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The Scarville Garnet

by Christina Phillips

            The air was abuzz, static and anticipation tangling and tangoing in the vents of the motel room. Their dance raised the hair on the arms of the two teenagers renting the space, but they both pretended nonchalance. One, the taller of the two, was standing barefoot with her heels pressed against the baseboard of the bathroom door frame, and the other had in his hands a pencil and a measuring tape, his eyes trained on the marks he was leaving on the wood grain.

            “See?” At his prompting, the tall girl stepped forward and turned to look. “5’10, just like I said. Not tall enough for the second-floor window, even if I boost you.”

            She rolled her amber eyes and pushed past him to grab her beer off the bathroom counter. “You win, Cash. Back door it is.”

            Cassius watched, eyes bloodshot and hungry, as she lifted her hips to sit on the counter, brought the bottle to her lips, pulled a knee to her chest, still as enticed by her effortless grace as he’d ever been. His good mood only went as far as her face, though, which was solemn. Maybe even a little worried. “Could you do me a favor and pretend you’re having fun? You’re not a good time when you act the cynic, Rhea, and you know the role looks better on me anyhow.”

            He couldn’t help smiling to himself as her whole body stiffened at his remark. “Me? Not a good time?” She sounded unaffected as she lowered the bottle into her lap, but Cassius knew every lilt in her voice was meticulously crafted.

            “Oh, not as good of a time as you used to be,” he snarked, knowing the playful tone would do nothing to soften the words as he leaned against the doorframe, arms crossed. “I bet you couldn’t cheat a hand of blackjack now if you tried. What happened to that girl?

            A shaky breath taken behind her curtain of hair. A moment of hesitation. “Maybe she grew up.” Oh, and wasn’t that a raw line? One more push ought to get him what he wanted.

            “Well, I wonder why she’d go and do a stupid thing like that.”

            Her head snapped up, and he had to bite his lip to keep from grinning at the anger in her eyes, the way she looked at him like she hated him, like she could punch through his rib cage and rip out his beating heart. God, it was orgasmic. “Because—” That first word was barked out with all the fire he could’ve wanted, but by then she’d caught on to his game and knew to withhold his prize. She forced herself back into nonchalance, into a cool and unchallenging posture. She spat out some ineffectual comeback, something she wished would hurt him but knew wouldn’t.

            Silence was strung up and hanged like a convict between them as her pleading eyes betrayed her unbothered body. He waited just long enough for her to decide she really wanted his apology before he gave it, crossing the threshold with open arms and a kissing mouth. In the fluorescence of the bathroom light, the scarlet of her outgrown box-dyed hair fell over his cheeks that flushed the same shade, and he whispered to her how important it was to him, too, this job that would set them up for life, this rock they were stealing that would pay for their white picket fence.

            The gem in question was known as the Scarville Garnet, named for the sleepy little town in which it resided, the same town that had been the backdrop for the tiresome and tireless parade of miseries Rhea had to look back on as a childhood. But amidst the concrete greys and bruise blues of that time, a scarlet beacon gleamed just the way it had under each year’s July sun when the fat, happy man who owned it had carted it out to the county fair. She remembered vividly the smell of the cotton candy, the popcorn, the sweat of a hundred people packed into the fairgrounds’ assembly hall to see a man in a fancy linen suit with a Cuban cigar hanging from his lip beam over his prized jewel. And years later, when she and Cassius had been passing through the area and heard whispers of a supposedly abandoned mansion and the supposedly cursed gem that had supposedly done unspeakable things to its owner, Rhea couldn’t believe her luck.

            The two of them had talked, of course, about getting out of the life, of settling down together somewhere and making for themselves a domestic little idyll, but the words were only ever exchanged between sheets. So Rhea had put together the whole plan herself and presented it to him all in one go, so that all he had to do was say yes. She’d had him sky-high on adrenaline at the mention of the largest garnet in the country, willing to say anything to make the heist happen. Yes, he’d help her paint their mailbox and yes, he’d love it if they got a dog and yes, he’d make an honest woman of her as soon as he could, just as long as he could get his hands on that rock.

            Cassius was not much the convincing actor, but Rhea was every bit his captive audience.

            Arriving back in town and actually casing the target had revealed a few holes in Rhea’s meticulous plot. For example, she’d had them climbing in through the second-floor window on the north side of the house, so as not to risk agitating a creaky staircase, but they were higher up than she’d recalled.  

            “How do you know it’s even on the second floor, anyway?” Cassius had asked as they were arguing over it.

            “Because you used to be able to see it at night, through the window,” she’d responded, not for the first time that evening. “He never wanted anyone to forget the look of it, his success.”

            “Some success he is now,” he’d muttered, growing bored of her vexation.

            That first fight on the subject had been days ago now, though they’d continued to squabble over it in bursts, and these spats had culminated with Rhea insisting he measure her exactly so they might reach a conclusion. This was fine by Cassius, of course, since putting a matter to bed usually meant taking Rhea to bed, and today was no exception; what had started on the bathroom counter had continued into the shower and had ended in the motel’s moth-eaten sheets.

            Rhea lay there in the dying afternoon light, arms wrapped around Cassius’s broad chest as it rose and fell with sleep. She was sick with desperation that he hold her, but his hands stayed tucked beneath his head, indifferent to her raucous yearning. Things would change soon, though, she thought to herself. He would change once everything else did.

            The moon rose on the night of the heist, and as it approached its zenith, Rhea poured two shots of dark rum and passed one to Cassius. “To the end of the line,” she announced triumphantly, holding out her glass.

            “To our biggest score yet,” Cassius amended, clinking his glass against hers. Both downed their drinks to chase their malcontent and wished there were time for another round.

            The two were thieves by trade, of course, and they’d gone through every motion what felt like a thousand times over. Looking inconspicuous as they approached the house, scaling the fence, picking the lock—it all came easy, and Rhea was damn near bored with the song and dance, but the thrill for Cassius was unlike anything else. There could be no wrong moves, no misplaced steps, no breath taken out of turn. It was his passion, really, doing what he knew to be wrong, and his heart pounded as his nimble fingers played the lock pins for fools.

            The house was the belle of the ball as far as Scarville went, but that wasn’t very far. White brick and black trim that looked stately under blue skies were almost ghostly in the silver starlight, but the thing that really chilled Rhea’s blood as she gazed up at it, waiting for the lock to crack, was, sure enough, that crimson glow pouring from that window, exactly as she remembered it. Even when Cassius got the lock figured and tugged her wrist to beckon her inside, she had a hard time tearing her gaze away from the light.

            When she stepped over the threshold, she thought she’d looked so long at it that it’d glazed her vision scarlet, but when she rubbed her eyes and came away with the same view as before, she realized the whole inside of the house was awash in the glow of the garnet.

            “The hell is going on in here?” Cassius muttered, balled fists rubbing ferociously at his eyes.

            Rhea tried not to choke on her laugh as she nudged him with her elbow. “You expected to steal a spooky cursed gemstone from a house that looked perfectly normal? It’s a good thing you aren’t the brains on this one, babe.”

            Cassius scowled at her quip and turned to find a way from the room they’d entered, the kitchen, to the stairs. Rhea knew she should be doing the same, but she squinted around, trying to find the source of the light. It seemed to evenly bathe the full kitchen, but—was it her imagination, or did it get stronger out in the hall? Yes, it did, and there it was, getting brighter again around the corner, smearing blood all over the crown molding, and there—

            “Cash,” Rhea whispered over her shoulder, hoping he’d hear her. “Cash, the stairs—it’s coming from the stairs.”

            He wasn’t far behind, and soon they were creeping up the winding spiral staircase, squinting against the light that was verging on blinding the further up they went. In fact, Rhea was sure the light must’ve been doing something to her eyes, because she could swear the railing was wrapped in veins of dark, throbbing stone, that the light bent, warped, reached for her and for Cassius.

            As far as Cassius was concerned, all of this was shaping up to be the heist of his life. His heart hammered as he inhaled and smelled danger mingling with the smell of dust and old mothballs. He could barely feel his own body past the staticky sensation of adrenaline, and he certainly couldn’t feel it as his unnerved lover reached for his hand where it rested on the banister.

            The stairs brought them to a hallway, right across from a door, and from the crack between it and the hardwood spilled all this horrible crimson light. Cassius was across the corridor in a stride, but Rhea clamped a hand around his wrist. “Cash—Cassius, this doesn’t feel right. Something’s not—”

            “What, you’re gonna sprout a moral compass right here? Right now?” His face, awash in red light and anger, looked like the gargoyle on the roof of the Scarville Chapel. He tore her hand off his and slammed the door open, all thought of subtlety left at the foot of the stairs.

            At first, the light was so blinding that Rhea couldn’t see what lay beyond the door, but as her eyes adjusted, she wished they hadn’t. She wished she were Oedipus, eyeless in her agony, for what she saw was too terrible to see.

            This had been the fat, happy man’s room, once; that much was made apparent by the luxurious four-poster occupying much of the space. But the man was no longer fat, nor happy, and it appeared this was no longer his room, but the garnet’s.

            Emaciated, his face locked in a cry of utter anguish, the man was held to his ruined mattress by the garnet, which stuck out from amongst his splintered ribs like crystalized viscera. It seemed to have grown roots that had slithered into him, following the paths set out by his veins, before bursting through his skin, through his palms and his eye sockets, his feet and his mouth. The roots had continued growing, snaking up the bed’s posters and down onto the floor, embedding themselves in the very foundations of the house. And with all the damned, hellish light, it was impossible to tell what was garnet and what was dried blood. But then, Rhea did not want to know.  

            She hadn’t realized she was weeping at the sight until Cassius took a step towards the bed and her voice cracked as she tried to yell his name. She swallowed and tried again, louder this time: “Cassius! Please! Please, no, it isn’t worth it!” She was screaming and begging and pleading and crying, praying to a god who clearly couldn’t be real that her love would turn around, scoop her up, and take her away from this nightmare she’d found herself in.

            But he didn’t.

            Rhea’s throat bled with the force of her scream as Cassius reached out and tried to grab the garnet. Tried and failed because it was the garnet which grabbed him. Sheer panic washed over her as scarlet light spilled out of her lover’s eyes and mouth and bathed the room, as it shredded his skin and seared his bones and lit him up like a neon vacancy sign. His name was on her lips, but it couldn’t fill his ears quite so well as the blood she saw leaking from them, trickling down his neck and pooling in the hollow of his throat.

            She could barely see through her tears, but she saw as the roots of the garnet crawled up Cassius’s neck, and she could hear the sickening crack as they turned his head and locked what had been his eyes on her.

            And it occurred to her that there was no saving him. There was only saving herself.


Christina Phillips has been fascinated with words since before she could read them. She is a proud hard of hearing woman and, as of the fall of 2022, is a junior studying English literature and creative writing at Texas Christian University. She’s previously been published in Neologism Poetry Journal.

Julia Somebody

by Robert Sachs

“Nathan, where are we?” Julia asks, looking at a purple and orange dangling participle swaying from an unfocussed noun. They are standing at the base of the penultimate paragraph on page thirty-five. They had only recently met on page thirty.

Nathan looks worried. He knows where they are and wants out. “In a novel, I’m afraid.”

“What do you mean?”

“Do you not understand English?” Nathan isn’t normally this abrupt. But his nerves are frayed and he isn’t quite himself. This isn’t his first time, after all, and it seems to him as if he’s been trying to escape from one novel or another most of his thirty-two years.

“Do you always answer a question with a question?” Julia asks. Since moving from Keokuk to New York she has lost some of the wide-eyed affability that marked her early years. She learns quickly that affability is seen as a sign of weakness in Manhattan. Now, at twenty-eight and a five-year resident of the Big Apple, she isn’t taking crap from anyone.

“When appropriate,” Nathan says, but softly, with a smile, somehow glad Julia hasn’t shrunk from his smart-ass answer. He sits down on the last paragraph on the page. “We’re characters in a story.” He puts his elbows on his knees, with his hands covering his face. “Shit,” he adds, more to himself than to Julia. It has happened to him before. “There’s only one way out.”

“How? What?”

“The author needs to cut us, edit us out.” As he says this, Nathan notices for the first time how attractive Julia is. She is tall, a couple of inches taller than he, an angular young woman with soft red hair and legs like the stems of spider lilies. He moves close to her, takes her hand. “Explicit sex might work,” he says.

Julia slaps his face. “Not funny, Nathan. We’re here in the middle of some god-forsaken novel and all you can think about is sex?”

“No, no,” he pleads. “I only meant it’s our ticket out of here. He’ll see that his story has taken a wrong turn and cut us.”


“What’s-his-name. The author.”

Julia looks at him hard. “You’re making this up to get in my pants, right?” she says. “Creep.”

Nathan pulls at his hair. “No. I’m telling you this is how we can get out of here. I know a guy? Last year I found myself in one of his short stories. Minor character. Tried everything to get out, but the only thing that worked was explicit, fiery, kinky sex. Trust me.”

“Right,” she says, moving to another paragraph. “I’d rather die.”

“Well, there is that.”


“Dying. It’s the other way of getting out of the story.” Nathan smiles at Julia. “A bit drastic, don’t you think?”

Julia has to admit to herself that she finds Nathan attractive. She was always drawn to swarthy men and Nathan is dark, with thick black, wavy hair, and he is muscular—another plus—if somewhat squat—a minus. His eyes sparkle and his nose moves up and down when he talks. He has a full beard, black, with specks of red. She wonders how it would feel to kiss a man with so much facial hair. “Couldn’t we just date for a couple of chapters and see how it goes?”

“Fine by me,” Nathan says, moving close to Julia’s paragraph. “Dinner tonight?”

“I’m busy tonight,” she says. “He’s got me singing in a bar. How about Friday?”

It’s an out-of-the-way French restaurant. Nathan notices the narrator and a woman named Jocelyn sitting at a table near the back of the room. As soon as the narrator notices Julia and Nathan, he and Jocelyn get up to leave. He nods briefly and solemnly to Nathan as he passes their table.

“Wasn’t that the narrator?” Julia asks after the couple had gone. “And Jocelyn, that whore?”

“Stuck up bastards,” Nathan says. “Forget them. Their scene’s over. Let’s you and me have a good time.”

They have a dry Beaujolais while waiting for their food. Julia finds Nathan charming and funny.

“I didn’t know you were funny,” she says.

“When I want to be.” After dinner Nathan suggests they go back to the first chapter.

“Why the first chapter?” Julia isn’t quite sure she can trust Nathan.

“Neither of us are in it: The author won’t expect to see us there. We won’t be noticed.”

“But no funny business,” Julia warns.

Once in the first chapter, Nathan starts to say he thinks the language there pedestrian, when there is a flash of light.

“What?” gasps Julia, grabbing Nathan’s arm.

“He’s highlighting the paragraph above us. Must be editing. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. I don’t want him to see us here. He’ll get suspicious.” Nathan takes Julia’s hand and guids her along the right margin up the page to the header. “We’ll be safe here.”

They watch as the author moves some words and deleted others. After a few minutes, Nathan says, “I think he’s through with this chapter. We can relax.”

Julia leans close to Nathan. “Do you really think the sex can work?”

“It’s worth a try,” he says, trying not to smile. They walk back to the fifth chapter arm in arm. He kisses her on the cheek. “Night,” he says.

“Good night, Nathan.”

Julia doesn’t hear from Nathan for several days and she begins to worry that without him she’ll never get out of the book. But suddenly, there he is sitting beside her.

“You scared me. Don’t you knock first?”

“Get real, Julia. We’re characters in this novel. We bounce around from chapter to chapter. Speaking of chapters, I’ve been to the end.”

“The end? Were you spotted?” She touches his shoulder.

“No, I was careful, but it’s not good news.”

“Tell me, I can take it.”

“We’re minor characters. There is no mention of us after chapter 8. And the plot is to barf for.”

“The bastard,” Julia says, referring to what’s-his-name, the author.

“Minor characters in a Podunk novel. Never thought it would happen to me.” He looks at Julia who is still in her pajamas. “All the more reason we have to get out while the getting is good.”

She notices the copular verb. “You mean sex, don’t you?”

“It’s your call, babe. Either we do it or we languish here: Stuck in a second-rate novel on remainder tables all over America.”

The hotel room is small but comfortable. Julia starts right in with an enthusiasm that surprises and thrills Nathan. After forty-five minutes, Nathan is spent and delightfully dizzy. But Julia wants more.

“This is sure to get cut,” Nathan thinks. “I hope I’m up to it.”

“Bet you’ve never seen this one,” she says, grabbing Nathan before he has a chance to protect himself. Two hours. Three. And finally, they lay there, sweating and exhausted. There are two more nights of this before the blinking cursor alerts them.

“This may be it,” Nathan says, rummaging through the night table for some ointment.

And then, as quickly as it had started, they are sliced from the story and set free.

Nathan finds himself on the C train headed toward Brooklyn, smiling. Julia wakes up—also smiling—in a dorm room at Ohio State. It is 1964 and they are strangers.

After college Julia settles in Chicago where she becomes a popular folk singer. Nathan drifts for a while, ending up working as a bar-back in a posh Gramercy Park tavern.

One summer a couple of years later, Julia gets a gig singing at the tavern where Nathan works. It is a busy night for him but he is able to catch a minute or two of Julia’s set. He feels a stirring. He can’t take his eyes off the young folk singer.

“Who’s the babe?” he asks the bartender.

“Julia somebody. Nice, huh?”

“There’s something familiar about her,” Nathan says. “Like I may have known her years ago. Ever get that feeling? You see someone you couldn’t have met before and yet you feel somehow you have? That you might even have been close friends?”

“No,” says the bartender. “Sounds like the plot of a story I once read. I can use more ice.”

After her set, Julia approaches Nathan. “Noticed you at the bar. Have we met?”

“Do you feel we have?” Nathan asks.

“Do you always answer a question with a question?”

“When appropriate,” Nathan says softly, with a smile.


Robert Sachs’ fiction has appeared in The Louisville Review, the Chicago Quarterly Review, the Free State Review, the Great Ape Journal, and the Delmarva Review among others. He holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Spalding University. His story, “Vondelpark,” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2017. His story, Yo-Yo Man, was a Fiction Finalist in the 2019 Tiferet Writing Contest. His story, Old Times, was the Fiction Winner in the 2021 Tiferet Writing Contest. Read more at www.roberthsachs.com

The Girl with the Song in Her Mouth

by Dvora Wolff Rabino

            One spring day, when blossoms first appeared on the cherry tree outside her open latticed window, Clarimonde gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. The aproned midwife gave the newborn a sharp slap on her rear, but the babe did not cry out; she chirped. Clarimonde laughed with delight and named her daughter Ava. 

            When Ava lay in her cradle, she cooed. When she crawled, she crooned. When she walked, she warbled. The melodies were wordless and mesmerizing. 

            When other children her age began to say “Mama,” Ava continued to sing. When other children began to say “More!” and “No!,” Ava sang some more. “Talk to me,” Clarimonde begged her daughter. Ava looked at her mother with round gray-blue eyes and changed her tune but did not speak. 

            Often, Ava’s singing was light and airy, like a piccolo. Other times, it was bright, like a fife. But on occasion the songs sounded to Clarimonde like the low, slow notes of a mournful cello. 

            With no words, Ava could not tell her mother when she was hungry or thirsty, when her tummy ached or her head burned with fever. She could not say when she was lonesome or sad. Clarimonde tried to guess at Ava’s needs, but was never certain she correctly divined the meaning of her daughter’s music.

            Clarimonde tried not to worry. The physician reminded her that children matured at different rates. If Ava did not learn before, he said, she would surely learn in school. 

            In due course, Clarimonde walked Ava to the one-room schoolhouse and introduced her to the teacher. But when the falling leaves were replaced by falling snow, the schoolmarm sent home a letter. Try as she might, the mistress wrote, she could not induce Ava to recite her tables or read from her primer like the other children. Ava would be allowed to sit in the back row, she continued, whilst the rest of the class did their lessons. If she could not help herself, she could hum quietly from her seat. But the mistress could not promise that Ava would be learning.

            The other girls in town completed their after-school chores and then played outside until supper, coasting down hills on their sleighs, skipping rope, or tagging each other with a ball, all the while chattering or chanting rhymes or calling out “Red Rover, Red Rover.” But Ava did not join in their play. In fair weather, she climbed the cherry tree in front of the house and looked down at the other girls. Otherwise, she sat on the window seat, folded her long legs under her, and crooned to her rag doll or organized her growing collection of feathers.

            Clarimonde was not sure if Ava’s songs were a bounty or a curse, an aperture or a cage. The music was soulful, often heavenly. But without words, how would Ava learn? How would she make friends with other young ladies? How would she be able to find work as a shopkeeper or a seamstress, or wed and have children of her own?  

             The following Monday Clarimonde brought Ava back to the physician. He clapped his hands behind her head, observed her startle, and looked in her mouth and throat as she sang. “Your daughter’s hearing and throat are fine,” he said. “And she already makes the ‘ah’ sound when she sings. For the next fourteen days and fourteen nights, give her a cup of hot tea every morning with breakfast and a cup of hot mead every evening with supper. Have her breathe in the steam for ten minutes and then drink it up, every drop. When her throat is warm and wet, have her watch you and feel your mouth and throat as you form the sound of a single consonant: say, the letter B. Form her own lips into the proper shape. In a fortnight’s time, she will be able to make a B sound. You may then proceed to the next consonant.”

            For the next fourteen days and fourteen nights, Clarimonde followed the doctor’s instructions to the letter. She was fortunate to have a dutiful child who did what she was asked. Ava drank the tea and the mead her mother served her each morning and evening, down to the last drop. She let her hand rest against her mother’s lips as Clarimonde said “Bah” and “Bah” again. She let Clarimonde her mother gently pinch and release Ava’s lips into the same shape. “Say ‘Bah’ for me,” Clarimonde said. “Bah. Bah. Bah. Can you say ‘Bah’?

            Ava remained quiet.

            On the last evening, Clarimonde repeated the ritual one more time. Then she looked into her daughter’s eyes.

            “The fortnight is over, my dear,” she said. “Will you say ‘Bah’ for me? Please?”

            Ava trilled in reply.

            The next day was windy. Clarimonde bundled Ava up in her favorite fluffy coat and walked her to the apothecary on the main street. The woman behind the counter looked in Ava’s mouth and clicked her tongue. “Hot beverages and mouth exercises are insufficient for a problem this serious,” she said. “The girl’s throat is clearly diseased.” She handed Clarimonde an amber bottle of patent medicine. “For the next thirty nights,” she said, “you must give your daughter a spoon of this cough syrup at bedtime. In one month’s time, she will be cured.”

            That night and for the next twenty-nine nights, Ava swallowed the tonic that Clarimonde spooned into her mouth. Afterwards, she slept long and deep. During the day, she woke slowly. She ate and drank silently, as if in a stupor. Then she returned to bed, pulled the quilt over her shoulders, and fell back into a peaceful slumber. Clarimonde chattered to herself to fill the sadly soundless house.

            On the thirty-first morning, when the grandfather clock struck nine, Clarimonde tiptoed to Ava’s bed. She surveyed her daughter’s face from the top of her soft head to the ends of her narrow nose and chin. Finally, she gently kissed her brow. “Good morning, my sweet,” she whispered as Ava opened her eyes.

            Ava trilled once again.

            Clarimonde’s heart filled with both love and sorrow.

            Finally, in desperation, Clarimonde called upon the surgeon. Like the physician and the apothecary, he inspected Ava’s mouth and throat. Afterwards, however, he instructed Ava to remove her apron and open the rear buttons at the top of her frock. 

            Gently, the surgeon let the bodice of Ava’s sky-blue frock drop from her shoulders. He pushed her feathery hair forward, off the back of her neck. With a magnifying glass, he inspected her shoulders and upper back.

            “You are certain you want your daughter to speak?” he asked Clarimonde.

            Clarimonde was puzzled. “Naturally,” she said.

            The surgeon nodded soberly. He removed from his black bag a pair of tweezers with intricately carved handles of exotic wood. From the crest of Ava’s right shoulder blade, he plucked out something that Clarimonde could not see. He blew it away. He did the same with Ava’s left shoulder. Clarimonde saw Ava flinch, as if she’d just been bitten by a flea. Two tiny dots of blood shone brightly against her ivory skin. The surgeon placed a small bandage on each.

            Clarimonde heard a soft whoosh depart her daughter’s mouth. She felt the air stir. She saw the curtains blow outward, toward the garden just outside.

            “You may dress now,” the surgeon instructed Ava. She pulled her frock over her bandaged scapulae and shoulders and refastened the buttons. She hung her apron around her neck and tied the strings with a bow.

            Clarimonde could barely breathe as she inspected her daughter’s face. “Hello, my dearest one,” she whispered. Her hand trembled as she reached to stroke Ava’s cheek. 

            “Hello, Mother,” replied Ava, in a voice that sounded halting and hoarse. She took
Clarimonde’s hand in hers and brought it to her lips.

            Clarimonde’s eyes filled. Sobbing, she embraced her daughter. The girl’s frock grew wet with her mother’s tears. 

            That evening, Ava did not sing. But she told her mother she was hungry and asked for boiled potatoes. She said she was thirsty and requested ginger ale. As she continued to speak, her voice lost its raspiness; it sounded like the voices of the other girls. For the first time in as long as she could remember, Clarimonde smiled as she prepared her daughter’s supper.

            Clarimonde walked Ava back to the schoolhouse the next morning with a lightened step. That afternoon, when she returned home, Ava told her mother that she had recited her tables and read aloud from her primer. Clarimonde gave her a big hug and a small mince pie. “Go play,” she said. “You have worked hard, and the day is too beautiful for chores.”

            Clarimonde peered out her open window. The cherry tree was beginning to bud once more. She watched Ava venture beyond it to the very end of the lane and walk up to the cluster of other girls. She heard Ava join in their laughter. She heard her call out “Red Rover, Red Rover” and chant rhymes as she turned the skipping rope.

            Clarimonde hummed a happy tune.

            It was a late spring day and the birds were singing when Clarimonde noticed that something was not right. Ava spoke less, and the words were becoming harder for Clarimonde to hear. Her cheeks were pale and her body thin; her head hung from her frail frame. In the middle of supper, she pushed away her plate and limped off to the bedroom. 

            Clarimonde felt her own supper rise in her throat. “My heart,” she said as she tucked her now-ashen daughter in bed; “whatever is wrong with you?” She felt Ava’s forehead with the back of her hand, but detected no fever.

            “I—“ Ava whispered. But Clarimonde could not make out what she said next.

            “Once again?” Clarimonde requested. “Please?” She leaned down and placed her ear just over Ava’s mouth. She could see, outside the window, the ground littered with the pink blossoms of the cherry tree.

            “Mother, I—” Ava croaked. She let out a long sigh like the last air coming out of a rubber balloon. A single tear rolled down her cheek. “I miss my song.” 


Since her retirement from law, New Yorker Dvora Wolff Rabino has published short fiction and personal essays in numerous journals, been nominated for a “Best of the Net” anthology and a Pushcart Prize, and received the Inscape Editors’ Choice award. She is currently working on a novel. For more info and to connect, please visit dvorawolffrabinoauthor.com or https://www.facebook.com/people/100070445074307/


By Stephanie Greene

I discovered chocolate, my lifelong love and drug of choice, as a five-year-old with my best friend, Tilty. We’d descend into our gloomy basement, past its old furnace groaning like a minotaur, into a little room with a 15-watt bulb hanging from the ceiling, armed only with a single spoon. You had to find the switch, which was a sub-game full of drama as we screeched in delighted terror. Once the light was on, the prize, the giant white chest freezer, gleamed its welcome. Gilgamesh, deep diving for the prized watercress, could not have felt more triumph. We struggled to open the heavy lid, and there, among the bricks of frozen hamburger and bags of spinach, was a five- gallon tub of chocolate ice cream.

One of us would suspend, upside down, into the freezer’s tundra, chip out a stingy spoonful of ice cream shavings, and pass it back. We were assiduous in our turn-taking—the next went to the digger. Back and forth, until the digger got too cold and we switched places.

We reveled as much in our bravery as our reward. We could do anything.

Finished, we’d go up to the kitchen, wash our spoon and rinse our faces before repairing to my bedroom to continue our Barbie play. We’d fashion minute bras and sanitary napkin belts for them, which they’d sport under their cute poodle skirts, their faces giving nothing away. Aren’t most children’s games about what we fear? War. Monsters. Doctor. Puberty. We needed that chocolate.

Now I support myself by telling people what to eat. I counsel people whose only fun, only comfort or entertainment is scarfing the poisons that will eventually kill them. There’s a fine line between anodyne and poison.

On the May morning that Darling Morrissette sashayed into my office, all 275 pounds of her, she’d poured her hourglass figure into a sequined dress whose color shimmered between brown and purple, setting off her wine-colored, smoke-shadowed eyes.

Southern Vermont has never been a fashion capital. You cannot buy pumps in my town of 12,000. People wear work boots to weddings. My clients’ attire is upcountry sackcloth. Women shuffle in, wearing their brothers’ stained flannel shirts and drooping sweats, eyes downcast, braced for a scolding.

But Darling was unrepentant, radiant with fury. She’d been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes; her blood glucose readings were catastrophic.

She actually smiled. “Well, here I am.”

I launched into my spiel, Baby Steps to Better Health, about gradually adjusting one’s diet to contain more fiber, more vegetables, more protein.

“And I cut out sugar, spice, and everything nice?” she interrupted.

“Pretty much,” I admitted.

“What do I do with my malted chocolate cake recipe? It’s my piece de resistance.”

“You can have birthday cake.”

She lifted an elegant eyebrow. “That’s good, because my friends have lots of birthdays.”


“Call me Dar. People hear you being called Darling, and they draw the wrong conclusions. They meant well, my folks, but Jesus: Darling? You need armor.”

“Boundaries,” I agreed, creeping up on one of my favorite fat topics.

I got a skeptical look. “Do any of those initials after your name mean that you’re a shrink?”

“No, I’m a diet counselor, but I used to weigh over 200.”


“I have a few thoughts,” I tried again.

She laughed. “I can see you’re itching to tell me.”

“Why do you think you have a weight problem?”

“Um…I eat too much? I get the math, Honey. I can call you Honey if you’re calling me Darling, right?”

“Do you think you might be a sugar addict?”

She shrugged. “Sure.”

Information is not power. What power have I over the siren song of a Zero bar? That very week I’d read a study that said there was no data proving that nutritionists have actually helped people lose weight.

I confined the rest of my remarks to practicalities, showing her how to read nutrition labels, subtracting grams of fiber from carb counts. I gave her a little notebook to record her readings in, told her to get her test strips at Walmart, one tenth the price of those at the drugstore downtown. We set up another meeting two weeks hence. And with all my heart, I wished her well.

That evening, I went out with my fellow helping professionals. Jake’s, our local dive, offers free popcorn at Happy Hour. We claimed a booth decorated with framed photos of sport fishing trips. Clearly Jake was a menace to every sea creature larger than krill.

Headquarters had just issued an edict that we were to be graded on the performance of our wayward charges, prompting much mirthless laughter and drowning of sorrows. We were only temporarily united: too different and competitive to be friends. But I stayed and laughed at the unfunny jokes, nodded vigorously in feigned agreement while sucking down three beers and enough popcorn to fill a rowboat. Finally, I abandoned the un-popped spinsters and went home, my stomach feeling inflated, as if by a bicycle pump.

Darling’s next appointment was on a Tuesday. This time she arrived in a hot pink tunic, covered with dangly beds, obviously meant for shimmying. I stared at her open mouthed. If she could wear clothes like these, what did she need me for? So what if she wore a size 22? No one looking at her would think about numbers.

But of course it is the numbers. We live by actuarial charts. Your blood is not supposed to be half sugar, but looking at Darling, it was easy to forget why.

Her blood glucose reading had actually come down some and I congratulated her. She waved my praise away.

“This is just dress-up,” she said. “Can I smoke?”

“Officially, no, but yeah, sure.” I opened a window and pulled out the ashtray hidden in my third drawer, hoping for a secondhand whiff.

“My husband and his sister, who lives with us—I don’t know why, so don’t ask—have just put a down payment on a $100,000 Road Master RV. Together we have five kids, our twin teenaged girls, and our ten-year-old son—he still talks to me. Rachelle has two little girls, four and five.”

I waited.

“I didn’t have a vote, because I don’t work.”

“You’re a stay-at-home mom, right?” I interrupted, consulting her paperwork. “You cook, clean, shop, do laundry, organize school trips, oversee house maintenance … you run the show!”

“Not the way they see it.”

“What would you like to say to them?” It was too obvious to ignore.

“They overwhelm me.” She looked down at her lap.

“How about singly?”

“That’s the thing. It’s like I’m never alone with Kevin. She sleeps in the room next to ours but the walls are like paper. I can hear her fart at night.”

Even as I laughed, my own throat tightened. I wanted to ask if Kevin is married to her or to his sister. But I couldn’t say that.

I had to say, “Here is the food pyramid. You’ll notice that it is mostly grains.”

She scanned it. “Nine servings? You mean I can eat a whole box of Wheat Thins and still be on the diet?”

We looked at each other. “Maybe you should go to a marriage counselor.”

“I need a doctor’s referral. Mine doesn’t believe in them. I doubt I could get Kevin through the door without a rag soaked in chloroform. Anyway, I get one side dish on my plan and it’s you.”

“What do you like to do?”

“Eat, obviously.”

I glanced at the poster above my desk: Eating is Not a Hobby.

She blew smoke out the window. When she turned back to me, her eyes were brimming. “Lookit, my fifteen-year-olds use me as a backboard to push against. I won’t say they hate my guts, but they’re trying to grow up and they act that way. Naturally, they think my sister-in-law walks on water. Okay. But there’s not much time or space for ‘what I like to do’.” The last phrase was accompanied by air quotes.

“Right.” The frustration inched its way up my throat. “The thing is, Dar, you’re on a collision course. Five more years of this and you could be looking at dialysis.”

“I’m tough.”

“Yeah, I’ve heard that before, the working class, bad-ass-I-can-take-any-punishment-forever bravado. I watched my dad die of it.”

You are not supposed to scold clients. Where were my damn boundaries?

“So, you take mini-vacations with sugar.” I continued. “I’ve done that. You’re sad so you bake a hummingbird cake. Something creative, pretty, homey. Who would argue with that? ‘Bake someone happy,’” I sang the last bit out of tune enough to make her smile. “Sugar works that way. But a slice of hummingbird cake weighs in at 90 net carbs, all by itself. That’s a whole day’s allotment if you’re trying to lose weight.”

Dar’s voice was so small I could barely hear it. “There’s no room for me in my life.” We sat there. What could I say? But that’s never stopped me before.

“Do you know about the study in which overweight people were divided into two groups? One was assigned to a nutritionist and a trainer, with a gym membership, and the other got an organizer and a secretary. The latter group lost more weight.”

“Well! What are we waiting for?” She looked around my office. “So—you’re a packrat, huh?”

I laughed. “Actually, yes. And I eat M&MS regularly, so I’m am probably an addict and certainly a hypocrite.” I opened my desk drawer, pulled out the Sharing Size bag of almond M&Ms, offered it to her, and took some myself.

“So you’re telling me I could do your job,” she concluded through the candy rubble in her mouth.

I didn’t tell her she’d have to drop a hundred pounds first. There’s always a catch.

A week later, I was to meet up with Tilty, her new husband in tow. I’m not sure what I was expecting from the evening … to be set free from adulthood for a couple hours? To retrace my steps and start another path?

We’d managed to lose touch for the better part of five years. The last time I’d seen her was in Boston. She was looking at an art therapy program at Lesley, and I was at BU doing what I’ve come to see as my Nutrition Slog.

Anyway, we laughed our way through two bathtubs of delicious pho in what used to be the Combat Zone. The server liked us so much, she brought us Vietnamese coffees—milkshakes basically—on the house.

“Americans no laugh,” she told us. “You must be Canadian!”

We found this hilarious.

Then, I missed her wedding. Maybe she sent the invite to an old address. Her mother was probably relieved. She didn’t want the only wedding she’d get to plan wrecked by a tipsy bridesmaid in faux reindeer antlers.

When I got to the restaurant, they were already there. The husband, Roger, was abrasively ugly; his butch haircut resembling grey Astroturf. He wore a powder blue plaid three-piece suit, and a paisley tie with matching pocket square. My first reaction, as he crushed my hand, was, Are you kidding? I looked over his shoulder for the real Adonis Tilty should have chosen. A composed public smile stretched across her face like a girdle cinching in my old friend. I began to suspect that the evening would be anything but a glorious recap of good times.

Right away Roger started a fuss over the wine list, the kind of adult pretension we would have mimicked as girls with pants-wetting laughter.

I kept darting looks at Tilty, trying to find the avid comrade who’d gotten me through high school. She was thicker, dressed with drab modesty. Her hair had darkened and was pulled back into a bun. She’d become the dutiful brown female cardinal to his ostentatious male. I wondered if they were members of some sort of cult in which the women wear prairie dresses and do all the work, and the men bed twelve-year olds while pontificating about God.

My date for the evening was my on-again-off-again boyfriend, Clayton, a stoic carpenter behind a full beard whom I’d bribed—with a blackberry pie, come the season—to join me. He smelled like clean wood, didn’t talk much, but could floor me with his wit. That night, when I did look in his direction, which wasn’t often, since I was pretty sure he was enjoying this even less than I, he seemed to be burrowing into his beard.

I cut to the chase. “So, tell me,” I asked Roger, “what do you do?”

He taught American history at a Boston junior college notorious for its parties. Most of his time was spent trying to explain plagiarism to his students. Who in turn explained to him that they were busy people and had paid good money for papers, so those papers belonged to them to use as they saw fit.

“Yikes,” was all I could say, thinking that perhaps being a dietician to non-compliant patients was the better deal.

“Are they curious about history?” I asked.

“Nope.” He and Tilty chuckled.

“Let me show you some card tricks,” he ventured, pulling out a pack.

He fluttered the deck around like a pro, had me pull out a card. Then, without looking at

it, he put it on top of his head, and smacked it, hard. A ping-pong ball jettisoned out of his mouth, bouncing spittily across the table into my lap.

Tilty gave the same girdled laugh she’d been hiding behind all night.
“What a card you are!” she exclaimed.

A card?

Bewildered, I retrieved the ping pong ball, wiped it with my napkin and wedged it between the vase of faux carnations and the votive candle beside it. I wanted to put it on top of Roger’s head and tee off. Instead, I turned to Tilty. “You’re an art therapist now, right?”

Roger cut in. “Matilda bakes her own bread. She’s such a homebody.”

Tilty smiled, without discernable irony.

Our dinners arrived. Roger’s was particularly gruesome: his Salisbury Steak was a brown island in a sea of polluted gravy. I made a mental note that if I ever wanted to try aversion therapy with my clients, this would be the place to come.

“You still like baking? Do you remember making jelly rolls every day after school?”

“Oh yes!” Her teeth were clenched in a rictus smile.

“Remember when we baked the jelly right into it? Save some boring waiting around?”

Ha, ha, ha.

“And the jelly sort of exploded out, dripping onto the bottom of the oven and catching fire?” I couldn’t stop. “And then we threw in not only water, but the plastic cups, too? Screaming our heads off?

“From then on, my father referred to Tilty as ‘The Torch,’” I explained to Roger.

He cleared his throat, straight-faced. “Matilda needed reining in. She ran wild as a girl.”

You don’t begin to understand her, I wanted to say.

“Have a biscuit.” Clay proffered the basket. “Sop up some of that gravy.”

Roger did, dripping onto his tie. Exasperated, he snapped his fingers for the server. “Club soda,” he barked.

The next few minutes were taken up with Roger’s spots. I kept peering at Tilty, hoping for a complicit smirk. But she was too busy sponging Roger.

“How did this happen?” I wailed when we finally escaped. I’d regaled Clay with enough Tilty stories that he could appreciate the contrast. “She’s really gone!”

Clay nodded. “That was a pretty good trick, though. Maybe she likes magic.”

“She was magic. And now she’s a nursemaid to that…boor.”

Clay rubbed my back as I sank into mournful silence. Our night together was sweet, if no real consolation.

I saw my life as a mobius strip of trapped confusion. If my work life hadn’t been such a dead end, I wouldn’t be so desperate to find the old Tilty. If the night hadn’t been such a disappointment, perhaps I wouldn’t be bent on blowing my career sky-high.

At Darling’s next appointment, she reported her weight had gone up. She’d learned how to make fondant, which she rolled out and draped over cakes, then consumed. She didn’t report this with her usual bravado. In fact, her whole demeanor has taken on a defeated dowdiness.  Had Roger somehow gotten hold of her, too? Gone were the garments blazing with sequins, replaced by slacks and a grey boucle top covered with pills.

“How are you doing, besides the scale?”

She lifted and dropped one shoulder in a half-hearted shrug. “My house is a pit. I can’t even think.” She noticed my glance at her top. “My girls say I should dress my age.”

“Tell them to mind their own beeswax!” I snapped.

She cracked a smile. “What do you think I should do?”

“Find a place that is just for you. Clean their junk out of it and claim it. Then do something you enjoy there.”

She looked interested.

“I’ll come help.” This was a definite no-no. Do not fraternize with clients. They have enough problems maintaining boundaries. But I was in deep and determined.

“You can tell your family I am a friend, or your sponsor from a twelve-step group. That should scare them. Or you could say I’m a personal organizer working gratis to get my certification.” I was surprised at how easily the lies came. “What do you think? Is it a deal?”

I showed up at her house, a modest cape whose lawn could comprise a museum of plastic toys: life-seized doll houses, ride-in plastic cars, lawn mowers that blew bubbles out their play exhaust pipes. Someone was having fun, but it wasn’t Dar.

I rang the bell as I surveyed the flat of withering pansies left beside the stoop. With effort I turned back to the door. I longed to water them, tuck them into the balding dirt beside the stairs: Choose your battles I reminded myself.

The little house rocked with a stampede of small, hard feet. The door was yanked open by two little girls, their faces smeared with something jam-like. They stood their ground, mouths agape, taking in this Unidentified Invading Grownup.

“Anty! Some wady is at da door! She’s dot a big suitcase!” cried the older, gap-toothed one.

Well, of course it wasn’t a suitcase. It was just a shoulder bag, with extra trash bags, markers and labels.

We stood there. “ANTY! She’s still here!”

“Oh, for Christ’s sake. Who is it?” Dar’s voice came from the back of the house. The older girl glared at me.

“I’m a friend of your auntie’s,” I announced as winningly as I could.

“No, you’re not! I don’t even know your name.”

At last Dar was at the door. “Sorry about that,” she muttered, ushering me in.

“No problem,” I replied, adding under my breath, “They’d make great bouncers.”

“Yeah, right?”

“They’re cute,” I added weakly.

“No, they’re not. They’re my nieces.”

The living room had seen better days. Uneven Austrian shades in maroon slanted across the picture window, as though the house was a sinking boat, going under. Half-eaten plates of food were scattered around. Burritos seemed to have been on the menu, along with several mini-cereal boxes opened and used as bowls, probably leaking milk. A sleeve of saltines was half crushed into the sofa cushions. Shoes, magazines, toys and a 30-nch flat screen completed the picture. The lighting was grey; the scene reeked of depression.

“Go play, girls.” This was directed at the tots, still dumbstruck by my presence.

“You wanna see my mommy? She’s getting donuts.”

“No, I’m here to see your auntie.”


“I’m helping her clean up.”

“It’s such a mess!” the younger girl crowed, flinging her arms wide, twirling.

I leaned down with feigned benevolence. “Are you going to help clean up like big girls?”

“Nope. It ain’t my house and I ain’t big yet.”

“Is any of it your mess?” I persisted, mistaking it for a teaching moment.

Losing interest, she fell upon her doll, an American Girl brand. She yanked off its expensive clothes.

“Take it into your room, Tiffany. We’re cleaning up,” Dar ordered.

Tiffany sighed, dragging the doll by the foot into the back of the house.

“So! Five kids and three adults here?” I asked.

“Yep. My sister-in-law is ‘job hunting’, which is shorthand for sitting in her friends’ cars, drinking coffee and bitching. She has a degree, so presumably she’s got better job prospects.”

“Okay. Where should we start?” I pushed up my sleeves. “What bugs you the most?”

Dar flopped onto the couch, groaning, her arm over her eyes.

“Right. The living room. I’ll get the dishes. Is there a receptacle for all these toys?” I picked up a Barbie shoe and flicked it, arcing, across the mess. I got the laugh I wanted.

“I love the sound of vacuuming those little suckers up,” she said, heaving herself off the sofa.

I brought the dishes to the sink and soaked them in hot soapy water, then picked up toys so Dar could get at the rug. “Where’s the little girls’ room?

“Upstairs, second on the right.”

The kids’ room was a disaster, but I needed the crate, so I just dumped the stuff on the floor. The girls ignored me, engaged in furious play, jamming dolls and stuffed animals into Barbie’s hot pink sportscar. The sight made my heart leap.

“Cool,” I cried. “You have Barbie’s convertible.”

“Santa was outta campers,” Tiffany replied, not looking up.

I closed the door and briefly considered nailing boards over it. Not an appropriate sentiment. But I was expert at refusing to consider what the hell I was up to, and what would happen when (not if) I was found out.

On the way downstairs I peeked into the other rooms, scouting a suitable space for Dar. The master bedroom had a pile of laundry on the bed that you could repel down. A second room clearly belonged to the teens. The single bed on the far side of the room must have belonged to Dar’s son. The beds were all made, though, and two clothing racks on wheels held their wardrobes in fighting trim.

I stopped for a moment. The clothing made me think of the afternoon Tilty and I went over to Sunny Jerard’s house for a clothes swap, junior year. We dragged garbage bags full of outfits we no longer wore up two flights to the large attic bedroom Sunny had inherited from her college-bound sister. It had two arched windows, an asparagus fern flanked by Art Deco posters. A rose-colored scarf draped over a lamp shade.

Charlene La Fontaine, the black-haired, grey-eyed beauty, was there with two bags, since she’d helped herself to her older sister Donna’s cast-offs as well.

Right off the bat, Sunny tried on a pink flowered sundress from Charlene’s pile, turning in front of the full-length mirror she’d leaned against the wall. “Will Donna kill me if she sees me in this?”

“No way. She makes a dress a week for the Rec Dance. She loses interest fast.” Charlene sat on a trunk, lit a cigarette and exhaled out the open window into the newly unfurled maple leaves, Tilty snagged a teal sweater that Charlene had worn skin tight. Tilty swiveled in front of the mirror, appreciating her newly revealed curves.

“Charlie, why are you getting rid of this?” I held up a pink suede jacket with fringe.

“I’m tired of it,” she shrugged.

“But you look so cute in it,” I protested.

“Cute is overrated.” She stamped her cigarette out in a tuna can ashtray, got up and pulled on a pair of Sunny’s dad’s army fatigues, adding a studded belt.

I slid into the jacket and even though I was on the larger end of a size ten, it fit. “Are you sure?” I asked, not believing my luck.

“Go for it.” She extracted a boxy black sweater I had on permanent loan from my brother. Slipping into it, she became a gorgeous Ninja.

“You look better in it than Tommy ever did.” She met our envious stares with weary defiance: “I’m tired of being treated like a piece of meat.”

I filed that under Unexplained Mysteries and gloated over my haul.

When I wore the jacket to school the following Monday, I got razzed. “Why are you wearing Charlie’s jacket? Are you twins now? You wish.”

To my surprise, Charlene stepped in. “We traded. What’s it to you?”

My interlocuters slunk off. Charlene never talked to me again. I kept that jacket all through college, but rarely dared to wear it.

The last bedroom was an oasis, containing two armchairs, and another flatscreen. Dar opened the door behind me.

“Whose room…?” But I already knew.

Darling did her now familiar shoulder lift and dispirited drop, ashamed. The air hung between us like a mildewed curtain.

“She chips in on the mortgage,” she explained. “When Kevin got laid off, she made it possible for us to stay here.”

I tried shaking off the complicated sense of doom that was settling into my shoulders.

“Let’s get out of here,” I urged. “I’m looking for some space we could clear for you. For a desk, a lamp, whatever. Your space to dream.”

The idea is to try to get people to imagine something different for themselves. I ask questions like, Can you picture yourself without the extra weight? What would your life be like? My clients get a faraway look that often ends in tears.

At the end of the hall was an alcove, filled with suitcases, a lampshade, more toys. And miraculously, an outlet.

“This is it! Whose stuff is this?”


“Into the garage with it!”

A smile dawned on Darling’s face.

I hauled and toted for twenty minutes, at first lugging suitcases, then scrounging for boxes to contain the loose stuff. Dar made a neat pile in a corner of the garage, chuckling. “She’s gonna be so pissed!”

On my fourth trip to the garage, she stood contemplating me, her head cocked. “You know what? I don’t even know your first name!”

“Oh,” I sighed. “Germaine.”

“Holy shit. I thought Darling was bad. Did they call you Germy?”

“Jammy. My second grade teacher called me ‘German’ for a whole year.

“Yavol, mein Furer!”

“Funny. Nobody obeys me. How about that little table for your space?” I asked, eyeing the perfect piece.

 “Okay.” Dar returned to her stacking, as I maneuvered the table inside to the alcove. The lamp I found didn’t work, but I suspected the bulb, so went out to the garage for a spare.

“How did you come to be a dietician?” she asked, still bent over boxes.

I was not ready for this, and hesitated. “Interest, I guess. I was fat, and lost weight. It seemed like there was a lot of knowledge out there that would help people.”

“Is part of your program cleaning up?”

“Not officially. But having breathing space might be part of it.”

“So, this is an experiment. Wanna take a break? I can make some fresh coffee.” She headed into the kitchen without waiting for my answer, so I followed her.

I perused the space. It was the most orderly part of the house, the walls white with bright red trim on the cabinets. Tall jars of flours and grains sparkled on the counter. In the corner sat a domed cake stand, gleaming and empty.

Dar made the coffee and withdrew a large orange cake from the fridge. At first I thought someone had laid a freshly picked bouquet across the top, the way you’d put a bunch of flowers on the counter while looking for the right vase. But these flowers were made of different colors of buttercream and fondant: irises, roses, lilies–the stems carefully piped and the veined leaves realistic.

“My God—you made this?”

“Yup.” She put it on the cake stand and brought it to the table. She ran a knife under hot water and cut two enormous slices, putting them on flowered dessert plates.

“This isn’t good for you,” I faltered.

“Do you ever stop being a cop, German? Sit down. Tell me what you think.” She pushed the plate toward me.

“You are so talented. This is gorgeous. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“Isn’t it? I’ve won contests.” She nodded toward the blue and gold ribbons hanging from the valence, their tails stirring in the gentle summer breeze.

I cleared my throat. “So how are your numbers?”

She grinned. “Still there. I don’t put sugar in my coffee anymore.”

I wanted to broach recklessness, death wishes, other options, but she was enjoying teasing me, a defiant gleam in her eye.

“I’m not very hungry,” hell—what am I going to do?

“What the fuck does hunger have to do with it? I haven’t been hungry in years.”

The edge in her voice closed my throat.

“Worried about bikini season?” she needled, taking another large forkful.

“Your health, Dar. This is serious.”

“You just want everyone under your thumb, German. Then you’ll watch the progress of the disease, lamenting my lack of will power. You’ll collect your data and write a bestselling book and be featured on Dr. Oz.”

“Not even close. I want you to be healthy so we can be friends,” I blurted, shocking myself.

She didn’t miss a beat. “You really wanna be my little friend? Then taste it.”

“That’s the truth!” I cried.

“No. I’m your experiment.” She shook her head in disgust, drew her fork into her slice and put the morsel into her mouth, closing her eyes, leaning back, not even chewing, but humming. A long moment passed as I watched her, paralyzed.

She sat forward, drilled me with a look. “Balzac died at 51. If he’d lived on tofu and herb tea, he’d probably have lived longer.” Her gaze was molten. “Whatever. I’m not claiming to be some big-ass genius like him, but it’s my life, German. My body. I’m not your petri dish. Party’s over. Get out of my house.”

I pushed the plate away and got up without looking at her. I grabbed my bag and sweater and clicked the door closed behind me.

Outside, I sat in my car, shaking.

I wasn’t surprised when she blew off her next two appointments. The first was accompanied by a breathy message on my office machine, going on about some mysterious, exciting opportunity—far more thrilling than any carb-counting trudge I could offer. The second one, she just skipped.

I tried, off and on, to find a silver lining. We did get her house cleaned, though it would get undone in the course of a weekend. Maybe she would claim and use her space. And this one’s a biggie: I was not found out. Audrey was actually nice about Dar’s mutiny. “She wasn’t ready. Don’t take it personally.”

Over the next month I gave up chocolate, then backslid, gave it up again. When I found out thirdhand that Tilty and Roger had moved to Missouri, where he’d taken a position at a military high school, I had to cop to how dreary my life was.

Clothes are aspirational, are they not? But putting on skinny jeans does not make you skinny. On fat people, they are just tight.

Nevertheless, I aspired. I dug out the pink suede jacket. And though it was a little loose and smelled gamey, I wore it to work, as the chorus of naysayers in my head announced that only floozies wear fringe. I silenced them with the Jackson Five.

When I arrived at my office, there was a package on the floor outside my door: a brown paper bag tied with a hot pink ribbon.

I reasoned that it was too soft to be a bomb, but my heart thudded as I opened it. It was the spangly sequined top. I didn’t mistake it for an invitation, but perhaps it was a kind of apology. I doubt I’ll ever wear it, but I might frame it.



Stephanie Greene has had short fiction published in Nostoc Magazine, Green Mountains Review, The New Guard, Flash Fiction Magazine and Sky Island Journal. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and for Best of The Net. She is an organizer of the Brattleboro Literary Festival, and lives in southern Vermont.

The Typewriter

by Richard Evanoff

            He could not remember the exact words of the good doctor, but he knew their meaning well. “I would advise you to put your affairs in order as quickly as possible.” That was the essence of what the doctor had said.

            As soon as the doctor had left the room, he told his wife angrily, “I won’t waste my energy or use what little time I have left on such trivial matters as ‘putting my affairs in order.’”

            “But if you don’t do it, it will all be left to me,” she replied.

            “Hire a lawyer if you must, but I simply refuse to be bothered with it all. I must get on with my work!”

            His wife seemed to understand, although it distressed her to see him so annoyed about fulfilling what she felt was his duty, a duty of compassion towards her if nothing else.

            “Shall I bring you your books?” she asked him meekly. “Or shall I get your typewriter?”

            He hesitated for a moment in indecision, feeling too weak even to decide. But he simply had to do something! He knew the answer could not be found in books, at least not in any of the books he had read in his lifetime. And he couldn’t bear to while away his last few precious moments simply thinking. He had done enough thinking. Now was the time for action! Now was the time not for beginnings but conclusions, to explain if not to others then to himself what he had found.

            “My typewriter please,” he answered sullenly.

            His wife obediently disappeared into the hallway. The doctor had just reached the bottom of the stairway and was putting on his coat to leave, but she motioned to him from above to wait for her a moment. Then she went for the familiar portable electric typewriter and returned to the bedroom, cradling it in her arms like a baby. After placing the typewriter carefully on his bedside desk and plugging it in, she reached into the bed and helped him sit up. He tottered a bit, but she supported him with a firm grip. How heavy he was! What a burden he was in her arms!

            When at last with her help he had balanced himself on the edge of the bed, she curtsied ever so slightly and left the room in silence.

            The doctor was waiting for her at the foot of the stairs. She summoned her courage and walked slowly, step by step, down to meet him. Together they passed out through the front door onto the porch.

            “I can’t understand him,” she began to weep. “He was never a particularly affectionate man, but at least he was always kind and respectful.”

            “Well, consider what he’s going through,” the doctor replied. “He’s still so young. There’s so much he’ll never able to be accomplish. Bear him up. The time will be short: a moment, a day, a week. I’m not sure. But don’t feel neglected.”

            “Even before his illness he told me about everything he wanted to do. We talked about it a lot. We’d stay up late at night in bed. He would talk and I would listen, just thankful to have him lying close to me. I was never really part of his life, but at least he shared his dreams with me.”

            Meanwhile he sat alone upstairs with his typewriter. He listened to the whir of the machine for a long time after he had turned it on. The monotonous hum distracted him from his original intentions and plunged him once again into deep thought, something he wished to avoid.

            He had always been a thinker, more interested in thinking about life than in living it. His thoughts raced through his mind, one after another, leaving him no time to put them down on paper for others to read. Who cared what he thought anyway? Perhaps he had been altogether too selfish. In his short life he had traversed many avenues of thought, waded through and dispensed with ideas loftier than he had ever heard about from others. And now he was lost in the maze of his own ruminations.

            He detested thinking. It had taken him nowhere. It always disappointed him. No one seemed to know the answer to that one riddle which had puzzled him ever since his brain had started to tick. How could he know where to search if he did not know what he was looking for?

            Perhaps this would be his message, his one message to anyone who would care to listen, from one who had sacrificed life itself—for what?—to think about life. He had loved the meaning of life more than life itself. Yet the atonement could never be a vicarious one. It was something he needed to do for himself, not by listening to others. Here was the dilemma: those who think soon learn that all is folly, that every idea they ever had is pure nonsense, while those who never think live in a paradise they never strived to attain, a paradise they are not even aware of, a paradise which can be recognized only by someone who thinks. Yes, a thinker! One who is familiar with the outer darkness, yet still attracted to the light of ideas burning brightly before they turn to ash. The thinker can know paradise but never live there. The non-thinker lives in paradise but never knows it. Ignorance is bliss, as the saying goes.

            It was not a matter of fame. He knew he had no fame, no legacy, nothing to pass on about what he had thought, not even a drawerful of scattered notes and fragments for some scrupulous scholar to pick over and examine. The philosophers and poets had bequeathed volumes upon volumes to the world and gained for themselves a measure of divinity. Each word was a drop of ambrosia to them. Verily, their cups runneth over. Yet even though everything they wrote was meaningless, they had obtained one thing that was now forever beyond his grasp: immortality.

            He surfaced from his thoughts for a moment and began to type:

                        “All men by nature desire to know…”

            Every book, like every life, must have a beginning. Every book, like every life, must also have an ending. What had guided him throughout his own life if not his unquenchable thirst for knowledge, his insatiable desire to know, his passionate quest for Truth with a capital T! Had this not been the impetus for inventing civilization in the first place and also the reason for its demise? Why did Truth bother him so much and Life so little? And when he was dead what would either mean, what would either matter? When the cells of his brain died, all of his thoughts would die with them.

            He desired certainty above all else, not mere approximations. He wanted to be sure that his thoughts perfectly mirrored reality. He looked at the sentence he had just typed and then, returning the carriage, struck it out:

                        “All men by nature desire to know…”

            He watched the key as it punched out the slashes automatically, confident that he had done right thing. No philosopher worth his salt would dare to begin a book with such a tepid line. He was disappointed to have failed again. He did not know where to begin, not even how to write the first sentence. If he could express his frustration—even that would be something!

            He lay back on the bed exhausted. In the short time he had sat in front of the typewriter he had accomplished exactly nothing, yet he had exerted himself well beyond his capacity. The pain was moving closer to his head. Perhaps he would read. That at least he could do. But his books were in his study. He did not have the strength to call out to his wife to get them for him.

            “Nothing to do except think again!” he muttered to himself.

            The typewriter continued its steady droning. He had not turned it off.

            As he lay there looking up at the ceiling, he realized that he had reached the limit of thought, not just the limit of his own thoughts, but the limit of thought itself. He had come to the point where all one could think about was the act of thinking itself.

            How could he free himself from the chains of his own thoughts? Where was the serenity that could only come to a person who had emptied his brain of all possible thoughts? An empty mind…. What an interesting idea. What an intriguing thought!

            But no, an empty mind is not the mind of a sage, but the mind of a fool.

            There was nothing more for him to do except to continue as he was, resting in bed, thinking. His thoughts assembled themselves into phalanxes, preparing for the final conflict. His mind was the Armageddon where the last battle would be fought.

            “I must do something!” he screamed aloud.

            He struggled to sit up. It was not without a great deal of pain that he finally squirmed his way over again to the edge of the bed and let his feet drop to the floor. He pushed with both hands against the soft downy mattress until at last he was sitting once more at the little bedside desk. His body was covered with sweat. His breathing had become short and spasmodic. Brushing a few strands of damp hair off his forehead, he looked down at the typewriter. The sheet of paper he had been typing on was still in it.

            Weeping, he slowly placed his fingers over the keys of the typewriter. What combination of letters and words, he asked himself, would give him the answer to his question? If he sat there long enough—perhaps for millions of years—punching the keys of this typewriter in every possible combination, using reams upon reams of paper, would he ever write anything that satisfied him completely, something that would finally put an end to all of the worthless speculative ideas of humankind, an end to the philosophical enterprise itself?

            “What words would ever give us the answer we seek?” he thought.

            Perhaps there are no such words. Perhaps life is a question mark with no answers. He let his finger fall on one of the keys, which punched out automatically:


            But even this would not do. He could not even formulate the question that he wanted an answer for. He would start over, he thought. He pulled the paper from the typewriter and put in a fresh sheet. He stared at the blank white page, not knowing what to write on it.

            Suddenly he heard the blaring of a trumpet between his ears. The armies of thoughts within his mind had begun their final battle. The pain now had become so intense that his whole body was numb with it. Except for the tedious throbbing of his head, he sensed little else. His eyes were misty with tears. Everything he saw looked blurred and hazy. It is thinking which makes our ideas so clear and distinct, thinking which transfigures the ethereal into unequivocal abstractions.

            The tension within him continued to build. Thousands upon thousands of little thoughts and ideas crowded his mind like parasites. Soon the thoughts were no longer distinguishable from each other, having dissolved together into one big glob of plaque.

            He reached once more for the typewriter. But it was too late. He heard an explosion in the distance. If there are no questions, then neither are there any answers. His head slumped forward onto the typewriter. And then he thought no more.


Richard Evanoff has lived most of his adult life in Japan and been active in literary circles in Tokyo as a writer, editor, and performer. His stories tend towards the fabulist and have appeared in Dream International Quarterly, Mind in Motion, and The Mythic Circle, among other publications.


by Em Platt

Today, it is fall. The first freeze means the sidewalks have been drowned in pink salt that slushes into the river when the kids walk by, shuffling their feet and kicking at the piles of it. Sometimes I think about yelling at the municipal workers that dump it everywhere, but I never do. We all have jobs to do.

My mother is coming over. She’ll be late, no doubt, because she refuses to get her car fixed, so it coughs and rumbles until it comes to a start and shakes down the road if it goes above 20. It’s near fifteen years old, and she has the money to replace it, but decides not to. I never understood why.

For her, I put up two of the paintings she’s brought me, the ones with the least cracked frames, least browning varnish. One hangs above my sink in the kitchen, the other next to my TV in the living room. Two still-lives: fruit and trees. Maybe they were vibrant once, but now they’re just dull shades of green and orange and brown.

She shows up with a two boxes of old dishes and a few chairs in her hatchback. I put my shoes on and go to help her bring them up to the house.

“This is a lot of stuff,” I tell her as I’m setting the boxes on the counter. I don’t want this, I would have said a month ago, before therapy, before I’d started to try.

“But it’s all so nice,” she says, and when I look her in her face, she doesn’t meet my eye.

The dishes are cracked, but not broken, and caked with dust from sitting in an attic for so long. The first faux-gold-lined plate is free of any rodent poop, but when I peer into the box it’s all littered in the bottom. The chairs are fine, but I have too many. I used to have an office space, and now I have a room full of chairs, stacked arm to arm, sometimes piled haphazardly depending on how much willpower I have to organize them when I have free time.

We sit down at the couch, my mom crossing her legs and touching as little of it as possible. It’s clean, but the brown knit blanket that covers the back is homemade, and I’ve had it for a long time, careful not to wash it too often or too roughly. I can see every piece of lint and stray hair that hasn’t been cleaned up yet. I know she can see it, too.

I make us tea in a pair of teacups she brought me earlier this year. They have matching saucers that I had to scrub at to get some kind of sticky stain out of. She doesn’t touch the cup. I hold mine delicately, not sure how to grip the tiny handle on it. I sip the mild tea and set the cup and saucer down on coffee table.

For a while, we sit in silence, my mom’s downturned eyes scanning the room. I cross my legs at the knee, squeezing them tightly with both hands as she takes in the painting I put up.

She hums. Looks outside. Says, “The yard looks nice.” But she doesn’t look me in the eyes, looks over my shoulder to the kitchen instead, where the fruit still-life is hanging. I know the yard doesn’t look nice. It’s been flooding all year from the rain, and the skinny tree that’s valiantly stood out there since I moved in two years ago has started to rot.

“Thank you,” I say. When she finally picks her teacup up, I copy her, sip mine once while she just holds hers. “So, Mom, I liked the art you brought me. I’m starting to figure out where it looks best.”

She purses her lips. My mom’s life is full of arguments with underpaid cashiers and overworked waitresses—not for lower prices or comped meals. Principles she says. A place has to live up to her standards: a restaurant with an under par bathroom or a smudge on the tablecloths or menus with frayed edges is enough for her to get a manager. Now she wants something to argue with me about.

“It’s interesting you chose to put the fruit bowl there,” she says, and finally sips her tea.

A few months ago I would have snapped the minute I saw the junk in her car. But I breathe. Sip my tea. “Thank you,” I say, trying to keep any sarcasm out of my voice.

The best thing you can do is take any of her passive aggression sincerely, my therapist told me. It’s difficult to break habits, but do your best not to fall into reacting passive aggressively yourself.

“Have you found a place for the chairs?” she says. She’s looking at me now, making eye contact, and I want to look away.

“Not yet,” I say. “There were a few dining chairs I thought would look nice with the table.”

“That table?” she says. “But the chairs are so nice.”

I smile, feel my throat working around a retort. If they’re so nice why did you get rid of them? “Yes, they are.” I sip the tea again. The light floral taste annoys me as it washes down my throat. I don’t usually drink tea. “Where do you think they would look best?” I ask.

She doesn’t scoff, exactly, but makes a small sound in the back of her throat. “I can’t do everything for you, Melissa.”

“Can’t do—” I cut myself off, bring the teacup up to my mouth to hide my angry flush. If I’m not supposed to act passive aggressively, I don’t think I’m supposed to react aggressively either. She stares at me, and if she weren’t my mother, I wouldn’t see the tension around her eyes, the only part of her flat face that shows she’s waiting for me to snap at her.

“Do you have the chairs, still?” she says. “I don’t see them anywhere.”

I breathe. “Yes. They’re stored in my office.”

“Why don’t you put them out?”

“Well, Mom, there’s a lot of them.”

“If you put them out, you might get more work done,” she says.

I put my teacup down, let it clatter against the table. She flinches, but it’s a second too late for me to believe it—her farce of being delicate. I don’t know what to say that isn’t mean, so I keep my mouth shut. The tree painting lurks next to my TV. It should be stark against the beige walls, but it seems to blend right in. I was only ever allowed to draw in my room, on my desk when I was growing up. Never in the living room, on the plush, bleach white carpet or at the kitchen island with its pristine marble tabletop. The habit rolled over into my adult life, I guess. It’s hard for me to work at the dining table or on the couch, even with my tablet—all I can hear is my mother asking me to go to my room to draw or put it away and help her with supper. Or her hand gripping my wrist as she tore my markers away from me.

I cross my arms over my chest, stare at her. “I’ve been getting work done,” I say.

“Really?” she says. “I saw Marianne yesterday and she said her husband is still waiting for a logo design.”

“If Marianne’s husband has an issue with our contract, he can reach out to me,” I say, my face hot, both from anger and embarrassment of what I just said.

“That is incredibly rude Melissa,” she says.

I take a deep breath, exhale, close my eyes.

If it gets to be too much, you can always ask her to leave. However you need to, my therapist told me.

“Please leave,” I say.

“Excuse me?” she says.

“I don’t want to argue with you. Please leave,” I say again.

“We aren’t arguing, are we?” she says, her voice soft. I open my eyes as she reaches out to me, places the pads of her fingers on my knee. I don’t move away. I stay perfectly still.

“Melissa, please. I’m worried about you, that’s all.”  

“I’m sorry, Mom, but I need space.” I pick up my teacup and walk it to the sink. I turn the water on, washing away the mild tea until the water is bubbling out of the cup and into the sink.

“I’m your mother,” she says, her voice the same saccharine taste.

I listen to the water washing down the drain, grip the edge of the counter.

“I. Am. Your. Mother.”

When I turn to face her, she has stood up, her eyebrows scrunched together, her cheeks red like a pulled rubber band.

“And this is my house,” I say.

She takes a step forward, but stops when I flinch. She sighs, grabs her purse and walks toward the door. Before she leaves, she says, “You’ve never appreciated anything I’ve done for you, Melissa. I brought you into this world, I raised you, I loved you. And this is what I get.”

“Thank you for coming,” I say through my teeth.

When I hear her car hit the dip at the bottom of my driveway, I turn back to the sink, turn the water back on so hot the steam makes me cough when I heave a breath. I tried, didn’t I? I put up the pictures, I used the teacups. It wasn’t enough for her.

There is always something I’ve done wrong. My table, my art, my job.

I turn off the water and stomp to the office that I  haven’t been able to use in a month. One of the chairs falls down in front of me, and I almost expect it to break into all its little parts, but it doesn’t. The room is stacked with chairs, small chairs and big chairs, wood chairs and metal chairs, chairs shoved into the corners and on top of my empty desk.  I pull one out, then jump away when a few more come tumbling down. One of them scratches my hardwood floor.

I’m shaking. She can take everything from me, and yet nothing from me. She is my mother, and yet my worst enemy. When I breathe, I expect it to hurt, but the air slides through my throat like silk. My body is shaking, but my mind is set.

I take out the chair with a torn rush caned seat first, one that has tumbled out of the room. It’s light, the finishing nails rusting, making the wood an orange red. I take it downstairs into the garage and shove it into the backseat of my car. It catches on some already torn fabric in the car, so I push harder until it won’t fall out.

The yellow foam sticks out against the dark fabric of the seat. My therapist says I can’t control my mom’s behavior. She suggested I move away from her—cut her off, essentially, but she didn’t say it like that. I can’t do that. I would have to physically move, but this is my home, even if it is filled of things my mother didn’t want. Instead, my therapist suggested that I take small steps. Don’t react to her passive aggression. Don’t accept gifts from her. I deserve a C, I think.

I go back upstairs, take down the fruit bowl and the tree paintings, stick them under my arm so the frames scrape against the soft skin of my armpit, then grab a few more that I’ve stuffed into my office, ones with cracked frames that threaten to give me long, nasty splinters. I shove them into the car, too, into the trunk. I go back upstairs and dig around for the rest of them, hidden under chairs, in my linen closet, under the stairs that lead to the garage. The trunk crunches shut by the time I get them all in, and the latch only clicks when I put my full weight on it. Sweat slips behind my ears, pools at my neck, clams up my armpits.

More chairs into the car, whatever will fit. And the dishes, those goddamn dishes, the box covered in mouse shit, dust, and grime. I drop the box into the passenger seat, the plates cracking against each other. I buckle them in so it doesn’t fall into the wheel well.

My car coughs to a start.

I back out of the driveway in one motion, cutting off an oncoming car who lays on the horn. I drive too fast down the crumbling rural road, feel every pothole and crack. The trees loom over the road, a kaleidoscope of shadows that makes me squint through them. The chairs rattle and the dishes clank. All of it is breaking more when I take the sharp right to the transfer station.

I want to burn it, but instead I back up to the dumpster and pull everything out, a piece at a time and fling it into the gaping trash bin. Everything hits with an echo. Nobody comes to help me, even though I can see a man in a bright orange vest near one of the backhoes. I must look insane with sweat drenching my back and my chest, and I’m grunting with each throw, the best I can do instead of scream.

I feel insane. I feel manic. I start throwing the art farther and farther into the bin, frisbeeing so it clangs against the other side, then slam the chairs in, and crash each dish individually into the bottom, so I can see the shards decorating the bottom. The last one crashes and I tear up the cardboard boxes, my arms aching as I pull against the grain.

It’s hot out. I’m panting. My plaid shirt is sticking to both sides of me. Two other cars are parked near the recycling. When I make eye contact with one of the drivers, he quickly looks away, adjusts his rearview mirror. I’m standing in shreds of cardboard. I take a deep breath, fresh with the ripe smell of the dump.

I pick up the cardboard and bring it to the recycling.

I want to call my mother. I want to show her all the shit she gave me sitting in a dumpster that smells like last week’s take out and diapers. I don’t. I take my phone out, consider throwing it into the dumpster. I turn it off, the bitten apple glaring up at me.

I drive back home. It’s started to rain again, the stream already rushing with water. I step out of the car and stand in it, letting my hair drip into my face, my eyes become fuzzy with water. My sweat mingles with the rain, until even my bra is soaked, on the verge of itchy against my soft skin. I breathe in the rain.

When I go upstairs, my house is a mess. I didn’t have room for all the chairs, so they sit or lay outside the office, along the hallway. I step through them, over rungs and around backs, dripping water on the hardwood as I go, numb to the way they bump against my shins and toes. I sit down on the couch, still wet, and pull the brown knit blanket around my shoulders. I pull my knees up and stare at the TV, my reflection muddled by the matte finish of it. Peeking out from behind it is the side of a canvas painted red.

I meant to hang it up. It’s one of my paintings, of two hands touching at the index finger, like The Creation of Adam but closer, redder. Why red, my AP art teacher asked in high school. Maybe I said something about violence. About passion. About the intersection of those things. But the truth is it was my favorite color.

Now, my favorite color is green—garish, crossing guard green, neon and bright. My mother would hate it if I painted the house green. If I took every piece of decaying art she gave me and painted it with glowsticks, threw it at her house.

It’s a comforting thought, that I could do something to her.

Instead, I do something for myself. I ignore the chairs and pick up my drawing tablet from the dining room table and go into my office. I force the last chairs out of the room and close the door behind me. I sit down in the office chair I bought for myself and start to work.


Em Platt is studying creative writing and environmental science and hopes to graduate in the spring semester. They have been previously published in the feminist zine, Ripple, and they continue to write all the time when not working. Their writing does not reflect the relationships they have with their parents. For the most part.

In the Faded Blue Light

By Don Donato


NOTE: Presented here are chapters three and four of an eight-part novella — that will continue in the winter issue.

Chapter III.

… except that it was wrong, of course, to love my teacher when I should have loved you. But I didn’t have you to love – not since long before I loved her. I have just begun to realize that sex and sentiment have little to do with each other. When I came to you twice last winter and asked you to start over it was because I thought I was becoming seriously involved sentimentally and preparing situations for which I was morally and practically unfitted.

[letter, Zelda to Scott, 1930]

Townsend left the bar, and I turned to Zelda. “I would like you to meet my friends, dear.”

Zelda got up and stood next to me.

“This is Catherine,” I said, gesturing to the girl on my left. “And, of course, you know Cynthia,” turning and nodding to my right. Catherine snapped her head up.

“You know each other?” Catherine asked.

“No, not really,” Zelda replied, “it’s just my husband being his obnoxious self. Ignore him, despite the fact, that he does mean harm.”

“Oh, my mistake,” I said, “From the way you were looking at each other, I assumed… my mistake.”

Catherine smiled, her lips flat and tense, as if restraining any protrusion. It gave the impression that her thoughts lay bursting in her mouth. Her smile faded and then re-emerged as if vacillating with the thrills and uncertainties of an inner, burgeoning story.

Cynthia extended her hand toward Zelda. “I would hate to have to call you Mrs. Fitzgerald all evening.”

“It’s Zelda,” their hands remained together. “… Zelda,” she repeated. 

Catherine broke the ensuing silence.

“I have a great idea. Let’s go to my apartment, much more comfortable. It’s not far. We can walk. What do you say, Scott? Maybe you’ll find some new inspiration.”

Cynthia looked in Zelda’s direction, her words fell softly, “Would you like that?”

I gave Zelda a quick look. She was pensive, her focus distant and intense. She remained still and tensed in the manner of a house cat entranced by a strand of dangling twine. I wondered when she should leap. It was the first time I had to compete with a woman. That’s what it was all about, I was sure. It was just another way for a selfish wife to make her husband feel more inadequate.

“Alright, let’s get out of this place,” I said. The girls moved off their stools and headed toward the door. I turned to follow. Hell, I could hardly walk. When we hit the street, I flagged down a cab. Zelda got in first. Catherine gestured for Cynthia to enter next. Catherine got in, and I started to walk toward the front passenger seat.

“Scott, get in,” Catherine said, “there’s plenty of room back here. Cynthia, do you mind pushing over.” Cynthia pressed closer to Zelda.

Catherine turned her body toward me, and I squeezed in next to her. She remained facing me. She smiled, sometimes looking at me and sometimes staring out the side window. The protrusion of her lips now unmistakable.

We stopped in front of a brick building. It was like the kind that have grown plentiful in New York City. Multiple floors sat perched one upon another. The difference in their remoteness from the life below was all that distinguished one from the other. A dozen steps jutted out onto the sidewalk and led to a set of glass doors made nearly opaque by lace curtains.  We exited the cab, and Catherine held my arm as we made our way up the stairs. I looked back and saw Cynthia and Zelda walking up side-by-side.

We entered the apartment and found ourselves in a parlor with blatant décor.  A red, velvet upholstered couch simmered against one wall. A square glass table sat unnoticed between the couch and two armchairs reminiscent of a time in Europe when comfort succumbed to the desperation for dignity. Cynthia sat on the couch. She partially faced Zelda with one leg bent such that it lay flat with its outer thigh flat against the seat; her other leg draped the couch normally. Zelda sat motionless between them.

Catherine and I sat in the opposing chairs. I felt comfortable sitting upon the aged search for dignity.

Catherine popped out of her chair. “What are we drinking?” She walked toward the small bar against the wall behind us. She returned with a bottle of gin and a glass.

“I know what you want,” she said to me, and put the bottle and glass on the square table. “It’s them two I’m not sure about,” she said, looking at Zelda and Cynthia.

Cynthia had laid her head on the back of the couch and stared at Zelda in a scrutinizing sort of way. Sometimes she righted her head slightly, then tilted it again into the back cushion, as if to reassess the new perspective. Zelda was motionless, unrevealing; her focus consumed by Cynthia.  

“Cynthia,” Catherine called, “you know where everything is. If you want something, please dear, just take it.” Catherine looked down at me. “Scott, let’s go on the terrace. You can see most of Manhattan from there.”

I poured myself a half-glass of gin, took the bottle, and followed Catherine through a pair of French doors. She closed them behind us. I walked to the surrounding railing. The night had wrapped itself around Manhattan, and spots of light broke through from the streets below. It looked as if the heavens had been torn from the sky, and the stars and every wish made upon them lay bare in the streets. The world’s hope and reverie, unprotected from the disorder which trampled upon them, twinkled courageously and pitifully. I strained my eyes to find the bright future I had once placed there, but I found only a fading flicker, jumping chaotically. I looked closer and my concern deepened. I realized what had happened. The future no longer fueled the dying flame. I fell limp, stricken by shock and an overwhelming sentimentality. My past now was all that kept the fire alive.

Catherine sat in a rusted iron chair. I stood next to her and watched Zelda through the glass doors. Cynthia raised her head and rested her arm on the back cushion. Zelda looked up and saw me staring. She turned to Cynthia and gave her a smile. I folded my arms and shuffled uneasily. I looked down at Catherine who was silently watching the glowing and fading of Manhattan. 

I swallowed the last of the gin in the glass in my hand. I grabbed the bottle and lifted it. Catherine held the bottle steady as we poured me another drink. I sat on the table facing her and continued looking through the glass doors.

Cynthia’s body was now firmly against Zelda’s. Catherine turned and looked at the two women.

“Is this Zelda’s first time?”

“With a woman?” I replied, my gaze steadily fixed on what was going on in the next room.

“No, I meant the first time living in New York?” Catherine smiled. She rubbed the back of her hand against my thigh. “Don’t worry about Cynthia. She’s quite harmless and gentle. Zelda is in good hands.” She moved her chair back. She got up and stood between my legs, which dangled from the table.

“What about you, Scott? Would you like to be in good hands?” My eyes were fixed on Zelda. Her head was leaning slightly. Cynthia bent her head in the other direction and pressed her lips against Zelda’s neck.

Catherine ran her finger along the zipper of my pants. “You like what you see, don’t you, Scott?” I stretched my arms out behind me and put the palms of my hands flat on the table. I leaned back. I did like what I saw. It turned my stomach to imagine Zelda with Townsend, but with Cynthia it was different. My blood raced. I wanted Zelda more. Cynthia left her wanting for only what I could give her. Every kiss she felt was mine.

The pulsing of my body, which had begun so simple and strong, began to recede and left in its wake an unnerving quiver. My gut wrenched. Betrayal had seethed its way in. Zelda was a predictable, self-consumed woman. It was clear she wanted nothing more than to mock the wonder of a frightened and hopeless child. She placed her hands onto Cynthia’s back. Her head weaved softly in thoughtless swirls; each stillness steeped in a dreamy detachment. She glared at me as she nuzzled each kiss which fell on her. The gin had destroyed any rationality which had survived in me. An inner trembling appeared in its wake.

Catherine placed her hands on the fronts of the upper parts of my legs and stroked them gently. I glanced at her and directed my eyes again over her shoulder. I saw Zelda put her lips on Cynthia’s neck. I turned to Catherine. With her eyes penetrating mine, she began, slowly and steadily, to lower my zipper. Her back was facing the doors. Zelda couldn’t see exactly what was happening. I wanted nothing more than to shove her face into the torture she so readily found necessary for me. I let Catherine continue.

Cynthia pushed herself onto Zelda, who fell back against the arm of the couch. Cynthia moved her lips to the front of her lover’s neck. My wife, with a smile that had become a smirk, stared at Catherine and me through the doors.

Catherine stopped and looked up at me. She was silent, and her eyes lingered in the quiet.  She bent over. Her head dropped into my lap. The glass doors flew open. They bounced off the walls, nearly closing again, their panes rattling. Zelda rushed past us. Her eyes were blank and undirected. Her focus was distant, penetrating the surrounding blackness. She extended her arms and grabbed onto the terrace rail with both hands. Catherine and I rushed toward her, and we each took one of her arms. We pulled her back. Tears began to run down Zelda’s cheeks. I stood in front of her and put my arms around her, caressing her. Catherine went inside.

“Townsend, now Cynthia. I think it’s enough for one day,” I said, my words slurring. The room was spinning, and I moved my feet to walk and tried to find the floor.

“Let’s go. I want to go home,” she said.

She turned around, breaking my grasp. I began to stumble. I held on to the table. Zelda walked through the doors, and I tried to follow. After a few steps I lost my balance and fell into the open doorway. Catherine helped me to my feet. A small box containing the necklace had fallen out of my inside coat pocket. I saw the box on the floor, and I picked it up. Cynthia was still sitting on the couch. I turned to her and handed her the box. “This is for you,” I said, “I’m sure Zelda would want you to have it.”

Cynthia took the box and opened it. She removed the necklace and let it dangle from her finger. She gave me a puzzled look, and then glanced at Zelda, whose silent attention remained motionless on the gentle sway of the necklace. She looked at me and quickly turned back to Cynthia.

“There’s a matching set of earrings that go with that,” she said, “if you drop by, I’ll give them to you.”  She took a pen from her purse and wrote our address on the back of Cynthia’s hand. When she finished, she smiled and said, “My husband will be out next Wednesday.”

Zelda turned and looked at me, her face stern, her eyes unflinching.

“That’s right, isn’t it, Scott? You have another meeting with Ober as I recall.”

I didn’t answer.

She looked over at Catherine, who was standing off against the French doors.

“Maybe my husband can stop by and see you as well next Wednesday. He’ll be in the area.”  Zelda began walking toward the door. She smiled at Cynthia, stopped, and turned back to Catherine. “One warning, dear, just don’t bite off more than you can chew.”

Chapter IV.

 Dear Zelda,

… Finally you got well in Luau-les-Puis and a lot of money came in and I made of those mistakes literary men make – I thought I was a man of the world. –[sic] that everybody liked me and adored me for myself but I only liked a few people like Ernest and Charles Mc Arthur [sic] and Gerald and Sara who were my peers. Time goes bye [sic] fast in those moods and nothing is ever done. I thought then that things came easily – I forgot how I’d dragged the great Gatsby out of the pit of my stomach in a time of misery. I woke up in Hollywood no longer my egotistic, certain self but a mixture of Ernest in fine clothes and Gerald with a career – and Charlie Mc Arthur [sic] had a past. Anybody that could nourished [sic] from within make me believe that, like Lois Merau did, was precious to me.

[F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1930]

The color, a pleasing combination of the yellow daisies and purple Lavandula, rolled down the hill and disappeared magically into the waiting sand. It reemerged at the water’s edge and bled unnoticed into the azure beauty of the Mediterranean.

I made my way down the narrow dirt path, which started at the beginning of the flower garden and ended on the beach. Villa America stood behind me at the top of the hill. The Villa, located in Antibes in the South of France, was the summer residence of two friends, Gerald and Sara Murphy. They were the product of old money. Gerald’s only career, as far as I could determine, was to keep the villa’s beach front free of seaweed, which he raked judiciously at the end of each day.

My feet hit the soft, white sand, and I began to plod along, my shoes as ill-equipped as my mood for the strain. I walked toward the sea, watching its pawing waves breaking on the shore. When I reached the point where the advancing water lost its puissance and began to recede into the sea, I heard someone come up behind me. It was Gerald, rake in hand.

“Hey, old sport, how you feeling? “ He said while inspecting the sand. “Glad you decided to get out of bed to see the sun set.”

“If there’s anything anyone remembers about the Great Gatsby, it will be the words ‘old sport’,” I mumbled.

Gerald started to rake at strategically spotted seaweed hiding unsuccessfully beneath thinned layers of sand.

“As long as someone remembers it, what’s the difference?” he replied.

What’s the difference? The difference was all that mattered. Sales were poor, but, as Max would like to remind me: the reviewers liked it. The difference was that not one of them understood it. 

“Maybe the twenty-five-cent press can keep Gatsby alive,” I said.

Maybe Gatsby would survive on twenty-five cents a copy, but I know I couldn’t. The magazines were buying my short stories.  At $4,000 per story, I was the best paid whore in town. I had told Harold I wouldn’t accept any greater amount. I had started writing my fourth novel.    

Gerald stopped raking. A green, twisted ball of weeds remained unyielding.

“Sara told me that Zelda stayed at home to practice her ballet.”

“All she thinks about is ballet. We have ballet for breakfast. She’s destroying herself.”

Gerald began raking again with renewed vigor.

“How was your stay in Hollywood?” he asked.

“We got out of there as soon as we could.”

Gerald pulled on the rake which had bound itself firmly into the mass of seaweed.

“Scott, Zelda told Sara that something happened in Hollywood. She thinks it may have something to do with Zelda’s behavior of late.”

“You mean all the ballet? She does it because she is selfish. She ignores me.”

“Sara said she was seventeen. The actress you met in Hollywood… she was seventeen, right?” Gerald stopped and held on to the rake, supporting himself.

I lit up a cigarette, took a drag and looked at the blue, rippling plane of the sea. I followed its expanse until it reached the sky where it turned upward and continued its journey limitlessly into the heavens. I turned away from the comfort of the tableau and connected with Gerald’s eyes.

“Zelda was beautiful at seventeen,” I said, “and she thought she would be the same at seventy.” The truth was that at twenty-six it all started to fade. “I know what you’re thinking,” I said, “you think Lois is too young for me.” I was in my thirties.

Gerald directed his attention to the seaweed, whacking and pulling on it with the rake. I threw my cigarette into the sand. He continued working, appearing not to want to hear what I had to say. I started walking toward the dirt garden path. I turned around and raised my voice above the soft crash of the blue breaking on the beach. “She’s not too young for me”, I yelled, “I’m too old for her.” That was something Gerald and the world didn’t understand. No one, not even a selfish woman, can steal my dreams from me. I can start over and over again. Dreams are timeless.

When I came to the top of the path, the sun had begun to set, and the blue of the sea had started to fade. An uneasiness overwhelmed me. I needed a drink. I headed toward the yellow lights burning inside the villa. As I came closer, I saw the Joyces and Jean Cocteau sitting on the porch which protruded from the back of the house and extended along its entire width. James was sipping a drink and looking my way. Jean stood up.

“Scott, Sara said you were here somewhere.”

I reached the porch and started walking up the three wooden steps warped by the salty mist of the early morning and start of the evening. I had met Joyce about a month before at a dinner given by his publisher, Sylvia Beach. He was royalty in the literary world in Paris, and his novel, Ulysses, had achieved everything I had ever wanted. I walked up the stairs with Gatsby in tow. 

Jean stood up and shook my hand and said, “Have a seat, Scott. Tell us what you’re working on.”

Joyce placed his drink on the small round table standing between him and his wife. I nodded to her, and she nodded back. James, still seated, looked up at me.

“I read your stories in the Saturday Evening Post.”

I remained standing and motionless. The ensuing silence permeated my very core. It all said so much. I had nothing. The best thing I had written lay piled up in a warehouse. Zelda was entangled in her hopeless dream of ballet stardom, drifting farther and farther away.

“Gentlemen, I need a drink,” I said. I walked away, opened the door, and entered the house.

“Come back, Scott, I want to know what you’re working on,” James said. I pretended not to hear.

I entered the dining room where Sara was busily directing a maid who was setting the table.

“Scott,” Sara said, “do you want a drink? gin?” She went over to a sideboard and poured me a drink. I sat at the table. I took the corner seat next to an open window.

It wasn’t long before Joyce and his wife and Jean came in from the porch and took their seats at the table. They were followed by Gerald. Once everyone was seated, the converstion turned to who was doing what in the literary world in Paris.

I finished my drink, stood up, and threw the glass out of the window.

I returned to the table and took my seat.

“Sara,” I asked, “can I get another drink? Mine seems to have gotten away from me.”

Sara brought me another drink and a scowl reserved exclusively for my consumption. The conversation turned to Ernest’s latest work, The Sun Also Rises.

“It’s in its third or fourth printing as I understand it,” James said.

“The first printing sold out in two months. Scribner published it.” Jean said. “You had something to do with that, didn’t you, Scott?”

I raised my hand, grasping my glass. “To Ernest,” I said, lifting my hand higher.

I finished my drink and tossed the glass out of the window again, this time never leaving the table. It crashed on the front sidewalk. Everyone looked up and gave me quick glances. Mrs. Joyce redirected her attention back to her empty plate, keeping her eyes glued to nothing. Jean cast his eyes down and shook his head. What balls he had!

I stared through the yellow of the cottony, dull light which engulfed the room. Before Jean raised his eyes, I threw what I knew in his face.

“Do you prefer I use the pipe?”

James put his hands on the table. He braced himself and snapped, ”Scott.”

Jean picked up his glass of wine, and turned his head in a slow, controlled manner toward James.

“No, no,” Jean said, “it’s quite alright.”

He took a savory sip and placed his glass carefully back on the table. He pressed his lips together, drawing out the last bit of merlot that may have remained. I stared at James as I took a good swallow of my gin. I felt Jean’s eyes on me.  

“I’m weaning myself off,” Jean said, “Opium is more addictive than alcohol.”

I placed my glass on the table and rocked it back-and-forth. The room was quiet except for the muffled tap of each teeter of my glass landing on the cloth covered table. I kept my eyes on the pitching of the glass and listened to the ticking of my patience. I broke the silence.

“That’s not what Ernest and Pablo told me. They saw you and the rest of those fairies toking it up at Le Boeuf.”

“Scott, your drunk,” James interjected, his tone terse and large.

“Thank god for that,” I replied.

Jean brought his head down slightly and looked at me through his lashes.

“James,” he said, “please let our friend speak.”

Jean, so sure of himself. The better man. I wanted nothing more than to reach out from the dizziness and pull him into my unruly world. I would hit him where it would hurt the most.

“Jean,” I said, “I saw your play, Parade. It was quite a fantasy. A bit difficult to follow, but I’m sure there must be truth somewhere in there.” His attention centered on me. He paused and leaned forward, resting his arms on the table.

“It was all rooted in sober reality,” he retorted. “Something, I would guess, that often eludes you.”

Jean hotly opposed the burgeoning avant-garde movement. After his play, Parade, opened in Paris, it became clear, at least to everyone but Jean, that the work was an obscure presentation. In fact, the production brought a new word into the French language, a description of a genre, surréalisme, of which Jean was, to his greatest shame and dismay, a self-disavowing purveyor. Jean hated the appellation. He wanted to be known simply as a poet. I raised my head, directed my eyes on him, stiffened my closed lips, and blurted out like an arrow to the heart, “You, sir, are a surrealist.”

Jean shot out of his chair, threw his napkin on the table, and began shouting in French. He was spouting words so quickly I didn’t understand what he was saying. James got up and put his hand on Jean’s shoulder, trying to calm him, but to no avail.  

I walked to the window, put my legs through and sat on the sill. With one good push I launched myself onto the sidewalk a few feet below.

The night’s darkness had taken grip. I tried to free myself from it, running along the sidewalk and turning toward the beach. Bright yellow light streamed from the villa’s windows lighting the way. I reached the back and headed for the dirt garden path. The villa’s light shrank to a faint glow. The color I had seen earlier at the top of the hill had faded into blackness. I found the path and stepped quickly, fumbling and tripping my way down toward the beach. When I felt the sand beneath my feet, I looked at the sea and strained to discern the azure which I had seen only hours ago. The Mediterranean was black and dark.

From the top of the hill, I heard Lois calling,” Scott, come back, come back.” I looked up and realized it was Sara. “Scott, what are you doing down there. Come back inside.”

She was right. I needed to go back. I needed to see the color of the flowers and the blue of the sea. I lay down on the sand, stretched out, and waited for it all to come back.


Don Donato received a Masters of Liberal Arts in Creative Writing and Literature from Harvard University, College of Extended studies, in 2019. His graduate interest was studying the writing of the Lost Generation living in Paris in the 1920’s. In addition to short stories published in various journals, Don has written a novella, In the Faded Blue Light, in the voice and style of F. Scott Fitzgerald in the form of “memoir.”

Don Donato: Dod401@Alumni.Harvard.edu


by Richard Risemberg

The troubles I have suffered in my life are not great ones; in fact, they are more often absurd. I offer a current example: my wife has persisted for years in addressing me as “Snookums,” though she knows I dislike the very word. Now, I understand that it is spoken as a sign of affection—as she has explained, her mother addressed her father thus, and it comes naturally to her, especially as it reminds her of the better days of her childhood. But I am a product of my own age and class, and I have my vanities. Said vanities spur me to buck against the burden of such a moniker, which I consider undignified. That is pretentious of me, I know; it implies a consciousness of my dignity that is without doubt too concentrated, but I too must live with the habits of my childhood, which were deeply and often structurally ingrained in me by my exacting parents. I was to be a “man” of a certain type, one who would give them occasion to feel pride in having given the world the gift of me.

Whether I am really a “gift” in any functional sense is something I have been pondering for years. If I rebuff, even in the silence of my mind, my wife’s favored expression of attachment, simply to satisfy what any reasonable if typical person would judge an affectation, can I be so much of a benefit to the chaotic and inescapably casual society we live in? I am sure that many would consider me to be, as it was often put in the vernacular of my younger days, a “stuffed shirt.” Is there a genuine social value in that? Am I really the model to young men that my parents devoted their lives to making of me? Or am I just a consumer of others’ labor who can return nothing to them (outside of monetary recompense, of course) but a vague sense of shame, or perhaps just irritation? This is a matter to which I have been applying what intellectual capabilities I can boast of, though boasting is not indulged in by men like me, at least not directly.

In this regard, I have, however, come to realize that my very attitude—not just my construct of self-regard but the carriage and clothing I affect, the cut of my hair and professorial beard—all that constitutes a form of braggadocio.

I am not sure I find that to be a disagreeable confession. I am, after all, actually a professor, leading seminars in a well-known university, and offering my services as a consultant to what are these days referred to as “knowledge-based businesses,” those that facilitate access to information. I am fully aware that oftentimes, perhaps most of the time, the access they offer to unlock for a fee is limited by those selfsame companies in order to create a profitable business, but I do not consider that to be greatly different from the relatively venerable practices of copyright and patent. I too have information, insights, what have you, that I do not give away, but parcel out to those companies, and to my students, in bits and pieces. My stock in trade is not displayed free of charge on some glossy website open to all; my website—mine by virtue of myself being the underwriter of its modest costs—sells only me, whom you must contract with to learn what I know. Braggadocio, image, attitude, albeit elegantly expressed, are what keep me in my august state of wool suits, a large garden (complete with weekly gardener), and a house suitable for entertaining other equally pretentious souls.

There is no room in my world for a moniker such as “Snookums.” Perhaps my wife’s persistence in applying that term to me is a form of subtle and jocular rebellion, or perhaps it is the natural result of being burdened with seeing me in my underwear at least twice a day, and hearing me complain of my ills when I have them, which is fortunately so far not often. We sit at table and eat together, pushing bits of plants and animals into holes in our faces and mashing them with those fragments of exposed skeleton we call “teeth.” She is not likely to address me as “Professor.”

I must say that my wife, despite her regrettable (by me) attachment to sentimentality, is a remarkable person, far more capable in life than I am. I do not speak here only of the practical matters she excels in—such praises are often used, at least by men of my generation, to “damn with faint praise,” or, if not precisely to “damn,” certainly to belittle, the women they live with. Render them in the guise of a moderately elevated servant, clever in a Jeevesian way but still subordinate. No: I frankly admit that my wife is a genius, and I stress that that is not an opinion held by myself alone. She is more in demand as a consultant than I am, and if our economy were not predicated in part on a supposedly lower status of the female majority, she would probably earn more than I do. Although I hold a more advanced degree in my field than she does in hers, she expresses by far the more brilliant insights. I do not begrudge her this. I do mention it not (or so I hope) as another form of braggadocio, but simply to draw a contrast between her public perception (the slim and sharp-eyed analyst presented on her website, complete with testimonials from Famous Persons) and the seemingly incongruous category of femininity she exhibits at home, where she innocently persists in referring to my own modestly august self as “Snookums.”

I have pondered whether her persistence is underlain by a desire to wear down my stiffness, and I have gone so far as to query her directly on the matter—we are remarkably free with each other—but she denies any unconscious motivations beyond the sentimental one already explicated above. So I am in a quandary. I do not wish to negotiate her away from a cherished practice—not that I am likely to be able to do so—but I am at a loss as to how to accommodate myself to it.

One might suggest that I engage the services of an analyst of a more intimate sort, to assist me in mapping my way out of this minor conundrum, as I help others map their way to profitability without avoidable exploitation of employees, suppliers, and clients. The fact is, however, that I have met perhaps a dozen times with an incisive female psychologist who is one of the resources my wife calls upon occasionally in her own professional endeavors. Unfortunately, her advice has not been of significant utility to myself, for the low potentiality of harm involved in the “case,” and of course the triviality of the complaint, seemed not to spur the good doctor to plumb the depths of her impressive experience in search of a workable protocol for me to exercise, whether internally or externally. In short, she told me not to be such a stuffed shirt (she is of my generation), but she failed to supply me with techniques that might bring about the unstuffing of said shirt, if I may attempt a bit of jocularity. I was not particularly dismayed by this, because I am not sure I wish to plunge myself into a morass of indignity, when it is my dignity—whether real or superficial—that rewards me with both cash and admiration. So, the good doctor and I parted professional ways, both unsatisfied with the lack of progress achieved, but neither one in any way dismayed with what must be described as a failure, albeit one as trivial as the complaint. I continued on, straw leaking out between the buttons of my metaphorical shirt, head held high, and so forth, earning a living, helping commerce behave in a perhaps slightly less predatory manner, and drinking (in moderation, of course) wines of an elevated but not extravagant price range. And continuing to wince when addressed as “Snookums” by my wife, even in private.

Finally I decided an attempt at bargaining might be acceptable. I asked my wife to sit for an interview with me, wherein I asked her what might be the habits, characteristics, or practices with which I might be afflicting her, that she found annoying or, perhaps, even loathesome. I suggested as possibilities my excessive formality, which I confess to engaging in even at home, except under certain liberating influences such as romantic excitation; or perhaps, I hinted, my self-regard was off-putting. I do not believe myself to be excessively burdened with self-regard, being in fact probably as insecure as any other fellow with some modest accumulation of semi-public admiration; however, I am well aware that one’s self-image rarely accords with the image others may construct of one, regardless of one’s private sensations. My plan in asking her this was simply then to offer an amelioration of said characteristic or activity in exchange for her abandonment of the term “Snookums.”

Let me stress to the outsider that this form of bargaining was an activity we occasionally engaged in as a sort of amusement, but that we at the same time freighted it with serious intent. We have always indulged in our own way of combining amusement with accomplishment, which generally involves substantive but good-natured self-mockery—of ourselves as individuals, and of ourselves as a not quite standard-issue couple. So she did not attend to my proposal with the profound seriousness I had hoped for, choosing to highlight extremely trivial matters that I was well aware would not truly distress her in any way, superficial or profound. Certainly I could not expect her to trade her practice of employing that ridiculous moniker simply for my discarding my habit of combing my hair left-handed, although I am right-handed—something I do because the natural part of my hair falls on the right side of my head, and I have found it more comfortable to pull the comb with my left hand rather than push it with my right. This is a matter of no importance to anyone, including my wife, though I was rather surprised to learn that she had even noticed. I am not certain that I did until she mentioned it.

In the end she offered a professional-grade insight when she pointed out that I might find a complete inversion of my proposal to be of greater utility in achieving my goal, which she tentatively defined as a sense of what she called “admirability” in our household relationship. I was not sure that “admirability” was a term admitted to the Oxford English Dictionary, my standard reference in lexicological matters, and challenged her on it, but a quick digression into the online edition proved her, as usual, correct. My challenge, I must stress, did not irritate her in any way, as we both consider a high level of (in fact) admirability to inhere in the verification of disputed terms. So we returned to the matter at hand, whether in truth the term “Snookums” was worthy of application to a full-grown and moderately high-status member of the professional classes, even in the privacy of the home. It was one of those benevolent fatalities that occasionally attend one in literate discourse that the Oxford was still glowing with potentiality on the computer screen, and I bent and typed the word “snookums” into the search box. We were both pleasantly surprised when a definition was in fact returned by the silent workings of electrons in a distant processor (the processor itself a miracle wrought from a byproduct of ordinary sand…). We huddled side by side and read the definition, with perhaps some dismay, at least on my part: “A trivial term of endearment, usually applied to children or lap-dogs.” The earliest citation credited a Ladies’ Home Journal article from 1919. After a moment of silence, we both laughed.

I harrumphed with what I hoped was mock sententiousness: “I am neither a child nor a dog,” I said. I believe I even hooked my thumbs into my suspenders for greater comic effect. (I wear suspenders not because of any antipathy towards belts as a class, but precisely because they allow me to hook my thumbs in them for a bit of theatrical enhancement when lecturing.)

“Indisputably true,” my wife said. “However, it may be that my use of the term indicates that I feel certain protective sensations towards you, as one would to a child or small friendly animal. And is it not the incongruity of such a sentiment applied to a large and successful man the very basis of our domestic relationship? An indication that you are safe at home and suffer no compulsion to expend nervous energy in maintaining your professional image? In short, an invitation to relax?” She smiled, and placed her hand on my arm. “You have been working very hard lately…Snookums.”

I confess that I felt a great sense of comfort at that moment, one that I am certain she engineered. I did not mind that, for (assuming I was correct) she did so out of affection, rather in quest of a more nefarious influence over my actions.

What she suggested, in the end, was that I settle upon an equivalent term to apply to her, something more poetic than my usual choice of “darling,” which she in fact felt to be a rather vapid term with no real meaning, tossed about, as she put, the way victorious soldiers hand out candy to the battered citizens of a country they themselves have devastated, thus making the vaquished receptive to their modest bribes. Clearly that would not do, and clearly my addressing her as “darling” did not arouse in her the comforts I had intended should result from my application of the venerable term to her person. She had, in short, a point, one she had expressed to me the way I would have expressed it myself, had I thought of it.

Once again, we bent towards the glowing monitor, in wordless simultaneity, and found that “darling” derived from “dear,” whose original and now obsolete definition connoted “glorious, noble, honourable, worthy,” but which had diverged into various lesser meanings, such as “expensive” in certain usages (primarily in the United Kingdom), expressing “affection or regard,” or simply as a generic form of address in written communications. While many of its current and obsolete usages did in fact express the feelings my wife inspires in me, I agreed with her that, as a term of affection, it had become rather diluted from overuse. “Snookums,” she pointed out, while it may have suffered a vogue a few decades before, during her parents’ time, was now no longer in favor, and so had, by scarcity, become more precious a term, and one worthy of applying to a close and intricate relationship such as ours. I was forced to agree, feeling somewhat as a judge must feel who is required to set aside personal inclinations in order to conform a disputed situation to the body of law, or even to the Constitution (if practicing in the United States). I accepted her argument, and conceded: I would accept and enjoy her employment of the term “Snookums” in regard to myself.

The other part of the settlement, that of finding a more accurate and more personal term that I should apply to her in ordinary discourse, remained to be negotiated. It was, of course, my wife who guided us to a resolution, albeit indirectly. “Did not your parents ever use terms of affection amongst themselves?” she asked.

I shook my head and emitted a rather constructed sigh. “You know how they were,” I answered. “Worse than myself, I assure you. I have not remained entirely untouched by modern trends. But I never heard them refer to each other by any terms other than Mr. and Mrs. My friends found it quite comical, but then, I didn’t have many friends.” A dim memory suddenly brightened. “However,” I said, “my mother’s sister, my aunt Trudy, was generally addressed as, well, as ‘Tootsie’ by her husband. That is, in fact, the name I remember her by.”

Once again we bent towards the bluish glow of the screen. “Tootsie” was, of course, acknowledged by the Oxford; it is a term meaning “A woman, a girl; a sweetheart.” The earliest citation was from 1895, which meant that, at least as far as the Oxford’s contributors knew, its currency in the language predated that of “snookums.” Although the citations originated generally in detective novels larded with lower-class slang, authors as august as E. M. Forster and D. H. Lawrence had employed it. My wife said, “If famous writers who are known primarily by their initials, as you are in your field, are able to employ it comfortably, certainly you can. Let us essay the term; I am comfortable being addressed thus in the intimacy of our domicile.” She said this in a tone of exaggerated formality, then relaxed and added: “In other words, you okay with that…Snookums?”

I looked at her and said, “Yeah, I guess I’m okay with that—Tootsie.” The word stumbled slightly coming out of my mouth, but I did speak it. I added, “It’s quite the proverbial slippery slope, is it not? Who knows but that in a year I may be dancing on tables….”

She said, “If you are, Snookums, ensure that it be a large table, for I shall definitely join you!”

We both laughed, and rushed off to celebrate another successful negotiation, leaving the Oxford to glimmer in solitude on the desk.



Richard Risemberg was born into a Jewish-Italian household in Argentina, and brought to Los Angeles to escape the fascist regime. He has lived there since, except for a digression to Paris in the turbulent Eighties. He attended Pepperdine University on a scholarship won in a writing competition, but left in his last year to work in jobs from gritty to glitzy, starting at a motorcycle shop and progressing through offices, retail, an independent design and manufacturing business, and most recently a stint managing an adult literacy program at a library branch in one of the poorest neighborhoods of the city. All has become source material for his writing.

He has pursued journalism, photography, and editorial writing, which, combined with his years in motorcycle culture, introduced him to the darker side of the dream. His fiction concentrates on working-class life, homelessness, and cultures of violence, and the indifference of the Dominant Paradigm to it all.

Mr. Risemberg has published stories, poems, essays, editorials, and articles in numerous edited publications; you may view the current list at http://crowtreebooks.com/richard-risemberg-publications/.

Man Is

by Jennifer Benningfield


The middle-aged man’s hands would not stop moving—tamping down and slicking back his thin cinnamon hair, wiping the oak plywood, tickling the air—and after ten minutes he feared the worst. His eyes, agleam with anticipation, followed every contour, absorbed each color.

He looked down. The light blue polo shirt and crisp khakis provided inoffensive cover for a mild “life gut.” The white towel with thin red and white stripes running down the center had many brothers.

And he was at the head of the family.

Howie’s House. A neighborhood spot, cozy and friendly. Sitting kitty-corner from a convenience store, directly next to a laundromat, one block south of the smallest pizza joint per square foot in the whole state. A nice enough place to depressurize and re-humanize.

The bar represented one tier of a multi-tiered dream. A friend of a friend owned the space, previously leased to a seafood joint that lasted less than a year. All three men were partners in the bar—HTC, LLC—but Howie had the dream.

He glanced back at the shelves, solutions in neat rows, some clear, others murky, each neat and ready.

The door opened. Howie released a breath he was entirely aware that he’d been holding.

“See the time. 5:42 Eastern. And we’re just now getting our first customer.”

“It is an honor, a privilege but above all, a thrill. Let’s celebrate with a shot of Mark and a pint of whatever beer. Bartender’s choice. Anyway. Glad we’re not out West or I’d really feel like a sad drunk. Best seat in the house here. Right smack dab in the center. Guess that’s good form. Who cares if it’s not. It’s a free country, right.”

“One of many.”

The grimace on Old Guy Oscar’s face had little on the one that appeared when the shot hit his throat.

“Like the layout, kid. Solid selection.”

“Forty-seven brands.”

“Why not fifty?”

“I ordered what I felt necessary.”

“Huh. Smart. I suppose. One thing–that bottle of Wild Turkey? You won’t crack the top on that son-bitch opening week. Unless you open it up outta spite.”

Howie shrugged and removed the shot glass.

“Nice set-up, I mean that.”

“Just the standard luxuries.”

“‘The standard luxuries,’ huh. What a funny phrase. Funny-sounding, anyway. What do you have besides Budweiser?”

“Heinekin, Miller, Michelob.”

“Look, don’t misunderstand me, kid. We want this place to succeed. We want you to have a reason to reorder Wild Turkey.”

Howie’s face brightened with the sound and sight of a swinging door, grateful for any reason to tear his attentions from the sallow-faced fogey hunched over his drink.

“Broke any glasses yet or what.”

“Not yet.”

“Well, day ain’t over. What about food?”


“Yeah, ya doof. Food.”

“Why should I serve meals?”

“Did I say ‘meals’? I meant more along the lines of sandwiches and soups and desserts. Comfort food. Simple.”

“And affordable.”

“Right. Don’t be greedy, Howie. Word’ll get out.”

 Howie rapped the knuckles of his dominant hand against the top of the bar. “Suggestions duly noted, gentlemen. Need another, Oscar?”

“I hate beer. But it kills the headaches. My wife says”–Howie held out a hand, waiting for the older man to finish his final pull–“take aspirin, they won’t damage your liver!’ Yeah, right, but they can and will damage your stomach lining. Happened to a guy I know. Can’t have aspirin anymore. Or wine.”


“Big day champ! Gimme a gin and tonic and quick. I gotta wash dinner out of my mouth. My friend at work drove me by Taco Bell on the way home. I normally avoid that place but he swore I’d love the chicken burrito.”

“Gin and tonic, ya poor gullible bastard.”

After three hours, Howie’s House had welcomed a dozen guests, including seven he didn’t even know.

“Can we get a free drink for considerably bringing down the median age of your average customer or what.”


“Worth a shot, worth a shot. Wait, how about a free shot?”

“Also no.”

“Another one, Sammy?”

“Nah, I’m done for the night.”

“Just two? What, one for each tit?”

“I preach personal responsibility and I practice it as well. So shut your shot-hole.”

“You live a two-minute drive from here, Saint.”

“A lot can happen in 120 seconds.”

After the last man at the door had bellowed his farewell, Howie finally unclenched. Good day. Good customers. He couldn’t wait to see if they’d become regulars.


“Pretty sure the main reason this show’s so popular is people wanna see the poor bastard die.”

The bartender’s peppermint breath hit Marty’s face like a stranger’s kiss. The television screen showed a robust man seated at a diner table, stuffing his face with ludicrous amounts of red meat and white bread as a carefully gathered crowd of well-wishers gaped and hooted.

“I used to want to do that,” Marty admitted. “Well not that, exactly. Competitive eating. Yeah. Wanted to do that.”

“Get out.”

“No lie. Don’t mean like those maniacs who eat all the hot dogs up in Coney every July 4th. I just wanted to be a local legend. Found a guy in my neighborhood who used to compete at some fairs and hell, he mentored me.”

“When was all this?”

“Long time ago. I was in my mid-30s.”

“Not that long ago.”

“Feels like it. Anyway. This was in January when I had the bright idea, and my mentor decides I should aim for the pie-eating contest at the fair in Frederick that August. So I start training. An eating contest is just like a race. Gotta get in shape. Not to mention, there’s rules. They bind your hands, for instance. You gotta eat those pies just like a pig. Apple filling up your nose, all over your face. So I ate two pies a day, hands tied, while he timed me. For seven months.”

“How much weight did you put on?”

“None, fella. I started a vigorous exercise routine and drank nothing but water. I was the healthiest pie-eating son of a bitch in the whole western side of the state. So, time comes. The contest is, whoever eats five apple pies the quickest wins two hundred bucks. Big money then, fella.”

“Still is for some of us.”

“Hmm. Day of, all I ate was a carrot. That was what my mentor suggested. A carrot, or celery, something you wouldn’t touch otherwise. I got up on stage. There were four other contestants, three judges, one of ’em my pastor, ’bout a hundred people waiting. I myself drove up there with my sister and her little kids.”

Marty took another drink and winced.

“All the pies were made by women who went to St. John’s Methodist. None of that store-bought nonsense. So I’m standing there, looking for my sister and her kids in the crowd, thinking how I done all I done, how I stretched my stomach, how I never wanted to see another apple after all this, and then I see…them.”


“By the side of the stage. Just standing there. Paramedics. In case of an emergency. That did it. I blew before the whistle did,” Marty groaned.

“Oh no. But wait, that was before the competition started, right? You still–“

“They already had a pie in front of us. I upchucked on mine and there was…collateral damage.”

Marty’s description of infamy deferred exhausted not only him, but every other patron at the bar. The next thirty minutes passed uneventfully, with a few of the men, expressions dulled, watching the TV and others staring balefully into their beverage.

“Cold in here.”

“It ain’t cold. For the fourth time.”

“To me it’s cold.”

“Start wearing layers.”

Marty’s retort died in his throat when he felt a body occupy the stool to his left. He turned his head to see a crestfallen man, young enough to be his son, eyeglasses accentuating his sorrow.

“Barkeep’ll be back in a second. Young fella you look like you’re about to ask for some poison.”

“Broken engagement. Not my call either.”

“Aw hell. Tough luck, fella.”

“Just…you think you know somebody.”

“Understand,” Marty drawled. “Really.”

“Just between us, though. I don’t want a pity party.”

“I won’t let it slip. It’s twixt us twain. Promise.” Marty winked to seal the deal. Aw hell. Here comes Eddie. That tall sour-faced bastard’s like a real-life Lenny. Never know if he’s about to hug ya or murder ya. Come have a seat here, Eddie. I want people to think I have two bodyguards. Teddy, put your phone down for two seconds and tell Eddie how good it is. Stop subjecting your eleven followers to bar food porn.”

“These photos aren’t food porn. I have been in a meaningful relationship with each and every thing I’ve eaten. Want this last bite, Ollie?”

“No thanks. I scrounged together something before I left the house.”

“Fast bachelor dinner, huh. Beats fast bachelor bath.”

“Jukebox arrives tomorrow, fellas.”

“No karaoke machine I take it.”

“No. No singing, no dancing. Just enjoy what you spent your money on.”

“Well, I don’t break dance, but I break things when I dance!”

Marty gradually pushed himself off of the stool and performed a combination electric slide-hokey pokey.

“Marty, do us a favor. Get back on that stool and never come off it again.”


Marty was the first to notice her. In an hour, the woman–allegedly named “Patsy,” although Marty wouldn’t have bet dollars to donuts–had flirted with nearly every man in the joint. Staring down the barrel of beer three, he wondered, with an exhilarating admixture of dread and elation, if he would be her very last option.

Damn near.

She used too much lipstick and not enough eyeliner. The curls on her head had seen better days, but even those had been mediocre ones.

“Into a good time?”

Her breath smacked Marty’s face like a done-wrong lover. “Not particularly. I have a good woman already.”

“Just good?”

“Good enough.”

Marty couldn’t help the short-lived leer as he watched Patsy’s leather-covered caboose shimmy over to a booth on the other end of the room.

“No great romance then.”

“She’s moved on. It is Hump Day.”

“Poor Teddy.”

Marty turned and grinned.

“A real aginner, that one. Don’t hurt yourself on that. We need you, fella. You’re the most valuable one of all of us.”

The heartbroken guy to his left was now nursing a third screwdriver after slamming back the first two. (Patsy hadn’t even tried.)

“Are they hitting it off?”

“Seems so. Either one thing is really funny or a lot of little things are funny. Marty, you don’t have a woman good or otherwise. How dare you lie to a fine lady like that.”

The older man winked and turned to his right.

“You got a lady?”

“A wife.”

“Any little ones?”

“No, no kids. We want our marriage to last.”

Marty nearly choked on the suds. “The secret is you being you and her being her. Whatever the hell that happens to be. The whole point is two individuals who know when to form the single entity. That’s how you get past all the crap.”

“So just be honest then.”

“Honesty is the best policy. That’s what they say.”

“Who’s ‘they’?”

“We don’t have time for questions like that right now.”


The jukebox, stocked with country and classic rock, had been a boon to business, but it wasn’t until the first NFL game that Howie’s House qualified as “packed.”

(Howie was quick to point out, “This is not a sports bar. It is a bar with a television that can and does show sporting events. So anybody expecting buffalo wings or drink specials is outta luck. There’s enough of them joints around here.”)

A bar packed sick with fans of American football, ready to gorge on the Game of the Week, meant not much reason to break out the shaker and the strainer, but much use of the hand towel he kept flung over one shoulder.

“My tongue feels like soggy grits,” Ollie told the well-lit man to his left.

“A Jack and Coke will solidify it. Lemme grab us a couple.”

Ollie sat at the far end of the bar nearest the TV, practically underneath it, and while he followed the sport, he would have much preferred to be at home alone. But he wasn’t the type to tell a best buddy “no.”

Every once in awhile he turned his head to survey the scene. Mostly men, mostly young or pretty young, all from “round here,” most acquaintances at the least, patrons sick and tired of their own walls, patrons for whom the drive to The Greene Turtle was too risky.

“Here we go. Cheers and shit. What’s up, man.”

“Lot of anxiety, man. Can’t explain it.”

Ollie actually could have. But what to say about feeling alone in the metaphorical middle of a lively suds shack? He pretended to listen to his friends patter, unable to filter out the people he didn’t know.

Goddamn, nothing made him feel less useful than people.

Some looked as though they hadn’t slept in days. Some looked as though they’d slept the entire day. Some were no doubt spending the last of their unemployment check. Some stunk of a day spent in the great outdoors. They wore heavy coats over shirts with no breathing room. Some were young, dumb and beyond that–Ollie happily remained ignorant. The ones who entered the establishment wild-haired and bleary-eyed were the ones to watch.

Ollie turned his full attention to the weak-kneed dentist who fancied himself a raconteur most days, a sports expert on this day.

“Defense wins championships. Then, the run game. Third, the quarterback. Very rarely does the quarterback–“

“Snyder sucks!”

“Scoreboard, baby! Scoreboard!”

“It ain’t over till the fat fella farts!”

“I’ll be right back.” Ollie walked nearly the length of the room to reach Howie, careful to not look down at any of the six men circling a table made for four.

“Full moon tonight,” the barkeep sighed.

“That one in the cap is Chuck Berg. Kind of a live wire. I know he’s been in a few scuffles in a few joints. Loudmouth, real disrespectful type.”

“I know the name. He tries to take a piss in my bar, I’ll stick my dick in his drink. And if anyone sees, I’ll explain whose drink it is, and they’ll say, ‘Oh wait, let me stick my dick in there too.'”

“We’re the Three Musketeers!”

“Name them! Name all three Musketeers!”

“Some guy, some other guy, and another guy. Who cares.”

Ollie frowned. “I ought go over there and smack that blond one off his chair.”

“Repress that impulse,” Howie warned, voice flatter than his hands atop the bar.

“I could be your muscle, Howie,” Ollie suggested. “I’ve been told I cut an imposing figure. Somebody even once told me I look like the guy who plays Wolverine in the movies!”

With the game out of hand by the beginning of quarter number four, Chuck Berg and the Bergettes headed out the door.

“Crisis averted,” Ollie noted, sounding for all the world like a man who lost his job, wife and drivers license in the same day. “That Doug Martin’s some kinda runner huh?”

“He ain’t better than Herschel Walker.”

“Didn’t say he was. Different game anyway.” Ollie coughed and pushed himself onto his feet. “Better in some ways, worse in other ways.”


“It’s raining like a bitch out there!”

“Huh. Never seen a bitch rain.”

Sammy’s laughter meshed with the lugubrious country and western wafting from the silver box. “Never seen a bitch rain. Ollie, you’re a funny cat. Seriously funny. Another Scotch here, barkeep.”

Sammy, generally, wouldn’t shut up. Howie had, in the first few days, let concerns simmer and stew, remembering an episode of The Twilight Zone that featured a motormouth pest who drove away a bar’s patrons with his insistence on actively existing. At the first sign of dissent and desertion, Howie’d bring down the hammer, but so far the others were willing to accept Sammy as a sort of background noise.

“I hate birds!”

“Hey Teddy. Take a load off. Take a couple.”

“I was attacked by a blue jay in my own backyard today.”

Sammy, at last, shut up.

“I was out mowing my lawn. And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve mowed a lawn in my life. You know, you do something for so long, you just do it automatically. Your mind isn’t even really all the way there. So I don’t notice that there’s a nest near the fence. Must have fallen from a tree. But there’s a nest there, with eggs, and just as I’m about to plow over it–SWOOSH! Mama bird comes right for my head! I had to take the mower and haul ass back to the shed. Took me an hour before I went back out to finish the job. Goddamn birds.”

“Blue jays are bastards. They attack other birds.”

“To kill a mockingbird is a sin. A blue jay, though, take out all of them you can!”

“Take ’em all out. The path to heaven is paved with dead birds.”

Sammy gave his chin a break and scratched at his sideburns. “Thinking of growing a beard,” he informed the bartender.

“Think hard,” came the reply.

“Jealous. How can somebody make it to their forties without having shaved their face at least once, tell that.”

“Would you guys eat chips if I offered ’em here or what. Pretzels, peanuts–“


“Just say no,” Howie tutted.

“Just joshing. I’ve never touched the hard stuff in my life. Well, I did used to snort pills when I was in college. Vicodins. Just crushed ’em and snorted ’em.”

“Did you?”

“Did I. Gets into the bloodstream faster that way. Those days are behind me, though.”

“Are they?”

“They are.”

“See, I don’t know if I believe that. I believe a person’s past tells a person’s future and therefore can never truly be behind you. History tells itself. See, I believe the people of this planet are on the eve of a spiritual reawakening–“

“Howie, next one’s a double.”

“Pay attention to the world. The climate. The lawlessness. The violence, the injustice. The end of an era is upon us. Maybe we’ll all be eradicated, maybe we’ll–“

“Oh I do not come here to hear this crap.”

“Old man.”

“Shut up, Teddy. I’m not old, I’m just right.”

“Yeah, right out of your fiber pills.”

“Suck my fat old weenie.”

“Only if you iron it out first.”

“You gonna step in, boss?” Sammy whispered, trembling a bit.

“Man is a combative animal,” Howie shrugged.

“Some animals need to be put to sleep,” Sammy reminded the barkeep, warily eyeing the bickering men from his perch.


Whoever the woman was, she was not Patsy. Fifteen years younger, smaller in build (but not petite), a modern woman who didn’t take fashion advice from a buck-toothed stripper/mother of three, a light jacket over a low-cut shirt, moving stealthily in flats, hair parted and tickling her shoulders. She took a seat away from the group of guys, who preferred to monopolize the stools nearest the entrance.

As Howie moved to determine the nature of her poison, the men exchanged words.

“There’s a seat here.”

“Maybe we’re not good enough.”

“She could do worse than me.”

“Yeah but not much worse.”

Sammy thought her one of the loneliest-looking things he’d yet seen, under any light.

“Wonder if she’s been stood up.”

“Who in hell would make a date in this place.”

“Oh jeez, look at this.”

“Godspeed, Theodore.”

Sammy took a careful sip from his highball glass, passing along silent thanks to the uncle who introduced him to bourbon. He’d barely finished the thought that surely no other kid in his fourth grade class had received a better birthday present that year when he noticed Teddy’s return, his gait deliberate and expression hangdog.

“Hang in there, kid. You’ll win her heart yet.”

“Heart. I already have one of those.”

“She thinks hers don’t stink. I could have her no problem. If I even wanted her.”

“Which you don’t.”

“Which I don’t, you smirky prick. Women are more trouble than they’re worth.”

“No, Ollie, they’re worth all the trouble. That’s the problem.”

It turned out to be a mouth other than Sammy’s that almost incited the first brawl at Howie’s House.

“So Marty, how’s your brother been. Still having the heart stuff?”

“Turns out it’s not heart stuff. It’s panic disorder.”

“Panic? Well that’s not so bad then.”

“Yeah, it’s good in a way, not so good in another way, y’know?”

“Not particularly, tell that.”

“A heart problem would be scarier and more intense to deal with, but it’s easy to treat, relatively. There’s a variety of medications, well-trained doctors, procedures a person can have done. With something like my brother has, where the problem doesn’t originate from an organ in the body, it’s a ‘patient treat thyself’ thing. And that involves lots of trial and error. He has to learn breathing exercises, and avoid certain foods, and get more of other foods, and man I’m glad it’s not me. He’s gung-ho, y’know, but me, wow, I’d be like fuck it. If you can’t just give me a pill to take care of it, what’s the point of trying anything else.”

The staccato chuckles stuck in the throat of the patron two seats away from the conversation caused everyone but Sammy and Marty to lift their drinks to their lips.

“Something you want to say, Ollie?”

“All that stuff’s mental. Sounds to me like your brother has a weak mind.”

Marty’s sudden silence honed Sammy’s edge. He grew restive, eyes darting–Howie to Marty and Ollie, back, back again–fingers pulling on each other–thumb to index, back, back again–and when Marty began to speak, Sammy ceased to breathe.

The words at the beginning and end of each sentence exited Marty’s mouth like the bullets from a hitman’s handgun. He did not once deign to face the target of his ire, focusing instead on a bottle of Southern Comfort on the second shelf.

“You know what you are, Ollie. You are the program guy at the baseball game. People going into the stadium to enjoy the game walk right by you, zoom. They hear you, but they don’t listen. They never buy what you’re selling.”

Sammy leapt to his feet, approaching Ollie while never taking his gaze away from Marty. He figured no one would shake at the sight of a slightly-built fellow trying to establish a physical presence, but only a world-class hole in the ass would pummel one for attempting to play peacekeeper.

“Maybe we should head outside with this, guys.”

“Maybe we should. A nice swift kick in the ass can do a guy good.”

“A nice swift bottle to the face can do a guy good too.”

“No weapons!” warned the barkeep.

Sammy watched Marty’s fingertips as they chipped away at the damp label on his Bud bottle, rolling four little logs. His attempts to engage Teddy and Howie in yak failed. The spat had altered the room temperature, and no doddering old man could goad the barkeep into setting it right once more.

After twenty minutes, the woman had abandoned a stool for a booth underneath a Budweiser neon sign left behind by the proprietors of the seafood joint. Another two minutes would pass before Sammy rose and walked to the far end of the bar, where Teddy sat and Howie stood, arms folded, watching an obese woman in a Tweety Bird t-shirt harangue the father of her child.


“Shouldn’t mix, Sammy.”

“Not for me.”

The bartender, being quite good at his job, said nothing further.

Sammy took an audible exhale and delivered pep pats against his shoulders and elbows. Nearby, Teddy shook his head.

“Good luck, Sam. I told her I could make a chick orgasm without even touching her between the legs and got nothin’.”

Can in one hand, highball glass in the other, Sammy made his casual way over. He nodded down at Eddie, busy carving something into the table with a penknife.

Sammy slid into the seat across from the woman at the same time he placed the can down on the table. He greeted her, quick and low, noting the rigidness of her shoulders. He regarded her round face in its entirety, finding the lips and nose too thin, before deciding it a poor way to gauge a person’s receptivity.

She looked even more pathetic than his thoughts of her.

“Hope you don’t mind the company,” he said at last, feeling coals in his throat. “Hey, whoever he was, he’s not worth a hangover.”

Had Sammy not raised his antennae on the trip over, her smile would have gone undetected.

“How’d you guess? And you’re wrong. He’s the only one I ever thought could be the one.”

Sammy attempted sympathy. “Hard word to say. ‘Goodbye.’ Real hard to say.”

He took a sip of his J & C, lowering his head so she wouldn’t spy his smirk.

“Waste of time, miss. Feeling sorry for yourself, wondering why or why not. You know something else. A bar’s an okay place to start talking. But if you want to keep talking, there’s better places.”


“That’s what we’re doing, isn’t it. We can go somewhere else and get a bite as well. I don’t cook, but I press buttons like a champ.”

“Hot Pockets?”

“Corn dogs. Although I wouldn’t be surprised if they start selling Corn Dog Hot Pockets one day. My friends say I talk too much. I need to learn to be a better listener.”

“Your friends say you talk too much? What do people who don’t like you say?”

“No idea.”

She wouldn’t stop looking at him. “Thanks, by the way. For the drink.”

“No problem. Another one?”

“No. Four’s my limit.”

“Smart.” He’d almost added the word “girl,” before the vision of her face, creased in a rictus of repulsion, stopped him.

“I needed to get out, get away, but I didn’t feel like enjoying myself. From the outside this place seemed miserable enough.”

“We have a saying in my family: Don’t hate a person based on superficialities. Get to know them, and they’ll give you real reasons to hate them. Same applies to buildings and cities.”

Her uneven teeth glistened. Sammy wondered if the redness diffused across her cheeks and the bridge of her nose was attributable to rosacea or consumption.

For a time, the two talked hypothetical Hot Pocket fillings (some ideal, some repulsive) and Sammy imagined they were sitting across from one another on a floe in the Arctic Ocean, a ready-made bottle of Jack and Coke in his hands, one large blanket doing a better job holding them in place than of staving off hypothermia. They were killing several things, time the most valuable, waiting for the Coast Guard (or an altruistic pack of hero penguins, ready to create a bridge leading to shore), hoping for the best outcome while convincing themselves anything less was not absolutely undesirable.

She pushed the can away, ending the reverie.

“Okay. Let’s go. Corn dogs or bust.”

Sammy wondered at the likelihood of both as he followed her past the late-night detritus, steeling himself for the glances from men under the mistaken belief he’d pounced on the poor girl.

He did not know what precisely he felt, only that he felt. He couldn’t deny how superb her ass looked. (Or, how superb the skirt made it look.) He held the door open, smiling as she mouthed appreciation. He watched her reacclimatize to the world outside, the brackish air, the silent roads, the buzzing yellow and orange, and he didn’t even feel the concrete smash against his face.


The stocky man hadn’t ventured outside his half-a-home in nearly a week, the same amount of time since he’d lain prone with the intention of not rising for several hours, and he reeked of the effort to remain upright.

Who could sleep with a dwelling hell-surrounded? He could envision the flames surrounding the wooden structure, even though he could not feel them, and they were either eternal or ephemeral, with both states relative.

He tugged at the short sleeves of his light blue polo shirt with trembling hands and tried to determine the intensity of his thirst.  After a day spent in a near-constant sprint, his sock-covered feet now moved across the floor seemingly covered in honey.

Bottles on the cabinet, below the sink. A place for everything, everything in its place.

Somehow, the white hand towel stayed stuck in place on his left shoulder.

Bottles on the island that belonged atop the microwave oven, which had heated his late dinner–French bread pizza, which had also been last night’s even later dinner–and it was this thought that sent his heart racing, on the hunt for a proverbial blue shell.

The knock on the door didn’t help.

He froze, save for a comically heaving chest. Visitors were rarer than a hybrid eclipse. He gulped, wiped the sweat of his face with the sweat of his palms, and addressed the door with the friendliest yell he could muster.

“Come in! Join us!”

The surprise guest entered the kitchen, eking out greetings while the other man replaced trash bags.

“Hey Teddy. Long time no talk.”

“I tried the front door, but nobody answered, so I decided to follow the light.”

“Follow the light, huh. Good advice.”

“Who else is here?”

“Just me and my shadow and my arrow.”

The stocky man stayed on the other side of the humble island, nearest the entryway to the living area, rocking on the balls of his feet, staring pridefully at the clutter between he and the unexpected visitor. The smile on his face grew incrementally as the other man peered down into a narrow sink, spying a pair of pint glasses turned upside down atop a pair of saucers.

“You look as if you’ve been bobbing for razor apples in a tub of flour.”

“I feel better than that,” he shrugged, thin cinnamon-colored hair shining from negligence. “Take a seat, Ted.”

“I’m serious, Howie. You look like you stepped in front of someone who threw the best punch of his life.”

“I’d say sorry for the mess of the place, but it’s not really my fault.”

“You had the sloppiest workplace of any of us,” Teddy chuckled.


Again the gradual grin as Teddy’s gaze dropped to the island, its wood as cheap and dark as the liquid in the bottles that beckoned.

“Liquor doesn’t go flat, does it?”

Howie emitted a muted belch. “With some liquor I’m not sure anyone would notice.”

In dead center sat one messy highball glass, a once-vital cube of ice shrunken to the size of a pebble. Six pristine cans of Budweiser sat off to the right, along with open bottles of Southern Comfort and Jim Beam, their caps removed. Off to the left, sealed bottles of Seconal and Valium, next to an empty bowl, plastic and light green. Between the Valium and the highball glass rested a single sheet of lined paper marked in blue slanted cursive.

ICE (5, 8 LBS)
SUGAR (1, 4 LBS)
NAPKINS (1, 500)

“What’s that?” Teddy asked, jabbing a thumb in the direction of the paper.

“I…don’t know. Seriously. I do not recognize this.” He let the sheet of paper fall to the floor.

“Are you thirsty or what.” Howie crossed his arms, ankles and eyes.

“Um, well, maybe some water.”

“Knock yourself out. Fridge is full of that stuff. Take one, take two, hell take six for the road. I really don’t mind.” He re-capped the bottle of Southern Comfort. “See, now I’m paranoid,” he insisted, voice suggesting otherwise.

The hollow-eyed man spun the bottle around by its cap, ignoring the man sitting mere inches away, separated from him by shoddy and sordid things.

“Howie…what happened to your arm?”

“My arm. Ah, hmm. Accident I suppose.” He brought the appendage up to within an inch of his face, regarding the four inch long cuts in the same manner another person might a two-headed cat, or a three-legged ostrich. “Not bleeding,” he shrugged, snatching the towel from his shoulder and sending it over the few small patches of bare wood before returning it with a deliberate delicacy to his left shoulder.

You know that song ‘Piano Man’ Billy Joel? It has the line…’They sit at the bar and put bread in my jar.’ When I was a little boy, I used to think he meant, uh, actual bread. Like a slice or a stick. And I had the visual of it in a glass jar. And then I thought, why doesn’t my mom ever put bread in a jar like she does with peppers and tomatoes? Do you want something to drink, Howie?”

“Not anything that’s here, no.”

“How long has it been since you’ve had a good sleep?”

Howie contorted back a sneeze.

“Oh, wow. Two days, at least. When was the last Skins game? I had a nap before that one…been up since then.”

“Maybe you should see a doctor.”

“Did that already,” Howie snapped, snatching the Jim Beam bottle. “You’re the only one who’s come to check on me. Shows who the stand-up guys are, doesn’t it now.”

“Well, some people are busier than others.”

“I’m aware. Did I say they should stop everything just to see me? I just would appreciate some acknowledgement. A call. A text. My number’s still the same.” He sneezed, and damn did it piss him off.

“Do you want me to mention that I saw you?”

Howie lowered his head, and began bouncing his chin off his chest. He raised it back up in concert with his hands, joining them together as if prepared to fall to his knees.

“No. You tell them you talked to me. That’s how you put it. Don’t make this any more than it is.”

“I’m not even sure what it is.”

“A guy who’s hit a…odd patch. A guy who’s looking for a thrill. I’m into thrills,” the pale man stated, absent pride or shame. “Some cheap, some costly. No one’s getting hurt. They took my license. Okay. So there’s one less place for me to be a danger. You finished with the prying now, Mom?”

“How’s Kelly been doing?”

“She’s on a mission of self-discovery. And I’m not being a wise-ass. Kelly is actually on a week-long yoga retreat up in southern PA. Transform your body and your mind and your soul. Live in the present and determine your destiny. Which isn’t how that works, but, not my life, is it.”

“Week-long? Sounds pricey.”

“Might be. She’s the one paying. I’d rather not know all the gory details. With no one around to make me speak to the neighbors, the days are going by pretty smoothly. Good for her, though. She showed me the place online, looks super nice. There’s counselors, yoga teachers, chefs, people from all over the country. Everyone convenes in one place to…make things better. They encourage people to re-imagine their lives.”

“What if she re-imagines her life and you’re no longer part of it?”

“Cynical, man. You are a cynical man. Kelly loves us. She’ll be back and better than ever, and so will we. She’s a good woman. A good woman is…man’s best friend. I mean his real best friend. Forget dogs. I’ve been with some real loony chicks in my day, but none of them ever took a crap on my carpet.”

Howie’s abruptly-flushed face fixed into a constipated frown.

“Thanks for stopping by, Teddy, but rules are rules. This ain’t an all-night spot. There’s one across the street, if that’s what you’re looking for.”

Howie walked the half-circle to the seated man with grand purpose, stopping when barely an inch separated their bodies. He folded his arms and raise himself to full height, grimacing at the dark, tamed waves covering Teddy’s head.

The primitive pleadings from the abyss rose, steam-like, obscuring any further attempts at communication. Howie unlocked his arms, letting them fall limply at his sides. Without deigning to admit emotion, he reached behind Teddy and grabbed the bottle of Jim Beam, baptizing Teddy’s follicular abundance with its contents.

Teddy’s hands shot up in instinctive defense, a gesture that did nothing to block the bottle itself. The blow landed in a sweet spot by the standards of an attacker who sought to render mere temporary oblivion: just above the temple.

Some shards wound up embedded in skin, some caught in hair, and some landed on the tile floor, Teddy’s body soon following.

Howie began hyperventilating, the blood smell pinching at his skin, leaving traces of red and pink. What was left of the bottle fell from his hand, just missing a socked foot. He knocked his fists against his thighs, seeking nerve and succor from the buoyancy of flesh and bone.

As his gasps died down, Howie backed onto the same stool Teddy had occupied prior to being brained, the best of the few seats in the house. He could not tear his gaze from the floor; the rise and fall of the injured man’s chest left him rapt.

He felt his lungs expand and contract along with Teddy’s.

He clenched close to all over from the euphoria.

He held his breath.

His fingers tightened around the vinyl.

After half a minute, the experiment ended, the amateur scientist gaping and gleeful. He wiped the evidence of his ecstasy with the front of his shirt. (The closest it had come to being washed in several days.)

Throbbing, chilled fingers bottle reached for the bottle of Southern Comfort. He shakily unscrewed the cap and doused himself with the remaining liquid.

With chilled, throbbing fingers pressing against his temples, Howie let loose a succession of coughs closer in texture to death rattles. He cracked open a beer and chugged it down, tossing the empty can one-handed behind his head, coming closer to the trash can then he’d imagined.

He leaned back against the rounded edge of the island and plucked a phone from his jeans pocket. He dialed with the deliberation and dispassion of an EOD officer.

Howie listened to the trills and vowed he would present no great challenge.

“My friend’s been attacked. Someone with a bottle. He’s in bad shape. Hard hit to the head. Blood. A good amount.”

Several more sentences established that the man on the floor bleeding from the head was unconscious yet alive. Howie provided a name, an address, and a well-wish for the patient woman.

He waited. He chuckled, to start, at the sight of such blood in the water, then they grew in intensity, in length, in depth, until the man nearly toppled, Humpty Dumpty style, from his circular perch.

“Didn’t even have the decency to finish him off. Still with us.” Howie rubbed his hands.

“Lucky not to get his neck.”

“Tell that.”

“That’s where one of the major arteries is. Remember the Redskins player got shot in the leg by a robber and bled to death?”

“Okay, guys, fun’s done. Closing time.”

“Can I grab some glass as a souvenir?”



Jennifer Benningfield’s stories have appeared in several publications, including Black Dandy, Sonder Review, Vagabonds, and Fiction On the Web. A lifelong Marylander who has been in the (mostly) benevolent thrall of words since receiving “Green Eggs and Ham” as a birthday present, her writings can be found online at www.trapperjennmd.blogspot.com.

Twitter: @JennBisz
Facebook: facebook.com/jennthebenn
Instagram: jennthebenn

The Jeweler

by Isabelle Stillman

When I was in high school, my mother started to tell us about the jeweler. He was a small man with a little grey cap and he had a store in the strip mall next to Ocean Life Hot Massage.

“But it wasn’t a strip mall kind of place,” our mother would say in the kitchen at breakfast. “It was a very luxurious, very beautiful place.” She’d pause, looking without seeing at Sally on the couch and me at the table. “Very luxurious place.” Leaning forward, as if the jeweler’s image appeared before her like a deity: “His little grey cap –” she’d tap her head in demonstration, her face dreamy – “he had his little grey cap.”

My mother was a therapist. She’d spent years working in a pastel green office in downtown Syracuse with a white noise machine at the foot of her door that was meant to keep patients’ voices from drifting into the waiting room. Years before she left her practice, the machine broke so that every few minutes the soft mush of noise turned into a string of stunted clicks, like a wind-up toy hitting a wall, after which followed a moment of silence. From the waiting room you could hear, “I’m alone” click-click-click-click “sad” click-click-click-click – my mother then – “When do you feel less alone?” Click-click-click-click. The clicking like a clock counting down her decline.

My sister Sally and I spent many afternoons in that waiting room growing up. We attended school down the street, Sally in elementary then, and I, four years but only three grades above, in middle school. When school was out, we’d walk to our mother’s office and wait for her to take us home. I always liked those afternoons: the pastel green chairs, palm fronds painted soothingly across the white walls. Stacks of magazines with white-teethed, relaxed-looking people on the covers. Sally would sit next to me, wriggling in her chair, while I tried to hear my mother’s patients through the broken machine, to piece together their stories from the flecks of voice I could catch. “I’m alone” click-click-click-click. Was it a lost love? A dead father? A spiritual crisis? Sally fidgeted while I listened for clues.

It was in that office, I realize now, that it all began. As Sally swung her legs around the chair monkey-like or put a magazine spine-up on her head to play Witch Hat, I tuned her out, stilling her limbs with an older-brotherly hand, so I could collect the facts of life that rolled like precious marbles, one by one, from under our mother’s door.

It was in that office, too, I would see later, that it all ended.

“It was too much,” our father would say of the hours Sally and I spent in that waiting room, those pastel chairs, those painted palms, when we could have been at soccer practice or studying in the comfort of our rooms. “It was too much for you. It was too much for her. It was good for your mother to step back.”

Our father was a necktied, world-certain money man, who spoke as if from notecards, carefully pre-planned, and he was as assured as he’d ever been of anything that, when I began high school and Sally neared the end of elementary, our mother should stop working.

“Too much for you. Too much for her.”

I didn’t realize then that the broken noise machine must have factored into his thinking. That our father must have noticed that our mother’s mind was going, even then.

But it wasn’t just the machine. It was also the jeweler.

“His wife was my client,” our mother would say of the jeweler in the years after she left work, leaning against the counter at breakfast. “Saadia – isn’t that a beautiful name? Saadia.”

I’d nod from across the table. By the time I was a senior and Sally was a freshmen, we’d heard the story dozens of times: Bart the jeweler had inherited Bart’s Jewelers from his father, Bart, who had passed years ago. The current Bart owned the shop, but it was run day-to-day by his wife Saadia, who was not from our town – Syracuse. She was a small crouched woman with dark skin and a tiny bun on top of her head and the rest of her long dark hair falling like a veil down her back. A nervous woman, standing behind the jewelry counter stiff and wide-eyed as if expecting a robbery.

“A soft self inside that woman needed love,” our mother would explain, and then, so as not to be perceived as violating any confidentiality clauses, “A soft self inside every woman needs love.”

Saadia saw my mother every Tuesday at noon, and every Tuesday at one, Bart came to pick her up. Each time, he carried with him, as a form of payment, a piece of jewelry.

“Paid in jewels! All those hours! Would you believe that!” our mother would say, lurching forward from the counter in awe, her gaze soaring loosely over the couch, the table, us. “I mean – the most delicate silver chain, perfect gold studs, big, bright bangles – everything – ” She’d gesture flappily as she spoke, until she lost her train of thought.

Sally, fourteen by then, delighted in the story each time, jiggling a crossed leg on the old brown couch cushions as she listened, half-eaten Pop-Tart in her hand. She was smarter than her age, but when it came to my mother, it seemed she lost all sense. She behaved every time like she’d never heard the story, took in my mother’s performance as if she were front-row at a pop star concert. “Everything!” she’d echo, and her excitement seemed to increase that of my mother.

“He had the most wonderful things,” she’d continue, arms going wild again.

Our father, at the table next to me, focused on his newspaper as long as he could.

“The most wonderful things,” and around this time, I’d stand and reach for the coffee cup in her hand. While Sally urged her on and my father tried to ignore it, I stayed in tune with what our mother needed: I was good with clues, with knowing before it happened that, lost in the story as she was, the coffee cup would soon drop. “Anything you can imagine –” I’d carve the cup from her palm – “there’d he’d come, walking into my office to find his wife –” place it far back on the counter – “little man with his little grey cap –” sit back down – “with a shining gold necklace or a magnificent pair of –”

And invariably, then: “Valeria, please.” My father would speak quietly, jaw set, eyes calm.

She’d look at him, and her face would shut. “Oh, Bill,” she’d say, turning to grab the coffee cup and slam it into the sink. “You don’t know anything.”

Our father would look back at his newspaper. From the unwavering nature of his demeanor, I picked up that he actually did know something: that he knew Bart wasn’t innocent, and, perhaps, that our mother wasn’t either. Though I didn’t have enough clues to deduce it on my own, my father’s assuredness was clue enough, and so, through high school and after, I believed him – about our mother’s illness, her possible affair – and I copied his behavior: a restrained presence, a diverted attention.

When he told us she wasn’t going to work anymore, I didn’t ask questions.

Home seemed a better place for our mother anyway: afternoons in the backyard instead of the office, with Sally instead of patients. The two of them finger-painted or strung leaves from the large oak tree with fishing wire to weave into their hair, a boom box tossed in the grass nearby. They’d dance around the yard like the founding members of a two-person free-to-be commune, until my mother, hit by a force from within her own body, would suddenly stop. She’d sit on the grass, her face stiff, a fuse blown in her mind. Sally would sit beside her, petting her hair, humming.

Sometimes I’d overhear them through my upstairs window. As I filled in college applications or finished calculus homework, their laughter would come ruffling through the branches of the tree, and then, in the space of a moment, evaporate into a hole of silence: something in my mother’s mind was broken as the white noise machine. Occasionally, in her moments of blankness, my mother would speak: “Saadia,” I’d hear through the window. “Such a soft self inside.”

She showed it to us once – the jewelry. Sally came bounding into my room one evening at the end of my senior year, fishing wire spiraled about her legs and arms, like an unlit Christmas tree, yelling, “Charlie! Come see it! Come see!”

Our mother took us into her closet and opened a large cabinet. Inside was the door of a safe. I remember, as my mother’s fingers smoothly spun the lock to each exact number, wondering what exactly her sickness entailed. And then she opened it.

Inside, rings pooled in a cluster like some ocean-floor moss next to stacks of necklaces sliced away in thick velvet boxes. Bracelets tangled together like they weren’t worth hundreds of dollars. As I stared, a surprising anger rose inside me. Her fingers tinkled softly over the pieces as if they were piano keys she didn’t want to sound, and as I watched, I began to feel the shamelessness of this gesture, the shamelessness of her repetition of the story, of her very being. The jewelry laid plain seemed to confirm my father’s theories: the diamonds as blatant as a naked body, amulets as enigmatic as dementia.

I blurted: “But what about us?” What I meant, I think now, was What do I do with this information?

But my mother only laughed. “It’s all for you,” she said as if what I’d said were a joke we were all in on.

Sally had been peering into the safe, nose to a blue-gemmed cuff, but at this she stood back and looked at our mother. “It’s for us?” she said.

Our mother seemed delighted at our lack of understanding. She took Sally’s young face in her hands. “I’m saving it,” she said as if bestowing a blessing. “For you.” She looked over at me then. “For both of you.”

“Why?” I said.

And her bright face darkened again. “In case!” she said, her hands gripping hard on Sally’s face, her arms rattling in emphasis. “In case you lose everything!”


They say sons fall for women like their mothers. But years of my father’s example had taught me to keep a quiet distance from unpredictability, from hints of the unstable.

Emily was nothing like my mother. She was of generational Boston stock, born and bred in a loud-talking middle class family who prided themselves on their what-you-see-is-what-you-get way of being. Her father was a callused-hands man with a loud voice and a louder laugh, and the only person Emily respected more than him was her mother.

“She lets you know exactly who she is,” she said on our first date in a run-down bar near our small New Hampshire college. “And never lets you forget it.” I remember the pride in her eyes: it was that sense of selfhood, that unapologetic strength, that I wanted.

I met Emily’s parents, Jimmy and Josie, several times – Parents Weekend our sophomore year, just after we’d gotten together, again the next year, and again at graduation. Each time I saw them, I became more certain that Emily was the person I wanted to be with and that her family was the one I wanted to join: they were brash, boisterous, secret-less. With everything on the table, there were things I could join in on, be part of. It was a great relief after years of listening through the machine or through the window.

There is a picture of the four of us from graduation, Emily and I packed snuggly between Jimmy and Josie in our blue-black robes, Josie holding a cigarette at the hip of her Marshalls jeans, Jimmy’s hand firm on my shoulder. Their smiles big and unyielding. Emily’s long brown hair fluttering across my chest. And there is a picture in my memory of the other side of the camera: my father standing stiff, his tie neat. My mother at his elbow, her eyes not on us, but the sun in the trees above our heads, her face long. Sally holding the point-and-shoot between our two families, telling everyone to smile.

Sally remained that connector. When I left for college, still uncertain of what to do with the information the jewelry had exposed, I didn’t know how to talk to my father or my mother. My father was so practiced, so prepared – it made you nervous just to stand before him; it made you nervous to have any questions, any holes, when he was so answered, so cohered. And my mother – she had so many holes you didn’t know which one to address first: so many holes that I feared, I think now, they might have been contagious. So I kept away. I wondered silently. Of him – What are you doing? Of her – what did you do?

But Sally was untroubled by it all. Where I remembered the waiting room as the before time – before, when our mother was fine – Sally remembered it as a friendly after-school activity. Where I remembered the kitchen counter and the story of the jeweler as a conflict – my mother burning in her own sick world, my father scorched against her – Sally remembered it as amusing family lore. To her, she and our mother in the yard was how it had always been. The jewels, the broken machine, the leaf dancing, our mother’s lost moments: these were the facts of her childhood, rather than the shocking changes in it. And with this definition of home in her mind, she could never understand why I left.

“Is that really the right place for you, so far away?” she said to me over the phone three weeks before my college graduation. Emily and I were planning to move to Los Angeles: she wanted to make it in the movie industry, and I wanted to be wherever she was. We’d found an apartment online and leased it without seeing, planning to pack up whatever we could fit in Emily’s parents’ old Taurus and drive cross-country the day after graduation. “Is it really the right thing for you and Emily?” Sally’s voice broke with the staticky cell reception in our kitchen at home.

“Yes, Sally,” I said. “You know Emily and you know me. This is right.”

It was – I was sure. Emily was the right person, and I’d known as much since our first date – we both had. The day before she’d affirmed it again. I’d asked her over dinner if she was nervous. “Not at all,” she’d said, pulling back her dark hair before leaning into a plate of spaghetti. “It’s gonna be a great adventure!”

 “You don’t need to worry about me,” I told Sally. “I’m sure this is the right choice.”

She sounded defeated, grumbling. “Well I’m not worried about you,” she said.

“Mom is gonna be okay,” I said. Sally had just finished her freshman year at Syracuse University, which wasn’t more than ten minutes from our house. She’d stayed close to home so she could take care of mom, going home most weekends and driving her to doctor’s appointments when our father was at work. In 2nd grade, Sally got a perfect score on a state-wide examine that enabled her to skip 3rd grade: she’d always been a bit older than she was supposed to be. “She’s on all the right meds, right? You and Dad take good care of her,” I said. “And I know she would want me to pursue life with someone I really love and trust.”

“Charlie ­– ” Sally started. But I didn’t want to talk about it. I knew what she was going to say – that I hadn’t always been there – and it was true. It was fair for her to want me to stay closer to home. But I was twenty-two years old. I had career ambitions in investigative work, and relationship ambitions with Emily.

So I interrupted my sister – my smart-beyond-her-years sister. My sister who had been there all along. “Sally – trust me,” I said. “I know what I’m doing.”


By the next summer, Emily and I were settled in downtown LA. Our first year together had been perfect. We woke up early and went to our respective workplaces, saw friends on the weekends, and didn’t get sick of each other, even in our 300 square-foot apartment. We fit a double bed in the corner with enough space to open the door to the bathroom and the door to Emily’s closet. I kept my clothes in bins under the bed. We had a second-hand futon that served as a couch and a guest bed, and a little bistro table where we ate meals and chopped ingredients when the counter was crowded with drying dishes. The picture from graduation sat on the small window sill above the narrow kitchen counter, my makeshift family of four filling the hole my mother and her threatening coffee cup left empty.

We were tight on money, as most young couples in LA are. I’d found work interning at a small private investigation company, and Emily was job-to-job on any set that would take her, but we were still scrimping. It was the type of situation – jerry-rigged clotheslines, poster corners peeling off the walls – that we’d look back on in twenty years and think of as romantic: how little privacy, how much love. But I knew this kind of living couldn’t last long. Emily worked hard, but her industry was tough: it could take her years of entry level work to make real money. I knew she wouldn’t want to wait that long to have a bigger place, nicer things – a wedding, a child. My company had possibilities for promotion, but if I wanted to make enough for two, I’d need something else. I know I shouldn’t have, but in the back of my mind, like the shameful story itself, I kept the thought of the jewelry. In case.

Sally came to visit us at the beginning of June. Her school year was over and she had a week before she started a summer job at a company in downtown Syracuse – something with facts and figures in the non-profit world.

When she first saw our apartment she said, “Isn’t this spacious.” She looked at me sarcastically. “And more expensive than, I don’t know, Syracuse.”

“The things we do for love,” I teased.  

Emily smiled.

We took her to our favorite places that week – the taco stand down the street and the free outdoor movie night in Echo Park. She went to work with Emily several times, joining in the mob of people on the set of a cheap daytime TV show. They came home recounting all the stories Sally told to get behind the ropes – that she was shadowing with a film class and professor was right over there or that she was bringing lunch for that cameraman, no that one, see? Sometimes Josie played the role of a fake higher-up over the phone, hamming it up to a security guard confronting Sally. They’d recount the stories to each other over dinner, laughing harder each time – “Josie in that accent to Bilman in the PCR!” – their two-person language ringing around our apartment, the sound of a real family.

Sally couldn’t come to my workplace – it wasn’t like she could watch as I filed cases of insurance fraud or helped track down a new client’s suspected-of-cheating husband. Only once did my job come up and when it did, Sally shut it down quickly. “You certainly know a lot about these strangers,” she’d said, the implication of my filial abandonment clear.

But it was fine with me – honestly, I thought it was better that way. Sally and Emily needed a chance to get to know each other. They’d met before, but only on occasions with crowds – a college football game or Sally’s high school graduation. During Sally’s graduation party, Emily had spilled ketchup on her shirt and Sally had taken her to her room to borrow a clean one. I remember watching them walk down the hall to Sally’s room from the kitchen, hoping they’d take their time coming back, get to know each other a bit: I wanted Sally on our side of the photograph. And now, that was happening.

One night, we sat on the unfinished roof of our building drinking cheap wine from plastic cups we’d gotten free from college events. Emily told a story about Josie and a stranger who had parked his car in their driveway. Her family had just celebrated Emily’s tenth birthday with a Luau themed party, and Josie, frugal Bostonian that she was, had saved the fake grass skirts, the flower leis, the crepe paper pineapple streamers. When she saw the foreign car in their drive, she’d run fuming into her storage room, pulled out the decoration boxes, and, screaming obscenities for the neighborhood to hear, attacked the car with Hawaiian décor. She knotted the wipers with deflated flamingo bodies, threw handfuls of powdered fruit punch across the windshield, stuffed pink and yellow leis in the tailpipe. Covered the roof of the car with the skirts of sheer plastic green grass.

When the driver came back, she was standing beside her masterpiece, smoking.

Emily doubled over recounting it, her dark brown hair hiding her face. “So she looks at the guy and she says, ‘We didn’t expect you at the party, but we got you some favors anyway.’ And he can’t speak he’s so stunned! He just gets in and drives his little party car down the street.”

Sally laughed, her crisscrossed legs bouncing with joy, like a child playing butterfly at circle time. “Josie is amazing,” she said, and then added, looking knowingly at Emily: “Moms – their own little worlds.”

“Tell me about it,” Emily said, taking a sip from a Spring Fling 2006 cup. “That’ll be us one day.”

“We’re well on our way,” Sally said and clinked her cup in response.

Sally and I talked about Mom only once during that week she was visiting. It wasn’t that the topic was off-limits, but I was nervous that if I brought it up, we’d only revisit the same unproductive tension about my leaving home. One day, Emily had a pre-dawn call, so Sally and I had breakfast, the two of us, she on the futon, legs fidgeting, me at the sink, pouring mugs of coffee.

“Does Emily know about mom?” Sally asked. Sally wore a faded Syracuse Orangemen t-shirt and had her legs tucked under a fleece Red Sox blanket Josie had given us when we left – her form of a blessing. I found this perfectly right – an element from each of my lives merged into one story.

“Yeah,” I said. “Of course.”

“Like – everything?” she said.

I took a sip from a mug and looked at her. “Everything,” I said. I shrugged to show her there was nothing loaded in this – what was mine was Emily’s. We didn’t have secrets.

Sally face was focused, pondering. I could see the 2nd grader, her neat scratch paper, her accurate bubble-filling.

She adjusted herself on the futon, took a careful breath and said, “Do you ever wonder if you know everything about Emily?”

She had stilled under the blanket. If there’s one thing you learn in investigative work, it’s to study body language: Sally’s stillness was a clue. Sally was never still.

I waited for a moment, then I said, “No. Why would you say that?” My voice was calm but purposeful. I thought of my father at the kitchen table, his newspaper, his proverbial notecards.

Sally’s stillness broke. She wove her fingers through her hair as she looked over our apartment: the alarm clock on the floor, the laundry bag hung over the closed door of Emily’s closet. She reached for her phone and spun it in circles against the surface of the futon. Her voice came out nervously.

“Well you know what mom would say,” she said. “Every woman has a soft self inside.” She smiled nostalgically, as if we were sharing a happy memory together. The mug felt suddenly familiar in my hands. “Emily. . . ” Sally trailed off like our mother, eyes floating around the apartment, and, as I set the mug down on the counter so I wouldn’t drop it in shock, I realized the scene of our adolescence was replaying. The soft self, the kitchen counter. Except one character had changed.

“Emily isn’t Saadia,” I said, and at the same time, Sally finished her thought: “She’s no different,” she said.

We looked at each other for a moment. Then Sally cleared her throat. One of her legs began to jiggle.

I reached for the mug again, my hand still shaking. “Emily,” I repeated. “Isn’t Saadia.” I was still trying to grasp what my sister was saying. Did she know something about Emily that I didn’t? Sure, they’d spent time together this week, but Emily had been mine for years. Emily wasn’t Saadia, wasn’t some fearful woman with a secret inner self: that’s what I’d always loved about her. Besides, we shared 300 square-feet of space – there wasn’t any room for secrets. She and Sally might have begun to make their “own little world,” but it couldn’t be anything like the world Emily and I had.

And then the clues hit me: Sally was looking at her phone, away from me. She was nervous: she was bluffing. There was nothing I didn’t know about Emily, but I did know that Sally resented my apartment, my job, my leaving her and our mother at home. She didn’t know any secrets, but she wanted me to believe they existed. To doubt Emily. To drive a wedge and get me back home.

I took a calm breath in and out. “Sally,” I said, and when I spoke it was my father’s voice. “I know you’ve always been against my moving here. I know you want me to be home with you and mom and dad. But it’s not fair for you to make things up to get what you want.” I looked at her square, feeling his necktie encircle me, challenging Sally to question, to find a hole.

When she looked up at me, she was smiling. Her old entertained self. Her battle attempted and lost, she could be my little sister again. She laughed. “Okay, Charlie,” she said. Her leg shook.


I’d learned in the waiting room of my mother’s office how to listen. How to get the deeper story from the surface-level clues, how to see behavior as information rather that grounds for judgment. I used these skills in my work every day, and, now I used them on my sister.

I had no grudge against Sally. I understood that she was lonely at home, that she was tired from years of managing our mother’s sickness. In all that time, she hadn’t had a significant other, a partner, even many friends. She wasn’t malicious – she just wanted her older brother to come home.

Even so, I felt strange after she left. Emily talked on and on about how much fun they’d had, and I couldn’t bring myself to tell her what Sally had done behind her back, how my sister had besmirched her new friend, wielded her like a shiny new weapon in a years-long family fight.

“I’m glad you two became so close,” I said after Emily played a new song over our little speaker, telling me that Sally had shown her the artist.  

I was working on a case at the time – a new one that had our whole office, a small firm with little reputation, involved. Some Hollywood CEO claimed he’d been conned by a mail-order bride company, that he’d sent money overseas and the woman who arrived wasn’t what he’d ordered – she neither resembled the pictures nor behaved as he expected. He’d hired investigators to try to prove that she’d scammed him, and chosen our firm specifically because the whole thing – ordering a wife, getting what he called a “dud” in return – wasn’t a good look for him, and he didn’t want anyone to catch wind that one of the big firms was working for him.

I found the whole thing fascinating – the twisted concept of marriage that some people have, the idea that you can buy a relationship – and I was surprised and honored when my boss asked me to take shifts tailing the CEO. Our best people were on the wife, but we were suspicious of this guy – the fact that he’d come to our company was red flag enough. And I have to say, I had that feeling too: the feeling that he was the culprit. That he realized he’d made a mistake in his marriage and wanted us to fall for his story and get him his money back.

I thought the case would be a good entry – a way to reset between Sally and me what hadn’t been the sweetest parting.

I called her from my car as I sat outside the CEO’s office. It was noon and the street was mostly quiet. There were palm trees and sunshine and it smelled alternately of flowers and germy air. Women walked past in shiny high heels with matching purses and I thought of Emily’s closet at home: muted colors, worn jeans. I was overwhelmed with gratitude daily for everything she was.

“Hi, Charlie,” Sally said when she picked up. She sounded normal. “How are you?” Something clattered in the background and I heard our mother’s voice. “Hang on.”

It was a Tuesday, in the middle of the afternoon, and Sally was home.

“You’re not working?” I asked when she came back on the phone. I hadn’t thought before I spoke and my voice came out sharply, accusing – what was she doing there?

“Yeah, I just took today off,” she said. She seemed not to have heard any kind of tone in my voice and instead lowered hers. “Dad said she wasn’t doing well and wants her on some new medication,” she said, and I could hear her eye roll. “So I guess I’m taking her to another appointment.” She said appointment like I knew what she meant.

“Okay. Well. Keep me posted,” I said. I didn’t understand what Sally thought her role was. Our mother needed a doctor, not a soon-to-be-unemployed daughter. Maybe I’d missed the last years, but I was there when it all started: I knew enough. “And listen to Dad.”

“Okay, Charlie,” she said flatly. She turned to say something to mom in the background again. If there hadn’t been tension when she picked up, there was now. I took a breath as she dealt with whatever our mother was doing. Muffled voices, the swishing of a blanket or towel. Sally’s laughter, sweet and clear. I didn’t want to be mad at my sister. I resolved not to push it any further: I’d go back to my original plan.

When she came back on the phone, I told her the work story. The CEO, the mysterious wife. No names, no specific facts, just the broad strokes. That I had a hunch it was him.

“Wow,” Sally said, her voice easy again. “Sounds familiar.” She laughed.

For a moment, I thought she was making another dig at Emily and me. “It does?” I said, ready to stay measured this time.

But my sister surprised me. “Reminds you of Bart, doesn’t it,” she said.

The image of the jeweler came back to me: the little grey cap, the waiting room of the office. Something shining from his hand. It occurred to me that, though I’d never seen him in that waiting room, I could picture him there clear as memory. “I never thought of it like that.”

“Like what?” Sally laughed as if I’d meant to be funny.

“I guess I – ” I started to say.

“Charlie,” she said teasingly scolding, then paused, waiting for me to take it back, to say that I’d known whatever it was. “Saadia was a mail-order bride,” she said gently, as if breaking bad news to a child. “Bart wasn’t ‘happy’ with her. That’s why she was so sad. That’s why she went to mom.”

Someone came out of the office building then. I sat up in the driver’s seat to see and realized as I shifted in my shirt that I’d been sweating.

“Of course,” Sally said, her logical self again, “he barely knew her at all.”

People were pouring out of the office now. It must have been lunch time, or else I hadn’t noticed them before.

It seemed now that I may not have noticed anything at all.

“I’ve gotta go, Sal,” I said. “My guy is coming.”

“Good luck!” she said. “And tell Emily I say hi and hope she’s doing well with everything, okay?”

“Sure,” I said. I was now in a full sweat. The sidewalk seemed suddenly to overflow with blurry faces. The CEO must have come out, and I must have missed him, even though I’d been watching the whole time. Where could he have gone?

And what was ‘everything’?

“Love you,” Sally said.  

“You too,” I said.

I drove around the block, trying to spot him among the faces I’d missed. Nowhere. He could have left the office hours ago, I realized, and I wouldn’t have known. I pulled over again and took out my phone to call Sally. Maybe she knew where he was, if she knew so much. If she knew everything.

But I couldn’t call. I couldn’t admit to her that she might be right – that she might know something I didn’t.

Instead, after a few minutes, I pulled away from the curb. Emily was working on a shoot at a studio nearby, and I thought maybe I’d bring her lunch and surprise her. But as I drove in her direction, I realized I wasn’t stopping for lunch. I wasn’t looking around for cafes or taco trucks. I was just going to her office, pulling in the parking lot, and circling to find her car. Wondering what she was doing inside. Wondering if she was there at all.


“She’s wearing it,” Sally said over the phone a week later. “She’s taken it all out of her closet and is wearing it all at once.”

She was laughing, that tone of amusement that her voice, I was beginning to notice, often had. Had she always been so entertained by the world? So unconcerned?

“What?” I said. I was in my car again, outside a restaurant this time. It was a fancy Italian place with a patio shaded by an ivy-covered trellis. The patrons had shiny hair and sat in groups of two and three, and above them little white lights dripped from sprawls of ivy like tiny stars. It was lunchtime. Garlic and tomato wafted through my cracked window.

“The jewelry,” Sally said emphatically.

“What?” I said again.

“She’s having so much fun, you should see her. She’s taken it all out of the safe and is dancing around in it.” There was music in the background, something with a xylophone and a low smooth voice. “Yeah, mom!” Sally said. I could picture them in the backyard, boom box on its back in the grass, oak leaves on wire woven in their hair, and jewelry, hundreds of dollars of jewelry, flung onto paint palettes, lost in a leaf pile.

“Sally, are you serious? That stuff is – valuable.” I had stopped myself from saying what I meant – ours. That stuff is ours. In the past months, the jewelry had been on my mind more and more. Emily was working so hard and making so little. In the mornings, she left for work without saying anything, too tired to talk. At night, she stress-cleaned, organizing and re-organizing kitchen cabinets, bathroom shelves, her closet, shifting our tiny table six inches to the right, six inches back to the left. She called Josie frequently, saying hello in a sweetly quiet voice, stepping outside to talk. I could tell she was tired of our tiny space, tired of entry-level work, and I needed to relieve her stress, to make her happy. I needed to provide. “Where’s Dad?” I said.

“She’s so happy!” Sally laughed again, but I didn’t understand what was so funny. Was this her way of trying to get me home again? Was this carelessness with valuable things another manipulation? She cheered for our mom again. “So, how’s the case?”

“Is the medicine not working?” I said. I couldn’t get the image out of my mind – my mother, tangled in leaves, dancing with her eyes closed, dropping a pendant necklace, my future with Emily, stepping on it. Our in case crushed.

In the background our mother said, “Who is that?”

“It’s Charlie, Mom,” Sally said. “I told him you’re dancing.”

“What does Charlie know about dancing!” Her voice had drifted away, back across the yard. I wondered which pieces she was wearing. Maybe it wasn’t all of them. Maybe only the cheap ones.

“Sally,” I said, “the medicine. It’s not working?”  

“What?” Sally said. She’d called to our mother again, drowning out my words. Then she said, “I wish you guys could see her. She was playing Witch Hat earlier. Emily would love this.”

The music got louder then and Sally seemed to forget about me. I thought again about the circumstances of her calling – the type of situation she’d wanted me to see, the reality of our mother’s illness laid out, again attempting to pull me home. But then, the joy in her voice. She sounded like Mom describing the jewels at the kitchen counter: overtaken by her own dreaminess.

“I’m sure she would,” I said. Sally didn’t need to know that I had no handle on what Emily would love anymore. “I’m sure she would.”

I looked out my car window. A waiter in a crisp white button-down walked across the restaurant’s patio, four bowls of pasta cradled in his arms. He presented them to a table of bright-blonde girls.

Sally laughed again, and I scanned the patio. Blonde, old, male.

Emily must have been seated inside.


I shouldn’t have kept following her but I did. To studios where she worked and to lunch and dinner breaks. She went to restaurants for most meals, I learned, and I wondered what she ate and how she paid. If she stuck to small appetizers to save money, if she was hungry after the meal. I snuck protein bars into her purse in the mornings and found them there still wrapped the next day. In early July, I followed her to the beach on a Friday afternoon. She was meant to work all night, which wasn’t unusual. The project, she’d said, was big and exciting – it might be her ‘break,’ she said, and I wondered, because I had started to wonder at everything about her, if people in the real movie business actually said that – if they actually referred to their ‘break.’ Or if, perhaps, her work, her industry, were all a lie. When she talked to Sally, did she call it that? When she talked to Sally, did she talk about her job at all? About me? About mom?

That Friday, she sat at the beach in her car, alone. She never got out and she only rolled the windows down a crack. The waves crashed rhythmically, a white noise machine, unbroken, unclicking. If she was waiting for someone, I didn’t know. If she came because she liked to see the ocean, to watch the waves through her windshield, I didn’t know.

Once I’d seen the jeweler at the grocery store in our town. He was guiding a six-pack down the conveyor belt, unsmiling. The grey cap was pushed up his head and a red line from its elastic bisected his forehead. I could picture my mother’s hand miming on her own head – “his little grey cap.” I was leaving the store when I saw him, and when I got out to the parking lot, I saw Saadia, sitting alone in a turned-off car, waiting.

At home, Emily was stressed. In between organizing and re-organizing, she consumed herself in emails and job postings, cross-legged and bent-backed on our bed. She’d sigh heavily as she lifted her clothes off the rack yet again, then laugh at herself, shrugging off her anxious behavior as she began to rearrange her clothes by color instead of occasion. She called Josie often, checking in, clearly homesick. I tried to suggest plans outside of the house – tacos or movies or a cheap bottle of wine – tried to remind her that everything we were doing, even the hard parts, were part of the “great adventure” she had envisioned. She’d smile and nod and go back to her clothes, worrying over them as if tasked with packing for a month-long vacation. I didn’t ask her if going to the beach would help her unwind, didn’t say we could even stay in our cars and just watch. I ran out of things to say at all. I longed for my father’s notecards, for his advice. But I didn’t know how to ask him for help, didn’t want to show him the holes that had formed in my plans.

On the phone one night, Sally said our mother had started writing postcards. I didn’t ask about the jewelry: I didn’t want to sound worried. I was at the tiny table, the phone on speaker while I chopped an onion.

Emily sat on our bed, bent over her screen. “Oh, write me one!” she said into the phone.

“Of course,” Sally said. “You’re on the list. We’re collaging them so we’ll put some movie stars on yours.”

“You know me well,” Emily said. “Josie too?”

“Yes, of course,” Sally said, her voice softer. “Baseball for her.”

Emily sighed. “Thanks,” she said.

I looked up to meet Emily’s eyes. I wanted to say since when are you all on postcard terms? I wanted to say how can I make you stop sighing? But she didn’t look back. Instead I asked Sally, “Who else is she writing?”

“Oh, you know, all the gals. Here, she can tell you.”

And then the phone was on speaker and my mother’s voice came through. It was wiry and high, taut with joy, and I realized how long it had been since I’d heard it. Months. Many of them.

“Hi, Ma,” I said. “How are you? You’re making postcards?”

“Charlie!” she said, loudly, in a way that I could tell she was in motion, reaching for glue or a magazine and scissors. “We’re making postcards.”

My knife stilled. My mother on the phone – she sounded happy and young, like a child. “Who are you writing, Ma?” I asked.

“Sally and Emily and Josie,” she said. And then, she paused, and I could see her in my memory slumping down to the backyard grass. Her voice came small but lovingly. “Saadia.”

The conversation paused.

Then Sally said, “All the gals,” and clicked the phone off speaker and before I knew it the call was over.

I hadn’t gotten to ask. To say, Saadia? I hadn’t gotten a moment to realize before Sally hung up that, in her illness, my mother’s fixation on the jeweler and the jeweler’s wife must not only have persisted, but evidently deepened. It was one thing to repeat the story of a woman whose husband you’d slept with, but to write her a letter? To make her a collage? I wanted to say, Sally: the meds, the treatment – where? The onion stung. I told Emily I was going outside to clear my eyes.

I stepped onto the landing outside our door. The air was gummy, the stars distant. Inside, I heard Emily shift on the bed, heard her computer slam closed and her closet door open. I thought about the postcards. I thought about Emily and wondered what kind of adventure she thought we were on. I thought about the case – the man I’d been tailing, the one we’d thought had made up the story of his wife. We’d found instead that his actions were exactly as he’d described. He proceeded through his days normally – home to office to meeting to home – while his wife flitted across the city to places he’d never imagined, places far worse than the ones in the story in his head. While he carried on, oblivious, ignorant, she rewrote every script we had given her, changed every line, scene, and role, until the movie was her own.


Josie died in late September.

She’d been sick for years, since I’d known her, but I guess I never knew the gravity. When Emily told me Jimmy had called to tell her it was time to come say goodbye, I’d said, “Really?”

She’d looked back at me, curious but unsurprised.

I knew I’d messed up. I knew I’d missed the clues that Josie’s lung cancer wasn’t getting any better. I’d overlooked all of Emily’s calls home, all her sighing. I hadn’t asked. In my obsession with figuring out how to Emily happy, I had missed the evidence that told me the reality.

But I thought I could fix it. I thought I could promise her more, do better. I thought she’d want that too.

We went back East the day after Jimmy’s call. I told my boss I needed a week off, and Emily quit the job she was working on. On the plane, she was stiff, a thin sliver of limbs staring blankly out the window. There was a chill in the air in Boston and the leaves had begun to turn. Emily’s dark hair against the orange foliage made such a pretty picture I began to feel guilty I’d ever let her leave the East Coast.

Jimmy and Josie’s house was decorated. Inflated baseballs bats lay on the windowsill next to Josie’s bed and a string of pennants hung between the four-posters. Red Sox balloons grazed the ceiling.

“She wanted to make it through another World Series,” Jimmy said. “So I put out her old decorations.”

In her own home, in the role of caretaker, Emily became someone I didn’t know. She moved silently and swiftly from bedside to kitchen to grocery list to file folders. She completed tasks efficiently and without stopping, and I thought of the row of hangers in the closet, of her gazing through her windshield at the ocean, silent, alone. Seeing her here, in a home, with a family, with her father’s credit card, versus in our tiny studio with her unreliable paycheck, affirmed the decision I’d been weighing for the past months: Emily needed a real life, a real home, a real family.

I was going to propose. And then, I was going to provide.  

I had planned to leave one night after Emily was sleeping, drive up to Syracuse, retrieve a ring and the rest of what we’d need to move to a bigger place from the jewelry safe, and be back before she woke up. But when I saw her so focused, so intent, I thought she didn’t need me now, she needed me after this. I didn’t ask her, then or ever, what she needed.

I just left.

I took the rental car up to Syracuse that night, letting Emily know via text that I’d be just a four-hour drive away if anything happened.

I hadn’t been home in eighteen months, since before graduation, when I’d come to say goodbye before we drove out to LA. Sally had come home for dinner that night so we could be together before I left, and I remember her eyes were circled darkly, her face pale, and our father had said proudly, “Your sister is working hard. It’s good for her.”

This time, I arrived while they were sleeping. A light glowed on the porch, but the house was dark. It smelled from the outside like a freshly baked bread loaf, wheaty and sweet, and there was a new car in the driveway – something my father must have bought recently.

The door was open, and I remember wondering, as I pushed it open, how my father could have forgotten to lock it, but I stopped wondering as soon as I stepped inside.

The house looked like an abandoned art class. The kitchen table blossomed with colored construction paper and magazines. A pair of scissors lay open on the floor beneath a chair, and glue sticks lolled in the center of the table like plastic kindling for a fake fire. Dishes sat in the sink, piled high above the counter, and the coffee pot was still full. But the mess was only part.

The old brown couch, where Sally used to sit, wriggling while our mother told about the jeweler, had been covered in a soft pastel green, the color of the chairs in the waiting room. The walls, lit by the moon, were painted with large, soothing palm fronds.

In the middle of the table sat a card covered with glossy-papered baseballs and jerseys. “We love you, Josie,” the back side said. “We are here in case. Love, Sally and Valeria.” The last line like a known, familial sign-off.

I don’t know how long I sat taking it in but at some point I walked down the hall to Sally’s room. I tapped lightly on the door and then opened it, and a figure sat up in bed. The lump of another body lay on the other side.

Sally stood and walked softly to the door. She was rubbing her eyes and pushing her hair out of her face.

“Charlie,” she said. “What are you doing here?”

“Whose car is that?” I said.

“What?” She blinked and wrapped her arms around her body. “What are you talking about?”

“Whose car is that in the driveway?”

“Mine,” she said.

“Where’s Dad?”

Sally’s legs were jogging in place as if she were going to run away. Her face bent in discomfort. She looked up at me. “Charlie,” she said.


Over the next few days, I learned what had been going on in our house – the last eighteen months and the last twenty-three years. Sally had moved home a year ago, was taking classes online, had dropped out of Syracuse. School hadn’t been good for her, she said, and when Dad started to see the same things in her that he saw in Mom, he let her transfer. Dad was building a new branch of his company in Long Island, spending at first two nights a week there, now, more and more – a distance Sally said felt both right and unsurprising. She and Mom were happy: the only two members of their same old commune.

“And her medicine?” I said. We were sitting on the back porch the morning after my arrival. Sally had made coffee and was toasting Pop-Tarts. Our mother had hugged me that morning when she woke up and was now digging in the backyard at some rows of herbs.

Sally sighed. “Charlie,” she said. “Look around you.” I did: the leaves beginning to fall and pile under the old oak tree. The hem of our mother’s dress dusted with dirt and the refuse of a fall garden. Xylophonic music in the background since we’d woken up, like jovial white noise. “Mom was never on medication. I never took to her those doctors. She’s not crazy.” Sally watched as our mother knelt over a tomato plant. “She just needed. . . ” She gestured to the coffee cup she’d poured for our mother that sat on the table between us. “To hold her own coffee cup,” she said. “To have her soft self loved.” She looked up at me. “As we all do.”

I was beginning to understand who we were. The postcards, the texts. It was all of them. My mother dug the dirt at the base of the plant with care, precision. What had seemed like a lost mind now stood perfectly stable in front of me: all the inner lives I have never known – my mother’s, Sally’s, Saadia’s. Emily and Josie’s. All of the leaves and collages.

“I thought she was –” I started. The word demented seemed now too cruel to say allowed.

“I know,” Sally said.

If Sally was patient with my misjudgement of our mother’s wellness, she was hysterical at my judgement of her relationship with Bart.

“Bart?” she said, choking on the hilarity of the idea. It was the third night of my stay and I’d finally gotten the courage to ask. We were sitting at the kitchen table. The papers had been shoved to one side, and Sally nearly knocked them off gesticulating in shock at my question. “Are you serious? With ‘his little grey cap?’” Her hand perfectly imitated mom’s, and she lost herself in a fit of laugher. “What in the world would make you think she would be attracted to him? You and Dad – my God. A woman talks about a man and you guys,” she trailed off, covering her face in amused disappointment. Then she looked up in realization. “Mom loved Saadia! She would never do that to her!”

From the way she said it now, I could see the hilarity in it too. All those years thinking that story – our mother against the kitchen counter, her eyes flitting through the air, her arms winging with description – was more than it was. I could have been ashamed, indignant. But what I felt was a kind of relief. I’d been fighting some silent, uncertain battle for years – Dad and I versus Sally and Mom – and I didn’t need to fight it anymore. Dad had given it up, gone away. Sally and Mom didn’t need to be contested or controlled anymore.

And then Sally said: “We sent Saadia a package the other day.” She was scrolling through her phone. “Look,” she said, holding up a picture.

It was my mother, standing on a curb. My mother, whom I’d come to learn in the past days was a happy woman who hummed often and listened closely and spoke kindly and clearly. Her voice the same as it had been through the cracks in the noise machine. There she stood on a curb, a hand on her hip, a small smile on her face. I thought of her behind the camera at my graduation, her eyes adrift. Here, she looked straight at the camera. At her feet was a small cardboard box. Above her, the logo of a storefront that came back to me slowly. Ocean Life Hot Massage.

“The jewelry store isn’t there anymore, but we left a box in case Saadia ever goes back,” Sally said.

I felt my relief turn to sudden rage. “A box of jewelry?” I said.

“Yeah,” Sally said, happy, satisfied, as if telling me about a successful prank. “We’ve been giving it away.”

“You’re kidding,” I said. I was leaning toward her in anger, the table pressed into my chest. “That was mine. I needed that. We needed that.”

Sally looked up from the picture, unphased. “Charlie,” she said. “You don’t need anything. We sent it to people who actually might.”

I wanted to ask who. But I realized that I didn’t need to.

So I only said, “How much is left?”

And then, our mother came around the corner from the hallway. She was carrying a vase full of leaves. Her hair was long and loose like a veil down her back.

“The jewelry is gone,” she said.

“No,” I said. “No, it can’t be gone, it’s not gone, please – ”

But my mother interrupted. “Oh, Charlie,” she said. “You don’t know anything.”


I can still feel the curve of my mother’s coffee cup in my hand. Smooth and certain, the key to a story I’d built, written on my notecard, repeated and repeated. My mother heard what was behind the machine; I had gathered only the clues that presented themselves to me through the gaps in the noise. I had spent my life watching through the window of a parked car; she’d spent hers asking questions and listening to the answers.  

When I returned to Los Angeles, I did so alone. I did so with new knowledge and the relief and heartache brought. Sally and my mother were right: I didn’t know them and I didn’t know Emily. If my ignorance about Josie’s sickness hadn’t been enough, my leaving Boston in the middle of the night without a word certainly was. Emily was done with me and should have been. When I returned to LA, I did so alone, and I did so to leave. I’d go back home, at long last. I’d understand what had really happened, who my mother and my sister really were. I’d ask.

Josie had died on my fourth day in Syracuse. I’d spoken to Emily and given her my condolences and my love – which was real, the love. Real, if just an outline. She was staying in Boston indefinitely, helping her father with arrangements, with Josie’s frugal Bostonian belongings.

And I suspect that somewhere among those belongings, somewhere in the back of one of Josie’s closets, behind the baseball and luau decorations, was a small cardboard box. I suspect that inside was a small selection of jewelry. A bracelet, a pair or two of earrings. I suspected there was a note that came with it, folded inside one of the velvet boxes, written on a piece of red construction paper or a pretty magazine cover. I suspected as much, and when I returned to LA, my suspicion was confirmed.

In our 300-square-foot studio apartment, I packed my things. My clothes from the bins, the picture of Sally and me from the windowsill. I left the picture from our graduation behind: it wasn’t mine anymore. And before I left, I took a look in the back of Emily’s closet. On a shelf behind all the hangers sat a small carboard box. It was collaged, glistening with cartoon film reels and cutout actors. Inside sat a shining diamond necklace, a thin gold bracelet, a large black and green amulet. And folded underneath the jewels was a small handwritten note: “To Emily. In case you lose everything.”


Isabelle Stillman is a Los Angeles-based writer, teacher, and musician. Her fiction has appeared in The Voices Project and The Dillydoun Review. She is the Prose Editor for december magazine and a high school English teacher. You can listen to her music on any streaming service and follow along with her work on Instagram at @isabellestillman.


By Jane Frances Gilles

Monica stepped onto the boulevard, the border between the neighborhood and the park. Cool grass brushed her feet between her sandal straps. It had been mowed today, she could tell, and she worried that her sandals might get stained. Concentrating, she placed each foot straight up and straight down. For the first time ever, Mother had allowed Monica to go alone to the park. All the way there, she had imagined playing on the playground without Mother watching, cautioning.

Entering the park, Monica looked up. There were so many kids on the playground. The Smith girls were here, one Sis’s age, one her own age, and one in between. They lived five blocks away in a fancy white house with green shutters. On the monkey bars their bodies wriggled and swung as they reached for one bar, then the next. Each wore a pair of culottes, which Monica had been unsuccessful in convincing Mother to buy for her. As usual, Monica wore hand-me-downs from Sis. Watching the Smith girls, Monica put her hands in the pockets of her faded pink shorts. In the left pocket she felt a piece of penny candy she had bought with her allowance. She told herself she would eat it on the way home.

So fast as to create a blur, the roundabout spun, four children riding it, the biggest of them kicking the ground to keep it moving. After a moment Monica realized it was Ned Wood who was spinning the roundabout, his jet-black hair appearing almost blue from a distance. During the school year, Ned walked to school alone. He ate lunch alone, his dark eyes watchful. Whenever Mrs. Dahl allowed it, he studied alone while the rest of the class worked in groups. If Sis were here, she’d have a theory about why Ned Wood was spinning the roundabout for a bunch of little kids.

Monica looked to the slide, her favorite. There were two slides, actually, a small one that went straight down, and a big curving one made of hills and valleys. A set of stairs led to a platform supporting a tin roof painted yellow. From this platform, the small slide was reached. Next, a ladder led up and up to another platform, covered by another yellow roof, this one embellished with orange stripes. Here was the entrance to the big slide. Monica had graduated to the big slide last year, an achievement that brought her pride. Sometimes in bed at night, she thought of the long, twisting slide. She felt her bangs blowing off her face, felt her body lean inward and slightly back against the shiny metal, riding the curves, seeking freedom, forgetting all else.

Monica saw five children at the slide – three boys from her class and two girls from Mrs. Johnson’s class. They raced up the stairs, then the ladder, careened down the big slide, shouted to one another, and laughed in such a way that she felt excluded, even though she had just arrived, even though she knew they had not seen her at the edge of the playground, hoping to slide. Monica faced again the freshly mown grass, raised and lowered each foot with care, and followed the sidewalk home, where Mother would be waiting.


“How was your time at the park?” Mother’s polka-dot house dress flared as she turned from her work in the kitchen. “You certainly weren’t gone long.”


“Okay? Just okay? What does that mean?”

Monica took a halting breath before explaining, “There were too many kids there.” Her eyes dropped, her mind swirling like the pattern of the kitchen flooring before her.

“Too many kids? How can there possibly be too many kids at a park?” Mother turned to the kitchen counter. “You should see each of those children as an opportunity for friendship.”

“I’m sorry,” Monica said to Mother’s back.

Busy preparing apples for pie, Mother continued, “Your sister would find joy in a park full of children. Happiness! I only wish you’d have half her spunk.” Sliced apples made a gentle plopping sound as Mother dropped them into the water in the big yellow mixing bowl. “Did you take off your sandals? I don’t want dirt traipsed through the house.”


Monica backed out of the kitchen, waiting to see if Mother had more to say. When Mother began humming to herself – no recognizable tune, just pitches strung together in her lilting soprano voice – Monica felt safe exiting the room.

Sheltered within the walls of the bedroom, door ajar as Mother expected, Monica sat on her bed, one of two twin beds in the small room. She glanced over at Sis’s school notebooks stacked haphazardly next to her bed and thought about the day when she would be old enough to have a separate notebook for each subject. She lay back, sinking into the chenille bedspread – hers white with a design of yellow tulips at the center, Sis’s similar but featuring a bouquet of violets. Monica thought about the park. She had wanted the big slide to herself today, no one looking at her, no questions. Maybe another day, soon. As her eyes slipped closed, Monica reminded herself that she must straighten the bedspread as soon as she got up.


“Dear? Dear?”

Mother’s voice brought Monica from a dream: Sis on the slide ahead of Monica, gripping her ankles. Both laughing. Momentum carrying them fast around the curves. Sis yelling, “Hang onto me.”

“It’s time to set the table for dinner,” Mother said as she opened the bedroom door. “Wash your hands first. Don’t dilly dally.” She twirled on her heels, humming again, and was down the hallway in a flash.

Monica straightened the bedspread, making certain the flower pattern was centered in the middle of the bed. She paused to look at Sis’s bed, her flowers slightly askew as always. 

Monica blinked her eyes awake in the bright kitchen. The turquoise walls were brilliant in the light streaming in from the western sky. Careful to place each piece of silverware close to its neighbor without touching, Monica set the table as formally as she knew how. She folded the white paper napkins, hearing in her mind Mother’s frequent proclamation, “We may not have all the money in the world, but that’s no reason to set aside high standards.” As was the custom for the past three months, Monica set four places at the table, even though there would be only three for dinner.

“Dinner smells great! What are we having, honey?” Father strode through the back door, kicking off his shoes and hanging his hat in the hallway. “Is it pork? Smells like pork.” Like he did every day, Father greeted Monica with a ruffle of her hair and a pinch of her cheek.

“No, we’re having hamburger hotdish with an Italian twist – a new recipe from Charlene. She says it’s a winner!” Busy at the sink, Mother added, “Go wash your hands, Burton, and join us when you’re ready.”

Half seated at this point, Father stood again, winked at Monica, and headed to the bathroom. Mother put dinner on the table – the hotdish, a bowl of boiled peas from the garden, and four baked potatoes. There would be warm apple pie for dessert. During dinner, Monica and Father were quiet while Mother recounted her day.

After helping Mother with the dishes, Monica descended the basement stairs. Even though she would soon be a fourth grader and knew she should be brave by now, Monica was still afraid of the basement. She hated how dark it was, even when daylight shown through the narrow windows. Last week she had been startled by a spider crossing her path when she retrieved pickles from the pantry. This evening she walked toward the light spilling out of Father’s workshop onto the concrete floor. As she approached, she heard a hetch-hetch-hetching sound.

Monica stood in the doorway, not wanting to startle Father. She knew about the dangers to be found in a workshop. She looked over to Father’s reading chair in the corner. The seams on the seat cushion were split in a few places, and even from the doorway she could smell its musty odor. Sometimes Father let Monica sit in the chair while he worked. She would look at Father’s book – there was always one novel from the library setting on an upended cardboard box next to the chair. Monica liked paging through those novels and puzzling over big words she hadn’t yet learned in school.

The hetching sound stopped as Father took a moment to wipe his brow. Monica cleared her throat to announce her presence.

Father turned, a broad smile on his face. “Hello, sweetheart! He removed his safety glasses and walked toward her, placing a hand on her shoulder. “I’m using the plane to smooth some wood for that bench I told you about.”

“Can I watch?”

Father smiled. “May I,” he said with a wink.

“May I?”

“Sure thing. Put on these safety glasses and stand over here.” He led her to a spot on the floor at the far end of the long workbench. Wood shavings flew up and to the side, each of them catching the light from Father’s task lamp before dropping. The smell of the wood reminded Monica of new pencils at the start of a school year. Hoping to see better, she moved closer. She felt a tingle run through her, a feeling of excitement at watching Father work. Father turned his back to her, blocking the curled shavings from flying in her direction.

Finally, he turned to Monica. “Sweetheart, don’t you have some chores to do? Or maybe a good book to read?”

As she climbed the stairs, the smell of the wood and the sounds of the plane faded to nothing.


Coo-OO-oo-oo. Coo-OO-oo-oo-oo. Mourning doves outside her open window woke Monica the next morning. Then she heard sounds of the railyard two blocks away where Father was already at work: the chugging of idling trucks waiting to unload; a squeal of brakes, a deep rattle, and a defining clank as two railway cars coupled; and, barely perceptible, the shouts of workers above the din. Monica found the noises of the railyard comforting, a regular reminder of Father.

Mother was working at the stove when Monica dragged into the kitchen – teeth brushed, hair combed, face and hands washed to please Mother – yet not fully awake.

“Good morning, dear. There are scrambled eggs ready for you – I’ve kept them warm in the oven. Make yourself a piece of toast.”

Monica gazed out the kitchen window as she ate, watching the neighbor Tillie and her little dog Pixie. A dachshund mix, Pixie was always at Tillie’s side, following along while she trimmed bushes, tended her garden, or watered her many pots of flowers. Monica wanted a dog. She pined for a little pup who might follow her throughout her own day. Secretly, she planned to wish for a dog when she blew out the candles on her birthday cake in September.

“As soon as I have this apple sauce ready to cool, we’ll get to work. You will weed the vegetable garden today.”

First thing most mornings, Monica and Mother worked in the yard. Monica’s favorite job was watering the moss roses that rimmed the driveway. She loved tending to these many-colored blooms, each boasting a joyful yellow pom at the center. Weeding the garden was Monica’s second favorite task. She liked seeing her progress as she worked between each row, and she felt a sense of accomplishment when she finished.

Squatting to pull the weeds that had sprouted between the peas and carrots, Monica felt the prickling heat of the sun through her summer blouse.

“Remember, don’t grab at the top. Get the root! If you learn to pull weeds like your sister, you’ll be an expert gardener.”

Last summer, Sis taught Monica to weed: “Mother doesn’t like to get her fingers dirty,” Sis said that bright June day, “but it’s the only way to do it right. Take off your garden gloves, and grab the weed low, like this.” Sis’s forefinger and thumb followed the weed’s stem down and down, met the surface of the soil, then dipped slightly below, pinching the weed and pulling it straight up, root attached. “Tah-dah! That’s exactly what you want. All the whole root. Just look at the dirt under my nails – that is how you get the root. Now you try it.”  As the bright sun ducked behind a cloud, Monica moved to the next weed and squatted as low as possible, mimicking Sis. Up came the weed with the root intact. “You did it! Great job, Moo.” Proud of her small accomplishment, and happy to hear Sis use the pet name she had given her as a baby, Monica beamed.

Now Monica heard Tillie calling to Mother across the yard. “Good morning, neighbor!” Monica looked up from her weeding.

For the first time in weeks, Mother didn’t make an excuse; she joined Tillie on the driveway for a morning chat. Little Pixie sat at Tillie’s feet, seemingly transfixed by the conversation, his head snapping back and forth between the women as though he were watching a tennis match high above him. Focused on her weeding, Monica didn’t hear much of what was said. She hummed the melody of the piece she had been practicing for tomorrow’s piano lesson. Then she heard Tillie mention Sis. Monica turned her head to listen.

“Oh, we’re doing fine,” was Mother’s reply. “Just fine!”

“Well, hun, I worry,” Tillie said,” and I’m here to help in any which way I can. You and Burt have always done so much for me.”

Mother shook her head. “Oh, don’t be silly.”

“I’m not being silly at all. For crying out loud, I lost track of how many wonderful meals you made for me after my surgery last year.” Tillie reached for Mother’s hand. “Let me know what I can do for you, please. I’m an old lady, but, like a lame mare, I can still be of good use now and then.”

“You are most certainly not an old lady. Why, your beautiful flowers are the best on the block. And my goodness, just think of all you do at church.” Mother charged on: “Say, I’ve been meaning to ask about your needlepoint project. How’s that coming?” Mother had succeeded in changing the subject.

Monica went back to her weeding.


“Keep your fingers curved. Try to touch the keys gently,” said Mrs. Halek. Monica was playing her scales at the start of her piano lesson, her first since school was out. Decorated in shades of green, Mrs. Halek’s living room was a tranquil refuge for Monica. Of course, Mrs. Halek herself had a lot to do with that. Her warm, easy way with children made her a popular piano teacher, and Monica had the sense that Mrs. Halek actually liked her.

“Wonderful, Monica. You have been practicing your scales this summer, I can tell. You should feel good about that.” In a quiet aside, Mrs. Halek added, “Many children skip their scales. I am proud of you – scales are fundamental.”

Monica blushed.

“Now, before I hear the piece you have been practicing, I would like to know how you are doing. It has been so long since your last lesson.” Mrs. Halek turned to face Monica.

“Fine. I – I’m just fine.” Monica repeated the words she had heard Mother say so many times in the last few months.

“I want you to know it is alright to be sad.” Mrs. Halek bent to bring her face even with Monica’s. “And if you feel like crying, well, that is alright, too.”

For a tiny moment, Monica felt emotion well up. She squelched it with a slight shake of her head.

“If you ever need to talk, you can come to me.” Mrs. Halek paused, watching Monica.

Feeling Mrs. Halek’s eyes on her, Monica tried to focus on the piano keys, admiring how they sparkled in the yellow light from the lamp that sat behind the music rack, illuminating both the music and the keyboard.

Mrs. Halek waited. Monica remained silent. “Well, sweetie, you decide if or when you are ready to talk, alright?”

Monica issued a slight nod. Her thoughts went to the piece she had prepared. She had worked hard on it, practicing even more hours than Mother required, and she had the feeling it was nearly perfect.

“Shall we take out your piece?”

Monica opened her piano book to “Summer Clouds,” her first piece in the Key of D. At the start, the piece flowed beautifully. Monica remembered to sit up straight, keep her fingers curved, and hold her wrists up. She remained conscious of the key signature and the need to play F-sharp and C-sharp, not F and C. Mrs. Halek encouraged Monica with words like “Nice” and “Lovely.”

Suddenly, Monica thought of Sis. While Monica played, Sis sang along in her mind, “La, fa-la – doo, doot-doo.” Jaunty and playful, Sis’s notes didn’t match the beat of Mrs. Halek’s metronome. Monica thought about Sis’s favorite saying: “Rules are made to be broken.” Monica’s fingers stumbled at the keyboard. Her shoulders drooped. She was only halfway through the piece, and she was losing her way. Without intending to, Monica began to sing, following her sister’s lead.

“Keep going. You can do this.” Mrs. Halek’s words sounded muffled, a dim background behind Sis’s beautiful voice. Monica’s fingers sought unsuccessfully for the right keys.

Abruptly, Sis’s singing stopped. Monica stopped playing. There were four measures left in the piece. Monica’s hands fell to her lap, and she felt Mrs. Halek’s arm around her shoulder.

As Monica left Mrs. Halek’s green living room, heading for the waiting car and Mother behind the wheel, a single tear fell.

“Hop in dear. How was your piano lesson?” Mother put the car in reverse and looked through the rear window of the Ford Galaxie as she backed out of the driveway. Her question was met with silence. Mother tried again: “How did you do at your piano lesson? Was Mrs. Halek pleased?”

“I want to go to the park.” Monica’s voice was nearly a whisper.

Mother paused. She waited. Finally, she dove in again: “Did something happen?” Again, silence. “This is a busy day for me, Monica. I can’t interrupt everything to rush off to the park. Perhaps we can go another day.”

“You let me go alone before. You can drop me off.” Monica’s tone was firm, yet she was speaking so quietly, Mother could barely hear her.

They drove on, and Mother began humming – high notes, a happy melody. At a stop sign, Mother started, “I just don’t think it’s a good idea, dear. You didn’t –” Then she looked hard at Monica. Shoulders hunched, hair falling across her face, hands fidgeting, Monica was the picture of dejection. “I suppose the park might lift your spirits. But are you sure you want to go alone? You were so unhappy the last time, you went straight to bed when you got home.”

“I want to go to the park.”

Mother’s eyes widened at the decisiveness in Monica’s voice. Without saying anything more, Mother drove to the park.

Monica closed the car door harder than she should. She knew Mother did not like to hear any door slammed. She surveyed the playground. Although several young children occupied the small slide, no one was playing on the big slide. Paying no attention to the wet grass at the edge of the park, the spilled sand around the sandbox, the bare ground near the roundabout – all of which could dirty her sandals – Monica walked straight to the slide.

She climbed the ladder to the first platform. There, a little boy with black hair approached Monica. She recognized him as one of the children Ned Wood had spun on the roundabout.

“Are you sad?” He studied her face. “You look sad.”

Monica stared at the boy. His t-shirt, too small for him, was frayed at the neckline. His sneakers were stained and well worn. Monica kept staring.

The boy moved a step closer. “Ned said your sister died. Is that why you’re sad?” Monica took a sharp breath. She stepped back from the boy. His dark eyes followed her. “I was sad when our daddy died.”

Monica stumbled down the steps. She ran, arms and legs swinging wildly. For the second time that day, sounds became muffled around her, and she heard Sis singing, this time their own version of a song they had sung together years before: “Sis and Moo went up a hill to fetch a pail of water, Sis fell down and broke her crown and Moo came tumbling after. Lah, la-la-la, la-la-lah . . .”


Tillie’s car rounds the curve on the street adjacent to the park. Little Pixie is on her lap, tongue hanging out and tail wagging. The windows are cracked open, and a gentle breeze floats around Tillie and Pixie, keeping them cool. On the radio, Tillie’s favorite afternoon host, Joyce Lamont, is reading her “Best Buy Recipe of the Day,” Never Fail Popovers.

“Pixie, I’m going to make those popovers when we get home, Tillie says. “I’ll give you a little bite.” She giggles.

Pixie shows his appreciation with a quick lick of Tillie’s chin.

“Stay still, Pixie,” Tillie says. “No more licking when I’m driving. Those popovers will be – Oh no! Monica, no!”

Running faster than she ever has, away from the little boy and out of the park, Monica doesn’t hear Tillie’s car coming. Instead, she hears only Sis’s singing. Tillie swerves to avoid hitting Monica. There is a squeal of brakes and a crunch of metal. Monica stops, frozen in the street, not noticing Tillie’s car lodged against a light pole. Unhurt, Tillie and Pixie peer out over the steering wheel at Monica who stares straight ahead, eyes blank. Sis’s singing continues, “Lah, la-la-la, la-la-lah. Lah, la-la-la, lah-lah.”

Neighbors flock to the scene. One by one they take in the spectacle, then check on Tillie. Some of them reach into the car to pet little Pixie, who is now shaking with fear. They watch Monica, forming a circle around the scene. Approaching police sirens interrupt Sis’s voice, and Monica recalls the wail of the ambulance siren the night of Sis’s last trip to the hospital, the echo of footsteps running down hospital hallways, Sis’s moans, the beeping of a machine next to Sis’s bed, Father’s voice telling Monica everything will be alright.

Now Mother is on her knees, holding onto Monica, her face wet with tears. Even at Sis’s funeral, Mother didn’t cry, telling everyone over and over, “I’m just fine.” Monica remembers overhearing Aunt Kate’s reply to Mother: “No you’re not fine. You need to let go.” Here in the street, Mother is unraveling. But Monica feels nothing. She is lost in the heartache of having a sister who is gone and yet so present. Every minute of every day.

Monica pulls herself from Mother’s grasp, turning to enter the park once again. Mother’s sobs rise above the distant clanging of the railyard. With neighbors watching, themselves now frozen in the street, Monica walks into the park, her gaze focused on the yellow and orange roof at the top of the slide. Monica climbs up and up. She steps onto the surface of the big slide, shimmering in the sun. She sits, waits a moment, takes a deep breath, then gives herself a push. The wind whips her bangs, and Monica leans back, riding the hills and valleys, hugging the curves.


Jane Frances Gilles is a writer and former educator living in Minnesota. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English education and a Ph.D. in education policy. “Sliding” is Jane’s first published work of fiction.

The Adverb Factory

by Steve Levandoski

“Quickly!” said renowned author Ida Rosenbalm as she helped Dedris Bêcheur, her editor since 1963, lover since 1965, and legal wife since 2015, duck under the automatic garage door to the Adverb Factory.

Decked out in black sweatsuits and skull caps, the ladies pulled Ida’s walker underneath the door just before it closed. They were inside!

“Carefully!” said Dedris, as they navigated past boxes and boxes of –ly’s.

The tennis balls on the feet of the walker made a muted thump as the two shuffled their way to the security office. They prayed that it would be empty, having phoned the night guard away using a made-up family emergency.

“Completely!” said Ida as she double checked the last camera monitor.

They were alone. Dedris needed to take a break on a big black pleather chair for a couple minutes. Her final dose of chemo had done her in.

“Almost!” said Dedris after they made their way to the boiler room that converted liquid Abverberon™ into words that describe the actions of verbs. Idris rustled through her NPR tote bag and pulled out a small thermos that they had bought on their vacation to Dollywood. That’s where they had met the nice survivalist couple who loved to talk guns, bombs, and libertarianism. She smeared its contents onto the boiler.

“Generously!” said Dedris as she snatched the container of C4 explosives from her partner’s hands, just like she did manuscripts.

Ida didn’t put up a fight today. Instead she pulled out a necklace, placed it around her partner’s neck. Then she set the timer that was fashioned out of an old alarm clock for two minutes.

Dedris held up the necklace, put it around Ida’s neck, and read aloud the inscription on the pendant. “Always!”

 Tears streamed down both of their faces as they held hands and looked into each other’s eyes. Then, giggling, each produced an airline size bottle of champagne from their pockets, poured it into regulation sized flutes, drained them, and smashed the empty glasses against the wall. The clock ticked down. “5-4-3-2 . . .”

“Finally!” they both screamed.

The blast took down the whole factory with them inside. They completed their mission and the world was without adverbs, Dedris, Ida, or her necklace.


Steve Levandoski has written for The Antihumanist and The Oddville Press and runs Next In Line Magazine. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife, Lisa, and their pug, Phil Collins. Steve likes most dogs more than he likes most people, which suits most dogs and most people just fine. If you find him roaming the streets off-leash, please do not chase.

In the Faded Blue Light

By Don Donato


for Zelda and Nathalie
— Souvenez-vous de Paris

NOTE: Presented here are the first two chapters of an eight-part novella — continuing in the fall issue.

Chapter I.

 No personality as strong as Zelda’s could go without getting criticisms and as you say she is not above approach [sic]. I’ve always known that. Any girl who gets stewed in public, who frankly enjoys and tells shocking stories, who smokes constantly and makes the remark that she has ‘kissed thousands of men and intends to kiss thousands more,’ cannot be considered beyond reproach even if above it. But Isabelle I fell in love with her courage, her sincerity and her flaming self respect and its [sic] these things I’d believe in even if the whole world indulged in wild suspicions that she wasn’t all that she should be.

But of course the real reason, Isabelle, is that I love her and that’s the beginning and the end of everything. You’re still a Catholic but Zelda’s the only God I have left now.

[F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1920]


Note: All excerpts from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letters appear as they were written. Many of the errors are not annotated with [sic].

It was late in the morning when I needed to change trains in California on my way to a wayward piece of Los Angeles. I was bound for an appreciating tract of unreal estate known as Hollywood, a shining lure for believers in far-flung dreams, a district of hope for talentless “would be” actors and washed-up novelists. It always seemed fitting that a place of such tenuous promise should be situated in California, a strip of land teetering on a faulty line between gaiety and annihilation. A place where, for nearly a century, the wide-eyed have brought their fantasies and well-concealed desperation. 

I had taken a seat on a hard-wooden bench situated under the station’s eves, successfully hidden from the boorish California sun. A weedy man with a swarthy complexion covering tight, leathery skin, sitting close-by, looked up and caught my indolent stare.

“You must be from the East,” he said. “You’re from the East, right? I can tell by the lack of color in your face.”

He proceeded to introduce himself, and I feared he was about to try and sell me one of those parched, sand covered lots somewhere far from civilization for the purpose of bringing vitality to the city bound. I pretended he was speaking to someone else and reached for my newspaper. He walked toward me and took the adjacent seat. I held the paper in both hands to discourage any intention he might have had of shaking my hand.

“Paul Paulson’s the name. You new in these parts?”

It wasn’t my first trip to Hollywood. Ten years ago, I had accepted an offer from a producer to take up residence in a studio cottage to write about the “Jazz Age.”  Zelda, my wife, and I left Paris, and I attempted, as commissioned, to create a “flapper comedy.” I was, indeed, a product of the Jazz Age, perhaps, as some have said, in gauche praise or hardened accusation, that I created it. Even so, I don’t think I could have attempted to recapture such a time without Zelda. She was a flapper to her very depth.

“Yes,” I lied to the prune of a man sitting next to me. “I’m en route to a plot of desert land I purchased a while ago for the purpose of improving my faded appearance and overall health.”

“You missed it you know,” he replied.

I looked at him blankly.

“The train, you missed it.”

I pulled my watch from my vest pocket.

“It’s only 2:25. I’m waiting for the 2:40.” I put the timepiece to my ear.

“There’s nothing wrong with your watch.  You missed it.”

My watch was ticking. That brown stick of a man was right. I missed it. Not all the hope the world has ever known would bring it back. He sat as close to me now as the painted les femmes who had strolled passed me on the Boulevard du Montparnasse. Their bodies glowing proper and their desire spilling out through closed-lip smiles. In the soft blue light of a new Paris evening I had sat at a table set outside the café Le Select. Gatsby, my latest character, recently had left me. He was about to make his way in the world. I waited to hear what others would think of him. I have always envied him. His life relived each and every time someone finds him on a dusty, bookseller’s shelf. Certainly, each time his life would end in tragedy. No matter. He would try again and again. 

“Is there another train?” I shouted at the man.

“There’s always another train, but the one you’re waiting for is gone. It came early.”

I thought I heard the train coming. I rushed to the precipice of the platform and looked back down the track as far as I could.  Nothing was there. I could have sworn I heard it. The man yelled to me,” It doesn’t come from that direction.” When I turned toward the pedantic son of a bitch to tell him to mind his own business, I found him engrossed in my newspaper. I resolved to remain standing at the platform’s edge, waiting, looking back down the tracks.

After a while, the tracks began to rattle, and the 3:10, coming from the other direction, started to come into view. It approached the station, slowly but steadily. Its slowing wheels squealed against the metal rails like an overweight hog. The engine blasted air from its undercarriage, and my suit jacket blew open. An older woman held her hat down and shielded her face. The wind burst again. I bent my head down to keep the blown dust out of my eyes. There was an enigmatic clang, and the beast lumbered to a stop.

I feigned tying my shoe and watched the would-be land salesman board. I entered a car several away from him with my spirit lagging pitifully behind. It was in Hollywood where I hoped to turn things around. The money was good, 1,000 dollars a week for creating screenplays, a form of writing similar to the novel minus meaning, feeling, and thought.  Nevertheless, it afforded enough to keep Zelda in Asheville Psychiatric Hospital, and, allowed me to devote time to writing seriously again. I had an idea for a new novel. But, in spite of all this, each day my mood turned grayer and darker. Zelda weighed heavily on me. At the end of each day, the light fading slowly and sweetly with invitation, Zelda’s voice jingled again in the streets of Paris.

“Scott, Scott, let’s have a drink here. We’ve never been. Come on. Maybe someone will recognize us. Come on. We’ll drive them all crazy. We’ll kiss and carry on like they have never seen, not even in Paris. Come on, it’ll be fun.” It was hard to refuse Zelda. Her voice thrilled with an excitement which promised so much.

“Inside or out?” I replied. 

Her eyes widened, and I felt her spirit leap. I abandoned any notion of sinking into a few drinks, into a placid place, waiting and wondering if my telegram reached Max soon enough.  I wanted to change the proposed title for my new novel, which, at that moment, sat perilously at the edge of a no-nonsense printing press. I was crazy about my new title, Under the Red, White, and Blue. Max was satisfied with calling it The Great Gatsby. It never made any sense to me. There’s no emphasis, even ironically, on Gatsby’s greatness or lack of it. My new title told the story. That’s what it’s about: lost dreams in the midst of such hopeless hope. Zelda grabbed my hand and pulled me toward the entrance of the café.

“Outside, of course,” she answered, “much more scandalous. Maybe we’ll make the US papers, and Max’ll send you another letter.”

“Max has my, our, best interest, always,” I blurted out as we rushed off the street into the gathering of tables.

“Oh, he never has any fun, so he doesn’t want anyone to have any. Who cares what people think of us. What you write sells books, not who you are. Right? Right?”

“People want to believe what they read. Who can believe a drunk with an out-of-control wife?”

“Out of control? Who’s out of control?” She whipped her head toward me, and without pause, quickly redirected it to the waiter watching us from beneath the awning.

“Monsieur,” she said, her voice rose a tone. Monsieur.”  The waiter stepped out onto the street into the full dimness and warmth of the early Paris evening. A few patrons turned their heads. Some faces struck still. A woman, dressed fine and rich, turned to the gentleman sitting next to her, and whispered in his ear. He looked up, and he caught my stare.

Monsieur.” Zelda’s words now shrill. “Monsieur, a table for two. Mr. Fitzgerald and I prefer the outside. S’il vous plait.”

The waiter nodded. We followed him. The gaiety of the City’s faded blue light, promising a never-ending life of playful glances and soft laughter, peeked in as we made our way under the awning, passing among the circle-shaped tabletops. A man with a white walking cane dangling from his table, jerked his head up. His expression was tight. He looked down, adjusting the balance of his cane as he stared at its imaginary teeter. He held his head in a strict focus away from my direction. He waved to the waiter, who promptly brought his check.   

Zelda paid no attention to the uneasiness which had begun to ripple around us.

“I’ m sorry, I never, I just never…,” Zelda repeated over and over, her Alabama drawl driving and twisting each word as we bumped and ricocheted our way through the narrow table passages. Embarrassment on empathetic faces brought my eyes down. We gathered momentum as we passed between tables. With a sudden stop, Zelda landed in a chair, bounced up, and settled down with her body slightly quivering.

“I don’t care. Let’s have a few drinks and make love in public,” she said, her aging face locked stolidly before my eyes. At seventeen her beauty caused contriving, young men to meet her “unexpectedly” wherever they expected her to be. Their only wish was to share a hopeful word or two with her. She rarely touched a door or moved a chair.  She rewarded her would-be suitors with a sweet smile, followed by a glance from long-lashed eyes which she quickly hid behind a fan of Southern charm.

I stepped quicker and began to stumble. With a reckless and defeated heave, I fell into a seat next to everything that kept a fire burning somewhere inside me. I hadn’t yet regained my balance, when Zelda grabbed the lapel of my coat. “Kiss me wildly,” she said. I pulled her closer and put my hand on her knee. She lay her hand on mine and moved it inward and higher. The eyes of two courtly women darted back and forth from each other to the unfolding scandal with a syncopated rhythm of the Jazz Age. Others shrank into open-mouthed children while they pretended not to notice.

 I grasped her face, holding it motionless. The evening light fell silent to the ambient hum of increasing conversation. For a moment, beneath the titillation, beyond the boundaries of  propriety imposed by self-protective righteousness, we were what the world wanted most: the excitement of the forbidden; a glimpse of hope in the mundane; perhaps a morsel of a lost memory; and, in all its non-yielding desperation, the reality of fantasy.

 I took a seat by a window, settled in, and the train began to crawl away from the platform. The speed picked up and I watched through the window the occasional houses, made miniature by acres of buffering California farmland, pass-by at ever increasing speed. A vineyard came into sight, then quickly receded, dragging my eyes along until it disappeared. The snarled vines remained in my mind and reached so deep that my body tingled and my eyes filled. I wanted to jump out and run back and follow those vines back to where I first saw them on the train going to Lyon from Paris.

On that day I had travelled to Lyon, I was to be accompanied by a fellow whom I had met a few days before in a bar in Paris. He was a writer, but he hadn’t published much at that time. I had read a few of his stories which appeared in some European magazines, and I could see he had great talent. He was a well-built man, rather tall with a sturdy body and flaring ears. His unbuttoned vest matched his woolen sports-jacket and his white button-down shirt was wrinkled and its collar splayed open revealing chest hair.

He spoke to everyone in a low tone while scrutinizing their faces. I always wondered what he was looking for. His eyes exuded a confidence bordering on conceit that promised that whatever he found was assuredly an unspoken object of criticism. 

He insisted I call him Ernest. He hated Ernie. In all truth I hated it as well. It had a way of grinding him into the top layer of the earth’s soil where the masses spent their lives — lost and unaware.  For reasons still unknown to me, save the interpersonal tightness induced by the better part of a bottle of Beaune, Ernest consented to come with me to Lyon to pick up my car. It had broken down when Zelda, I and Scotty, our daughter, had attempted to drive to Paris from Antibes. We continued our trip to Paris by train and had to leave the car in Lyon for repairs.

After drinking the better part of the night away, Ernest and I had agreed to meet at the station a few days later and take the early train to Lyon. Through no fault of my own, I missed that train. Ernest went to Lyon, as planned. I arrived on a later train. He had called my apartment several times while waiting for me at the station. He had spoken to my housekeeper. I had told her to tell him I wasn’t at home.

When I reached Lyon, I went directly to the hotel bar to settle what was left of my nerves. Ernest walked in.

“Where the hell you been? I checked every hotel bar in Lyon,” he said.

“I must apologize. The time got away from me, and I missed the train. I was going to come looking for you, but I wanted a drink first.”

Ernest stood next to me at the bar. “And second, and third, and… which one is this?”

“Barkeep, un pour mon ami.” I turned to Ernest. “Bourbon or are you drinking the hard stuff?”

“I never touch absinth outside of Paris. Can’t trust it anywhere else.”

“Okay, bourbon it is.” The bartender brought a bottle and filled the shot to the brim.

“Scott, what happened? Were you tight and fell asleep somewhere?”

“Sleep. I wish I could sleep once in a while.” I pulled a vial from my coat pocket. “I need this stuff to maybe get some sleep.”

Ernest brought the glass carefully to his lips.

“I was working,” I said, “a deadline for a story.” 

Ernest lowered the empty glass to the bar, his fingers still wrapped around it. He barked at the bartender, “Another bourbon.”

He looked at me. “Are you a reporter now?”

He didn’t believe my story, and it was just that, a story, fiction, the stuff which lives in my head like so many orphans. This wayward child wound up in Ernest’s incredibility. I couldn’t bring myself to tell him the truth. I couldn’t tell him that it was Zelda, who was unraveling like an overwound clock. She wouldn’t settle down. She kept throwing things, whining, crying, screaming. 

A few months prior, in the south of France, she had some screaming episodes when she was drunk, but I thought it came from her insatiable need for attention. I was writing day and night then. Some sober talk eventually calmed her, but this time she wouldn’t listen to me. I grabbed her. She broke free and tried to run out. I caught up with her at the door.  I couldn’t trust to leave her alone with the housekeeper. I called this doctor I had met in Le Select a few nights before. He said if I ever needed anything…. He gave Zelda an injection of morphine. It put her to sleep. That was the first time she needed the morphine to bring her back. It soon became a regular affair.

Ernest had not yet met Zelda, and I hadn’t spoken much about her. He struck me as a serious writer. I knew his work, and it was the real thing. I wanted to know him better before explaining the terrible strain my marriage had become. Zelda was restless. She missed the constant swirl of party-filled nights we spent in New York. Like all flappers she lived in a world which danced the Charleston perpetually.

At that time, when I first met Ernest, Zelda and I were living in Paris, an extraordinary timeless place where characters lingered on every corner, and night-lit cafés offered a home for the light-hearted while giving refuge to the lifeless.  It was a time when Zelda’s words still sparkled, and her voice vibrated with thrilling alarm created by the flame burning inside her. She lived life as a fairytale, a series of frivolous adventures in a world which allowed her to romp like a child in an amusement park, her beauty, her only ticket of admission. At seventeen she was the most beautiful woman I had ever known, but time had taken hold. What was once her carte blanche to life, at age twenty-six had begun to wane. Her reality beginning to trail listlessly behind.

 We found each other at an early age when I was a young Army officer stationed in Montgomery, Alabama. She was the last of a type known as the Southern belle: a rich, young beauty who manipulated the whims and fantasies of infatuated young men. I was no exception.

 The boys at Camp Sheridan were invited to a country club dance in Montgomery. The War was in full swing in Europe and we waited for our orders to come through. We knew where we were going. There were rumors about the Argonne Forest in France.

One officer, who had returned from the front, spent some time on the base before he could hitch a ride back to one of those farm states, Iowa or Idaho. He wanted to spend the rest of his life there on a small farm his father had left him. He had lost his right arm and several fingers from his left. In some deep part of me, I knew why he wanted to go back to that farm.  What he had lost in France was no matter. He wanted to find the parts of himself he had left in the rows of plowed soil and in the air that smelled of freshly turned earth.  He wanted only again to loosen familiar ground and find the dreams buried by a young boy. He took mess with the enlisted men. He had lost his taste for privilege.  As we walked together one day, he told a bunch of us, “When men die, they all die equally.”

We reached the entrance of the mess hall, and the group followed the wounded man in. I trailed behind and watched them disappear into the building. I walked a little closer and stopped a fair distance from the door. My orders were sitting on some General’s desk waiting for his signature to send me into, perhaps, the last days of my life. I began to sweat, and my hands trembled. I pushed and pulled on my damp shirt. I took a step back and then another and another. I saw the door open and someone was waving to me to come. I turned away. It wasn’t death I feared. It was the idea that all men die equally which haunted me. I had to re-write my novel and get it published. I headed to the officers’ dining club.

During my free time on the weekends I had written enough pages of some disjointed ramblings to convince myself I had a novel. I called it the Romantic Egoist and sent it to Scribner Publishing. I had made the contact through a friend who knew the editor, Max Perkins. He liked the idea, but he had objections and suggestions that needed to be made if I ever had any chance of publication. I had written for the Tiger and the Nassau Review at Princeton, but Perkins wanted something different. He wanted it all to make some deeper sense. The story was inspired by my life as a student at Princeton. How much sense could I make of that?

The War ended, and I was discharged. I wanted nothing more than to have what I had written, what I thought was a novel, published. I went back to Minnesota to try to find out what Perkins was talking about. Something was different there in the Mid-west. It was something the East had discarded or, perhaps ignored, and through no fault of its own, died of neglect.

St. Paul hadn’t changed much. The same barber shop I went to as a young boy was still in operation, and I suspected some of my locks could be found stuck in a floor crack. On the edge of town stood the wheat fields, golden and swaying in the wind, still waiting for harvest since the time I last had seen them as a much younger man.

 At Princeton I had belonged to the Cottage Club, a college fraternity of sorts. The only thing we ever grew was ambition. I associated with a group on campus known as the writers, the literary set. Edmund Wilson had the most promise. We called him “Bunny.”

“You still working on that play for the Triangle Club, Scott? Bunny said one day as we walked up Nassau street on our way to the Yankee Doodle Tap Room.

“Yep. What are you working on these days, the Great American Novel? You got the best shot you know.”

“Always with your head in the clouds, Scott. Maybe someday you’ll write that novel. It will catapult your name to the lips of every literature professor in every University in America, even Princeton. On second thought, maybe you should wait until Professor Gauss is dead. He might remember you.”

Secretly, I dreamed of nothing less. I knew I was a good writer back then, not as good as Bunny, but good, and I got better. It’s like I told Zelda many years later, “I’m a professional writer. You are not. Writers like me are one in ten million.” However, neither I nor Bunny ever wrote that Great American Novel. Maybe Bunny was right, I should keep my head out of the clouds, but I never could. It was there in the haze of the seemingly unreachable I wrote four novels and married the belle of my dreams.

 It was in Minnesota, while working on my first novel, in the frozen ground I felt unyielding beneath my feet, I became aware of what I had learned at Princeton. Success in America had become the compromise of ideals, rather than its progeny. I had come to realize that my generation had entered a time in which wealth supplanted the self, and righteousness had given way to opportunism. No character suffered more from this realization, five years later, than Jay Gatsby. By that time, hope had become the pre-occupation of the misinformed, and dreams the fertile ground for the cynical.

 I re-wrote my novel. The title changed to This Side of Paradise, and Scribner published it. It was in the time when excitement exuded from my overwhelming dreams, when disjointed feelings crashed brutishly onto blank pages. It was the time when my rarified reality, honed and nurtured in the sweet field of my homegrown truths, started to take root.   

  I had never been to a country club and the sound of it held me captive. The thick crop of its influential harvest held a sway that lifted me into the warm, close air puffed from half-lit, dollar cigars. I had written to a friend at Princeton who had lived in Alabama in the cushion of soft money. He had given me the names of a few of the “fastest” debutantes in Montgomery. As is often the case with young college men, the purported looseness of female prospects is surely more the imaginary and misguided information of virgin liars. As a consequence, my mind and fantasies remained opened.

 It was that night that I first saw Zelda. She was walking across the dance floor arm-in-arm with two female partners, who by all indications, provided more than moral support. She was the most beautiful girl of whitish-pink skin. Her auburn hair was bobbed with enough audacity to send it into large curls, bouncing recklessly. Every eye was on her. The men moved in anticipation to where she was going, and the women fanned themselves with quick flutters and bustled aimlessly. 

She had my full attention. A young sergeant I had known on the post nudged me. He had poked around the town on a few weekends, and he had heard a few things, especially about who was who in Montgomery. I dropped my stare to just catch him in the corner of my eye.

“She’s the brass ring around here, they tell me”, he said. “Every guy in Montgomery wants to marry her. She’s old Alabama money. She even lives on a street named for her family. You’re out of your league here Lieutenant.”

“Out of my league?” I heard myself repeating the words rushing from inside me. My eyes never left her.

“Lieutenant, forget it… unless you got some money that I don’t know about. If you do, then you still owe me two bucks from that card game you should have stayed out of last week.”

My eyes never moved. Her curls bounced like words which no one could ever write. Each loose winding of hair jumped to tell a story propelled by boundless energy and full of endless promises.

“What else do you know about her?” I said to the Sergeant.

“Not much, but there’s s girl I met here before who probably can tell you more. Her last name is Bankhead. I can’t remember her first name. It sounds like Matilda or something… Tallulah, that’s it.” The Sergeant glanced around the room, “There she is.”

He raised his head in her direction. “Tallulah, Tallulah,” he said in a voice loud enough to carry above the discordant chatter in the room. He waved her over.

A young woman with wavy brown hair extending to her shoulders appeared at his side.

“Well, hello, again Sergeant,” I heard from a husky voice. She spoke and moved with the subtle swing of the country club type. Her words had a sureness which came from a perpetual source of gratuitous wealth. 

“You seem to be a man with something on his mind,” she said, scrutinizing the Sergeant. “I like that kind of man. What can I do for you? … Careful, I’ve heard it all before… and tried most of it.”

My eyes were still locked on the tipsy, curled-hair debutante.

“The Lieutenant here wants to know more about her,” the Sergeant said to Tallulah, giving a quick nod toward the girl of my focus.

I felt Tallulah’s eyes fall on me. I never turned my head.

“Nice to meet you,” I murmured, “I’m Scott. I, I just…..”

“Oh her,” Tallulah said, “Booze, cigarettes and boys. And not necessarily in that order.”

Zelda still wandered about flanked by her supporters. She was returning smiles to passing men, some of whom I presumed to be suitors and others whose time had come and gone. Tallulah, her face falling motionless, paused and again directed her eyes to Zelda. Her voice fell almost to a whisper, “she’s always talking about making it big somewhere. She’s a dancer you know.”

“Lieutenant, I’m going to cruise around. I’ll catch you later,” the Sergeant said.

I turned to Tallulah. She was quite attractive. She glowed with a polish afforded only to those who commit themselves to the never-ending care demanded by social standing and made possible by the servitude of purposeless money. I directed my eyes back to Zelda.

“What’s her name?” I asked.

Of all the questions I wished to ask, this was the only one which reached my lips. The others I answered for myself in the way children create reality from far-flung fantasy.

“Why don’t you ask her yourself, Lieutenant?”

Tallulah strolled slowly toward the three women. When she reached the trio, a neat, lanky fellow with gray shoes with white wingtips approached the tipsy, pinkish debutante. His suit was a checkered affair. I was sure I had seen one just like it in one of those men magazines I was forced to read while waiting to get my hair cut. His trousers sported creases with the sharpness of a pretension matched only by his good manners. He took Zelda’s hand, kissed it. He then bowed slightly, acknowledging the flanking ladies-in-waiting. Zelda grazed his cheek with the back of her hand without a word. He uttered something. She shook her head and smiled and turned toward Tallulah, whose back was toward me. She pointed at me over her shoulder. Zelda lifted her eyes in my direction. I stared down at the floor. When I looked up, my mind fumbled. What had seemed so distant, came nearer.  Unassisted, she floated toward me, her path unwavering, her momentum unstoppable. She washed over me like a moonlit tide making its way farther and farther ashore. Her curls chattered without pause as she moved, and, as she came closer, I was struck by the lack of flaws in her skin, unblemished and undisturbed by ordinary life. Her face was composed of a calm beauty, an extraordinary simplicity and concert found in art born from subtle genius.

  She rested within a breath’s warmth of me. I wanted to speak, but my words hardened in my mouth. Without hesitation the great Lieutenant Scott Fitzgerald moved me aside and stepped forward. The smell of the leather of his boots, the secure cinch of the belt from his waist coat, and the proud protrusion of the brim of his peaked cap gave him all the confidence I envied. His words fell from my mouth.

“Scott Fitzgerald. Lieutenant Scott Fitzgerald. The pleasure is all mine.”

His smile continued speaking. It had all the invitation of a million words. His riveted eyes glistened. They were eyes which said you excite me like someone I have treasured from the time I first had met you. I wanted to take her in and show her how much he could offer her. The young belle’s eyes danced around the room with all the pretense of searching for better prospects. She abruptly turned in my direction, paused, and her voice rose, unnaturally, as if startled by an unexpected burst from an awakened star. Clearly, simply and forever, she said, “I’m Zelda.”

Not a muscle in my body stirred. I observed her every movement, looking for any hint of what she was thinking. I stood more erect. Her nearness shot through me. I rose higher and higher. The well-healed men and the polished women, scattered about the room, blended with each other, sweeping me into the mix. I knew for the first time how it felt to be a man of the world. The air grew still around me, and nothing moved but time.  It wound itself back. The house in which I had grown up in Minnesota crumbled into a ghastly phantasm. My parents no longer had claim to me. The man made of golden images and flawless manners, the man who had lived in the mind of a young boy, broke out with unprecedented vigor. In that moment I was certain that the truths of my promises had so materialized that they existed outside of me. The girl with pink skin and audacious hair, who now stood so close, became forever part of the rock formed from igneous dreams.

 I fumbled to keep her engaged.

“I heard you want to be a dancer,” I said.

She gave me a look. She appeared puzzled.

“I am a dancer,” she replied.

“I just meant a very successful one, on the stage as a big star someday.”

“New York, first,” she said. It knocked me back. It was the way she said it. It was familiar and unmistakable. It came from someone too large for the world which contained her. 

“The Russian ballet, of course, is the best, but New York and Europe will let me show my talent.”    

I had loved a socialite once before. She was a woman of my station, but she saw only a blurry-eyed Princeton student. Her rank and money had numbed her to the reality of belief. “Rich girls don’t marry poor boys,” she had told me.

I have come to realize that in fields of plenty, hope withers. The rich have no need for what might be… but, the girl who stumbled, whose hair curled in search of something beyond her reach, stepped upon fairy wings to find her footing. With each uncertain step she took, she hammered squarely the truth in a way which I had discovered so innocently many years ago hiding in the dust of a genie’s lamp.   

The band began to play a waltz. It was late, and I suspected this was perhaps the last waltz.

“Would you like to dance,” I said.

“My card is exceptionally full this evening. I’m sorry, but I’m promised to others.”

“Think of it as a contribution to the war effort,” I interjected. I struggled to keep my smile, which threatened to break in to a thousand pieces.  “I’m going overseas soon,” I added.

She looked at me a for a moment and a smile escaped to her lips.

“Never let it be said that I didn’t do my part to defeat the Kaiser,” she replied.

She opened her arms, and we touched. She was softer than I remembered women to be. Her body moved to the rhythm of the music, but, somewhere beneath that, in those moments of stillness, she held on tightly like a little girl. It was in those moments, I pressed her closer and held her in a way, I was sure, she had never known.  

The music stopped.

“I want to see you again,” I said

“I’ll be here next Saturday afternoon. I like to swim. Come back then, you will be my guest,” she said.

“It’s a date, next Saturday.”

She started to walk away, stopped, and put her hand near her mouth to shield her words.

“Bring some gin,” she added.

I watched her walk away.

“Lieutenant,” I heard someone say. It was the Sergeant approaching quickly from my flank. “Do you think it would be okay if I took a look at that list you got?”

 I had forgotten about it. Every guy in camp wanted a peek at it. I kept it hidden. It was a perquisite meant for those for whom untoward behavior could compensate for stunted dreams. The thought of going to the War, unfortunately, had made everyone a candidate, so I kept the sought-after list secure on my person at all times.

 I took the list from my breast pocket and handed it to the Sergeant. My eyes never left Zelda as she walked toward the door. The Sergeant turned to see what occupied my attention. He looked down sharply and perused the list.

“Lieutenant, she ain’t on it.”

“Who,” I said, turning my head just slightly in his direction.

The Sergeant lifted his eyebrows in Zelda’s direction.

“I know that,” I said.

“Are you going to see her again?”

There was never anything again that I was ever so sure of.  It no longer mattered that I was going to war. Perhaps it would all come to an end in the mud of France with nothing more ahead but the hazy fog of the Argonne Forest, but, on that night, in the dry breezes of the unassuming South, my past had begun in the way I had always known it would.   

“I think this one girl, Amanda Greggs, is here,” Sarge said, smiling a little. “You’re not going to pull rank on me, are you, Lieutenant? “

“No, no old man, she’s all yours.” The Sergeant started to walk away. He turned and looked back at me.

“I would hate to see a good list like this go to waste,” he said.

“Waste? No. It told me everything I needed to know.” What I didn’t know was that it told me only what I had hoped.

A few years later, in the days in Paris, when Zelda practiced her ballet relentlessly, I couldn’t help but think of that day in Montgomery when she floated to me. In Paris, alone in her room and at Mdm. Egorova’s studio, she twisted and strained, drifting farther from me, deeper and deeper into herself. She had new loves: ballet, Madame Egorova, and a prima ballerina, whom, at first, I knew only as “a dancer from the studio.” Later I learned her name was Lucienne. She had become Zelda’s new friend, frequenting cafés together afterhours.

I spent my nights at the Ritz bar, talking to persons I hardly knew. Some of them had heard of me, and some I had to inform. The gin gave me the courage to look them in the eyes and tell them with all the conviction of carnival barker that I was a writer, a real one, a novelist. “I wrote This Side of Paradise,” I would say. “I’m sure you’ve heard of it. Did you read it? Well, you must. I finished my third a few years ago. It’s called The Great Gatsby.  Now if you have read that one, I’ll buy you a drink.” 

I hardly ever had to buy that drink. Maybe Max was right. Maybe I should have developed Gatsby’s character more. No one knew who he was, but I knew who he was. In all truth, he really wasn’t anyone, not anyone at all.  He was a guy who bought drinks for people he didn’t even know.

On one of those lonely nights, a couple, dressed American, pushed up against the bar to my right. They wore jewelry, too much of it. His cuff links had initials. Her pearls dangled below her breasts as a testament to a string of martyred oysters. It was a time of seemingly forever, burgeoning wealth in America.

The gentleman stood back away from his bill lying on the bar. He cocked his head, tensed his face, and held his lips in a frown, as if protesting, with the upmost constraint, the sheer banality and personal intrusion of having to sign his name.  She sipped her coffee, legs crossed, her upper body straight and stiff. Their every movement had the theatrics of poorly scripted gentility and all the telltale crispness of new money. They were the new America. They stood for nothing, and they asked for everything. I moved closer and stood next to them.

It was a rare evening. The prolific Ernest Hemingway graced our presence with Gerald Murphy trailing behind him. Gerald was a man with no career, and he had everything to show for it. His fortune grew like wheat in the old lush fields of family businesses and was cultivated by personal indifference to it.

Ernest, dressed like a beggar, no jacket, no tie, his shirt sleeves rolled to his forearms, put his hand on my shoulder. I turned around. I took a step toward Gerald, and Hemingway’s hand lifted off me. There was enough talk about us. I loved the man, but not in that way. For some reason, a rumor started that Ernest and I were fairies. This firestorm of conjecture was started by McAlmon, a fag himself. Rumors, as rumors go, are usually at least half true. 

Gerald stood next to me at the bar.

“Hello, old man, how’s it going? It’s been a while,” Gerald said. “You and Zelda are in the papers quite a bit these days.”

“Don’t believe everything you read,” I said.

Ernest, now standing on the other side of me, leaned forward, like I was some object of inconsequence, and looked at Gerald.

“That’s true, my friend, good advice. Have you read his latest, The Great Gatsby?”

“It was really quite good, Scott,” Gerald said, his voice oscillating in frequencies and short pauses like a mother looking at her child’s penciled drawings.

“Leave him out of this,” I said, staring straight ahead at the bottles behind the bar.

“Who?” Gerald said.

“Gatsby,” I replied.

There was a momentary silence that rumbled through. I took down the glass of gin, sitting in front of me. The room was quiet. Ernest and Gerald faded away. The gin had done its job, and I felt numb to what the world wanted me to be – nothing, nothing at all.

Ernest broke the silence. “Scott, I heard you were looking for me. What did you want to see me about?”

“Barkeep,” I said, “another glass of gin.”

“Mr. Fitzgerald, another glass, sir?”

Gerald spoke up, getting the bartender’s attention. “He doesn’t need another glass.”  

The young man behind the bar looked at me with a wide-eyed stare.

“The man’s right,” I said to the young barkeep. His eyes relaxed, but for only a moment. “Bring me the god damn bottle.”

 “Very generous of you, old sport,” Ernest said. “Did I get that right? I liked the way Gatsby called his friend and enemies ‘old sport.’”

I turned to Ernest, dropped my eyes. My stare penetrated through my eyebrows. “I told you, leave him out of this.”

“Sorry about that old sp…man.”

Gerald ordered a beer. The bartender brought a glass for Ernest, and he put the bottle of gin between us. I poured myself a drink, grabbed the bottle, and put it on the other side of me.

“So, what do you want to see me about?” Ernest asked.

“Just to have a drink together. I can’t seem to write much these days. Some magazine stuff, that’s about it. And there’s another thing. No one I have asked knows where you live. Even Gerald doesn’t know where your new apartment is.” I turned and looked at Gerald. He lifted his beer and took a long, small sip, and then rested the glass back on the bar, never facing me. I made a half-turn toward Ernest and leaned against the bar. I held the gin in my hand.

“Bartender,” Ernest said. The young man turned his head. Ernest waved him over.

“Do you have any absinth?” he whispered.

“No sir, we aren’t allowed to serve it here in the Hotel. Management doesn’t want that bunch coming in here.”

“Son, they’re already here. Why don’t you ask who ever runs this joint if they might have a little private stock of it somewhere for a couple of special guests.”

“Yes, Mr. Hemingway. I’ll ask, sir.”

Ernest stepped back and grasped the edge of the bar with both hands.

“Scott, Hadley and I want to keep this place we’re in. You come around at all hours, tight, and people start to complain, and…

I faced the bar and poured the gin down my throat.

Chapter II.

Dear Scott:

… you say that you have been thinking of the past… so have I.

There was:

The strangeness and excitement of New York, of reporters and furry smothered hotel lobbies, the brightness of the sun on the window panes and the prickly dust of late spring: the impressiveness of the Fowlers and much tea-dancing and my eccentric behavior at Princeton. There were Townsend’s blue eyes and Ludlow’s rubbers and a trunk that exuded sachet and the marshmallow odor of the Biltmore. There were always Lud[l]ow and Townsend and Alex and Bill Mackey and you and me. We did not like women and we were happy. There was Georges apartment and his absinth cock-tails [sic] and Ruth Findleys [sic] gold hair in his comb, and visits to the ‘Smart Set’ and ‘Vanity Fair’ – a colligate [sic] literary world puffed into wide proportions by the New York papers. There were flowers and night clubs … and went to John Williams parties where there were actresses who spoke French when they were drunk… I was romanticly [sic] attached to Townsend and he went to Tahatii [sic] – there were your episodes of Gene Bankhead and Miriam…

[Zelda Fitzgerald, 1930]

Zelda and I lived in New York City for a while after we were married. It was a constant swirl: carefree guys I had known at Princeton, women whose intentions were poured into sleek dresses, uptown bars soaked with money from burgeoning post-war careers, and parties given by anyone who wanted to dress up his social standing by inviting a known author and his unpredictable wife. My first novel was selling, and the “slicks” bought a few of my stories. The money came in and lay in my pocket, the inside one of my sport-coat, like the calling card of a gentleman.

Harold Ober, my agent, had called me to a meeting at his office. He had great news. The Saturday Evening Post wanted more of my stories.

“Scott, have a seat. You’re going to love this. They want three more stories at double their last rate.”

Harold was looking at me hard in the eyes. It was the money that dragged a smile out of the pit of my stomach.

“Start writing more of the kind of stuff they’re looking for. The easy read, short stories. That’s what I can sell. It doesn’t matter how long it is, but no novel stuff, something that can be serialized in a few issues.”

The room was pale. The walls a wan blue. Harold sat behind a wooden desk covered with manuscripts from never-to-be heard of writers and a white porcelain coffee cup with a brown stain circling inside near the rim. A waist high radiator, sitting against a wall in the corner, shooshed steam from a tiny appendage. Harold had a habit of leaning back, tilting his chair with his hands grasped together behind his head. His eyes pierced through my silent stare.

“You working on that novel? What is it called?” he asked.

“The Beautiful and Damned, so far, anyway. I want to finish it, Harold, but I need the money. I’ll start on the Post’s stories.”

The radiator hissed, and I took a drag on the cigarette I held between my fingers. Harold sprung forward, launched by the tension of the twisted chair springs. He spoke as he flew back into his reality.

“Great, Scott. How’s Zelda?”


“In New York?”

I glanced at the blank walls, no pictures, just some peeling paint above the radiator. The lower half of the solitary window to my left was obscured by the water running in narrow, helpless rivers down onto the sill. I crossed my legs, leaned forward, and put my cigarette out in the ashtray on the desk.

“The Beautiful and Damned, what do you think of the title, Harold? Will it sell?”

“I don’t know. What does Max think?”

“What do you think, Harold? Do you think the beautiful can ever be damned?”

“I’m not following you, Scott.”

“We all live in an endless eddy, Harold, forever swirling downward. We reach out from the dizzying whirl, and grasp nothing. Where once stood our imagination, there exists only its mangled images. The beautiful turns wretched, and we watch helplessly with the eyes of the damned.”

“We live in a what? I could have sworn you were sober when you walked in here. If this is some kind of writing thing, ask Max”

“Don’t you realize we are headed for a dreadful disorder of what was to be. What started on firm rock, now wobbles and teeters. It can’t last, Harold. She tries to destroy me, I try to destroy her, but all we will ever destroy is us. The beautiful are always damned.”  

“Look, Scott, you’ve been working pretty hard lately. Maybe you just need to give her some attention. That’s all.”

“Harold, I got to go.” I started to walk toward the door.

“Scott, can you have one of those stories by next month?”

I turned toward him and raised my hand as I left his office. I walked down the hall. The light from the door’s transom was nearly gone. I began to descend the stairs. The wood creaked with each step I took. I stepped lighter, but the tired wood continued its complaining. The sound was inescapable, a plaint for every time I bore my weight upon its vulnerable weak back. When I reached the bottom of the staircase, I rushed for the door, and I stepped out onto the street. New York flowed around me without favor or blame, like warm air in the heat of the summer. Cars chugged by haltingly in the traffic and preoccupied people pushed past each other in an endless flow of anonymity.

An indifference gripped me. I needed a drink. I couldn’t shake the darkness of the hallway. The faint echo of the creaking played over and over. It had the tenacity of crushing heartache born from sudden infidelity. A hopeless sadness burrowed itself firmly into all that still struggled to live within me. My chest and gut began to tremble.

 There was a bar within walking distance which was popular with the Princeton set. I headed in that direction. I wanted to stop on my way and buy Zelda something, anything, a gold necklace. I loved buying Zelda things. She loved surprises. That’s what she called them. “Scott, bring me home a surprise. Anything, anything at all,” she would say. There was a small jewelry shop on the corner of 34th and 5th. She had bought some earrings there. They were of the kind that dangled from the ears of New York women stumbling across living rooms at cocktail parties while they spilled champagne from thin-stemmed glasses. I entered the shop and laid three one hundred-dollar bills on the counter. I walked out with a necklace the jeweler said would match the earrings Zelda had bought.

“Scott, Scott,” I heard a man calling me. He was with a woman about a block or so ahead. It was Townsend Martin, an old friend from my Princeton days. He was living in New York, trying his hand at writing some plays. But it was the woman, her arm wrapped around his, who captured my attention. The shaking in my middle increased and it flowed into my upper arms. The falling night had brought a darkness which stood stark and still and bold. A ghastly image appeared and pierced me deeply, seizing my thoughts and narrowing my senses. Terror poured from my imagination. I stood frozen in the dank and coarse New York night. The woman was Zelda.  

“Zelda said that you went to see Ober,” Townsend said. “We thought you’d be at the that bar on 34th Street.” Townsend was bubbling with enthusiasm. His party spirit lay like vomit on me, and I wanted to wipe it from my body and give it to the one who deserved it most. She snuggled his arm.

“Scott, you look lost, dear. Did Harold give you some bad news?” Her words flowed slowly with the intended cold rhythm of triumphant. Her brow wrinkled. Her intent, with a calculated precision, swarmed to extinguish the dwindling spark struggling for life within me. I didn’t want to share her, not even in the least of ways, and, at times, I hated her for it. Her flirtations and secrets cut at the very heart of me. Ernest, in our days in Paris, often said I should divorce her. He didn’t understand. The dreams forged from the once formless musings of the infinitely hopeful become hardened, never to be assailed lest they fall from the heavens. No other man must ever touch her.

“Scott, what do you want from me?” She would say when I asked too many questions about what she had done with the men who had come and gone in her life. “What does it matter?” she would say. My imagination had twisted itself into bizarre shapes of her body wrapped around another. My torment tore at the fabric of my dreams,  slipping from my grasp. I wanted them back as whole and pure as I had created them. Zelda never had wanted anyone but me. Her every indiscretion was a mistake, a simple lapse of judgment of haphazard youth. I insisted she tell me about each sexual encounter, and together we would go back and recreate the truth. 

She never has told me about any of them. She uses them as the most delicate of instruments, wounding so gently but effectively, over and over. She is a selfish woman. She has taken for her own despicable use the dreams I had shared with her in those early days in the shimmering waves of the Alabama heat.

“I guess we should get that drink,” I said.

Zelda linked my arm, but never released his.  The three of us walked together. My trembling, by the sheer crescendo of its magnitude, burst from my middle. It left in its wake a vacuum where once existed all that mattered. My body lapsed into a reckless state. The desperate person inside of me, incarnated from hope and vision, retched from pain.

Arm-in -arm we walked up the five concrete steps to the barroom. Townsend pulled the door open, and Zelda entered. He and I followed. It wasn’t quite five o’clock and the place was quiet. Only two young girls, somewhere in their twenties, sat next to each other at the mid-section of the bar. I drew up a stool next to them. Zelda sat to my left and Townsend next to her.

“What’ll it be?” the bartender said.

One of the young girls whispered into the ear of the other, and they giggled. They wore hats that fitted close to their heads and the design reminded me of the helmets worn by the German army during the War. Some hair escaped from the fronts and wound itself into loose, solitary curls. They wore dresses with belts which tied at their hips. The purposeful inattention of the girls to hems, which rested high above their knees, gave the impression that the impropriety was a result of innocence and naivete. They sat with their legs crossed, creating two slender cascades. The two women nearly faced each other, resembling bookends most appropriately found on the shelf in a bordello.

“A bottle of gin,” I said to the bartender. I looked at Zelda and Townsend and turned back to the bartender. “I’m not sure what they’re having.”

Zelda turned toward me and a gave me a look. Her lips were in a tight straight line. She turned her body toward Townsend. I shot a half glass of gin down my throat. How in the hell did he meet up with Zelda? What were they doing together? She could have told me anything, and I wouldn’t have believed her. Why did she hang on to him like that?

“Townsend,” I said in a tone of casualness not seen since the Kaiser asked how the War was going. “Why did you want to see me?” I could have cared less why, but I had hoped to unearth the circumstances of his meeting Zelda. My imagination by this time had invaded my gut.

“I wanted to tell you the good news,” he said. “One of my plays has been picked up by an off-Broadway company, and they’re actually paying me. I went to your apartment, and Zelda told me you had gone to see Ober. She said it would be fun to look for you.”

“I hope my thoughtful wife offered you a drink.”

Zelda turned to me. “Of course, my dear, we both had a drink, or was it two? I can’t really remember. Yes, it was two, one in the living room and one in the bedroom.”

Townsend was silent. His face fell sullen. He lifted his drink and sipped it staring into the mirror behind the bar.

“Is there anything else you would like to know, dear, or is that enough fiction for today. Fiction is what you are about? Right?”

I poured another half glass of gin. My trembling dissipated and rushed to my face as a hot blush. I turned to the girl sitting next to me. Her back was to me. I got up and stood between and behind the giggling pair of promised promiscuity.

“Scott Fitzgerald,” I said, wavering slightly as I spoke. The glass of gin was in my hand. I took a gulp.  “I’m a writer and I was struck by your whispering and laughing. I’m always in search of characters. What are you drinking? Another?”

“I don’t see why not,” said the one on my left. She looked at her near mirror image. They giggled in acquiescence. The bartender brought two martinis.

Zelda turned on her stool completely toward Townsend and held her head in her hand, supported by her arm resting on the bar.

The two tittering girls sat like two birds perfectly perched. 

The girl on my right said, “I’m not sure I want to be a character. I mean I just don’t know how I feel about that.”

“What do you write, Scott?” The other one said.

This Side of Paradise, have you read it?  And some stuff for the Saturday Evening Post.”

“No, I haven’t read it.”

The other chirped, “I have. You’re F. Scott Fitzgerald, right? I’ve read some of your Post stories. Quite good I thought. How do you think of all that stuff?”

“Townsend, you missed our wedding. I just can’t forgive you for that.” Zelda said, grasping his forearm. I continued to feed the birds with the ramblings of a man of accomplishment.

“I didn’t get your names. I’m sorry.”

“I’m Cynthia,” said the one on the right.

“Catherine,” said the one on the left.

I moved closer to them and gripped the back of their stools.

“You want to know how I think up all that stuff?”

Catherine shifted her body in my direction. Her hem rose higher by virtue of her movement, and, I was sure, by her intention. She sat complacent, addressing me with her eyes. She exposed an inch more of her leg, and her invitation soared a mile in my mind. I stood taller. My face no longer burned from the current humiliation Zelda served as a sauce to the distasteful dish she so often forced down my throat. My threatened dreams hid in a shallow refuge formed by the circle which I formed with the two stray fowl.

“You owe me kisses, you know, wedding kisses,” Zelda said to Townsend. I saw in the periphery of my vision, her head, still resting in her hand, move more to a tilt. Townsend, standing, shifted nervously.

 I turned my attention to Catherine.

“All that stuff… I don’t think it up,” I said, directing my eyes on the soft, moist intensity in her face. “It comes to me, like a visitor bringing a message.” I reached around her and grabbed the bottle of gin sitting on the bar. I poured myself another glass. I raised the bottle, shook it side to side between the girls. Catherine raised her glass. I poured generously. Cynthia sipped her Martini. “Like you two,” I said. “You’re characters waiting to be discovered.”  I took a large swallow of the gin.

Zelda sprang off her stool. “Townsend, dance with me.”

“There isn’t any music,” he answered. He remained facing the bar.

“There’s always music somewhere.” Zelda replied.

Townsend bent his head down and turned in my direction. “Scott, do you mind?” I pretended not to hear.

“Scott, do you mind if I dance with your wife?”

The thought of another man touching her cut to my core. The pleasure she would give him sickened me. It could never be undone.

“What do you want from me?” Zelda had asked me countless times over the last two years. The answer was simple. Many years later, when her life was limited by the confines of Asheville Psychiatric Hospital, when nothing remained of us except the ghost of my hope, I finally told her the answer.

 “I want you to obey me,” I said.  It was then that I understood for the first time how she never realized the purity and power of the vibration that rang out from the stars on that night we had met. She was a selfish woman. She ignored the life I set in motion for us. She had travelled alone and arrived nowhere.   

Townsend took Zelda’s hand into his and put his other hand on her back. I finished the gin in my glass and forced a smile at the girls.

“Townsend,” I heard in clear tones, “I do want those wedding kisses.” I glanced quickly at Zelda. Her back was to me.

 “No wedding kisses,” Townsend replied, “no more to drink.”

It didn’t matter what she was about to do. She had already done it.

The intensity on Catherine’s face faded into a playful look. Her cheeks relaxed into supple, rosy beds. Her face resembled that of a child, smiling about nothing. Cynthia sipped her Martini which she held continuously near her lips. She bent her head down slightly and peered through her lashes at Catherine.

“Who am I?” Catherine said, looking at me, her eyes still and directed. Her mouth broke into a strange smile. Her lips protruded, tight and wicked.

I can’t tell you who you are. I am a writer. I can show you.” I stepped back. Zelda and Townsend came into my field of vision. She had her arms wrapped around his neck. Her body hung from him.

I looked at Catherine. “Your character is a beautiful woman sitting in a bar located deep in the loneliness of the City. A successful man sees you sitting unaccompanied. He is captivated by you. He buys you a drink, tells you his sorrowful story, and you long for him.” Cynthia giggled. Her eyes widened and looked squarely at Catherine.

“That is quite a good bit of fiction, Scott,“ Catherine said.

Cynthia giggled again. She reached out and touched Catherine’s face. She took Cynthia’s hand into hers and began stroking her arm. Zelda let go of Townsend, turned around and stared down along the bar, but she never looked at me. She sat frozen, no triumphant look, no smirk of ridicule. The chagrin of misspent revenge blushed my face. Zelda’s eyes were riveted to the girls. Her face was frozen, like a flesh mask fashioned by a sculptor who caught his subject in the depths of a fantasy, disarmed and consumed.

Maybe it was time to leave, I thought.

Catherine turned her gaze from Cynthia and looked in my direction.

“What do I do now?” she asked.

I looked at her blankly. 

“What does my character do now?”

“She gets up and walks into a different novel,” I said.

I leaned in to grab the bottle of gin, which sat on the bar between the girls. When my ear passed Catherine’s lips, she spoke softly and slowly, “We do like men.”

“Scott,” Townsend said. He walked toward me. Zelda sat at the bar; a drink was in her right hand. Her left arm was draped across her stomach and it held firmly onto her waist. Her back was tense and straight. She directed her eyes forward away from the girls. On occasion, with her lips on the wide rim of her glass, she glanced at Cynthia. With increasing frequency, Cynthia’s eyes landed in Zelda’s.

Townsend stood next to me, behind the two girls.

“Got to go,” he said, “I’m a working writer now, you know.”

“So am I,” I replied, “and that’s the reason I’m staying.”

“I don’t know how you do it, my friend, out all night, sleeping it off all morning…”

“I don’t do it. It does it to me.”

Townsend looked at me. He cocked his head and his eyes squinted slightly.

“It sits right here.” I pointed to a spot between my chest and stomach. “I try to put it on the page, to get rid of it, but it never goes away. It lays in a twisted lump.”

 It was in those times when I tried to unwind this draining convolution into words, a dark cloud would move over me.  Each time I ran, frantically and futilely, from the suffocating sadness, raining down. Hopelessness would puddled around me. It was then, in those times, when I fell back on the dreams which I planted many years ago and drank the gin which made them all believable.

It was that night in the haze of that drunken New York barroom, while I pointed to the struggle in my twisted gut, in the midst of the chaos that had become my life, two opposing characters appeared and grew in my soul. One lived with intoxicated hope; the other existed in a sober hopelessness. Four years later Jay Gatsby met Nick Carraway.

“Scott, you’ve had enough, Townsend said. “Why don’t you and Zelda go home?”

“No, not ready to go yet.” I looked in Zelda’s direction. “How about you, dear?”

“I’m with you,” she replied.

“Glad to hear that’s settled,” I said. Zelda turned her head and gave me a delighted stare. She seemed to savor the last bit of my jealousy.

“Alright,” Townsend said, “I’m leaving. Go slow, Scott.”

He began to walk toward the door. Zelda called to him, “I still want those wedding kisses.”

You bitch.


Chapter I.
4  “All good books are alike….”
Ernest Hemingway. “Old Newsman Writes: a letter from Cuba.”  Esquire Magazine December 1, 1934: 26.

Chapter II.
5  “No personality as strong as Zelda’s … but Zelda’s the only God I have left now.” :
Broccoli, Mathew J., Fitzgerald, F. Scott, et al., Correspondence of F. Scott Fitzgerald. New York: Random House, 1980. P. 53
17 I’m a professional … me are one in ten million.”
Stenographic Report of Conversation Between Mr. & Mrs. F. Scott Fitzgerald and Dr. Thomas A. C. Rennie,” LaPaix, Rodgers Forge, Towson, Maryland, TMs (carbon), May 28, 1933, 114 pp., with note by Thomas A. C. Rennie to Dr. Slocum; Craig House Medical Records on Zelda Fitzgerald, C0745, Box 1, Manuscripts Division, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.

Coming in the Fall Issue: Chapter 3 & 4


Don Donato received a Masters of Liberal Arts in Creative Writing and Literature from Harvard University, College of Extended studies, in 2019. His graduate interest was studying the writing of the Lost Generation living in Paris in the 1920’s. In addition to short stories published in various journals, Don has written a novella, In the Faded Blue Light, in the voice and style of F. Scott Fitzgerald in the form of “memoir.”

Don Donato: Dod401@Alumni.Harvard.edu

Monte is Summoned to Building One

by Ed Peaco

Monte Thompson was trying to walk quickly from the parking lot to the heavy doors of Building One. He was hoping to stay ahead of the big boss, who Monte felt closing in on him. Derick Blockmenn, the Principal Partner and CEO of DataProbing Network, was someone to avoid. However, Monte had to be careful on his titanium hip, installed six months ago, and which had been causing as much pain as the human hip that had seemed to slowly disintegrate. In recent years, he hiked Mount Washington with three buddies, ran a half-marathon, and slogged through a mud-obstacle course. A year ago, he hit 55, and AARP ratcheted up its barrage of mail and pressure to enroll, but what was worse in that year was a boatload of torture in the left part of the pelvis. Complaining to himself, he denigrated the surgery as an old-man’s thing, but it had to be done. Rehab had been extended with physical therapy sessions, three per week. But there was more than just the physical pain. He had been taking off numerous half-days to visit neuro specialists and to take a battery of tests and an MRI to determine what was making his thinking so sluggish.

Today was one of those days when he had to slip away for a follow-up appointment at the big hospital downtown. The neurologist wanted to show Monte the findings of the MRI from a few weeks ago. Monte hoped he could dodge Blockmenn.

Entering DataProbing’s front lobby, Monte heard some banging behind him. It was Blockmenn, shoving the hydraulic mechanism of the front door, barging through the entryway, shouldering the door as if he were a linebacker, causing a metal-on-metal screech, muttering obscenities down the main hall. Monte ducked into the men’s room, hoping that hanging out there for a few minutes would be sufficient to shake the boss. Monte came to Building One rarely, to check if any of his mail was lingering at the front desk, and for the occasional staff meeting. This morning, looking this way and that, he thought the coast was clear, but he was wrong. Gangly and clumsy, with long, springy hair, graying and unruly—a twisted Einstein—Blockmenn almost knocked down Monte at the men’s room door.

“Hang on a minute,” Blockmenn said.

Then, while urinating, Blockmenn told Monte, “Get with Buster about the Natural Deep pitch. We need audio, video, text, today!” Monte wondered what Natural Deep was. Blockmenn told Monte to call Buster King, Monte’s supervisor, the hefty put-upon Managing Partner, and have him provide details. Blockmenn’s request threw Monte; he paused to gather his words. Buster was a prickly manager who tried to conceal his girth with billowy shirts. Standing by the sink, Monte phoned Buster, but the call went to voicemail, which made Blockmenn stomp away, fuming.

The DPN campus was composed of three small buildings, spread apart along a spacious greenway, with a wooded area beyond. Building One contained administration. Building Two quartered the specialists and investigators. The communication services were housed, including Monte’s team, in Building Three. “Blockhead,” as the staff called Blockmenn behind his back, could blow at any moment, for any reason. Longstanding employees said he had trouble with anger, pharmaceuticals, and substances, precipitating meltdowns and blowups, including one featuring fisticuffs with Buster and another with an investigator. A visit to Blockmenn’s office could be frightful, with swords and firearms mounted on the walls. From time to time, Monte thought about how he’d avoid those outbursts, or worse, an assault. He often cringed at the mismatch between the helping function of the organization and its dreadful creator. Like a terrible jingle that he couldn’t get out of his mind, Monte couldn’t stand the pretentious phrases of the mission statement, the fatuous boilerplate. What a load of crap!

DataProbing Network: a platform for those who need investigative solutions for casualties of catastrophic events, fraud, crime, and corruption. When government and law enforcement can’t or won’t help, DPN can perform functions tailored for the client, including investigators, litigators, scientists and communications experts, providing data-visualization tools, research resources, and voiceover video.

Eventually, Monte tracked down Buster in a meeting in which Blockmenn was ripping Buster a new one over the latest disaster. Monte listened briefly in the doorway. He learned a few things: Natural Deep was a natural gas producer. One of its offshore platforms in the North Sea had recently exploded. Blockmenn was livid about an investigator’s blunders that could lose the Natural Deep account.

“We have to be the first to know about shit like this, and know everything about it,” Blockmenn said. “Get off your lard-ass, Buster. If something blows up or somebody gets screwed, we need to be on it immediately!”

And Blockmenn to Monte: “Crap out all the appropriate proposals by the end of the day. Show them what we can do before somebody else does. Don’t waste time!”

Monte understood that this would not be a good day for slipping away for a doctor’s appointment. He shuffled back to Building Three and set aside the typical office morning chat, except for one dumb-ass Blockhead story: “I had a standing meeting in the men’s room with Blockhead!” Everybody had a good laugh, then Monte described the heap of work that had been dumped in their laps: the Natural Deep account. It was a setback for everyone and meant long hours ahead.

Monte took a moment to think about his own personal setbacks. His declining health and mental issues had recently caused the loss of a sweetie who had soured on him—one in a short list of sweeties following his divorce, including the dazzling Natalie, with whom he fumbled as she gave up on him. More important, he had trouble communicating at work: increasing forgetfulness, slow on the uptake, not finding the right words, all of which required co-workers to repeat discussions. Physically, his hip was flaring up with spiky shoots of pain, which required another visit to the physical therapist and the surgeon’s physician assistant. There would be no more running or hiking for a while, and not much walking, either. Just a mess all around.

He tried to recall when his mental fog started. It might have been with the hip replacement, or even before. Long after the anesthesia should have lifted, his head was still muddled. He went to a rehab place for ten days, then spent two weeks rehabbing and working from home, with the help of his nephew, Cable, who had plenty of time to help his uncle, as he’d been laid off from his job when the bar where he worked closed. Cable welcomed the cash Monte gave him to help with chores around the house, although Monte sensed Cable, who lived in a nearby remodeled barn, wasn’t really up to playing full-time nurse. Then again, Cable was the one who insisted Monte get a referral for a full neurological work-up, including an MRI for cognitive impairment.

—   —   —

Monte had arranged the time of the doctor’s appointment closer to lunch in hopes that his absence might not be noticed. He and Cable met the neurologist in her office to discuss the findings from the MRI. During a few minutes of pleasantries and questioning, the neurologist was looking at her screen. Then Cable piped up. “Sometimes when he talks, he sounds loopy, but not from those pills, because he won’t use them.”

“Loopy?” Monte asked.

“And a couple of times, he didn’t know where he was,” Cable said.

Grinding his teeth, Monte told Cable, “Hey, could you stop talking?”

She shot a glance toward Monte. “So, the report,” she said. “There’s no stroke, no tumor; but the scan detected mild atrophy of the brain.”

“That doesn’t sound good,” Monte said.

“Well, few very small foci of increased T2 signal in the bilateral subcortical white matter. …”

“What?” Monte lost her; nothing made sense, even after two attempts.

“You have mild cognitive impairment,” she said. “You might have early-onset dementia. The anesthesia from the hip replacement surgery some months ago may have accelerated cognitive decline. Tests show word loss and halted speech suggesting a progressive trajectory.”

“Meaning it gets worse, right?”

“Yes, you may eventually lose speech entirely.”

“Oh, that sucks!”

“There are many kinds of dementia, and there is no cure. Sorry to say.”

“Sorry to what?” Monte asked.

“I’ll set you up for a PET scan. It’ll show more about what your brain is doing.”

Cable tried to calm him down, but Monte got worked up when he heard sorry to say.  Then he stood up and walked out, reeling from the doctor’s words.

—   —   —

Back at DPN and eating lunch at his desk, Monte took a moment to calm down and count his blessings, such as they were. At least he worked in Building Three, as far from Blockmenn as possible. His team was talented and energetic. The three people in the media studio were versed in writing, editing, and producing. Each had a specialty: Michael (words), Charity (visuals), and Monte (audio) including voiceover for video. He was known for his gentle vocal tone, even when describing the worst explosions, natural disasters, and massacres around the world. Ironic that his diagnosis would affect his speech.

He and his team thought of the people in Building One as super-conservative and themselves as embracing a lefty fellowship. If anybody needed anything, Tori, the sharp-witted courier, would provide it. Tall and thin, she often speed-walked from building to building, pulling a red wagon filled with everything from printer cartridges to Earl Grey green tea. The best perk was the bucolic feel of Building Three, ensconced near trees and bathed in green space. Monte had always enjoyed walking around the grounds and into the woods on his lunch hour. A few years back, he hooked rope ladders over a weighty branch of a big oak and climbed just for fun. That was before the hip problems arose.

Michael, back from lunch, stopped at Monte’s desk. “I heard about fireworks at Building One today. Could it spread here?”

“You mean Blockhead might come to Building Three with a flamethrower? Not likely,” Monte said. “Blockhead likes to push around the sycophants in Building One.”

“I’ve been thinking about—this might seem silly—but, what about an escape plan?” Charity said. “Do we have one?”

“Like a secret passageway, a false wall?” Michael said as he chuckled.

The concerns of his co-workers, in lieu of that morning’s eruption, seemed to make sense. “Maybe we should think about that,” Monte said.

Tori interrupted this conversation with her daily visit to Building Three. She stopped, as usual, at Monte’s desk to tease him about his work. “Here you are: The Michael Bublé of Bloodbaths, The Pavarotti of Panic, The Sinatra of Sorrow.”

“Thank you very much. Just trying to make terrible events a little bit more pleasant,” he said with a little bow, while trying to get back to work.

Reflecting on the appointment with the neurologist, Monte knew he’d been lethargic and forgetful since coming back from his hip replacement surgery. He spent much more time in the sound booth than he would have before the surgery. Colleagues had to address him more than once to get his attention. He had trouble pulling words out of his mouth. Moreover, he noticed that people were seeing him speaking off a script, and when the discussion went beyond the script, he went silent as he worked through a speech block. It was scary. What was happening? Dementia, more goddamn dementia! What were his co-workers thinking? He worked through dinner and into the night, eventually collapsing for a few hours of sleep on a couch in the studio. Still he wasn’t done.

The next morning, seeking coffee, he already felt fried. Buster tromped into the studio, elbows out, standing over the three co-workers. With a loud sigh, he said, “We lost the Natural Deep project. You guys were too slow yesterday. The big guy is not happy.”

The threesome looked at each other, making grave faces. Buster conveyed again how disappointed Mr. Blockmenn was and described other work coming up.

Then Buster pulled Monte aside to ask him about his health and questioned the quality of his work. This was the first time anything like that had happened to Monte—ever. Both men remained silent for a short time.

“So, you’re the leader in Building Three. We need you, but, what’s up?” Buster asked.

“I’ve had some pain with the hip, and I don’t get enough sleep.”

“What can we do to get you back into the swing of things?”

“It’s up to me.”

“Yeah, but think about what’s going on with you. I don’t know what it is, but it might be more than just sleep. I’ve heard stuff about you, like, you’re not all there. We need you to be on top of things, all the time. Do you grasp what I’m saying?”

“Give me a little time to get myself into shape.”

“I’ll be checking in from time to time.”

No way was Monte going to use the word dementia, or mention his visit to the neurologist. How long could he fake being fully functional? Occasionally, he looked at a word and couldn’t pronounce it, or it made no sense unless he focused on it for a while. His work pace had been slowing down, and he knew that Buster and Blockmenn had become aware of it.

—   —   —

A few weeks later, Blockmenn summoned Monte to his office in Building One on a Monday morning. Monte arrived early. Blockmenn was not in his office. His longstanding admin, Victoria Deutsch, with ash-blonde helmet hair and extensive makeup, extended a hand toward a chair for Monte. “Feel at home, this is an amicable settlement,” she said.

“What settlement?”

“Didn’t he say?”

Suddenly, Blockmenn surged into the office and dropped loudly into his chair.

Victoria gave Blockmenn a stern-mother stare. “Be civil,” she told him. “Apparently, we have to start from the beginning.”

“Make it quick,” Blockmenn said.

Monte sat across from the Principal Partner, who began pushing papers into a single pile. Victoria presented a packet of termination and compensation documents.

She said, “Mr. Thompson, we know about the issues you’re confronting—”

What she said made Monte flinch. He wanted to eke out a few months more. Stuff gets around. Who blabbed? Who cares? Nobody had to tell anybody. The issues showed up every time he opened his mouth.

“—and we want to help you in any way we can,” Victoria said. “We will extend to you twenty-six weeks of severance compensation and health insurance.”

Monte felt like he was wandering in a thick fog. There was a lot of talking from Victoria that he seemed to hear from a distance. He wasn’t surprised, but he felt a little queasy. Victoria proceeded with the exit protocol. She described each document and showed the stickers pointing where Monte was to sign. The process became lengthy as Victoria recited various paragraphs that she seemed to think important.

“Thanks for the generous payout, Derick,” Monte said. “Could be worse!”

“Whaddaya mean? You want more?”

“I meant to say—”

“I don’t want to know what you meant,” Blockmenn said, fidgeting with pens and a stapler. He opened a drawer and brought out three handguns, fondling each, one by one, somewhat like he was strangely washing up with a big bar of soap. Then he placed the guns across his leather desk pad. “Which gun would you want to have?” Blockmenn asked.

“Now Mr. Blockmenn, not that,” Victoria said, with a withering gaze, as if she’d seen this routine before.

Monte recoiled. “What the hell?”

“Oh, Monte will like it.”

Monte certainly never had anything to say to Blockmenn, even on a good day, which was almost never. What a ridiculous exit interview!

So Monte responded first with a smirk, then pointed to the more compact piece. “If I must, this one, but—”

“The Smith & Wesson Governor,” Blockmenn said. “Excellent choice.” He picked up the Governor in both hands and raised it a few inches as if it were a large piece of gold.

“This one looks like the gun that Dick Tracy used from comic books and funny pages I read as a kid,” Monte said, then he snorted, which escalated to a nervous cackle. Monte was surprised with his outburst; he was scared and boiling mad. If only he could find Blockmenn without firearms, I would beat him to a pulp. Monte listened to the thumping of his charging heart, like it might explode at any moment.

“What’s so funny?” Blockmenn lurched up from his desk. “Do you think this is silly? It’s a matter of death or life.”

“Come on, Derick. What would I do with a gun? This is weird!”

In a spark of rage, Blockmenn swiped the weapon off the desk and to the floor, where it crashed with a sharp smack, spinning like a top on the ceramic tile. Seething, Blockmenn threw his head back petulantly. The gun lay spinning on the floor. Victoria sat there like nothing had happened.

Bug-eyed, mouth agape, Monte shot out of his chair, which fell back to the floor. “What’s this all about? Butterfingers! Screw you!” The gun spun slowly to a halt. Monte looked down and found that the barrel was pointed at his feet.

Victoria stooped to collect it. “Be careful, Mr. Blockmenn.”

“I’m fine,” said the CEO. “Take care of these papers. Show me where I sign. Be sure he signs the non-disclosure.” Blockmenn grabbed some documents from the desk and others from the floor, and stalked out.

Victoria leaned to Monte, close to his ear, whispering. “You deserve a reason for Mr. Blockmenn’s demeanor. He is a gifted leader, but he has challenges. He sees things. He hears things. He has treatment, but he doesn’t take heed. Today, he went off his meds, and he has upped his vodka intake. Don’t worry. Everything will be all right in the end.”

—   —   —

Blockmenn had designated Buster to escort Monte off the premises, but Buster was pulled away to deal with the current Blockhead tantrum, allowing Monte to hobble back across the green space to Building Three. He was eager to tell everybody about the disturbance that Blockmenn fomented.

 “I was summoned to Building One today, and the place was totally toxic. More bizarre behavior from Blockhead—he’s barking up and down through the corridors, he’s pulling a full-blown roid rage. He pulled out three handguns for me to examine. When he left his office, I saw he had another piece in a shoulder holster. He is absolutely unhinged!”

“Creepy, but we all know that he experiments with all kinds of alcohol, drugs, and pills. He’ll make mush of his brain if he keeps going this way,” Tori said.

“Oh, and so why was I summoned to Blockhead’s office? He fired me. This is my last day at DPN.”

Hubbub broke out as people wanted to know when, how and why; it went on for a while, requiring Monte to provide answers: Any feelers yet? Where ya looking? Try the local broadcast outlets? Great voice for radio. You’ve got connections.

“You guys know why I’m leaving, right?”

“You’re lucky,” Tori said. “You’re getting out of here.”

“Not exactly lucky,” he said, after which he looked for some way to get away from the crowd. He thought Buster would have already kicked him off the premises, but he wasn’t around. Monte went to the basement to find his plastic storage tub. He scrounged about in the tub, finding a few obsolete devices, old manuals, and binders, the rope ladders that he had stopped using, and a full set of clothes for back when he used to bike to work. He lugged all of it upstairs, where he unloaded the printed material into the recycling bin, and dumped the rest in a trash can. He kept the clothing.

He steered Tori into an empty hall. “So, I want to tell you, but you probably had some notion,” he said. “It may be early-onset dementia. Brain power just gets less and less.”

“Some of us were thinking—”

“If I’m lucky, the disease will go slow,” Monte said.

“—I wanted to say something.”

“Dementia comes gift-wrapped in many ways. Google it,” Monte said.

She briefly covered her mouth. She said, “Sorry.”

“You can tell anybody,” he said. “Tell them I said you could. I don’t want to talk about it. Maybe later.”

He spent a few minutes with Michael and Charity showing them around the soundproof booth used for making audio tracks, extolling the quality of the end result, better than your own voice. In the bottom drawer of his desk he found a dusty Doctors Without Borders tote bag, and he stuffed it with the clothes and a few books. As he packed, the idea of leaving felt better and better.

A squawk from the intercom startled the people of Building Three. The intercom was ancient and hardly ever used. The sound was loud and distorted. It was Buster. He was blurting hysterically. “Blockmenn’s on a rampage. This is real. He’s going after Monte. Active shooter alert! Active shooter alert! I couldn’t stop him. Go, go, go right now!”

Monte yelled through the halls of Building Three, “Let’s get out of here! Run to the woods!” He limped as rapidly as he could toward the trash can to retrieve the rope ladders. “Don’t go to your cars. The parking lot is next to Building One. Toward Blocker. I mean Blockhead. Who wants to run for the fence? I’m going now.” He pocketed his phone, gathered his rope ladders, hollered, “Last chance!” Then he went toward the trees. Five co-workers—Tori, Michael, Charity, and two others whose names he couldn’t remember—followed Monte’s limp-shuffle adrenaline-fueled gait across the green space into the brush. Some of the group were frantically texting and calling 911. He trudged through the prickers, the saplings, the big sycamores, and the downed-and-rotting trunks. Now he was hurting. He kept looking behind to make sure the others knew where he was. The escapees sped up when they heard a short spattering of gunshots. Monte stumbled upon two homeless men camped out with blue tarps and sleeping bags. He invited them to come along to avoid the crazy guy with guns, but they were only startled, and waved Monte away.

At last, the fence came into view. Monte hooked the first ladder over the top of the fence on the DPN side, then awkwardly climbed half way up, feeling something like a butcher knife jabbing into his thigh. He paused, then took it slow, placing the second ladder on the other side, and went over to check that the ladder was properly placed. Oh, throbbing pain! He waited for the pain to subside a bit, and he found a way to pull himself up mostly by his arms. He went back over to the DPN side to help those who needed it. Tori had trouble trudging in her sandals, and she was apprehensive about the ladders, but she managed to get over. One of the guys whose name Monte couldn’t remember, a hefty fellow, decided not to attempt the ropes. Michael said he had something like these ladders on his bunk bed growing up, and he hastened up, over and down. Charity, looking jittery, threw her pumps over the fence, and took the steps quickly. Monte followed.

“We made it!” Monte said. “So far, anyway.” He collected the rope ladders and carried them under each arm.

Charity looked around at the scrub trees and high grass lining the road, then she declared, “Whoa, we’re in the boonies. I’ve never been on this edge of town.”

“Me, neither,” Monte said. “When you enter DPN, you’re still in the city. But over the fence, we’re really out there.”

“I’ve been beamed up to another planet,” she said.

Wincing with every other step, Monte led the crew down a gravel road toward what he hoped was a main road.

“Hey, we have to keep moving,” Monte said. “We need to get far enough away so we can’t be seen.”

“Why are you toting those ladders?” Michael asked Monte.

“They’re souvenirs.”

“For crying out loud. I’ll carry them,” Michael said.

Monte fell back from the group, and they went around a bend. He slowed down, looked back where they had walked, then looked ahead. He didn’t see anybody. Panic set in.

—   —   —

Well, shit, let them go wherever they’re going, but I’m gonna sit here and feel each throb. Too loud to think. Am I thinking?

Can’t process. Getting canned: that calls for an up yours! Psycho Baby playing with guns, shit for brains. Those gunshots: that demands a full-throttle mother fucker!

Spent my best years in pig slop—that boilerplate, the pretentious crap that I wrote!

Blockhead, why didn’t you fire me long ago?

Early on: Got divorced. Then there was Natalie. Wow Natalie! Posted to Dublin. Could have followed her out of bumfuck DPN. What a sledge head I was!

Im the blockhead!

No more hikes, no more races.

Gimmy a wheelchair and fuck yourself.

Surgery stupor, now dementia, what’s next?

Aphasia, my sweetie till death?

Won’t see the guys anymore. No trails. No mountains.

No woman would mess with this mess of me.

Losing everything!

Oh, what’s this? Something’s wrong. What’s happening?

Where am I?

—   —   —

As the first one to notice Monte was nowhere in sight, Michael back tracked and found Monte on the shoulder of the road, panting, howling in a gutteral basso profundo.

“What’s wrong?” Michael asked.

“I’m kinda messed up,” Monte said. “Really lost. Scary.”

Michael pulled him up to sit and put an arm around Monte. “You OK?” Michael asked.

Monte looked around and saw the ladders. He said, “Oh, ladders. Yeah, yeah, ladders.” He didn’t want to stand up yet. Something had hit him like that wigged-out feeling from that anesthetic. “When I saw the ladders, I knew everything again—weird.”

Tori held his hand. “How do you feel? What do you need? You can’t help it, right? It’s that dementia, right? Sorry. I gotta shut up.”

“I think it was that I didn’t see you guys,” Monte said. “I was nowhere. Not sure where I was.”

“I don’t know either,” Charity said. She gave her water bottle to Monte.

“It’s a different not-knowing,” he said. “It’s not, it’s different—I can’t find the word. Sorry.”

“Hell, no. Don’t be sorry. You saved us from that madman,” Michael said. “You’re our hero!”

As Michael and Tori helped Monte get on his feet, Charity went ahead to a Smarty-Mart store. The others arrived in a few minutes. She bought bottled water for everybody. They sat on plastic chairs and called family and friends to say they were OK.

“Oh, my brain let me have that word. No, it went away. No, yes, I got it: embarrassing. A different kind of not-knowing.”

—   —   —

Monte wanted Cable to stay with him that night. Next morning, Monte’s phone was crammed with calls and texts with concerns for his wellbeing and news of what happened at DataProbing Network. Buster’s voice message: Blockhead went just-a-stumblin’, the Governor in one hand, bottle of Grey Goose in the other. I called the cops. They came in five minutes. When Blockhead heard the sirens, that was when he tried to blow his fuckin’ head off, but he botched the job. Nobody else got hurt.

—   —   —

Two days later, Tori came to Monte’s house and sat outside with iced coffee.

“I’m not going back,” Tori said.

“We’re still alive!”

“Another thing. I have a business proposition for you,” Tori said.

“Oh, really? I have no money to invest.”

Tori laughed. “Just saying, I’m gonna be a personal shopper—woo-hoo!”

“Cable gets my groceries.”

 “You’ll need more help than that. Come on, you could be my first client.”

“Not sure I’m ready for that,” Monte said.

“You can function almost all the time, except for when you can’t.”

“I’m going back to the neuro doc to have a PET scan,” he said. “That’s supposed to be the be-all, end-all for the diagnosis.”

“Then what?”

“Just carry on until I can’t, whenever that is.”


Ed Peaco is enamored with the short story. Many of his stories involve love (or like), blundering and redemption. He held editing posts at a newspaper for 27 years. In the next decade and continuing, as a freelancer, he’s writing about local music; and editing books, magazines and articles. The villain in this story, “Monte is Summoned to Building One,” is modeled on an eruptive boss. Peaco quit quickly, but Monte kept working too long. Peaco lives in Springfield, MO.

Along the Lines of Improv

by Cecilia Kennedy

Pythons move in straight lines forward. They stiffen their ribs and lift their ventricle scales on their bellies to keep pushing ahead. A straight line extends infinitely in either direction, without curving, but in a realm of infinite possibilities, where straight lines may intersect, any number of them could determine the path a python takes, and where it ends up.


Plagued by what she calls “brain bumps,” Peggy vows to make creativity flow on the job by taking an improv class. At work, her mind clogs with thoughts, pelted by self-doubt, so she travels twenty minutes to the theater at the edge of the Millerstown Strip Mall to take Saturday-morning classes, but here’s what she doesn’t understand: Why does all improv have to be funny? Peggy dreams of moving an audience to silence with admiration—a story so powerful that a rush of emotions builds, and people leap to their feet to applaud when she’s done.

But so far, the skits and exercises inevitably lead to bathroom jokes or characters she doesn’t understand, but she keeps going, hoping to learn something. There’s a mirror in the classroom space, which also doubles as a dance studio. In the mirror, they can practice making faces—or see other’s reactions.

Today, Bob is playing his chain-smoking character who wants to teach his student (Peggy) to play the blues, which of course requires her to sing—horribly—and she doesn’t want to do it.

“Push the note like you’re grunting one out,” he says, in his fake, raspy voice, but she doesn’t want to. Such a thing is so ugly and crass. She’d strain her neck, and her face would transform into something hideous with lines and wrinkles.

“I’m actually here to buy a guitar,” Peggy says, trying to change the scene—to avoid having to make a fool of herself, but Bob insists, and she feels cornered. She catches her face in the mirror—all red and scrunched up. She also sees the faces of the other students in the class, reflecting looks of cringe and pity. The instructor steps in, stops the exercise, moves to the next person. A hissing sound expels from the radiator-heater in the back, as Peggy follows the lines of the floorboards towards the exit, reaching her car at the edge of the wooded area behind the theater. The stream is alive with sound and movement—splashes, jumps, and sun light, but she’s headed straight home.


During rehearsal, right before the matinee improv production, the instructor reminds the students to listen to one another, to respond with open hearts, to let the story unfold in any way it might. Peggy tries to quiet her bubbling and fizzing brain, so overloaded with a toxic mixture of ideas and doubt, that she can hear banging on the pipes overhead, the creak of a door, a slither-sound of the wind as it rushes through the tiny holes of daylight dotted into the roof and frame of the building.

When rehearsal starts, Stan assumes a stubborn character who is waiting for a bus. Peggy tries to get him to do something other than stand there and smile and repeat the same two lines, but he won’t budge. The more he resists, the more her gestures become desperate. She jumps up and down, screaming that they’re wasting their lives, just waiting for a bus. With her entire soul, she yearns for a transformative moment on stage, a breakthrough, but at the end of the class, everyone decides that Stan stole the show.


Hours before the performance, Peggy reads news headlines on her phone, but they keep getting interrupted with alerts from a neighborhood website she signed up for, where frantic neighbors post warnings about car prowlers. Apparently, a neighbor has discovered that the area behind the Millerstown strip mall is overrun with unusually large pythons, and when the wildlife team and sheriff’s department split one open, they find missing people’s bones. A strong discomfort in Peggy’s stomach overtakes her, but it’s quickly erased by thoughts of the performance ahead.


A small audience has gathered in the theater, mostly friends and family of the other actors, but Peggy is determined to elevate the form of improv. Improv has a pure soul, and so does Peggy.

The first scene is a bank, and they’re supposed to count imaginary money and develop the story from there. Peggy’s legs feel weak and wobbly, but she stands up tall and moves forward.

“Money isn’t the most important thing in life,” she says, and when she’s said those words, she hears the doors creak open in the lobby, and she takes the sound as a sign that she’s on the right path. She’s really listening now, opening herself up to the moment. She must continue, right along the line she’s started.

“Like hell, it is,” Bob replies, and the audience erupts in laughter. But Peggy will not be shaken. Behind her, from down the hall, she hears a smooth sound, almost imperceptible, and she faces the audience head on.

“It’s the ruin of souls,” Peggy says. “We stand at its mercy, and it divides us.”

“Here, divide this and stack it,” Bob says, but Peggy persists. The smooth sound is in the wings now, and she knows this moment is pure and true.

“I’ve loved with all my heart, and I’ve earned nothing in return. All of this is nothing.”

She feels a stillness in the air, and when she looks out at the audience, and into their faces, all eyes are on her. She feels a rush of warm air surrounding her, on all sides, from behind, and opens her arms to take a bow. When she turns around to leave, the unhinged jaws of the biggest constrictor anyone has ever seen, are gaping wide, its patterned scales breaking the straight line around its lower half, coiling tightly around her.


Cecilia Kennedy taught English and Spanish courses in Ohio before moving to Washington state and publishing short stories in various magazines and anthologies. The Places We Haunt is her first short story collection. You can find her DIY humor blog and other adventures/achievements here: (https://fixinleaksnleeksdiy.blog/

The Third Floor

by Nancy Machlis Rechtman

The battered red Volkswagen pulled up to the entrance of the grey, forbidding building. A well-dressed young woman with almost-blonde hair got out and entered through the main doors which slammed shut behind her. There was a surly-looking man in a white uniform standing by the entrance and he looked her up and down.

“Who you here to see? he asked.

“A doctor,” Diana said.

“Who sent you here?”

“My doctor, Dr. Smith…”

“That your car?” he interrupted.

She nodded yes.

“Plates are out of state. You from out of state?”

She nodded again.

“What are you doing here then?”

“My insurance is here.”

“Never mind,” he said brusquely. “Explain It to them at Admissions. You going to sign yourself in?

“I suppose so.”

“Well, I’ll let them handle it at Admissions.” He turned and started to walk away.

“Wait a minute. Where am I supposed to go?” Diana asked.

The man glared at her like she didn’t have a brain in her head. “I toldyou. Admissions.”

“Would you mind telling me where that is? I’m in a lot of pain…”

He started to walk away again, muttering under his breath.

“What did you say?” she asked timidly.

He didn’t turn around but spoke loud enough for her to hear. “Third floor.” Then he disappeared down the hall before she could ask any further questions.

Diana tried to find an elevator which proved to be almost as difficult as getting an answer out of the man in the white uniform. The halls had been laid out in a random, chaotic manner and she felt like a rat in a maze, trying to find her way to the cheese. Instead of an elevator, she found a staircase and decided that it might be her best course of action. The burning sensation in her gut was getting worse and she didn’t want to waste any more time trying to find the goddamn elevator. She opened the door to the staircase and walked over to the stairs. The door slammed shut behind her with a thud. That seemed about par for the course in this place.

Diana began to climb the stairs and after a few minutes, it seemed as if she had climbed forever. But there were no outlets, so she just kept climbing. She had to stop and catch her breath several times and considered turning back, but she was sure that eventually there had to be a way out. Finally, she reached a landing where there was a door. She reached for the handle and her heart dropped down to the pit of her stomach. It was locked. She began to pound and yell, hoping to attract someone’s attention. Finally, the knob turned and she was face to face with a pitted old lady wearing a moth-eaten terry robe and matching shower cap. The woman stared at her, then walked away. Diana looked around the drab, green hall, hoping to find someone in authority, but there didn’t seem to be much chance of that.

“Excuse me!” she called out to the bathrobe lady.

The woman turned around belligerently. “What the hell do you want?”

Diana was taken aback but found her voice once more. “Could you please tell me where Admissions is?”

The bathrobe lady stared at her in disbelief. “You’re in already, aren’t you? Why the hell do you need Admissions if you’re already in?”

“Well, I’m in, but not really in, you see…”

“Third floor.”

“I know that,” Diana said starting to lose her patience. “I just can’t seem to find the third floor.”

“You lost a floor? No one around here’s ever done that before.”

“What floor is this?” Diana asked.

“You see the sign?”

“No. No, I don’t,” Diana said wearily.

“There’s always a sign. Just keep looking.” With that, the bathrobe lady turned and shuffled off.

Diana looked around in despair. She heard strange sounds coming from behind the closed doors of one of the rooms, like an animal might make when it’s caught in a trap.

Diana felt the iron knot tightening in her stomach and realized she needed to sit down somewhere. She reached a large room with an open door. There were no chairs, only a broken-down cot. She collapsed onto it as she felt the pain get more intense, spreading throughout her entire body. She didn’t realize that she had fallen asleep until she awoke to find herself surrounded by five pairs of curious eyes. She stared back, uncomprehending at first, then bolted upright, clutching tightly at her purse.

“What have they done to you?” asked a faded old man kneeling by her elbow.

“They haven’t done it yet, can’t you tell?” insisted a young man close to her toes.

“Done what?” Diana asked, hazily.

The five pairs of eyes exchanged glances, then looked down at the floor.

“Please,” Diana said. “I’ve been trying to find my way to the third floor. Would one of you be kind enough…”

“What’s the matter with you, couldn’t you find the goddamn sign?” came a familiar and not very welcome voice.

Diana cringed, suddenly recognizing the bathrobe lady.

“What do you want the third floor for?” asked the young man in a hushed voice.

“Don’t be rude,” admonished a wispy young girl who was chewing daintily on a candy bar.

“Well, what floor are we on now?” Diana asked.

The old man giggled. “Can’t you read?”

“Seems to me she don’t know much of nothing,” pronounced the bathrobe lady.

Diana fought back her mounting frustration along with the pain that had taken over her body. “Perhaps if one of you would be kind enough to show me the sign, I could be on my way. I really am in a bit of a hurry, you see.”

“Then what were you doing sleeping like that in the middle of the day?” asked a man who seemed to be composed entirely of butter.

“Come with me – I’ll show you the sign,” said the wispy young girl, almost halfway through with her candy bar.

“Ain’t no one goin’ nowhere!” boomed a deep voice from the doorway. Diana looked up, startled, while the others simultaneously dropped to the floor and crawled under – or partially under – the cot. There stood the biggest, meanest-looking linebacker of a nurse ever seen on the face of this earth.

“Excuse me,” Diana said meekly. “Perhaps you can help me. You do work here, don’t you?”

Nurse Linebacker snickered. “I ain’t seen you around here before. You better learn now – I’m the one who asks the questions around here and you better learn that quick. So why don’t you tell me – who are you?”

“Well, my name is Diana Johnston and I’ve been trying to find the…”

“QUIET!” bellowed Nurse Linebacker. “I don’t want your whole life story – you can tell that to the headshrinker!”

“Headshrinker?” Diana repeated. Upon getting no response, she plunged on. “Well, you asked who I was.”

“Your number, you dope!” shouted the bathrobe lady.

“But I don’t have a number!” Diana exclaimed.

“Impossible!” insisted the butter man. “Everyone has a number.”

“In his case, two numbers!” the bathrobe lady cackled.

“ENOUGH!” shouted Nurse Linebacker. “Now, don’t give me no problems, or else.” She looked down and noticed the candy bar in the wispy young girl’s hand, sticking out from under the cot. In one swift motion, she grabbed it out of the girl’s hand and shoved it into her own mouth, spitting out the wrapper and swallowing the candy bar in one gulp. She then returned her attention to Diana, who had watched the feat with the candy bar in utter amazement. “So, what’s your number?”

“I told you…” Diana began.

“No, I’m tellin’ you!” Nurse Linebacker boomed. “You tell me your number or I’ll personally drag you by your ears down to Admissions and have them check your file!”

“Fine!” Diana shrieked. “I’ve been trying to get to Admissions all morning!”

“What on earth for?” asked the old man. “You’re already in.”

Diana counted to ten in her head to steady her breathing. “I need to see a doctor. So I would be very grateful if you would show me to Admissions so that I can check myself in.”

“Third floor,” said Nurse Linebacker.

Diana took a deep breath. “Could you take me there?”

Nurse Linebacker looked at her with disdain. “You can’t find a floor? All right, come on. You’re in worse shape than most.”

With that, the hulking figure gave one last furious glare to the five figures huddled on the floor, then grabbed Diana’s shoulder, whirled around, and propelled her down the hall towards a door at the end. She opened it, shoving Diana ahead of her. It was another staircase, lacking any sort of illumination. Diana stumbled, then groped her way down the stairs, Nurse Linebacker’s palm still firmly attached to Diana’s shoulder. After walking down six steps, they reached a landing. Nurse Linebacker swung the door open and pushed Diana out into the light. There was a large, block-letter sign directly across from them which spelled out “ADMISSIONS.” Diana gasped.

“Only six steps!” she exclaimed.

Nurse Linebacker gave her another withering look. “Well, you’re here. Better get a number fast. Or else.”

Another nurse approached and started clucking when she saw Nurse Linebacker.

“Althea, what are you doing in those clothes?” asked the tiny nurse.

Diana glanced at Nurse Linebacker and was stunned as she watched the previously imposing figure shrink back and cower in the doorway.

“Nothing, Ma’am,” Nurse Linebacker whispered.

“Then put back that uniform wherever you found it and get back to your room right now. And I mean right now or there won’t be any TV privileges for you for the rest of the week!”

“Yes, Ma’am. Right away, Ma’am.” With that, Nurse Linebacker – aka Althea – raced out of sight as Diana tried to contain her astonishment.

“Oh, hello, dear,” said the new nurse who resembled a parakeet with her yellow hair, darting eyes, and curious way of clicking her mouth when she talked. “Don’t mind Althea. She always manages somehow to get a hold of one of our uniforms and scares the hell out of the other patients, don’t you know.  She’s basically harmless, though. And who might you be, dear? I don’t believe I know you. Why aren’t you in your room?”

Diana looked at Nurse Parakeet gratefully. Finally, a rational being! “Well, I’ve been looking for Admissions, you see…”

Nurse Parakeet suddenly became the epitome of efficiency. “Oh, my dear, well, we can’t have that! You just come with me and we’ll fill out all the forms. Self-admitting, I suppose.”

Diana nodded her head. “Yes, and I hope you can get me to Dr. Smith soon. He said he’d try to meet me here…” She hurried to follow the twittering nurse into the Admissions office and sat down across from her.


“Diana Johnston.”




“I’ve got this terrible pain…”

“Yes, yes. Life can be filled with pain, you know. In fact, that’s my motto. You see, I even stitched a sampler with those very words, as a daily reminder,” Nurse Parakeet said, indicating a sampler over her shoulder. Diana looked closely and sure enough, there were those exact words done in very neat little stitches: Life Can Be Filled With Pain, You Know.

Nurse Parakeet pulled some more forms from the printer and gave them to Diana. “You can write, can’t you, dear?”

Diana looked at her. “Oh, I’m in pain, but it’s not so bad that I can’t write.”

Nurse Parakeet beamed. “That’s the spirit! There may be hope for you yet. But of course, we’ll let the doctor decide. Come along with me – he’s very busy, you know.”

Diana rose slowly since the pain was becoming unbearable, and followed Nurse Parakeet back into the hall, through several corridors, and was aware of almost inhuman sounds coming from behind the doors of some of the rooms, just like those she had heard earlier. She wondered exactly what went on in this hospital, but her thoughts were suddenly cut off when Nurse Parakeet stopped short and indicated a door to her right.

“The doctor’s in there, dear. When you’ve finished, come back to Admissions so you can finish filling out your paperwork and I can assign you a room – once the doctor’s rated you.”

“Rated me?” Diana repeated.

But Nurse Parakeet was already off, fluttering back down the hall. Diana knocked lightly on the door and entered. There wasn’t anyone there and she looked around slowly. It was the strangest examining room she had ever seen. There was a long leather couch, a large over-stuffed chair, and that was it.

“Lie down!” shouted a voice behind her.

Diana whirled around. There was a short, grey-haired man with a pointed beard, round spectacles, nearly-invisible slits hiding behind the lenses which she realized were his eyes, and a nervous tic that pulled the right side of his face towards his right ear and then released it like shooting a rubber band across the room at a random target.

“Gotcha!” he cackled, rubbing his hands together gleefully.

“Who are you?” Diana demanded.

“I’m Dr. Sputz, of course. And you must be number 117053, if I’m not mistaken.”

“I don’t have a number. My name is Diana Johnston.”

“Everyone here has a number. It’s mandatory. But if you want to deny having one, we can delve into that another time.”

“I’m not denying anything! Can we please just get on with the examination? I feel like I’m on fire.”

Dr. Sputz grabbed his notebook excitedly and began writing furiously, mumbling, “Patient has severe burning symptoms, the Heaven and Hell Syndrome, perhaps.”

“Doctor, can you please hurry? It’s getting worse.”

“Of course it is! Lie down now and let’s talk about this pain.”

“Well, it’s centered around my gut…”

Dr. Sputz jumped up and down. “Wonderful! Wonderful! The pain is in the gut! Of course, if it was in the heart, it would be even better. Then we could talk about unrequited love. But the gut will do just fine for now. Lie down.”

Diana sat on the couch and noticed straps hanging down from the side. But Dr. Sputz didn’t give her the time to comment.

“I suppose I should ask anyway – are you in love?” he asked.

“Am I what? Look, I don’t think we’re getting anywhere. Do you think you can have Dr. Robert Smith paged – he told me to meet him here.”

“Aha!” whooped Dr. Sputz. “I was right! A romantic rendez-vous with your doctor. And now he hasn’t shown up. No wonder you’re in pain!”

“What the hell are you talking about? Dr, Smith was going to give me some tests to see if I need an operation.”

“Tests! Even better! I can give you tests. And then we can operate. Oh, young lady, you’ve made my day!” Dr. Sputz grabbed Diana’s hand and kissed it fervently. “Now lie down and I’ll strap you in.”

Diana looked at him nervously. “You know, I think I’m feeling better now. Maybe I’ll just go home. I’ve got to make dinner for my husband and kids anyway.” She started to get up.

“Sit!” barked Dr. Sputz.. Diana automatically obeyed. “Lie down! Roll over! Play dead!”

Diana stared at him.

“No wonder you’re in pain. Not only are you in love with your doctor, but you’re a married woman! Involved in a secret love affair! Or maybe I was right and it is unrequited love – perhaps your doctor has been using you as his plaything, a sexual object! Well, which is it?” He stopped and looked at her questioningly, his pen hovering over his notebook.

“I’m leaving,” Diana declared. As she rose, Dr. Sputz lunged forward and tackled her, throwing her onto the couch. He grabbed the straps and tied her down so she couldn’t move, then he stood up.

“They didn’t tell me you were violent!” he exclaimed, straightening his clothing. ”I will excuse it this time – the torment of psychic pain can bring us to do many strange things.”

“Psychic pain! You’re crazy. I told you, my gut’s on fire!” Diana cried.

“That’s right, of course it is after all you’ve been through. I’ll get the nurse to give you a sedative. Then, when you’ve calmed down, we’ll begin with the tests. We’ll start with something easy, ink blots perhaps.”

“Ink blots!” Diana screamed. “Let me out of here! I’ll sue you, I swear, if you don’t untie me and I mean now!”

But Dr. Sputz bounded over to the phone and spoke urgently into the receiver. “Yes, yes, a large dose – the largest you’ve got – she’s getting quite hysterical.”

A moment later, Nurse Parakeet flew into the room with a tremendous hypodermic needle, almost as long as her arm. She looked at Dr. Sputz who nodded towards Diana. Nurse Parakeet plunged the needle into Diana’s arm. The room started to spin almost immediately and the last thing Diana heard was Dr. Sputz whispering to Nurse Parakeet, “She threatened to sue.”

The next thing Diana was aware of was that she was lying on a cot in a small, drab room, and her arms were tied down. She was very thirsty and could barely swallow. The door soon opened and Nurse Parakeet entered.

“Well, what a sleepy-head you are,” she twittered. “You were a very naughty girl, you know. But we’ve decided to forgive you this time and give you another chance.”

“Water,” Diana whispered.

Nurse Parakeet handed her a paper cup. “Here, drink this all down like a good girl, that’s a dear.”

“How many hours have I been asleep?” Diana asked.

“Let’s see…you came in on Wednesday …about two days, I think.”

“Two days!” Diana shrieked.

“Now, don’t get yourself excited or, well, let’s not get into that right now.”

“Where’s Dr. Smith?”

“Dr. Smith?” Nurse Parakeet frowned. “Oh, you mean your lover. He never showed up. But it’s really better that way, don’t you think? Especially for the children, you know.”

“Dr. Smith isn’t my….” Diana stopped. What was the point? “What about my husband? I left him a voicemail to meet me here – did he show up?”

Nurse Parakeet looked at Diana pityingly. “No, dear. I suppose that’s why you’ve been in such pain. It must be hard to accept the fact that nobody cares.”

“I don’t understand. I left him a message to meet me at County General.”

“Now why would you do a silly thing like that?”

“What do you mean?”

“Why, County General’s about two miles down the road. Why would he drive there to meet you here? I suppose you were afraid he’d catch you red-handed with your doctor lover so you sent him on a wild goose chase, didn’t you?”

Diana felt the knot tightening in her stomach. “Where am I?” she asked hoarsely.

“My dear, don’t you remember anything? You’re at County Mental Health Institute.”

Diana stared at Nurse Parakeet in shock, then started to laugh. “I’m in a loony bin! My insides are on fire and I’m tied up in a goddamn insane asylum!”

“We prefer to think of it in more constructive terms, dear. We like to refer to our facility as a recreational center for healing of the mind and spirit.”

“Would you please untie me?”

“I don’t think that’s allowed, dear,” Nurse Parakeet said firmly. “Why?”

“So I can leave, of course.”

“Oh, no, my dear, we can’t have that. We haven’t even begun the tests.  And then the treatment. You’ve been rated a fifteen, you know. Oh, dear, I don’t know if I was supposed to tell you that.”

“What’s a fifteen?” Diana asked.

“Well, anything over a ten is dangerous. Fifteen is the worst.”

“You don’t understand,” Diana said, fighting to remain calm. “This is all a mistake. I’m supposed to be at County General. I’m from out of state, my GPS stopped working just before I got here. I guess I made a wrong turn.”

“Yes, well, we all take the wrong road at some point in our lives. But what on earth would you have gone to County General for? They can’t treat your problems there, my dear. You’re deep in the grip of a painful psychosis and we’ve got quite a battle ahead of us to return you to good mental health,” Nurse Parakeet chirped.

“I’m fine, believe me,” Diana insisted. “Now just untie me please so I can get my things and leave.”

“I’m afraid I can’t do that,” Nurse Parakeet said.

“Why not? I don’t belong here.”

“Because you haven’t been cured.”

“Take my word for it. I’m a new woman.” Diana tried to sound upbeat.

“Oh dear!” cried Nurse Parakeet.

“What now?”

“A new woman? I’ll have to inform the doctor that you’re exhibiting signs of schizophrenia!”

“It’s an expression!” Diana shouted. “Anyway, you have to let me go. I checked myself in – it’s not like I was committed or anything.”

“That’s right – it’s worse.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’ve got papers that you signed, admitting you were in need of help and giving us free rein in treating you until we’re sure you’re one hundred percent cured.”

Diana stared at her. “I don’t believe this! Look, at least let me call my husband to let him know I’m here. He must be worried sick. And I’m sure he can straighten this out.”

“No calls are allowed to the outside,” declared Nurse Parakeet.

“Why not?”

“Rules, my dear. We’ve got to follow the rules. Now, you just calm down and we’ll give you some tests to see exactly how far gone you are.”

“What if the tests show I’m normal? That I’ve been cured? Then can I go?”

Nurse Parakeet twittered. “You really are on another plane of reality, aren’t you, dear? Just relax and the doctor will be in soon to begin the testing.” With that, Nurse Parakeet turned and flitted out of the room.

Diana was in despair. How could she convince these people that they had made a horrible mistake? And what about Sam and the kids – they must think she had been kidnapped or even killed at this point. Actually, being kidnapped didn’t seem entirely inappropriate in describing her situation. She certainly was being held against her will. And what was this business about no phone calls? Her cell phone was in her purse which had been confiscated and it had no charge left anyway, but maybe she could use a phone at the nurse’s station. Or Admissions. She had to get out of here, she would have to escape. But there was nothing she could do while she was strapped down like this, and she was starting to get so sleepy again.

“Attention!” boomed a familiar voice, startling Diana out of her torpor. She looked up and there was Nurse Linebacker, or rather, Althea, standing in the doorway in a nurse’s uniform about two sizes too small for her, the buttons straining against the buttonholes, like a can of Pillsbury biscuits ready to pop.

“Althea, I’m so glad to see you,” Diana said weakly.

“Speak up!” Althea roared. “You don’t whisper to a superior. And how dare you lie down while I’m addressing you. Get up!”

“I can’t get up,” Diana said, nodding toward the straps.

“Aha!” Althea cried. “Time for the treatment to begin.”

“No, not yet. Just some tests.”

“Ha!” Althea exclaimed.

“What is the treatment anyway?” Diana asked.

Althea blanched, then glared at Diana. “Classified information. Top secret.”

“Have you had the treatment, Althea?”

“No questions allowed! Especially while you’re still lying down after I gave you a direct order! We may have to throw you in the stockade!”

“Listen, I’d like to show respect towards you, I really would,” Diana assured her. “But I’ve got to remain disrespectful as long as I’m tied down like this.”

“I won’t stand for it!” Althea bellowed as she bounded over to the cot. With one swift motion, she had ripped the straps from Diana’s arms, freeing her. Diana tentatively stretched her arms and began rubbing them gingerly.

“Attention!” Althea yelled.

Diana stood up as quickly as she could, but her knees buckled and she had to support herself against the wall. She realized that Nurse Parakeet had slipped something into the water she had given her. Her mind was foggy and she could barely stand. She knew that Althea was her only hope for escape.

“I’d like to make a suggestion,” Diana said. “I think a march might be in order to get me back in shape.”

“Quiet!” roared Althea. “Just for that, you’re coming with me.”

“Where to?” Diana asked hopefully.

“On a march. Hup, two three four, now we’re going out the door…”

Diana tried to regain control of her brain as they marched up and down the halls, Althea prodding her along. She was dimly aware that the pain in her gut had lessened considerably. Maybe she wouldn’t need an operation after all. Now, if only she could maneuver Althea towards the exit, or rather, have Althea maneuver her.

“You’re out of step!” Althea yelled. “Shape up!”

“I’m hungry,” Diana said. “I haven’t eaten in days.”

“Don’t be a jellyfish! We all have to do without. Hunger is good for you, builds character.”

“If only I could… Oh, never mind.”

Althea looked at her suspiciously. “If only you could what?”

“Well, it’s just that I had a whole bag of candy in the back of my car and if I could only get to my car…”

“What kind?” Althea’s eyes glistened.

“Milky Ways.”

“No one’s allowed outside. Rules!”

“Creamy, chewy chocolate and caramel.”

“Rules!” Althea trembled.

“I’d just run out real quick and then come back. I’d only take one for myself – the rest of the bag would be for you.”

“Rules!” Althea gasped.

“You could watch me from inside and then we could run into one of the rooms and stuff those ooey gooey chocolatey delights…”

“To the car!” Althea commanded.

Diana tried to keep up with Althea who was practically galloping down the hall. They turned a corner and there was the exit, those wonderful clanging doors directly in front of them. Diana glanced around, but no one else was nearby.

“OK,” Althea said. “No funny business.”

She stood to the side as Diana walked past her to the doors, her heart pounding. She didn’t have an actual plan since she didn’t have her purse with her car keys or her uncharged phone. All she knew was that she was going to have to make a run for it.

“Ready!” Althea yelled. “Set!”

Diana paused, waiting to hear ‘Go!’  But when ‘Go!’ never came, she turned around and there was no Althea. Instead, Dr. Sputz was standing several feet away, arms folded, with two gorilla-type guards by his side.

“You’re not leaving so soon, are you, my dear?” Dr. Sputz demanded.

Diana bolted for the door, but the guards’ cretinous looks belied their swiftness. They lunged forward and grabbed her arms, then dragged her down the hall with Dr. Sputz following, his cackle echoing behind him.

They took the elevator back to the third floor, then Diana was shoved into a bright yellow room with a cot in the middle and all sorts electrical gadgets surrounding it. She looked around fearfully.

“Let me go,” she pleaded.

“My dear, no one leaves here until they are cured. And to be cured, we must get rid of the pain.”

“The pain’s gone, I swear. It’s gone,” Diana insisted.

“Liar!” Dr. Sputz shouted. “You haven’t had the treatment yet, you’re still in terrible pain! But if you’ll behave yourself, the cure will be much easier.” Dr. Sputz nodded for the two gorillas to strap Diana down to the cot. She had little strength to resist.

“OK, we will now begin the tests,” Dr. Sputz said with forced calm. He pulled some papers from a folder and the two gorillas attached several wires to Diana’s head and arms. “What’s this?” he asked, flashing an ink blot at her.

“A train.” Diana said.

“Wrong!” he yelled.

Diana screamed as the electric shocks raced through her body.

“Aha!” Dr. Sputz exclaimed. “I see I was right! You are still in pain. No, I ask you again, what is this?”

“A cow?” she guessed.

“No, no, no!” he roared, once again motioning for the electric current to sear the nerves of her body. “Again!” he demanded. “What is this?”

“I don’t know,” Diana whispered.

“Fine, fine, that’s right,” he said, patting her on the head. “Now I will give you sixty seconds to put this puzzle together.”

“But I can’t move my hands,” Diana protested.

“No excuses!” he yelled, stamping his foot. He grabbed a stopwatch. “Start now!”

Diana frantically tried to move her hands, but she was tied too tightly. “Can’t you at least loosen the straps?” she pleaded.

“Thirty seconds!” Dr. Sputz whooped, running back and forth across the room. Diana struggled against the straps even harder. Dr. Sputz jumped up and down, looking at the stopwatch. “Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two…” He glared at Diana. “Nothing! You weren’t even able to put two pieces together! We’ll have to intensify.” He nodded and now double the voltage wracked her body. Diana screamed again, then sobbed.

“Oh, don’t be such a wimp!” Dr. Sputz ordered. “We’ve got to give you some backbone – that’s the only way you’ll learn to withstand the pain of the world. Now how many fingers do I have up?” he demanded, holding up one finger.

“One,” Diana said.

“Imbecile!” he shrieked.

ZAP went the charge through Diana’s body. She felt that she was going out of her mind from the pain.

“Try again!” he shouted.

“I don’t know, I don’t know,” she moaned, hoping this was once again the right answer.

ZAP! ZAP! The jolts tore through her body which was now twitching uncontrollably.

“A person has ten fingers, count them – ten!” Dr. Sputz yelled, waving his hands in front of her face.

“But you only had one up, you asked how many fingers you had up!” she said through her tears.

“Up, down, it’s all relative. But always, one has ten fingers. This is very basic, my dear. If you can’t even remember the basics, how do you expect us to help you?”

“Let me go, please,” Diana implored.

“You’re not cooperating,” Dr. Sputz warned.

“At least let them know I’m here,” she sobbed.

“The outside world is the source of your pain, don’t you see? It’s forbidden for you to have any outside contact until you’re completely cured.”

“You’re the one causing the pain!” Diana shouted.

Dr. Sputz turned scarlet. “How dare you!” he sputtered. “I’m a doctor, I cure pain.”

“I’m fine!” Diana yelled. “You’re the one who’s all screwed up. I came here with a physical problem, not psychic pain! It was a mistake! I drove here by mistake! My GPS stopped working because I needed to charge my phone and I forgot my charger. But I didn’t mean to come here, it was a mistake! And you’ve kept me here against my will, drugged me, abused me…”

Dr. Sputz jumped up and down in a frenzy. “We don’t make mistakes! Everything we do is for a reason. And there are no mistakes in life. You meant to come here. How can you deny your psychic torment? You drove here purposely whether you realize it or not!”

“I’m going to sue you!” Diana screamed. “My husband is a lawyer! I’m going to sue you and your nurses, your patients, your cots, your goddamn machines…”

“She’s hysterical! She’s out of control! Get her ready for surgery immediately!” Dr. Sputz cried as he dashed out of the room.

Diana struggled to free herself, but it was no use. A few moments later, Dr. Sputz raced back into the room, pulling Nurse Parakeet along with him. Nurse Parakeet looked at Diana pityingly.

“My dear, I thought you understood,” Nurse Parakeet sighed. “If only you had cooperated. We haven’t any options left.”

“What are you going to do?” Diana demanded, as her mind filled with dread.

“We’re going to cure you, of course,” Nurse Parakeet said.

“But I’m fine!” Diana cried.

But instead of responding, Nurse Parakeet plunged another monstrous hypodermic needle into Diana’s arm. The last thing Diana saw were the drab green walls spinning by as she was wheeled down the hall.

The six o’clock news was winding down. A pale, mousy woman stared uncomprehendingly at the TV screen. She was wearing a tattered blue bathrobe and had a scarf tied around her head which didn’t quite hide the multitude of jagged stitches that started at her forehead. Nurse Parakeet fluttered over.

“Come, dear, don’t you think it’s time you went back to your room? You really do need your rest.”

The mousy woman didn’t seem to hear Nurse Parakeet. She just stared at the TV. Althea charged over wearing old, stained yellow bedclothes. She ignored Nurse Parakeet and the mousy woman, and stared at the TV. The commentator was wrapping up the newscast.

“And once again, we ask you if you have seen this woman, please call the police immediately.” A picture flashed on the screen and the mousy woman reacted for an imperceptible moment, then sank back into her stupor. The commentator continued. “The woman’s name is Diana Johnston, she’s thirty-two years old, five foot six and approximately one hundred twenty pounds. She’s been missing for almost two weeks now and the police still haven’t got any leads. The only clue is that she left her husband a voicemail that she was on her way to the hospital – but she never arrived.” The commentator paused, whipped off his glasses, and looked gravely into the camera. “If you’ve seen anything that you feel might help, call the police at the number you see on your screen. Her husband, attorney Samuel Johnston, is offering a reward for any information that helps solve this case. Well, that’s the news for tonight…”

Althea glanced curiously at Nurse Parakeet and the mousy woman at her side, then back at the TV. “It seems to me. I used to know…”

Nurse Parakeet gave Althea a sharp look. “Used to know what, Althea?” she asked in a razor-sharp voice.


“Well, we all used to know someone, now, didn’t we, Althea?”

“I supposed,” Althea agreed.

“Was this someone anyone in particular?” Nurse Parakeet asked casually.

Althea looked again at the TV screen, then at the mousy woman. “I never knew no one in particular,” Althea declared as she shuffled out to the hall.

Nurse Parakeet watched Althea, then turned to the mousy woman. “Come, dear, let’s go back to your room now, like a good girl. We’ll work on learning your number. Now, say it after me. One, one, seven…”

Nurse Parakeet put her hand on the woman’s shoulder and slowly walked with her down the hall. The woman remained silent, allowing Nurse Parakeet to guide her.

“You seem so much better, dear. No more pain. We can cure anyone here, you know.”


Nancy Machlis Rechtman has had poetry and short stories published in Literary Yard, Paper Dragon, Page & Spine, The Thieving Magpie, Quail Bell, Anti-Heroin Chic, Blue Lake Review, Goat’s Milk, and more. She wrote freelance Lifestyle stories for a local newspaper, and she was the copy editor for another local paper. She currently writes a blog called Inanities

at https://nancywriteon.wordpress.com


By Robert Collings

There is a celebrated short story called “The Rocking Horse Winner” by D. H. Lawrence.  The story is so revered by scholars that you will find it on the required reading list for every English literature course in the English speaking world, and there are more translations than you can count.  It tells the tale of a disturbed kid who enters a fantasy world and rides his rocking horse so he can pick the winner of real-life races and bring money into his dysfunctional household.  The kid dies in the end after a particularly harrowing ride, and I could never figure out if he ended up picking another winner in that last ride, or whether the horses and the money didn’t really exist at all and were just symbols for something else.  “All great literature has a speculative element,” my English professor would tell us.  “Just like the boy in the story, that’s how you pick a winner.”

I’ve often wondered over the years about the speculative elements in our own lives.  For all of our bluster and our yearning, I wonder if we’re all riding some rocking horse that’s taking us nowhere.

Years ago, my wife and I lived in a condominium complex that had a large underground parking lot.  We had been assigned two stalls in the lot, and to reach the stalls from the entrance we had to drive down a long corridor to the very back of the building, and then take a hard left and go all the way to the corner where the two stalls were located.  This parking lot spanned the entire base of the building, and it had a hundred identical concrete pillars arranged in long rows in order to organize the parking spaces and keep everything propped up.  I have always had a vivid imagination, and I’m a fatalist by nature, and I’d often wondered what the devastation might look like if one of those pillars ever gave way and every unit in the complex came squashing down on my head.  I had made the daily journey through this sprawling concrete bunker for a good three years without a scratch, and that was surely a good sign.

I was on my way to work one morning and I was still in the underground.  Just after I made the turn to head down the long driveway towards the gate, I noticed a figure out of the corner of my eye behind one of the cement pillars to my right.  It looked like someone was hiding behind the pillar, deliberately trying to remain unseen.  I pretended not to notice, but after I had passed the pillar I looked in my rear view mirror and saw a young boy run from behind that pillar to the pillar on the opposite side of the driveway, and then hide again, as if he was being chased and was trying to stay hidden.  I didn’t get a close look at his face, but by his stature and his cat-quick movements I guessed he was in his early teens.  I had to stop my car until the big gate lifted up, and when I looked back in my rear view mirror I was unable to see anything.  No one seemed to be hiding anywhere, and the parking lot was empty.  I thought this was curious but I didn’t dwell upon it, and I had forgotten all about the shadowy figure by the time I got home that evening.

A few days passed without incident.  Then, on another morning when I was backing out of my parking stall, I noticed the same ghostly apparition at the far end of the lot.  I stopped the car and squeezed closer towards the window to get a better look.  The mysterious shadow was much further away than it had been before, but it had to be the same kid.  This time, he was ducking behind one pillar, hiding for a few seconds, then dashing to the next pillar, hiding there for a few seconds, then jumping over to the next pillar, hiding, and repeating the sequence until he reached the main driveway.  He had moved out of sight, but when I rounded the turn at the far side and headed towards the exit gate, I saw him suddenly dash out from the pillar beside me and run behind the car to the other side of the driveway.  He had been so close that he almost brushed against the bumper.  In a flash, he reached the next pillar and ducked behind it, like some stealth fugitive on the run.  When I stopped for the gate I was close enough to him to see the tips of his sneakers sticking out from behind the narrow end of the pillar.

I cracked open my door and twisted my head back and shouted out, “Hey there!  Hey!  You there! What the hell are you doing there?”

I saw him pull his feet back, but there was no other movement.  My voice echoed through all the concrete, followed by eerie silence.  The metal gate creaked open, and I headed out. 

The building had not come crashing down on my head, but I still thought about the incident in the parking lot all day.  Perhaps this shadow-kid was a homeless person in need of food and shelter.  Or a harmless demented kid from some institution who got lost and didn’t know where he was.  I worried that I had not said the right thing to him as he hid behind the pillar.  He had to know that I had seen him, so he must have been waiting for my reaction.  I kept going over the words that I had used, and comparing those words to the words that a more sensible, mature person might have used to fit the situation.  I worried that I shouldn’t have used a crude word like “hell”, which made me sound like our gruff building manager.  I was not a gruff person.  And I had repeated the word “there”, which made me sound like a frightened person grasping for words, and I was not that, either.  Perhaps I should have said, “Hello, can I help you?”  Or, “Son, do you need a lift?”  I was ashamed of myself for not using more appropriate language to draw the mysterious kid out into the open and prove to him that I was not intimidated by strange figures in concrete parking lots.   

I drove back through the parking lot that night with the eyes of a hawk, but I saw nothing.

“Do you know there’s someone down in the underground, sneaking around like a thief?” I asked my wife when I got home.

“Oh yeah, I see him all the time,” she replied

This surprised me.  “You see him all the time?  Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I dunno, he seems harmless enough.”

“Harmless like a thief.”

My wife laughed.  “You worry too much about everything.  No wonder your mother called you a worrywart.”

“That’s because there’s lots to worry about,” I said, only half-joking.  “Haven’t I told you this before?”

“I know teenage boys because I teach them,” she said.  “They’re all a little whacko.”

This may have been the sort of simple explanation we all look for, but there was something about the mysterious shadow-kid that I found unsettling.  I had been appointed to the condominium council the year before, and I’d been assigned the job of keeping an eye on the building to help keep things in order and see if anyone was violating the by-laws.  My title was “Bylaw Officer” if anyone asked.  I thought this was a good excuse to speak to Joe the building manager and bring up the general topic of shadowy stick-figures loitering in the underground at all hours of the day and night.

“It’s not all night,” Joe muttered.  He was fixing something in the boiler room because the fixit guy hadn’t shown up, and he didn’t want to be bothered.  “Just all day.  His name is Gray.  He thinks he’s a secret agent.”

I’m rarely at a loss for words, but this stopped me cold.  “He’s what?  What are you talking about?”

“His mother says he never sleeps.  He reads all night, and by day he’s a secret agent.  So far, he hasn’t stolen anything or killed anyone, as far as I know.”

“What, you talk to his mother?”

“I asked her about him, sure.”

“So what did she tell you?”

“She’s crazy, too.  They live up in 308.”

“Besides telling you she was crazy, did she tell you anything about her son?”

Joe kept working.  “She didn’t go so far as to call him a nut case, if that’s what you mean.”

“What does he do?  Doesn’t he go to school?”

“Kids do whatever they want these days.  He goes to school, he doesn’t go to school.  Who the hell knows?”

I was losing patience with Joe’s indifference, but I stayed calm.  “Joe, I just want to know what that kid is doing in the underground.”

Joe smiled, but kept working.  “You just called me ‘Joe’ so you must be pissed about something.”

This was true, and I was irritated that Joe had read my thoughts.  “For God’s sake, all I want to know – “

“You’re in charge of the bylaws, aren’t  you?” Joe interrupted, still smiling.  “He thinks he’s a secret agent.  There’s trouble ahead if you don’t do something.  We have a bylaw against loitering, so do your job.  His mother didn’t call him a nut case, but I will.  Gray Whipple.  Ever notice how all these nut cases always have funny last names?  Whipple, Gripple, Schmipple…it’s a strange world. ”

I thought about the strange world we live in.  “There’s a bylaw against loitering,” I mused.  “But I don’t know if it applies to someone who lives in the building.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Joe said.  “One little spark can cause a fire that burns the building down.  Then the whole city follows after that, and then who knows?  You gotta nip these things in the bud.”

I couldn’t help following Joe’s reasoning to its logical conclusion, and I did not relish the thought of being the condominium bylaw officer responsible for putting an end to civilization as we know it.

Joe seemed pleased that I was not arguing with him.  He nodded towards his toolbox and said politely, “My last name is Smith and I’m happy with it.  Can you hand me that goddammed wrench?”

Unit 308 was directly above the boiler room.  I’m not sure what compulsion drove me upstairs because no one had ever complained about the secret agent kid, and I certainly didn’t want to be accused of letting the power of my office go to my head.  Still, my curiosity pulled me into the elevator and a few seconds later I was at the door of unit 308.  Maybe Joe had a point.  There might be big trouble ahead if I didn’t put an immediate stop to this nonsense, and I’d even been warned in advance by no less an authority than the building manager.  I gave a few gentle knocks and listened for the sounds of movement inside.  I heard very faint footsteps, followed by the click of a bolt lock.  Then the door opened just enough for a nose and mouth to poke through.

“Yes?” came a wary female voice from the narrow crack in the door.

I tried to sound as cheerful as I could.  “I live in the building, ma’am.  I’m on council, and I’m in charge of the bylaws.”

“Oh, dear,” said the voice, and the door opened up to reveal a pale, tiny woman in a housecoat.  She wore no make-up and her hair was tightly pulled back in a bun, with long, wiry strands shooting out everywhere as if the static around her head was overwhelming.   

“Ma’am, there’s nothing to be worried about,” I assured her.  “Don’t be concerned.  Are you Mrs. Whipple?”

She nodded warily.  “Yes…”

“Do you and, um, Mr. Whipple live here with your son?”

“Mr. Whipple does not live at this address.  His address is now in Heaven with the angels.”

This startled me, and I was not sure how to respond.  I collected myself and said, “Is it just you then, and your son?”

“Is this about Gray?” she whispered.  “Oh dear, oh no – ”

I again tried to reassure her.  “I told you not to worry.  I don’t want you to be upset.  I just want to speak with your son.”

“He’s not here.”

“Do you know where he is?”

“He’d down in the parkade playing his game.”

“What game is that?”

“The secret agent game.  He’s hiding from his enemies.”

“Ma’am, can you tell your son that he shouldn’t be loitering about?”

“Oh, I tell him, I tell him,” she assured me.

“His behavior is an infraction of the bylaws, and he’s frightening some of the tenants,” I lied.

“Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear…” she kept repeating.  

Before I could say anything more, tears began to spill out of this tiny woman’s eyes and roll down her cheeks.  “Oh dear…I’m so sorry.  I don’t want any trouble.”

I now felt guilty for making her cry.  “Mrs. Whipple, please – “

“He was always a strange boy,” she interrupted through her tears.  “When he was little he would always tell me that he was standing outside of himself and looking at his own thoughts.  He said his thoughts told him to put his pajama top on backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards, over and over and over again before he’d go to bed.  Oh, it worried my husband so, and it all gave him a heart attack and sent him to Heaven with the angels.  I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I don’t want us to have to move.  Please, please, please…”

She broke down sobbing and I knew the conversation was at an end.

“Don’t worry,” I assured her.  “Ma’am, I’m sorry, too, for bothering you.  Nothing’s going to happen, I promise.”

There is no trick to getting the upper hand on a secret agent if you’re the only one with the keys to the secret doors.  I took the elevator back down to the basement and unlocked the door to the surveillance room, and within seconds of stepping inside I spotted Gray Whipple’s blurry image on one of the screens that showed the far wall of the parkade.  I then went outside, hustled around the south side of the building, and quietly entered the parkade through the emergency door.  Access to this door from the walkway also required a key that no secret agent could ever possess.  My stealth maneuvers brought me immediately into the west end of the underground, where I was now only a few feet away from the elusive shadow-figure.  He had his back to me and he was crouching behind the pillar next to the wall so no one from the adjacent driveway could see him.  He was startled when I slammed the door and he immediately snapped his head around and sprang to his feet.  He made a rather half-hearted attempt to run past me to the next pillar, but I stepped deftly in front of him and blocked his path.  I was now face to face with the mysterious secret agent and I looked squarely into his eyes for the first time.

Secret agents may look handsome in the movies, but all I saw in front of me was an emaciated, sallow-faced schoolboy with sad eyes and a quirky, half-open mouth that gave him a frozen look of bewilderment.  He had a pile of bed-hair slanting off in one direction that needed a good plastering down.  But it was the expression in his eyes that almost knocked me over, and I was immediately reminded of someone I knew as a child and who I hadn’t thought about in years. 

There was a park near where we lived, and in the summer there was this guy at the park who sold ice-cream to the kids.  This guy was severely handicapped, and I remember how he was strapped into the seat of his little refrigerator cart with a big leather belt.  He would drool and you couldn’t understand what he was saying, and the only part of his body that he could move were his fingertips.  He would furiously tap-tap-tap his fingertips on the side of his cart, but no one ever understood what he meant, and no one paid any attention to him anyway.  We would drop our money into his cup and take our ice-cream, and the poor guy was never cheated out of anything as far as I knew.  I remember how my friend had never been to the park before, and how he reacted when he saw the ice-cream man for the first time.  I remember the look in my friend’s eyes as he stared down upon the drooling man, paralyzed into silence, and tap-tap-tapping a message that no one ever heard.

The uncomprehending sadness that I saw in my friend’s eyes all those years ago was the same look that I now saw in Gray Whipple’s eyes, as if he had suddenly come upon me all strapped down and bent at the spine.

“Goodness,” I smiled.  “Does the look of me shock you that much?”

“Nope,” he said.  “I see you down here.  You don’t see me, but I see you.”

Despite the nervous look in his eyes, I was surprised at how self-assured his voice was and how calmly his words were spoken.

“Ah, but you’re wrong there,” I smiled.  “I do see you and that’s why I’m here.”

He did not respond, and I suspected he was waiting for me to give up and wander away.

“I had a little chat with your mother just now, and she told me a bit about you.”

“My parents gave up on me a long time ago.  I love my mother, she doesn’t bother me.”

I kept my voice even and just quiet enough for him to hear.  “Are you a real secret agent?” I asked.

“Maybe,” he replied, calmly.

“I used to have a little secret of my own, and you might be interested.”

I thought this might change the look in his eyes, but he didn’t waver and he didn’t answer.

I said, “When I was a kid, younger than you, I had this bizarre fear that I’d get run over by a car, or hit by lightening, or whatever.  Ever had that fear?”

The boy didn’t miss a beat.  “It’s not a fear,” he said calmly.  “I look forward to it.”

I was not going to be deterred by such an obnoxious remark.  I continued, “One night I put my pajama top on backwards by mistake, and I didn’t die the next day.  To me, this was a sign of good luck.  So every night I put the top on backwards before I put it on the right way.  Then I got to thinking, well, ten signs of good luck were better than one, so I started to put the top on backwards ten times, so I would have ten times the protection from certain death the next day.  It all made sense to me at the time.”

I waited for Gray Whipple to display some sense of neurotic kinship over this disclosure, but he seemed oddly unmoved.

I smiled, and then added, “Funny thing is, it seemed to work.  I grew out of it.”

“Your parents should have had you locked up,” he said, impassive and unsmiling.  “My mother tells everyone that story.  She thinks somebody out there will give her the answer she wants.”

“I just gave you the answer, didn’t I?”

He looked away momentarily, then turned to me again.  I knew there was little chance of any bonding with this kid.  He said, “If you’re happy with yourself, that’s up to you.”

“I asked you if you were a real secret agent.  Are you?”

“I like being a secret agent.”

“Do you like hiding from your enemies?”

 “I hide from them, and then I get them in the end.”

“Am I your enemy?”


“Do you have lots of enemies?”

“My share.”

“But no friends, I take it?”

“You don’t have any friends either. Don’t try to fool me, and don’t think you’re better than me. I know what you’re thinking.”

“You read my thoughts, do you?”

“I’m an observer of my own thoughts.  Your thoughts are your own business, but yes, I can read them.”

“How do you observe your own thoughts?  Is there another person inside of you?”

“Maybe I come down here to find out.”

“Have you found the other person yet?”

He considered this.  “People think they can hide their thoughts,” he finally said.  “They think their own thoughts are their sacred property.  But the truth is, their thoughts are just as public as any walk through the park.”

“Can you read my thoughts?”

“You’d be surprised.”

“Would you be surprised to learn that I have plenty of friends, and you’re wrong?”

“You have social acquaintances, and that’s all you have.”

“You know this, do you?”

“When you read the obituaries every day, do you weep for every name you see?”

“I weep for my friends, I don’t weep for strangers.  You’re spouting a trite philosophy, and it’s not even a proper comparison.”

“Well, I don’t think so.”

I was determined to make my point.  “We all die,” I continued.  “But if we’ve formed a bond in life with another person, call it love, call it friendship, call it whatever you want, then their death hits us harder than the death of a stranger.  It’s a perfectly normal way to think, so don’t pat yourself on the back for being so clever.”

The secret agent was unimpressed.  He said, “Just ask yourself, what’s gonna upset your so-called friends the most, your death or the loss of their property?”

“I hear you read all night and don’t sleep.”

“Yeah, sometimes.”

“Well, I read too, and I can tell you that you’ve just mangled a quote from Machiavelli.  The proper quote deals with the loss of your father and the loss of your inheritance, and which one drives you to despair.”

“Same difference.”

I shook my head.  “No, it is not the same.  Everyone loses their parents, but not everyone loses their inheritance, so don’t go around making up trite comparisons to impress your friends.”

“You’re not my friend, and l don’t have any friends if that makes you feel any better.”

It occurred to me in that moment that I’d been drawn into an annoying conversation by a kid I had known for all of five minutes.  I’d had enough, and it was time for the lecture.  “My feelings don’t matter here,” I said firmly.  “I’m a resident of the building, I’ve been elected to Council, and I’ve been appointed to enforce the bylaws.  I didn’t come down here to engage in idle philosophies with a boy who lives in a fantasy world.  You’re loitering down here.  I’m here to tell you to stop it.  Will you stop it, or do I go back upstairs to your mother?” 

“I told you, my parents gave up on me years ago.”

“Your parents didn’t give up on you,” I shot back.  I leaned closer to him to make sure he couldn’t slip away.  “They were unable to handle you.  Everyone gets to the point where they can’t handle something, and instead of running from it, which some people can’t do, they just leave it alone.  They leave it alone in order to preserve their own sanity, and if your mother has left you alone then she has a dammed good reason for it.”

The kid seemed intrigued by this reference to his mother, and he didn’t move.  I said, “Now I’m done with this discussion and I’m done with you, except for one thing…”  I was now carefully slicing each word off my tongue.  “One tiny, last little challenge.  You say you can read my thoughts.  You say my thoughts are as public as a walk in the park.  Okay, then I challenge you to read those thoughts.  I’m going to think of something and I defy you to guess what it is.  I have a picture in my mind.  I absolutely point-blank defy you to guess what that picture is.  And when you make the wrong guess, as you most certainly will, I’m going to tell you again to take your secret agent act out of the parking lot and go observe your own thoughts somewhere else and quit making your mother cry herself to sleep.  Do you understand me?  I’m thinking of something.  I have a picture.  Tell me what I’m thinking.”

The boy looked at me as a hunting dog might look at a squirrel.

“You have a picture in your mind of three oranges on a red tablecloth,” he said.

We stared at each other for the longest time and Gray Whipple never changed expression.  He still had the same look of sadness in his eyes that had struck me from the moment we began our strange discourse.  Even now, when he knew that he had been correct and had guessed exactly what I had been thinking, his expression gave up no hint of satisfaction.  If anything, his sad eyes seemed more deeply set into his skull and they looked sadder than ever before.

“That kid’s a mind reader,” I told my wife later that evening.  “For the life of me, I don’t know how the hell he did it.”

“Did you tell him not to loiter in the parkade?”

“I’m not sure what I told him.”

“I keep telling you, you need a holiday.”

I had assumed that Gray Whipple would be back playing his secret agent game the next day.  But I didn’t notice him in the underground after that, although he may have been more careful to hide behind the pillars and only dash out when I wasn’t around.  My wife hadn’t noticed him either, but I knew that all the remonstrations in the world from the bylaw officer could never intimidate this kid, or deter him from whatever secret mission his private demons had forced him to undertake.  Still, I didn’t see any more of him and I decided to leave well enough alone, which was a bit of a minor victory as far as I was concerned.

About a month after our little chat in the underground, I was driving by the high school and I spotted Gray Whipple on the sidewalk.  There was a group of kids marching ahead of him who were all involved in some sort of animated, frenzied discussion.  There was about ten of them pressed together in a tight pack.  They were flailing their arms and laughing and shouting furiously over each other as they hurried along, spilling onto the roadway, oblivious to traffic and anything else that was not a part of their exclusive little world.  Gray was not a part of their world either, but he was following close enough behind to give an onlooker the impression that he was a buddy trying to catch up.  A stranger would assume that he, too, would soon become one of the laughing kids without ever suspecting that he never intended to take those last few steps.  He was wearing a black hoodie-type jacket and he had the hood pulled tight over his head as if he did not want anyone to recognize him.  I slowed my car and I watched him walk along, hunched over with his hands in his pockets and his head down, staring blankly at the sidewalk, always keeping a few deliberate steps back from the raucous mob in front of him.  A part of me wanted to call out to him and ask him to read my thoughts, but I thought the better of it and kept driving.

Not long after that, I ran into Joe the building manager.

“You hear about that kid?” he said casually.

“You mean Gray Whipple?”

“Yeah, the secret agent kid.  Police came around here, told me the kid made his way over to Highway 17 and then walked right into traffic.  Tragic thing.”

At that moment, I had a vision of poor Mrs. Whipple in her hallway and all that static hair.  “Is his mother okay?”

“She doesn’t come out,” Joe said.  “Nothing much she can do.”

When I told my wife the news, she was saddened but not surprised.  There was a pause as we thought about the most appropriate thing we should say to each other.  Then she said, “He wouldn’t have had a happy moment, ever.”

“You’re a D.H. Lawrence scholar, aren’t you?”

She seemed baffled by my question.  “Well, give me your quote and we’ll see.”

“Do you think it’s best to go out of a life where you have to ride a rocking horse to find a winner?”

“You could get a PhD in Lawrence and you still wouldn’t know what it all means.  The highbrows say they know, but they’re full of it.  It’s cynical, and that’s all they know.”

I thought about this.  I said, “We don’t really know if both kids ever found what they were looking for, the kid on the horse and the kid in the parkade.”

“Maybe they did find what they were looking for, and they couldn’t deal with it.”

I thought abut this, too.  “You know how Paul and Peggy fuss about that cat of theirs?”

“That cat has nothing to do with D.H. Lawrence, and you desperately need a holiday.”

“Humor me.  I’m talking about our best friends who we’ve known for over thirty years.”

My wife nodded.  “Yes, yes, they’re our best friends.”

“You talk about the highbrows being cynical, but how cynical are you?”

“When you stop speaking in riddles I might answer you.”

I hesitated, and then popped the question.  “When you die on the same day as their beloved pet, who garners the most grief – you or the cat?”

My wife was never slow to miss the point, and she did not hesitate.  “The cat, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

I lay awake that night thinking about Gray Whipple.  I don’t believe he ever did find what he was looking for before he decided to step out into traffic and put an end to his own thoughts.  If he was indeed capable of observing those thoughts, all he would ever find was more sadness – exactly like the kid on the rocking horse.

We are all born into sadness, burdened by challenges known only to God, and tied together by secrets so deep that even a secret agent can’t find them.


Robert Collings is a retired lawyer living and writing in Pitt Meadows, B.C. The Secret Agent is Robert’s second appearance in Writing Disorder.  The Tears of the Gardener is archived in the Spring 2021 edition.  Robert has also published online in Euonia Review (eunoiareview.wordpress.com), Scars Publications (scars.tv), and Mobius magazine (mobiusmagazine.com).  His stories appear in print in cc&d magazine and Conceit magazine, and all are found in Robert’s collection called Life in the First Person

Robert has not won many awards in his lifetime, although he’s proud of a “Participation Certificate” he received for coming dead last in the 50-yard dash in the third grade. 

Vanishing Pop-Tarts

By Crystal McQueen

If you just ignore the hunger pangs, you can return to your dream. Your body feels sluggish as your brain tumbles out of sleep. You mentally argue with yourself. If you just ignore the cramping, it will go away. Your body takes no stock in such arguments and images of cinnamon rolls and tripled stacked pancakes and double-sized blueberry muffins roll through your mind. You flip onto your stomach with the hope that the pressure will suppress the gnawing pangs, but daylight creeps behind your eyelids, drawing you further out of sleep. But you don’t want to wake up. Not yet. You still feel so heavy, so sleepy.

Then, Pop-Tarts. Fresh from the toaster. The strawberry kind with icing, melted butter sliding off a browned edge. Your stomach turns, and you almost groan aloud. Last time, you slept too late, and all of the Pop-Tarts were gone by the time you made your bleary-eyed way out of bed.

You begged and pleaded with your mother to buy more on her next grocery run, but she insisted they were too expensive for breakfast and were gone in a day. A box of Lucky Charms cost less than one box of Pop-Tarts and would last three times as long. But what is money to you? You, whose life savings consists of $18.28, ten of which you found in the gutter as you walked home from the bus stop. So, you whined and complained that it wasn’t fair your sisters got some when you didn’t. It took most of the morning, but you convinced your mother to buy Pop-Tarts one last time.

So, you waited. You reminded. And you relished the moment your mother would come home from the grocery store. Two weeks of food for seven people filled her battered Cadillac to the brim and didn’t always last until the next grocery run. Four gallons of milk, half a dozen boxes of cereal, egg noodles, and mac & cheese pulled at the thin plastic as you heaved as many parcels as you can carry onto your bony arms, the handles digging sharply into your tender flesh. Your eyes roamed each sack, seizing your precious Pop-Tarts the moment you found them. But your mother forced you to wait until morning.

Now, the light insists you are wiling the daylight hours away. Still, you refuse, your bottom lip sticking out petulantly against your warm pillow. Reluctantly, you push yourself up, eyes resolutely closed, and feel your way down the metal ladder of your bunkbed. If you wanted the good stuff, you have to be quick. You can’t waste time sleeping when the sun is up.

You hold out a sluggish hand in front of you as toys bite at the soles of your bare feet like gnats. You stumble as you make your way to the door, the pale light highlighting the veins in your eyelids as you pass into the hallway.

Your hands trace the corduroy wallpaper on either side of you, some of the pastel strings loosening from the paper due to this very practice. But you like the way the texture massages your fingertips. Your mom says the hall is too narrow to carry anything straight, but you love it, the walls hugging you.

It’s darker in the hall, colder. The air conditioning raises gooseflesh on your bare limbs where your worn-out Beastie Boys t-shirt doesn’t cover. Its soft fabric is coming apart at the arm pits and fraying about your knees, but you love it anyway. Where it came from, you do not know. It’s yours now.

Slowly, you lay your head against the wall as you walk, your hair emitting a soft shush, your bare feet soundless vessels across the maroon carpet. The house is quiet. So quiet, you believe you must be the only one awake.

But, a creak of the recliner stirs in your ears, and you freeze. Your eyes fly open, a sliver of moon through the skylight exposes your folly, and your heart pounds. You wait.

The hum of the air conditioner vibrates through the silence. You hold your breath. Your skin tingles. You pray you misheard.

There was no sound, you try to convince yourself.

The recliner footrest slams into place, and a cough like ground up gravel echoes through the hall.

Your body trembles.

This is a mistake. A terrible mistake. You thought it was morning, but he won’t care. You’re out of bed. That’s all that matters. You want to run back to your room before he catches you, but it is as though the carpet has a hold on your feet.

You’ll say you were sleep walking. Or maybe you’ll say you had to pee. But, why hope? He won’t listen to your excuses.

The scent of whiskey precedes his heavy footfalls.

You close your eyes, regressing to that childish belief that if you don’t see him, he can’t see you. You swallow a whimper as he takes the corner too wide and thumps into the wall. You cling to your nightshirt, the fabric a crumpled mess in your sweaty hands.

You wait for him to jerk you out of the shadows. You can feel the ache in your shoulder as though it has already happened. His hand clenched on the back of your neck. The bone-rattling shake. You promise yourself you won’t cry this time. But you know will.

You want your mother, but even if she were here, it wouldn’t prevent the beating. But it would be less.

Please let it be less.

You hear the flip of a light switch, and you flinch, your eyes clenching tighter as blood pumps through your racing heart.

The bathroom door slams, and your eyes fly open. You stare in disbelief at that beam of light under the door. Your mind races, celebrating, screaming in relief.

He didn’t see you. He didn’t see you.

You hear his pee hits the toilet water and on the floor tile where he misses. You back away from the light, your fists still clenched in your shirt.

You don’t look away from that gleam until you slip into your room.

You are careful to avoid toys on the floor, the streetlight – your false sun – illuminating teddy bears, and building blocks, and half-filled notebooks that litter your floor. Any other time, finding a spot of carpet to step on would be a great game. Any time but now. You have to get back in bed before he finishes in the bathroom. Before he checks on you.

Your two younger sisters sleep peacefully in the bottom bunk, curled together like tiny dolls, blissfully unaware, and you envy them.

You step on the first rung and ease your body up, your mind screaming at you to both go faster and not to let the bed creak.

Again, you hear him cough, and you race up the last steps, flopping on your mattress. The bed, like the streetlamp, betrays you, jiggling long after his coughing fit stops.

You hold your breath, not daring to move. You wish you could climb under the covers, but you can’t move. Your muscles ache, your stomach twisted in knots as your breath comes in shallow spurts.

You wait. You wait and you hope, holding your little body as still as you possibly can.

Footsteps in the hall. Are they coming toward you or back to the living room? You can’t tell. He coughs again, a hacking cough, a cough you’d know anywhere. Closer than before. You wish you can turn away from the door. You try to relax your face, but spiders with their icy legs crawl across your skin.

Your chest hurts. It screams for air, but still, you don’t breathe.

You just want it to be over.

Let it be over.

And, then it is.

A familiar metal clanks from the recliner footrest, and your whole body relaxes. Your breath comes in and out in haggard gasps.

Still, you do not crawl under the covers. Still, you wait as your heartbeat struggles to right itself. Only when you hear the resounding snores do you allow yourself to draw your knees to your chest as one hand flings your wolf blanket over you and the other draws the pillow more evenly under your head. You promise yourself you won’t open your eyes again until morning.

Sleep eludes you. So, you sink into daydreams. Dreams where you slay dragons. Dreams where you are brave. In your dreams, you’re never afraid. You’re never a coward.

You lose yourself in these fantasies because anywhere is better than here.


Crystal McQueen lives in the suburbs of Northern Kentucky with her husband and two children. She attends classes at EKU’s Blue Grass Writer’s Studio, pursuing a MFA in Creative Writing. She finds inspiration for her writing through her passion for adventure – whether it be backpacking through nature, exploring the secrets of the city, or traveling to far off lands. For more information, please visit crystalmcqueen.com


by Margaret E. Helms

Eleanor Trask clung to the notion that one day she would become somebody. Now, somebody was standing in the frozen foods aisle of Lucky’s Supermarket wearing an army green coat with a hood of matted fur. She recognized me before I did her. 

“Goodness gracious me, is that you Terry?” Eleanor aggressively shook my shoulders and drew me into a nonconsensual hug. “You’ve developed such a pretty face.”

“It’s been so long,” I began, “and thank you?” 

The only things in her cart were bananas and cough syrup. Eleanor had dyed her hair the color of lukewarm beer in a red solo cup. It was still cut short, like it had been our whole childhood, but it had turned brittle and stringy. By the brand-name rainboots and her designer purse, I could tell she had gotten a sliver of the life she had wanted. Eleanor had modified herself. Her breast implants looked like two hot air balloons, but she had dark circles the size of golf balls under her eye sockets. Not even Botox could save Eleanor from Lucky’s LED lights. In her hands was a bag of frozen carrots. 

We talked about her husband, Bill, and how they were coming up on their fourteenth anniversary. There was much to brag about, like Billy Jr. being almost five feet tall. 

“Where’s Charlie at these days? Is he doing well?” 

My questions must have overwhelmed her because she squinted at her bag of frozen carrots and bit her bottom lip morosely. “Charlie?” Eleanor hesitated.

Charlie was her older brother.

“God only knows where Charlie is. Last I heard, he was in Atlanta. Did you know Atlanta is the next Hollywood?” Eleanor began to beat the bag of carrots against her shopping cart. “You know, a production company wanted me to audition for a tooth whitening commercial, be the after in a before-and-after, but I just told them I was way too overcommitted.” She continued to smack the frozen carrots against her cart. An older woman at the end of the aisle looked at us with a concerned expression. “But enough about me,” Eleanor raised her voice. “Bill says that him and you are both in the Christian book club together?”  

“Me?” I rubbed the back of my neck. The only version of her husband I’ve ever known was the one from their biennial Christmas card.

“These carrots!” Eleanor cried. “They clump together into one gigantic frozen chunk, and you have to break them up yourself. Every bag is like this. It’s exhausting.” 

Mustering up all the empathy I could, I began to do the same with a bag of diced hash browns. It dawned on me that Eleanor Trask was no longer Eleanor Trask. Now she was Eleanor Trask Smith. The realization was disappointing. In fourth grade, she tried to change her name to Gwendolyn. She was sick of our male classmates waving their small boney fingers in her face and croaking, “E.T. phone home.” Eleanor didn’t realize that changing her name to Gwendolyn wouldn’t stop the teasing. She would still be the shortest kid in class. She still wore pink converse, and thick headbands and had a cheetah print backpack. Every cooties-fearing boy dreamed about teasing her. At the top of every “fill in your name” blank, she wrote in pink ink, XOXO Eleanor Elaine Trask, a.k.a. Gwendolyn.  

“It’s funny. I can’t remember much about our childhood,” Eleanor lied. The carrots sounding like a maraca as she dropped them into her cart. “Not the little things or the big things. I wish I did, but I don’t.” She looked past me, her eyes far-off, amid the galaxies and supernovas. “And for Charlie,” her penciled in eyebrows pulled together. “I’ve loved him seventy-seven times, but seventy-eight times was just too much. Some days, I wake up and wonder if he’s all alone with no one who loves him even just a little.” 

“I’m sure that’s not the case,” I looked down at my feet. 

“Well, if it was, I wouldn’t mind. He deserves whatever he gets. I’ve known that for a long time now. You’ve known it too. Wouldn’t you like to be proved right?” 

My silence was validation enough. For years, I had wondered what all Eleanor remembered, but she was a master in self-deception. She always knew more than what she told herself and others. Surfacing her delusions required psychological warfare, but it was too late in the afternoon, too cold and rainy, to battle with Eleanor. 


The summer before our seventh-grade year, Eleanor and I stole the bunny from Courtney Billingsley’s front yard. Our bodies were slippery from sweat and river-water. The smell of sunscreen and my mother’s banana scented tanning oil trailed behind us as we soared home on our bicycles. Eleanor’s bike was pink and blue, with a basket and a bell.

The heat index was over a hundred degrees, and Courtney Billingsley was reclined in a striped lawn chair, looking dehydrated. The girl was a year younger than us and had the loudest walk in Alabama, according to Eleanor. Instead of a lemonade stand, Courtney had a cardboard box with the phrase “Dutch Rabbits for sale” painted on the side. The green paint was runny, so Courtney overcorrected by adding a dozen dollar signs like some type of diversion. As we peddled by her house, she bobbed her head at us as if to prove that she was conscious. 

“How much you think they are?” Eleanor’s bike made a screeching bark as it came to a halt. She put her hands on her hips. “You know there’s a law against that?” 

“What?” I was a few feet ahead—always faster. 

“You gotta name the price. Everyone knows that.” Throwing her index finger to the sky, she swung one leg over her bike and marched towards Courtney Billingsley. The backs of her thighs were blood splotched from her seat. Her bulky blonde hair bounced as she pranced through the yard, her pink Soffe Shorts swaying side-to-side. For a second, I watched her, then I followed. 

By the time I reached them, Eleanor had seized a bunny, holding it in her sunburnt arms. The bunny had a blackish-blue stripe on its back, but the rest was white. One of its ears dropped while the other shot up like it had just heard something outrageous.

“How shillyshally,” Eleanor exclaimed. She thought words like shillyshally made her sound smart. “Look at its floppy ears. Little thing must be a mutt. Oh Terry, I think I’m in love.” 

“The others have stripes too,” Courtney tried to strike a conversation. 

Eleanor acted like she did not hear, “What should we name him?”

“Name him? You gotta buy him first,” the girl protested. 

Everything about Eleanor was childlike. Her wrist was jam-packed with Silly Bandz, and her short blonde curls were pinned back by butterfly clips. Yet, her poised lips and milk-white teeth teased maturity. With a smile like that she could convince anyone of anything. One devilish grin was all the insight I needed. The idea was mutual. The performance was sporadic. Together we darted off like a pair of madcap mice. Out of her chair flew a Courtney Billingsley, puking up her lunch mid-scream. The bunny’s feet wobbled in the air. It had no say in the matter. Eleanor threw its limp body into her basket, and I swear, at that moment, that bunny and I made eye-contact. 

It must have been the adrenaline that had me imagining sirens, but I kept looking over my shoulder, expecting a patrol of cop cars in hot pursuit. Houses morphed together, and the street names twirled as we peddled farther and farther away from the scene of the crime. 

Once we reached our street, we stopped to check on our new friend. Eleanor was already embellishing the story. Apparently, the Billingsley girl had barfed Cheetos all over her favorite pair of shorts. The bunny squirmed as I held it in the air, trying to identify its gender. 

“His name is George,” Eleanor declared. 

“George? That’s a stupid name for a rabbit.” My criticism fizzled under Eleanor’s confident glare. “I guess he sort of looks like a George.” 

“George sounds like royalty.” 

“Well, George needs a home because he ain’t staying with me.” I had nothing against the bunny, except that it wasn’t a dog. If I went home with a stolen bunny, my parents would never let me get a dog. George would always feel lesser under the shadow of my almost-to-be dog. “I got to be home for dinner in like thirty minutes. You take the bunny.”

“George,” Eleanor corrected me. “And the survival rate at the Trask household is under five percent. If you care anything about George, you’ll take him.” 

“If he goes home with me, he’ll just die of boredom,” I rebutted. 

“If he goes home with me, he’ll die of neglect and starvation. So, try to top that, Terry.” The way she flicked her tongue when saying my name and tilted her chin with a smile made me uneasy. It was if my name was a joke that everyone else understood except for me.

The Trask household lay ensnared by thickets at the end of the street. The grey-wood shack was balanced on a hill and had a basement, which I had always envied. There was nothing desirable about the basement. It was full of cobwebs and aged hunting gear, humid from flooding. There was an old cistern that was both arousing and petrifying. My favorite thing in the basement was a freezer stocked with an endless supply of ice pops. The bulk packs could fuel us through any summer activity. 

Sometimes, I’d fantasize the basement was my own. The walls would be painted dusty red. There would be a pool table and an expensive leather sectional. While Eleanor would sing into her hairbrush, I would circle luxury bath towels from home décor magazines.  We often pretended we were something, somewhere else.

As we approached the house, I could see her brother’s Mango Hellcat parked in the gravel driveway. How he got the money for a barely used sports car at seventeen was a mystery to me. However, this kind of unexplained materialism was a Trask Family trademark. Each of them lived out their separate indulgences, but Eleanor’s were by far the most glamorous. Every year, her first day of school was treated as a grand entrance into society. Her phobia of being late to a trend left her with a closet full of Webkinz.  One Christmas, it was Ugg Boots, then a year later it was the Nintendo. She was dissatisfied with everything but the moon.  


We walked our bikes around the side of the house. The Trask’s backyard consisted of a shed cloaked in kudzu and a spoiled hammock. There was no guard dog since Mr. Trask hated noise. The house reeked of something burning all-year-round. 

The mission was to shelter the bunny in her basement, but we were blocked by Charlie, who was basking on the concrete steps. 

Fearlessly, Eleanor demanded he move.

“Where’d you get the bunny?” Charlie took a sip from his Styrofoam cup. Charlie was always sipping on the same purple drink. 

“His name is George,” Eleanor huffed. Unable to get past him, she began to throw elbows. I wondered if she had just realized how stupid the name George sounded. 

 As a baby, Charlie had a split in the roof of his mouth. Despite being fixed in one surgery, his upper lip had a slight but permanent hook to it. There was something alluring about the Trask boy. It was the same kind of allure one gets while driving past a car wreck. Once, he took Eleanor and me on top of the high school so we could watch him set off his car alarm as people walked by. “Always keep the simpletons on their toes,” he would say. A week after getting his driver’s license, he ran over our neighbor’s mailbox and made one of his girlfriends pay for it.

My parents would talk about Charlie, thinking I wouldn’t know who they were talking about. “He’s a reckless insubordinate thug with no future,” they’d say.  

To the world, he was the scum of society. To me, he was Eleanor’s older brother. Sometimes before school, he’d braid her hair so that her short blonde hair would look like dingy shoelaces in his double French braids.  

“Just give me the bunny,” Charlie spoke warmly. 

“What are you going to do with him?” Eleanor yanked the bunny away from his reach. 

“Put him in a box or something. I haven’t thought that far ahead. Listen, keeping a bunny is a lot of upkeep. You’ve got to feed it, and entrain it, and clean out its poop. If you pay me…” 

“Pay you?” I intervened. 

“I’ll take care of it, and you can see it during visiting hours,” Charlie said. 

“We don’t want no visiting hours.” I shook my head.  

“But Charlie…” Eleanor squeezed the bunny and looked up at him with pouty lips. “I don’t have any money.” When Judy Stern sold her world’s finest fundraising chocolate at lunch, Eleanor was never short of money. 

“You can pay me back later,” Charlie said. 

It was almost time for dinner. Eleanor held the bunny tightly to her chest. The bunny’s eyes caught my attention. They looked like two smooth marbles, perfectly round. Eleanor and I used to compete to see who could draw the roundest circle. One of us would always win, but neither of us were ever perfect. George, however, had won effortlessly—with his two perfect eyes. His little bunny nose began to twitch in anticipation. With a sigh of defeat, Eleanor handed the bunny to Charlie, who promised to take good care of him. 


At dinner, I ate quickly, anxiously awaiting a call from Mrs. Billingsley. It was just me, my mother, and two bowls of beef stroganoff. Of course, my mother had no idea of my misconduct, but she would once Mrs. Billingsley called. Then she would throw a fit. My father would march me over to their house and make me apologize. I always thought he was too conventional. When I tried to quit basketball, he forced me to play until the end of the season. Eleanor never had to do things like that. 

Our mothers were friends, but our fathers hated each other. My father would say that Mr. Trask treats children like dogs. So, logically, Eleanor would be an inside dog, and Charlie would be an outside dog.

A carousel of scenarios was turning inside my head. Images of transforming my father’s tool shed into a bunny crib spun into mental plans. I’d paint the walls blue and hang up an informational poster about bunnies. I began to theorize over why George had one good ear and one floppy ear. If Mrs. Billingsley called, I’d have to return him. 

When it had seemed that I had dodged the inevitable, the home phone rang. 

 Avoiding my mother’s eye-contact, guilt began bubbling inside of me. My mother called my name. It was Eleanor. She wanted to know if we could have a sleepover. 

“Please Mom, I promise I won’t ever ask for anything again,” I yelled from the kitchen table. Bounding out of my chair, I found my mother’s arm and begged to go. 

My mother agreed, so I mounted my bike and fled back to the Trask home. By the time I reached her house, the sky had just begun to fill with orange and pink clouds; the sun hung just above the tree-line. Charlie’s Mango Hellcat was gone, and Eleanor sat at the street’s dead-end with a box of chalk. On the asphalt was something red and yellow. As I approached her, the blob took shape. She was drawing Saturn with all of its eight rings. 

“Where’s the bunny?” I asked. 

“You mean George? He’s with Charlie.” She began to shade the edges of the planet with purple chalk. “Him and Daddy got in a fight, so he left.” 

Their fights often occurred at the end of every month and always on Christmas. Charlie was always getting into it with his mother, though. Often, he provoked her. Once I witnessed her chucking all his dirty laundry in the front yard. Another time, she slung a cutting board at him, so he had to get one single stitch above his right eyebrow. Mrs. Trask was a small woman, but she had a fierce throw. 

“What if we spent the night in the hammock?” Eleanor began filing the chalk box to match the colors of the rainbow. “That way, we catch him when he comes home.” 

“Sure. I wonder what he’s doing. George the bunny, I mean.” I looped my finger in my braid. “Not Charlie. Who knows what Charlie is doing.” 

“I do.” Eleanor raised her head with a face of disgust. “He’s with Sandra,” she murmured. Last week it was Elise. 

It wasn’t our first night spent in the hammock. There was a thin navy blanket designated just for these special summer nights. Anything thicker would be too hot. We’d wrestle over it, trying to protect our legs from the mosquitos. “Next time, we’ll use bug spray,” we’d always say.

That night Eleanor told me that Venus was almost 200 million miles away from earth and that Jupiter was a beautiful tornado that no one could approach. We drew animals from the stars: elephants, jellyfish, and dragons. To her, the galaxies were expanding like a balloon, but in my world, there were only crickets and an obnoxious toad. 

For an hour, we twisted and coiled until the wind finally rocked us to sleep. I was always jealous of how Eleanor could remember her dreams. They were so outlandish while mine were plotless. I’m sure that night was no different—no flying or falling. Instead, I thought about the things I read of. Toxic algae in Botswana, angry Sea Turtles, and the Cheng Han Dynasty. Alone, I floated throughout the oceans of Europa— a shell of ice above me and bottomless waters below.   


It must’ve been 2 a.m. when headlights peered around the corner of the house. I woke in a cold sweat. It took a few nudges to knock Eleanor out of whatever comical dream she was having. I remembered our poor George, probably in the trunk of his car suffocating in a duffle bag. 

“Wake up. Charlie is home,” I whispered. 

Eleanor leaned over me for proof. Then she gasped. 

There was a girl pressed up against the hood of his car. Eleanor ducked behind me as if she had got caught doing something wrong, but I watched. Something inside of me detested her, but at the same time, I was her.  My heart was racing and torn and fearfully excited, just like hers. With quiet giggles, the couple began to shift towards us. As they stumbled down the hill, I realized that their destination wasn’t his room. They were walking in our direction. A more awful realization then came to me. This was Charlie’s sex hammock. Chill bumps crawled up my body as the beef stroganoff cycled round in my stomach making me nauseous.

“Oh, please no,” I shrieked. Then in one compulsive motion, I flipped out of the hammock, bringing Eleanor with me. We hit the red dirt with a thud.  

The girl squealed, and Charlie stopped eating her face. With catlike movements, Eleanor sprung to her feet. Charlie began swearing at us while the girl gripped his arm awkwardly. The whole time I sat on the ground uselessly. 

“We want George back,” Eleanor crossed her arms.

“The bunny?” It seemed as if he had forgotten. “Grow up, Els. I swear you’re such a pest. You’re really going to ruin my night over a rabbit?” 

“His name is George,” she yelled.  

“Shut up. You’re gonna wake Mom and Dad.” With a finger over his lips, Charlie looked over his shoulder nervously. The house was silent. “Look. Let me take Sandra home. Ight? Just wait in your room till I’m back, and then I’ll show you the bunny. Just don’t go in my room.” 

Inside the house, Mr. Trask was passed out on the recliner. ESPN was running its Games of the Century. Once inside her room, we leaped into her bed and were back asleep within seconds. While sleeping, I scratched one of my misquote bites until it bled. We would’ve never admitted it, but we were glad to be back inside. 

The best part about summer was sleeping late into the morning. This time when I awoke, Eleanor was propped up on her elbow, staring at me. 

“I think George is in his room,” she alleged.

“Is he not home yet?” I sat up in bed. My hair was a bird’s nest.  

Eleanor nodded her head towards the window and said, “His car’s not here. I bet he stayed the night with Miss What’s-Her-Face.” 

“Why don’t we just go in his room?” 

At first, the question was preposterous. Over the past year, Charlie’s room had grown increasingly guarded.  At the end of all his sentences was, “Just don’t go into my room.” Eleanor was highly aware of this, yet her reluctance to the idea softened. We talked about George. We planned to feed him carrots in the mornings and celery at night. Eleanor would buy a cage, and I’d buy a water feeder. Our plans were simple. George was one of us now. Eventually, we gathered up enough courage to get out of bed and go to Charlie’s room. 

One might have thought we were entering Chernobyl. With precaution, we gently pushed the door open and tiptoed in. The smell of AXE deodorant and dirty cleats was intoxicating, so I held my breath. Above his bed was a poster of Muhammad Ali beating his chest over a fallen Sonny Liston. Under the window was a dusty keyboard. 

“Make sure you look everywhere,” Eleanor ordered. 

Scavenging through his room, I found Rambo and The Sandlot on videotape. Under his bed, I discovered a hoard of dollar store love roses. The glass tubes were stacked neatly while the paper roses were discarded in a pile. Inside his Algebra textbook, I also found a creased envelope addressed to Tampa, Florida. 

George was nowhere to be found, and I could tell that Eleanor was upset. Her cheeks started getting pink, and she began to pace around the room.

“I don’t get it. Where could he be?” She sounded exasperated. 

To know everything was a goal of hers. That’s why she wanted to go to space one day. Yet, Charlie was always out of her reach, and that drained her. With slumped shoulders, Eleanor walked to the keyboard. Blue sunlight bounced off the creamy keys. 

“You know Charlie taught me to play a few years ago,” Eleanor said. She poked at the power button. “But I was little, so I don’t remember much.” Then she pressed down on a key. The note was sharp and low. “He tried to teach me how to play ‘Don’t Stop Believing,’ but I was so bad he gave up. He’s really good, you know. You wouldn’t think it, but he is.” 

She was trying to find the right notes, for the right tune, to bring back some ancient memory of her and her brother. I watched her fiddle through bad chords and hand slips. 

“What are you doing in my room?” 

Leaned up against the door frame was Charlie, twirling his car keys. 

“I’m fed up, Charlie,” she shook her fist. “I want to see George. I know you have him. Where is he? Is he at Sandra’s? She can’t even dress herself, let alone take care of a…” 

“Why are y’all in my room?” Charlie scowled. 

“We want our bunny,” I yelled. “We stole him, okay? I didn’t want to, but it happened, and we got to take care of him. All your sister wants is to see him. That’s all. If you didn’t want to take care of him, then you shouldn’t have taken him in the first place.” 

Now he was looking at me. 

“Next time ask before going into my room,” he said. 

“We’re sorry,” Eleanor looked at her feet. 

The two stood across from each other. Eleanor’s back was to the piano, and her hands were behind her back. Uncomfortable from the silence, I began to rock on my heels. Then Charlie asked her what she was playing. After admitting she had forgotten how to play, he offered to reteach her. Together, Eleanor and I peeked over his shoulder. We watched his hands hop across the board effortlessly. While his fingers danced, Eleanor laid her left hand on his back tenderly. With a soft grin, he started the song over from the beginning. 

It sounded like funeral music to me.

“No, no, no,” I lunged over the keyboard, ripping the cord from the outlet. “Stop it. Just stop. You can’t just keep on not telling us where George is. I want to know where George is.” 

Eleanor backed away. This time she was sore at me. 

“You really wanna know, then fine. You asked for it—just remember that. I gave it away. I gave your stupid rabbit away. There was no way y’all would be able to take care of it. You know that. It’s better off where it is now.” 

There was nothing more chilling than an Eleanor Trask tantrum. It was the kind of wailing that involved fingernails, runny noses, and the gnashing of incisors. Trembling, she told him that she’d never forgive him—as long as he lived. We then watched her scurry out of the room, howling the name George down the hallway. 

“How could you be so cold?” I asked him.

“What’s it to you? It’s just a bunny.” In an effort to stay assertive, Charlie tossed his hair back, but I could tell by the hot tears in his eyes that he was miserable. 

“Who did you give the bunny to?” I asked. 

“No one.” Charlie turned his face away. 

“Do they go to school with you?” I pressed on.

“Leave it, kid. Just leave it alone, alright.” His ears were turning red. 

“Do I know them? Is that why you’re not saying anything? I’ll find out. You can’t hide it from me. Me and George have a connection.” 

“I lied, okay,” Charlie flapped his hands forcefully. “I lied. You caught me red-handed. I didn’t give your precious bunny away. You happy?” 

“Well, where is he?” I twisted my lips. 

“You really want to know?” He waited for me to respond before he repeated himself. 

“Yes,” I replied quickly. Of course, I wanted to know. 

With a quick gulp, his face twisted, and his dark eyes caved like a sinkhole. Someone once told me that confidence was being detached from one’s fears. For the cold-blooded boys like Charlie, the rules were flipped, and it was fear that bred their confidence. I followed him out of the room. The house was lifeless, and the screen door swayed from the breeze. Walking behind Charlie, I realized how small I was. We went outside to the concrete stairs—the only way to the basement. The sun was directly above our heads. 

The basement was soured by mildew so that when I inhaled its dense aroma, my nose and throat turned cold. One beam of light entered from the dimmed window—clashing with the floor. Under its spotlight, Charlie stood in the center of the room with his hands in his pockets. There was no cardboard box, no iron cage, no sound of breathing. With a tight chest, I looked at the well and then Charlie. Biting the inside of his cheek, he denied my speechless accusation.

Dragging my feet, I walked towards the freezer in a daze. There was no distinction between my heartbeat and breathing. There was only the echo of my steps. It was only a bunny, and it was ours for one fleeting moment. The freezer lid popped as I thrust it open. As the white mist began to clear away, all my chaotic thoughts were silenced. 

The bunny’s round eyes were frozen. Its arms were overextended, but its legs were curled into its prickly chest. When Charlie lifted the bunny from the freezer, its body went limp. I was too shocked to cry.  

“He’s all yours now,” Charlie scoffed. With a frown, he shoved the frozen bunny into my chest and walked away. I pleaded for him to take the bunny, but Charlie was already up the stairs. My body began to revolt. The bunny was stiff. Appalled, I began to gag. It was so cold—so dead. A fraction of me wanted to toss it down the well, but I couldn’t. This was my first-time holding George. Staring down at the lifeless creature, I pictured a dozen Dutch Rabbits skipping through the snow with little rabbit tracks tracing behind. “So long George,” I shuddered. Something odd possessed me, and I kissed the rabbit’s pea-sized head. 

Then I laid George back in the freezer.  


With her knees drawn to her chest, Eleanor sat on the curb by her fading Saturn. Her face was puffy, and her nostrils were rosy. Still stupefied, I sat down beside her. 

“This is all your fault you know,” she sniffled. 

There was no way to respond to this. My hands were still cold. 

“I said that he should have stayed with you, but you didn’t listen,” Eleanor started. “I knew that something like this would happen, but no. He went with me and now he’s gone. Now he’s happy with some other family that’s not us. They’re going to give him a new name, and we’re never going to see him again. George is lost forever, and it’s all your fought.” 

A peculiar image of George sipping tea with my mother and my father popped into my head and made me chuckle. He wore a red suit like The White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland. My parents were both teachers. Back home, my father was probably trying to fix the drainage problem, and perhaps my mother was folding clothes while listening to talk radio. In the summers, we would stay up late and play cards. In the mornings, my father would scramble eggs for my mother and me. 

“What are you laughing about?” Eleanor got defensive. 

“You know my parents think you’re a bad influence on me,” I lied. As soon as the words slipped my mouth, I regretted it. It wasn’t true, but Eleanor believed it in her fragile state. 

“It’s not safe,” Eleanor sobbed. “It’s not safe here. And Charlie. I hate his guts—I really do. I hate him so much. You’re lucky you know that, Terry? You have people that love you. What I would give just to have one person who loves me back.”  

That was the first time I pitied Eleanor Trask. 

I should have said that I loved her, but I didn’t. When she tried to bury her tears, I should’ve put my arm around her. Instead, I thought about George. 

Could a rabbit love, I wondered? Craning my neck backwards, I looked up to the sky. An omniscient Charlie was looking down on me with a smile. As the freezer door began to close, I had no thoughts. The four walls that trapped me were replaced with blackness so that there was nothing to observe but darkness. It wasn’t the cold that killed me. I died from suffocation. 

The bunny was never spoken of again, so I knew that she knew. I wondered how long it took for her to find out. She must’ve been reaching for an ice pop one afternoon only to feel an ice-block of fur. What had transpired in the basement was a mystery to her. At first, I felt guilty for all our silent lies, but over time it became another one of our games. We were too stubborn for honesty and too deep in our pride. As time elapsed, the memory became another one of our forgotten dreams. We were Pangea, two continents drifting farther and farther apart. 


It was sleeting when I left Lucky’s Supermarket. It was the middle of the afternoon, but the sun was already setting. Little pellets of ice beat against the rows of cars. Water trickled off the hood of my jacket and onto my face. It took three forceful twists to crank the ignition. I rubbed my palms together until the air vents spat out warm air. On my windshield, small snowflakes were swept away by small steams of rainwater.

Maybe, somewhere in Atlanta, the Trask boy is playing Journey on a grand piano. After the show, he’ll call his younger sister Gwendolyn. They’ll talk about secret clubs with elevated platforms and truffle butter—vaunt the life they now live. Gwendolyn will tell Charlie about a supermassive black hole caught on a telescope. She is an astrophysicist with Hollywood hair. They’ll reminisce over their childhood crimes, curse all their exes, then promise to call next week. Two hundred miles away, I am renovating their basement. The concrete floor is stained. Upstairs, my paintings are framed on freshly painted walls. My name is monogrammed on their kitchen towels. On the doormat are my pink bunny slippers.

What a beautiful façade it all was.

How we all wanted to be someone else.


Margaret Helms was born in Texas but grew up in Decatur, Alabama, where she draws inspiration for many of her stories. She is currently working towards her undergraduate degree in Journalism while studying creative writing at Murray State University. When she is not writing, Margaret baristas at a local coffee shop where she spends the bulk of her free time reading. This is her first publication.