Yellow House

Stuart Silverman

                                                              

He’d been stretched thin all morning, a thin gray wire pulled to fineness, though by what anchored, and where, was past his seeing. In the oily light seeping through the window, he first folded a burlap-brown filter along its slant edge, and then along the base at a right angle to the vertical. Opened by an index finger, it unfolded, for a moment an origami flower, and became a truncated cone. He poured into it a harvest of dark grains, coffee he had ground for twenty screeching seconds in a white Krups machine. He would top this off with a small measure of cocoa, a mud-brown fluff whose sweet tang eddied in the air as he lifted it from its cardboard box.

“Two kinds of bitter,” he had once explained, buying both from the general store which still held down the dust of Elton, Texas, its sixteen hundred square feet stocked with shelves sagging with years. The basement had been boarded up, unused since drought had come in the mid-40s and Old Man Hamilton stepped with caution into the back room, the floorboards riddled by termites and given to emitting clouds of wood dust at too quick a step.

Hung in place, on a plastic stanchion jutting from the molded housing of the coffee machine, the squat glass carafe is seated below the filter holder on a pad housing the coils that would keep the infused liquid hot after it had sweated through the grounds. The carafe had been washed the night before and allowed to air dry in place, and the reservoir was brimful of spring water, so that there was only the toggle needing to be moved to ON, which he did. And waited in the pale gold honey of light that washed across the kitchen, varying its timing with the season. He watched a few hesitant spurts twirl from the plastic spigot and spiral into a trickle. It was nearing a quarter to eight, the clock set into the metal control sheet testified. Time to be. Time for the day to begin to shape itself, to create order out of the helter-skelter left by the night.

Crossing to the dining room table, he let his cup exhale, working its way down to cool, watching vaguely as tendrils of oily smoke felt their way toward the ceiling. A ribbon of mahogany shot through by satinwood during the pouring, the liquid now stared obliquely up, a polished, obsidian lens held in by the circular wall of his cup. He liked to think of the caffeine dropping out of the liquid sloshing in his gut, flowing almost directly into his blood and up the branching pathways to the limbic system, spreading through the cerebellum and into the furthermost reaches of the cortex while the inessential fluids escaped to the kidneys for eventual discharge from the overfull bladder.

He was slow to wake, but the tinsel of light threatened his composure, dissipating the fumes of evening and night, sending the shadows away to be lodged in the angles of chairs and corners vaguely populating the anxious room. The clock was his friend, winking out the seconds. He listened for the minutes bundled into its storehouse to add up to the hour the hours. He counted the days lurking in the calendar that used to hang on the kitchen wall but always found they added up to no more than a year.

When the clock bingged eight, their visitor came up the stairs from the guestroom, pushing a greeting ahead in a voice puffy with sleep. He had arrived the night before, mysterious in leather, motorcycle-stiff after a day and a half of country roads, avoiding the interstate when he could, breaking the trip from southern Wisconsin to the Mississippi Delta two-thirds of the way along. Supper had been ribs warmed under the cherry-red filament of a tabletop oven and potatoes roasted in a pan with hard shell squash, the ribs proofed by ground habaneros spiking a homemade sauce rich in tomato and molasses, a rivulets of butter purling among the vegetables.  They had beer, a glass apiece, and, afterwards, sour mash Tennessee whisky, which they drank from glasses etched Maccallan, won some years earlier at a haggis dinner hosted by the Scotch Whiskey Board in Chicago. After the haggis, he recalled, he and about fifty others had blended any or all of a half-dozen single malts set before them, the results sniffed and judged by a Master Blender brought over for the event. The blender had commented, “I see you’re a White Horse man,” in a lovely burr of a voice, before going on to the next table. So he had come away with a chunky flask into which to decant whiskeys, highland and lowland, and a quartet of barrel-squat crystal glasses that he pressed into service for anything over 60-proof and reasonably dry, though not without a twinge of guilt at so flouting tradition.

Now his wife had come into the room. The day was in bloom just beyond the window, redbuds hanging in arcs inviting flights of birds, the hummers making slaloms in the air between the clusters, bickering jays slapping at the leaves, a coruscation of cardinals making peace with the day. They sat side-by-side on the screened porch in basket chairs molded in one piece of plastic, the legs, as they settled in, wobbling to accommodate their weight. The scuffed plastic splayed, squeegeeing the battleship gray of the painted wood floor, which emitted a squawk like a rooster disturbed. The guest spooned up Birchermüesli from a bowl, an opalescent milky-blue, the incoming light flickering off his spoon. The foam splintered, whirled at the crest of a wave. In mid-mouthful, he pointed toward a rambling bush struggling in a damp patch just beyond the mown grass south-by-southeast of the house. “That's a sumac,” he said, sliding words past the clump of cereal cluttering his tongue. “A dwarf, I’d guess. It’d do better up north, Mackinac, maybe, Ottawa. I think I’ve seen them up near Windsor.”  

Sharing an apple with his wife, an Empire from an Indiana orchard, one of a dozen heirloom varieties he ordered from time to time, he asked the guest, “What’s it good for, if anything?” and the guest replied that people used to soak the bark for tanning leather. He pointed over to the wide-branched oak on the west and remarked that settlers would make ink from oak galls. He wasn’t sure whether the information enlarged his sense of the place, but neither did it detract from it. 

“I remember a story about George Bernard Shaw,” he said to his wife and to the guest, “It revolves around the way the English pronounce sumac, which is always with a sh sound at the beginning. A casual acquaintance challenged the man who created Henry Higgins, saying, ‘Are you aware, Mr. Shaw, that only two words in English starting with su are pronounced as starting with sh: sugar and sumac?’ ‘Sure!’ the great man is said to have replied.” When the air turned muggy with late-morning heat, they made their way back to the cool sanctuary of the house.

On the way up to noon—morning, as though gathered in sheaves, a sultry yellow smoldering light—they were vaguely conscious of the crickets’ awayness, the loss of the stridulation that brought a comforting presence to dusk and dark, and on which they had remarked the previous night. Water, however, gossiped in the walls, and the house was never quite without a clitter of relays, the chough of motors pressing chilled air through a maze of ducts into sweaty rooms. Now and then, the house itself unbent its arthritic beams with an audible creak, as the earth shifted and resettled warily along more comfortable lines. There was never that absolute silence poets ascribed to the tomb, and which realists found in sensory deprivation tanks, though at times he thought he could hear the bleary squish of blood course through veins and arteries and the click of joints readjusting from the stilted posture a sofa or the canted seat of a lounge chair dictated to the malleable body.

The sky had darkened, rubble of charcoal cloud rumbled, obscuring the fields’ edge in the distance, blending into the horizon as though scraped by a palette knife across a half-done canvas. The leaves fled to the end of their tethers, a frisson of wind at their backs, and dangled in frantic motion, dragging their stems away. The rain began civilly enough, a patter of polite applause thrown down from the upper boxes, but steadily built. It was almost eleven o’clock at night, and when the rain had completed its assault, the clock read 11:20. In the meantime, the pellets of water had flattened on the roof, rolled in waves across the grass, hammered at the trunk of the oak tree to the west, and merged, at last, into a solid wall of sound that shook the porch no less than the ear.

And it was done. The light returned, flooding the flooded fields, wiping the daubs of wet that pooled on the concrete walk, raising a cloud of mist from the asphalt leading out to the road.  A few final clouds grudgingly moved aside, skittering east as the sun moved west.

Across the field and the road that rode between his house and the one opposed, a door opened on another world disgorging a part of that world into his, or his perception of the world outside, a world that was neither his, nor hers, nor one’s, and that was not a world, either, but only a part, the part he could perceive for the moment during which he was perceiving it, as it was for her and any other. The door which opened let out their neighbor Joannie O’Halloran, Hollerin’ O’Halloran to her neighbors, for living, as most did, deep within an enclave of lawn that sloped up to a slant-roofed house set on a slab beside an open carport or manufactured garage, or sloped down to these, she had adopted a habit of calling across to anyone outside in a booming contralto thick as slurry. “Can I borrow your lawn mower?” she cried. “Mine’s gone kaput-put!” Her penchant for wordplay was a source of annoyance to those who noticed how what was said was said. But he didn’t have a lawnmower to lend—not electric, trailing its umbilicus behind like the innards of a gut-shot buck; not gas, trailing its ribbony stench around the roots of oak and elm; not even a decrepit manual machine, its wooden handle, cracked by weather, pinching the user’s hand when the flabby cushion of the palm got caught, as it did, pushing the blades against the earth’s unremitting repulsion.

He hadn’t retired, he thought, to mow the lawn. But, of course, the lawn had to be mowed, if only for the sake of the neighbors, who expected a degree of concern for appearance, which he might share but preferred not to realize by his own physical effort. He had, therefore, let a few hints fall on the rare occasions when he met Dwayne Seeton or his wife, Helen, one or both walking an adoptive stray during the early afternoon; or Mr. Jennar, who had taken a part-time job at the Wal-Mart Supercenter to keep busy; or during one of the casual conversations that drifted into a faux-familiarity at the Amoco station or during a Friday night Gallery Walk opposite Bathhouse Row. In time, he had been turned onto Mr. Hawirth, who, having reached an agreement on the area needing care and the money to be paid, would arrive every third week or so during the early spring and fall and every two weeks or ten days during the hot and wet days of summer when the grass seemed to lengthen overnight, and, no doubt, he thought, did.

 
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Mr. Hawirth drove a cobalt-blue Dodge truck to which a knobby hitch was bolted almost as though an afterthought. He hauled a ramshackle slat-wood trailer mounted on a steel frame behind the truck, a small lawn tractor chained to the trailer bed until he was ready to go to work, at which time he’d slide a portable ramp from under the bed and hang it onto the rear crossbeam of the frame, undo the chain, and roll the tractor onto the offending grass. Those mornings when he was up early, he took a cup of coffee out to Mr. Hawirth along with a check and they would talk for a few minutes, avoiding, as though by mutual unstated consent, politics and religion, though he felt it likely that their views, had they shared them, would have been close. They stuck to the weather, new construction in the neighborhood, whether of houses or roads, heating costs, gasoline prices. Mr. Hawirth worked in a circle around the house, leaving a wilderness of overgrown weeds and shrubs and a handful of trees foresting a wider swath that extended from the cut center out to the periphery of the property. That done, he went at the tufts around the carport and along the roadway and at the base of trees within the cleared space with a weed whacker. The entire operation took about three and a half hours. Sometimes, he took a glass of cold sun tea or pink lemonade out to Mr. Hawirth who was stowing the weed whacker and remarked on how much better the place looked, as though the words made a part of the payment, one neither contracted for, nor recorded, but vital all the same. This day, however, was not one on which Mr. Hawirth made an appearance.

It was a day on which Tripod came down the road looking for a handout, disdained the cheese offered, the rinds and, then, even chunks, which he sniffed curiously but turned away from, but wolfed down tatters torn from salami, ragged edges of meat clinging to thickened skin, and, then, lay down on the carport’s concrete slab and pretended to sleep, his cinnamon nose twitching at vagrant odors or the cellophane-winged flies with verdigris bodies that would buzz the pool from time to time, scooping up a droplet, and then hover in the space between the pool and house. 

The dog had been named by a telephone lineman who worked along the road beyond the house repairing, installing, whatever. Telephone outages were almost common outside the urban precincts, so he had his route, if not regular, at least occasional, up and down the local roads.  Having only three of the normal quartet of legs didn’t seem to bother Tripod, who acted as though unaware of his deficiency when he chased cars angling right onto Battle Heights Road from Chestnut Lane, or ran barking alongside and in front as the car headed for town; he had the car’s speed and direction gauged and would veer off once the offending machine had gotten fifty or sixty feet beyond his territory. Not quite ocher or lemony-tan, his short coat resembled pig liver about as much as anything. His owners thought his patrimony included an infusion of Weimaraner, but most on Chestnut Lane and Battle Heights Road dismissed the notion as mere fantasy.

The fields didn’t sleep in the afternoon. Hawks scouting overhead scanned uncut grass for the tunneling glide of a king or blacksnake pushing the rattail blades counter to the breeze, the bobbing scurry of a rabbit caught away from its burrow, or, if they were in luck, a fawn unmissed by its doe and venturing toward tussocks beaten down by the sun. It was less a matter of flying than of carving a path through the where of its intent, paring away petals of negative space that plastered the bundled body, nori wrapping a pellet of sticky rice, grape leaves compacted into dolmades: an infinite process of being-into-flight.

The yellow wasp trap dangling from a buttressing strut under the carport showed a reservoir of molasses sludge around the bottom edge. He poured an inch of sugar-water into the plastic hive a few days prior and would empty it Monday, as he did each week. He found spike-mailed caterpillars on occasion, often bees and flies of various denominations, midges in great numbers, almost a gravy of putrescence, but only now and then a wasp, rarely two. The open circular ramp through which insects enter might be too narrow for wasps, he thought, or they might be able to find their way out once they’ve sipped the bait, or, possibly, they’re too smart to enter or so programmed that the geometry of the entry can provoke no more than a half-hearted response in them.

Dragonflies dipped and weaved, mating, cloisonné spindles threading the woolly afternoon, pairs of mica-fine wings on either side pushing in synch against the inconstant air. A jumping spider made a meal of a flower fly in the shade of the pool. From time to time, a swallowtail lurched past, or a fuss in the grass disclosed a pale leaf-green frog making for a patch of cool under the rugged corrugations of an overhanging branch. Down among the roots, he knew, the battle went on without truce. Worms working the topsoil continually processing myriad-on-myriad microbeings. Canker galls budding on fibrous rootstock. The digger wasp laying its egg on the thorax of a stung tarantula, a meal-and-a-half on the hoof, so to speak, for the eventual larva feeding its facelessness into the dark and living flesh. Mites infiltrating the chitin of beetles. A congregation of ants bowing down to serve, honor, and protect their queen, whose business is production, pulling rubbery eggs from her partly extruded ovipositor with a plap, inaudible to us incurious spectators to a world’s business. Soon, Tripod would wake and pee against a bush and wander down the blacktop to where cars turned west, chasing the sun.

The afternoon drifted, a leaf on a log in a stream, or, perhaps, he thought, we were the leaf and the log and, it seemed possible, the stream itself. Around us, everything was what was happening around us, the sky beginning to faintly, faintly, shimmer, a silken mesh of light passing through glints of matter too fine to see except as they struck at the light sending a tiny, scintillant anger repeating to the horizon. He had promised to lend Marie Lepanto Fanny Hill, which was inconspicuously absent from the shelves of the local library and which someone had mentioned during the literary discussion she hosted on alternate Thursday evenings. Marie lived in a small faux-Tudor cottage, half-timbering simulated by custom vinyl siding her husband had installed over a Labor Day weekend three years before. It rose out of a rolling declivity in the landscape that Marie liked to refer to as “our valley” and which neighbors called “the marsh.”

Inside was all spit-and-polish lifted from House Beautiful and Vogue: Moen faucets; low-pressure shower diverters ordered from Sunshine House; toilets set fashionably, if uncomfortably, low, like white fungus, slick with exudate, breeching Portuguese tile floors. He always thought that for anyone over five-foot-ten, sitting on one of them must produce a feeling similar to that of Alice when she grew so tall inside the White Rabbit’s house that she became compacted like a concertina in last wheeze with her knees wedged under her chin and her arms dangling like useless wings from either side. He chatted with Marie at the door for a few moments.

Her husband, Tony, had a new project—a gazebo, behind the house, complemented by a pergola drooping under a raft of muscadine and scuppernong from which they would, a few years down the line, make their own wine—and was down to Lowe’s pricing lumber and hardware. He put the book into her hand, which disappeared inside the door and returned empty, having deposited its cargo on a telephone stand he remembered from previous visits. She wanted to ask about the guest, whose Norton she had heard grumbling down the road and had caught a glimpse of as it turned onto his blacktop, but decided to wait until they could get together, the four of them, for a backyard barbecue, when the weather had decided whether to stay wrapped in summer or opt for a precipitate and, hopefully, temperate fall. She felt a bit silly feeling awkward about the book, given the daily dose of skin on television and in films, even the bra and panty ads that had taken over the formerly staid Sunday paper. So she didn’t invite him in or satisfy her gossipy nature with an innocent inquiry, but invented a something on the stove and offered a roundelay of chirruped greetings transitively directed at his “better half,” all of which he understood and abetted by stepping back and murmuring something about “having to get back,” which he did, a brief divagation notwithstanding.

He returned indirectly in order to stop near the firehouse where an enterprising farmer sold watermelons from the tailgate of his truck nearly every day from mid-summer to early fall.  The one he bought would replace the one now in the refrigerator and which was destined to slake a late-afternoon thirst. Dark-green and round as a cannonball, the melon weighed seven pounds and boomed wetly when he thumped it as everyone did though the results were capricious. “The proof of the pudding’s in the eating,” he thought, happy to find the cliché apposite.

The old melon, its greenish-white inner rind breeched and a triangular plug lifted out, offered a gash of scarlet to the eye. He scooped half-spheres into celadon-green bowls, leaving the plug intact to close the gap, and added a scant jigger of lemon-flavored vodka to each. Then they had double espressos with biscotti and tossed the crumbs onto the grass for the birds or squinch bugs or whatever might come across them on their way from somewhere to somewhere else.  

At the end of the road, a truck dithered, its driver looking for an address, and then began its heaving, cautious way down the driveway, coughing with effort as it wrenched itself through the bend where the road turned southeast approaching the house. When it stopped, a truck-length before the arc that would start it back up toward the overhanging trees on the way to the dirt road that would take it wherever it intended to go, he walked over to set the driver straight. He couldn’t tell him where the Graysons lived, but he could tell him he had the wrong house. “Keep going along the road you came off, Battle Heights Road, and check the numbers on the mailboxes. The Graysons might be the people who moved into the Kazlof place, sort of an overblown hacienda with blue shingles maybe two-thirds of a mile further on where the road dead-ends.” So the truck lumbered around the tight turn, running off into the grass, leaving a trail of matted tufts before the driver could pull it back onto the blacktop and steer it to the dirt road waiting at the top of a rise.

So the afternoon wore down time until the guest announced that he would be leaving.  He liked to ride through the early evening, the air, having shed the day’s heat, coming alive with crickets’ chaffering, firefly flickers seen from the corner of the eye, houses and cars looming up ahead and passing behind, as if, paradoxically, the world had gone still, the drumming repetition an endless loop playing in a theater of the mind—though, put that way, he would have dismissed the idea as an idea, cerebral, not the sheer immersion in movement that made sleep, long hours away, at a truck stop or in an off-road motel, its faded neon soliciting a final $28 trucker, whore, or lost soul from the trackless wastes of concrete.

In the house, he turned on the news and, after, channel-surfed, enjoying the pastiche of sitcom and mystery, the incongruities and juxtaposition the machine made possible, the pundits switched off in mid-pronouncement. For supper, he made a soufflé into which he folded sautéed onion and green pepper and filbert-size chunks of smoked chicken seasoned with ground ancho and pequin chilis. His wife steamed carrots and broccoli and tossed them with pesto. They warmed up leftover roasted potatoes and drank Washington State Covey Run Chardonnay, which spared them the headachy lethargy that sulfite-heavy California and Australia wines tended to induce. 

Night was wrapping itself around the yellow house. It dismissed a few lingering remnants of consciousness from the dreamy air. An absence of sound, almost a presence, took over. For a long moment between moments, it went about scattering fragments of light that had been left by light’s withdrawal.

Then, a yellow moon-flower, edging its way up through a darkening thicket of air, called a halt to the day.  

 
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An east coast expatriate retired from college/university teaching, Stuart silverman divides his domestic life between Hot Springs, Arkansas, and Chicago, Illinois. A double handful of prose works and about 600 of his poems adorn the pages of 100+ journals and anthologies here and abroad. Hawk Publishing Group published his Complete Lost Poems: A Selection.

Backyard Girls

Katherine C. Sinback

 

 

Kathy glistened. The baby oil sheen spread from her pale pink toenails to her face, highlighting the field of pimples on her forehead and chin. Shannon watched a droplet of oil mixed with Kathy’s sweat meander down the meat of her calf and stop at the knob of her ankle, suspended like a held breath before it released, darkening a dot on the wooden deck. Shannon blinked, refocused her eyes on the book in her lap to read the same paragraph over again, still unsure why her friend’s sunbathing body was such an irresistible puzzle. Kathy’s backyard deck was ripe with the smell of Johnson’s Baby oil mixed with Cheetos. Kathy lazily dangled a Cheeto over her open paperback, Danielle Steele taken from her mother’s secret stash. “She’ll never notice. Like she cares,” Kathy had snorted. Shannon wondered if there was ever a time when Kathy didn’t act like she was in a movie. Even the way she licked the orange gunk from her braces felt like seduction although Shannon was the only other person on the deck.

Kathy spritzed her damp hair with Sun-In. The sweet toxic smell found Shannon’s nose in the humid April Saturday afternoon. She sneezed and she sprayed nacho Dorito droplets, her snack of choice, on her paperback, the copy of Flowers in the Attic that had felt so forbidden last year when she was an eighth-grader, but now felt babyish next to Kathy’s Danielle Steele. Shannon’s mom didn’t have a secret stash. Shannon was stuck with the Dollanganger twins and their attic prison while the characters in Kathy’s books made love on kitchen counters and whispered, I want you inside me.

Beyond the wood plank gates of Kathy’s backyard, a car sidled up to the curb in front of the house. The sounds of idling engine, the slamming door, the smack of sneakers against pavement. Kathy jumped up from her chair, dropping the plastic bottle of Sun-In and knocking over the half-empty Johnson’s Baby Oil bottle.

“Rog!” she squealed and popped up from her chair.

Her feet slapped the concrete. Lines from the lounge chair striped the parts of her back that her black bikini didn’t cover. Her bottoms were riding high on her butt, dangerously close to wedgie territory. Shannon had the urge to pull them down for Kathy, a modern-day lady-in-waiting ready to attend to her mistress’ every fashion faux-pas. Kathy had plenty: acid-washed jeans that clung to every lump and curve, t-shirts that gapped at the arms so her black bras peeked out, and her dangling earrings always catching in the wings of her light brown hair. Shannon let these go, let Kathy glide through the halls of Jefferson High believing herself to be the sophomore goddess she thought she was. Kathy was the one with the stream of boyfriends and heart-shaped necklaces that left green rings around her neck, but Shannon tucked away this arsenal of weaknesses, secreted it away for some future use. Her mind, a velvet-lined box.

Shannon pushed up onto her elbows. This was the part when she was expected to disappear, when Kathy and her boyfriend du jour willed her sunburned body, the bulge and stringy brown-haired heft of her to dissolve into droplets on Kathy’s backyard deck.

Kathy’s hip grazed the hydrangea bushes that surrounded the deck. She rounded the corner of her house to the side yard, lined by the fence that looked like a pair of wooden wings springing from the concrete foundation of the house.

“Mm-hm,” Shannon said. She tugged at the leg hole of the black-one piece suit her mom had called “slimming” in the dressing room of the Young Missy section at Hecht’s. Shannon swore she heard a titter erupt from the stall at the end of the line of dressing rooms. Her mom had rolled her eyes, told her she was being ridiculous. Again.

Rog, short for Roger, was the best of Kathy’s boyfriends. He talked to Shannon like she was a real person, not some puppy who trailed Kathy, hoping for a treat. He always threw her a wide braces smile, the only boy she had ever seen to wear braces well. His mullet was more understated than Shane’s, the previous boyfriend, more Unforgettable Fire Bono than the dudes who prowled Mathis Avenue in shined-up Camaros Saturday Nights. Ex-boyfriend Shane barely had grunted a greeting in Shannon’s direction. He had lowered his head and ran his tongue over his stupid caterpillar mustache when he picked Kathy and Shannon up after volleyball practice. Shannon had been glad when, three months ago, Kathy started to curl her lip over her braces at the mention of his name. “Nah, Shane’s not picking us up today.”

Around the corner, Rog fumbled with the hook on the gate.

“I got it, dumbass. Save your hands for more important things,” Kathy said.

Shannon lowered her eyes to the blurred words in her book. When she looked up Kathy and Rog were locked in an embrace. Rog made eye contact and smiled. Shannon’s eyes skittered away. The hydrangea bushes, each a stout soldier, lined up between them. She concentrated on the order of their lines, the perfect swell of the blue-bloomed bellies.

Kathy murmured something in Rog’s ear. His eyes grew wide. They giggled. They walked hand-in-hand, crossing the threshold of bushes.

“Hey Shannon, s’up?” Rog said.

“Oh, you know, working on my sunburn.”

“Aw damn. You got it going on, girl.”

Shannon bit at the smile teasing the edge of her lips. So rarely did she get the chance to feel the flush of being a real girl.

“Break it up, you two.” Kathy playfully tugged on Rog’s arm. She pulled him in for another slurpy kiss.

The knot in the wooden deck’s floor stared up at Shannon. The whorl of wood a comforting black pool in moments of teenage make-outs that didn’t involve her, which, up to this point, was all of them. There was always a knot of wood, a slice of cushion escaping the vinyl in the backseat of Shane’s car, a slot in the lime green lockers at school where she could crawl, wait out the teenage affection that oozed around her.

A year ago, before Kathy, it had been Shannon and her best friend Camille against the world. They laughed at the kissing, the boy hands always sliding up and up shirts where girls leaned against the brick wall at the mall. “So gross,” they said, wrinkling their noses, then talked about what they would do when they had their first kiss.

“Definitely no tongue,” Camille said.

“Oh, I’m gonna do tongue,” Shannon giggled.

“Hussy!”

“Prude.”

With Camille, a boyfriend felt possible. Anything had felt possible. 

Kathy led Rog to the sliding glass door. “We’re gonna fix a snack. You want anything, Shan?”

“Sure, whatever you all are having,” Shannon said.

Rog and Kathy exchanged a look.

An embarrassed flush replaced the temporary happy one on Shannon’s cheeks.

“Or, uh, some more lemonade.” Shannon jiggled the ice cube nubs in her glass.

Kathy and Roger disappeared into the dark parent-free house, the shadowy blobs of them moving through the kitchen then around the corner. Shannon wondered how she had become this ticket to other people’s sex lives.

Camille moved away the summer before high school. Adrift in the high-school halls clogged with the unfriendly flotsam of faces, Shannon landed on Debbie, her volleyball teammate and the first person to talk to her for more than a minute about something other than wanting the answers to last night’s algebra homework. Debbie invited Shannon over to her house to spend the night and dragged her to a party in her cousin’s basement where Debbie got fingered under a Buffalo Bills blanket in the middle of a wood-paneled rec room while a huddle of girls stood behind Shannon, hissing, “Slut.”

When Shannon reported what the girls had said at the party, Debbie hadn’t been embarrassed.

“They’re just jealous. Wasn’t he hot? He’s a total fox. I think we’re gonna go out.”

“Yeah, he was pretty cute.”

Shannon couldn’t wipe the image from her mind of Debbie’s faraway look on the couch, the lumps of hands moving beneath the giant Bills logoed helmet. After the party when Debbie asked Shannon to come over to do homework, she pretended that she was busy. At volleyball practice, she picked another bumping partner, the recent Texas transplant Kathy, and acted like she was doing the coach a favor by helping out the new girl. Debbie saw through Shannon’s averted eyes. The sudden acquisition of a new bumping partner.

“What’s the deal? Do I stink?” Debbie caught up to Shannon after a week of practices, of Shannon avoiding her.

“No, of course not,” Shannon had mumbled. “I gotta go.”

“No, tell me. What’s your deal?”

Shannon stared at the dirt smudge on the tip of her sneakers. “No deal.  I just gotta go.”

“Get your ass over here,” Kathy yelled half-playfully, half-not from the double doors at the edge of the newly varnished gym, waving her over. “Our ride is here.”

Debbie nodded. “Oh, I see. Ms. Texas ’85 claps her hands and you come. Whatever, Shannon. Enjoy your new little buddy.”

Kathy pulled Shannon into the car, Shane’s car, pulling the front seat down so she could climb in.

“What’s Debbie Does Dallas’ deal?” Kathy asked.

“I don’t know. We were sorta friends, but then—”

“Then you realized that you don’t associate with trash.”

Kathy turned to Shane. “That chick blew the quarterback in the middle of Roy Kingston’s party. Ugh. It was disgusting.”

“Sounds like a pretty good deal to me,” Shane said in his lazy drawl.

Kathy punched his arm. “You’re gross.”

Shannon had been a woman without a country since Camille had moved last summer. Camille would’ve raised an eyebrow and twirled her stub of a ponytail if she could see Shannon now. There was no one to tell Shannon to dump these girls, no one to care that Shannon was riding in cars with eighteen-year-old boys—her parents strictly forbade it, of course—or going to a squat dumpy house lodged between a twenty-four-hour mini-mart and a cemetery where no adults were in the living room to make sure, as her dad said, “things didn’t get out of hand.”

Shane lived with an older brother, Joey, who slouched on a sagging off-brand Lazyboy with golden velvet pile rubbed off the armrests. When they got to Shane’s house, Shane and Kathy deposited Shannon on the equally saggy brown plaid couch with scratchy yellow and orange wool blankets positioned to hide the spots where the stuffing poked through the weave, like tufts on a balding man’s head.

“Back in a minute,” Kathy said to Shannon. Then to Joey, “Now you make nice, ya’ hear?”

She followed Shane through a beaded curtain. Shannon had always loved the beaded curtains at World Bazaar in the mall when she was a kid. She had wrapped them around her shoulders and imagined herself entering a genie’s den. A tiny bit of her childhood chipped away as the beads clacked together in the dingy living room. The beads didn’t shroud genie’s dens, they were door replacements for doors that had been torn off hinges.

A grumble of undefined words emanated from Joey’s barrel chest. He scratched at the perpetual shadow of a beard on his chin. His eyes didn’t move from the flickering black-and-white TV balanced on a plastic TV tray.

“I can’t give you a beer. That’s contributing to the delinquency of a minor,” he grunted. He drank from the Miller Light dangling in his hand.

“That’s okay. I don’t like beer,” Shannon said. She tucked her hands under her legs.

He snorted. “Good.”

He had a greasy mullet pulled in a ponytail. His brown eyes were uneven, giving him a look of perpetual doubt. Shannon couldn’t imagine how thin, blonde Shane and this hulk of a man had come from the same parents.

“Not that beer isn’t fine. I, uh, just don’t like the taste,” Shannon said.

“More for me.” He slurped at the can. His tongue poked out when he drank, an indecent caress of can.

He watched the local news, each story seeding a new rant about the goddamned government and the dip-shitted president. “With his stupid fucking wig hair and his movie star mush-brain. What is this country coming to? Might as well let the Russkies bomb us to Kingdom Come. Fucking pussies.”

Shannon tried not to stare. She took in the decay of the living room, the leaning towers of TV Guides and Hot Rod Magazines, the rings on the dusty wooden end tables, peeling wallpaper with pictures of bucking broncos and cowboy hats. It was like a dead boy’s room had swallowed an entire house. Until she saw this house she hadn’t understood what a “woman’s touch” meant exactly. She was sure that aside from Kathy and a stream of other girls in tight acid-washed jeans, no woman had touched any surface of this house.

Over the next month, Shannon learned to bring homework to do on the sagging couch, to wear a spritz of her mother’s Anais Anais to mask the smell of cigarettes and sour beer, to avert her eyes from wet-eyed Joey and his parade of beer cans, which he used as pointers while arguing with the TV.

Shannon had told Kathy how she felt like she needed to shower after visiting Shane’s house, but Kathy had shrugged her off. “Yeah, I know. It’s pretty awful, but a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do for love.” Who was Shannon to stand in the way of love?

During the last visit before Kathy dumped Shane, Joey watched golf. Shannon read The Great Gatsby.

“Your pretty little friend ain’t no friend to you,” Joey broke the amenable quiet that had evolved between the two of them.

“Why do you say that?” Shannon tented The Great Gatsby on her lap.

“She dumps you here with Shane’s loser brother, yours truly, while they retire to the love palace to fuck,” Joey said, his words slurred at the edges. His arm jerked into the beaded curtain. The beads clacked back and forth, catching the light from the TV in their prism.

“They don’t do it,” Shannon said. “They don’t go all the way.”

Kathy was adamant that she was a virgin and would stay that way until she got married. She went to church with her stone-faced parents every Sunday and threw in a few “Praise the Lords” here and there, but not enough to make Shannon feel weird until the day she met Kathy’s mom.

“Which church do you and yours attend?” Kathy’s mom asked, handing Shannon a lemonade over the bar that lined the edge of the kitchen.

“Uh, we don’t go to church, but we believe in God and stuff,” Shannon said.

“Well, you need to find a church and get off the fence or you’ll be spending eternity in a very unpleasant place.”

“Mom!” Kathy said.

Later when they were tucked away in Kathy’s room, their notebooks sprawled open on the bedroom floor, Beastie Boys “Fight for Your Right To Party” set at whisper volume on Kathy’s boom box, Shannon said, “Your mom really thinks I’m going to hell?”

“Well, yeah. I mean, you are, unless you accept Jesus into your heart, but that’s your business. She was totally out of line saying that to you.” Kathy chewed on a pen cap. “She lives for an opportunity to get on her high horse.”

“Oh.”

If her friend was so blasé about her salvation, Joey had a point.

Joey said, “So they don’t fuck. Whatever. I’ll bet you a six-pack, that I guess you won’t drink, she is a blow-job fucking queen.”

“Don’t say that. She’s my friend.”

Joey snorted. “Some friend.” He swished a mouthful of beer in his mouth. “I could be raping you or making you my blow-job bitch and they wouldn’t do a fucking thing. They dump you out here like a dog and do their business. I been a dog before. I know what it’s like to lap up shit.”

Shannon’s eyes darted around the room for a weapon. A pair of scissors, a knife, a baseball bat. Don’t kick him in the balls. They expect that. Gouge out the eyes: that’s what the padded-overall man on Oprah had said.

He held up his can and jabbed it in her direction, beer spilling over the lip. “You’re her alibi, not her friend. Take it from one alibi to another. Ditch that shit.”

Shannon’s breath turned ragged. She left sweat fingerprints on the page of her book where Gatsby lamented Daisy’s unreachability. He could own the world but never own her.

 “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” she whispered. “You’re drunk. You’re always drunk. You can’t even stand up.” Her voice got louder.

She felt like something was cracking open, escaping, her companionable silence with Joey slithering to the corners of the room. He had been growing on her like a loose tooth that you poke with your tongue and mourn when it falls out and there is only a bloody space. But now she wanted him gone, wanted to feel the rush of coppery blood in her mouth.

“And you’re a stupid kid.” Joey dropped the beer can. The liquid seeped into the carpet and made a pool.

He hefted himself out of the chair and walked over to the couch. Shannon folded into herself, tried to disappear like she did when she huddled in the backseat of Shane’s car, blocking out the darting tongues and smacking noises of Kathy and Shane’s kisses.

Joey bent over her, one hand on the threadbare armrest, the other on the cushion sinking beside Shannon’s head.

“What—” Her voice caught in her dry throat. Joey bent over her, his skewed brown eyes merging into one close-up Cyclops eye. The sweet-sour smell of beer hit her nose in puffs. Getting out of the chair had been an effort for Joey after all. How did he work construction without falling over from a heart attack? She shrank back from him, contemplating a kick in the crotch even though the Oprah man said it was a mistake, that you would only make the attacker angrier and you wouldn’t like him when he’s angry. Her mind raced, her fingers clutched the pillow below her. Joey leaned in, touching his lips to hers, his swollen and chapped, hers thin and curled. For all of the rest of his body’s lack of grace, the bluster and doughy lumber of it, the kiss was almost delicate, a quick press of dry lips before he pulled back.

“Goddamnit,” he said and, straightening up, stalked out of the room.

Shannon imagined she looked like the blonde girl in a horror flick, plastered against the couch, her face twisted in horror. Murmurs came from the hallway. Hazy-eyed Kathy and Shane appeared in the doorway.

“We gotta bail. My mom is going to murder me,” Kathy said. She didn’t notice Shannon. She barely looked at her.

Shane dropped Kathy and Shannon off a block from Kathy’s house.

“Did Joey give you any shit tonight?” Kathy asked, her books hugged to her chest. Her lipstick perfectly restored to its pink frost although half-moons of mascara streaked under her eyes.

“Uh yeah. He’s kind of a freak. I don’t want to go over there when he’s around anymore,” Shannon said. The word kiss perched at the roof of her mouth. Could she admit that Joey was her first kiss? She didn’t think she could say the words out loud without opening up a dam inside of her, all the secrets that Kathy didn’t even ask, churning around them.

“He’s always around,” Kathy said. “Don’t worry, he’s a total freak but he’s harmless.”

Shannon kicked a rock to the edge of the grass. “How do you know?”

Kathy shook her head, the wings of her hair shaking and rearranging in perfect follicular order. “I know men. Joey’s just a pathetic loser who spends his life slamming beers on his Grandmother’s broken down Lazyboy. That’s his life. He doesn’t have enough energy for anything else. Anyway, I thought you all were getting along. Y’all were cracking up over something the last time we were over there.”

“Yeah. No. We’re not like friends. Or anything. I don’t want to go over there.”

Kathy walked ahead and stopped in front of Shannon. “Enough talk of that loser.” Kathy leaned close and dangled a cheap-looking heart on a chain in front of Shannon’s eyes. “Isn’t it precious? Shane gave it to me for our two-month anniversary.”

“Oh wow, that’s pretty.” Shannon lied.

The necklace hadn’t been enough to keep Shane around for another month. Kathy had tucked it away in a box full of her past boy trophies. Would Shannon ever have a box or would she just have Joey’s kiss clinging to her lips like a cold sore?

 
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In Kathy’s backyard, Shannon rolled onto her side, then the other. She couldn’t deny her full bladder any longer. She imagined pushing open the door and finding Kathy kneeling before Rog, his head tossed back, braces poking through his plush lips. Or she could pee herself. She pulled on the sliding glass door. It didn’t budge. She rattled it.

“Uh, guys,” she called then knocked on the door.

The dark serenity of the indoors remained unbroken. She faced the yard, the painstakingly manicured hydrangea and rose bushes in rows circling the lawn, and the fence standing tall behind, guarding Kathy’s parents’ pride and joy. They bought the house because of the yard. “Oh, and the schools,” Kathy had said. “But I’m sure if there was a decent landscape potential in the ghetto they wouldn’t think twice about making me tough it out.” Kathy and Shannon weren’t allowed to walk among the flowers. They were restricted to the deck, a restriction that Kathy actually abided even though Shannon guessed her parents would be more upset to learn their daughter was having almost-sex with her boyfriends in their house more than she had knocked a petal off a rose.

Shannon knocked louder on the glass door. “Guys! You in there?”

Nobody emerged from behind the kitchen island or around the dining room corner. They were probably in Kathy’s room on the other side of the house, but it wasn’t like Shannon could ring the doorbell. Kathy would never answer anyway. Shannon turned back to the yard.

The fence was as tall as Shannon. There were bushes. No one would know. Bent over, she ran to the bush at the corner the farthest from the house just in case there was a smell. She imagined Kathy’s mother sniffing the air. “Dear Sweet Jesus, what is that odor?”

She wiped the image from her head. Her next obstacle: the swimsuit and the enthusiastically touted slimming panels that supposedly flattened her bulges with the side effect of making her feel like a sausage spilling out of its casing where leg flesh met suit. She could pull the crotch of her swimsuit to the side, but she might douse herself with urine. Then Kathy would smell her and wrinkle her perky nose at Rog and, at school on Monday, she’d have christened Shannon “Pee Girl” or “Tinkle Toes,” and Kathy would pick Debbie to be her next friend and they’d laugh at Shannon because she’d never been fingered under a scratchy Buffalo Bills blanket while everyone tried hard to pour enough wine cooler down their throats to turn the world soft and giggly. Even though Kathy still called Debbie, “Debbie Does Dallas” behind her back, Debbie wouldn’t care because she needed a friend as bad as Shannon did. Any port in a storm.

Nope. Shannon would have to roll her suit over her fleshy hips and tuck it behind the bush, but just for a minute, two at tops.

She plucked the straps from the divots they left in her shoulders and rolled it down her torso. The sun warmed her breasts, her belly, the expanse of her back never touched by air beyond Shannon’s bedroom and bathroom. She stretched like a cat, let the rays touch every hidden part that no boy had ever touched even as Shannon prayed every night that they would. At night, sometimes Joey crept into her reveries before she slept, the delicate ghost of a kiss.  

She crouched down, holding to a thorny branch for support. A pink petal fluttered to the grass. Go, go, go, do it, come on, do it. In her concentration, she hadn’t heard the screech of tires, the Metallica spilling from the open windows, the slam of the car door.

Shane’s voice on the other side of the fence as she started to pee. “Kath-ay! Kath-ay! I gotta talk to you!” The gate shuddered as he pulled on the locked door.

“Don’t come back here,” Shannon called, trying to be quiet and authoritative but sounding squeaky.

“What the—? Who’s there? Where’s Kath-ay?”

“Go away, Shane,” Shannon hissed, still crouched down below the line of the bushes.

“Who the fuck are you?” he yelled.

Shannon didn’t expect to feel so hurt by not being acknowledged by Shane, but it stung. Shane rattled the fence, and then with a groan and a pop, the lock was dangling and the door gaped open. Shannon grabbed her suit, not caring that her heels landed in the puddle of urine. She folded one arm over her chest and held tight to the clump of rose bush as it pricked her palm with tiny thorns.

Shane’s head whipped back and forth as he searched for Kathy. His hair hung in greasy clumps, his face red and sweaty. The caterpillar mustache he’d been growing had filled out since he and Kathy had broken up. His eyes caught on Shannon. “What are you doing?”

“Stop there. Please, just stop.” Tears sprang to Shannon’s eyes.

Her first kiss had been stolen by Joey and now Shane was taking the rest of her. She stood at the precipice of something deep and jagged, a glacier about to break into pieces.

“Girl, are you wearing your birthday suit?” Shane put a fist over his mouth, called over his shoulder. “Joey! Get in here! Free girly show!”

Shannon stepped a foot in her suit and tried to wiggle it over her legs without extending to her full height. She glanced over the bush. Joey looked totally alien outside of the living room, his skin even more pasty in the sunlight.

“Girl, what are you doing?” Joey asked.

Shane stopped trying to tamp down the chuckles and was full-on laughing like Shannon had never seen him laugh before like her nakedness had released something long stored in him. With every move Shannon made, every jerky tug on the traitorous swimsuit that stuck to her sweaty lumps and seemed too small to contain her body, he laughed harder.

Joey punched him on the shoulder. “Don’t be a dick.”

“What? Come on, man? You a gentleman now? You her knight in shining armor?” Shane guffawed.

Joey waved him away.

The sliding door rumbled open. Kathy, the familiar smudges of mascara beneath her eyes, and Rog stood outlined by the dark.

“What the hell is going on out here?” Kathy yelled. Her eyes flashed at Shannon. “Did you let them in?”

“Yeah. What’s happening?” Rog said, trying on a voice several octaves lower than his usual tone.

Joey pointed at Shannon. “You make your friend piss outside so you can blow your new boy? Really?” He turned to Shannon. “I don’t know how much more you can take.” He wiped his nose with the back of his hand.

“Fuck off, Joey,” Kathy said. “No one wants to hear what your crazy ass has to say.”

“No. I really want to know.” Joey stepped closer to Kathy. “You make your friend piss behind a rose bush so junior here can splatter your braces with cum?”

Rog stood in front of her, his hands on his hips. An attempt at authority that was as frightening as McGruff the Crime Dog.

“I think it’s time for you guys to get the fuck outta here,” Rog said, the full sentence exposing a quaver in his voice.

“Nah. I need to talk to your girlfriend, friend, and I ain’t leaving until I do,” Shane said.

“That’s not gonna happen, friend,” Rog said.

“Says who?” Shane took a wide stance, jammed his hands in his jeans.

Joey started to laugh. Shannon had never found a resemblance between Shane and Joey until the laugh started to move through his body, jiggling his stomach and turning his face red. Everyone stared at him. Shannon adjusted her suit so it felt almost normal.

“Great, he’s finally lost his shit.” Kathy snorted.

“There’s just so much pissing going on, I can’t fucking stand it. Pissing contest in one corner. Pissing girl in the other. No offense.” Joey gasped between laughs. He rubbed at the corner of his eyes. “Piss, piss, piss. This place reeks! Hoo-boy, okay brother, let’s go.”

Shane hesitated. He locked eyes with Kathy. She shook her head, her lips pursed over her braces.

“This ain’t over. We still need to talk.” Shane pointed at Kathy.

Joey walked closer to Shannon, grew suddenly serious. He smelled of dirt and body odor and something that reminded her of the rubbing alcohol she dotted on her ears after she got them pierced.

“You ditch her. She’s no good for you,” Joey said.

“Why do you even care?” Shannon whispered.

“Why do I even care?” Joey muttered as he spun on the heel of his battered sneakers.

Rog tried on his man voice again. “Get away from her.”

Shannon looked at Joey, the beads of sweat, the smears of dirt, the caked fingernails and sagging ripped jeans. What had Joey been in high school? Joey opened his mouth but stopped and walked through the gate with Shane. The car started, the muffler popped and then the music pounded out the open windows.

“What losers,” Kathy said.

“Total dicks,” Rog said.

Shannon retreated to her chair and gathered up her Bain de Soleil and her crumpled t-shirt and shorts. A wind cut through the humid afternoon, rustling the leaves of the bushes around Shannon. She felt everyone’s eyes on her, like they were seeing her body for the first time, the way her thighs rubbed together, the shift of her hips.

“Where are you going?” Kathy asked.

“Home,” Shannon said.

“Yeah, okay.”

Shannon expected her to say no, stay, don’t go, but knew that between them something had shifted, something had been seen that couldn’t be unseen like when Shannon saw Debbie’s face while the boy touched her beneath the blanket.

“See ya, Shannon,” Rog said.

“Yeah, later Rog,” she said as she lay the bottle of sunscreen next to her book. The dead blue eyes of the twins stared up at her from the book cover. During the days of Shane, Joey had been her own personal Dollanganger twin, the two of them trapped together in a dilapidated living room while the normal world went on without them.

Shannon paused by the gate. The broken lock hung by a hinge. She lifted it and let it fall.

“Let’s just say that you pushed on the gate too hard when you got here,” Kathy said. “If Mom ever asks.”

“Yeah, sure,” Shannon said as she stepped through the gate, knowing that she wouldn’t be around long enough to be asked. She wasn’t sure if it was relief that trailed her as her flip-flops slapped the pavement on her walk home or the freeing feeling of being the one to walk away from Kathy, ending her days as girlfriend-in-waiting. The air shimmered around her like it did after Joey had kissed her, after she had survived her imagined rape at his meaty hands. In the stuffy afternoon, everything alive, everything possible.

 
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Katherine Sinback’s work has appeared in The RumpusdaCunhaGravelClackamas Literary ReviewThe Hunger JournalWriters Northwest, and Edging West. She publishes her zineCrudbucket and writes two blogs: the online companion to Crudbucket, and Peabody Project Chronicles 2: Adventures in Pregnancy After Miscarriage.  Crudbucket was featured in the 2007 Multnomah County Library “Zinesters Talking” series and was included in the 2016 Alien She exhibit at the Pacific Northwest College of Art. Born and raised in Virginia, Katherine lives in Portland, Oregon with her family. She can be found on Twitter @kt_sinback and on her blogs Crudbucket: http://ktcrud.blogspot.com and the Peabody Project: http://peabodyproject2.blogspot.com.

Photo by Isaac Harrell.

CLARA COMES HOME

Dorothy Place

 

The chair’s rockers edge over the porch floor boards until one of them comes to rest in an indentation and grinds away at the dry rot. It comforts Clara with the sound she thinks might be termites gnawing away at a tasty bit of oak—a sound imperceptible to everyone except to those who only listen. Settling into the gentle back and forth motion, she looks out over the rows of tomatoes running north toward the horizon. 

Clara hates those tomatoes, hates the enormous expanse of flat land cracked open by the unforgiving sun like her girlhood lips rubbed raw by the icy wind and freezing temperatures of upstate New York. She wonders if the blistered earth in the Central Valley hurts, and why her niece’s husband doesn’t moisten the ground like her mother had soothed her daughter’s lips with the salve she made from comfrey leaves and lavender buds. 

Clara rocks harder and tries to remember how it felt when she ran her tongue over her sore lips and how her mother’s work-worn fingers caught on the chapped skin as she rubbed in the ointment. She breathes in the remembered smell of lavender. The sun continues to bear down on the long rows of tomatoes. The air sears her throat. She closes her eyes, shutting out the sun’s punishing glare. The chair never stops rocking.

The screen door squeals, and Josie walks out onto the porch. She lays a cool hand on her aunt’s arm. “Want some ice tea?” she asks.

Clara shakes her head and withdraws her arm from Josie’s touch. Cool as it is, it isn’t welcome. She continues to stare out over the fields and listens to the flocks of crows caw away at the peacefulness of the morning. No need for Josie to get all nice and pretend to be happy that her aunt has come here to live. No need for that, nor for Clara to be taken away from her home and brought to this wretched valley. She’d been taking care of things back home very nicely, thank you. 

Josie sighs. “Use the bell if you need me.” She picks up the cowbell resting on the table, shakes it, and bends to kiss her aunt’s forehead before returning to the house. 

The bell’s metallic clang assaults Clara’s ears and she wipes away Josie’s kiss with the back of her hand. She gives the bell a malevolent look and wonders where Josie found the danged thing. Clara hasn’t seen a single cow since she came to live with her niece and her husband, Louis, almost a year ago. Farming here is not like farming back home, where small dairies are etched out of the softly rounded hills covered with sugar maples, hickories, and birch, and where water runs freely through the creek beds, washing rocks and scouring banks instead of flowing dutifully through man-made ditches, being told where to go and what to do, never feeling a trout tickle its deeper spots or a water snake nest in its shallows.

Tears flood Clara’s cheeks. She’ll never see the creek again, the little house where her mother and father slept in the big room by the wood stove, where Mellie, the oldest, bedded down in the loft, and where Clara and her brother, Chris, slept in the woodshed, sharing the big double bed that Ma had bought for two dollars off the manager of the West Glenn Hotel when it closed down. 

Clara’s thoughts roam the big room in the old house, the house where she was born and had expected to die. Pa’s winter coat hangs by the front door, his straw hat lies where he tossed it onto the bench, and his milking boots warm themselves behind the wood stove. A bowl of milk from Franchel’s dairy sits on the table, waiting for the cream to separate. Ribbon tape hangs near the open window, waiting to catch unsuspecting flies, and a pot of potatoes has been put on the stove to boil. As she reaches out to touch the handle of the pump next to the sink, the Ford’s big diesel engine clatters to a stop. Louis, Josie’s husband, is home for the noon meal.

“Ready for lunch, Aunt Clara?” he asks. His sun-scorched face wears a broad smile, and his thick-soled boots fall heavily on the stairs. He bends to pat her shoulder like she’s some kind of dog.

Clara’s lips stretch thin. She wrinkles her nose at his sweat smell and stares at his baseball cap. What a strange thing. A farmer in a baseball cap. She waggles her head in puzzlement. Not even big enough to shade the back of his neck. Where she came from, you could hardly call yourself a farmer if you didn’t wear a broad-brimmed straw hat that had been bleached by the sun and rendered shapeless by the rain.

Louis smiles. He straightens and looks out over the tomato fields. “We’ll get a bumper crop this year, Aunt Clara.” He looks at her, at a loss for words. “Yep, a bumper crop. Guess I’ll go in and wash up.” The screen door squeals shut behind him.

Clara hasn’t spoken since around the time that she and Chris had begun touching each other. It wasn’t long before she decided that she loved her brother more than anybody, more than Mellie, even more than Ma and Pa. To keep her secret, she had stilled her voice, fearful that if she told anyone, someone would put an end to those nights of the only tenderness she’d ever known. 

That was when she was in the fifth grade, when the school principal had told Ma to send her to the home for the delayed kids up in Albany, when Ma told her she was old enough to help with the chores and kept her hidden from the county-sent woman who came snooping around every once in a while, when Clara started walking two miles every day to the main road where the mail lady stuffed the post boxes, and where she waited impatiently for the school bus to return her sister and brother to the safety of their little house. 

The rocking chair slows as Clara leans back, shuts her eyes, and remembers hitching up Mellie’s outgrown skirt that hung down around Clara’s hips and wadded itself between her knees. She sees herself passing the time by jumping off the milk bench where Orrin Franchel’s twenty-gallon milk cans wait to be collected by the co-op truck, and sitting on the piles of rain-hardened bags of lime that the government men dropped off and none of the locals had taken the time to haul away.

“Lunch time,” Josie’s voice sings out. 

Her voice startles Clara. Josie’s cheerfulness annoys her. Ma always said, “No time for niceties if you want to get through the day and get some rest.” Clara looks past Josie’s shoulder and sees Ma, her blackberry-scratched arms reaching up to hang the clothes on the line strung between two birch trees, warning that this wasn’t the time to play and admonishing Mellie to hand her the clothes pins, to collect the eggs, to close the hens in for the night, to fetch the potatoes from the root cellar and put them on to boil.

“Do you want to eat lunch out here or come inside with us?” Josie asks.

Clara shrugs. It makes no difference to her. She only picks at her food. Here or in with them, nothing tastes good. 

Josie takes her arm and helps her out of the chair. “It’s better if you eat with us. Come on.” She leads her aunt into the cool interior of the house. “Louis doesn’t get much of a chance to talk to you.”

Not that Louis talks to her. He talks about tomatoes. About irrigation. About the chemicals the droning tractors spray over the fields. About hiring the pickers. About contracts with the haulers and canners. So much talk about tomatoes makes Clara grieve for her mother’s introspective quietness and her father’s forbearance.   

At home, the tomatoes ripened and they picked them. Ate them fresh in the summer and cooked in the winter. Big tomatoes. Not the puny little things they brag about out here, fifty or so to a bush, hiding from the sun under the leafy stems, waiting for the machines to come and haul them out of the ground and onto a conveyer belt that dumps them into the waiting trucks like so much trash. Tomatoes here never feel the eager hands of a child placing them in the folds of her apron, never enjoy the cold water from the pump that sent them to the table all shined like a pair of shoes going to a wedding. It makes Clara sad to think about it.

Ma had complained that she sorely missed Mellie after her oldest daughter quit school and went to live in the city and work in the steam turbine plant. Pa had forbidden her to leave, told her that she could just as well stay put at home and marry the oldest Kroft boy. What with his 120 acres and his folks passed, Junior Kroft needed someone for the washing and canning and feeding the men at harvest time. But one morning, without telling anyone, Mellie rode to town with the mail lady and took the bus to the city.

After that, Clara had taken up Mellie’s duties and learned the ways of housekeeping. That was just fine with her except for having to go to the cellar to bring up the root vegetables and canned goods for the evening meal. Her innards tighten as she remembers going down the wooden stairs to the dirt-floored room, damp darkened and filled with spiders and mice and an occasional raccoon, with only the tiny bit of courage she could muster and the dim light of a lantern.

“Keep the lamp wick down,” Ma would call after her. “No sense burning up the kerosene for nothing.”

At first she’d wait until early evening when Chris came back from Franchel’s, where he hired out to milk cows after school, and ask him to go to the basement with her. She could feel the warmth of his hand when he took her elbow, holding the lamp high, guiding her down the steps, his lips touching her ear as he whispered that he loved her.

But Ma had put a stop to that real quick. “Got his own chores to do,” she’d scold. “And besides, he ain’t always gonna be here, so get on with it.”

“You should eat something, Aunt Clara.” Josie picks up the spoon and hands it to her aunt. “I think you’ll like it.” She pours some cream into her aunt’s bowl, making a white round circle on the surface of the orange squash soup. “My dad gave me this recipe. Said it was my mother’s.”

Clara takes the spoon and stirs until the cream disappears. Mellie died a few days after Josie had been born, and her husband took the baby off to California without so much as a how-do-you-do, sending a picture of him and Josie each year at Christmas. That was the same year the war started and the government sent books of blue and red stamps to purchase food. Orrin Franchel had come down with the news—the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. He and Pa had speculated some time about where that might be before Orrin took off to deliver the milk cans to the bench. 

Ma never did figure out how to use those stamps, what with a basement full of food from the garden, as much chicken as any family could want to eat, and only just enough cash money to buy the things they couldn’t grow. The stamps lay on the shelf with Ma’s china tea set until Clara tore them along the perforated lines and threw them in the air like confetti. She smiled at the memory. All those little blue and red papers scattering in the breeze. It surely was a pretty sight.

Ma was right though. Chris wouldn’t always be at home with them. He’d gone off after he got that letter from the army that told him to report to Pine Camp up in Jefferson County. He sent word from time to time to tell them he was all right. Before long, the letters came on a small blue paper with their address and par avion on one side and, when unfolded, his writing on the other. Pa said it made him feel mighty important to get a letter with foreign words on the envelope, but Ma thought there was no use to it if you didn’t know what the words meant. But that’s the way Ma was, never did look at the bright side of things.

Each time a letter came, they’d wait until Franchel’s oldest son, Jimmy, had time to come down and read it to them. After he finished, they’d ask him to read it again, just so they could memorize the words. When he finished, Ma put them in the blanket chest and forgot about them. After a few days, Clara would take the letters out, hide them under her pillow and, before sleeping, bring the words back to her mind.

“Don’t expect him back,” Ma had said right after Chris left. “That’s the way it is these days. Young’uns go off, and you don’t ever see them again.”

But Clara had been certain he’d return. That’s when she took to carrying an umbrella every day, winter or summer, and wearing the floppy black hat and black stockings she’d found in the attic so she’d look right when Chris returned. Ma had said that Clara was acting a mite peculiar, but told Pa to let her be so long she wasn’t hurting nobody. And so, all made up like she was going somewhere special, Clara would walk to the mailbox every day like she was expecting the government to mail her brother back home.

After lunch, Louis puts his arm around Clara’s shoulders and guides her to her place on the porch and sees that she is safely seated, rocking her way back to the rut in the floor board, and listening for the pleasing sound that lures her thoughts back home.  “Can I get you something else?” her nephew asks.

Clara shakes her head and rocks, staring at the tomato fields. 

“See you ‘round supper time.” The truck engine starts and clatters its way back down to the packing sheds. Clara watches until it disappears around the bend in the road.

Pa never had a truck. But he always thought it would be nice to have one, like the old Chevy that Orrin had stored on the ground floor of his hay barn and took out when he needed to go to town. But Pa never did get one. He died before he learned how to drive. That was during the second year of the war. The winter was unusually harsh, and he was felled by an ague that turned him from sweat to chills more times a day then Clara could count. When he passed, the ground was so frozen that it was spring before they could dig his grave alongside the creek where he could listen to the music of the water washing the stones and scouring the banks. They didn’t have a box to put him in, so Ma sewed him into a worn blanket and lined the hole with straw left from last year’s harvest.

“He’ll be real comfortable like,” Ma had said when the shoveling was done and she had repeated some verses she’d memorized from the Bible. “Now you go along there and get some stones from the creek and cover that grave so he won’t get dug up by some critter.” Clara had spent the rest of the day carrying stones to the gravesite and covering them with wild flowers.

Clara’s thoughts are interrupted when the mail truck’s brakes grind to a stop at the end of Josie’s driveway. The mailman shoves letters and the newspaper into the box and waves to her. She pretends she doesn’t see him. She has no call to be friendly with the likes of him. She could live here twenty years and never know his name. Back home, Mary Hilts drove the mail truck along the twenty-three mile stretch between West Alder Creek and Brooksville delivering the mail, the latest news, and the items she’d purchased from the lists and with the money the folks on her route left in their mailboxes.

That’s how Clara found out the war was over. Mary had brought the news along with the mail. That meant Chris would be coming home. She had wanted to cry out with joy, but she feared that if she spoke, the magic she had shared with her brother would disappear, that he would come home a different man, that he would have forgotten that he loved her. She just smiled and waved as Mary drove off to deliver mail and her news. Back at the house, she calmed her mind, busied her hands, and waited for each day to pass.

By the time Chris returned to Clara and their bed in the woodshed, Ma had become poorly, refusing to eat, thinking Chris was her husband, and asking him why Mellie hadn’t come home from school that day. Chris had folded his uniform, put it in the blanket chest at the foot of Ma’s bed, and hired out to the sheep ranch down the hill towards North Fulton, helping with the lambing in early spring, shearing in the summer, and haying along towards fall. Clara cooked, mended, did the canning, and comforted her mother. When Ma passed, Chris and Clara buried her next to their father. 

Not much changed in their lives after Ma died. Clara left the little house only to go to the mailbox. Although she sometimes wondered about the world that lay beyond the end of the dirt road, she never asked to see it. She delivered Chris’s notes to Mary Hilts, asking her to pick up a few things in town like bolts to keep the pump handle in working condition or canning jars to replace the ones that broke. When Orrin delivered milk to them once a week, she put the tin in the well to keep it cool, and when Ruth, Orrin’s hired girl, came out to pick blackberries, Clara joined her, silently working alongside just the way she had done with Ma all her life.      

A year after the war ended, electricity came through, and a man who said he was from the utility company gave Chris a dollar for letting them put a pole on their property. They never took in the electricity, though. Clara still fixed the meals on the wood stove, lit their way at night with the kerosene lamp, walked to the mailbox six days a week, scattered wildflowers on the graves, and waited for Chris to come home when he hired out to the sheep ranch so he could be the one to carry up the potatoes and canned goods from the basement.

“I brought you some lemonade,” Josie says to her aunt. 

Clara pushes her hand away.

“I know you’re not happy, but I had to come get you.” Josie’s voice was soft and wheedling. “My mother would have wanted me to look after you. Louis and I want you to be happy living with us.” When Clara doesn’t answer, Josie moves away. “I’ll be out back taking down the laundry. Ring the bell if you need me.”

Clara stares out over the tomato fields, and tears once more moisten her eyes. She is saddened by the thought that Chris is alone at home, on their bed in the woodshed, covered with Ma’s quilt, the one that was too good for anyone to use, the one left folded on the blanket chest at the foot of Ma’s bed for as far back as Clara could remember. After she had put him to bed and tucked the quilt under his chin, she had gone to the loft to sleep. She had slept uneasily that first night, listening to the music sung by the creek, wondering if Chris could hear and feel comforted by it. So he didn’t feel alone and afraid, she’d left the oil lamp burning next to the bed. 

She hadn’t been lonely in the days that followed because every night she sat by him, thinking about the day’s events, knowing that he would be proud of how she kept their home going: how she split the kindling, went into the basement alone, carried water from the creek after the pump handle broke, wired the hinges on the outhouse door when they pulled away from the frame, tied knots in the rotting clothes line, and nailed the slats from her parents’ bed across the window after it had been broken by a falling tree limb.

That summer at shearing time, the manager and the foreman from the sheep ranch came to see if Chris would hire out again. When Clara heard their truck rattling up the pot-holed road, she had run out back and hid behind the wood pile. The manager knocked on the front door and called out, “Anybody home?” 

“The place is so rundown, it doesn’t look like anybody’s lived here for some time,” the other man said.

“Must be here,” the manager answered. “They’re not ones for going out much. Pretty well keep to themselves.” As he opened the woodshed door, the hinges gave a rasping sound, like an old man clearing his throat of phlegm. There had been a moment of silence before the manager yelled, “Holy Mother of God, come take a look at this.”

“Is that…?” the foreman asked, staring at the skeletal figure, hair neatly brushed to one side and teeth arrayed behind an unearthly grin.

The manager nodded as he stepped back and shut the door.

Clara closes her eyes and trembles at the memory of the shouting and confusion, the fire truck with its whirling lights, and the county-sent woman who came to take her away. Pa, then Ma, then Chris. All taken by the lung fever. Clara’s head sags, the chair slows and then stills.

After a while she rises, turns her back on the tomato fields, and shelters under her umbrella as she wanders up the dirt road to the little house, stopping by the gravesite where her parents rest. A pleasant breeze plays among the tall grass that has grown over the graves and teases the loose bark on the birch trees. Down by the creek, a frog croaks out his passion. 

Clara hums as she bends to pick wildflowers, surprised at the sound of her voice. Before long, Chris comes and places her hand in his.

“Been away for some time,” he says. He takes the flowers from her and spreads them over the grave. “We’ve been missing you.”

Clara speaks for the first time in fifty-seven years. “I was a long ways away.” She quiets for a moment and leans against him. “But got back just as soon as I could,” she whispers.

Chris smiles and squeezes her hand.

 
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Since 2008, Dorothy Place has published thirteen short stories in literary journals. Of those stories, four received recognition or prizes and one a fellowship to a writers' conference. Her debut literary novel, THE HEART TO KILL, was released November 2016 by SFA Press. A second novel is in the works.

A Short Dictionary of Misunderstood Words

Caroline Swicegood

a tribute to Milan Kundera

 

By the time they reach Venice and realize that Shana’s passport is missing—most likely either dropped or stolen on the train from Prague—they have spent enough uninterrupted time together for Shana to realize they not only come from different lives, but have completely different understandings of the most basic things.

                                                                                                  

Parties

To Shana, a party is something that happens in backyards: first your parents’ backyard where you have birthdays when you are young, filled with balloons and water guns and cake; then your friends’ parents’ backyards when those parents are out of town, filled with beer and tank tops and, eventually, the sound of a police siren out front; and finally, your own parents’ backyard again, when you come over for Sunday barbeques after church, and sit in folding lawn chairs, and spend the afternoon laughing and swatting at mosquitos. All of these events have swelling crowds, some of whom are related to you, many of whom might as well be.

To Isaac, a party is something that happens politely around tables: first at the shining oak table in your parents’ dining room, where birthdays are accompanied by dinner and some presents and a grandparent or two; then around small round tables in ballrooms as you move through the life stages of society dances and awards and graduations, each with cards containing money being slipped into your hand; and finally, small dinner parties of people you met in graduate school, drinking wine and discussing things you’ve read and museums you’ve gone to. All of these events involve crystal stemware, or at least stemware that looks like it could be crystal.

The first time Isaac invited her to a party with his friends, she asked him what she should bring, and he shrugged. “Wine or something,” he said. But Shana knew differently. She wasn’t going to be the girlfriend who came empty-handed (and coming without food was as good as coming empty-handed). So she dug through all the appetizer recipes her mom had ever given her and found one she loved: fried pecan okra. She realized her mistake immediately when the host hesitated before taking the dish out of her hands and setting it on the counter, flashing what was meant (Shana thought) to be a reassuring smile before finally adding a spoonful to each plate that was already neatly arranged with food. On the counter were bottles of wine brought by the other guests, and it turned out that none of them had ever had okra before, because while they all lived there then, none of them were from there except Shana. “It’s very interesting,” the host said, taking the first brave bite.

But Shana is a quick learner; it never happens again. By the time they are at Isaac’s conference in Prague and she meets up with his friends for dinner, she knows how to give one-sentence quips on things she really doesn’t know much about, to make her seem personable and invested in the conversation, and when to keep quiet, and to always hold white wine by the stem of the maybe-crystal-ware rather than the bowl, so as not to accidentally warm it.

 

Immigrant

Shana and Isaac are both the grandchildren of immigrants, although Isaac’s grandparents are quite a bit older than Shana’s. She knows that people were not so nice to Isaac’s family once upon a time, but two generations later, no one shifts uncomfortably to the other side of the street when he walks by, no one ever even gives him a second glance. His family’s story is considered respectable by the American history books, well documented in museums; it is already part of a history that most everyone agrees on.

Shana knows that violence is violence, that danger is danger. Her grandparents left when three different families in their town had been shot in their beds as they slept on humid summer nights—and that was after sons had been dragged into sugarcane fields never to be seen again, daughters raped and raped again, soldiers recruited and converted. You could go out for a drink one evening and come home to sleep, or be shot in the head over the bar, your blood left to the mosquitos. No one ever knew.

Both Shana’s and Isaac’s grandparents have accents, but his grandparents’ accents say Old World Charm and her grandparents’ accents say Not From Here.

(She remembered the first and only time she ever got in trouble in high school, when another girl said that she shouldn’t stand for the Pledge of Allegiance that started each day, because she wasn’t American. We’ve always been American, you ignorant bitch, she responded. You think America is only the United States? When questioned by the teacher after class, Shana said she was offended because it was an AP History class, and the girl should have known better, and honestly, the teacher should consider kicking her out into regular history class. She probably wouldn’t have really gotten in much trouble at all if she hadn’t turned around and said, What continent is Mexico in? What about the Caribbean? Why do you think they call it Latin America? And Central America? Have you ever looked at a map in your life, or are you too busy being a cunt? Do you even know how to read, cunt? That was when the teacher reluctantly sent her to the counselor’s office, and she and the other girl served lunchtime detention together the next day.)

Some immigrants come from across the world and some come from nearby. Some settle and some don’t. Some are allowed to be American and some aren’t. Why they used the same word for all of them, she was never sure.

Shana had never been to her grandparents’ hometown. Her parents used to go every now and then, but eventually it was decided that it was too expensive and was put off and put off and put off, until it was forgotten altogether. Isaac had twice been to the village from which his grandparents had escaped, each time doing research and tracking his heritage throughout Eastern Europe, filling in gaps of vaguely remembered pasts or partial information until it all made sense somehow.

Throughout this trip together, he tells her about his other trips in detail and laments that they don’t have time to make any detours to show her where he came from. She wonders if he’s ever wondered the same thing about her.

 

Police

Isaac rarely ever needs to interact with the police, and even when he does, he always gets his way, and he always knows he will—in fact, it never occurs to him otherwise. The police are the people who joke around with you about your parking ticket, who tell you to slow down after sending you off with a warning, who solemnly take down your information when you report your bike stolen from outside the university library. Even when Isaac was underage and stumbling drunk one night, so drunk he sat down on a curb and held his head in his hands until the street lamps stopped spinning, the cops who found him there just asked if he was okay and if he had someone to take him home. When he said yes, they told him to stay safe and moved along down the street.

The police don’t come to the neighborhood where Shana grew up to give warnings and tell people to be safe. They came to look for groups of bored teenagers hanging out after school and other such sinister things. There wasn’t even much crime in their neighborhood, but boy, were there a lot of cops. When the inevitable siren went off at those backyard high school parties, the only thing to do was run, because underage drinking meant citations, maybe handcuffs. To Shana, the police are the people who slow their car when you walk down the sidewalk with your friends and whose eyes follow you at gas stations, the people who called her ex-boyfriend “boy” once at a checkpoint even though they were both almost thirty.

When they go to report Shana’s missing passport to the carabinieri, she realizes that Isaac does not understand that he’s not at home, and that he doesn’t know how to talk to police who aren’t already on his side. He uses big words—look how educated and important I am, they seem to say—and a forceful tone—don’t make me ask for your boss, it seems to say—and swipes his hair off his forehead in frustration because he’s not getting the attention and the answers he wants. The officers look almost amused. Shana tries to step in but is interrupted by Isaac.

“Be nice to them,” she whispers. “Be polite.” He doesn’t hear her. She tries again and puts her hand on his arm until he shuts up and looks at her. “Talking to them like that won’t work.”

“They won’t even file a report,” he says, pushing his hair back again. He doesn’t bother lowering his voice or hiding his irritation.

“You tell us where it was stolen, we file a report,” one of the cops says.

“We already said, it was probably on the train,” Isaac says.

“You said maybe on the train. And that the train maybe wasn’t in Italy then. And that maybe it’s just lost, not stolen.”

“But it might have been stolen,” he says. “Jesus, what is so hard about this?” The police again tell him to contact their embassy.

They do, and Shana is told she can get an emergency passport for their flight in two days, that they can even pick it up on their way to the airport, and then she will have to apply for a new one once she’s home. (Do I really need a new one? When will I use it again? she thinks.) Overall it is not a difficult process: it takes a twenty-minute phone call and a quick fax of the passport photocopy she has for emergencies. Yet Isaac spends the rest of the day grumbling, a dark look on his face, unable to shake the aggravation he felt earlier when talking to the police. That night at the hotel, when he crawls into bed next to her, he apologizes for ruining one of their last days of the trip. She smooths his hair back, kisses his forehead, and forgives him.

 

Water

To Shana, water means Appalachian creeks and swimming holes, biting coldness and slick rocks, checking carefully for snakes and eating picnic lunches. To Isaac, it means New England coastal marshes, shallow and dense and opaque, a place you walk alongside with your father and the family dog. To Shana it means short, silky moss; to Isaac it means tall, stiff reeds; to Shana it means summer afternoons; to Isaac, it is the closest sense of home he feels. (Shana doesn’t know this about him, and it’s the kind of detail that would remind her of why she loves him, if he thought to share it.)

They wake up early on their last day in Venice, when the sky is still so dark it’s barely blue and most lights are off around the city, and get a taxi boat. The water beneath them is completely silent as they glide through the lagoon: slower than the Appalachian creeks, deeper than the swimming holes; denser and more opaque than the New England marshes. They are quiet and thinking about completely different things, unrelated to one another or their surroundings, but Isaac takes her hand as their driver navigates past the sleepy, colorful islands on the way to the airport, each unaware that when they think the word morning in the future, the perfect, beautiful tranquility of this moment will drift back to them, hanging somewhere around the periphery of their memories.

 
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Caroline Swicegood is an American writer and educator currently living in southern Germany; previously, she spent several years living in Istanbul, Turkey. Her fiction has appeared in over a dozen literary journals, including most recently Foliate Oak and Cleaver Magazine, and her nonfiction has appeared in Compose Journal and the Literary Bohemian.

I am a Walking Star Monster

Michael  J. Brien



In the beginning, I touched music through the songs—the brown-cloaked voices coming over the wall and falling into its shadow. By then I had already learned to leave the yard and go where I was told not to go. Early mornings I was called by the voices. I had learned to hold the top rail of my crib and not let go. Jump up and down, up and down, up and down, until my wobbling legs learned to stiffen and I was over the rail and down the other side, along the thin bars that led to the bottom rail, and then to the floor. The bedroom door open and welcoming. Climb the chair near the front door where Daddie took off his rubbers, turn the deadbolt, turn the porcelain knob, and enter into the still dark of morning coming. My feet covered by my onesie, I played in the notes that sprawled in the grass at the base of the old stone. Quietly, on their bellies, the notes slid in the arc of the day’s growing shadow until they hit the slant of sun. Then they vanished. The rousting lasted less than three minutes. I’m sure of that. To stand outside and hear the final voice alone—a brown-cloaked woman hitting a note so high I knelt in the green like a penitent, laying my head on the fluff, pushing my left ear into it, finally stopping the sound in that ear, feeling the tickle when it trickled into the tympanic cavity of my right ear. Three minutes—because I breathed inout, inout, inout eighteen times. 

 
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If I stayed in bed and let it happen the bell would clang three times—one for the Father, one for the Son, and one for the Holy Ghost. The voices of the caramel-colored cloisterers followed, climbing the dark morning into the light not yet on the wall. They were sleepy voices, much huskier at the beginning of day, in the stilldark, cold. First one voice, climbing a stepladder, reaching for a branch that needed pruning, taking out the big scissors and—snip, making a cut. Then the clutch of voices following, dragging their tools along the ground, singing hallelujahs, joining and repeating the phrase just having been sung by the soloist. They repeated it again and again until there was silence and the first light peeked over the edge of the river. And then the bells pealing—at lastatlastatlast, themorninghasbrokenatlastatlastatlast, hallelujahhallelujahalleluja.

 
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It amazed my Mommie when she realized I could count to three. I could climb out of the crib, and I could unlock the front door, and I could count to three. My world was made of three and the multiples of three. Mommie, Daddie, me. Sister, brother, me. The moon, the sun, the stars. Nuns, Lucy, fans. Three strings like glass. Three strings like sand. 

My Mommie cried each time I left the house without her knowing and she blamed herself. When she would catch me up in her arms, I would stare at her tears and touch the wetness dripping down her cheek. 

My Daddie told her that she had to first overcome the shame, and I have always wished that I had been in the room when Daddie told her that. Then I might have seen the look on her face, in her eyes, in the way her body collapsed against Daddie. But I only heard her sobbing from my bed. I heard her whisper hoarsely, “How can I not blame myself?” 

In later years when I grew more hurtful, and I wanted to shame her—I did blame her. I called her mucky and ugly and monster. 

“I have nothing to be ashamed of,” she would always begin. 

But quick as mercury I would remind her, “I’m an autie, Mommie, an autie.” 

And she would break. 

 
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I was six when I knew that all I would need in life was my smile, my ear for music, and a Stratocaster. My eyesight had deteriorated to the point that I could barely distinguish a shrub from a car, but I felt the telling of everything and anything in the light touching of my fingertips. 

It was at six years old that I also heard a lute for the first time. It too came from behind the cloister walls, first one string plucked, then several strings strummed, ringing out long enough to give the voices a place to start or rest or come back to. It did not dawdle. 

 
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I entered the cloistered place without bowing or genuflecting or being polite the way my parents told me I should always be. I had been ordered never to enter that sacred place. These women were called there by God, my Mommie told me.  

“And they are to communicate with no one but their God,” Daddie chimed. Though chimed is just a cliché I use. Daddie’s voice does not chime—it does not ring—there is no treble in it. It is coarse and crass. It is a sewer-layer’s voice covered in clay and asphalt. 

 
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She was dressed in caramel cloth from head to foot. She raised her face into the sun. Her face glowed.  

My nose itched, but I did not scratch. My tongue swelled, but I did not swallow. 

She said, in the soloist voice I recognized in their later mid-day song, “The star, the star shines, the whole world rejoices.” She lowered her eyes and went back to her work—her shoulder humped and her arms moved in small circles before her. 

I dared not share my voice at first. Hers was so overwhelming. Her singing could not reverse my developmental disorder, but it could make it hesitate. It could make me forget about it. I wandered less. 

Her name became Sister Helen after a half-dozen trips to her plot of Eden. She believed that a human being consists of a tripartite nature composed of body, soul, and spirit. Many mornings in that dark cold, she quoted from 1 Thessalonians 5:23: “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” 

Amen, I would mumble, baby spit, toddler toothed, little boy blue babble. 

 
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She asked me one time, in the blue black of cold, before the others came into the courtyard, “Do you know what diversity is?” 

I did not have to think. “A disability,” I answered. 

She reached out her hand and touched my cheek.

 
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At nine years old, my guitar played too loud for the neighbors, my Daddie had to move us. Sarah Jane, John, Mommie, and Daddie. An autie, two normals, and the Mommie and Daddie who bore them all. Sarah Jane was twelve years old. John was fifteen. Daddie worked at Freudenberg making rubber gaskets for Fords and Chryslers and GMs. Mommie was neglectful. 

Daddie told us that during his lunch hours, he walked through the plant gates and out into the streets as far as he could in fifteen minutes—north, northeast, south, southwest, east, and west—always looking for a house. When the old Victorian with a barn on Virginia Street was put up for sale, Daddie called Mommie from work, told her to gather all of the papers, and meet him at the bank.  

 
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The center room with the bay window lay thirty degrees southwest of Homeland Cemetery, a patch of granite and field that spilled into the Newfound River. It was a three-minute walk from the Lake Street plant gate, and nine hundred feet from the junction of New Chester Mountain Road. Like capillaries, Winter, Spring, and Summer streets each segmented a length of Homeland. Off in the northeast corner, like scared schoolgirls, were Virginia and Ellen streets, and Abbey Lane. Sarah Jane too had been one of those girls, a sparrow often cowering in the corner of her darkened room until the day her thin fingers found and pulled her satin ballet pointe slippers onto her toes. Then, like a demoiselle crane, her confidence expanded and she stood on pointe, tall, crowing, ready for her migratory flight. 

We had moved from beside a hermitage to a cemetery—the correlation was not lost on me. Both were graveyards for souls or temptations or memories run away from. But dragging my fingers over the engravings in the stones, spelling out the names and ages of death, and whom they left behind, I often thought, How had they gotten here—in Homeland? Through death to be sure, but what were the colors and smells and sounds of death? I conjured up vivid scenes of family life suddenly falling apart—a baby, only months old, smelly, dying in its mother’s arms of tuberculosis; an older couple slain in each other’s arms in a robbery attempt; an alky Mommie coughing, coughing, and finally stopping her breathing; a Daddie keeling over at the kitchen sink and no one there to watch him fall; the destruction of each, finally equaling the residents of a small township. 

 
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I was twelve when I heard my father’s copy of “Straight, no Chaser.” This man, this Monk, found cracks in the diatonic scale. Quantum Entanglements I would call it now—notes becoming so entangled, that any impact made on one would have an instantaneous effect on the behavior of another, no matter where that note is played. 

 
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When I was fifteen, big brother John returned home from college for Mommie’s funeral. After we packed Mommie away, he stayed a few nights with Daddie and me. Sarah Jane was in Africa and could not make the trip. Sitting on the edge of my thin redbedspreaded bed, in dim light, John read to me from the Iliad. Every night for three nights, John read. He shared the brains of others on the subject as well—the great professor, Colin MacLoud, an Oxford University classicist, said that the Iliad was and is and forever will be such a monumental work because it speaks authentically for pity and kindness and civilization without showing them victorious in life.  

“The Iliad’s humanity does not float on shallow optimism,” John quoted. “It is firmly and deeply rooted in an awareness of human reality and suffering. To enjoy or appreciate the Iliad is to understand and feel for human suffering. To feel whatever sorrows we have as part of a common lot and so to endure them more bravely.” 

On the third and last night, John quoted Simone Weil, the French philosopher. In her essay on the Iliad, written just after the fall of France in 1940, she said, “The sense of human misery is a pre-condition of justice and love. Only one who has measured the dominion of violence, and knows how not to respect it, is capable of love and justice.”  

The thoughts of MacLoud and Weil shook me—Violence does not exist apart from any one of us. I would learn to sing that. My crooner understood—we are all implicated.  

 
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This tidbit—the human heart generates the strongest magnetic field in the body, nearly five thousand times stronger than that of the brain. I believe this. 

 
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Once, Sarah Jane did write me. She had danced her way to Rwanda. Billy, she wrote, I am ok. You’ll be ok. I work now for a woman who is as strong as the mountain gorillas she feeds and cares for. She can stare them down and she is teaching me. You will learn from women just as strong. I pressed my cheek to the polished wood floor, remembering the feel of satin against my skin. In seconds the feeling fleeing. 

 
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I was twenty-seven when Nancy, the reader provided to me by the Association of the Blind, read a work by A.M. Lepicier, a theologian. It was a long and sometimes overly thought out text. But in it I learned that “An angel possesses such penetration that he is able, at one glance, to take in the whole field of science lying open to his perception, just as we, at a glance, can take in the entire field of vision lying exposed to our eyes.” 

It was then that I realized alcoholism was very impeding, and my Mommie had been a severe alcoholic—my Daddie a wonderful enabler. It took me until that long, three times three times three years, to decide that she had been unfixable. 

 
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Hopi time is quantum time. It flows in two directions—forward and backward. IS is then is tomorrow is now. Why can’t a broken egg mend itself? Space-time moves in a special way, following a special path, creating a special effect. That path, I believe, is spiraled, and the effect of spiraling is a torsion field, and the spiral of space-time is the essential key to nature’s code. The bony labyrinth that is my ear permits me hearing and balance—one cannot be without the other. 

 
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On a winter morning after a new snow, blue sky reflecting in the pure white like the blue in her eyes, Sister Helen stood and peered so near at me. She parted my hair. Her fingers were delicate as the pigeon feathers I had found in the walkway between our house and the cloister wall. I kept the feathers in a box in my room, taking them out in the dark and fluttering them along my arms. 

“Search for patterns in the mystery of every day,” she told me.  

We watched the clouds together that morning, distant, then thin, then squirrelly, swirling like paper against a chain link fence.  

“Once you’ve glimpsed the world as it could be,” she told me, “it is impossible to be complacent.” She placed the tips of her fingers against my eyebrows and guided my eyelids shut. “You cannot live any longer in a world as it is.” 

I kept my eyes closed. I had grown comfortable with them closed. 

“For me,” Sister Helen said, “the hardest thing is that liberation never happens right away. Sometimes it takes years and years.”  

Silence in the snow is beautiful. Silence in the rain is difficult and elusive. But in music, it skips and hides and races between every note.  

I kept my ears alert to the pop her saliva made when she parted her lips. 

“Methodical perseverance is not only essential,” she said, “but it is also very tiring, William. Sometimes

I wonder if I am wasting my life.” 

I still see her in the blackness where my eyes once saw light.  

“I would not want to ever deceive you, William,” she told me. 

 
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“You are a star monster,” Lucy, John’s girlfriend, told me at the end of our first tour. “You are a success.” 

Yes, I was a head-banging thirty-something celebrating the success of my first album. Bob, Lucy, Eric and Schroeder had taken the equipment from the truck and gone inside to set up. But I had the tune and lyrics for “Scratchloss” twittering in my head. I didn’t want to lose it. Our trip down the Garden State Parkway had inspired me. I needed to put the tune dancing in my head into the laptop. So John set up his laptop on the hood of the truck and I howled. I let the rhythms and flow of sound and silence wash over me. 

But I heard the gravel being spit and someone screaming at me to stop. I imagined an ogre standing by the passenger door staring raven-eyed at John. 

“I’d be ashamed if I were you. Why do you let him go on like this?” the ogre said. 

I stopped singing. I sensed that the ogre was afraid to look at me. He was throwing his voice at John.  

“Don’t make fun of me.”

“What are you? Forty or something, and still acting like a kid punk rocker. Is that what it is? You and your buddy living out some fantasy.”  

John started to laugh. 

“Get out,” the ogre screamed at John. 

I imagined John spreading his arms like angel’s wings and shrugging his shoulders. “Come on, Bill,” he called.  

We began walking back to the house. 

“Is he your brother?” the ogre shouted after us. 

“Yeah.” John stopped. 

“You should be ashamed. Exhibiting him like this.” 

“I’m not ashamed,” John said. “He’s the lead singer in our band.” 

I imagined the ogre dropping his head and shaking it, no, no, no, no, no, no. He said, “You’re kidding, right?” 

I took a step back and said, “No.” I stuck out my hand, “I’m Bill. The band’s name is Bill. Everyone likes Bill.” 

“Yeah? Well, I don’t. You’re living some kind of fantasy if you ask me.” 

John walked to me and put his arm around my shoulder, adjusting the cape that had become twisted by the wind.  

“If you ask me . . .” John’s voice was turned away from me, “there’s not much distance between fantasy and reality.”  

John must have pointed at the guy’s house and then ours, because next I heard John say, “between your house and ours.” 

At the end of the day, me back in my bedroom, Lucy came in to say good night. She brings in tidbits for me to grit my teeth on. Some of these are visions I choose for my songs. That night she brought me words from Jorge Luis Borges: “Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger that devours me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire.” These were the words I was singing when my heart burst. 

 
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I woke from the operation with Lucy whispering like a cinder, “Hi, rock star.” 

I tried to speak but the tube in my throat stopped me and I choked. Tears rolled down my cheeks. Lucy reached over and patted them with a tissue.  

“Docs say that you’ll do fine. Your brother’s gone to get more coffee.” 

 
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The doc pulled the tube from me and sent me to my room. I couldn’t speak at first. It hurt to try. Lucy offered me chips of ice. Soothing, they melted. She took my hand. I listened to the whirr of the automatic ratchets and springs cushioning me, felt them reach under me, helping her help me to sit up. Lucy’s arms circled round my calves then pulled my legs toward her, moving me so that my legs dangled like a child’s over the edge. 

“Take it all in, Bill. Go slow.” 

Then she put on socks and brought me to standing. I held onto the rippled muscle in her arms. 

“Are you okay, Bill?” 

I spoke at last. “I am.” 

She had a walker there and had me hold its rails. She gathered my stanchion of IVs and drip bottles. Together we began to walk. We moved out of the room and into the hall. We walked by the nurses’ station and I heard a song from the album playing on the radio. I stopped. Behind the song were the voices of three women, huddled low, dancing at their desk. 

I was pleased with myself, with them. “I am a walking star monster,” I proclaimed. 

They laughed. Lucy laughed. 

 
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The huddle I now know is a sanctuary in the middle of a maelstrom.  

 
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I am now a week away from my thirty-ninth birthday and last week I bought a burial plot next to my Mommie for sixty dollars. I bought it because two weeks ago at the selectmen meeting, they voted to raise the burial plot price six-fold on the first of the year.  

From John and Lucy’s and my front porch it is only a short walk to death’s front door. It is as easy as connecting the dots—me at point A; the burial plot, the belly button of Homeland, point B. 

Death is somewhere past the sun and moon and stars, in a universe without stars, just black matter, or non-matter—invisible to a naked eye. 

 
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Still, I remember when time was nothing more than a shadow creeping slowly along the base of a stone wall. 

 
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When death does come, I will back away and close the large wooden gate behind me.

 
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Michael Brien.jpeg

Michael J. Brien, a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, teaches creative writing fiction and non-fiction workshops at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU). He is past editor of Amoskeag, SNHU’s literary magazine, and has published nearly 100 stories in small literary magazines and e-zines since 1975. His first publication was “Mushrooms,” a foray into magic realism. Michael is a long-time member of New Hampshire’s Writers' Project. He also writes and performs his own compositions on guitar and piano; this year he celebrates 50 years as songwriter/singer/guitarist.

Third Grade

Jill Caugherty

 

Susan’s daughter Macy has two weeks left of third grade. The classroom mom has emailed several reminders about the end-of-school party, inviting parents to serve ice cream and snap photos. At least, Susan thinks, she has contributed to Mrs. Richardson’s class gift: a forty-dollar check, which she tucked into Macy’s backpack.

The party, however, is a different story. It falls on a Wednesday afternoon, smack dab during an executive review, and she can’t simply leave the meeting with what her boss will perceive as a flimsy excuse. As it is, she’s sure that in evaluating her performance, Adam is totaling up her recent absences, and ranking her down compared to her co-workers Kamil and Mike.

The party, she reasons, is a small thing, and Macy won’t miss her. In fact, Macy doesn’t seem to care whether Susan attends class events. At the field day celebration, her sociable daughter chatted with friends, gobbled down pizza, and cracked jokes, while Susan watched from a chair in the corner of the classroom.

Now as Susan, running fifteen minutes late, picks Macy up from the school’s after-care program, her daughter lugs her backpack into the car and demands, “Mommy, are you coming to the year-end party? We’re having cake and ice cream, and we’re going to give Mrs. Richardson her present.”

Susan’s knuckles tighten around the steering wheel as she searches for the right words.

“I don’t think so, honey. Not this time. It would take me almost half an hour just to get to the school. It’s in the middle of the day, and I’ve got a meeting I can’t get out of.”

Macy says nothing.

“How was school?” Susan asks, her voice spilling into the silence.

“Fine.”

Susan prods, “What did you do?”

“Ate with Madelyn and Annie at lunch and played soccer at recess.”

“And what did you learn?”

“How to make fractions. And we did an experiment in science about the weather.”

Macy hums a tune, and Susan relaxes. For now, the party is forgotten. From the rearview mirror, she spies the honey-gold crown of her daughter’s head. It wasn’t so long ago that Macy asked Susan to bind her hair into twin pigtails. Now she insists on doing it herself: parting it down the middle and sweeping it into a ponytail or brushing it down her shoulders like a mini teen’s.

After their dinner of re-heated pasta and meatballs, Max shepherds Macy upstairs to finish homework and prepare for bed. Susan knows that she should feel grateful that Max shares childcare and household duties. On alternating days, one of them tends to Macy while the other cleans up.

From the floor above, Max and Macy cackle as a zany tune blares. Undoubtedly they are watching cat videos or soccer bloopers. Susan considers bounding up the stairs to demand that they read, but thinks better of it. Besides, she doesn’t have time for distractions if she’s going to answer the new emails from the China team before turning in for the night.

When Susan joined Adam’s product management department a year ago, he had explained, “This position has risks, but you know how that goes: high risk, high reward. We’re a small group, and we’ve got a lot to prove with the new products we’re launching, so there’s no shortage of work. But put in your dues now and show great results, you could be looking at a promotion a year from now.”

Susan had nodded. “I’m not afraid of hard work, and I love challenges. I want to help this team succeed.”

 On advice she read from a job website, she hadn’t mentioned her nine-year-old daughter, and she seldom mentions Macy now. Adam’s children are grown, and she suspects that he never played a big role in child rearing. He seems the type with a stay-at-home spouse, whom he would expect to handle domestic details.

It’s after eleven when Susan shuts down her machine and crawls into bed beside Max. He is already snoring softly, an arm flung behind his head.

At work the next morning, she is deep in concentration on the executive slides when her co-worker Kamil, a lanky Pakistani-American, swings by her desk.

“What’s that?” he squints at her screen.

When she reminds him of the review, he chortles. “Oh shit. I haven’t even started my slides. I’ve got to get some input from Finance first.” He laughs again and saunters away.

Despite Kamil’s flippant attitude, Susan knows that in meetings he comes across as decisive and smooth, glowing with confidence.

By noon, Susan’s cheeks are flushed, and her chest sputters as she races to finish the slides in time for a prep meeting with Adam. Lunch is an afterthought: half a turkey sandwich stuffed into her mouth in four bites, crumbs spraying onto her desk, as she creates the concluding slide.

Adam enters the conference room late. As always, he is dressed immaculately: ironed trousers, buttoned-down Oxford shirt, leather shoes.

Susan fumbles to connect her laptop to the projector and finally flips through the presentation.

“Slow down,” Adam interrupts, peering at the monitor. He tosses out a few suggestions, which Susan jots down.

“And another thing,” Adam says, “I’d like you to coordinate the agenda and take notes during the executive review. You can help the team follow up on the action items.”

Susan nods. “Of course.”

“I’m asking you,” Adam adds, “Cause I can count on you to get things done.”

He doesn’t wait for her response, apparently satisfied that they have a mutual understanding.

 
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The Saturday before both the executive review and Macy’s last week of school, Susan can barely drag herself out of bed. She is certain she has come down with a virus; her head is stuffed up and her limbs ache. She has stayed up until the wee hours every night for the last week, editing her presentation, organizing the agenda, assembling the finishing touches.

Macy has begged for a playdate on Saturday with Madelyn, which Susan has agreed to host, reasoning that the girls will occupy themselves while she naps or does a little work from home. Max has announced that he will mow the lawn, and Susan’s main task is to prepare lunch and check in on the girls every hour.

When Madelyn’s mother drops off her daughter, Susan answers the door in a tee shirt and shorts, a Kleenex crunched in her hand.

For a few minutes, they chat about the new supermarket that just opened. As Susan suppresses a yawn, Madelyn’s mother asks if she plans to attend the party.

With a backward glance at the girls, who have disappeared up the stairs, Susan shakes her head, explains about the meeting she can’t miss.

“I get it,” Madelyn’s mother says, but her brow furrows, and it’s clear that she does not in fact understand.

“I don’t work outside the home,” she offers, “but I remember that rat race all too well. I figure they’re only in elementary school for a few years, and then it’s middle school and the teen years and all those headaches. No more sweet little girl wanting to spend time with Mommy and Daddy. So it’s now or never for me.” She throws her hands up in a “what can you do” gesture.

Susan coughs, presses the tissue against her mouth. She wishes that Madelyn’s mother would leave. Instead the woman launches into a tale about her oldest child, a twelve-year-old soccer player.

Susan manages to nod politely and laugh at the right cues. Balling the tissue into her fist, she shreds it with her nails.

When Madelyn’s mother finally excuses herself with a promise to retrieve her daughter later that afternoon, Susan shuts the door in relief.

She has hoped to finish a few other things that she hadn’t gotten to on Friday, but decides she is too tired to focus. She’ll just lie down for thirty minutes, give the girls time to catch up before lunch.

 
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A rap on the bedroom door jars her awake, and she struggles upright, glances at the clock. Half past twelve. She’s slept for nearly two hours.

“Mom,” calls Macy from the other side of the door, “we’re hungry. You’ve been in there forever. It’s time for lunch.” A chirrup of giggles.

Remorse washes over her, followed by a rising anger. What kind of mother sleeps in the middle of a playdate, fails to minimally supervise her daughter and her friend? With sudden clarity, she realizes that although she finishes almost everything she says she will, she doesn’t do any one thing right all the way. Instead, crunched for time, she makes it via a series of compromises.

Even as she recognizes it for what it is – another compromise – she gives the girls extra helpings of chocolate milk, plus Oreos to accompany the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, fruit, and cheese that she sets before them. While they eat, she asks Madelyn questions about her summer plans, but stops short when she sees that the pair have stopped listening, are whispering, heads bent close together.

“We’re going outside for a while, Mommy,” Macy announces, and they leave the table without bothering to clear their plates, abandoning half-eaten sandwiches and Oreo crumbs, picked-over fruit. The back door slams.

Susan slumps into Macy’s chair and plucks a forgotten cookie from the plate, savoring it the way she did as a child: first licking the icing, then quickly consuming the dry chocolate. Outside, the mower roars.

 
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When the bell chimes at half past four, Madelyn’s mother stands at the front stoop, clutching a pocketbook. She has changed into a blue sundress and matching heels.

With a laugh, she explains, “Don and I are going out to eat in an hour. It’s our date night. Madelyn and Jared will have a sitter.”

As Susan summons the girls, she’s uncomfortably aware that she’s wearing no make-up, has not brushed her hair since she napped, and has an orange stain on her shirt.

After Madelyn leaves, Macy bursts into tears, as if she were a cranky five-year-old. Susan’s first instinct is to feel her forehead—is she hot? Coming down with the cold virus? But between tearful gulps for air, Macy explains that after Friday, she won’t see Madelyn, Annie, or her other friends for three or more months, and she will be bored, bored, bored in summer camps.

Cradling Macy on the couch, Susan assures her that they will take a vacation to the coast and have fun together, just the three of them.

“Would you like that?” she asks.

Macy doesn’t reply, buries her face into Susan’s shoulder.

 
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On the morning of the review, Susan rises early. It’s also the day of Macy’s party, the Wednesday of her last week of school.

As Susan kisses her goodbye, Macy says, “Remember, Mommy, today’s the party.”

Susan’s chest clenches, and for a moment, she feels faint. “Honey, I told you that I’m not able to go. I can’t get out of my review. But I’ll be thinking about you. I know you’ll have fun.”

Macy says nothing, but her eyes flash an accusation.

When Susan leans down to hug her, Macy twists away.

Susan looks imploringly at Max, who drives Macy to school in the mornings.

“Let’s go, bug,” he says, twirling Macy until she squeals. Susan uses the opportunity to hurry into the car.

Half an hour before the review, she drinks another cup of coffee. Between the virus and staying up late for days, she is operating on a serious sleep deficit. All the same, she can’t afford to be anything short of alert for the next two hours. In the women’s restroom, she dabs concealer under her eyes.

Five minutes early, she takes a seat in one of the chairs at the perimeter of the conference room, reasoning that the executives will occupy the main table.

Kamil and Mike arrive a couple of minutes later, and to her surprise, both of them head to the main table without hesitation. Susan considers changing her seat, but it’s too late: The executives have begun to file into the room.

Adam enters with one of the vice presidents. He has already told Susan and her co-workers his plan for conducting the meeting. Each of them will present the slides on their respective products. Susan will take notes and follow up with actions.

True to form, Kamil presents without a hitch, giving no sign that he worked on his pitch at the last minute and retrieved the financial data just a couple of days ago. At over six feet tall, he stands with his feet firmly splayed out and spreads his hands in commanding gestures.

The VP of Operations stops him halfway. “Did the Geos commit to that forecast? The volumes spike after year one and then go haywire.”

“Yep. It’s the hockey puck effect,” Kamil says, looking his interrogator in the eye. “We expect market adoption to take off after the first year when this thing gets traction. It’s going to grow on a nice linear curve.” He grins, gives a thumbs-up.

The VP nods.

Mike also bulldozes through his presentation, paces back and forth before the monitor, hands clasped behind his back. His slides are less polished than either Susan’s or Kamil’s, but Adam had not seemed worried during the prep reviews.

As Mike describes what he deems an important feature, the Engineering VP clears his throat. “No, it doesn’t work that way. My team had to remove the automation to make the schedule. It’ll have to be done on-site by customer service.”

“All right,” Mike says with a shrug. “We’ll pick it up in the next release.”

Susan feels a twinge of envy at his nonchalance.

When it’s her turn, she takes a deep breath and walks to the front of the room. She isn’t nervous, she tells herself; she has presented many times before. Her slides flow in a logical order; they tell a story. She doesn’t stumble or trip on the words or mix up facts. She gets through it, and at the end she lifts her head and smiles at the attendees.

The executives’ questions catch her off guard.

“That’s the same value prop we’ve had for years with all the other products,” the Marketing VP complains. “Can’t we try something more original?”

“The volumes are puny,” claims the Operations VP. “How do we expect to make a splash with this if we can’t get Sales to commit to more conversions?”

“How can we know that this won’t cannibalize sales of the Phase 1 product?” the VP of Finance demands.

She tries to focus on each question, answer as directly as possible. However, her voice falters when she notices that at least two of the executives are not paying attention. One texts into his smartphone and the other types an e-mail. When the Marketing VP, who has not listened to her responses, asks another question, she watches him exchange a sly smile with his counterpart opposite him. Adam frowns, scrolling through his laptop.

An hour after the meeting, when she stops by Adam’s desk, he turns reluctantly from his computer screen and swivels the mouthpiece of his headset to the side.

“Hey, was everything okay back there? You seemed a little defensive during the presentation. Or maybe you were just tired. Gotta let the VPs dish it out, if you know what I mean.”

Susan flushes. “But I wasn’t. I didn’t think—”

“We’ll talk later.” Adam points to his headset, signaling that he has to participate in a call, and she backs away.

She drives over the speed limit to make it to school on time. It’s ten till six when she picks up Macy.

“How was it? How was the party?”

Macy shrugs. “Fine, I guess. The cake was good. Mrs. Richardson loved her gift.”

“Did you have fun?”

“Yeah. It’s not often I get to eat like a pig.”

Susan laughs. Before she can stop herself, she asks, “Which other parents came?”

“Almost all of them except for Will’s and Jordan’s. And you. They took pictures and had ice cream. You would have liked it, Mommy.”

“I know…” She starts to say something conciliatory, but a sudden sharp pain seizes her stomach. It’s so insistent that she blinks back tears as she drives home. Heartburn? Caffeine terrorizing her digestive system? She wants to stop the car and get out, hold Macy, apologize to her, even. But instead she continues driving, discomfort be damned. The point, she knows, is to get through it. Isn’t this the lesson her parents impressed upon her, the same lesson she has tried to teach Macy?

On Friday morning, two days after the summit, Adam calls a meeting with his reports. Susan suspects that Kamil and Mike already know the purpose of this conference; they stroll into Adam’s office without the slightest sign of curiosity.

Adam explains that he is promoting Kamil as the team’s principal product manager, effective immediately. Susan and Mike will report to Kamil, and meanwhile, Kamil will hire a couple of other people to back-fill his position and assist with marketing. Moreover, Mike will acquire a second product to manage.

Susan is dimly aware that Adam has finished speaking, because the others have risen and are leaving the room. In his ranking of the three, she understands, Adam has placed her third. She stumbles down the corridor, feeling as chilled as if she has stepped into a blast of winter air.

The thought occurs: Today is Macy’s last day of third grade.

Slumped over her desk, face pressed against her hands, she struggles to think of warm days, lemonade, swimming pools, snow cones, little comforts of summers past that will transport her away from here.

Then, unbidden, she recalls a long-ago teacher’s comment on one of her report cards, just before summer break. It must have been when she was around Macy’s age.

 Susan always gets things done. I never have to remind her.

Bile rises in her throat, threatening to escape from her lips. From somewhere in the bowels of the office, the AC whirs to life and hums its rhythmic white noise. Behind her, a keyboard chatters.

 
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Jill Caugherty.jpg

Jill Caugherty has worked in the high tech industry for over two decades in positions ranging from software development to marketing and product management. She is currently a Senior Product Manager in Research Triangle Park, NC. She received a B.S. in Computer Science from Stanford University, an M.S. in Computer Science from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and an MBA from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Creative writing has been her passion since she was a child, and in her free time, she devotes herself to the craft. Her debut story was published in the April edition of 805Lit, and she recently completed a historical/literary novel. She lives in Raleigh, NC with her husband and daughter.

Next Stop, Sarah

Kara Goughnour

 

I’ve dreamt about my teeth falling out for five nights. It’s never the same. On Monday, I lose four incisors biting into a glossy apple. On Tuesday, I fall up the concrete stairs that lead to the locker room. I stand, blood dripping from my chin and spurting from my mouth as I babble, the whole baseball team suddenly surrounding me, shaking their heads in disapproval. On Wednesday, I fall down my apartment stairs alone, the blood from my gums puddling around large metal jugs of dried lavender and glass jars full of dehydrated chamomile. On Thursday, Hal-abeoji plucks my molars with chopsticks, laughing, something deep and carnivorous in his eyes. On Friday, I stand at the top of a staircase—something out of the old American movies that Eomeoni loves, like Gone with the Wind, with stringy chandeliers hanging limp from each archway, the staircase broad and spinning upwards from the parquet floor—a line of fishing wire tied around each tooth and tracing a spider-leg pathway around me to the doorknob of a ballroom or grand library.

The cherry blossoms are in full bloom this week. They frame the Cathedral of Learning, nesting around it daintily, unlike the air—too warm for spring—that packs itself into the Pittsburgh Transit Rail cars, leaving my uniform wet with the feel of summer sweat before it’s even touched my skin. I’ve begun to sleep on the train; in the mornings before class, and in the afternoons as I make my way to baseball practice. The rhythmic lurching of the cars, the backwards pull as I sit against the car’s movement, makes me fight to even keep my eyes closed without being sick. Dreaming would take a level of multitasking that I haven’t yet perfected.

On my way to practice, I pick a cherry blossom stem for Halmoni. She’s been complaining about her back again, walking with the deep, curved angle of a fishing hook not yet attached to the worm, and in that state, I am worried that she’ll miss the blossoms’ peak. I find a stem with three blossoms on a low-hanging branch that I am sure will go unnoticed, and twist, the young twig writhing and stripping down slowly to brown-green pulp before letting go.

After practice, I take it home to her in our studio apartment above a flower shop on Penn Avenue. My parents met as exchange students at the University of Pittsburgh. My Abeoji, Halmoni’s son, prided himself on waiting the whole year, until they were back in South Korea, to ask for permission to court my mother, my Eomeoni. The dormitories here, he says, leave too much opportunity, so when I received my baseball scholarship shortly after being accepted, making our decision firm, Halmoni came to make sure I stayed Abeoji’s honorable son and Eomeoni’s good Korean boy.

Halmoni has been gardening on our patio since the weather warmed up. I think that it’s to spite the shop below, as it focuses on flower drying and preserving.

“If you can look at a flower whenever you please, then it’s no longer beautiful. Those dried flowers are all dead; dead and crusted.” Halmoni mumbles things like this to no one in particular while she fills empty clam chowder cans with water to shuffle over to our patio.

Halmoni likes to act as though we are poor. She refuses to go to the chiropractor for her back. She doesn’t want just any old American man touching her and doesn’t listen when I say that there are female chiropractors, too. She reuses as many things as possible while buying sparingly. Her newest idea, now that the weather has improved, is to get a job. She’s applied for janitorial positions all over the city, laughing at the poor excuse for public transportation here in comparison to Seoul, and all too seriously considering taking up bicycling—again, to no one in particular—while she pours over the Penny Saver ads in the Tribune and Post-Gazette.  

When I come home from baseball practice that night, the apartment is empty, but Halmoni bustles in twenty minutes later, a bouquet of yellow plastic bags bursting upside down from her hand, inscribed with smiling faces and the slogan “Have a nice day.”

“Kyung-joon,” Halmoni shouts the moment she opens the door. I jump up from the folding table to help her with the bags, and when she is fully through the door and notices me, she sets them down on the floor around her and steps over them. She walks to the kitchen and waves her hand behind her to imply that I should handle them.

“I would open my own store up here, but Sambok has even my thoughts going out of business. ‘Have a nice day’ my ass,” she says, measuring two servings of white rice and slamming the rice cooker’s metal insert into the sink.

“And Seoul Market? They have ‘Oriental Market’ written on the window. Bright yellow letters, like they’re proud. The shelves in there are a mess of countries. I know the real Seoul.”

I am behind her now, in the kitchen. I touch her shoulder and take over cleaning the rice, motioning for her to sit. She lowers herself onto one of the mismatching pillows—this one from the flower shop below, covered in an orange-orchid pattern—her back and hips popping and bursting.

There’s something about baseball, about the pull of the muscle, the tension of the sinew of the forearm against the bone. The motion of the bat through the air and the pop of the ball against the grain.

Before a scrimmage begins, the whole team spreads out in pairs across the field, dotting the grass in twos, baseballs weaving back and forth between each couple like an unevenly laced shoe. I’m often partnered with Darren for this warm-up, and today is one of those days. The coach keeps a chart of the pairs in his office, and Darren must have seen it, because this morning on the train I sit in my usual seat and find junbidwaess-eum? scrawled on the seat in front of me in Darren’s sloppy pencil-writing, followed by a colon-and-parenthesis smile. I imagine him looking it up, most likely on his phone, in a rush before his stop. I imagine him thumbing through an English-to-Korean dictionary the night before, making a note of it for the morning, the pages dog-eared. “Are you ready?” he wrote. I whisper it back to myself, smiling at the flashes of city in the window.

I’m not shy so much as quiet, and, though at practice and in classes I’m easily liked and have no trouble fitting in, I usually speak only when I have something I truly think I should say. This behavior is unlike many of my male classmates, who talk and boast at any opportunity of silence or in the presence of a weak-willed and quiet victim. Darren understands what my other American classmates take as my quiet nature, and I have opened up to him more than anyone else here in this country.

“Is your grandma still planning the demise of Seoul Market?” Darren asks, laughing, his mitt spread and held high, awaiting the baseball that has just left my palm.

“Yes, and now Sambok, too. But, because of them, she bought gochugaru and is making kimchi tomorrow. I think that sometimes, even she is confused by her antics.”

“Will you go home to help her right after practice?” he asks, rolling the now-caught ball back and forth over his mitt with his hand, fingers outstretched and taut.

“She’ll have started without me by then. I think I’m probably safe to spend my day as I please as long as I clean up for her later,” I say, mitt readying to catch.

“I have some student tickets for the Pirate’s game. Nosebleed seats, but it’d be better if I wasn’t alone,” his inflection at the end of the sentence makes it seem as though it’s a question: not whether or not I want to go, but whether or not he would be better off alone.

“Of course.” I wait until I catch the ball to reply, letting the reality of the invitation sink in, grinning.

After practice, I drop my bags and lower myself onto the field, pull a handful of strawberries from a plastic bin in my bag, and close my eyes. In the moments after practice, sitting on the curb paralleling a stony line between field and road, I feel as though I could sleep for hours, my mind empty and my body raw. Darren nudges me with the tip of his bat and I look up at him, at his Jackson Pollock freckles and curved tongues of brown hair curling up from under his cap.

“Are you going to hit the showers or dream all day?” he asks.

We are the last two left in the locker room save for a freshman by the sinks—invisible from the showers—who desperately shaves, checking his watch every time he holds his razor under the tap. The men’s locker room is closed for renovation, and so we have rented the women’s for the half-hour periods before and after our practices. The shower is a glossy, pink-tiled Rubik’s Cube of a room, the square archway a missing block in the center. The row of showers drip out of sync, and Darren moves past me, stripping away his shirt and turning the silver knob of a shower near the back.

There is something about baseball, about the glinting muscles of the upper back, seasoned; the shoulders bugling, ready for another swing. That night I dream of the women’s shower room. The door is gone and only our two shower heads remain. Darren is showering already in front of me—his grey eyes reflecting the vastness of the unending pink room—and then he is gone. He is behind me as quickly as he disappeared, hands tracing down my side, removing my towel—a pale goldenrod yellow. Suddenly, I am on the floor, holding myself up above the shower drain with both hands, crying out. Darren pulls at my shoulder, flips me onto my back. He traces my trachea upwards with his thumb, slides two fingers into my mouth. Two crimson spurts splatter on his face as he wrenches out a molar. I fight for breath as the blood drips down his fingers, onto my chest, and encircles the drain.

I wake to the rhythmic sound of Halmoni beating our kitchen rug with an orange plastic broom on the patio. I splash my face with water and when I pull up and look into the mirror, my eyes are puffy and red from lack of sleep.

“I'll be late after practice,” I call to Halmoni, and she leans past the rug to look into the house.

“A date? What is her name?” she asks.

I laugh and leave without answering, Halmoni cycling between calling out to me from the patio and mumbling to herself as I walk through the shop and out onto Penn Ave.

On the train, there's a piece of scrap paper taped to the seat in front of me. It's lined and pale yellow, with a Pamela's Diner logo at the top in blue stripes and pink, bubbling letters. Darren must have worked the late shift after practice. It reads, “Let's head over straight from practice. Go Bucs! P.S. I've got a new record for you to check out.” I place my thumb over a grease stain near the bottom of the note, run my finger along the serrated edge of the ticket in my pocket, close my eyes, and lean against the window.

The familiar recording of the female announcer pulls me back from sleep: “Next stop, Sarah.”

I jump up from my seat, clutching the yellow note in my fist. I've never slept through my stop before, and I've never been this far out on the Blue Line. I rush off of the train at Sarah, finding the only surroundings to be a small cement platform and rails for miles in both directions. In the distance, dogs bark, and small suburban houses with stacks of cut wood under tarps litter the view for miles.

When I finally get to the field, the women's shower room is empty, our scrimmage over. I check my locker, but there is no note.

My leg bounces nervously the whole way to the park, and I sprint to the field, jogging in place at the traffic-coned intersections. When the entranceway is in sight, I call Darren, but his phone is off. I dart around ten-year-olds with nachos and yellow hats until I see our seats, and he is there. He looks bothered. He tousles his hair and adjusts his cap, leg bouncing, and checks his watch. When he sees me, he breaks into a smile.

“I thought I scared you off,” he says.

“What do you mean?”

He shrugs, but a meaningful look is in his eyes. “I don't know,” he laughs, nudging me and pointing to the player stats that have taken over the screen.

 
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As the crowd pools out from the game, we walk along the Roberto Clemente Bridge—the saxophone playing, the leftover fireworks budding and blooming in the distance all pink and blue —and I reach out for Darren’s hand, mine shaking. I touch him lightly with my pinky, and he folds his hand into mine. He stops, the two of us still holding hands, and looks at me, something probing in his eyes behind the sparks of fireworks, reflecting.

He pulls me to him by the hand he is holding and kisses me, the two of us a blockade in the middle of the black-and-yellow-clad crowd.

“I'm so sorry,” he says when pulling back for air, cupping my cheek, “I just wasn't sure.”

“It's okay,” I say.

I let myself back into the apartment around nine. Halmoni crouches, hunched in a bundle inside the kiddie pool over her cabbage. The pool is decorated with cartoon rubber ducks and bubbles, the colors bright and jarring in the dim evening light. Halmoni is wearing orange rubber dish-gloves that come up to her elbows and a bandana tied snug behind her ears. During the summers in Seoul, our whole family makes kimchi together, an assembly line of plastic tarps and cabbage on the living room floor. Halmoni, alone, her operation the size of a two-year-old’s summer afternoon, makes my guilt even stronger.

“I thought you might have helped me with the kimchi today,” she says, not stopping to look up.

I kick off my tennis shoes and step around the cabbage into the blue-plastic pool across from her.

“Halmoni, I think I’m gay.”

She keeps silent and averts her eyes, pulling at the muscly string of the cabbage, spreading gochugaru paste of each leaf.

 
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Kara Goughnour.jpg

Kara Goughnour is a queer writer and documentarian currently unpacked in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She is the 2018 winner of the Gerald Stern Poetry Award and has work published or forthcoming in Pamplemousse Literary Magazine, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and Girls/Girls/Girls! Zine. Twitter: kara_goughnour Website: karagoughnour.com

Silhouettes

Ari Koontz

 

It takes a few minutes for the water to get hot enough to scald bare skin, but Astrid knows how to be patient. She leans against the shower wall, watching the steam billow up through the air and bracing her toes on the edge of the basin. She counts down from one hundred. Closes her eyes. Then, with a shiver of adrenaline, she pushes her body forward off the tiles and into the downpour.

The shock of first contact is more ice than fire at first, a freezing of every single nerve that almost stops her heart. Then, just as quickly, it shifts into a familiar deep burn that burrows down through her pores to her raw insides and turns everything outside a furious shade of pink. Once her nerve endings figure out what’s happening, they start to protest, urging her to run, get away, drop to the slick tile floor. Astrid takes a deep, shuddering breath and opens her eyes; black dots crowd her vision, then slowly dissolve. The opposite of stars going out.

After her heart rate settles down and her skin acclimatizes, the sharpness only lasts a little longer before it starts to fade. She holds onto it for as long as she can, but it’s just a shower in a two-bedroom apartment and there are regulations and temperature limits, and despite her various disjointed efforts, it turns out there’s not many kinds of pain a body can’t accommodate. So the adrenaline ebbs and the water becomes disappointingly warm and flat until she almost can’t feel it hitting her at all, and eventually she gives up and reaches for a bar of soap.

As she scrubs herself clean, Astrid tries not to fixate on each body part she touches: her bony shoulders and her flat chest, her long crooked arms, her armpits landscaped with soft curly hairs that catch soap bubbles like thorns on a rosebush, and the smooth skin connecting her ribs to her pelvis. Her stomach, softly curved and churning, just a quick rinse and suck it in again. Her legs, covered with ugly red and white blotches between the scabs and the sinews. Her crotch. Not thinking, not looking, not touching anything there. The callused bottoms of her feet.

If she concentrates hard enough, if she tries to count every single drop of water that hits her skin, she can tell herself that it’s someone else’s body that she is cleaning, exfoliating, pushing roughly back into itself. She doesn’t know where she is in that scenario, just that it’s somewhere far away, somewhere she can’t feel the water rolling down her thighs and down the open drain.

Astrid digs her fingernails into the bar of soap, making tiny half-moon puckers in the glossy white surface, then sets it back down on the lip of the tub. Above her, the showerhead sputters. The heat falters and edges toward lukewarm.

When she pulls back the curtains and steps out, the bathroom is shrouded in fog, and this helps as she quickly wraps a towel around herself and goes to stand in front of the mirror. The glass is frosted with moisture but her silhouette is still barely visible: a hazy pinkish blob that looks vaguely familiar. If she squints, Astrid can imagine that she really is standing there behind the mist, that if she stands there long enough and concentrates hard she will unlock some magic spell so that when her reflection eases back into view it will be exactly right. Soft edges, gentle slopes, a fullness that settles comfortably beneath her chest.

She almost makes the mistake of hoping for this.

Just as the first drops of water begin to condense and slide down the mirror’s surface, her focus is shattered by the sound of her mother on the other side of the door. Knocking once, calling a name that does not belong to her.

“Carter, honey? Are you okay in there?”

Astrid wraps the towel tighter around her waist and reaches for the doorknob. The steam rushes out all at once.

 
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They sit on the sofa watching television with bowls of boxed macaroni and cheese, the volume at medium and the closed captions turned on. Astrid’s mother has her legs propped up on the coffee table, a glass of water in one hand and remote in the other. She sighs as the black-and-white movie they’re watching switches over to a commercial.

“How was school today?” she asks, pressing the mute button.

“Good,” Astrid says. She shrugs a little against the leather cushions. She knows she is supposed to find something else to say, something concrete to back up the noncommittal statement, but can’t find another word.

Her mom glances over at her for a second, the light from the TV screen illuminating her face—lined and slightly crumpled, like tissue paper, but not unbeautiful. “Just good?”

“Yeah. Not bad.”

“Want to give me more than the dictionary definition?” she says, eyebrows raised.

Astrid shrugs again.

Her mother sighs. “All right. Don’t mind me. Just a mom who’s interested in her son’s life.” She shakes her head slightly, a wry smile at the corner of her mouth, and unmutes the television on an advertisement for used cars, then swaps the remote for her bowl of macaroni. As a suited salesman leans against an obviously green-screened Ferrari and tells them about zero percent APR financing on their next purchase, Astrid turns her head and becomes fixated on the body on the opposite end of the couch.

As far as she can remember, her mother has always looked this way: both fragile and unyielding at the same time, a body ample even in its smallness. Her skin hangs in loose folds around a long-obscured skeletal frame—when she was younger Astrid used to burrow there, pressing herself against unexpected concave space and soaking up her mother’s warmth while she held her, sometimes for seconds and sometimes hours at a time. She wonders absently when this became unacceptable behavior; certainly the desire still rises up in her at times, like now as she watches the woman’s chest rise and fall with the weight of her steady breathing. Seven years in a wheelchair have atrophied her mother’s bones and given her whole body a steadiness that seems like a resolution, and to Astrid she is most beautiful in the places only her child and her doctor ever think to examine. The nape of her neck. The freckled, spongy V of her chest where her breasts slope toward one another. The small incisions like tattoos on each side of her belly button.

Astrid’s mother shifts slightly, reaching for the volume button because the movie is back on again, and Astrid quickly looks back at the glowing screen as a stick-thin woman dances across a meadow, tugging a young man after her toward a bed of daffodils. The orchestral swell of a musical number rises from the speakers, fills the silent apartment.

At the next commercial break, she thinks, she will say something, though what exactly that will be remains uncertain. Maybe she will say: I skipped lunch period today to go down to the river, just so no one could see me, and I almost tripped over a squirrel and broke my neck. Maybe: Mom, I have something important to tell you. Maybe: How was your day and did anything interesting happen at the dry cleaners? But as it turns out, it is the last twenty minutes of the movie and there are no more commercials to sit through and after the young people have gotten married in a different meadow beside the ornately carved walls of a church her mom switches off the television halfway through the long roll of credits and says that she is tired. Time for sleep.

When the dishes are cleared away and piled up next to the sink, Astrid helps her mother into her bed and pulls down the window blinds, obscuring the distant glittering lights of the city. She lingers there for a moment, caught by the silhouettes of the two of them on the speckled beige wall. The shapes are so incongruous that she finds herself wanting to laugh aloud, and this thought startles her. Then the shadow that is not her flattens out and she turns around again.

“Do you need anything else? Water?”

Her mother smiles and shakes her head. “I’m good, sweetie. Thank you.”

Astrid nods and starts to leave, but her mom holds up a hand and gestures for her to come over, so she moves back over to the bed.

“Come here.”

She bends down and allows her hand to be taken.

“You know I love you, Carter, don’t you?”

Astrid nods again.

“I really do. No matter what.” Her mother’s touch is gentle and warm, and Astrid is for a moment overcome with the desire to lay her head down on her chest, allow herself to rest there. A second later, the urge passes, and she’s letting go and pulling her hand away.

“I know, Mom. Goodnight,” she says quietly.

Her mom looks at her for another moment and then smiles again, closing her eyes as Astrid moves back toward the door.

“Goodnight, honey.”

 
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The apartment is dark and silent and Astrid finds herself in front of the bathroom mirror again with the lights off. She stands still for a moment, staring into the glass, trying to remember the words to say to summon demons. Then she shrinks away, disgusted with the outline that stares back, sharp and unblinking.

Underneath the sink is a drawer whose contents she has long since learned by heart, so it doesn’t take her long at all to find what she’s looking for. Her fingers fumble over a large hairbrush, a set of rollers, two lipsticks (Rustic Rouge and Pink Nouveau), and an eyeshadow pallet, before landing on the small lotion jar—rounded edges, torn label on the lid. She uncaps it carefully and scoops out a small blob of white salve, which smells like roses.

The dull pain that covers her body is lessened slightly as Astrid rubs it down with calamine lotion, carefully massaging the skin in tiny circles, each movement a silent apology to herself. She needs to stop doing such stupid things.

Once she’s covered her arms, neck, and stomach with the greasy ointment, she screws the lid back on and slides it back into the drawer before washing her hands for a full minute. Then she slips out into the hall, into the few slivers of light slanting through the front window curtains from streetlamps outside. She starts toward her bedroom but somehow ends up back in front of her mother’s closed door and she wants to knock but her knuckles are too large and too heavy so instead she just stands there, trying to see if she can feel those streetlights on her back, illuminating her shoulder blades. No part of her feels any different than before.

 
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When she finally falls asleep, Astrid dreams of stars.

She’s floating, maybe a hundred feet above the surface of the earth, and there’s some invisible gossamer thread tethered vaguely around the idea of her waist, not so much tying her down as guiding her softly upward. As it unwinds by inches and centimeters, she feels a slight breeze playing around her shoulders, which is impossible because wind does not exist this far up from the ground, but nonetheless it is here, soothing her burning skin. Below her, the world is dark and barely visible, but above her everything is light: more stars than she can count pricking the flat expanse of spilled ink sky. If she squints, Astrid can make them all blur together, as if the far-off detonation that created stars and bodies and time has never happened and all that exists is the nebulous present.

As she drifts further away, Astrid becomes aware of a tiny vibration deep inside of herself. It begins at a molecular level, a faint hum emanating from what must be the oldest cells in her body, tucked away somewhere in her bone marrow from the very beginning of her existence. When she focuses on it, the vibration seems to stop, so she turns her attention back to the boundless sky around her until she feels it return again.

Time passes, though it does not exist here, and it is hours or days or millennia before the humming in her bones begins to spread to other parts: her kidneys, the base of her spinal cord, the red blood cells that rush into her heart and back out again in the opposite direction. She feels it seeping into her lungs, which are rumbling steadily despite a clear lack of oxygen, and now her whole body is steadily pulsing in a way that seems unavoidable and she can’t remember what it was like to not feel whatever this is, and she knows she is not scared and has no need to be. And now she suddenly realizes that earth is far out of sight below her and she’s alone among the brightest suns.

They are suspended there together, this heat and the universe pouring into her trembling body, and then the cord snaps. The spark inside of her aches for a final moment and she’s able to take one more deep breath before she combusts, her vessel rupturing at last, exploding into dust. Scarring the night sky with a single, fleeting burst of light.

 
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Ari Koontz.jpg

Ari Koontz is a queer nonbinary artist with a degree in creative writing from Western Washington University. In poetry and prose, Ari grapples with identity, truth, and the sheer beauty of the universe, and is particularly fascinated by birds, stars, and other forms of light. You can find more of Ari's work at arikoontz.com or follow them on Twitter @paigerailstones.

Professor Roach

Ron L. Dowell

 

… it occurred to him how simple everything would be if somebody came to help him. Two strong people—he had his father and the maid in mind.

Franz Kafka, Metamorphosis
Translated by David Wyllie

 

Like demigods, cockroaches scurried across the ceiling, down the wall, and disappeared into crevices and cracks. Jubilee Washington lay on his side then turned onto his back, breathing fast. Behind half closed lids, his eyes gyrated.

“Wake up, wake up Jubi. She’s coming,” a voice whispered in his ear.

“What?” His eyes pulled open just as the cercus of a German cockroach disappeared over the edge of his bed sheet.

“Out those beds, boys!” their stepmother Naomi shouted, now in the bedroom he shared with Willie, which was really a shallow living room and roach-turd-sized storage closet removed from the kitchen of her tiny two-bedroom Palm Lane Public Housing unit in Watts, Los Angeles in 1962. Jubilee bolted up in bed as if hit by white dwarf-star dust, scooched palms across his ebony face, and scratched the lizardy leathery neck rash with the back of his finger nails. He pulled the chain to a lamp atop his milk crate bookcase that leaned sideways, filled with encyclopedias and comics about scientists who transformed into super heroes. The incandescent warmed him and illuminated a Maury Wills poster of number 30 sliding into second base on the wall above Jubilee’s twin bed. Willie continued to sleep, his unwashed feet protruded from beneath his bed cover. “I’ve got to dress—get to work—somebody’s got to bring home grits or you don’t eat—” Naomi said.

Naomi was as she was every morning, amber skin with blue Spoolies in hair she’d hot-ironed the night before, dressed in a faded yellowish slip with small green flowers, and furry pink house shoes. She turned and headed back to the kitchen and left the door open to the smell of frying bacon, cooked grits, and cigarette smoke that clung to the air like wet paper clings to a glass.

“Get the hell in here, now. Or go live with your dope-head mama—if you can find her.” Naomi always yakked to remind Jubilee how his real mama vanished. She muttered something he never understood about her, Daddy, their bedroom, and other women.

For sure, his family was unlike Beaver Cleaver’s or Ozzie Nelson’s on TV but if his real mother ever returned—

Always edgy, Jubilee wanted to blend into the background unnoticed, invisible, like a roach on the couch. If only he could disappear, too, or transform like comic heroes.

“Yes Naomi,” Jubilee said. “I’m dressed, waiting for Willie.” He threw a ball of socks that hit Willie in the face. “Get your tail up before she comes in here swinging a belt.” A pregnant roach moved unruffled across the windowsill. The ootheca stuck out from her back end; in a couple of months sixteen babies would hatch from the egg sac. He dared not settle back to sleep. Instead he watched the mother roach as she disappeared into a window putty crack. Small, dark, and ever present, roaches ruled.

Willie glared at Jubilee for a moment then snatched the covers over his head and coughed. “You don’t tell me what to do,” he said, voice muffled.

An argument with Willie would certainly bring back Naomi with her favorite leather belt, the thick one daddy sometimes used to support his tool pouch. She swung passionately, like a plantation overseer beating recaptured slaves. She rarely drew blood but her lashes raised webs of purplish-black welts. Her first, second, and third belt licks would be for Jubilee, who stood between their beds in t-shirt and drawers. Willie was never whipped. Jubilee rubbed his neck rash and flung the pillow aside before starting to make his bed.

Willie’s sleep had been fitful. He drooled, and from habit, he felt around for an asthma inhaler on the sturdy nightstand between their beds onto which Jubilee’s bookshelf leaned. Huh, huh, huh—Willie’s shrill whistle and labored wheeze, as if his only source of air was through a straw,

a sure sign of his whereabouts and that an attack was near, had almost drowned out the clatter of cans and dishes in the kitchen. Jubilee reached over to help. “I can do it myself—I ain’t retarded.” Eyes cold, Willie sucked in the medicine and made odd noises in his throat.

Jubilee’s chest tightened when Naomi reappeared and said, “Don’t give me that yes Naomi shit, Jubilee. Move it—you’re just like your cheatin’ daddy—humph! Handyman my ass,” she said. “What handyman plumbs all night?” There’d be breakfast for three that morning, again. “Plumbing other women, I bet.” Daddy spent many days away from home fixing electrical problems, carpentry, and especially nighttime drain cleaning. Or, at least that’s what he said between fights and arguments. Naomi’s tone softened. “Willie—get up honey. You wouldn’t want to be tardy for school.” Like Naomi, Willie’s skin was fair, lighter than a brown paper bag as opposed to Jubilee’s coal black. He even called her mama. Maybe Jubilee should catch asthma.

She turned for the kitchen again. “I try to do what your dope-head mother didn’t…” Naomi said, “My best…” Once more she banged utensils and cans. “All I do, cleanin’ rich folks’ houses. Lord, Lord. When I save enough, I’m gettin’ the hell out of here.”

“We’re on our way right now, Naomi,” Jubilee said to the empty doorway. Would she take him or just Willie with her? His heart jumped up and down. What if he was light skinned?

Dishes clattered. Something was different and Jubilee seemed more aware of dripping water from her leaky sink faucet and a ghost flush from the toilet behind a closed bathroom door, which stalled his breath and disoriented him. Usually his bedroom gave him cover and from it he’d never before noticed those creepy sounds.

“You ain’t gonna be shit either, just like your daddy,” Naomi said. Jubilee’s skin tightened his body and mind numbed. Head throbbing, he ground his teeth from side to side. Beneath his breath he said, “Go to hell.” If he said that aloud, a handyman’s belt would stripe his flesh. He breathed deep. Maybe he should call her step-mommy or better yet, stepmother, to mark off that she wasn’t his real mother, but a mother nevertheless. It’d been six years and he still wasn’t sure what to call her.

“Show me that damn school project before I leave,” Naomi said from the kitchen. “Isn’t it due?”

Jubilee’s stomach fluttered. Hmmm—Yes, Step-mommy—Coming, Stepmother—I love you too, Step-mama. How would that sound?—Nah.

“Uhhh, yes Naomi,” Jubilee said. “Tomorrow. It’s due tomorrow. I’ve started it.”

“Have the belt ready for me when I get home if you don’t do it,” Naomi said. “At least try and graduate.”

His teacher had said to prepare a class report, a project, from life sciences—a pet is okay. No stories about comic book heroes, please.

Pets weren’t allowed in public housing and his mind shut down when TV news showed the world beyond Palm Lane—Negros beaten by white police and fed to their German Shepherds. The baby turtle Daddy had bought him as a birthday gift managed to escape the small uncovered plastic aquarium bowl and died. A caged parrot that Jubilee could not teach to say “shit” was stolen when placed outside for air.

What was a ten-year-old supposed to do? A roach ambled across his yellow Pee Chee folder, stopped, stood erect on two hind legs, and waved its feelers toward Jubilee. Hmmm. That’s it—roaches. Whoa. He’d lived with them all his life and had studied them in the encyclopedia and school library. He’d report on what he knew.

That night Naomi rubbed down Willie’s chest with VapoRub, had him swallow a dollop, and dabbed a glob under and inside his nose. The scents of camphor and menthol helped charge him and Jubilee stayed up to put the finishing touches on his Mona Lisa. He’d blot out thoughts about his real mother.

He used white polish from daddy’s shoebox and a charcoal briquette to draw an American roach on poster board. Like Leonardo da Vinci, he made careful, deft tints and shades with strokes that barely looked like crayon and Testors model car paints; purple metal flake for the roach labium bottom lip, fire truck red for the maxilla mouth, sky blue for the mandible organ for biting, beret green for the labrum top lip, and gummi yellow for its clypeus to show the face plate, in front of which he glued grits and bacon bits to illustrate what they ate since they liked starch, sugary foods, grease and meats, items found in abundance among the cans in Naomi’s kitchen. They chewed sideways. He couldn’t draw that. Dark brown was for compound eyes and cercus sensors near its anus.

He drew the thing in side view the size of a bread loaf. It crouched on her countertop, in front of her plastic lime green sugar canister, next to her stove. Two antennae, to smell stuff with, pointed up and forward, a sixty-degree angle from one another. It had six hairy legs and eighteen knees for fast getaway.

He’d make Naomi smile like when she left her bedroom after a night with Daddy. Once finished, he slept only to awaken every so often, admire his work, and float on the lightness in his chest.

 
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In morning’s white light Jubilee sat on the side of his bed scratching himself. Roaches, male and female, big and small, young and old, watched him. In a corner two roaches scurried toward the baseboard crevice that was as wide as a nickel was thick. Jubilee’s mouth was dry, hands sweaty and twitchy. He repeatedly clicked his middle fingernail and his thumbnail together and peered at Willie who was still in bed. The brown adult roach, no longer than a pinto bean, and the younger nymph, runty, bell-shaped and black, stopped and seemed to look back toward Jubilee, then at each other, back at Jubilee. Their antennae waved wild like palm fronds in a storm before they turned and vanished.

Willie finally snapped up, grabbed a rubber flip-flop, and crashed it down on a roach that had stopped to face his inhaler on the nightstand. Did roaches have asthma too?

Willie struck a second time with more force.

“ROACHES,” he snorted. Three times he came down on the brown skin and orange blood mess as if he could discourage other roaches that no doubt watched, before he flung the sandal to the cold tile floor.

Jubilee cringed, shook his aching head and looked down. Something inside of him needed to escape. His lungs bumped his ribcage with each blow. “Murderer!” he shouted.

“UHGGHH.” Willie stretched the sound like only a third grader would and eased toe-jammed feet into his pair of flip-flops next to his unmade bed. He pointed to the roach drawing that lay atop Jubilee’s bed, the bed which Jubilee had already made Cub Scout tight. “It’s UGLY,” Willie said. “It looks real—what’s its name?”

“Ralph.”

“How do you know it’s a boy?”

“He looks just like you—he’s got your head.”

Willie blinked several times, as if considering the possibility.

Roaches scrambled in a glass jar on the floor next to Jubilee’s bed. Willie pulled on a Goofy t-shirt, tilted his head to the side and asked, “What’s that?” He kneeled in close, whiffed a smell, and wrinkled his nose.

The day before, like a scientist, Jubilee had constructed a simple jar trap from an empty jam jar: attached a piece of paper outside of it with a rubber band for traction, spread Vaseline around the inside lip to prevent escape, and placed a few raisins in it to capture several roach subjects of different sizes.

“It’s a magic bubble,” Jubilee said. “They’ll live a month without food but I feed them every day to keep them happy.” He lifted the jar above his head to admire his work, brushed his finger across raised letters, Smucker’s Jam. “That’s roach-stink you smell.”

His research said that roaches discharged nauseating secretions from their mouths, and their turds left a long-lasting smell where deposited. Naomi would be glad to know that, pleased to have him help her with his roach information. Shoot, he’d even included her kitchen in the background of Ralph’s portrait. Maybe he’d ask if he could call her Step Mama.

Willie narrowed his eyes, curled his lips. He lunged for the magic bubble, they scuffled. Willie kicked Jubilee’s shin. He resisted an impulse to smash the jar onto Willie’s head; his charges might get injured if he did, so he held it firmly out of his brother’s reach. Instead he kneed Willie’s groin. Willie held himself before grabbing a fistful of comic books that he threw at Jubilee.

 “I´ma tell mama. Who do you think you are?” Willie said. “Professor Roach?”

In the bathroom Jubilee sprinkled water on his face, brushed his teeth, popped into a Dodger #19 Junior Gilliam t-shirt, and then squeezed the magic bubble and poster tight under his arm in case Willie wanted to fight again. Even Willie agreed that Ralph looked realistic.

 
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For some strange reason the smell of grease caused his mouth to water and, more than usual, compelled Jubilee into the kitchen for the breakfast that Naomi always prepared to send daddy off to work, whether he came home or not.

“Here’s my project,” Jubilee said, looking up to Naomi standing over the stove, arms folded, smoking a cigarette.

He delicately laid the poster, with the jar on top, on the dining table, over service for three, hands tucked into his armpits, thumbs pointed up. She turned from the stove burners to him and flinched. “OHHH, no you didn’t—you didn’t do your project on filthy roaches—did you?” She shivered, dropped her chin to her chest, and leaned over the poster. She tapped her cigarette ash on it and Jubilee hastily wiped it away.

“Owww!” he screamed and fell into the table when Naomi’s leather belt lashed his back.

“Lord have mercy,” she said between strikes. “Help me beat the devil out this child.”

Jubilee’s body collapsed into itself, arms fell to his side. He sat down at the table for a moment, swiped at tears, and then rolled the poster board around the jar, placed it near the front door, and returned to his seat.

He’d never liked Naomi’s runny eggs yet they sparked him up. He salivated this particular morning as he rubbed his arms and back. “I should’ve known you’d mess up—you call that a school project?” Jubilee turned his body and the chest aches returned to him from when Willie killed the nightstand roach. While his head was down, eyes moist, his throat grew scratchy and thick. She kept squawking, “I’m gonna pray for you.”

It was best he not niggle, to tell her about his research or how roach infestation caused skin rash, asthma, or diarrhea (for which Pepto Bismal was always on her kitchen shelf), or how they dropped disease carrying organisms from their legs on food and utensils. He scratched at his neck rash. What will happen to him now?

Huh, huh, huh, Willie wheezed to the table, lethargic.

“Willie, you’ve got to be smarter than your black-ass brother—do a real project—a space rocket.” She clasped his cheeks and kissed Willie’s forehead. “Something you can get a real job from.”

Jubilee’s chest became unusually stiff. He pinched his lips tight to keep them from trembling and kept silent. Haters. Didn’t everybody have roaches in Palm Lane? They hustled from unit to unit, faked their own death, and didn’t starve to death regardless how often Naomi picked up crumbs and cleaned the apartment. They marched right through another hole after Daddy, in brick-dust-splotched work shoes, dried paint around his nail cuticles, plugged one gap. Daddy had smelled like turpentine when he showed Jubilee how to use the pump action tube attached to a canister.

“Try not to breathe this stuff when you spray ‘em,” Daddy had said. Jubilee could never hold his breath long enough and the fumes made him puke. Roaches were hard to kill and they had families Jubilee could see but could not touch. “Next, I’ll tell you about women,” Daddy had told Jubilee.

Jubilee’s chest seized. He gripped it with his right hand and bent over the table. A headache formed in the back of his head but it was time to get off to a school, where, in that moment, he didn’t much want to go.

 
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Jubilee’s was the final presentation before the last bell. Forty students seated front to back in five rows were restless. Half of them lived in Palm Lane and knew roaches like him; the other half lived in new homes that surrounded Palm Lane that had no roaches. Mrs. Johnson, the teacher, sat in a rumpled sailor-type pink blouse off to the side of her room, leaving available her wooden desk in front for student displays.

Some students spoke before him, like Dorothy—she, from the new homes, wore black and white Oxford shoes and reported on her pet German Shepherd, Rex, which made Jubilee shake and his stomach hard. Larry, in his dirty button-down shirt and scruffy khakis, described the candiru, a crazy vampire catfish that sucked from anything with blood. When Curtis talked about a man named Gregor Samsa who had turned into a roach, other students shrugged, narrowed their eyes, and gave blank looks. Jubilee’s insides vibrated. “Yes,” he said while smoothing down his clothing.

“Ha!” scoffed Dot. “Mrs. Johnson said life science—not a fiction report, stupid.” Her classmates exploded into laughter. “—project’s boy,” she said.

Larry echoed Dot, “I’d spray him or smash his head with a hammer!”

Jubilee’s skin crawled, his eyelids gummed up. He offered a watery smile. What did they know? Dummies.

Curtis walked slowly, then sprinted into the comfort of Mrs. Johnson’s embrace, unable to complete his report. Except for Curtis’, reports were boring and made Jubilee sleepy. On his way to the front, he kept his head still and made sidelong glances at classmates.

 “Uh, uh roaches have, ah, three life stages,” Jubilee said. He taped the roach portrait to the chalkboard behind him.

“Oh no, not another roach story,” Dot said derisively.

Larry screamed from the back row, “Show us a trick and change into a roach!” Classmates giggled and moved around in their seats.

Mrs. Johnson shushed them, her crooked alabaster pointer finger at her thin lips.

Jubilee stood in front of the classroom and looked up at the ceiling to avoid eye contact with his classmates. “Egg, baby, and grown up—ah, like this one—they’re ghost white when born but molt, turn brown in a few hours.”

Jubilee pulled the magic bubble from a paper bag and placed it on the teacher’s desk. The captive roaches ran around in it crazily. He swallowed a lump when students in the front row shifted in their seats.

“That’s nasty,” a classmate from the new homes said. “You can tell he lives in the projects.” Class laughter: those words and stinging welts from Naomi’s belt earlier that morning distracted him. Mrs. Johnson nodded encouragement. Jubilee wrung his hands and pushed on.

“Cockroaches like to live, ah, close to people—in their trash cans, bathrooms, televisions and radios.” A girl with lime-green barrettes in her hair who sat in front of him winced and moaned.

Jubilee leaned on his heels a little to emphasize words. “They eat what we eat and more, such as blood, excrement, spit—and even the fingernails and toenails of babies and sleeping or sick persons.”

The girl in front looked groggy, raised her hand and said, “Can I go to the bathroom, Mrs. Johnson?” and was dismissed to the restroom. Some students buried their faces in their hands.

“I’ve never seen roaches fight. They probably don’t argue and fuss either,” Jubilee said. He’d never really seen it in his research but said it anyway. “Roaches respect each other.”

“Good job, Jubi,” the teacher said to him. Jubilee swiped away nervous tears that had pooled behind his eyelids and wobbled back to his seat.

“Roach boy,” a kid from the new homes said.

“Professor Roach,” Jubilee shot back at him. Crack! Unnerved, Jubilee dropped the magic bubble and it crashed onto the tile, his subjects running helter-skelter. Half of his classmates lit out for the door or stood on their chairs as the dismissal bell rang.

 
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That night Jubilee lay half awake and watched his roommates crawl across the ceiling. He turned onto his right side, closed his eyes. He turned to the left side, then back again. His head and chest throbbed. He was now certain that something inside wanted to leap out. On his back, Jubilee blinked into the dullness as the roaches concluded their trek across the bedroom ceiling. Willie was breathing better although he coughed in his sleep. Naomi snored after she’d prepared a dinner of the usual greasy meat, beans, collards, and pie for desert. Her cigarette smoke lingered in the cramped apartment.

A squeaky voice startled him.

Hzzz, Jubilee, Jubi—click, wake up, wake up,” the voice said into his right ear.

“I don’t wanna get up right now.” He turned his head to face the voice.

There it was—a roach on his pillow with its mouth wide open.

He wanted to flee but froze, rooted to the bed. Was this a Willie trick? But in his bed Willie wheezed with his mouth open. Jubilee clasped below his rib cage on both sides like he’d been stabbed from inside with a fingernail file and began to whimper like a sick puppy.

“Hzzz, click, click, yes, I’m Ralph, your old friend. Click, don’t you remember me, Jubilee?” said the roach.

Jubilee gripped both sides of the back of his head to staunch the aches. His heartbeat throbbed in his ears and he became sensitive to Willie’s wheeze, the hardness of his cotton-filled pillow, cigarette smoke, the ghost flush. His head flinched away from and then back into the coffee-colored eyes of the visitor.

Click, click, I warned you when Naomi approached. I posed for your beautiful portrait—hzzz, such a lovely job you did, too.”

“Friends?” Jubilee’s voice quickened. “You sure?” He leaned in closer to evaluate the visitor’s reddish brown appearance. He swallowed hard, eyebrows lowered and pinched together. “Why are you on my bed?”

The roach stood erect on two of his six legs, crossed the other four, and sneered.

Click, hee-hee, ha, ha, ha! Let me explain it to you.”

When Ralph laughed his two antennae feelers stood straight above his tiny head, labrum and labium lips moved side to side in one direction, exposing his maxilla, which moved opposite. He was no bigger than a pistachio. Willie stirred, repositioned his smelly feet, but was too knocked out by asthma medicine. Jubilee rolled his eyes, sat up and shook his head. None of this made any sense.

With two legs Ralph pointed to his right where there crouched four other roaches, an adult and three nymphs. “Meet my wife, Tush.” Jubilee nodded his head. “These are our nymphs, Ticky, Tasha, and Tedra. Aren’t they beautiful? Hzzz—and single,” Ralph said.

A sudden rib pinch was more intense; Jubilee clasped nodules on both sides of his ribcage. He shook his head, glanced around for answers, and frowned. “WILLIE,” he said. He gulped for breath but his brother didn’t budge. He pressed his fists into two nodes that grew on the back of his head. “What’s happening to me?” His mind raced, body trembled, sweat poured. Jubilee jumped up from the bed and tried to push down the two rib nodules that protruded from his body. The ache at the back of his head worsened. He crumpled back onto the bed, thoughts scrambled. With his hands he tried to squish down the head nodes that matched the length of his rib nodules.

Ralph was animated and used broad gestures as if to describe earth’s vastness.

 “Click, we were here before humans—you could say that we’re immortal,” Ralph said. “Unconquerable.”

The head nodes outpaced the rib nodules in length two-to-one. Jubilee sighted himself in the mirror on the closet door across from his bed. The rib nodules grew right before his widened eyes. They started to look like long hairs, but they were straight, unlike the coiled hair that he was accustomed to. The chest nodules burst through the t-shirt he’d worn to bed. This might all end if he tried to sleep but his pillow grew larger and soon his feet, which once touched the footboard, reached only halfway down the mattress. He squeezed his eyes shut and called out, “Mama,” though no mother came.

 “Don’t worry. You’ll have family everywhere and we have many adventures ahead, such as the space mission I once took with Col. John Glenn—you do know of him, don’t you? I crawled across his space helmet and said to him, ‘This is a small step for roaches, and a giant leap for all roach-kind!’”

He pictured Ralph’s family, his wife, daughters, and the warmth between them that he’d never known in his apartment. Naomi had never introduced him as anything other than the boy.

All of Jubilee’s life had sucked—his missing mama, Naomi, Daddy, Willie, police, German Shepherds, the class report, oh that report, like a bad dream that now made his lungs constrict, heart slow, breaths hard. His head nodes grew and his body shrank. When Jubilee crossed two rib nodules and his two arms to challenge Ralph’s story, his entire torso began to contort. Gravity pushed his head forward; he fell to the mattress on his knees and groaned, “Ralph, help me.” His ribs quaked as if hit by Naomi’s belt. The head nodes slowed but the rib nodules grew. His eyes moistened; he sniffled, sobbed, and snotted a green and sticky nasal discharge. His shoulders trembled and curled, spine bent over forward. He couldn’t process his changed body and peed himself. The nymphs bustled and dry washed their tarsus, maybe awaiting a cue from Ralph to attack the piss.

 “Look at yourself,” Ralph said. “Embrace it, my son. You’ll have six hairy legs and eighteen knees and will scale the highest wall.”

“What’ll happen to me now?” Jubilee asked, powerless.

 “You’ll be fine—you can do this Jubi. You’ll dive to the depths of Neptune and hold your breath underwater for forty minutes. You’ll see fossils of our distant relatives.”

The mirror threw back the change. His body had turned into a pale white skeleton shell the size of a cantaloupe, the two hairs had grown and waved uncontrolled above his head that was now a fraction of its original size and shaped like a triangle. The rib nodules matched the length of his arms and each developed three knees. His legs resembled both. His throat became sore.

“This hurts—please, Lord,” Jubilee wailed. “I’ll call Naomi Mama.”

“Sure, sure. She’ll really be glad to hear that from you,” Ralph said, his tone both fatherly and sarcastic. “There now... it’s inevitable, Jubi. We’ve watched you for months. You appreciated us when everyone else treats us like shit,” he said. “You took time to know us and we want to help your transcendence.”

Jubilee’s feelers flew up. He was now potato size and vanilla ice cream color.

“Tedra kissed Willie one night while he slept, Ticky nibbled his toenails. Ten o’clock every night we frolic,” Ralph said. “Naomi owns the apartment by day—we own the night.”

The size of a grape, Jubilee flinched and made odd noises in his throat. “Hzzz, click, click, MAMA, I’m having a nightmare!” Jubilee tried to awaken himself but he wasn’t asleep. Still, no one came. His new mouth moved from side to side. He controlled the two feelers and found that he could smell food with them and sense danger from behind with his cercus ass sensor. Most important, he had an appetite for anything that his feelers detected, like glue inside shoes, which caused his mouth to water.

Poof, he was eye-to-eye with Ralph, process complete, his color was ecru, his exoskeleton not yet hard or deep brown.

Jubilee’s midgut rumbled. He dumped a load onto the bed and turned to smell it with his feelers. Tasha used her wide body to block off her sisters and devoured the turd.

 Jubilee rolled over on his back and laughed until his sides hurt. He was big brother and cover for Willie but always had an unshakable sense that something was wrong. There was no cover for him. It’d been a long time since he’d had anything to laugh about.

No longer trapped by human foible, he gulped, righted himself on a sheet fold, and flipped his antennae back. Jubilee was a part of something bigger than himself and he could get used to being a roach.

He scurried across the rickety bookcase and the nightstand and wrapped his labium over a portion of Willie’s toenail, and with his mandible and maxilla, manipulated the food after he bit into the protein laden keratin that had a chalky, meaty taste.

He shimmied down the bedpost into the baseboard crevice and waited. Willie snatched the cover from around his head, fisted sleep from his eyes, and reached for the inhaler.

“Outta those beds, boys!” Naomi shouted from the kitchen.

Jubilee squatted down. He pointed his antennas in the direction where Naomi banged dishes against the counter, the stove, the tiny dining table. Soon she’d be off to work, unable to rise above her circumstances. Like Willie, she was fragile.

He’d pray for them.

 
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In 2008 Ron L. Dowell retired from a career in healthcare and law enforcement public service with Los Angeles County. He holds two Master’s degrees from California State University Long Beach. He joined the Independent Writers of Southern California and PEN Center USA and, in June 2017, he received the UCLA Certificate in Fiction Writing. Ron is working on Stones Refused, a collection of stories that show how people find hope and even joy in lives where basic needs are sometimes hard to meet. He is currently a PEN America Emerging Voices Fellow.

Eight Hearts

Stephanie Rael

 

The Shadow

How strange, my heart, that fist-sized organ locked away inside my chest, pumping, working, keeping me alive, more than alive, that enigmatic cluster of cells, that lump of flesh, something so much a part of me but that I will never see or touch. A beating, living thing, shrouded in darkness, destined to remain in that mysterious cavern, tucked away from the world, the outside, the sun. It is me and I am it, and yet still my heart is as foreign to me as if it were a tuber swimming in the black depths of the sea, as if it were an ancient fossil buried far underground, as if it were a speck of dust floating somewhere out in the frozen void of space. I want my heart to see the light of day. I want it to be exposed, external, sovereign. I shudder at the power it could have if it left my body, if my heart could step out into the world, into the sun, and set off on its own.

I break into the hospital in the middle of the night. I take some instruments, sterilize them. I lay myself down on the operating table, untie my gown. I bring the scalpel to my chest and press down firmly, slicing an incision the length of an outstretched hand. I dig into the cavity and I fish out my heart. It throbs, pulses, seems to blink in the bright lights of the operating room as if waking from a long, deep sleep. I clamp the veins, the aorta, cauterize the arteries. Next, I sever my heart’s many umbilical cords, freeing it from my body.

My heart slides down from the table and leaves the operating room, a thin line of blood trailing on the floor behind it. I place my hand inside my chest, my fingers move around the hole where my heart used to be, feeling its absence. The space is cool, vacant. Air drifts in like a summer breeze through an open window. I stitch myself up with thick black stitches. I take my time. The scar on my chest will be a glorious one. I will show it off to my friends and I will say, “Look, see! This is where my heart used to be. It is there no longer. It is now out in the world, in the sun, on its own, doing heaven only knows what!” My friends will nod and smile, bringing their hands to their own chests in knowing, in longing.

When I leave the hospital, it is morning. I see my heart standing on the corner, glistening in the sunlight, its back to me. I look at the ground as I pass, afraid to meet its eye. On the sidewalk, I see my heart’s shadow—a dark, fist-sized splotch on the ground. Finally! I think. Finally, my heart is no longer in the sea, or underground, or floating aimlessly in space, it is no longer hidden away. My heart is here, right in front of me. I can see it, I could reach out and touch it if I wanted—though I wouldn’t dare, not now.

I cross the street. My heart and I will go our separate ways, we will heal on our own. “The operation was a success,” I will tell my friends. I am not whole, but I am well.

 
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The Catch

You pull the hook from my heart as it squirms in your hands, flopping back and forth, a fish out of water. Too small, you think, not worth keeping. You toss me back into the sea and I linger at the surface for a moment before swimming away. Gulls squawk overhead, waves lap gently against the hull of your boat.

Somehow, it will always be like this with you and I: You are the catcher, I the one caught. The fishing line, our love, sometimes taut, sometimes slack, always thin, always tentative, never sure. We embrace our destinies, our roles, pull them on like a pair of galoshes that don’t fit quite right, and we get to work. It is simple: You sail, cast your line, wait for a tug, reel in. I swim, watch for the lure of a dangling worm, bite, get dragged up by my lip from the womb of the sea. We are no leisurely Saturday afternoon hobby. Our love is work, it is those cold, lonely hours before sunrise, it is the daily grind, the aching muscles that never once stop for a break. You are exhausted by me—first by the wait, then by the labor of pulling in my heart. And me? I am exhausted by your exhaustion, I am tired of being hungry, bated. I am tired of that painful pinch on my lower lip, of my helplessness at the end of the line.

Today, the sea is rough, the sky is gray. Gulls circle overhead. You have been waiting longer than usual for the tug of my heart and when it finally comes you are relieved. At first, I resist and you have to square your shoulders, brace your legs and hold fast to the rod, but I soon give up and my heart goes slack, surrendering to the process. The fishing line gets shorter and shorter, the distance between us shrinks. Soon my heart is in your hands. It is wet, scaly, slippery. It is a sickly, grayish hue. Blood drips from the hook in my lip. You examine it, my heart, turn it over in your hands. Disappointment moves in like storm clouds over your thoughts and you sigh, shaking your head. My heart is not enough, it is never enough and removing the hook with a quick yank, you toss me back into the sea.

As usual, my heart flounders for a moment at the surface and then gets its bearings. It swims down and away. You return to the helm, turn your boat back to shore. At the pier, you clean your hooks, put away your poles, ready the sails for the next day. You check the weather report. Smooth sailing.

Out at sea, my heart welters, the pain on my lip dulled, only a memory now. I nibble on small bits of sea gook and I keep my eyes turned towards the surface, watching for that juicy worm dangling at the end of a hook, the bait I cannot resist despite the hidden barb within it. Thus, the cycle of our love repeats eternally, as frequent and predictable as the twice-daily tides.

 
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The Puddle

You said to me once, “Your love is a downpour. It is wet, cold, driving. It is unexpected and fearsome. It comes from the clouds, the heavens, from on high. It is too good for this earth, too pure to be sullied by the ground, by our feet, by gravity.”

I laughed, turning away to rummage through a cabinet in the kitchen so you wouldn’t see my face and written on it, how near you were to the truth.

The day I leave you, it storms. Clouds gather, dark and cumulonimbus, rain begins to fall, streets abandon. Debris whirls, leaves shake off trees, panes rattle, shingles quiver. The roads are wet and slick. The city looks like the inside of an old man’s gaping mouth as he chews his meal—a dark void, rubbish sloshing around, teeth chomping, saliva breaking objects down into smaller and smaller pieces, enzymes churning, vaguely grotesque, garbage like food in indecipherable, unsightly combinations, peas and potatoes, branches and twigs, flyers for a shoe sale. Utter disarray, but no matter, it all goes to the same place in the end. The howling wind is the old man’s breath, inhaling, exhaling. Thunder his satisfied belch. You stay inside, sitting near the window, a witness to the storm, yet safe from harm. You watch the rain, you watch as sporadic bolts of lightning set the falling droplets on fire.

Later, finally sated, the old man closes his mouth and wipes his lips with a napkin, sits back, pats his belly. The sun appears, the world stills, and you venture outside. You inhale the cool air, that sweet, wet redolence of freshly-fallen rain, a meal digested. You walk through the streets, avoiding puddles until you come upon the one shaped like my heart.

You recognize it at once. Sunlight glints upon its surface, making you squint at its brightness, its radiance. You consider my heart, the stillness of it, a modicum of peace after a storm, a lake in miniature. It is almost beautiful. But the rain has mixed with the city streets, nature has mingled with the excrement of humankind, streaks of oil, cigarette butts, crumpled straw wrappers, a flyer for a shoe sale. The world has tarnished my heart, sullied it, and at this, you are filled with disgust, with a steely, metallic violence only love can beget. 

Your feet hit the puddle hard, with purpose, and you stomp and stomp, sending water droplets flying, spraying all around as you try in vain to send my heart back to where it came from, the sky, where it will be pure and good and safe amongst the clouds.

 
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The Fruit

Many months ago, you planted my heart with care and gentle hands, a single seed pressed into the loamy soil, covered with a scoop of earth. I germinated. The sun beat down on my heart as it burst through the soil, first a tiny but determined tendril and later a firm stalk, its soft, green leaves turned towards the sun. Chilly spring rains gave way to hot, dry days. Weeds grew all around but none could keep up with my heart and they remained stunted in its shadow.

You watered my heart every day, you knelt down in the soil to inspect its progress, you covered it at night if the weather turned cold. My heart prospered. It basked in our love, the sun, strengthened and nourished by its rays. My roots grew deep, stretching down into the earth, weaving a fine tapestry around grains of sand and rocks, past nitrogen, flakes of mica, and earthworms. My heart turned from green to yellow and from yellow to pink to red. It became swollen, heavy, sweet. The vine sagged with its weight.

Each morning, you entered the garden with a basket and I watched you pull the other fruit from their vines. You inspected each one and, finding it satisfactory, placed it gently into your basket. But never, not once, did you reach out for me. I was perfect, I was ready, and yet every day you passed me by, every day as if you did not see me at all. I tried to shout, “Pick me! Pick me!” but hearts cannot cry out, fruit has no voice to speak.

With time, my heart develops one sore, then another, two brown bruises, rot that spreads, softens my flesh, eats it away. My heart, too weak and too heavy to cling to the vine that sustains it, falls to the ground. Our love, the sun that ripened my heart, brought it to fruition, now expedites its decay as my heart lies rotting in the soil, turning to mush. I look up at the other fruit still on the vine and I know that soon you will be out with your basket. My heart sighs, my bruises pulsate. You won’t want me now. I am too far gone. If only you would have picked me sooner. If only I had not stayed so long in the sun.

 
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The Attack

It is late. Snow falls in heavy clumps, the sky’s dandruff illuminated by the orange glow of the streetlights. My heart walks alone down an alley. Its head down, collar turned up against the wind, scarf tied around its neck. Ahead, it catches a glimpse of you as you turn the corner into the alley. You are rushed, cold, purposeful. My heart picks up the pace. It follows you. At first far behind, then closer. Then closer still. You hear my heart’s footsteps. You turn. Our eyes meet.

My heart is upon you before you can move, before you can run. It tackles you to the ground, pins you down. The chances of being attacked by a stranger are slim, the chances of being swindled by someone you know and trust, by someone you love, are much higher. You recognize me. You know my heart, what it wants. You know too that it will never find it, at least not on you. So you stop struggling, you let my heart search. You are not afraid, you know I will not hurt you. Any danger of that passed long, long ago.

Frantic, its hands shaking, my heart turns the pockets of your trousers inside out. They are empty. It searches your wallet, pulls out credit cards, your ID, a crinkled twenty, receipts for dinners and movie ticket stubs. Empty. It checks your coat pockets, a pack of cigarettes, a set of keys. Empty. It reaches up your sleeve where it finds only your arm—warm, strong, familiar. Empty.

My heart stops its search and stands up, distraught. You get up too, brush the snow and street grime from your coat. We look at each other for a moment before you nod, turn, and walk away down the abandoned street. I let you go. My heart is freezing, its teeth chatter, snow collects on its shoulders, its head. There are some things you cannot take, some things you cannot steal. When it comes to you, my heart will always be left empty-handed.

 
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The Meal

You set the table: Forks, knives, spoons, a linen napkin. You light a candle, pour wine. Music plays in the background. Melodies bounce off the walls, the ceiling, shadows dance in the candlelight. You take my heart from the oven. It has been roasting all day and you smile when you see it has cooked perfectly, its skin a glistening golden brown.

After it cools, you take a knife to my heart, a blade you sharpened that morning. You pierce its flesh, confident as a surgeon at the operating table as the blade cuts through the skin and into the juicy middle, smiling as my heart yields to the pressure, to the sharpness of your blade. From there it is easy and you carve systematically. You divide my heart into segments, separating white meat from dark, discarding the odd bits of gristle, stores of fat. When you have finished cutting, you arrange the pieces on a silver platter.

Alone, you sit down at the dining room table, a slice of my heart on the plate in front of you. Your stomach growls. You pick up your knife and fork, cutting my heart into smaller, bite-sized pieces. You savor the meal, you chew slowly. The meat is tender and juicy, marinated for the recommended time in oil and spices, in salt, in hopes and dreams, in longings and in fantasies, and the flavor is exquisite.

When you have finished your meal, you put the rest of my heart into a baggie and you throw it in the icebox, saving what is left for later. You walk into the den and sit down in your favorite chair. You put your feet up and sigh. The music stops. The candle snuffs out. The room is dark, silent. Your stomach growls. No matter how much you eat, you will never be full.

 
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The Spill

You sit at a café along the tree-lined promenade. It is spring. The air is clear, thawing, the sun bright, clouds soft and sparse. Birds chirp, green buds peek out from the tips of tree branches, blossoms open. Mothers push their babies in prams, children run, their arms spread like windmills, gnawing on bon bons. You finish your croissant, drink your coffee, read the newspaper. You think: Good things happen too, but no one writes about them, no one wants to know. When we read about horrible things we can pretend our existence is so much more than it is. We can unite. Bad things make us happy, make us whole. A stray cat wanders up to you and nuzzles your leg. You look down and see it is missing an eye. You think, smiling: We are the same, you and I, mostly blind.

A waiter comes to clear your table. He holds too much and the half-finished glass of orange juice slips from his hands. It lands on the table, the juice spills. Apologizing, the waiter rushes back into the café to find a rag. You look down at the sticky mess, the juice dripping in thick, heavy drops from the edge of the table, like sugar rain. The spill is familiar to you somehow, in a way you can’t quite put your finger on. It reminds you of someone, or perhaps something. A memory, a feeling, a moment, a shout from so far away that when it reaches your ear it is as faint as a whisper.

Then you know. This mess is my heart. You recognize its strange shape, its opacity, its eagerness to consume everything around it. A shudder runs down your spine. You look around, wonder if I am watching you. Satisfied I am not, you run your finger through the spill, my heart, blurring its edges, rendering it unrecognizable. You bring your finger to your mouth. The sweetness of it lingers on your taste buds, memories from ages back dance like couples waltzing on your tongue. You laugh at the waiter’s blunder and what became of it. You think: Is this not how all great loves come to be? The result of a series of mishaps—a clumsy hand, an overturned glass of juice, an accident?

The waiter returns, rag in hand, but you stop him. “Wait,” you say, reaching out, “here, let me do it.”

Smiling, you move the rag over the spill. It gives you pleasure, wiping away my heart, making it disappear, knowing it can impose itself on you no longer. When the table is clean you hand the rag to the waiter who shrugs and walks back into the café. As for me, as for my heart, it finds its way to the back of your mouth where its sugars begin to worm a tiny, pin-sized hole into one of your molars, just enough space for my heart to curl up and go to sleep—close, warm, and almost happy.

 
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The Fossil

You put your tools aside, lay your brush down. You stand up. Step back. You look down at the rough, cragged earth and at the fossil pressed into it, white, gleaming, the greatest discovery of your career. You close your eyes, rub your temples. You expect the fossil to be gone when you open them again, like a mirage, a dream, a shadow. But it is there still, this artifact, this relic of the past, my heart.

You take it back to your laboratory. You examine it under a microscope. There are miniscule holes in the bone, little nicks and scuffs on its surface. My heart laid exposed to the elements for thousands of years before it was buried finally by a flood, or a downpour, or by debris from an earthquake. Weathered, worn down, its flesh stripped from the bone by wind, or by a predator, rotted away by disease, or slashed by murder, torture.

There is no way to know the story of the fossil, my heart, that you hold in your gloved hands. It is merely an outline, a sketch, a blueprint of what once was. Stripped of a name, a face, a soul, a story. Buried treasure. How cruel, you think, that this is all that is left. But there is beauty in it too, in the sheer, unabashed anonymity of the fossil. This heart could be my heart, or it could be yours, or his, or hers, or theirs. Its remains the only evidence to tell my tale, any tale, every tale. It is a collective heart, a shared history. It beats no longer in one chest, but in billions.

Many years later, after you are long gone, a child will stop before the fossil in a museum. She will press her face to the display case, squish her nose against it, leave smudges of small fingerprints on the glass.

This child will recognize at once the outline of that strange, beating thing hidden away inside her own chest, something so much a part of her but that she will never see or touch. Gazing at the fossil, she will share its joys, its heartbreaks, its healing, its millennia of beating. Like the others who came before her and those who will come after, this child will know at once what you knew the day you discovered my heart pressed into the earth. She will know that something of love can be preserved. Something of love survives the passage of time.

 
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Stephanie Rael.png

Stephanie Rael divides her free time between reading, writing, eating cheese, and delighting in the antics of squirrels and other small rodents. She has a fondness for Central/Eastern European and Russian literature and two of her favorite authors are Fyodor Dostoevsky and Witold Gombrowicz. Stephanie resides in Boise, Idaho, USA. Her work can be viewed at http://stephaniecrael.wixsite.com/stories.

In Every Shade of Yellow

Emily Shue

 

Calpurnicus stretched his legs behind him one by one and sighed. He glanced back at his sled and smiled slightly at his small but beautiful collection. It had been a successful day. “Toads,” his mother had said, “are neither hunters nor gatherers,” as she peered down at the dirty, torn scraps of petals held out to her. And she had been right. No matter how hard he tried, there was simply no way to carry it all.

Of course, this was not entirely what his mother meant. “Toads,” she would say to him, much later in his life, near the very end of hers, “are neither predators nor prey.”

At the time, however, Calpurnicus believed his mother was referring to what she considered to be his most frivolous habit—collecting flowers. Toads, he had thought to himself, most certainly could become gatherers (hunting was a subject that, at that point, remained untouched in Calpurnicus’s young mind), if only they had the correct tools. His first attempt was a rather large, exceptionally sturdy maple leaf, whose lobes curled up slightly to create a perfect den for his findings. It soon grew ragged and brittle. His first failure.

Calpurnicus went through a long list of odd bits and pieces, improvised bags and bundles made from whatever trash he found lying Creekside. Once, he found a discarded hummingbird’s nest that he wore atop his head like a hat, placing the petals and leaves he found inside as gently as a mother rests upon her eggs. This was, of course, a great insult to the hummingbirds, and he was lucky his mother had found him before anyone else spotted her disgrace of a son sporting a lost home as a vessel for his childish fancies. Or so she said, in an uncharacteristically impassioned defense of a different species.

But the sled was his final and ultimate triumph.

He glanced back once more, still smiling, lost in his memories. Its once-sharp edges were bent to keep his various findings from falling out, and its logo and colors had long since faded. All that remained of its former self was the soda tab hooked to the front, through which Calpurnicus had looped a length of rope that he hefted over his fleshy shoulder. A half-wilted daylily (Hemerocallis fulva), several deep purple, almost blue soapwort blossoms (Saponaria officinalis), a particularly intricate finger of lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina), and the crushed remainders of what he suspected might be a grass pink orchid (Calopogon tuberosus) were laid carefully on the old Coke can, smoothed and burnished from so many trips Creekside.

His smile slid away as the daydream faded. He was a middle-aged toad in a forest, heaving a load of broken flowers towards what was now an empty house.

Any other animal might have expected a string of visitors: Family, friends, perhaps a few stragglers from the ancient past. But his mother’s death had not garnered much attention—or any attention at all, really. He’d sent word to the customary sources: Her home pond and adjacent lakes or rivers. Most frogs and toads moved to freshwater sources every few years to spawn, but after the year of his birth, they had stayed in the little hut between the onion grass and dandelion fields, further from Creekside or Lakeside than was customary. As far as he knew, he was his mother’s only family—which seemed preposterous, he thought to himself, not for the first time, in a species that could lay up to thirty thousand eggs twice every year. But his mother had never tolerated questions much.

 
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“Where are they?” he had asked one day, straining under the bundle she insisted they bring every time they went Lakeside.

“Where are who, Calpurnicus?” his mother answered, irritated. When he didn’t answer, she snatched the sack away and cuffed him on the snout. “Really, it’s not that heavy. You’re being dramatic.” Her eyes bulged as she strained to lift it. Puffing, she dragged it behind them. “Now, who, Calpurnicus, where are who?”

He pointed at the family of ducks waddling across the sandy shore, their webbed feet imbalanced on the soft, powdery sand.

“Use your words, Calpurnicus!” She was now attempting to roll the bundle in front of her.

“Them. Others. Why don’t we have them?” he asked softly.

She sighed sharply and turned away. After a few more minutes of struggling, she stopped and began to unpack.

“We don’t need anyone else, Calpurnicus,” she said, her voice uncharacteristically soft. “We have each other.”

She touched the star-shaped wart on the top of his head quickly, tenderly, then began readying him for the water.

He sniffed.

“I can swim on my own just fine, Mother.”

The edge crept back into her voice. “If you want to get in that water, you will wear your floater and your whistle, do you hear me?”

He nodded sullenly.

“Good.” She looped a soft string around his waist once, twice, three times, measuring carefully so there was an even amount of length remaining on each end of his body. She threaded the end of the string on his right side through the hole in a large, slightly dirtied chunk of Styrofoam and pulled it tight around the piece of Styrofoam so it fit snugly against his waist. She did the same to his left side. They looked like lopsided wings, clumsily attached at his sides. She produced a second string, at the end of which was an acorn cap. She tied that string to Calpurnicus’s right front leg and stood back, admiring her handiwork.

Calpurnicus let her lead him down into the water. As always, he ignored the eyes of other animals as they watched the two toads hobble along, fascinated by the scene unfolding before them. He bobbed in the warm water, unable to move freely or touch the sandy bottom. But his mother was satisfied. He was floating. “Ten minutes, then I’m back to check in. Behave yourself,” she said and marched back up the bank to sit in the shade.

The wind turned him in a lazy circle. He stayed, stationary but buoyant, and wished to be anywhere else. His fruitless attempts to push himself towards the rushes had caused the mother duck, gliding nearby, to chuckle to herself as her ducklings bumped into one another behind her, occasionally shrieking with glee. While the mother duck was busy fishing for minnows, three of the braver ducklings approached Calpurnicus. Keeping their distance, one asked, “What are you wearing?”

“It’s so I can float,” he said.

“You look silly,” said another, her voice squeaking strangely as she quacked. “I know,” he answered miserably.

We float all by ourselves,” the middle duckling said smugly. Calpurnicus nodded. Still huddled together, they ventured closer.

“Wh—” but their next question was cut off by a strangled honk and a flurry of feathers. The mother duck, having emerged from her dive and seeing her children conversing so closely with this strange toad—a cane toad—took off suddenly and landed rather clumsily in the limited space between her ducklings and Calpurnicus. Glaring at him, she guided them away, quacking angrily.

Disturbed by the noise, his mother hurried down the bank and splashed into the water, gasping.

“Mother, it’s—”

She dragged him back to land and up the bank, muttering to herself. “Simply outrageous, can’t even comprehend the level of—”

“Mother,” Calpurnicus whispered, “she was only looking out for her young.” Blazing, his mother turned on him.

“Don’t you ever,” she croaked, furious, “defend another animal who treats you that way. Never. I don’t know where I went wrong with you, really, but it simply astounds me.” She continued under her breath the whole way home.

It was their last trip Lakeside. It was also one of the last times Calpurnicus remembered his mother talking about having one another as if it were a good thing. As he grew, he failed to meet her expectations again and again.

 
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Calpurnicus yelped as his toe caught on a stray twig mid-step. Dropping the rope to his sled, he leaned down to examine the delicate webbing between his toes. It was tender, but not ripped. He hobbled to the nearest suitable stump, upon which he carefully laid out his lunch, and, doing his best to elevate his sore foot, sat down to eat with his favorite book.

While many animals enjoyed a robust meal full of flavors and novels packed with adventure, Calpurnicus was content with a bottle of Sal’s Slip-Net Slim-Fit River Water and his well-worn copy of So You Think You Can Plant: Botany with the Best, and cubed algae. Calpurnicus hefted the enormous book onto his stump and opened to “You Could Have Flowers, Or-chids.” It was a terrible pun. A flavorless cube of algae dissolved in his mouth as he flicked through the pages and settled down to read.

“Fascinating,” Calpurnicus mused to himself, making a mental note to read more about the different familial growing patterns of different plant species and sub-species. “Simply fascinating.”

“What’s that?” A low squawk broke through his reverie. Calpurnicus turned, startled, to see a giant yellow eye peering down at him. He let out a strangled croak and felt both his bladder and parotids release before tumbling off his perch.

“Now, really, there’s no need for that nonsense,” the eye grumbled. “I don’t think I’ve ever been that hungry.”

Calpurnicus blew out the small chunk of cubed algae that had lodged itself in his right nostril and did his best to brush himself off. Unfortunately, he was covered in food, water, and, thanks to those damned natural instincts, his own secretions, both toxin and urine. He straightened up and addressed the rather large Blue Heron who had so rudely interrupted his lunch.

“What do you expect, startling a fellow as such?” He retrieved his water bottle and tried to wet his handkerchief surreptitiously.

The heron let out a throaty guffaw. “Well, aren’t we just the most proper of all the toadies!” Her feathers were streaked with what Calpurnicus supposed was a week’s worth of mud. “There’s no need for that here, honey. Go ahead and clean yourself up. I could use a good spruce myself.” The heron dipped her head awkwardly and ruffled her primaries, stirring up a cloud of dust.

Though it was terrible manners, the toxins did tend to dry quickly. While cane toads were immune to the dangers of their own bufotoxin, if he waited too long to clean up, it would form a thin crust and itch like hell. Sighing, Calpurnicus began to rub himself clean. He paid special attention to the warts around his glands and made sure all and any poison was removed. Not only was it annoying to walk around with bufo on the skin, but it was also extremely rude—and Calpurnicus was anything but rude.

“Always pleasing other animals,” his mother had complained, “apologizing, ashamed to be a Cane toad.” She expected him to stare other animals down, to make them ashamed of their own prejudices, but Calpurnicus felt they were justified. This was, to her, almost unforgivable.

The heron’s beak was bent, scratched and streaked with dust.

“Didn’t mean to startle you, little toadie. Just saw your little get-up here, that’s all.” She gestured to his sled and the array of flowers, her great yellow eye wheeling towards his book, which was now sprawled in the dust near her talons.

“I collect flowers.”

“Well, I could’ve guessed that!” Her bill clacked as she laughed. “What for?”

Calpurnicus paused. Nobody had ever asked him that before. In fact, nobody had really asked him anything about his collecting before. He had no friends to show any interest in his hobbies, and his mother had disapproved of his “obsession” right up until the end of her life. He banished that thought in particular from his mind. Whether she approved or not was no longer relevant.

“Well?”

Calpurnicus was at a loss for words. “I appreciate beauty,” he said softly. Satisfied for the time being, he folded the now-sticky handkerchief into a tiny square and placed it carefully on the ground beside him. He felt the heron’s eye follow him curiously as he hopped to his sled, took out a rather large, smooth half of a pistachio shell, and returned to his handkerchief. Refusing to engage, he began to dig. He sensed the heron settling down to watch but was determined to ignore her. After scooping out a few inches of dirt, he placed the soiled handkerchief into the hole and packed the earth firmly over it.

He could hear the question rumbling up her long neck and spoke before she opened her beak. “It’s deadly to the smaller creatures. I’m not interested in having that guilt on my shoulders.”

The heron clicked her beak and leaned back as if to arch her neck. “You don’t meet many of you with such a sense of heroism.” She sounded amused. Her eyes were a vile shade of yellow, and they bulged hideously as she squawked.

“Many of you?”

“Toxics.” Answered with silence, she continued. “Little toadie’s got a chip on his shoulder, eh? What is it, then?”

“We all have our struggles, ma’am. I prefer not to disclose mine to strangers.”

The heron opened her beak as if to speak but seemed to reconsider. Calpurnicus placed his now-empty water bottle, the container of algae squares, and his book on the sled and hefted his rope. Dipping his head courteously, he resumed his trek home.

 
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“Neither predators nor prey,” his mother had said, and she was right. Instead, they were simply enemies to all. Never mind that Calpurnicus didn’t ask to be poisonous. Never mind that Calpurnicus didn’t mean to secrete bufo. Never mind that Calpurnicus did everything he could to ensure the safety of everyone around him, regardless of his own well-being. Never mind all that.

Cane toads were usually only truly welcome among their own, and Calpurnicus was even more isolated than most. He was entranced by all things beautiful, but he was, in fact, a very ugly creature. An outsider in the animal kingdom and within his own species, he was a lonely child and an even lonelier adult. Most Cane toads were aware of the social stigmas against them and did their best to accommodate other animals, but not his mother. She refused to apologize for existing, she said, and shook her head when Calpurnicus tried to explain to her that it wasn’t their existence that frightened the other animals, it was their poison.

He could barely remember the first accident. A young fox decided to jump out and surprise him during a game of hide-and-seek. Threatened, Calpurnicus’s parotid glands released, and a thin layer of bufotoxin covered his body. When the cub realized he had frightened the young toad, he apologized as many animals do: With a quick but friendly lick. Neither animal realized Calpurnicus was covered in poison that could kill a full-grown animal in a matter of minutes. The cub barely survived. His mother had told him it was natural for younger toads to release their bufo instinctively. It was parental negligence, she insisted, for not informing their cub how to play properly with others. She told him not to feel guilty. But he did. Calpurnicus was an anxious, fearful child, and the lack of control made him even more anxious. The more anxious he became, the harder it was to quell the release. Although he eventually managed to harness his instincts, he had a longer list of mishaps than most. Not only had he grown terrified of companionship, but he housed deep within him a fear that he was, in fact, a truly evil creature.

Neither predator nor prey. Cane toads did not hunt. They did not track and kill and feast. The occasional fly or bee or beetle, perhaps, but most kept a strict vegan diet.  But they were nobody’s prey, poisonous as they were. The common toad, perhaps, would cause stomach pains, violent illness at the worst, but the cane toads’ bufo was lethal, even to humans. Invasive species. Any community with more than a few toads was considered a cane colony, and shunned.

So Calpurnicus stuck to his flowers and kept quiet.

He passed the onion grass that marked the path back home, humming to himself. The trip to his mother’s grave was short, and he placed the flowers on top of the small stones he had arranged to mark the space.

“I know you didn’t much care for my flowers, mother,” Calpurnicus mumbled, feeling rather foolish. He was, after all, talking to the ground. “But as a gesture—”

There was a strange, muffled sound, one he had never heard before. Calpurnicus turned and saw the heron flapping furiously, her mud-soaked wings clearly weighing her down. She landed in a flurry of dust and unpleasant odors. Once again, his parotids and bladder both released.

“I’m Madge.” Her voice was loud and her accent, Calpurnicus noted, was uncouth. She had to have followed him here. How had she followed him here with all that noise? Was he really that obtuse?

“Came to pay my respects,” she said.

This was unexpected.

“Your mother was a good friend of mine.”

This was even more unexpected.

“Mother—”

“Didn’t have many friends, that old green bag,” Madge said brusquely. “You toads aren’t the only ones who animals don’t like.” She bent her enormous head so Calpurnicus could see her neck properly. It was twisted and scarred, almost crooked, and up close, her beak was even more bent than he had previously thought.

“Nobody likes a dirty bird, toadie. I grew up in the same town as your mum, hated cane toads just as much as everyone else. But when I got shot—” she blinked and pulled away suddenly, placing a giant claw on his mother’s stones with surprising grace, “—she was the only one who would come near me.” Madge bent her head and brushed her ugly beak softly through the still-fresh dirt. “Ain’t that right, Selma?” she whispered to the ground.

“I don’t—”

“No, toadie, you wouldn’t have known that side of your mother. We were plenty young, much more hopeful than we had any business being, ugly as we were.” Madge paused. “But she was different, long time ago.” She sighed, and suddenly she looked very old. “After it all, she couldn’t come back. Came here. Can’t say I blame her. Had to leave myself. Find some peace. Never found it.”

“After…what all?” Calpurnicus felt his throat tighten. His mother spoke very little of her life before the little hut in the fields.

Madge blinked and looked at him. Her eyes, he found himself thinking, were not ugly. They added a certain grace to her misshapen head. They were a bright, pure yellow. Almost like sunflowers.

“I’m sure you wondered why you’re her only one. Why she kept you so close. Never let you live much of a life, I suppose?” She cocked her head.

Her eyes were cornflower yellow, Calpurnicus thought. And they widened and softened when she spoke, not in a grotesque way, but with empathy, concern, excitement, joy. With emotion.

“It was late July. Never rained like that in late July, never did.”

Her eyes were beautiful. Luminous. How could he have been so wrong? He, who loved all things beautiful. Calpurnicus felt himself floating away on her words and into her eyes.

“Been maybe ten, eleven years since.” Madge shivered.

Liquid gold. Pools of liquid gold, rippling when she moved. Incredible.

“It was her first spawn. Very first. She was so excited. Little too excited, if you ask me. She’d go down to the damn water and check about seven times a day,” Madge grumbled, “dragged me with her to look. Tellin’ me how you’d all changed so much since yesterday.” She ruffled her feathers and let out a squawk.

Her eyes kept him grounded as he listened. Safe.

“You were just old enough to drown, though. When the flood came.” Madge sighed. “Every single one.” Her eyes, two ripe moons, finally met his. “Except you.”

The evening was singing around them.

“She had such a soft heart, your mother. Wasn’t like other toads. Most just up and had more eggs but her, she never did. Raised hell when any man came near her. Kept you so close I thought she’d kill you just by that alone.”

Madge closed her eyes, and Calpurnicus was lost.

“You were young. Too young to remember, toadie, but you went swimming in the pond where all her other littles died. I think that broke something in her. She scooped you out of there fast and up and left the next day.” Her eyes were still closed. Her neck quivered slightly. “We were leavin’ anyways. Can’t stay in places after things like that. Not toadies like your mom. Soft bellies. Soft hearts.” She laughed.

Calpurnicus found his voice. “She never told me.”

Madge blinked her eyes open and looked at him softly. Warmly. “No, I can’t imagine she would. Loved you, though.” She nodded. “Oh, she loved you. Maybe a bit too much,” she mused. “Love like that, when you know you won’t survive one more loss, it’s heavy. Can’t hold it all in one place, on one toadie. Gets too much. Comes out wrong sometimes, real wrong. Strong, though. She loved you strong.” She stood up. The story was over.

She stretched her crooked neck as best she could and ruffled her feathers. You all right there, toadie boy?”

Calpurnicus nodded. “Yes. I can’t say I’m not astounded—”

“Ah, but still the most mannered toadie in all the land.” She winked. “You’ll be just fine, there.”

“I suppose I will.”

“I don’t mean offense, but—” she dipped her head towards his mother’s grave once more, “—we were never very good at goodbyes. Best stand back, little toadie. Tends to send out quite a cloud.” She winked again and flapped clumsily, thumping her wings.

Calpurnicus glanced at the flowers he had placed so proudly on his mother’s grave, now covered in dirt, fluttering away in the wind from Madge’s lopsided take-off.

“Strong, though,” Madge had said. “She loved you strong.”

“Madge!” He called out, squinting through the haze. “Madge, wait!”

The heron settled, as did the storm of dust and sand.

“There’s so many of her things, back home. And I could—I would thoroughly enjoy more of your company. Please, stay for dinner.”

Madge smiled. “Your mum would die all over again if you let me in her house in this state, toadie.”

Calpurnicus laughed, surprising them both.

“I bathe in the stream behind the onion grass fields. If you’d like, I could assist you in your…. Sanitary exercises.”

Her eyes rolled in their sockets, wild and graceful. Chrysanthemums in the late fall, Calpurnicus thought. Blooming despite the frost.

“You are one strange toadie.” She clicked her beak, something that Calpurnicus suspected was a habit that one might grow fond of, and stretched her wings. “Alright, let’s go. I have a few stories for you. Hold onto those warts, now.”

 
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Emily Shue is a recent graduate of Ursinus College. She has previously been published in The Oswald Review and Pennsylvania's Best Emerging Poets.

In the Pink

M. Clarkson

 

You were such a girl. Every year growing up it seemed to be more—more pink, new lace ribbons, skirts with gigantic daisies—there in that mock horse-paddock neighborhood. Alamo Ranchette North, the builders called it. Five-acre mini-ranches, big enough to board a horse or two—a stage-set version of real ranches, the kind we saw on TV—on Dallas.

You wouldn’t hang with our pack—Mack, Emmett, and me—even though we had girls too—Abby, Susan, and Joelle—because we slung water balloons and made mud pies. Because we got dirty. We couldn’t figure out your frilliness, with your cowgirl mother and carpenter father.

Sometimes the girls wanted to play house and we would agree to play, but only to be fathers who were policemen, and if you played, you always had to be the mom, wearing the lace-trimmed apron you bought at the Atkinson’s garage sale. Your own mother stood in her Wranglers on the wraparound porch of your expansive old farmhouse—the house at the end of our street, the one the builders hadn’t gotten their greedy mitts on, still with its original fifty acres. She stood tall in her hand-tooled Lucchese boots, looking out to the horse barn and corral and flicking her Camel butts into one of the untrimmed box bushes below the rail. You didn’t even like to ride horses, although sometimes you would just to please her. Still, you wore your good white pants and then cried when they got dirty. Your brother Chet, a year older, just wanted to arm-wrestle or teach you to shoot hoops. And your way-older sister Marla had gone off to college on a softball scholarship, playing second base. She knew how to slide. With all that, we expected you to be a booted, denim girl who would play army with us and not be afraid to go home with grass stains.

Our pack had a secret handshake and a rallying cry, Silverado Warriors Walk on Fire. On rare occasion, you joined us. Mostly you played with your girlfriends Lilly and Winnie, girls that were imported into the neighborhood by mothers driving wood-paneled station wagons. These girls were just like you, curled and bowed and unwilling to get dirty. You holed up in your big pink bedroom carefully trimming paper dolls with blunt-end scissors and combing the fakely silken hair of your Barbies.

We got older, of course, and scattered to colleges. Emmett went off to the Navy and Joelle the Coast Guard. The rest of us went to State and roomed together in freshman dorms. I kept your yearbook picture in my copy of Catcher in the Rye. I hadn’t read that book, but it looked smart on the shelf. You went to a small private college seven hours away by car. During breaks and summers, I saw glimpses of you in the ranchette neighborhood—a shadowed profile in the passenger seat—but never at the parties we got invited to by the high-school friends who never left town.

We all graduated from college within a year of each other. Joelle became a nurse on a boat crew in the Gulf of Mexico. She married the captain of her crew. The rest of us returned to the ranchette neighborhood with our boxes of textbooks and dreams for careers in big cities, citing it as just a stop on the way. In the end, no one from our pack had to fly home for the ten-year reunion, except Joelle, because no one had left like they said.

And now here you are, standing in this banquet room in a sleeveless, mid-calf green dress clinging to your same high-school slimness. Your hair is up and decorated with tiny pink butterfly clips. Pearls ring your neck and you wear a yellow orchid wristlet. You are here with Edward Longhouse, Jr., who was a year ahead of us. You stand apart and seem to barely know him, which I’m hoping is true. We’ve come to the reunion as a pack, of course, that hasn’t changed, except Mack not being with us. Out of deference to Emmett, we don’t talk about Mack and the accident. We never have.

You are still so fucking gorgeous. You are the kind of girl even our girls admitted was beautiful. They had never blamed us. All these years, I’d kept to myself about what exactly I would give just to touch you. That I’d trade every girl I ever kissed, which isn’t many, I admit, for my lips on yours, just once. Once is all I allow myself, because I know you’d never really want to be with me.

 
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During junior high, you barely spoke to us. We’d all outgrown the few things you would do with us in grade school—Ouija Board Halloween, our occasional spelling bee, the times we let you apply flower decals to our arms, even us boys because we could wash them off and we liked you that close. I always let you put them on both arms. I always let you take your time.

We saw you at school, your eyelids weighted by shimmering pinks or blues, your hair curled perfectly in the latest style. I longed for you to talk to me, corner me in the hall, close enough to smell the perfume I was sure you wore. I stared at you, employing angles so the others couldn’t tell. You were so pretty and so damn out of reach, twirling away from us in your lace anklets, ruffled short blouses, two perfect circles of blush on both cheeks.

We continued to play our touch football and field hockey on the Parson’s grown-in grazing patch, and skateboard on our flat street, using driveway curb-cuts to pretend we were really good. The girls, too. We were all one kind, and while they may have worn a touch of mascara or dabbed some of their mother’s Chanel No. 5 on their necks, they got dirty with us, they laughed loud and didn’t care if they snorted, they went with us to watch minor league baseball, bringing their mitts.

Through the locker room grapevine, we heard you were selective with boys, good at pushing away roving hands and lips. You dated Tom Gruver for a few months. He was class treasurer and wore ironed jeans and skinny ties. He gave you a rose in center hall every Monday. It was rumored he respected your morals, even though we weren’t sure what morals were, especially yours. I thought about kissing you. Wondered if you wore that flavored lip gloss, and if you did, hoping it was cherry.

You were the prettiest girl in school; there was no doubt about that. Even the pale math geeks knew this and talked about you like they had a chance, dreaming to the ceiling through their coke-bottle lenses. I made anagrams of your name on the inside fold of my Pee-Chee, under the multiplication table.

Senior year came to a close and the six of us went to the prom together, paired up randomly, full of bootleg whisky we passed around in the car beforehand. We pretended this was how we planned it, when really, we just didn’t have dates. How we acted with each other, loud and street-smart, was not the way we each were inside, in quiet places like bottom bunks and empty monkey bars.

We saw you at the prom, briefly, your palm in Greg Olson’s, the blonde and zit-free swim-team captain. We danced with our girls in a circle, pulling up our cummerbunds and flicking our bangs. All that whisky kept me from remembering to keep looking for you. Later Emmett and I went outside the dance hall to the pint we’d stashed in the fourth hedge from the wall. We found it where we’d left it, nesting on a low branch, and beyond the hedgerow, we smelled the pot. Of course, we’d tried it, but it wasn’t in our routine, none of us seemed to care about its pursuit, the way we did with whisky. We pushed our heads through an opening in the hedge and it was you and Greg, leaning against the brick, passing a joint, his hand high enough up your skirt to be massaging your perfect ass. You slightly moaned and slightly laughed and your hips were moving into his crotch.

In the morning, we weren’t sure of our story when we told the others—against our pounding heads and dry mouths, and how much it didn’t seem like you to be stoned or taken.

 
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With the exception of Joelle, this is just another night out for us, the way we roam from bar to bar in town, meet for a game of pool, maybe a swim in the Deschutes on a warm summer day. Now we circle the room, talk to the people we haven’t seen in an exact decade. They are fatter, balder, burdened. The people we’ve had high hopes for have disappointed, except one, who is a lobbyist in Washington. They must look at us the same way. I manage the second shift at the biggest laundry in the region, but, well, it’s still just washing the shirts of deliverymen. Abby’s masters in computer science had gone into raising three girls. And Susan’s pulling beers at Jake’s Roadhouse.

We talk to our old “friends,” trying to remember names and poking each other unnoticeably (we hope) when we meet someone who has gained an unruly amount of weight or sports a tight perm. All the while I keep you in sight, my head turned so the others can’t notice. The way you toss your head, the long curls lightly jumping across your back. The way you gracefully scoot away from Edward when he tries to take your arm, or so I imagine. I want to make sure you don’t leave the reunion, keep my hopes open. I relax with a couple whiskeys to get comfortable with my youth swarming around me.

Then in a jostle of handshakes and crowding of spousal introductions, I am next to you. Edward Jr. is across the room at the bar refilling glasses and Joelle is behind me. You give us both a dainty four-finger shake. Joelle moves away to talk to Raymond, a former tailback she dated once, and I am alone with you. Your hands are empty because your drink is being refilled. You push a stray piece of hair back. Stare at me. Smile. We use the weather default to break the silence and discuss the heat. I can feel sweat in my armpits and hope it isn’t blotching my shirt. The hotel doesn’t seem to have the air conditioner running. Then suddenly you say come outside and we walk out and down to the man-made pond. Ducks waddle around the rim, leaving a trail of shit I make sure not to step in. You walk us to the small dock. I lean my elbow on the rail, hoping to look casual. Smell your flowery perfume, just like I imagined years ago and again tonight. You seem too fragile to touch. You are still so slender, so light, like thin-rimmed glassware. I imagine you being a virgin, me showing you how.

You open your gold clutch purse, take out a cigarette and a lighter, and hand me the lighter. I look away to keep from showing my surprise about your smoking. I hate the smell, the dependence, the cancer threats, and still I light the cigarette for you.

We talk in trivia, for the time of the cigarette. You say let’s leave, will I go with you? You can’t stand so much high school around you except me, you say, with a tittery laugh. I smile and you pull on my hand, leading me off the dock and across the grass to your car. You drive us to a bar out on the highway. I would have pegged you to pick a place that serves drinks with paper umbrellas.

You know the bartender and order your “usual,” which turns out to be a pint of Coors and a shot of Cuervo. Men stare and ask you to dance but you stay with me. We drink more, mine just beer but you keep the shots coming, lighting a cigarette to escort each one down. We talk some, chit-chat variety, but mostly the music is too loud for anything but shouting. When you’ve pushed a fifty at “Mel,” I drive us back to your parents’ house because you tell me to. They’re in Florida. I always liked you, Randy, you say, mushing my name so it comes out Rainday. Always.

You keep looking out the window of the car like you are alone. I get out of the car but you don’t. I open your door and you turn your legs out to the driveway, then just sit, needing me to elbow you upright. We walk through the old house, you hanging on my arm and shoulder. A hay-smell in the house, but nice. You lean into me, like you mean it, not staggering like I expect. Then we are up the stairs and in your old room, moving fast to the canopy bed, kissing and stripping off our clothes. You mount me. We fuck like crazy people. You moan and even scream once and I wonder if the horses hear and then I come and I think you have, too, draped on top, me shrinking inside you.

In the morning, we wake with our dry throats and throbbing heads, yours worse than mine, you say, I’ll betcha. You are too nauseous to make love again. Don’t, you say, when I move on top of you. But you manage to get up and make us eggs. I lie on the bed counting the giant pink roses on the wall. Then I walk downstairs, following the back hall to the kitchen. I stop in the doorway to watch you moving bacon in the pan. You cook in a short turquoise robe with a ruffled hem. You've brushed your hair. Shifting your weight back and forth on those slender tan legs. The cooking bacon crackles. The big sleeves of the robe have been rolled up, away from the grease; your beautiful long fingers hold the spatula. Your hands turn, flipping, you've done this before. Along your open wrists, I can see the stripes of perfectly raised pink skin. You’ve done this before.

 
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Martha Clarkson manages corporate workplace design in Seattle. Her poetry, photography, and fiction can be found in monkeybicycle, Clackamas Literary Review, Seattle Review, Alimentum, Hawaii Pacific Review. She is a recipient of a Pushcart Nomination, and is listed under “Notable Stories,” Best American Non-Required Reading for 2007 and 2009. She is recipient of best short story, 2012, Anderbo/Open City prize, for “Her Voices, Her Room.” Her work can be viewed at www.marthaclarkson.com.

 

 

The Lost Ones

Bill Gaythwaite

 

I’d gone to an enormous and historic theater in midtown Manhattan because Roger Sample’s musical The Lost Ones was being given a special one-night revival as part of a summer concert series. A guy from work (we were fact checkers for the Associated Press) had invited me, explaining in a conceited manner that he knew “Roger” personally and had obtained several free tickets from the celebrated composer himself. I was slightly worried that this man, whose name was Rich, might be interested in me. A crush would have been awkward. Not only did we work together, but he was technically my supervisor and also well into his thirties, which seemed geriatric to me at the time.

On the other hand, Rich often talked about his boyfriend (a successful publicist) in a tone of heated affection and so maybe I’d misread him. They had rented a place on Fire Island that summer. That’s the invitation I really wanted. So I reminded myself that he hadn’t been too much of a creeper around me yet. It’s just that I’d caught him checking me out every time I walked past his cubicle, though in fairness I was getting similar attention from all directions back then.

I hadn’t been in the city long and didn’t have a real social life, though this was fine with me because I was trying to reinvent myself anyway. Before I’d arrived in New York I had lost over forty pounds. My daily gym routine was paying off too. I was toned and muscular, legitimately ripped and hot for the first time in my entire life. It would be the only time I’d ever have washboard abs, that priceless gay currency. At five-foot-nine, I still wished to be an inch or two taller, but I had a great tan (from lying out in Central Park during my lunch hours) and sported a military-style crew cut which I knew flattered my recently thinned out and chiseled facial features. It was a new experience for me to enter a room and be aware that my presence had elicited a stir, raised some temperatures. Nevertheless, the fat, lonely kid still remained rooted within me like an engorged tick, so I often teetered uncomfortably between preening vanity and a sort of default self-deprecation. Worried that I would betray this complicated disposition if I said too much, I mostly said very little, projecting a strong, silent demeanor which I hoped went well with my new strapping appearance.

I was twenty-three and had come to New York to be an actor after getting my BFA from Northwestern. I’d met with a couple of agents already (through college connections) who expressed genuine interest, but wanted me to have new headshots taken to better reflect my current look. I was trained as an actor and could sing well “in a clear and sweet baritone”—at least that’s how my voice had been described by the professors in my theater department.

I’d even performed a small role in a Roger Sample musical at school, but it was one of his later, more successful efforts. I wasn’t at all familiar with The Lost Ones, which had been his first production. The show was considered a misfire when it debuted Off-Broadway fifteen years before, but the soundtrack had since developed a cult following. It was being revived now because of the success of his more recent ventures, including the musical score for an extremely popular Disney film that had been released the previous winter. One of the songs from that movie had been so overplayed it had seeped, like an airborne virus, into the national consciousness.

When Rich offered the ticket he told me how I should dress for the event, explaining that since it was the height of a sweltering summer and that it wasn’t a particularly formal evening—and that people wore anything to the theater these days—I should simply dress comfortably.

He suggested a tank top and running shorts.

This gave me pause. We lived in Connecticut before my parents’ divorce and once or twice a year my Mom would persuade my Dad to take her to Manhattan to see a Broadway show. It was always a super dressy occasion for her. Ma, a city girl from Chicago, often described the suburb where we lived as a cultural and intellectual wasteland and took any opportunity she could to escape it. I remember her putting so much effort into getting ready for the theater that it was actually a stressful thing for the rest of us to even witness, like watching someone stumble through an obstacle course.

Ma changed outfits countless times, and then stood in front of the mirror in a belligerent and accusatory standoff with her reflection. She’d curse about particular accessories that had gone missing or the inadequacy of her jewelry until she’d eventually threaten to cancel the whole evening, which she had no intention of doing—all this while my Dad paced angrily around in a crumpled suit, jangling the change in his pockets and staring off into the middle distance. When my parents finally left to catch the train to the city, things would have come together well enough so that my mother looked rather stunning, but they would also have stopped speaking to each other.

Anyway, in some weird deference to Ma, not to mention my own evolving body image (I still wasn’t comfortable enough with the new me to flaunt anything), I wasn’t going to wear a muscle shirt to the theater, but I did settle on khakis and a tight blue Polo. When I got there, Rich was standing outside on the sidewalk under the marquee with the three guys who were the recipients of the other free tickets. If he was disappointed with my fashion choice, he didn’t say anything. Maybe because the others had obviously taken his advice.

At first glance, they were almost interchangeable—young, super fit and laboriously groomed pretty boys. In their matching tank tops, they looked like some hot gay triplet act. Two of these three were named Steven. They all clearly knew each other already and when Rich introduced me to them they looked me up and down with a mixture of resentment, critical assessment, and blatant horniness—captured in the complex facial maneuvers that are the exclusive province of young and desirable gay men.

We entered the theater lobby and were ambling about in the happy, buzzing crowd when I saw Roger Sample making his way toward us. The throng parted for him in a biblical manner as he approached. He nodded a greeting to Rich, the way one would to a familiar maître d’, and then turned his attention to the triplets and me. I had seen a picture of him recently in the Times, probably advertising this event, so I knew what to expect. Though he was even older than my co-worker (later I learned Sample was forty-five) he looked hearty and youthful. I could see that he would probably always be described as boyish.

His handsome face was unlined and his salt and pepper hair attractively arranged to disguise the fact that it was thinning. Sample was about my height and wore a white linen suit that accentuated his trim physique. As Rich introduced him around our little circle, Sample revealed a fun energy and a charming laugh. When he got to me, he reached out to shake my hand, but I was so tongue-tied all I could think of to mumble was my name, “Tobias.” He gripped my hand firmly, cocked his head, and repeated my own name back to me in a warm, amused tone while holding my gaze several beats longer than was strictly necessary. I flat out blushed at this and looked away, but he kept holding on until I met his eye again and when I did he was flashing a wide grin at me.

“Very nice to meet you, Tobias,” he half-chuckled.

I noticed the third triplet, the one who wasn’t named Steven, but whose name was Vincent, staring hard at me over Sample’s shoulder with an expression of blind and murderous hatred. An officious young woman appeared then, a handler or functionary of some kind. She whispered something to the composer and led him away, but not before he made lavish apologies for leaving us.

“It’s so encouraging to see such handsome young men coming to support my early work, but please don’t judge it too harshly,” he bellowed. The charming laugh again—and then, before he was swallowed up by the crowd, he half-shouted to Rich. “I think we should all meet for drinks after the show, don’t you?”

Rich looked relieved.

I was pretty naïve at the time, but even then, I think I figured out that my colleague was acting as some kind of procurer for Sample, providing good-looking guys for him, as if we were items on a take-out menu. I do remember asking Rich on our way to our seats (which were good ones in the orchestra, seventh-row center) how he was acquainted with the composer in the first place.

“Sweetie, I was like you,” he said, “came to the city to be on the stage. I was even part of an early workshop for this very show a hundred years ago. That’s where I met Roger. But the fucking producers went in another direction when the show headed Off-Broadway, so I was replaced, but Roger and I have . . . stayed in touch through the years.”

He said this last bit slowly and in a mysterious fashion like a cartoon villain. If Rich and Sample had a past, I wondered if that explained why there was no sign of the publicist boyfriend that night, but I never got around to asking him anything about that.  

The show began.

The Lost Ones, Sample’s very first musical, is about a group of young runaways who live under an abandoned bridge. They form a make-shift family, discover friendship and love and meaning in their lives, even as a ruthless developer threatens to tear their “home” down to build condominiums. In the first act, each of the characters, who have escaped abusive situations or are struggling with their sexuality or battling some other challenge, are introduced through specific, individually tailored songs. In the snarky Times review, which appeared after the show originally opened, this concept had been described as derivative and monotonous, Sample’s lyrics dismissed as banal. And it is true that at first I thought some of the rhymes were landing a tad hard: I’ve waited far too long; with the world telling me my love is wrong or That’s a sure bet; because baby you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. But I was enjoying the show. It was beautifully sung by a talented cast and the music had an undeniable power and appeal, created as it was by a promising, young composer at the beginning of his career.

The curtain came down at intermission to loud and enthusiastic applause. I excused myself from the others and headed to the men’s room, with Vincent still glaring at me, as if I’d dropped sand down his jock. It was a massive theater and it took me a while to make my way through the crowd. In the bathroom, I was queued up in a long line leading to the urinals when I was suddenly jostled. I felt someone’s warm breath in my ear.

“So, are you staying out of trouble, Tobias?”

It was Roger Sample, of course. As I turned to face him he leaned in quickly and kissed me hard on the mouth for a good seven or eight seconds, while slowly grazing his hand over my crew cut. Then he pulled away from me and crossed to the sinks. Stunned and blinking, I stared at him. He was watching me in the mirror as I watched him. Sample was grinning at me like he had been when we first met and I was blushing again too. I knew there were people in the men’s room who recognized him and were now watching me after witnessing what just happened, wondering who I was to this man. I was wondering that too. The bathroom line was beginning to move. Sample washed his hands, reached for some paper towel, and then he walked out.

I was jumpy on my way back to my seat and was glad when the lights went down again and the second act started. I didn’t want to deal with any questions from Rich, who’d been eyeing me strangely since I’d gotten back from the men’s room. The rest of the show was darker and sadder and I was immediately transfixed. One of the most likable characters gets killed off and then there is a raucous protest, but the developer succeeds in bringing down the bridge anyway. At the end of the show, the group of runaways has to split up and move on. Some decide to go home; some face an uncertain future. The finale, sung by the entire cast, is a breathtaking ballad about endurance and getting through the inevitable pain that the world has to offer. This song just soared, as if it had been written especially for me—the fat, gay, insecure boy from a torn apart family who only wanted to belong. It just slayed me. I felt the tears streaming down my face before I was even aware I was crying.

That’s when it really hit me—that the man who had kissed me in the bathroom, the one who apparently couldn’t stop grinning at me, the one who I’d be seeing again right after the show, was the same man who had written this music that had reached straight into me, stirred me up and reduced me to sobs. During the standing ovation, where Sample emerged from somewhere backstage to take bows with the cast, my heart was rocketing out of my chest as I cheered and whooped along with everyone else.

We walked to the bar, which was a noisy, wood-paneled place on the edge of the theater district, and waited at a table in the back for Sample to finish up with the post-show festivities and join us. I was trying hard to think of what I could say to him to convey exactly what I felt about the genius of his work, but mostly I kept replaying that kiss in my head. I was nearly shaking with the anticipation of seeing him again.

However, when Sample finally arrived it was clear that Vincent had his own plans. He practically climbed up to sit on the composer’s face as soon as he settled himself at the table. Vincent was an actor too, of course, but unlike me, he had already been working in some small shows around the city, so we all heard about that for a while. He was also very familiar with Sample’s body of work, so he kept peppering him with gossipy questions about past productions as well as the one we just saw. And Sample, laughing and good-natured, seemed perfectly content to be monopolized by this glossy, half-dressed moron.

There was no more eye contact or grins for me, part of which had to do with my unlucky seating at the table, down at the end, between the two Stevens, who surprisingly enough were not struggling actors or cater waiters, but both first-year associates at Cravath, Swaine & Moore. They talked about trial deadlines and cutthroat partners over my head and how they probably wouldn’t have another chance to go out again for weeks.

I sat silent, pondering the fact that my newfound hotness hadn’t really gotten me anywhere. Vincent was hot and assertive, which was the way you had to be in this city and maybe the whole world. I’d already been told repeatedly in college that my offstage shyness was a serious detriment and had probably (along with my chubby, second banana looks) kept me from scoring any leads in the school shows. Rich sat across from me looking tired. At one point he offered me a wistful smile and a wink over his wine glass. Sample still hadn’t looked in my direction. I felt invisible and destroyed.

I was not much of a drinker. In fact, I was a famous lightweight at Northwestern, but I ordered a Jameson and then another and then one of the Stevens ordered chocolate fondue for the table. I wasn’t sure why I was even sticking around. But just when I started to make my move to leave, Sample waved for the check and we all found ourselves standing on the dirty sidewalk outside the bar, sweating in the muggy, July night. Vincent was still chattering away, but the words weren’t making any sense to me. It was as if he was speaking some desperate and indecipherable twink language.

I knew I needed to get Sample’s attention, to thank him for the ticket and the drinks and to finally conjure something meaningful to say about what this evening had meant to me, but then miraculously he was staring at me all on his own and repeating what he’d said in the men’s room, “So, are you staying out of trouble, Tobias?”

But this time I met his gaze and answered him in the deepest, most provocative voice I could muster. “I guess that depends on you, Mr. Sample.”

It was the most flirtatious thing I’d ever said in my life and the most ridiculous. It sounded like a line out of a bad, gay indie film.

Sample’s grin came back to me then, full force, like the sun, and he moved to the street to flag down a cab, but not before turning back to ask me (only me), “Can I drop you somewhere?”—as if this had been Roger Sample’s plan all along, which maybe it had been.

I didn’t answer, but simply swaggered toward the taxi when it pulled up. We climbed in together and Sample gave the driver his address on the Upper East Side. There would only be one stop this evening. I looked out the window. Rich and Vincent and the Stevens were watching us from the sidewalk. I couldn’t read Rich’s expression, but strangely enough, Vincent looked resigned and almost amused, as if he would have tipped his hat to me in congratulations if he had been wearing one. (Or that’s the way I remember it at least).

It had all happened so fast. A minute before, I was prepared for a long subway ride home to Queens, where I would be forced to analyze this latest defeat in my life, but now I was on my way to Roger Sample’s apartment. The logistics of that began to hit me. He was obviously going to expect us to have sex. I mean, what else could he assume? I hadn’t slept around much, having not really been in demand before this summer, but I’d had a few hook-ups with guys I didn’t really care about, guys who hadn’t written the music to The Lost Ones or made me cry with their art.

But maybe we could just talk and get to know each other. This seemed unlikely, so I began to negotiate the sex in my head, graphically imagining what I would and wouldn’t do in bed once we got to his place. Sample probably thought a guy who looked like me, I mean this new me, had a lot more experience.

Sample was watching me, looking relaxed and cheerful. He reached over and squeezed my gym-toned arm. He may have been older, but he was undeniably handsome, certainly in this light and in the way he was looking at me. But again, that part didn’t seem to matter either. I was having lots of thoughts actually, but they were coming at me like fastballs and for some reason I was having trouble sorting them all out. My head was spinning with all kinds of notions or actually my head was simply spinning and that’s when I realized it was because I was drunk from the two whiskeys. This explained why I was having trouble sorting things out and it was probably what had given me the courage to say, “That depends on you, Mr. Sample.” But there was something else too, a sour feeling in my stomach. The fondue. And just when I began to process that piece of information I threw up all over Roger Sample in the backseat of the taxi cab.

 
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Ben, my husband, will often ask me to tell about the time I threw up on the famous composer guy. He gets a big kick out of it, so I’ll usually give in and tell the story. It gets good laughs at parties. We live in Westchester, so the Broadway glamour aspect of it goes over well, until I get to the vomiting part which people find hilarious. Somewhere in the middle of the story, Ben will usually volunteer a phrase like, “Tobias used to be hot as balls back in the day,” or, “Tobias was such a knockout when he was young,” or something equally explanatory and dispiriting. But I smile along with everyone else as they squint at me, trying to imagine my lost looks.

No—I never made it as an actor. The new headshots apparently didn’t do the trick and those “interested” agents passed on me. Then I tore my ACL doing a deadlift and I stopped going to the gym. Eventually, I gained most of the weight back. The tan, of course, had faded by then and my crew cut began to fall out prematurely too. The truth is I was never sufficiently ambitious to succeed in the field, and probably not talented enough either. I went back to school for accounting and now I do the books for the little sporting goods store Ben and I own here in town.

Ben says being a Dad is what I do best though and it’s probably true. As a parent, I’ve had some fine moments, but I suppose it only matters what our kids, Max and Kate, will think when they look back on their childhoods with the benefit of perspective like military historians.

I’m not a complicated person. I believe you get the life you are destined to have and I am grateful for this one. There’s no point in wondering too much about what might have been anyway. However, when Ben gets me to tell the Roger Sample story, it is an edited version. For one thing, Ben thinks I threw up at the bar and not in the cab on my way home with the guy. Ben doesn’t know I was on my way home with the guy. It would make a difference to him. And for comic effect, I usually say that Sample hollered his head off at me and made a big scene after I got sick. But that’s not true either. He was actually, shockingly, quite sympathetic, while I blubbered out apologies and popped some breath mints in my mouth. He never said a word about his ruined suit. The cab driver was furious however and Sample gave the man a $100 bill to calm him down and then we got out of the car and stood around getting some air while I sobered up on the corner of Park and 56th.

Sample took off his suit jacket, which had gotten the worst of it, balled it up and threw it into a nearby trash can. When he thought I was well enough, he flagged down another cab and handed over some more money and told the driver to take me home to Jackson Heights. The last time I saw Roger Sample, if you don’t count watching him pick up a Tony Award on TV a few years ago, he was strolling up Park Avenue toward his apartment.

I figured he told Rich what happened because back at work things were never the same between us. And Rich never asked me to do anything else outside of the office for the rest of the time I was employed there, certainly no invitations to Fire Island, so I didn’t break into any dazzling gay beach crowd. But many years later it occurred to me that maybe Rich didn’t shut down on me because of what happened in the cab, but because he thought I really had hooked up with Sample that night and was jealous of me or of Sample or maybe even the both of us. Who knows?

Obviously, I don’t share any of this when Ben asks me to tell the story. And I don’t mention that I would have traded away a year of my life simply to be alone with Roger Sample that evening or that if I had made it to his apartment I am certain that I would have gladly done anything he asked of me, despite whatever kind of ridiculous sex negotiation I’d been concocting in my inebriated head. And I certainly don’t tell anyone that before Roger Sample put me in the cab home that night I reached my arms around his neck (sober now, thoughts collected) and told him that I’d fallen irretrievably in love with him during the last scene of The Lost Ones and wished more than anything that he would find a way to love me too or else I knew I would never truly get over it. This was something the composer pretended, with great humanity and tact, to not even hear, before he smiled tightly and sent me on my way.

 
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Bill Gaythwaite is on the staff of the Committee on Asia and the Middle East at Columbia University. His short stories have appeared in SubtropicsGrist, Alligator JuniperSuperstition ReviewLunch Ticket, and elsewhere. Bill’s work can also be found in the anthologies Mudville Diaries: A Book of Baseball Memories and Hashtag Queer: LGBTQ+ Creative Anthology, vols. 1 and 2.

Time, With Bernie

Yermiyahu Ahron Taub

 

Except for the ticking of her mantelpiece clock, no sounds could be heard. There were no footsteps coming from the floors below. This was one of those rare interludes when the house was truly quiet. Tick-tock, tick-tock the clock sounded, its pendulum swinging back and forth. Although it was designed for a mantel, the clock was on an end table which would better have held lamps or books or a crystal candy dish. There was no fireplace in this room, and therefore there was no mantel upon which to place this rather substantial clock. Some might call it “ungainly” or “clumsy,” Malkah Rumshevitz acknowledged, but the clock nonetheless pleased her. Since it didn’t have feet, she thought of it as a mobile version of a grandfather’s clock. She liked to think of it as a grandfather who had remained fleet of foot. Malkah always made sure to bring the clock with her on her moves.

 Looking across the room at the clock, Malkah thought it fit well with the assorted things she had decided to bring to this apartment. Of course, “apartment” was a bit of a stretch. It was really just two rooms at the top of the home of her niece and her family. Malkah’s domain was not unlike the thrift shops she frequented. Things were always coming in and moving out. She was forever downsizing since she couldn’t abide clutter or excess, but then something would catch her eye in the shops. It might be something as small as a hairbrush or a mirror or an etched compact or as large as a chair or an ottoman she thought would be comfortable in and suited to her space. Things might stay for a year or two and then Malkah would call the Federation Thrift Shop to have it taken away. Seeing her number on the incoming call screen of the phone, Hector or Rodrigo at the Shop always greeted her with “Hello, Missus Malkah. How are we today?” Even though she wondered who the collective “we” was, since it was just Malkah now, she always responded that she was doing well. Because when Malkah was calling the thrift shop, “well” was how she felt. In Malkah’s opinion, that was the nature of life—things, just as people, come and go. Why should she or her home be any different?

Except for her undergarments, which she purchased from her friend Mindl’s store, virtually everything in Malkah’s possession had previously belonged to someone else. Although she didn’t consider herself superstitious in any way, Malkah sometimes felt the spirits of the previous owners, not exactly hovering, but floating above the objects. She found their presence thoroughly companionable, comforting even, as if blessing her usage of these objects and their residence, whether temporary or not, in her home. Still, Malkah wasn’t really attached to any of these objects. This stuff. She could give it all away tomorrow without a second thought. Today, in fact. Now—here have at it!

But the clock was different. It was a wedding present from her deceased husband, Bernard, who died some three years ago of a heart attack at age seventy-nine. It was so like her Bernie to give a big clock when any other man would give their wife a delicate wristwatch or a bracelet or something along those lines. Malkah loved the clock from the start, her enthusiasm unfeigned as she opened the package.

Malkah’s friend, Mindl was surprised when Malkah told her she was going out with a shoe store clerk, and then even more surprised, when Malkah married him.

“But he’s been touching people’s feet all day! Do his hands smell? Aren’t you worried that he’ll spread germs?” Mindl asked. Malkah was surprised that Mindl asked that since Mindl was never one to “pull rank”—something she always accused her sister Rosa of doing. And besides, Mindl dealt in ladies underwear all day. Were feet so different from breasts and bottoms? Malkah didn’t think so. And besides Bernie’s title was “store manager.” He only helped with the shoe sales when Melvin the salesman was off from work. But Malkah didn’t correct Mindl; that wasn’t the point. She just laughed and said, “Don’t be silly, Mindl dear.”

And Malkah really didn’t care about Bernie’s position, or “station in life.” She knew a lot of women did care about such matters. And with good reason; they had to. A woman needed to know how she was going to make it through life. Bernie could have collected garbage or shoveled pig slop all day for all Malkah cared. With his big, protruding ears and uneven teeth and his paunch, Bernie certainly wasn’t any great looker. And he was quite a bit older than Malkah. Eleven years, in fact. And Bernie wasn’t big on the conversation, either. Just said what had to be said. Not more, not less. And that was plenty for Malkah.

But Malkah loved being with Bernie, feeling his light touch around the house during the day and his arms wrapped around her in sleep. And she knew Bernie felt the same way about her. Every evening that Bernie came home from the shoe store was an evening to be savored. At the beginning of their marriage, Malkah asked Bernie at the start of each day, what he wanted to eat that night:

“What would you like for dinner tonight, Bernie?”

“Whatever you make for me will be delicious,” he responded, patting her thigh or kissing her on the cheeks. Ma had trained Malkah well, and Malkah was proud of her tuna casserole, lasagna, spaghetti and meatballs, eggplant, and stuffed cabbage, to name but a few. Even with his undiscriminating palate, Malkah enjoyed cooking for Bernie. He ate with such gusto, practically grunting in appreciation. Not unlike how he made love. Her animal, her man. That was her Bernie. That didn’t change over the fifty years of their marriage. As both of their bodies aged, Bernie never tired of her or of fulfilling his husbandly duties. Only, of course, he never considered it a duty. Neither did she. Malkah loved being with Bernie, in that way, too. In all ways, really. She never strayed, never wanted to. Neither did Bernie. Of that Malkah was sure. Well, almost fifty years of marriage. Bernie passed away just shy of their golden anniversary.

These days, the silence in the house was golden. Malkah rarely had the house to herself. There were always people coming in and out of the house—children, students, visitors of various sorts. Bernie’s niece, Henny was out visiting the sick. Not that Henny herself was in the best of health. Far from it. Henny had diabetes and had to monitor her glucose levels regularly. Still, that never stopped her from going out and about, finding ways to help the less fortunate. The woman was practically penniless and would give you the shirt off her back! And the children were away at school or out playing with friends.

The youngest, Yehoshua played with all sorts of kids on the block. Either he didn’t like boys’ games or the boys wouldn’t let him play since he was so bad at them. Maybe both. Malkah never got the full story from Henny, and she didn’t want to pry for more information on what was clearly a touchy subject. No sense picking at scabs. The boy played jump rope and jacks with the girls. When the Jewish girls wouldn’t have him anymore, he started playing with the colored children. He was getting especially close to one of the colored boys. A boy named Raheem. Those two were inseparable. Staying out at all hours of the day.

Was “colored” still the right term? No, of course, not. She knew it wasn’t “Negro.” It was African-American. That’s right. Or was it simply “black”? Malkah prided herself on staying current on such matters. Funny how Jews were called Jews. A constant. Sure, there had been “Israelites” and “Hebrews,” but that was centuries ago. In recent times, “Jew” hadn’t morphed into another term. Maybe it would someday. In any case, she’d have to find out today’s term. Not that it mattered to her. People were people. Ma always taught her that. Yes, with different histories, traditions, and customs. But strip all of that away, all human beings need food, water, shelter, and love. Those are the essentials. Everything else is just “icing on the cake.” Malkah did not consider herself a liberal or political at all really, but that is what she believed.

Just last week, one of the neighbors saw Malkah walking down the street and called her over. “Malkah, I just had to tell you I saw that nephew of yours—Yehoshua—kissing and hugging and touching one of the boys in the back alley. “A shvartse,” she said, and then grimly adding, as if compounding the boy’s crime, “Muslim. They thought no one could see them, but I saw it all. And it wasn’t quick either, mind you,” she said.

Malkah wondered how this woman knew who she was since Malkah didn’t even know her name. The woman hadn’t introduced herself. Did she assume Malkah knew who she was? The neighbors must have known Malkah as the relative who lived in the house of Henny and her husband, Velvl, although both were known as the Rebetsin and the Rebe. Malkah refrained from saying “with” her niece and her husband since, whenever she told people about her living quarters, she always made it clear that she had a separate apartment at the top of the house. Not that this distinction would have mattered to this neighbor.

Or was this woman a member of Congregation Haverim Ahuvim? Malkah sometimes attended services at that synagogue several blocks away from the yeshivah where the Rebe taught. People there were always friendly, and the services weren’t too long. Malkah’s attention span wasn’t what it had been. And it had never been that great. But she appreciated the fact that there was no sermon during the services. The unordained “rabbi” always said a few words at the Kiddush, but with a bit of food in their bellies, she and the other congregants were necessarily more attentive. Malkah always wore her sheytl there, but somehow she felt less judged as a single woman without children than she did in the yeshivah’s women’s section. It wasn’t her fault she and Bernie couldn’t have children! It wasn’t her fault Bernie died! She hoped Henny didn’t feel insulted that Malkah did not attend services at the yeshivah. She didn’t think Henny did, but you never knew. Henny was a sensitive soul.

But mostly, Malkah went to prayer services at Haverim Ahuvim to be with Mindl—to help with the set-up before the Kiddush and the clean-up after it. Mindl could have accomplished it without her, but Malkah still liked to lend a helping hand. Sometimes Malkah felt torn between her devotion to Henny and Mindl. What is it they say in Jewish—me ken nit tantsn af tsvey khasenes. You can’t dance at two weddings at the same time.

Malkah supposed it didn’t matter how this woman knew her. Whether in the yeshiva or in Haverim Ahuvim, everyone knew everyone here. And they were all up in each other’s business. Although it was located in a big city, this neighborhood functioned like a small village.

“The boys must have seen someone coming because they suddenly stopped. I didn’t say anything or make a peep,” the woman said. Malkah wondered which she found more appalling: this woman’s spying on the fumblings of boys in the bushes or her pride at her self-restraint at not making a sound or movement or her overall sense of self-righteousness. Did this woman enjoy her voyeurism? How long had she been standing there? Was she peering through her kitchen curtains? Hiding behind the balcony support posts? Or maybe it was the woman’s use of the term “shvartse,” which though a neutral term in Yiddish, certainly was pronounced with an unmistakable emphasis and glee. Or was Malkah being unfair? After all, she didn’t know this woman at all.

“Well, I just wanted to let someone in your family know,” she said. She must have figured that telling an older widow like Malkah would be easier to tell than someone from the immediate family. Less at stake. Thank goodness she had the common sense to do that. Or was it her own sense of self-preservation? It was in the interest of no one in the community for this morsel of gossip to get out.

“You did the right thing. Thank you so much,” Malkah replied.

“I hope you’ll let Henny know. She needs to know,” the woman continued. In fact, Malkah would do no such thing. Henny had enough on her plate, but she’d find out in good time if that’s what was meant to happen. But she wouldn’t hear it from Malkah’s lips. And Malkah certainly wouldn’t tell Mindl, even if she might feel the need to share it with someone.

“Of course, of course, I’ll be sure to let her know,” Malkah lied in what she hoped was a reassuring manner. She was eager to end the conversation but knew that a lot depended on the smoothness of her lies. Malkah didn’t want to look as though she wanted to escape, but enough was enough.

“Thanks so much. You take care now,” Malkah said, nodding vaguely at the woman whose face was scrunched up in … what was that? Skepticism?

Malkah wasn’t really surprised by this neighbor’s news. Yehoshua was going to be trouble, of that Malkah was sure. It wasn’t his school work, which was fine. In fact, he was a model student. It was the boy himself. His self. If you could even call him a boy. Well, he must be one, anatomically speaking. But, in all other ways, he really was a girl. He had a slim figure, full lips, wrists as limp as wet laundry fresh out of the washing machine. He really should be wearing a dress, even if his forearms were quite hairy.

In fact, one day Malkah saw Yehoshua as he slipped out of the playroom between Malkah’s sitting-bedroom and kitchen dressed in a wig and a yellow silkish dress and gold high heels. The dress must be his sister Zisl’s but whose wig and shoes were those? Lord have mercy! Besides the two youngsters themselves, only the Lord above knew what they did in that playroom. Had they been playing hide-and-seek? Malkah pretended not to have seen Yehoshua and turned back into her kitchen. She spared him the embarrassment, although she could have given him some style pointers. Still, he did look cute. Adorable even. She had to admit that. And he was such a dear boy, always so courteous and polite.

She thought of Yehoshua as a boy, although according to religious law, he was a man. Yehoshua had his bar mitzvah … when was it? Two years ago? Three? Was he fifteen already? The Rebe couldn’t beat “it” out of him if he tried—“it” being the demon of effeminacy or whatever one called the burden he was saddled with. She wondered if he had tried. Such a stern man, that Velvl. Poor Henny. And the Rebe couldn’t have been much fun between the sheets. Certainly not the way Bernie, may he rest in peace, was. Poor Yehoshua. Malkah wouldn’t have been surprised if the Rebe beat that boy. It wouldn’t have mattered if he had. Those girly boys couldn’t be changed. And some of them were tough and hard under all of that prettiness. Malkah knew that. She’d seen enough of them in her day.

She wouldn’t tell Henny or Mindl about what the neighbor saw. She changed that declaration in her mind. No, she mustn’t tell Henny or Mindl. Still, she couldn’t quite seem to get that street encounter out of her mind.

 
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Quiet reigned throughout the house. Malkah was happy to sit in her big fringed wing chair, savoring this deliciousness, doing nothing. Well, she wasn’t doing nothing. She was savoring the fact that neither Henny nor her children Mikhl, Perets, Zisl, or Yehoshua were in her apartment watching television that they were not supposed to be watching. Usually, she didn’t mind the company. In fact, she enjoyed watching their pleasure and her own role in the corruption of their good souls.

She herself barely watched television. What did they call it? The boob tube. She found most of the shows silly and dull to boot. She preferred the radio, with its news, discussion programs, and music. Whenever she had the television on, it was just for background noise. Still, when the children came in and asked if they could watch, Malkah never refused them. She just didn’t have the heart to do that. Those kids could never seem to get enough of the television.

But Malkah also enjoyed just listening to the grandfather’s clock continue its marking of time: tick-tock, tick-tock. If the clock could be moving while standing still, so too could Malkah. If all of the nameless ghosts from her possessions drifted around Malkah in the room, it was Bernie who spoke to her from beyond the grave through this clock. And Malkah just enjoyed being with her man, even in this way.

It was Henny who suggested that Malkah move to her house. Malkah assumed Henny believed the strictly observant atmosphere of the house would exert a beneficial influence. But Malkah couldn’t be influenced. Not at this stage of the game. So why had she moved here, Malkah wondered. She probably felt lonely after Bernie’s death, she admitted. And she needed to get out of that house so filled with memories of Bernie—of their time together, their love. She also felt a loyalty to Henny, Bernie’s niece. Although Henny’s father, Sol was ten years older than Bernie, the two brothers had been on good terms. Bernie and Malkah visited Sol, his wife Rochelle, and Henny in their apartment above their corner grocery store throughout their marriage. And Malkah had known Henny since she was a teenager. When she heard about Henny’s marriage to such a stern young scholar, Malkah had a flash of consternation. But Velvl had presence and charisma. Even then. She could see the appeal.

So here Malkah was in a junk-filled room on the third floor of an old mansion belonging to a yeshivah rebe and his wife these many years later. Who would have predicted that? Not Bernie, that’s for sure. He never cared about the rules and regulations. What did they call them? Halakhot? Yes, that was it. She’d ask Mindl. Not that Mindl was an expert, mind you, even with all of those years, taking care of Congregation Haverim Ahuvim. But Mindl would know that and not judge Malkah or make her feel ignorant for asking.

Henny must have had to pull some strings to get Malkah into this house, Malkah realized. The Rebe could not have been pleased that there was going to be a boob tube in his home, even though it was technically in a different apartment. Henny must have painted the whole move as an act of kindness to a childless widow. Which it was, and Malkah was.

Malkah’s thoughts were interrupted by the ring of the phone. She rose to answer it. It was an old-fashioned rotary phone on an old telephone table that had a seat attached to it.

“Hello. Is this Mrs. Malkah Rumshevitz?”

“Speaking,” Malkah replied in her most efficient but polite voice.

“Mrs. Rumshevitz, this is Ben Friedberg. I got your number from Mrs. Ariel, the rabbi’s wife at Haverim Ahuvim,” the man answered.

“Yes, I know who Mrs. Ariel is,” Malkah interrupted testily. She wasn’t pleased by this interruption of her rare day of solitude.

“I hope it’s okay that I’m calling,” the man continued, apparently undeflected.

“Well, that remains to be seen,” Malkah answered. If this was an appeal for charity, Malkah hoped to nip it in the bud. She never responded to requests for charity, even through personal referrals, over the phone. That was her cardinal rule. Too many fakers and crazies out there.

“What can I do for you, Mr. … Friedberg?” she continued, softening her tone ever so slightly.

“Well, I saw you at the Kiddush last Shabbas at Haverim Ahuvim, and I asked around. I’d like to invite you out to dinner this week if you’re available,” Mr. Friedberg responded.

Malkah was stunned. A man was asking her out? She searched quickly for reasons to decline the invitation: 1. She had no idea who this Ben Friedberg was. 2. She was seventy-two years old. 3. And most importantly, it had only been three years since Bernie passed away. And if she did accept his invitation, how would that work logistically? Could a man come by this house to take her out on a date? Surely, the Rebe wouldn’t be pleased. Malkah felt the man waiting on the other end of the line. She had to make a decision.

“Why thank you, Mr. Friedberg, for your invitation. I’d be delighted to accept,” she heard herself saying. “Please let me know where you’d like to meet, and I’ll be there.”

“Please call me Ben. How about the kosher vegetarian place downtown this coming Monday at 6:30 p.m.?” he asked, seemingly nonplussed by Malkah’s hesitation. If he expected to pick her up at her home in his car, he gave no sign of it.  

Malkah agreed, and the date, if that was what this was going to be, was set.

 
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“This soup is delicious,” Malkah said, “so many vegetables and just the right amount of seasoning.” And it was. Malkah hadn’t eaten out in years. She couldn’t even remember the last time she and Bernie had gone out. With his bad heart, there were just so many restrictions.

Malkah didn’t tell Ben she didn’t keep kosher when eating out. She wanted to see what this was all about before revealing too much about her dietary habits. After Papa died, Mama stopped keeping kosher “for” herself. It was prostate cancer that got Papa. Mama didn’t see any point since it was Papa who was most interested in maintaining the traditions. She didn’t suddenly start eating ham and pork, but there was a gradual slippage in the level of the observance. At first, Mama stopped going to the kosher butcher and then she stopped separating meat and milk dishes. By then, Malkah had finished high school and her bookkeeping course and was out and about in the world.

“I agree completely. The food here is excellent. I’ve never been disappointed,” Ben said.

The waiter suddenly appeared with their dishes. “Here is the casserole for Monsieur. And for Madame, the spinach quiche. Will there be anything else?” When both assured him there wasn’t, he discreetly vanished. Malkah wondered about the waiter’s usage of the French titles of address. This was a kosher vegetarian restaurant in the center of P, for goodness sake. They weren’t on the banks of the River Seine. Still, she found it charming.

Ben was wearing a dark navy blazer, gray wool slacks, an off-white shirt, and a maroon striped tie. With his shock of white hair under a medium-sized yarmulke, Malkah thought he looked distinguished. When she’d entered the restaurant, she wasn’t sure who he would be. But after just a few seconds, he stood up, waved to her, and started to approach the entrance.

If she’d been a few decades younger, her heart might have skipped a beat. As it was, Malkah was pleasantly surprised.  He was tall, well put-together … and well-preserved. At her advanced age, a woman did think of such things. Ben escorted Malkah over to their table and waited for her to seat herself before he sat down. She noticed that he didn’t pull out her chair for her. Their date lasted several hours.

“Well, I’m glad I was in Haverim Ahuvim a while ago. It’s not my regular synagogue, you know. I was just there visiting the Herzfelds. Do you know them?” Ben said.

“I can’t say that I do,” Malkah replied.

“They’re lovely people. As are you, my dear Malkah,” he responded, not missing a beat. Malkah forgave him his too-glib segue way. He was trying, and she had had a very pleasant evening. He clasped, rather than shook, her hand in farewell, and Malkah walked up the long drive to the the Rebe and Henny’s house and her own apartment above it.

After removing her neutral, first-date (or whatever it was) ensemble of a burgundy dress and a gray blazer and slipping on her nightgown, Malkah tried to remember what she and Ben talked about. All she could think of was how relaxed Ben was, how easy—in the best sense of the word—their date had been. And yes, the word “pleasant” returned to her. Without prior coordination, they even dressed in the same colors! Her skin was tingling with pleasure from his touch, instead of its usual arthritis.

 
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Months later, while departing down the path from Congregation Haverim Ahuvim, Malkah thought Mindl took it better than expected. Malkah went over to the synagogue to tell Mindl she would be moving from the neighborhood. She told Mindl they could visit each other at any time, that she was just moving to a different neighborhood in P. Not a close one, to be sure, but still in the same city. But they both knew that frequent, or even regular, visits were unlikely. Mindl’s aches and pains were not going to get any milder, and she was five years older than Malkah.

Mindl was quite shaken up. That much was quite clear to Malkah. She couldn’t meet Malkah’s eyes, and her hands were shaking. Mindl so enjoyed spending time with Malkah—both at the synagogue and at her home—throughout the time period when Malkah lived in the apartment above the Rebe and Henny’s house. And that time had been enjoyable for Malkah, as well, especially those Shabbas afternoon visits. Mindl invariably served Malkah those cookie press cookies from her mother’s recipe. Delicious. How long ago had Mrs. Vakhtman passed away? Goodness, Malkah had known Mindl since they were both young women!

And Mindl had been an attractive, hard-working young woman. She’d even been engaged once. What was his name? Irving, Irving … Klein. Yes, that was it. Irving Klein. He seemed like such a nice man. And then he’d dumped Mindl a few months before the wedding invitations went out. In a handwritten note, no less. Didn’t even have the decency to tell her in person. Poor Mindl. Such a good person. How she wept. Couldn’t get out of bed for months. Only seemed to perk up when Malkah came to visit her, Mrs. Vakhtman told Malkah. In fact, she would only eat when Malkah fed her. Malkah spoonfed Mrs. Vakhtman’s barley soup to Mindl. Eventually, Mindl snapped out of it and really ran the family business, Vakhtman’s Ladies Garments and then the synagogue. Someone once told Malkah at a Kiddush that Mindl married Congregation Haverim Ahuvim. Mindl was never the same again after that “almost-jilting.” She never recovered. Some people never do.

But it was time for Malkah to move on. She wanted to live fully the years remaining to her. Ben had proposed—still able to get down on his knees … and then up again—without any help. Malkah prepared herself for this moment, expecting it even. Did she feel disloyal to the memory of Bernie? To the time they shared? Maybe a little. But she knew Bernie would understand. He would want her to move on. Bernie was never the jealous type. He was confident in who he was and expected no less from those he loved. Malkah knew she’d always carry Bernie’s presence within her.

And here was Ben. Widowed, with grandchildren, and as delighted in her as Bernie had been. Yes, he was more polished, far more elegant than Bernie. A jeweler he was before having his sons take over the business. Malkah hoped she could keep up with him. And if she couldn’t, she sensed Ben would forgive her.  

What if she were wrong about Ben? How well did she really know him? Not very, admittedly. They’d only been seeing each other about seven months. Still, when you’re this age, you don’t have the time to dither. This was the age of decisiveness. And what if Ben dumped Malkah months before the wedding the way Irving Klein had dumped Mindl? Or worse, “at the altar”? Only there wouldn’t be an altar. They’d get married in city hall. Ben had suggested they get married at Congregation Haverim Ahuvim since that’s where he first spotted (and fell in love with) her, but Malkah wouldn’t hear of it. That was supposed to have been the setting of Mindl and Irving’s wedding. No way. City hall was so much simpler. Well, if Ben did dump her, so be it. It wouldn’t surprise her. Nothing could. Malkah had seen it all. She’d manage on what Bernie left her. It wasn’t much, but it was enough. She accepted Ben’s proposal without a moment’s hesitation.

Henny took Malkah’s declaration of departure well, at least far better than Mindl had. But Henny, for all of her trials and tribulations, had a husband and four lovely children. Sure, she had her health problems, a husband who wasn’t the most attentive or affectionate, and, of course, that mama’s boy Yehoshua, but still it was a family. Henny wasn’t alone.

But whom did Mindl have? That sister of hers Rosa wasn’t any good. Mindl hadn’t seen her in years. Henny didn’t drive, but one of her older sons—Mikhl or Perets—or maybe even the Rebe would drive Mindl. Malkah was sure they’d be happy to take Mindl along when they came to visit Malkah and Ben. But that wouldn’t happen. Mindl just wouldn’t feel comfortable. Her time with Malkah had been a fragile web, dependent on just the two of them being in it. Their time together in Congregation Haverim Ahuvim was different. There, Mindl was on her terrain; Mindl could welcome Malkah in as effortlessly as she could in her own home. In that synagogue, the web of their friendship didn’t seem fragile at all.

Malkah wondered if all that time tending to women in an underwear store had somehow messed with Mindl’s mind, her desires. All that femaleness, ripe for the viewing. What did Malkah really know of Mindl’s true longings? Is that what truly unhinged Mindl? Is that what Irving Klein saw? Was she damaged before Irving Klein abandoned her? It was the old “chicken and egg” problem. Well, Malkah wasn’t going to solve it anytime soon.

And then there was the matter of Yehoshua. She wanted to tell the boy that he didn’t have to wear girl’s clothing only with his sister Zisl. He could come to her apartment dressed that way. Sure, it would take Malkah some getting used to, but she’d manage. She wanted to tell him that she’d like to meet his friend Raheem, that he should bring Raheem over to meet her. But she never told him these things. She was sure Yehoshua would be mortified, with his secrets held up to the light. Malkah understood that he had to come to her when he was ready. If she were alive when (and again, if) he would become ready. Maybe she couldn’t quite bring herself to extend these offerings. Maybe she wouldn’t get used to these things, maybe she wouldn’t manage. Maybe she wasn’t as open-minded as she liked to think she was. And she was just the boy’s great-aunt. And by marriage.  Still, such a dear boy. So young, with so many secrets. Such burdens would he bear.

Malkah would miss Yehoshua and his television-guzzling siblings, Perets and Mikhl. She would miss Henny. And, of course, she’d miss Mindl. But her decision was made. She’d already called the Federation Thrift Shop to remove her things. She wouldn’t need them anymore. She was moving into a new place with Ben at the end of the week. They’d only just found it last week. Cozy, not much bigger than these two rooms here. Ben wanted them to move into a new place of their own together.

There was considerable activity in the house, and Malkah could smell Henny’s salmon cakes in the oven. Mmm. But the hallway was dark, and Malkah’s ascent to her third-floor apartment garnered no notice. She looked around her bedroom-sitting room. She saw the boxes piled on the floor, and the half-filled suitcases scattered about. There was the big grandfather’s clock with her on the table. Tick-tock, tick-tock. Of course, she wouldn’t donate that to charity. She would keep the clock with her on this, what Malkah hoped would be her last move before the Final One. Yes, “Final One,” she thought, catching herself but still unable to prevent herself from mouthing aloud, “not Final Solution.” The clock ran well and was still rather handsome. Not unlike its owner, she thought, applying some lipstick in the mirror across from the clock, contentedly though not immodestly. Of course, Malkah couldn’t bear to consign the clock to the fate of the many discarded personal items in thrift stores that still held such appeal, although she knew Hector and Rodrigo would take good care of it. The clock would stay with her, and now, with Ben, too. Time would tell (Ha! Ha!) whether Ben would be pleased. She wouldn’t tell him who gifted this clock to her.

Bernie would have been pleased—that Malkah was keeping the clock and that she wasn’t telling Ben that he’d given it to her. And Bernie would also have been pleased that she was moving in with Ben. Of course, he would have, Malkah assured herself. She reached over to continue packing. She placed Bernie’s silver-framed portrait in bubble wrap and then taped it. Malkah would have to find a spot for it in her new home. Or would she? How would Ben react to a portrait of his predecessor? Malkah wasn’t sure she wanted to find out. One thing was certain—Malkah was not going to discard her portrait of Bernie out of Ben’s possible jealousy. There were limits to her forbearance—and from the grave, to Bernie’s.

 
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Yermiyahu Ahron Taub.jpg

Yermiyahu Ahron Taub is the author of Prodigal Children in the House of G-d (2018) and six books of poetry, including A moyz tsvishn vakldike volkn-kratsers: geklibene Yidishe lider/A Mouse Among Tottering Skyscrapers: Selected Yiddish Poems (2017). Tsugreytndik zikh tsu tantsn: naye Yidishe lider/Preparing to Dance: New Yiddish songs, a CD of nine of his Yiddish poems set to music, was released in 2014. Taub was honored by the Museum of Jewish Heritage as one of New York’s best emerging Jewish artists and has been nominated four times for a Pushcart Prize and twice for a Best of the Net award. With Ellen Cassedy, he is the recipient of the 2012 Yiddish Book Center Translation Prize for Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories by Blume Lempel (Mandel Vilar Press and Dryad Press, 2016). His short stories have appeared in Hamilton Stone ReviewJewish Fiction .netThe Jewish Literary Journal, Jewrotica, Penshaft: New Yiddish Writing and Second Hand Stories Podcast, among other publications. Please visit his website at www.yataub.net.

What’s Behind You

Jenny Ferguson

 

Content Warning: This story includes scenes of violence and abuse that some readers may find disturbing. 

 

You know who killed your mother. You’re fourteen, not stupid nor blind to truth.

His name is Eddie Whitewater.

Not your father, or your sister Ide’s.

He showed up drunk one night with your mother three years ago, and a year after that, maybe less, the baby arrived, at home, bloody, in the bathtub. Eddie was nowhere to be seen as your mom laboured. The baby, she was a thing with so much dark hair, you’d think she was rushing to show her father how she fit in the rented house so she screamed it. She liked to exercise her lungs. That hadn’t sweetened Eddie.

To the best of what you know, your mother never married Eddie. But he claimed her name, wore it like the faded jean jacket he owned and loved. You’re sure he’s a conman, but you can’t uncover what con he’s running on your mother. Like a magician, he’s got flair, switching out his family name the way other men change shirts. Licence plates still registered to other provinces in the trunk of his sedan. A flathead screwdriver too, rolling around.

Your mother, she’s got nothing to lose.

In this life he’s claimed, Eddie Whitewater begs your mother to bead his worn jacket. In traditional patterns and colours, he insists, raving in his way. This is a few months after the baby is born and her screaming resonates through the studs of the rented house. Even when the baby isn’t screaming, the walls carry on. An earthquake only you kids can feel coming your way.

Your mother doesn’t bead, doesn’t know what colours Eddie’s raving about. But she buys packages of seed beads in the Wal-Mart crafts aisle when they’re on sale, and for six days, Eddie Whitewater doesn’t wear his jacket as your mother stitches a pattern she’s inventing as she goes along. Swoop of red here, orange there, yellow, and some purple (though Eddie looked at her funny when she opened the purple ones). As she works with the bulky material, she breaks needles, draws blood once, a needle cutting right through the fat pad of her thumb. She bleeds on the fabric and worries. She rinses it in cold water before Eddie returns. This thing, he loves it, and you think it must be something belonging to the first Eddie, the original one before he turned conman.

Eddie From-a-Cornfield.

Eddie Who-Didn’t-Make-His-High-School-Football-Team.

Eddie Small-Town-Part-Time-Criminal.

You’re not expecting it. You’re expecting something else. But he adores his beaded jean jacket. The first time he wears it into town, he brings home pizza topped with little salty fish. Enough for everyone. He even tries to feed his baby that night, the only time you can remember Eddie touching his kid.

You don’t know his legal last name, and at fourteen that drives you mad as it’s your custom to exchange names, to trace connections, to find cousins. It won’t make you crazy, not your whole life. When you’re older, when you move in with the Golds, and they show you the internet, you’ll be happy you don’t know Eddie’s fucking legal name or you’d hunt him down and with your hands, put him into the ground too. No, you’d leave his body in an empty lot, and you’d do him the favour, one he doesn’t deserve, but one you know you’d need to grant to live with yourself afterward, you wouldn’t do him like he did your mother. You imagine covering Eddie’s body with gasoline, the burn in your nose. With kindness still living in your heart, you would make sure he was dead before you lit the fumes.

It becomes a habit, to carry lighters around in your pockets. You steal them from other people’s pockets, from counters when heads are turned. But not from stores. You’re so angry at fourteen, it boils you. But you have no desire to wind up in jail. Too many other father figures live in federal pens. Ide’s dad had tried the hardest, harder than yours, or your city uncles, to stay out of trouble so he could stay free. But even he who tried is serving life, parole possible after twenty-five. This boils you, and forever will.

That night, angry, you watched Eddie drag your mother out of the house by her hair. Ide watched too, she was something like seven years old. You were angry enough that when Eddie Whitewater returned without your mother, you stabbed him with a kitchen knife. Blood on his shirt, blood on your hands. The knife hitting something hard, a rib, deflecting your hand from sinking in. A cheap knife, its handle breaking at the blade. There are others in the drawer. Five more chances. But you know they’re just as cheap.

Only need one good one to do the job, you tell yourself, angling your body for a long reach. The blade, you feel it in your hand, although for now, there is nothing there. You feel your victory calling to you, until Eddie knocks you to the ground, your head impacting against the stove. The second time your head slams hard, Eddie Whitewater has you by the hair. Feral fuckin’ Indian, he calls you, your vision tunneling, your ears rushing as if underwater.

 
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When you’re conscious again, Ide’s crying in the corner of the kitchen, the fingers of one hand hinged in her mouth. The baby’s crying in the back bedroom.

The baby’s diaper is dirty, so you change it.

The garbage in the baby’s room is full, stinking in the corner, so you take it outside and toss it, double vision making the bag’s trajectory hard to track.

The baby’s filthy, so you bathe it in the sink, cleaning the blood from your hands as you go.

Even though the baby’s half Eddie Whitewater, you bathe the baby before you call the police. She holds your finger while you wash her with green dish soap. In water, she stops screaming.

Yes, she was always happiest in water.

 
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Hours pass before the police arrive. They let themselves into your rented house, lifting empties, and opening drawers like they own the place. They ask you why you washed the baby before calling them. The blond cop keeps looking about the house, his disgust registering on his face. They ask questions as if you’re the criminal, and maybe you are, violent flashes of the knife in hand coming back to you.

They ask you where your father is.

You tell them Eddie Whitewater is not your father.

But this is what kills you: you tell the story, without anger, using your inside voice, your calm words, how Eddie Whitewater dragged your mother out of the house by her hair. You tell it this way three times.

Each time, you wait for them to help you.

“Well,” one cop says, “without a body, there’s no murder, kid. This is missing persons. Unless Whitewater brings charges against you for the assault.”

“She’ll turn up,” says the blond one, as he scans the kitchen, opens the closest cupboard. It’s filled with paper plates. “You kids have food in the fridge? Canned food? An auntie with a job or something?”

Your throat is too tight, your anger too hot to answer. You nod.

 
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When your mother’s body is located after two weeks, you tell your story again, to the murder cops. They have a pad of legal paper in front of them, but no pens in sight.

Eddie Whitewater killed my mother.

I watched Eddie Whitewater drag her out of the house that night.

The last time I saw my mother alive, Eddie Whitewater had his hands on her body, dragging her by the hair.

That’s still a crime, right? Assault?

You’re not listening—

“Son,” the murder cop says. “No one here knows a man by that name. We can’t find any other man who knows the man you’re calling out. Are you positive that was his name?”

You’re sure, though, you know it’s not. But when he left, he took a beaded jean jacket with him. On the jacket, you know your mother’s blood is still caught between the fibers.

If you tell the murder cops as much, you can’t remember.

 
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Time passes as time does.

But you can’t let it go.

Can’t forget.

Once, in the basement of the Golds’ Wychwood home, before you leave for school, maybe only days before—you remember your room packed in cardboard boxes Leah Gold had bought for you at a moving supply store, like used cardboard just wouldn’t do the trick as she sent her last son to university—you ask Ide what she remembers.

You wish before you’d asked that you’d known when you ask for others’ secrets, they become your own. But, unlike those homegrown, you may not barter with inherited secrets. They shall die, on loan, with you. And now, you carry Ide’s too, alongside yours.

This is what your sister tells you, staring ahead at the TV, something like a sitcom with a laugh track. Neither of you are watching, but you don’t talk like this about that night. You can’t face each other. Ide’s eleven or twelve now, and she loves you more than anything, and so, when you ask her, she puts down the bottle of blue nail polish Leah Gold brought home, after visiting her oldest overseas in Tel-Aviv, on top of a stack of Israeli fashion magazines. By this point, you remember, Ide is learning Hebrew to please the Golds. And while you adore them, you’re ready to get out and into your life.

Ide waves her left hand vigorously to dry the polish.

You’re waiting.

When Ide starts to speak, you’re mesmerized:

You have your own room before Eddie’s baby girl arrives. It’s something your mother’s proud of, her three-bedroom home.

After the baby, you sleep in your fourteen-year-old brother Abe’s room because the baby screams more than it sleeps and the couch isn’t safe. When you’d fall asleep on the couch, Eddie would knock you right off, like you’re a dog not permitted on the furniture. Abe helps move your bed into his room one afternoon. And since you understand something is wrong, you spend more time sitting in corners, tucked small, watching:

Mother in the kitchen, pouring two cans of spaghetti into a pot to heat for dinner (something you still crave), and if this is a good day, there’ll be leftover bannock, enough to go around, and if this is a good day, Eddie won’t ask where the real bread is, and if this is a good day, Eddie won’t serve himself first.

Mother drinking wine with Eddie in the kitchen, beer on the couch, and something expensive in the back bedroom they share.

Mother leaving Abe in charge of you and the baby, Eddie ushering her from the house, a hand on her body (not that time) (not yet).

Mother laughing.

Mother serving you ice cream, just you, Abe and Eddie, and the baby (it would seem) missing for a few hours.

You work around that night in your memory when you revisit it, like a ritual against bad spirits, but as far as you travel in other directions, you always arrive. They are always waiting for you.

The screaming is what you remember best.

Your mother’s.

Eddie, in response, as if to tame your mother by yelling over her.

Your brother joining in later when Eddie returns alone.

Your brother holding a kitchen knife the way you’re not supposed to, when he rushes Eddie, when the knife bounces, when the knife breaks.

The baby never stops. Its screaming is easy to ignore after two years’ exposure in a three-bedroom house.

You can’t remember if you joined in.

This bothers you.

A chorus of raw throats in a three-bedroom home and you’re not sure you cared to chorus.

You linger here when you revisit this memory, this place.

This chills you under your skin, in the inside layer, the layer closest to what holds your soul.

You won’t understand your mother’s pride in her house until you wind up with the Golds in Wychwood Park. For a few months, you’ll think you’re dreaming. The walls are sturdy, painted, and the furniture is made of real wood, even in your room. You have your own bathroom. There’s a lock on your bedroom door.

But, you’re not fooling yourself. From day one, when Leah Gold points at the signs warning of quicksand, you understand—even this neighbourhood of large homes, hiding from the rest of Toronto on wooded acres, cannot escape everyday terrors.

 
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Jenny Ferguson is Métis, an activist, a feminist, an auntie, and an accomplice with a PhD. She believes writing and teaching are political acts. BORDER MARKERS, her collection of linked flash fiction narratives, is available from NeWest Press. This story was shortlisted for the Knudsen Fiction Contest in 2017. You can find Jenny online at @jennyleeSD and www.jennyferguson.ca.

Wingbeats of the Mute

Phillip Sterling

 

Seven mute swans cruise like old-timey pleasure boats upon the surface of Boardman Lake. I watch them through a scrim of fog. A perfect photo op, some would say, and no less beautiful for the regularity of their appearance. Pictures of mute swans have graced the brochures of Lakeside Condominiums from the start, well before Paula and I moved in. They’ve since become an attraction. Paula herself often claimed that we moved into 37A for the swans.

We moved here for the swans, she said, to the young couple that delayed our already sluggish progress from the garage to the front door of our place maybe three years ago. They were looking for the unit that would be vacated at the end of the month. Was 27B down this way? the woman asked, as if blind to the half-dozen arrows and orange Open House signs across the drive. She was short and slight; her thick, dark, shoulder-length hair framed a round, open face of maybe Asian extraction. She looked to be pregnant.

“Building B is not waterfront,” I’d said, waving a quick gesture toward the signs and arrows across the way. I hadn’t meant to be rude, only abrupt. I was anxious to get my wife inside and settled comfortably, as she was fatigued from another round of blood work at the hospital. Still, Paula later berated me for my brusqueness.

 A thoughtless gesture, to be sure, for in the process of waving the ring of keys I was holding took flight and, as if caught by surprise at its weight and lack of wings, clattered into the street, skittering to a stop at the curb. Almost before I’d realized it, the man—whose name we would learn was Issak—released the dark-haired woman’s arm, scooped up the keys, and returned them to me.

His assistance left us obligated to social niceties.

Paula thanked him and introduced us. The young pregnant woman—Sidney—reciprocated. Then Sidney asked how we liked it, living at Lakeside. Were there many young couples?—any children?—or was the community mostly middle-aged like ourselves? (That she was being cordial—even deferential—was obvious, for I wore my Medicare eligibility like a ratty cardigan, and Paula, though ten years younger, was sallow and peaked from the blood work; she’d been sick for eight months.) What, asked Sidney, compelled us to move here?

The swans, said Paula. We moved here for the swans.

Those that now swim a dry-crust’s throw from shore, maybe eighteen yards beyond the footings of our small deck, projected above the lake. I stand another five feet or so from the sliding glass door that provides access to the deck. The swans, then, are maybe twenty yards from where I stand, more or less, not counting the height.

At least two of the seven are adults, though it is difficult to tell which they are, given the scrim of fog and the size of cygnets at this time of year. Were there no haze, the whiter adults would stand out, and I could distinguish the gentle from the rude. But in the dish-water gray of this misty September morning, the swans appear uniformly ashy and shy, the adult plumage washed out, even against the slate color of the lake.

I suppose that to an unsuspecting photographer the seven swans drifting in the light fog above Boardman Lake might present the consummate image of peacefulness—an image of familial gentility and calm. But I know otherwise.

We moved here for the swans—I’d say it out loud, if I could. Yet my voice is inoperative, as if some haughty God has come upon me in the shape of a swan and is clutching my throat in a god-like beak. I cannot speak into the vacancy of the half-furnished room; I can barely breathe. Had I not returned Paula’s hospital bed to Tri-County Medical Supply, I would be standing beside it now. Had she not died, I’d be sharing the view with her.

We moved here for the swans, Paula said, on the day we first met Issak and Sidney on the sidewalk out front. We’d have looked like bookends, if anyone at 27B glanced across the drive to where we stood: identical couples facing each other, each man taller than the woman, each arm-in-arm. We could have been mirror images standing there, three years ago now, though a closer look would have revealed we were not identical but more like computer-generated, virtually-aged models of each other. Issak, a tall thin nondescript man, hovered over his wife, his left arm hooked through Sidney’s right, as if she were the frail and faltering one, his touch perfunctory, a natural extension of a husband’s love for the woman who would bear his children. My grip on Paula’s arm was more functional—no less loving, though we’d had no children of our own—but intended, rather, to assure her safety as we navigated the spit of sidewalk between the car park and 37A. Paula refused to be dropped off at the door. As long as she could walk, she said, she would. But the woman’s arm my hand secured was probably no more than one-half the density of the small one Issak held.

They moved into 27B the following month, and—by proximity, perhaps—we became friends, despite the differences in our ages. Bored with her easy pregnancy, Sidney began stopping by to spend time with housebound Paula, especially if I had errands to run and Issak was “on the road” for his job. Then, when Lilly was born—beautiful perfect Lilly—Sidney brought the baby along, and Paula, on her good days, fussed over the child as if it were her own granddaughter. Issak seldom talked about his family, other than acknowledging “an uncertain estrangement,” and Sidney’s divorced parents both had what she called “relief families” somewhere on the West Coast. By default, then, Paula and I assumed the role of god-parents.

When Lilly turned two, Sidney started working part-time, in the office of RJS Properties, which manages Lakeside Condominiums. Two, sometimes three afternoons a week, Lilly would come stay at our place. Hour upon hour, the swans became our entertainment.  

From our deck, a good throw of a crust of old bread will reach the water, and the swans, if they notice, will tack and motor back and gobble up the leftovers from yesterday’s sandwich or Paula’s unfinished English muffin from breakfast. No question they are a joy to watch—one of the few things Paula could do with any pleasure toward the end—and more and more often toward the end she’d call me from whatever I was doing and we’d sit together and watch the swans. And she’d recall when there were just the two adults, and they would laze in the glitter of sun not thirty feet from shore, their necks arched and bills almost touching, not unlike those sappy Valentine’s cards you’d find in Walgreen’s—an angelically white, neck-framed pseudo-heart encompassing the silvery-blue water of Boardman Lake.

At other times—especially once the cygnets were born—they could be a nuisance.

If I took three steps forward and slid open the patio door and then the screen and stepped out onto the deck, eighteen yards beyond which seven mute swans drift and pause and circle as if anticipating bakery treats, I could look to the south and see the public boat launch that’s sandwiched between the mouth of the Boardman River and Mama Pasta’s Restaurant, where unknowing tourists encourage the massive birds’ confidence and aggression—a familiar photo-op—by serving the gravel parking area with selections from their doggy-bags: bread ends, croutons, or scraps of Caesar salad. “Mute swans can be dangerous,” warns a small DNR sign thumb-tacked beside the kiosk of Boat Launch Regulations. “A breeding pair will protect its cygnets at all cost. Use caution when feeding. Keep your distance.”

Fucking swans.

Paula refused to admit that our decision to sell the house we’d lived in for over thirty years and move into 37A—a lakeside, ground-level, handicap-modified condominium—had more to do with her leukemia than with the swans. But that was Paula’s way. We moved here for the swans, she’d told Issak and Sidney the day they stopped us on the sidewalk in front of this house and asked.

I’ve heard Sidney say it as well—loud enough for Paula to take note, I think—during Lakeside’s last Fourth of July celebration, a meet-and-greet potluck and barbeque, which takes place at the common space before the fireworks. It had been one of the few times we’d gotten out to greet the new people in the “neighborhood” (as Paula called it) once she had taken to the wheelchair. But she wouldn’t have missed the chat-fest for anything since Lilly had asked us to go, even though we just as easily could have watched the fireworks from our deck. Or from the hospital bed we’d had delivered to the living room.

Now, resigned perhaps to the absence of human service, the swans dunk and fend among the algae and weeds and mud of Boardman Lake. They tip and bob like chunks of ice—a visual precursor to the wintry view I will have in a month or two, when I will be standing alone in the living room of a half-empty house and watching for movement on the lake, for signs of life or companionship. Without Paula, without the swans, without Sidney or Lilly.

If I could—though I can’t, with my feckless body clutched at the throat by some fearsome swan-god—but if I could, I would place the toe of my right foot slightly behind my left heel and turn an about-face, one-hundred-and-eighty degrees, as I had been so well trained to do in boot camp nearly fifty years ago—and I could direct my attention out the window above the kitchen sink to where a stubby gray U-Haul truck is backed up to the sidewalk in front of 27B. A whitish-gray truck, through the scrim of fog, similar in hue to the seven mute swans that scar the smooth surface of the lake like stigmas. If I could, I would turn and face the swan-colored truck, the truck that as I stand and look at the swans is swallowing everything I have come to care for—to love—in the wake of Paula’s death.

Lilly and her mother are moving—following Issak, who left for Texas six months ago. He’s found them a place, apparently, a house with a yard, in a neighborhood of houses with yards and no swans. And I imagine if you asked Sidney today—though I cannot—I would suspect she would say they’re moving because of the swans. Or, perhaps, because of me.

“My living Valentine,” Paula called them, when the swans were just the two adults, lazing for hours in the glitter of sun not thirty feet from shore, their necks arched and bills almost touching, not unlike—Paula said—one of those sappy Valentine’s cards you’d find in Walgreen’s, an angelic, pseudo-heart of swan necks, encompassing silvery-blue lake water. Day after day, they were a joy to watch—one of the few things Paula could do with any pleasure toward the end—and, toward the end, she’d beg me from whatever diversion I’d attempt—computer solitaire, meager loads of laundry, quick runs to the grocery store or pharmacy—and we’d sit on the bed, its back raised like a chair, and watch. Or she’d have me throw Frisbees of Lumberjack bread from the deck, to entice the swans to disperse a frenzy of crumbs for the fish.  

“My year-round love card,” she’d said.

And now they are moving to Texas: the woman I love and the child that calls me “Poopa.” It was, at first, a two-year-old’s variation on Paula, which got jumbled into the toddler’s perception once Sidney started work and Lilly began coming to stay with us twice a week. She loved spending time here, baking or playing games or putting puzzles together (on Paula’s good days), or just sitting with me and reading, or watching Sesame Street, if Paula wasn’t up to it. You’re going to see Paula today, Sidney would intone, and Lilly (we were told) would pack her “Lilly-bag” with animal crackers and books, her green baby blanket, and Stuffy the swan, a gift we’d given her long before she knew who we were. Stuffy was meant to be a goose, I think; I’d found it in the dog-toy section of Walmart. But Lilly called it a “’wan” and refused to nap without it.

“Poopa” included both of us at first. On her way to work, Sidney would bring Lilly over, and Lilly would burst in the door, calling “Poopa! Poopa!” dragging her Lilly-bag from one arm and swinging Stuffy by his long white neck from the other. She’d run to Paula for a hug and then come to me, jabbering—incomprehensibly at times—about her day. Yet once Paula became bed-ridden, and I began to spend the majority of the time with Lilly—playing games and reading or watching TV—when Lilly was told that Paula was tired and resting and so we must play quietly—Lilly began to use the name exclusively for me: Poopa, King of the Swans.

Now the closest one lifts, tilts on its tail, arches its neck, and slaps great splashes of water in what seems to be an exercise in territorial display, powerful wide-spread claps of strength.  Perhaps it’s the adult male, and perhaps he’s warning his adolescent offspring that they have approached too close to shore. That danger may lurk in the shadows of the deck that projects from our living room, a room that, just now, is lifeless. He would be an easy shot from where I stand, and I lift the rifle that’s been dangling from my right hand and grasp the stock beyond the trigger with my left. Then I sight down the barrel—through the glass of the sliding door—at the swan’s display. Twenty yards at best, an easy shot, even though I’d not fired the gun in years, not since we’d moved to Lakeside.

Yet Paula would surely be furious if I destroyed the patio door, scattered fragments of glass into her living room. Better, I think, to step out onto the deck. But I don’t move. My left hand loosens and I lower the gun, rest its barrel on the bamboo laminate.

Even before Lilly was born, Sidney stopped by frequently. She was bored with an easy pregnancy, she’d said, and found a sympathetic ear with Paula. Paula bemoaned her own inactivity. They played cribbage and drank watery tea. It was a nice respite. I lingered at the fringe of their friendship, found other things to do and still be within calling if Paula needed me. But that was early on, long before we filled the winter sun of our living space with a hospital bed. Once a week or so the two women would take a short stroll; occasionally they managed an afternoon’s excursion to the mall.

It didn’t last. Paula relapsed, and Sidney—a short, petite woman—filled her maternity clothes to the point of discomfort.

Then Lilly was born. Within weeks, Sidney began bringing the baby to our place. Paula was invigorated, cheered by the visits.

I was happy as well.

The next two years were glorious in their sameness: Sidney and Lilly coming by, Paula’s positive check-ups, trick-or-treat at Halloween, Christmas cookies cut in the shapes of swans (heavy with green frosting and red sprinkles), Easter eggs and little hands dyed the color of a bruise. Paula insisted we buy a digital camera. She started a virtual scrapbook.

Our non-Lilly days were pleasantly routine as well: trips to the library or the bookstore, slow reads of the latest best sellers or new non-fiction, or the 19th-Century classic we’d meant to get to eventually; 1000-piece jigsaw puzzles on the kitchen table; afternoon siestas. We played cribbage and drank weak tea. We watched old movies on TV, reruns on PBS. When the weather and her blood allowed, Paula would want to walk and we’d circumnavigate the condominiums—the “neighborhood,” she called it—often ending up at the common space, where Lakeside maintains a gazebo and barbeque pit and a single length of floating dock for residents’ use. Feeding waterfowl at the common space is prohibited—so as not to attract noisome seagulls, gob-shitting geese, or disease-infested ducks—and, for the most part, Lakeside residents cooperate (if only to avoid the additional fine one may accrue on monthly association fees). Paula and I would sit for a time on one of the benches in the sun there and marvel at the quiet beauty of the lake—relatively undeveloped for so close to the mall (the boating regulations extensive and deterrent). We’d watch the swans in the distance.

Other days we’d take Lilly along. At first in her stroller. Then I bought a Little Tykes wagon, and we’d wheel her down to the common space, where we’d erect and destroy castles built from the play sand RJS Properties hauled in every spring, or we’d feed bits of seaweed and grass to the fish. When Lily began to walk, we’d walk down together—slowly, if Paula was able—one on each side, holding hands.

Then the swans took to nesting nearby, and the common space was quarantined. About the same time, Paula’s health took a turn for the worst. It felt natural to blame the swans.

And again, the bird rises on its tail and swats the water with his—I’m guessing it’s the adult male—five-foot wingspan. Then a second swan does the same in a kind of brutal, macabre dance, or thrust-and-parry. The action sends smacks like rifle shots echoing across the lake, ripples washing to shore. My heart responds in kind, pumping its thick wings against the surface of my chest. My comparatively short neck throbs; I can feel beads of sweat forming on my forehead. My arms break out in goosebumps—or should they be called swanbumps. I want to kill one of them.        

Paula’s death was not, of course, unexpected. We’d been preparing for months—years, even. And yet, unexpectedly, a choke developed in the throat of my acquiescence to it; my lungs filled with an intake of breath that I didn’t think I’d be able to release. Even with all the preparation—the counseling and advice, the working through the stages of her death, the openness and acceptance that Paula and I had developed through years of remissions and regressions—the waxing and waning, the high tides and low—I was surprised by the finality of the thing. I hadn’t prepared for the certain loss, the aftermath, the grief, the solitude. I wasn’t ready for loneliness. I wasn’t thinking. Which is why I wasn’t able to deal in a reasonable way with anyone else’s loss—Sidney’s or Lilly’s. Why I may have perceived it as something else.

When Issak was promoted and relocated to the Houston office, Sidney refused to move. She’d only been working for RJS Properties eight months, she said, and she didn’t want to leave them in the lurch. Nor could she leave Paula at that point (during a slight relapse); nor disappoint Lilly, who’d come to look forward to spending time with us. But mostly it was because of me (she said, afterward)—she didn’t want me to be alone. She’d come to care for me “very much.”

They’d brought me dinner—Sidney and Lilly—a pizza they’d made from scratch, and they’d come to ask if I’d be willing to continue to watch Lilly a couple days a week, while Sidney worked, if I was up to it. Paula had died a week or two before. After the pizza and the wine (sparkling juice for Lilly) and then ice cream bars, we’d stood on the deck and tossed our crusts to the swans—how cute the babies were!—and Sidney had turned and leaned against me and placed her small hand on my bare arm and asked if I would, and when I said yes—Absolutely, No problem, I’d love to—she’d raised on her toes like a dancer and kissed me and thanked me and said it meant a lot to her because both she and Lilly had come to care for me very much.

And my body responded in a way it hadn’t responded in years—with physical tremors of anticipation. For a moment, I was a young man again, young and single.

“What about Issak?” I’d said, thoughtlessly.

“We moved here for the swans,” said Sidney. She smiled the kind of smile that Paula hadn’t managed in years. “We can’t very well go to Texas and leave the swans—they’re still babies—on their own.”

If I did an about-face—spun on my heel one-hundred-and-eighty degrees and raised the .22 to my shoulder, sighting down the barrel and out the kitchen window—a window much less expensive to replace than the patio door—I could shoot out the windshield of the U-Haul truck. Or the driver’s side window, given the way the truck is parked at an angle on the pine needle and bark bedding in front of 27B. I could shoot the driver, if one was sitting in the cab. Or, at the very least, the front tire on the driver’s side, or puncture the engine compartment, ruin hoses, wires. I could cause enough damage that the move would have to be delayed, postponed. But it would only be temporary; it would only stall the inevitable. Sidney would still move away. And I’d likely have to pay for the damages, maybe be arrested. Not that jail would be any worse than solitude for a sixty-eight-year-old single man. Meals would be prepared for me at least. And how long of a sentence would I possibly get? Life, at most? Life could be six years. Six months. Six days. No difference.

And it still wouldn’t solve the problem of the swans.

Paula gave me the rifle on Father’s Day the second year we lived in the house we’d designed together, the house we sold to move here. Two acres of former orchard that Paula intended to turn into gardens. But the wildlife was out of control the first year—rabbits, squirrels, woodchucks, turkey, deer. As soon as any sprouts appeared the animals would ravage them. She bought me the gun as a deterrent. Not to kill anything—Heaven forbid! We’d moved there for the wildlife!—but to scare them away. “You’re a good shot,” she said, indicating the marksmanship pin among my other Army memorabilia. “You should be able to hit close enough to keep them at bay.” I didn’t mention that the marksman designation was pro forma—that every soldier was expected to achieve that standard. Nor did I ever tell her about the ground squirrels I’d used for practice, the woodchuck I’d had to bury before Paula returned from the beauty shop, the white-tailed yearling I’d wounded as it bounded off.

The next year she abandoned any attempt at vegetables and from then on landscaped with only pest-resistant perennials and flowers—enough for some grazing to occur without noticeable damage. After that, I rarely shot the gun, other than for practice:  plastic milk jugs, cans, cereal boxes (“What do you have against the Mini-Wheats guy?” Paula teased). Then, as more housing developments grew around us, the township restricted firearm use (and fireworks as well), and I put the gun into storage. When Paula got too ill to garden—too weak to manage all the stairs in our multi-level house—we felt it would be better to move to a condo closer to town. I kept the gun more for its sentimental value (a Father’s Day gift) than anything else.

I’d found a box of .22 shells in my old footlocker—stored for its own sentimental value in the metal shed assigned to 37A behind the garage. Shells, if I recall, never go bad.

The night Paula died—not three feet from where I’m standing, when the hospice nurse had stepped out to the sidewalk for a cigarette (since I’d asked she not smoke on the deck, as she had the week before)—one lone swan plied the dark water of Boardman Lake, about fifty yards out. I was sitting beside her bed, resting my frigid fingers on Paula’s. I’d abandoned trying to hold her hand days before. Hers was lifeless, even colder than mine; there was no strength in it. If I hadn’t been able to see that it was attached by a thin arm to the emaciated body that vaguely resembled my wife’s, I’d not have believed it was hers. Yet I meant to sit and listen as long as it took—at first for her slight breaths and then for their absence. And as I sat staring out into the void of an unlit lake, the reflection of the moon suddenly appeared, like the hole of a bullet shot from a dark room into daylight. The brightness was astonishing. I felt as if the whole world was turning to vapor and being sucked through that small hole—Paula’s breath, her warmth, her soul—a pinpoint of a universe in which everything of substance has imploded and become encased as in a small clear globe, where the whole world swirls briefly before settling into watery stasis.

I rubbed my eyes, teary from staring, and refocused. It wasn’t the reflection of the moon at all. It was a single swan, come to ferry Paula’s soul to some otherworldliness.

“My calling card,” she’d said.

She had no funeral, no memorial. Paula asked only to be cremated, and for her ashes to be dispelled into Boardman Lake.

I could always turn the gun on myself, of course. I know how it should be done. I have been trained to take another’s life—something one never forgets how to do. I know where to rest the barrel against me and how to reach the trigger so there would be the least amount of mess, of damage. But that wouldn’t eliminate the problem of the swans. Nor would it achieve anything like retribution; no God would find the act sufficient, in my way of thinking.

So Lilly and I played and read and watched the swans two—sometimes three—afternoons a week while Sidney worked. On Fridays the two of them would make pizza from scratch and bring it over—continuing (Sidney said) a family tradition. We’d have wine. We’d throw the crusts to the swans. And when they’d leave, both Sidney and Lilly would hug me goodbye.

I would be lying if I said I’d never entertained the idea of intimacy, of Sidney and Lilly becoming the family that Paula and I never had. But I am a practical man at base, a faithful man to some extent. There was Issak to consider, of course—despite the hint of a rift in the marital canvas—and the forty-year difference in ages between Sidney and me. And there was Paula’s ghost. Yet it would be disingenuous if I didn’t admit that my enthusiasm for Lilly’s entertainment—my need to please the child—was in part mitigated by a desire to endear myself to Sidney in a way that would reciprocate love.

I believe I am a practical and faithful man, as I said. But I am still a man.

I dubbed the child Princess of the Swans. We called the house a castle, the lake our kingdom. “Let them eat cake!” I’d declare, as Lilly threw bread from the deck, most of which fell short, littering the mucky shore, as the swans refused to come in any closer, at first. But then the cygnets molted and grew bold and, despite the hissing admonition of the parents offshore, ventured onto land. They’d crowd beneath the deck, their necks extended, their beaks open, and Lilly could drop pieces of “cake” right into their mouths. Like tossing treats to trained dogs.

The cygnets were playful and awkward on shore, and Lilly begged to pet them. She asked to move among her worshippers. And as I wanted to please the young princess—in spite of my better judgment—we loaded her blue plastic wagon with pizza crusts and slices of bread and journeyed to the common space, where we could kneel on the dock and—just maybe, now that the young swans had grown accustomed to her, now that they could see there was nothing to fear—feed them by hand.

I’d not expected that the adult male would come flailing up the beach at our approach, nor that he would leap upon the child, nipping and pecking and flailing, until he’d ripped away a small piece of her ear. I was not prepared for the terrible hissing, the screams and cries, the whirl and smack of feathers, the brightness of Lilly’s blood.

We moved here for the swans is, in point of fact, a bold-faced lie—one we all shared in. That was the beauty of the thing: a purity as of the whitest feathers, the feminine charm, the quiet gentility—all meant to mask the swan’s “black sinful flesh,” as the authors of certain medieval bestiaries warned. We moved here, instead, to prepare ourselves—to prepare me—for a loss, an insuperable loss, a loss—I have come to realize—it’s impossible to prepare for.

We moved here for the swans is a lie I can no longer perpetuate.

Three steps to the patio door, two steps out. I raise the rifle and aim, and seven mute swans, in anticipation of what they have learned to expect, turn my way and swim gracefully toward me.

 
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Phillip Sterling is the author of a collection of short fiction, In Which Brief Stories Are Told, two poetry collections, And Then Snow and Mutual Shores, and four chapbook-length series of poems. New stories have appeared recently in Pacifica ReviewPermafrostFiction SoutheastCloudbankTemenosThird Wednesday, and The Best Small Fictions 2017.

Days of Ripening

Bill Pruitt

 

It’s fifteen minutes till closing when I hear the garage door open. Sal Monaco is making his delivery. I am filling out a deposit slip from the day’s receipts, and I must decide if I will stay with my usual routine of going out on the floor, which now means having a minimum fifteen-minute, mostly one-way conversation with Sal, or staying in the office, which would delay me putting away produce, as well as keeping people from coming in. I decide to face the music and say hi to Sal. I actually like his company. He tells good stories. But I have to stop what I’m doing to hear them.

“Hey, what’s going on,” he says as I emerge from the office. He’s dropping forty-pound cardboard boxes on the floor, pulling off tops, ripping away the thin plastic sheeting that ripens the fruit, putting the darker ones on top. He’s never called me by my name; I’m not sure if he knows it. “You had a half-box of ripe ones, I’ll give you that half price.”

“Okay, Sal,” I say. I never look at his bill.

“Railroad car was late today,” Sal says in his rough, gravelly voice.

 “Yeah?” I say. Around us, there are less than a half-dozen people in the store, the usual assortment: a fifty-ish woman from the suburbs, with her long coat and dignified bearing as she scoops out tarragon from a quart ball jar into a paper bag; teenagers helping themselves to some heavy molasses cookies from out of the bakery display case; an elderly couple carefully selecting sweet potatoes.

“Yeah, temperature in Guatemala dipped down into the seventies, so Chiquita came up ninety-thousand boxes short.”

“Wow,” I say, looking around for something to do while I listen.

“Yeah, but I got my fruit cause I don’t shop around. Those guys know I got customers like you who don’t like Dole. You’re still boycotting them, right? So they made sure I got my Chiquita order filled.”

“They come by train?”

“Nah. I used to get a train car. One day I had six men waiting down at the yard for three hours. I figure the car is here, so I say to the yard workers, ‘Hey, when you guys gonna bring up my freight?’ ‘Whenever we feel like it,’ they tell me. So the next week me and three other guys go in together and buy a truck.”

“That’s great,” I say. I pull open the old massive door of the front walk-in cooler and pick up a bushel crate of apples.

“See, I like the unions, but they went too far.” Sal is built solid: squat barrel chest, short thick neck, tapered jaw, broad nose, bright blue eyes which drift off in thought as he tosses empty boxes in the back room. “They would come to companies here, National Biscuit, and say, ‘You do it our way or we’ll shut you down!’ So the company just leaves town.” He leans toward me and lowers his voice. “Did you know they had a fireman riding in the cab for years after they switched from coal to diesel?”

I say I didn’t know and start back into the cooler with another bushel of Ida Reds, but Sal is shaking his head, and I want to hear what he’s saying. He never shouts or raises his voice in the ongoing conversation with whoever happens to be standing nearby. “Running late tonight, again,” he says. Despite my intentions, I have to look at him for elaboration.

“Last week, when it first got cool down there I was late all week.” He comes over to me and lowers his voice a little. “Wednesday was my twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. We were gonna go out to eat. I was late.” He shakes his head. “For two days I thought my wife was gonna leave me. On Friday, I made sure I got home early, brought her flowers, took her out. It worked.” He sighs, old pain in his eyes tempering his broad and chiseled smile. I take some cardboard boxes outside to flatten them and watch Sal drive away. The driver’s door has JOE MONACO & SONS on it. Joe is Sal’s father’s name as well as his son’s.

 
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Those days I worked at a natural foods co-op on Monroe Avenue, found on one side of the first floor of an old Victorian firehouse. Faded brick on the outside—we steam washed it one year—and a sliding pole inside near the front, extending down through a sealed-off hole in the wooden ceiling.

We were a collective of five managers, who got low wages but set our own hours and vacation time, supervised members who worked for a discount. All vegetarian, all bulk in those days. No plastic, no sugar, no white flour.

Trish and I had just moved into the city. I’d dodged a bullet—literally—working as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. Now I felt like I needed to prove who I said I was.

I got odd jobs as a landscaper and loading dock receiver before I started at the co-op. Trish found work at a daycare center. In my spare time, I read Henry Miller and watched, from the moraine that was Cobbs Hill, how Monroe Avenue snaked into the city. The corrupt, decaying world of Off Track Betting and massage parlors had grown out of an even older one, the earth and rock the great glacier had pushed forward, then left; but I felt young. We drove to rock festivals on weekends. Three Dog Night sang Road to Shambala on the radio. We had no money, but things were in reach. There was a path. Trish and I would go bicycling. Sometimes she rode in front; her breasts hung loosely in her halter top. I felt the world was mine.

The co-op was a busy place, a hub in the alternative community. Clustered in the two-story firehouse were pottery; printing press; vegetarian restaurant, Peace and Justice; Alternative Health Center, Gay Alliance. When some people in the health center got federal grants, which gave them salaries two or three times the norm for co-op businesses, there was an uproar. A series of meetings which lasted for hours ensued, with debate on issues like how much money people there should make—(not too much)—and should anyone be on the payroll of a government that had just finished up an immoral war in Southeast Asia.

Boycotts were popular: California grapes, Dole bananas. We helped support a handful of local startup businesses: Green Valley Yogurt, Sangha Tofu, White Tyger Tempeh. A family from the community started an ice cream brand, Cold Mountain. Word got around that the stranger they sold it to forced a woman to take him in her mouth at his place, a single mother everyone knew. Two women from the feminist community appeared at one of our managers’ meetings to demand that the store boycott Cold Mountain. The three women on the staff liked the idea; the two men, including myself, were less comfortable with it, as there were no charges and everything was hearsay. None of us, men or women, wanted to confront the guy.            

Since our rule was that all major decisions had to have consensus, the issue never got resolved, like much else.

 
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“Would you like to have a baby?” Trish asked. We lay on the bed, her fine brown hair falling over her gently sloping breasts.

“Sure, some time,” I said. I knew she wanted a baby, but she never pressed me about it.

One day she told me she was pregnant.

What can you do? Go with it was my guiding philosophy then. I bought a whole bottle of wine and drank it in solitude to commemorate my loss of freedom. Then I joined Trish in being accepted by the community as young parents-to-be.

To my surprise, our lives became more carnal, not less. Our sex diminished in frequency but not in fervor and lust. Her pregnancy was a signal that brought women’s sexuality perceptibly into the light, almost impersonally. I began talking knowingly with young mothers and pregnant women at the co-op while they filled their paper bags with beans and scooped out peanut butter into their own ball jars, about cramps and swollen breasts, water breaking and morning sickness, stages of labor and dilation. I felt comforted by them, part of the community. It seemed Trish’s pregnancy explained who we were. When she gave birth to Elsie, the store gave me three-weeks paternity leave.

One Sunday afternoon, (in those times, when the store wasn’t open for business) I was just locking up after bringing over some produce when a man on a bicycle asked me if the store had a bulletin board where he might find some postings for hostels. He said his name was Daniel, (accent on the second syllable), that he was from Chile. He was young, virile, dark, friendly and prematurely bald. I told him we had a spare room.

Daniel wound up staying for a few weeks. I was a poet in those days; he went to readings with us, showed understanding and interest in my work. We talked about Neruda and Vallejo, labor issues, capitalism, fascism, boycotts, grapes. He spoke of oppressive governments with familiarity. He also went to sauna with us.

Klaus Schwinn had a sauna and a swimming pool in his basement. I began to hear people talking about it in the store in a way that indicated Klaus was a naturist. One night, the wife of one of our store managers, Lee Ann, asked if Trish and I would like to go. We jumped at it. Like having a baby, it seemed to be part of a wave that was sweeping over us.

There was a kind of ritual for sauna night, which happened several times a week. People gathered in the living room as the sauna heated up. Guests sat down and talked, greeted each other or were introduced. I looked at women, anticipating their imminent nakedness. Klaus gave the signal when the sauna was fired up: he was the first to strip. He had a muscular body, with curly, leonine blonde hair and a beard, and we would follow him down to the basement, leaving our clothes upstairs, the smell of chlorine filling the basement stairwell.

We sat in the sauna, a wooden structure with enough room for about twelve people sitting close together on two tiers of benches on each side. In the middle of the floor was an enclosed heating unit, where Klaus occasionally tossed a ladle-full of water to make steam. When we’d had enough, we went out first to rinse off in the shower, then to the pool.

The abundance of children helped dampen the erotic potential of the occasion, but the presence of young nursing mothers did not. One night I left the sauna looking for Trish, and found her in an upstairs bedroom, lying on her side with her back to me, nursing Elsie. In the quiet upstairs semi-darkness, I saw her legs slightly bent together making a line that extended up her curvaceous behind. It was like I’d stumbled on a hidden grotto, a backlit dune in a sacred cavern.

From the beginning, I had noticed an absence of quiet at Klaus’ place. People always found something to talk about, even though they didn’t really have that much to say. In addition to the usual discomfort with silence, I decided that people were making small talk to keep Eros at bay. They weren’t really naked. A thin veil of verbiage was draped across everyone, just like that transparent plastic sheeting on Sal’s bananas to suppress oxygen. I wanted to preserve arousal and feel excited when I saw a woman naked. So I stopped going.

Those days I had a sense of being immersed in humanity, seeing hundreds of customers every day from the city to the sticks, urban women with overalls and suburban teenagers with piercings, a new wrinkle then. Many were also working members whom it was my job to supervise. Biking home on a busy Saturday, I felt bathed in the blur of human beings, thinking it would all make a great novel or epic poem once I was able to grab it out of the air and put it all down. I had been a shy and introverted only child. How unexpected it was, to be so unreservedly among people!

I never invited anyone home, only Daniel, a stranger I had happened to bump into. I never went to anyone’s house, except for meetings or potlucks. I had a few friends, mostly writers, but no one from my life at the store. And no one from Trish’s life at the daycare center. She would suggest having people over, but I didn’t want people intruding on my free time. I especially didn’t want to get together with married couples with children.

I thought that Trish’s desire for company was a sign of neediness. She wanted to slip into some kind of unconscious leisure cycle. I wanted to be aware every minute. Family and friends were part of the cycle I wanted to break through.

It was as if I needed to keep other people distant enough so I could see them, and not let them slip into the unconscious world of myself, which I unavoidably shared with my family.

I pictured myself as an outsider, in but not of the co-op, offering a helping hand as long as people didn’t get too close. Daniel was a friend with clear limits; he would leave one day.

Sometimes after a reading, we would talk about the CIA, how it had supported and trained Allende’s assassins. Or about what the Contras were doing in Nicaragua, in Guatemala.

I didn’t know all the places where Daniel went while he stayed with us. He got around a lot on his bicycle. Sometimes I thought I played the part of the generous, tolerant host to the eccentric wanderer. Sometimes I thought he was just more serious than I, that he had a plan.

Although politically aware, he was anything but strident. I was never sure if he was quiet from laconic personality or lack of English, but he could go seamlessly from ruminating anger to subtle self-reflection. One day I had been needling him about his baldness, and he said, “Do you worry that in twenty years, you will lose your hair?”

I laughed, and said, “In twenty years, I will have other things to worry about.” But in my mind, I thought, I can’t imagine twenty years ahead, as if the coming millennium had already given me a concussion.

Daniel was circumspect about his plans, but he intimated he might try to do some union organizing in Central America.

After he left, Trish brought up having another child. This time I drew the line. “We can just barely get by now,” I said. She didn’t push it with me, and it was hard for me to tell how strongly she felt about it. She didn’t like to argue.

I wrote a poem about Sal Monaco which got published in a nationally known journal. My friends laughed at the line, “He brought her flowers, and she changed her mind.” I have since thought of that line many times. What was I saying? These working folk are simple people: they get angry, but are cheered by flowers?

I didn’t know what it was I felt with Sal. Sometimes, scorn. What kind of life did he have, penny-ante produce business, working sun to sun, like my own construction supervisor father. Working so late, when did he have time for culture? I didn’t want my life to be swallowed up like his, I wanted empty pockets of air, I wanted time to be bored, to reflect, to have slow sex.

I thought he was anti-union without wanting to admit it. But when he told me how many deaths occurred at the East Rochester train crossing for years until they put in a signal when the company president’s son got killed, I knew he cared.

I never imagined what I now know to be true, that, even if he didn’t know my name, he knew me better than I knew myself.

All I knew was that Sal told stories and I listened.

“You can’t get good help these days,” he’d say. “I once had a guy, I told him, ‘put out produce in the display cooler,’ I came back twenty minutes later, he’d put out two tomatoes, two heads of cabbage, two bunches asparagus, I said, ‘What do you think this is, the Ark?’”

 
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After thirteen years at the Food Store, I decide to go back to school, get my graduate degree and go into teaching. I feel lucky to get a scholarship since Trish and I have saved nothing. One night in the store, two weeks before I am to leave, Sal Monaco drops by. My shifts have changed, I haven’t seen him in a while. He lets down a box, slower, holding himself a little more carefully when he says, “How ya doin?”

I tell him about my plans. He wishes me luck, but his broad face has a rigidity I haven’t seen.

“My back is giving me problems, I can’t bend at the waist like I used to,” he says.

“Do you have a chiropractor? I know a good one.”

“I’m seeing this guy. He’s a Filipino.” He motions across the street. “I been going every day after work.”

“Wow, you must really be getting home late.”

“Yeah, well, my wife left me.”

“No.” I think of my poem, his flowers.

“Yeah. One day she was just gone. Went to Florida.”

“When?”

“Last fall. She just flipped out. Won’t come back for nothing, family reunions, her kids, see her granddaughter. She just went crazy.”

I take a moment to absorb this. “What about Joe? Were they close?”

“Not really.” Sal surveys the Thursday evening customers as they pick over the zucchini and delicata squash. “He quit driving for me, you know. Got a job with Zappa brothers. My rival. Can you believe it?” he says with a pained smile, shaking his head.

I take a breath. “So, you still living in your old house?”

“Yeah. I’m not there much.” We continue talking while I register all of this new information. I feel bad for him, but I have another feeling, dull and insinuating, just barely registering: it’s something you did, Sal. I’m not like that, bad things won’t happen to me.

In spite of his stiffness, he still has the glint in his eye and the tone in his voice that says You gotta keep going no matter what happens. Then his tone softens and his face relaxes a little.

He tells me when his wife left him, he found a Seneca-Iroquois girlfriend, Ursula, barely out of her teens. He says she was on drugs, but he got her to turn things around.

“She says, ‘Sal, you’re the one,’ with this look in her eye. I’m not kidding myself, I say, ‘Ursula, you get it together so when the right young man comes along you’ll be ready.’ When she’d say, ‘we gotta go out and score,’ I’d say, ‘Whaddya mean? Let’s just go out and have a good time.’ Oh, sometimes I’d smoke a little weed with her and her mom, but then I’d say, ‘tonight let’s just all go out to a nice restaurant.’ Her mother loved me. Ursula would say, ‘Sal, you made me find something good in myself.’”

 
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I become a teacher. I never publish another poem. Trish starts volunteering at the Peace and Justice Center. It helps us keep in touch with the community and alive to the greater things in the world. One night she comes home distraught. Her eyes are moist, but there is a ghastly light in them. I look at her without speaking.

“I heard a terrible thing today.”                                                                       

“What did you hear?”

“Remember Daniel?”

“Of course.”     

“He was trying to organize some poor workers on a banana plantation in Guatemala. He was taken by the government. They found his body yesterday. There was torture.”   

 This is distressing and sobering—but I think, it’s been seven years. Trish is not sobered, but in manifest grief.

I lie by her side, both of us awake until she says what I have guessed. “I loved him.”

“Yeah? How?”

“What do you mean, how?”

“I mean, how? How did you love him? Did you love him with your body?”

“I loved him.”

In the morning, I’m putting on my tie in silence in front of the closet mirror. I have lost most of my hair. She sits down on the bed. “One morning, after you had gone to the co-op, I came in to see if he wanted coffee. The covers were off, he just woke up, he was erect. He just smiled at me. That was the first time.

“And... one time later, at the sauna, after everyone had gone upstairs. Those were the only times. I never felt unfaithful to you. I felt I had more than enough love for everybody.”

I feel an anger impossible to express. The line I walked, the lust I suppressed. I don’t touch her, or let her touch me for two weeks.

And then something snaps, and I try to put it back, but it’s gone. It’s not there. After I stop being angry, she takes Elsie and leaves.

 
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The co-op was not a place where one was angry. I felt my role was to manifest a rational, enlightened state of mind. After I started working there, I began to meditate. It was in the air. It allowed people to paper over certain feelings. Just as the sauna could obscure sex—at least for some people—so did meditation eclipse anger, as if all one had to do was to sit with the idea of oneself sitting. Sometimes this idea or self-image was loud enough to deafen ears to the roar of anger at one’s own life. And bright enough to blind you.

Trish’s confession was the slap that made me see. I am glad she gave into that impulse to show love, which I now see I wasn’t giving her. But if I had allowed myself to show anger, maybe I could have also shown forgiveness. By restricting that one emotion, I put the kibosh on the emotional life I thought I lived. I had imagined I was in the classroom, but I was still back at the old firehouse.

This is how it was: there was an esoteric secret in the world I imagined I knew about, a knowledge that put me slightly apart from people around me—even the ones who shared the secret! All the religions confirmed it, pockets of wisdom, such as Blake’s locating eternity in the moment between the heart’s pulsations, substrata churchgoers didn’t get, I thought, how could I ever be angry at anything or anyone? How petty, the affairs of humans!

What I didn’t understand was that this pulsation, the breathing that went with it, is exactly what made me not separate from people around me; that the secret was not above or beyond the affairs of humans; that my idea that I understood this arcane fact of existence crippled my ability to experience it, or anything else. I was standing on the riverbank, feeling the turbulence of everyday life beneath my feet, but barely able to register it, much less express it, so intent was I on keeping what I thought was perspective, as if getting upset would take this fragile truth I had cobbled together and blow it up.

 
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I keep on teaching and remarry. Once when I go to the market and ask about Sal, I learn he has died.

A week before Christmas, well before dawn on Saturday, the market is full of people. Buyers and vendors mingle around kerosene heaters under long corrugated roofs, misty clouds forming around their open mouths. Local Yukon golds, late broccoli picked last night, Cortland apples, empire, golden delicious. Knit caps with flaps and tassel balls, lemons from California, Mexican asparagus, apple cider and cabbage and wallets. “There are those wallets!” a woman says.

But nowhere is it more crowded than here under the shed, where the line for Ray’s flowers extends past the bagel sellers, cake vendors and fish peddlers, past the produce dealers, where Florida size 90 lemons sell three for a dollar forever. There’s another woman who sells flowers, but Ray has the freshest product, comeliest arrangements and best prices, so people are willing to come early and wait.

What Ray does not have, however, is business sense. “He didn’t get my wreath done yet?” says a large black woman in elegant hat and fur coat who is in front of us.

“He’s working on it,” says Ray’s assistant, bending down under the corrugated door to get back outside where Ray is assembling wreaths in his van.                     

“I have to go to yoga,” my wife Lorraine says.

“Go ahead,” I tell her. “I’ll get them.” We have brought two cars for this possibility. Her sister and husband are coming the day after tomorrow.

“Bye,” she says, giving me a kiss. “Don’t forget you said you’d clean out the garage.”

“I won’t,” I say.                

“I don’t have time for this,” says the woman in fur, as we wait for Ray’s helper to come back. “It’s not ready, I’m going somewhere else.”

The assistant brings in a wreath.

“That’s not what I ordered,” the woman says.

“We can add to this.”

“I didn’t order that. I wanted some of those African things.”

The assistant goes back to Ray. “Don’t buy what you didn’t order,” the woman says to me and leaves.

I have to wait another twenty minutes, but it’s worth it, as I walk out with a bouquet of snapdragons, exotic lilies and flowers I don’t know the names of, feeling rewarded for my trust that Ray would put together something exceptional with the sketchiest of direction. I now attract the attention even of those who are not expecting, nor looking for, beauty. I don’t really know what I have—I have never liked flowers that much—but I can tell it’s remarkable from the way people notice me.

 
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Bill Pruitt is a fiction writer, storyteller, poet, and Assistant Editor with Narrative Magazine. His short stories appear in recent issues of Crack of the Spine Literary Magazine, Indiana Voice Journal, Midway Crack of the Spine Literary Magazine, Indiana Voice Journal, Midway and Hypertext. He has published poems in such places as Ploughshares, Anderbo.com, Off Course, Stone Boat, Otis Nebula, Literary Juice, Visitant and Cottonwood. He has two chapbooks with White Pine and FootHills; and the self-published Walking Home from the Eastman House. He has performed his original story, “Two Kinds of Fear,” a documented telling of the lives of Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass at various venues in Rochester. He taught English to non-native speakers for 26 years. He and his wife Pam live in Rochester and have a daughter, a son and two grandchildren.