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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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Jessie Aufiery

Diabolo Menthe

by Jessie Aufiery

 

He took the metro to the Place de l’Etoile, and walked from there to the Centre de Yoga Iyengar. Today an old man was in the back corner sweating through Trikonasana and Downward Facing Dog, his knobby limbs creaking and straining through the postures, a miracle of determination, however futile. A dark-haired girl with smooth thighs and yellow shorts looked to be in her mid twenties: at least a decade younger than Ludo. Acrid fingers of cigarette smoke floated through the open window along with traffic’s beeps and quick accelerations and the steady chug of diesel engines. Sweat poured from his brow. As usual he had to marshal the sum of his physical and mental forces just to keep up with Jean-Luc’s barked commands. The slight man was a barefoot Napoleon, dark eyes flashing as they scanned the room. “Lift the kneecaps!” he shouted. “Kneecaps in!”

Ludo contracted the fronts of his thighs and wondered what his wife would make of the teacher. Compact and sleek as soap, the little man oozed sexuality even as he recalibrated sweating students with nudges of his fingers and toes. He and Jen made love only a couple of times a week, and for that she had to be cajoled, but every day he felt his body’s demand for release. Sometimes he suspected her of pleasuring herself on the sly while he dealt with traffic and ball-busting clients, keeping the leaky ship that was their family afloat.

After class he pulled on his street clothes. People changed quickly and didn’t linger in the Center’s one changing room. The girl in yellow shorts, her small breasts barely concealed under a sports bra, was trying to untangle a barrette from her dark curls.

“Shit,” she said, looking up at him. “I can’t get this out.”

His hands trembled as they freed the trapped strands from the thick silver hinge. A scent of apricots clung to his fingers.

“You could keep things in there,” he said, gesturing at her thick spiraling hair. “Your wallet, keys…”

“Oh my God,” the girl said, eyes wide. “I blow it dry, iron it. It does what it wants.”

“Think of it as an advantage,” he said. “This way if you get kidnapped you just pull out a screw driver out and jimmy the trunk.”

“Or a pillow,” the girl said. “For a little nap.”

“A cigarette to smoke before your execution.”

The girl smiled, a blush creeping up her neck.

“You have beautiful eyes,” she said.

“They come from a rare eyes dealer,” he said, feeling a jolt at his groin. “He’s at the flea market behind the carpets and copper pots…”

She put a hand in front of her mouth and laughed. He grinned and slung his backpack over one shoulder. Halfway to the door, he turned and said:

“I should get your number.”

Her eyes, surprised, flickered over his left hand. He thought she would pretend she hadn’t seen the gold band but she smirked and asked: “What about your wife?”

“I don’t think so,” he said with a grin. “My wife doesn’t give her number to strangers.”

Outside he found the metro, jumped on a train, and waited for his connection at Champs Elysees. The train thundered up, brakes whining. A dark skinned black teenager wearing headphones, sweat beaded on his forehead, stood on the other side of the car. The train rumbled on. Ludo felt a tugging of eyes, an oppressive sensation of being observed. He glanced to the side and was startled by his reflection in the glass. Not bad for forty. He hadn’t flirted in ages and the great feeling was only a little marred by the fact that he was riding on public transportation. As the train eased into Varenne station Rodin’s The Thinker, a ragged hole in its hollow right thigh, glided into the window like a snapshot. The hydraulic brake-release hissed and the train rolled forward again. At the next station a group of fifteen or so high school students crowded into the wagon. A tall boy with a Catholic medal, one of the newcomers, said loudly in French: “Whoever’s doing that, you’d better stop pinching my bum.”

A few beats of silence and everyone laughed. The boy’s shirt was open to the third button and he wore a silk scarf loosely knotted over his bare chest. Amazing how people continued to accessorize, even in this heat. Ludo noticed a crucifix dangling alongside the medal and he briefly loathed the handsome, dark-haired kid though he couldn’t think why.

He arrived home to find his wife’s portable easel set up in the living room next to the French windows, a portion of floor covered in newspaper and tubes of paint. The easel had that just out of the box look, all unblemished pine. Boris must be at one of his activities. Monday was Judo, or perhaps Drama. The living room reeked of stale coffee and turpentine rags, and his wife’s canvas was heavy with slabs of saturated color. Looking at the thick globs, he thought of the money she spent chasing fantasies. She’d started hesitantly introducing herself to new acquaintances as an artist. The first step in making something happen, she tentatively said, was in believing it couldhappen. He wanted to hold her from behind, work her pants down with one hand while unclasping her bra with the other and playing with her breasts. Where was she?

The drapes were yanked to the side and the windows open. Across the street the neighbor’s curtains ballooned against his wrought-iron balcony. The man often appeared with disheveled hair, a kimono knotted at his waist, sniffing the air with his large Roman nose. Ludo had noticed him on the town square in a velvet jacket reading a paperback. Waiting, he supposed, for salvation to appear out of the ether: a girlfriend, a job, a spaceship to the moon. Now through the gauzy curtains he recognized the man’s gray-streaked mane and discerned a familiar figure sitting on the couch beside him. Putain de merde. Fucking shit. Last time it was a grungy Scotsman with a six-pack. She had introduced herself in the grocery store just because the guy and his girlfriend were speaking English. This absurd reaching out to strangers was unbearable! Why did she do it? He pictured the scene: his wife at her window, the neighbor at his, each trying to catch a breeze in this stifling heat, it was natural to exchange a few words of neighborly greeting, and then, very casual, Oh—do you paint? Did you catch that marvelous Lucien Freud retrospective at the Pompidou? I bought the book. If you like you can come over and have a look…

He squinted through the window, grimacing, and saw two wine glasses and a bottle, heads bobbing in animated conversation. His wife complained about the difficulty of adapting, the emptiness of her days when he was at work and their son at school. She dropped her painting class despite the non-refundable fee because she said the other students were all doing boutique art and she wanted to do something real, maybe even start making installations. It was boredom, he knew that, a lack of purpose. She was too proud to try to get in with the other mothers as they gathered at the café each morning, never inviting her, and there was no one else to talk to. If they had stayed in New York, she said, she would have a job and friends. Her parents would be within driving distance. She could shop at the co-op.

He thought with pleasure of the girl in the yellow shorts, young and smiling. Through the window he saw his wife waving her arm, the neighbor’s vigorous head nodding. The fraud! As if he gave a damn about what combination of words came out of her mouth. Ludo did a quick run-through of his options. He could call to his wife through the window, or ring up her cell phone, or pound on the fraud’s door… All of which would make him look like a jealous fool. He couldn’t let his wife find him here seething: couldn’t confront her until he’d settled on his revenge.

He slammed out of the apartment and stormed down the street to the Café des Sports. In three gulps he downed a 1664 lager, releasing a hissing belch behind his hand, and then signaled the waiter for another. He finished that and ordered a third, which he sipped while looking at photos of Carla Bruni and le president de la république in the pages of an abandoned Paris Match. As dusk settled he felt a pinching in his heart. He’d drunk the beers too fast and was now a little drunk, but at least the alcohol had numbed the pain in his shoulder. Beside him the window winked its cool eye. He thumped his chest and looked at the dour silhouette of the town’s city hall, a concrete slab wedged against a darkening cobalt sky. A yellow clock illuminated the building’s façade and, several yards in front of this, the grim trickle of a fountain, a cement rectangle whose only whimsy was its spray of municipal water misting the heat-flushed faces of passerby.

Ah, familiar faces! Mothers in fur vests and dark denim bending towards children who prattled relentlessly about the latest trombone lesson or judo slam across the dojo floor. Bureaucrats trailing the ghost of their thirty-five hours. A blue-suited city worker manning the wheel of a small truck while his partner, high above on a wobbly mechanical ladder, screwed light bulbs into street lamps. A drunk with his pants at half-mast struggling with the door to the public toilet. Children kicking balls and jumping rope. All these frenetic silhouettes—actors in a shadow play—reminded Ludo of his wife laughing it up with the bachelor across the street, of his bank account filling and emptying in a cyclical tide. Outside, friends and neighbors plodded forward as if this shadow life was real, buying houses, businesses, investing their lives…

He took out his cell phone and dialed. Upon hearing his voice she said a happy Oh, hello! and he felt a wonderful galloping like horses over roses. Her name was Natasha, and she agreed to meet him tomorrow…

 

He arrived early and ordered an espresso. The café, a few steps from her apartment, she’d explained, was of Natasha’s choosing. Two young men, kids really—from his wizened four-decade perch he could call them that—sat at a nearby table. The bearded one with elbow patches stood up and attempted a chiropractic manipulation that involved pumping his friend’s arm. Next to Ludo a man in a leather porkpie hat kissed his tattooed girlfriend. The soul of pretension! Ludo writhed in inner discomfort. Everywhere he looked, he saw stupidity, ugliness.

Conscious of his suit and tie he drank his espresso and manipulated the keys of his Blackberry. Last night he’d lain awake horny and sweating in the terrible heat while she refused to come to bed. And still not so much as an SMS! As if his display of anger when she returned flushed with wine and accomplishment made him the bad one.

“But I invited him to dinner Saturday,” she said.

“Well, uninvite him.”

He remembered coming to this very café with his son, Boris, after they sailed a rented toy boat around the fountain at Luxembourg Park.

Looking like a small man in his black pea coat and scarf, Boris had stridden in and announced to the girl with the nose-stud behind the bar:

“I’m having a diabolo menthe!”

The girl had laughed and brought over a glass with two-inches of green syrup, and a bottle of Sprite.

“At last!” she said as she set it in front of Boris, who was sitting as straight-backed as a miniature Mao Tse-Tung. “Enfin! A man who knows what he wants!”

Ludo had loved this generalissimo moment, and guarded the memory of it like a jewel. His son—the bright child of a spoiled, overeducated, but endlessly encouraging American mother, and unblemished by the filthy trailing weight of Europe and France—would know how to command. When he recounted the story at a dinner party no one seemed impressed so he added another detail. He told everyone that as they left the café he, Ludo, spotted twenty Euros in the gutter. He picked the money up and put it into Boris’s pocket. It felt like a benediction, a sign of good things to come. “Spend it any way you want,” he told everyone he had said to his son. “Buy a giant bag of candy!”

The café door opened and his heart flew.

No. This person was in her forties, a woman trying too hard in stilettos and a tulle skirt. Her friends leaned toward her admiringly, exclaiming: “Wo-ow.” The place was crawling with artist types. His wife could bring the neighbor and look deep into his fraudulent, Neanderthal eyes.

A head of dark curls was moving toward him. Natasha. Wearing a tight sweater and Converse high tops. Away from the yoga studio, she looked different. She dropped a textbook onto his table and grinned. He felt an icy sliver of disappointment.

She’s a student.

Her thick brows slanted in a way that reminded him of Renoir, of Renoir’s soft-faced Michelin nudes, and he briefly visualized a thick muff of dark hair between her legs.

“Coucou!” she said, tapping the table with the big ring she wore on her forefinger.

“Sorry,” he smiled, standing to kiss her cheeks. “Seeing you makes me think I might do something I’ll regret.”

“Regret?” she said with a laugh, raising her hand for the waiter. “Coming from you, that sounds funny. Come on, let’s order some drinks…”

 

Walking to the metro he stopped to gaze at a lumpy bronze statue of a soldier, Capitaine Dreyfus. Dreyfus stood with a broken-off sword was in one hand, and a pigeon fluffed on his brimmed cap. At the statue’s base a plaque in French said: ‘If you wish me to live, have them give me back my honor.’

Ludo picked a bottle cap off the ground and chucked it at the pigeon, his shoulder igniting with a burst of pain. The pigeon flapped to a nearby branch, dust motes spinning in the silvery light.

A jogger thudded past.

American, he estimated, as her firm buttocks and pink thighs wobbled past, a baseball cap tucked low over her eyes. Who else would run down the middle of the street?

Massaging the painful shoulder, he descended into the metro. In California everyone wore baseball caps and jogged. His own memories of a childhood trip to the Golden State were foggy, though he retained the image of waitress setting a miraculous stack of fluffy pancakes topped with maple syrup and a cloud of whipped cream in front of him. Ludo felt that if he returned to California—now, today—the state’s sunshine would wrap itself around him like a long-awaited homecoming embrace.

His train arrived and he hurried on. As it lurched forward he lost his balance and stumbled over a girl’s white sneaker. The girl—a sallow, lank-haired Parisian—glared at him like he was an assassin. He smiled, thinking of Natasha, who, in hindsight, seemed almost more American than his wife. In California he and Natasha could wear baseball caps and go jogging. They could politely ignore the movie stars who were also jogging, and when they had jogged their requisite five miles, they could stop at International House of Pancakes and order a tall stack with bacon, after which they could sit on a beach and watch the golden afternoon roll in…

The train slid into Varenne station. Ludo noted that a too-small metal patch had been soldered over the hole in The Thinker’s thigh, leaving a thin uncovered strip: an entrance for a family of cockroaches. Even people repairing master art works in this country were incompetent! As he stood there swaying in the overcrowded wagon, his mood plunged. All he wanted was a feeling of fulfillment, a relaxed body and mind, yet his wife, instead of helping him reach this goal, chatted up the neighbor and pushed him, her husband, away! She was a good one for complaining about a lack of marital solidarity, but wouldn’t lift a finger for the benefit of their team!

At home he swung open the door, his keys jangling in the lock. His wife was perched in front of her easel, and did not greet him as he came in. Her sharp little profile made him want to slam the door over and over until it fell off its hinges. But this was his home and not a monkey house, even if his wife insisted on acting like an ignorant ape. He pulled the door to until it gave a soft click. He dropped his briefcase, shed his clothes and showered, the hot water drumming his tight, painful shoulder. The pain was now radiating up into his neck. Afterwards he slicked back his hair, poured a tumbler of Bailey’s on ice, and walked towel-waisted into the living room. Jen was still working away, and it occurred to him, dim hope igniting in his chest, that she might be inspired to strip away his towel. He dropped onto the couch and pointed the remote at the television, his body radiating a moist heat.

“Do you mind?”

“No,” he said, flicking past CNN and the 24-hour airport channel.

She sighed and squeezed out some white paint. Through his peripheral vision he noted that the curtain was closed, and that she looked pinched and pale. This was deeply satisfying: perhaps, for once, she felt chastened. He found a UFC match, turned up the volume, and took a long swallow of his drink. Two guys beating each other bloody. His wife smeared a gob of paint onto her canvas. The sweet icy liquid flowed down his throat, and he propped a cushion on the coffee table and positioned his feet, adjusting for maximal comfort. He noticed that the nails of his big toes had been molded into claw-like points by his lace up work shoes. He retrieved the nail clippers from the bathroom, returned to the couch, trimmed the nails and gathered the slivers into a mound next to his drink. It felt good to be clean. It felt good to begin to relax.

His wife stared at him, her mouth hanging open.

“You’re a pig—do you know that?”

He held her gaze for a long moment, chuckling and watching her face redden as it became apparent he wouldn’t dignify her attack with a response. Finally he broke eye contact, gathered the clippings into his palm, and dumped them into the ficus. Amidst the hoots and applause of the UFC crowd, the boom of the American announcer’s voice, he dressed and walked outside into the heat.

 

The sky drooped. Three workers with grit clinging to their bare arms were installing maroon awnings above the Monte Carlo pizzeria, tools scattered across the sidewalk. Massaging his burning shoulder he walked to the metro, imagining the relief of a cold beer flowing down his parched throat.

On the train an old man suddenly grabbed at the air and tumbled at Ludo’s feet. Ludo stared down in bewilderment while a woman leapt forward and crouched at the man’s side. His white-headed wife gaped from several feet away, her hands clutching shopping bags. The old man convulsed briefly and opened his eyes, very blue, looking confused.

“It’s the heat,” someone said, and the man was ushered out at the next station, I’m all right, I’m okay, flanked by his wife and the female Good Samaritan. As the metro pulled away the two old people were sitting on molded orange station chairs staring straight ahead, white-faced, backs erect. Ludo looked at his shoes, the ridged floor where the man had fallen. I should have done something, he thought. Shown initiative, taken control… He wanted a drink, to lie down, to feel the coolness of fingers in his hair…

Outside it looked like rain. He found the blue door and the name: N. Bontemps. She rang him up on the third buzz, he climbed the stairs, and a wave of apricot incense rushed his nose as she opened the door.

“Were you standing there long?” she said, touching his arm. “I had the stereo on.”

“I wanted to see you.”

“Oh.” Her cheeks turned pink.

She led him in and locked the deadbolt. His eyes began to itch: somewhere in this stifling studio was a cat. The couch beneath the loft bed was scattered with fur-coated cushions. They sat amongst them.

“I’m boiling,” he said, tugging at his shirt collar. “Do you have anything to drink?”

“Sure,” she said with a smile. “Tap water okay?”

“Anything wet,” he said, disappointed, picturing the gently sweating bottles his wife stocked for him in the fridge.

The water was filled with tiny bubbles and tasted tinny. He drank deeply. Her brows jumped as he drained the glass, his throat clicking.

“Excuse me,” he said.

She laughed behind her fingers. He wiped his mouth and set down the glass. Outside the window a sparrow chirped, and a motorbike could be heard bombing at top speed around a corner, its tires squealing. A tremor flickered across one of her eyelids, her gaze steady on his face. Quiet descended. He leaned in and kissed her. She curled into him, climbing his calves with her toes. He was suddenly charged up, light and strong. He pulled her close, tilting his head to change the angle of the kiss, and his neck made a soft ominous click and blasted him with pain. Damn it. He jerked forward, a gesture she seemed to misinterpret.

“Come,” she said, slithering up the ladder to the loft.

He followed, his shoulder and neck electrified: stage-one of a searing discomfort he knew from experience would last for days. The sheets were rumpled, a large white cat luxuriating across the pillows. Staring at him, Natasha removed her shirt. He moved toward her on his knees, head bumping the ceiling, and reached for her small firm breasts.

“Lie down,” she commanded.

He did and she removed his pants, caressing him through his shorts. He lay back and tried to concentrate on her fingers’ light touch, her lips moving down his belly. His eyes and throat itched and pain radiated from his shoulder up through his neck.

She took him into her mouth and he stared at the greasy marks on the ceiling, feeling himself shrinking, lifting his gaze to catch a glimpse of a glistening pale mushroom poking out of his black pubic mound. He felt a flash of anger and pushed himself into a sitting position, his neck leaping in agony.

“Stop,” he said, her mouth a crumpled O. “My neck—”

“Relax,” she said, tousling his hair. “We’ll get it to go up…”

“Wait a minute,” he said. “What?

The cat stood and stretched the length of its back, rattling its fluffy tail. Natasha gazed at Ludo in silence, her legs folded neatly beneath her. An unpleasant feeling squatted on his chest. He felt the tedious necessity of justifying himself, explaining… Suddenly her hand flew to her mouth and she gave a mighty yawn. This must be very dull for you, he wanted to say. Forgive me for boring you. Heat shimmered from his torso and limbs, hovering, trapped, at the ceiling.

“Unfortunately, I really have to go,” he said, with an unpleasant tightness in his throat. “I only stopped in to say hello, but now—”

She gave a nervous little laugh: “Oh, come on. You have to stay!”

But he was already halfway down the ladder.

 

He sweated through Trikonasana, and his shoulder, better after a week of ice packs and gentle stretching, sang with joyous release. Jean-Luc walked the room, tapping his slender toes against students’ feet to nudge them into alignment. Ludo examined the teacher’s slightly bowed shins as the man lingered, eyeing him for fault.

“This shows an understanding of the posture,” Jean-Luc finally said, and Ludo’s blood surged with vindication.

In the changing room, Natasha’s yellow shorts showed half-moons of sweat beneath each buttock. She glanced over as he walked in, and then quickly averted her eyes and made a show of rummaging around in her bag. Relieved, he pretended not to notice her.

At home he found his wife working on a watercolor. The carnival-like beeping of a video game drifted in from their son’s bedroom. The watercolor—pastel clouds on creamy paper—was weirdly soothing.

Ludo crouched and placed his head on Jen’s lap. He felt a slight shift in her posture and the weight of her hand, tentative, on the top of his head.

 

 

Jessie AufieryBIO

Jessie Vail Aufiery has lived in Miami for the past year and a half after more than a decade in Paris. She is World Literature Editor for The Literary Review, and lives with her husband and twin daughters.

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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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