Stringtown

Ian Delaney

The sun was rising as Jake drove up Highway 3. There wasn’t much light at first, just a deep amber glow that warmed the pine trees along the far hills. But slowly the light appeared, giving shape to the trunks and the branches and then the needles, to the semis that earlier had been pairs of floating lights. It blinded Jake as he drove east. He’d left behind his sunglasses, and when the light hit his speckled windshield the glass became a murky filter. He ran the fluid and the wipers but that just smeared the grime across the glass, thickening it. Of course there was no shoulder, so he kept going. He leaned forward, reached out the window, and used his sleeve to scrub a sliver in the dirt at eye level. Not great, but it would get him to Meg’s. He could wash the car there.

Or maybe he would just wash the windshield. There weren’t any carwashes between his home and Douglas City, where Leanne thought he was driving to reroof Don Wilson’s house. Coming home with a clean truck would raise questions. Better to just clean the windshield. If Leanne asks, say he did it at a gas station. But then he’d have to make sure the tank was full, or at least mostly full. He looked at his gas gauge and saw he’d need to fill up soon anyway. He was safe.

Then there was the roof. He was actually doing that job in two days, but he couldn’t stop thinking that for some reason Leanne would end up at Don’s house before then. He pictured her looking up at the patchwork of mossed-over tiles, arms crossed, lips pursed, shaking her head. Steaming. He should have made up a customer.

He shook himself and said out loud that Leanne had met Don only once, maybe twice, so why would she ever end up at his house, half a mile down a fire trail?

Seven months in and he was still getting used to cheating.

 
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Meg was the opposite of Leanne. She was tall, muscular, had hair cut well above the shoulders. When Jake reached the end of her gravel driveway she was leaning against the doorway in an oversized snow jacket, her brown hair knotted and splayed, her gaze cold and unmistakable. Jake admitted that by every measure he knew she wasn’t attractive. But there was something about her.

Without saying anything she turned and went inside. He took three cans of sealant from his truck bed and found her in the kitchen, turned away, stirring something into her coffee.

Happy to see me? he said.

No reply.

I think three cans should do the job, but I have more if we need it.

No reply.

You okay?

A pause.

You didn’t call she said.

He’d figured this would come up. At least they could get it over with.

Leanne was home all week he said.

No reply.

You know I can’t call when she’s home he said.

It was true. With no cell service in the area any call had to be over the landline. He used to call Meg that way, taking the receiver into the grove of trees behind his house. But once, after joking about her mattress being too stiff to sleep on, he heard the faint click of another phone on the line hanging up. He ran inside and found Leanne at the dining room table, struggling with a crossword puzzle. The phone was on the charger in the kitchen.

After a minute she looked up from the newspaper.

You look tired she said. Did you sleep okay?

She knew.

He spent the next few weeks studying his wife, looking for proof that she’d listened to the call. At first he found it everywhere. She rolled away from him when he climbed in bed. She yelled at him for coming home later than usual. She asked him if he still loved her. He felt nervous, and then he felt guilty, and then he had the faint but unmistakable feeling that he needed to end things with Meg.

He never did. The weeks wore on and nothing changed at home and he began to convince himself that he’d been imagining things, all the way back to the click on the phone. He went to Meg’s more often now. But he wasn’t about to call her when Leanne was around.

Meg sipped her coffee.

What do you expect from me? she said. I’m just supposed to go three days with no contact and assume you’ll show up when you said you would?

Jake nodded thoughtfully.

I’m out here on my own, no way to reach you she said. Always waiting. The least you could do is call when she’s in the shower.

Jake nodded thoughtfully.

Meg sighed and turned toward the back door.

Come on she said. We’ll need to hurry if we want to have time before you leave.

Jake grabbed the cans.

 
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He was still amazed every time he stepped onto Meg’s back deck. The redwood panels started six feet above the ground and reached thirty yards in each direction. No fixtures or railings, the deck just stretched into the forest. Three pine trees rose through holes in the wood and gave just enough shade to cover the entire surface. Stepping out of Meg’s small, cluttered house and onto the deck reminded him of the time he visited San Francisco as a kid, when his father led him from the cigarette-strewn Market Street sidewalk into a gilded hotel lobby.

He felt the deck was his best work, though he couldn’t take sole credit for it. They’d built it together. When they first met and she led him into the sloping backyard, sweeping her arm outward as she explained her vision, he couldn’t picture it. The foundation alone would cost thousands he told her. The lumber tens of thousands. She understood that. He told her he was short-staffed. She said she would help. She and her father had built the house, after all. That’s when he really looked at her for the first time. Her strong arms, her scuffed boots, her thin and knowing smile. Just maybe.

From the start everything went smoothly. Meg said she wanted B-grade redwood for the deck and merchantable heart for the posts, and Jake admitted they were the right choices. When he came to drop off the support beams she’d already dug the holes for their foundations, so they mixed and poured the concrete that day. They measured and sawed and hammered next to each other, wordlessly in lockstep. It was the easiest big job Jake had ever done.

Almost right away there were passing touches on shoulders and backs, lingering eye contact, glances up and down bodies. He didn’t think anything about it at first and by the time he caught on he wasn’t sure which of them had started. That’s how he knew they had something. Meg was self-sufficient and spontaneous and passionate. She was different than his wife.

They took breaks more frequently. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, wine, movie. In the evenings they’d sit on the perimeter of the deck, legs dangling twenty feet above the forest floor, drinking. Once, after a couple glasses, Meg suggested they do away with the railing they’d planned to put around the edge. Jake looked down at the shrubs and leaves and pinecones beneath his feet and nodded. Of course the deck didn’t need a railing. Why had they ever thought otherwise? He raised his head and they looked at each other and then Meg was on top of him and he was on top of her and they rolled right up to the ledge and then back toward the center and then back to the ledge again. The unsanded wood burned their skin, made it come alive.

 
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After three months the deck was done, but they agreed that they couldn’t stop, not now. And so it kept going, stretching further into the woods, the support beams that plunged down into the slope growing taller and taller. It kept going until Meg ran out of money and they’d built a monument.

In Jake’s mind it was flawless. But for the past few months Meg had been noticing stains and discolorations and streaks of gray cutting through the crimson, so she asked him to help reseal the deck. And now here he was, standing with one foot in the house and one on the deck, thinking about that Market Street hotel while Meg retrieved a can of oxalic acid from her garage. They diluted the acid and used brooms to sweep the murky fluid across the surface. By the time they’d wiped the deck down and hosed it off and wiped it down again it was already three in the afternoon. They made sandwiches and ate them on the ledge, and while he was gazing down at the forest floor Jake noticed fresh bleach stains on his pants.

This sort of looks like roof coating, right? he said. I mean, if you didn’t know any better?

Meg shrugged.

I’m supposed to be roofing right now he said.

I know she said.

They went back to eating silently for a while.

I’m going to ask you something she said.

Jake slowly turned to face her.

I don’t like the sound of that he said.

You don’t? she said.

When you have something on your mind you always just say it.

Is that what you think?

Jake turned back and looked off into the trees.

What is it? he said.

How often do you have sex with her? she said.

What?

How often do you have sex with your wife?

Well. Occasionally.

Occasionally.

I sort of have to. She’s my wife.

Do you enjoy it?

What?

Do you enjoy it?

I don’t know. Not nearly as much as—

Don’t compare us please.

Okay. Well. I suppose it’s enjoyable at times. But mostly it’s stale and repetitive and tedious. There’s no passion in it.

I see.

It’s just something that happens. I don’t look forward to it. And I don’t think she does either.

So neither of you wants to but you do it anyway?

Where is this going?

Please don’t get defensive.

I’m not the one who’s being defensive.

Don’t I have the right to be, every now and then?

Jake didn’t say anything for a while. He just sat there, looking down at the ground. He could tell that Meg was on the verge of tears.

I’ve been thinking about ending it he said.

You’ve been saying that for months she said.

I’m closer to doing it now. It just takes time.

You know I’m not the jealous type. But it can be hard.

Everyone gets jealous. I’m amazed you’re not more jealous, actually. And it’s unfair for you to have to put up with my double life.

He took a bite from his sandwich.

And more than just that he said, his mouth mostly full. It’s unfair to everyone involved.

Meg didn’t say anything. She just looked down to half-conceal her disappointment.

 
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The next day was Sunday, and like every Sunday Jake and his father took their small boat onto Trinity Lake at five in the morning. As they cut across the lake the boat’s headlights bathed a slice of the still black water in a shimmering glow. On the other end they landed at Stoney Point, where they tied the boat to one of the emaciated stumps lining the lake and hiked along the terraced red clay to the mouth of the river. They fished for trout with silver spinners at daybreak and switched to copper ones after the light had spread across the water.

After a few hours they loaded the trout in the boat and sped off to the marina for coffee. They drank half and then poured in whiskey and went back onto the lake, trolling with downriggers at forty feet. They were hoping for salmon, though they rarely caught any.

Like always, once the coffee was gone they split a twelve-pack of Coors and talked into the afternoon. Rick knew all about Jake’s affair. He offered lots of advice. Back when things were starting with Meg, Jake had asked him if going further with her was wrong. Jake was expecting and perhaps hoping for him to say that he was crossing a moral boundary, that he needed to end things with Meg and save his marriage. But that didn’t happen.

When you get older you’ll see that the years of your life end up blurring together Rick had said. You try to recall a certain point in time, the details of what you did on a certain day or at a certain place, but you can’t tell one day from another. Everything’s just a hazy mess.

All the sudden Rick started coughing heavily. He didn’t stop until he spit something large into the lake. Then he went on.

Every now and then, though, something comes along that can bring things into a sharp focus he said. All the sudden every moment has meaning. Every choice you make, good or bad, is vital and life-changing and will stick with you forever. When I look back, I keep returning to the same four or five stretches where I was perched on an edge, where things could have gone wildly wrong or wildly right, where I truly felt alive. It’s almost like those are the only times that mattered. And I can say now that I wish I’d lived through more of them.

The answer stunned Jake. He’d grown up knowing his father to be dogmatic, stern. And in the months that followed, whenever they talked about Meg, Rick would always listen carefully and then offer sound advice that seemed to sanction the affair. Jake kept waiting for a rebuke, but it never came. He kept waiting for him to ask about Leanne, but he never did. Finally, after months of surprising encouragement, it dawned on Jake that his father must have cheated too. Years ago, back when his mother was alive. But Jake never brought that up.

Rick turned the boat into a cove adjacent to Trinity Dam. They pulled up to shore, tied the boat off, set their feet in the warm water, and leaned back in the boat, facing the angled wall of gravel and stone.

I don’t think I’ll ever come to terms with it said Rick, nodding toward the dam.

Probably not said Jake. You haven’t come to terms with it in fifty years.

I mean, three towns. Gone forever. All for a reservoir and some electricity.

He took a long swig of beer and went on.

I’ve never told you this, but seeing that dam always reminds me that when I die, and the handful of other folks my age die, the memories of those towns will disappear. It’ll be like they never existed.

Rick said this every time they came out here.

I know I’ve told you this story before, but I’ll tell it again he said. My dad was the last one to leave Stringtown. The whole town evacuated days before the flooding, including the rest of our family. But he wouldn’t go. He just sat in the living room, cigar in one hand and glass of whiskey in the other, until the water was up to his knees and he let us drag him away.

Jake had never heard this story before.

Old fucker was as stubborn as they come said Rick. But he had a point. Some bureaucrats uprooting the lives of real people for a shadowy greater good. There were a hundred places they could have built the lake, but none of us had a say at all. You know, I’ve always sympathized with the Indians.

Rick paused and looked up. Two towering semis were driving toward each other on the narrow road that ran along the top of the dam. It seemed impossible that they would both be able to get by. Rick watched expectantly and then sighed and took a drink when they passed each other without incident.

And I was only a kid he said. I had an easy enough time moving on to another town, another house. But I’m pretty sure that seeing his home get flooded killed my father. He’d done everything right, you know. Built a family, built a house. And it still ended up a hundred feet under water.

Rick leaned back to get the last drop of his beer and then he hurled the can into the lake. He reached behind him and grabbed a fishing pole from the boat, leveled it out like a rifle, closed one eye, and took aim at a spot on the water in front of them.

Right about there he said. That’s where we lived.

 
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Jake switched off his headlights as he took the final turn in his long driveway. There was some light from the front porch and some from the stars, but mostly he was driving blind. Feeling his way through the darkness, he turned the wheel just so, moved at just the right speed, waited to brake until he could sense that he was a few feet in front of the garage door. He always was.

He’d done this as long as he’d lived in the house. His first dates used to get interesting right around this turn, when he’d suddenly cut the lights, stop talking mid-sentence, and keep driving around the bend. Every time, his date would scream and cling to him. He’d finish driving, park the car, flick on the lights, and calmly explain that if she wanted to squeeze his arm, doing so while he was trying to steer them through total darkness was hardly the best time. They all loved that. When he tried it with Leanne, though, she threw open the door and stormed out. She sat silently on the ground for twenty minutes, looking off into the night at nothing. Finally she said that if he ever treated her like all the others again she was leaving.

All these years later, pulling into the driveway still made him think of her expression that night. A pretty scowl. And tonight, when he walked in the house, he saw the same frown on Leanne as she carried a pot roast to the table. Then he looked closer and saw she was just concentrating.

She set the pot roast next to plates of Brussels sprouts with bacon and baked beans and French-roll garlic bread.

You can take the leftovers to work tomorrow she said.

Jake looked at her with her checkerboard apron and her matching oven mitts and her hair tied back and he wondered if she’d ever looked so beautiful. He stood frozen in place, staring at her until she caught him staring. She smiled and sat down and he sat down too and they started eating.

I can’t promise there’ll be any leftovers he said.

Where are you tomorrow, again? she said.

The roof. Don Wilson’s roof.

I thought that was yesterday.

Jake choked on a Brussels sprout and took a hasty pull from his wine glass.

There’s still a bit left to do he said.

Leanne nodded and chewed her food.

How was your day? he said.

Fine. Quiet. Called my mom, so there’s half the day gone right there. Did the laundry. Mopped the floor. Dusted. Walked Maxwell to the fire station and back. That tired him out. He was napping all afternoon until he heard you at the door. And now he’s back at it.

She nodded over at the black lab. He was sleeping at the base of the sliding glass door, where the wood floor was still warm from the sun.

How’s your dad doing? she asked.

He’s fine. I had to hear another rant about the flooding of Stringtown. You’d think that after all these years...

Some people have an easy time moving on she said. Others don’t.

Just then Maxwell let out a sudden, deafening bark. Jake and Leanne both jumped and looked over. He was asleep, spinning himself in circles on the wood floor, kicking both his legs, panting. He barked again, quieter this time. Jake and Leanne both relaxed and laughed and took a drink and smiled at each other.

He thinks he’s chasing something she said.

Jake shrugged.

Maybe he’s being chased he said.

 
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Before he left for Don’s the next morning, Jake called Meg.

What a surprise she said. Is the wife out for the day?

She’s in the shower he said.

Wow. You’re really taking my advice to heart.

Don’t I always?

Where are you?

In the living room. Looking toward the hallway for when she comes walking out.

Does she take long showers?

Yes. But she’s already been in there for ten minutes.

You’d better hope I don’t talk your ear off.

No comment.

Well lucky for you I’ve got a lot to say. After you left on Saturday I started watching Lost. Martha lent me the DVDs. Have you seen it?

No.

It’s a little complicated but I’ll do my best to catch you up. A Boeing 777 is flying from Sydney to Los Angeles, and over the Pacific Ocean they hit turbulence. It gets really bad and the plane breaks in half and the central cabin lands on an uncharted tropical island. There are lots of survivors, and they’re all quite different. There’s Jack, the dashing back surgeon. There’s Charlie, the fallen rock star. There’s Kate. We don’t really know what her deal is yet but she’s pretty—

Oh my god. This is actually happening.

Is there a problem? Are you not interested?

I’m enthralled.

If you’d called right when she got in the shower this wouldn’t be a problem.

It took me a while to find the second receiver.

Okay, then I’ll get right down to business.

What does that mean?

What are you wearing?

A plaid shirt.

Mmmm, a plaid shirt. What else?

Jeans.

Mmmm, jeans.

Argyle socks.

Oh yeah baby.

You’re hilarious.

There’s just no way to sound aroused by argyle socks. I can’t do it.

I was kidding about wearing those.

I can hear you pulling them off right now.

Well Meg, Leanne’s coming out now. I’ll see you Thursday.

Hold on. First let me tell you about the flashbacks. Everyone on the island has them—

You’re welcome Don. I’ll see you in an hour.

Jake hung up the phone and hugged his wife.

 
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Later that week Jake and Meg made love on the back deck. Then they stayed out there, lying on their backs, their pale skin dappled with the light that seeped through the trees. Every so often a breeze would rush through and they’d pull each other closer, tighter. Jake told her that he lived for afternoons like this one.

The rest of the day they hardly said another word. They just lay there holding each other until Jake had to leave. He dressed slowly and mentioned that he didn’t think he’d be able to make it back until late the following week. He winced, waiting for Meg to protest, but she didn’t say anything. She just smiled and looked at him longingly. Her eyes showed only the faintest hint of regret.

She walked him through the house, still naked. Until next time she said, and she kissed him passionately and stood in the doorway and smiled and waved as he drove off.

 
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The next time they were out on the lake, speeding into the wind, Jake told his father that he needed to do something, that he felt torn in two, that he had to choose between the woman he’d married and the one he loved. The oncoming breeze seemed to pull the words out of him.

Rick nodded calmly and pulled the boat off to the side of the cove and cut the motor. There was no one else around, and once their wake died out the water became glass all the way to the far shore. Rick reached back and grabbed himself a beer.

Here’s my advice he said. Go with the one you love.

I know said Jake. Straightforward enough. But where does that leave Leanne?

She’ll be fine. She’ll take half of what you own and maybe move in with her sister and then she’ll meet someone else and go on living. She’s pretty and young and smart and won’t have a hard time of it.

I just keep wondering how she’ll manage.

She’s not helpless, you know. If you were leaving behind a kid that’d be one thing, but she can take care of herself. She survived before she met you.

I know.

Look. If you love someone else then you’re doing Leanne a disservice by staying with her. She’s living a lie and she doesn’t even know it. The only way to fix that is to let her go.

Rick had been saying this for weeks now, and Jake knew he was right. At this point the questions that were really on his mind were practical, not moral. How do you tell your wife that there’s someone more important than her? Should you hold your head up when you do it? When she asks how long you’ve been cheating, should you lie?

He reached into the cooler. Maybe another beer and he could start asking those.

Marriage is a funny thing Rick said. You know that by now, but what you don’t know is the way it changes when you become a parent. All your problems and disputes and achievements suddenly seem petty and embarrassing. All the sudden the two of you are living vicariously through another person. Your lives become so close you’re practically choking on each other, and you both know it’ll stay that way for years.

He finished his beer, tossed the can in the back of the boat, and went on.

What I’m saying is, whenever you decide to have kids, you’d better be damned sure you’ve got the woman of your dreams.

 
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He hadn’t planned on it, and he was already running late, but after he left the lake Jake drove to Meg’s. She answered the door looking confused and surprised and worried and relieved all at once. Before she had a chance to say anything he started talking.

I’m going to do it he said. I’m going to tell Leanne. Tonight.

Meg’s body relaxed.

Oh really? she said.

Yes. I’m going to tell her and end things with her and then I’ll drive over here. Then we’ll just take things one at a time. This has all gone on long enough.

Meg stood there for a while, watching his face become more and more nervous as the seconds passed in silence. Then she wrapped her arms around his neck and grabbed his hair and buried her head into his shoulder and held him tightly for so long.

It’s going to be okay she said.

There’s no going back now he said.

 
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It was perfectly dark when he pulled into his driveway. The wind had changed direction and was blowing hard from the north, bringing in smoke from a fire near Weed that blocked out the stars. Leanne had turned off the front porch light and was probably in bed. When he reached the last turn Jake switched off his headlights and drove through the pitch black night. Just before he made it to the garage there was a thud.

Right away he knew it was Maxwell. He dove into the space behind his seat and came up with a flashlight and got out of the car and shined the light on the driver-side front tire. There was nothing there. He heard the faint jingle of Maxwell’s tag against the collar, and he wheeled around and shot the flashlight in the distance just in time to see the dog sprinting away, terrified. Jake took off after him and ran through the trees for a quarter mile until the Maxwell was out of sight and the jingling had died away. Jake yelled his name over and over but he didn’t come back.

The wind had shifted again and the smoke was starting to clear. Jake turned off his flashlight. Under the moon and stars he could see perfectly well that the forest around him was empty.

As he walked back to the house he realized that if Maxwell ever came back he might not be his dog anymore. Admitting that he’d hit Maxwell sure wouldn’t help his case. But he would do it. He would tell the truth. All the time. Starting right now. Starting with Meg. It was the only way forward.

So he took a deep breath and closed his eyes and stepped through the doorway with purpose, walking straight down the hallway to the bedroom, where Leanne jumped up from the bed and ran to him and hugged him tighter than she ever had before and pulled him close and whispered in his ear that she’d missed her period again and taken a pregnancy test and would he guess what it said?

 
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Ian Delaney's writing has been published in Twisted Vine, the Rumpus, and Byzantium. He lives in the Bay Area and works in publishing.

Act of Love

Michael Backus

“These are pit toilets,” she says, standing outside his car window, tapping her foot, drumming her fingers on the roof, and waiting like she expected a solution. Right now, this second, chop chopwas how she said it and maybe how she meant it.

He takes a deep breath. That’s how things have been between them for six weeks now, she says something and he finds any way he can to avoid saying what only two months before he would’ve said without a second thought. 

They’ve stopped at a rest area on Interstate 80 in western Nebraska, a landscape of gentle swells with the occasional patchwork field of sunflowers or sorghum giving scale to the seemingly endless fields of wheat. Back when this trip still belonged to him, he’d planned to be off the Interstate by now, cutting diagonally north towards South Dakota, but her presence was an unexpected complication, and anything that holds the faintest whiff of enjoyment for its own sake feels crass and unimaginable in her company. Not that a little old-fashioned fun wouldn’t be good for the both of them, but they are way too skittish and defensive with each other to allow anything approaching a shared intimacy. It is as if they’ve both reached an unspoken agreement that to breach the wall of hostility that’s developed between them would be an embarrassing acknowledgement of a complete lack of will and to simply split would show an equally humiliating inability to persevere. So they continue in limbo, sleeping in the same bed each night while carefully making sure no parts of their bodies touch. Only late at night, when one or both of them have fallen asleep, do they drift back together—well-worn material finds its natural shape—and they frequently wake up holding each other. On the night before they left on this trip, he’d even pushed things a bit, lifted her night shirt and pulled down his shorts until they were skin on skin, then he’d reached around and she’d opened her legs to accommodate his hand, but when he whispered “Baby” in a plaintive tone full of desire, regret, grief, need—in short, everything he’d been feeling since it had happened—she’d gone board stiff and folded into herself. Then she got up and showered. 

 
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“I do appreciate the heads up, honey,” he says, struggling to find a neutral-sounding response to her toilet crisis. 

“I don’t care about your heads up,” she says. 

 “Uhhh, OK. Is there an implication I’m missing?” 

“I don’t care about what you’re missing. I refuse to use a pit toilet, that’s all.” 

“No es problemo,” he says in what he hopes is a close approximation of a generous tone. “We’ll just find a gas station.” 

“I don’t want your fake good humor or your stupid Mexican accent. And I don’t want to spend hours driving out here looking for some filthy gas station toilet that smells even worse than a concrete hole full of human shit. Besides, I can’t wait.” 

“I don’t know what you want me to say.” 

“Say? God, nothing. Nothing at all. Just come with me and keep watch. I’m going in the woods.” 

“Woods?” 

“Fuck, Bobby, please.” 

“But I don’t see a tree. I haven’t seen a tree in like, hours.” 

 
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Back when it happened, there was a moment when he thought things were going to be OK. She was sitting up on the kitchen floor, blood outlining the spaces between her teeth with this feral grin on her face—and he flashed on a vivid image of the two of them naked and flailing away at each other while her blood rose on the air like a mist and settled over them, spurring the intensity of their coupling. This vision lasted only a couple of seconds, but in that time, he saw a new path to the promised land, a re-invention of near-Biblical proportions. Yes, he thought, I’ve delivered a long-overdue psychic re-adjustment to our relationship—the tension is finally broken and we’ve been released to walk hand in hand (so to speak) to the next stage of our life together.  

The come-down to reality from those few seconds was about as hard a fall as he’s ever taken, and in the six weeks since, it’s those moments that have haunted him, even more than the punch itself. If he’d finally found a way to announce himself as both brutal and clueless, it is the monumental size of the misread that makes him wonder if there is any point in trying to hold this relationship together. It may be why he stays too, though he’s lived long enough to understand that certain motivations are better left unexamined. 

“Big problems require bold gestures,” he’d said to her in one of his many attempts to explain himself.  

“Is that really what you think? That we were having big problems?” she said. “I thought we were fine and if you really think we were having big problems, then I’ll know we weren’t actually okay, and I just didn’t see it.” 

Was she right? Wasn’t serious relationship strife a given in a situation where a man who hasn’t raised a fist to another person, male or female, since he was twelve years old hauls off and decks his girlfriend? Wasn’t that the very definition of a big problem? And as he thought about it, he realized the answer very well could be no. Things had been mostly good between them. They were getting along as always with each other and most of the time, he was glad she was around. It’s true they didn’t much discuss the things most five-year couples in their thirties discuss—marriage, kids, the future—and it’s true he’d been thinking some lately about where he’d be in ten years—where he’d be living, what he’d be doing—and that she wasn’t always a part of his imagined future. But sometimes she was, maybe more often than not. And he wasn’t at all sure if any of that added up to even a problem, much less a big one.  

“I know what’s going on now,” she said. “I know we’ve got big problems now. But then? So tell me and tell me the fucking truth because I really need to understand how you were thinking about us then.”  

 
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Gloria and Bobby met as people on the respective fringes of two large social groups brought together when the central person in each became involved with their counterpart. Interaction between the groups intensified after the original couple, Darlene and William, got married and Gloria and Bobby found themselves at the same parties, dinners and outdoor barbecues as often as once a week. Maybe it was inevitable—they were both thirty and alone and almost all their other friends had coupled up by then. Whatever the reason, they slid into it easily, taking a vacation together at two months and moving in at six and for the next two years, social get-togethers came along at a steady pace. As a couple, they were much more integral to the social group than they ever had been as singles because the dinner and cocktail parties tended to be couples only. They were never considered one of those fated couples (like Darlene and William) who appear to have spent their entire lives waiting until they met the other. There was nothing ordained about their coming together—“Gloria and Bobby” was a phrase rarely used to signify a single entity and for the first two years, others in the group acted surprised each time they showed up together, as if their continued coupling was spoiling some long agreed-upon group evaluation, as if they were only delaying the inevitable. Over time, Gloria and Bobby used this as a way to bond with each other, to pretend theirs was an outlaw love, opposed by all, understood by no one but themselves. 

They don’t know us, she’d say. They don’t see us together when we’re alone and hanging out. 

When we’re having fun, he agreed. Fooling around, making dinner, cleaning our place, watching TV. That’s where real lives are lived. 

What they don’t know could fill ten books, she’d say. 

A hundred books, he’d say. A thousand. 

Darlene was the first in their group to get pregnant and right on cue, the other couples followed, all but Gloria and Bobby, their childless status seemingly verifying what people had been saying all along: that they weren’t serious, that they stayed together because it was easier than splitting, that they were both frightened of being alone, a charge that tended to bring out a defensiveness in them.  

Who isn’t? Bobby said one late night. 

Right, Gloria said. Who isn’t afraid of that? Everyone is. 

Not that he didn’t sometimes have his doubts. Before Gloria, he’d been in love twice—at least love was professed eagerly and often in both cases—and he’d had two long-term relationships besides those, and with all four women, there’d been an intense and amazing physical passion that lasted anywhere from two months to a year. It was like a living thing with a will all its own and it couldn’t be denied even if they wanted to. And even long after he’d settled into a perfunctory type of sex life with these women, the fact that he’d been able to have that initial round of passion made all the irksome tics, dishonesties, and stupidities somehow tolerable. He wasn’t completely sure he even liked a couple of the women he’d loved, but he trusted the physical, trusted the body understood something the mind did not.  

But Gloria and Bobby had never been that way with each other. Sex the first time was fine and within a week, they had settled into a routine typical of a long-term couple, something she seemed to take comfort in, as if she was relieved to be past that edgy, impulsive first stage and into a more dependable place. Sex was never a chore and over time, it became much better than that. It still is, or was until six weeks ago. What’s more, he reckons they’re well in the upper percentages sex-frequency-wise for five-year couples their age, but still it festers. That sort of early relationship lust is something no one can ever take away from a couple, and people—maybe lots of them…maybe most of them—build long, unhappy marriages from it. Bobby understands the argument that his and Gloria’s is the better way and that judging a long-term relationship on sexual passion in the first few months is sophomoric and male in the extreme, but still it festers. And now, he has to ask himself, if they were incapable of that sort of passion about each other once, how did they manage to work things up to the point where punches were thrown? That was the real question and God help him, he did see a glimmer of hope in it. Maybe they never have fucked like animals, but at least they are finally acting like them. Or he is, anyway. 

 
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He’s only barely paying attention to the road when it happens. It’s that kind of highway, that kind of night with a mist heavy enough that distant lights appear as grainy yellow smudges floating above an invisible horizon line. He can’t remember the last time he passed another car and with Gloria either asleep or pretending to be for hours now, he’s settled into a state where he forgets for long minutes he’s even driving and sometimes, he imagines he’s pulled back on the steering wheel, lifted the front end and drifted off the road, bushwhacking his way cross-country, rising over the hills and floating high above tiny wooden model ranch houses surrounded by plastic trees.

The thud itself sounds under water, distant, like it only barely has anything to do with him. He has an awful thrashing moment like a quadriplegic coming out of a dream of motion, his body refusing to respond, and he reacts as a man buried alive might, arching his back, whipping his head, kicking his feet, his body writhing, arms flailing—he may even have screamed—and yet somehow as he brings everything to a stop in the middle of the highway, Gloria finds a way to continue sleeping.

 
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The punch had really been in two steps—their anger management counselor continues to insist on calling it two punches—the first a simple pop to the face, then while she teetered, he stepped forward and shoved her to the ground, the back of her head banging hard against the refrigerator. It happened so fast it was over before he had any chance to think. After it became clear she wasn’t going to leave him over it, the push to the floor (Gloria preferred calling it a push too, perhaps because she was embarrassed to have been punched even once) became a central issue. Lashing out in anger once is understandable (if unacceptable, as their court-appointed counselor quickly pointed out, as if Bobby might take the counselor’s continued silence as tacit approval of the single-punch method of relationship readjustment), but a second violent act immediately following the first constituted something much more calculated and disturbing (goes the theory). It was the shove that convinced him to seek movement at all costs—his job, their apartment, his probation, their relationship all hung in the balance—to keep driving until he found a space where what he felt that night made sense. It isn’t what Gloria thinks and it isn’t what their counselor believes. It isn’t the shove that scares him—the shove was one of the most heroic things he’s ever done, a triumph of common sense over enraged fury. What he hasn’t told anyone, what he’s fearful of admitting even to himself, is that he pushed her to the ground because in that instant, he felt ready to punch her again. And again and again. He’d stepped over an invisible line and for one terrifying and exhilarating moment, he wasn’t sure he wanted to step back. He was like a drowning man who decides to give up the horror of the struggle and just let go. All his life, he’s been drawn to real-life tales of paralyzing tragedy and grand adventure, of people who seek danger or have danger thrust upon them, people who find ways into a place with real consequences, where life hangs in the balance. He imagined these moments of adrenaline as pure and empty where every bit of baggage we all carry—the anxieties, doubts, weaknesses, desires—flees screaming in anticipation of impact. What he finds amazing isn’t that it felt pretty much like that—it did—but that he is even capable of experiencing real danger, much less causing it. Some part of him—tiny, he hopes, he isn’t a cruel person—is thrilled he found a way to work himself into a state where he hauled off and decked someone he loves. Yes, he thinks, I do love her, though he can’t deny he’s partly come to this conclusion because of the punch, i.e., he must feel strongly about her to do what he did. He knows this isn’t rational thinking.  

Understandably, he’s been hesitant to confess all of this to Gloria or to their counselor. They might change his diagnosis from neurotic to psychotic, and all the energy and attention would shift away from what is going on between them to what is going on within him. His way of working through it was to plan this trip, take some time and space apart from each other—set the dials back to zero—something he was sure she also needed, except the day before he was to leave, she decided to go along and he wasn’t comfortable even attempting to mount an argument against it. 

 
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He jams the shifter into park and is out on the roadway in a flash, the way someone might exit a burning car, sucking up great gulps of air, trying to calm himself. He moves in the opposite direction of whatever thudded, straddling the center stripe of the highway. He’s unable to see the highway divider line or even his hand in front of him, but still he keeps walking, reassured by the solid feel of asphalt under his feet. His heart rate slows, his breathing turns shallow, his stomach calms. Well behind him now, the car and its headlights have been nearly swallowed, appearing to be no more than a fuzzy dot on an endless vacuum-black canvas. Even the stars have been blotted out. The silence seems as absolute as the darkness until he becomes aware of a general din that’s everywhere and nowhere, like the sound leaves make in the barest breeze. Feet shuffling through grass! Dozens of feet, seemingly on either side of the highway—something is out there and though he knows no animal grazing these fields has any interest in him, the sense that he’s adrift and surrounded pushes him back towards the car. 

Still, he’s hesitant to just get back in and continue on. With Gloria seemingly committed to sleeping through the rest of the trip, being inside the car is just as oppressive as being out and at least out, he’s able to move about. He believes she’s realized it was a major mistake to come and has decided to bail and drift into her own world, aided by Dramamine and a steady ingestion of his Vicodin, a remnant of a particularly nasty root canal episode he was going through at the time of the punch and push. In fact, he believes the throbbing pain he was feeling in a top left molar and his growing frustration with a dentist booked weeks in advance—he’d fit Bobby into fifteen-minute slots, shoot him up with Lidocaine, scrape out the top of the blown nerve, and seal it up, a fix that lasted about a week—had a lot to do with him lashing out, though he’s smart enough not to push this as an excuse. Like a potential parolee, he figures he has no hope of getting out unless he takes complete responsibility for his crime.

One thing’s going to change, he decides on the walk back: he’s not going to allow her to just sleep her way through this entire trip. Scream, curse, leave, all are preferable to the suffocating silence. He leans in through the window. 

“Wake up, baby, we’re going to get this thing going right now.” She’s not there. 

"What are you yelling about?" Gloria says, somewhere in the dark behind the car.

"I’m not yelling. Nothing at all. I’m ready to go. Whatever’s back there is dead. We should go before more come." 

"Before more come? What the hell? She's not dead. Get over here." 

"No." 

"She's not dead. You ran her over." 

How would you know, he begins to say, then thinks better of it. “I didn't mean to." 

She shines a flashlight first in his face, then towards the fence where there’s a brown, lumpy shape sitting in spotty roadside grass. 

"Have you been crying?” she says. 

"No... well, no." 

"Come here." 

“No.” 

“Bobby?” 

He steps gingerly towards her. The animal isn't dead, it's a deer of some kind, its entire body leans hard on the bulging fence, outlining little square patterns of gray fur. Its beautiful head lies flat on the ground, the strength of its breath moves blades of grass but its legs are askew in odd twist-tie directions, its body mushy and broken. Gloria slowly strokes the animal's head and the deer takes it though its eyes remain wild, its rear thighs tensing and contracting but the legs are broken in so many places, it makes no difference. Gloria cries quietly above the animal, she shifts her head so her tears fall onto the deer's mouth, the deer moves its tongue in response to the salt. 

"We've got to do something. Put her out of her misery," Gloria says in a cracking voice. 

In the distance two lights appear, pale and separated against the growing dawn. They seem to float high above the horizon like a ghost ship. Or a UFO. Great, Bobby thinks, a close encounter. That's perfect. 

"Goddammit Bobby, you hit her, figure something out." 

"Something's coming, some sort of, I don't know, it’s like a ship or something. It's fucking freaky." 

"It's a truck. Wave it down. Maybe they'll have a gun." 

Slowly, the lights drop gracefully to ground level and the truck materializes out of the darkness. Bobby waves, the truck slows. The driver leans over and rolls down the passenger window. 

"Problem?" The man has a thick gray beard with a rim of tobacco brown around his lips and a filthy hat too small for his head. The truck is a flatbed, caked with a red dust. A hairy white dog rides on the back, its legs splayed, braced against the wind and movement. 

"I hit this animal," Bobby says. 

"We just want to put it out of its misery." Gloria approaches the truck. "You got a gun? Maybe you could do that for us." 

"Did you slow down before you hit it?" the man says.  

Yeah, of course, Bobby thinks, do I look like some sort of monster? I mean, I would have if I'd been looking. 

"Yes, of course, I got on the brakes hard.” 

"There's yer problem. What you need is to accelerate, lift up your front end, and suck that animal right under the bumper. Do that and everything will be fine. The animal will be hamburger and nothing will happen to your car." 

"But this animal is still alive," Gloria pleads. 

"Car OK?"

Bobby nods his head.

"You remember what I said. Accelerate. Done it dozens of times myself, my old truck's never spent a day in the shop." 

"But this animal is still alive," Bobby says. 

“Please,” Gloria says, openly crying now. The man looks at Bobby, then at Gloria, a moment’s confusion passes over his face.

“You sure your car’s OK?” he says. Bobby can only muster a single nod. “Well, then, you folks take care." The dog wags its tail in anticipation of leaving, mouth open, tongue lolling in what appears to be a smile, face aimed into the coming wind. Then the man's off, pulling a curtain of black with him. 

"A knife, you used to have a knife," Gloria says. 

Good God, Bobby thinks, she wants me to slit its throat. "At home," he lies. 

"We got some rope?" 

"I got my table leg in the back. But no way I'm beating this thing to death. You can if you want, just give me some warning. I don't want to see that.” 

"If we got her to the road, we could run over her head," Gloria says. But she's trembling and her voice comes out a series of retches. He makes her sit up on the trunk of their car and he carefully wipes her face. She leans one hand on his shoulder, he buries his face in her neck, she grabs a handful of his hair and opens her legs so they can get chest-to-chest.

“Oh sweetie,” he whispers. 

“I don’t know anything,” she says, still crying. “Anything. I don’t. Nothing at all.” 

“Me either.” 

“Don’t,” she says. 

“But I don’t.” 

“Please, Bobby. Please.” Using his thumbs on either side of her face, he pulls her hair behind her ears, she keeps her chin down so he can’t look at her. He kisses the top of her head, then her forehead, then her nose. He runs his hand under her shirt, lightly touching her bare back along the length of her spine, she shivers. He lifts her chin and leans in and kisses her on the lips, using his tongue to push inside. She doesn’t stop him and even returns the kiss, but when he’s done, he knows it’s the wrong thing at the wrong moment. Worse than that, he realizes no more than thirty seconds ago an opportunity had presented itself, and he not only failed to recognize it, he’d made things worse. He leans back to give her an opening, hoping she won’t take it, but she does, completing a half turn to free herself. She approaches the deer, careful not to shine the flashlight in its eyes, and he knows there’s nothing for him here. He walks to the front of the car, scoots up on the hood, and settles against the window, head on the roof so he’s looking straight up, the warmth and vibration of the running engine a comfort. The top of the sun clears the eastern hills and begins gobbling the night. Dots appear high overhead against the brightening sky, circling as if caught in an ocean current, birds on the wing maybe. Or retina floaters. The radio has been giving regular updates on a major forest fire north of Yellowstone. Soon he’ll feel the sun on his face, he’ll find out if they’re close enough to see the Montana fires.

 
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It was their two-year anniversary gift to each other, a driving vacation through France, the morning of their last full day and he was already up and out; fluid levels checked on their rented Renault, croissants and coffee on the dash, engine running, parked in front of a non-descript pension in an odd nothing of a town, Ronchamp, half a day’s drive east of Paris, two blocks of dreary fifteenth-century storefronts mostly unoccupied, three children in uniform pushing a metal hoop with a stick, a scattering of locals, none under sixty, sitting and smoking, and piped in accordion music played through tinny horn speakers on every lamppost. The night before when they’d arrived, the music was less funereal, though still tilting towards the depressive, and several grown men appeared to be chasing cars and barking madly, an oddity that was never explained, mostly because Gloria and Bobby didn’t speak much French and the pension manager spoke even less English.

When she emerged—day pack, sensible hat, brown shorts with hiking boots, showing plenty of those wonderful, tan legs—he knew something was up. She leaned in, kissed him on the forehead and turned off the car, pocketing the keys. 

“This is a day hike, Drivey Boy. Gloria and Bobby power only.” After Bobby made a big show of changing shoes and obsessing over what to bring, they walked right down the middle of the street, and if Bobby was antsy and squirmy, tugging at his clothing, and feeling tiny rocks in his shoes, Gloria sold the hike from the beginning, eating her croissant and sipping her coffee, smiling, waving, and most annoyingly, getting smiles and waves back from the grouping of surly geriatric Frenchmen guarding the town’s single café, the same men who ten minutes before had gone silent then hyper-talkative when he entered the café. On the way out, he was pretty sure one of them hooted.  

Five minutes and they were out into the French countryside and while Bobby kept up a veneer of complaining—when Gloria insisted on getting a photo of him standing next to a World War I battlefield marker, he said, “If they can’t even bother to cut the weeds so people can read it, why should we want a photo?” —he felt comfortable here. So like where he grew up in a small, hilly section of glacial moraine in southern Indiana called Swedish Hills—a patchwork of weedy fields broken up by small groves of trees, well-defined fence rows and wooded mounds, some big enough to be called hills.

When they reached Cathedral Hill, the highest in any direction, there was clear as day a winding road leading to the top. Bobby tried to control himself—he was being a pill and he knew it—but couldn’t resist saying, “Thank God we didn’t drive, the France rural highway weed and trash tour sure was worth it.” She flipped him the finger and kept going, finding a little dirt path that switchbacked its way up the side of the hill, so steep and overgrown in places they had to pull themselves up tree to tree. At the top, Gloria emerged with legs bloodied, Bobby sucking air behind.

But the cathedral! He’d never seen anything like it, sitting in the expansive flattop of the hill, like a looming ocean liner about to take flight with two curving roof lines coming to a prow and a tower that resembled nothing so much as a modernist farm silo. It was the most outrageous building he’d ever seen, plopped down in the medieval French countryside. Inside, a priest with arm brace canes made his way around the altar with a lurching grace, lighting votive candles with a shaking hand and chanting to himself. Light streamed through windows set back in beveled openings—blues, reds, stained glass, clear—filling the space with warm, watery color, evidence of a fervency and faith so all-consuming, it was like stepping into a time before science and reason, when Gods and monsters ruled the earth.  

They sat on a pew for an hour, not talking, holding hands, and outside, still in thrall, they found a derelict trellis with overgrown grapes and ate their lunch in the grass. He carefully removed her boots and socks, rubbed oil into the bottoms of her feet and between her toes, she read aloud the opening chapter of The Ginger Man, he cleaned the scratches on her legs with a bandana wetted with drinking water, kissing each when done. Busloads of tourists arrived, parents set up blanket picnics in the long grass, children ran barefoot, the cathedral bells rang out. Gloria sat between his legs, her back to his chest, his hand resting just inside the waistband of her shorts, tickling her pubic hair, threatening to go further. Clouds to the east cleared, revealing the shadow line of the distant Alps, sunlight reflecting off tiled rooftops spread out far below them. They both felt pleasantly adrift, lost in time, two blips on an infinite temporal landscape, the coming together of this exact moment a product of a million small things happening right after another million small things. 

 
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Gloria cries out, thick and wet, and Bobby is on his feet and charging on instinct before gaining control and slowing near the back end of the car. In the growing light, the deer seems to be rocking up and down, trying to stand. Righting itself. Could it be that he was wrong about the animal? He only took a quick look and he’s surely no expert. Maybe it was just stunned and now, head cleared of cobwebs, it will struggle to its feet, gather itself, and make a graceful leap over the fence and join all the other shuffling animals. He moves closer, determined to be at Gloria’s side for the blessed event.  

She’s not there. On the ground is a single shaking brown hulk, rocking and moaning, the beam of her flashlight slicing the grass around her. 

"Help me, you asshole," she says. 

She has her arms around the deer's neck, and an absurd shiver of jealousy runs through him, then he realizes she's choking the animal.  The deer shudders and shakes but really isn't putting up much of a struggle. 

"Please, Bobby, I'm not strong enough." She's gagging and crying. He can't imagine a time when he'll ever be ready for something like this. In an instant, he understands something about Gloria and him. He's not up to it, it's as simple as that. He's not up to her. He backs up, turns, he doesn’t want to see this. Light touches the far horizon, the smoke from the distant fires revealed, rolling out in immense, curving waves, the wind gathering it into a single contrail aiming north. It has a catastrophic scale, like a mushroom cloud or a supercell storm, a signal that the world is turning over. Or has it already flipped? A million small things happening after a million small things?  

Slowly, slowly, he moves to her, wraps his legs around hers, his chest tight against her back, his cheek touching hers, using his face to wipe her tears away, feeling her push back into him, clasping his hands together around hers, around the deer's neck, locked in a beautiful three-way embrace. With a heartbreaking delicacy, she moves her lips to his and together, they choke the life out of the poor broken creature.

 
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Michael Backus’ writing, fiction and non-fiction, has appeared in Okey PankyOne Story, Exquisite Corpse, Digging Through the Fat, Prime Number magazine, Hanging Loose, The Writer, The High Hat, The Portland Review, and The Sycamore Review. His short story “Coney on the Moon” is slated for publication in early September 2017 in an upcoming Redbird chapbook and a novel The Vanishing Point will be published in 2018 by Cactus Moon Publications.  He taught film studies and creative writing at Marymount Manhattan College in New York City and currently teaches beginning and advanced fiction writing for Gotham Writer’s Workshop and Zoetrope Magazine. He can be followed @MikeJBackus and more information is available at his website here.

Freeze

Grace Lanoue

The forty-two-foot humpback whale washed up on shore last Wednesday. Robbie Bauer says it’s a sign. Molly Newbury claims that it will be perfect for our ritual. Growing up in rural Georgia, I’ve never seen a whale up close before, dead or alive.

At dark, the three of us walk down the beach toward the whale. I walk fast to keep warm, but the cold seems to freeze my muscles and joints.

“Keep up, Southern Belle,” Robbie says.

I shine my flashlight on the ground and keep my head out of the wind. I use my light to follow Molly and Robbie’s foot tracks. The crystalized sand cracks under the weight of my purple boots. We must be close to the whale because I can smell it. Oddly it’s an odor similar to the frozen tilapia my grandma used to buy and thaw on the kitchen table. Robbie must notice it, too.

He inhales loudly and says, “Yum.”

“I can’t smell anything,” Molly says. “I can barely feel my nose.”

The blowing wind dries out my eyes. I squint to see a giant gray mass in front of us. Half of the carcass rests on the shore and the other half rests in the surf. My flashlight scans the whale a couple times, like radar. The monster completely blocks the view of the shoreline beyond. Standing near it, there is a sound of a hundred vibrating phones.

“I thought flies hibernated in the winter,” Molly whispers.

I don’t answer because I know very little about hibernation or winter.

“Molly,” Robbie says, “you notice the dumbest shit.”

The police have erected a perimeter of yellow caution tape connected by wooden stakes. The three of us stand behind the tape, looking at the whale. I stand level with the whale’s eye. If I were to roll into a ball, the eye and I would be the same size. The eye is a round, black gelatinous orb; the gel coating reminds me of the slime on cooked okra. I feel a strange urge to poke it. I shine my flashlight into its pupil, but all I see is black. Robbie finds a rock and throws it at the whale’s side; it makes a thud sound.

“Frozen solid,” Robbie says.

 A thin coat of snow has collected on the whale’s back. I’ve seen pictures of whales in the ocean before and they are easily identifiable. But here, this whale, lifeless on the shore, has lost its shape. It is reduced to a giant blob. If it wasn’t for the tail, the eye and the news report, I don’t think I’d recognize it as a whale at all.

“It’s huge,” Molly says.

“Bet it’s a got a huge dick,” Robbie says.

“It’s a girl,” I say.

“How do you know, Whale Whisperer?”

“The news said so.”

Molly is shining her flashlight on one of the whale’s fins; she is wearing one red glove and one yellow one. Molly is here because she believes in this sort of spiritual shit. Molly’s parents are both fifth-generation Wampanoag, and Molly is their only child. Both of her parents are lawyers, and they live in a normal house with a black Lab named Lucy and own two Volvos. Despite how wealthy they are, Molly prefers to wear jean overalls from the Salvation Army, not shave her legs and smoke organic cigarettes. Molly Newbury was born and raised out here; she is what you call a “Vineyarder.”

“We had to pick the coldest night to do this?” I ask.

“Kate, soon the warmth will come,” Molly says. She always says things like that; ominous statements that could be from a fortune cookie or a Yogi Tea tag.

“This thing is a beast,” Robbie says.

As I look at the whale I imagine being that size.

“Have you ever seen one alive?” I ask.

“Never.”

He crosses under the caution tape and pokes at the whale with a stick he found on the beach. Robbie Bauer is also a Vineyarder and you can tell the moment he opens his mouth. No “R” sounds at the end of his words, which is unfortunate considering his full name is Robert Alexander Bauer. Robbie lives with his father, the head chef at Alchemy, one of the five-star restaurants on the island. Often, Robbie skips school to help with prep work if the restaurant is hosting a wedding or a food critic is in town. 

I am the only one who is not a Vineyarder. My family is originally from a town an hour outside of Atlanta. I am the only girl living on island who is from the South. There is a boy in the eleventh grade from Maryland; Vineyarders also consider him to be a Southerner. Moving here, I had anticipated the bitter cold, but no amount of the Weather Channel prepared me for how quickly the autumn turns to ice. Winter comes to Martha’s Vineyard all at once. There is no transition. The wind cloaks empty beaches and coils between shops that are asleep until the summer months. I was prepared for the cold—I was not prepared for the emptiness that came with the cold. When the cold arrives, other things leave. The tourists leave. The “Open” signs on shop windows leave. The plants and animals leave. Even the sun leaves.

“Let’s see what we’ve got,” Molly says, unloading her purse. She pulls out a bottle of bourbon, a bag of ice, and a knife. She turns to me.

“Salt?” she asks.

I was in charge of getting the salt. I pull the cylinder of Morton’s Kosher Sea Salt out of my backpack and hand it to her.

“This whale is perfect for this sort of thing,” Robbie says.

Robbie doesn’t have any Wampanoag blood, but he says things with such piercing authority that people believe him. He’s agreeing to do this ritual because Conner was his best friend. Robbie told me that the Wampanoags believe the only way to cleanse yourself from a sin is to drink the blood of a whale and to do the same act to yourself; typical “eye-for-an-eye” mumbo-jumbo. According to the Wampanoags, if you hit someone you need to drink whale’s blood and then let someone hit you back. Just two days after Conner died, the first whale in ten years washed up on shore. Both Molly and Robbie agreed it was a sign.

I take a sip of the bourbon and tighten my jacket around my shoulders. I am here because Robbie and Molly are my only Vineyard friends and because Conner is the first person I’ve known to die, not like an old person, like a person-person. A person before his time. Conner was my friend too, even though he died only months after we met. Despite not knowing him very well, I can’t forget the last image I saw of him wading into the dark Atlantic fully clothed, with an orange inner tube around his waist. His arms out stretched, dragging his fingers through the water as he walked, leaving two paths of ripples behind him.

“Don’t you feel so connected to Earth right now?” Molly says.

I don’t. “Yes,” I say.

“My balls feel connected to my stomach right now,” Robbie says. He tilts the bottle of bourbon up over his head and into his mouth. He swallows and then coughs.

I don’t believe in ceremonies or rituals and the native Wampanoag Indians have never fascinated me. I guess I need to be a Vineyarder to understand. The only thing that fascinates me is the whale. On her throat there are deep ridges and grooves. There are bumps along her nose the size of baseballs. I’ve heard that humpback whales can live fifty years. I imagine how old this whale is.

“How are they going to get her off the beach?”

“Chainsaw,” Robbie says.

Something about the way Robbie pronounces the word chainsaw sounds like the way Conner used to talk. The night Conner died the four of us gathered at this same beach with similar bottles of alcohol; anything we could pinch from our parents’ liquor cabinets. I have no idea how, but Conner scored a whole case of whiskey that night. We all clapped when he walked onto the beach with it. Conner didn’t even like whiskey.

“This will be therapeutic,” Molly says. “We will all feel purified.” 

“Purified with a permanent scar,” I say. 

“Like a tattoo,” Molly says.

The plan is simple. We’ll all freeze, just like Conner did. Not die or go in the ocean, but rather freeze a tiny piece of our skin using salt and an ice cube. We had all played this game many times; sprinkle a little salt, place a piece of ice on top and see who can withstand the pain the longest, before the freezing burns your skin. Then we’ll drink a little bit of the whale’s blood, wrap ourselves in blankets, and fondly remember our friend. This would be our ceremony. According to Molly, and Robbie approving with the occasional head nod, this will bring back the “eye-for-an-eye” balance. For some reason, this makes sense to me. More than anything, I like that it will be something that only the three of us will share. 

Robbie continues to poke at the whale with the stick. He makes a joke about the Wampanoag spirits as the wind blows off Katama Bay. Molly tells him not to joke about shit like that. I look at Robbie and smile to let him know that I appreciate the joke. As the temperature drops, the smell becomes less strong. I look at the whale’s remains, then look at Robbie. His face is pale and his expression is hardened. He already looks frozen.

“You fuckers ready?” Robbie asks.

I take another sip of the bourbon and hand it to Molly. She shakes her head. I think about taking one more swig but Robbie pulls out a piece of paper from his pocket and starts to speak:

“We are all here to honor Conner Wilson, who was taken too soon. We are here to share a little of his pain and to show our love. In the way of the Wampanoags we will freeze, drink whale blood and wash clean of this sin.”

Robbie motions to me for the salt. I give it to him.

“Hold out your hand,” he says.

“Mine first?”

“Okay, fine. Molly give me yours.”

“Don’t mess up,” she says.

He pours a tiny salt mountain on the back of Molly’s hand. Then I extend my hand and he tilts the cylinder of salt over it. Lastly, he frosts his own outstretched arm. In a circle, our three arms converge in the middle. 

“Ice,” Robbie says. While still balancing the salt mound, Molly uses her other hand to open the bag of ice. The temperature has dropped enough that the pieces of ice have started to freeze together in clumps. She punches the bag a few times to break them up. She hands everyone a cube to hold. Robbie explains that we need to keep the ice on for at least five minutes. We don’t know how long it took Conner to freeze, so Robbie makes up a time that feels reasonable. Molly sets her watch.

I hold the ice cluster above my mountain of salt.

“On the count of three,” Robbie says.

We all count together, “One. Two. Three.”

I carefully place the ice on top of the salt. It slides off the mound a little. I push it back. At first I don’t feel anything. I just concentrate on balancing the ice. But soon, I feel my skin start to harden and tighten, the way it does just before it splits.  Instinctively, I want to pull away. There is a gradual piercing chill. Though I cannot see it, I know that the top of my hand is starting to burn, crack and separate. Nothing burns quite like the cold, not even fire. The others must start to feel it too, because Robbie cuts the silence.

“For Conner,” Robbie says, and I picture the first time I met Conner. He called me a wash-a-shore. He was born in Connecticut and moved to the island at age three, so he wasn’t a true Vineyarder, but he was more of a Vineyarder than me and he reminded me every day.

“For Conner,” Molly says. I remember how silent classes were the day after his death and how none of us knew who to blame.

“For Conner,” I say.

In this moment, I feel like the whale is watching us and will come to life. I am waiting for her tail to flip up and thud into the water, creating a splash that will soak us all. Halfway through the five minutes, we all start to laugh. We laugh because the pain has gotten severe and we are afraid to see the damage underneath.

“This fucking hurts,” Robbie says.

“This is a dumb idea,” I say, but nobody removes the ice.

“I don’t think the Wampanoags ever did this,” Molly adds.

“They were too busy trying not to die,” I say.

“Didn’t do them any good,” Robbie says.

We talk and laugh some more because we are afraid and nobody is willing to admit it.

“Can you believe the Wampanoags lived here without any heat?” Molly asks.

“They must have drunk a lot,” I say.

“A lot of whale blood.”

Molly changes the subject: “You know the Wampanoag were the first to smoke organic cigarettes. They also invented the first sailboat and anchors.”

“Really?”

Robbie laughs, “Yeah, they also bred the first whale by mating a dolphin with a giant squid.”

“Assholes,” I say. 

“Do you think if we stab the whale, blood will just pour out?”

“It’s probably frozen.”

Robbie smiles and says, “Bloody ice cubes.”

Molly’s watch hits five minutes, we brush the salt and ice off our hands and briskly run down to the shoreline. We drop our hands under the frigid water to sooth the burn. We all clutch them close to our body, trying to freeze the pain but not wanting to seem weak. Molly pulls out the bourbon and we all take a swig. We compare scars.

“Yours looks awful,” I say pointing at Robbie’s hand, but it could just be his light Irish skin.

“My parents are going to kill me,” Molly adds.

“You’re hardly burned,” Robbie says when he looks down at Molly’s hand.

“Really?” she says. “Look at it.”

I shine my flashlight over Molly’s hand, “It’s pretty bad.”

“Not as bad as Conner’s face when they found him,” Robbie responds. He glares at Molly, takes another pull from the handle of bourbon, swallows and wipes his mouth with his sleeve.

The morning after Conner died, the Edgartown Coast Guard found him floating in Wasque Bay. He was frozen clinging to an orange inner tube; he still had his shoes on. They pronounced him dead on sight.

The back of my hand starts to bubble and the skin is raw. It needs to be cleaned and bandaged. The cold wind tunnels through the sand dunes. I shiver.

“Let’s just throw Conner’s stuff in the ocean and go home,” I say.

“You in a rush?” Robbie asks. “We have to drink the whale blood too.”

“We didn’t bring cups.”

“Stop being a Princess, we don’t need cups.”

It is getting late. Across the bay, house lights start to go out one by one. I imagine the people in the homes warm, resting by a fireplace. I told my parents that I was going to the movies tonight knowing they wouldn’t call and interrupt. The wind howls as it sweeps over the whale, almost giving it life. Right now, a heated movie theater with a bag of hot popcorn on my lap sounds pretty good. Above me, the stars in the sky look like snowflakes.

“Let’s do shots,” Robbie says.

“I don’t need a shot, I already feel drunk,” I say.

“Lightweight,” Robbie takes another slurp, smiling.

“I’ll do one,” Molly says.

Robbie laughs, “Alcoholic.”

Molly flips him off. They each hold a bottle in their unburned hands. They clink the bottles together and say, “For Conner” before taking them to their lips. Molly takes one sip, wipes her mouth and puts the bottle down, but Robbie is still gulping. When he finally brings the bottle away from his mouth, he shakes his head and shouts, “Go Sox.”

We all laugh. The throwing of the items is not a traditional Wampanoag custom but we all agree it is a nice touch. Robbie has Conner’s lucky white Bic lighter; Molly has Conner’s favorite New England Patriots keychain. I don’t own anything of Conner’s, so I brought a random note Conner and I passed in Geometry class. We didn’t pass notes often; this particular note was from the day before Christmas break. Conner started the note by asking me if I planned on going home for Christmas. He used the word “home” instead of “Georgia,” but I knew what he meant. Even though my family had sold our house in Georgia and bought a new home on Martha’s Vineyard, everyone still referred to Georgia as our real home. The note is on an old, folded up piece of lined paper. The sections are written in green and blue ink, his handwriting in blue, mine in green. Nothing important is written, just making fun of Mr. Murdock’s tights pants. “Khaki spandex” Conner wrote. Conner often picked on people who were different.

Most of Robbie’s words are lost and muffled by the sound of the waves and the wind, but the last part I hear.

“Conner, man,” Robbie says, beginning to slur. “Conner, man. Is frozen.”

The wind needles my face with crystal spears of sand swept from the beach. All I can think about is my warm bed at home. Robbie takes the white lighter and throws it into the same water that killed Conner. Molly and I follow suit. Watching the items hit the water, sway and then slowly start to sink makes everything feel eerie. The lined paper sinks immediately, the keychain and the lighter float for a while. Even though the moon and the stars provide plenty of light, we use our flashlights to follow the items in the surf. We all stand and watch, passing the bourbon bottle down the line, then back up again at a glacial pace. The bottle is getting lighter and lighter.

“I feel centered and at peace,” Molly says.

“That’s just the bourbon,” Robbie replies.

I don’t look at Molly but I can hear her tilt bottle into her mouth and swallow.

“Conner is dead,” Robbie says. “I should have stopped him.”

“He was drunk,” Molly adds.

“Why was he in the water?” I ask.

“I don’t remember,” Molly says.

“I remember joking about going in,” Robbie says, “but I was only joking.”

I don’t remember why Conner ended up in the water that night. I remember Conner, I remember the orange inner tube, but I don’t know why we had it on the beach or who brought it. I remember Conner wearing a green Red Sox cap. I remember we tried to start a fire but failed. I remember the burn of the shots of whiskey. I remember Molly running naked down the beach, her skin bright red from being exposed to the cold and Conner’s face bright red when he saw her. I remember moments, flashes, and bursts of laughter but never words. Words got lost in the cold.

“Why?” Robbie says looking out into the distance. “Why did this happen?”

Molly shrugs and shakes her head. “He didn’t realize he’d freeze.” 

The wind is making that nipping noise as it blows off the surf. In the distance, there is the bleak groan of a foghorn. Robbie is holding his knife. He is facing the whale. I can only see his back. With one hand he starts to poke at the whale with the blade. The whale is frozen so Robbie’s knife makes a tapping noise with each stab, as if he were chiseling into an ice sculpture.

“What are you doing?” I ask.

“Whale blood,” he says.

He starts chiseling into the flesh faster, but nothing is happening.

“That’s not going to work.”

“You want to try?”

Robbie hands me the knife. I hold it, tilting it back and forth, letting the blade pick up the light of the moon. I trace my finger along the blade to feel how sharp it is. To me it feels pretty dull. At first, I adopt Robbie’s chiseling technique and try to start a tiny hole in the whale’s stomach. I am getting nowhere. I wonder if the whale can feel it.

“Put your back into it,” Robbie says.

I stab into the whale. Only an inch of the blade goes in. From the light of the moon, I can make out the crisp outlines of Robbie’s jaw. He is laughing.

“That all you got, Southern girl?”

With both hands, I raise the blade above my head and lunge at the whale. This time the knife goes deep into the flesh, all the way to the handle.

“Fucking awesome,” Robbie says.

“Jesus, Kate,” Molly says.

“I’m sorry.”

“No. Keep going.”

With both hands I wiggle the blade out and stab the whale again. It feels good. I start hacking away until the chips of ice that come out are not clear but red. Molly shines her flashlight on the whale ice chips; they look like the shavings of a cherry snow cone. I keep going, deeper into the whale’s stomach. Soon, the ice chips become liquid. Blood starts to leak out of the hole. The whale is slowly draining.

Molly stands next to me and runs her finger in the blood, then licks it. She does it slowly, like licking frosting off a cake. She touches her red finger to my mouth. I press my lips together as if she were rubbing Chapstick on them. It tastes metallic and fishy. The smell of thawing tilapia is back. Robbie walks to the whale and puts his whole face in the hole. When he comes out his chin is covered. In the dark, the blood is more blue than red, Robbie’s hands are now covered with the blue color. Both Robbie and Molly are silent, swallowing more.

Blood continues to pour out of the whale and into the ocean.

“Drink more,” Robbie says nodding toward the whale.

I lean in and let my tongue touch the river that is trickling out. Molly is making a weird humming noise. Robbie has the knife in his hand. I feel like he might stab me or the whale might swallow us. In this moment, I feel ridiculous and hope that no one is watching us. I think about going home, but something about the metallic taste on my tongue makes me stay.  

I finger at the blood and swirl it around until I’ve got enough. My finger touches Molly’s forehead and draws a line across it like war paint. The three of us start to draw lines under our eyes and down the bridges of our noses.

Robbie takes off his hat. He claps his hands together and blows into them to stay warm. Then he collects a pool of blood in his hands and runs the liquid through his hair. Molly is silent but she starts to take off her jacket. Slowly she removes her gloves, her scarf, her shirt and her pants. Soon, she is standing in the shadow of the whale wearing only her underwear and bra. She starts to cover all her pale skin with blood. It looks like she is lathering soap in the shower.

Robbie looks at her and nods.

Robbie starts to untie his shoes. The wind manages to find all my exposed fingers, flesh, and ears. Everything starts to slow down. I unzip my coat. I unbutton my pants and wiggle out of them. The color of my legs matches the color of the sand. I unbutton, unzip, and unclasp until there is nothing left. Naked, I walk to the whale and begin to coat myself in blood.

Now, it is completely dark outside, the light of the moon is hidden behind a patch of clouds. The wind blows another gust off the shore.

Blood continues to bubble out of the whale. We stand in the pool that has formed below the hole in the whale’s flesh. Together we coat our skin. I feel Robbie’s hands smear liquid across my shoulder blades. There is an exposed spot on Molly’s thigh, I paint it red.

“Come on, Kate,” Robbie says and extends a hand for me.

I take it.

We leave everything at the beach with the whale, the sea salt, the remaining bag of ice, the flashlights, the knife, and the two empty bottles of bourbon. The three of us hold hands and walk to the shore. The first wave bites my exposed toes. We are connected by hands, when Molly and Robbie move, I move.

Tiny waves slap against the sides of my ankles. I don’t even remember taking that first step. The distance between us and the whale grows with every second. On the open water there is no shelter from the wind. The coat of blood on my skin has seemed to dry. It has become hard and cracked, the way wet mud dries on your skin. When the dried blood touches the Atlantic water it returns to its original form. The red liquid slides off.

Robbie has become an ice sculpture in the surf. He is gazing at the Atlantic in front of us.

“It doesn’t even feel cold,” he says.

 Without a word, Robbie lets go of my hand and submerges himself in the water, making small waves as he goes in. He gasps and spits. Another splash and Molly is in, too.

“Come on, Kate,” Robbie says.

I don’t answer. I’m not underwater yet, but I feel like am. The sounds in the world have dulled. My breathing has stopped or at least slowed down. I don’t see Robbie and Molly anymore nor do I hear them. I think about the whale. How beautiful she must have been alive, swimming in the ocean. I wonder what killed her. My body slowly sinks under the surface.

Underwater, I feel large. I am no longer my small human size. My eyes are massive and gelatinous. My arms are long and flat and I let them rise and fall in the water. Relaxed, I glide through the ocean. My legs fuse together into one massive tail. With a slight tilt of my hips my body cuts through the water, forward, out into the Atlantic. My powerful figure pushes though the sea with ease, as I drift out into the dark.

 
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Grace Lanoue holds an MFA from the University of Tampa. Her fiction has been published in BridgeEight and Underpass Review. She is a native Floridian, though her stories are mostly inspired by her childhood years on Martha’s Vineyard, MA. She loves nachos, hates tacos-- this makes life complicated. Similar to her culinary dilemmas, her writing explores complex relationships, discovers meaning in the arbitrary, and works to find truth in the absurd.

Trunk of Crows

Chelsea Bartlett

Rachel rested her head against the coarse bark of the tree limb. This day was her favorite kind of day: hot sun, hot air, cool tree under her hands. And sky so blue she wanted to swim up into it. A cloud shaped like a pirate ship sailed above her.

She had been climbing trees, she thought, for almost as long as she’d been able to walk. It was something she knew and had always known she was good at, because the boys at school teased her about it. The tree limb she had settled on was too big for her. If she sat with her legs on either side of it, after a while they began to hurt. If she lay down across it, the bark bit into her skin. She had to keep moving to stay comfortable.

She turned her head to look at the picnic blanket below and the little crowd of people on it. Her family: dad, stepmother, grandma, grandpa. Two blonde heads, two gray heads. They looked simple from up here, and Rachel thought that if she were given a pop quiz right now on what they were thinking or talking about, she’d get a 100% easy. Was her grandmother A) annoyed by whatever Rachel’s dad was saying, B) trying to pretend she liked picnics when really she hated everything that happened outside, C) telling Rachel’s stepmom how to do something she already knew how to do, or D) all of the above?

People, Rachel thought, were like mirrors, reflecting everything on the inside back out again. Boring. Not like her crows. Crows were special, and complicated. They had to be learned.

Placing her palms firmly against the limb of the tree, Rachel pushed herself up and turned onto her back in one liquid motion. The sun was in her eyes in this position, but she didn’t mind. She was glad not to be part of the group below.

 
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Monica had packed as many bologna and ketchup sandwiches (Rachel’s favorite) as she could jam into the old picnic basket, and now, sitting on a quilt spread in the shade of the one tree in the field, she wished she hadn’t packed so many. The sandwiches were non-negotiable—they were the only reason Rachel had agreed to come on this picnic even though she’d just spent the morning shopping for new clothes with her grandparents. Still, Monica wished she’d thought to pack something else for the grown-ups. “They’re a bit squished,” she said, passing them around.

Fred, her husband, took one without a word. Bill, her father-in-law, said, “Thanks, Mon.” Elaine, mother-in-law, took one and said not to worry about it. Rachel was busy climbing the tree.

Monica wanted to see how Elaine would like a bologna and ketchup sandwich, but gratification was delayed.

“What has Rachel been doing outside of school, Monica? Extracurricular activities are important for well-rounded children,” Elaine said. She could never pass up a chance to remind anyone in the vicinity that she had been a schoolteacher for thirty-five years, and that therefore she was a veritable saint.

Elaine always called Monica “Monica,” even though Bill always called her “Mon.” Monica had no particular preference—Monica versus Mon—and she bore Elaine no ill will. But she did wonder whether that feeling was mutual.

Monica took a bite of her sandwich, felt the cool ketchup escape into the corners of her lips. She brushed it away with the back of her finger and chewed. Elaine finally took a bite too. Of course, she didn’t get any ketchup on her wrinkled, dignified face.

“What have you been up to these days, Freddy?” Bill said around a mouthful of bologna, even though no one had answered Elaine yet.

Bill liked to talk, and if too much time passed without the sound of his voice, he rectified the unfortunate situation. Monica liked him more than she liked Elaine. She liked the way he was gently antagonistic toward Fred. She felt someone ought to be, and she had no interest in doing it herself. Bill’s question was a jab, though a loving one. Fred had lost his job seven months back, and while he was looking, he was not looking especially hard.

He took the question in stride. Fred was good at that sort of thing. He derived his self-worth mostly from things he created—like the cabinets he’d built for the kitchen, or the garden wall he’d put up last spring, or Rachel—and not from society’s expectations, or his parents’, or his wife’s.

“I’ve been building a hope chest,” he said, “for Rachel. It’s a thing of beauty.”

“A thing of beauty,” Monica said, half because she was trying to agree with him more often and half because she thought it was funny when he used old-fashioned sayings like that.

Fred glanced at her but otherwise ignored her.

Bill said, “I didn’t think people still used those.”

Elaine said, “They don’t.”

Fred said, “It’s a good bonding activity for the two of us.”

Monica looked up. Rachel was lounging on a limb several feet above them, one jean-clad leg swinging.

“Does Rachel help you?” Elaine wanted to know.

“She designs, I build.”

“Rachel designs?” Bill said. He had a rectangular face thanks to his wide jaw and cheekbones, and his nose had been a bit purple ever since he’d had a heart attack a few years ago. He looked like the kind of man who could be anyone’s grandpa, but it was hard to imagine him as a dad. Especially Fred’s dad.

“Rachel is a very talented artist,” Monica said before Fred had the chance. Fred would say something like, “Rachel makes cute little drawings and I translate them into the wood.” Fred often downplayed Rachel’s talents, not out of any malice, Monica thought, but perhaps more from a subconscious jealousy. Monica didn’t feel that it was fair for Rachel to suffer for her father’s insecurity.

“Oh?” Elaine said. “I’d like to have a drawing of hers for our refrigerator.”

“Rachel’s drawings are usually a little dark,” Fred said. “Not exactly fridge material.”

“I’m not sure she’d give one up, anyway,” Monica said, unable to resist the jab after watching Elaine eat her bologna sandwich without spilling or smearing any ketchup.

Elaine gave an elegant little shrug.

“How do you mean, dark?” Bill said.

“You know,” Fred began, gesticulating in circles with his right hand, holding his sandwich in his left. “Graveyards, old houses, that sort of thing.”

“She’s going through a Gothic phase,” Elaine said. That was how she said Gothic—with a capital G. “She should read Wuthering Heights.”

“She’s eight, Mom.”

“She’s very fond of crows,” Monica said. “They’re in almost all of her pictures.”

“Not to mention the backyard.”

Monica crunched a potato chip.

“The backyard?” Elaine said.

“Rachel feeds them,” Fred said. “Every morning, apparently.” He pointedly did not acknowledge Monica as he spoke. “So they hang around. We can’t get rid of them now. We’ve tried everything.”

Monica had known about the crows for some time, but Fred had only become aware of the extent of the “problem” since he’d lost his job and didn’t need to leave so early in the morning anymore.

Feeds them?”

“Worms, mostly. Sometimes table scraps.”

“Get the girl a dog, Freddy, Jesus,” Bill said.

“They bring her little presents.”

“What kind of gift does a wild animal bring? The corpses of mice?” Elaine asked.

“Bits of string, little beads, that sort of thing.”

Monica looked at her picnic basket, still so full of sandwiches. It would be impossible to eat them all. Their scene in the mid-afternoon park glared with color. She lay down, her head resting on a pillow of grass. Rachel, in her place on the tree limb, was a dark silhouette against the sun.

 
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Fred would never have imagined himself sitting on a picnic blanket with his parents and his kid and his second wife. Rachel sprawled above their heads doing he didn’t know what—talking to the birds, probably. His mother and Monica exchanged precise, barely-there insults.

One of the reasons he’d wanted to marry Monica was for her whimsical nature. It was so much the opposite of his first wife. But everything about Monica opposed Stephanie. Monica had princess-long, blonde hair; Stephanie had kept her brunette hair chopped short. Monica’s chaos in the kitchen was alternately endearing and frustrating, whereas Stephanie knew exactly how to do what she wanted to do, and what she wanted was all that mattered. Monica was soft and curvy where Stephanie had been all planes and angles.

He wouldn’t say he regretted the picnics, but he was coming to realize that there was something to be said for practicality. When he’d married Monica three years ago, he hadn’t realized that she would be more interested in her new position as Rachel’s stepmother than as his wife. This sounded selfish, he knew, but Rachel already had a mother and didn’t really need a second one, as far as he could tell.

Now Monica was sprawled across the picnic blanket, Rachel was lounging in the tree over their heads, and his parents were seated—his mother cross-legged, his dad leaning back with his long legs stretched out in front of him—on the other side of the blanket.

“Why don’t you come down and spend some time with your grandparents?” Fred called up to Rachel. But he only half-called, really, and Rachel didn’t give any sign that she’d heard. The truth was he knew he ought to want her to come down, to talk to his parents because they had come to see her, not Monica and him. But as painful as things were down here on the picnic blanket, it was easier without Rachel there. And Fred loved his daughter. He wanted to save her from the stifling feeling of the picnic blanket. He knew she’d rather be up there, and didn’t envy her the morning she’d just spent with his parents. Better that she stay safely up in the tree, where none of the tension of the adult components of her family could touch her.

“Tell me more about this hope chest,” his mother said.

Fred took a bite of his bologna and ketchup sandwich. Monica couldn’t find her way around a kitchen with a map and a headlamp, but it was sweet that she tried for Rachel.

“It’s beautiful,” Fred said. “I’m making it mostly with a good cherry wood. Rachel picked it out because she liked the color, but I made sure to get a good quality. We’ve been working on it for a while now. It’s very important to Rachel. I want to make sure it’s done right.”

Rachel did have a fondness for the chest, though she didn’t seem to understand its purpose. Fred wasn’t sure why she liked it so much. It was just a big trunk, really. But it gave Fred something to do. He made every effort to make the work last, because he didn’t know what he’d do with his time when it was finally finished. The trunk kept his hands and his mind busy.

“Rachel has an architectural mind,” Fred said. “She knows the exact measurements of the chest and she draws her pictures to fit it. Her drawings are advanced for her age, considering she’s never had any particular training, outside of school art classes.”

Fred noticed that his father’s eyes had closed. He wondered what the old man was listening to, since he was sure it wasn’t his little speech about Rachel’s hope chest. The park was quiet today, a Tuesday afternoon. The sun lay heavy on his shoulders. He could still taste bologna and ketchup. A bee floated around the picnic blanket but nobody moved to shoo it away.

 
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Elaine knew that Fred and Monica found her tiresome. At seventy-three, she had been around long enough to recognize when she grated on the nerves. She had also been around long enough not to especially care. She was here to see her granddaughter, and for whatever reason, her granddaughter was being kept from her—suspended high above, like the princess in a fairy tale. Elaine supposed that made her the witch, and if that was the case, she would play her part, if not happily then at least with relish.

“Does Rachel understand what a hope chest is?” she asked, quite sure she knew the answer already.

Fred shrugged a shoulder. “Not really,” he said. “She calls it her crow trunk.”

“Her trunk of crows,” Monica said dreamily from her place lying down on the picnic blanket. “She calls it her trunk of crows.”

Elaine thought that this was fantastically witchy, and for a moment she imagined herself crawling into her own trunk of crows—to make mischief or to rest, she neither knew nor cared. Both held a certain appeal.

Fred laughed a short, tight laugh. Elaine was overcome with a sudden liking for Monica, something that had happened occasionally, and more and more often lately. But she didn’t feel as though she could say this, so she settled for interrupting Fred again.

“I would like to see it,” she said. “Have you got any photos on that smart machine of yours?”

Fred tapped on his phone a few times and then started to reach out to Elaine but held back at the last moment. “Remember it isn’t finished yet,” he said.

“I’m sure it’s lovely.” Elaine took the phone from his hand. The screen had gone black and it took some poking to bring it back to life, but once she did, she found that Fred had not been overselling himself. The hope chest was beautiful. The woodwork had clearly been painstakingly undertaken and, whatever his motivation, it was obvious that the chest was important to him.

But Rachel’s designs—they captivated Elaine. Composites of simple shapes, they conveyed movement and detail that made them seem lifelike. A crow might be little more than a curved breast, a straight line down with a little flair for the back and tail, and a sharp triangle for a beak, but its tiny circle of an eye stared out of the wood, through the phone, and into Elaine’s own eyes like it knew exactly what was going on behind them. Somehow Elaine knew that this straightforward gaze had come from Rachel’s hand rather than Fred’s. Fred was not a direct kind of person.

“Do you encourage her?” Elaine said. “She is very talented.”

“Of course we encourage her.”

Elaine held the phone out toward her husband. “Do you want to see, Bill?”

Bill opened his eyes for the first time since he had finished his sandwich. He looked at her and didn’t say anything but they’d been married so long they had passed through true love, through friendship, and into symbiosis. He didn’t really care about Rachel’s hope chest, she knew, but it would be easier just to take the phone and look at the picture. He did this.

Bill’s expression changed slightly as he looked at the photo on Fred’s phone, eyes narrowed. His eyes had been growing foggy for months now but he refused any surgery that might help, convinced that it was better to have eyes that didn’t work than no eyes at all, which would be the outcome if he let anyone near him with surgical tools. Elaine watched his jaw slacken slightly, and creases of joy grow up around his eyes. Where Elaine had been delighted by her granddaughter’s artistic images, she knew Bill was taking pleasure in his son’s craftsmanship. Fred always talked as though Bill had never offered him a single encouraging word, but Elaine could translate Bill’s gestures, his facial expressions, to find the affection in them. Fred’s inability to do the same frustrated her, so she usually kept her translations to herself.

“That’s a good bit of work,” Bill said, and handed Fred back his phone.

Fred grinned, a boyhood smile, and Elaine felt pinpricks of old affection light up like stars through her body. This was her family. Now, when she felt herself to be on her way out, she lived on the edge of irritation with them all the time. She was afraid she hadn’t taught them enough, she thought. But they were hers; she made them. And for every flaw for which she felt responsible, there was a moment like this one.

 
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Bill kept his eyes closed as much as he could these days. They didn’t work right anymore anyway, but it wasn’t just that. It was also that things grew harder and harder to look at. Not to see—that was a separate issue—but to look at. Elaine’s features seemed to be shrinking on her face. Her shoulders were wilting. The color drained from her skin like the world was a sponge slowly sucking the life out of her, which in a way was exactly right. Everything around Bill seemed to be falling into disrepair: the house, their relationship with Fred, even the cat had been looking frumpier than usual.

What no one other than him seemed to realize about this picnic was why they were all at it in the first place. Maybe Elaine didn’t even really understand. She knew about the cancer being back all right, but maybe she hadn’t thought about what she was going to say. Maybe she was trying to convince herself that she didn’t need to say anything. She’d avoided telling Bill for as long as possible, but you couldn’t know someone for decades, share a house and a bed with them, and keep secrets, no matter how much you might want to.

“Why a hope chest?” Bill asked. Once he’d given Fred his phone, he leaned back again. He let the silence stretch for several seconds, hoping that Elaine might take the opportunity, but when she didn’t, he felt the need to nudge things along. If he let it stay quiet, he would probably fall asleep, and there was no telling what he might wake up to later on. So he kept his eyes closed and he let the sun touch his face with its too-warm hands, and he resolved to indulge his over-indulged son for a little while longer.

“I liked the idea of making something that Rachel could take with her, into her future.”

This sounded like bullshit to Bill, though he was sure Fred believed it.

Fred talked for several more minutes about his pet project. Bill didn’t listen, and he suspected no one else did either. Of course he cared about his son, but Fred didn’t top the list of priorities right now. Fred seemed to sense this, and as a result he’d become more assertive—a change Bill failed to find endearing. So, Bill listened to the insects that passed over their picnic blanket. He listened to the rough scrape of the rubber soles on Rachel’s sneakers against the tree bark overhead, to the click of Monica’s fingernails as she tapped them against the picnic basket. He listened to Elaine breathe beside him.

Soon he would only hear that sound, familiar as that of his own working lungs, through the help of a respiration system. Instead of smelling the sweet heaviness of summer air, it would be a barrage of chemical cleanliness and the desperate desire to mask the scent of death. Instead of blanket and green grass beneath the length of his body, he would feel the press of a lumpy cushion on his back and linoleum beneath his feet. And Elaine would be the one lying down with her eyes closed. It came to him that this might be the last time the two of them were ever close together outside.

“What do you think, Dad?”

Bill hummed a question.

“About the wood? Do you think I should have gone with something else?”

“I think it looks fine,” Bill said.

“Do you think it would have been better if I’d gone with mahogany?”

Elaine’s elbow jabbed Bill right beneath the ribs. With the pain there seemed to come a spreading sadness. Maybe it was just because Elaine was dying, and their son had no idea, but his stubborn refusal to give Fred more than the bare minimum felt suddenly childish and cruel where before it had been justified nonchalance.

“I think it’s perfect as it is,” Bill said. He could practically feel Elaine’s satisfaction floating over the warm breeze and brushing by him. Not that she ever gave Fred any truly glowing praise, but he suspected that it was more important to her to fix things between him and their son before she left than to fix things for herself.

Bill opened his eyes just in time to see Fred smile.

“There’s something we need to discuss with the both of you,” Elaine said then. She had always been a bit dramatic.

Monica sat up. Bill had closed his eyes again and didn’t see her do this, but he felt the picnic blanket shift. He took a deep breath and released it. The tension had heightened but he felt relieved that the waiting was over. He had a guess that when the end did come, it would feel much the same way.

 
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What a lot of people didn’t think about was that there were bugs in trees. Rachel felt something tickle across her arm and lifted it to see. A little bug—not an ant or a spider, she didn’t know what it was—marching merrily down her forearm. She thought about brushing it off and letting it fall onto the picnic blanket below her, but for the bug’s sake, she instead tilted her arm so that it would walk back onto the tree.

Rachel didn’t mind bugs. They weren’t her favorite, and it didn’t bother her at all to feed them to other animals who liked to eat them, but they didn’t scare her or upset her like people thought they should.

As Rachel was thinking this, a bird circled far overhead. It dipped suddenly lower. When she squinted, she could make out the fan shape of the tail. Definitely crow. She raised one hand in a salute to her forehead, shading her face from the sun. If this was one of her crows, it might come to her.

With a series of graceful swoops, it made the descent from the sky toward the tree. Rachel sat up again, letting her legs hang down on either side of the tree limb, just in time for the crow to land in front of her. It stood side-to and didn’t turn to face her, but cocked its head anyway. Crows were good listeners. Usually, though, Rachel liked to be quiet with them.

She regretted freeing the bug now. Fortunately, in a tree, bugs were easy to find. It only took her a moment. Snatching it, she held it out to the crow, which didn’t wait a moment to snap it up. It didn’t even nip her fingers.

Rachel liked to watch the crows eat. It was much neater than when humans did it. They didn’t chew very much, just snipped a couple of times with their sharp beaks and swallowed. Rachel felt that people could learn a lot from crows.

With the bug devoured, the crow tipped its head toward Rachel briefly and then turned its gaze down toward the picnic blanket on the ground. Rachel had almost forgotten her family. She leaned forward to look at them too, but the clicking of taloned feet quickly brought her attention away from the blanket and back to the tree. The crow had given up observing the goings on below to edge closer to Rachel.

In its beak it held a bit of blue string. This was a gift, Rachel knew. Crows had very strict rules about etiquette. She had given it a bug, and it didn’t want to leave without giving her something in thanks. Where the crow had procured the string, Rachel could think of nothing likely. Crows were kind of magical that way.

“Thank you,” she said, and reached out to pluck the string from the crow’s beak. She expected to watch it fly off then, but it didn’t. It stood still, the light reflecting on its black feathers and glowing a deep blue for just a moment before it turned its head again to fix Rachel with one perfectly round eye. This was Rachel’s favorite thing about crows: how they could look at you, and you knew they were really looking at you because they never wavered, and you could look back but see nothing at all. The crow’s eyes were black and expressionless. Rachel knew it recognized her, even had thoughts about her, but there was no way to know what it saw.

She looked back down at her family. Something had changed below. Her grandmother sat straight, her legs crisscrossed. She looked the most like herself out of everyone.

Monica, who Rachel liked very much, was sitting up straight with her legs crossed. Her dad was holding his own hands in his lap and it looked like someone had pulled the corners of everything on his face down, like the sides of his mouth and eyes were on backwards puppet strings. Her grandma was talking but she was too far away for Rachel to hear what she was saying. Her eyebrows were close together, her mouth closed in a firm line. She looked like she was using what Rachel thought of as her teacher voice. And her grandfather was lying on the blanket the same as before. At first Rachel thought he must not be paying attention, but then she saw that every few seconds he turned his face away from the others and brushed one fingertip under his eyes, real quick like he didn’t want anyone to see. He was crying, she realized, which was something she couldn’t remember ever seeing him do before. No one else seemed to notice.

Suddenly Rachel felt as though the people below her weren’t her family at all—as though she didn’t even know them. They seemed more like her crows, in that moment, than like people. She found that she could not begin to guess what they might be talking about, what their expressions might mean, what could make them all so serious and sad. They sat separate on their square of picnic blanket, not speaking or touching, and she saw for the first time that each of them was a box unfinished—carrying their own secret life, and following their own secret purpose.

 
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Chelsea Bartlett is a recent graduate of the Stonecoast MFA program on the beautiful coast of Maine, where she was born and raised.  She believes in the magic of quiet moments and well-told stories.  You can read more about her and her work on her blog at chelseadgbartlett.tumblr.com.

Under the Weight

Derek Lazarski

Monica’s daises in the wood chips that lead to the front door of the house had previously been, even to the casual passerby, a visual snare. Stunningly beautiful, near literally. The petals burst open in shades of gold that appeared proud to be alive, while the dignity of the purples would command a solemn restriction at the back of your throat. She was so happy with them, she was considering, on Cheryl’s recommendation, to display them at the county fair.

Of course, they are all dead now. The second story of the house fell on them.

It happened in stages. The first collapse happened six hours ago, at 12:08 p.m., about fifteen minutes after the crew working on the swimming pool in the backyard headed to McDonald’s for lunch. That’s when the soil finally lost its integrity and the foundation at the back of the house gave way into the gaping hole in the backyard, which had been totally cleaned of dirt just the night before. The back end of the would-be-rectangular swimming pool stretched from a few feet off the back patio out to within ten feet of Lake Meredith, the man-made lake at the heart of Meredith Estates in unincorporated Oswego, Illinois. Being that close to the lake and displacing three hundred tons of soggy soil robbed the already-cracked foundation of all its leverage, and the soil eventually caved, taking two back decks, a ten-person hot tub, and a 52” stainless steel grill all with it.

The gradual pace with which the back of the mocha-hued plaster house spilled into the backyard surprised the onlookers. With a tall arching kitchen window next to a pair of wide bay windows where the family room overlooked the lake, the whole back wall was glass, making it appear to those filming from their decks or boats as though a twisted glass face was slowly ripped off like a rubber Halloween mask. As the debris tumbled into the yard, the floor within snapped somewhere from the weight, also dumping two bedrooms and the weight room upstairs out onto the backyard and into the swimming pool.

When writing his report a month later, the waste disposal manager would have to resist the urge to make a joke about the weight room being exceptionally heavy. After Dennis’s last major promotion four years ago, he told Monica it was time to work the gut off, which is one of those things that people say every five years anyway, but this time it had $16,000 worth of exercise equipment attached to it. Thirty years of beer, since his sophomore year at St. Ignatius, had made his midsection a beach ball, and he’d never wind up at the gym on his own. If he went out of the house it was to watch a game at a bar.

So he installed his own fitness center a floor above the kitchen. They had two treadmills, an elliptical, a stationary bike, and a 40-exercise home gym that was a quarter of a ton itself. Not to mention the old 60” projection big screen that was in the family room for nearly a decade until Dennis finally badgered Monica into letting him spend $5,500 on the flat screen. The new TV’s 65” LCD panel put the hulking old projection TV to shame, which was sad considering how the now-ancient thing blew the kids away when they first bought it. And it was still fine to watch when Dennis was exercising, when he did exercise, which is to say when he’d get home from work early enough to not feel like cracking a beer and sinking into the Lay-Z-Boy right away.

Two years later, after they purchased all the equipment, he was on one machine or another once or twice a week, but everything below his chest was still big and soft. At this point Monica knew she could never argue, or otherwise coerce, Dennis into exercising, but she could at least take solace in the fact that Michael still used the equipment upstairs to train for football, and Claire would be on the treadmill training for softball, especially when Monica would tell her that she would buy her the dress she wanted if she worked herself down to a lower size.

Though with one of them in college and the other there soon, their time in the weight room was growing shorter. Michael had been at Michigan State for the last two years, where he tried out but didn’t make the team, and after Claire graduates this May she’ll be headed off to Notre Dame in the fall, hopefully to play ball. Following the fallout from the house, there are emotional points over the summer when they’re unsure if she’ll go, but of course she will. Though when they finally figure it out financially, she will be up for a week worrying about the future debt she now cannot escape.

The garage followed the house collapse unexpectedly quickly, sending everything in its storage attic crashing down on the Jeep, caving in the roof and blowing out all the windows. Dennis’s tools and the basketball hoop and folded-up ping-pong table were all crushed as well, along with the riding mower and Dennis’s Harley, which was for Saturday mornings and Sunday afternoons when football wasn’t on. Of those things above the garage that came down were Monica’s eighteen bins of Christmas decorations, Dennis’s extra two sets of golf clubs, Michael’s golf clubs, which he’d only used four or five times, plus seven bins of clothes that Monica had never thrown or given away, always afraid that she and Claire would put the weight back on and fit back into them, and thirty-five or so boxes of magazines: Dennis’s Sports Illustrateds, her old Good Housekeepings, a few Peoples, a couple stacks of Reader’s Digests (only the best ones), and some plastic bins packed with old copies of Highlights, Nickelodeon magazines, and years and years of Punisher comics. It was always possible someone else would want to read them. A grandchild, perhaps? Perhaps her daughter, once Claire learned to enjoy reading? Who knew when they would be worth something?

Of all the thoughts Monica will have in the next few weeks, thinking of all the magazines she had will, unexpectedly, make her cry the most.

The day they moved in was one of the most exciting days of her life. Knowing the house was all hers made her glow. She had made an excellent choice in Dennis and she was rewarded. The house was one of the first in the subdivision to be built, finished in 1990, and the Bonnerbruck family moved in ten years later, before the kids started middle school where their parents knew they’d make plenty of new friends.

That day, amid all the craziness, was the first time the possibility of a pet was mentioned, and the idea refused to leave the children’s heads. So their first weekend in the house, after they got all the furniture where they wanted it and just had random stacks of boxes to unpack, Dennis’s flares of anger finally abated to Michael and Claire’s constant pleading. The next weekend they went to the animal shelter and came home with Amber, a young golden retriever with wide eyes whose personality was always hanging out of her mouth. In the sun, her long coat shined like clean copper tubing.

Those first two years, Claire and Michael and Amber were all over the backyard chucking the tennis ball around or setting up doggie obstacle courses out of hula hoops and patio furniture. Along with being a buoyant ball of lightning, Amber bounded about with dignity, which for a dog means intelligence and focus. Learning and following commands. Knowing when to stop playing. She could even balance a tennis ball on her nose after just having turned a year old. And the only accident she’d ever had in the house was near her corner of the finished basement, in the room next to the laundry room which housed her cage and bed and trove of toys, and Claire and Michael both agreed to never tell their parents about it. They cleaned the brand new carpet twice with Windex and once with hand soap. You could almost not even tell it had happened.

As Amber matured, the obstacle courses would become increasingly elaborate, though eventually they were prohibited. Too many furniture cushions ripped or chair legs bent out of use before mom called it quits. Each time they’d break something, whether the grill cover or a flower pot, of course they’d all get in trouble. The kids’ sentence would be a floor-to-ceiling scrubbing of everything in the house, which was almost as bad as Monica’s guilt trip. “Clearly you don’t love your mother if you don’t love her things,” was a favorite line. “I buy you things and you can’t even respect mine. Tragic.” Amber’s punishment was to sit on the couch with Monica all day watching soaps. Even if Amber tried to leave, Monica would call her back, and Amber would return, solemnly. She knew she was in trouble. She was on comfort duty.

Not that Amber truly minded. When everyone was gone at work and it was just her and Monica at home during the day, they’d be splayed out together on the huge horseshoe couch in the living room and Amber would follow her around when Monica gardened in the front or back. She’d always be sitting underneath the glass patio table when the ladies from around the block would come over for mid-day mimosas. And then there were those times, maybe the ones where Dennis would get home extra grouchy or the kids would be screaming at each other, when Monica would corner Amber on the couch and be whispering in her ears, or letting her follow her all the way into the master bathroom to lie on the bath rug while she soaked in the Jacuzzi. She’d have the door closed, and maybe the radio would be on, but when Dennis put his ear to the door he could hear her talking as if to her best friend.

By Amber’s second year, Dennis’s mood had been coated with a sour film due to his family’s gradual shift in admiration from their father to their dog. To him, Claire was less interested in softball practice, Michael less interested in talking cars, Monica less interested in, well, him. He would take it out on Amber, come through the door after work nearly screaming about how she’d gotten his slipper before or chewed on this kitchen chair or the edge of the sofa. “Excuse me, the four-thousand-god-damn-dollar sofa.”

Amber’s lone flaw was that the adoration she could freely give and receive made her stir-crazy when they’d leave her at home, and this nervousness would lead to chewing: fruit on the counter, toilet paper, a pillow, a book, a rug. Everyone lost at least one object, and every time they’d come home to find stitching and stuffing strewn about Dennis would scream so much that Claire would run up to her room weeping, slamming her door. Even the time Amber got at the leather purse Claire was saving for months to buy. At Dennis’s rage, Michael would get red-faced but could never speak against his father. He and Monica wouldn’t talk for a day or two, after the screaming match, of course, in which sometimes the clanging of pots could be heard up in the weight room even with Michael pumping on the treadmill and the volume turned up on SportsCenter.

This all culminated one night not long after Amber’s third birthday, in which she sat on one of the kitchen chairs (“Oooh, like a big girl!” Monica and Claire both had said), and, on cue, barked out the candles herself. A few days later, Dennis got home from work, not wanting to talk, casting eyes on everyone before trudging up the stairs. Monica was cursing herself later for not finding Dennis’s running shoe before he got home, lying in the middle of the walk-in closet with the stitching all gnawed through and bits of laces littered about. It had been specially tailored to his size ten-and-a-half wide foot and the overpronation of his stride, but now it looked like a busted rib cage.

Monica knew how Dennis’s father had been, but somewhere inside her she’d locked up the hidden hope that her own husband could never do something like that to any of them. Money had been tight lately, her mother had a couple fainting scares that sent her to the hospital, they were all a little stressed. That made her follow Dennis closer, pleading to no avail when he charged out of the bedroom, down the stairs into the foyer, down the hallway and through the kitchen to the basement, down the stairs, through the game room, and past the washer and dryer to shove the shoe in the dog’s face as it turned away and Claire cried behind him. His screams echoed off the clean white drywall. “Is this how you have fun when I’m not home? Huh? Is this how you have fun?!” The veins bulged from his forehead, now grapefruit red, and his wife and daughter shrieked noises they’d never made before as he smacked Amber on the snout with the shoe. Three times he hit her, four, five, backhanding her in the face. “Is that fun? Huh? You having fun now?” Amber yelped and howled but otherwise sat and took it with dignity.

Claire grabbed her father’s arm and cried for him to stop but he switched hands and smacked the dog on the rump over and over, ripping into her until he was out of breath. Then he threw the shoe down and Amber yelped again even though it didn’t hit her. He stormed out of the room, incensed, his eyes lancing with fury, and as Claire and Monica were consoling the dog, he stormed back in again, picked up the implement of his assault, and unleashed a final blistering bellow. “This is MY shoe! And I’m going to keep it!”

Dennis never would lay a finger on either of his children, but he knew what was in him as well as Monica did, and this wasn't one of his children, it was a dog. That was justice for a dog. Dennis’s own father wouldn't have thought twice.

He charged upstairs and took off in the Porsche. None of them saw him for a few days, though Michael was staying up late enough to know he got in before midnight and left at six in the morning. But after a few sleepless nights of comparing himself to his father, Dennis showed up to dinner, surprising them despite their unspoken anticipation. In a rehearsed yet genuine speech he demonstrated an honorable self-awareness in his lengthy apology about his temper. They listened in silence. When he was finished he declared that he had made up with Amber, and Amber’s eventual friendliness towards him validated the fact, the novelty of which startled the other three members of the family. He realized this was sudden and possibly shocking, but he knew he would also earn their trust over time.

He did. Something about him had changed. He was gentler with all of them. And a few months later when all was forgotten, Dennis declared he was putting an addition onto the house by extending the already cavernous foyer ten feet out into the front yard and extending the 7-room second story to include a large office. His office. He spent two weeks drawing the plans and consulting an architect friend at work. Monica wanted to keep the chandelier, but he convinced her it would be better to sell it. He liked the fact that the large wheel window above the foyer could be moved up for him to gaze upon the neighborhood.

Recognizing this was something their father really wanted, the family was on board for the final product, but they didn’t take into account that half the house would be covered in rough plywood floors, plastic sheeting, and white dust for four months. During this time, Amber almost exclusively stayed down in the basement, whether in her corner room or running circles around Michael’s friends while they played pool and pinball.

When it was done, it was beautiful. A throne room. Behind his huge oak desk the wheel window framed his large leather chair. The walls were lined with oaken bookshelves stained a dirty gray filled floor to ceiling with books. There was also a six-foot-long bar, a gun safe, a self-contained entertainment center replete with 5.1 surround sound and the requisite gigantic flat screen TV. Also plush carpeting and a Nerf backboard on the door. In the middle of the room sat two antique chairs, an antique table, and a marble chess set. If he didn’t have a friend from work over, he would play against himself.

No one was allowed in daddy’s room except for daddy. On those rare occasions that Dennis let Michael into the room, like birthdays, Christmas, and his graduation, the boy was overcome with reverential humility. The first time his father placed a crystal glass of Glenlivet in his hand, he was converted. A new view of life dawned within him. Maybe he wouldn’t go into energy like his dad, but he would find his way into something. Some day he would have his own throne room.

Six years later he was halfway to his business degree, eating a lunch of Slim Jims and Mountain Dew while playing Grand Theft Auto 4 in his dorm room when the house he had spent about half his life in cracked in two due to a faulty foundation and poor soil.

There had been a hole beneath the foundation, or, as the geologist later put it, an abscess of crucial sediment just a few hundred yards below. A particularly large deposit of limestone was down just far enough that there hadn’t been any evidence of it when the soil samples were taken. Twenty years of rain and human runoff dissolved it and the soil beneath was falling away until, over time, it ceased to lend its much-needed support to the foundation of the house.

Small cracks had been forming for years. They inched out their branches until, on a warm day in March 2012, at 12:08 p.m., with half of the backyard dug out, the weight of the house finally opened the schism in the foundation wide enough for it to give way.

First the deck and hot tub went into the pool hole, then the weight room and Claire’s room followed after it as the garage caved in and Dennis’s office lurched forward and forward before a blistering crack echoed down the block and the front of the house smashed down on the lawn and walk and front flowers like a sledgehammer of brick and glass and bookcases, annihilating any former semblance of a distinguished family dwelling.

Of course, none of the onlookers had ever seen anything like it. One commented that it looked like a bulldozer fell on the house from the sky. Within hours it was on YouTube. Within weeks, millions will watch the Bonnerbruck home fall apart.

Which brings us to the present moment. Michael is Megabussing his way back home, and he doesn’t know what to feel. Dumbfounded, more than anything, but also an intensified version of his usual shame. It certainly wasn’t anger. He doesn’t yet know how to let himself feel that.

At first, he calmly called Claire a liar. Accused her of a terrible practical joke until she kept pushing it. Then she hung up and texted him the photos. He still didn’t believe her until he saw her bed face down in the backyard.

She and Monica are at her grandmother’s, the three set around the kitchen table, at times awestruck, distraught, bawling. Many cups of tea have been drained and cupcakes eaten—but not too many—though not much talking has been done. They aren’t a family that talks, they are a family that watches television, that nods often, that only needs to know which car you were taking and when you’ll be home. Even now, with their tea spiked with whiskey, their conversation remains about the description of the house. Even Claire is drinking. Monica is audibly shocked that her mother would pour for a 19-year-old. Her mother wanted to say it was appropriate considering “the gravity of the situation,” but decided against it, choosing rather to raise her glass. “Sláinte.”

What else can she say? To a daughter whose husband isn’t picking up his phone? To a granddaughter who doesn’t know where her dog was? Every time Claire’s delicate face scrunches up into wet red blotches she’s there for her granddaughter, her shawl around the girl, “Shhh…shhh…” As she cradles Claire’s sobbing head, her eyes try to comfort Monica’s contorted face. It is an emotion her mother had read off her face her whole life. It is jealousy.

Right now, Dennis is not picking up his phone because Dennis’s phone is off. At 12:13, he returned from the gym, rolled up to the house—or what was left of it—in the Porsche, felt his jaw slowly dropping, lowered his sunglasses, noticed all the onlookers, and pushed them back up. Then he closed his mouth, snapped his head forward, and peeled off down the block.

Three hours he drove. Drove and drove. South, then west, ripping down I-80. Radio blasting rock music, his face stone frozen. FM radio fading in and out. He put on a Bob Seger album and went through it a few times. His mind was oddly clear. He thought of nothing the whole way. Just flew past the cattle and horses, past the fences and corn, staying right between the lines on the two-lane highway.

By half past three he was over the Mississippi, and that’s when he stopped for a beer at a truck stop.

He had one, then a cup of coffee, a plate of eggs and hash browns, another cup of coffee, then a few more beers. Currently he’s halfway through the third. He’s already figured out most of what stock he wants to sell and what he has to keep, what he could get on the housing market right now, what the insurance will be, how difficult the claim will be, what was insured, what wasn’t. In a few minutes he is going to turn his phone back on, tell Monica to stay at her mom’s and that he’ll be there by midnight, talk to Claire, which he isn’t looking forward to, and then call Michael. He doesn’t talk on the phone in the car.

But right now, at 6:06 p.m. Central Standard Time, Dennis is thinking about what clothes, if any, he has in his car. But other than the messy stuff in his gym bag, there is only one other piece of clothing in the car: the shoe their dog Amber ripped up all those years ago. A long time after the incident, Claire would find the ripped-up shoe and hide it in his car, in the glove box, beneath the seat. “For you to remember your temper, Dad!” she’d smile, now growing into a woman. “You’d be the road rage champion!”

Each time he found the shoe he’d throw it in the garage, hurl it in a mock rage, but he never threw it away, and each time he’d find it in his car a few days later. It was one of the few games he and Claire had played in the last few years, a symbol that they had moved on from the past. For many of those years, which she spent, to the scorn of her mother, avoiding her inevitable girly-girl nature by wearing black eyeliner and listening to death metal, she had hardly talked to him. Other than soccer, there was no common ground. They were on different planets. The schism was palpable. It was though they didn’t even live in the same house.

But after the shoe incident, Dennis was right: he and Amber did get along well. He had learned. She’d run beside him on the other treadmill in place of his wife. He’d throw the ball in the yard with her and the kids. He didn’t yell at her when she chewed on his iPad cover.

He would even let her into his office, when no one else was home, of course. But she didn’t like it and wouldn’t stay long. She’d walk far around the chess board, then stand in front of the fireplace, sniffing the air, pondering. Then, head high, she would turn and stroll out casually, as though seeing if he would follow. She preferred to be in her bed in the utility room next to the washer and dryer, to be curled up on her thick red pad that was matted with her golden fur.

That’s where they will find her, eventually, after the sanitation teams pick off the upper layers of wreckage. She’ll be caved in under the initial collapse of the foundation. She never even woke up.

Dennis will find her there, nestled beneath the rubble, a large lump of lifeless copper fur. He’ll find her twelve days from now, when the crew finally leads him in, and right now he doesn’t know it, but he’ll feel more helpless at that moment than he did when Michael was born.

No, he doesn’t know that, is not anticipating that, is not thinking about that, because right now he is thinking about the shoe he’s sure Claire hid under the passenger seat of the Porsche. The only clothing in his car. A ripped-up shoe that somehow became worth keeping, and is now one of the only things he owns.

 
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Derek Salinas Lazarski has had his work featured in Curbside Splendor, Portage Magazine, Pop Matters, and the Second Hand Stories Podcast. A portfolio of his work can be found on his website, www.dereklazarski.com. When not writing, he works as an administrator in higher education. He lives in Chicago with his wife and two cats, the latter of which helped him write this bio.

Mama

Loretta Martin

“This the last time Ima tell y'all,” Mama yelled from the kitchen. "Outta that bed. NOW!"

Soon, we’d hear her six-foot bulk lumbering down the hallway like a tornado across Midwestern plains. Her open housecoat its floral pattern faded, would flap like a wind-whipped parachute, revealing fleshy knees and a threadbare slip that barely contained two 44 double Ds. An odor of sweat mixed with cooking grease and tobacco would reach us before she slammed into our bedroom, her ratty size-10 slippers thwacking the cracked linoleum.

She’d have one of her ever-ready switches, plaited branches I brought from the nearby park, in hand. Gathering them was part of the punishment, and any that didn’t have the proper spring or snap meant extra lashes. Mama delivered punishment with the same fervor she displayed at our storefront church. I carried a mental image of her blessing each switch before pressing it into service.

No one intervened when, at the peak of Pastor’s fiery sermon, she shot out of her seat into the narrow aisle, a high-stepping, arm-flailing soldier of God, her “hallelujahs” and “praise the Lords” nearly drowning him out. When Pastor finished and the Holy Ghost finally released her, she collapsed onto the front pew. As the choir launched into “Oh Happy Day," she tilted her sweat-streaked face toward the pulpit, where Deacon Baker rewarded her with a broad smile.

 
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I reached over and tickled Cilla, curled up next to me.

“Get going, girl. Want to make Mama late for work and us late for school?”

When my squirming seven-year-old baby sister opened one eye, I playfully snatched off her head wrap, freeing a mat of thick braids.

“I get to pee first,” she giggled, bouncing out of bed and peering out the door. She wanted to be sure Mama wasn’t between her and the bathroom.

After Mama left for her 7-to-4 shift, we got ourselves ready for the fifteen-minute walk to school.

Mama’s temper was getting worse, her flare-ups happening more often. For the past six months, she’d been like a jack-in-the-box: You never knew which turn of the handle would cause her lid to pop. At fourteen, I figured being older was the reason I was the more likely target of her outbursts. Anything—an unswept floor, dirty dishes, even my presence it seemed—could set her off. Last week, I left the bathroom door cracked while drying myself after showering. I didn’t realize she’d been standing at the door until she spoke.

“Gal, you never too big for a whipping. There always be a bigger switch with yo’ name on it. God testing me somethin’ fierce with you,” she muttered before slamming the door shut.

She’d never been like the Mamas you see in magazines or movies, smiling and hugging her kids or reading bedtime stories. We weren’t one of those families with a special closeness because only one parent was present. Mama made sure we knew where we stood.

“I feed you, put clothes on your back and keep a roof over your heads. Somebody else got the blessings. I got y’all two.”   

Most worrisome, she was drinking more and Jack Daniel’s had become her constant companion. On weekdays, by the time she got home we’d eaten, cleaned up, and were doing homework in our room. She’d poke her head in to check on us before eating alone and spending the rest of the evening in her room with a bottle. On weekends, we did chores and attended church on Sunday. Cilla and I made up our social circle, thanks to the wild looks Mama gave anyone we brought home to visit. Twice a week she attended prayer meetings, returning after we’d gone to bed.

I loved school and enjoyed helping my sister with her studies, because Mama never did. She’d dropped out of high school, pregnant with me. When I was old enough for day care, her mother sent us to live with Mama’s married older sister. No one talked about my daddy; all I knew was that he died before I was born.

When I was five, we moved upstate where, two years later, she married a man who worked at her plant. Cilla came along four months later. Mama and Dwayne worked different shifts and swapped off taking care of us. For two years, we were the closest thing to family I’d known, right up to the day Dwayne left for work and never came home. Before she was thirty, Mama was stuck with a dead-end factory job, a nine-year old, and a two-year-old.

 
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When I was sure she was passed out, I’d go into her room to check for burning cigarettes. Sometimes I watched her sleep fitfully or waited for her to breathe again between drunken snores.

 
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I got my first period six months ago while at school. Thanks to my eighth-grade hygiene class and Ms. Evans, my gym teacher, I didn’t freak out. When she came home and I told her what happened, Mama looked like someone who woke up to find a stranger living in her house. I wasn’t used to seeing fear in her eyes.

She shambled down the hallway and returned from the bathroom with a box of tampons, tossing it at me on the way to her bedroom.

“Well I guess you a woman now.”

That was all there was to the “special time” we’d learned about in my hygiene class.

At that moment, I envied the way Cilla’s second-grade teacher, Ms. Beecher, clucked over her like a brood hen, wiping playground dirt from her face and straightening her hair after recess. Mama called our thick hair a low-down hot kinky mess, attacking it as if battling demons.  It was painful seeing my sister trapped between Mama’s thighs like a pebble between two boulders, crying without making a sound. One day, I made a mistake.

“Mama, I can start doing Cilla’s and my hair,” I offered.

A crooked grin spread across her face like a cloud blocking the sun.

“You that grown now? What else you can start doing?”

The following week, as she was about to leave for her prayer meeting, I told her I had to start wearing a bra. She wheeled around and glared as though she’d caught me committing a crime. Without responding, she stormed out, slamming the door. She took me bra shopping after the school sent me home with a note saying I couldn’t return without “proper attire.”

I trailed behind as she trudged through the mall; she looked like someone hauling rage like a pocketbook full of stones.

 
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A few weeks ago, when Cilla was sick with the flu, I had to do the laundry alone on Saturday. Getting to the basement machines required navigating what tenants called “the tunnels,” a series of narrow, dimly lit passages lined with storage cages. That day I ran into Deacon Baker. When we weren’t in church we had to call him Daddy Baker. I was afraid to ask why. He was almost fifty, divorced and, as far as I knew, had no children. He owned several run-down buildings in our neighborhood, including ours, where we’d lived for three years.

Mama’s two friends, Ms. Cora and Ms. Lucille, lived nearby and attended our church. When they visited, they drank, played cards, smoked, and gossiped.

“I’m sick and tired of that asshole foreman ridin’ my back. He got the job I shoulda had five years ago,” Mama griped.

“Girl, you lucky to have a job at all. How you manage alone with two kids, I don’t know.”

“God always been testin’ me. Them gals be the death of me. Reva gettin’ too grown, and Cilla—”

“—I hear Baker might be buying another building,” Ms. Lucille cut in.

Mama bristled when anyone called him “Baker” and not Deacon Baker, Daddy Baker, or Mr. Baker. When referring to him, she instinctively lowered her voice as though invoking God's name.

“Who you s’pose he keep company with? Think he’ll ever get married again since he living in that downtown highrise all alone?”

“How much money you think he got?” Ms. Cora asked, her words slurring.

“He an untripeenoor. Ain’t none of it anybody’s business,” Mama snapped, putting an end to the subject.

The two women exchanged syrupy smiles while Mama appeared to concentrate on her cards. Then she saw me in the kitchen.

“Gal, you got nothin’ better to do than lurk, spyin’ and eavesdroppin’? Y’all see what I mean ‘bout this one?”

Turning away from the smoke-filled living room, I thought of something I’d read about hyenas: They have the amazing ability to detect the scent of carrion miles away. 

 
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Not long ago, while walking upstairs to our second-floor apartment, I saw two teenagers making out in the stairwell above. The boy had a hand inside the girl’s blouse, and they didn’t notice me.

“You better stop that,” she teased. “Daddy Baker’s around somewhere. He might see us.”

"Daaadddy Baker," the boy sneered. “Anybody not blind, deaf or dumb got that ol’ dog’s number."

If she’d heard this, Mama would have exploded like one of those mushroom clouds pictured in my history book.

Whenever Daddy Baker was working on or supervising building repairs, she wore lipstick, swapped slippers and housecoat for heels, and squeezed into a dress she’d never show up in at church. She flitted about as though any minute the phone might ring with big news.

In truth, it was an event when Daddy Baker stopped by.

“Your mama and I need to talk,” he’d announce, filling the doorway. “You girls go buy yourselves some treats.”

He’d stuff a wad of bills in my hand and grin at Mama while she shooed us out the door, cooing instead of barking. He was the only man we knew who made her appear smaller standing next to him. He was gone by the time we returned, and for the rest of the day Mama moved around the apartment like a mellow, ripe fruit.

 
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Now Daddy Baker was blocking my way.

"Hey girl. Your mama sent you down here alone?" His deep bass rumbled like an eighteen-wheeler, and he was looking at me in a funny way that made the shadowy surroundings seem dimmer.

"'Cuse me, Daddy Baker, I gotta hurry. Mama's waiting—"

Before I saw it coming, a stubby finger hooked my collar and yanked me close. His other hand sought its way to a place I knew for sure it didn’t belong. I was thankful for the laundry basket between us.  

My thoughts crashed into each other like bumper cars. What if Mama found I’d somehow disrespected Daddy Baker? Would he stop giving Cilla and me money? Would he be mad at Mama? At me? In a flash, my mind cleared long enough for me to realize any punishment by Mama was the lesser—and more familiar—threat. This wasn’t right, not for a church deacon. Without calculating consequences, I kicked him where I'd read doing so could bring a man to his knees, make him stop whatever he was doing.

I ran back through the darkness, leaving laundry basket and clothes behind. The last sound I heard was a single word squeezed out like someone gulping air; it was another name for a female dog.

Mama was in the kitchen when I burst through the door. I was afraid of Daddy Baker’s suspicious behavior and of Mama’s certain wrath, but between sobs I blurted out what happened. Sure enough, she sprang like a coiled rattler, but instead of grabbing a switch she slapped my face with all the power behind her muscled arm. Then, just as suddenly, she got that flat, blank look again, like she’d gone somewhere else and left her body behind. This time, I didn’t recognize her. Or her voice, a jagged shrill that ripped the air.

"Gaaaal, what you doin’? What you doin?  You don't know nothin',” she howled.

She’d never sounded like this, not at church and not during her drunkest rants. She advanced, backing me into the refrigerator door. I couldn’t tell if my warm face was warm from her boozy breath or the sting of her slap.

"Never talk that way again. Not to me, not to nobody. Not in my house! I swear, you just like Cilla’s whorin’ daddy. An’ you just like your own good-for-nothin’ daddy. No wonder God sent the cancer that ate him alive!”

This was the first I’d heard this; I only knew he’d died. Cilla trembled in the doorway like a puppy kicked too many times, her thumb crammed in her mouth. The only time she sucked her thumb was when she thrashed in her sleep, which she’d been doing more frequently as Mama’s eruptions escalated.

Then, like an abrupt power blackout, Mama shut down. She went all empty-looking again, like water sucked down a drain. Surefooted even when she was drunk, she now looked like she might buckle under her own weight as she covered the short distance to the other side of the kitchen. With effort, she lifted the Jack Daniel’s bottle out of an overhead cabinet, cradling it as though afraid she’d drop it. Not yet forty, she stumbled like a frail old woman in the dark and softly closed her bedroom door. That was another thing: Mama was a door slammer; you always knew when she entered and left a room.

I got Cilla back to bed, holding her until she slept. I stayed in our room, listening for Daddy Baker and listening for Mama, afraid to sleep. I did sleep, however, waking the next morning long after Mama should have been yelling at us to get ready for church. Cilla was already awake and, I discovered, had wet the bed because she’d been too afraid to go the bathroom. I crept to Mama’s door and knocked several times. Getting no answer, I tiptoed into her room, Cilla close behind.

Wearing only a slip, the empty bottle next to her, Mama was sprawled on the queen-size bed. One foot dangled over the side, its frayed slipper looking defeated on the floor. The room reeked of something else mixed with the sweat, cooking grease, and tobacco: urine and the vomit that had curdled on the sheets. Her expression was the same one she wore when Daddy Baker smiled at her from the pulpit, the look of hopeful gratitude.

 
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Our church helped pay for her funeral and for our relocation when Mama’s sister came for us.

Throughout the service, my eyes stayed locked on Daddy Baker up there in the pulpit. He never looked at me or directly at Mama lying there, peaceful, serene. Where others may have seen sorrow in his eyes, I saw fear. And I wondered if fear, like cancer, could eat a man alive.

 
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Doctors said she died from something called acute alcohol poisoning. I know she died from an overdose of rage.

 
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Loretta Martin lives in a Chicago suburb with her artist husband, Phil, and Charlie, a Siamese fighting fish that gives her the “fish eye” when she’s plays online Scrabble to avoid writer’s angst. A former blogger, Loretta writes fiction and nonfiction for in-print and on-line publications. Her work has appeared in Every Writer, Short Fiction Break, and Senior Alley.

Landlocked

Vincent Chabany-Douarre

I look around my childhood room as I wake up, opening random cardboard boxes as if on a game show. Behind door number one, we have old Fear Street novels, where teenagers gasp at CGI fires engulfing Gothic mansions. In box number two, piles of dusty book reports. In box number three, sweaters I no longer wear, including a stained cardigan and one of Scott's hoodies which simply refused to fit in my suitcase no matter how hard I tried. And so on.

I stare out the oriel window at the neighbors’ yard. They have moved, and the new ones have children. A swing set has sunk in, a deflated kiddie pool spreads like a plastic puddle. This is what I expected for my first homecoming from college, change. And there is not much of it.

 
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As he did the day I left, my father is smoking on the porch, since my mother only tolerates the smell of her own cigarettes.

As it was the day I left, the garden gnome with the goo-green eyes is still missing its nose.

As was the case the day I left, my mother has yet to forgive my brother for releasing his book.

As it was.

“I was creative too,” she hisses at me on the phone, “I was a painter. But never like this.”

Ben's novel was only published six months ago, so there is time to forgive and forget. I have pinned my invitation to the launch behind my dorm's mirror: Dear Vanessa Holter, you are cordially invited to the exciting launch of Ben St. George's promising debut novel, Arboreal Laws. Please confirm whether you can attend ASAP, and we hope to see you there! No plus ones.

At the back of the card there is a portrait of my brother. The gloss on its surface fragments his face, splashes of light dulling his features. I could not make the event, and it is probably for the best.

 
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My phone buzzes as I brush my teeth. Scott wants to meet by the beach. He's always liked a good walk, especially in these wet autumns where there is nothing but the gray strip of sand, and then us. I twist my mouth to the side. I could do a walk. I do not know if I can do Scott. I tell him maybe later.

I carefully descend the steep stairs, and realize that Ben and I used to race all around the house. Did that worry our mother? I'm sure it did. My hand clings to the banister, my sleek patent shoes clicking against the rosewood.

I crane my neck in the study. My mother is smoking and reading her newspaper, sitting stiffly in her winter-cracked leather armchair. I always think her cigarettes won't light up, the house is just that damp. Put a sweater on, she'd snap when I'd complain.

“Did you sleep well?” she asks me, barely looking up from the pages. My guess is she's looking at real estate. She'd never let go of the house, but she's always enjoyed asking people if they are one hundred percent sure that their paint is lead-free, or which company they chose to test for asbestos or if the foundations are as good as they think they are. She is convinced she knows how to protect a house better than anybody else. She would even interrupt our family walks and stroll into people's gardens to ask them these questions. They would pucker their mouths and reluctantly answer, before she flashed them a smirk and walked off, asking us what we were staring at.

“Yeah, it was alright. I'm going to go for a walk, I'll be back for lunch.”

“Take a coat, Vanessa. You're not an idiot, you know it's going to rain.”

I do not answer. One of my mother's favorite syntaxes is that one is not something. I was not many things. An idiot is a personal favorite, although in private and in the nineties she'd often tell me that I wasn't retarded. I was not a whore. I was not a circus freak. I was not the outcome of incest. Perhaps this is where my brother got his gift for words.

For a moment I wonder if she is going to mention Ben. But she goes back to her collapsing houses, trailing a precise finger over the gray paper, curling at the edges.

 
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I grab a lava-red raincoat from the rack in the parlor and pop its hood over my head. Instead of small handles holding up the garments, there are wooden duck heads. I have had enough wood for a lifetime: this house is layers of fir upon layers of fir. They are called Douglas firs around here, a name I have always found quite distinguished, injecting a gentleman-like quality to our forests. Wet ferns curtain the stone path from the front door to the gate. The grass seems too lush to be true, almost like frosting on a cake.

I walk past the little shops and houses, and find that I am not too out of place. I was convinced that I would come back from Chicago and find the style here horrendous, small-town and provincial. Instead I find that my reflections are the same. My mother repeatedly told me to dress in drab as I grew up. “People always regret bright colors,” she would say, sneering, “and none of that all black nonsense either. That's for people who have no taste and want to trick you into thinking they do.”

I stop in front of what used to be my grandmother's shop. We still own it, but lease it out. (My parents have no patience for customer service.) Instead of my grandmother's bright display of Sour Patch and gummy twists she used to make herself, heavy and pastel pink, there is a little café. We rent it to two old men who won't admit they're a couple but only own one bed. They sell homemade pastries and grunt when they put your cup of coffee down. Young people in the area find them quaint or perhaps ironic, and so the place is always full.

I slip down quiet roads, tar patches nearing swallowing forests, rocks erupting from the ground, their motion petrified. A thin rain starts falling, and I wish it hadn't.

 
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Ben did not completely fabricate his pen name. Our maternal grandmother, Katherine George, was the one who owned the sweets shop in town. She died of lung cancer before Ben and I were born, and so the only thing I know about her is that she once caught my mother scarfing down a chocolate hen behind the counter. Maybe Ben knows more. The Saint he found in Katherine's mother, Elizabeth St. Cross, whose father was quite big in textiles at a time but was then ruined by some depression or another. Both women's names went extinct, dissolved into marriage. Until Ben came along. This is typical of my brother. Excavate what has been lost, then make it his own. Claim. When I was little he would hide my toys until I forgot about them entirely. Then, he would gradually expose them and act as though they had always been his. Daddy brought this back from his business trip to Vancouver, don't you remember? I could never remember. And he always did.

 
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I look around nervously, aware that Scott could pop out of every nook or corner of the town. I have prepared excuses for why I am out and did not tell him, some fake fight with my mother I rehearse in my head as I walk.

We have not seen each other since I moved to Chicago and he to Toronto for college. When I boarded the plane yesterday, I became abruptly aware that I did not want to see him. The realization was there, physical as a strange egg between my palms. I calmly unfolded a napkin on the tray table and listed the reasons why, but could not come up with one that satisfied me. The first word I responded to was nerves. And then I realized that I was, all too simply, afraid to see him.

I was afraid that when I held his hand, it would feel abstract, wrong, like a stranger's. That I would try and kiss him and his mouth would suddenly be an inch higher than it used to be. In the taxi, smoothing down my charcoal sleeves, I thought that it might just be the other way round. Maybe he would be the same, the exact same, the prim, untouched same. And when I touched him, it would not be skin that I would grasp but dead cells he had failed to shed. When I balled up in my twin bed that smelled like fresh detergent and dust, I uncrumpled the napkin and found that these short black arrows and words trapped in bubbles that meant so much had all smudged. Maybe I was just scared Scott would think that of me.

I do not know if I want an answer.

I realize I am standing next to the beach, on a parking lot deserted in these colder months. No black vans crowned with surfboards, flat as collapsed orca fins. A broken sign points downwards, under the concrete. I try and set a foot on the wet, gray sand, long as whale's back, but find that I cannot. Scott could find me here. His parents live a ways away on the beach, in a glossy modern cube, an aesthetic my mother promptly called nouveau-riche before asking them what the flood risk looked like, this close to the Pacific Ocean. My family might live half an hour from the beach, but my parents have always told Ben and me that we were an inland people. Somehow, if there were a flood, a tide, if something happened, we would be spared, since we are card-carrying landlocks.

At school, I remember sitting in the front with inland children, while sea kids had to go to the back, and I remember them sniffling more. Scott and I got together in high-school, when these differences had eroded to almost nothing, although we had differing opinions regarding whether it was preferable to steal your parents’ wine and drink it in the forest, or by the sea.

The sea air washes thickly on my face. This is not my territory. Why am I even here? I may be laying bait. I may want an answer more than I think. I may want an excuse more than I realize.

 
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My mother painted this beach when she still managed to sell. This is what she painted, rainy things, silent and neatly packaged. Water mills. Forests. Windows. At first she was praised for the emptiness of her work, its Hopperesque quality. (I do not remember if she was pleased by that parallel.) Critics enjoyed the no-nonsense behind it. It is what it is, she would snap whenever anybody tried to interpret her work.

It became tougher for her in the eighties. Nobody cared about landscapes if they weren't political. They expected for her to have a message, to say something a bit more obvious. An interview with a gallery informed me that they had begged her to paint a character, and she had refused. I suppose it is hard to spin a statement on gender out of a rock. She was quickly swept to the side, replaced by collages of decapitated women or war photographers, which were popular in the area. Her smooth beaches or tall trees seemed privileged at that point, out of touch. When I pressed her on this issue once I was of age to romanticize her career, the only thing she said was if there weren’t some genitals or a dead kid, nobody cared.

And so, nobody speaks of her and she does not speak of herself. Her pieces, the rare ones that are still in circulation, are marketed as Pacific kitsch. It was interesting to spot similar feedback on my brother's novel. One critic called his writing “uppity.” Another said that Much like Mister St. George's name, the book reads well, but with an upper-class snootiness to it.

 
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 I still cannot move, do not manage to break the parking lot's boundary. Even the white strips seem to grow thicker, layering themselves into walls. My phone buzzes. Scott asks me if my brother is here.

No. My mom's still pretty pissed.

He replies he doesn't understand why she's that angry. He's right when he says there's nothing in the book about our lives. Still, there is a mother, a father and a sister and people just assume, I remind him.

Did it even change anything, he asks me.

Literally nothing. But my mom's got this mob mentality: never betray the family.

I still cannot walk forward. I wait for the tide to pick up, for the water to come to me. I wait for no reason.

 
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I read my brother's book a month after it came out. At first I wanted to be dignified and hold out on it. But it was featured in my roommate Shelley's book group and I took it as a sign. Some of it was disappointing. It takes place in a small town, which is easy to write. You can jam in quaint wackos, roll out empty roads, add a sprinkle of economic depression, and mention fog. What's more, it is a child's game to suggest the worst: priest's hands rustling up skirts, ancient societies or cults, scars running underneath the watery surface, discarded bodies in the forest, lurid, wet and naked.

And then there is the family, with its similar sets of dark assumptions, a disfigured child in the attic, and another in the basement. Abortions. Abuse. Assaults. Using both of these traditions felt lazy, but I am probably unkind. Apart from one periodical calling it gossip fiction—which I'm fairly sure wouldn't have been the case were my brother not gay—critics praised the mix of high-brow and low-brow, the post-ironic. They got their terms confused but it hardly mattered.

Of course, there are things which make sense only to me and which I would've rather not known. I could've done without a thinly-veiled account of how he lost his virginity to “Paul Bord” in a forest clearing where we used to play house. Paul Bord is really Patrick Plink, and from what I know is now married to Rosie Atkinson, who was a waitress at the old men's café a while back. In the same vein, if I could forget the scene where a girl oddly resembling my cousin Frankie takes cocaine with the main character and then tells them they should sleep with homeless men for the rush of it, I would die a happy woman.

Then, there was a scene much was written about, where the main character walks into his sister's room (who was shipped off to boarding school for being a bulimic) and tries to hang himself, using a high beam. He described my periwinkle walls, my powder-blue slippers, the mirror in which he could see his dangling feet flash like old-fashioned slides. The noose was poorly knotted, and he fell to the ground. That happened, my brother said for a Dazed and Confused interview, during my first homecoming from college.

The hanging scene was recreated in a MiuMiu photoshoot. Everybody likes a good corpse, as long as it's wrapped in silk. It is also the second and final time the sister is mentioned. Which means my slippers were more extensively described than I was.

 
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I give up on the beach and decide to walk home. Scott will not find me in my house. He is, like everyone, afraid of my mother. I think he might even be scared of her gnomes, as if she had spell-bound the eyes, duplicating her vision. Snitches get stitches and this is perhaps why Ben kept breaking them. Accidentally. Or so he claimed.

As I walk back through the forest, I check my brother's Instagram. He sometimes advertises products, creams or teas. Scott was a bit horrified at the prospect. He's got to eat, I remember saying. That is also something which was written about a fair deal. Someone called him the new merchant-artist, selling their soul in style. This time, I don't know if I should point to Ben being gay or to us being Jewish. A tweet referred to him as kike-chic, and has since been deleted. I suppose the perpetrator wanted to look interesting. Some people don't have many options.

Ben posted a new picture an hour ago. His hands, long and white against a silver sheet. One balled into a fist, the other with only two fingers sticking out. A code. There is no caption but an emoji I would describe as a dazzle. The location tag reads Paris. I wonder if he is circling the room of an off-the-road motel, or taking a bath in some five-star suite. Alone, or with a boyfriend he never cared to mention. At any rate, he is not here.

I scroll through his profile. Many of his photos are disembodied. Blurry feet on golden tiles. His forehead, topped with tufts of hair, crowned by a Byzantine ceiling. Hands, especially. Swimming in the air. I think he tries to make himself look less alive than he actually is. Dead voices have much power. If he had killed himself or been hit by a truck or caught leprosy, our lives would be quite different. We'd have to honor him as a ghost, and the only trace of him would be a book we do not particularly care for. Deal with his fans and feverish academics, their questions and offerings. Pretend we respect him as an artist. I hope he holds up until middle age, then nobody will care. The image of the writer, wide-eyed and gathering veronicas in a faded field, loses of its glamour once the face starts to sag.

 
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I hang my coat back on the duck's head, smothering its beak. My mother has already set the table in the dining room, but she is back in her study, reading the news and smoking another cigarette. She always says it's a filthy habit, and that she knew a woman who stuck them in canvasses, like a shocking final stroke. It was all very dumb, she summarized.

“Mom, Ben's in Paris, so I'm guessing he's not going to come.”

“Did he call?” she answers, stubbing out her cigarette in a silver ashtray. A taxidermy owl stares at me, its feathers reflecting mercury-blue.

“No, I just saw it on his Instagram.”

My mother nods, tilting her head up. I realized when I read the book that I had no inkling about my brother's accident, not even a hunch. No random visit to the hospital my parents would've disguised as a bad flu, no suspicious silk scarves at the dinner table. This completed no puzzle pieces, offered no answers to questions I would've brushed under the rug. It had simply happened. Of course, I wondered if I should talk to my mother about it. This might be the right time. It is just her, me, and a dead owl. But as she stretches, hands flung out in the humid air, her thick eyelids tightly shut, I know there is no use. If she knows anything she'll deny it, or dismiss it as a call for attention we shouldn't dignify. Like the cigarette stub on the canvass, she'll simply flick it away with a shade of annoyance swimming through her face.

She opens her eyes and stares through me. Ben might never come back. She probably thinks I could do more. Emote more. Be vexed. Indignant. She used to be angry with me, and temporal logic tells me it wasn't for the same reason. And yet. She walks past me, muttering that the chicken must be done by now.

 
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We eat quietly. My father slumps down at the table, blowing his nose and running his hand across his thin white hair. He asks me some questions about college, about Detroit when I am in Chicago, about physics when I do math. This is not a case of dementia, but rather tactical forgetfulness. He never talks about Ben either. When I mention him, my father tells me he needs to brush his teeth and then locks himself into his own study. I don't think the content made him nervous as much as the act of fixing memory to paper. My mother's art was instant, very little surfaced. My brother gathers the past like heaps of fur coats.

Some of the dining room chairs are covered in long sheets. They have abandoned this parcel of territory: it must be sad eating at this large wooden table just the two of them. They take their meals in the kitchen now, barely making time to sit down. This part of the house has not been heated in a while, and my father and I pretend like we are not cold. We eat the chicken, the beans, the mashed potatoes and gravy, chewing down at the same rhythm as the old grandfather clock clicking in the back. My mother gets up to serve coffee and key lime pie. I gather our dishes and follow her to the kitchen.

 
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I plop the plates down in the sink and start washing them. My mother mumbles something I do not catch and then grumbles that she didn't say anything. Her hand extends towards me and then retreats, quick as a night creature. Ben used to do the dishes. Ben would always do the dishes. Perhaps she thought if we let them pile up, he'd come back, reanimated by an overwhelming sense of duty. Because of me, she'll never know if that would've worked or not. I can feel her frowning. This is no new anger. Dropping the last pan on the drying rack, I wring my hands. Her wide back is turned to me.

“Mom, did you ever paint Dad at all? Or Ben and me when we were kids?” The question is not entirely random, nor is its timing (after a meal and a glass of wine, my mother's mouth always unlocks a bit). Seeing how things are going, I might never get any straight answers. I'll have to resort to decoding ciphers. Scissored hands or empty light-houses don't give me much to work with, so a portrait would be nice. There are more answers behind paper faces. There are traces of the past I can make sense of.

“I think I sketched you when you were nine. Millie wanted me to paint her daughter, so I told her I'd practice on you, but that was so boring I told her to forget about it.”

“Do you still have it?”

“If it's somewhere, it's in the attic,” she snaps back, irritated. “For God's sake Vanessa, I need to concentrate if I want to do the coffee right. You're not the center of the universe, just go sit down.”

 
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I eat the bright green slice of pie in silence, while my parents discuss the latest terrorist attacks in France. After stealing a small gulp of coffee from my father's cup, since I am barely allowed it, I excuse myself. In the attic I find my old piano and my brother's cello, a mattress gone rotten, heaps of dolls my mother planned on giving to charity. Books now moldy. Cans of paint, many cans of paint, easels, canvasses. All ruined. I shiver, my breath now visible, and rummage through boxes, folders, uncork tubes. There aren't many unfinished projects, the sheets are almost all blank. And my mother isn't one to keep her pieces. Maybe that is why she sold so well. She had a total disinterest in herself. Finally, I spot a sepia stroke and pull out a portrait.

I am a child, sitting on a stool in a beige dress and a large hat my mother used to wear at funerals. There is no backdrop: I float in white space. At first, I do not remember posing for it, until a memory emerges. She sketched it in the kitchen, between meals, and asked me to sit up straight Vanessa, you're not a tramp. I realize she never showed me the sketch until now. As I lean against moldy boxes, I also start to remember the feeling I had that day, confused as boiling water. I feel the napkin and its black smudges worming in my pocket. There was some guilt, that is the main thing. I remember thinking why was it me on that stool and not Ben. And that is how I look. Unhappy. Old. Not quite alone.

 
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Vincent Chabany-Douarre studies American history at La Sorbonne, Paris. His work has been featured in The Belleville Park Pages, The Bastille, The Birds We Piled Loosely, Gravel, 45th Parallel, Thrice Fiction Magazine, the podcast No Extra Words, Glassworks Magazine, Cecile Writer's Magazine, Foliate Oak, Wedgie Magazine, The Write Launch as well as Junto Magazine. You can find all of these pieces on his Tumblr, https://vincentsmumbles.tumblr.com/

Elderly Man Kills Wife, Self

Steve Young

“The body’s death, to judge from those I have seen, is in itself sufficient punishment, that absolves all.” – Albert Camus, The Fall

 

Jack Daniel’s Tennessee whiskey stains his white shirt, the paisley print tie, a present from his granddaughter Michelle last birthday. Or was it Father's Day? No matter. He is drunk, his plans have gone awry and the hour has grown very late.

It had taken him a humiliatingly long part of the morning to get dressed for the occasion. Tying his tie was a black comedy, drawing his thick black belt through the small pant-loops was a burlesque. Tucking his shirt into his pants was pure vaudeville. How he ever got his socks on his feet was another miracle of mirth.

He draws the Browning .22 semi-automatic up to his mouth. Inside the mouth this time or else he could mess it up, as he had nearly with Katherine. His hands, hands that used to fit so snugly, confidently, around the heft of a hammer, hands that played the violin delicately enough to make his mother cry, were now red and bloated with useless age. They shake so hard while holding the Browning, he is afraid he’ll fail.

The whiskey helps.

O Katherine, my love, the truths I could have told but I chose to spare you instead. Just as I spare you now from another ICU, another morphine drip. Truths can be more hurtful than a bullet to the brain.

 
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Doctor San shouts at him, prior to checking out time, "You lucky man, Mr. Oslaw, be in such good health, age eighty-four." Pats the bed beside him. Oslaw can tell that Dr. San finds raising his voice distasteful. But the assumption is that at age eighty-four, Mr. Oslaw must be deaf, already half disappeared from this life and one must hail him back, as one would hail a taxi from a long way away. No need to shout. Oslaw’s hearing is fine. Besides, he might point out but does not, it is Dr. San who has traveled such great distances to arrive here in Palo Alto, along with most of the interns and nurses—and now, they’re saying, the food and the pharmaceuticals, too. It’s a strange thing—and perhaps it’s just the fading fumes of the morphine drip that brings on this thought—it’s as if all these foreigners with colorful faces and colorful accents have arrived all together from another world to rescue us from disease and disaster.

Dr. San, age indeterminate, a few streaks of gray in the neat hair, few wrinkles, thin, a man in a lab coat, the most modern of men—the final face of godly authority and solace many will see in this life, now that all the good priests are gone.

“You need to stay off your feet a few days. But this time the bone will heal fine.”

“Will I need a walker?” Oslaw is aware his voice is coming out in a phlegmy growl, residue from the morphine.

Dr. San frowns slightly and nods. “Yes, it’s advised. Just a few weeks, then we’ll see.” He pauses, seems to consider. Then asks, “Were you in the war, Mr. Oslaw?”

“Pardon me?”

“Just wondering, did you hurt your leg in the war? Strange pin, not great fix. I thought maybe the Army.”

“Oh,” Oslaw says, “actually, the Navy. The South Pacific.”

“Ah! The South Pacific,” Dr. San nods and smiles.

 “I never really saw combat, though,” Oslaw continues though he has no idea why.  Perhaps the morphine again. “I made Quonsets with a construction battalion.”

Dr. San’s smile turns quizzical.

Oslaw clears his throat. He doesn’t think he has the energy for this and in all likelihood Dr. San doesn’t really care either, is just being polite. “I was a carpenter. I fought the war with a hammer in my hand. The Japanese would sometimes come by the islands and bomb us. That’s how I broke my thigh.” He settles back, exhausted. “Not great fix, I guess.”

“Not great fix,” repeats Dr. San with a smile and another pat on the sheet. “But better now.”

 
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Katherine, on the other hand, really might be going deaf. It is hard to tell these days. Over the years she’s slowly lost her social graces, like shedding her undergarments one by one and tossing them to the wind. A byproduct of the forgetting, Sheila the visiting nurse says—the cursing out loud, the shocking, unnerving remarks. It is not predictable what she will remember or hear or say aloud on any given day. The week before his fateful fall, in a living room full of people—his son Norman and Norman’s wife Georgiana and Michelle and Michelle’s best friend, a dark-skinned girl named Cynthia. Katherine in her upraised medical chair in her light blue gingham dress and a long bib. Under the dress she wears a diaper. An eighty-year-old woman in a diaper and a bib. A college graduate, a good wife and mother and churchgoer, a kind and thoughtful friend and neighbor, a volunteer for most of her adult life at the Wilkerson nursing home and the local food pantry.

Now this woman, his wife, oblivious, eyes fixed on the TV while her family sits around the room chatting nervously trying to ignore her presence. The volume is down low, but one of those loud-mouthed afternoon TV judges is holding court, a balding black man banging his gavel, mock-anger in his voice chastising a cowering defendant over some petty theft.

From his easy chair across the room, Oslaw sees Katherine cock her head up in an attitude of sudden recognition and he knows all at once that something terribly unwelcome is coming and it is too late to stop it. She waits for a lull in the conversation, points at the TV and announces in a loud voice: “Nig-boy” and turns to face the girls, Michelle and Cynthia, who are sitting together on the flowered couch, as if she is proud of this observation, this surprise revelation: “Nig-boy,” she repeats and points again at the TV screen and the gesticulating judge.

There follows an awful silence. Michelle looks at her friend, stricken. Cynthia looks down and sucks in her lower lip and instantly withdraws into herself. Norman and Georgiana quickly sweep the girls out of the room, down the hallway toward the kitchen. Georgiana, her freckled face ablaze, her cheeks nearly the color of her orange-red hair, throws Oslaw an infuriated look, as if it were his fault. More would come later, he knows. “Michelle’s grandmother is very ill,” she whispers to Cynthia on the way out.

He lingers. He wants to say something to her, to his Katie, or whoever or whatever cruel and strange entity is inhabiting her mind and body these days. But what is there left to say? Three years of her slow, terrifying descent into this other being barely sensible, barely sentient and he has run out of words to describe, let alone propitiate. His grievance is with God, not her. He sometimes asks God in angry silent prayer: why her, why not me? I’m the bad one. Why are you punishing her? I’m the one who used crude and insensitive language that she often felt obliged to correct. I’m the one who took the hard line in the arguments after Uncle Walter’s nightly newscasts, chastised her soft spot for the underdog: the Mexican grape pickers, the Haitian boat people, the LA rioters, the Gay Marriage crowd. Her favorite saying— “Every act of kindness is an act of greatness” —emblazoned on her stationary and note cards, could have come from Christ himself. Now as if in mockery of her sweet, naïve faith in a better world emerges this filth, this abomination.   

He rises to his feet and kisses her on her forehead and walks slowly down the hall to face his son and daughter-in-law.

 
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“Dad, my God, let her end her life with dignity.”

“She’s not dying.”

“You know we’re not talking about physically.” Georgiana taps her temple with a lacquered fingernail. “She doesn’t even remember who Michelle is. How long before Norman? Or you?”

“I won’t put her away in a cage like an animal. She deserves better than that.”

“First of all it’s not a cage. It’s a home, a very fine home where she’ll get the best of everything,” she goes on. “Second of all, deserve? Do you really think she deserves this? Humiliating herself in front of her family and friends?”

“She wouldn’t survive in one of those places. She’d be lost.”

“And what about you? How long do you think you can keep this up at your age?” says Norman.

And so on.

As they are putting on their coats, Georgiana says, “This isn’t over.”

He’s too tired to do anything but nod.

 
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Katherine, do you remember how it began? San Luis Rey, right outside of Bakersfield, the overpowering smells of sour grapes and horse manure, so hot, so dry, the manure turned to powder and got into your eyes, your very pores. You couldn't wash it off, not with a river of water. It was disgusting, until you got used to it and then you never noticed it again, until you went away for a long time and then came back, then you wondered how you could ever have stood it.

Me in my white counterman’s cap and white apron in my father's ice cream and soda shop. It was the Depression, of course, something I guess my father forgot when he got his inheritance. He told the story of oh how he danced a jig the day he opened up, back in 1934 when they rolled in those ten-gallon barrels, so cold they smoked, so cold the ice cream burned your tongue, and how he believed the money would come rolling in right behind them. Forty-seven flavors, all his own inventions but, he soon came to say, they might as well have all been vanilla. Then one day when I was sixteen, went out one hot as Hades night after supper to get some water for the car, he said, and never came back.

You'd come in every other Saturday morning or so with that maid, that colored woman, Cleo, her name was. Remember Cleo? Of course you do. You looked like a storybook princess, with your pretty green eyes and bobbed brown hair with the red or white or blue ribbon and long, cool light-colored dresses and order butter pecan in a dish. Had to be butter pecan. Had to be a dish. I fell in love with you back then, the way one would fall in love with someone from far off and far away, somewhere in the clouds, maybe. I never could believe you were really within the four walls of our dirty, dingy, little soda shop, even if for just fifteen minutes every other week with a chaperone. What you ever saw in it. In me, either. Never could figure that one out. Never could figure that one out, Katherine.

Do you remember that peculiar fellow, used to hang around the Dell Street tracks, name of Rooney or Roney? Old man with white stubble all over his chin, had no teeth, not a single one, always wore those grease-stained blue overalls, and an old beat up engineer's cap? You wouldn't have known him. Far below your station. Far below my station. Used to work the railroad up near San Jose at one time. Then he retired, or they fired him, I guess, or he had a pension, I don't know. Who knows? Who cares? Is there anyone alive today who ever thinks about that old man, besides me? Who remembers that such a creature once lived among us and breathed the same air? Used to take in all that good clean oxygen and give back nothing but bad breath and the same whining complaint. "Where's my bluebuckle?" he would howl in his mushy voice at my mother and me, each morning, noon, and night he came into the shop. "I want my goddam bluebuckle." Until him, I never thought it possible to hate a man with no teeth. But I was young, dumb and naïve about a lot of things back then. He would come in and ask for a cone of something my father had invented and named Blueberry Rococo. Only, for some strange reason, Old Man Rooney (or Roney) called it his "Bluebuckle." And, of course, when Dad blew town, we didn't know the first thing about making any more "Blueberry Rococo." Once that ten-gallon barrel was gone and used up, there wasn't anymore of whatever it was that was in it and never would be again. For weeks, he'd come in and give us the same routine. "Where's my goddam Bluebuckle?"

And oh those flies! The flies that stuck to the walls, mating like mad, multiplying in front of our eyes. My mother had a little saying for the neighbors: "Time heals all wounds, and time wounds all heels." 

We never did find out if that was so.

On our wedding night in that San Francisco hotel room, I told you how sorry I was, for the pain and the blood. There was no pleasure for me either, not really, because I took it at your expense. I was so large and so awkward, an ogre crushing your small trembling body. You wept as I lay beside you, panting.

Then came the war. Too soon the war.

 
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The man floated down with slow grace, his gigantic wings arched against the violet sky, now half lit by the dying sun, now in shadow again. “He’s coming to save me,” Oslaw thought. He was flat on the ground, far from where he once was, last he remembered. His right leg was in terrible pain. Around him the sour acrid odors of burning bamboo and charred metal. “Is it Jesus?” someone near him shouted at the man in the sky.

Gerald Haney’s voice cut through, “No, it ain’t Jesus, you jackass. It’s a Jap.”

The man swung to and fro gently in the wind as he fell.

He and Haney were the only ones at the Quonset when the bombs fell, he remembered that much. They were settling in for guard duty with a deck of cards when the explosions began. He remembered Haney yelling, he remembered running.

Now on his back, his right leg ablaze with agony, as if sawed in half, his eyes were fixed on the angelic man in the parachute.

“He’s heading downwind!” Haney shouted.

The rifle fire began in sharp cracks of one and two but quickened in intensity. The falling man twitched violently in his straps, lifted his head, mouth open. Perhaps he screamed but if so it was unheard by Oslaw. He landed two hundred feet from them on the side of the airstrip. The parachute fell over him, a billowing white shroud.

How remarkable it all was, Oslaw later reflected. In a war for nearly three years, the only human being he ever saw die.

 
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Her name was Pat Donovan and in the end she didn’t care that he was married. Every man on Pearl had a girl back home and the ones who didn’t, well, by definition they weren’t worth bothering with, were they? Either queer or a loser, it amounted to the same thing. Oslaw had a big athletic body and a cute homely face and pretty hazel eyes and he was a decent conversationalist for an enlisted man. Had a thing for classical music, that was unusual. Hard to imagine a violin in those big hands.

It was a bit difficult with his right leg up in traction, a steel spike through the knee and all those ropes and pulleys but Pat Donovan was nothing if not inventive. She was tiny, barely over five feet tall, not even one hundred pounds and her butt was small enough to sit astride him and with the minimum of motion they both managed to make the most out of it. By the end of three months, when the traction came down and the spike was removed everybody on the ward knew and many of the other men were jealous but she didn’t care. She only had eyes for him, as the song went. There was more than just the sex, after all.

 
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There was more than just the sex, he thinks now after another swallow of Jack Daniel’s, the Browning beside him on the bed. There were the whispered conversations, the jokes, the gossip, the gifts, the confessions. He listened to her tales of a childhood on the South Dakota prairies, he told her of the ice cream shop and Ol’ Man Rooney (or Roney). But really, it was the sex, he confesses to himself fully now, as if for the first time. But not really the first time, not at all, was it? The Jack Daniel’s fogged his brain but oddly sharpened the memories. The truth was, it was, oh my darling Katie forgive me, the best sex he would ever know. Those long pornographic nights, Pat Donovan’s black hair undone, her nurse’s tunic unbuttoned, her knowing smile, pink tongue on teeth and those sharp blue eyes half-lidded. There was something about their restricted movements, and his own physical helplessness that heightened the sensations. Oh Katie, forgive me my darling, but dear Jesus it was ecstasy.

And worse, so much worse, he had never lost his nostalgia for what he and Pat Donovan did on that cramped and sweaty hospital bed in the long, long ago past. After his return, for years he lived in dread of screaming Pat Donovan’s name out loud while with Katie. Pat Donovan with her dark, dark hair half-obscuring her face contorted by passion lived on inside him, like a demon, he sometimes thought, inside his eyelids vivid and lurid. It was a miracle, really, that her name had never escaped his lips in all those years. And so he came to hate Pat Donovan and their illicit, exquisite lust. Because, oh Katie God forgive me, he sometimes needed her image to complete the act with Katherine, came to feel disgust and self-loathing as afterwards he lay panting next to his wife. Perhaps it helped that she was not the slightest bit adventurous when it came to sex. She never got past her shyness or maybe the whole business didn’t really matter to her. He would never know because out of deference or shyness, perhaps out of old-fashioned dignity or politeness, they never discussed it. All he did know was that she was purer than the rest, himself included.  There were things she would never know and he would never have to tell, but things for which he knew he would never escape his punishment, one way or another. He had never confessed his affair or his licentious thoughts to any living soul, not even to a priest in a confessional, though there were plenty of opportunities for that. Why hadn’t he? he asks himself when now, Browning in hand, blood on his hands and more to come, it was far too late. But he knows why. Because it was something he could never repent.

O my love, the truths I could have told.

 
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The last normal family affair—that is how Oslaw thinks of it—was Thanksgiving three years ago. Norman was there, and Georgiana and Michelle and the annual guest from the Wilkerson Home, invited by Katie—this year a shy old woman in her upper eighties named Miriam, recently widowed, with patchy white hair and pointy silver glasses.

Amidst all the white napery, Katherine's fine china, the wine goblets, the polished silverware, the solemnity of grace and then the loose aimless conversation and laughter that followed, there was no portent, no hint, no evil foreboding lurking in the solid walls surrounding them. Walls he had built with his own hands, the first of scores of houses and the most satisfying. It had stood up well over the years, he thought to himself at times. Stood up against calamities both inside and out: a miscarriage, Norman’s bumpy teenage years, the elm that crashed down on the roof during a wind storm in 1965, the earthquake of ’89.

And then that night, after the dishes were washed and put away and the wine was corked and the crystalline voices had departed, a strange postlude had occurred between the two of them. Perhaps it was the afterglow from a house full of people, perhaps it was the wine. Perhaps it was Miriam, who had maintained a dazed-looking silence throughout the dinner, showed barely a flicker of a smile amidst all the frivolity. True, she was out of her element, with total strangers, except for Katie. Probably it was a mistake to sit her next to Michelle who responded to her shyness by simply ignoring her. On the drive back to the Wilkerson Home to drop Miriam off, the old woman sat staring disconsolately out the window, and Oslaw wondered if she were lost among the ghosts of Thanksgivings past or simply lost.

Later he and Katherine lay side by side in bed. He’d just turned off the light. He assumed she was asleep.

“Promise me something,” came her voice out of the near darkness.

It startled him. “What’s that dear?”

“Promise me when it’s time you’ll let me die at home.”

“Of course dear.”

“No, listen to me David. This is important. This is very important. I don’t want to go to one of those places.”

“What places?”

“Like the Wilkerson Home. The thought of it horrifies me. The more time I spend there the more it horrifies me. Crazy old men and crazy old women without any hope, with nothing to look forward to. They’ve lost everything: their families, their independence, their money. All they have are their memories. And some of them not even that.

“Huh.”

“So promise me, David. No matter what.”

“Sure.”

He slowly turned his head toward her. There were tears in her eyes. Those beautiful green eyes, as beautiful and green as the day he first met her in the little ice cream shop in San Luis Rey. It’s a wonder, he thought, no matter what happens to the rest of us, the eyes never change. The eyes remain true. He grasped her hand firmly. In that moment, as in all the moments of their lives together, he could refuse her nothing.

 
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It is the end of a long tiring day and he should have known better. The box of recyclables isn’t heavy but it’s bulky and he can’t see exactly where he’s going. He opens the side screen door to the path leading to the garage and feels with his right foot where the step should be. But on the step, inexplicably, is one of Katherine’s bright red tennis shoes. The color was Sheila’s idea, to help strangers identify her when she took one of her impromptu walks. It’s a tip that had come in handy more than once.

But he sees the tennis shoe too late. He finds no purchase, his ankle twists and he is suddenly afloat in mid-air. It can’t have lasted more than a second but even so, even within the shock and anger and horror at his own stupidity he pictures the angelic Japanese pilot falling, falling with such leisure out of the blameless, blissful white sky to his death. The stillpoint, when all goes quiet before all goes black. Then Oslaw lands very hard and awkwardly and with his full weight on his right leg. He hears the awful crunch and loud snap, like a gunshot, feels the ripping pain go through him.

When a neighbor finally hears his yells, the first thing Oslaw screams out to him isn’t “Call 911.” It is “Don’t let Katherine leave the house.”

 
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But Katherine is about to leave the house. Three days later, Norman and Georgiana give him the news in his hospital room.

“They believe they’ll have a vacancy in two weeks,” Georgiana tells him. “Now please don’t argue. I mean thank God you’re all right but maybe this accident was a blessing in disguise. It was too much for you before, but now it’s impossible.”

“I’ll be out in a week.” He has a tube in his nose and another in his wrist. That one has the morphine drip.

“Dad, c’mon, don’t be ridiculous,” Norman says gently. “What are you going to do, chase her down the street with a walker?”

“I won’t need a walker.”

“Says who?” Georgiana says.

He doesn’t answer her but thinks: she really is especially annoying today.

“It’s all been arranged, Dad,” says Norman. “So you can just rest and heal.”

 
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In the end, he can’t shoot Katherine. He tries, his finger on the trigger while she stares at him blindly, uncomprehendingly, but his arm pulls up and the bullet goes into the ceiling. The blast in the small bedroom is deafening. She slowly covers her ears with her hands and she sinks onto the bed as if she’s actually been shot. She whimpers. The room is pungent with gunpowder. A small piece of ceiling falls to the bed.

He tries to discharge the casing and realizes that his hand is shaking violently. He drops the gun on the bed. He looks down at his stricken wife, looks into her confused and frightened eyes. Among its many atrocities, the illness has turned what was truest into a lie, about the eternal in Katherine’s once beautiful green eyes, now gone as if it never were. Tears stream down his cheeks. He picks up a pillow and places the pillow over her face and presses down with both hands with all his strength. They are big hands but they are now old and uncertain. So he slowly slides his chest and torso on top of the pillow and allows his full weight to crush the pillow down upon her. She struggles but she has no chance against his masculine bulk. He lies on top of her for twenty minutes, long after the last tremor of life beneath him has ceased. He is weeping.

He had thought that Katherine would be the hard part and the rest would be easy but he was wrong about that. Life will come up with any excuse at all to keep on living, he thinks. And it’s a bitter thought. Between swigs of whiskey, his mind remains mired in an endless loop of longing and regret, a strange inner monologue, dissecting all the wrong turns, all the paths not chosen, the chances lost and never found again. But not the big things, the small things, the querulous grievances of a lifetime he would never have described to anyone, on the whole, as unhappy: “I should have told the sonofabitch to go to hell. I can’t believe I didn’t just take that money and run. The bitch screwed me out of that contract. I was always too accommodating to that lazy bastard” and so on and on and on. Eighty-four years—such a long life, yet strangely, in the end not long enough to outlive even one’s tiniest regrets. Hours go by and he finds himself near day’s end still very much alive.

 
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But at last through the fog of whiskey and self-pity and petty recrimination, he remembers where he is. Remembers that in this moment he is, after all, in the midst of murder, with his wife grown cold beside him. He gently closes her eyes and kisses her on each eyelid and picks up the gun, tastes the blue-black steel of its barrel inside his mouth.

 
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Steve Young has an MFA in Fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts. He has published thirteen previous short stories including in recent issues of the Saturday Evening PostThe Wild Word, Woven Tale Press and others. Two of his stories were nominated for the Pushcart Prize and BASS awards. Young grew up in Vermont and now lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He’s been an award-winning public radio reporter/editor/news director for most of his career. In 2007, he won a DuPont-Columbia award, the highest annual award for broadcast journalism in the nation (equivalent to the Pulitzer) for his radio work. He also plays jazz piano. You can see many of his stories and projects (both fiction and journalism) on his website: http://mugwahnews.org. Twitter: @scyoung55. Facebook: scyoung55.

The House of the Man You Do Not Know

Alexandria Barkmeier

When you go to live in the house of the man you do not know, he will give you an extra set of keys and tell you to help yourself to anything in the kitchen. You will notice the smooth countertops and the silver-colored appliances. You will notice that there is no dinner table, only a breakfast bar with three high-backed stools. In what should be the dining room there is a large poker table, and when you look at it a moment too long, the man will say, “I’m going to move that and get a proper dining room table.”

 
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The man has set up a bedroom for you, and you will be surprised at both how large and how nice it is. There is a bed pushed in a corner against the window, a desk, a dresser. You have your own bathroom, knitted into a doorway inside the bedroom. You will put your backpack over the chair at the desk, your jeans and shirts in the dresser, your skirts and the cardboard box you brought with you in the dark, gaping closet. The man will tell you that if you don’t like the colors of the linens or the comforter he will buy you new ones. The man will tell you that you can paint the bedroom any color you like. He will tell you he wants you to feel comfortable here, this is your home now.

 
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On the third day you live in the house of the man you do not know, two delivery men will come to deliver a large, oak table, and they will help the man whose house you live in now move the poker table into the basement you didn’t know existed. You will picture leaking cement and damp smells, like the laundry room in the apartment complex you used to live in with your mother. But when you go down into the basement on the fourth day, you will be surprised by how clean and bright it is, with spotless white carpeting and a big screen television and leather couches. The man will set up the poker table again just like he had it upstairs. You will learn soon that this is how he makes money, that he is used to spending weekends in Atlantic City and flying to Las Vegas once a month for tournaments.

 
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At the end of the first week, the man will hand you a piece of paper and a pen and tell you to write down anything you’d like him to buy. He will say that he does not know what you like to eat yet. You will write down Pop-Tarts, because this is something your mother told you was a waste of money and too sweet for a meal.  The man will come home with five different flavors of Pop-Tarts, he does not know which kind you like so he got them all, and he will tell you that he also bought Toaster Strudels because you inspired him. You will catch him, late one night, when he does not know you are awake, squeezing the icing straight from the plastic packet into his mouth.

 
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At night, at first, you will not be able to sleep. The sounds of the city outside the townhouse are different than the sounds outside the apartment you used to live in. The bedroom feels bigger than that apartment.  But soon you will begin to kick out your legs, stretching them to the corners of this large bed, pushing your arms out. You will be a star shape, breathing in the deep night.

Sometimes you will be able to hear the man in his bedroom. He has told you that if you ever need anything, he is “just down the hall here,” pointing to the door at the end of the hallway. You will think how different this is from your mother, who slept on a fold-out couch in the living room; who, at the first noise from you or anything else, hissed “Liniste!” You will think of all the small spaces that choked her.

 
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The man will give you thirty dollars one morning and tell you that he will give you thirty dollars every week to buy whatever you need. The first week, you will take the bus to the grocery store and come home with eggplant, pork, tomatoes to cook a meal. It is not good Musaca, it is soupy and you forgot to buy bread to sprinkle on top.

When the man comes home his face will freeze and he will ask if you used the money he gave you to buy the ingredients and you will nod. He will say, “Audrey, I’ll take care of the groceries. That money is for you.”

This will make you feel bad, and your eyes will first feel painfully dry and then wet in a way that embarrasses you, and you will miss your mother.

The man will say, “This smells delicious. It was really nice of you to make dinner. I’ll set the table.”

You will want to shake your head because you are no longer hungry, you are unable to even imagine being hungry, and you do not want to sit across from the man and eat bad Musaca.

But you and the man will sit at the big oak table, too big for two people, and the smell of new wood will overwhelm the smell of the Musaca. Everything, you will realize, is new here, even in what the man told you is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Philadelphia.

 
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Six weeks before, you learned that intestate means that someone has died without a will. You learned that a few old pieces of furniture can pay the cost of a cremation, that ashes are heavy and distributed in sturdy cardboard boxes. That you can feel their weight on your chest even if they are tucked into the back of a large closet deep inside a big, bright bedroom.

 
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The man will come with you to enroll you in school.  He will keep his hand on your stiff shoulder as he talks to the admissions officer. He will explain that you will take any placement exams they would like, because while he knows this is an elite school, you are very bright and a very hard worker and he knows you would do very well here.

You will spend the rest of the day taking exams in a quiet, windowless room, and though you know you should be nervous about your scores, you will think only of how calm you feel here, in this small space.

 
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The night after you finish your placement exams, the man will come home with a box of DVDs. “Look what I bought!” he will say. “Your namesake.” He’ll show you the cover, a picture of Audrey Hepburn in a black dress and a tiara, leaning forward with a sultry look on her face, a long cigarette burning between her fingers. “How many of these have you seen?” You will tell him that you have not seen any of them.

“None of them!” he will cry. “Well, let’s put an end to that. You’re going to be a bona fide Audrey Hepburn encyclopedia before you know it.”

The man will tell you that you should start at the beginning, with My Fair Lady, because it is one that he used to watch when he was a child. He will tell you that it isn’t in the box set, but his own mother gave it to him for Christmas a few years before, as a gag gift, because he’d memorized all the songs when he was a child and sang them at the top of his lungs. You will think about how you could never imagine your mother giving anyone a gag gift. Your mother gave few gifts and accepted fewer: when people she worked for gave her extra money or fruit baskets at Christmas, she always returned them, wordless and cold.

When the man starts the movie, you will like it, you will see the shifts in Audrey Hepburn’s face that look like your mother’s, you will understand why your mother loved this actress.

“Are all the movies musicals?” you will ask the man.

“I think this might be the only one,” he will say. You will think this is a shame and try to remember if you ever heard your mother sing. 

 
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The man will bring home a new television and you will wonder how many televisions one home needs. There is one in the basement, one in the living room, and you know he has one in his bedroom. He will explain that this a television that will allow the two of you to watch all of Audrey Hepburn’s movies because you can download them right onto the television, that he’d been in the market for an LED for a while, and that your arrival and subsequent settling in seem like a good time to celebrate with this new addition.

You will know that you should be grateful for the purchase but you will be able to think only of how many homes your mother cleaned and children she babysat to pay for the little apartment the two of you lived in together. You will think of the scholarships you were on to go to school; of the time you heard your mother crying in candlelight because the power went off and she knew that you knew that the game she made up to explain away the darkness was a lie.

And this man lives in the townhouse in Philadelphia, with his televisions and bedrooms and poker tables and you have never seen him work.

 
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You will learn that, in addition to playing poker, the man runs a website that teaches other people how to play poker. He manages two other people who help with the graphics and the content, and both of them work from home, too.

But the man still goes to tournaments, and he has a tournament to attend in Las Vegas. He will ask you if you have made any friends yet at school and if you might like to stay with them while he’s in Vegas for a few days.

“I’m afraid you won’t have much fun there, otherwise I’d bring you,” he will say.

“I have an exam,” you will tell him. He will pull a frozen pizza from the freezer and unwrap it to put into the oven.

“So no one you want to crash with for a couple of nights?” he will ask, and lick a small piece of frozen mozzarella off of his thumb. You will shake your head, and he will tell you about a woman friend of his who would be happy to come stay with you for a few nights. “This house can feel pretty empty when you’re all alone,” he will explain.

 
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The night before the man leaves for Las Vegas, the two of you will watch Breakfast at Tiffany’s while you eat Chinese food, which you eat at least once a week now. When Audrey Hepburn is on screen in her gray turtleneck, her hair in pigtails, you will be unable to think of anything but your mother.

“My mother looked like Audrey Hepburn,” you will declare.

“Yes,” the man will say. “So do you.”

You will turn your head toward the kitchen so that the man cannot see that your face wants to cry, and it will feel like something is piercing through your eardrums when you hear him say, “I’m sorry about your mother, Audrey. I really am.”

You know that the man thinks, like everyone else must, that you watched your mother’s illness choke and then kill her over time. When really it was not until the end that you noticed she was even sick, and not until after the state ordered an autopsy that you knew tumors had eaten her ovaries from the inside out.

There had been no goodbyes and the night she died your mother had fallen asleep on the fold-out couch like any other night.

You do not know if she even knew what was inside of her.

 
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The evening after the man leaves to go to Las Vegas, you will come back to his house and find a woman sitting at the breakfast bar reading a book. She is shorter than you, with full cheeks and wide hips and dark, brown hair.

“Audrey!” she will say and jump up from the stool. “I’m—”

“I know,” you will say. “Thank you for staying here,” you will add, though you do not know if you want her there.

“It’s not a problem at all!” she will say. “Did you have any ideas about dinner? We could go out somewhere, or order something.”

“There are lots of leftovers,” you will say.

“I heard you were shy,” she will say. “This must be a really big adjustment.”

The kitchen will feel cavernous and claustrophobic, and this woman too close, though you will feel profoundly alone. You will go up to your bedroom and close the door and stay there until the next morning.

You will not see her before you go to school, but when you come home in the afternoon she will be at the breakfast bar again.

“Hi Audrey,” she will say sweetly, and you will nod and try to smile. As you go to the cabinet to pull down a glass, you will feel her eyes on you. “I don’t want to make you feel uncomfortable at all.”

“Okay,” you will say, finally, after the silence is long enough to make you uncomfortable.

“My mother died this summer,” she will say, and it sounds like an eruption, like she cannot control it, and so you decide you will forgive her.  “I know it’s not the same. You’re so young and … well, everything else. But, I just wanted to say, I know at least a little bit of what you must be feeling, so if you ever want to talk, I’m definitely here.”

You will want to laugh because there is nothing you are less likely to do than talk to anyone, especially a stranger, especially this stranger, about a private thing like this.

When she asks you if you would like to watch television with her later that evening, you will hear something in her voice that will make you feel sorry for this plump woman who is lonely enough to come stay at the man’s house with you.

A few shows into the evening, when the glare from the television blurs against your eyes and your limbs feel heavy, you will hear yourself asking, “What did you do, after she died?”

“I took some time off,” she will answer. “I went to Vancouver for awhile.”

“No,” you will say. “I mean with her.”

“Oh.” She will pause and keep her eyes on the television screen and say, “I took some of her ashes to Vancouver and spread them over the Pacific. My sister has some she’s going to take with her to Italy next year.” She will not ask you where your mother is, and you will be grateful that you do not have to say aloud that you have taken her only into one more small, dark room.

 
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When the man gets back from Las Vegas, he gives you two presents. One is a box of chocolates, and the other is a blown glass Christmas ornament with a picture of Audrey Hepburn’s face painted on it. You thank him and put both on one of the end tables in the living room.

“I saw it in the gift shop and thought of you,” he will tell you, pointing to the ornament. “It’s about time to put up a Christmas tree anyhow, don’t you think?”

You agree, and the next day, the man will drive the two of you to Bucks County to buy a Christmas tree. He tells you he has a friend from college who owns a Christmas tree farm out there, a place where you can cut down your own. You will be surprised when you are there in a little bit over an hour. You will ask if you are closer to New Jersey than you were in Philadelphia.

“Nope, but not really much farther away, either,” the man will tell you. He’ll glance over at you and ask if you’d like to go back to Jersey one day for a visit. You will not respond because you do not know if you want to go back to New Jersey, to Camden, to the block where you lived with your mother. “We’ll make a trip soon,” he will say. You will wonder if he means a trip to Atlantic City, a place he is more used to.

Once you are at the Christmas tree farm, which you learn is really a very large piece of forest, the man’s friend will come to greet the two of you. He will look much older than the man, and much heavier, and his cheeks will be bright red. You will not be sure if it is from the crisp, early-winter air or nips of alcohol or if it is just the color of his skin.

“Well hello! This must be the little lady,” he will say, and look at you. “Pleasure to meet you, madam,” he’ll say. “And you’re damn right,” he will look back at the man, “she’s the spitting image.”

“Thank you,” you will say quietly.

The three of you will walk into the woods, and then the man’s friend will tell you to pick out a tree together and he will come back and help you saw it down.

“Did you have Christmas trees … back home?” the man will ask you as the two of you wander into the thicket. He has asked you hardly anything about home or your life before his house, and it will surprise you, and you will feel yourself flush.

“No,” you will say.

“I guess it’s not too traditional,” he will offer, and you will scowl.

“Romanians have Christmas trees too,” you will tell him. You will want to say that your empty Christmas celebrations had everything to do with too little money and too little time, even though the man has endless time and money and could fit a hundred trees in his house and still have room for his televisions. You will not say this, though; instead, you will walk up a snow-trodden path toward a batch of thicker, fuller trees.

“Audrey,” the man will call after you, and it will sound like an apology. “I’m just … I’m trying to get to know you.”

Ce drăguț,” you’ll say and know you are being rude. You will feel badly but you will not wish you could take it back.  You will stay where you are, your shoulders set, your back to the man.

“Just pick a fucking tree,” he’ll say, low, like a growl, and you have not heard him sound angry at all before. You will wonder how angry he has been with you all along, how long he has boiled in your silence.

 You will put your gloved hands up to your cheeks and though you cannot see the man you will feel him soften.

“Look, I’m sorry,” he’ll say. “That wasn’t called for. I think I’m jet-lagged from the red-eye. Let’s just get one of the pre-cut trees,” he’ll offer, and you will feel him touch your arm with one of his hands. You’ll turn with him and walk back to the parking lot, where his friend will help you tether a medium-sized tree, already wrapped in a sheet of plastic, to the top of the man’s car.

 
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When you get back to the man’s house, the two of you will set up the tree together in the living room. You will have to move one of the big armchairs further into a corner to make room for the tree, and you will like the way the room looks in this new layout. The man has a box of ornaments that all look the same, something pre-packaged from a big box store. The two of you will hang these around the tree, and then the man will laugh and say, “We don’t have a star or anything to put on top.” You will smile and hold up the ornament he got you from Las Vegas, which has been sitting on the side table next to the sofa since he gave it to you. He will laugh loud, louder than the idea is funny, and he will say, “Perfect. You want to put it up?” You will shake your head no, and the man will pull the stepladder close to the tree and then stick the ornament on top, where it looks silly and sagged. “Well, we tried,” he will say.

He will ask if you want hot chocolate, and you will say, “Sure,” and both of you will walk to the kitchen where he will start steaming milk with the espresso machine and you will pull two bars of semi-sweet chocolate out of the pantry and start melting them on the stove. You will like the way the kitchen smells with the milk and the chocolate and the pine scent drifting up from the living room.

“What do you say we put on a movie?” he will ask.

You agree, and the two of you go back to the living room where the man fumbles around with the TV. “This is a special one,” he will say. “My very favorite.”

You’ll know what it is before the opening images of Roman Holiday even come onto the television, and you will be glad that the daylight is fading and there are no lights on in the room and that you can forget the man is next to you while you watch the film together. You will have forgotten about your hot chocolate, unsipped on the coffee table. When the movie ends, leaving Gregory Peck standing at the close of a press conference all alone, the man will turn on a lamp.

“Your mother ever tell you about that movie?”

“No thank you,” you will say. You will lean forward and pick up the mug from the table, standing so you can leave to go clean things up in the kitchen.

“Audrey, wait.”

“I don’t want to hear.”

“I know,” he will say. “But I want to tell you.”

He will tell you, though you will not consent to it. He will tell you about a girl he met on a rickety train an ocean away right after the wall fell. How she spoke English better than he expected, and how severely she rolled her eyes when he told her she looked like Audrey Hepburn. How she said, “I’ve never been alone with a man before,” which you recognize from the movie, and how she followed it with, “Do you know how to say that in Romanian?” You will smile when the man tells you she said, “rahat,” bullshit when he said he spoke Romanian. How he followed her to the Black Sea and his friends continued their planned trip back up to Budapest, how she let her friends go back home to Pașcani without her.

“We called it our Romanian Holiday,” the man will tell you. Then he will say, “Well, I called it that, anyway. She said that was stupid.”

“I’m tired,” you will tell the man.

“I loved your mother,” he will tell you. “I did. And I loved you.”

You will walk up the stairs to your bedroom and shut your door and leave the cold cup of hot chocolate on your dresser.

 
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You will not be able to sleep. You will think how far apart Philadelphia and Camden feel, you will think about maps of New Jersey you studied in elementary school, about the straight path from Philadelphia to Atlantic City, overpasses gliding above the crumbling apartments you lived in with your mother, straight lines to the townhouse where you live now. You will think about how you have brought her here, into your bedroom closet, into the man’s house.

 
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“You’ve got to come out of there, Audrey,” the man will say, knocking on your bedroom door the next morning. “You’ve got to eat.” You will not respond, and the man will keep knocking, and eventually you will hear him walk away.

You will gather the comforter up around your ears, count the weeks backward since you moved west and your mother moved somewhere you aren’t sure you believe in. You will fall back asleep and wonder if it is possible for you to sleep for days, for weeks. To sleep for four years until you are eighteen and can leave, though you do not know where you will go.

You will wake up when the man begins knocking again, and the sun will be blazing through the window, sharp afternoon sunshine before early evening falls. “Come on Audrey, enough of this,” he will say. “I’m not afraid to come in there, just so you know.” You will wonder if he has left when you hear, “I’m not putting up with this. You’re coming downstairs and you’re going to eat dinner and you’re sure as hell going to school tomorrow.”

Because you are hungry, you will go downstairs, and you will keep your eyes to the floor and refuse to look at the man. You are prepared to make your own sandwich, but you will see that the man has set two plates of food at the breakfast bar. “Sit down,” he will say, and he will sit down also. “I understand you’re mad at me,” he will tell you. “You have a right to be.”

You will push a forkful of white rice into your mouth, let it feel like sludge as it seeps into your stomach. He will eat faster than you, and then he will wait for you to finish, and you will push your plate away when you are full.

“I want to show you something,” he will say. He will walk into the dining room and turn on the light, and on the new, big, oak table, you will see dozens and dozens of envelopes. All of them addressed to Elena Ionescu in the man’s blocky handwriting, handwriting that makes your mother’s name look all wrong. They are all directed to the smatterings of addresses where you lived with your mother in Camden. All of the envelopes marked, in your mother’s precise cursive, RETURN TO SENDER. “Go ahead,” he will say. “Open them. Open all of them.”

You will look up to him and you will feel like a child, like you are younger, even, than your fourteen years. You will reach out for an envelope, one that looks old, mail-worn. The postmark date is December 21, 1994, almost exactly ten years ago to the day, and you will peel open the edge. Inside you will find a letter, two pages long, and a check for an amount that you know is at least twice what your mother paid for rent.

You begin to open all of them, all the unread letters, all the uncashed checks. Hundreds of pages, you begin to realize, that your father had written you and your mother over your life, thousands and thousands of dollars he had sent to your mother.

“Why?” you will ask.

“So you would know,” he will tell you. “It wasn’t enough. I should have come to you.”

“Why wouldn’t she?” you will ask.

“I hoped you would tell me,” he will tell you, his voice quiet in a way you recognize, the way yours sounds when you do not want to cry.           

 
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On Christmas Eve he will offer to take you to an Eastern Orthodox Church, but you will remind him that your mother sent you to Catholic school, told you to go to Mass and obey but cross yourself the other way. You know he was raised Catholic and he will take you to the church he grew up in, and it will be filled at Midnight Mass and though he is the only person in the packed building you know, you will feel less alone than you believe you ever have before.

When the two of you go back to his house, he will open a bottle of brandy and pour himself a glass, and you will pour yourself some eggnog, and the two of you will sit at the oak table, and you will miss your mother. You will think of the Christmas Eves when it was a different set of two of you, when you would go to Midnight Mass with your mother, then you would make and eat Cozonac together, and she would tell you how she and her sisters and mother used to go around town singing together at Christmas with the whole village, and you would ask her to tell you about it over and over because it was all she ever told you of her own mother.

   You will go to your bedroom and open your closet and bring down your mother, setting her on the table between you, and the man will not look shocked or even upset, he will only shake his head and bring his eyes to yours.

“Elena’s mother died right before I met her,” the man will tell you, circling his glass of brandy in his hand. “It was … a brief illness, I think.” You did not know this, and it makes you wish you could tell your mother that you know now why her face seemed never to be able to smile.  “That might have been the only reason she ever loved me, or pretended to. She was heartbroken, I guess.” You are afraid that if he begins to cry, you will cry too; you are afraid that if you begin to cry, he will begin to sob. “She didn’t love me, I guess. But I wish she’d let me love her at least a little longer.”

He clears his throat and blinks, then stands. He walks down to the living room and pulls a wrapped present out from under the Christmas tree. When he comes back, he places it in front of you and says, “Merry Christmas.”

You unwrap a framed picture of your mother, younger but still so much the same as she looked the last time you saw her. Audrey Hepburn with lighter hair, lighter eyebrows. She wore a black, full piece bathing suit, her back to the camera, facing the Black Sea. You know your father was the photographer, watching this woman watching this sunset over the water of the only home she’d yet known. The beach is strangely empty in the picture—and the man will tell you that it is because it was too early in the season to be at the beach, really, only late April, too cold for most people.

You will cry, let your throat announce it, let the man put his foreign-feeling arms around you, because your mother crossed the Atlantic Ocean and you forged the Delaware River and when you put the photograph down and close your eyes you can see the mythical moonlit sky, your mother’s thin, bare back, wading into the waters that would one day bring you to this place. 

 
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Alexandria Barkmeier is a writer, former educator, and public policy professional living in Washington, DC. Originally from Colorado, she has bumped around the country accumulating graduate degrees as well as a trusted black lab named Gizmo. She is currently finishing a novel.

Born Famous

Joseph Ponepinto

His chubby cheeks belie his importance in cultural circles. To the uninitiated, he could be any child of two; cute beyond belief and powered by bursts of erratic, frantic energy. But sitting with him over lunch at the Bowery’s de rigueur hangout, Huertas, Jakob Hollander revealed the side that cast him into the popular spotlight at birth, and has kept him there throughout his first twenty-four months. His fame, like the wealth of America’s super-rich, was seemingly preordained, trumpeted in the tabloids as soon as his mother announced her pregnancy. Born of artistic royalty—scion of producer Melvin Hollander and actor Taylor Grey (she of the recent blockbuster Ardent Femme)—he took to his role among the glitterati from day one, and hasn’t tired of it. He has his father’s probing eyes, his mother’s high forehead and delicate chin, and from what I perceived during our conversation, a commitment to status that they both share. He’s been on the cover of People twice in his brief career (the first time in utero), and has been short-listed for the magazine’s “50 Most Beautiful People” for 2017. Apart from the occasional tantrum, punctuated by sweeping his high chair clear of food and flinging utensils in the direction of other diners, he behaved like the prototypical twenty-first century celebrity: polished and passionate, ridiculously self-assured, and at once real yet unapproachable.

 

Interviewer

Although your parents are each famous in their own right, and surely prepared you as best they could for the world you were to enter, were you ready for fame?

 

JH

I don’t know if anyone is, honestly. You focus on the art, on the craft, and not on the prize. When it’s successful, you can take some time to appreciate what you’ve accomplished, but you mustn’t take too long, and then you go back to what you were doing, which is the act of creation, and just as importantly, its defense.

 

Interviewer

But you never had to do that. Essentially you came out of the birth canal famous.

 

JH

First of all, it was a Caesarian. More to the point, fame is less of a reward than a responsibility to maintain and drive a set of cultural standards. Every society creates a hierarchy, the upper levels of which, by definition, produce a certain amount of notoriety and wealth. The fact that I was tailor-made—pun intended—to carry on that tradition implies that I’m eminently qualified for it.

 

Interviewer

So you’re saying that your creative talent is not necessarily in the service of any tangible pursuit, such as music or filmmaking, but in the evolution of the concept of fame itself.

 

JH

Well said. To the public it might seem an esoteric, obscure aspect of the fame milieu. Some people do well at their calling and become famous, but that doesn’t mean they know how to act once they achieve that status. Someone needs to set the bar, to show the world how to be famous, how to court the spotlight and yet eschew it, how to carry oneself amid the ubiquitous media and public appearance requests, and do it while both staying aloof from the crowd and cultivating their adoration, all the while planting the seeds of future fame. I have a unique ability to pursue all facets of the fame Hydra, because as a baby, I can do almost anything and get away with it. That’s my art. It’s my raison d’être, my birth purpose, so to speak.

 

Interviewer

As long as we’re on the subject, tell me about the pre-birth months. What you know of them, that is.

 

JH

I’ve been hiding something about that, and I think it’s time to reveal a truth. At first my mother was planning on using a sperm donor, since my parents were living apart at the time. Thank God they reconciled and decided in favor of an in-family conception. Still, the technique was in vitro, and I have to thank Dr. Abe Frankel of Cedars Sinai for his guidance and expertise, or I might not be here today—at least not the me you see in front of you. In thinking about it, had they gone the rent-a-squirt route, my DNA might have been half Hollywood, half trailer park, and by now could have resulted in a butt full of tattoos and a meth habit. To answer your question, it’s difficult to relate specific details, but I have an impression that my term was filled with a combination of classical music and theater—to provide a foundation—as well as aspects of popular culture, everything from EDM to reality TV—to ensure currency. A typical day, Mom tells me, might start with a reading of Shakespeare, or more specifically a film adaptation of the bard—something like Shakespeare in Love—and could wind up at a club, or at home watching some old Seinfeld reruns. And of course she had to deal with the constant media crush. Every tabloid from Santa Barbara to Timbuktu wanted an interview. She tells me three paparazzi were arrested trespassing on the compound grounds, trying to get photos of her mid-term girth. So as you see, I came into this world with more background than most of my peers have garnered in a lifetime.

 

Interviewer

And after two years, how are you handling it?

 

JH

I have a manager, and a publicist, and all sorts of support staff who make sure I’m where I need to be when I need to be there. They’re a wonderful crew, and honestly, I couldn’t maintain this level of celebrity without them. I mean, imagine me trying to hail a cab being only two feet tall. For Chrissakes I only learned to walk a few months ago, so it’s not like I’m ready to run out into Manhattan traffic to flag down a hack. So I don’t have to deal with the hassles of fame that some others do. But please don’t get the idea that I’m somehow isolated from the public, or handled in a way that keeps me distant from my fans. After all, the people are the backbone of my career. They read the magazines and watch the shows. Their money pays for my Tribeca condo and the spread outside Jackson Hole. It covers my travel, my staff and more toys than I can count. I take that very seriously, which is why I spend at least an hour a day personally dictating answers to emails from the public. It’s a balance, and I think I’ve handled it nicely, considering my lack of longevity in the business.

 

Interviewer

Do you stay in touch with your parents?

 

JH

The short answer is no. Mom’s career makes it tough to get on her schedule. I’ve only seen her twice since I was weaned—from the wet nurse, by the way. With the success of her latest, she’s been getting offers virtually every day, and that makes it hard to get through her screeners. And our travel itineraries seem mutually exclusive, so it’s not like we’ll run into each other at Cannes. Too bad. I do miss her. Dad, frankly, is another story. He’s become something of a recluse. Hasn’t been seen in public for months. He gave himself a bad reputation when he lobbied so hard for a Best Producer award at the Oscars, so it’s understandable. But I do wish he’d come out again and put all that behind him. A certain percentage of my fame rests on his fame, and if he’s not doing his share, it can hurt.

 

Interviewer

You could have stayed in LA and made a very comfortable existence for yourself doing talk shows and guest spots on Kimmel and Nickelodeon. Instead you chose to move to New York. What attracted you to the city? Maybe a secret dream to do live theater at some point?

 

JH

I won’t say I haven’t thought about that, but it wasn’t the reason. In fact it’s quite simple. I had met Neil Patrick Harris at a charity benefit, and we had a wonderful conversation about the biz, during which I must have lamented a bit about the lack of creativity in West Coast entertainment circles. A few months later, he called. Out of the blue, mind you. Apparently he heard I was between gigs. Said, “Why don’t you come to New York for a spell? We’ve got room in our place, and it could give you the opportunity to explore new avenues in the fame game.” NPH as my mentor? Needless to say I was on the next plane. I barely packed. One change of clothes, my favorite teddy bear, and a toothbrush—which I admit was a strange choice since I don’t have any permanent teeth yet. Speaking of strange, the only things I brought to read were some Strindberg, Samuel Beckett, and one of Strasberg’s books on method. So you may be right about my theater ambitions. But as you mentioned, I’ve never really done anything like act or sing—it’s all been focused on the fame aspect—so at this point theater would be a stretch. I've been meaning to talk to Neil about some advice on how to get started, though. He mentioned he knew quite a few people on Broadway, as well as his Hollywood connections.

Once I’d settled into Neil’s place, I fell in love with the city—with the energy, the excitement of knowing this was where the greatest artistic minds in the world mingled, not in that other place. We could be out for a midday stroll, Neil in tennies, me in the buggy—and of course whichever of his staff he brought along to push me—and we might run into anyone from De Niro to Spike Lee to Tina Fey. I love her, by the way. Huge fan. I remember looking up at the skyline and thinking how lucky I was to be here, and to have another seventy, eighty, ninety years to enjoy it, all without ever having to work for a living.

 

Interviewer

So despite your stated efforts to stay connected to the public, it appears you mostly travel in celebrity circles. Rumor has it you’ve been seen with Serena Williams. Anything happening there?

 

JH

We were both in Paris for the Open. Serena to play, obviously, and me to observe and be observed. She’s a wonderful person. Really down to earth when she’s not on the court. In fact she hates to talk game when she’s relaxing. But we’re just friends. In any case we both travel too much to make something like that work.

 

Interviewer

But let me get back to something you mentioned at the beginning of the interview, which was an allusion to society’s hierarchy. So many people would love to be famous, but the field seems to be shrinking in a way, closed off to talented and intelligent newcomers who don’t have the connections, in deference to the privilege that you exhibit, the kind that comes from geniture and cronyism. Movie roles go to sons and daughters of well-known actors. Music deals and book contracts get handed to people because of who they know, not due to talent. Your own case is the classic example. Honestly, what have you done to deserve your fame?

 

JH

I’ve heard that criticism before, Joe. I can call you Joe, yes? On the surface there’s some validity to it, but consider the impact of an entire class of people raised in an environment of fame. You can go to school for years and learn what it takes to become a doctor, or a lawyer, or an architect. There’s no such formal training in the realm of fame, so the decorum with which a personality handles his status has to come from somewhere. Look at the kind of people who have fame and don’t understand the first thing about living with it. I’m talking about the ones who beat the odds and make a name for themselves. You know the type: reality show stars, white rappers, NASCAR drivers. For a lot of them, six months after they achieve their fame, they’ve dropped off the radar. Why? They squander their celebrity on bling, but do nothing to ensure their future. Fame isn’t a goal, it’s a state of mind, and you have to learn to live in that state. It’s the twenty-first century version of the bodhisattva.

 

Interviewer

Can you give me some examples of who you’re talking about?

 

JH

Don’t set any traps for me. I won’t name names. We all know who they are. In comparison, for me, fame has been bred through the generations. I didn’t inherit my status from my parents alone. My father’s father was an executive at MGM. His father built sets in the twenties. My mother’s mother was a body double for Barbara Stanwyck. There’s a tradition of fame in our family that gives us the ability to do it right, to carry our fame with grace and dignity. It doesn’t have to be connected to talent. And, um— um— hang on. I think I just had a BM there.

 

Interviewer

Need a break?

 

JH

No, I’m well pampered.

 

Interviewer

Clever. So we were talking about the divine right of kings.

 

JH

Touché. I wouldn’t put it that way, but there is a certain aspect of destiny involved. The qualities of fame aren’t picked up on street corners. Lineage and breeding factor into the equation. Ultimately, though, it’s the public’s fascination that ensures celebrity.

 

Interviewer

Their adoration—

 

JH

That’s nice if you can get it, but one can be infamous too. Sometimes the more people despise you, the more famous you become. I know some politicians who thrive on that.

 

Interviewer

So if you weren’t famous, what do you think you’d be doing?

 

JH

That’s like asking an eagle what it would be like if he couldn’t fly. Although I love my followers, I have no desire to live like them. I probably couldn’t if I tried. That would be, in a way, disrespectful. Patronizing. They don’t want me to live the way they do. The reason they’re fans is because I embody a life they aspire to—or at least think they aspire to. And as long as I give them a certain access to that life, they’re content to live it vicariously.

 

Interviewer

They aspire, perhaps, but as you said, they have little chance of getting there.

 

JH

I won’t sugarcoat the realities. Honestly, their chances are about the same as that of a poor child being accepted at Yale or Harvard. There are exceptions, of course, but for the average person, fame has to remain an unreachable dream. But it’s a dream nonetheless. That’s the point, I suppose. The hope of someday becoming famous keeps people trying, keeps them living. Look at how many people say they want to become famous actors, musicians, even writers. Granted, it’s a stupid dream—they have no idea how to go about achieving fame, and even if they did they have almost no chance of success, but they carry that hope around with them for years, until they finally see the foolishness and the time and money wasted, and they either commit suicide or sit at home in their underwear and never go out.

 

Interviewer

Anyone you know?

 

JH

Just a composite.

 

Interviewer

It sounds like a tautology, but basically you’re saying fame should be the domain of the famous. For everyone else, sit back and enjoy the show. It makes me wonder what Warhol would say.

 

JH

If you count YouTube videos and porn as forms of fame, then Andy was right, everyone gets their fifteen minutes somewhere along the line. And by default that kind of fleeting, empty notoriety diminishes the prestige once associated with being well known. Honestly, that’s the media’s—and I include the internet here—effect on our society, and the cheapness it attaches to status will be its shameful legacy. But there is such a thing as real, lasting celebrity, and it’s something that people respect. So many talk about equality and opportunity for all, but most people don’t really care about that. They want classism. They want people to look up to. They enjoy having others they consider better-looking or more fortunate than themselves placed on pedestals. In a sense, the famous are today’s gods. Our world has done away with most monarchies, and to a large extent with religion and its icons. But people still need—in fact they crave—others they deem worthy of worship, or at least of obsession. Whether it’s to praise and mimic, or to criticize and condemn our excesses, the people need us. And here we are, proud to be of service. As I said, it’s human nature, and it’s not going to change. You know I could go on about this, but it’s time for my nap.

 

Interviewer

Of course. I didn’t mean to overtax you. One last question, though. When can we expect that requisite memoir? Have you started writing it?

 

JH

Joe, you know that no one famous writes their own stuff anymore. I’m still in the search phase, trying to find the perfect coauthor. Besides, I don’t have the patience to sit in front of a keyboard all day—most babies don’t. I’m more of an idea and implementation strategy guy. I delegate well, and frankly, it gives me a great feeling to know that I’m creating opportunity for others to achieve. We’re all just corporations under the skin, aren’t we? And remember, corporations are people—ha, ha!

 

Interviewer

It’s been great talking to you, Jakob. Now that I’ve had this experience I can’t help but think some of your fame will rub off on me, once this interview is published.

 

JH

Now, Joe, don’t tell me you’re one of those dreamers. Haven’t you been listening? Fame isn’t a disease that you can catch by breathing the air around me. But if it will help, you can always say you bought me lunch. Check, please!

 
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Joe Ponepinto’s novel, Mr. Neutron, will be published by 7.13 Books in spring 2018. He is the publisher and fiction editor of Tahoma Literary Review, a literary journal that has had selections reproduced in Best American Poetry, Best American Essays, Best Small Fictions, and other notable anthologies. His fiction appears in many literary journals in the U.S. and abroad. Joe teaches at Seattle’s Hugo House and Tacoma Community College. Find him on Twitter @joeponepinto.

Why We're Not Married

Cree Pettaway

It was no surprise to me that summer when my mother lost the charm on her bracelet my father gave her for her birthday. A silver heart no bigger than the tip of her thumb, lost in some garden incident, never to be seen or cared for again. It was that time in July when the figs ripen to the deepest shades of purple, just shy of bursting through their skin. Not even the aluminum pans, each swaying from a piece of fishing wire, could keep the chickadees from swarming the trees in the backyard. The sun set the entire city alight that summer. A piercing light constraining us all indoors most days, or to the beach to hide underneath umbrellas or bury ourselves in the salt and shade of the sea. Some days I thought we’d all catch on fire only to have our ashes blown away and forgotten once autumn came. Parts of my memory contain days lying under the bed of my room, and nights lying on the lawn hoping some foreign being amongst the stars would take me up to a world that can only be imagined in the minds of elementary school children.

Since school got out in June my parents had spoken no more than a fistful of words to each other, something I refused to acknowledge until about a month into my vacation, while unsticking my thighs from one of the rainbow-colored garage sale folding chairs we took to the beach, when my mother called to ask me to tell my father she wouldn’t be home to cook dinner.

“Can’t you just call and tell him yourself?” I asked.

“I asked you to do it. Is that a problem?” In reality it was not a problem, just foolish and childish of her to ask. I hung up the phone, picked up my glass of watered-down lemonade and pulled myself off the plastic. Through the screen door of the backyard I saw Dad’s head stuck in the fridge, rising up and down as if he’d find something he hadn’t discovered before. I wedged my foot through the crack of the door and pushed the screen back to walk through.

“Mom says she won’t be home to cook dinner,” I told him, placing my glass in the sink of oatmeal-crusted dishes and continuing up the kitchen stairs to my bedroom.

“I figured as much,” he called out. “It’s after six.” I turned to look at him before going completely up the stairs and saw him pulling a tub of peanut butter and a carton of just expired milk from the fridge. And the moment I saw this happen, saw my father pull out a spoon from a drawer and stick it into the peanut butter, I wondered how many nights he’d be eating dinner alone.

 
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While my father hunted for food, and his wife, I often found myself burning blisters into my feet while walking to Jenny’s house down the road. This was the same summer Jenny McCormick lost her bow-legged walk—and her virginity. Two crosses off her Pre-Senior Year Bucket List before the May flowers had proper time to be under watered and shoved in plastic bags on their way back to Lowe’s. Thanks to divorcing parents and one run-over turtle fiasco, ninth through eleventh grade had been hell for Jenny. A hell that resulted in nights escaping through her bedroom window and running down the street to come sleep on the floor of my room. She used to dream her parents would come into her room trying to steal her away for themselves.

“It reminded me of that story in the Bible where they cut the baby in half.”

“Since when do you read the Bible?” I replied.

“You’re missing the point, Lara Jean. What if my parents come in here one night and try to saw me in half? What’ll I do then?”

“Well, then you’d be dead. So I’m not sure you’d be doing much of anything. Plus, that never happened in the Bible. You’ve got your story confused,” I said.

“Confused or not, I’m still sleeping in your room.” At the time Jenny’s story struck me as peculiar, aside from obvious reasons, because the closest she’d ever come to religion was watching lustful clergy run a nuthouse on Jim Newton’s Horror Hour. Not exactly the average idea of finding solace and guidance in Christ’s workers.

Two weeks later I was sitting on Jenny’s bed, watching her do jumping jacks on an outdated grey shag rug she’d stolen from her grandmother's basement. After over a year of leg braces and corrective shoes, Jenny was grateful for the opportunity to jump with both feet facing forward.

“I don’t think you’ll be able to sleep at my house anymore,” I said.

She stopped mid-jump, clapping her hands back to her side. “And why is that?”

“Because I think my parents are breaking up.”

She stared at me for a moment, bewildered, and then started jumping again. “What’s that got to do with me?”

“I think I’m going to want to come here instead.” My house had turned into a silent civil war over domestic space, and I was sure it must have been how Sylvia Plath felt writing The Bell Jar. Both witness and star of one’s own demise. Editor to the makings of a hot mess and romantic horror story. Self-therapist afterwards.

“Doubt that.” She stopped jumping and sat on the floor with her legs crossed and looked up at me. “At least your parents will divorce and probably actually go live their own lives. You won’t have to look at them moping around all the time.” Her statement was right for reasons I can only now sympathize with. Quite possibly the worst part of the ending of her parents’ twenty-one-year marriage was that neither had moved out after the divorce. Not for long, at least. I wasn’t sure who was left more miserable—Jenny having to continuously watch the two halves that were now her family coexist under one roof, or Jenny’s parents, who I then and now believe stayed in the house together only to keep the screams of Jenny’s brother away.

 This idea I’d come to while staying at Jenny’s house right after her parents had divorced.  At the time, the plan was that Mr. McCormick would move out, and Mrs. McCormick would stay with the children. For three nights straight nothing but gasping shrieks filled the air, leaving me and Jenny both wanting to crawl the walls and claw ourselves out of the room. It wasn’t until Mr. McCormick returned that the screaming ceased, and for the first time ever I got down on my knees and praised the Lord. Thinking of my own child now, I suppose that I’d stay with my husband too if I heard the violating screeches that came from Jenny’s brother’s room those long years ago. Sounds that stopped my breath and made my bones ache. Made me want to know what afflicted him to make him sound so ill.

In those years I preferred to see the hollow faces of my parents in one house than to see either of them happy in whatever domain they would create for themselves. I didn't need the 5:30 dinners around the dining room table, or the car rides to see Pappy every other weekend. I didn't need any of the makings of a Hallmark family. Just twistedly comforting knowledge that both my parents lay in bed under the same roof for the sake of appeasing me. This same thinking is what has led me to stay with George all the time I have. A deep and foolish desire to pacify a child.

 
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My father’s pacifier of choice for my mother was jewelry. And she sucked every bit of it up as if every piece had been hand crafted to suit her ego. If Pandora never made a dime off of anyone else, they most certainly made one off my father those years he and my mother were married. By the time I was ten, a charm for my mother’s bracelet was no longer a gift she wanted, but it was one she expected to receive almost every holiday. “I’ll get a charm every Mother’s Day till the day I die,” she said once when I pulled the short white bag from behind my back. “I’ll have to wear two bracelets on each arm just to fit them all.”

The day the charm went missing, Oscar Wall from next door and his pudgy friend George Stanley came to tell me the neighborhood pool was drained. “They found Mr. Franco’s cat in it,” Oscar said.

“Dead. Definitely dead,” stated George. “No telling when they’ll get it fixed.” I’d been sitting on the lawn next to my mother, picking away what was left of the grass after she dug hole after hole to fill with false indigos. The heat had evaporated every ounce of moisture from the soil, leaving the digging process a tormenting one that birthed the beginning of calluses on my hands. While my mother punctured the ground with her trowel with a patience and familiarity I could not mimic, I resorted to digging with my hands, shedding the remainder of my nail polish into the roots of the flowers.

“The science teacher? Why was his cat in our pool?” I asked, wiping the shards of grass stuck to my hands on my back pockets.

“He lives just down the way,” Oscar said, pointing west down the rows of tepee roofs and inactive chimneys, all diminishing in size as I looked onward. 

“Well, that figures,” I’d said. “Mr. Franco is known for fucking stuff up for everyone.” A fact easily proven by his accidentally setting light to the chemistry lab a few months prior, and a fact that my mother chastised me for vocalizing.

“I don’t want them to think I’m the kind of mother that lets you curse in front of her,” she’d said, throwing her trowel and gloves aside and wiping the beads of sweat on her forehead away with the back of her hand.

“Since when are you the kind of mother that cares what teenagers think about you?” She hadn’t bothered answering, just kept sitting there as if she was waiting for me to pull the words out of the air and shove them back into my mouth. My father walked out of the front door holding my mother’s favorite gardening cup, capped with a lid to keep all the “dirt and must” from invading her near-translucent iced tea, and an iced-over strawberry popsicle I devoured the second he handed it over.

He took a seat in front of us, stretching his legs out as he lay back, staring at what was left of the sunlight for the day. “What a day,” he said. “What a damn day.”

“Oh, what exactly have you done today?” my mother asked, slurping the tea left at the bottom of her cup.

My father looked over at my mother a moment before speaking. “I don’t know,” my father said, glancing to me before focusing his attention back above. “I guess the bathroom painted itself and the garage cleaned itself out.”

“I didn’t know cleaning out the garage was such a draining task,” my mother said, rolling her eyes.

“No, you wouldn’t know, now would you? We can’t all be amateur gardeners.”

I flicked my popsicle stick across the yard attempting to cut the conversation short.

My father picked himself up in a slow, steady slouch of a manner I’d grown accustomed to seeing. “I’m going in,” he declared.

“Help me up?” My mother extended her hand. Her way of saying she wanted the fight to be over. My father reached out to her, firmly grasping her hand even after she stood in front of him looking down at their hands together.

I remember him turning her hand between the two of his, flipping the bracelet from right to left in search of what he knew was not there. “Where’s the charm I gave you?” he’d asked.

My mother looked down to the bracelet, examining it herself. “What charm?”

“The silver heart. It used to be right here,” he said, pointing to the now empty space between her initials and the soccer ball she’d bought after I won my last tournament.

“I don’t know,” she responded. “I guess it fell off while I was out here.” At the time, I wondered why neither of them bothered to look for where the charm might have gone. Took the time to pluck up indigos or search bushes to find one of the last pieces of evidence that the unity between the two of them ever existed. But by this point the love was lost—and neither of them felt much like searching for it. The rest of the summer I searched for the charm myself. Digging up and replanting flowers in hopes I’d find it under the roots, waiting for me to show up. The last memory of that day is me wanting to sit at the bottom of the hollow pool Mr. Franco let his cat drown in.

 
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I assured Jenny that in no way did I want her to ask her therapist to see me. This was Jenny’s gift from her parents after the divorce. Two hours a week to talk about whatever her heart desired, which mostly included what she thought the boys at school thought of her. How some died to know what color the cotton sheets that fitted her bed were, and what imprints of her body might haunt them. 

“I just don’t see what the point is talking about my parents in there,” she would say whenever I asked her how the sessions went. “My parents are already divorced. What’s there to talk about?”

“I don’t know,” I would say. “Maybe they think it’ll keep you from taking anything out on them. Someone else to vent to or something.”

“That’s what I’ve got you for, obviously.” And I guess it was an obvious thing. Second to my parents, Jenny was the best thing I had going. But at the time neither of us were interested in pouring our hearts and problems out to one another. That summer would not be filled with soul searching and coping mechanisms; instead it was chocolate milkshakes and sunbathing, and learning what falling in and out of love looked like from my dining room table, and the backseat of a car or two.

Once I made a list of everything I could possibly want to go right that summer. I wanted my parents to love each other again. For my mother to want to be at home instead of trying to escape my father. I wanted to know what it felt like to find someone and be able to hold onto them. To trust in them. At the time, I was uncertain of what late nights roaming the city meant. Why I couldn’t find it in myself to stay put. But I feel now as though they were about searching for everything that had managed to slip through my fingers. Any sign that meant family and love could be concrete. There was no one shelling out one hundred bucks a week to set me on this discovery.

 
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Two days after his cat died, Mr. Franco had a funeral for him in his backyard. The entire street came to support him, even a few teachers from school, who stood next to him while he said goodbye to Mr. Whitaker, his twenty-pound oil-black cat. The funeral was as sad and pitiful as one might imagine. Mr. Franco’s live-in girlfriend said a blessing over the patch of dirt that was now Mr. Whitaker’s eternal home. She wore baggy ashen overalls and a raven-color turtleneck that I could tell was cutting off her circulation, because it was “Mr. Whitaker’s favorite outfit.”

I may have been sad about it if I could have gotten past the ridiculousness of it all. Mr. Franco and his girlfriend were in strong competition with each other over who made the funeral the biggest spectacle—Mr. Franco with his tear-soaked raspberry cheeks and deep breathing throughout the blessing, or his girlfriend and her sweaty turtleneck and speech about why Mr. Whitaker was the most intelligent cat she had ever met, and was sure to live a “full and prosperous afterlife.”

When she stopped speaking we all had to go around and say what we liked about the cat. It was a rather short list, as many people hated him. My mother said she liked how he never climbed her fence at night like some of the other cats in the neighborhood did. This she said while looking at Mrs. Montgomery, whose cat was often found in our trashcan in the morning while Mrs. Montgomery did yoga in front of her living room window. Her seventy-year-old rump was not exactly the scenery the neighborhood was looking for, a point illustrated when Oscar and George would shoot foam darts at her window as they walked past. My dad said he was grateful for Mr. Whitaker because he kept rats out of the house, and exterminators could get pretty expensive. I said I wasn’t grateful for him at all because he never did anything for me but cause me problems. Mr. Franco let out another deep breath and with that the ceremony was over.

About a week later the pool was refilled and Jenny, Oscar, and I were first in line when the chains were taken off the gate and the “Open” sign put back up. For weeks it was all we could think about. Stretching our toes underneath the push of the water, feeling weightless both in thought and body. But somehow the reunion seemed anticlimactic. For me at least. While the pool was drained it felt like exactly the place I wanted to be. Where I needed to be. Away from home with the only concern being getting in before dark. But now I stood just shy of the deep end, gasping for breath and feeling an overwhelming urge to be on the other side of the gate.

“Are you alright?” Jenny asked, looking at me. “Why’s your face look like that?”

“Yeah, you look like you’ve seen a ghost,” Oscar chimed in. “Is it Mr. Franco’s cat? Do you see him out here?” He leaned in slow and deliberately like he was telling me a secret he didn’t want Jenny to hear.

“That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard,” Jenny said. “Of course he’s not out here. He’s burning in cat Hell right now.”

“I’m fine,” I said. “I just need to get out.” I sat on the concrete just outside of the pool and watched Jenny and Oscar get in while I tried to catch my breath. Jenny lay back on the water with her arms and legs fanning in and out, and I somehow felt she was as relieved to have the pool refilled as I thought I might have been. Oscar mimicked her on the other side and now the only thing that seemed out of place was me. The water wasn’t too hot or too cold, but there was also nothing right about it. At first I hated Mr. Franco for letting his cat get drowned in the pool, but now I hated more that it was refilled. For the past couple of weeks its abandonment was one of the only things I could relate to.

 
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He was attractive in that way injured dogs were on those pet adoption commercials. Someone who was usually ignored when roaming the streets, but when given a platform and fifteen seconds of fame, possessed an overwhelming air of desperation that could not be ignored. This is precisely the feeling I had when I ran into George Stanley after high school. He was the kind of man who was not satisfied by physical exhaustion from a hard day’s work of getting covered in grime. His gratification came with synthetic arrogance and polished trophies.

There were not many things to be famous for in Greenwood, Alabama, but the five-consecutive-year winner of the singing competition at the Gulf State Fair was certainly something to be noticed. George was as famous for the fact that he couldn't sing as he was for having taken home the first-place trophy year after year. "The best of the worst" they called him, and that was the perfect description to sum up the distressed sound that shook my nerves every time I'd hear it. George did not mind the attention, no matter how he got it, and strained his voice and swayed his hips every year to the kind of song found on a jukebox in some crusted out old bar. He'd always begin his performance with, "This is a song for my daddy," as if his daddy was some hero lost at war, and not what he really was, the owner of Big Will’s Slurp House.

I hadn’t intended to go by the fair, but at the time it seemed like a better idea than going home and packing up my room with my mom. George was standing on Stage B, next to Jimmy Riffle and his Gator Boys Road Show. I remember thinking that one of Jimmy Riffle’s alligators might escape its wire arena and attack George on stage, relieving the audience’s ears. But of course no such thing would happen, so I stood there and watched George sing until his eyes watered, either from tears or the strain of trying to make his words touch the audience in the same way he felt them. A ruffle of wind blew past the stage and into George’s shirt, puffing it out against the constraints of the flaps that were tucked into his jeans. The image of it all was quite tragically beautiful, and I, with a savior complex that often had me roaming the pound for some lost soul to take home, found the disaster of his performance irresistible.

When it was over, the crowd applauded and cheered just as they would have if George had been the best of the best. As he walked off stage, polishing his trophy, I walked up to him and told him how much his singing really did almost sound like Hank Williams himself, a comment I would have to regurgitate every holiday after we were married when George would bring the story up to his parents.

“My Georgy is surely better than Hank Williams,” his mother would say because she lived for the opportunity to challenge anything I said. Even if it meant lying. “Well I bet Hank didn’t have half the range George does.” Of course this was smoke up George’s ass, but I let George and his mother live in their lie as long as it meant I got out of cooking for the holidays, and having to watch Mrs. Stanley feed my five hours of work in the kitchen to our dog.

“He just looked so starved,” was her excuse. “The poor thing looked like he was about to pass out.”

“I’d rather not have a diabetic dog, so I’d appreciate it if you’d stop feeding him.”

“One plate is not going to hurt him. Look,” she said pointing to Buster licking the creamed potatoes from her plate on the floor, “he likes your food better than I do. He might as well eat it to keep it from going to waste.” And so the cycle continued every holiday until I decided the best thing to do to save my sanity, and my dishes, was to eat dinner at George’s parents’ house.

The last time I saw George's family we had them over for dinner and the dog barked the entire time. Or was that his mother? The bottom of her heel had barely scuffed itself across the foyer before I regretted telling George we could have his parents over. His mother had the same glossed over look in her eyes that George did when we went to dinner or parties with my friends. A knowingness that he’d only be there momentarily, so there was no need to take anything in. To unpack the details and consume himself with thoughts other than where he was moving on to.

I did my best to stay in the kitchen and bang dishes and cabinets around in hopes that no one would suspect why I was really in there. I was one back-handed compliment away from sticking my head in the oven, letting both me and the pecan pie dry out to an unrecognizable crisp. At least then we’d both be saved from the torturous scrutiny of that night. But one can only run off to the kitchen so many times and return empty handed before being found out. Charlie managed to get out of dinner by studying at the library, and I wished I could have been with him learning who conquered what empire in the 1800s, instead of having my home invaded by his grandmother.

“I like how you don’t make your pie too moist,” his mother said, holding one pecan on the end of her fork as if waiting for either it or herself to decide what would happen next. “Harold has to have his food real dry. Too moist and he’s afraid his dentures will slip right out.”

“Real dry,” Mr. Stanley repeated pushing the pie around in his mouth. He licked up the gelled matter that fell on his shirt, and I looked to George and he shook his head and held his hand up to stop me. Despite wanting to ban Mrs. Stanley from my residence, I gave in to George’s plea to have his parents over when they started having renovations done. A process that was estimated at three months was taking twice as long, and meant that I had to play nice and pretend like I didn’t want to send Mrs. Stanley back to the mold that now infested her living room carpet after a tiler slipped through a weak spot on the roof. I had to play Lara Jean, Queen of being Mrs. Stanley’s punching bag. That final dinner seemed to encompass all the complications and misfortunes that were my marriage to George. No sanity or compassion there. A short ride on the way to somewhere else.  Nothing about the meal felt final at the time. It was the same merry-go-round I’d been on for years, and expected to continue on until either I or George’s mother died. But as fate would have it, divorce came first, and there were no more standoffs between Mrs. Stanley and me. In itself, a relief that was worth the trouble it took to get.

So it was a surprise to me a few years later when I spotted her coming out of Kitchen on George, looking as Miranda Priestly and unapproachable as ever, partially hidden by the plaid wool cape I’d given her several years prior. There are certain meetings in one’s life that ought to be planned. Proper time to say whatever grievances there may still be, and properly address everything and mail problems back to the past. This was one of those meetings.

She turned in my direction just as the wind began to shake the limbs overhead, causing a few leaves to skip free and land on the shoulders of her wrap. She had never looked this beautiful when George and I were married. Her appearance, although lacking any sign of fragility, was lighter than before. I watched the movement of her eyes and the recognition they found in tracing my body from limb to limb. I gave a slight wave, unable to decide what else to do. The nod of her head and the tightening of her cape around her gave me the confirmation that I shouldn’t approach. She maneuvered from her spot in front of the restaurant to the pavement across the street in two long movements, both easy and quiet in stride. I couldn’t decide if I was hurt, disappointed, or relieved that our reunion had been cut down to casual mannerisms of people who just happened to pass one another on the street. I followed Mrs. Stanley with my gaze as she traipsed through the park and down toward Magnolia Cemetery. I wanted to ask her where she was going that was more important than stopping to make small talk with me, pretending to take an interest in what I had been up to lately—and why she’d hated me so fiercely all those years George and I were together. I replayed the questions in my mind one after the other while I waited for Jenny and Oscar to meet me at the restaurant, mouthing silent words of how I might reply to her answers. Of course I wouldn’t get such satisfaction of speaking to her, we were much too foreign to each other for that now, but I hoped in some small way it might cement all the reasons why George and I weren’t married.

 
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I came to the decision to leave George the same morning Charlie saw me spitting in his dad’s coffee. He hadn’t said a word in response, just sat at the table with his bowl of cereal, crunching bites and hitting the spoon against the bowl. Not a day in my life had I voluntarily drank coffee, but that morning I made myself swallow the whole cup just to show Charlie how sorry I was. The burning and blistering of it on the way down I considered my punishment for letting Charlie see how much I had grown to dislike his father.

I placed the empty mug in the dishwasher, amongst the unwashed dishes from last night’s salty beef stew, and sat across the table from Charlie and pretended to read through the papers he left for me to sign on the table. “Charlie—,” I began.

“You don’t drink coffee,” he said, cutting me off and pushing his chair back from the table.

“No, I don’t,” I said. There’s a look children give when they know more about what their parents are up to than they should. A look I’d made more times than I can count, and that I saw then staring back at me, challenging me to say anything other than the truth.

Our eyes stayed strained on each other momentarily, Charlie because he wanted to show he wasn't going to let this go, and me because I'd forgotten my second pair of eyes on my night table, before Charlie strutted over to me, looking too much like his father, and gave me a tight squeeze around my shoulders. “Just promise you won’t spit in my orange juice when you’re mad at me,” he said, and I could tell by his kiss on the top of my head that he was partially joking.

“Scout’s honor,” I assured. I handed the signed papers off to him and waved him out the door. Decades ago my mother had taught me how to love a husband, and how to lose love for him. Something I’d thought impossible for lovers who have what my parents had. Who have what I momentarily had. For years I’d cursed my mother, not understanding her need to leave behind the life she formed with my father for a life I believed could only pale in comparison. But sitting at the table, I considered what I would be like without George.  It seemed like that world—the world without him—was the most bearable. A lot less like an evening watching him at the fair, and a lot more like the feeling of relief I had when Jenny’s brother stopped crying at night.

 
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While Charlie sat at the kitchen table tackling his algebra homework, I waited on the porch for George to come home. Life seemed to be full of unnecessarily complicated equations those days, so the least I could do was help detract from them. That all started with leaving George. I had rehearsed the whole thing all day. George this isn’t...Well, you know the thing is, Charlie knows...I can’t think of a better way to say this… No matter how I tried to say it, the words weren’t enough to say how I really felt. And that feeling was a little like how the pet owners felt once they brought their newly adopted animals home. From a distance it’s pitiful but endearing, and you have an urge to bring it home because you believe that will be the answer to all its problems, and possibly yours. But eventually the infatuation wears off because you realize the thing shits and pees like every other animal out there. Patience and love eventually turn to tolerance and disdain and before you know it, you’re hoping for a full refund. Damn the humanitarian in you, you want peace. I hated myself for how I felt, and most certainly for my part in things. But I had decided to finally be an adult about the situation. To say that our relationship was over, and it was all my fault for trying to make something out of an emotion that was barely there. For trying to sustain love where there was very little.

“You’ve got to do what’s right for you,” Jenny had said. “You’re miserable and I can tell.” And the truth was I was miserable, and found myself creeping more and more into old habits of escaping to Jenny’s house when George and I were on bad terms. It went from a night on Jenny and Oscar’s couch attempting to distract myself from my marriage through Meg Ryan movies, to days at a time. It wasn’t fair to George or Charlie to be a part-time wife and mother. I knew from experience the damage such an experience could create, and I wouldn’t want to be the woman that didn’t want to invest wholeheartedly in the family she had. I didn’t want to be my mother.

George walked up the driveway dressed in a white button-down, still creased from the packing, and a pair of Oxford blue pants I didn’t recognize. He stopped at the steps and sat next to me, looking over at me as I avoided his eyes.

“I’m not exactly sure what to say,” I said eventually. “It’s just that—”

“I know,” he interrupted.

“You know what?”

“You think a man doesn’t know when his wife doesn’t want to be with him? You haven’t exactly been vague about it.” With this he took my hand and held it in his. “Of course I’ve known. I just planned on staying.” He kissed my hand swiftly and let it go as if the action set his lips ablaze, and let it fall between us.

“I thought about staying once too,” I said. “But then I thought about Charlie, and I thought about myself, and I just couldn’t see myself staying much after that.” With this I looked at him and waited for George to respond but nothing came. Possibly he had nothing to say, or possibly he had done what I had done long ago—give up on the idea of him and me. “Why had you planned on staying?” I asked. Curiosity struck me because George had never been one to do things he didn’t want to. Whether that be starting a load of laundry or putting the trash out on the curb on Wednesday nights. George Stanley was nobody’s helper. He was never really anyone’s husband either.

“Because that was all I could think to do,” he said matter-of-factly. All the time I thought I was the one dealing with loss of love. The one settling and staying put. But I too had been settled for.

“Wish we would have had this discussion sooner,” I said, rising to disappear into the house. “Might have saved us a lot of time.”

“Might have saved us a lot of years,” he replied. The sting of these words was truer than I wanted them to be. It wasn’t just the past few months, or the last year that either of us felt distant from one another and suffocated in this marriage.

Not one sound came from Charlie’s room that night. I waited with the same ghostly fear I felt in Jenny’s bedroom when her brother cried at night—and heard nothing, grateful I would never have to explain to Charlie years later how although his father and I had no longer loved each other, we stayed married. I walked into Charlie’s room long after I knew he’d be asleep. I remembered waiting in my room the night my parents told me they’d be separating. With Jenny’s nightmare in mind, I had sat at the edge of my bed waiting for someone to come. Waiting for my mom or dad to say I was staying with them. For someone to pack their bags, to scream and shout and call vile names that could never be taken back. To say I should be with one over the other, and practically force me to choose a side. To splinter my own home and myself in the process. But no one came. Not to say goodnight or otherwise. And I had the sickening feeling of wishing for it all to happen. To be wakened in the night. But no screaming came. No packing of bags and slamming of doors. No harm physically done.

I half expected George to be standing in Charlie’s room when I walked in, but there was only Charlie and I under the moonlight that shone in the room. I felt relief that I would not have to be a part of the scene I pictured happening to me when I was Charlie’s age, and disappointed at the same time that there was no battle to fight.

 
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Cree Pettaway.JPG

Cree Pettaway is a first year MFA student at Louisiana State University. Cree is a graduate of Spring Hill College, where she had several poems published in their online literary magazine, The Motley. Read more of Cree’s work on her website, creepettaway.com.

The End of the Beginning of the End

Paul Negri

Dying brought out the worst in Tex. He was becoming unbearable to live with.

“That’s him,” said Elizabeth, glancing at her cellphone, which she had laid flat on the sticky kitchen table. She pushed back the tired brown hair from her reddened eyes.

“It doesn’t sound like him. Didn’t you make him ‘God Save the Queen?’” Her brother Winston, nearly bald, sipped his tea. He peered at her over his dark glasses.

“I changed my ringtone for him. Now he’s ‘Rule, Britannia.’”

“Not much of a change, is it?”

“I just couldn’t take ‘God Save the Queen’ every ten minutes. If she’s not saved by now, it’s hopeless.” Elizabeth made no move to pick up the phone.

“For Christ’s sake, Liz.” Winston began drumming his fingers on the table.

“I can’t. You go.”

“He called you. Not me.”

“Your phone is off, isn’t it?”

Winston carefully moved his teacup away from the phone. He had delicate gestures for such a large, ungainly man.

“A daughter should not change her father’s diaper,” said Elizabeth.

“Since when are you so fastidious? The table feels like flypaper. This chocolate stain has been here for a week.” He moved his teacup further from the stain. “It is chocolate, isn’t it?”

 "Rule, Britannia" stopped. Then it began again.

“Do you know what just happened, Win? In that little interval of blessed silence?” Elizabeth put her arms on the table and leaned forward toward Winston. She had big forearms for a woman and the no-nonsense gaze of a long-time teacher of mathematics to high school students.

Winston said nothing. He put his teacup down and laced his fingers together.

“He tried to call you is what happened,” said Elizabeth.

“I have the vibrator on. I didn't feel a thing.”

“When do you ever?”

“I’ll feed Tex—later,” said Winston.

“No.”

“And watch TV with him tonight. The Battle of Britain DVD. Again.”

Elizabeth hesitated. “Rule, Britannia” began again. “And his feet.”

“Oh God,” moaned Winston, closing his eyes behind his dark glasses.

“Feed. TV. Feet. Or no deal.” Elizabeth folded her arms across her flat chest.

“How do you know he needs to be changed? Suppose he just wants his back scratched?”

Elizabeth leaned forward again. Winston leaned back. “It’s three o’clock,” she said. “He’s as regular as Big Ben. Still.” The imitation Big Ben hanging on the kitchen wall chimed three times. “It’s the only thing in him that still works. Except for the other thing.”

“What other thing?”

“What other thing do you think?”

“Oh Christ,” said Winston.

“The nurse says it’s not intentional. He can’t help it. It’s just—well, you know. Like a knee-jerk reaction.”

“I hope my knee jerks as well when I’m eighty.”

Elizabeth began to cry. “Classes begin again in two weeks. If you don’t do more, we’ll have to hire somebody for Father.”

“All right, Liz. Feed, TV, and feet. Deal?”

“All right.” Elizabeth dried her eyes. She took a deep breath. “You could clean the table, too, you know. Help straighten out a little. When Mum was alive this place was as immaculate as the Virgin Mary. And I at least helped when we were kids. You were a do-nothing.”

“Mum was a nurturer. You’re a nurturer. I’m a nurturee.”

“Why didn’t we get married, Win?”

“Because we’re brother and sister?”

“You know what I mean.”

“You almost did. What was his name again? Erwin?”

Erhard. How could you forget?”

“Oh, yes. The sour kraut, as Father dubbed him.” Winston smiled.

“Mum told me to say he was Dutch.”

“Would Erhard have gone for that?”

Nein. He was proud to be German. Even though he had never been to Germany. Or even Pennsylvania.”

“Why would he go to Pennsylvania?” With one pinky Winston nudged the phone further away from his teacup.

“Forty percent of the state is German-American. Don’t you remember?”

“Oh, yes. That’s why Tex refused to take us to see the Amish when we were kids. Nazis in straw hats, he called them.” “Rule, Britannia” chimed in once more. “You had to show him how to speed dial, didn’t you, Liz?”

Elizabeth groaned and snatched up the phone. “Hello?” She paused. “Oh, hi Father. My phone must have been off.” She glared at Winston and held the phone away from her ear. “Who? Me. Elizabeth.” She paused. “Your daughter. You called me.” She looked down at the table. “Well, you just sit still and try not to let it get all over. I’ll be right up.” She put the phone back down on the table and took a deep, painful breath. “You could come upstairs with me, Win.”

“Feed, TV, feet. No shit. That’s the deal for today. I’ll be back by six.” Winston got up.

“How do you rate three hours off?” asked Elizabeth. “God, Win, you’re not even employed.”

“Not gainfully employed. An actor is always employed. Employed in looking for employment.” Behind his dark glasses, Winston winked at her. “Come on now. This can’t go on much longer. What’s the quote Father always muddles? This is the end of the middle of the beginning of the something, something.”

“It’s Churchill,” said Elizabeth, “and he doesn’t muddle it. You do. And I do. Tex knows it by heart. And you better be back by six or I’ll track you down and cut off your knee jerk.”

 
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Tex stared up at the ceiling as Elizabeth did something he could not feel in a place he no longer cared about. He groaned.

“All done, Father. Okay?” She hovered over him. “Tex?”

“It hurts,” he said and fingered the cell phone by his side.

“I don’t think so,” said Elizabeth. “I think you just remember it hurting from before. Like when they cut off a leg and you still feel the toes.”

“You’d like that, wouldn’t you, Lizzie? To cut off my leg.”

“Yes, that’s every girl’s dream, isn’t it? To cut off her father’s leg.”

“Where are you going? You just got here.” His voice was dry and hollow.

Elizabeth sat down in the old armchair by the bed. She was startled. She thought she saw her mother, but realized it was herself in the mirror on the closet door.  She winced. “I’ve been here for three weeks, Father.”

“Where have I been?” Tex tried to lift his head, but it felt full of lead.

“Here. But before that in the hospice. You wanted to come home. Don’t you remember?”

“Oh yeah,” said Tex. “The hospice. They treated me like I was dying.”

Elizabeth stood up. “I’ll be downstairs. I need to tidy up a bit.”

“Yeah. You need make-up. Or maybe a new hairdo. Or something. Jesus, Lizzie, how will you ever get married?”

“I mean the house. And you know, Father, there are people who think I look just fine.”

Tex looked at her. “Who?”

Elizabeth sighed. “I’ll be downstairs. Call if you need me.”

“Will you have your phone on this time?” Tex turned his head to look at her even though it hurt his neck.

She turned her back on him. “Yes.”

“You promise, Lizzie? You promise on your mother’s grave?” Tex felt a cloud pass over him. “Is your mum back from the store yet?”

Elizabeth stood for a moment with her hands on her hips. Then she left.

The mid-afternoon light was dim through the window behind the dusty curtains. It made the room and everything in it look like a sepia-toned photograph. The gold English Garden Trellis rug had browned and the once pretty floral wallpaper had lost its bloom. The imitation Georgian chest of drawers and the matching nightstands were dull and without the sheen that once had warmed their oak veneer.  The headboard and footboard of the brass bed were tarnished and between their prison bar-like rods, beneath a crumpled blue blanket, lay what was left of Tex.  His large and lanky frame, which had earned him his nickname in the army, was shrunk and shriveled by age and encroaching disease. A few remaining gray hairs clung stubbornly to his head, a patchy stubble covered his cheeks and chin.  His muddy brown eyes peeked out from beneath low-hanging lids that made him look sleepy, though he almost never slept anymore. Sleep had been replaced by a semi-consciousness through which he wandered in and out aimlessly day into night into day.

Tex tried to pull himself up and achieved an inch or two. He reached toward the nightstand and knocked over a glass of water, the water cascading down onto the rug. “Son of a bitch,” he said and pulled himself forward by the edge of the nightstand. He reached past the framed wedding photograph of him and his wife to another larger one next to it, but couldn’t quite grasp it. He lay back down and took a deep breath. Then with one quick movement he twisted himself on his side, shot out his arm, and grabbed the far photograph. He fell back down and rested the photograph on his heaving chest. “Son of a bitch,” he wheezed and smiled at Winston Churchill sitting at his bedside in the 61st General Hospital near Oxford in 1944.

 
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Winston scanned the mahogany bar at O’Malley’s Authentic Irish Pub in the predominantly Hispanic town of Freeport, Long Island. There were a half-dozen men at the bar and stout George the bartender was arguing with one of them. George stopped arguing long enough to nod at Winston. “Hey, Hollywood,” he called and pointed to a booth by the rear door.

“A Guinness, George. And a few of your lovely hard-boiled, if possible.” Winston made his way between the tables and the wall of booths to the last one in the row and squeezed in opposite his agent Sid Kline. Kline was a small, nervous man with quick gestures. “This is real pissy beer, Winnie. Can’t you find a better dive to drag me to? Or get on the train and come to 54th street?”

“Shhhhhh. George is a sensitive guy. And he gives me credit. And I can squeeze free eggs out of him.”

“Hey, Hollywood,” shouted George.

Winston went to the bar and took his Guinness and a bowl of three hard-boiled eggs. “Put it on my tab, Georgie. And my friend’s there, too.”

“You’re going to settle up soon, right guvnor?”

“You bet. I’m up for something big.”

“Cut a leg, buddy.”

Break. That’s break a leg, George. And thanks.”

Kline fidgeted on the bench. “Who built these booths? Noah? I think I’ve got a splinter in my ass.”

“That’s authentic mahogany imported from a pub in Ireland. You’re now part of a long tradition of Irish asses that have graced that bench. Feel the history.”

“Next time you come to the office like my other Oscar contenders.”

“Stop bitching, Sid, and give me the good news,” said Winston. “It’s good, right?”

“You better eat an egg.”

“Oh Christ. You’re kidding, right?” Winston took a long drink of beer.

“You were close, Winnie. Real close. Second, as a matter of fact. You were the second best frog out of twenty.”

“Who got it then? There was nobody there that could touch me. And you said the producer really, really liked my work.”

“She did. But they gave it to that old Mexican guy. The one with the gravelly voice.”

Winston cracked an egg and peeled the shell bitterly. “Goddamn. How could they give it to him? He had an accent a mile wide. How can he be the voice of a British frog selling toilet paper?” Winston shoved the whole denuded egg in his mouth.

“They went nuts for this Mexican guy. The animators are going to make a Mexican frog wearing a sombrero. Just based on his accent.”

“That’s great. I can’t even croak better than a guy who can hardly speak English.” Winston chewed his egg sullenly. He got teary behind his dark glasses.

“I’m sorry, Winston,” said Kline, sipping his beer and making a face. He wiped some foam off his thin black mustache. “But I think voice-overs are definitely the way to go for you. And there’s more and more of that work, what with Internet ads and all.”

“I’m a legit actor, Sid. You know that. This voice-over shit is just filler. Right?”

Kline pushed his beer to the side and took an egg. “Look, some actors are better heard rather than seen. You’ve gotten a little—well, a little hard to cast. You’re a man of a certain age. And weight. No offense.”

“I’m a fat old fuck. Is that what you’re saying?”

“Come on, Winnie. There were a lot of great fat old fucks. Orson Wells. Brando, for Christ’s sake. I mean later on.”

“And my TV spots as the doctor in those Gas-B-Gone commercials. I had my own father thinking I’d somehow graduated med school. His friends called me for medical advice.”

“You were great in those. Gas-B-Gone, chocolate flavored. Too bad it bombed.”

“I was the best Herod in Wilde’s Salomé you ever saw. Didn’t you tell me that?”

“That’s right. You were.”

“Even if it was off- Broadway.”

“And four years ago,” said Kline. “You want that last egg?” Winston shook his head. Kline took the egg and put it is his pocket. “You still staying at your sister’s place--temporarily?”

“We’re at my father’s house.”

“Didn’t he die last month?”

“Yes,” said Winston. “But he came back. They resuscitated him. He can’t seem to let go.”

“Tough old bird. He’s a vet, isn’t he? Didn’t you say he was at D-Day?”

“Yes. It was the turning point of his life.”

“I guess it was for a lot of men.”

“I don’t mean the landing,” said Winston. “You going to finish that beer?” Kline shook his head. Winston took it. “He was wounded and shipped back to the UK. So he’s in a hospital there and Winston Churchill comes through visiting the GIs—with a cameraman, of course. Churchill spends some time talking to Tex—my father—I guess he kind of took a shine to him. He even wrote a letter to my father after the war.”

“You’re kidding.” Kline glanced at his watch.

“So Tex goes kind of Churchill crazy. He becomes a rabid Anglophile. Married my mom, a Brit he met back in the States. Named my sister and me after the Queen and the PM. He was as British as a man born in the Bronx could get.”

“Good thing it wasn’t Hitler who visited him in the hospital,” said Kline. “They’d be calling you Adolf.”

“He had his great moment. And he made it last. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing for a man to do.”

George called from the bar. “Hey, Hollywood. You want champagne?”

“I got to go,” said Kline.  He put a fifty-dollar bill down on the table. “Pay your tab, Winnie. And give me a call sometime.”

Winston sat for a while alone in the booth. Then he called, “Georgie boy, bring me that bottle of champagne—and another egg.”

 
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Elizabeth sat scrunched in the old faux leather easy chair. She nestled in the valley left by her father through his years of sitting there and thumbed through a photo album on her lap, the TV casting a flickering light over the photographs. She turned when she heard Winston’s heavy foot on the stairs and caught a glimpse of him passing by the living room.

“Where do you think you’re going?” she called.

Winston appeared momentarily in the dimly lit entry to the living room. He was spattered with something outrageously orange. “I am going to the bathroom, Liz. To attempt to wash off a dozen pureed carrots from my shirt. And face. And the little hair I haven’t as yet pulled out.”

“Why do we even try to feed him?  This is ridiculous.”

“Because he demands it. What can we say, no? Give us a break, Tex, and starve to death?”

“He doesn’t really want to eat. He just uses us for target practice.”

“And he’s got damn good aim. May I go detox myself now?”

“Don’t be long. You need to go back up there.” Elizabeth clicked off the TV.

“It’s okay. He’s watching the bombing of St. Paul’s. That’s his favorite part of the Battle of Britain DVD. He’s good for ten minutes at least.”

“Says you. He’ll be calling in no time and I’m off duty. Better hurry.”

“Thank you, Florence Nightingale.”

When Winston returned, his blue shirt was riddled with wet marks, the orange now the brown color of dried blood. He sat heavily on the sofa.

“Why don’t you take that off? I’ll throw it in the wash,” said Elizabeth.

“You can throw it in the trash. It’s full of bad memories now. What are you looking at?”

Elizabeth held up the photo album. “Remember this?”

“Mum and Father on Brighton Pier. You in your bonnet, me in my sailor hat. You were what, four? Me, nine, I think.”

“Father was in his glory. His first and only trip back to beloved England.”

“He still has the shirt. In the closet. The one with the great gloppy grease stain from his Brighton fish and chips,” said Winston.  “Mum could never wash it out.”

“He wouldn’t let her try. He never wore the shirt again, just kept it hanging in the closet and would pull it out now and then and look at it like it was the Shroud of Turin.” Elizabeth smiled.

Winston began to cry.

“Come on, Win. Please. Don’t.”

“This sucks. This really, really sucks. Poor old Tex. He doesn’t want this. What’s he waiting for?”

“Sometimes people need someone to tell them it’s okay to go,” said Elizabeth. “Someone they’ll listen to. Where’s Mum when we need her?”

“Rule, Britannia” jingled on the coffee table.

Winston blew his nose. “Coming, your lordship,” he said in a thick British accent.

“I’m going to get some sleep. Wake me up at midnight. I’ll take the graveyard shift.”

Elizabeth pulled herself up and trudged out of the living room then reappeared. She bent down and kissed Winston on the top of the head. “Love your accent,” she said.

 
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“Wake up, Liz.”

Elizabeth opened her eyes to the near darkness of her old bedroom. Only the dim nightlight by the door allowed her to see Winston sitting on the edge of the bed. “Oh God, is it midnight?”

“It’s one. I was giving you a break,” said Winston.

“Can’t you just shoot me? That’s the kind of break I need now.”

“Listen, you were right. I think Tex just needs someone to tell him it’s okay to go. Someone he really trusts—and respects.”

“Did I say that?” Elizabeth sat up and swung her legs over the side of the bed.

“And I know exactly the man for the job. Winston Churchill.”

“God, Win, have you been drinking?”

“Maybe just a little. But so did Churchill. And not just a little.”

Elizabeth turned on the lamp on the night table. Winston was still wearing his dark glasses. “Don’t you ever take those things off anymore?”

Winston took off his glasses. His eyes were dark and beady.

“I can do it, Liz. I can be Winston Churchill.”

“Oh, come on, Win.” Elizabeth leaned back against the headboard of the bed. “Tex will see right through it. You’re his son, for God’s sake. How could he not know you?”

“Because I’m a damn good actor. Better than good. I’m so good I could fool my father into thinking I’m a dead great statesman.” Winston smiled. He was excited. His little eyes twinkled.

Elizabeth stood up and walked to the small window overlooking the quiet street where she grew up. The same lamppost cast a feeble glow on the same darkened lawns. She remembered the days when her big brother would pace back and forth in her room, declaiming lines from Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams, and she, sitting on her bed, would shout bravo, a phrase he had taught her, although she didn’t exactly know what it meant. He had always, it seemed to her, wanted to act. He’d had some small successes, but they were few and far between and were fading further and further into the past. “Come on, Win. You don’t look remotely like Churchill.”

Winston didn’t say anything. He looked at her crumpled pillow. Then he put his dark glasses back on.

Elizabeth bit her lip. “But—you’ve got the heft.”

Winston looked up at her. “I do,” he said.

“And you could listen to his speeches on the Internet. Get the voice down.”

“I could,” said Winston.

“You know people who could do make up—what’s her name, the one you nearly married when you were playing Herod in Salome´?

“Marla. She’s a wizard. She can make you anyone you want to be. And she could still get me into wardrobe at the old company.”

Elizabeth turned to him, hands on her hips.  “You are a damn good actor. You could fool God if you had to. And Tex is not exactly God at this point. Not even exactly conscious.”

Winston stood up.  “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”

 
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“Don’t you hear that, Lizzie? What’s the matter with you?”  Tex squinted up at the ceiling.

“Hear what, Father?” Elizabeth took a clean undershirt from the dresser.

“That buzzing,” said Tex, “Buzz, buzz, buzzzzz.” His voice trailed off.

“That’s in your ears. I’ve told you before.”

“It’s a fly. Can’t you even kill a fly? Where’s your brother? Is he coming home for Christmas? Jesus, Lizzie. Can’t you kill that fly?” Tex tried to push himself up in bed, but couldn’t move.

Elizabeth bent over and gently pulled him up. “It’s August. Win was with you a few days ago. He’s away. On business.” She slapped her hands over his head. “There. I killed the fly.”

“It’s still buzzing.”

“Come on, Tex, hold still. You need a clean shirt.” She pulled his T-shirt over his head and winced at her father’s skeletal frame and got the fresh shirt over him as quickly as she could. She fluffed his pillows and laid him back down. She felt a twinge in her back.

“I want to eat,” said Tex.

“No. Not now.” Elizabeth pulled down the shade behind the curtains and the room softened into twilight. She took a deep breath. “Now listen, Father. You have a visitor.”

“Can’t you kill that fucking fly?”

“Shhhhhh. Listen to me. Someone very special is here to see you. But you’ve got to be good.”

“Is it Mum?”

Elizabeth fell silent for a moment. “No,” she said. “Not yet. But maybe soon.” She propped Tex up on his pillows, straighten the scant hairs on his head, and ran her hand over his cheek. “Maybe we should have given you a shave. Well. You look fine anyway.”

“You should fix yourself up, Lizzie,” Tex whispered.

“You stay just as you are, Father. Don’t slouch. I’ll bring him in.”

“Who?”

Tex heard him before he saw him.

“Tex, my boy. May I come in? I trust you’re not too indisposed.”

Tex could barely see the large man approaching him, but the voice was unmistakable.  Elizabeth followed close behind. “Father, do you remember Mr. Churchill?”

Tex stared. “Who?”

“Come now, my friend,” said Winston. “I haven’t changed all that much now, have I?” The small eyes, the high furrowed forehead, the jowly cheeks, the straight thin lips, and clamped between the lips a big cigar—all in the shadow of the Homburg hat.

“Your honor?” Tex’s eyes widened.

Winston stood for a minute giving Tex the full effect of his black wool chalk stripe suit, blue polka dot bow tie, and the large unlit pseudo Cuban. He took off his hat. “Can I sit for a bit, Tex? I’ve come a long way to have a chin wag.”

Tex’s face froze, like a plaster mask hardening, then suddenly softened into a smile. “I have to get up, sir. I have to get dressed,” said Tex.

“Now, now, you just lay back, my boy. You’ve had the devil’s own time of it, haven’t you?” Winston pulled the chair closer to the bed and put a hand on Tex’s arm.

“Do you want me to leave you two alone for a while, Father?” asked Elizabeth.

“This is Elizabeth, my daughter,” said Tex. “She takes good care of me. Lizzie, this is my friend Mr. Churchill.”

“It’s an honor, Mr. Churchill. Father has told me much about you,” said Elizabeth.

“I have a son, too,” said Tex. He motioned Winston closer. “Do you know what I named him?”

“Now what would that be, Tex?”

Tex reached out a gripped his arm. “Winston. After you, sir.”

“Well, sir,” said Winston. “That is a special honor. And as good a one as has ever been conferred on me.”

“He’s an actor,” said Tex. “I saw him in a play. And on TV once. Oh, he’s very good.”

“Better than good,” said Elizabeth.

Winston said nothing.

“I’ve done my best, sir,” said Tex. “I can’t do any more.”

“I know that, my boy. There’s no more you have to do.”

Tex took a deep breath and seemed to hold it for a long time. As he exhaled, he melted down into the pillows. Elizabeth stood on the other side of the bed and took his hand.

“You killed that fly, Lizzie. Your honor, there was a fly, but it’s gone.”

“I’m glad, Tex,” said Winston, his hand on Tex’s arm.

The room darkened and they sat in silence for a while.

“Your honor?” whispered Tex.

“Yes, my boy?”

“Is it the end?”

Elizabeth looked at Winston and closed her eyes.

Winston put his head close to Tex and said, “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

 
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Paul Negri was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY. He received an M.A. in English from Long Island University in 1970. He worked in publishing for many years, retiring from Dover Publications, Inc. as publisher and president in 2008. His stories have appeared in The Penn Review, The Vestal Review, Bartleby Snopes, Piff Magazine, Jellyfish Review and other publications. He has twice won the Gold Medal for fiction in the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Writing Competition. He lives in Clifton, NJ.

An Unfaded Black

Caleb Michael Sarvis

Grandpa Sly’s tooth fell out. The left incisor, Miles thought, whichever was the vampire one. It fell out of his mouth and into his coffee as he explained clichés to Miles. While Miles didn’t need the help, he’d been assigned guardian duty by his mother. They sat at the low wooden table, a corner between them. Grandpa Sly held the essay flat on the table, and drooped his head forward so he could make out the words, following the lines as if they were Braille. “Dark as night,” he was saying, and coffee splashed onto the line about the vast emptiness of outer space.

Miles stared at the newborn space in his grandpa’s mouth.

“Try something like dark as wet coffee grounds instead,” he said, and took another sip from his mug. “Or dark as the essence of a life looked back on.”

“Dark as your hair?”

“Nobody knows who I am. I've no hair left.”

Grandpa Sly smoked cigarettes well before he shot his sixteen-year-old son Bobby dead in 1973, but Miles’ mother said he was up to three packs a day after that. He’d cut it down since starting chemotherapy but still smoked a handful daily.

Years of D.A.R.E. and Tobacco Free campaigns taught Miles a lot about the consequences of smoking cigarettes, but it was awareness akin to walking on the moon. He believed it existed, but not within his realm of experience. At least, not until Grandpa Sly moved in with them to die. He might have avoided the brunt of it had it not been for his poor history grade and the convenience of his grandpa having been a successful copywriter in 1969.

“All of it’s online,” he told his mother.

“Yes, but your grandfather is not,” she said.

Of course he wasn’t online! When Miles told his grandpa he’d like a cell phone for his birthday, his grandpa scoffed at the idea and said, “You need to learn how to be alone.” But that was the point, Miles had thought. With a cell phone, the internet, he could always be alone. Instead, he was stuck at the dining room table with “Dying Sly,” as he called himself, learning about clichés instead of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.

Miles searched the rest of his paper for other pieces of "recycled nonsense" while his Grandpa Sly, mouth open, stared through the doorway into the family room where a large flat-screen television was mounted on the wall. Saliva bridged his lips like the webs in their attic. Though the television was muted, Miles recognized the orange scheme and the intrusive megaphone of the Tobacco Free campaign. His grandpa furrowed his brow; his eyes glossed in a reminiscence Miles was learning to recognize. A thin hose rested atop his lip, doing the work his lungs couldn’t these days. “I used to be the best. I could sell anything. Now they want to destroy my life’s work,” Sly said.

“Your ad work?”

“Don’t let anyone ruin you, Bobby.”

"I'm Miles, Grandpa. Bobby died."

"Not you, dammit. Him!"

Miles looked to the family room but saw nothing and returned his eyes to the space where his grandpa’s tooth used to be. Maybe the tooth had been a valve and now he was slowly losing his mind, too.

Grandpa Sly shot Bobby dead because he’d just taken a small hatchet to his sister’s forearm. Miles’s mother told him that her father’s biggest regret had always been raising his children in Brooklyn, rather than getting them out when his wife was still alive. “He spoke fondly of the Poconos,” she said to him, trailing at the end as if she didn’t believe it herself.

His mother was too young and shocked to remember the details, other than Grandpa Sly telling her the doctors found a “landfill of dope” in his system. They amputated the front of her arm, right above the elbow, and when she was in a particularly sour mood, Miles’ mother would scold him without her prosthetic, pointing her doughy stump for emphasis. Only recently had Miles considered what kind of terror she might be holding in. On a couple of occasions he heard her awake from a bad dream, repeating “No, no” forcefully before settling into the night.

“Black as a nightmare?” Miles asked his grandpa, snapping him to attention. He didn’t want his grandpa to die before his mother returned home. He wasn’t ready for that kind of responsibility.

“What?” Grandpa Sly swung around and knocked the mug over. Coffee spilled across the table, covering the history paper and into the middle of the puddle rolled the stained, dead tooth. The top half, once rooted in the gum, faced Miles and briefly swallowed his sight.

His grandpa pushed himself away from the table. “It was shit. Nobody would’ve bought it anyway.”

Miles wanted to tell him it was a school paper and not a piece of merchandise. This was a kitchen in suburban Maryland and not his office in 1960s Manhattan. He wanted to go up to his room, open his laptop and find everything he needed in a matter of seconds because this was 2017 and why couldn’t everyone just let it be 2017?

Grandpa Sly shuffled into the family room, dragging his oxygen behind him. Miles grabbed the roll of paper towels from the kitchen and watched the coffee spread across the white, a slow and irreversible growth. When everything was wiped clean and his paper in the trash, he grabbed his grandpa’s tooth, dropped it in a plastic bag and stuck it to the fridge with the magnet shaped like the Empire State building. At first glance, it looked like a souvenir awaiting the Tooth Fairy’s arrival, but as he hung it, Miles knew if anyone came for it, they’d be taking Sly with them. Maybe he and Bobby would find each other. Maybe Bobby would be cloaked, wound still fresh, wielding a scythe. Black as the reaper’s face?

“Bring me my glass,” his grandpa called from the family room. “Two cubes. Not three.”

Miles grabbed the short rounded glass, the only one Sly would drink out of, dropped two ice cubes and brought it into the family room.

“Bourbon.”

“It’s early. Mom wouldn’t like this.”

“Abigail? What does she know? She knows better, that’s what.”

Exactly, Miles thought. He glanced at their front door. His mother would be home with groceries soon enough. He wondered if his grandpa would drink quickly as he walked into the kitchen. Miles grabbed the only dark bottle from the shelf and filled his grandpa’s glass.

“Bobby, reach under that cushion there and grab the small carton.”

Miles turned to correct him but his grandpa wasn’t looking at him. He set the glass on the end table. “Which cushion?”

“No, I want him to get it.”

“I don’t think he can.”

 “Fine, the middle one.” He waved at the couch across the family room. “But I don’t understand why he’s acting like this.”

Miles didn’t believe in ghosts, but walking across the family room, he was on guard and didn’t know what for. He was wary of what he couldn’t see, of what he couldn’t feel, the weight of a whispering presence. Faces of strangers flashed from the television. Black as a tarred lung? Cicadas roared as one outside of the window. He lifted the middle cushion of the couch, grabbed the small cigarette carton and as his grandpa worked the lighter, Miles wondered why he didn’t smoke the marijuana the doctor prescribed him. From what he’d heard from friends, it wasn’t nearly as bad as cigarettes, and it was supposed to make the pain go away.

“Isn’t there a chance you could blow us up?”

“I’m the reason you’re here at all.” His grandpa blew smoke from his chair, skin loose and dry, a dragon guarding a throne, and sipped from his glass. “This is the life, Bobby.”

Afraid of getting sick himself, Miles disappeared into his bedroom. He left the door open, his compromise with his grandpa, his mother. Sly wasn’t supposed to be alone, but from what Miles could tell, he wasn’t.

He opened his laptop with the intention of writing his paper, but when he typed “Apollo 11” into the search bar, the predictive text offered “Apollo 11 hoax.” Up until that point, landing on the moon had been matter of fact, its legitimacy completely intact. This crack in the establishment was new to Miles. There were YouTube videos analyzing the discrepancies in lighting and shadows. Yahoo! was littered with questions and arguments, and Reddit featured debates with picture by picture analysis. The flag was waving, some people said, moved by something that wasn’t supposed to be there. Some theorists believed that not only was Apollo 11 filmed on a movie set, but that 12 through 14 were staged as well. One link led to another and he fell into a rabbit hole of PDF files and blog posts, but the more he read, the less likely it seemed. The more ambiguous things became, the more he wondered what his grandpa saw in the family room. Miles searched “proof of ghosts” and fell into an additional search that included message boards, apocalyptic warnings, and a video performance by a hologram rapper. He searched and searched and couldn’t find an answer for anything. Miles’ bedroom floor seemed a few degrees off, the world was no longer definite. Everything could be reexamined.

When his mother returned home to find a full ashtray and an empty glass, save for a few drops of bourbon, she stormed into his bedroom and demanded an explanation. When Miles offered that the moon landing might be fake, that some things weren’t as they seemed, she, with her one good arm, scooped his laptop and tossed it to the side. Frays of her blonde hair barely concealed the vein in her forehead and her cheeks blushed as if she’d been cut under the skin, blood pooling beneath a closed surface. The laptop lay on the side, screen still open, an image of a man in a sheet in full screen. Eyes closed, she whispered, “Do you not understand that he’s almost gone?”

“He’s got company,” Miles said. “Shouldn’t he be happy?”

Her hand was in her hair, her prosthetic limp at her side. “You savor the last of what you got. You don’t down it in one gulp.”

“Then let’s pour him another.” The words fell out of Miles, who was a blend of proud and ashamed. He wanted to take it back but never forget it.

His mother fell silent, her eyes shut. Miles waited for her to react, to see what his words meant. Instead, she scooped the laptop and returned to her bedroom. In his closet, Miles found an old black hoodie. It was a hand-me-down, the draw string missing from the hood. He slipped it over his shirt. The sleeves dangled over his hands, the hood almost covered his eyes. It smelled of a wooden box. There was a sharp crash behind the wall as Miles made his way to the kitchen, but he resisted the urge to press his ear to the door. Black as running mascara?

In the family room, the television remained on mute. Grandpa Sly was in the kitchen, sifting through the cabinets.

“What do you need?” Miles asked.

“That little brat put them somewhere. Who does she think she is?”

“She probably threw them away.”

Grandpa Sly tossed his hands into the air, though they only rose a little past his shoulders. His bald head drooped and he returned to his seat from earlier. He rested his eyes on the newly cloaked Miles, studied him for a bit, and shut them. “She means good,” he said.

Miles agreed but he didn’t do anything about it just yet. He was too concerned about his paper, and too concerned about his uncle’s ghost. “Was the moon-landing staged?”

“Staged?”

“Was it fake?”

“Where’s my glass? She took that, too.”

Miles grabbed a new glass and dropped two ice cubes in it. He poured more bourbon and set the glass on the table. He pulled a chair out for his grandpa and took the seat to the left of it. “Some people think it was fake.”

“Only hopeless believe that shit.”

“What about ghosts?”

Grandpa Sly sat in the chair and pinched the loose skin on the top of his head. His teeth were otherwise a complete and yellow set, making the dark gap all the more noticeable. It seemed to project a shadow onto the table, a simultaneous reminder of what had been and what was coming. Miles looked to the bagged tooth on the fridge and was reassured to see nobody had taken it. “Ghosts,” his grandpa said. “Ghosts, ghosts, ghosts.” He grabbed the glass and traced the creases along the sides that cut into the bottom, creases that contrasted with the unaltered smoothness of his normal glass. “Ghosts are just reminders we didn’t set for ourselves.” He slid the wrong-glass away.

“Is Bobby a ghost?”

“Bobby,” he said and nothing more. He eyed the glass and licked the sides of the teeth that bordered his lost one. “Where’s my glass?”

Miles didn’t have an answer his grandpa would like but he wanted to know more. “Why did Bobby chop off Mom’s arm?”

“Drugs.”

“But what did the drugs do?”

“He thought she was going to take him away.”

“Away where?”

“The underworld.”

Miles hadn’t heard this before. He wanted to press his Grandpa further, but not his luck. “Do you remember the first time we landed on the moon?”

Grandpa Sly picked up the glass, sniffed it, but replaced it on the table. “I was in my thirties, I think. We sat around this box with all the lights turned off. Abigail was just in high school, Bobby a few years younger. Greatest moment in advertising. It was so easy to sell when everyone was caught up in wonder. That’s the trick, kid. Distract everyone.”

Miles thought about something he’d read earlier regarding the government’s desire to distract the country from Vietnam. The kitchen fell silent, lending his attention to the hum of the refrigerator. Black as smoke blowing out an old exhaust? It roared gently like an engine in the distance, the cicadas sang in beat outside. His eyes fell onto the glass his grandpa refused to drink out of. Miles reached for it, pulled it close, and took a whiff. It reminded him of elementary school, when he’d walk from the bus into the garage, and find his grandpa draped over the hood of his green Impala, gun holstered to his waist. The bourbon had a little less dirt, but gas all the same. Miles took a slow sip. It struggled to go down, gripping at his throat and esophagus until in thrashed in his stomach. After a few breaths, he took another.

Miles’ mother joined them in the kitchen, her prosthetic gone now. Miles finished the glass quickly, clenched his teeth and smiled at his mother. The scars, just above where her elbow should’ve been, crossed like marks he made in Play-Doh as a kid. “What are you two talking about?” she asked and fingered the sleeves of his hoodie.

His grandpa smiled and wheezed out a laugh. “Bobby, go find my glass,” he said. He peered over Miles’s head, and nodded toward the hallway that joined all of their bedrooms.

“You have another one in your room?” Miles asked.

“No. She took it. Bobby’s going to find it.”

Miles knew his dead uncle wasn’t busting doors down, demanding a glass his mother probably hid, but concern kneaded his gut. His mother looked wounded by his grandpa’s words. She put her arm on Sly’s shoulder and kissed his lunar head. Miles had only recently begun to understand what it meant to respond to something, but he didn’t understand why his mother reacted the way she did sometimes. What made her tick? He hated when people said “itching” when they meant “scratching,” or when the girls at his school called hair-ties “pony tails.” What did his mother hate, besides his own disobedience? Why wasn’t she scared of Bobby?

He kicked his feet as they dangled from his chair. They were heavier than he’d remembered, the kitchen a little wider. “Last year I liked watching cartoons and this year I like reading stuff on the internet,” he said. “What will happen next year?”

His mother found a blackhead on his nose and squeezed until a skin larva nestled on her thumb. At the sink she washed her hand by rubbing it against a sponge she kept in the sink. Before she returned to the table, she caught sight of the dead tooth in the bag.

Sly’s eyes squeezed tight as he found the long, rectangular light of the kitchen. “In that drawer, the one with the batteries, is a pencil box. Grab it.”

Miles found the box and brought it to his grandpa, who opened and pulled out what looked like a cigarette crumpled on both ends. He closed the box, pulled out a lighter, and lit up as he’d done earlier in the day, except when he inhaled, he held it in for a few seconds longer, blowing out of his nose, his shoulders surrendering as he did so. This new smoke was thicker and creamy compared to the wispy, ghost-like smoke of the cigarette. It reeked of something his mother may have cooked on a Thursday, only a few days too late, the ingredients already expired. Sly took another puff and passed the joint to Miles.

Miles looked to his mother, who dangled the bagged tooth in front of her and didn’t take the joint away from him. He held it in his fingers, too scared to try anything with it.

“I don’t know what to do,” Miles said.

“You got to breathe it in, otherwise it doesn’t do anything.”

“Please, be careful,” his mother said.

“I’m tired and I’d like to see this one become a man,” Sly said.

Miles put the joint in his mouth, watched the paper shine like the backside of a rocket. He inhaled too much, and coughed the joint onto the floor. He tried to hold it in but he coughed and coughed while his Grandpa Sly laughed and laughed. Miles’ mother grabbed his hand and squeezed, and he could feel every bit of helplessness she was sending his way. This was his grandpa’s time. They weren’t in a position to say no. Miles’ chest burned and his eyes grew heavy and he asked, “Why do people like this?”

“Sometimes it’s easier to hide,” Grandpa Sly said.

“It seems like it’d be easier to die.”

“Miles!” his mother said.

Grandpa Sly pushed himself from the table, fumbled with his footing. He took the joint from Miles and pinched it until it crumpled, bits of marijuana sprinkled the floor. “Like the Challenger,” he said.

Miles’ mother placed her hand on his Grandpa’s elbow. His skin draped across her palm. Her stump hung at an angle, an unfeathered wing. Miles realized this must’ve been what death looked like. He closed his eyes, afraid to look, but the backs of his eyelids were a variegated static. The pulse too menacing to avoid. Miles opened his eyes to an empty kitchen. The bag remained on the table, no dead tooth inside. Black as a quiet room?

In the family room, Grandpa Sly sat alone in his chair. A purple neck pillow hung below his jaw like the rings of Saturn. His eyes waved like the northern lights. Miles pointed at his grandpa, closed one eye, and twirled his finger as if winding a clock older than himself.

His mother returned with a large blanket and tucked Sly into his chair. Miles reflected on his own bed-making skills, how he struggled to lay a blanket evenly with two arms, and cherished the ease with which his mother fit the blanket snug around his grandpa. The cicadas roared with twice the cavalry. Sly seemingly asleep, Miles’ mother turned to him. He raised his hand as if holding a hatchet, sleeve dark and loose, and mimed a chop.

“Explain this,” she said, palm outstretched in front of her. The dead tooth rested in the center.

“Preservation,” Miles said. “I think.” He stopped chopping and grabbed the tooth with his thumb and forefinger. Miles caressed his own vampire teeth with his tongue. In his mouth they felt heavy, but his grandfather’s tooth weighed halfway-imagined. “He sees Bobby,” Miles said. “He’s probably close, right?”

His mother scratched the end of her stump too hard and blood peeked from the center of the doughy crease. She raised it to stop the blood from dripping on the floor and Miles thought of Vesuvius.

He followed her to the sink where she wiped the blood with a damp cloth.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

“Why?”

“I never had a dad, so.” Miles didn’t want to finish the thought. It wasn’t either of their fault. Growing up was learning what was worth saying.

His mother took the tooth from his hand and grabbed the bottle of bourbon he’d poured earlier. “Come with me,” she said. From her bedroom, they grabbed Grandpa Sly’s glass and walked out onto the back patio.

“Remember that thing we did long time ago?” his mother said. She set the glass down on their patio table. “We put one of your teeth in some Coke, let it rot.”

It was a bright memory and one of the first things he’d done with his grandpa. His baby tooth sat in the Coke overnight, and in the morning was a nugget of decay. Miles remembered Grandpa Sly’s smile as he pulled the tooth out the glass, his own teeth a yellow horizon. “Be careful what you let in,” he’d said. “Plenty of poison in this world.”

Miles’ mother filled the glass with bourbon, lifted it for a whiff, and returned it to the table. “No sugar in the hard stuff, that’s how you know it’s for adults,” she said and dropped the tooth in the bourbon. “At least that’s what he always told me.”

The ripple from the drop extended outside the glass and to the edge of Miles’ peripheral. His tongue stuck to his teeth like cheap school glue. “What for?” he said.

“Preservation,” she said. “I think.” She stared at the tooth. Too hard, Miles thought.

Miles pulled the hood off his head and kissed his mother’s stump, something he’d never done before. His mother ran her fingers through his hair, scratched the back of his head. “I’m not ready for the silence,” she said. “But I’ll be okay.”

He’d always imagined death to be bigger, something out of orbit. Through the patio window, Miles watched Grandpa Sly sit with his head back and mouth agape. His chest rose and deflated with a shudder. Everything felt quick, like danger in a dream. Behind his grandpa, through the doorway, there was a soft flicker, as if someone had slipped past the hallway light, and Miles understood it was no giant leap.

 
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Caleb Michael Sarvis is a writer from Jacksonville, Florida. He is the fiction editor for Bridge Eight Literary Magazine and received his MFA from the University of Tampa. His work has been featured in or is forthcoming from Hobart, Literary Orphans, Panhandler Magazine, Flock, Barrelhouse, Fjords Review, and others. You can follow him on Twitter @calebmsarvis or come to Jacksonville and grab a beer.

Lisbon Road

Barbara Shomaker

My Uncle Arthur went to the Second World War with two different colored eyes, which everyone said was caused by the scarlet fever. He was also a little hard of hearing. The regular military wouldn’t have him, but the Seabees took him. They cleared land and built camps for the Navy and I guess it didn’t matter if someone couldn’t hear well or saw things differently. Uncle Arthur was a cook and won the prize for the best hooch in the camp, three years running. My grandmother was inordinately proud of her son’s award. She hung it next to Arthur’s picture above the mantel. But then, she spoke hardly any English, so having the best hooch might have seemed a great honor. All of this was told to me by my mother, Marie, who loved and resented Arthur in equal measure.

“I remember when Arthur was born,” my mother told me, “your grandpa handed out silver dollars. It was during the Depression and we hardly had anything to eat. Somewhere, though, he found silver dollars and whiskey to celebrate the birth of his son. But it was me who looked out for Arthur. I taught him how to smoke and fight and where to hide when your grandpa came home loaded.”

 
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The last time I saw Arthur was at my mother’s funeral when I was twenty-eight. He and I were the only two people there. Finding the right burial place had been a slow and melancholy process. I had bypassed the suburban cemeteries, with their row on row of flat memorial slabs, spindly adolescent trees, and the haze of grease from the surrounding fast food restaurants. Instead, I had chosen an older graveyard, in one of the many Eastern European neighborhoods that were scattered throughout Cleveland. The tombstones here were tall and randomly placed, some leaning companionably toward one another, as if sharing old stories about the people they stood for. The trees were ancient, firmly rooted with broad arcing crowns. The cemetery backed onto an alley lined with neat little bungalows, and it was there that I found a place under a birch tree. I imagined my mother as an inquisitive ghost, peeking into those bungalow windows at the dinner hour. This was a place for old souls, which I knew her to be.

It was a changeling April day when we buried my mother. Budding trees dripped, and the grass and tombstones were wet from a recent shower. Clouds and sun elbowed one another to be the backdrop for her funeral. A priest who didn’t know her very well said a few neutral words. I was cried dry, but Uncle Arthur wept openly and inconsolably. He was a big, awkward man, his hands and wrists hanging from the sleeves of his ill-fitting jacket. “Aw Sis,” I heard him say. “Aw Sis.”  

 
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In the ways that really counted, life had always been about my mom and me. My father had disappeared early on. I had no brothers or sisters. My grandmother was dedicated to being disappointed and had little capacity for love beyond Arthur. There were really just the two of us. “Two for the road,” my mom used to say. “The two amigos.” Knowing this about my mother and me was my true north.

But the day of her funeral, standing beside my weeping uncle, I finally understood that there had always been three of us. Sure, “two for the road” meant the road we were on—my mom and I. Yet the day she was buried, I saw that there was another road, one that adjoined ours, an older road where my uncle stood in the shadows, expecting the love and constancy that had always come his way, and that she was willing to give him.

 
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Most of my memories of Arthur were shaped by my mother. For a short time, we lived in the same house with my grandmother, Arthur, his wife and their two kids. I was a young child then, during the early 1950s. We were a crowd in those small spaces, but it was after the war when housing was scarce and families were accustomed to tumbling through each other’s lives.

Arthur was a tall, shambling guy who didn’t have much to say. He was thin, his Levis clinging to the boney ridges of his hips. He often seemed to be squinting, as if trying to picture some distant place. I remember him as somehow fixed, always standing or sitting in one place, hands folded, ruminating. Much as I think my mother cared about him, she was irritated by his inaction.

“Arthur,” my mother would say, “why don’t you read a book or go to a movie? Do something. You’re always moping around.”

“Aw Sis, leave me alone. I’m all right.”

It was complicated. Part of her was devoted to him. She had been his defender in a world where boys like him needed the protection of someone savvy, nervy, brash. It would have been better if he’d had an older brother to do this work. But he had my mother, and she was his willing, eager champion. As a child, she stood up for him against the bullies in the neighborhood. As an adult, she took his part in arguments with his bosses and eventually his wives. In retrospect, she probably went where she shouldn’t have gone in his life. But she wouldn’t have seen it that way.

The counterweight to her devotion was a deep anger. She was the smart one. She was the hard worker. She was canny and shrewd, the person the immigrants in the family called on to unravel the tangled bureaucracies that were part of living in this country. She was the constant, the faithful child. She looked out for their mother, my grandmother, and every Sunday she visited Sunny Acres, the tuberculosis sanatorium where my grandfather was slowly dying. Her constancy, however, earned her nothing. Her parents cherished Arthur, craved him. He wasn’t smart, he paid little attention, he didn’t take care of things. Yet without trying or caring, he was prized. He was their son.

“You know,” my mother said to me later in life, “this is why women must have gone into convents, to make their brothers do some of the family’s work.”

Where I was concerned, Arthur was always kind in an absent-minded way. I don’t think I held much substance for him. I was just Marie’s kid. Every Christmas, he would buy me the same teddy bear: large, unwieldy, unwrapped, the price tag still hanging from its paw.

 
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During this time in my childhood, we lived on Lisbon Road in Cleveland. When I was a little older, I was surprised to learn that Lisbon was an exotic city in some faraway place. It amazed me that another country would name a city after our little street. We were settled with my grandmother on the first floor of the faded green frame house that she owned. Upstairs, there was a small apartment where Arthur, still unmarried, lived. Across the street was a steep embankment leading down to railroad tracks. On one corner was a factory that made cement vaults for coffins. At that end of the street was a bank of sheds. Once, my mother warned me, something bad happened to a little girl in those sheds, so I was forbidden to go near there, and I never did.

On the other end of Lisbon was John’s Garage, a rambling repair shop that threw off gas fumes and the sparking noise of blow torches. The only people I ever saw at the garage were rangy men in greasy blue uniforms, orange rags in their back pockets and single-syllable names stitched on the fronts of their shirts. They never spoke to me or my mom when we went by. They just watched.

John’s Garage had a guard dog who was always tethered to a cinder block by a long rope. No one knew if he had a name. When anyone passed by, he leapt, barking, straining at his leash, his eyes wild. You could see his teeth and a ropey drool that blackened his chin.

“Shadduup,” someone would yell from the back of the garage, and the dog would silently crouch, watchful.

At one end of Lisbon Road were the forbidden sheds. At the other end, the German shepherd. These places formed the dark parentheses of my world. Within, there was safety.

 
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The highlight of my week happened every Friday evening. My mother and I had a tradition—I was her Friday night date and it was always the same. We went to the big library downtown and got armloads of books to read during the week. We would browse the shelves together and she would make up silly stories that she thought fit the titles. Afterwards, we went out for a grown-up supper—just us girls, just the two of us.

One Friday before we headed out together, she disappeared into her room and returned with a large box. Inside, wrapped in tissue, was a book bag.

On the front was Howdy Doody’s face, complete with his freckles, gappy grin, big lopey ears, and rakish cowboy scarf. Howdy wasn’t handsome and he was a puppet and not a real boy, but he was my heart throb.

“Did you know,” my mother said, “that Howdy has forty-eight freckles, one for each of the United States? Which one do you think is Ohio?”

I pointed at random to one of the orange dots. I didn’t care which dot was Ohio, I was too amazed by how my mother had so perfectly known the very thing I had been wishing for and had given it to me.

 
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After the library and dinner, we always took a taxicab home—one of our few extravagances. “We’re living large now, cupcake,” my mother would say to me in the cab. Then she’d pull her pocket mirror from her purse, check her teeth for lipstick, and fluff out her hair. My mother had dark red hair and it was her one vanity. When she’d had a few beers, she’d talk about the sign she once saw on a truck: I honk at brunettes, stop for blondes, and back up for red heads.

“Did that truck really back up for you Mom?”

“Sure, what do you think?”

Even though the fashion at the time was boyishly short hair, she kept hers long. I remember seeing her in the oncoming lights as the taxi drove up Euclid Avenue. She would run her fingers through her curls, coil them up on the top of her head and hold them there, her arm raised in an elegant affectation from some other time. She was tall, like Arthur, and thin. I remember her wrists, the knobs of them, her watch dangling as she held her pocket mirror.

Mostly, these were our Friday nights together. But sometimes, as I waited for her in the kitchen with my pile of books, the books that I had read and re-read during the week now secure in my Howdy Doody bag, my bangs held neatly in place with spit and my face scrubbed and radiant, she would say, “Honey, I need to go out with your Uncle Arthur tonight. We have a few world problems to solve.” And then she’d be gone. Just like that.

 
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During the summer I was five, Arthur bought a used car. His buddy Louie Sidorowicz was going into the army and sold Arthur his ’49 Ford, a black and white convertible with pink fuzzy dice hanging from the mirror. On the night he brought the car home, my mom and I sat on the front porch watching him get ready for a date.

He was parked in the driveway with the top down, the radio playing. Next to him on the front seat was Brownie, a small dog of indeterminate breed. On this evening and many others during that long summer, Brownie sat in the car, upright with impeccable posture. Arthur loved that dog.

We watched as Arthur pulled down the visor, where he had attached a mirror, and examined himself, turning his head from side to side. Then he shaped his hair, a pompadour that was so well-oiled with Vitalis you could see the tracks of his comb. With a twist of his wrist, he created a forelock that hung over his eyebrow. It was the fastest thing I’d ever see him do, flick that forelock. He wore a white, white T-shirt, its brilliance ensured by my grandmother’s laundering. In his left sleeve, he’d rolled up a pack of Kools. Finally, as Brownie, my mother and I looked on, Arthur unwrapped a stick of Juicy Fruit and slowly chewed it.

“Arthur,” my mom said, nudging me, “you’ll never get a wife if you keep taking that goddamn dog on dates.”

Uncle Arthur nodded and smiled, stroked Brownie and said, “Okay, Sis.”

 
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Later that year Arthur did marry someone who became my Aunt Betty. Eventually, they had two kids: Elizabeth and Joey. Elizabeth was a biter—she bit everyone, indiscriminately. Once, my mother bit her back. They talked about this at every Christmas dinner, how my mother bit Elizabeth on the arm to show her what it felt like.

After the wedding, Aunt Betty moved to the upstairs apartment where Arthur had been living alone. She was an interloper, that was clear. My grandmother would complain about her in broken English.

“Look at Arthur. He too skinny. She no cook. House dirty. She dumb Romanian.” And then my grandmother would make a spitting sound, “puh.” This was the period that always punctuated her description of someone as a “dumb Romanian.”  

“Leave it alone, Ma,” my mother would say. “She’s okay. Anyway, what can anyone do about it? They’re married now.” Sometimes she would add, “And Ma, Betty’s not a Romanian. She’s a Slovak. Just so you know.” Not that it mattered.

Aunt Betty hated Brownie. She was happy to tell anyone who would listen about her trials with him. She was appalled that the dog slept with Arthur and her, that he sat in Arthur’s lap during dinner and was fed from his plate. Sometimes we’d hear shouting and crockery smashing upstairs.

“Get that goddamned dog out of here, Arthur,” she would holler. “I’m not cooking for a dog.”

“Food only good for dog,” my grandmother would observe.

So Brownie moved downstairs with us, where Arthur would secretly visit him and take him for rides in the Ford. Brownie acquired his own set of family legends. My grandmother claimed he could understand Hungarian. She would demonstrate this by telling him to sit and stay: “Ul szobor.” Once, Brownie ate the Easter ham. He was so sick that no one could get mad at him. The only time my grandmother got really angry at Brownie was when he followed her to church on a Sunday morning and stood at her pew, barking. He had underestimated how important dignity was to my grandmother, in the presence of God and the neighbors. She pretended not to know him until finally one of the ushers dragged him out by the collar.

My mother commented later, “Brownie must have thought there was food at that church, otherwise he would never have gone.”

 
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Like other dogs in that time and place, Brownie had the run of the neighborhood. You could tell the strays from the pets because the strays didn’t have collars and tags. Only the German shepherd at John’s was tied up. Arthur reported that sometimes he would see the German shepherd late at night, loping down the middle of Lisbon Road, like a wolf, his rope dragging behind him. It occurs to me now that it was soon enough after the war that the dog’s nationality might have added to his menace, his reputation for ferocity.

 
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The German shepherd became directly involved in our lives one day, and many things changed after that. He was the unexpected player that altered our little rhythms. It was fall. I had just started first grade.

On this particular morning, I was on my way to school, wearing a red corduroy jumper with little white buttons sewed on the yoke and a white, stiffly starched and meticulously ironed blouse. My grandmother used to walk me to school every day while my mother was at work. But for some reason, I was alone in front of John’s Garage that day. I sensed the German shepherd, off his rope, before I saw him. When I did see him, we were eye to eye. He had jumped up on me, his front paws on my shoulders. He was taller than I was. I could feel the heat of his breath and smell it, meaty and raw. I sensed his weight, pressing me down. He growled low, from some feral place and infused me with such terror that I was absolutely speechless. That’s what I remember most, the complete inability to make a sound, even the one that could save me.

A workman came out of the garage and pulled the dog off me by his rope. As he thrashed, angry at being dragged, one of the dog’s teeth caught my face, under the cheekbone, and tore it to my lip. For a moment I felt nothing—everything was curiously suspended. And then there was so much blood. Seeing the blood brought the pain, an insistent throbbing. My blouse, so dazzlingly white a moment before, was now splattered with vivid red blooms. I could taste the iron of it as it ran down my cheek to the corner of my mouth.

Then I peed. I peed through my day-of-the-week underpants and left a stream of incriminating yellow on the cracked sidewalk.

Another man, whom I believed to be John, ran out from the garage.

“Get that goddamn dog the hell out of here,” he said. He pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and held it to my face.

“Do you know where you live?”

I did: “2659 Lisbon Road, Cleveland 4, Ohio.” My mother had made me memorize these facts after the time I had gotten lost in the dime store. He took me by the hand and walked me to our house. No one was home and the door was locked, but I knew where the hidden key was, under the mat. He led me back to the kitchen, sat me on one of the wooden chairs by the table, rinsed his handkerchief in the sink and dabbed at my face.

Next, he pulled a worn brown wallet from his back pocket and handed me a crumpled dollar bill. “You’ll be okay,” he said. It was then that I realized I had left my Howdy Doody book bag on the street. My mother would be so angry, I thought. I started tell him, but he was gone, the door clicking behind him.

I sat at the kitchen table for what seemed like a very long time, one hand holding the bloodied handkerchief against my face, the other clutching the dollar bill. I didn’t cry, I just sat and counted the squares on the red and white checked oilcloth that covered the table.

When my grandmother came home, she was panicked to find me in this condition. Her little bit of English failed her and my polite Hungarian, consisting of please, thank you and Merry Christmas, wasn’t up to the task of explaining what had happened. Neither of us could conceive of how to call my mother at work. While my grandmother flew around the house, collecting iodine and bandages, muttering in Hungarian, I finally wept, fear and relief muddling my tears.

Later, when my mom got home and heard my story, she became brisk, efficient. First she called Doc Szabo. He came, examined me and said, “It’s a pretty deep cut. Luckily he missed the eye. Keep it clean so she doesn’t get infected. She won’t need stitches but she’ll probably be left with a slight scar.”

After he left, my mom gave me some aspirin and tucked me into bed, kissed my forehead and closed the bedroom door behind her.

Then I heard her raised voice. She sounded furious. It confused me. It seemed to me that I should be pitied, petted, praised for my heroism and given ice cream. Instead, I had been sent to bed and there was anger and shouting. It must have been, I mourned, because I had left my book bag behind.

 
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After that, events seemed to telescope. Arthur and Betty were arguing much more. At least, that’s how I interpreted the yelling and breakage I heard from upstairs. One evening while we were eating supper we heard clattering on the stairs and Betty burst into the kitchen. Her lip was cut and bleeding.

“This is what your prince of a son did, you old cow,” she screamed at my grandmother. We all froze. Betty was weeping and trembling. My mother walked towards her, holding out a hand as if to calm her.

“Don’t you come near me, you bitch,” Betty said slapping my mother’s hand away. “You think Arthur is so perfect. That I’m not good enough for him. He can’t do anything wrong. Well, take a look at what he just did to me.”

And we did. We looked at Betty, standing at the kitchen door, her fingers touching her injured lip. Instinctively, I reached my hand to the scar that ran along my own face. It was so quiet, I remember, that you could hear the sink dripping, the faint clacking of a train across the street, the tick of the teakettle clock. Then Betty turned and left.

The thing that perplexed me most is why she would call my grandmother a cow—why that animal in particular, I wondered.

Later, my mother said with some amazement, “Boy oh boy, Betty must have really done something to get Arthur to smack her one. I never figured he had it in him.”

 
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Not long after that, Uncle Arthur and Aunt Betty moved to somewhere else in the city. We only saw them on holidays when they were obliged to make an appearance. Even though it seemed that they had patched up their marriage, my grandmother still didn’t like Aunt Betty, which made those holiday dinners silent and tense. After they would leave, my grandmother would weep about the inconstancy of her only son, who had married an unworthy woman and left his mother alone to cope with a world she didn’t comprehend. She wept to my mother, who was there every day, taking care of things.

About that same time, the German shepherd disappeared and another smaller and noisier dog replaced him.

Eventually, my mother and I moved as well. We moved with the fierce joy of a young couple, setting up housekeeping.

I rarely saw Arthur after that. Sometimes he’d call and my mom would go meet him. Occasionally I’d hear them argue on the phone about how he couldn’t hold a job. Even though things weren’t always easy for us, I think she would send him money. I didn’t give him much thought, and I didn’t believe my mother did either. After all, she and I were the two halves of a whole.

 
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Many years later, when my mother’s funeral brought my Uncle Arthur and me together again, I learned there was a postscript to the day I was scarred. Arthur had moved to Florida, where he had married for a second time. I was living in Chicago, where I had gone after college. I was about to be married myself. My mother had stayed in Cleveland, always intending to move to a warmer place but never packing a bag.

She had been sick for more than a year with a riddling cancer that she would dismiss with a toss of her head. She was almost bald from the chemo-therapy, but sick as she was, she still affected the red-haired pinup girl that could make a truck driver find reverse. I visited her every weekend during that year, driving the five hours from Chicago. We spent our time talking and looking at old photographs. If she felt well enough, we went out to dinner and drank red wine— “living large.” She liked to reminisce about her early life. How she had won the Lowell School spelling bee with the word “disconsolate.” How during the Depression, her parents sent her to New York to live with an aunt, and how she ran away and came back home, even though they didn’t want her there. How in high school she usually did Arthur’s homework so he’d have some hope of graduating. When she recounted her memories, they somehow ended there, in high school, as if nothing important had happened in her life after that.

 
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Following the funeral, Arthur and I sat around my mother’s apartment, among the odds and ends of her life, and remembered the old times. We drank 7 and 7s, the adult’s cocktail of choice during my childhood. He told me again about how Marie had fought his battles, how she was always the tough one. He talked about my grandmother, who was now senseless with dementia and living with Arthur and his new wife, unaware that, finally, she was with her son every day. Arthur railed against the Russians who had destroyed Hungary and all of Eastern Europe, but mostly Hungary. He had never been there, but it was his birthright and it had been forever ruined for him. We laughed about Brownie, that almost invincible dog who ate the Easter ham, went to Sunday Mass, and was Arthur’s loyal companion on so many bad dates.

Arthur shook his head. “Brownie,” he sighed. “I sure loved that dog.” Then he went on, “You remember the day that German shepherd jumped you?”

“Sure. I was terrified.” I hesitated, not sure I wanted to admit to this weakness. “Since then, I’ve always been afraid of big dogs.”

Arthur was quiet for awhile, looking at his hands. They were large, working-man hands. The fingers blunt, a trace of dirt around the nails.

“I was supposed to take you to school that day,” Arthur said. “Marie asked me to. Your grandma had to go to the doctor. I told Marie I would walk you. I was out of a job then. They had fired me from the mills. I don’t know, things were confusing. Betty was yelling at me because I was supposed to drive her somewhere and I had forgotten. Betty always hated when I did anything for Marie. She always thought Ma and Sis were against her.” He took a breath, a long sip of the 7 and 7 and looked out the window, as if picturing that morning.

“I went downstairs and you were all dressed up for school, waiting on the porch. I remember you had that Howdy Doody book bag and those goofy braids that were always coming undone. You were such a serious kid. A real bookworm. Anyway, I said, ‘You’re a big girl. Do you think you could walk to school alone today?’ Don’t you remember this?”

I shook my head.

“Well,” he said, “you just nodded yes and went. It wasn’t so far to school, just few blocks. How old were you, anyway? Nine? Ten?”

“No. I was only six. It was first grade. I had just started going to school for a full day. That’s how I remember.” I paused, touched my face. “There was yelling that night, after it happened. I remember that, too.”

Again, he was silent. I looked at Arthur and tried to see the genetic link between him and my mother, the point where their two circles overlapped and shared a common space. But it wasn’t there. He was so slow and plodding and my mother, before she became sick, had rung with energy and impatience. She must always have been ahead of him, looking back.

“I remember,” he said. “All that yelling was at me. She was mad at me. It’s the maddest I’ve ever seen Marie, and it was at me. She said it was my fault that you were attacked by the dog. She threw a hairbrush at me and, I think, the coffee pot. She called me stupid and lazy, irresponsible. Betty got into it too, and Grandma. But what I remember is Marie. Boy, she was something, she was a pistol. I don’t think she talked to me again for months. Maybe it was less, but it seemed that long. At least months.”

He poured another drink. I turned on the lamps. Evening had come, closing the day I buried my mother. We sat in her living room, each of us in our own pool of light. It was April. The windows were open and you could sense the rain from earlier in the day, the coolness and the promise of green.

If she had been alive, there would have been food. But there wasn’t.

Arthur said, “You know, I killed that German shepherd. One night, a few weeks after he jumped you, I went to the garage and I put my hands around his throat and choked him. He was still tied to his rope. He was dead and I left him there tied to his rope.”

I stared at him for a moment trying to absorb what he had just told me. I couldn’t comprehend how anyone, but particularly Arthur, could commit such a brutal act—and against a dog. Arthur had always seemed so passive. Wouldn’t the dog have fought back, struggled? Where within himself could Arthur have discovered the will, the sheer physical force to choke such a large animal to death?

“But why would you do that—kill the German shepherd?”

“Because of you. And because of Marie. I didn’t know how to make it up to her, so I killed the dog.”

I never saw my uncle again after that day. I tried to contact him, but for reasons only he knew, he didn’t respond.  

 
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Before her death, my mother left a note for me in an envelope on the kitchen table, next to some dollar bills. The beginning gave a few instructions: the cash was for the paper boy, St. Vincent DePaul was to take her furniture and clothes. She described an insurance policy from the union that would pay for her funeral, with probably a little left over.

Then it went on: “Give Arthur my car. I don’t think he’s doing so good and he could use it. I know he’s in Florida and far away from you, but try to keep up with him and make sure he’s okay. He usually needs a little help. You were always a good girl. Love, Mom.”

That was it, and it was so little. Our entire lives together in five sentences: four for Arthur and one for me.

 
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In the months after my mother died, I would parse her final message. Each time I opened the envelope, her handwriting—the familiarity of it—would overcome me. The curve of her letters, the graceful joining of vowel to consonant contained her essence and made my heart fly, as if she might be in the next room.

I would deconstruct those few sentences in search of some buried meaning that would speak to the completeness of the two of us or would provide an important lesson to help me go forward. It came to me one day that there was a message not in the words themselves, but in the allocation of them—how, on balance, she had given me less than she had Arthur. I realized that, in her way, my mother was telling me that though she loved me, I couldn’t have the whole of her heart. That, in fact, no one can claim the whole of another’s heart. Maybe she had tried to tell me this all along. But just then, I knew it to be true.

 
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BShomaker

Barbara Shomaker is a retired management consultant who worked with family businesses. Since retiring, she has focused on trying to learn the craft of short story writing. Her work has been published in Printers Row (the Chicago Tribune literary journal) and Kindred Magazine, a division of Anchor & Plume Press. She earned a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature from Ohio State University and did graduate work at Loyola University School of Industrial Relations. She lives in Chicago.

Pocket Jacks

Leslie Doyle

Vince had been playing the expert on this trip, like he had Ted’s whole life. If it wasn’t the details of wills and deeds and inheritance, it was about stuff they passed on the way to the south tip of New Jersey to lay a claim to his sister’s tiny cottage in the marshes. Almost at the end of the drive down, they’d seen a smokestack, resembling some kind of industrial strength lighthouse, looming above the trees that lined the Garden State Parkway.

“It’s a nuclear plant.”

Ted shook his head.

“Look,” Vince insisted, “it’s got the cooling tower right there, past that smokestack.” As they broke out into the open, marshes spreading their muddy puddles along the side of the highway, the squat cooling tower, its waist pinched in some fat parody of an hourglass, had become visible. They shot through the E-ZPass lane and up the bridge over the water that separated them from the structure, whatever it was.

“It’s not a nuclear reactor, Dad. There isn’t one in this part of Jersey.”

“Sure there is, that Oyster Creek one. It’s down here somewhere.”

They could smell the mudflats through the closed windows. Though February, it was warm enough to wake up whatever was living in the muck beneath the brown, dry reeds. A dangerous awakening, sub-freezing temperatures liable to return with the next kink in the jet stream.

Vince turned the heat up and asked Ted to pull in at the next rest stop. Ted had been watching a deer on the side of the Parkway, its head down as it munched sparse winter grass. He wondered if there were more in the trees, and if any was planning a suicide run across the road.

“Dad. We’re gonna be there in twenty minutes. Can’t it wait?” 

“Sure, Ted. If you want me to just piss all over your car.” 

The rest stop straddled the median between north and southbound lanes of the highway. The restrooms turned out to be closed for budgetary reasons, and Vince trudged over to the nearby woods, Parkway traffic whizzing by. He reappeared from the thin scrim of trees which had provided a thin fig leaf, still zipping as he walked, talking as he heaved his bulk into the car. 

“Be interesting to see what Gracie left me.”

 
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That night, Ted woke up at four in the morning. He was disoriented in the unfamiliar house, though its layout was fairly simple. It was just off the main road that led from the last exit before the end of the Parkway toward a barrier island beach town that lay another mile or so to the east. A shotgun shack with a low, narrow wooden porch just inches above a packed, dirt, grassless front yard—living room/kitchen area in front, a narrow hall leading to the back, a couple small bedrooms lined up along one side. Not the beach house Ted had imagined when his father had offered him half the proceeds to come down and help him sell it. More like a pile of wood in the middle of a coast-less swamp. The front porch was covered with mounds of what Ted classified as lawn trash and someone else saw as decorative demonstrations of his or her individuality.

The house had propane wall heating units rather than central heat, and the cold was probably why he’d awoken. Finally he accepted that he would have to crawl out of the covers to use the bathroom. He didn’t bother to turn the light on. The small window set high in the bathroom wall framed a full moon. It was reflected in the toilet bowl, a floating white disc that fractured under his stream. 

Back in bed, he wondered why people said “a full moon” or “a new moon” as if there were others lurking just out of sight. Like deer along the Parkway.

 
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The next day, Ted was shoving flamingos and gnomes into a trash bag when another car parked in front of theirs. The driver slammed the door almost before she got out, and then yanked the bag out of his hands.

“Hey, get your paws off my stuff!” His hands were empty by the time she said this. He held them out to show her. 

“I don’t know who you are, but please, take whatever you want.” He gestured toward the stuff that was still left. “You’ll be doing me a favor. You can have it all.” He didn’t care who she was. Anything to get out of here faster.

The woman was big and square; she had the look of someone who’d gotten a makeover but hadn’t really bought into it. Eyes like portholes. Ted guessed “realtor,” but if she was connected to this dump, she had a tough job ahead of her. Maybe a few years older than Ted, closer to mid-fifties than forties.

“That’s my father’s stuff, and I’ll ask you to stop shoveling it like it’s garbage, if you don’t mind.” Uh oh. Some of what Vince was supposed to be looking for inside was the paperwork to establish ownership of the cottage before they could sell it. This was the situation:  Vince’s younger sister had died, leaving this cottage behind. She’d been left it by the guy she’d been living with, Cliff. Neither Vince nor Ted had met this guy. Not getting to know anything about someone’s life was standard operating procedure in their family. But it was Cliff’s daughter, Laurel, who’d contacted them about the house. So this must be her. She hadn’t made clear who owned the place, legally, after both deaths. That’s what Vince thought he could figure out, before, as he put it “the lawyers got hold of it—fucking vultures!”

“Like I said, you can have it.” Ted made a show of backing away. Then he thought further. “Well, I should check with my father. I think this is all his. Otherwise, why didn’t you get it before Gracie died?”

“She liked the stuff there, just piled up like that. I figured hell, why not? She did a lot for Dad before he died.” She looked back at Ted. “I sure wasn’t expecting her to follow him so quickly, she being younger and all. I didn’t realize you were her nephew. Sorry for your loss.”

“That’s okay. I hadn’t met her in years. She and my father didn’t seem to keep up much. Just the way the family is, I guess.”

“Oh, yeah? How’s that working for you?”

Ted did not want to get into the complexities of his parents’ late-life divorce, or his own short-lived marriage, or the kids he didn’t see enough. An aunt he barely knew seemed like no big deal. If he and his father could make a few bucks selling this place, that would really help him pay the back child support he owed for those kids he didn’t see enough.

The woman stuck a hand out. “Laurel, by the way.” Her habit of placing common courtesies in between belligerent commentary unsettled Ted, but he offered his name.

“I figured you were Ted. She talked about you sometimes.”

“Really? What’d she know about me?”

Laurel shrugged. “Enough.” She handed the bag back to Ted. “You wanna throw this stuff out? Go ahead—I mean, what am I gonna to do with it, anyway?”

Ted hadn’t the least idea.

Vince stuck his head out the door. “Lunch’s ready—your new friend want to join us?” Laurel stayed a moment to establish her identity with Vince but turned down the invitation. Ted realized he had no idea why she came by, or what claims she might decide to make on them. He threw a stack of porch flags into the bag before heading in to eat.

“I don’t trust her,” Vince said, dishing out pasta.

 
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That afternoon, Ted found Vince on what was left of the back porch, a chair perched on the only square of decking large enough to hold all four legs. 

Pulling up the day before, Ted had had no idea that the house was half on stilts. Behind the house there was an expanse of marsh grass with ropes of water winding through. An estuary channel ran under his feet. The same marshes had been visible on both sides of the road as they’d turned off the Parkway and headed east—the wetlands sometimes separated from the road by shuttered businesses, stretches of low, scrubby trees, and in one case, some kind of small mountain covered with unrecognizable structures.

Vince had a line in the water and a coffee cup balanced on the railing. In his lap was a folder of papers. He shifted his chair, and Ted expected to see him pitch into the brownish water below, which was etched with ice around the edges of the reeds.

“I don’t trust that Laurel woman. Says she’s not claiming the house, but why was she here already?  I told her we were coming next week.”

Ted shrugged. “You said that yesterday, Dad. She looks pretty harmless to me.” Across the marshes, he could see some sort of structure sticking up out of the reeds, a wooden post with a boxy platform on top of it. “Why’d you tell her we weren’t coming till next week?”

“Wanted a look at the place first. Before she could screw things up, hide things. Figured she didn’t know Gracie’d sent me an extra key. Just in case.”

Ted didn’t ask in case of what. He wondered if Gracie had sent it before or after she knew she was dying. Whatever she had or hadn’t communicated hadn’t led Vince to visit his sister before she died. Vince and Ted’s kin did death as poorly as they did family. Which is to say, very badly.

Vince tapped on the papers in his lap, then looked up at Ted. “Been reading through Gracie’s medical reports.” Ted vaguely knew what his aunt had died of, but he hadn’t thought much about the details. He asked him why he hadn’t visited her.

“Well, you know I meant to. Happened so fast. That’s the way it is with pancreatic. I thought she’d hang on longer. I guess we all did.” Of all the siblings in Vince’s family, he and Gracie were the only two left in Jersey. Two sisters shared a condo in Florida, and one brother was in Arizona with his third wife. Another brother, no one was sure of. Proximity had not increased commitment, as far as Ted could tell from Vince’s lack of contact with Gracie.

“So she was alone.”

Vince shrugged. “I don’t know that. I just know we weren’t here.” Ted wanted to bristle at the “we.” He hardly knew his aunt. His ex-wife Sharon, before she took off, had told him he was too good at that kind of equivocation. That every other sentence he uttered started with the words “How was I supposed to…?” It didn’t help when he countered with “Well, how was I?”

How was he supposed to know that that would be their last meaningful conversation?

“It’s sad, her dying right after Cliff. Cancer for him, too, right?” As he talked, Ted had stepped out the door and onto the porch floor, negotiating his footing between missing slats, to lean back against the far rail. Let his father worry about him falling through, for a change.

Vince rearranged his fishing line, then went back to leafing through the pile of papers.

Ted couldn’t imagine what he thought he’d catch, deep in the butt end of January. Then Vince rocked backward one time too many. He was able to grab the rail, but the coffee mug and half the documents in his lap dropped into the opaque water below. Vince frowned, then shrugged as the papers spread into a damp archipelago floating with slow deliberation on the impervious tidal seep.

Ted and Vince picked up what was left. Vince stared down at a wrinkled pathology report in his hand. He looked over at Ted.

“Well, at least I’ve still got the pole.”

 
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Vince dropped Ted off at ShopRite the next morning on his way to the county offices and local hospital to see what could be done about the drowned papers. Ted’s plan was to buy a few staples and hike back to the house—he figured it couldn’t be much more than a mile. They’d been subsisting on Vince’s spaghetti and beer. It was getting monotonous.

As they passed under the Parkway overpass back to the mainland, Ted found it odd that once you got to the other side, it was almost impossible to tell how near the water you were. The Parkway and the trees that lined it formed a dividing line—to the east, wetlands and the distant barrier islands that edged the Atlantic Ocean, to the west, fields of brown grass broken up by strip malls and gas stations. 

He was standing at the edge of the parking lot next to the ARC thrift store with his plastic bags wishing he had his car when Laurel pulled up. She had turned into the lot only, she claimed, because she’d seen him standing there. Ted didn’t want to question this; he was glad for the lift.

Laurel started east, under the Parkway, and again Ted marveled at the opening up of the wetlands, like a gate to another world. He was beginning to see why Gracie had taken to the place, even if it felt like the back of beyond compared to the stifling intimacy of the urban county she’d moved from. A yearning for the Shore is ubiquitous in New Jersey, but most Jerseyans picture a white sand beach and the elaborately windowed beach houses that go with it, not this flat bowl of grass and muddy green water.  

He and Sharon and the kids vacationed down the Shore a couple times. Sharon’s favorite part was driving along the beach roads, picking out the biggest houses with the most windows cantilevered high above the dunes. Sharon would turn to the kids, asleep in their car seats in back, and announce “We’re gonna get one of these when Daddy gets a better job.” Meeting his eyes, she’d add “Kidding!” but they both knew she wasn’t. She didn’t expect him to carry all the weight, but could he please try to match her earnings from the pharmaceutical firm where she administrated…something. Ted was fairly happy selling appliances at a local chain store.

They didn’t have much time to talk before they were back at the shack again. Lauren pointed to the plastic bags he was hauling into the house.

“Gracie has a closet full of reusables you could’ve brought.” He waved this suggestion away. Gracie had a closet full of everything. Vince’s room was filled with boxes of jars, boxes of beach towels, boxes of boxes. The back room, which Ted supposed was the one Grace and Cliff used, was not much emptier. It looked to be where they kept the outside stuff—fishing tackle, lawn chairs, wheelable coolers with moldy insides—piled up around the bed. Off the kitchen was a narrow but deep broom closet where Vince had found the boxes of documents, along with a portable television old enough to have the kind of knobs that turned, except they were all missing, and stacks of picture frames, and who knew what else behind it all. Ted had seen the reusable bags in the living room, not in a closet but stuffed under one of the chairs, the one with all four legs.

Ted was ready to say thanks and good-bye, but Lauren looked happy to sit there with the motor running. He was thinking of a walk, maybe in the other direction towards the funky beach town on the barrier island at the other end of the causeway. He hadn’t been out there yet. He should have been cleaning and sorting, but thinking about those piles and closets in the house had activated his aversion mode. 

Lauren lowered the passenger window and shifted over to call out. “Want to drive around, see the area? I don’t have any houses to show today. Well, I almost never have houses to show these days…” Aha, Ted thought. She was a realtor. There’s a look. He hesitated, which she saw.

“I just thought you might like something to do besides sit around and watch the egrets freeze their tail feathers off.” He shrugged. He had lots to do. But was in no hurry to get to any of it.

The island was one of those aging seaside party towns—five miles long and three blocks deep—concrete and pavement dotted with bars and neon-infused motels, most with doo-wop atomic age thematic elements, many with plastic palm trees. Even the Wawa on the way in was fabulous—jazzy turquoise and fuchsia lettering, skewed roof tilting over the gas pumps, retro waves frozen across the signs. The street lights on the main drag bent languidly as if leaning against the gym wall, waiting to boogie to the next song.

The road they took ended at the beach. They turned left and drove parallel to the ocean, between motels on one side and the boardwalk and amusement piers on the other. Everything was full of color but silent. Laurel kept driving; Ted watched the plastic palms go by. Laurel talked about what good friends she and Gracie were, how glad she was that Gracie had taken such care of her father when he was dying and going through some godawful treatments, the disastrous real estate market. He figured he should respond.

“I guess you miss your dad. And Gracie.”

“Oh man, you bet. You’re so lucky to have your father still. Hey, you wanna head into AC sometime? You been there much?”

He hadn’t been to Atlantic City in years; most of his trips had been weekend excursions with a bunch of guys from work in the first couple years after his marriage fractured; a lot of drinking, piles of rich foods at the buffets, a few random hook-ups, and some really bad poker play. He wasn’t one of those people who shovel money into the slot machines until they run out, but he might as well have been.

Instead of turning back toward the shack, Laurel kept driving, circling the island again.

Ted found himself wiped out by the names of the motels—Starlux, Sea Foam, Tropicana, Casa Del Sol. Sea Gull, Castaways, Aquarius, Le Ray, Roman Holiday. Sandbox, Sea Shell, Surf Comber, Blue Palms, Royal Hawaiian, Old San Juan, Pink Champagne. He felt like he’d fallen into a Hallmark “thinking of you” card mixed with some sort of edgy European movie from the sixties. And Elvis. James Bond and the Jetsons. Almost all were closed for the season; the few lit “Vacancy” signs seemed that much emptier.

On the way back to the cottage, Laurel stopped at the odd hill Ted had noticed the first day. It turned out to be an abandoned multi-level miniature golf course, located at the most inhospitable setting possible. They got out of the car and climbed upward, picking through the dilapidated “greens” overgrown by long brown weeds knotted with the garbage blown by the constant wind that carried everything oceanward unless stopped by something manmade. Nothing real was that high.

“I come up here to think sometimes,” Laurel told Ted. 

“Really? It’s not the first place I’d pick, to tell you the truth.”

“Sentimental value, I guess. My dad was the groundskeeper until he got too sick.” 

Ted hadn’t known what Cliff, or for that matter, his aunt, did for a living. He would not have guessed miniature golf caretaker. 

“That was how they met, actually.”

“Gracie played miniature golf?” Okay, why not? Someone must have.

“No, to tell you the truth, this place never got much business.” Oh, really, thought Ted. Laurel continued, “He’d be up at the top of the hill, trimming back the weeds, and started noticing this car pulled over, and some lady getting out of it. Down the road, sometimes one way, sometimes the other. She’d do something, you know, out in the street… he couldn’t figure out what, then she’d pull away again. One day she stopped nearby while he was in the parking lot sweeping trash. That’s when he saw what she was doing—picking up a turtle that was halfway across the road, and carrying it to the other side. He went out there to tell her it was a waste of time, they were better off left on their own; they all got hit eventually.”

This was evidently true; even in midwinter, not turtle-crossing time, Ted had seen the occasional cairn of bone and shell fragments on the shoulder of the road. 

“She said, well, not this one, this time. And in the end, he stopped traffic so she could get another one. And then he snuck her in for a free round of golf. I think they took a spin on the go-karts, too.” She pointed out the track, even more weed-choked than the golf course, which Ted hadn’t noticed before. “She moved into his cottage a month later. Never saw them apart since. When this place went belly up, they lived on his Social Security and her waitressing tips. I guess you know the rest.” He had as much idea of “the rest” as he thought he wanted.

“Did you mind her being there?”

“Are you kidding? I didn’t have to worry about him with her there to take care of him. She was great. Mom died twenty years ago and he’d been a grouchy mess till he met Gracie.” 

“Did you grow up in that house?” They could see it down the road from where they stood on top of the fake mountain.

“No. I live where I grew up, in one of those little neighborhoods on the bay side. Dad gave it to me when he bought this place. So I got my inheritance already.”

“I was wondering if you resented that he left the cottage to Gracie.”

She gestured around, to the water and weeds on every side. “Good luck with it. It’s all yours. I won’t get much commission selling it, but something’s better than nothing. Meanwhile, you’re the ones stuck paying the taxes.” After a moment she added, “I’ve been wondering how long it was going to take before you asked that.”

 
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The next week took on a routine. Ted cleaned out cupboards and closets for a few hours each day; his father showed far greater paper-shuffling skills than he would have suspected—except of course for the spill incident. On a few afternoons, Laurel stopped by and they drove aimlessly around the half-empty shore towns. She said she spent her mornings showing houses, or trying to find someone to show houses to, but the market had vanished the last couple years. No one could afford a second home, retirees were staying put, and everyone waited to see how far the prices could plummet, like egrets knocked out of the sky by an angry rain. They drove all over the cape that hung down from New Jersey like the root of some plucked plant. Ted noticed that the piles of bags in the backseat of the car grew larger each day.

On their last drive, he had mentioned this. She ignored him, changing the subject to suggest a trip up the Parkway to Atlantic City. So that’s where they went.

The last time he’d hung out in Atlantic City, he busted out in a game of Hold’em. He was doing okay, folding some, collecting a few small pots, enough to build a respectable stack. Got dealt a pair of jacks, fourth best hand. He’d moved up from the one/two table to the five/ten, a mistake, his buddies said, but that was the mood he was in. The divorce papers had shown up in the mail the previous morning, and Sharon had called—God, she had impeccable timing—to make sure he was signing them; she was getting married in a couple months, to some Goldman Sachs dick.

He’d been in a reckless mood, accepting free drinks from the waitress at regular intervals. Maybe re-raising pre-flop was not a good move; going all-in because he thought that guy across from him was playing loose and likely bluffing was definitely a mistake when it turned out the random unsuited three-six-ten flop delivered a set of treys to the other guy. Ted’s buddy, standing next to him, who’d long switched to Diet Coke, had shaken his head.

“Nothing good ever comes of pocket jacks.”

 
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 Heading up the highway, Ted could see the casinos looming over the wetlands when they were still twenty miles away. Then they crossed the soaring bridge over Greater Egg Harbor Bay, the power plant now on their left. Ted mentioned its resemblance to a lighthouse.

“Oh yeah,” Laurel had told him. “They designed it that way on purpose. So it would fit in.” She said this deadpan, not bothering to isolate the absurdity.

Atlantic City was a bust. Laurel loved the noise and the cigarette smoke; Ted quit last year and now it made him sick. He told his poker story as they passed by the rows of slots, patrons attached to the machines by cords that reached from their necks to their cards they slid in. She’d asked him what it meant.

“Well, there are technical betting strategy reasons, but mostly it’s this—you look down at this pretty pair of matching face cards, and you do things you shouldn’t do. They go to your head. And there are too many ways you can lose. Never mind that straight the guy lucked into—all it takes is someone with a bigger pair and you’re sunk.

“Basically, they’re a message to be careful. I didn’t get it then, but it’s my motto now.”

“Yeah, I can tell.”

 By early evening, they were out on the boardwalk eating deep-fried Oreos.

“I live for these,” Laurel told him. Ted was trying to figure out what he was doing here. Why he’d been wasting time on these aimless drives when the sooner they finished cleaning and sprucing up the house, the sooner he could go back north.

Leaving, Laurel took back roads instead of the highway they came in on. Ted lost his bearings, but then they shot out from between some trees, over a highway and more wetlands, skirting the bay again, which loomed as flat emptiness beyond the road lights, and parked at the end of a bridge paralleling the Parkway Bridge. This bridge was narrow and barely skimmed above the water’s surface, which is why he hadn’t noticed it before. Laurel turned the engine off but she left the headlights on. The beams angled to one side of the bridge, illuminating a short stretch of water.

A concrete barrier blocked the bridge’s roadway. Laurel was already out of the car, clambering around it to step out onto the pockmarked concrete. Across the bay, lights festooned the power station. Despite the angularity of its metal skeleton glinting in the electric glow, there was something reptilian in its repose; the tower topped with red beacons no longer conveyed any suggestion of lighthouse. 

She turned back to gesture him forward. He raised his eyebrows. 

“Why is it closed?”

“I don’t know. Some kind of territorial battle over who owns the bridge and who has to pay maintenance. No one wants to claim it. Or fix it. So it’s closed—all the traffic’s rerouted to the Parkway.”

Ted followed Laurel, the hum of cars crossing the Parkway to his left blocking out other sounds. She stopped after about a hundred yards, waving a waist-high hand backwards in warning, then gesturing at a hole gaping in the roadbed, almost invisible in the dark.

“Well, this is new.” She sat at the edge of the bridge, feet hanging out over the water. The cracked pavement looked brutally cold to Ted, but he joined her when she pulled out a bottle of Bushmills.

“This is where I came after they died. I mean, after my dad died, then again, after your aunt.”

Ted took a sip from the bottle, wiping it before handing it back.

She gazed out at the power plant again, gleaming in the winter cold. 

“A lot of people think that’s a nuclear plant.”

“So I’ve heard.”

“It’s because of the cooling tower.” He nodded. It turned out it was just an ordinary electric plant, chugging out ordinary steam as it burned natural gas into kilowatts.

“My dad died of oral cancer. The treatment was a nuclear nightmare.” Ted had little interest in what killed Cliff or what treatments hadn’t worked, but he nodded again, figuring some sort of radiation and all that. 

“What they did was, they implanted cobalt seeds in his gums. He became a nuclear plant.” She looked over at him to see if he was registering this. “He was in isolation, of course. We had to talk to him through a glass window. I mean, they didn’t let him walk around the outside world all glowing or anything.”

“Of course not,” Ted replied, “that would be crazy.” 

Ted looked down the length of the bridge, noticing a darker shadow that obscured the view of the other end. Laurel followed his gaze.

“Oh, yeah. That’s the drawbridge. It’s stuck in the ‘up’ position. If they leave it down, it shorts out what’s left of the bridge’s electrical system when they try to raise it. And they have to raise it sometimes to let the commercial boats through. So they leave it up. The bridge can’t support the ‘up’ position for too much longer. Which is gonna be a problem soon.”

Ted had had too much whiskey. He wasn’t sure he was following the thread of this conversation. Dilapidated bridges, radioactive seeds, none of it was making sense.

“Ted, this is what you need to know. Your aunt, Gracie, she snuck in there with him, when he was in isolation and all. She sat there next to him while he was glowing with all that poison, which didn’t save his life, and might have ended hers.”

“What are you trying to tell me?” Ted pictured himself struggling to care about this aunt he didn’t know—who risked her life saving turtles in the road, and sitting with her radioactive dying husband, no glass isolation window separating them. He imagined telling his father, and wondered whether he’d care or not. “I mean, what am I supposed to do with that?”

She looked at him. “What do you mean—what are you supposed to do. It’s just something you should know, don’t you think?”

Instead of answering, he started whistling the appliance store jingle. He continued to whistle it when they got up to head home. Accidentally opening the back door when he was getting back in the car, he noticed again that she had an awful lot of bags and boxes back there. It occurred to him that he had never seen her house.

“No, I’m not homeless,” she replied, when he asked. “At least until they foreclose on me.”

They got back on the Parkway and headed south. He reflected again on the fact that the real estate market was dead, and that, as far as he knew, Laurel didn’t have any friends, or family for that matter, and he decided he should start making plans to head north in the next day or two. Before things got sticky. Before he found out she was about to make trouble about the house. Before, well, he wasn’t so sure what. He figured he was his father’s son. And that meant whatever that meant.

He was still whistling that stupid jingle when something, not a deer but something smaller, darted out in front of them and they ended up on the Parkway median, unhurt but clearly not going anywhere.

Laurel wouldn’t acknowledge that the car wasn’t drivable, not at first, anyway. She got the engine going, but somewhere between the accelerator and the wheels, something important was shot to hell; it was dark and they didn’t have a flashlight, but Ted was pretty sure the front axle was broken.

The taxi driver that picked them up told them it was most likely a coyote. Ted kept saying “Coyote? In New Jersey?” Laurel was intent on getting away before a State Trooper pulled a breathalyzer out. She waved an impatient hand. “Yeah, whatever, bears too. Lions the fuck I know. Where you been anyway, buddy?”

Ted paid the driver enough to cover Laurel’s trip home, too. He didn’t intend to see her again. She handed him the rest of the bottle by way of good-bye.

 
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What was left of the Bushmills was not keeping him warm. He sat outside in the middle of the night, watching the streetlights quaver in the water between the reeds down the street from the cottage. An old rowboat was stranded across the channel from him; it had no bottom, and reeds reached up between the plank benches.

These same waters stretched north between the mainland and the barrier islands, snaking under bridges and abandoned rail tracks toward the back of Atlantic City. He imagined rowing the skeletal boat, as if it could stay afloat while bearing his considerable weight, through the night, and landing behind the casinos on the marina side, Borgata or Harrahs, maybe.

He didn’t want to go back inside Gracie’s house again; Vince had been awake and asking questions when the taxi dropped him off. Ted told his father the story that Laurel told him—about the cobalt and the radiation and Gracie’s devotion. Vince was livid. “You mean it’s Cliff’s fault that Gracie is dead?  Well the hell with that shit, I’ll get a lawyer. We can sue her ass over that.” He continued to harangue Ted. Was she going to give them trouble? Why the fuck was Ted hanging around with that old bitch anyway? Was he that hard up?

That’s when Ted hit him. Or meant to, anyway. He pulled back his fist, lost his balance, and slammed it into the kitchen wall instead, while Vince, who clearly held his beer better than Ted held his whiskey, nimbly stepped to the side.  

He looked down at Ted, sprawled between two chrome-metal and duct tape kitchen chairs. Ted expected sarcasm, disgust, and hackneyed wit, in no particular order. Instead, Vince surveyed his son and got red in the face, then put his hand down and helped Ted up.

“Who are you really mad at, anyway?” Then he went back to bed, blowing off disgust like steam from an old smokestack.

It was cold and getting colder, but what had brought Ted down to the edge of the reedy water was the sight of some wet paper clumped in the matted thatch. He pulled it out, moving on some assumption that he’d find something that would still be legible, something that might commit him to something. Maybe Laurel really did need the cottage. Certainly Vince did not. Thoughts of finding a will or a deed, information that would change the outcome, flitted through his head. Perhaps something that Vince had thrown over the rail on purpose.

But there were no decipherable words remaining, or any real proof that these were the same sheets his father had dumped into the swamp. And if he had found something, then what was he supposed to do? There was nothing left, nothing that would alter anything.

Tomorrow, before his father woke up, Ted would pack and head north. On the way, he’d stop at a highway rest stop and call Sharon’s voicemail. “I got a great deal on a shore house for you. Tell Mr. Goldman Sachs to get on this right away.” And he’d leave Vince’s number.

Tonight, he stood to head inside and get some sleep before the sun came up, pausing to deal the clots of muddy paper out across the water, pale baize green in the faint pre-dawn light. He watched them drift till they sank.

 
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Leslie Doyle lives in New Jersey and teaches at Montclair State University. Her fiction and essays have appeared in Front PorchCobalt (shortlisted for their fiction prize), MARY (winner of 2015 Editor's Prize for Fiction), Gigantic Sequins, The Fourth River, Electric Literature, Hermeneutic Chaos, The Forge, Fiction Southeast (finalist for Hell's Belle's Short Fiction Prize), and elsewhere. She would like to acknowledge and thank her son Kevin for technical assistance with poker terminology. Leslie Doyle can be found on Twitter @lespdoyle and on Medium @leslie.doyle.