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Walter Thompson

The Roofer

by Walter B. Thompson

 

My daughter’s ex-whatever, the father of her boy, had gone by the nickname Coal Oil back in his teen years. Don’t ask me what it means. I would hear about his exploits when I brought my ham into town for the farmer’s fair on Saturdays. This was when I wasn’t a crazy hag to all them, before I fucked up my right eye and started causing a fright. “Did you hear about Coal Oil, wrecking his Pontiac with Mary Bender in the front seat?” said the men selling their watermelons and their soybeans and their little wooden sculptures of nothing. Coal Oil was always doing something wild and catastrophic with a girl. But the next week, he and his Pontiac would have made off without a scratch, and a new belle would have taken the previous one’s place. His real name was Marvin Fortenberry, but to me, he would always be the Stain.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I came in with the dogs late one summer evening in 1977, and found Marvin Coal Oil Fortenberry, Stain on me and my life, lying across our little futon in the living room of the farmhouse, his eyes shut and his shirt open, a full ten years after he’d left Canterbury and Jenny and our little Hal. I stood there for a few minutes to let my shock subside. I was not, had never been, a woman easily surprised by men and their little magic acts. But even I could admit that his sudden reappearance was an event beyond normal comprehension, a sort of shitty miracle. I’d named him the Stain on account of his tendency to ruin beautiful things, but until then I hadn’t realized how his obstinacy, his refusal to disappear, was what made the name truly fit.

He looked old and tired, which was good. His hair was still long and blond, but greasy too, and he’d ditched his styled goatee for a patchy beard. Across his protruding gut—another new and welcome feature—stretched a fat, pink scar. His new chubbiness in the middle made his legs look spindly and weak, two little straws in black jeans. I still had my shotgun under my right arm. I always brought it with me when I took the dogs out on the property in case I encountered a turkey. Marvin was breathing like a pig, loud and hard. I raised the barrel up and poked it into his fat pincushion belly. He woke up right away with a small shout.

“Stain,” I said.

“Mama Dear,” he said back.

“Don’t call me that,” I said.

“I know now I must be back home, since you’ve got a gun on me.” His voice, once trumpeting and fluid, had sharpened into a scrattle.

“Don’t you think for one second I won’t kill you,” I said.

“Wouldn’t be of any use, Mama Dear, seeing as I’m already lined up to die,” he said, and smiled. The face that had looked so worn and unfamiliar suddenly became itself. Marvin Fortenberry’s smile was like crackling fucking lightning. You could hear it as well as see it, and even I had appreciated that smile in spite of the man who wore it.

I still had the tip of the shotgun barrel pushing into his stomach when Jenny and Hal walked in from the kitchen. “Mama,” my daughter said softly.

“When did he get here, honey, and why’s he on the couch?” I asked, keeping my eyes on the Stain.

“You may be surprised, my dear,” he said, still smiling, “that I don’t have much in the way of strength. I need to nap just about every hour these days.”

“I didn’t ask you,” I said.

“He came into town this morning,” said Jenny. “We ran into each other at the drugstore, and…”

“Jenny invited me to come here,” he said.

“Shut up,” I said. I turned my head around to look at my daughter. She was scared, just like before. The same resignation on her face.

“Granny,” said Hal, who stood next to his mother like a little soldier. “This man has got some stomach cancer.” His blonde hair hung off his forehead in feathery streams. I looked back at Marvin and couldn’t escape the damn resemblance.

“Hal and I had ice cream,” the Stain said, grinning at my grandson.

 *  *  *

Later, the wind came thundering in from the north. I stood out beyond the front porch and smoked five cigarettes in a row and waited for Jenny. It was June, but so far the summer had felt unnaturally dry. The northerly wind meant a summer shower, since they always traveled by way of Kentucky. I watched Poncho, one of the pit bulls, as he dug around the shadows of a gingko tree near the fishpond. Poncho was an ornery bastard, and a storm would upset him. I knew I had to force him into the basement soon. Every little chore, all the things that kept me sane and walking upright with each long day, seemed broken and useless now that the Stain had come back to my daughter. He’ll be dead soon, I reminded myself with each new cigarette.

“I’m sorry, Mama,” was the first thing Jenny said.

“Oh, sweet Jesus. You don’t have to apologize.”

“He was just…there. Picking up a prescription. He looked the same. I didn’t know what to do.”

“I thought he looked like shit,” I said. “Did you put him on the sofa in my room like I asked?”

“Yes, Mama.”

“Good. Keep him where I can see him.”

I could feel Jenny looking at me. I offered the pack of cigarettes to her. She pulled one out with a shaky pinch of her fingers.

“You do not, under any circumstances, let him act like a father to that boy.”

She didn’t say anything back. Just stared, like me, at Poncho, who kept circling the same hole he’d been working on for forty minutes. I knew she wouldn’t obey me. It was too much to ask. Hal spent most of his days in the summer wandering the woods near the quarry, at the back edge of my property. He looked for turtles and frogs. I had tried to take him out on turkey hunts, but he hated getting up early and got sick of lifting a gun. Even I, with my crazy bedraggled hair and my ruined eye and my loud, ugly boots, was nothing compared to the monsters he’d invented to keep him company.

“I’m worried for the garden,” Jenny said.

“What’s he going to do to your garden?” I asked.

“Not him. The storm.”

“If you want,” I said, “I can get a few boards and try to set up a gully to divert the flood.”

“I shouldn’t have built it at the bottom of the hill like that,” she said. Her vegetables had been thriving despite the drought, and I liked to tell her it was because she had been happy.

“Sooner or later, the whole damn house is going to be washed away,” I said.

I stubbed out my cigarette in the dry grass and walked towards Poncho, clapping my hands and whistling. He tensed up and looked at me, then barked. “Leave it alone, Poncho,” I said. “It’s just the coming storm fucking with your head.”

  *  *  *

That night I got no kind of sleep. The storm was worse than I would have thought: great metallic bangs and cracks, the wind screaming, Poncho howling from deep under the house. Plus, I had to keep my good eye on Stain, lying in my sofa chair and breathing in that weird little pig way. At a little after two, when the lighting was exploding in a constant blue throb beyond the window shade, I heard him call out in pain. At first it didn’t sound like words, then I realized he was asking for me.

“Mama Dear! Mama Dear!”

I threw the quilt off me and sat on the edge of my bed. His face was moving back and forth, and his eyes couldn’t quite find me. “What’s gotten into you now?” I said.

Finally his fit stopped and he looked at me. “I need a bowl or a bucket,” he said.

“Aw, go on and fuck off,” I said, lying back down.

“Or you’d rather I just puked on myself?” he said.

When I came back from the kitchen and threw the bucket on his lap, I saw that a dark puddle had collected on the white sheet not three inches from where I had been sleeping. My first wild thought was that I had peed myself out of worry, but there was no smell, and I was not such an old lady yet. In between Marvin’s chokes and sputters, I heard a pattering. Then I looked at the ceiling and saw the leak.

I didn’t know Jenny was in the room until she spoke. “That ain’t the only place,” she said. “There’s a bigger one in me and Hal’s room.” She was looking at Stain, who had his face buried in the black plastic bucket.

I walked with Jenny through the hallway that spanned the house, back to front. My grandfather, who’d built the place with his bare hands, had believed that a person shouldn’t have to walk around something when a straight path can be made right through it. Now, his home was beginning to break down. Over the last several years, I had begun to notice the first signs of a house entering its old age: at times when no one else was listening, I heard cracks and sighs in the wood behind the walls. “Did he tell you how long he’s got left?” I asked Jenny. “What kind of medicine he takes? Who his doctor is, for chrissakes?”

“Mama,” she said, and turned around. She had a fury in her face; I could see her wide brown eyes when the lightning flashed. “He’s staying here because it’s the only safe place for him.”

When my daughter got like that, I knew better than anyone, provocation would only set her towards hurting herself. She walked back into her bedroom and I noticed another puddle on the floor of the hallway.

“Mama Dear.” The Stain was standing behind me, holding his bucket up like he was posing for a picture with a newly caught fish. “You ever install a bathroom in this joint, or are you still old fashioned?”

“The outhouse can be found in the same place it’s always been,” I said. “I won’t help you walk, and bring that bucket back so we can use it for the ceiling.”

He nodded. Watching him walk away, I noticed how he had lost his proud country swagger. His belly pulled him towards the earth; his back was hunched. Marvin Coal Oil Fortenberry had traveled back and forth across the country, broken how many hearts and laws, and all he’d become was an old man. When he reached the hill, a few meters into the backyard, I saw him slip and fall on his ass in the mud. I opened the screen door and walked out to him. The wind and rain struck me like a hot, sweaty breath. “Don’t trouble yourself, Mama Dear,” he called. He tried to sit up in the mud and fell down right away without a sound. I pulled the bucket away from his hands and tossed it into the blackness behind me. He’ll be dead soon, I told myself as I lifted him out of the muck. He’ll be dead soon.

  *  *  *

What did Marvin Fortenberry do, you might ask, aside from making my girl believe in things that couldn’t be true, knocking her up and fleeing the state? He stole cars. He broke them down and sold the parts to men who lived in trailers near the Cumberland River. I’d been down to see these men before, once to buy a bitch from a litter of pit bulls and again to threaten a man who’d been stealing hams from my smokehouse. Now I heard the place had become a little hippie refugee camp, with a bunch of lost kids setting up tents and peace flags and skinny-dipping until they shriveled. Still, the rednecks wouldn’t have been forced out. I wondered how they all got along.

The day after the storm, I parked my truck at the bottom of the road that skirted the Canterbury bend of the Cumberland and found out how things worked. The men still had their trailers and the little dirt paths that snuck between the bushes to hide all the stolen vehicles. The hippies were too stoned to know where they were or that they were living in proximity to dangerous people. A young man approached me wearing a little cardboard Indian headdress, shirtless and covered in red river mud. “I knew it!” he kept shouting, following me at a pace of a few meters. I tried to ignore him, but he kept it up too long, so I picked up a stick and threw it at his head.

He cowered and it hit his neck. “Ain’t you got somewhere you can be besides here?” I asked him.

“Mr. Yawkey wants me to watch the path to his trailer in case I see someone…someone tall…a tall man. I’m supposed to yell and scream bloody murder if I see a tall man coming down the path with an intent to do harm.” His accent was strange, probably Midwestern.

“So why are you screaming bloody murder, if I ain’t a tall man?” I said.

“I thought you were the lady who sold dope.”

I shook my head and kept going. Yawkey was the person I was here to see. I could imagine how he’d gotten the hippies to do his bidding—offered them drugs, most likely, or a place to hide in case they had dodged the draft and the government was still after them. He and the Stain had done business back in the day, but something had gone wrong between them, and now they hated each other. Among other reasons, I was there to see if the Stain’s old enemies knew he was back in Canterbury.

Through a crappy plastic window, I saw Yawkey asleep on the shag carpet before I even knocked on his trailer door. He was a fiddle-thin old man with long legs and thick ugly glasses. When he saw who had come calling, he sat up and frowned.

“So you heard too,” he said when I walked inside. The trailer smelled awful, like unwashed clothes and bad coffee and weed. “Coal Oil. That bastard.” So, word had spread.

“I heard, yeah. Did you see him in town?” I asked.

“From what I could tell, he even talked to Jenny at the pharmacy. How’s that sit with you, Mama Dear?”

“It sits awful is how it sits.”

“So, let’s hear it.” Yawkey stretched his arms towards his toes.   He was into yoga and other weird stuff. “Your theories, your hypotheses. Why did Coal Oil Fortenberry come back?”

“Actually, I ain’t got none of that. Don’t want to think about that Stain a second more.”

“I’m sure the government’s on him too. I heard his number had come up for ‘Nam five years back, but can you imagine that asshole—”

“I came to ask,” I said, “if you could point me to some morphine. I’ve got a friend at the old folk’s home outside town. She’s an ex-junkie, so they won’t let her ease her pain.”

Yawkey’s eyes grew small under his glasses. He knew me pretty well, enough to tell when things didn’t fit. Since I had fucked up my eye, it had been harder to tell lies. I guessed that I squinted, and when I did that the scar tissue struck my tear ducts and I started to look upset. Or maybe people simply regarded me as more untrustworthy now, in general.

“That all, Mama Dear?”

“When the fuck,” I said, stepping towards Yawkey as threateningly as I could, “are you idiots going to stop calling me that?”

He smiled, showing me teeth that had grown maroon from abuse of chewing tobacco and God knows what else. “That all, ma’am? I mean, morphine should be a fucking snap. Just a quick jog down to the pharmacy, a few cents in the register.”

“You know I’m good for the money, Yawkey.”

“Aw, hell. With these damn kids around, maybe I can find some right quick,” he said.

“It has to be real stuff. Used in hospitals and all,” I said.

Yawkey sighed again to show he understood and he was sick of looking at me.

The hippie kid was still there when I came out of the trailer. “You sure you’re not here with any dope?” he asked me. I shook my head at him and the strange world that had swallowed him up.

  *  *  *

The Stain spent the next two days sleeping and barfing. The rain came back on the second night and opened the holes in the roof even wider. I refused to let Jenny spend any time tending to Stain. Instead I emptied his bucket and walked him to the outhouse every hour. He couldn’t make it seven yards without slipping in the wet grass.

I took a couple trips into town to see exactly how much people were talking about him. I sat in the back of The Bend, an old dive joint near the train station, and listened to the men’s conversations around the pool tables. There wasn’t much about Stain. A few old stories of his youth: the time he’d thrown a bottle at the retarded mailman. The time he’d slashed his own uncle’s tires. The time he’d knocked up Jenny. But most of the talk was tame. The consensus seemed to be that Marvin Fortenberry had stopped into town briefly then moved on. Canterbury had grown quiet in the Stain’s absence, and nobody wanted to believe that the noise had returned.

In a previous life, as a girl with two good eyes and decent looks and hair that wasn’t rumpled and dirty at all times, I’d cruised around Canterbury every now and again. It was cleaner then: easy, hand-painted shop fronts and men in little suits. Lots of small ugly features crackling under the surface, though, and these things were what had excited me. It had been years since I’d come into The Bend for a drink. It was where I had met my husband, Jenny’s father, but since he’d turned out to be such an unholy bastard, I’d stopped coming back. Now all of the men at the pool tables stared at my eye, of course. But some of them were brave enough to ask me how I was doing.

“Can’t complain, except my roof’s leaking,” I said.

I almost wanted to tell them about the Stain right then and there. “Can’t complain, except the sonafabitch who broke my daughter’s heart is holed up in my house, and if any of you fellas want to come around and tear him to pieces, seeing as he probably did each of you some wrong back in the day, be my guest.” But I held off, thinking of Hal. At his age, if he found out that his father was such a bastard, it would be worse than not knowing his father at all. That was my mission: spare Hal anything worse than a stranger dying of a bad disease.

I wondered what had become of the Stain’s seductive side until I found him sitting next to Jenny on the picnic table outside the back door. He was telling her a story, pushing his hair, greasy and unkempt as it was, across his forehead. The same old play, acting the nervous teenager. When she laughed, I felt sick and left to go tend to my pigs.

I kept them in a pen about fifty yards away from the house. The smokehouse nearby had been on the farm since my grandfather’s time, but no one had used it for anything but storage until I came to run things. It was a sad building, not twenty square feet wide, painted a yellow-white that turned to grey once the sun got low. I had torn down the walls to install a cinder block foundation seven years earlier, but had kept the same 1890’s wood. Lately, I had been noticing the padlock on the smokehouse door had been scraped and tampered with. Today, I saw that the door was wide open.

I heard Hal’s voice before I stepped inside. He was singing. “Lizard little lizard…where did you run? Lizard little lizard…I’ve got a gun.” I paused in the doorway and waited until he noticed I was there and stopped.

“Sorry, Granny,” he said. The sliver of light from the outside shone on half of his face. He crouched underneath two large hams, the only two in the smokehouse. They hung from the same hooks that my grandfather had used, years and years earlier, to hang deer and bear meat in the backyard. The air was unbearable inside, thick with haze and reeking of dead pig. I hadn’t lit the fire pit in weeks since the drought had done so much drying on its own. Besides, I was running out of hams.

“What have I told you about coming in here without me, Hal?” I said. “What have I told you about messing with that lock?”

“I saw a newt. It ran in here and I thought I’d catch it,” he said.

From outside, I heard someone whistling. The sound was deep and crisp, and didn’t seem to belong here with my grandson crouching on the dirty floor. I turned to look outside and saw an old, slim man in a black fedora and a denim jacket leaning over the railing of the pigpen. He was reaching his hand out to one of the sows, trying to attract her with his whistling.

“Granny,” Hal said. “Mr. Fortenberry bought something for me.”

“What’s that?” I asked, keeping my eyes on the man in the hat. He stared down at the pigs, but I could tell that he knew I was looking at him.

“A pair of roller skates. Ordered out of a catalog,” Hal said.

Obviously, the Stain had been talking to Hal while I had been in town. He’d found out that Hal and Jenny liked to watch the roller derbies on Friday nights. An image popped into my mind: the three of them watching television together, Stain with his arm around my daughter, drinking a beer, the satisfied husband.

“How long were you in there?” I asked Hal. He walked up next to me and I placed my arm across his shoulder almost without thinking about it. I could feel the sweat through his shirt.

“Not too long,” he said quietly. Hal had seen the man as well, and was nervous. I told him to run back to the house, and he did so, keeping his head to the ground to avoid looking at the stranger. The man, for his part, didn’t look up until I called out.

He was lean in the face as well as the body, older than me, probably, but clearly in command of himself. He smiled gently, and it made little pockets under his eyes. I walked towards him, tracing my hand along the top of the pigpen fence as I went. By the time I was a few feet away, he had already wished me a good afternoon.

“What’re you here about?” I asked.

“I met Yawkey last night at the Roamer Hotel, and I’ve got that thing you asked him for.” He tipped his hat at me when he was finished speaking. I tried not to laugh at him, but it was impossible to resist. He only smiled back when I did.

“The Roamer Hotel. That’s high living for a drug dealer. You must be doing well for yourself.”

He laughed at me like I’d told a joke, and leaned into the fence with his back arched like he was doing a callisthenic.

“I’ve only been here for a spell,” he said. “You know, odd jobs.” He removed something from an outside pocket of his jean jacket. Yawkey had wrapped the morphine in several paper grocery bags. I felt the heft and shape of a bottle as the man put it in my hands.

I told him thanks, and he did it again: the slow, simple tip of his cap. “To use it safely,” he said without a change of expression, “there’s a little dipper that’s in the bottle cap. Just a couple of drops every six hours.”

“What if I don’t want to use it safely?” I asked.

He dropped his gaze to the ground. “You trying to kill yourself?”

“It’s not for me,” I said.

“Right. Yawkey told me. A friend, right?”

He might have been making a joke, trying to keep the weird conversation going. He might have been harmless. But if I knew Yawkey, I knew that he’d heard about the Stain’s stomach cancer and had put two and two together. “What do you know about morphine?” I asked. “You supposed to be some kind of doctor?”

“No, ma’am. I’m a roofer,” he said.

“What’s Yawkey got you delivering drugs for?”

“Roofing work has been hard in this town. Living at the hotel is a drain on my pocket. Like I said, odd jobs.” He held up his hands and shrugged. “Yawkey has me making a few deliveries, and I heard up in town that your roof was leaking. I took it upon myself to kill two birds with one stone. If that’s all right with you, of course.” Again, he tipped his hat. I would have been irritated, but he seemed genuine, or at least stupid. And it had been a while since a man had shown me such forceful manners.

“You want to fix my roof?” I said. “Hell, I can do that myself.”

“But you haven’t,” he said.

“I’ve been busy.”

“That’s why you should hire me,” he said. “In town, they call you a hell-raiser. Now why take time away from raising hell to fix some stupid old roof?”

I laughed, and he laughed back, looking right in my eyes, like it had been me that had made the joke.

“Fine, fix my roof. I’ll give you a hundred dollars. As long as you can do it in a couple days.”

He smiled and nodded at my offer, then stared at me for too damn long. I looked down at the sow. She was pressing her snout against my leg, in the space between the hem of my skirt and the top of my boot. I suddenly felt odd that I was wearing a skirt in front of this man. Normally I’d have been in pants, but Jenny had been trying to put me in skirts lately, and I had to admit that sometimes it felt good in the heat.

“You smoke hams in there?” he asked.

“And turkeys, or whatever else I can shoot and eat.”

“Been years since I saw an old smokehouse like that.” His accent wasn’t Tennessee. It was more deeply Southern, muddy and squishy. “Your son go hunting with you?”

“He’s my grandson. No, he just likes going in there cause it’s creepy. Like a haunted house.”

The roofer nodded, then looked at his feet. I wondered why he was still trying to make conversation.

“You need ladders? Anything?” I asked him.

“I got a truck, and a Mexican boy to help me. They’re waiting up front.”

“Well,” I said, “you best get started on it, then.”

He smiled and started to walk away, and I immediately saw that he had a pronounced limp. Something was seriously wrong with his left leg.

“Hey,” I called. “What’s the matter with that leg?”

He laughed, this time turning his head up at the sky. “Oh, nothing, except it doesn’t exist,” he said, and pulled up his left pant leg to reveal a long shaft of wood. It ended with a brown boot, which made me notice that his other boot was black. The roofer bent down, knocked on the peg leg with his knuckles, and laughed again.

“Doesn’t that present a bit of problem for a roofer?” I asked. “Getting up and down a ladder?”

“Well, if you don’t believe it, just come and watch,” he said.

I followed him back around to the front of the house. As he passed one of the windows on my bedroom’s side, I saw him take a glance into the dark room. We reached the front, where a Mexican boy who couldn’t be older than fifteen was sitting on the hood of a blue Chevy pickup. There were ladders, paint cans and shingles stashed in the bed. In broken Spanish, the roofer instructed the boy to unload the truck and lean the ladder up next to the front porch. Poncho, who had been watching from under a bush, charged at the boy when he set the ladder up. The boy half-screamed and swung a paint can at Poncho, but didn’t hit. I clapped my hands. “Poncho, shut the fuck up,” I said. The boy cursed under his breath and ascended the ladder with his arms full of equipment, and Poncho wandered away.

“Sorry. The boy scares easily, I guess,” the roofer said.

“What do you need him for?”

“Just watch.” The roofer limped up to the edge of the ladder and called out, “Hey! Garcia!” The boy leaned over the edge of the roof and tossed down a heavy rope. Without any pretext, the roofer started climbing, using just his arms and ignoring the ladder. He was stronger than I might have thought given how skinny he was. The Mexican boy was strong too: he held the rope with a bored expression on his face until the roofer had hefted himself to the top.

“You do that every time, huh?” I asked from the front yard.

“No ma’am. Sometimes the wind just carries me up, like the breath of God.”

A thought jumped into my mind. It told me: this man is as much a roofer as you’re a nun. But the way the roofer laughed at his own joke made me brush the thought away. He was an old cripple—harmless, or at least a man that I could handle if any shit went down.

I headed back inside. Stain lay on the futon in the living room now. He was angry, refusing to speak. I had broken up the conversation at the picnic table. Above us, the roofer and his boy hammered quickly, and in the kitchen, Jenny was making a racket with the pots and pans. Hal was off somewhere, looking for newts or playing with the dogs.

“Stick out your tongue,” I said. I let two drops fall before closing up the bottle and shuffling it back into the paper bags. His head fell back slowly. I saw his eyes close with deep satisfaction.

After a few minutes of him lying still and me sitting close on the edge of the futon, my butt up against his belly, he spoke. “I ain’t here to make trouble now. Just here to die. That doesn’t mean she can’t talk to me if she wants to.”

I wondered what he had seen in his ten years of exile. Maybe he had been to Vietnam and back. Maybe he’d been running the whole time. “You’re in my house,” I said. “You’ll die the way I want you to.”

He shook his head slowly and fluttered his eyes at me.

“Don’t know what you’re trying to do,” I said, and stood up. “Ordering my grandson those roller skates. The boy lives on a farm, Stain. Where’s he supposed to go skating?”

He smiled. The morphine was working—I saw the muscles in his face relax and settle like water. I stood for a while and listened: Stain’s heavy breaths, the hammering and shouting from above, Jenny running the tap. The room turned dark as a cloud passed. I walked to the bedroom and settled on the sofa chair. Quaker, another pit bull, sat on the throw rug and whined at me a few times before resting her head between her front paws.

I fell asleep to the soft thuds coming from the roof. I could tell when the roofer was walking around—there would be a soft pat then a loud thud as his heavy wooden leg took a step. Jenny woke me hours later and said dinner was ready and the roofer had left for the day. I realized I had been thinking about him in my sleep—not dreaming exactly, but drifting upwards to the sound of his footfalls.

  *  *  *

That night I found Jenny curled up on the futon with her arms around the Stain. I hadn’t slept; instead I had been pacing in the backyard and smoking like a teenager. Seeing Jenny lying with a man—this man, worst of all—filled me up with sadness. I just hadn’t been expecting it, and I’d thought my mind was in a place where I could expect anything. The shotgun was in one of the closets in my room. I carried it into the living room and watched the Stain’s face in the moonlight. I imagined lifting the barrel, pointing it to his nose, and pulling the trigger. I imagined how Jenny would scream when I blew off his face. There would be blood on the futon, and Hal running in from his bedroom. It would be a nightmare. “He never loved you, baby girl,” I said in the silence. They kept holding each other close and breathing deeply. I walked outside.

I followed a path in the backyard that eventually led to the woods and the quarry. I didn’t go that far. Instead I stopped at a magnolia tree whose roots pushed up the ground in knuckly welts. The night was hot and calm, and the moon was near full, making the trees and grass in the woods glow almost blue.

I shouted. At first, I screamed to high heaven like the crazy old woman that I was. Just nasty guttural noises from my throat. Then it turned into a word: “Fuckers!” I was only a few feet away from the magnolia. I lifted the shotgun and fired it into the trunk. Bark sprayed everywhere. I felt it on my face, on the scar around my eye. “Fuckers!” I screamed, again and again. It didn’t do much good.

  *  *  *

The next morning, the sun rose hot and angry, as if the end of the drought had offended it in some way. I gave Stain morphine and left him there to struggle with his breathing. Jenny was quiet. She must have sensed that I had seen her on the couch with him. She knew I was leaving for somewhere, but didn’t ask any questions and volunteered to take Hal and the dogs for a walk.

There were many more hippies in the woods this time. I recognized the boy from the other day as he chased a bare-breasted blonde girl down the bed of a creek that tumbled towards the river. As I headed to Yawkey’s, more kids stumbled through the bushes to get a look at me. All of them were so young and so tan. They stared at me like cats ready to pounce. “I’m not your weed lady,” I yelled at them. They kept their distance but stared and stared and stared. I was happy to reach Yawkey’s cinder block steps and rap on his door.

“It’s open,” he called.

The smell was worse on account of the heat. Yawkey sat oddly upright on his couch with his eyes closed. A naked hippie girl was curled up on the shag carpet with her back to me. She stiffened when I opened the door but didn’t raise her head.

“That you, Mama dear?” Yawkey shouted.

“I’m right here,” I said.

He opened his eyes and took off his horrible glasses. I knew he couldn’t see me any better, but he smiled. “I was about to make a margarita,” he said. “Boy if things ain’t getting crazy around here in the heat.”

He rose and walked into his kitchen area, where an unidentifiable brown mess lay strewn all over the counter among a pile of dishes. Yawkey picked up a tequila bottle and took a swig.

“The man you sent to me,” I said. “How’d you find him?”

Yawkey laughed. “You mean Long John Silver? Ain’t it crazy the types that turn up in this town sometimes?”

“Just tell me.”

“You remember Mary Bender? She’s the one who gives these kids their dope. She’d met him through selling drugs at the hotel. Or he fixed her deck, or something. Anyways, he came to me. Heard you’d asked me for morphine, and volunteered to deliver it.” As he walked to a powder blue icebox in the corner of the tiny kitchen, opened it, and pulled out a tray of ice for his margarita.

“So you don’t know why he’s here, in town?” I asked.

Yawkey looked at me and made a show of blinking his eyes innocently, like a maiden from a fairy tale. “You suspicious of him?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“What I’m asking, Mama Dear, is if you have something to hide.” Yawkey smiled in his sickly way. I felt like kicking him in the kneecap, but I just stood still, like a statue of a moron. He began loading his ice and tequila into a blender. It appeared that these would be the only ingredients in the margarita. “It’s so strange to me,” he continued. “You went through years and years swearing revenge on that dumb Stain that broke Jenny’s heart, and now, all of a sudden—”

“He’s dying,” I said. I blurted it out. “He’s already dead. Just let me make sure it happens how I want it to.”

Yawkey held up his hands in mock innocence. “That sounds like a plan to me,” he said. “You just let me know when he’s finally kicked it, and I’ll put on my grave-dancing shoes.”

The blender started and the girl in the other room shouted something out. Yawkey smiled again.

Without really thinking, I picked up a china bowl from the counter and threw it across the kitchen. It shattered against the wall and left a milky splash. The girl shouted again but still refused to move.

Yawkey yawned. “You come here to fuck with me? I gave you all you wanted.”

“The man with the wooden leg,” I said. “Is he trying to kill Coal Oil?”

“I told you, I don’t know. You should realize by now that as much as we don’t get along, I always tell it to you like it is. From one angry soul to another.” He paused and made a toasting motion towards me with the blender pitcher full of tequila slush, then took a long drink. “And if you really suspect him, why are you here wasting time talking to me?”

“I’m just trying to understand,” I said. The hippie girl groaned when I spoke. Yawkey looked over at her with a grimace. “You best get going, Mama Dear,” he said. “This ain’t a scene meant for your kind eye.”

He glanced at my scar and smiled. I threw open the door. Something was bearing down on me—the heat, the bugs, Yawkey and the hippies, something. I ran, half-sprinted, up the hill to my truck and let sweat mix with the dust on my face and in my hair. I felt surrounded, but there was nothing but the road and the woods.

When I got back Jenny and Hal were still out with the dogs and the roofer and the Mexican boy were striding around on top of the house. As I walked in the front door, the roofer tipped his fedora at me with the sun behind him. I turned my head down. Stain was still asleep, but a strange toxic smell like gasoline and dirt had filled the living room.

“Hey!” I shouted.

He opened his eyes and stared like he had never seen me before. “Where’s Jenny?” he asked.

“Never mind,” I said. “Did the roofers come in and see you?”

He shook his head and shrugged at the same time. I waited there for the rest of the day. At a little after three I heard Jenny and Hal come in the back door. I was irritated to be surrounded by so many people, even if two of them were my daughter and her son. Looking out the front window, I noticed that the Mexican boy had loaded the ladders back into the truck. The roofer stood there, smoking a cigarette and waiting for me.

“So?” I said when I came outside.

“Patched up,” he said. “All the spots you told me about.”

I wanted him gone as soon as possible. “You did good work. Let me get the money from inside.”

With a fast but uncertain flick, he reached and grabbed my arm. He smiled and let his grip loosen as he spoke. “As for payment, ma’am, you needn’t worry now. Why don’t you come and meet me for drinks tonight, and we can settle it then.”

I knew he had motives. I had sensed it all along. If I had been the me from a week before, I would have slapped him or kicked his knee. Ever since seeing Jenny and the Stain on the couch, however, I had lost all my abilities to see inside of people. I told him that a drink would be fine. He let go of my arm and smiled again. That bovine smile. “I just feel it would be easier on all of us,” he said.

  *  *  *

The roofer told me to meet him at the Blue Tavern, right at the bottom floor of The Roamer Hotel. I hadn’t been there in twenty years, and it had turned from a dance hall with light wooden floors into a soggy dive, full of dartboards and mirrors and crooked unpainted tables. I didn’t recognize anyone inside—two black men sat hunched in conversation at one end of the long bar, and the bartender was a pale boy who couldn’t have been more than twenty. He took my order, a bourbon, and darted his eyes around like he had done something wrong.

One of the black fellows stood up and walked to the jukebox. I watched him spread his arms across the glass case and puzzle over the songs for an eternity. Someone tapped me on the shoulder and I started.

I was surprised that I hadn’t heard the stomping of his wooden leg on his way in. The roofer wore a light brown suit that wouldn’t have looked out of place if the bar were still a dance hall. I couldn’t decide if his whole fashion, the fedora and this suit and the little red handkerchief poking out of his front pocket, made him look older or younger in its unsuitableness. What was clear was that the man looked comfortable.

“I hope this isn’t strange for you, ma’am,” he said.

I shook my head. “I don’t mind. Just my daughter and the boy back home. I need to leave them be every now and again.”

“If you want, you can just leave me the money and head home. But I can buy you a drink. You look very nice.”

I had forgotten how I looked. Nothing special: just an old blouse and a pair of jeans, and a few brushes of my hair.

“I’ve got my bourbon right now, thank you, but I’ll let you know if I need more.”

The boy behind the bar poured the roofer a vodka drink. He didn’t seem to want to look at either of us, and turned his back as soon as the roofer had paid him. I decided that I wanted to keep quiet but stay right where I was.

After a long silence, the roofer started talking, answering questions I hadn’t asked him. “Mobile, originally, is where I’m from. My daddy worked on a shipyard, but he was afraid of the water and so was my mother. We moved around, everyone looking for work.”

I nodded with each thing he said. I felt like a stupid dog following a ball, up and down. “Then, there was the war, the first one, and Daddy got killed,” he said. “My mother couldn’t take the grief so I worked to keep her calm and happy. It was hard, for sure.”

For some reason, this part of his story made him smile. He went on: “You wouldn’t believe it, but we moved up to Chicago. I was employed by a company that built some railroad engines, but just as soon as we got up there, I got laid off and started drinking.” He paused and tilted his head. “Then she died, and I really started drinking.”

“Where did you go?” I asked.

“I went all around, the streets and such. I was full of anger, so it was good the army found me. I would’ve done worse than drink and wander. Your grandson’s lucky he’s got two women looking after him. So there was the army for a while. The second war, I was in the Pacific. Did some killing. You don’t need to hear too much of that.”

“I don’t shy from such things,” I said. “Is that where you lost your leg?”

He smiled and chuckled. “I guess I mean I’d rather not talk about it. But as you know, as I know you know, it wasn’t the war that brought me here. It was that man you’ve got in your house.”

The barlights sharpened around the roofer’s face as I nodded again. “I thought you had motives,” I said.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “For being deceptive with silence. It’s how I’ve been for a while. And now that I’m here, and I’ve found the bastard, I don’t know what I want to do.”

“I just want to keep my daughter safe. And my grandson,” I said. The whole conversation felt light. We’d known each other for years, it seemed.

“Oh yes ma’am, yes ma’am,” he said. “I think…maybe what I really needed to do was just talk to you and leave. I’m full of ugliness, you see, and it makes me sick for you to see it.”

“What did he do? Coal Oil? What did he do to you?”

The roofer took a long and careful sip before going on. “He left me, and he didn’t need to. Left me in a place…well, I just needed years to get back to where I wanted to be.”

I told the roofer that Marvin had come to my house to die. He nodded and smiled, and I felt that he was dancing around me as I talked. “Like I told you,” he said. “I don’t know what I want to do.”

We sat in silence for a while. The man at the end of the bar stood up a few more times to play a song, and during one number the roofer bobbed his head up and down. I didn’t recognize the singer, but it was a woman, and the music was quick and jazzy. Then the music stopped, and the two black men left. No sound came from the street—Canterbury was a dead town—and the young bartender seemed to have vanished.

The roofer slapped his hands suddenly on the bar and made me jump in my seat. “How about this,” he said, as if he had reached a firm and perfect decision. “I just leave in the morning.”

“That’s what I want you to do,” I said.

The roofer stood up from his stool and tipped his hat at me again. Without a word, he turned from me and headed towards the door. As I followed him, I heard the bartender stepping out of his hiding place, wherever it had been.

The roofer walked out onto the sidewalk and turned to the door that led to the upper floors of the Roamer Hotel. I kept following him. He didn’t look back, but let his hand linger for a moment so that I could catch the door behind him. He strode up three flights of stairs, slowly lifting his crippled leg again and again, and, at one moment, he looked down at me from a landing and smiled. On the fourth floor he opened a door and walked into his room. When I caught up, I saw that he had not closed the door completely. I knocked.

He was in front of the door in less than a second. “Please come in,” he said.

The room was dark and uncomfortable. The only light that the roofer had turned on was a small lamp on the bedside bureau. He kept smiling and not speaking, and sat on the side of the bed. The fedora was off, and I saw that he had a full head of close-cropped white hair.

I walked into the center of the room and turned away from him to a mirror that hung on the wall. Even in the semi-darkness, the pink scar across my eye was the brightest thing on my face: it shone, it throbbed, it looked back at me. Jenny had always said it looked like an arrowhead to her. The point poked out just above my eyebrow, and the edges were slightly serrated above and below the lids. The eyeball underneath, cloudy and white with disuse, always seemed to want to move of its own accord when I saw it in a mirror. But it was dead.

“How did it happen?” he asked.

In my mind, I could hear the words: my husband liked drinking. He drank himself into such a frenzy one night that he shot a mule and attacked me with a knife. Now he’s locked up. It was simple story. I’d learned to live with it, that much was for sure. Still, I was up here, in this roofer’s hotel room, and I didn’t quite understand why. He’d triggered something inside me with all his stories of shipyards and wars. He probably thought he was seducing me. But I didn’t feel anything romantic—just a desire to see a part of a man’s private life: an open suitcase, a hairbrush, clothes laid out for the next day. It was something I hadn’t thought I’d ever want to feel again.

“Are you going to tell me?” The roofer was still sitting on the bed, but he wasn’t smiling anymore. I wanted to tell him, so badly. If I told him, though, the words would leave my mouth and never come back, and I felt that I would never again be able to choose when I could be silent.

“What about your leg?” I asked him. “Was it Coal Oil?”

He didn’t answer. He was behind me now, holding something in his hands. I was angry with myself for acting like such a selfish fool. I needed to get back to the house, to Jenny, to Hal.

The roofer had the cloth on my face before I could think anything more. Something smelled rich and toxic. I screamed out, “You sonofabitch!” but the cloth and his hand muffled my voice. My legs slipped away from me, and I was on the floor, and the roofer was stepping over me, and the world was going dark. Pieces of everything were tilting out of place.

  *  *  *

When I woke up, my head felt wrong. It could have dropped off in the night, or just gotten crooked and turned around. A soft blanket lay on top of me—this wasn’t right, I never slept under anything except my quilt. I opened my eyes.

The roofer was gone. It looked like he had never been in the hotel room at all. He had even folded and tucked the other side of the bed. I still had my boots on, which made it much easier to run from the room and jump three steps at a time out of the hotel, then run across the street without looking at anything but my truck, parked a block away on the square. The sun had not fully risen, but it was already hotter than the day before.

There was his roofer’s truck, all full of ladders and everything, parked in front of the farmhouse like it had never left. I hurried inside. Coal Oil was gone: all that was left was a sweat mark on the futon where his head had rested overnight. I listened at Jenny’s door and heard her breathing and Hal’s, one heavy and the other quick and soft. My shotgun stood waiting for me near the backdoor. Three of the dogs—Poncho, Quaker and a terrier mutt I had never thought to give a name—were already up. They watched me with eagerness as I gathered the gun, and I opened the door for them to follow me into the backyard.

Two wet streaks ran through the grass and up the hill past the outhouse. We followed them silently until they reached the woods and the path that led north and out of my property. It made sense—the roofer would be taking him to the quarry about a mile away, where he could dump the body. I didn’t know how long ago the roofer had taken Stain from the house, or if he’d had to drag him all the way, or if his leg had slowed him down. I told myself that I still had time.

The path twisted through the woods, where the air was even heavier and more sweltering. The dogs followed silently. Poncho and Quaker followed my steps, and the terrier darted ahead now and then, keen to the fact that we were headed somewhere with purpose, not just out for a walk on the property. After ten minutes I felt sweat dripping from my hair and down my cheeks. All fright had left me now, but I felt old and tired.

The woods vanished away when we reached the top of a ridge. I saw the roofer instantly: he was sitting on a log near the great brown gulf of the quarry that opened up in front of us. Marvin Fortenberry lay nearby, curled up like a baby but still breathing, I could tell even from a distance. The roofer saw me and jumped, then pulled a pistol from his pocket and limped over to the Stain. I lifted my shotgun into the air and fired off a shell. The roofer stopped, hesitated, then raised his gun. But I’d had enough time to get down the slope in a running stumble and reload another shell.

When I got close enough to see his face, I knew he wasn’t going to do it. He was terrified. He glanced at me, then out into the quarry. The sun had risen and now hovered at eye level, and we both squinted.

“If I don’t kill him,” the roofer said.

“Shut your mouth,” I said. “You dumb bastard.”

“You don’t know what he did,” he said, his voice reaching an almost tearful whine.

“I know enough of what he did, to a whole lot of people. What does it matter? He’ll be dead soon, and so will you.”

Nearby sat a duffel bag, and Poncho had occupied himself by sniffing and pawing at it. The roofer raised his arms and walked over. The gun still hung loosely in his hand.

“Don’t shoot my fucking dog neither. I’d rather kill you over him than the Stain.”

The roofer dropped the pistol next to the bag. Poncho looked at him without interest and strode away. The roofer crouched down and unzipped the bag, then produced his fedora from inside. He didn’t seem to want to look at me, and I was pleased by it. “You’ve got to take care of your people, I guess,” he said. “That’s an important thing.”

“If you walk that way,” I said, and pointed with the barrel of my shotgun to the west. “Around the quarry after about a mile, you’ll find a little road. Follow it to the highway.”

“Thank you,” he said, like I’d just told him directions to exactly where he wanted to go. Watching his black fedora bob on top of his head as he shuffled away, I didn’t linger on certain questions, like whether he’d intentionally made himself look polite and old-fashioned. Like Yawkey and Stain, the roofer was just a man beyond my world. The kind of idiot who left himself and the people around him in pieces—losing women and money and legs, but still coming back for more. I was glad to see him leave. When I got home, I would inspect the patches on the roof myself.

I lifted Stain from the gravel and put his arm around my neck. He had puked on the front of his shirt and couldn’t speak. He’ll be dead soon, I told myself. His feet dragged in the grass along the path and the impatient dogs bounded around us in elliptical patterns. It was a slow slog.

When we got back, the sun was fully up. I let Stain fall out of my arms and lean against the outhouse. “Mama Dear,” he gasped. “Can you believe that shit back there?”

“With you I can believe most anything,” I said. “Call me that again and I’ll break your damn morphine bottle. I don’t have to make this easy on you, Stain.”

While he hung there catching his breath against the outhouse wall, I looked down on my part of the world. Jenny was bent double in her vegetable garden near the house, weeding, I assumed, since there was no room for anything new to be planted. She wore my mother’s wide green gardening hat. She saw us and waved. She had no idea what had happened. The flooding from the thunderstorm hadn’t hit the garden too hard. I’d attributed it to Stain venturing out to the outhouse so much that he’d left trenches and craters where his fat body hit the ground, and the water had collected in little bogs. I laughed. The bastard had been good for something.

Hal came running from nowhere holding a cardboard package. “They came, Mr. Fortenberry!” he was shouting. My sweet little boy. Soon, he’d roller skate himself the hell away from me. There was nothing I could do.

 

 

BIO

Walter B ThompsonWalter B. Thompson is a native of Nashville, Tennessee. His work has previously appeared in The Bicycle ReviewCarolina Quarterly and elsewhere. He received his M.F.A. from the University of Wisconsin, where he is currently the Halls Emerging Artist Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing.

 

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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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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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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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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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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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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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