bank creeping up along the Thames.

Then it comes. That moment. That instant before sleep overtakes her. Before she forgets what could be. There it is. Static. Lightness. Detachment. Untethered to all that weighs her down, Jenna Lee Clark floats in the lightness of her being, in the possibilities that are yet realized. She rests within the weightlessness and waits. The fog dissipates as Jenna rises, carried on the wings of her own gentle thoughts, lifting higher up and away, not on the ground, not in the heavens, attached to nothing, a balloon without a string granted permission to be free and float on its own path, directed by nothing and no one, adrift, untethered, light and carefree, lifted without being held. Then the darkness moves in, silent, no landscape. And she is asleep.

 

 

BIO

ellen mulhollandEllen Plotkin Mulholland grew up in San Bernardino, California. After earning her degree in Journalism and English Literature at the University of Southern California, she moved to London and wrote her first novel. Today, she parents, writes and teaches in Northern California. She is the author of two YA novels: “Birds on a Wire” and “This Girl Climbs Trees.”

 

0
Richard Hartshorn

Excavation of a Breathing Fossil

by Richard Hartshorn

 

My first mistake was pulling onto the shoulder when I saw the hitchhiker. She stood on the pavement in a patch of shade, sporting black heels and holding a cardboard sign that read Nautilus. Her hair was long and red, skin sandblasted with freckles. Once she settled herself into the passenger seat and wedged the sign into the back, I decided she must have been around twenty-four. After introducing myself as Kate, I asked her name. She looked up at the air bag advisory on the sun visor, scanned it until she reached the French translation, and said, “Danger de Mort.” We shook hands.

Caterpillars had erupted from the Earth during the summer solstice, infesting the district and making it their home. Tree branches were reduced to thread. I couldn’t walk outside in high heels without impaling soft bodies or draw the bedroom shades without black, suctiony lumps clinging to the glass and blotting out the sun. The Mayor, who would be up for re-election in a year, had proposed only one solution, and it involved the word flamethrowers. The idea had yet to be applied, but I shelved my habit of sitting with my back against the brawny oak in our backyard while flipping through gardening magazines – the trunk writhed and rippled with life, like a giant muscle.

“Where is Nautilus?” I asked the hitchhiker.

She fingered some caterpillar guts on the windshield and narrowed her eyelids. Why had I offered her a ride if I’d never heard of the place she wanted to get to? I didn’t look away. If I could handle a classroom full of third-graders, screaming and breaking pencils and shoving gum under desks, I wasn’t going to be intimidated by a woman called Danger. We shared stubborn eye contact as the engine stuttered and the sun baked the leather seats. Dust spores hovered between us.

“North,” she said, cracking the dead air and sending the spores whirling. “Take me North.”

We passed through three towns and rolled across the expanse of open highway. Danger simply pointed to the exits she wanted; she knew precisely where she was going, and I allowed myself to trust her.

Unable to endure the silence as we pulled onto a two-lane exit ramp, I blurted out, “My husband likes pornography more than he likes me.” She hadn’t asked why I was so cooperative, why I was okay with driving her as far as she wanted to go, but she was bound to.

I discovered Bryan’s hobby after a fight. Thinking on it now, I couldn’t tell you what the fight was about. Bryan wasn’t incredibly discreet with his personal things, but when I planted myself in his office chair and pushed his laptop open, I knew what I was looking for. I entered his email password (MyGirlKatie), ferociously clacking the keys as if I meant to hurt them. I expected – or perhaps wanted – to find questionable messages from young girls with slutty usernames, maybe his female clients from the gym, listing the scandalous ways in which they’d thank him for tightening their cores and molding their legs into smooth, toned trunks.

What I found wasn’t nearly as simple – Bryan had requested and paid for pornographic art, which he’d thought out in incredible detail: fetishistic mayhem I’d never thought could exist anywhere outside of science fiction. I looked through every drawing, from the rough sketches sent by the artists and approved by Bryan, to the finished products, trying to fuse my mind with Bryan’s and figure out the thought process that led him to this. Through his glowing computer screen, I tried to become him.

 

“So,” said Danger, “Did you divorce him and become a wandering transport servicewoman?”

“We’re still together,” I said. He’s in Los Angeles, meeting with some people who want to give him his own DVD series. He’s a pretty well-known fitness trainer. I substitute teach because I enjoy it. I wouldn’t abandon those kids even if Bryan got the deal.”

Danger forced a yawn. “I’ve never heard of him. I do kickboxing. That’s all I do. And look at me.” She dragged a hand across her flat stomach. I tried to remember whether any of Bryan’s fantasy women looked like Danger.

She flicked the radio on and twisted the knob until she found a station she liked. She tapped her heels in tune with a juvenile pop-punk song midplay.

“We’re doing okay, though,” I said, talking over the machine-gun guitars and braking at the cyclopian eye of the traffic light.

“Take a left here,” she said.

When the green arrow lit up, I took my foot off the brake, turned onto the main strip of whatever town we’d just entered, and pulled into the first roadside diner I spotted.

The diner was called Red Carpet Cafe’ and was decked out like a celebrity hotspot. The front steps led to a glass entryway underneath a maroon awning, adorned with star-shaped lights and a marquee featuring the day’s food specials.

Danger said she’d rather stay in the car, but agreed to come in when I told her I’d pay for breakfast. I tugged on the diner’s glass double-door, which made a shiff sound as it opened, and held it for her. The diner’s lobby, made to reflect the prestige of its name, was embellished with black-and-white photos of movie directors and beloved actors, and the tile floor was painted to look like a rolled-out red carpet. The air conditioning swept Danger’s red hair as she passed through the doorway, and there was a certain beauty about her, all the allure of any cover-story socialite I could think of, but in the out-of-makeup way. Playing her doorwoman and seeing her flounce across that red carpet in those black heels, I imagined Danger de Mort headlining the next box-office smash.

After a teenaged waitress seated us in a roomy booth, I used the cloth napkin to wipe away the remains of the caterpillars I’d clomped while walking from the car to the diner. Danger ordered an orange juice. I was too disgusted with the green and black smears on the white napkin, and with myself for my public behavior, to even look at the waitress. It must have been mutual, because she did not ask me if I wanted anything.

While we waited, I asked Danger about the tattoo on her forearm: a helical blue shell with a coiled mass of tentacles percolating from a hood-shaped opening. A single eye indented the shell, and it appeared iridescent, as though it had been painted with the film of a soap bubble.

“I’ll let you ask me one question about it,” she said, and I thought of a conversation I often had with Bryan about how celebrity actors must grow tired of fans asking them to quote their most famous characters or to slip into a phony accent they’d owned onscreen a decade ago. I bet everyone asked Danger about her ink.

I asked, “What did the tattoo artist use for the eye?” and I immediately wished I’d asked her what the creature was. But there was something about the eye, something about the way its colors seemed to change as Danger moved her arm, blue and purple and yellow, in flux.

“I told him I wanted everyone who looked at me to see something different,” she said. She swiveled her arm. The colors flickered. “This is what he did for me.”

The waitress returned and placed a sweating glass of orange juice on the table. She looked down at me, the shoe-wiper, the public menace with death mashed into her napkin, and asked, “Have you decided?”

I’d been so enchanted with the shining eye of Danger’s forearm that I hadn’t even begun thumbing through the breakfast menu. “Just a fried egg,” I said. “No butter on the toast.” I didn’t really want it, but not having glanced at the menu, I thought of the last meal I’d made for Bryan before he’d hopped a plane to L.A. He took his fried eggs underdone and his toast butterless; he loved to watch the yellow lump burst and drag the bread crust through the yolk.

The waitress scribbled the order on a white pad and turned to Danger.

“I want the Anne Francis,” she said, pressing her finger against an image of food on the menu. “Bacon, not sausage. Potatoes crispy, not burnt. And a side of raspberries. I’m sure you’ve got some back there.” The waitress jotted it down and scuttled off, probably suppressing groans. I was dying for a coffee, but was still embarrassed about scraping the corpses from my shoes and didn’t need another reason to draw attention.

My eyes meandered to the glitzy marquee menu and then to the wall of black-and-whites – had they really snagged Ingrid Bergman’s autograph? Danger, disinterested and withdrawn, stared at the backs of her hands.

I’d tried to treat this like an adventure, an outing with a best friend, but the silence made me see the hitchhiker as a stranger again. The freckles dotting her nose and cheeks were unfamiliar; the way she shook the hair out of her eyes was something out of a magazine spread. She didn’t even trust me enough to tell me her name. She was a kid. I was supposed to call Bryan in an hour to see how his meeting had gone, and I was countless miles from home, far from our bed, where I liked to lie when we talked on the phone, and far from my garden, where I could bury my hands when we were done.

Danger tore the fat away from the bacon with her front teeth. She smashed her egg yolks with a fork.

“What do you do for a living?” I asked.

She skewered a piece of egg and didn’t look up from her plate. “I don’t remember.”

“Why can’t you tell me anything about yourself?” I said, stabbing a chunk of my own egg and mirroring her mannerisms. “I told you about me.”

She went “Ah,” holding up a finger, indicating that I was to wait for her to finish chewing. After swallowing the eggy mass, she said, “No, you told me about your husband. I know more about him than I know about you. All I know about you is you don’t like caterpillars on your shoes. You said something about teaching, but I can’t see you taking care of children.”

“I like to keep a garden,” I said. “That’s why I hate the caterpillars. I make life. They chew it up. Your turn.”

“I used to cliff dive at Crooked Pitch. Happy?”

“You can do better than that.”

She put her fork down. “What if this is a test?” she asked. “What if Mother Nature put me on the side of the road with that cardboard sign?”

“Fine. What’s the test, then?”

“It’s not for me to figure out, Kate.” Her words came out like spit, yet she pronounced my name the way a protective sister might. I ripped off a piece of toast and clammed up. Danger’s egg yolks had spread across her entire plate, drowning the bacon. She sighed as if resigning, touched a finger to the white ceramic, and asked if I’d ever dissected an animal.

“Frogs in middle school,” I said.

She worked her finger through the yolk. “My father was a crabber and a fisherman. He was also a drinker. One night, he got loaded and brought home one of his traps. He’d caught something he hadn’t wanted. It looked like a tiny sea monster.” I pictured the sea-beast tattooed on her forearm. “I was bad that day. I broke a cup, muddied the kitchen floor, made a lot of noise. Cried for no reason. My father hated that.”

“Did he hurt you?”

The yolk began to solidify around the bacon and the barely-touched potatoes. She continued pushing her finger through it, and the yellow gunk collected at the end of her nail. “I was twelve,” she said. “I think he knew better than to hit me anymore, but I was still afraid. He put this, this thing in front of me, and he told me to eat it. Everything but the shell. So I did. With my hands.”

I needed her name now, but I didn’t have it.

“It made me stronger, Kate, pulling every tentacle from that shell. They were like weeds with strong roots. It took me a full minute to chew each one. I even downed the eye and scraped the rest of the meat out of the shell with my fingernails.”

“Why?”

“Because I knew he didn’t think I could do it. He’d passed out by the time I finished, so for all he knew I could have thrown it out the window, but it was still victory. I didn’t throw up, just gagged a little. Had a nice conversation with the bathroom mirror after that. I was pretty sure the thing had still been alive while I was picking it apart. Even when you swallow and it all stays down, that’s not the type of thing you ever really digest; know what I mean?”

“I think so.”

She stopped playing with the food and pushed the plate away from her. “I need to get the hell out of this place,” she said. She flagged down the waitress for the check. “Thanks for the ride, Kate. I can find my way from here.”

 

Every morning, I passed a Lutheran Church on my way to work. The church was older than my parents. God wants spiritual fruit, not religious nuts, the church sign once declared in blinding white letters on paneled wood. Bryan, slouching in the passenger seat, amended the sign: “God always re-gifts the spiritual fruitcake.” Even road signs weren’t safe from my husband’s wit.

We rode to a fancy French restaurant and he mimicked the waiter’s accent. We shared dessert, a slice of white cheesecake in a perfect triangle. After that night, I began recording the messages on the sign, even the ones that weren’t all that funny, and a year later I already had so many pad pages, gas receipts, and old napkins full of laconic scripture, I could’ve easily scribbled the opening chapters of my own Book of Holy Passive-Aggression.

A week into my summer vacation, a few days after breakfast with the hitchhiker, I overtoasted an English muffin while distracted by a talk-show on television, and began planning a trip to the store. I whipped the car keys around my finger and headed down the road – driving past the church, I could just make out the words, Fight Truth Decay, behind the wall of caterpillars.

The night before, I’d dreamed of graphite-sketched women with mile-high stilettos and pink hair stalking me through the halls of my old high school. They jerked with each step as though being drawn on the spot. “I miss you,” Bryan had said on the phone the night before, in the weakest voice I’d ever heard come out of him. He must have suspected that every word between us made me think of the grotesque pictures on his computer, of impossible naked acrobatics he’d never even suggested we try together but was quick to fictionalize with his fantasy women. When he said he missed me, I wondered if he was imagining me revving my little Japanese car and disappearing from his life.

“I miss you, too,” I said. I knew how I sounded. I wanted to hurt him. I also wanted to snuggle him like he was a child apologizing for a mistake, but I knew he’d be filming his debut fitness video the following morning and would be surrounded by sweat-drenched, hardbodied women in tight sports bras. He’d enjoy their blithe personalities, their flawless skin, and their exuberance for increasing their heart rates. He’d place his hands around their narrow waists to make sure they were squatting with immaculate form.

“I’m going to buy a brand new computer when I get home,” he muttered. “I’ll get rid of all that stuff.”

“Let’s not get into that now,” I said. You have to focus.”

“Whatever you want.” He sounded defeated, as though he’d spent all day gathering the courage to speak to me about this. After a breathless pause, he said, “I’m about to take my group through some stretches. We’re filming Plyometrics at nine.”

If the test video satisfied the fitness company’s bigwigs, Bryan would be called back to Los Angeles and his fitness program would be promoted on national television. This was supposed to be a time for celebration, but I couldn’t detain my shock at what I’d found on his computer, and the shock manifested itself in my speech. My hoarseness told him I’d been throwing up. Every avoided subject was a sign I’d been tearing through his suit-closet for incriminating pictures and revealing letters. I felt like a culprit myself. My tone was false. My voice, a lie. When I spoke, Bryan could sense my nightmares.

When he’d first received the call from the fitness company, we’d sat at the kitchen table and planned a weekend of poolside laughter, fresh hotel sheets, iced champagne, and commemorative photos to top it off, but hoping for any of that now seemed ineffectual. Bryan persisted with his promises to exhume a sexual seed that had been growing untrimmed for years.

“You’ll do great,” I said.

When we finished talking, I walked to the garden. I drove my hands into the topsoil, working them in until I couldn’t see anything below my wrists. I spread my fingers like roots.

 

When the geraniums had sprouted promising buds, Bryan returned. An airport shuttle stuttered up to the driveway and Bryan appeared from behind the sliding door, dragging two Pan American suitcases behind him. I waited at the end of the walk. When he reached me, he dropped the luggage and kissed my lips.

Over the next few weeks, Bryan’s behavior became erratic. He was constantly crouched in front of the television, watching and rewinding clips of his fitness demo. When I’d try to watch it with him, he’d tell me to let him concentrate. His computer never moved from its desk. I wondered whether he knew I’d been shuffling through his things. He kept his sentences short when he bothered to speak at all.

Mornings were percussed by Bryan’s wake-up cycle: swing the bedroom door open so the knob bashes against the wall; pore over DVDs and drop the television remote onto the wooden TV stand; lift and release dumbbells on the living room floor; hurl the sliding glass door of the shower hard enough that it fully closes the first time; and when going out for the mail, slam the front door to be sure it doesn’t stick.

I remember watching a news story one morning while drinking hazelnut coffee. A newscaster in a charcoal suit, poised at the entrance of an outdoor aquarium, chatted with a young woman in a yellow raincoat. A name-tag was pinned to her front, and the newscaster held a black microphone to her face as if offering her an ice cream. “The ocean was once full of externally-shelled cephalopods, half of which are now extinct,” she said, with a TV smile that made the contrition in her voice seem terribly detached. “That’s why this find is so thrilling, Mark,” she went on. The newscaster nodded dully. “These creatures are impossible to track, and no one has ever figured out their reproduction patterns. They are literally living fossils.” A red ribbon of text accelerated across the bottom of the screen, unreadable through the steam rising from my cup.

I peered out the window at the rhododendrons puckering in the post-rain sunlight, awaiting my attention. Bryan was becoming more volatile by the day. Once his increasingly raucous morning routine was finished, he would either sit by the phone or disappear until dinner. He was afraid to wake me up, even when he knew I wasn’t sleeping. I still dreamed of crudely drawn women with flesh bared, of Bryan’s laptop cord morphing into a white, snakelike rope, looping around my neck and constricting me until my dream body died.

On the television, the woman in the raincoat led the newscaster toward a stone pool. The cameraman tilted the lens so that the surface of the pool was visible. Starfish clung to the sides. Beneath the opaque water, two white blurs darted around the perimeter. “Only three aquariums on Earth have been able to produce fertile nautilus eggs,” the woman said, “but no one has ever raised one to maturity. The animals often develop shell formation problems. No matter what we do, it’s almost as though they will themselves to die through some sort of natural trauma. We are hoping for an entire family once these eggs hatch.”

I recorded the rest of the show and set the television to record every installment of the Channel 17 morning news for the next two weeks. I remembered the cardboard sign – Nautilus – clutched in Danger’s hands, and how after breakfast, she wouldn’t let me take her there. But I had: I’d asked her about the tattoo with the gleaming eye, which had led to her telling the story of eating the tiny sea monster. Nautilus wasn’t a physical place; it was a mindset, a birthmark, a state of conversation. Why hadn’t she needed me once we’d arrived?

That night, Bryan lay awake, whispering about the bosses at Morton Fitness, how they sat around a polished oak table and discussed how to dish Bryan’s ideas to the public, how to get people to believe him. He joked about their tacky suits and ironed black ties, about how out of place he felt standing before them in a yellow jumper and hightops. This moment was a balm for both our wounds, maybe, but where joking would have turned to laughter, laughter to teasing, teasing to frisking, frisking to lovemaking, there was only me, the blackness of the bedroom intermittently lit by the passing of cars, the echolalia of the neighbors’ dobermans, the stubborn crack in our small-paned window, and the thought of caterpillars devouring my jasmine and coating my home like a shell.

 

The air felt cooler in the morning, as though the house had taken a breath. While I roamed the kitchen, scrambling eggs and brewing fresh coffee, the phone began shaking in its cradle. Bryan rushed in, materializing out of nowhere. He scooped the phone from the cradle and spoke his own name into the mouthpiece. After a series of nods, nine instances of Yeah and six of Thank you, Bryan hung up. “It was Morton,” he said. “They’re giving me the DVD deal.” I finished arranging breakfast and slid the egg-laden ceramic plates, wedding gifts from Bryan’s parents, onto the table. Bryan barely touched his food as he explained his ideas for the fitness program; he had clever slogans, poster designs, and even sales numbers figured out in his head. I managed “Mmm-hmm” through a burning mouthful of coffee.

I stabbed a piece of yellow egg with my fork, rolling it around on the plate, thinking of the pregnant nautilus. I thought of Danger devouring tentacles like strings of white pasta.

Bryan left for Los Angeles again. After he kissed me goodbye and boarded the shuttle, I slipped his demo disc from its sleeve, dropped it in the DVD tray, and planted myself on the ottoman. Once the Morton Fitness logo – the silhouette of a woman jumping rope – had popped in and faded, Bryan appeared on the screen, clad in black tights and flanked by two women, each with slender arms and abs of granite. “Guess what?” Bryan said, turning to the camera as though the viewer had just stumbled onto the set, which was built like a three-walled gym, “You’re here for the Plyometric Cardio Burner. Get ready to jump higher, run faster, and get those ripped thighs. Are you ready, Karen?” The woman on Bryan’s right, a curly-haired brunette who looked about seventeen, fist-pumped her approval. I endured the full forty minute workout, fast-forwarding here and there when the endless squats began to bore me or when the women in the video pumped out thirty reps of a jumping-jack-knee-tuck hybrid of which I was quite sure I couldn’t do a single one. When Bryan finished the workout, he and the women were drenched. I couldn’t help feeling a bit proud. My husband, the fitness icon. “That’s it,” he said to the camera lens. “How do you feel?”

As the shot faded back to the Morton logo, he high-fived the unnamed woman, and the brunette approached him for a sweaty hug. I expected him to shoot her one of the glib retorts he always gave me when I attempted the sweaty hug, but he reciprocated. Great grins spread across their faces in what felt like slow motion. The screen went dark as they embraced, leaving me with nothing but this moment, as if they’d drowned in each other’s moisture.

 

I still blame the caterpillars for what happened to my garden. The army of trees behind our home, which reclined over seven acres of sprawling hills, had gone from their usual apple-green to an aberrant brown.

I had spent springtime training Carolina jasmine to climb a crosshatched fence I’d nailed together and painted myself. I’d propped the fence alongside our duck pond, which my father had dug with a backhoe a few years back. During the caterpillars’ assault, my jasmine was the last plant to die, chewed to stems over the course of two nights. I scraped clumps of black caterpillars from the trellis. They felt like soft meat in my hands. I collected the hanging pots, ripped up the roots of the spider plants, and dumped the caterpillars into the pond. A duck, gliding over the still water, pecked at the ripples, unsure. I tore the fence out of the ground and swore until my mouth went dry.

Bryan had been gone for over a week, and I needed something green in the yard again.

Determined to regrow my jasmine but completely ignorant of what I’d need, I drove to the hardware store. I passed the Lutheran church sign (In the dark? Follow the Son!) and turned onto Cocca Ave, crushing legions of caterpillars beneath my tires. I attacked the store’s aisles, sifting through barrels of seed packets and rearranging the architecture of the spade display. As I heaved the door open with an armful of gardening loot, I saw her.

The hitchhiker, in a maroon dress and black heels, stood on the curb between a chest-high recycling bin and a telephone pole plastered with fliers for missing pets. Her arm was extended, her thumb pointed toward the sky.

“Danger?” I didn’t know what else to call her. I wished she would lower her arm before someone else pulled onto the shoulder and whisked her away.

“Hi, Kate.” Her hair settled in a red curtain as she turned.

“I’m sorry,” I said, still feeling uninhibited. “I should have been more helpful when you told me about your father.”

The sign was tilted against the recycling bin, facing the road. “You don’t seem like the same person,” she said.

“Why are you hitchhiking? How did you get all the way back here?”

“I shouldn’t really say. There are rules.”

Thinking I had figured out at least one of the hitchhiker’s tenets, I didn’t bring up the tattoo again.

“What if we start traveling somewhere, but we never arrive?” I asked.

Half of her mouth bent upward like a sliver of moon. In pure daylight, her face was a white, freckle-flecked seashell.

“Please spend the afternoon with me,” I said. “Please.”

 

During the non-air-conditioned return drive, I explained why I’d been ransacking the hardware store. I told Danger about my dreams, how the grotesque hand-drawn women had returned after I’d watched Bryan’s workout video. That brunette, Karen, had appeared, often with tentacles sprouting from her neck and curling around mine; her skin was made of hard white lines, as though etched with blackboard chalk.

Danger asked my age. She said nothing else during the entire drive.

“Thirty-four,” I said.

She smiled warmly, as if speaking to a grandparent.

Summer heat began lightly toasting my skin, just as it had when I’d first shaken Danger’s hand in the car. Still wearing high heels, she stood in the garden over a backdrop of yellow and green. A white admiral fluttered over her shoulder; she swatted at her hair. Sunlight cut through the striped maples, and as Danger lowered her hand, her graffittied skin glimmered with color. Her entire form refracted in the hot beams.

In some ways, I felt safer with Danger than with Bryan, who moved from room to room like a ghost of himself, and whose invented ghosts had burst through the walls of my dreams. The house felt more familiar, even among the empty pots and rotting, leafless trees, than the Red Carpet Cafe’, dressed in its unnatural colors and bedecked with gaudy bullshit.

Upon seeing the ruins of my jasmine, Danger immediately bent at the waist and pulled the trellis upright. We crouched over the soil and planted the new seeds together. She dragged a shovel from the woodshed and asked if I had anything we could burn. We descended the concrete stairs into the cellar; I breathed in ten years of must. Soot rushed to occupy my lungs. Danger laughed as she wiped the dust from the surface of Bryan’s wine rack with her bare palm. “No,” I said, stifling a cough. “We can’t burn that.”

I led her to the wood stove, currently abandoned, which sat in the back of the cellar behind ceiling-high stacks of gardening supplies. “That’ll do,” Danger said. She dumped a shovelful of ash and white coal into the metal bin under the stove, then led me up the cellar stairs the same way I’d brought her in. She poured the contents of the ash bin over the surface of each dirt pile we’d made, around the foundations of every root in the garden. She promised me the ashes would avert the appetites of the caterpillars, and indeed, long after the last time I ever saw her, I would still clot flowerbeds with ash. Stems always issued unharmed from soil to sky.

“He likes her,” I told Danger after I fast-forwarded to the end of Bryan’s fitness DVD. “That’s why he’s been so good about his computer. He didn’t touch it when he came back from L.A.”

“You’re assuming a lot,” she said. I leaned back on the couch, sinking into the forest green upholstery. She arched forward, elbows on knees, grinding the spikes of her heels into the hardwood floor.

“You do the workouts?” she asked.

“What?”

“Maybe it would help if you did the workout instead of watching him hug a sweaty woman over and over.”

“I’m not in good shape.”

“That’s the point of a workout, Kate. Let’s do this – ” she peeked at the DVD sleeve, “– Cardio Burner, together. Then I’ll be a sweaty woman, and you can hug me, and you’ll see that this thing is in your mind.”

I refused. But even after I’d gone to the kitchen and had begun preparing a chicken stir-fry, I heard the Morton theme music and Bryan’s voice, followed by the sticky sound of feet on hardwood. She was doing it.

I couldn’t watch. I drew out the time it took to prepare dinner, making sure to place the dishes on the table just as Danger was wandering into the kitchen, and as she drifted through the doorway, a trail of sweaty vapor rose in her wake.

“Hug me,” she said, ignoring the steaming plates. I was boxed into the L-shaped alcove formed by the sink and the blue tile counter. I felt a feeling like fear, and opened my arms. Danger looped her hands around my shoulders. Something in her touch, her scent, her sweat gliding along my skin, her arms hooked flimsily around me – youth bled from her.

I asked her age, whispering into a drape of red hair. She said she couldn’t remember.

 

I awoke at midnight with a cold hand caging my wrist.

After dinner, I’d asked Danger if there was somewhere I could bring her. She told me no, not this late. I watched with admiration as she threw back four shots of Bryan’s special bourbon, and as I changed the sheets in the guest room for her, she clandestinely stumbled into our bedroom, snuggled beneath the calico quilt, and fell asleep. I would have woken her had I not wanted the company, a solid body to weigh down the other side of the bed, so badly. When I felt her hand, I imagined she was my teenage daughter. Envisioning myself with children, I noticed the caterpillar on the wall, traversing an orb of moonlight. I pretended this orb was a second moon, with the body of the caterpillar blackening the surface like a crater, and I whispered to my teenage daughter stories of how her father and I gazed at that same moon on our wedding night, surrounded by ramparts of gift-wrapped boxes, our skin dancing as our blood rushed beneath it. I held onto this fantasy until the caterpillar moved, making me forget the second moon. I leaped from bed, felt cold fingers slide from my wrist, grabbed the nearest object (Danger’s high-heeled shoe) and crashed it against the wall. The kill wasn’t clean. When I brought my hand down, the caterpillar scuttled away, and the heel of the shoe severed its body; the lower portion stuck to the wall and the upper portion retreated frantically until I smashed it with my bare hand. Languid, half-asleep, I got slowly back into bed, careful not to wake my daughter, and before I closed my eyes, I tried to shimmy my wrist back between her still fingers.

 

I woke to an open shade, a brown smear on the wall, the phone ringing, and a woman-shaped dintin the opposite side of the mattress. I grabbed the cordless phone from the cradle and groaned unintelligibly into the mouthpiece.

“Good morning, sweetheart,” Bryan said, sounding ready to take on the world. “It’s great to hear your voice.”

“Yours, too.” I gazed at the spot where Danger had been. Her scent, that of cinnamon and down, was everywhere.

“You’re speaking to Bryan Cross, the Nicest Guy in America. Trademark.”

“That’s what they’re calling you?”

“Yeah. I admit, it’s a silly marketing gimmick, but Morton liked my smile.”

“What about Karen? What does she call you?”

There was a long stretch of silence. “Who?”

“The girl from the video. The one who rubbed her sweaty body all over you.”

I walked through the bedroom doorway into the brightly-lit kitchen. I squinted and felt my way around. Danger sat at the table, eating oatmeal with a salad fork. Her hair was a shaggy red mane, and her eyes, black against the sunlight, were fixed on me.

“Katie,” Bryan said, “This is the way fitness videos work. You have to act all buddy-buddy with people and look like you’re having a great time. People who aren’t in shape feel like shit, and after they work out, their knees are rickety and they’re on the verge of vomiting. They need to know that a community of involved people is there for them, and it helps if those people appear as though they like each other.”

“How am I supposed to believe that? Why did you stop looking at porn all of a sudden? Your computer hasn’t moved from its desk since the first L.A. trip. Things don’t change that quickly, Bryan.”

“You’re right. They don’t. But it’s not what you think.”

I sat at the chair across the table from Danger. Her eyes were still on me. As she lifted the fork, dripping with mush, to her mouth, her tattoo shimmered. The oatmeal steamed. I inhaled brown sugar.

“I killed a caterpillar last night,” I said to Bryan. “They’re in the house now. And you’re not here. This is the kind of thing we’re supposed to do together.”

He forced a laugh. “Killing bugs?”

“Defending the castle.”

Another pause. “I know, Katie. I’m coming home soon. We’ll talk again.”

After hanging up, I realized I hadn’t told him about my nightmares of being strangled with wire, that even if Bryan never looked at his artwork again, it decorated my dreams, and every night it killed me.

“Hi,” Danger said with sleep in her voice. I reached across the table and touched her hand. She was wearing one of my robes. We linked fingers.

 

I threw jeans on, gassed up the car, and drove Danger to the aquarium (the Lutherans had put together a message about forgiving the wicked; the deluge of caterpillars teemed around the white letters as if hiding them from me).

Yes, she’d said when I’d asked if I could bring her somewhere. There were no hints save for the cardboard sign in the backseat of my car. The tide pool from the eleven o’clock news was set between an animatronic narwhal and the gift shop, the gaps filled with dozens of passersby whose expressions ranged from enthralled to fatigued. Children waved pearl-colored wind toys with dolphins for petals; the wordless chatter of tour guides vibrated through the walls; a little girl ran between Danger and I, treading over my feet; a woman with a ring on every finger took my hand and apologized for the girl.

“I’ve been everywhere,” Danger muttered, placing her palms on the stone rim of the tide pool and leaning over the surface of the water. “I just point my finger and go wherever the driver decides to take me. It’s an exercise in interpretation, I guess.”

She told me where she’d started. If it had been anyone else, if I hadn’t felt the softness of her hand, the honesty in the lines of her skin, that road map of veins and creases and invisible hairs, I would not have believed how far she’d traveled. I leaned next to her, watching the water. She tracked every ripple.

White blurs jolted beneath, bubbles rolled across the top like boiling tap water on a stove, the perfect living conditions described by the girl in the yellow raincoat on the news. I wished one of the creatures would bob its head, if it had one, above the surface and prove to me it was growing properly, that its shell wasn’t caving in, that it wasn’t willing itself to die.

Knowing why she had come here, why she’d needed someone to take her here, I took her hand again, lifted it from the rocks, unclenched it. I felt her bones relax. I set her fingers against my lips, one by one. The grooves in her fingertips were like the stony impressions in the face of a fossil, revealing layer after layer after layer. You are forgiven, I thought, kissing her toughened skin. These hands, these contrite fingers, tore that innocent animal apart, and that’s why you’re here. But the creatures in the pool can’t forgive you themselves.

Her eyes narrowed again, her expression tentative, and her chest rose and fell in quick beats, just as it had when she’d finished exercising and walked into the kitchen dripping. As she raised her other arm, her artwork came into view, that gorgeous prismatic nautilus, and I tasted sea salt as I touched her first two fingers to my mouth.

 

            Winter destroyed the caterpillars. I wished their passing had been more romantic, but it was better than local madmen spraying fire at every stalk of vegetation in the district. While lying awake and counting the speckles of light reflected by passing vehicles onto the ceiling, I contemplated whether my murder-by-shoe had been the turning point in the struggle, whether the caterpillars had just given up after that.              

Bryan returned, and during single-degree temperatures, when the spruces froze solid after a spritz of rain and the front steps were clumped with snow, he pined to go to Los Angeles more than ever. Every other month, Morton would drag him away to appear on QVC or lead a week-long workout series with the Army. I watched the news every morning and took to eating oatmeal with a fork. One Saturday, when the sun had cracked the clouds for the first time in weeks and Bryan was selling his exercise program on the Home Shopping Network, the phrase “disappearance of the nautilus” caught my ears through the popping of hot butter in the egg pan. According to the lady in the yellow raincoat, now flanked by two police officers with folded arms, a young woman scooped the animals out of the tide pool and ran off with them cradled to her chest. Without saying a word, she hit the glass door with her shoulder and vanished into the sun, her body blurring together with the bulk of the creatures, her hair like tentacles and their tentacles like hair.

 

I considered taking up hitchhiking, but I waited.

 

After the airport shuttle had pulled away, Bryan collapsed to his knees in the snow. I knelt next to him, took his face in my hands, and rubbed the tears away with my thumbs before they froze. He told me he wasn’t addicted; he’d only been curious. Karen was no one; he hadn’t spoken with her since the shoot. He hated how I avoided him and floated to other rooms when he was home, how I pretended to be asleep after he got up, how he’d lie in hotel beds with the phone resting on his chest, awaiting my familiar ring, missing me.

I said nothing; I couldn’t even comfort him. Moreover, I couldn’t bring myself not to believe him. I tried to make myself cry, but nothing came out. I took him by the hand and led him inside, dragging one of his suitcases and assuring him I’d unpack his things in the morning.

That night, Bryan kept me awake with ceaseless tossing and turning. Unable to take anymore, I kicked the white sheet from our bodies, watching it float from my foot and settle against the oak dresser like a curtain of fog. I rolled onto him. He tore at my thin nightgown, and after flinging it into the corner, he put his mouth on me, instinctively, like an animal struggling to seal a wound with saliva. In the morning, when sunlight shone through the fish tank and cast chlorinated ripples against the bedroom wall, I felt exonerated.

 

Bryan is in the driver’s seat. I am on the passenger side with Ruby, our daughter, resting in my arms. We are in the parking lot of the Lutheran church, where Bryan leads “celebrity workouts” with the church’s elderly members on the weekend. It’s an election year, and the church’s big sign shares the lawn with the names of political hopefuls. “Judge Russell,” Bryan quips, gazing at a lawn sign the size of a chalkboard. “I will, if I ever meet the guy.” He draws a long breath and lets the air settle into his chest. He scrutinizes the old church through the pocked windshield as though considering whether he wants to go in, whether he’s supposed to sit in the driver’s seat forever.

            Ruby gazes up at me, cooing for her bottle, her blue eyes like little mood-rings. I nudge my index finger into her soft palm, and she squeezes. One day, years from now, while Ruby and I are tending the garden together, dumping ashes over soil, she will ask me about my life, about the adventures in youth and romance that led to her birth. I will tell her about beginnings, how her parents fought off the caterpillars, and how the caterpillars finally left us – they all became moths, I’ll tell her, fluttering from their cocoons and filling the sky like a fireworks display.   I remember the scent of cinnamon and down, a road trip with no destination, and if I’d hitchhiked to Crooked Pitch instead of staying to give life to Ruby, how I’d have found a frozen high-heel-print at the water’s edge, the legacy of a little savior, Danger de Mort ascendant, forever kicking through the waves with the weight of the world cradled in her arms.

 

 

BIO

richard hartshornRichard Hartshorn lives in upstate New York and earned an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work has appeared in Drunken Boat, Split Rock Review, Hawaii Women’s Journal, and other publications.

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Sarah Kruel Photo

Coat Tales

by Sarah Kruel

 

Drop Cap She sat on the window seat in the empty bedroom and looked out across the lawn. It was cold for October, and she pulled her sweater tight. The pine tree boughs bent away from the gusting wind, and the red maple leaves blew across the ground. She had always loved the changing seasons, but now she was going to a place that was summertime all year long. No winter coats this year.

She smiled wryly. There was nothing like a good winter coat, but things change. She had downsized and everything she needed was packed. Donations to Good Will had been delivered. Most of the furniture had been sold. Everything was unfolding as planned. She would live near her daughter in a place some people called paradise.

 ************

When she was a college freshman, she had saved two hundred dollars to buy a plane ticket home for Christmas. It was the first time she had been away from her family for so long, and she was looking forward to seeing them. Buying the ticket was going to take most of her money but she hoped to bring home a few gifts for everyone too. She couldn’t go empty-handed at Christmas, so on a late November day she took the bus into town to see what she could she find.

Westfield was a magical land of sparkling lights and store windows full of red and silver bells, glittering Christmas trees, and beautifully wrapped packages. She paused often to take in the colorful displays until she came to Barton’s. It was the biggest department store. Svelte mannequins in red evening gowns and gold lame tops with black velvet skirts beckoned to her. She pushed through the crowded store onto the escalator to Ladies’ Apparel on the second floor.

As soon as she stepped off, she saw the jacket. It was strategically placed to get the attention of anyone arriving on the floor – not in the coat department, but right there at the entrance. She went directly to it. It was golden suede, cut short and belted, and it was her size – small. The faux fox collar was soft and deep like sheep’s wool. She buried her fingers in it, then ran them across the smooth suede sleeve. She knew it was only for display, but she didn’t care. She unbuttoned it right there, took it off the mannequin, and put it on. Then she found a mirror and looked at herself from every angle. It was beautiful. She took it with her and walked to the cashier, counted out her money and stepped onto the down escalator. The coat was hers.

Outside the store the cold air hit her cheeks like a slap in the face. What was she thinking? Her money – the money for her plane ticket home – the money for the presents she would have brought with her – was gone. In its place was a jacket. She stepped off the crowded sidewalk into a doorway to open the bag, and pressed her fingers again into the deep soft collar. Her chest tightened. She was penniless and all by her own choice. It was terrifying and yet she was thrilled.

The bus ride back to campus was long and gave her too much time to worry. She could never tell her parents what she had done. They would be so disappointed if she didn’t come home. She had to find a way of making up the money she had spent. Some way she would just have to do it. She would not return the coat.

The next day she studied the help wanted ads in the local paper. Her cafeteria job was very time-consuming, and exams were coming right after Christmas. She had a term paper in philosophy due before vacation, but she had to do this. There was only one listing that seemed like a possibility. She called immediately and arranged for an interview.

She knocked on the door of the big stone house. Eventually the door opened and a woman with a walker stood before her. She was tall with curly white hair and round dark-framed glasses that stood out on her pale face. The walker seemed too small for her. She wondered if the woman was naturally hunched or if she was hunching to reach the handles of the walker.

“I’m Emily. I’m here about the job.”

“Yes, I know. Come in. It’s cold out there.”

The woman seemed well except for her dependence on the walker. She explained that she had difficulty maintaining the house by herself and that her emphysema had slowed her down even more. She needed help with cleaning and making her meals.

“So you’re a college girl, Emily. Do you have time for this?” Emily had already told her about her cafeteria job. “Don’t you need time to study?”

“Yes, I do, but I absolutely have to earn some money.”

“You sound desperate.”

“Well, yes. I really need a job. I need money to go home for Christmas. And for other things,” she stammered.

“You seem, as I said, a little desperate. Are you paying your own tuition? Isn’t your campus job enough?”

“My campus job helps a lot, but right now I have some unexpected expenses.” It sounded ominous, and she was afraid she had taken the wrong approach.

“Well I can see that you’re serious about getting work, and I think you can be a big help to me, but please tell me why you need this extra money so badly.”

Mary wasn’t going to be put off with vague generalities.

“I bought something that was not within my budget,” she said, hoping that would end the questioning.

The woman said nothing. She sat in silence until Emily blurted out “I bought this jacket,” as if confessing to a crime.

The lady threw back her head and laughed and laughed.

“Well, it’s beautiful. I love it. Carpe diem. I’d have bought it too if I were a kid like you. The collar is so elegant and the color – palomino, I’d call it – is perfect with your hair.”

They laughed together. It was good to tell someone who really seemed to understand. It was an impulsive act; it was irrational, but she had no regrets. And now it seemed that her money problems would be solved. The job was hers.

She liked Mary a lot. Even though she needed help, she was not helpless. She was full of life – funny, opinionated, strong. She’d traveled a lot, gotten married, divorced, remarried, and now widowed. She and her second husband had operated an antique shop, and her home was full of beautiful pieces from that time – highly polished mahogany furniture, china, glassware, all arranged as if the shop were open for business. One of Emily’s jobs was polishing and dusting, and she loved doing it because each piece was special and unique and usually had a story to go with it.

After the Christmas holidays, she continued to work for Mary. Suddenly it was March. She walked from the bus to Mary’s house with the jacket slung over her shoulder. It was a beautiful warm day though not yet spring. She knocked and waited for Mary’s hearty welcome to come in. There was no response for a long time, and then the door swung open. A tall middle-aged man whom she knew at once was Mary’s son extended his hand and introduced himself.

“Mary’s had a fall. She’s at the hospital.”

She’d been with Mary just two days ago. They’d taken a walk in the back yard and sat on a little bench watching the birds. It was so peaceful there with hyacinths and forsythia in full bloom. As always Mary told her stories and as always she also wanted to know what was happening with Emily. Did she finish her English paper? What was she reading?

Later that night Mary’s son called as he said he would. Mary had broken her hip. She would be in the hospital for a while, and then he was arranging for rehab out of state in the town where he lived. He wasn’t sure when she would be able to return home.

The rehab center was much too far for Emily to visit Mary, but she called often. The first time she called they gave the phone to Mary, but she never spoke. A nurse said she was having a difficult day. She was very weak and her emphysema had gotten worse. Emily called at least once a week to see how she was doing but never talked to her. She sent letters as well, but it was hard to keep writing when there was no response. She wondered if the nurses read them to her. Was she able to understand them if they did? Then just before the semester ended, Mary’s son called to tell her that Mary wouldn’t be returning home. She was no longer able to live alone. The house was for sale

She took her final exams and went back home for the summer. She got a job at the Dairy Queen and took her little sister to the beach a lot. She met a guy at work and they went to the beach together too. Sometimes to the movies. It was fun, but she was happy when September came and she returned to school. Mary would have loved to have her read the poems they were studying in English. She wrote a paper on Keats and wondered what Mary would think of it. She missed her. Winter came and she wore the “palomino” coat with no regrets.

************

            She graduated early and was ready to conquer New York. She had a job at Flower Fifth Avenue Hospital, an efficiency apartment on the upper west side, and a new wardrobe. The college uniform of sweatshirts and jeans was gone, and the centerpiece of that change was the cream-colored coat with the hood. It was long and full and elegant. It made whatever else she was wearing seem as stylish as it was. She was a grown-up in the real world!

She hadn’t even worked a day when the transit strike occurred. The excitement of the new job dimmed, replaced by the frustration of getting there. It was very cold and very early as she started off toward Central Park for her first day. She pulled the beautiful coat around her and shouldered her purse. People were everywhere – walking, running, on bikes. She crossed at 72nd Street and entered the park. School boys with backpacks scooped up the dirty snow and pelted each other with hard-packed icy balls. Men in suits with their collars up against the wind strode rapidly in rhythm with their swinging briefcases. Some rode motorcycles or bikes and had wool hats pulled down over their ears or scarves blowing out behind their necks. Women carried their heels and wore their tennis shoes or winter boots for the march across the city.

Cars were streaming across too. As she made the first turn, she saw that some drivers had stopped their cars and offered rides to the walkers who eagerly jumped in. Some walked backwards with their thumbs stuck out, hoping the next driver would take pity on them. It was so crazy, she thought. Hitchhiking across Central Park. Probably not a good idea. She shoved her hands in her pockets and trudged on, catching up to two other girls. They were giggling and sliding on the snow and occasionally sticking out their mittened thumbs. She was about to speak to them when a red Volkswagen pulled over, and they piled into the back seat, screaming in appreciation.

The driver laughed too. “Come on. Come on. There’s room for you.”

She hesitated and then slid into the passenger’s seat. He was handsome. His curly dark

hair hung below his ears and was blown about by the wind as the door opened. His eyes were

incredible, and his laugh was quick and loud.

They crossed the park in what seemed like minutes, and he announced that he was headed for 57th Street. The girls in the back hopped out despite his offer to take them wherever they were going. She got out as well. It would still be a long walk for her but at least she had gotten across the park.

“Where are you headed?”

“Just uptown a little bit.” She thanked him and hurried off.

No one knew how long the strike would last. That first day everyone seemed elated at the change of pace, at the adventure of it. By the second day the exuberance had waned for many. Hers had not. She was excited. The unexpected ride had filled her with nervous energy. Who would believe that on her first day of work she had hitchhiked with a gorgeous stranger.

On Tuesday she found herself watching for the VW as she started across the park. A few drivers slowed and offered her a ride, but she declined. Halfway across the park she heard a beeping horn and saw the red car slowing beside her.

“You again.”

“Yes, again.”

“Get in.”

She got in. She had hoped this would happen, and now she was speechless. This time there were no other passengers to fill the silence with giggles and silly talk.

“Where exactly do you work?” he asked.

“Up 5th.”

“Where?”

“Flower Fifth Avenue Hospital.”

“Oh my God. That’s really a hike. I’ll drive you.”

She protested but he had already turned up. The conversation became easier, but her hands were tight fists in her coat pockets and her palms were wet inside the wool gloves. When he dropped her off in front of the hospital, he said “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

She savored the idea and prayed that the strike would continue. And it did. Every day that week he drove along side of her in the red car just as she started out across the park. On Friday he had a bag of doughnuts on the seat and held it open for her. They ate and talked. It was easier now. Too soon she was getting out at the hospital and waving good-bye to this man who occupied her thoughts more than the new job and more than all the things she had anticipated with so much excitement only a week ago.

The week-end was eternity. She was restless. She hung the new curtains she had bought for the livingroom. She went to the movies with a girl from work. She cleaned the kitchen and rearranged the furniture. She even thought of taking a walk across the park but stopped herself because there was little chance she would see him.

Finally Monday came. She looked out the window by her bed. Something was different. Then she saw the buses lumbering along Amsterdam. The throngs of people she had become accustomed to were gone. Her stomach tightened and her excitement became despair. The strike was over. She sat back on the bed and stared at the floor. Maybe she would walk anyway. Maybe he would be looking for her. How silly she was.

She took the bus across town and changed to the uptown one. It had only been a week of quick rides across the park, but it felt like more. How could it end so abruptly? She had thought that they would become more than friends as they already had in her girlish fantasies. At first she pressed her face to the bus window, scanning the road for his car, but the red car never came into view that day or ever again. Nor did she see it parked in front of the hospital waiting for her when she left for the day as it did in her daydreams. It was a long time before she stopped looking for him, and so much longer for the sadness to pass. He had broken her heart, and he didn’t even know her name,

************

It was on the cover of the Woodward Winter Catalog. They called it a swing coat – three-quarter length with no buttons and a big wide collar and cuffs. It came in pumpkin which was on the catalog cover or eggplant. She ordered it that day. Pumpkin.

Before the coat arrived, she found out she was pregnant. It was ironic. She never dreamed that the loose swinging coat would become her maternity coat as well as the coat she would wear bringing home her beautiful baby daughter. When she saw it on the front of the catalog, she had only known it was a great coat.

It arrived by UPS. She tore open the box and put it on, then walked outside and down the block. The coat was perfect. Life was perfect. The baby would be perfect. She smiled and savored her happiness. She was going to be a mother.

Months later she took the same walk wearing the same coat as she pushed the beautiful baby girl in the handsome new carriage. She had quit her job even though she loved it. She would go back when the time was right – when the baby was in school or maybe pre-school or she would work part-time. She gave it little thought because she had no misgivings about her choice. It would all work out. There was no hurry. She was a mother now.

Before the baby came, Jim had planned to cut back at work and finish his graduate degree. Baby Laura changed the plan, and she felt bad for him. He never said so, but she knew he was frustrated about not completing his studies. She lived with this awareness for a while, but finally that was it. She announced to Jim that she could get a part-time job at night when he could be home with Laura. He could take one or two classes at a time right now and move closer to finishing. He protested as she knew he would, but finally she convinced him that it was a good thing for both of them

She had not considered that getting a job would be so hard. It never had been like that before. It was partly the hours, and she was over-qualified for many of the jobs that fit her schedule. Finally she accepted the fact that the only job she could get that would pay enough to make it worthwhile was waitressing. The hours worked. She could even work week-ends. The tips would be good if she worked in the right place. She’d done it when she was in high school and a few summers during college. She was good at it. She had made good money. It had been fun then – flirting with the customers, going out after work with the other kids who worked there, sleeping late, and back to work at night. It was a party that never ended.

But it wasn’t a party now. It was a challenge that she hoped she was up to. There was a job at The Carriage House and she went for an interview. The restaurant wasn’t open yet and it was cold in the empty dining room where she waited for the manager, wrapped in the pumpkin coat. She clutched the resume that she had revised to include her early waitressing jobs at The Corner Restaurant, Dairy Queen, and the Beach Front Hotel. Now those carefree days were more important than her master’s degree and the three years she had worked in labor relations.

She felt old and awkward as she watched the kitchen staff arriving, but the manager was nice and the interview was short. She was hired. She could start that night. The stress drained out of her body. She had done it. She swirled the swirl coat and walked quickly to the car. She was young again.

Every night she left the house as soon as Jim came home. On the day when he had classes Mrs. McCabe came and stayed with Laura until he got back. She was a wonderful lady who had raised four children of her own, and seemed to really enjoy spending time with Laura. Jim was happy to be getting closer to finishing his degree. And she was pleased with herself for making the choice.

Waitressing wasn’t much different than it had been when she was younger. Keep the customers happy. Chit chat or stay quiet and low profile, which ever she felt they wanted. She could do it. She could read the customers. She was organized and quick, and above all she knew “the customer was always right.”

It was a game really. She was an actress, and at each table she played a different role. It was fun, but not in the same way it had been years before. She didn’t really want her life to be a game. Sometimes right in the middle of the game, she wanted to stop – to say what she really meant or to say nothing at all.

That’s how she was feeling on that Monday night, working in the bar section. There weren’t many customers, but Monday was bowling night for the leagues so there were the regulars. They were big beer drinkers who always asked for snacks and didn’t tip well no matter how you played the game.

Five guys sat at a corner table near the door. She didn’t recognize them, but they were dressed like the typical Monday- nighters – jeans and sweatshirts or tee shirts with college names on them. Probably from the leagues. One wore a button-down shirt. He would rock back in his chair periodically and laugh. The others would join in. He was the alpha of the pack, she guessed. She could hear his voice above the others – something that always annoyed her. She wondered if he realized how loud he was or if he was intentionally talking to the whole room.

She chose the quiet and serious role for them – more because she didn’t want to play that night than because she saw it as their role of choice for her. More likely they would have warmed up to chatty-moving-toward-flirty as the night wore on. They were all pretty happy with themselves, and button-down was especially pumped up and full of himself. The others, although they gradually became less focused on his pontificating, were still clearly a bit under his spell. Probably he was their boss. He had some kind of status with them for sure.

As she approached with the third round on her tray and a refill on the pretzels, button-down tipped back his chair again and the back bumped her tray. The drinks sloshed, and the glass of vodka tipped right over and spilled on his sleeve. She righted the empty glass and apologized, but he began playing his own dramatic role. He jumped to his feet as if she’d scalded him with hot water, and began rubbing his sleeve with a napkin.

“Oh God, you spilled my drink.”

It was just a shot glass full of vodka. She apologized again and attempted to help him dry his sleeve. The other guys were quiet now as his anger grew. There was really nothing more she could do, nor did she want to. She watched him stomp out with his followers close behind him. As he disappeared, a sense of her own power came over her, and comforted her. Button-down and his boys were jerks, but she owed them a lot. Five boors in a bar had made it so very clear. She finished the night, and gave notice. The game was over. It was time to move on.

************

She wore her “big shot” coat every day during the impending merger. It was a gift from Jim. She saw it in the window at Bergdorf’s when they had spent a week-end in the city. He remembered that she had admired it, and there it was under the tree that Christmas. And it truly was a “big shot” coat. That’s what Jim called it. It was black cashmere with a long sash, conservative but trendy. She loved it.

The merger was stressful. There were position cuts to be made and her department got to deliver that news. There was job training for some. There were offers of relocation for others. Whatever the outcome was for a particular person, it was a radical change and a hard departure from what they had become accustomed to. And through it all she knew that her own position was in jeopardy too, after she had completed the necessary dirty work.

She started arriving early at her office to avoid seeing and especially having to converse with employees. She was aware of the lists. She knew who was going and who was staying. In some cases she had been a part of the decision

People cried. Men and women alike. People who had always gotten along with each other argued over silly things. They were angry and sad and had no recourse when she sat down with them to deliver the verdict – going or staying. If it was a layoff, she talked options with them. but once the bad news was presented, they heard nothing.

When Phil Black called her into his office, she was ready for her own bad news. They’d worked together for a long time. He was her boss and mentor. Sitting there in front of him she thought he looked old. His hair had grayed over the years and his face was drawn. Even though they had become good friends, it was hard to look at him, waiting for what was to come.

“Emily, you’ve done a great job with these people. It’s a very hard thing to do. And there’s no way it can make you feel good or even satisfied. Believe me, I know.”

She couldn’t make eye contact. How long would he drag this out? Her face felt so hot. She wondered if it was red and if he noticed. Finally she forced herself to raise her eyes and look at him.

“They want you to be the new Director of Human Resources.”

He said it mechanically. His smile was tight and forced.

“What do you mean?”

“Just what I said. They want you to be the new director.”

“What about you?”

“Retirement. They’ve offered me a generous package.”

“But you’re not ready to…”

“No. It wasn’t my plan, but sometimes things go differently than you expect.”

“But you don’t have to do it.”

“Yeah, yeah I do. That’s the deal.”

She studied the man. Phil had been her rock, especially over the past few months. After a day spent devastating people’s lives, she was so often ready to throw in the towel. He was the one who somehow patched her up and sent her home feeling that she could do it again the next day and not fall apart. But now Phil was the one. How could that happen?

“I can’t go into it any more than that, Emily.”

He stood up. She took a step toward him and stopped. There was a look in his eye. He wasn’t her mentor anymore. He was another casualty, and just like with the others, there was nothing she could do except step back and allow him his pride and his privacy.

“Okay Phil. We’ll talk tomorrow. I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay Emily. It’s okay.”

But it really wasn’t okay. He was trying to say the right things, but she’d been through the bitterness and the grief with so many others over the past month. There was no way to make it okay that they were being laid off or asked to take a lesser job or retire like Phil. He needed to keep it to himself. He needed to be strong. He couldn’t open up his rage or expose his shame that this was happening to him. She hugged him and left his office. They wouldn’t talk about it tomorrow or ever.

In a few weeks Phil was gone. She became the new Director of Human Resources for the merged company. Life went on. A new normal emerged. Jim teased her that the lady in the big shot coat was a real big shot now.

 ************

            She bought the grey coat with the mink collar for herself when they moved to Connecticut. It was supposed to be a little treat for her at that time of pulling up stakes and moving to a new place, but now her most vivid memory of it was one of pain and sadness. Even after so many years.

It was Saturday. Jim was home working in the yard, and she had gone to have her hair cut in town. When she returned, she parked the car in the front driveway and thought she heard him calling her name. She paused as he came running toward her.

“I’ve killed Big Boy. Emily, I’ve killed him. I ran over him with the tractor. I didn’t know he was there.”

Together they ran to the empty field behind the garage. Big Boy lay still in the grass. Jim threw himself on the ground and clutched the dog in his arms.

“Oh my God; oh my God,” he cried over and over, burying his face in Big Boy’s fur.

Her heart was pounding hard as she knelt beside them. Big Boy’s body was untouched. She laid her hands on the beautiful brown coat and stroked him, then howled in anguish as she saw the bloodied head where the tractor wheel had hit it.

“Big Boy,” Jim said again, tears filling his eyes. “Big Boy.”

This could not be. It could not. The tears streamed across her cold cheeks. They had had dogs and cats and even guinea pigs when Laura was a child, but this dog was their dog. They had gone to see him on a beautiful spring day, wondering if it was a good idea. It had been a long time since they had had an animal in the house. Maybe they were too old to start with a new puppy. Maybe it was more trouble than it was worth. But it was Jim’s good friend who pushed them to come and take a look at the last of the litter. “I saved the best for you,” he said. “He’s a special guy.” They said okay, but just to take a look. No promises. But they knew in the first moment they saw him that it was true. He was a special dog. He ran across the backyard with his mother following close behind him, ears flying backward in the wind, dragging a stick that was far too big for a pup. But he did it. Then he saw them and dropped it, running toward them like he knew he was to be theirs. And he was. For eleven years he had been so very very special. Their Big Boy.

She put her arms around the man and the dog and hugged them close to her. Together they wept. Finally she spoke.

“Jim, he’s dead.”

It sounded so cold.

“I killed him.”

“It was an accident. You didn’t know.”

The blood on Big Boy’s head had started to dry. He looked like he was sleeping in Jim’s arms as he had so many times for so many years. She took off her coat and covered him. For a long time they stayed there on the ground with the dog between them, silent except for gasping sobs. Finally she stood up.

“I’ll get a shovel.”

He didn’t respond so she started off alone toward the shed. She fought to stop herself from again crumpling on the ground and letting out her grief in deep gut-wrenching howls. When she finally reached the barn, she leaned against the wall of the old building and realized that her whole body was shivering. She steadied herself, gasping. She had to be strong. In the corner was Big Boy’s barn bed where he slept for hours while Jim puttered in his workshop. But he wasn’t really sleeping – just waiting for the glorious moment when Jim would put down his tools and say, “Wanna go for a walk Boy?”

She needed to get the shovel and get back to Jim but she felt so helpless. What could she say to him? The responsibility he felt took his grief far beyond her own deep anguish. There were no words that made any sense to her. People lost their sons and daughters in terrible ways. People suffered unjustly. She tried to put this in perspective but her emotions would not allow it. Her heart was torn apart. Wonderful Big Boy was dead.

She found the pointed shovel and carried it down the hill. Jim and the dog were still on the ground and his grasp on the limp body had stayed tight. After a few minutes, she took Jim by the shoulders and raised him up with the dog pressed against his chest. Her coat fell away and lay on the ground in a heap. A blood smear covered the sleeve and the black fur collar was stiff. She picked up the coat and wrapped it around Big Boy again.

Without speaking they walked toward the big chestnut tree where Big Boy had often waited for an unsuspecting squirrel that he could chase. That was the place. She started to dig. In any other circumstance Jim would have taken the shovel and done it, but he turned away unable even to watch. It took a long time, and the sunless day was darkening more. It was very cold now but her body warmed as she dug harder. When she felt the hole was big enough, she stepped away from it.

“Maybe I should get his bed.”

Jim didn’t answer. The finality of the big rectangular hole in the ground was unbearable. She was torn between getting the bed and prolonging this terrible moment or just getting it over with. Finally she went to Jim and together in silence they placed the dog in the ground. Once again she pulled the coat securely around the strong, sleek body. She looked at Jim and then began slowly shoveling the dirt back in place.

“Good-bye Big Boy.” She whispered the words to herself. Gradually he disappeared beneath the fresh dark earth. Their dear friend was gone.

************

            A car door slammed in the driveway, and she jumped up from the window seat. The limo to the airport had arrived. It was time to go. The doorbell rang. She took a quick look at the stark empty room, then hurried down the stairs to open the door.

“Hello Mrs. Haines. How are you?”

It was Douglas Butterfield. He had been a classmate of Laura’s in high school.

“Doug, what a surprise. I haven’t seen you in a long time. Maybe not since you and Laura

graduated.”

“That’s right, Mrs. H. I guess you didn’t know it was me when you ordered the car. When I came out of the army, I started the company – about a year ago.”

She could see how proud he was.

“It’s been a little scary, getting a big loan and all. I thought about re-enlisting instead. That would have been easier really, but it’s working out. And now I’m engaged too. Getting married next May.”

He looked so young. He had always had kind of a baby face and he still did. His blonde hair curled a little around his ears and there was a faint wisp of a mustache. He took a suitcase in each hand and marched toward the car. She followed behind, trying to match his quick step.

“These are heavy! I guess you’re planning to be away for a while.”

“Yes,” she said. “Yes I am.”

“Well, I hope you’re heading south. It’s going to be a cold winter here, they say.”

She climbed into the back seat and looked at the house once more as he backed out into the street. She was ready. It was time to go. He drove quickly through the neighborhood and onto the turnpike where he picked up speed. The exit signs flew by, announcing each vanishing town as they passed. She leaned her head against the back of the seat and closed her eyes, speeding to a place some called paradise.

 

BIO

Sarah Kruel  writerSarah Kruel has worked in the field of mental health and substance abuse treatment as a therapist, researcher, and teacher. She spent much of her career as the director of one of the country’s largest residential addiction treatment centers. She competes at major horse shows on the east coast and has written a number of articles for equestrian publications. She is also the author of a self-published book, Speaking of Success: Women’s Stories and Strategies for Living with Peace and Passion (available at Amazon and Infinity Publishing). The short story Coat Tales is her first published fiction.

 

 

 

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Author David Ballenger

Life in the Black Cloud

by David J Ballenger

 

 

Drop Cap The first fire happened in 1990, on Martin Lane, in our home. I was fourteen years old and looking forward to my freshman year at Jackson High School. 1990 was the year my parents bought a brand new Ford Tempo that they promised would be mine when I got my license. And 1990, in case you don’t remember, was a great year to be a Cincinnati Reds fan. Marty and Joe were calling the games, Chris Sabo was wearing the Rec Specs, and the Nasty Boys were throwing heat. The Reds were never out of first place that season, and they swept the A’s in the World Series. It’s hard to believe something so good happened that summer.

One muggy June night that summer, I was in the living room shuffling through a deck of baseball cards and listening to the Reds on the radio, and in my sister’s bedroom, directly above where I sat and where Mom and Julie were sleeping on the couch, the blue light of the TV flickering on their faces, Dad built a fire. He poured kerosene on the carpet, lit the fire, closed the door to keep it concentrated above us, and casually walked downstairs.

I heard him coming—I knew the rhythm of my family’s footsteps on those stairs, how the different feet made them pop and moan—so I lay down on the floor next to the stereo. He stood in the kitchen and looked at us, and I pretended to sleep and looked up at him through one squinted eye. The light in the kitchen was at his back and cast a shadow over his face, but I could see that his mouth was slightly open. He pulled his tongue along the strip of exposed, yellowed, uneven teeth and sucked in his cheeks; it was the face he would always make before he hit me.

The game was in the fourth, no score, and it was Joe Nuxhall’s turn to call the inning. The middle innings carry the beauty of baseball on the radio. It’s a meditation, everything slows down, you hear the subtle noises of the ballpark—the vendors, the PA, the hum of conversation, the crisp leather on wood snap of a base hit—and the announcers have settled into the game. Between pitches, Joe Nuxhall said, “The Reds are off Tuesday, and if you like baseball, the Dodgers are playing in Pittsburgh.”

“Dumbass baseball,” Dad said. He had a soft, round, generous voice that must have been given to him by mistake.

On the radio, Marty Brennaman said, “You won’t be able to count me as one of the folks there.”

Dad tripped on the rug when he turned around to leave. He caught himself against the doorframe and stood there, and I want to believe he still had to think, had to make a decision about leaving his family in a burning house. His hands hung clinched at his side, thumbs grinding away at the insides of his index fingers.

Nuxhall said, “I think we oughta go because that’s who’s trying to catch us”

Mart Brennaman thought about this for a long radio minute and said, “Heck, I’ll go if you go.”

The door closed behind Dad. His truck started up, the headlights flashed in the windows when he drove past. He was on his way to Osco, a foundry in Jackson, Ohio, where he made parts for transmissions and compressors. Smoke wafted out of every hole of that place, day and night, and the molten iron glowed orange through its open doors.

When I was sure he was gone, I went to get a drink. I smelled the fire. Dense, slate-colored smoke filled the hallway and curled onto the kitchen ceiling. I hurled my glass of water and watched it disappear into the cloud.

I couldn’t go to my room, but I looked up the stairs and thought about what was in there—a picture of Darlene Fulton, my new shoes, the Barry Larkin poster, my old socks, everything. I waited to see if anything would make me risk life in the black cloud. Nothing would.

I ran to the living room and bent down on one knee next to Mom and shook her arm till she woke. Her head jerked up from the couch and, after a moment, she sighed. Her hair was flattened in the back. She was a waitress at Shake Shoppe and still wore her blue and white striped shirt with a patch on the sleeve of a man and a woman riding a tandem bike and drinking milkshakes; they held the handlebars with their left hands and with their right hands held their cups; they sipped their shakes through smiling lips.

Before I could say anything, Mom rolled off the couch and fell to the carpet on all fours.

“That son of a bitch,” she said. I’d never heard her swear.

Julie was still sitting on the couch. She was twelve then, her bony shoulders were brown and freckled. She sat up and said, “Is it over?”

Mom got off the floor and ran to the kitchen and started screaming.

“Get out, Tommy,” she said.

She ran back to the living room, pushed Julie toward the door, and grabbed a Bible off the shelf. I knew then that Dad had done this, and I knew something else in that moment. I’ve forgotten exactly what that something was, but it struck me as an understanding of the world, and for that I am grateful that Dad gave me a glimpse of clarity, of Heaven in the fire.

Marty Brennaman’s voice pulled me out of my trance. “Here’s the one-O to Davis. It’s a bouncer to Wallach. Could be two. On to DeShields, to Gallaraga, and Davis beats the throw. One on, two out.”

Waves of fire rippled over striped wallpaper and exposed the drywall. A picture frame cracked. A portrait of our family—Dad smiling and standing, his hands on Mom’s shoulder, Mom’s arms wrapped around Julie and me, our clothes bright and unwrinkled—curled at the edges.

Mom grabbed the front of my shirt and pulled me close. “Get out,” she said.

I grabbed a handful of baseball cards. Joe Nuxhall said, “A weak chopper to short. Owen scoops, throws, and gets Benzinger by three steps. End of six, no score.”

Outside, we watched our house burn with some neighbors who joined us. The fire engine and volunteer firefighters started work on the blaze. They hacked at it and doused it with water and watched for embers that would set the fields burning, but they couldn’t save they house.

“I don’t want to watch this,” Mom said. She’d turned away from the fire and walked down the road.

We turned on Fairgreens Road, and the asphalt seemed to be giving off its own blue light. A tunnel of trees and blackberry bushes along the road led us to Brenda Howser’s driveway where Dad had parked his truck. Mom banged on the door till Brenda answered; a calico cat stood next to her twisting its body around her legs.

“Tell’m his house is burning to the ground,” Mom said.

Brenda wore blue slippers, and she shuffled forward and grabbed the front of her pale green nightgown and pulled it tight against her chest. Her face wilted, and she looked like she would be sick.

“Chuck Phillips, you son of a bitch, your house is burning!” Mom yelled and kept her finger pointed into the house, her eyes on Brenda.

“Your home,” Brenda said and began to cry.

“Don’t be an idiot, woman,” Mom said. “Tell him to get his filthy ass out here.”

Dad appeared from the shadows behind Brenda. He pushed her aside and shut the door behind him. He was wearing brown boots and blue jeans and held his work shirt from Osco in his hand and on his wrist was the watch that his father gave him, the watch he said he’d give me someday.

“Where the hell you going?” Mom shouted.

Dad fumbled with his shirt, and his heels dragged in the gravel with each step. He didn’t say a word, just got in his truck and drove off.

Brenda was Mom’s third cousin and Dad’s mistress. She ran away from an alcoholic husband in Neon, Kentucky the year before and stayed at our house for a couple weeks before she started renting the house on Fairgreens. On occasion, her husband would show up in town and make trouble, and one time the sheriff had to drag him off to the county lockup. Dad gave her a snub nosed thirty-eight special for Christmas the year she moved here and not long after that, he started dropping by to make sure she was safe. Mom stopped mentioning her and inviting her over for dinner.

The light was still on in the kitchen, and Mom thumped on Brenda’s door again. “You gonna let these kids have a bed?”

Brenda opened the door and stepped back to let us in. She’d put on a housecoat, and she smelled like the perfume at the Revco pharmacy. Her face was splotchy, and she had a black bruise in the crook of her elbow.

“Give’em something to eat in the morning,” Mom said. “It’s the least you can do for stealing him.”

Brenda blinked a reply that Mom accepted, and Mom walked off into the night.

The house smelled musty and was stuffy from humidity. Brenda put Julie and me in a bedroom with a twin bed. I heard her move through the house and felt the weight of darkness with each light she turned off, leaving me with Julie’s deep breathing, and the sound of something moving around the room. I sat in bed straining to see everything and expecting to see Dad skulk into the room and give me a good thrashing for fouling up his plan.

When I woke the next morning, the calico’s tail was draped over my forehead. I went to the kitchen where Brenda was standing over the stove moving food around in a pan with a spatula.

“Where’s Mom?” I said.

“Up to the house.” Brenda set plates of fried eggs and sausage patties in front of Julie and me.

“Your damn cat put its butt in my face when I was sleeping,” I said.

Her eyes brightened for a moment. “That’s his bed.”

“Why you got a cat in the house, Ms. Howser?” I said. “Should just let’m roam.”

“I’ll consider that,” she said. She kneaded the back of her neck with her hand.

I had a list of other things for her to consider—air conditioners in the windows, carpet in the hallway, a dishwasher—and she listened and said things like, “Good idea,” and, “I think you’re right.” I thought she was strange talking to me like that.

She took the plates and washed them in the sink and brought the rag over and set it on the table for us to wash our faces and hands.

“Wash up?” she said.

“I’m good.” I reached out my hand for her to shake, and she did.

A while later, Julie and I left Brenda’s and walked up the road to our house. I looked at everything still going on around our tragedy, cows tearing grass out of the ground, a circle of crows in the distance ready to descend on rotting flesh, and people going about their business around their homes or in their cars.

Our home was now little more than piles of ash mounded around a blackened and smoking frame. Mom, still in her waitressing outfit, sifted through the debris.

Julie ran to her. “Is anything left?” she said. Mom pushed her back and scolded her for going so close.

I kicked around the edges of the rubble, inspecting the charcoal that used to be our walls and ceilings. Mom pulled her cast iron skillet out of the pile. She tried to wipe off the ashes with her hand and then threw it in the grass. She looked at me, her eye sockets hollow, streaks of black on her cheeks like the players on the baseball cards.

“Get on,” she said.

“What’m I supposed do?” I said.

“Just get your face away from me.” She went back to sifting through the pile.

I walked to the other side of the house and sat under an elm and watched Mom and thought about my face. People told me I looked like Dad, who was someone I didn’t want to look like. I wasn’t concerned with my face or being handsome, but I didn’t think his face was one I would have picked. I liked Eric Davis’s face on his baseball card, but Dad wouldn’t have liked it if I’d picked a black face.

I saw something in the grass about ten feet in front of me, toward the house. There lay Boba Fett, without a scratch, just like I’d left him on my dresser. I clenched him my hand and ran to Mom. As I ran, a school bus pulled onto Martin Lane. It came closer, and I saw that Dad was driving. The brakes howled, and the bus shuttered, hissed, squealed, and finally came to a stop in the driveway. The door folded open, and he jumped out, and I went to him.

“Some fire,” I said.

“Bullshit,” he said. He spit in the grass and scratched his forearm. “It was a bullshit fire.”

I walked beside him and tried to match his stride. “Where you been?”

“Been about doing God’s business. Don’t you know I’m a man of God, boyo?”

I held the toy up and said, “Hey, look. Boba Fett made it out. Not a scratch.”

“Don’t be a stupid,” he said.

“Good thing you didn’t leave your watch here, right,” I said, and he walked away.

Mom was still digging through the pile. Dad moved toward her, and she finally let Julie join her to escape Dad’s expected violence.

Mom scowled at him and kept her eyes locked on his. Our kitchen sink lay overturned next to her. “Everyone can see you, Chuck,” she said. “Go ahead.”

He stomped over and pushed her down. She guided Julie away from where she was falling and when she hit, a cloud of ash surrounded her.

“You been purified by fire, woman. Now, go get in,” he said.

He went and started the bus. Mom stood and told Julie and me to go with Dad. She went over and picked up the skillet and stood looking at what was left of our home, which was not much. The chimney had fallen over the driveway and crushed the Tempo. Some of Julie’s and my school art projects, recognized only by their color, lay melted on what was left of the mantel. For the last time, Mom stood among her things, her wrecked, broken, splintered, crushed, burned home, the skillet dangled in her right hand, and her body listed as if it wanted to settle into the rubble. Dad honked the horn until she finally turned and ambled to the bus. She climbed on board and went to the back row, set the skillet on the seat on one side of the aisle, and curled up into a ball in the seat on the other side. I didn’t go back to see her, but I could hear her crying.

We went down Martin Lane, the bus jangling under us, and turned left on Fairgreens Road away from our home and the lives we’d known. A wad of tobacco bulged in Dad’s cheek, and he spit the juice into an empty bottle of Ski he held in his hand. He called the bus the Jehovah Express and said we were looking for the Promised Land. I moved to the front seat so we could talk.

“God favors these hills, boyo,” he said. “We can do some right living now. Fine living. I’ll be a free man. I can be good, like my dad.” He glanced at the watch. “Ten-thirty. Right on time.”

“Did you burn it down?” I said.

“God burned it down. I was the spark,” he said. “I don’t lift a finger He don’t tell me to.”

I stood up and held on to the pole next to him and looked down at the deep creases in his neck. “Where’d you get the bus?”

“God provides, boyo.”

He got the bus at a junkyard and had it parked at a friend’s house while he was fixing it up to take to NASCAR races. There was a big yellow number two outlined in red on the side and a Miller Genuine Draft sticker on the hood. Dad was a fan of Rusty Wallace and Fords.

He slowed the bus at each side road, craned his neck looking for something, only he knew what. Finally, we turned down Salem Road. The tires sprayed gravel, and a cloud of dust swirled outside the windows. He pulled into a patch of weeds beside the road under a walnut tree, parked, and then wandered into the woods. The three of us sat there, waiting. Julie stood in the aisle next to Mom, rubbing Mom’s leg and humming “We Are Marching to Pretoria,” which was Julie’s song for the Eisteddfod that year in school.

On the other side of the road was a house with flowerbeds and a garden in the back. I imagined what they were doing in there, what shows would be on, and since it was a Saturday, I figured they must have been watching the Reds.

After an hour in the woods, Dad came back holding a bottle of whiskey, and I don’t know if he got it rambling through the woods or if he had it with him when he left the bus, but there was only about a half-inch sloshing around at the bottom.

He waved his hand at me. “Get out here, boy.”

I stepped down the aisle, slapping my hands on the back of every seat like I’d just returned to the dugout after a homerun. When my foot hit the ground, Dad hit me. I landed on my ass, and my head whipped back and knocked against the wheel. One of the lug nuts tore a hole in my scalp. Blood trickled down the back of my head and on my neck. Dad stood over me glaring; he seemed to get excited when I pulled my hand away from my scalp, the tips of my fingers coated with blood.

“It was bullshit,” he said.

I crabwalked up against the wheel, feeling panicky. “I didn’t do nothing.”

He ran his hand through his hair, which was the color of the dead grass. “This ain’t what the Lord told me.”

“Shut the hell up, fool.” Mom came out of the bus and marched toward him.

He hit her too, in the mouth. When he pulled his hand away I could see two small shards of her teeth embedded in his knuckle, and a long piece of white skin dangled between his fingers. Mom fell to her knees, and blood dripped from her mouth to the ground. Her top lip was shredded, and she was holding pieces of teeth in her hand.

“Every time,” she said through the blood and strips of flesh and gums.

He took one last pull on the bottle of whiskey.

“Sweet Franny. I love you,” he said. “You’ll never leave me. You love me too much.”

Dad threw the bottle near where she was kneeling and disappeared into the woods, again.

           *   *   *

The second fire happened four months later, on Salem Road. Summer had advanced, and the weeds around the bus disappeared, replaced by hard packed dirt. We removed the seats and made beds out of blankets on the floor. I would lay there at night and think about waking up in the house on Martin Lane, my bare feet hitting the carpet, and running downstairs to watch Saturday morning cartoons and Johnny Bench on The Baseball Bunch. I don’t really remember the carpet—its color, paprika maybe, its nap, short shag, Berber?—but I do remember a time when my feet weren’t cold, and I didn’t sleep with my shoes on. And it was safer there; Dad’s anger couldn’t take up all that space. He could only ruin a room or a level at a time. In the bus, his wrath filled every corner, every little hole left by missing screws, or torn piece of fabric, every corner brimming with rage and meanness. Osco fired him, so he spent his time passed out on the floor of the bus from too much drink or sitting in a lawn chair under the awning he’d made from a blue tarp, or roaming, God knows where, in the hills and forests around us. After a month, I knew the bus would stay where he’d parked it, under the walnut tree, our new home.

Mom didn’t talk much after he knocked her teeth out. When we lived in the house we told her our stories at the dinner table, and she would ask questions and smile, she used to smile. When she wasn’t eating—that’s the thing, she started eating everything once her teeth were out— she found a place to sit and suck air through the spaces where her teeth used to be. She became an ugly woman; when she closed her mouth her chin went up about an inch too far and made her face look like it was caving in, imploding.

Julie had always been a quiet kid, but she stopped talking all together. She’d disappear into the little nest she’d made at the front of the bus, and at night I could hear her singing her songs from school and praying. She asked God to make her a new house and give this bus to the Devil.

We started attending Salem Chapel, a little church just down the road. They were kind to us; the ladies treated Mom like she was one of them and complimented the dingy dresses she wore every week. I sat through the services and learned the Bible from the pastor: he couldn’t bend it to his will like Dad did, rather seemed to think he should adjust to it. When the revival preachers came through I made sure I was down at the altar getting my soul saved all I could.

That summer, I became friends with Walt Carlisle. He lived in the nice house with the flowerbeds and a TV that I could see flashing in the window at night. He was an indoor, airconditioned kid that liked to think he knew about the woods and the hills that loomed over us. He liked to go out for walks, and sometimes I would follow him, watch from behind a tree or rock when he would run from shadows and the noise of small animals. He told me that he heard bears, pumas, and other creatures stalking him but never showing themselves, and I told him he was probably right, that I’d also seen and heard the wild things, that they were large and capable of anything. He would look away, full of fear and curiosity, head nodding slightly.

I began to treat him like Dad treated me. He wanted things too much, showed his feelings too quickly, was too eager to run out of the woods, was too in love with his home. He had the face of a child, round and emotional. I showed him a strip mine about a mile north of his house. We climbed on the earthmovers and slid down piles of rock and sand. He wouldn’t stand close enough to the edge of the slurry pond, so I pushed him closer, watched his eyes bulge, felt his muscles tense in my hands, and I learned the power of cultivating fear.

One day, Walt and I went to the strip mine. After a while I decided to throw rocks at the fire boss’s trailer and ended up breaking a window.

“Why’d you do that?” Walt said. He went to the trailer and looked at the shattered pieces of window on the ground. “What if it rains?”

“They’ll be back Monday.” I picked up a shard of glass and threw it into the trailer. “Give me a boost, I’ll look in and see what they got in there.”

He said, “No.” He was getting nervous and thought he heard someone coming. I knew there was no one around.

He followed me to the slurry pond, and we stood on an eroded ledge a few feet above the gray-green water. He leaned out, and I inched closer to the edge. Just below where we stood some of the slurry had hardened into a thick, crusty paste. I pulled Walt even with me and told him to look at the sludge, and then I pushed him over the edge. He tried to duck under my arms, but the ground he’d used for leverage gave way, and he tumbled backward into the slurry. In a final, desperate spasm of self-preservation he grabbed my leg, and I lost my balance and fell with him.

The water was warm, and as I sank, my mind went back to the ledge, and I saw myself, but I was not me, I was my father, and Walt was me, and he was my mother, and he was my sister, and he was Walt. I sank to the bottom and felt around in the silt and mud for a way to push myself back to the surface. My hands and feet flailed, searching, clawing, all the while my nose filled with the mixture of the thick, muddy, coal dust and sand. My left foot found something solid, and I pushed myself up into the air and gasped and choked and cried.

I made it to shore, and the thick, black slurry hung on my clothes and skin; it was so heavy I fell to my knees. And it stunk. I kneeled on a pile of peat gravel and puked until my stomach began to spasm. When the sickness passed, I saw Walt sitting in the gravel next to me with his knees pulled up to his chest. His head was cocked to one side, his eyes were closed, and the sun shined bright on his face. A thin film of slime coated the left side of his body and his legs, but his feet were clean except where some of the muck was dripping off the hem of his jeans onto his ankles. I kept looking at his feet, pristine and motionless on the smooth rocks. Next to him, his socks were stuffed into his Reebok Pumps, the orange ball on the tongue still visible through the filth.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

He nodded and after a few minutes ran off into the woods.

“I won’t be like him,” I yelled at Walt. “That’s it.”

I wouldn’t be like Dad, wouldn’t believe what he believed or drink what he drank. I looked into the trees where Walt had disappeared, and I knew that we needed the Jesus that cleansed the Temple of God. Not the curious, young Jesus who got separated from his parents. That’s my father’s Jesus. Absentee and absentminded. Too full of himself to know the suffering he causes his family. No, we needed the Jesus that turned over the money changers’ tables. The one with fire in his eyes and muscles in his arms, the one who was furious.

I made my way through the woods, down Salem Road, to the abandoned Bangert place, grabbed a Rawlings baseball bat from the shed, held it in my right hand, the barrel resting on my shoulder, and walked home.

Mom and Julie sat in lawn chairs under the blue tarp awning. Dad was in the bus on the floor, passed out from whiskey, lying in his white underwear and an unbuttoned shirt revealing the spotted and scarred skin on his chest and belly. I found the keys to the car and went back outside and tossed them to Mom.

“Go to town,” I said.

She looked at the slime and mud drying and forming a black crust over my body but didn’t question. They got in the rusted Oldsmobile, and Mom let Julie ride in the front seat, and they waved at me and pulled away down Salem Road, and I watched them until they passed a coal truck and disappeared behind a cloud of dust.

After they left, I gathered dry branches from the woods and piled them under the back end of the bus. When I was done, the stack went up to the rear axle. It took two matches to light the fire. I backed away about twenty feet from the door, spun the handle of the bat in my hand, listened for movement, and watched the fire grow. Dad coughed and banged around inside for a minute, and then the door opened, and when his foot hit the ground I swung at his knees and felt his kneecaps crunch through the handle of the bat. He hit the ground screaming and coughing and curled up on the ground, his hands holding his knees, touching and assessing the pain.

“Are you ready?” I said.

“Goddammit, boy,” he said. “Shit. Shit. Shit.”

“That’s right. Look at me,” I said. “You know about this business.” I pointed to the filth covering my body.

The bus was full of smoke, but there were no flames.

He reached out his hand and scooted toward me. “Pull me away, boy. Pull me away.”

I crouched in front of him. “Stop,” I said. “You had your turn. Give me the watch.”

He looked up at me, and behind those petulant gray eyes I saw fear. “I sold it.”

The barrel of the bat slid down into my hand, and I hurled it like a javelin into his mouth. His face puckered, his eyes shut, tears welled up near the bridge of his nose, his mouth opened slightly, and I could see that his front teeth were cracked.

“Look at it.” I pointed at the bus. “Do you see anything?”

He tried to speak or couldn’t control his jaw; either way, he looked like he was chewing something horribly bitter, and he flailed in the dirt in the shadow of the smoke above us. And then the fire ignited the back end of the bus. I flung the bat through the door and walked to the tree line and watched Dad drag himself, mouth agape, dripping thick drops of blood onto the dirt, and behind him the bus burned.

 

 

BIO

David J Ballenger lives in Newark, Ohio, with his wife and three children. He received his MFA in Writing from Pacific University. This is his first publication.

 

 

 

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